Monday, December 31, 2007

2007's a Wrap

Monday, December 31, 2007 -- Sandollar Resort near Rockport, TX

It's been a week since I last posted to this blog. Let's just chalk up the break to the "pause" I referred to in my last post. To be honest there's an element of laziness too. But it's time to update the blog with some thoughts and the events of the past few days.

Time passes so quickly and it's common to say "where'd the day go?" at this park. We have a great group of neighbors around us. I think I've written about this before, but most of them are here for the winter and most of them are from somewhere in the Midwest. Most of them have a home "up north" and are not fulltimers like us. Even though we're only here for a few weeks -- just passing through -- they've made us feel at home, as part of the group. We often attend the 4pm "happy hour" and we've gone out to lunch or dinner with some. We had a big Christmas pot-luck dinner together. Because we're all parked so close, it's hard to go outside without getting involved in a conversation or, because it's a lively group, shenanigans of some kind. The days just fly by.

Then there are the normal routine things: the laundry's got to get done; the camper's got to be cleaned; weekly or monthly system checks on the bus; small repairs that I can handle; our daily walk. I try to squeeze in some reading and writing. Of course, there are the places to tour or visit -- museums, parks, beaches, mansions, restaurants, and the like. It can all chew up a lot of time.

As the New Year breaks, Dar and I have been fulltiming for 6 months -- a half year. Neither of us feels we've even scratched the surface of the possibilities. If we were to ultimately do this for 5 years we would be 10% done. It doesn't feel like we're 10% done.

Over this time I've observed four broad classes of people who own an RV. This is only my observation and there are certainly variations and permutations of these four categories, but most RV owners fall cleanly into one of the four.

Vacationers: These are people who have jobs and homes and, often, kids. They use their RV during one long vacation during the summer and perhaps a few long weekends at other times of the year. For most of the year the old RV is in storage.

Snowbirds: This group usually has a regular house somewhere but they live in their RV for a portion of the year mostly to escape extreme weather. There are many of these people in South Texas during the winter (called "winter Texans"), but we've also run into the reverse -- people who have their home in the South and take their RV north for the summer.

Bouncers: These are people that live in their RV all year long but it's parked in one spot in the South all winter long, and one spot in the north all summer long. They just "bounce" from one spot to the next. They may take a few weeks moving from one spot to the other, but they're mostly in one of two parking spots. There's a variation of this group that has two RV's, one in the north and one in the south, and they simply bounce by car or plane from one to the other depending on the season.

Fulltimers: These are people like us that live fulltime in their RV, but are rarely in one spot longer than a week or two. They're almost always on the go. Some people in this group still have a house but they don't live in it. (Purist would demand that real Fulltimers do not have a house at all.) Our objective is to see and experience the USA. We get itchy when grass starts to grow under our feet.

In our limited experience it seems that many Fulltimers, those in the fourth group, tend to migrate to "Bouncers", the third group, after a few years. They find places they like and go back again and again. They grow tired of traveling so much and like the comfort of being in one spot for extended periods of time. As we grow tired to traveling so much, our objective is to ultimately move from "Fulltimer" to "Bouncer" to "Snowbird". We do see a real house in our future again -- at some point.

And after almost three weeks here at Sandollar we're getting that itch again. We've thoroughly enjoyed our stay here, but it's time to move on, and see what awaits over the next hill, across the next bridge, in the next state.

--------

Other than fishing or going to the beach, there isn't a great abundance of things to do in this part of the world. We did visit the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, which is now permanently parked in Corpus Christi. I just thoroughly enjoy big machinery like this, and the historic nature of the ship enriches the experience. This ship was started, "laid down", in 1941 as the USS Cabot, but was renamed the USS Lexington (CV16) after the first USS Lexington (CV2) was lost in the battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. Commissioned in 1943, The Lex eventually became the longest active serving aircraft carrier in the world. Decommissioned in 1991, most of it's later years were spent training and certifying Navy pilots in carrier operations. Large areas of the ship are open and set up as it was during WWII. From the Bridge, to the Captains Quarters, to the Engine Room, you can wander around and soak up the experience at your own pace. An IMAX Theatre has been installed on the forward hanger deck. There are a few pictures of our visit to The Lex in our online photo collection.

Paralleling the Gulf Coast of Texas, there's a long string of barrier islands. A common coastal phenomenon, barrier islands are formed when the washing action of the ocean build sandbars that grow into long narrow islands just offshore from the coast. Along this part of Texas, we have Matagorda Island, St. Joseph Island, Mustang Island, and Padre Island. On the north end of Mustang Island is the beach town of Port Aransas. It's at Port Aransas that the main shipping channel into Corpus Christi Bay opens to the sea. All large ships going in or out of the harbors in this area must go through this channel. It's possible to drive out to Port Aransas, but the short distance across this main shipping channel must be crossed on a ferry system run by the State of Texas. Apparently it's not practical to build a high enough bridge that would allow large ships to pass freely underneath. Once on the island, it's possible to drive on the beach -- right on the sand-- for miles. Campers are permitted to park on the beach overnight in some areas. It's a great uncongested place to get that "beach-fix". We've got a few photos of this excursion online too.

Texas Highway 35 crosses the strait between Compano Bay and Aransas Bay on a 2 mile long bridge built in 1966. Most of the old bridge was left in place and now serves as a fishing pier. It's an enjoyable walk too -- the long segment on the north is 1-1/4 miles long one way. There were two small commercial clam boats fishing right along the pier one day we walked it. Between watching the clamming operation and talking to old grizzled fishermen we learned a lot about fishing in these waters.

We did visit the "Big Tree". It's the largest known Southern Live Oak in Texas. A friend of ours told us the biggest one in the USA is in Louisiana. These trees are just spectacular. It isn't their height that's interesting, but the spread of their crown. The branches are twisted and gnarly and often grow sideways much further than they grow high. This tree is only 44 feet high, but 89 feet across at the spread. It's estimated to be about 1000 years old.

Many days, we drive down to Rockport beach for our walk. Shorebirds all over the place, each trying to eke out survival for as long as possible -- just like us I guess. We almost always see some bottlenose dolphins having lunch.

I'm sure I forgot things, but that's enough for today.

Happy New Year All!

Thom and Dar

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Pause

Sunday, December 23, 2007 -- Sandollar Resort near Rockport, TX

One thing I've always liked about this time of year is the pause.

We've just gone through an entire year of our lives, largely running around and competing with others over jobs, ideas, sales, love, money, possessions, and recognition. Then, the frantic nature of the build-up to our commercialized Christmas and New Years saps more strength... the crowds, the traffic, shopping for the right gifts, the parties, getting the cards out, dealing with nasty weather, holiday travel, and more. It's all enough to give anyone a headache.

But then, it's over. At least briefly -- if you let it. There's a period of time that belongs to only you. If you recognize it, if you let it flow over you, there's a peace that accompanies the silence, the pause. Now it's just you and the loved ones that surround you. For just one day or, maybe, a few, you can take a breather... decide not to go anywhere... watch and enjoy the beauty of falling snow or a crackling fire or waves washing on a shore... look deeply into those eyes you care for and really connect for a while. A time to get spiritual, if you will.

In business, expectations are lower during that week of the holidays. I often used that week to contemplate the past year; to remember and bask in my successes; to confront and learn from the failures. It's also a good time to clean out the files, re-organize, and prepare for the new year.

Our time here is short. An occasional pause, well used, just adds to the experience.

T

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Holiday Decorating

December 19, 2007 -- Sandollar Resort in Rockport, TX

The holidays just wouldn't be complete without Christmas lights and Holiday Decorations -- at least for Dar. For most of the years of our marriage, she was always the one who spent time, money, and personal effort (not to mention risking life and limb) to achieve the warm holiday look she wanted the house to have, both inside and out. She took great pleasure in doing most of it herself. It started years ago when she said something about putting up lights on the outside of our house, two stories up, and wondered if I'd do it. Perhaps I was in a bad mood that day... I certainly was not in the holiday spirit... or just preoccupied with another project -- I don't know. But I said something along the lines of "If you want lights on the roof, put 'em up yourself." To make a long story short, she did. And she did for many years thereafter. And she made sure ALL the neighbors saw her. She took great pride in making sure everyone knew she did the outside lighting at the Hoch's house. For many years, I paid the price. I was shunned at Christmas parties, often chewed out by people I didn't even know about sending my wife to the top of a 30' ladder and onto an icy roof in the dead of winter. It was ugly, but I endured. You see, Dar's a perfectionist, and if I were out on that roof stapling lights to the shingles, anything I did wouldn't have been right anyway. It would have caused a lot of turmoil and pain in our marriage... not a good thing, especially during the holidays. In some ways, I feel I've actually saved our marriage by refusing to be part of the Christmas outdoor decorating thing, and letting her do it exactly the way she wanted it.

Eventually, the neighborhood guys started inviting me back to card games and such... and were actually jealous of what I'd achieved. Somehow, I'd gotten my dear wife to do all the outside decorating work. I'm sitting around the fireplace reading a book, having some warm holiday nog, listening to music while they're out there slipping, sliding, falling, and freezing their fingers trying to figure out which dead bulb is responsible for the death of the entire tangled string of lights. They wanted to know how I did it. Inside, I wished I knew how I did it too.

But let's fast-forward to this year. This was going to be a tough year for both of us -- since we'd have NO family around us at all for the first time in many years. I truly wanted to help out, in my owned limited way, with making it a good holiday season for us. So I looked for small ways to assist the "pro" during these holiday preparations. There turned out to be two small things that made me look pretty good in the eyes of my sweetie.

First, on a shopping excursion to Corpus Christi, she sent me to Home Depot while she shopped at other stores -- so I wouldn't interfere with her mission. While in Home Depot I spotted a small -- very small -- 24 inch high -- artificial Christmas tree. It was the last one they had. I knew that she had dreams of us walking out into the woods behind the bus to chop down a small seedling to use as our tree. But, alas, pine trees are not easy to find around here, and we're not exactly out in the sticks. Any pine tree we did find would have to come from someone's yard -- and that just wasn't going to happen. Until that day, it looked like we might not have a tree at all. But when I spotted this little Chinese-made fake tree I knew it was the right tree for us. Not only was it the right sized tree for us, it was fully decorated with lights, pine cones, and little fake berries of some kind. AND... it was 50% off the original price... just $4.99. AND I probably saved that little thing from the dumpster.

Dar fell in love immediately... with the tree. She called it our "Charlie Brown" Christmas Tree. It was bent and twisted from weeks of abuse at the hands of shoppers at the depot, but with Dar's magic touch, and a few additional decorations, it turned into a marvelous little tree. We'll make sure we get a photo of it online soon.

The second thing that kind-of shocked Dar was this: I found three boxes of Christmas lights that we'd brought along when we started this adventure back in June. Often people use strings of lights to brighten up dark campsites at any time of the year. Somehow I got the idea to put these lights up in the big live oak tree we're parked under. It wouldn't be a tough job as all I'd have to do is walk around the roof of the camper and string them from branch to branch -- forming a sort of colorful halo of Christmas lights over the bus. I did just that and it looks darned good if I can say so myself. Dar was shocked that, at least this year, she didn't have to do any outdoor decorating for Christmas.

But the real decorating is on the inside of the camper. Dar's a magician when it comes to this decorating thing. At night, the bus really feels like the holidays on the inside and looks pretty darned good on the outside too. I think it'll be a good Christmas for us.

Merry Christmas Everyone

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Settled for Christmas

Saturday, December 15, 2007 -- Sandollar RV Park in Rockport, TX

A few weeks ago, on a recommendation from someone we trust, we booked the Sandollar Resort in Rockport for three weeks during Christmas and New Years. Not knowing how fast things book up over the holidays -- or how booked they already might be -- we rolled the dice, made reservations, and despite never having laid eyes on the place we hoped it'd be that perfect "homey" place to be for Christmas.

We arrived in Rockport a few days early. Even though it may have been possible to move in at Sandollar early, we thought it'd be good to try another place for the experience. Based mostly on internet research we decided to try Drifters Resort. We arrived there Tuesday and found it to be an excellent RV park, only three years old, small but very well done. With both cabins and RV sites, it's a friendly place filled with genuine and outgoing people who didn't even wait for us to back into our site before coming over and introducing themselves. Many of these people are from the midwest -- Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan -- and like almost everyone down here from the north at this time of the year, they're looking to escape Winter. Many of them arrive in October or November and stay until April. You just can't beat Midwesterners!

After three days at Drifters we felt like one of the gang. We knew most of the people on our end of the park on a first name basis and had long conversations with many of them. But, alas, it was time to go and get set up at Sandollar. So we said our good-byes. This is a place we could easily come back to and spend more time. Maybe next year?

At Sandollar Resort the bus is parked in a nice spot under a large live oak tree. "Live oak" is a general term for a number of different oaks throughout the southern U.S. that share the characteristic of evergreen foliage. While other oak trees have shed their leaves, live oaks are still full of green foliage. The gnarly, tough, resilient live oak wood was highly valued by shipbuilders of the 18th and 19th century because it was more resistant to cannon balls. I don't think we have to worry about cannon fire here at Sandollar. I'll get a picture up on the home page later today.

So here we are for the holidays. The neighbors here are as nice, and friendly, as the ones at at Drifters. They have a nightly "happy hour" that I attended last night... just a short get-together every night at 4 or 5pm to chat and tell stories. They're also planning Christmas dinner for everyone in the park. Dar's busy getting the bus decorated. She's happy with the choice we made for Christmas this year.

T

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Breezy Day at the Gulf

Tuesday, December 11, 2007 -- Drifters RV Resort near Rockport, TX

There's a broad coastal plain that follows the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico stretching all the way from New Orleans, through Texas, to Mexico. This long arc of land is about the flattest land I've ever seen -- flatness that rivals parts of Illinois, Indiana, and the Canadian Great Plains. It's said that raindrops develop a severe case of indecisiveness when they don't know which direction to flow after hitting the ground. So they just sit there, evaporate, and make the air humid.

All this flatness can also make breezy days a challenge for driving an RV... like today. When the wind blows off the Gulf, there's nothing to stop it or slow it down. The last few days there's a big storm system in the central part of the country that's sucking humid air out of the Gulf. Since we've been in Victoria on Sunday, the winds have been howling.

The owner of the coach and I had a little "safety meeting" this morning, prior to leaving Victoria. It seems the owner, who's also the safety director, was concerned that the wind, blowing at 15 to 20mph and gusting higher, may be reason to stay in Victoria another day and take our chances with the higher probability of rain predicted for tomorrow. All I could think of was the safety meetings they have before every space shuttle launch -- and how decisions can come back to haunt. I listened to her concerns and went quietly outside to check out conditions... took the trash to the dumpster... watched trucks and other RV's going by out on the highway... wetted my finger and stuck it up in the air... tried to remember if we had any O-rings that could cause us a problem. I held my breath and threw the dice. And the decision was made to "go". We drove boldly into the stiff headwind.

(An aside: There's something that happens that when you're traveling in your RV -- the wind is almost always a headwind; it's rarely pushing you. I don't know why, but others I've talked to about this agree. More study is needed on this.)

So we arrived at the Drifters RV Resort just South of Rockport just after 2pm. Registering, parking, and completely setting up house took a half-hour. Meeting all the neighbors took much longer. We then drove into town, got some local touristy information at the Chamber of Commerce, and checked out the town. There's a large fishing fleet based here and the town, in general, feels like a lot of beach towns I've been to in the past -- very laid back, casual, everyone very friendly. It's great.

We'll be here for three nights and will move on Friday over to the place we plan to spend the holidays, just a few miles away. In both places, this one and the one we're moving to later in the week, we're within sight of Aransas Bay and the Gulf. We're a little over a hundred miles from the southern tip of Texas so this should "take the edge off" winter as we'd planned.

T

Saturday, December 8, 2007

In Shorts Again!

Saturday, December 8, 2007 -- Livingston, TX

In a surprising twist of nature, the weather gods have given us near record high temperatures here in east central Texas. It didn't get below 70f last night and was over 80f today. There's a weather front north of here, toying with us, and will keep the weather a little cloudier and hard to predict much of the rest of the week.

Let me bring you up to date on our bus problem. Remember, we found a small puddle of engine coolant under the bus while parked in Vicksburg on Wednesday. Spartan, our chassis maker, got us into a diesel shop in Shreveport to have it fixed, but they wouldn't be able to get us in until Friday morning. So we made the drive over to Shreveport on Thursday, checked in with the shop, and set a time for the next morning. Needing a place to stay Thursday night and wanting something close to the diesel shop, we settled on a nice parking spot in Harrah's at Louisiana Downs Racetrack and Casino. This is the first time we've done this but we know people that do it all the time. Almost all Casinos have RV and Truck parking which works out great if you're simply driving through and need a place to get some sleep.

The next morning the bus was at the diesel shop by 7:30am and by 9:00am it was done and we were ready to go. The culprit was a clamp on a heater hose that carries coolant from the engine all the way to the front for the bus's dash heater. It was just loose and needed to be tightened. I shouldn't be needing to add coolant any longer.

This little diversion to Shreveport wasn't so bad. It wasn't far from our original planned route, and, I figured, I'd probably have to see Shreveport someday anyway, so why not now?

The rest of Friday we meandered down to Livingston Texas where an organization we joined last spring, Escapees, has it's headquarters and an RV park. It was a good stopping point on the way south and we wanted to see the Escapees mailroom anyway.

One of the benefits of this organization is that you can sign up for their mail-forwarding service. Believe it or not, they have their own zip code and are servicing more than 30,000 customers -- almost all of them people like us who live full-time in their RV while roaming the country. We did get a glimpse at the operation, where about 100 employees sort, file, and forward mail and packages according to each customer's requests. It's a larger operation than the Post Office in Livingston. But size doesn't determine quality and I'd still have to say that the mail forwarding service that we use in Beaver Dam is still second to none.

We're staying here two nights and will leave on Sunday. By traveling around the dreaded Houston metro area on Sunday we're hoping to avoid some of that legendary traffic everyone talks about. But it could also be the time they close half the roads for quick repairs, so it still remains to be seen just how intelligent our idea is.

All along our path the last five months I've found other people who are fulltiming to be the friendliest group of people I've ever run into. When we've moved into neighborhoods in the past, there was always a period of time that had to pass before you really felt a part of the 'hood. It took weeks or months, sometimes, before you met neighbors, and some you never met. In RV parks it's totally different. There are many theories about this... some say it's because everyone is mobile and, thus, "new to the neighborhood" almost every night... others say it's because most of us are traveling with only a spouse and we CAN'T WAIT TO TALK WITH SOMEONE NEW!... still others say there's a brain defect that's commonly found in fulltimers that causes them to think everyone is their long-lost best friend. In any case, there's something going on here.

Last night, I went outside to wash the bugs off that 4 acres of glass called a windshield. While working away every single person that saw me, at least 5 people, came over and started to tell me about the places they've been, what the names of their children are and where they live, and why the government is not to be trusted.

This afternoon, Dar and I went out to get a little exercise by walking around the park. We left the camper about 3pm and but didn't start our walk until well after 5pm. The nicest and friendliest older fellow across the street made a wise-crack and before I knew what happened Dar and I and he and his wife were talking, mostly about Alaska, non-stop, for the next two hours. They lived in Alaska for almost 35 years and had a ton of pointers and information that will come in handy when we make the decision to spend the summer "up there".

Tomorrow night we think we'll stay somewhere in the Victoria Texas area. If our drive is trouble-free and we have a good internet connection, I'll let you know how it goes tomorrow night.

T

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

So We're Off to Shreveport

I had a few service chores to do on the bus today, the things that I'm supposed to check monthly or weekly. It's not too bad a deal but "a maintained coach is a happy coach" I've been told.

A few weeks ago we lost the chrome exhaust pipe extension that sticks out the back of the bus -- it just fell off on our way from Georgia to Alabama. It's not a critical component that prevents us from driving, but it does deflect the exhaust down and off to the side. Diesel exhaust can be a little sooty and the extension helps keep the back of the bus and the toad a bit cleaner.

After realizing it was gone, I called Spartan (the maker of our chassis) and they were very responsive and concerned about my issue. They immediately sent a new extension via next day express which we received while we were at Trace State Park near Tupelo. The same day, I got my old working duds on, my wrenches out, and proceeded to stick that thing on where it belonged. I was a little concerned, however, that the bracket that holds the thing on was a might small -- after all, the first one came off for some reason and it was probably shaken loose from this small-ish bracket by all the jarring and bouncing we endured on some of those fine Interstate Highways during the past 6 months.

After talking with Spartan about this issue, I came up with a fix... a way to secure the extension to the bracket and the bracket to the main exhaust pipe from the engine -- two heavy metal screws that are inserted into holes I drilled through the pipes and the bracket. I was able to finish this job today. I don't think I'll be loosing this shiny new extension anytime soon.

But while under the bus, I noticed a small puddle of something that was leaking from our bus. During the past couple months or so, I've had to add engine coolant -- not much, maybe a pint or so -- every other move. Hoping the system was simply adjusting and filling all the nooks and crannies in those long 40 foot heater hoses that run up from the engine to the front heater, I just added when I needed to, and hoped it would stop needing more at some point.

That puddle under the bus today was coolant and it appears to be coming from one of those long heater hoses where they run over the rear drive axle. The good news is that I think we've found the leak. The other good news is that if it's a heater hose, it should be a relatively easy fix, although not one I'm going to attempt. The bad news is that we're going to Shreveport tomorrow where there's a Spartan Chassis service location. It's not that I have anything against Shreveport, mind you, we had a different route planned. The customer service people at Spartan have been excellent. I feel like they're concerned and will see this through until it's corrected.

The best scenario is that we get to the Shreveport service location and they can squeeze us in tomorrow afternoon, identify the problem, and fix it before they close at 5pm. The next-best scenario is that they won't get us in until Friday morning, but they're able to get us back on the road by noon or so. In that case, we could still make Livingston Texas before nightfall. The third-best scenario means we may have to spend the weekend in Shreveport.

I'll try to get an update on the blog tomorrow sometime. If I can't for some reason, it'll be Friday.

T

Vicksburg History

Wednesday, December 05, 2007 -- Vicksburg, MS

Vicksburg is packed with history. In a lot of ways, it's the real heart of the old South. It was the home of Jefferson Davis for many years and the seeds of the confederacy where sown here. It's location on the Mississippi River was important economically before the Civil War and strategically during the war. It was the successful Vicksburg Campaign that boosted the standing of Ulysses Grant with Lincoln, and was key to Grant being given complete military control of Federal forces during the last two years of the war. His success also translated into popularity with the people which translated into his being elected president in 1868.

The Vicksburg National Military Park is a huge crescent shaped park that encircles most of the city and was the area that contained the Confederate and Union lines during the 47 day siege. Here's more from Wikipedia:
The park includes 1,325 historic monuments and markers, 20 miles of historic trenches and earthworks, a 16-mile tour road, two antebellum homes, 144 emplaced cannons, restored gunboat USS Cairo (sunk on December 12, 1862, on the Yazoo River), and the Grant's Canal site, where the Union army attempted to build a canal to let their ships bypass Confederate artillery fire. The Cairo, also known as the "Hardluck Ironclad," was the first U.S. ship in history to be sunk by a torpedo/mine. It was raised in 1964. The Illinois State Memorial has 47 steps, one for every day Vicksburg was besieged.

I really enjoyed the Illinois State Memorial which is nothing less than spectacular. It's circular shape and dome with an open oculus reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome, one of my favorite buildings on the planet.

The U.S. ironclad Cairo exhibit was stunning. After a hundred years in the muck on the bottom of the Yazoo River, large portions of the boat were raised and reassembled within a "ghost framework" that allows visitors to walk around and through it. A museum of Cairo artifacts that were raised with the boat is worth seeing as well.

The last stop of the day was the old County Courthouse in downtown Vicksburg. This building was built before the Civil War and is now a museum. If you think the Civil War ended in 1865 a visit to this museum will correct that idea. In many ways, the War -- or at least the ideas that caused the War -- are still alive and well in Vicksburg. I may write more on that issue in the near future.

Because we packed so much into Tuesday, we're planning much less for today. I have some work to do on the bus and with the short days this time of year, my window of opportunity is short. Tomorrow we'll be heading west, toward Texas, but plan to at least overnight somewhere in Louisiana.

T

Monday, December 3, 2007

Back on the Trace

Monday, December 3, 2007 -- Ameristar RV Park in Vicksburg, MS

Things went off this morning pretty much as planned. The sun rose before 7am and I popped out of bed to a mere 56°f. in the camper. Yikes! That was some cold front that came through last night. It took less than 2 minutes for me to a) turn the heat up, b) load the coffee maker and turn it on, c) make sure the water heater was on, and d) jump back into bed until the heat and the coffee were done.

It may have been cold this morning, but at least it was windy too. Once coffee'd, showered, and dressed, I went out to tend to my assigned moving-day chores. Tire pressure -- check; Engine Oil level -- check; Engine coolant, hydraulic fluid level, transmission oil level -- check, check, check; Slides clear and ready for retraction -- check; load bikes onto bike carrier on car -- check; this is but a sampling, but maybe you get the idea. By the time I was done outside, I felt like I was back in Wisconsin, frozen fingers and all. Dar's jobs on the inside are, well, not easier but perhaps warmer.

Regardless, we had the bus rolling and were out of the park by 10:20am and were back on the Natchez Trace by 10:35. The route today took us from Tupelo to Jackson -- all of that leg on the Trace, a distance of about 180 miles -- and then over to Vicksburg on I-20. I GPS'd the drive today at 224 miles.

I just can't say enough about the Natchez Trace drive. If you ever get a chance to meander down this long, skinny, National Park, do so. It's good for your head and it's good for your spirit. The lack of traffic and absence of commercial vehicles, and the steady 50mph -- no stopping or slowing for curves, etc -- well, the 4 hours it took for us to traverse the 180 miles and stop for lunch at a picnic area just melted away and the stress with it.

Of course, that stress was back as soon as we got on I-20. But thankfully we were only on that dadgum road for a half hour before Vicksburg was looming on the horizon. A quick exit here, a wrong turn there, and before we knew it, we were at the RV Park. We picked a site in the "midwestern'er's" section... I'm kidding, but the two neighbors we talked to so far are from Michigan and Iowa.

Dar has an itinerary of "historical" significance already planned out for the next two days. I'm sure I'll have something to write about tomorrow night.

T

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Laid Back Sunday

Sunday, December 2, 2007 -- Trace State Park near Tupelo, MS

Clouds, gusty winds, and intermittent rain accompanied the morning today. That was the prediction and they were right on. And so it went during the rest of the day. Definitely a day to stay in.

We're aiming to get up early (for us) Monday so we can be rolling by 9:30 or 10:00am. We decided that we'd head right to Vicksburg tomorrow where we've got a full hookup site reserved. Electric power makes good heat which will come in handy Tuesday a.m. when it's supposed to be near freezing here in central Mississippi. We'll be in Vicksburg until Thursday morning when we head west and more south in search of heat.

Reservations have been made to spend the holidays near the gulf coast of Texas, just north of Corpus Christi. Three weeks in one spot. The thought of soaking up some sun and warmth sounds pretty good right now.

Ok. That's the quick update for tonight. Gotta hit the sack and get some rest.

T

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Oxford, Tupelo, Brice's Crossroads

Saturday, December 1, 2007 -- Trace State Park near Tupelo, MS

We extended our stay here for three more days, which will get us through the weekend. The bus leaves on Monday morning and we'll be on it. Both Dar and I like this place a lot, it's solitude, the setting, the "being in nature" aspects of the park... it's all so close to an ideal place to spend some time with your own thoughts, to get caught up on some reading, to organize some writing projects, to seek small adventures in nearby towns, to learn about the rich history of the area, to see the small shack were Elvis grew up... It's a good place for us right now.

One of the objectives of our sabbatical is to find that place we'd like to live after this vagabond stage is over. We think we'd like a small to medium sized town that's walkable for most of our needs, and one with energy and a vibrancy that comes from a college or an artistic community. For climate, we're just looking to take the edge off the traditional tough midwest winters, so a moderate climate with distinct seasons would be good. As we travel around the U.S., we're keeping an eye out for such a place. That said, this past Wednesday we drove over to Oxford, MS, the home of the University of Mississippi, or "Ole' Miss" as locals call it. Over the years I've heard good things about Oxford so we went to check it out.

It turns out to be a neat, bustling town of about 20,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It was the home of the writer William Faulkner for much of his life, and writer John Grisham is a current resident. It's picturesque and quaint, with a real southern feel or charm. The University of almost 20,000 students, who, I assume, are not all part of the official population of the town, produces an energy similar to other large University towns like Madison, Champaign, or Kalamazoo, but in a smaller package.

We had coffee in a small downtown cafe, walked both the campus and some of the neighborhoods, and came away with a good impression. But I don't think Oxford will end up on our short list when the time comes. The deep south, with it's summertime humidity and heat is probably too much for a boy from the north.

Thursday we drove the other direction into Tupelo which was named "Gumpond" prior to the Civil War and should, in my opinion, be called "Traffic Jam" today. Here's a town that feels larger than it's official population of 36,000. It's been growing and the infrastructure is probably not keeping pace. And that's not going to change now that a new Toyota assembly plant is being built just 8 miles up the road. After a nice stop at the Natchez Trace visitors center, we checked out another nearby state park, and then raced by the Elvis Museum, Chapel, and Interpretive Center so Dar could do a "drive-by shooting" and snap a picture of the little two room shack he grew up in. There isn't much to see or do in Tupelo.

Friday we drove about 25 miles north of Tupelo to a Civil War Battlefield known as Brices Cross Roads. The battle took place on June 10, 1864 between about 5,000 confederates and 8,000 union soldiers. The battle lasted less than 6 hours before the Union Army retreated north. About 3,000 men, mostly Northerners, were killed.

There isn't much at the site but a few stone markers that depicted the location of battle lines at various points during the day, and a larger stone monument commemorating the event. There was a mysterious path that led out into a field, but just ended... no sign, nothing of note to see... it just ended. Funds may have been short that year. Or it may have been a symbol of the Confederate effort.

Today, Saturday, we're hanging around the camper. It's another gorgeous day, sunny and a high temp in the mid 60's expected. I'm sure a long hike around the park will be on the agenda too.

T

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An Idyllic Day

Wednesday, November 28, 2007 -- Trace State Park near Tupelo, MS

The State Parks in the Southeast, based on our experience, are just tremendous, especially at this time of the year. The campsites have been upgraded and are big rig friendly. The RV parking pads are usually level, paved, and free off branches and other obstructions that give campers headaches, not to mention scratches in the paint job. The sites are in the woods, well separated, and very clean. There's a camp host that lives on site to assure some basic rules are followed. This time of the year there are very few campers and we often have the place to ourselves. The experience has been similar in Georgia, Alabama, and now Mississippi.

We found another gem with Trace State Park. We selected a site that's actually on it's own peninsula that juts out into the lake so we have water on three sides (Duh, Thom, that's the definition of a peninsula!). It's very secluded and quiet. Wildlife abound... deer are all over (we actually saw about a dozen just driving in to our site), herons, ducks, and much more. Another bonus: this time of the year the cool weather puts cold-blooded animals into a stupor or dormancy, including all the nasty snakes that live in the south. We hike around without worrying that a big black mamba will attack and carry Dar off when I'm not looking -- they always go for the cute ones I've heard. Combine all that with some remaining autumn color and bright blue skies like we have today, and it's just the best!

I've always wanted to drive the Natchez Trace and was able to do so yesterday on our drive down from Alabama. Actually, the Trace is the theme of our adventure for the next few days while we travel about half of it's 444 mile length. The plan is to do a little over 200 miles in three easy daily segments as we work our way south to Jackson or possibly all the way to Natchez. All along the way there are historic sites, battlefields, and other natural wonders like Elvis' birthplace, to stop and learn.

The modern Natchez Trace is a National Parkway administered by the National Parks Service. It's a long skinny national park, really, stretching from Natchez Mississippi at the southern end to Nashville at the northern end. It parallels an historic natural trail that was used by animals and early peoples as they sought easy pathways through this naturally rugged terrain. Portions of the original trace exist along the way and you can walk these primeval trails just as early Indians did thousands of years ago. The road itself is a very smooth two-lane asphalt roadway with grass shoulders. There's a 50mph speed limit and no commercial traffic is allowed, so no trucks to deal with. The road is consistently and gently winding -- there are no sharp curves or steep hills. During the week the traffic is so light, the sun so warm, the road so hypnotic, that it'd be easy to fall asleep if it weren't for your co-pilot. I'd highly recommend it to anyone. You can learn more about it at the National Parks Service website.

T

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Move to Mississippi today

I'm up early this morning and find the internet connection, which was weak and intermittent yesterday, is much improved. I'm learning that poor weather can knock the signal down dramatically, especially in fringe areas where the signal is weak to start with. Dar's still sawing logs and I get a few minutes to sip my coffee and knock out a post. This will be a short one today because we're getting ready to move and I don't have much to say anyway.

Our slow trek west resumes today. It'll be a short drive of only a little over a hundred miles to the Tupelo, MS area. There's a State Park there that sounds good to us and should make a good home base for a day or so as we check out the area around Elvis' hometown. This week we'll be moving more than sitting and I don't see us spending more than a day or two in any one place. We really don't have a specific destination this week other than "west" and "south" and "warmer". It'll be interesting to see where the wind blows us.

The day before we move there are some chores that should be done. Yesterday, mine were to wash the windshield (about a half-acre), the outside mirrors, and shine up the wheels. I've always felt that shiny-clean wheels make the whole vehicle look better by drawing attention away from a little dirt and dust on the rest of the vehicle. We're lookin' pretty good today.

Well I hear someone stirring in the back. Better run and get some breakfast going.

T

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Easy Days

Sunday, November 25, 2007 -- Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville, AL

Still here, and probably will be until Tuesday. One of the great things about our life right now is that we can adapt and adjust to our environment... so when they call for rain in the next day or so, we can simply stay an extra day and wait for better weather.

The last couple days have been slow and easy for us. We like the park and our site, so it really becomes "home" for a few days. Dar's been working on a project and I've been reading and writing. Doesn't sound real exciting but we're enjoying it.

We did visit Wheeler Dam, another TVA dam on the Tennessee River. Completed in 1936, it's over a mile long and the difference between the upstream pool and the downstream pool is as much as 50 feet. The upstream pool, or lake, created by the dam is 67,000 acres and has over 1,000 miles of shoreline. Our campsite is on this lake.

We had a nice visit with our neighbors around their campfire last night. He's a long-haul truck driver and we got the lowdown on some of the routes we've been planning to take. For example, "stay off I-55 between Jackson and New Orleans because the road's falling apart and it's extremely rough." He suggested a better and less congested route to get down to I-10.

As I wrote earlier, we'll be here until Tuesday. We're planning a short drive that day, first getting over to the Natchez Trace and then south to the Tupelo area where there's a state park we'd like to try. The Natchez Trace is a 444 mile parkway that follows an old historic trail and connects Natchez, Mississippi with Nashville, Tennessee. It's administered by the National Parks Service. There is no commercial traffic and the highest speed limit is 50 mph... it's essentially a very long and narrow park. I'd like to drive the portion between Cherokee, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi -- a distance of about 200 miles. Because the road is narrow and we'd like to just meander and enjoy the drive, we'd like to take two or three days to drive the 200 miles.

T

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Modern-Day Ghost Town

Saturday, November 24, 2007 -- Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville, AL

Retrospective comments about Crawfordville, GA.

The traditional heart of the ideal small town has been a lively and energetic central business district, an area where people congregate, socialize, shop, and just hang out. Driven by businesses and shop owners, these areas are kept clean and friendly, often decorated for holidays, so as to be an inviting place for people to go, spend a little money for various needs and wants, and make it possible for these businesses and shops to make a profit -- which allows the cycle starts again. In the best places there are enough people who can spend enough money to allow this cycle to spiral upward -- additional new shops or businesses open, stores are remodeled or new ones built, perhaps the town develops a unique flavor that's enticing and causes more people to come, maybe even from nearby towns, to take part in the experience. There's a sense of energy and a sense of excitement that's palpable, that people feel. They want to be there.

By now you may have seen the pictures in our online photo collection of Crawfordville Georgia. They are pictures of a town that's only a few years from becoming a modern-day ghost town. The heart of this town stopped beating years ago. The central business district, made up of about 3 city blocks, has but 3 or 4 meager businesses still operating, including a branch bank, a cafe, and a very small clothing and shoe repair shop. If the town didn't also have the county courthouse (Crawfordville is the county seat of Taliaferro County), I wonder if any of these businesses could exist either.



It wasn't always this way. The 1920 census counted almost 9,000 people living in this county. Of these, about 5,000 called Crawfordville home. Transportation was more difficult in those days and those that lived in town probably spent their money in town. The businesses and shops were probably busy and making a go of it. The dry goods store had the shelves and display tables full of merchandise. The pharmacy, with it's requisite soda fountain, was a place to find a cool refreshing soda or ice cream treat on a hot Georgia day. The grocery store provided the needs of a well stocked kitchen.

The business of the county was primarily cotton farming. In addition, Crawfordville straddles the historic Georgia Railroad that connects Atlanta with Augusta and Charleston, and anything coming in or going out by rail came through Crawfordville. There were also dairies and logging in the area that kept people employed.

In the early 1920's the boll weevil turned up and, at the time, there was no way of controlling it. Cotton yields dropped. Profits dropped. Employment dropped. Shipments dropped. Money was scarce. People started moving to other places where they could find employment and opportunity. Those with any "get up and go" got up and went. By 1930, the population of the county had dropped to about 6000 people. From that time forward nothing has ever replaced the importance of cotton to Taliaferro county's economy. From that time forward the town struggled, people ebbed away, businesses failed or moved away -- it's been a downward spiral.

Already suffering economically and as if it needed it, the town of Crawfordville somehow became a focal point of the civil rights movement in 1965. A search of the New York Times archives found over 20 articles from that year and the subject of all of them was civil rights activity. Martin Luther King was here, the KKK was here, protests and marches were organized, and politicians wrung their hands knowing what was right but trying to pander to the segregationist element that was the largest voting bloc at the time. As things settled down, even more people left town -- mostly whites.

That was over 40 years ago and today the area has less than half the population it had then. The 2000 census counted less than 2,000 people in the county and has estimated the population in 2007 to be just 1,700 people. Of that, only about 500 live in Crawfordville. According to the census there are only about 100 people in the entire county that are employed and receiving a paycheck. It's kinda hard to keep a town vibrant when there are no resources or energy to fuel the community.

As we walked the main street looking into the windows of closed businesses, evidence of the better days was still present. The shelves and display tables of the dry good store were still in place, but empty, dirty, and forlorn. Fixtures, glasses, and mixers were still on the soda fountain counters as if someone left one night and just never returned. The roof and floor of the grocery store were missing -- gone, only the exterior walls of the building adorned with painted signage still exist. A number of buildings were missing their roofs.


The roof is gone.
The sun shines in all day and the moon beams in all night.
Nothing good happens to vacant buildings that are neglected.
The roof starts to leak and no one notices -- no one's there much anymore.
When someone does notice, they don't care -- there's nothing inside to protect from leaking rain.
When a trickle becomes a torrent, they can't afford to get it fixed -- there's no income or rent to offset the cost.
Eventually, the water seepage rots the roof timbers, they crumble, fail, fall, and the roof comes down with them.
But the walls still stand strong... the ruins a reminder of a previous, more hopeful and energetic time.
The building is now a total wreck... but there's still no money to tear it down and haul it away.
Besides, what's the difference between a broken down building and a junk filled empty lot?
Neither are worth anything.

Ultimately this is a story about lack of resources. And it's a story that has been re-told many, many times since the dawn of civilization and during the growth and development of the U.S. A small town in the wild west is established along a railroad line and then dies when the railroad was later re-routed. A community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is established to service the needs of miners during the copper rush of the late 1800's and later is totally abandoned when the copper is gone. When key resources are suddenly exhausted, people are no longer able to survive the way they had. If they can, they seek resources and opportunity elsewhere.

Are we, as a civilization, so advanced that we don't have to be concerned about one of our key resources drying up? Can science and innovation solve any problem nature throws at us? Is there enough fresh water on the planet for billions of new people in the next few years? Can we grow enough food? Is there enough oil for millions and millions more cars in China and India? Could there be a "boll weevil" in our future?

It might be wise to stay adaptable and keep an eye on world events.

T

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Reflection and Thanks

Thursday, November 22, 2007 -- Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville, AL

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

A cold front passed through last night bringing rain, a little wind, and chillier temps by this morning. It was 42f when we got up this morning.

Yesterday we didn't do much. It rained almost all day. Since Dar needed a few supplies for a project she's working on, and we needed a few groceries, we drove to Florence, a good sized town about 20 miles west of us.

During our foray into Florence we stopped at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant to have some lunch. We were seated just a little way from a large table of extended family members... father, mother, their adult children, and their children's families. I'm only guessing. One of the adult children, a guy, who for the purposes of this post we'll name "Bob", had a voice that easily projected all around the dining room we were in and dominated his other family members. In other words, all diners in the restaurant knew what Bob was thinking.

Shortly after we sat down, Bob and the rest of his family members got their food order delivered. Within a minute or two Bob was telling everyone at his table (and everyone in the restaurant) that he'd ordered his steak medium rare, and that he wasn't sure what he'd gotten, but it most certainly wasn't medium rare. In a few minutes their server was back checking on the table and Bob boldly brought her up to date with what everyone else in the restaurant already knew... his steak wasn't done to his liking. She apologized, removed his plate, and said she'd have another out in a jiffy.

After some minutes, the server was back with another steak. This time, she didn't have a chance to escape back to the kitchen before Bob complained that the plate the steak was served on wasn't hot enough... he likes his steaks served on a very hot plate. She again apologizes, takes the plate, and says she'll be right back.

A few more minutes pass. The rest of the family is nearly done eating. The server reappears with yet another steak. Bob once again starts in on his steak. For a few moments I honestly thought that he'd finally found the right degree of steak done-ness and plate hot-ness. But I was wrong. There's no pleasing Bob. He started telling everyone that his steak was now rare, not medium rare. And after a few more minutes he announces to the room that "now we've gone from rare to raw!" Their server returns and gets another ear-full. She takes the plate and scurries off. A little while later she returns, apologizes, and says she'll deduct the cost of his meal from the check, and if he'd like he can take the uneaten steak home and re-cook it to his satisfaction. He said he'd take the steak, but he wasn't going to eat it. It was going to become dog food.

Dar and I handle these situations differently. I realize that you can't remove the ass from a jackass. There is nothing I can do to change people like this. I see these events as, a) studies in human interaction, and b) entertainment. They become fodder for my blog. They remind me that not all people are reasonable -- as if I need reminding on this point.

Dar, on the other hand, must do or say something to right the wrong. She gets that look in her eyes... righteousness will prevail. I know this and told her, as we were leaving, that I was going to follow her and physically muzzle her if she said something to Bob as we passed by their table. What I didn't count on was her unloading on the manager of the restaurant who saw us to the door and thanked us for stopping in. He had more than one story about his customers that day.

But back to Bob. I'm convinced some people get some kind of pleasure or sense off self-worth out of not being happy and make a lifestyle out of complaining. I hope he never finds himself in a truly challenging and dire situation someday. On second thought, maybe I do. No, on third thought, I certainly do.

On this day of reflection and thanksgiving, I'm especially thankful for our two great kids, our wonderful grandson, and for our parents and the great job they did raising us. I'm also thankful that we're able to do this sabbatical and see America like we've never seen it before.

Oh, and I'm especially thankful that I'm not like Bob.

T

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On to Alabama

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 -- Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville, AL

It's been a busy two days, yesterday and today, and I need to get a post done to bring y'all up to date. Monday, yesterday, we got up early at A. H. Stephens Park and had the bus on I-20 by 9:30am. We were headed west, through the heart of Atlanta, and on into Alabama. The bus ran fine, the day was warm, and we made good time... making it to the Alabama visitors center at the GA-AL state line by noon or so, central standard time. Since we were making such good time we decided to head for Joe Wheeler State Park in northern Alabama. A quick phone call confirmed that they had space and that space would be available for the entire Thanksgiving Day weekend... so off we went.

Dar drove the next leg and tackled the Birmingham traffic like a seasoned trucker. We pressed north. Along the way up I-65, there's a stark transition from wooded hillsides to open, flat, farmland -- the ancient work of the Tennessee River, I presume.

An observation and a suggestion: Alabama has more litter along its interstate highways than I've ever seen anywhere to date. We saw a team of state-owned tractors mowing the roadsides along I-20. Because of the drought the grass isn't growing, but apparently there's a secondary purpose to these rigs... chewing up all the plastic bottles, aluminum cans, cheese-doodle bags, moon-pie wrappers, and other household debris that people simply toss out and into their environment. As we were passing by, I saw one tractor/mower drive over one of those disposable bead-plastic injection-molded coolers and the mower blades converted it from one big piece of litter to about 10,000 little pieces of litter. Do the people of Alabama feel a right to discard anything they want along these roads? Does the interstate highway system replace the need for additional landfills? Is grinding it all up with mowers state policy? I don't know. But here's a suggestion... pick it up instead of chopping it up. Duh!

Joe Wheeler State Park is a much nicer place than the shoulders of their I-roads. Located along the shores of Wheeler Lake, a dammed up portion of the Tennessee River, it's considered a "resort" park, as it has a golf course, a big lodge with hundreds of hotel rooms, a marina, cabins and cottages available for rent, all in addition to the big campground. We found some great sites for the camper, very much to our liking. By the time we backed in, leveled, and put the slides out it was dark. The time changes at the GA-AL state line to Central Time, and while we gained an hour on the clock we didn't gain an hour of daylight. By 4:30 here, it's getting dark. We put on over 350 miles today and we were tired. So after a quick spaghetti dinner and a little reading, I was out.

Today, Tuesday, was supposed to be warm, mid 70's, and mostly sunny. The rest of the week is downhill, weatherwise: good chance of significant rain, much colder (lows near freezing) -- you know, "do-stuff-inside" days. So today we opted for the outdoors and hiked around the parks over 2,000 acres, had lunch at the lodge, and photographed the park and a ton of wildlife. Along our walk today, we saw at least 2 dozen whitetail deer who feared us very little. They seemed more curious than fearful. We also have some feral cats around the campground -- they don't hurt anyone and serve a purpose in keeping small rodents under control. Oh, and we have a semi-tame skunk or two that lurk around looking for food -- a little disconcerting at first, but something you learn to deal with.

We're going to spend the rest of the week here. We've got full hookups and a great site. As an additional bonus to being here, we can have Thanksgiving dinner at the lodge with about 600 of our closest friends. It's supposed to be very good and it'll be perfect for our needs.

The flip-side of early darkness on the eastern side of the central time zone is the early morning. Sun's up at 6:30am... and so am I. After getting up at dawn and hiking so much today, I'm getting sleepy and it's only 9pm.

T

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Museum Donation

Sunday, November 18, 2007 -- A. H. Stephens State Historic Park

It's hard for me to believe that Thanksgiving Day is next week and that at the end of this month we'll have been on our sabbatical for 5 months... and 5 months is almost a half year. How fast time passes!

On Friday, we drove around the area to some surrounding towns. Dar read that there are some good examples of antebellum homes and buildings scattered about, so off we went. Along the way we stopped, based on a recommendation from a local, at Holcomb BBQ for lunch. This place is open for lunch on Friday and Saturday only -- a common thing among barbecue places here in the rural south. Throughout the south, barbecue is a primary staple food and local people have strong feelings about what they consider their favorite. I get the feeling that fist-fights break out when people disagree on the subject.

Based on what I've observed, one pre-requisite for a good BBQ place is a broken-down building with a dirt parking lot. Holcomb's met that criteria. Inside, a couple thick inches of what they call sawdust -- course sawdust or wood-shavings, like from a sawmill -- covered every square inch of the floor, which apparently makes cleaning the floor unnecessary most of the time. The building was narrow with two long continuous rows of tables with benches, and a long aisle down the middle. We ordered chopped pork, what they consider their best style, and a small bowl of Brunswick stew, a spicy southern specialty made with chicken (or small game) and corn and tomatoes and lima beans and okra and onions and potatoes and whatever else they have laying around. It was all good, very good, but I'm not to the point where I'm gonna fight with someone defending my favorite food yet.

After lunch we toured around Sparta, GA., checking out the old homes and buildings from before the Civil War. My observations and thoughts about the condition of small towns around this part of Georgia will be the subject of a separate post in the next few days. But, in general, I finding these towns to be lacking energy and pride. The few I've seen are really rather depressing. But more on that later.

Friday night Dar called Bill and Nancy, our next door neighbors when we stayed at Camp Soldner in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in late August. They spend summers in the UP and winters at their home near Athens, GA. We met them for breakfast on Saturday morning and had a great time catching up and planning new adventures for next summer.

We then made it to the A. H. Stephens home and museum which is in the same park we're camped in. Alexander Hamilton Stephens was a native of Crawfordville, GA., and lived here for most of his life. He was an intelligent, but frail and sickly man who never weighed more than 100 lbs. during his 71 year life. He was a lawyer and spent time in the Georgia Legislature, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Senate, was Vice President of the Confederacy, and, near the end of his life, was the Governor of Georgia. He had a reputation for being a champion of the underprivileged, for thoughtful deliberation and clear thinking, and for good judgment. He never married (an example of his good judgment?), is not known to have fathered children, but had other family members living with him for most of his adult years.

I get a real kick out of learning about notable people who've shaped our history. Our tour interpreter has lived in the area for all her life and could add bits of background that added to our overall understanding. Stephens had a lifelong good friend by the name of Robert Toombs who lived in another nearby Georgia town. Toombs was also a lawyer, like Stephens, and they practiced law together in the Eastern Georgia Circuit. Stephens had a bedroom set aside in his house for Toombs whenever he was in town. In that room, during our tour, we found a decanter and two glasses on a small table surrounded by two comfortable chairs. Toombs, our interpreter said, was a bourbon drinker... probably to excess. She also added that during a recent renovation of the room, someone emptied old Toombs' decanter of the liquor it held. We and the interpreter chuckled about this, and one thing led to another, and before I knew it I had volunteered to re-fill old Toombs' decanter with a little of his favorite brand -- Jack Daniels. So, a little later in the day, Dar and I returned with our personal donation to the Stephens' Museum, and with some ceremony, added to the authenticity of the exhibit.

The day ended with hotdogs over a campfire. It was warmer than the previous few nights so the perfect night for a fire. We mused a little about Thanksgiving -- we still don't know where we'll be for sure. We do know we won't be with family and that's the downside of what we're doing this year. But wherever we are we'll make the best of it.

T

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chore Day

Friday, November 16, 2007 -- A. H. Stephens State Historic Park

Woke to near freezing temps this morning, but I'm learning how to deal with them. Our little electric heater is quite useful on cold nights and it does a reasonable job at keeping the coach at a good sleeping temperature -- low to mid 60's. Didn't need the coach's LP furnace until this morning when a quick kick to 68f was desired. Dar's learning how to deal with cold too -- she stays in bed, under 12 pounds of blankets and comforters, until I get the camper up to 68f, coffee made, and the sun comes out.

I checked the government's climate prediction center website and found they're predicting warmer than normal temps for the South this winter. Hmmm. Then I checked the Original Farmers Almanac website and found they're predicting a colder than normal winter for the same area. Recent experience has me leaning toward going with the Farmers Almanac on this one. I'm keeping my eye on the extended forecast so we can move south in the event real winter shows up.

Yesterday was a chore day... laundry, grocery shopping, sweep off the camper. Sweep off the camper?? We're parked in a predominantly pine woods, a common thing in the South. This time of the year the pine trees shed needles. (It's fall, Thom! What do you expect?) OK, it's not just the fact that they're shedding needles... it's the incredible volume. The car, the bus, everything, is just covered. Especially on windy days like yesterday. From inside the bus it sounds like big raindrops hitting the roof. So, to keep the excess weight off the awnings, I climbed up and swept the top of the camper. The day was a little more blustery and cloudy than we're used to, so it was a good day to get some chores done.

Today is history day. We're going to take in the A. H. Stephens home and museum. If we have time Dar'd like to drive to some other nearby towns where she said there are some interesting pre-civil war homes and buildings. Based on what I've seen of this area so far not much has been done since Sherman left in 1864.

Late last night I had faster internet so I uploaded some new pictures to our photo collection.

That's the news for today.

T

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Extending Our Stay

Thursday, November 15, 2007 -- A. H. Stephens State Historic Park near Crawfordville, GA

We really like this place, so we extended our stay for a few more days. We'll be here through Sunday night at this point. If the weather gods cooperate next Monday we'll continue our move westward.

Yesterday there was nothing planned, nowhere to go, no schedule... we just enjoyed the warm (upper 70's) sunny weather, took a walk, read a little, and cyber-scouted the path ahead. I worked a little on the website, but a slow-ish connection makes uploading pictures tough. I also did a little research on a couple topics for the future.

Today, Thursday, we're going to seek out a grocery store that's about 20 miles away so we have something to eat for the rest of the week. Dar may do a load or two of laundry. There's a front coming through the area today and the accompanying clouds, wind, and cooler weather make this the perfect day for chores like that.

T

Hook Day

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 -- A. H. Stephens State Historic Park near Crawfordville, Ga.

Ok, let me try this again! I lost about an hours worth of brilliant thoughts I'd written into a post on this blog this morning when something went wrong while saving it. I have a weak and variable internet connection here and it apparently became very weak and very variable just when I went to save my post. Dang. I hate when that happens.

Dar and I decided that we'd refer to yesterday as "hook day" -- the day we made the big turn toward the west, the direction we'll now be predominantly going as we work our way to the west coast by March.

After saying our good-byes with Cousin Debbie yesterday morning, we fired up the bus and headed to the bus's 7am appointment with the Cummins dealer in Columbia for an oil change, chassis lube, and generator service. While that was being done, Dar and I found a Panera and did some online research on places to stay along our way. We'd previously decided that we'd take a more northerly route through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi -- as long as the weather cooperated -- but really hadn't decided on any particular places to stay. Dar found the Georgia State Parks website and found one she though would be nice.

The bus was done before noon, so we hooked up the toad, pointed the bus west, and took off for Crawfordville, GA. by 1pm or so. The terrain of western South Carolina and eastern Georgia is made up of big ridges that run generally north and south. We were traveling west so the bus spent the day alternating between exerting on the uphills and coasting over the speed limit on the downhills. Combined with a gusty headwind, it wasn't a day for great fuel mileage.

Another thing we decided: driving into a bright sun seems to take some of the enjoyment out of a trip. With our mostly western heading during the next few months, we're going to make an effort to get going earlier in the morning and try to make our destination by early afternoon in order to avoid the sun blasting in through the big windshield. Having flexibility like this reduces the stress of driving, whether it's the direction of the sun or just staying someplace until the weather improves.

We made Crawfordsville by 3:30pm or so. On first impression, it's a very small town that's been neglected for many years. Signs directing us to the park had us make a left turn at the town's main intersection. While making turns on small or tight streets I normally spend more time looking back with the mirrors or camera than I do looking forward -- checking that I'll make the corner without hitting anything or anyone, and that the toad is still following along as it should. This time after completing the turn and my attention was once again directed forward, I see an old rusting bridge that we've got to go under -- an old railroad trestle -- and a sign: "Low Clearance -- 12' 10". Jeeesh! Just after we bought the bus I physically measured our high point as 12' 8" -- so we had a whole 2 inches to spare -- assuming the sign was accurate.

There was no where else to go, no side street that I could take that would allow easy escape. We had only two options: go for it and run the risk that we get caught under the bridge, or stop, unhook the toad (it's not possible to back up with the car in tow), drive the car away, and back the bus back up the hill into the intersection, and go a different way.

It's amazing what you can think about in situations like this. If we did get stuck under the bridge I figured we become somewhat unwitting celebrities around this small town and would probably be front-page news in the local weekly: "Yankee Camper Hits Railroad Bridge -- embarrassed driver and angry wife extricated by Billy Bob Kirby and Bubba Larrabee from Ray's Towing -- driver charged with inattentive driving and fined"

Dar closed her eyes. I drove to the bridge and slowed to a crawl. The bus inched forward. I looked up at the bottom of the bridge, now just inches away, and could see all the dings and gouges where other tall objects have hit it. I gulped. Slowly, ever so slowly, the bus moved forward. The highest thing on top is the TV satellite dish and it's dome covering is made off a somewhat flexible plastic. I turned off the vent fan and anything else that was making noise so I could hear the first scrape. Remember, I kept telling myself, there should be two inches to spare. A few seconds later Dar opened her eyes and I was making the next turn into the park. We made it and the TV dome is still with us.

Turning into the park I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Another first impression: heavily wooded, neat, clean, almost new asphalt road, and almost no one around. Stopping at the office I met two of the nicest rangers who told me they have 25 campsites and that maybe 3 of them are occupied. I paid for three nights and they said to just pick any site we'd like. The campground was built for RV's and every site is level, wide, and well separated from each other. As we walked around trying to decide which site to take neither of us could believe what we've stumbled on. We chose site #1, and I'll get some pictures of it online as soon as I can.

As I write this while sitting outside at our campsite, it's almost 80 degrees with clear skies and mild breezes. We have NOTHING planned for today. Maybe a little later I'll wander down to the ranger station and pay for a few more nights in heaven.

T

Monday, November 12, 2007

An Easy Drive

November 12, 2007 -- Eastover, SC

Leaving family or friends is tough -- especially when we've been parked near them for a few weeks. We experienced that again yesterday when we left Chris and Tim to move on with our adventure. There were a few tears shed as we said "good-bye" and pointed the bus toward the south. Their companionship, hospitality, and talent with food lulled us into a state of comfort (and an expanded waistline) that wasn't easy to leave. Tim even made a batch of his world-famous cookies for us -- "comfort food for the road", he said. A huge "Thank You" to our good friends for making our visit so wonderful!

The drive to the Columbia, SC area, our next objective, was an easy one. The weather was perfect, the traffic light, only 100 miles, the bus performed flawlessly. On the way, we stopped at a Flying J truckstop for fuel and propane. South Carolina's tax on diesel fuel is very low and, thus, so is the price relative to surrounding states. We paid $3.189, after discount. It's at least a dime more in other states around here. Propane, on the other hand, has not been going up. We paid $1.98, about the same as the last time we filled a couple months ago in Wisconsin.

We're staying with my cousin Debbie at her home in Eastover. She has a few acres and offered any level spot we could find. We talked and caught-up with each other while a big prime-rib slowly cooked on her Green Egg outdoor cooker. It was so tasty and perfectly done that I couldn't stop eating and probably gained more weight -- again! It was a great evening, but I may have to re-think our strategy of seeing friends and relatives along the way or I'll have to buy bigger pants and put overload springs on the bus.

We'll be here until early Tuesday morning when we take the bus in for an oil change and lube at the local Cummins dealer. As I write this, we're not certain exactly where we're going next. Certainly, we start to make a bend toward the west, but which road to take... that may be decided by flipping a coil.

T

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Dumping with Friends

Thursday, November 8, 2007 -- Near York, SC

Chris and Tim had their first RV'ing adventure yesterday. They rode along as we took the bus to a county park campground about 10 miles away so we could dump our holding tanks. I'm sure it was an experience they'll not soon forget! The entire process, including prep'ing the bus for travel and setting up for living again when we got back took a couple hours -- but, hey, we're not in a hurry.

During the afternoon the four of us and Heidi the dog went for a walk at the Anne Springs Close Greenway, a 2000 acre nature preserve in Fort Mills, SC. There are walking trails, bridle trails, primitive camping, nature walks and more at this wonderful facility. We chose a path that circled a small lake. Once again, the day was perfect autumn weather. I have no complaints about the weather here... except for the early morning temps this week.

Did I mention that it got to 29.8 at the bus early this morning? That it was warmer in Wisconsin than it was here? Serenity now!

So what's on the docket for today? Dar and Chris are off to a Christmas event of some kind at the Merchandise Mart in Charlotte. For Tim and me, the next phase of the pond project kicks off today.

Thanks for tuning in and reading.

T

31.6 degrees this morning

Wednesday, November 7, 2007 -- Near York, SC

These days I'm keeping my behavior in check as I don't want to do anything to tick-off Dar. With the nightly low temperature getting into the lower 30s I need all the heat I can get, and that little furnace I'm married to can produce more BTU's than our camper's heater at times. So I've learned keeping her happy keeps me warm at night. I'm sure it's a survival instinct. I'll be on best behavior at least until global warming takes hold.

A common assumption we run into when staying with friends is that we'll stay in their guest room. This happens almost every time and we sincerely appreciate the offers. Not everyone understands when we decline. But we have a great Tempurpedic bed, all our clothes and toiletries, and plenty of heat (see above) right there in our camper. Staying in someone's guest room means we've got to pack a bag -- not a major thing, but a little hassle nonetheless -- and move from here to there and back again. The bus has become our home and we feel the same sense of warmth and comfort as most people do about their homes.

Yesterday, phase 1 of the "pond project" has successfully completed. I referred to this in my last post I think. Here's a little more on what this is all about: Tim and Chris's live in a very nice development in rural York County. Their property, along with about a dozen others, backs-up to an 8 acre pond that was created when the area was developed. This pond is owned by these property owners and is their responsibility. During the past year or so, Tim noticed the water level was going down. He investigated and found the pond water-level control system was deteriorating and leaking water into a downstream creek. If something wasn't done there was a real possibility they could loose the entire pond.

During the summer, Tim mustered other property owners in attempting temporary repairs. But eventually he convinced everyone that a more permanent solution was needed. He consulted with others, outlined the project, and is managing it through to completion. The first phase, the permanent de-activation of the old control system, was completed yesterday. Basically, the piping that controlled the pond's level and allowed excess water to flow through the dam to a downstream creek was filled with about 13 yards of concrete -- a big "cork" in the dam. A large boom-style concrete pump was brought in to do the job. Later in the week the new water-level control system will be installed. I'll have a few pictures in our online photo collection one of these days.

The plan is to leave here on Sunday and head to the Columbia, SC area for a day or two. I've got a service appointment with a Cummins dealer in Columbia for an oil change, lube, and generator service on Tuesday.

T

Monday, November 5, 2007

Battlefields and Vineyards

November 5, 2007 -- York, SC

Gosh, it's been 4 days since I posted to this blog. Better get caught up.

Last week, I think it was Thursday, the four of us, Chris, Dar, Tim, and I, drove over to Kings Mountain State Park and the Kings Mountain National Military Park. It was a bright, sunny, but cool day -- the kind of weather I'm really growing to like. When I first heard that there's an old battlefield here I assumed it was from the Civil War. But my ignorance was soon apparent as I learned it's a piece of history from the Revolutionary War. It was a small battle but it was a decisive win for the patriots, who desperately needed a win, having had a loosing streak in the south up to that point. The time was October 1780. Only about 1000 men on each side. All were Americans except for one British officer, a Major Patrick Ferguson. The loyalists, who were fighting for the British, were recruited Americans who wanted to remain loyal to the British crown. The patriots were back-woodsmen, farmers, and frontiersmen largely from the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. For that time, the tactics used by the patriots were unconventional, but effective. Rather than standing out in the open in lines and firing salvos from wildly inaccurate flint-lock muskets as the British and loyalists did, the patriots used a run-hide-shoot style -- and had more accurate 50 caliber black-powder rifles. Despite having the high ground, the loyalists were chewed up and lost decisively. It's said that this battle pumped new life and spirit into the patriot cause, and showed the British that fighting an unconventional war in a far-off country is a very difficult enterprise.

Readers of this blog probably know that visiting small local wineries is a favorite thing to do. On Saturday all four of us mounted up and headed into the Appalachian foothills to a place near Cleveland, SC. Just miles from the border with North Carolina and at the foot of a rock outcropping called Table Rock, Victoria Vineyards was out objective. Once again the day was sunny and crisp, the air was clear, the autumn colors vibrant -- one of those days I've dreamed about on dreary cold miserable winter days in the past. Besides tasting wine we also had lunch, outside, on the veranda, making sure we had a table in the sun -- just warm enough to enjoy. The winery was happy we came as I'm sure their sales and profits had a bump that day... and we thought it was worth every penny.

Daylight saving time is history, at least for 2007. Since we've embarked on this adventure, my body-clock has synch'd up with the sun. In the evening, when the sun sets, it doesn't take too long and I'm yawning and getting that dazed look that precedes the onset of sleep. In the morning, I awaken at first light. This schedule is great during the summer... 7 or 8 hours of good sleep and plenty of time to do all the day-stuff I want. But during late fall and winter, it's a problem. I can't sleep 12 or 13 hours! So I've been staying up well past sunset, but still getting up at sunrise -- which, where we've been the past few weeks, has been about 8am... 8am for heaven's sake! By the time I get up, coffee'd up, cleaned up, and dressed up it's nearly noon. The day's half gone. I, for one, am happy to see the sun rising at a more reasonable hour.

We've got about a week left here with Tim and Chris. The big event this week is the "pond project". I'll write more about it in the next few days, but, briefly, the pond behind Tim and Chris's house has a problem. The water level control system is failing. It's leaking water. It's lost about 2 or 3 feet of water this summer. Tim is managing the project to repair and replace the system for the pond-owners association. This is the week it's supposed to get fixed. More later.

That's it for today.

T

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Time with Tim and Chris

November 1, 2007 -- York, SC

Most of our time in the past few days has been spent catching up with our friends, Tim and Chris. The four of us have gone a lot of places and done a lot of things over the past 30 years, and it's fun to reminisce. They have a year old Bernese Mountain Dog named Heidi. Bernese are considered "working" dogs and they can weigh upwards of 100 pounds or more. Their distinctive coloration is mostly black, with chest, muzzle, toes, tip of tail, and blaze between the eyes being pure white, and then some rust/brown color on the legs and face. It's a distinctive and good-looking dog.

We've also been working on a few projects around their estate. Tim and I completed an aggregate path that winds through a piece of woods from their backyard to the small lake on the back edge off their property. Dar and Chris spread a trailer-load of pine needles that's used as a mulch-like material in landscaping. The weather's been good for this kind of work, which you wouldn't want to do in the summer under high heat and humidity.

We've been living on batteries and the generator while we're here as we're parked too far from the house to get power. The cool weather diminishes the capacity of the batteries so we've had to run the generator every morning. During the summer in Michigan we could go two days between generator charges. That's life.

So that's about it for today.

T

Monday, October 29, 2007

TVA Norris Dam

October 29, 2007 -- York, SC

One thing we never have to worry about when visiting our good friends Tim & Chris is going hungry. Tim is an amazing chef and throws together, with little apparent effort, the most wonderful meals. I'm going to have to pace myself or I'll gain weight for sure during our visit. We do have a few work projects on the docket that may burn up a few pounds so it may balance out in the end.

While we were in the Knoxville area a few days ago we took an afternoon and drove up to one of the TVA dams to learn and recreate a little. The Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, is a federally owned corporation created by congress in 1933. It's goal was, and is, to provide electric power, flood control, navigation, and economic development in the watershed of the Tennessee River -- an area comprising most of Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. It has 29 dams on the Tennessee or it's tributaries that produce electric power and another 20 non-electric producing dams that work together to provide electricity to over 8.5 million people today. The pools of water backed up behind the dams are long narrow lakes that are great for recreation and waterfront vacation/retirement homes.

By any measure, the Tennessee Valley area was in sad shape in the early thirties. The depression only worsened things. By some accounts as many as 30% of the population suffered from malaria. Incomes were only about $600 per year with many families existing on far less. The land had been farmed too hard leading to depleted soils, erosion, and declining crop yields. Even the best timber had already been logged off. There was little industry due to the remoteness and difficult terrain. Things were tough.

The TVA played a huge part in reviving the area. It provided many jobs during construction of the dams. The electrification of the area brought all the benefits of a cheap clean power source. Industries, and resulting jobs, were attracted by cheap power. The TVA taught farmers how to improve crop yields and manage the soil. They introduced fertilizers. They replanted forests. It was, and is, a tremendous success story.

The dam we visited was Norris Dam. It was the first dam in the TVA system. Completed in 1936, it took 3 years to build. It is 265 feet high and 1,860 feel long. It holds back a pool of water 129 miles long. Although not the largest dam in the system, it's still impressive. Nearby campgrounds, hiking trails, boat launches, and park-like picnic areas were also developed as part of the projects.

We hiked on some trails near the dam and ran into two deer -- a doe and her fawn. They were so unconcerned about us that we could close, maybe only 40 or 50 feet from them. I even had enough time to get a few pictures; here's one... the deer is laying down right in the middle of the picture:


We enjoyed the time at Norris Dam. It reminded me that, once upon a time, the government was successful at something.

T

Sunday, October 28, 2007

250 Miles to York, SC

October 27, 2007 -- York, SC

What a great day for a drive in the country! Our trip from the Knoxville area to rural York, SC, in the Charlotte metro area, took us through the Appalachians on I-40. It was one of the most spectacular drives in a long time... the fall colors were in full bloom, the sun was bright, the air clear, the traffic relatively light... some pictures were taken but they just don't do justice to reality. Wow.

This was the first real mountain test for the bus and I was anxious to see how it performed. I was pleased. On the way up the Cummins motor had power to spare despite pulling about 36,000 pounds. On the way down, the potentially most dangerous segment, the strong exhaust brake provided more than enough energy to control our descent with only nominal use of the regular brakes. The grade was as much as 6% and we had no problems at all. With this knowledge, we're ready for any mountain around.

Our typical "moving" day sees us getting started about 10 or 11 in the morning -- there's normally no rush to get started. Once we've been driving for a couple hours, hunger sets in and we've fallen into the routine of stopping at highway rest stops along the way. For example, yesterday, the rest stop on I-40 had picnic tables and was we'll taken care of -- very clean. If leftovers need to be heated up, we fire up the generator and use the microwave. I've grown to prefer making our own lunches instead of eating in restaurants all the time.

Some of the roads leading to Tim and Chris's house were a little narrow and challenging, but we arrived without incident about 4pm. They have a large lot with much of it wooded. A long driveway leads to their house, which can't be seen from the road. Off that driveway, about a quarter of the way down, is an open area that Tim's always called "the meadow". It's nicely sized for something like our bus, but getting into it might be tight and I wasn't sure we could do it. Prior to our arrival, Tim worked at pruning and trimming trees in order to provide a turning radius for us... and it worked like a charm. I was able to back in with only a couple of mid-course corrections. For a few days, I've got a picture of the bus parked in the meadow on the front page of our website.

T

Friday, October 26, 2007

Visiting Friends; Tennessee Karaoke

October 26, 2007 -- Heiskell, TN near Knoxville

The Excapees Raccoon Valley RV park was nearly full when we checked in here on Wednesday. We had to take a spot with no hookups. But yesterday, Thursday, a full hookup site opened up and we moved. Even though we can exist without hookups for a week or so, it's nice to at least have some electricity and water, which was our limiting item this time as we only had a nominal amount in the tank.

This is the first time we're staying at an Escapees park. It's an organization we joined a few months ago that promotes safe and responsible RV'ing and stays on top of changes in laws affecting the lifestyle. They have a number of RV parks around the country and offer deep discounts to members. This is the oldest park in the system and while it has a charm to it, it's old and was designed with much smaller RV's in mind. Thus, sites are small and maneuvering can be a challenge at time. On a positive note, the people are wonderful. We've met too many people to remember. Last night, the park had their regular Thursday night music jam session -- an ever-changing number of musicians from the area show up and just play. Anything goes, but mostly country and bluegrass music (after all, it is Tennessee!). It's truly not a concert or performance... just a jam session. People from the park sit around in chairs and, if they're so moved, join in. If someone plays an instrument, they can jam along. Ditto if you sing. I can best describe it as "Tennessee Karaoke". We had a blast and the clubhouse was full of campers who felt the same way.

Earlier in the day we drove into Knoxville. Something we just had to do this trip was to meet with some old friends from my days in the fastener business. We were invited to Gene & Becky's club for lunch and then went over to their house to visit for a couple hours. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit with them and promised to stop more often as we come through in the future. Thanks Gene and Becky for a wonderful time, and thanks Butch, for putting this together on such short notice.

We're going to do a little touring of the area near here today. We're about 10 miles north of Knoxville and there's large lake nearby -- part of the TVA system of dams, rivers, and waterways. Tennessee and the Carolinas have been on our radar screen as a possible place to settle in the future, so we're going to get started on our review of the area today.

T

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Just a great day!

October 23, 2007 -- Nashville, TN

Due to the hour, this post will be neither long nor particularly witty.

We just got back from seeing the Tuesday Night Opry at the Grand Ole Opry House near Opryland... and we had a great time. The show is also broadcast live on WSM radio in Nashville. The Saturday night version of the show is supposed to be the oldest continuous radio program in the U.S., having been aired weekly on WSM since 1925. After experiencing the show tonight, I'm convinced that Garrison Keillors' "A Prairie Home Companion" is a parody of it... right down to the similarity of sponsors -- Grand Ole Opry's Martha White Biscuits and Prairie Home Companion's Powder Milk Biscuits. I've been in the audience of both and they feel very similar. And that's a good thing. I like 'em both.

The show we saw tonight included Jeannie Seely, Bill Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Dierks Bentley, Alan Jackson, Mel McDaniel, Rebecca Lynn Howard, and the bluegrass group The Grascals. It was a contrast of the very old veterans and the relatively young newcomers. Little Jimmy Dickens, for example, is 87 years old and still performing... and telling the funniest jokes I've heard lately. Rebecca Lynn Howard is still in her 20's and has a string of song writing and performing accomplishments behinds her... and what a voice! They were all just great and we thoroughly enjoyed the two hours.

Prior to the show, we walked over to the Opryland Hotel and had drinks and dinner. It was a tad expensive but we rationalized it on the basis of, well, "we don't do this very often and we deserve it". In other words, "just because". Dar has fallen in love with this hotel and would leave me in a minute if someone offered her a job taking care of the plants and gardens in the conservatory.

Earlier in the day we drove over to The Hermitage -- the home of the 7th president of the U.S., Andrew Jackson. This 1000 acre estate was a cotton plantation and self-sustaining farm during it's day. We toured the grounds and the mansion, learned about life at that time, and the personal nuances and eccentricities of the man Jackson. He was a character with charisma, a natural leader. The experience prompted the purchase of a couple books that'll keep me busy for a few weeks.

The rain has been nearly constant the last two days. Parts of Tennessee west of here have gotten upward of 6 inches of rain... badly needed rain. We haven't been able to do much of anything outdoors, but what we did do was extremely satisfying. I don't think either of us would have changed a thing we did the past two days.

Here's the plan for tomorrow: get up early, quick breakfast, and get the bus transformed into travel mode. Then, get the wheels turning by no later than 10am. We're heading for the Knoxville TN area for the next few nights.

Good night all.

T

Monday, October 22, 2007

Grand Ole Nashville

October 22, 2007 -- Nashville, TN

After our overnight in Bowling Green we bid 'adieu' to Ginnie and Kevin and got rolling for Nashville about 1pm. It wasn't the most pleasant drive as we were headed almost directly south and directly into the glare of a bright, hot sun. The truck traffic was also heavy and the winds were gusting out of the Southeast. We did stop for fuel near the Tennessee state line and filled for less than $3/gal -- something to write home about these days. The short drive today felt longer than it was and we were happy to park and get set-up for a couple days here at Two Rivers Campground near the Grand Ole Opry House and the Opryland Hotel.

Almost all of Kentucky and Tennessee are part of the extreme drought that's plagued much of the southeast this year. Nashville is 16 inches below the average rainfall for the year. The reservoirs are drying up. There's talk of rationing water in some areas. Considering all this, I'll put up with a few rainy days the forecast is calling for this week. Today, we're not planning much... perhaps a drive to a couple Corps of Engineers campgrounds nearby that we've heard are very nice, just to check them out.

After we got set up yesterday we went over to the Opryland Hotel. I stayed here a few years ago for a convention and thought Dar would really enjoy it... and she did! It's a massive place, on the scale of new hotels in Las Vegas, with thousands of rooms. All the huge open areas between the various wings of the place are covered so one can walk around in air-conditioned comfort while visiting an ersatz town-center complete with stores (of course), restaurants, waterfalls, fountains, and a "river" complete with tour boats. One phase of this hotel is called the conservatory. Hundreds of feet long and almost as wide, it's a collection of tropical plants from all over, marvelously displayed among different levels of walkways and paths, waterfalls and fake-rock walls. I thought the plants might be plastic, but Dar insists they're all real. We enjoyed the experience once we got there. The only thing that irked me was they want $12 to park near the hotel, something I just refused to do while I've got two legs that work. I found a place to park at a nearby shopping mall and the walk to the hotel turned out to be certainly more enjoyable that the pleasure of bagging a close-in parking place.

That's all I can come up with to write today. It's raining, we're being lazy, and enjoyin' every minute of it.

T