Friday, November 30, 2012

Nov 30 - A Jaunt to Charleston

I think Cousin Deb's wondering if we'll ever leave... perhaps concerned we've lost our wanderlust... our love of traveling. I mean, we have found our digs here at her country estate very comfortable. And the food has been extraordinary.

Speaking of food, between our almost two week stay with Tim and Chris, and our now going on a week stay with Cousin Deb, I've packed on some weight... am now almost 7 pounds over my ideal fighting weight. There's been a lot of fun and pleasure putting it on which I probably won't experience as it comes off. But come off it must.

Back to Cousin Deb... perhaps as a result of her concern about us and lost wanderlust, yesterday she loaded us in the car and drove us to Charleston, about two hours away. She kept saying "See how much fun traveling can be? New places to experience... New sights to see.  "Going" can be so much fun."

Cousin Deb posing with some crotchety old thing...
and a big tree in the background.
Angel Oak
About 12 miles outside of Charleston, on Johns Island, is one of the largest and oldest Live Oak trees in existence. Estimated to be up to 1,500 years old, the "Angel Oak" is something to see. Live Oak trees don't grow impressively tall... this one's about 66 feet. Rather, it's the dominating spread of it's massive limbs... this one shades some 17,000 square feet. Accurate dating is difficult as Live Oaks often have "heart rot"... are hollow in the middle, meaning the earliest growth rings are gone. But regardless, this old organism is one for the record books.

Downtown Charleston
Dar and I have been to Charleston before, during a business trip to the east coast for a distributor association meeting about 15 years ago. We stayed in a hotel near old town and spent about a day wandering around, taking a walking tour, and absorbing the history.

In Charleston
So it was enjoyable to get re-acquainted with the old place yesterday. Our main objective was to have a late lunch/early dinner (lunner) at Hyman's Seafood Restaurant, which we did. But finding a parking spot in downtown Charleston isn't always easy and while Deb drove Dar and I enjoyed the tour through and around town... taking in the flavor of this historic town. Narrow streets, traffic, people everywhere... tourists, college students, local characters, all emitting positive vibes. History humbles. Nature is in charge... we're reminded as Hurricane Hugo came ashore here in 1989.

It's become a larger town than I remember. If one could stay in the historic part of town the people and hustle and bustle are somehow acceptable... part of the energy and scene. But the stop and go traffic and congestion for mile after mile as one leaves the metro area are like every other big town... it wears me down and saps my spirit.

Thanks Cousin Deb for the tour of the Charleston area. And thanks for reinvigorating our wanderlust. We'll be leaving Sunday.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Nov 29 - Machine Guns in the Morning

It's been a long time since I've been awakened by machine gun fire. Come to think of it... I've never been awakened by machine gun fire. Except for this morning. The sharp staccato bursts were unmistakable... clearly machine gun fire. But why?  Who was creating all this ruckus?

Scanning the news, there was nothing about new civil war activity (remember, the first Civil War did start in South Carolina) or an escalation of tensions between Republicans and Democrats. No news about the nut-jobs and wing-nuts in the tea party. There was nothing at all to explain this unusual wake-up call.

But Cousin Deb had the answer. Her place, our current parking spot, is very close to Fort Jackson, a basic-training base for the Army. Depending on the day it's possible to hear all sorts of booms, bangs, pops, and yes, even machine gun fire. Well, that's OK by me... as these men and women need to be trained somewhere. I just wish their talents and training could be used closer to home instead of pissing-off people in the Middle East or trying to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. I think that's all I'll say about that for now.

We've delayed our departure. We're planning to spend some of our time in Georgia at the F. D. Roosevelt State Park near Warm Springs. Turns out that State Park is closed for three days starting Monday for a "managed hunt"... I'm guessing that means culling the deer herd. If we can't get in there until this next Thursday, we have time to lollygag. Looking at the GPS crystal ball, we'll probably leave here on Sunday and find another State Park between here and FDR to linger until Thursday.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Nov 28 - Congaree National Park

Besides visiting State Capitol buildings, one of the other "themes" that drive our explorations is visiting National Parks. The National Park Service has hundreds of places they manage (National Monuments, National Seashores, etc.), but there are only 58 places designated National Parks by the NPS. Before today, we've visited 32 of the 58, and today knocked off number 33.

Congaree National Park was so designated in 2003 -- the second newest in the System (Great Sand Dunes in Colorado is newer... in 2004). Sitting along the banks of the Congaree River, this 24,000 acre park preserves the largest contiguous area of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Much of the park is a floodplain of the Congaree River and depends on alternating wet and dry periods to maintain this unique ecosystem. Until the latter half of the 1800s there were over a million acres of wetland hardwood forests in South Carolina alone. But by the 1970s, less than 15,000 acres remained, and popular support to preserve what was left resulted in designating this area a National Monument... until 2003 when NP status assured long-term preservation.

Our stop at the Visitor Center resulted in a fun lively discussion with a couple park rangers and a volunteer, and a set of well-done exhibits provided a nice overview and orientation. We then set off on an almost 3 mile boardwalk trail loop where we experienced the heart of the Park.

More than a dozen tree species dominate various areas of the Park and create a dense canopy 130 to 150 feet above the floor of the forest. The Congaree River overflows it's banks an average of 10 times each year and creates the conditions needed for this unique type of forest. If the floor of the forest isn't flooded, it's very wet -- thus the reason for the boardwalk trails. And besides trees, it's home to countless critters and smaller plants.

While it's a relatively small National Park and the range of recreational opportunities is somewhat limited, it's still a treasure that's needed to preserve this last little chunk of a unique old-growth forest. We enjoyed the visit... as we usually do.

Here are a couple pics from our day.  More photos are available in our online photo albums.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Nov 27 - South Carolina State House

A few years ago, during one of our prior visits, Cousin Deb gave us a driving tour of Columbia South Carolina. One of the spots we stopped was the Capitol Building, here referred to as the State House. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday and the building wasn't open. Left to walk the grounds and view the exterior... both of which are impressive, we knew we'd have to return another time to do the interior. So today we took care of that unfinished business.

Most of this building, the exterior walls anyway, pre-date the Civil War. Construction was started in 1855, slowed considerably during the war, and stopped altogether when Sherman marched through Columbia, burning some government buildings and shelling the walls of the unfinished State House. (There are six remaining scars from that action, marked by six bronze stars.) After the war, it took until 1907 to finish the building, although parts of it were put into use during the process.

We found it to be a typical capitol building in the traditional style... central rotunda, dome, legislative branches on either end, etc. Design features make it appear larger on the outside than it is inside. For the most part, it's a two story building -- with the Governor and Lt. Governor's offices in the lowest level and the legislative chambers on the main level. There is a third level that is mostly for the public galleries in the senate and house chambers.

Between 1995 and 1998 the building was renovated and returned to it's original grandeur.

While not the most impressive State Capitol we've visited, it is respectable and holds its own among the 25 others we've visited over the years.

Main rotunda and statue of John C. Calhoun

interior shot

During Civil War, General Sherman's gunners hit the unfinished building a few times.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Nov 26 - Move to Columbia SC

OK. It's Monday. The holiday weekend is behind us. It's time to get moving again. What's that old saying?... after two or three weeks (?) guests, like fish, start to smell. Our hosts Tim and Chris have to get back to their routine and it's time for us to uproot the bus-house from it's meadow parking spot and get on with our nomadic life. We extend a huge "Thank You" to Tim and Chris for making us feel soooo at home.

So this morning, about 11:08am, after hugs and a tear or two, we watched as our friends and Heidi (their wonderdog) disappeared in the rear-view mirror. Our route would take us down I-77, about 100 miles, and then off on state roads to my cousin Deb's house. We've been to Deb's a couple times in the past, and like stopping to catch up with her when we're close.

Along the way we stopped for fuel (3.91) at Pilot/Flying J, and also took advantage of their dump station to clear the holding tanks. We also needed propane, but their propane pump was busted and we had to make a short side-trip to another station near Columbia for that fill (2.90).

It didn't take long to park and level-up at Cousin Deb's place. She's another host who apparently believes that nomads like us are under-fed and need good food to carry on. We found a prime rib roast on the Green Egg cooker and the subsequent meal was superb. I'm confident we'll both loose the pounds we've gained over the past couple weeks once we're back on our normal soup and peanut butter sandwich diet when we leave South Carolina.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nov 23 - Winery times Two

First, let me report for the record, that yesterday's Thanksgiving Dinner was, without a doubt, the best we've had in many years... certainly the best we've had since starting our Sabbatical over 5 years ago. Our hosts and best-friends Tim and Chris were the culinary artists who pulled it all together in a seemingly effortless manner and we could only stand aside and marvel at the sensory performance, choreography, and simply scrumptious results. It'll be one we'll remember for a long long time. "Thanks" is not an adequate word to describe what we feel about it all.

On Friday we (all four of us) loaded up in the car and drove a short distance to the Shelby North Carolina area to visit a couple wineries. The day was a good one... sunny and seasonably warm. Considering the calorie load from the previous day, we probably should have walked the 40 miles each way.

While my taste runs more toward craft beer than wine (hops!... I want hops!), the purpose of the day was really to get out, move around, and experience a nice fall day in rural North Carolina with friends. Tim and Chris picked two wineries relatively close to each other and the two they picked were winners. First up was Owl's Eye Vinyard and Winery. Second was Baker Buffalo Creek Vinyard and Winery. We tasted a lot of good wine, met some knowledgeable and fun people, and had a great time at both.

Tasting wine isn't my strength. I've written before about Dar's ability to discern fine variations in subtle flavors and smells... she can pick out hints of pepper, chocolate, coffee, melon, various fruit and berries, and things as obscure as dirt (??), peat, and smoke. I, on the other hand, can only pick out sweet or dry, like or don't like. I'm a simple guy with simple tastes.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Nov 22 - Thanks

Dar and I hope you all have a happy Thanksgiving Day. We have so much to be thankful for, not the least of which are our family and friends. And then there's all those good folks we meet along the way. Each of those chance meetings enhances our nomadic lifestyle and provides a sense of community that we really treasure.

We'll be enjoying the day with our BFFs - Tim and Chris - while we put together a traditional holiday meal here at their home.  A big 18 pound turkey, dressing, 'taters, and a selection of vegetables... and we can't forget pumpkin pie.

Weather's great... mid 60s and full sun.  Enjoy the day.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nov 13 - Raccoon Valley to York SC

Day broke bright and clear and cold... 36 degrees here a few mile north of Knoxville TN. Hopped out of bed, fired up the furnace, switched on the engine block heater to start warming the fifteen hundred pounds of cold Cummins steel, and started a pot of coffee before slipping back between the sheets. Total elapsed time of less than a minute.

After things warmed a bit we got serious about final preps for moving and had the bus-house on the road at 10:30am. Stopped for fuel just east of Knoxville (3.83 diesel) and continued on I-40 toward Asheville NC. Between Knoxville and Asheville the road follows a narrow gorge through the mountains cut by the Pigeon River. A 4 lane divided highway fits, but just barely, in the narrowest stretch that extends for maybe 30 or 40 miles. There are no high passes or steep grades, but plenty of twists and turns that keep the speed of trucks and fat old RVs like ours below 50 for much of that portion.

click to enlarge
Even though many, maybe even most, of the trees have dropped their leaves there was a surprising amount and variety of fall color that made for a very enjoyable drive.

At Asheville we dropped south on I-26 until crossing the border into South Carolina where we left the Interstate and followed state highways for the last 50 miles. About 4pm we arrived at the home of our good friends Tim and Chris.

This is the third time we've been here with the bus-house so we've got the process down. Their house is in a wooded area but there happens to be a clearing along the long driveway back to the house. Dubbed "the meadow', we found it's possible, with some effort and driving aplomb, to squeeze the bus-house into that clearing. By running a long extension cord or two, we even have enough power to keep the batteries charged and run a coffee pot. I mean... what else does one need?

We hope our guests will allow us to stay until after Thanksgiving next week. We'll be working on projects around their house, as well as a project or two on the bus-house. We'll have a great time regardless.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Nov 12 - Rain Delay

A portion of the original unaltered Wilderness Trail
through the Cumberland Gap.
Walking with Daniel Boone.

A short update on this cloudy rainy day.

We're now planning to leave Raccoon Valley SKP Park tomorrow, Tuesday. The inclement weather is supposed to end tonight and the next few days will be much nicer, albeit much cooler. We're going to let the overnight freezing temps warm a bit before we go... to let the sun work on any ice at the higher elevations along our path. But the day looks like a good one for travel.

With any luck at all, we'll be arriving at Tim and Chris's house south of Charlotte by late afternoon.

Nov 11 - Cumberland Gap NHP

We're in rain-delay here at Raccoon Valley SKP in Tennessee. A large cold air mass is moving eastward setting off showers and storms as it passes through. As I'm writing (Monday afternoon) a steady heavy rain is falling. It's going to rain for the rest of the day, then clear up and turn much cooler tomorrow.

Saturday, the 10th, we hung around the RV park and did nothing noteworthy. But yesterday, the 11th, we drove up to the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, about an hour northeast of here. If you look at a map, it's right where the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet.

Most of us have heard of the Cumberland Gap... I know I have since I was a kid. But I really didn't know much detail about it or it's importance to the development of our country.

Specifically, it's one of only three natural "gaps" in the Appalachians that allow for an easy passage from one side of the mountains to the other. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, more than 300,000 people supposedly crossed from the Virginia/Tennessee side on the south into Kentucky to the north. For the day it was a heavily traveled trail. And before the settlers, this natural passage was used by animal herds and American Indians.

Checking in first at the visitor center for our normal orientation, we were soon headed out for a hike through the historic Gap. It was a spectacular warm and sunny day... couldn't think of anything I'd rather be doing.

So what's the scale of the Gap?  How big is it?  It's about a mile from one end to the other, and very narrow... maybe a couple hundred feet wide. It's not totally flat when compared with the land on either side, as it does ramp up to a high point about mid-way through.  But the high point in the gap is much, much less than the height of the surrounding mountains, and, thus, the obvious route for relatively easy travel from one side to the other.

Over the years since those early settlers traveled through here the trail was upgraded to a road, and continually improved until it culminated in a three-lane asphalt roadway, which was very busy and dangerous. A lot of traffic deaths resulted from accidents along the twisting ramping roadway over the years.

But a few years ago the National Park Service initiated the largest restoration project in it's history. And that project was to build a modern 4 lane tunnel under the Gap, divert all traffic through it, rip out the old road, and restore the area to what it was like in 1800. Simply a massive project. Construction started in 1991 and the new tunnel opened in 1996.

The resulting tunnel is one of the most modern and impressive I've seen.  Almost a mile in length, it cost well more than a quarter of a billion dollars. It's wide, high, and well-lit... plenty easy enough for even someone like me with a tunnel anxiety disorder to drive a big motorhome through it without breaking a sweat. We didn't have the bus-house with us that day... but if we did, driving through the tunnel would have been easy.

Above the tunnel, in the Gap and along the restored wilderness road, it's easy to imagine settlers on their way to what they hoped would be a better life in Kentucky. A bunch of famous historic people walked through the Gap, among them Daniel Boone, and both Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (Lewis and Clark) (separately) some time after the end of the trip out west.

We also walked a trail to the top of Tri-State Peak, which borders the Gap. This is the place where the borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet at a single point. I have no idea why I'm drawn to geographic points like this, but do get a kick out of it. While there's only one "4 corners" point in the USA, there are dozens of "tri-points" like this one. It's still fun to visit one.

Then there was Pinnacle Overlook, the peak across the Gap from Tri-State Peak. From that point you can see for a hundred miles.

What a fun and agreeable day!

The tunnel.

Posing on Tri-State point.

View from Pinnacle Overlook.

Keeping an eye on us.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Nov 9 - Mammoth Cave to Raccoon Valley

Knowing we'd be loosing an hour today by moving into the Eastern Time Zone, an early start was preferred. Preferred, but not realized. As it was we finally got going about 10am (11am EST), which was still OK since the distance today was just a little over 200 miles.

We've really become fans of Kentucky Parkways. There are 9 of them, each built years ago (when States actually had money to spend on projects like this) to ease travel around this rugged State. These four lane interstate-like roadways used to be tollways. But unlike some other States (Illinois for one), they tore down the toll booths once the initial bonds were paid off. Apparently due to where they're placed and what they connect, we've found the traffic is on the light side... and not many trucks. The majority of truck traffic sticks to the frantic Interstate system.

We took the Cumberland Parkway to the east from the Mammoth Cave area --  a wonderful road. Poking along at 55 miles per hour and 1500 RPM, I could drive all day (if I could stay awake) and not be fatigued.

But since the law of averages must apply, once we got to the intersection with I-75 for the hundred mile run south to the Knoxville area, things flipped the other way. It was time to tense up, clenched jaw and all... as we weaved and dodged heavy Friday afternoon traffic. And the trucks... all the trucks! Hardly any room for the bus-house and toad.

We arrived at the SKP Raccoon Valley Park just before 4pm, checked in, and set up. We'll be here until Sunday when we'll slip over the Appalachians, through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and down onto the foothill plateau called the Piedmont.

Dar tells me that she's caught up with photos in our online albums. Check them out if you're interested.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Nov 8 - "Ketchup" Day

Had originally planned to head east today... to somewhere near Knoxville TN. But we woke to heavy fog and eventually decided that a day spent getting caught up on pictures, writing, a little maintenance, and other administrivia would be in order. So we paid for another day and will travel tomorrow.

Nov 7 - Mammoth Cave National Park

Stayed up until almost 1am last night watching Romney crash and burn. All I'm going to say about the whole affair is that if the Republicans couldn't win the Presidency this year, they have no hope of ever winning again -- at least in their current form and with their current cast of clueless characters. I just don't see any organization that includes the so-called "tea party" ever finding a way to include the increasingly important and growing numbers of Hispanics and other minorities. They're simply mutually exclusive.

Today we drove into Mammoth Cave National Park. Considering the cloudy and dreary weather, it was a perfect day to hike through caverns a few hundred feet below the surface. The Park Service recently opened a new visitor center where we stopped first to orient ourselves and learn more about the Park and it's features. Just last week they opened the new museum exhibit area which included a couple films that provided a good overview for new visitors like us.

We discovered that our annual National Parks pass expired last month. I have three months until I'm 62 and can buy the Senior Lifetime Pass for a one-time fee of $10, so it really makes no sense to buy another annual pass. While there is no entrance fee at this National Park, you are charged for each of the 6 or so guided cave tours. In exchange for $24 we got two tickets to the Historic Tour, a two hour two mile walk through the oldest part of the cave.

The Mammoth Cave system is the longest surveyed cave system in the world at almost 400 miles. And that number is growing every year as there is much more that hasn't been documented yet. That fact alone makes it worth stopping and exploring.

We've been to a handful of caves around the country... Karchner Caverns in Arizona (probably the most gorgeous and most pristine cave we've seen), Lehman Caves in Great Basin NP in Nevada, Carlsbad Caverns NP in New Mexico, and Wind Cave NP in South Dakota. In comparison, Mammoth is, well, mammoth. But it's not naturally decorated with what we've come to expect in caves... the stalactites, stalagmites, and other colorful and delicate mineral formations. It's really drab in comparison. But it's the longest... and we did enjoy being there.

After our Park visit, we drove to Bowling Green, about 30 miles south, and met some friends for dinner. In 2008 we stopped here and "mooch-docked" in Ginny and Kevin's driveway, so it was time to re-new our connection to them. We had such a good time at the Montana Grill Restaurant, our waiter probably wondered if we were planning to stay the night.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Nov 6 - Effingham to Cave City

Decided not to partake in a Cracker Barrel breakfast this morning. It probably wasn't in our best interest to take on a load of calories since we were going to be driving and sitting on our butts most of the day. And if you don't burn off the calories you know what happens... just look around.

The route today from Effingham IL had us continuing south on I-57, then east on I-64 (very relaxed and parkway-like) to I-164 down around Evansville IN where we hooked US-41 south for a few miles, crossed into Kentucky and found the Audubon Parkway. When we got to Owensboro we followed the US-60 loop around the south end of the city and eventually got onto the William Natcher Parkway which took us all the way to Bowling Green. A short jaunt north on I-65 took us to Cave City and the Cave Country RV Park. Total distance today was about 320 miles. Once we got off I-57 the traffic was light and the roads were in good shape... one of those very relaxed and comfortable drives.

We're parked near the entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park. And since we're sooo close, we might just as well take a day and go knock another NP off our list. With rain in the forecast for tomorrow what better thing to do than spend the day in a cave.

Another reason for staying in an RV park tonight was so we could plug-in, get good and warm, and watch the big election returns. As I write this, things ain't lookin' good for the Republicans. And regardless of who wins... as I wrote in a post a week or so ago... it ain't lookin' good for the rest of us either.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Nov 5 - BD to Effingham

We rolled out of the farmyard this morning about 8:40. First stop was the tire store, Pomps, where I had the new tires installed a week ago.  They like checking the lug nut torque after a few miles... to make sure everything is snug... if you can call almost 500 ft/lbs "snug".  Sounds "eff"-ing TIGHT to me.

Back on the road by 10am, we pointed the nose south and added 350 miles to the odometer before we stopped. Well, the odometer said 350 miles but the GPS insisted it was a bit over 370 miles. The difference between the two is the result of the new larger diameter tires. When it's convenient, and when I'm near a Cummins/Allison shop in the next few weeks, I'll have them adjust the on-board computer for the new shoes.

We stopped tonight at a familiar spot... a Cracker Barrel in Effingham Illinois. In April of last year we parked in the exact same spot on our way back to Wisconsin from our Winter in Texas. While they don't charge anything for the parking spot, we did pony up more than $20 for dinner and will probably wander in tomorrow morning for breakfast too. "Cracker-docking", as some have dubbed it, certainly isn't free... but we are well fed.

At this point, we have NO CLUE where we're going or how we're getting there tomorrow. Stay tuned...

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Nov 4 - The Time has Come...

We arrived in Beaver Dam back in mid-July. So when we blow out of town tomorrow, Monday, we'll have been here about three and a half months.  Well, we did take almost a month of that time in Michigan -- the "lower" part for more than a week and the "upper" part... the Yooper part... the part that really should have been part of Wisconsin, for more than two weeks. But other than that we've been right here, on our RV pad out at the farm, for going-on three months.

The reason we make Beaver Dam part of our annual rotation is family. All four of our parents live in the area, all four are in their 80s, and all four, like most folks lucky enough to achieve octogenarian status, have health and medical issues to deal with from time to time. Since we're able to do so, we like being able to lend-a-hand, helping with repairs, maintenance, and up-keep on their homes, and just being there for them... like they were for us many years ago.

But the thermometer is falling, the skies are turning grey, and RVs like the bus-house aren't designed for upper Midwest winters. The time has come to head South.