From Mesa Verde, it was back to Texas. I’d been wanting to have the flooring replaced in the motorhome (it’s ten-year-old carpet and linoleum), and I figured a big, prosperous city like Dallas would be a good place to find someone to do the work.
We made better time getting to Texas than we expected, but found that most campgrounds were full. Finally, we found a campground in a rural area between Dallas and Fort Worth. The price was a bargain: $16 a night. The park itself was pretty rough, with only the barest vestiges of pavement and markings remaining on the sites. But the hook-ups worked fine, and beggars can’t be choosers.
The second day we were there, the owner’s wife, one of these skeletal 80-year-olds who tries to look 35 by trowelling on the makeup, came and knocked on the door to tell us our front door rug was over the line to the neighbor’s lot. She pointed to a patch of dirt with crumbled asphalt, one crumb of which was, on close inspection, painted white. “We did you a favor by letting you take this site, it’s a monthly site. Didn’t Marvin tell you that?” (No, Marvin didn’t.) Anyway, she didn’t make us move, which was good, because this is what was on the left side of our motorhome which made us park closer to the right border:
The entire park was plastered with warning signs, like this:
Or my personal favorite:
Anyway, we moved out after a few nights to a more expensive but much nicer campground, and the Bluebird of Happiness greeted us.
I called, messaged, and e-mailed numerous flooring places and RV places to try and get estimates. I found a consistent theme: RV places didn’t want to do flooring, and flooring places didn’t want to work on RVs. I finally found an RV place that would give me an estimate, but it turned out they were just wasting my time. They do their business billing insurance companies to repair damaged RVs, and their estimate (delivered 5 days late) for 230 square feet of flooring was a jaw-dropping $17,502! I finally found a man who would do the work at a fair price through word-of-mouth, but his first available slot was in December!
In the meantime, we put the motorhome in storage and stayed at an AirBnB in McKinney pending our flight to Ireland. Now, I am normally an adherent of Jimmy Buffett’s advice: “If you ever get a chance to go to Dallas, don’t.” But McKinney is an adorable little hipster burb with a walkable downtown, live music, shops and restaurants. We enjoyed our week there, walking or riding our bikes into town almost daily, except for the AirBnB. It turned out to be, let’s say, not exactly as specified. The listing described it as a “roomy one-bedroom suite,” but it was actually an enclosed porch with a rickety daybed. By the time we left for the airport, our poor backs were pretty rickety as well!
We were definitely ready for something completely different…
The waves are high and the water is cold. The wind whips the ship’s crew in the face so they can barely see; they struggle on slippery decks to secure the cargo without being swept overboard. The navigator is on the radio, calling for help, but no one answers. The radar is down. There is a rocky head of coastline nearby, and just past it, a harbor. Can they make it? They have to try! All at once, a huge noise, a jolt, and the navigator and captain turn to see the ship’s enormous length bend in half; the prow goes one way, the stern the other. The faces of their families flash through their minds as they are swallowed up by the cold, sweet, fresh waves of water.
Wait, fresh water? Yes! The Great Lakes are so wide and deep they have weather like oceans. They are so far north that submersion in the water in winter means certain death from exposure within minutes. And the shipping routes that criss-cross them include giant freighters with huge crews. We left our RV campground retreat in Tahquamenon Falls one mild September day to visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and learn more.
The museum is at the end of a long stretch of road featuring lots of signs saying “Cabins for Rent.” A few stretches, close to Lake Superior, had cell phone service, which we gladly used to check our e-mail, but mostly our phones told us “No Service.” This, along with the moose symbols on the road maps, let us know we were really somewhere remote. So we were not expecting much of the museum; it was really just a goal we picked for an idle drive to explore the area while our achy joints and muscles recovered from a couple of vigorous hikes. We anticipated a few dusty artifacts lying around in forgotten display cases.
Were we ever wrong! The lady who stamped our hands nodded at a set of double doors, indicating, “The Edmund Fitzgerald’s bell is in there.” When we walked into the room, the bell was forgotten as we were greeted by this towering sight:
This is the Frensel lens of a decommissioned lighthouse. It is over a century old, and it is made entirely of glass. The technology for making these lenses has been lost to antiquity. This artifact gleams like a gigantic diamond in a jeweler’s case. Inside it is a kerosene lantern; such a lens can make the light of a single kerosene lantern, such as the one your grandma might keep on her mantelpiece, into a blazing signal that can be seen for a mile or more!
Music (including, of course, the song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” played softly as we explored the displays. An antique diving suit, complete with brass helmet and rubber mittens, was next.
A massive anchor really drove home the understanding of how huge the boats are which ply these waters, and the scope of the human and monetary tragedy when one goes down. Huge timbers from the hull of an old wooden ship are laid out with giant metal chains. 20th-century divers are suspended over them with spotlights with rippling lights overhead, and the skill of the museum’s curators is so great that you can succumb to the illusion that you are on the lake’s bottom seeing the wreck for the first time in over a hundred years.
The bell was almost an afterthought, but the brass is polished to a fine gleam and it gives you a chance to reflect on how transient life can be. A video collage of the men from that ship was jarring. We are both old enough to remember when that song first came out and was played on the radio. We were of the age and era when the songs on the radio were very important to us. What we didn’t realize was that the wreck that the song was about occurred, not in 1800, not even in 1900…but in 1975, when we were both still in high school! Fresh-faced youngsters with frizzy perms, who could have been our classmates, smiled out from that monitor in Kodachrome™ snapshots. They are young forever, in the memories of their families.
We saw the rescue boats of the coast guard. These wooden boats are carried by the sailors to the closest point to a wreck. These are men (and I don’t think many women on the planet could do the job) who carry the boats by hand, wearing rain gear and heavy boots, over sandy beaches and rock, to the closest point to the shipwreck to rescue survivors. The trip is sometimes several miles long. Thousands of shipwreck victims have been saved over the decades, and only a relative handful of these brave rescuers have lost their lives. There was also a scale model of a rigging, like a tourist cable tram, which rescuers will assemble on the spot once they get a rope to the wreck, to bring stranded passengers and crew ashore.
On a lighter note, there was a scale model of the Edmund Fitzgerald built entirely from Lego™ blocks by. This project takes up the length of an entire room and took ten years to complete. It is detailed on the inside as well, and there are several small openings in the hull where the tiny bulkheads and stairways can be seen.
The museum is on the site of a real decommissioned lighthouse, and the caretaker’s home has been recreated in loving detail. It is much like many reconstructed historic homes, with period furnishings and linens and mannequins dressed in genuine period costumes. Again, the skill of the museum’s curators belies the remote location of the museum and it is quite worth seeing. You can climb the lighthouse tower for a small extra price, but our legs and knees had had enough excitement for the week, so we declined.
We did stroll over to the viewing platform overlooking a sandy beach on the shore of Whitefish Point. I keep wanting to call it a seashore, not a lakeshore, because the word “lake” seems inadequate for the majesty of the rolling waves that greeted us.
We bought a stack of firewood from someone who had left neat stacks by the side of the road next to a steel honor box. A quick message to our kids let them know we were okay while we still had signal, and it was back into the woods for one more weekend.
We now faced a decision. We’d tarried in St. Ignace, Mackinac Island, and Tahquamenon for two weeks, hoping for peak Fall colors. It was the last weekend in September and the weather was snapping cold at night (at least by our Floridian standards). We had wanted to explore Marquette, Copper Harbor, and take the Ferry to Isle Royal State Park. We even hoped to spot a moose! But more and more of the restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores on the main roads were turning out to be closed. Few campgrounds had wi-fi, and being out of cellular service was making us a little worried. What if the motorhome broke down or had a flat tire?
My muse has been intermitted for the past couple of weeks; I found my 55th birthday inordinately depressing. I was at the Escapade, a sort of RV convention given by the Escapees, a nationwide club. I told my son I was at an RV rally and he asked, “What’s that? Is it like a motorcycle rally but more boring?”
Well, yes. Put bluntly, this segment of the RV nation is a bunch of old farts. I suppose I must resign myself to joining that demographic, however reluctantly, but something within me screams: not quite yet! The group took over the Essex Junction Expo Center outside of Burlington Vermont. A few lucky ones of us signed up well in advance and got full hook-ups to sewer, water, and electricity, with the caveat that it was a quarter-mile walk to the buildings where the event was held. Everyone else got electric, run in a gigantic network around the parking field; some also got water; and sewage was handled via pumping-out by a “honey wagon”(sewage truck).
We were glad of the electric hookup because it was unseasonably warm for Vermont in July, so we had to run the AC for World Traveler Kitty Tapioca during the day while she was home alone.
The classes were held in gigantic warehouse-like rooms with terrible acoustics and horribly uncomfortable chairs. We had
signed up for “RV Boot Camp,” so we arrived several days early. Later we discovered that most of the classes in the Boot Camp were given a second time during the rest of the Escapade, so we were there quite a bit longer than we really needed to be. We did find a few things to buy: a waterless cleaning system (made by the same company, Aero Cosmetics, which made the wonderful product called Belly Wash which I used to use on my Cessna), a wireless tire pressure monitor system, a motion-activated LED porch light, and a very effective foam-based fire extinguisher originally designed for boats. The demonstration portion of the fire safety class was the most exciting part of the week for us: we had actual practice sessions of climbing out the fire escape window of an actual motorhome, and the instructor made real grease fires in a pan and picked volunteers to put them out with varying types of extinguishers.
Why various types, you may ask? Well, pretty much every lecturer was selling something: equipment, guidebooks, RV resort memberships. The constant sales pitches got a little tedious after a while, as did the petty sexism of the all-male instructor crew who addressed mechanical advice to the men and cleaning and cooking advice to the ladies, who were also assumed to be afraid of driving their RVs. These people were mostly in their 70s, the leading age of the Baby Boom, and I guess they didn’t get the message about changing gender roles yet. Twenty years makes a huge difference, but we are all considered “Baby Boomers”. This difference between early Boomers and later Boomers, like me, is one I may explore in more detail at consistentprinciples.wordpress.com at some point.
We did get a chance to reconnect with our friends from Ecuador, Stu and Donna. Being back here in the US makes our year in Cuenca seem like a dream at times. It was great to relax over steaks with people who also fondly remember the Tomebamba and the Yanuncay, the Cajas mountains, and Café Nucallacta. Stu and Donna are sort of role models for us in the full-time RV lifestyle, so it was inspiring just to talk with them.
All in all, the Escapade was useful and informative and several days too long. We were glad to wash the RV, take the opportunity to get weighed (our axle weights needed minor
rebalancing, but we were basically okay) on the last day, and then HIT THE ROAD!
We set our sights on someplace we’d never been: the coast of Maine.
York Beach, Maine is a small New England town which long ago pivoted from its identity as a fishing village and became a purveyor of beachfront charm to frazzled New Yorkers and Bostonians. I estimate conservatively that there is a fudge shop for every ten year-round residents. We were delighted to learn when we called York Beach Campground that they had a motorhome site with full hookups available for the whole week. Google Maps underestimated our timeframe significantly, so we pulled in just after dinnertime, and the family that owned the campground was waiting. “We were starting to get worried,” the mom said. Her teenaged son took my information in the office while I balanced my purse on my knee because there was no available flat surface to put it down on; the whole place was full of tsotchkes, brochures, utensils, and sundries, some for sale and some obviously not, and all of it arranged in no discernible order. He took a glossy tourist map and began to go over the area attractions, drawing lines all over the map, recalling events past and future, identifying the best route to take to visit each landmark…Steve waited out in the camper as the time stretched on…and finally Mom came inside and thanked him, “These nice people want to get to their campsite.”
I quickly grabbed my purchased bundle of firewood and jumped in the camper. We headed to the designated site; it was narrow, rocky, unlevel, and had a steep bank up on one side and a steep bank up on the other. I ran back asked if we could please use the one next door, which was wider and level, but they said that one was booked starting the next night. So we unhitched our toad and tried to settle in. We pulled forward and backed up…finally found a position where we could open our steps (though not our awning) while reaching the hookups, and tried to level the motorhome. Well, the leveling jacks will extend further than is absolutely advisable, and ours certainly did. Our front left tire was a good foot off the ground by the time the rig was level. We went back to the office and complained. The mom explained that the site most certainly was level, and her husband added that another camper had lived there all year round up until a few weeks ago and not only had an awning out, but had a fully-enclosed porch area! I politely begged to differ and they then demanded to know what I was thinking, pulling into the site facing the way I was? How did my hookups even reach?
Now, pretty much all motorhomes have the hookups on the left and the awning on the right. I was losing patience and I insisted they come with me to the site. The dad continued to insist that I had non-standard hookup and awning placement, even as I pointedly gestured to the 10 or 12 5th-wheel style motorhomes in view with identical setups. Now, gentle reader, anyone who knows me knows I am not one to suffer fools gladly. After multiple attempts at backing and leveling, with darkness about to fall, I had to go inside before I lost my patience. I had a pill to take at that moment which needed to be taken with food (somewhere on my journeys I’d acquired some unwelcome unicellular passengers in my gut), so I sat in the driver’s seat gobbling down a banana.
The mom came up to the window and offered to let us spend the night on the adjacent, level site, and we accepted with great relief. She offered to then move us the next day to another site which she pointed out, which she claimed was level, which my small 1-foot level begged to differ about. She became indignant. “I spent over $12,000 having all the sites on that part of the campground leveled and I would be furious if it weren’t level!” I swallowed my pill and came outside.
“Yes,” I said calmly, washing my pill down with a can of seltzer water, “I fully understand that. It is really frustrating to pay for something and not receive what you pay for.” She didn’t react to the comment, but Steve pressed his lips together and quickly stepped into the camper to avoid bursting into laughter. We finally got set up just after dark. Diane (for that was the mom’s name) recommended Union Bluff Hotel for a quick burger, and she steered us well. We settled in for the night with full bellies and an improved outlook.
The next morning, it turned out that the new site actually was almost level, and our tires were all touching the ground once we used the jacks. The space between the wood deck on the site and the hookup pole was almost—but not quite—too small for our automatic steps to open, but a few passes of nerve-wracking sawing back and forth got us positioned. Now we were ready to camp!
We walked around York Beach exploring (and no, we didn’t buy any fudge!). The campground, and everything else, is within walking distance of the tourist district. An amusement park with a midway full of games and kiddie rides was at the center, and we walked around the free part and enjoyed seeing all the children and families frolicking in the sunshine. We didn’t choose to pay the rather steep admission price to the zoo. We figured our recent trip to the Galapagos had probably spoiled us on animal viewing for a while. But it did our hearts good to see all the children laughing gleefully, running and playing and having an innocent good time. Then I spied the arcade: “Skee Ball!” I cried out.
I love Skee Ball. Don’t ask me why. Something about the wooden ball skidding up that rubber ramp and flying into those plastic numbered rings is just satisfying. It’s a low-tech game which is slowly dying out at arcades and funhouses across the country. But here was an arcade with just one dilapidated machine still working, spitting out the one battered wooden ball over and over to make up a game of nine balls! I pulled every quarter I had out of my pockets and purse and set to playing. About the eighth game, a little girl of 3 or so popped in front of me and grabbed at the ball as it came down the chute. “No, Olivia,” her dad grabbed her away.
“It’s okay,” I said, “Olivia, if you’ll say please, I’ll let you play.”
Olivia, a brown-eyed darling with dark curls, showed me her dimples and tried to roll the ball up the ramp. It rolled back down. She tried…and tried…and tried… her father, embarrassed, said, “That’s enough, let’s go, honey,” but I took her soft tiny hand and held it; we rolled the ball together.
“Hooray!” I said as it dropped in the 20-point ring. She raised her arms in victory and giggled in delight, and as she turned to go, I pulled the string of tickets from the machine. “Don’t forget your tickets, sweetie!” She toddled off to check out the display of penny candies and plastic spinning tops and claim her prize.
That night we visited The Lobster House (it is Maine, after all). Steve selected their two for $25 special, while I was more moderate with their excellent lobster pie. Served with all the fixings, it was a meal to remember. On our way out the door, a group passed us, including a gushing blonde exclaiming, “It’s turned cool! I feel like I need a sweater! This is wonderful!” We hailed a fellow Southerner, who confirmed she was visiting from Atlanta. We agreed that escaping the baking heat of the South was a welcome respite. It was nice to have a conversation with a stranger, though, something the New Englanders are deservedly not known for. Now, I spent 30+ years in the South and another year in South America, whose people make US Southerners look reserved by comparison, so it’s been a little bit hard to get used to that; I have to keep reminding myself they are not being rude, they just normally act this way. I guess I would, too, if I had to put up with nine months of snow and sub-freezing temperatures every year!
The next day turned rainy and cold. We spent it cocooning, savoring the cool breeze, two snails safe in our cozy shell. The weather finally broke just in time for the fireworks!
Down to the beach we went, hauling our canvas chairs, and set up overlooking the sand on the concrete boardwalk. Here in the North, there is a giddy sense of celebration on Summer weekends, which are so few and end so soon. Children turned cartwheels, teens flung light-up discs and boomerangs, families spread out in the sand or sat, like us, above it looking on. The fireworks were set off from a boat in the middle of York Beach Harbor, and they were truly spectacular, high-flying, bright, intense, and varied. The show went on for almost half an hour, each display more delightful than the last, until the finale which held me transfixed until I finally remembered to start breathing again. Finally, I started to feel like I was getting into a “permanent vacation” mindset, which is what I’ve been aiming for with varying success ever since my disability. The full-time RVing transition involved more responsibility than I’d anticipated, and now the joyous freedom of the open road was starting to kick in!
Today was more mundane: grocery shopping and picking up roach spray and traps (a single unwelcome visitor was spotted after leaving Escapade, and I am putting that nonsense to a stop immediately!). Steve is sitting at the picnic table making a batch of his famous Chipotle Adobo seasoning mix. I sat out with him earlier, wrapped in a velvety throw from the couch,
watching the chipmunk frolic, and the rain fall on the woods. I reflected that my late mother would really have liked RVing. She liked to be out in nature, but she also liked her creature comforts. When I was young and pain-free and fearless, I thought nothing of strapping on a pack and bushwhacking into the wilderness, pitching a tent and building a fire, digging a latrine and a trench against rain. I looked down on RVers as not being “real campers.” But nowadays, even if I could make the hike and bend and squat and crawl into the tent, I’d wake up in the morning stiff and sore enough to be completely incapacitated! Snuggling into my soft cuddly blanket, I reflected that this is much more, well, civilized.
Next Post: Exploring the Exotic Civilization of the RV Campground.