Big Brutus. Big Barges. Big Storms. Big Fun. We’ve had it all this week – perhaps a case of trying to cram everything in the remaining days of this trip.

Big Brutus may have been a new high or maybe a new low in our camping experience. It certainly is among the oddest experiences. I’ve never really associated Kansas with coal mining – probably not many people do. But in the 1960s and 70s, coal was surface mined here, near West Mineral. Big Brutus was the shovel which scraped the top layers of dirt and rock which covered the coal seams 25-30 feet below the surface.20160506_135347When it was built in 1962, it was the second-largest electric shovel in the world – truly deserving of the name ‘Big’ moniker. Brutus could scoop up 90 yards of earth, swing around to dump it in a designated spot, and be ready to reload the bucket in a minute. It was assembled on site, then worked its way backwards across the top of the coal seam until it was retired in April 1974. It’s huge in every dimension – 16 stories tall,  11 million pounds, ballast tanks which held 1.7 millions pounds of water to keep the shovel from tipping. Check it out against an older steam shovel which is also on display.20160506_14363020160506_14424120160506_144241The pit now is a recreational area for fisherman, although it’s illegal to swim there – subject to an $80 ticket. 20160506_145404We camped on site (the only ones there), and it was an unusual experience, for sure. See us in the distance?20160506_145159 We could shower in the adjoining Mining Museum bathroom, as long as we were done by 4:30 when it closed. We set up camp, grilled dinner, and watched the sun set on Big Brutus. Big Brutus and the land on which it sits were donated by the P & M Coal Mining Company in 1984, and the Mining Museum opened in July 1985.

It was tough to find an act to follow Big Brutus, but we managed. How about camping right on the confluence of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi Rivers, watching the river traffic pass by all day long? Our campsite at the Kaskaskia River Project provided just that. We were just 200 yards from the Kaskaskia River locks, and 1000 yards from the Mississippi River.20160508_132813 We watched this tug maneuver 35 barges along the bend. It’s hard to see, but the tug is on the far left, and the front of the barges on the right.  Five barges across, seven deep!20160508_140040The Locks were fairly quiet when we were there for 1-1/2 days, but we did get to see traffic heading up the river (empty), and out to the Mississippi (loaded with coal). Interesting – my photos are not great – it was gray and gloomy on the full day were spent there.20160509_080951And boy – did it ever rain! For five or six hours at night it was like living under a waterfall. The rain just thundered down. After a brief respite in the morning, it picked right back up where it left off. I don’t think we have ever camped in such hard rain. We kept a nervous eye on our broken window, but the many layers of duct tape we’ve plied on in the past four months kept the water out. Whew!

The Big Fun part of this week is our current lodging at John’s brother’s house in Evansville. What a great spot to hang out for a few days – Evansville is a BIG small town – smaller in population than Grand Rapids, but twice the size in so many ways.20160511_101654This is the stopover with the 1500 count sheets, and towels so thick and heavy that it’s a workout to take a shower. More big storms are ripping through this area in the last two days – huge thunderstorms with a tornado or two thrown in for excitement. Poor Jezzy – she’s practically worn her Thundershirt out.

So, tomorrow (Friday) we head out for our last 10 days of camping. Hard to believe it’s that time already. Homeward bound.

End of the Road

Heading into our last two nights of camping for this trip, we hoped that the campground we chose would be decent.  A bit of solitude, a firepit – we don’t ask for much.  Meriwether Lewis National Monument in Hohenwald, TN delivered in a big way.  This 25-site campground is a gem.20150401_172802Nestled into the rolling hills of Little Swan Creek along the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Park offers camping (rustic, although there are flush toilets), and hiking in a gorgeous setting.  Campsites are staggered along the edge of a ridge, so each offers a private view.  It couldn’t have been more perfect.20150331_151529After a harrowing day on the road – we must have gone through seven narrow construction zones – we quickly set up, snapped a leash on Jezzy, and headed for a trail to shake off the effects of a tense trip.  (A little explanation here – it was my day to drive.  Between truck traffic, construction zones, and unexpected craters that bounced us around mercilessly, it was hideous.  John was grinding his teeth, and I actually got cramps in my hand, so tight was my grip on the wheel.)  After 200 miles or so, I gladly surrendered the driver’s seat, and became a very docile passenger.

The Natchez Trace is an old route, used for hundreds of years by Native Americans, traders, and armies.  The Old Trace is still visible, the many feet traveling before us have trampled a permanent path through the forest.20150331_164300 20150331_165235The Natchez Trace Parkway follows the general route of the Old Trace, and is a National Park, stretching for 444 miles from Nashville to Natchez.

Our campground is located at the burial site of Meriwether Lewis, part of the famous exploration team Lewis and Clark.  I was astonished to learn that he died when he was only 35 years old.  Lewis was on his way to Washington DC, when he stopped for the night at Grinder House, one of many spots along the Trace where one could spend the night and get a meal.  Sadly, the reason for his journey was that the US Government had refused to reimburse him for many of his expenses on his historic journey,  Without these funds, he was bankrupt.  So, armed with his receipts and documentation, he was headed to DC to plead his case.  He stopped, had dinner, went to sleep, and was dead the next morning.  The exact cause was never determined.20150331_16491520150331_165138This is a beautiful spot – one to which we would happily return.20150331_170233One of the reasons we selected this area for our final campsite of our winter trip was that we had arranged to tour the Oliver Travel Trailer factory.  From time to time, we entertain ourselves with thoughts of trading up to a slightly larger trailer – one that would offer a few more comforts.  We had heard of the Oliver, and thought it might be a good fit for us.  We had a great tour.  But, while the Oliver is impressive, and has features that we loved, we don’t think it’s The One.  We’ve decided to try to boost the comfort level of the Fireball a bit.  It’s time to try to enlist the woodworking skills and ingenuity of my brother-in-law Jerry!

Heading home, we always try to stay in Evansville with John’s brother for a few days.  Our route took us along the Natchez Trace Parkway for the first 20 miles or so.  It’s a gorgeous roadway, although it was one of those overcast days that flatten photographs, and suck the color out of everything.  You’ll have to take my word for the beauty. 20150402_093350Those little specks on the ground are cows.

We stopped to check out Jackson Falls.  20150402_09342320150402_09492120150402_095216I’m pretty sure these are Shagbark Hickory trees – aptly named.  20150402_10025820150402_100138It was really hard to get a decent exposure!

Ahhhh, Evansville.  Such a wonderful stop for us – we get to spend time with Don and John, and lounge in the luxury of their beautiful home.  Best sheets ever!  Spring has already sprung there – flowers everywhere, green grass, leaves on trees.  Don was ready to plant his tomatoes for the year already.  On one of our walks, Jezzy tried to investigate this squirrel more closely.20150402_163449 If that squirrel hadn’t blinked, I swear that we would still be there.  It must have been two minutes of the Big Staredown.

All good things must end, and we’re home.  As I sit here, I can see the Fireball in the driveway, begging me to come out and clean.  We’ve got lots of work and some minor repairs to do before we can hit the road again.  The house and yard need attention as well.  The 2014/2015 Winter Escape has ended.


“Family, like fish…


..begins to stink after three days.”  So, we’re going to hi-tail it out of Evansville before Don and John order us to leave.

Goodbye to the nicest, softest sheets I’ve ever slept on.  Hello flannel.  Bye-bye boeuf bourguignon.  Hello beans & franks.  Bye Merry Maids.  Hello sweeping the T@DA every day.  No more thick, fluffy towels.  Yep, camptowels.  No more raiding the most well-stocked pantry I’ve ever seen

this is one well-stocked larder!

this is one well-stocked larder!

Back to selecting which can of soup we want.  See ya, Evansville.  Welcome to Hernando, Mississippi.

Bye Don.  Bye John. Bye Nell.

Thanks for everything

Nell and John



Nell and John

Glamping in Evansville

Evansville, IN – home of Don Crankshaw and John Raibley.  Our 2nd home on the road.  Don & John are always gracious enough to share their home with us when we’re passing through.  Family, laughter, wonderful food, a snazzy little dog named Nell – what more could we wish for in a stop?

We feasted on pasta & Monkey Hollow wine (no lie!) for dinner.  We’ve been offered fresh-baked scones for breakfast  They’re going to have to use brute force to get us outta here Monday.

Monkey Hollow wine - yum!

Monkey Hollow wine – yum!