Saving the Best For Last

And, all of the sudden, we were back in our own driveway. Can’t believe six weeks slipped away already.

But, it appears that we might have saved the best for last, as our Southeast Tour finished with a bang. The last week (plus the Hatteras days) was probably our favorite of the entire trip. Here’s why…

So….onward we go to Portsmouth, Virginia where we camped at the home of our T@DA friends Gail and Sid. Perhaps the Campsh@ck has never had a more lovely site to rest her wheels.20171028_1718081398289939.jpg On the way there, we stopped at the Wright Brothers National Monument in Kill Devil Hills, NC. 20171028_123114324045352.jpgAlthough the Visitor Center is undergoing restoration, a fantastic Ranger brought the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk experience to life. Markers chart the distance of the first four flights on December 17, 1903. Flight one was 120 feet. The fourth flight was over 800 feet. That’s a pretty impressive improvement for a single day. One the edge of the area is a series of full-sized bronze statues of Wilbur, Orville, the plane, the photographer, and a few other spectators of that historic day. It’s an inspirational place to visit.

OK, back to our visit to Portsmouth. The nearby town of Newport News is the home of The Mariner’s Museum, which is where we decided to spend a cool, rainy afternoon. 20171029_130658894841538.jpgDesignated by Congress as the National Maritime Museum, there are exhibits to capture the imagination of anyone – young or old, landlubbers or sailors. If you’re of a ‘certain age’ like me, you learned about the battle of the Union’s Monitor and the Confederate States’ Merrimack (actually the CSS Virginia) in the Civil War. (I swear that I learned the Monitor had won this battle. Not true, says the Museum – they battled to a draw.) The Mariner’s Museum is the home of the USS Monitor – pieces that have been raised from the spot where it sank off the Hatteras Coast have been restored onsite, and are displayed here. The history of these two ships, the story of their construction, and the battle are brought to life here in a variety of media, artifacts, and exhibits.20171029_143132984290267.jpg 20171029_140318419007988.jpgImagine these two ironclad ships pounding each other with cannons from a distance of a mere 100 yards. The unique revolving turret of the Monitor provided a difficult target for the Merrimack to hit, and the lighter artillery of the Monitor was unable to land disabling blows to the Merrimack.

Anyway….the Monitor sank while being towed on December 31, 1862. It took until 1973 for the wreck to be located, and it has been partially salvaged. That’s what’s in this Museum, and it’s incredible. (The rest is a protected underwater sanctuary where it went down). The anchor, ship’s wheel, the entire revolving turret with its two cannons, a lantern, and other artifacts are here.20171029_1318141907314660.jpg20171029_150637166493276.jpg20171029_1455351612396724.jpg20171030_09203843795966.jpgAbove is a full-scale model of the turret (complete with the guns inside) exactly as it looked when brought up from the bottom of the sea. Restoration is being done onsite at the Museum, and some pieces and parts are still submerged in a series of baths in order to stabilize the metal. Here’s a shot of the cannon in the above photo in its tank where it’s being rehabbed.20171029_151520787025923.jpg It’s thrilling and chilling to see all of this. The photos don’t do it justice. There’s also a full-size model of the Monitor outside, which I visited briefly in the pouring rain (everyone else stayed inside).

But, there’s more. The Museum also is home to the hull of the Oracle Team USA wing-sail catamaran, which won the America’s Cup in 2013 by defeating New Zealand in an unprecedented seven races after being one race from elimination. It is HUGE! It’s hanging from the ceiling, and the the size is just jaw-dropping.20171029_1546231371569811.jpgFilms from these races are thrilling. 20171029_1547491912918346.jpgYou can test your own power output on a winch (a professional World Cup participant can generate 500+ watts of power.) I managed about 90 for a very short period of time.

There are dozens of amazing models of nearly every kind of ship. Some are gigantic. All are precise and handmade.20171029_154314680577239.jpgIf you get a chance, go to The Mariner’s Museum. Plan to spend a whole day, then go back the next day to see everything you missed. It’s fantastic.

Somehow, Gail and Sid fell for our plea to join us at Shenandoah National Park for a few days of camping. 20171101_1059431509727254.jpgThey quickly packed up, and we all headed out to this amazing National Park in NW Virginia, along the Skyline Parkway. The Appalachian Trail runs through here, as well as many other trails. 20171031_1216431243448137.jpg20171031_1456211242352886.jpg20171031_1456561230823211.jpgWe watched a fantastic demonstration/concert of a hammered dulcimer.

The day after Gail and Sid headed home, we wandered a short section of the Appalachian Trail. What spectacular views! 20171101_1329001086048871.jpg20171101_134518305485962.jpgWe braved howling winds and the only really cold temps we had in our six weeks of camping to hike to a stunning waterfall. I can’t wait to go back – we hope to be able to camp at all of the Shenandoah campgrounds next year (four?) It looks like an intriguing place to explore.

One more spot – I’ll try to be brief. Hocking Hills State Park had been on our radar for a few years – fantastic photos have been posted by folks in our camping group. Travel and Leisure Magazine rated it the #1 spot to camp in Ohio. It was a dreary late afternoon when we rolled into the campground, expecting to have our choice of dozens of sites since it was mid-week/early November. Not so fast….apparently Ohioans love this park. It was booked full for the weekend, but we did find a promising site among the 20 or so non-reservable sites. 20171102_172201866132385.jpg20171103_10294839296417.jpgOur first impressions were not too positive. Hard rain the day before had left standing water everywhere. The entire campground is in need a several hundred trucks of fill to level out the low spots. The paved pads at each campsite were a few inches higher than the surrounding ground (at least on one side), leaving a mess of slick mud. Attemps had been made to cover up some of the low spots with bales of hay – we gathered up some excess hay from surrounding sites to try to keep us above the mess, with mixed results.

But what the campground lacks in charm, the surrounding area makes up for a hundredfold. We wandered around Old Man’s Cave, a spectacular limestone overhang which was inhabited in the 1800s by (of course) an old man and his two dogs.

Trickling water, waterfalls, weeping hemlocks and splashes of fall color made for spectacular viewing as we hiked about eight miles along the river from the campground to Old Man’s Cave, to Cedar Falls and around.20171103_1138161124243528.jpg20171103_1142282183531.jpg20171103_1142451265623605.jpg20171103_1201331507912173.jpg20171103_1204561752362669.jpg20171103_1216451342265296.jpg20171103_1229591570857113.jpg20171103_1308501422250300.jpg Wow. The scale of these limestone caves is so impressive – for once, I was happy there were other people in the photos to get a size perspective. We were just sorry that we hadn’t been there a week or so earlier, because the best fall color seemed to have already passed. Sorry if I bombed you with photos, but I couldn’t decide which to post.

Not surprisingly, it rained all the way home, and the sun hasn’t peeked out in two days since. The lawn’s a mess, and garden and perennials all need work. So, why can I only think of planning our next escape?

 

 

 

Aliens and Unreal Landscapes

It’s been an interesting week. Since leaving the green altitudes of Datil Wells, we’ve been camping in State Parks in New Mexico and Texas. Our camping preferences run like this…1) National Parks, 2) National Forests, 3) State Forests, 4) State Parks/County Parks,   5) Everything else. 6) If we are truly desperate, a parking lot like Walmart or Cracker Barrel (although we’ve never had to resort to that yet). We LOVE pulling into a new-to-us campground for the first time – the anticipation of finding the perfect campsite is always lurking around the next curve.

So, it was with great anticipation that we pulled into Bottomless Lakes Campground near Roswell, NM. 20170417_19154720170418_083819Of course, we wanted to investigate all the UFO business that has been Roswell’s calling card for 70 years. And, we anticipated a really deep series of lakes. Um, not exactly.

“Bottomless” refers to the fact that there are sinkholes here, caused by an underground river. Instead of deep lakes, we found a shallow, swampy chain of lakes, which had an appropriately swampy aroma, and swarms of flies to accompany same. (They nearly drove me insane!) One lake, on which our campground was situated, had enough water to have a picnic/pavillion/swimming area. But, we arrived shortly after Easter weekend, and this area was trashed! After two days, it still had not been cleaned up (same case with the bathroom/showers). Disgraceful. There was crap everywhere!

Roswell is all about UFOs.20170418_10571920170418_110804 There was a reported UFO landing in 1947, which has spawned an entire industry – movies, a museum, and multiple investigations. 20170418_10354720170418_165838Did it happen? Will we ever really know? But, the UFO Museum and Research Center has all the information for you to make your own decision.20170418_10475320170418_10562120170418_11045920170418_170354We spent a couple hours there, reading all the newspaper articles and looking at the photos. It’s all about self-promotion, and selling souviners. John bought an alien fly swatter, in the vain hope of helping to quash to invasion at the campground. We hiked, and wandered around a bit and enjoyed a bit of free WiFi in the campground – a rarity. After two days, it was time to move on.

Ever since our first trip into Palo Duro State Park several years ago, we’ve wanted to return, so we booked a four-night reservation. Sadly, we didn’t get into the campground we had hoped for (full). But, we were assured that this would change later this year, when TX State Park Reservations will allow visitors to make site-specific reservations. As it stands now, you can only make a ‘reservation’, and you’re assigned a site when you get there. We were lucky to get a  pretty decent site anyway. Next year, we’ll get the one we want.

Palo Duro Canyon is called the Little Grand Canyon, as it’s the second largest canyon west of the Mississippi.20170421_13585820170421_135823 It’s spectacular, and mid-April is a gorgeous time to visit. Trees are budding, everything is greening up, and it’s generally pleasant. Two out of our four days did touch 90 degrees (unexpected), but the nights were cool and comfortable. We explored the Park on two great hikes – the Lighthouse Trail was the first.20170420_104953-120170420_105838 This unusual hoodoo is tucked away three miles from the roadway, so the only way to see it is to hike (or bike) in. It’s well worth the effort, which was really minor in the scheme of things).

We also did the Rock Garden hike, another six-mile round trip, which extends from the canyon floor to the rim, through an amazing boulder field. 20170422_13433220170424_10445320170422_114800It really taxes my imagination to  see all these enormous boulders strewn around. Did it all happen in one big explosion, or over the course of thousands (or millions) of years? It’s a crazy feeling to wander through this rock field, as we crawled up toward the canyon rim, about 700 feet above.

We spent the rest of our time cycling around, exploring the nearby town of Canyon, and generally just hanging out, wondering at the beauty of this unexpected place in Texas. At the Visitor Center though, we were taken aback by the appearance of Darth Vader in a diorama with big-horned sheep. 20170421_140955What’s with that? It was in a back corner, and it occurred to us that it might have been placed there by a rogue State Park employee. I was also taken aback by this Unidentified TSM (Texas-sized Moth) which was hanging out in the women’s shower. Yikes!I had to run back and get my camera to get this photo.20170422_202408 (I really didn’t need to rush – he was in the same spot for two days!)

Our last two days have been in Copper Breaks State Park – we are really making the best use of our annual Texas State Park Annual Pass. Breaks refers to the splits in the ground here, which result in a red ‘mini-canyon’ about 50-60′ deep. The surrounding area is absolutely flat. 20170424_134905Although there isn’t a lot happening around here, this is a very pleasant campground, with great spacing between sites and crazy helmetlike shelters over each picnic table. 20170424_195354We are especially pleasant to have nabbed a site with a shade tree. Although it’s been hot – nearly 90 today, we can sit in the shade and breeze and thoroughly enjoy being outside. (As I write this, it’s 9pm, and there’s a coyote party going on not too far away).  We cycled the entire Park, and hiked a few of the trails, although there’s nothing really spectacular to see here. Probably the highlight of the hikes was this former shoreline, preserved in rock, a long way from any current water. 20170424_135203This is the kind of stuff we really love to stumble across on any hike.

Tomorrow we head into Oklahoma. We want to escape any serious prolonged heat, so we’re creeping north a bit. The weather forecast for the upcoming weekend looks dangerous in the Oklahoma/Arkansas area, so we’re going to have to be willing to change plans on the fly if necessary.

Settling In

As much as we love the camping life, I can’t tell you how good it feels to sprawl (and I do mean sprawl) out in our rented mountain cabin. It’s fabulous.

We’re tucked into the side of Madera Canyon at about 5200′. Although it’s about 10:15am, the sun is just peeking over the mountains, and hitting our desk.wp-1486302085679.jpgThere’s a big fight right now at the thistle feeder – about 15 finches vying for breakfast, while a Downy woodpecker works over the suet. For the moment, nobody is sitting in the sunflower seed feeder, which had been emptied out a day ago by a meandering coatimundi. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo, but this is what it looks like (Google image).coatimundi-imagesWe can’t get over our good fortune in finding this spot. It’s hard to get great photos, as the house is built on a narrow ridge, at the site of the old Susie Lode Mine. In fact, the house actually adjoins the mine – must have been quite a job to site survey and prep.wp-1486302251142.jpgThere are old mining implements scattered around the property.wp-1486302273080.jpgwp-1486302262246.jpgAfter the first hair-raising incident getting down the short (200 yard) extremely bumpy road, our concrete driveway rises straight up into the air. Now that we’ve been up and down a few times, it’s (hardly) scary anymore.wp-1486302367144.jpgOur neighbor down the street obviously has a wry sense of humor.wp-1486301400346.jpgOne of my favorite things (other than that fabulous deck) is our ourdoor kitchen. There’s a huge gas ring and a big ol’ smoker out there that John is fixin’ to use. For now, we’ve installed our own grill out there.wp-1486302396138.jpgInside, it’s all luxury to us. The king-size bed is the side of an aircraft carrier deck to us, since we are so accustomed to curling up (with Jezzy, of course) on our 50×70 mattress in the Fireball. Omg, I’ve got a dishwasher in the big kitchen. There’s a loft with its own separate full bathroom, and a cozy deck.20170205_064516.jpgCustom woodwork is everywhere – I love the lines of the staircase that goes from the loft to the upper deck. OK, you get the idea – we’ve got it made here. Yesterday we took a long hike around the end of the canyon, and across the side directly from the house. You can’t really see the house, but it’s circled in the photo.20170205_063755.jpgFor a couple who have been pretty sedentary the last few weeks, the hike was a sufferfest. Part of the trail was snow-covered, and there were some tricky icy spots to navigate.wp-1486301699819.jpgwp-1486301930363.jpgUneven footing had my feet and knees screaming after five hours.wp-1486301602283.jpg But, there are so many fabulous views up here. The highest spot we got was Bear Mountain at about 7400′.wp-1486302030394.jpg20170205_063934.jpgGreat views were everywhere. wp-1486301745335.jpgSeeing the memorial at Josephine Saddle for the three Boy Scouts who perished in a freak snowstorm in 1958 is a sobering reminder at just how badly things can go wrong on the trail. It’s not an environment to take too casually.20170205_063359.jpgIt was a great day to be on the Trail. We left Jezzy at home for this hike – now that she’s 11 years old, its tougher for her to hike and scramble for long distances with us anymore. She wants to go, but we just don’t want to take any chances of injury. Fortunately, we are close to the Madera Canyon Nature Trail, which is about a 3 mile round trip from the house. Perfect for the Jezzmeister.20170205_062905.jpgSo, that’s the report for Week 1. We are living large.

Spring in the Smokies

It’s the home stretch, baby. Just two more nights in North Carolina, two furious days on the road, and we’ll be back home. My bet is that I’ll be wishing we were back on the road again in about a week. The glow of being home sometimes wears off quickly.

Leaving Evansville, we headed to Big South Fork NRA in Tennessee. This turned out to be a fabulous spot to camp – quiet, great bathrooms/showers, and well-spaced campsites in the trees. I’d go back in a heartbeat.20160514_133149This area is loaded with hiking trails, so we opted for a 6.5 mile jaunt to one of the original homesteads in the area.20160514_12214620160514_12052720160514_12194020160514_120941

 

Magnolia trees with gigantic leaves are scattered along the Trail – they were gorgeous to see, and would be truly spectacular when they bloom.20160514_105548Perhaps best of all, this was a walk on which we could take Jezzy. I totally understand the ban of dogs on trails in the National Parks and many State Parks, but we jump at the chance to include her on our hikes where we can.

Moving on, we decided to revisit Smokemont Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This was our third trip to GSMNP, and our second to this campground – in fact, we had the same campsite as our first visit. There were few campers in the Park, although the road in was jammed with cars near any trailhead or attraction when we arrived on Sunday. I really thought that we would be able to see blooms on the thousands of rhododendrons in the Park. Nope! We were STILL too early in the season – a huge disappointment. We saw a few meager blossoms.20160514_104449Our seven mile hike took us along a trail dense with rhododendrons on each side, limiting our views out into the Smokies. So, I had to concentrate my camera on some of the small sights instead of the big scenes. Macro photography is not my specialty, but I did spy a few things I wanted to share. Check out this pink moth. The flowers on the Salomon’s Seal were nearly ready to open.

Most of my flower shots were stupid-looking, so I’m not even going to bother to post them. BUT, the real show came as we trudged back to the campground. As we passed the RV dump station, we noticed dzens of yellow swallowtail butterflies clumped together in pools of liquid on the ground. Whether this was fresh water from the spigots or a bit of drizzle from some RV’s gray or blackwater tanks, I don’t know. But the butterflies were everywhere.20160516_132106Nearby was an even more curious sight. At the base of a tree near our site were other clumps of swallowtails, but I’m not sure what was happening here. But it was butterfly carnage – torn wings and pieces and parts of butterflies were everywhere amid the clumps of fluttering wings. Were they mating, and then the females eat the males? I have no idea. It might be hard to see in the photos, because the ground cover masks the pieces of wings, but look closely and you’ll see what I mean. I’m anxious to get to a spot where I can have enough Wifi to do a bit of research on this – it was crazy to see.20160516_16070320160516_160753We checked out the Visitor Center and wandered through the reconstructed settlement there. Original buildings from various areas of the Park have been moved here, and restored. It’s gorgeous, and the perfect, picturesque setting.20160517_121553.jpg20160517_121636.jpgAnd, how could you NOT want to just settle in and hang out on the veranda of the Visitor Center for a spell?20160517_123858.jpgNow, we’re in Maggie Valley, NC for a ‘rally’ with our T@B and T@DA pals. There are probably 50 campers here, from as far away as New England and Seattle. It’s great to connect with old friends and greet new ones.

I  think my phone is trashed – I inadvertently left it on a chair under our awning last night. It rained, and some of the rain funneled directly into the chair where it pooled around the phone. Damn! I’ve dried it out as best as I can, but nothing seems to be happening. It was due for replacement when we get back home, but I’m sad that it may have bitten the dust a bit prematurely. I’m definitely not relishing the learning curve of a new phone.

Bryce is Best

The first Canyon views bring a gasp of amazement. Can this be real? Is is some kind of lighting trick?20160424_102544.jpg20160423_140750.jpg20160422_113539 Reality set in, and my head swiveled from side to side to take in the extraordinaryness that is Bryce Canyon. My second thought? I don’t have the camera or skills to capture this. I wish I had a stereo, or 3D camera.

imageOur three-night stay in the North Campground turned into four, as we swiftly figured out that we couldn’t possibly drink in all the sights in such a short time. I don’t know how much time would be enough, but we didn’t reach that limit. At Bryce, the attraction is the hoodos, those tall skinny spires of rock that reach up from the Canyon bottom and are wind and weather eroded into spectacular formations. 20160423_124638.jpg20160422_10350720160424_124336.jpg20160424_124716.jpg20160422_11290320160422_102850Some have names, such as Tower Bridge.20160424_120753Others set your imagination reeling with images from your own knowledge. Some days, we shuttled to trailheads on the amazing bus system, and bicycled back and forth other days when it suited us. It was always cold in the morning, warming up into the mid 60’s – 70’s during the day. Spectacular winds blow through the Canyon, swirling dust devils through the air. Parents clutched their kids, and everyone hung on to their hats. John convinced me to step out to precipice for a photo op. I had to brace myself from being blown off the edge, and hang on to my favorite hat at the same time.imageWe hiked the northernmost trail (Fairyland Canyon) and the southernmost trail (Bristlecone), and several inbetween those two. The details of each day have already blurred, so I’ll just share a few of my favorite photos.20160423_124959.jpg20160423_130219.jpg20160424_110209.jpg20160424_102731.jpg20160423_131258.jpg20160423_130219.jpg20160424_110209.jpg20160424_115055.jpg20160424_124336.jpg20160424_124716.jpgEven if you never hike, amazing views can be had from the Rim Trail which travels along the 18 mile length of the Canyon. Take the shuttle, jump off and on and you please.image20160423_132918.jpg20160423_140750.jpg20160423_141607.jpg20160423_141757.jpgEven the jet contrails above Bryce resemble hoodoos. I was sorely tempted to turn this photo upside down to make my point, but you’ll get it anyway.20160422_120634My quest for the Bristlecone Pine, the oldest living trees on earth was answered, but not in the manner that I had hoped. This is what I had hoped to see, but the Bristlecones we saw were far less spectacular.20160423_134804.jpg20160422_103817But we did observe many in varying stages of life, and felt privileged to do so. We saw some variety of spruce that was forming cones, and the branch tips were bright pink. Perhaps it was new branch growth, but it appeared to me to be cone formation with the striking color. A visit like this will remind you of all you do not know, and probably will never really understand.20160424_104123.jpgNow we have seen the oldest (Bristlecone), tallest (Coastal Redwood), and largest (Giant Sequoia) trees in the world. My heart still belongs to the Sequoias, but it quiets me to be in the presence of any of these giant trees.

I have so many more photos that I perhaps will share on a separate photo-only post, if I find a place with some good WiFi. A post like this gobbles up an amazing amount of our monthly data plan. ;-)

Our post-Bryce plan was to camp on BLM land in nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But, we awoke to snow and freezing rain. We packed up our stiff and frozen awning,  and rolled as quickly as possible to a lower elevation. As we dropped down (over 3000′ for the day), the snow turned to sleet, then to sunny breezy 50 degree temps, then back to rainstorms as we reached Kanab, UT. The knowledgeable Ranger at the Visitor Center there advised us not to venture onto any of the backcountry roads, as the storm threat and past rainy weather had made the roads unpassable for two-wheelers such as us. She showed us where we could find a great camping site just off a paved road, which we checked out. It was raining by the time we got there, and the deep ruts in the clay site were enough to scare us off camping there for the night. There are signs everywhere warning of impassable roads under rainy conditions. We headed back to an RV park in Kanab. It’s probably a good thing, since it’s been raining steadily for six hours since. One bad experience with a tow truck has made us wary of volunteering for another

Tomorrow, we plan to venture back up into Grand Staircase to see if it’s possible to actually stay and explore for a night or two. But, having had one bad towing experience, we’re not about to expose ourselves (willingly) to another. We may roll eastward. Destination unknown.