June 2006

Where ARE we Anyway? 

 Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, IL-IN-OH-PA-NY, Vermont, Maine

How in the world did we get here… where is that map anyway?

Truism #1:  it’s rarely the map that’s confused;…but…but…..

Truism #2:  Making plans is fun; changing plans is even more fun.

We had a quiet little plan all set up for this spring and summer.  Come out of Mexico, head for the East Coast, wander north taking in Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and maybe even attempting some of New York City.  Then spend the summer in the northeast going to festivals and baseball games before heading into the Mid-West as we worked our way toward the Dakotas for after Labor Day.  Fewer miles, less fuel, no abrupt left turns.  

Well that all went to hell in a handbasket (what’s a handbasket?) when, as noted in our last message, we bought a second motorhome.  So oops, left turn; got to take it to Alabama.  Well if you’re in Alabama, good time to go to Kentucky to see friends in Louisville.  Well, from there, oh good, our friends outside Chicago will be around.  So off to Chicago.  But wait a minute, we were heading for a music festival in Vermont.  So screech, right turn, down around THE LAKE, through IL-IN-OH-PA-NY (Indian word meaning ‘land of many states’), and there we were in Bellows Falls, Vermont.  And Fred Eaglesmith was up there singing his heart out for us.  

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It wasn’t that simple or straightforward, of course.  And it was a ton of fun.  You may remember (but why would you even want to?) that I (Kathy) stayed in western Kentucky while Rick went out to California to talk to the nice attorneys.  He did survive, surprisingly.  And after recovering for a few days, we reluctantly said good-by to the geese and the goslings and the heron and the… but anyway, we moved on from our beautiful spot along Lake Barkley; off through Paaaaducah and into Illinois.  Heading toward Chicago this way, after you cross the Ohio River you travel through the Shawnee Hills and then up into farmland.  It’s early May now, and the farmers are planting their corn. Aha, ethanol is now appearing at the pumps.  

We took a bit of a circuitous route so we could pass near enough to St. Louis to catch a Cards game at their new stadium.  Cool fun; it rained gently through much of the game, but it wasn’t until the 7th inning with the Cards comfortably out front that the deluge arrived and we, along with many others, beat feet for the exits.  Albert Pujols hit one out of the park; he’s such fun to watch.  And at the game, AT&T was there with a promotional booth; we were able to pick up our email!  Incredible!  Riding home in a downpour (on the motorcycle, of course) we were able to (just barely) see the Arch through the mists.  It was a great day, if a trifle damp.

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Just north-ish of St. Louis is a very nice museum about the Mississippi River; it’s in Alton, one of the locks/dam sites on the river – lock 26 if you’re keeping track.  Great exhibits; we skipped the tour of the locks --- rain, rain, rain.  The Mississippi is an incredible entity; we’re getting to know it better.

As you move further north into Illinois the land flattens out and becomes more open; larger farms; zillions of small prosperous farm communities; now seeing new wheat along with the corn.  A stop in Springfield for the night gave us the chance to see the wonderful new Lincoln Museum and many other Abe-oriented buildings.  Also a lovely capitol building, if you haven’t been there, and an excellent example of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, the Dana-Thomas House.  DO NOT MISS THIS ARCHITECTURAL WONDER IF YOU ARE IN THE AREA.  It’s a very large private home, filled with furnishings he designed and placed there; this includes items that were let go at garage sales by former owners and had to be re-purchased by the state for hundreds of thousands of dollars during the restoration.  We decided Springfield is a pretty great city; not too large, full of interesting things, and fairly close to Chicago. 

And we really do like Chicago.  If you are in a motorhome, there’s no place to stay within any kind of an easy drive.  But we are very fortunate to have good buddies who live nearby.  We were able to maneuver ourselves (and them) to be in the area at the same time, so we had a chance for a good visit, and escorts into the city for a couple of days’ sightseeing.  It was great; they know how to get around, are wonderful fun to be with, and showed us a good time.  These were folks we had first met in Mexico, and probably the highlight for all four of us was a visit to the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, where we spent several hours engrossed in art, history and politics, all from a non-American point of view.  And, of course, it wasn’t raining when we took a break and left to walk several blocks to eat a really fine lunch at a local Mexican restaurant; but it was pouring when we walked those several looooong blocks back to the museum.  Such a rainy spring.

Oh, and the Chicago version of mac and cheese Rick had remembered as being so lovely in a restaurant where we had eaten several years ago (in the Water Tower shops area) is still being served, but it isn’t nearly as good any more.  You really can’t go home again…..

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Well, being as we were north and west of the Chicago area, we figured we might as well check in on a BMW bike rally being held in southwestern Wisconsin.  And we had good weather for a few days, so we took advantage and rode and rode and rode through the area’s lovely hills and dales.  Just plain beautiful.  We love Wisconsin, the whole state, but this is special.  The area is just that pretty; every road an adventure, each turn a new vista; green in every direction.  One day’s ride took us through the easternmost corners of Minnesota and Iowa, adding to our collection of “states for spring.”  We saw our first hogs of the season, and many open fields of horses and cows and sheep and goats.  There are lots of Amish communities in this area, so there are draft horses in the fields along with the high-stepping high-spirited beauties they use to pull their buggies.  Lots of noses to stop and scratch along the fences.  We had lots of chances to see these big beasts at work, as we passed several teams of four of them abreast plowing the fields; in one case mama had her foal trotting right alongside, getting an early glimpse of its life to come.  We passed through Boscobel, Wisconsin’s wild turkey capital and home of the Boscobel Bowl and Banquet Hall (just picture that for your wedding reception, Lauri), had breakfast at Kickapoo Corners (named after the Kickapoo River), saw deer statuary (always in groups of 3) on every home’s lawn, and dairy cattle around every corner.  

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We realized that finally we had really left the southern accents behind us; and there was nary a suntan in sight.  We spent some time in the little town of Westby, Wisconsin, which had a Norwegian heritage; they were having their Syttende Mai Festival (who knows?).  This was really lots of fun.  We had missed the parade, but there were queens and princesses of this-and-that abounding, a place to buy hammers with your name on them, a little kids’ tractor pull, fried cheese curds at Ole’s Mobile Kitchen, and some of the worst homemade pie I’ve ever tasted.  Can you spell Jello filling?  Tons of fun.  

The flowers of spring in the Mid-West are dominated by the peonies we saw beside virtually every farm house and town home.  Stunning, huge bushes covered with (mostly) bright pink flowers.  I do miss my peonies from the years I spent in eastern Washington.  It doesn’t get cold enough in San Luis Obispo, that’s for sure.  (But I guess bougainvillea is a good trade!)  Besides the peonies, there were tons of lilacs, and, amazingly……the ubiquitous red bud from further south.  We had first seen red bud in mid-February, in Mexico; it was now mid-May and 1500 miles further north; it had followed us all the way along.  

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Well, let’s see, if you’re in Wisconsin and you want to head east, you have 3 choices:  up and over THE LAKE, across THE LAKE on a ferry, or down and around THE LAKE.  We went down and around, back across Illinois and Indiana and into Ohio.  Our route included passing through Galena (IL), a gorgeous riverside town that was home to President Grant for a number of years and a lovely piece of countryside indeed; Stockholm, where the local bank was advertising a Bessie the Cow coloring contest; Freeport, home of the Highland College Pretzels (“Go Pretzels” says the sign – honest – we really don’t make this stuff up, ed); Dixon, boyhood home of Ronnie R; more and more ethanol signs; then flat Illinois followed by flat Indiana.  Crossing the Tippecanoe (no Tyler in sight) and the Wabash 2 (no 3, no 4) times because we kept getting lost in Peru, IN, we spent an evening with good friends south of Fort Wayne and then pushed on the next morning to Dayton, Ohio and the huge Air Force Museum.  This involved swinging through Greenville, but skipping its Annie Oakley exhibit (another time?).

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We wanted to spend some time in southeast Ohio, and it was really worth the extra effort.  Beautiful rolling hills (yah, I know, we were talking about beautiful rolling hills in Wisconsin, huh…and Kentucky, and southern Illinois; but these are special).  Very back-hill and far from the bright lights; Mail Pouch barns in gay profusion; a town called Temperanceville; a dead drive-in theater filled with grass; and more stunning peonies.  We could tell we were getting close to Pennsylvania and West Virginia:  dark red brick houses clustered close to the street in the little towns through which we passed; a very “steel town” look.  Barnesville, dating from 1808, with lovely homes in a beautiful setting.  Past an advertisement for Dr. Boom’s lightening rods.  And then we dropped waaaay down a huge hill and across the Ohio River and into West Virginia.  An incredible sight.  This is one big river.  

But we were heading for Pittsburgh and a Pirates game, so we didn’t spend long in West Virginia this time.  Getting there, we crossed the Monongahela River (which means “has very narrow, very old bridge over very wide water”) and found a spot to unload the bike for some riding.  Western Pennsylvania is lovely this (Memorial Day weekend) time of year.  We had a nice ride through Fort Necessity (shades of G. Washington) and along a portion of the National Road.  Peonies everywhere and ohmagod ….. dogwood!  Would you ever!  We crisscrossed the Youghiogheny Rjiver (the “Yock” to the locals), through Ohiopyle, Normalville, Confluence (of two you-know-whats) and Perryopolis, and then headed into town.  Our day in Pittsburgh was a gas; nice and warm for a change, good seats at the park, and our team almost even won (Jason Bay hit a homer), losing in the 10th inning.  Pittsburgh is almost as hard to get around (and around in) as Atlanta (so so so many bridges), but we did okay; we were glad it was a Sunday.  

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Next on our spring list was the Allegheny Mountains, in northwest Pennsylvania.  So, to get there you head through Oil City, Petrolia, Oil Creek State Park, Slate Lick; oh, and near Titusville; guess what was discovered around this neck of the woods!  On across a tiny bridge over the Allegheny River and into the woods.  A favorite spot from several years ago, we had been anxious to return; the wait was worth it.  This is lovely, green country, pretty much unspoiled and a great place to hang out for a few days.  The roads follow the creeks (“runs”) which makes them tight and twisty – our favorite kind of riding.   So off we went, and had a good time.  Unfortunately, this was right after Memorial Day weekend, and much of the country was boiling hot.  It was in the high 90’s and very humid, not the best time to be on a motorcycle; so we didn’t get out as much as we might have otherwise.  And then it started to rain, and rain, and rain.  But we still had fun, and it was truly beautiful.  We were camped outside Tionesta, PA, a great little town, right on the Allegheny River.  Almost by definition, camping in the east is always beautiful:  trees, grassy areas, lots of water; what’s not to like.  And all those dairy cows produce a lot of very good ice cream!  Oh, and this campground is where we were finally able to identify a critter we’d first spotted in Wisconsin, the prosaic but still new to us GROUNDHOG.  Have you ever seen one?  They are huge – they look like a beaver without much of a tail, says Rick; how boring is that!  It was too cool; I was jazzed.

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Every little town has a lovely Veterans memorial, often in a nice park, and filled with flags and flowers this time of year.  But in Smethport, Pennsylvania, we had a special experience.  The town had arranged for the movable Vietnam Wall to be there; it had arrived the day before and was open to all as we drove through (now heading toward Vermont).  We stopped and spent some time, Rick located a friend’s name, and we also talked with one of the local organizers.  This is quite a project, and has quite an impact.  You may remember that the Wall was in Paso Robles a number of years ago.  It was raining then – and it was raining now.  I think perhaps it changes the experience a little, having adverse weather.  In any case, you cannot be but moved to experience it.  In some ways I have found this experience, in a small town, more moving than when I visited the permanent wall in Washington, DC.  

We passed through Smethport on Highway 6, which runs along northern Pennsylvania; this is one of our all-time favorite roads.  The countryside is rural and scenic and you pass through some pretty little towns along the way (Smethport one of the nicest).  We went through one town that advertised lawn mower races coming up next weekend……….  Can’t help loving that road of ours!

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Still trekking towards Vermont, we wandered through the southeastern part of New York, through Binghamton and east through the Catskills.  It was fun to go through such a storied area, truly eastern in flavor; I kept looking for bald middle-aged men in plaid shorts and high black socks -- unsuccessfully…..  But it’s lovely, and we could certainly appreciate how welcome it would be to New Yorkers as they tried to get out of the city and its summer heat.   

We crossed the headwaters of the Delaware River and then the mighty Hudson River.  The Hudson is a very broad waterway, probably as wide as the Mississippi, with tree-lined banks.  It was the focus of an entire school of painting (the Hudson River School, of course) and has been replicated a zillion times; it is easy to see why.  The entire valley is filled with very, very old towns, such as Hudson itself, going far back into history, and proud of their heritage.  They are pretty, well maintained villages, with greens, stately churches and homes, and a delight to visit.  

We were still pointing toward Vermont, and moved up through the eastern edge of New York along the Berkshires; also truly lovely.  Our country, particularly in spring, is a sight to behold!  It was now the first week in June, and everything was in bloom.  We popped across into Vermont and promptly fell in love again with what is one of our very favorite states.

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Vermont is different.  Vermont is its own parallel universe; it’s almost like you are in any state, and then you go around a corner and it’s all slightly askew.  Hard to explain.  No where else is recycling taken so seriously.  No where else can you find organic food in EACH little village.  No where else would they really rather you actually went somewhere else, but if you have to be here, you will have to find your own way because there certainly won’t be a sign telling you how to get to your destination.  We’ll be back in Vermont again later in the summer and maybe I can put my finger on it better after a second visit.  Every bridge in Vermont is being repaired, by the way.  

Lest you think I’m grousing, let me assure you we had a grand time.  Vermont has wonderful twisty roads to travel over on a motorbike; we visited a bunch and will see more later.  Now, in June, we were in the southern part of the state (ha!  You didn’t think it was big enough to have sections, did you!), in Bellows Falls (on the Connecticut River with New Hampshire across the water, and complete with a rill --- not really a falls anymore), to attend a Fred Eaglesmith concert series.  It was a gas.  Rained all weekend.  Very soggy.  Still very fun.  Fred is great; our favorite alternative music guy.  A Fredfest is a gathering of the faithful (Fred Heads), and they were out in goodly numbers.  There were groups other than Fred and his gang, including some good talent (“A big hit in Brattleboro”).  And, sign of where we were, Fred commented on the number of people knitting in the audience (Fewer than at a winter concert…..).  We made new friends among the attendees, and now have a standing invitation to visit some folks who actually live in Rhode Island, the only state we have yet to visit.  Soon!

We decided to stay in the Northeast for several weeks, at least until late July when the BMW rally would be held in Vermont.  so we started to widen our explorations, heading into Maine.  We wandered along the southern coast, hitting Portsmouth, New Hampshire and then north up the Maine coast a little bit.  We rapidly decided there were TOO MANY FOLKS out there, and soon pushed off inland.  But not before trying lobster roll for the first time.  Which a roll it ain’t.  I’d figured it would be kinda like a wrap, but it was on a hamburger bun.  It was okay, but not scrumptious-stupendous-astounding; only stupendously and astoundingly, even appallingly expensive!  That will probably do it for that experience.

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In the Northeast we constantly have seen proven the big bang theory of town formation.  Being from the West, we are more familiar with a town simply getting larger, then, when it becomes a city, maybe it will acquire a South, or an East, additional city.  But not back here:  little villages will be just one of many – Salisbury, Salisbury Station, West Salisbury – with probably less than a thousand folks in all three together.  Why, why, why?  Think of the “big bang” and maybe it makes more sense….

But onward.  We passed Ralph’s Supa Dolla, The Chowdah House – claiming to have ‘Wicked Good Lobstah Rolls’ - and similar and knew we were really in Maine.  And then another weird experience:  a Maine bluegrass festival, in Sidney, near Augusta (the state capitol, with all of 20,000 population).  But it really did work.  Bluegrass is bluegrass; doesn’t matter where it’s sung.  Worldwide, it’s plunked and twanged the same way.  Up on stage all the acts sounded the same, whether from Maine, New Brunswick, Oklahoma, or Louisiana.  But then, when they stopped singing, the southerners said “ya’ll,” and those from more northern climes started talking through their noses again.  This was a 4-day, very local festival (most attendees lived less than an hour away).  Many long beards and farmer’s caps and overalls; entirely too many very fat folks; no tans above the elbow; but also the obligatory dreadlocks on the local college students (running a temporary tattoo booth).  Had been raining for days, so lots of folks came in their “Wellies”, still covered with mud from the fields.  It was a social event, and everyone was catching up on the local gossip.  We enjoyed ourselves.  Oh, yes, on Friday the local paper came out, listing (several pages of very small print) who had gotten moose hunting tags for the coming season (they hold a lottery); poured over very carefully during the more boring musical groups.  And a couple in the audience was introduced who “came all the way from Vermont” for the concert.  The ice cream stand was serving up delectibles.

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After four days of bluegrass we were very ready for something else.  We had made reservations for a few days at Acadia National Park, and we headed on over to the coast.  The Maine coast is filled with flea markets, used book stores, and ice cream stands.  The later two interested us a lot but we tried to keep ourselves reined in, with some success.  (There is only so much room for books in our little home, for one thing; the flip side is that if we truly and thoroughly indulged our fondness for ice cream, we ourselves would not fit into our little home!)  

But on up the coast, past Bar Harbor (actually a much nicer little town than we had expected) and into the Park.  What a great place!  Acadia is one of the two most-visited national parks in the United States, the other being Smoky Mountain NP in Tennessee.  As you drive up, you cannot imagine why.  It’s just a chunk of land, not overly spectacular, not overly large, not particularly developed, very similar to all the land around it.  Why make the trek?  And then we started to poke around a bit, and we discovered the attraction.  Acadia is really there for you, regardless of what you want to do and what kind of experience you enjoy the most.  Most National Parks are set aside because of special, often spectacular and even unique, scenery, but Acadia is different.  It is the only NP that was initially founded on lands donated for the purpose.  

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Back in the day, many of the heavy hitters of the industrial revolution built “summer cottages” here as one of several places to escape the summer heat of the eastern cities. Along the way some of them truly fell in love with the area and began buying up land to preserve the natural environment with an eye on eventually donating the land to the federal government for a park.  Led by John D. Rockefeller, they began a series of improvements that help make the park what it is today.  Chief among these is a system of ‘Carriage Roads’, beautifully maintained unpaved roads intended from the beginning for the exclusive use of hikers, bicyclists, and horses or horse-drawn conveyances; automobiles were specifically excluded. In order to complete the roads, a large number of beautifully designed stone arch bridges were built over the many creeks and streams in the area.  These roads, along with an equally impressive system of interconnected hiking trails and rock climbs, are what make Acadia special today.  It is simply the best place we’ve found yet for getting away for a walk, hike, bike ride or whatever; all ways to easily put away the cares of modern life and touch nature.  In addition, a paved, largely one-way, Park Loop Road provides access to the best areas of the coastline and much of the interior, while still being separate from public roads and their attendant traffic.  This feature adds greatly to the appeal of the park.

A couple of statistics:  the park is within a day’s drive of 25 percent of the population of all of North America (just think about that for a minute).  The highest point in the park is only 1530 feet (same as the top of Cuesta Grade), but this is the highest point on the Atlantic Coast north of Brazil.  The air quality was very poor when we arrived, and at the top (Cadillac Mountain) we couldn’t see much, but in clear weather you get a tremendous view of the coastline (it rained hard one night, and the next day we were rewarded when we went back up the mountain).  

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We left Acadia before we were finished, leaving many areas for another trip, which we will take some fall in order to see the fall colors within the park.  We are already looking forward to it.

But we had more plans made.  Some very dear friends we had made in Mexico live on an island off the coast of Maine, where they run a B&B in a lighthouse setting.  Clutching an invitation to visit, we embarked on the local mail boat and went out to see them.  What a beautiful place.  As has been the case so often this spring, we were treated to crummy weather, but we enjoyed ourselves very much, and were reminded yet again just how cool lighthouses are (and how wonderful the friends we have been making in our wanderings).  

Back on the mainland, it is now close to the end of June.  We plan to stay in Maine-New Hampshire-Vermont until this time in July, as there is a very large BMW rally in Burlington which starts on July 20th.  Until then, we aren’t quite sure.  We want to explore this area much further:  there are roads to be ridden, forests to be camped in, ice cream and cheese and maple syrup to sample; and friends in northern Vermont to visit.  So much to do, we’ll never run out of ideas.  We are still plagued with less-than-perfect weather a lot of the time; but everyone says it’s going to get better – soon!  We’re counting on it.

After Burlington, who knows!  We know we’re heading into Canada, but the options are myriad, time is not of the essence, and we haven’t made up our minds.  Along about Labor Day we expect to show up in Rapid City, South Dakota, but until then, quien sabe?  Life takes its turns and squiggles; maps offer ever changing perspectives based on the direction they are held; sometimes we even know where we are, and some of those times it’s even on purpose!!

For those of you on the West Coast, we know how hot it is, and we really feel for you.  But you’ve had fresh strawberries since March, and they are only beginning to show up around here.  To our friends further east, try and stay dry; it can’t rain forever!  And it’s the rain that makes it beautiful.  As we sit here beside Twoddy Pond in eastern Maine, watching the fireflies and listening to the loons, we wish you all a grand summer; we’ll stay in touch.

Rick and Kathy 

See more photos from the US in 2006

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