Our North America Adventure

Published: April 10, 2010

Dick & Claire Wiklund #1275

Dick & Claire WiklundOur lives changed dramatically in 2008. We sold the boat that we had lived upon in Boston harbor for the past five years, I retired from practicing medicine, and we bought an Airstream trailer. We joined WBCCI (New England and Cape Cod Units) and planned to see North America. We learned the basics on two caravans that year. They bore an eerie similarity to our experiences in boating. By Spring of 2009 we were ready to tour the United States and parts of Canada on our own, our preference. We traveled a total of 20,000 miles in 2009 on two trips, two months in the Spring and two months in the late Summer, early Fall. Delorme navigation (click to enlarge)

I maintained a daily blog on both trips and published it to friends and family and I took thousands of pictures. On the technical side, I used an Apple MacMini computer with iWeb and iPhoto. I used a Verizon air card for Internet access because I found WiFi access to be unreliable. The photos in my albums were taken with Nikon cameras (D70 and D90 with 18-70 mm and 18-200 mm lenses). All the photos were edited in iPhoto for saturation, contrast, exposure, and color balance. Doing the blog became a daily ritual while Claire prepared dinner or walked Winnie, our Irish terrier.

I will describe the high lights and low lights of our two trips and the lessons learned. I did all the driving and Claire did the navigation (Fujitsu tablet computer using Microsoft’s Streets and Trips at first, then a Hewlett-Packard mini-notebook computer using DeLorme’s software. We preferred the DeLorme system. I tried our best to avoid interstate highways and found that we could go just about as far on two-lane back roads, had less anxiety, boredom, and tiredness. We established a discipline of a leisurely breakfast and breaking camp when everyone was done doing what needed to be done (including Winnie). Most days we would stop for lunch in the Airstream at a rest area, welcome center, or the side of the road. We rarely made reservations for a campsite and we were turned away only once (see below).

South and Southwest United States

We took advantage of a break in the weather to leave Falmouth, MA in mid-March. We did run into freezing temperatures our first night out in Dover, Delaware. Our route would take us down the coastal roads of the eastern shore of Maryland, across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the outer banks of North Carolina, and the lowlands of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. St. Augustine, Florida was our first destination. We would spend a couple of days there with friends who helped us see all of the area.

St. Augustine was the only stop where we could not get a campsite at our first choice of campground. The beachfront state park there is booked as much as eight months in advance.

One needs to be aware of the propane regulations of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Authority. You can transport propane but the tanks need to be turned off. They ask at the tollbooth but don’t bother to look. The resort areas of the Atlantic Coast (Ocean City, Virginia Beach, Cape Hatteras, and Myrtle Beach are nothing but honky-tonk. Hatteras National Seashore, on the other hand, is beautiful and unspoiled by development. Outer Banks (click to enlarge) We chose to back track off the islands rather than try the ferry to Morehead City. The ferries are expensive, not all of them accept reservations, and the ride can be choppy in the Spring. It was a good choice because the low lands of Washington County, North Carolina are well worth seeing.

I was stationed at the Naval Hospital in Charleston for two years so we were anxious to see Charleston again. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread!” We camped north of the city and drove through the heart of the downtown area, along the waterfront, with the Airstream in tow the following morning. We made it without incident but with a fair amount of anxiety. My advice, leave the trailer behind and see downtown Charleston on foot! We camped at the state campgrounds in Edisto Beach and St. Marys, South Carolina. I recommend both of them highly.

Blue Angels (click to enlarge) St. Augustine is full of interesting things to see and do. Our hosts recommended that we stop in Pensacola and visit the Naval Aviation Museum. We spent an entire day at the museum and took hundreds of pictures. Admission is free and you can take a tour of the flight line and even see the Blue Angels flying in practice. Later in the year we visited the Air Force’s museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Wright-Pat is larger than Pensacola but I think the displays at Pensacola are much better than those at Wright-Pat. Both museums have an incredible number of rare airplanes (see the photos in my albums).

Avery Island, LA (click to enlarge)We avoided New Orleans, camped in Lafayette, and visited Avery Island and the McIlhenney factory, the makers of Tobasco products. This area is just outside of Baton Rouge, which means “red stick”. The red sticks were given to pepper pickers. Peppers are picked when they match the color of the stick! Claire bought some Tobasco chili mix, to which you add a pound of hamburger to make some of the easiest and best chili we’ve ever had. If you travel this area, visit Abbeville, Louisiana and eat at Shucks at the junction of US Route 167 and LA 335.

It took us three days to cross Texas and these were the worst days of the trip! The scenery is boring and there is not a lot to see other than around the Austin and San Antonio area. We skirted Houston and did not go to Dallas/Fort Worth. We camped (with permission) one night at Cabela’s in Buda, Texas. We opened the rear window of the trailer for the first time in the season. It stuck to the rubber gasket and then exploded into millions of pieces of safety glass. I could not believe our luck, we were right across the street from an Airstream dealer. I was disappointed in their support. They had an identical trailer on their lot but would not consider swapping out the rear window. We found a plastic ceiling panel at Home Depot that fit the opening well, with the help of a lot of duct tape! We arranged to have a window shipped from Jackson Center to the Airstream dealer in Oklahoma City, planning to be there in about a week.

We pressed on to New Mexico, the Carlsbad Caverns and the White Sands National Monument. The elevator ride down a shaft carved in the stone some 400 feet deep was scary but not as scary as the caverns themselves. I said to Claire, “I hope there’s no Hell because this is what it would be like!” Carlsbad Caverns, NM (click to enlarge)Both Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands are part of the National Park Service. Admission if free with a Senior Passport. The Senior Passport, as most of you know, is a “don’t leave home without it” item.

Griffith’s Airstream RV is not the easiest place to find, tucked into an area of endless trucking firms. Tom and Darla are wonderful people. . We arrived on Wednesday afternoon with the window scheduled to arrive Thursday morning. Airstream sent the wrong window and agreed to ship the correct window overnight.

We had a full two days to see Oklahoma City and visited the Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and the Oklahoma City Federal Building Memorial. The Cowboy Museum is one of the finest museums we’ve seen. Unfortunately photography is strictly forbidden in most of the exhibits for “copyright” reasons, as I was told firmly when I raised my camera. Cowboy Museum (click to enlarge)

Our route took us through Arkansas and the Ozark Mountains. An ice storm in January had wrecked havoc on the forests. Most of the trees were snapped off two-thirds of the way up. At first we thought that a tornado must have passed through the area but the devastation continued all the way across the state and into Tennessee.

Army Corps of Engineer's campground in Nashville, TN (click to enlarge)We camped at an Army Corps of Engineer’s campground at a reservoir just east of Nashville. We would stay for two nights and it cost $7 per night with our Senior Passports! The man at the window showed me a map and marked our site. It looked fairly shallow on the map and I wasn’t sure if we would fit. He said, “I don’t think you’ll have a problem. The site is 130 deep.” The access roads and sites were paved, hookups included water, electricity, and sewer, and our site backed right up on the shore of the reservoir! This link will take you to a map resource for Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds.

The Tennessee Air Museum is well worth a visit in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The area is also the entrance to the Great Smoky National Park

We had two more stops on our way home. The first was at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. We spent two days there and wandered around the National Park for most of one day. The next stop was in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, our home back in the 1980’s, where we would camp at the Frances Slocum State Park and visit with old friends, Mark and Lillian Cohen.

Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Rocky Mountains

We arrived home from the Southwest in April and left for the Pacific Northwest in mid-August, just long enough to mow the grass, wash the truck, and repack the trailer! The primary goal of our trip was to join the Oregon Unit of the WBCCI for their rally at the Pendleton Roundup in Pendleton Oregon, September 13th to 18th.

We planned to go North to avoid the heat of the high desert, get to the National Parks after kids were back in school, and to be out of the Rocky Mountains before snow would close the passes.

We wanted to visit the Airstream factory and were on I-70 in Zanesville, Ohio at when cars passed us and people were pointing at our trailer. “Yeah, I like it too! Thank you, yes it’s beautiful!” That’s not what they were telling me. I looked in the curbside rear view mirror and saw black smoke. We just had our first blowout. Fortunately we were about a half-mile from the Ohio Welcome Area. I called Good Sam’s but never got any help.

We bought a new tire at Airstream and took the factory tour (no pictures allowed on the production line). We also took a day and visited Wright Patterson’s Air Force Museum in Dayton. It is a federal facility, it’s free of charge, but you have to show a picture ID. I showed the nice lady my driver’s license but she said it had expired six months ago! For the next 9000 miles I never exceeded the speed limit even once

If you are having service performed at the Airstream Factory you can stay in one of their RV sites, if I remember right, the night before, the night of, and the night after your service appointment free of charge. Otherwise, it’s $10 per night with full hook-ups. The campground fills up in the afternoon and a “happy hour” is fairly common.

We drove through Illinois and Indiana after we left Jackson Center. We were passing through Lafayette, Indiana when we had another tire blowout. Forget about Good Sam’s, Claire and I had that tire changed in fifteen minutes flat (no pun intended)! On Star helped us find a dealer who had the right sized RV tires. The storeowner showed me why we had two blowouts on successive days of traveling. We have a tire pressure monitoring system on our trailer tires. The radiofrequency stem caps are about the size of the cap of a water bottle but they are solid. He showed me that the valve stem on the blown tire had cracked and failed causing the blowout. At speed, the sensor caps cause the rubber valve stem to bend over and that’s where they fail. We installed steel valve stems on all of our trailer tires that afternoon.

Tornado warnings (click to enlarge)It had been a long day and we were tired. Bad weather was predicted for the evening so we found a state campground just outside Lafayette. About 6 PM, the park rangers came around to all the RVs and told us to leave or RVs and take shelter because of tornados in the immediate area. We had heavy rain, thunder, and lightening but did not see any funnel clouds

After we rounded Chicago by a large margin, we headed North into Wisconsin and then on to Minnesota en route to Glacier National Park in Montana. We drove north and then west when we were within 10-20 miles of the Canadian border. I felt that plains of North Dakota and Montana would more interesting than Manitoba and Saskatchewan. We followed Route 2 all the way across to St. Marys on the east side of Glacier. We saw some of the largest wheat and sunflower fields imaginable! It was interesting to see the progression of the wheat harvest as we drove west. Many of the small towns we passed through had small municipal RV parks, something we hadn’t seen before.

Glacier National Park (click to enlarge)Glacier National Park and Waterston Lakes Provincial Park are at the eastern boundary of the Rock Mountains and the Continental Divide. The highlight of Glacier is driving the Road to the Sun. Vehicle size is restricted (to 26 feet I believe). It is a serpentine road that runs from St. Marys to West Glacier Village. We stopped at the Visitors Center in Logan Pass where big horn sheep wandered around the parking lot.

The Road to the Sun was under repair so traffic was down to one lane and we had to follow an escort vehicle. When they repair the road workers are lowered over the edge in cages attached to a crane. If you drop a hammer or a wrench you’ll find it about 4000 feet down in the valley!

Glacier National Park road repair crew (click to enlarge)West Glacier is more developed than St. Marys. It is also close to Whitefish, a reasonably large town with nice shops and the home to the Great Northern Railroad. That’s where I bought my cowboy hat! Next time I will camp on that side of the National Park.

There aren’t very many glaciers left in Glacier National Park; they are in Canada north of Banff and you get to them by way of two of the most beautiful roads in North America (my opinion), the Cowboy Highway and the Ice Fields Highway. Dress warm and take the bus trip up onto the glacier, the view is spectacular and there are incredible photo ops.

Glacier National Park ice fields (click to enlarge) Over the next two weeks we would follow the Columbia River for its full length. We crossed over into British Columbia and headed south to through Customs and Immigration at Eastport, Idaho. The US agent took one look at us and said, “You don’t look like a criminal, a smuggler, a terrorist and you don’t look like you’d pose a threat to the welfare of the United States. Welcome home!” It was the quickest and easiest border crossing we’ve ever had. Hint: pick the most remote border point you can when crossing between Canada and the USA.

We had time to spare before arriving in Pendleton so we took a side trip to the Grand Coulee Dam. There is a state campground about 15 miles south of Coulee, Steamboat Rock State Park. It is one of the nicest campgrounds we have ever visited. Most of the campsites are on the waterfront. The pads are nicely shaded and they water the grass almost all day long! The most memorable part of visiting Grand Coulee Dam is the elevator ride down to the turbines. The elevator is glass and it slides down the side of the dam to a landing 465 feet below. If you don’t like heights, you hang on for dear life!

Mt. Rainier (click to enlarge)They made a mistake when they divided Washington and Oregon. The border should have been drawn down the Cascades (Mts. Rainier, St. Helens, Hood) rather than horizontally across the area. Eastern Washington and Oregon include the Yakima Valley and barren mountains of the high plains desert. The western parts of the states have lush forests and urban Pacific coast cities.

There was time to spare before Pendleton so we pushed on to Mt. Rainer National Park, the Columbia River, and the Oregon Coast where we put our feet in the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia River Gorge is spectacular. You should see it from the Oregon side in order to appreciate the waterfalls and the view from Vista House.

Columbia River waterfalls (click to enlarge)We spent three days in Joseph, Oregon and visited the Mule Days Festival in Enterprise, Oregon before going to Pendleton. Joseph is known for its foundries and there are bronze statues on every corner in the town.

WBCCI Oregon Unit (click to enlarge)I cannot adequately describe the wonderful experience we had at the Pendleton Roundup Rally with the Oregon Unit. It is an annual rally and I’d recommend joining them to anyone from New England planning to head west in the early Fall. The city allows the Unit to use a large parking lot and shelter for the whole week. There is water at each site and the Unit arranges for a portable pump out once during the rally. They are a nice group and welcomed us warmly. The Roundup is one of the major North American rodeos held each year (Pendleton Roundup, Calgary Stampede, and Durango Frontier Days). All the ranchers, cowboys, and Native Americans turn out! The Native Americans are in full regalia and raise their teepees on site. Hamley’s restaurant, bar, and store are a “must see”. Pendleton Roundup (click to enlarge)

Arches National Park (click to enlarge)From Pendleton we crossed back into Idaho and visited Craters of the Moon National Monument. Then we headed south into Utah to visit Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park staying in Moab, Utah. From there we headed further south into Colorado to Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is over 12,000 feet high. Both Claire and I developed early high altitude sickness, could not climb down into the pueblos, and had to get down “off the mountain”. We felt better when we got down to about 8000 feet.

We started heading east after we left the Rocky Mountains and entered the Great Plains of Kansas and Missouri. Old Bents Fort, on the Santa Fe Trail, was a real treat. It’s out of the way but well worth the visit. The next couple of days were our “Presidential Days” as we visited the Eisenhower and Truman homes and then Lincoln part of Indiana. We stopped in St. Louis and visited the Gateway Arch. Claire took the cable car to the top and got some great pictures of St. Louis. I stayed at the bottom!

St. Louis Arch (click to enlarge)Our last major stop was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The museum has restored racing cars from all the decades. The track was closed to visitor because Hélio Castroneves was practicing in his Honda Indy car for the first time since a serious accident in the Spring.

Three days later we were home! This trip was over 10,000. We have camped in every state except West Virginia, Kentucky, Nevada, Arizona, California, Alaska, and Hawaii. All of these, except Hawaii and Alaska, are on our itinerary for our trip this August.