So you’ve got a day in Denver with a 6 year old and a 2 year old

Kids into dinosaurs? Check out some fossils at Dinosaur Ridge.  While you’re there, you can get in a quick hike at Red Rocks Amphitether.  Active military gets half off.  If you’re hoping to see some wildlife but are tight on time, check out some bison and friends at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge east of the city. If trains are more their speed, take a ride through the mountains on the Georgetown Express.  Kindergartner want to be a Firefighter for Halloween?  Check out the Denver Firefighters Museum.  Just off 36 on the way to Estes Park, before hitting Boulder, you can stop at the Butterfly Pavilion.

Okay so kids are cool and all, but they aren’t the most important thing in the world.  Let’s talk about food, and we can start with the most important meal of the week – brunch.  A favorite of mine is Bacon Social House; located in a western Denver neighborhood, it rarely has as long a wait as downtown spots.  The egg’s Benedict is on point and and goes perfect with their house bloody.

If you’re hoping to check out Denver’s famous craft brew scene but don’t have a ton of time, check out First Draft for a unique experience.  They’ve got 40 taps where you serve yourself and pay by the ounce tracked on a card.  Kegs are never replaced with the same thing, so there’s always a ton of variety.  After a few beers, take a stroll through the surrounding neighborhood.  RiNo (River North), the up and coming art district, features tons of incredible murals as a part of the annual CRUSH festival, tucked down alleys and side streets between unique retail stores, bars, and restaurants.

Lastly, if you’re headed up towards Boulder, stop by my favorite brewery, Avery Brewing for a Liliko’i Kepolo and a bite to eat.

Day 11 – Badlands National, South Dakota

On Thursday, Penny and I took a quick walk around the park before making breakfast and breaking down camp.  It seemed like none of the other campers had started their days yet, or at least not outside their RV’s.  I didn’t see a single other person the rest of the time we were there.  Pretty quickly we collapsed the camper and hit the road towards Sioux Falls, home of Damble, my awesome former coworker who was nice enough to lend me his drone for the trip.  I followed his suggestion and stopped into town just long enough to check out the falls before continuing on.  I’ve always enjoyed long exposure photography, but am only really accustomed to shooting it in dark environments.  This would be an opportunity for me to try out my new ND filters.  Just as some of the pages I read suggested, the ND filters did dampen the light enough for me to get a long exposure during full sunlight without it being overexposed, however it also cast a purple tint on the image.  I’ll have to work on color correcting the images later.

I needed to get some more food for Penny, so we made a quick stop at Petco.  In addition to more food, she also took it upon herself to pick up a toy lamb from the shelf.  She was just too happy to have it, I couldn’t say no.  Unlike every other plush toy she’s ever had, she didn’t immediately try to rip it apart.  Instead, she just happily carried it in her mouth to the car, as if to protect her buddy.  Maybe it was because she had the lamb during her frightening encounter with a rogue balloon laying on the floor of the store.

With a full bag of dog food and a new companion for Penny it was time to roll out to our next stop, Badlands National Park in South Dakota.  After looking at the map a bit more I decided to change my plans, and rather than circling back to SW South Dakota on my way back to Denver, I’d cut West across SD before turning north, through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and then continue on to Glacier National Park in Montana.  This would save me some time, get me to some cool parks sooner rather than later, and break up the drive a bit more.  It was a long, mostly boring drive from Sioux Falls to Badlands, but the time spent was well worth it.  The most interesting thing on the drive out there was the seemingly infinite number of signs for Wall-drug.  Wall, SD, being the town just outside the National Park.  For anyone who has done the drive down I-95 you’ll be familiar with the “South of the Border” billboards littering the side of the highway.  It’s like that, except there aren’t a bunch of other billboards in the mix, and they seem to start even farther away.  Reading the signs it seemed like there wasn’t anything this place didn’t sell.  Gas? Snacks? Camping Gear? Sure, they’ve got all that.  In the market for some lightly used dental equipment?  Hell they can probably help ya with that too!

Despite the very persuasive advertising campaign on the way in, Penny opted to forego a stop at Wall-drug, and instead make our way into

the National Park.  From what I’ve seen on the National Park Service’s website, it seems this site often fills up pretty early, and there are no defined spaces, creating a bit of a free for all.

We made our way into the Sage Creek Campground and set up the camper in some pretty serious heat.  Fortunately, there were still quite a bit of free spaces available, so I had lots of choices to set up.  Unfortunately, the few shade structures that did exist were already claimed.  Despite this, I was pretty relieved to find a spot, given the website’s warnings of overcrowding.  Once the camper was set up, I disconnected it from the car to go do some exploring.  I had about a half tank of gas left, so I figured we’d kill 2 birds with 1 stone.  I’d drive the length of the park until I came out the other end, get gas, then slowly drive back up to the camp site.

The drive through the park was beautiful.  Just off the road were steep cliffs that looked like a drippy castle you’d make at the beach as a kid.  A drippy castle with a high water to sand ration, making for smooth rounded corners.  You know what I’m talking about.  The cliffs looked to have layers of different shades one on top of the other.  At the bottom of the cliffs were large meadows which looked almost out of place.

Penny and I made several stops along the way to admire the view.  The road weaved back and forth, leaving a grassy area for wildlife to graze.  In one of these areas I saw a bighorn ewe and her lamb.  As I kept driving I noticed another pair climbing along the steep, rounded corners of the cliffs.

I got my passport cancellation stamp at the south entrance visitor center and noticed it looked like a storm was rolling in.  I had left the windows of the camper down so that it would be cooler when I got back.  I hadn’t accounted for the potential for rain.  I decided it was best to take the highway back after getting some gas.  As I went to get on the highway I realized I was passing Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  I thought it would be cool to see one of these old missile silos, but sadly they were already closed for the day.

When I got back to the campsiteit had gotten quite a bit more full.  My camper was parked next to one of the few picnic tables that was open when I arrived, and that table was very close to one of the only other open picnic tables.  A couple had set up camp around the picnic table.  Sometimes on this trip after spending a while in the car Penny is apprehensive of strangers that approach her quickly.  That was the case with the new neighbors and she was shy and dodging away at first.  It didn’t take long for her to warm up to them and pull her signature move, rolling on to her back for belly rubs.  My new neighbors, James & Tricia, had just left Glacier NP and were headed back to Missouri.

As I chatted with my new neighbors,  the winds picked up pretty significantly for a while.  Tricia told me she saw a few tents go flying into the meadow next to the campsite during one of the first few gusts.  Trailing behind it were its rain fly, and behind that its owners trying to catch it as it bounced across the field like a tumbleweed.  I’ve seen this happen far too many times at music festivals.  ALWAYS steak your tent down.

As the winds got stronger it looked like the skies were going to open up and downpour at any moment.  It was still relatively early and the storm was expected to be around for a few hours.  Everyone was hurriedly grabbing everything from their car they thought they might want for the evening so they didn’t have to get wet.  Many people were eating before they’d like to simply because they didn’t want to stand in the rain to cook.

As most people settled into their tent, a mom and her 4 kids ranging from probably 6 to 15 poured out of a car and scrambled to set up their 2 tents before the rain set in.  They were far from quite and it was quite evident these were new tents they had never used or even taken out of the packaging before.  Normally I’d be happy to help, but there was something about their loud, passive aggressive comments about needing help that completely turned me off to wanting to stand in the rain and help them set up their camp.  The mom kept huffing and puffing, almost as if to say “how dare you other campers force me to set up my own tent!”  I wasn’t having it.

This was one of the times I was most thankful for having the camper.  As everyone else was in a race against time, I was casually sitting at the table inside my camper reading my book.  When the rain finally came, I was making sweet and sour chicken inside the camper and enjoying the incredible sunset.  We only ever got a light drizzle, but the sky was lit up bright orange like it was on fire as thunder rumbled in the distance.  Eventually a full rainbow showed up with both ends clearly visible, and shortly after that a second rainbow appeared above it.  While my food continued to cook I bounced in and out of the camper, grabbing as many photos as I could and occasionally stopping and just thinking “holy crap, this sunset is INSANE!”.  Most people were completely missing it because they were hidden away in their tents, thinking it was raining more than it was.Badlands Sunset

Now, this was definitely one of the prettiest sunsets I’ve ever seen, but there was just one thing that was preventing it from being absolutely perfect, and it wasn’t the rain.  Constantly, throughout the entire I kept hearing this noise.  It sounded like a bird whistling as if a predator was nearby, similar to those jerk crows that moved into my back yard and freaked out any time me or the dog went outside the house.

Slowly the sun dipped below the wavey horizon and the campsite fell dark.  By this point I had cleaned up from dinner and was beyond ready for bed.  Penny and I settled in for the night, wishing I had remembered my ears plugs to drown out that stupid bird.

Day 10 – Marion, South Dakota

Day 10, Thursday, was off to a pretty good start. Penny and I woke up fairly early and started making use of the Amazon packages from the day before. While I was productive, Penny took her time slowly waking up and enjoying the cool morning air. Slow Start for PennyI put the magnetic CB radio antenna on top of my car, routed the wire to the front, got the power lines routed better, and put up the window screens to make the sun less obnoxious while driving. I flipped the radio on, but this time the lights of the screen didn’t pop on. I checked all the connections, made sure the car was supply power, but still no luck. I hadn’t even used it yet. A quick check of the fuse showed it had blown and some investigation showed that while Amazon showed “people often buy these together” the plug I got was not well suited for the CB radio I bought. I’d need a higher amp fuse.

At the suggestion of my friend, Adrian, I decided to make a stop in Ames before I continue on to Souix Falls for the night.  He recommended I stop at Thai Kitchen for some lunch.  On the way into town, I stopped at an electronics wholesale shop that claimed to be able to serve all my electrical needs. 
Fortunately, the guy was able to get me exactly the fuse I needed and I was able to get the CB radio working.  A quick test was answered by a trucker from who knows where and I was in business.  I rolled into Ames right around lunch time, but I realized my stomach had been bothering me that morning.  Despite my hunger for some delicious Thai food,  I reluctantly settled for some Jimmy John’s, something I knew wouldn’t bother my stomach.

While I ate, I looked for a place to stay near Sioux Falls for the night.  Options seemed to be pretty limited unless I wanted to sleep in a Walmart parking lot, which wasn’t exactly ideal.  Eventually I found a listing for Heib Memorial Park, a small town park in Marion, SD that not only allowed camping, but had power hookups for 8 RVs and potable water spigots throughout the park.  I was a bit apprehensive because it seemed too good to be true, but thought I’d at least check it out.

As I got close to the campground I realized I had just put in the name of the town I was going to, not the specific address.  I flipped over to the freecampsites.net listing and tapped get directions.  I was 20 minutes away from the campground, and was ready to be done driving.  When I pulled up to the park I found a bunch of families picnicking, but didn’t see any other campers.  I slowly pulled by the park twice, looking for the electric hookups and spigots I had read about, but wasn’t seeing any.  In fact, the park had medal posts with chains between them lining the perimeter that were somewhat cosmetic, but primarily functional.  It was clear vehicles were not to be in the park.  I popped open the website again and realized I had accidentally gone to another location nearby, one I had settled against because it didn’t seem above board to be sleeping there over night.  The campsite had been right next to where I was when I got more specific directions, 20 minutes back.

When we pulled into the parking lot I was worried we wouldn’t be able to find a spot to set up because the parking lot was full with cars there for the 2 little league games going on.  This was essentially your local park, but with RV hookups.  I noticed a few other campers, but there were no open spots near them.  Back by the entrance to the park I noticed a few more hookups, and to my luck, an open spot directly in front of it.  I actually preferred this since it meant Penny and I would have some separation from other campers once all the Little League attendees left.

Once we set up camp, Penny and I took a stroll to check out the rest of the park.  The sun was setting over the pond and it was gorgeous.  Once again, the ground was soggy from all the recent rain, but there were plenty of high parts for us to walk across.  When we got to the water front, there was a suspended wood bridge that was dipping into the water due to the influx of water.  We started walking towards it and all the sudden Penny was on high alert.  I looked towards the water and I noticed little animals popping their heads up from the water.  I finally got a few good looks and realized they were beavers or otters.  I’m not certain which one, and some quick googling suggests both could be present in the area.

Penny and I enjoyed the rest of the sunset strolling around the park and slowly the little league families emptied out.  She was a little on edge after I made her sit on the wood bridge for a quick photo shoot, so she wasn’t super on board with the kid that came running over full speed to pet her.  Penny and I made some quick dinner and it was time for bed.  It was nice to see that just before I was ready to head to bed, a sheriff drove through.

Penny in a South Dakota Sunset

Day 9 – Iowa

Penny and I had a fairly early start the next morning when we woke up in Beaver Dam State Park Turtleand decided to take a walk/hike around the area to see what we could find, and get a look at the lake I knew was nearby.  It was clear the “trails” here didn’t see much use.  We took the “trail”closest to our campsite down to the lake, and I’d guess we were the first to do so all summer.  They reminded me of the trails we used to take in the woods behind my house growing up.  In other words, they weren’t really trails as much as they were sections of grass and plants that had been beaten down into a fairly defined direction over time.  What does it matter? Well, lots of plants touching you the whole way, which is a great opportunity for ticks (common in the area) to transfer to your person.  It also means its pretty much just wall after wall of spider webs that you’re walking through the entire time.  We did, however, get to see a turtle hanging out just next to the path on our way to the water.  When we go to the lake it was early enough that no one else was there.  The restaurant that sat on the dock was closed for the week, but I doubt it gets very busy, even at its peak.  Penny and I took a quick walk out to the end of the dock and grabbed a picture.  She had mixed feelings about the floating surface she was walking on, but eventually decided not to care and got in some good sniffs.

Penny and I decided to take the road back to camp rather than fight through another patch of spider webs.  Fortunately, the camper broke down without incident.  When we had gotten in the night before the camp host was off duty for the day, so we had to pay on our way out in the morning.  He asked what our plans were for the day and I mentioned we would be stopping in St Louis on our way to Des Moines.   He tried to convince me with all his heart to skip St. Louis, claiming anything not bolted down would be stolen, including my car, my camper, and worst of all, my dog.  He also mentioned the high number of murders in the city since the beginning of the year.  I suspect this guy hasn’t been in any sort of city in quite some time.  I chose not to mention to him the two shootings that recently happened near my house just hours apart.  Not to suggest that’s a regular occurrence, but I certainly wasn’t going to let some crime prevent me from seeing the city.

We pulled into St Louis and probably spent 25 minutes driving around looking for somewhere to park. First, scoping out spots to park for free.  Eventually we gave up and tried to park in a few paid lots, however none of them had spots suitable for my car with the camper.  The section of the city we were visiting had lots of old, original cobblestone streets.  As you can imagine, these tight and bumpy roads aren’t ideal to be pulling a trailer down.  Eventually I gave up and parked in an area marked for buses only.  I closed up and hoped I wouldn’t get a ticket.

Joe & Penny under Gateway ArchAfter climbing the steps facing the river you reach the top and see a huge lawn, one we’d later discover was pretty swampy from all recent rain.  With the sun overhead, there is a large shadowed path cut through the grass, moving as the sun shifts throughout the day.  It would be a great place for a picnic, if it wasn’t like walking across a recently used sponge.

Once we were done strolling around the park, it was time to get some lunch.  Joe had recommended a Hot Salami Sandwich from Gioia’s Deli, which won the prestigious James Beard award.  I strolled up at lunch time and anchored Penny to a bike rack, thinking it would be a quick trip in and out.  Once I stuck my head inside I realized how foolish that was.  The line wrapped to the back of the store and did a u-turn, before reaching all the way around to the same counter you were waiting to get to.  I dropped Penny off to relax in the cool air of the car before I waited my turn for the legendary sandwich.  I respect Joe’s taste in food and drink, so my expectations for the sandwich are pretty high at this point.  When I got to the counter I requested a Hot Salami Sandwich, served however is traditional.  That turned out to be on white bread, not toasted, with pepper jack cheese.  The salami stays hot from the time its made, to the time its served, and is still warm when you bite into it.  I’ll be honest, I thought it was just okay.  Not bad, but nothing to write home about.

I’d finished stuffing my face with what turned out to be a deceptively large sandwich, and it was time to make our way towards Des Moines.  So far throughout the drive there’s only been one state who sticks out to me as having particularly bad roads – and it was Iowa.  The road had these seems in it at just the right distance that it would bounce the trailer around an intense amount if you weren’t going just the right speed, which wasn’t always legal.  The bouncing of the trailer could be felt in the car and it was so obnoxious and persistent that I was eventually nauseated.  The good news is, just as it was getting to be really irritating, I made it to the Whole Foods to pick up my Amazon packages.  Or so I had thought.  I had accidentally entered in an address in Des Moines, rather than West Des Moines.  20 minutes later we made it to the right location and I was able to grab my packages from the Amazon locker.  Finally, I had my CB Radio!  I plugged it in, confirmed it lit up, and turned it back off.  I’d make my radio debut to test it later.

Penny and I made a quick stop at Walmart to pick up some groceries and then made our way to Cherry Glen Campground at Saylorville State Park, just north of Des Moines.  Once again, the sun was nearly down when we arrived, so seeing the spot was a bit difficult, but there were fewer obstacles like trees over hanging the pad, so I took a pass at backing into the spot.  Of course, there was an older guy sitting outside his camper at the next site over, watching me take multiple attempts at getting it into the space properly aligned.  Eventually I made it in the spot, and of course right as I shut the car off, that seemed to be when he was ready to head in his camper.  Either he didn’t want to talk to me (which was fine, the feeling was mutual), or he had been ready to head to bed but then stuck around for the free entertainment of me backing into the site.  If it was the latter, I can’t blame the guy.  In college, my friends and I used to sit at the Dunlawton Boat Ramp in Daytona Beach on windy days and watch people screw up backing their trailers into the water and then trying to trailer their boats.  Having grown up with a boat in the family, I used to be a pro at backing up with a trailer, but given the ~8 year gap since I’ve driver with a trailer, I’m a bit rusty.

Once I got the site set up, I was completely drenched.  The humidity was still crazy high.  I figured I’d relax by a campfire, so I tried building one real quick.  Typically I can set up a fire and get it burning pretty quickly.  This time I did not have that same experience.  For starters, the wood I picked up at the gas station on the way into the park was damp.  Not from sitting in water, but just from absorbing the humidity in the air.  Of course I hadn’t noticed that until I was starting the fire.  I also forgot to bring my homemade fire starters (toilet paper rolls stuffed with dryer lint), and kindling from the ground was useless given how wet it was.  It also seemed like the camp host recently put out a fire in the fire ring and emptied the coals after soaking them.  The inside of the fire pit was actually more wet than most of the surrounding ground.  After sitting in a smoke cloud created by the wet wood for a while, I finally had half decent fire burning.  It lasted for about 90 minutes while I wrote a blog post, and then burned itself out. I didn’t fight too hard to keep it alive, given that it was getting pretty late.  I wrapped up my blog post and climbed into bed with Pig Pen.  We were wiped after covering nearly 450 miles that day.

 

 

Day 8 – Missouri

It was overcast when I woke up on Thursday and the radar showed it was going to storm at Mammoth caves, but I figured… It’s a cave, who cares?

I was pleased to read online that they had kennels available for rent that you could put your dog in while you go on a tour, and the cost was pretty reasonable. What they did not tell you was that the kennels were really just outdoor cages with a roof over them, exposed to the expected severe thunderstorm. Unfortunately, this meant Penny would have to stay in the car while I explored the keys. The tree hugger in me hated doing this, but I left Penny in the car with the AC on and the windows cracked just in case it turned off for some reason. It wasn’t too hot out, so she may get a little uncomfortable if it were to turn off, but it wouldn’t be dangerous.  I went in the visitor center to buy a ticket for a tour but the next one I could get on was called “domes and drip stones“ in 45 minutes.

This gave me enough time to browse the gift store and find a shotglass to add to my collection.  While looking, I found a National Parks passport.  Essentially its a book with brief descriptions of all the National Parks and National Monuments.  The visitor center at each has a cancellation stamp that you can put in your book showing the date you were there.  I figured it was a kinda cool way for me to keep track, especially given that it was only $10 and came with a map of the US showing all the different National Parks, something I had been looking for.

While I pay, the store employee explains to me where various things in the book are, and how it works.  In the middle of this another customer comes up with a passport in her hands and says “Excuse me, is this the passport for the kids to get stamped?”  Thanks, lady.  I knew it was more likely to be used by kids, but it certainly isn’t exclusively for them.  It’s not like I’m connecting dots to make the shape of the National Parks.  I unwrapped my new passport and proudly walked over to get my stamp.  Whatever, lady.  I’m just a big kid.

After getting my passport, I realized I could probably use a little gas.  There was a station just 12 minutes away from the parking lot where I needed to be to start the tour in 35 minutes, just enough time to go get gas and come back.  That is, unless you’re following a completely oblivious driver.  The entire ride to the gas station I was following a truck pulling a 5th wheel trailer.  The truck certainly had the power, however the driver seemed scared to apply it.  The speed limit was 45 and in some sections 55, but he rarely topped 30.  As you can imagine, I was getting quite frustrated.  The road to the gas station bobbed and weaved through the forest, so there weren’t any safe opportunities to pass.  The ride ended up taking close to 20 minutes.

As I pulled in, a ragged car from Texas took the last available pump.  I patiently waited for a spot to open up, however many of the pumps were occupied by people not pumping gas, but getting food inside, talking on the phone, or literally just leaning up against the car.  It seemed like time had stopped for everyone but me.  I kept watching all the pumps, seeing who was close to being complete and where I could get in.  As I’m watching, two barefoot, mostly toothless people poured out of the car from Texas.  Immediately they both started asking others in the parking lot for gas money.  In shockingly quick time, they managed to convince a guy to not only put gas money in the car, but also to hand over some cash for cigarettes and gas.  I, of course, avoided eye contact the entire time.  Finally a spot had freed up, but the barefoot duo had no made their way inside, leaving their now full car sitting in a precious gas pump spot.

Annoyed, and now with no one behind me, I drove around the back of the building to get to a pump from the other side.  Just as I did that, the vehicle that had been blocking my way moved, and a new truck entered the lot and pulled into the spot I was circling around to take.  I threw my hands in the air, annoyed this would likely make me late for my tour, and said a few choice words.  It wasn’t the trucks fault, they couldn’t see me around the back of the building.  I was just annoyed about the timing.  Fortunately the truck driver saw me, and backed up to the spot behind him.  I thanked him and told him what had happened and he laughed, and we agreed that no one seems to pay attention to anyone other than themselves, leaving cars sit in front of a pump for 15 minutes while waiting vehicles stack up.  He joked that despite waiting in line being one of the first things we learn as a kid, people really struggle with it.  He was even nice enough to back out of his spot when he was done so that I didn’t have to try to back up my trailer in the tight, busy parking lot.  After all the frustration, he restored my faith in humanity a bit.

I was all fueled up and ready to hit the tour, but I was supposed to be there in 10 minutes and the tour leaves in 15.  I drove…a little faster than I probably should have, but I made it to the lot.  I sprinted through the rain (as much as I’m capable of sprinting) and made it to the meeting point, which was filled with older people and young families.  Those in their late 20s was clearly not the key demographic served by this tour.  I caught my breath and looked around.  Our tour time came and went, but still there was no ranger.  I was worried I’d missed my tour and this group was waiting for another one.  I asked someone and then was told the tour was delayed 15 minutes because of the rain.  Something I wish I had known prior to doing Mach 80 back for the tour.

The tour started with a lecture on why you shouldn’t touch anything in the cave, a request (demand) that you not use flash photography, and instruction to stay close to the person in front of you, because power occasionally goes out and its easy to get lost in the pitch black. The ranger suggested anyone that suspects they may be more slow moving to go to the front of the 120 person group so that they would be setting the speed.

Mammoth Cave, KYOnce the ground rules were covered, we took a quick bus ride to a cave entrance.  It wasn’t just an opening in the ground, but rather it had been made a formal entrance.  There was a medal door that seemed to just be placed in the middle of a rock face.  The ranger unlocked the door and guided us down some steps. 300 steps that is, which I was able to handle with ease.  It was at this point that I was reminded the sad state of American health.  The group was filled with people getting exhausted from walking DOWN just 40 or so steps.  We’d get to tight areas where beer bellies would prevent men from passing through without help.  Constantly people were reaching out and touching rocks and formations, oblivious to the instructions they had just received.  I’ll admit I was pleased when the inconsiderate slob in front of me got reprimanded for using his flash.

During the tour we saw a number of large “rooms” within the cave where all 120 of us were able to gather around for stories of the cave’s history.  Unsurprising for an American attraction, it had a long history of shady business and lawsuits before becoming a National Park.  We finished our tour and the clouds had broken.  I hurried back to the car to find Penny curled up in a ball, happily sleeping.

It was getting late in the day, so I needed to start making moves towards my next campground.  I wasn’t sure exactly where I’d end up, but knew I was aiming for St. Louis, so we hit the road in that direction.  We ended up landing at Beaver Dam State Park, in a nice, fairly populated camp ground.  I arrived after dark, so I had to pull into a back-in spot, which got some funny looks in the morning.  The site had showers nearby, and water and power at my campsite.  After a quick and sweaty site setup, it was time for Penny and I to hit the hay.

Day 7 – Alabama-ish

Monday morning I woke up a little later than I had intended – but hey, I’m on vacation, right? I picked up new nuts and bolts at Lowe’s and had the camper tightened back up in minutes. Fortunately it was much easier putting the new ones on than taking the old ones off.

I had been expecting a number of things from Amazon on Saturday and Sunday, however none of it came. Monday morning I saw that one was out for delivery and the other was supposed to be delivered by end of day Tuesday. I chatted with Amazon support and they assured me they contacted the courier and both would be delivered by 5 PM Monday. This was particularly frustrating because I opted for specific brands/products based on the fact they said they’d arrive over the weekend.

It actually worked out well, I needed to wait for my package to arrive, but I also needed to head south for to complete Alabama before I could head north to continue along my route. I could go have lunch and hopefully by the time I was passing Franklin headed north my packages would be there. The package arriving that day had tracking so I was confident it would arrive. The other package, however, had no tracking details so I was skeptical of the reps claim it would arrive by 5, but that was a problem for later.

Comfort Food

I made my way south to the Alabama State line, and ate directly on it. Sure it was an hour each way, but I’m the grand scheme of this drive, that was nothing, and I had to check the box.

When I think Alabama I think comfort food, and that’s just what I found. Mildred’s sits on the south side of Main Street in Ardmore. It met the qualification by about 10 feet. An all you can eat buffet with all the artery clogging goodness you could imagine. Ham, chicken fried steak, friend chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, Mac and cheese, cornbread, grits, meatloaf, fried okra, and the list goes on and on. And it wouldn’t be a southern meal if it hadn’t all been washed down with some delicious, sugar laden sweet tea. It’s all food your mom would make, but it’s all available at the same time. Everything was delicious (except the soggy okra) and I was pleased with my decision. Even if I weren’t working to complete this goal, I’d argue the food was worth a 2 hour round trip drive.

Normally I’m not much for buffets, but I followed the suggestions of the reviews and gave it a go. It was the best $7.34 I have ever spent on food, however I’m thankful it’s not anywhere near where I live. If it was, it would only be a few years before I’d end up as that guy roaming the grocery store unaware (or unconcerned) of the lower portion of my gut hanging out below the bottom of my shirt.

Once I was done gorging on carbs, I slowly climbed in the car, amazing on lookers that I could still make use of my legs after so much food. On my way, I realized I would be passing Joe’s work and I had the upgraded OS for his car on a flash drive. Seemed like the perfect way to kill some time while I wait for my packages to arrive.

About 10 minutes into the install we got an error that it was the wrong installer for his car, so that plan was nixed. We said our goodbyes and I continued up the highway to his house to pick up my packages.

I got back to the house around 4 o’clock and relaxed on the couch until 5, plotting what I was going to do next. Radar showed a large storm was going to hit the area. I had planned to go to Mammoth Cave NP, but they were going to get pummeled and I’d have to set up in the rain. I expanded my search to see if anywhere in the surrounding states was going to be spared, but everyone was getting hit by the storm as it swept through the area.

5:15 rolled around and I only had one of my two packages. Unsurprisingly, the one without tracking details hadn’t arrived. I decided to cal amazon this time rather than chat. The package had never been given to the carrier, yet they claimed it was too late to change the destination, shipping method, etc. They could, however, cancel the order and process a refund. I suggested they do that and or place a brand new order for pick up at an amazon locker farther down the road. This suggestion really confused the Amazon supervisor, as if for some reason I needed to have the EXACT units from the first order, and that an identical unit of the same model wouldn’t meet the needs. We finished the call and she still seemed confused as to what I was doing.

After dealing with Amazon for a while I checked the radar again and things had gotten worse. There was nowhere within driving distance that wasn’t going to put me dead in the path of a thunderstorm. On top of that I wanted to see Mammoth Cave, which was just an hour and a half up the road.

Reluctantly, I decided my best bet was another night in Franklin with an early start towards Mammoth in the AM. I’d only have a few hour window where it wouldn’t be storming, but it was my best bet. The plus side was that I had another day with good friends, Penny got more play time with Coco, and I got one more nights rest in a super comfy bed.  Helpful, considering I’m still dealing with this bronchitis.

Joe and I kept saying we were gonna be good and cook some food and not eat out, but we both knew the truth – our dinner was gonna be brought to us by a server. The night prior, Joe, Lorraine, their son, Chris, and I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown featuring Nashville. One of the places they highlighted was Martin’s BBQ, which happened to have a location just down the road.

Joe and I went and my indecisiveness resulted in me ordering far more food than I could possibly eat. Baby back ribs, pulled pork, brisket, baked beans, and more. I did some serious damage but still left with a box in hand. The food was good and the service was decent, but they made no effort to hide the fact that it was closing time and they wanted us out. The bartender was nice and didn’t rush us at all, but that didn’t stop one of the other employees from turning off the TVs behind the bar at exactly closing time, sending a very clear message. Joe and I quickly finished our beers and made our way home.

It was my 4th night in TN. I hadn’t planned to stay much of anywhere that long, but things happen and I just have to roll with the punches. Tuesday was a big day, a day to make up lost time yet still do some exploring.

Day 5 & 6 – Franklin, TN

As happens when visiting friends, I ended up catching up with Joe late into the night on Friday. Saturday really ended up being quite uneventful. Originally I had been hoping to make it to Nashville in time to hit up Pride, but I could still feel the bronchitis bringing me down so I figured it was best to just catch up on rest and enjoy the company of good friends and a burger from Culver’s.

Penny was thrilled to be at Joe & Lo’s. Somehow, it doesn’t seem she’s tired of being in the car, however she’s used to lots of play time with other dogs and hadn’t had any in 5 days. In no time her and Coco were doing the Shiba 500, running figure-8’s around the couch, into the sunroom, around the coffee table, and past our feet before running the track again. Coco was even kind enough to share her toys with Penny. And what I mean by that is every time Coco picked up a toy Penny decided that it was hers to play with, gently removing it from Cocos mouth, and eventually hoarding all of Coco’s prized possessions. Coco didn’t seem to care, she was just thrilled to have someone around to play with.

Sunday came and it was time to work on the camper, despite the ungodly heat and humidity. With Joe’s help (read: Joe figured it out) we were able to determine there was a wire wrapped around a gear in the crank assembly that needed to be tightened using a bolt on the front. Of course we figured this out after Joe busted his butt getting some unrelated bolts undone. After 20+ years of bouncing around the bolts had become a little warped, preventing them from coming off easily. While they didn’t directly help resolve the issues, it did loosen things enough to let us see into the crank box. With a few turns of the offending bolt, the wire was tightened and the camper was opening and closing easier than it ever had before. Hopefully it stays that way.

Having this resolved and a working camper attached to my car felt like a weight off my shoulders. It meant I wouldn’t be spending the next 4 weeks in a tent, and I wouldn’t have to make an unexpected trip back to Denver to drop off the 900 lb hitch ornament.

Now that the real work was done for the day, it was time to chow down. Joe, myself, and Joe’s son, Chris, went to Aldi for some cookout supplies earlier in the day. Okay, it might have been a trip for Waffle House take out that turned into a multi-purpose outing. That’s neither here nor there.  I stuffed my face with a delicious cheese plate (😍) and that was just the beginning. Joe & Lo prepared a feast. Just like every other time I’m with them, I’m stuffed beyond belief. It’s crazy how fast time flies when you’re with friends.

Before I knew it it was Sunday night and I needed to get ready for our departure. I still needed to back track to Alabama for a meal or a hike, and I was waiting for 2 packages from Amazon that we’re supposed to arrive over the weekend. Last but certainly not least, I needed to get replacements for the 4 warped bolts we had removed from the crank assembly. I hit the hay with the plan to get an early start on Monday, especially now that I didn’t have to take the camper in for service.

Day 4 – Ut oh

I woke up Friday optimistic for what the day had in store. I was to wake up, make breakfast, get some drone shots, pack up camp, shower, and hit the road. After departing I’d make my way to Mississippi for a hike before settling down in Alabama for the night. Or so I thought.

The first part of the morning went as planned, although it started a little earlier than expected due to some commotion in the campground. Around 5:30 (not long before my usual 6 AM start time) lots of car doors started slamming. After letting Penny go to the bathroom I went to do the same and guess who’s making all the noise? If you guessed it was the trash pandas from Arkansas, I don’t blame you. It was the pickup truck lady! Once again I thought it odd but chalked it up to a coincidence. As I was making breakfast they pulled forward and joined the guys that I presume had a Breaking Bad type situation going on. It all made sense now. I have no idea how you make meth or crack, but I suspect it involves a lot of water. When I had walked the campground earlier I noticed plenty of sites with pay stubs dating back nearly 3 weeks. I suspect the  crew knew how frequently the rangers came through. Based on where the pickup truck lady had been parked on the hill, she was probably keeping a lookout for any inbound Rangers. It likely explains the make shift structure I saw camouflaged in the campground as well.  Definitely time to hurry things along.

Penny and I finished our breakfast, went for a walk and got some cool drone shots of the sunrise.

It was time to break down camp and start a pretty full day. And this is where we really hit a snag. The camper wouldn’t collapse. I’d crank and I’d crank but the handle would just spin, the camper wasn’t actually lowering. Of course the worst possible situation immediately comes to mind – I’m stuck here in this miserable heat trying to fix this next to Walter White.

With each turn of the crank the cables I could see when laying on the ground remained motionless. It wasn’t budging a bit, I have no idea how these work, and no internet to google it. Not to mention, a stupid lack of tools. I had meant to bring a ratchet set, but In my haste to get out the door, forgot it.

I wasn’t panicking, but I certainly wasn’t at my calmest. I decided to stop and take a deep breath, disconnect the camper from my car, and head to cell service. I remember it being available not far outside the campground. In no more than 10 minutes I had just enough service to google some basics. I had no idea what was going on inside this gear box that was closed with pop rivets.

With barely any more knowledge than I had started with, I decided it was time to return to camp and try again. A few cranks on the handle in both directions and suddenly I had progress. If I pushed the handle towards the camper it would slowly collapse. It was clearly only closing about 1/3 as much as it should for each crank, but it was progress! I wasn’t going to get my kidneys removed!

After what felt like an hour I was finally able to get the camper broken down and ready for the road. I took a quick shower and was on the road in no time.  Now that I had broken down the camper I had to figure out what my next move was. If I get to Alabama and then can’t break it down again I’m in a bad position. I’d likely be in a State Park without cell service or tools and would then have a stuck pop up that’s unable to be towed.

At this point I realized I had to pull an audible.  I couldn’t risk getting stuck with the popup in an up position.  I need to hurry through Mississippi and Alabama and get to Tennessee, where I’d have a place to stay while I figured things out, along with help from my good friend, Joe. And I’m not talking about myself in the third person like some wierdo.  I met a great couple at Bonnaroo about 4 or 5 years ago.  They were my camping neighbor and we hit it off.  Over the years I’ve gone to Nashville to visit Joe & Lorraine a number of times, and they’ve joined me in Denver for some Adventures and I now consider them very close friends.  I knew Joe would be able to help me in a pinch.

In the meantime, I needed to start calling some service centers to see who could work on it.  I tried all around Nashville, near Memphis, and near any other cities I knew I’d be near.  As it turns out, most RV places don’t service pop up campers.  In addition to that, the few that do sometimes won’t work on the lift mechanism.  Finally I got a hold of someone who said they could help.  “Sure, I can definitely fix that” the mechanic said.  Instantly it was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders, that is, until he finished his sentence.  “….in September.”  Obviously that wasn’t going to work.  In total I called around 25 places.  Of them, only 1 was able to help me, but they were closed for the weekend and there was no way I’d make it before the end of the workday Friday.  Looked like I’d be staying in Tennessee longer than expected while things got repaired.

I couldn’t let this issue completely derail my road trip.  At this point I’d come to the conclusion that I would put it up in Joe’s driveway. If I couldn’t get it collapsed, I’d have to cut the cables to lower it.  I wanted to avoid this at all costs because recabling the camper would cost nearly as much as I paid for it to begin with.  Once it was broken down, I could take a detour back to Denver on my way to the PNW to drop off the trailer and I would sleep in my tent the remainder of the trip.  Either way, I couldn’t just skip through Mississippi and Alabama or I wouldn’t complete my 50 by 30 goal.  I needed to, at minimum, eat at a local, non-chain restaurant.

I did some quick Googling and found a local place, Blue Canoe, ranked among the top in Tupelo, MS.  Penny was pleased to learn they had a dog friendly back patio.  I had the pulled pork and collard greens over cheese grits with sweet vinegar BBQ sauce, and it was just as amazing as it sounds.

Penny at Blue Canoe
Penny at Blue Canoe

If Tupelo sounds familiar its because its the birthplace of Elvis Presley.  Sadly I was losing sunlight and still trying to squeeze in a hike in Alabama, so I didn’t have time to check out any of the historical stuff related to him.  It also may sound familiar due to the recent opening of Tupelo Honey at Union Station in Denver.  Later that day I was disappointed to find out that Tupelo Honey is actually a chain.  My interest grabbing a bite at the Union Station location quickly diminished.

I’m not entirely sure why they call it comfort food, given that every time I eat it I end up so full I’m in serious discomfort.  After getting some affection from strangers, it was once again time for Penny and I to hit the road.  We’d checked the “Mississippi” box.  The sun was setting quickly so it was time for me to make a bee-line to Franklin, TN, where Joe & Lo live.

I decided I had to pull another audible, and skip Alabama for the day.  Joe & Lo only live an hour or so from the state line, so I could always back track.  My plan had always been to spend the weekend in Tennessee, so I wasn’t losing much time.  Penny and I hopped in the car and set our sights on Franklin.  It was time to get some rest and look at things again after a good night’s rest.

 

 

Day 3 – Shores Lake, Arkansas

Joe and Penny at Arkansas Welcome Center

Thursday, Day 3 of travel, turned out to be the beginning of an interesting series of events. I started the day by play with a drone I was fortunate enough to borrow from a friend for my trip (Thanks Damble!). Got a few quick, cool shots of the area, and then moved on to making breakfast and breaking down camp. I made pretty good time getting out of Red Rocks Canyon State Park, and started heading east, towards Arkansas. Once I got to Arkansas I let Penny stretch her legs while I got some info at the Welcome Center again. She insisted upon getting her picture taken on the Arkansas state sign.

The woman there recommended Redding Campground, or Shores Lake Recreation area. Given that I’m from Reading, PA, I figured I had to at least check that place out. The employee saying it was her favorite only reinforced my decision. After a quick walk around the rest stop, Penny and I made our way to Redding Campground, but not without stopping at a Walmart in Alma, AR for some supplies.

I picked up about 2 days worth of groceries, and some basics that I was missing like bug spray and a citronella candle.  I don’t want to brag, but my speed and efficiency in the store was on point.  Since its summer in Arkansas, I have to leave the car running with Penny locked in it (thank god for the keypad on Fords), so time is of the essence.  In no time I was back on the road, heading for Redding Campground.  We got there and after initial inspection, the campsites were all open and there was a gorgeous swimming hole.

After looking around a bit, I decide that as cool as it was, I wasn’t about to go swimming and the place overall had a very murder-y vibe.   With that, I made the decision to check out the other recommended place, Shores Lake, which was just 30 minutes away.  What the GPS didn’t tell me, was that the road I’d be taking wasn’t the highway that connects the two, but a “shortcut”, 15 miles down a gravel road.  As I’m cruising down the steep, windy, gravel road the camper is bouncing around behind me.  Of course I’m now thinking through “the safety pin on the hitch is latched, right? And I definitely have the safety chains on there too, right?  Yea, definitely.  But am I REALLY certain?”  I rolled the dice and trusted past-Joe that he hooked up the trailer correctly.  Fortunately, I had.

I hadn’t seen another car the entire time I was on this back road, that is, until I was about 10 minutes away from the second campsite.  I came up over a big hill and just over the top I see a pickup truck backed into a spot in the trees, looking up the road.  Immediately I recognized the distinctly Arkansas truck, and its driver who was leaning against the side of it with a cigarette bobbing off her lip and a giant water tank in the truck bed.  She had been in the Walmart parking lot when I stopped earlier, with a cigarette hanging off her lip just the same.  Odd because that Walmart was 45 minutes from there, even if you don’t go via the gravel road with a pit stop at the first site.  I brushed it off without much thought and continued down to the campsite.

When arriving at a new campsite I allows approach it like a bar, or a social gathering.  I need to make my way through the full location noting what spots have prime real estate close (but not too close) to bathrooms, bear-resistant dumpsters, and any other amenities like the lake or a trail head.  Also like a social gathering, you keep an eye out for who looks like fun to talk to and who looks creepy.

Now, state parks are often seriously underfunded, meaning payment of fees are often not checked on a daily bases, or sometimes even weekly.  It mostly relies on an honor-system of sorts (or fear that today’s the day the Rangers will come by).  You can also legally camp at a state park for 14 days, with running water nearby, and electric hookups for your RV/camper.  As a result, this sometimes attracts folks who are living out of their vehicles full time.  With that in mind, its always good to eye up your neighbor before you settle in.

My loop of the campground came up with 3 other sites being used – 1 nice looking 5th wheel from Alberta, Canada, an orange panel van occupying a site with a dad and what I hope was his son, and last but not least, a trailer that might as well have had moss growing on it.  The last group had clearly been there for a while.  Their entire wardrobe appeared to be on laundry lines between trees, almost blocking the view of the microwave on the ground plugged into the shoreline power.  They had practically a half-cord of chopped firewood next to their camper as well.  They had clearly settled in.  They may be great people, but I’m not super interested in camping next to them.

After a full lap of the campground I decided to settle close to the bathrooms, and not far from the Canadian RV. Before losing sunlight Penny and I did some quick exploring around the lake. Sadly despite it being near sundown, it was still blisteringly hot and humid. The

heat somehow made the swampy shorelines of the lake seem right at place, almost as if it was so hot out the ground was melting into the water.

After our walk I made a quick dinner and settled into a new book, Squirrel Meets Chipmunk by David Sedaris.

Once again it wasn’t long before the cough medicine kicked in and I was out for the night, completely unaware what the next day had in store.

Day 2 – Hinton, OK

Day 2 started off a little rough given the lack of sleep due to the storm.  Once Penny & I were ready to make some moves, I made some quick eggs, broke down camp, and hit the road.  First stop, the Cadillac Ranch.  Not familiar? That’s reasonable.  It’s literally a bunch of Cadillacs that have been stuck nose down in the ground, just off I40 in Amarillo.  Given all the rain the night before and the overcast skies still lingering, the whole situation felt very post-apocalyptic, but that didn’t deter Pig Pen from checking things out.  Apparently bringing spray paint and adding something to the cars is a thing people do, but I had only found out about it just prior to arriving, so that wasn’t in the cards for me.  There were plenty of half-full ones on the ground (which drove me insane), but I decided to move on without leaving my mark.

After leaving Cadillac Ranch, we drove just a bit more until we hit our first State Park of the trip, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, just south east of Amarillo.  The scenery was pretty, but an attempted hike in the valley was thwarted by the previous day’s rain.  It was essentially just a bowl of clay mud.  We made it about a quarter mile into the hike before we had to turn back, unfortunately.  It was a bummer we weren’t able to hike, but overall it was still a cool stop.

Once we had seen enough of Texas, we made our way east to Hinton, Oklahoma, home of Red Rocks Canyon State Park.  The location came as a suggestion from a sweet woman at welcome center, and while it was a nice place to camp, I’ve come to realize the woman at the Welcome Center may have a different standard for “really cool.”  I suppose I’m somewhat jaded when it comes to land formations made of red rocks, given my familiarity with Red Rocks Amphitheater and Garden of the Gods.  The state park had 3 campgrounds, 1 of which was empty, 1 had a young couple car camping, and then there was the third campground which Penny & I had to ourselves, despite the 30+ available sites within that campground.  Certainly no complaints from me on that.

I was able to get camp setup pretty quickly, leaving enough time to take a nice hike with Penny after making dinner.  Alltrails didn’t have a ton of details on the area, and the trails it was saying existed didn’t align with what was present in the real world.  We made it about 1.5 miles in before having to take a turn back towards the camp ground road because the trail was becoming indistinguishable.

I was nice and relaxed, settled into bed and reading a book for the first time in forever when I heard someone trying to get into my bins outside.  I called out, but got no response.  I hadn’t heard anyone walk up, which seemed odd given that they were now clearly trying to steal my food.  I went to the door with my big maglight (read: bludgeoning club) and stuck my head out.  Now, I had looked, and there were no bears in the area, so I didn’t think much of leaving my latched food containers in front of the campsite.  What I hadn’t thought about was the trash panda (raccoon) that would try to snag some snacks.  Fortunately some loud yelling and banging around convinced him to leave. 

Just as the adrenaline started to subside from what I had briefly been certain was a hungry drifter invading my space, Penny alerted again.  Now when I say alert, I don’t mean she barked to scare off the threat or anything useful.  I just mean she stood up at attention and stared intently out the window, clearly fixated on something.  Barking, and letting the intruder know there is an animal here…that would have just been too helpful.  Trash Panda came back for round 2 of investigating after I had moved all the bins into the car.  More yelling, more banging, and he scurried off into the night.  That was the last visit I was aware of from the little rascal, however I suspect more came to investigate once the cough medicine kicked in and I was out cold.