Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Vacation From Our Vacation

The past two weeks feel a bit like the movie What About Bob, where a psychologist prescribes his clinically anxious patient a vacation from his fears. Hilarity ensues! We prescribed ourselves a vacation from our vacation and hit the North Carolina coast for some sun and swimming.

As much as this trip probably seems to be blissfully free of responsibility, it turns out that traveling like this is a lot of work. There is constant planning and navigating of unfamiliar areas. And the driving. So much driving! Not only the driving, but towing the camper is an additional stress, especially through a city where people are constantly trying to get around you (even if you are doing the speed limit) and pulling out in front of you because, perish the thought, they should be stuck behind us! On top of that we experience car and camper breakdowns that need immediate attention and require us to very quickly become experts on things like water pumps, air conditioners, water tank valves, and hitches. I'm sure anybody who has been on a vacation and then needed another vacation before returning to work can relate. We were just a little worn down and needed to re-focus.

Excited to visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina, we arrived at the Oregon Inlet Campground at Cape Hatteras National Seashore on Thursday, August 14. The Atlantic Ocean was just behind our campsite and was bath water warm, so we spent the afternoon swimming and beaching. It was perfect! We then drove as far south on the cape as we could, stopping at the very tip for dinner and a beer. Because we spend most days outdoors on this trip, we thought we would be immune to sunburn, but it turns out we are not. It wasn't that bad, but it prevented us from seeing too much sun for the following couple days.

Friday we went to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk, the site of the first powered flights. We caught the end of a Ranger talk and walked the length of the first four powered flights by Wilbur and Orville. We spent the next couple days hanging out on the Outer Banks exploring and eventually venturing back to the beach with an umbrella for shade.

Refreshed and ready to keep on trucking, we headed west through North Carolina, overnighting at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area before continuing on to Lake Powhatan Recreation Area in the Pisgah National Forest near Asheville. We toured around Asheville, taking in the spontaneous hula hoop party in the park, eating delicious food, and drinking delicious beer.

We spent last Wednesday exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway. While it is not officially a National Park, it is a road surrounded by a swath of land on either side and maintained by the park service, connecting Great Smokey Mountains National Park in the south to the Shenandoah National Park in the north. It was a Civilian Conservation Corps project to encourage people to explore the outdoors and remains the longest linear park in the country.

If we hadn't had a map or GPS, the park would have given us the impression that we were out in the middle of nowhere, rarely intersecting any other roads and void of human civilization. We drove north, stopping at the Visitor Center and the Folk Art Center. We kept on heading north, stopping at some overlooks to glimpse the beautiful vistas of the mountains and valleys. We stopped at the Craggy Gardens picnic area for lunch and a short hike through rhododendron groves and fields filled with bees. We then climbed the Craggy Gardens Pinnacle Trail which was, surprisingly, not very craggy at all, but did have gorgeous 360 degree views of the area.

From Craggy Gardens we went north to Mount Mitchell State Park. Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi and the park road takes you practically to the summit. We walked the short path to the summit (where a man is buried very prominently), took in some more pretty views, and then headed south back to camp.

We loved the Asheville area, but it was time to move on. We continued our journey west and south with our next destination being the Atlanta area. We stayed at Stone Mountain Park, which felt like a mix between an amusement park and a campground. The reason we were in the Atlanta area was to visit a good friend of Ryan's, so we spent very little time at the park. We filled our days with socializing and visiting. We had the most wonderful time and are so, SO grateful to them for opening their home and their family to us. We look forward to seeing them again soon!

Saturday began our journey north back to Batavia for a super short layover to take care of a couple things. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were all travel days. We overnighted at Od Stone Fort State Park in Manchester, Tennessee, and at an Army Crops of Engineering Recreation area near Benton, Illinois. We also had the joy of hitting up Ryan's favorite pizza place in Champaign and lunching with a dear friend on the way through.

We will only be here for a very short while and will be hitting the road again soon, this time heading west to Colorado. We will go back for the remainder of the southeastern states when it is cooler. Much cooler. See you on the flip side!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The US History Tour

From where I previously left off, after having to scrap our original plan for New York City and finding ourselves, instead, at Harriman State Park, we were happy for the delay. Having arrived on a Sunday afternoon, the party campers were packing up to leave and we practically had the place to ourselves. The wildlife is quite habituated to people and we had deer grazing right through our campsite. It was the day off we needed but hadn't planned.

Harriman State Park is tucked behind the western bank of the Hudson River, just north of NYC, amongst the green mountains. The area is well known for its palisades, which are steep rock cliffs that line the western side of the river and are named for their resemblance to wooden fences. We had no idea there was such great beauty so close to NYC.

Last Monday we took the commuter train into NYC, landing at the famous Grand Central Terminal. We snagged a quick lunch of sandwiches from the Blue Olive deli and walked to Rockefeller Center. I can't believe people actually ice skate on that tiny rink! Along the way we also stopped at the United Nations and the NY Public Library.

Our next stop was Central Park. Starting at the southeastern corner near The Pond, and heading north through the park, we had ice cream in the Parisian section, watched a dance troupe perpetually warm up the crowd and never actually dance near the Bethesda Fountain, and exited near Strawberry Fields and the Imagine mosaic that both serve as a tribute to John Lennon.

From the park we made our way past fancy residential buildings with nothing but offices for doctors and dentists at street level (the ultra rich must have the cleanest teeth!), and found Broadway. We walked south through the theater district and Times Square, saw the sign for David Letterman's Late Show, and kept on walking. The crowds thinned out as we continued south through the residential neighborhoods of West Village, Greenwich Village, NoHo, SoHo, and Tribeca.

Eventually we made it to the World Trade Center Memorial and we agree that it really is wonderfully done. It was an extremely busy, yet somehow peaceful place. We watched the memorial waterfalls and talked about what had happened there and how it had changed the course of history for so many countries. I contemplated the names we saw along the edges of the fountains and sent love to them and their families.

It was a warm, humid day and we had been walking for the majority of it. We found a place to get bahn mi and then caught the subway back north to Grand Central and to our train home. As we locomoted north on the train, we were able to watch the sun set over the Hudson and the palisades. It was the perfect ending to the day.

Tuesday was a leisurely travel day that took us to French Creek State Park in Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. As we traveled, we began to notice that there are fewer evergreens and more deciduous trees, and that the hills were getting smaller. Our campground brought us through rural Pennsylvania and the houses are so neat! I don't have a photo, but they are stone houses and barns that are absolutely picturesque.

Wednesday was our 100 day travel anniversary and we spent it celebrating the birth of our nation in Philadelphia! Many of the places of historical significance are clustered in central Philadelphia and have been preserved and maintained by the National Park Service, making access easy and inexpensive.

The first order of business was obtaining our free tickets for the tour of Independence Hall. We had some time before we had to be there so we stopped at the US Mint for a self-guided tour of the factory. I've never given much thought to coins, but it was an interesting tour and we learned a lot. Sorry, no pictures allowed!

Benjamin Franklin's grave is immediately across the street from the Mint, but there was a fee to get in, so my picture is through the fence. Across the street from there is the Free Quaker Meeting House. It is small and modest, but very comfortable. We also popped into the Old City Hall, which was also small and modest. The two buildings really give you a sense of a simpler time.

From there we walked the two or three blocks back to Independence Hall to queue up for our tour. Independence Hall is famous for being the place where both the Declaration on Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted, and it serves as the primary attraction for the Historic Park.

The building itself is only two rooms, but the park Ranger covered a lot of history and trivia. The first stop was the Supreme Court room, which is nothing like our current Supreme Court, and really looked just like the Old City Hall we had seen earlier. The crown jewel of the tour is the Assembly Room right across the hall where our founding fathers met to lay the groundwork for the country we have today. It was so neat to just be there and think about this thing you had learned about in school and you're actually there!

After our tour we grabbed some lunch and then went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (of the American Revolution) and talked about how different things would be today, for better or for worse, if it were not for what had happened in that very place.

Our next stop was Benjamin Franklin's house, which is actually underground, but you can look down into excavated portions. You'll see a photo of the hole for his privy, because I'm actually a ten year old boy. We also went to the Franklinq museum, which I highly recommend if you have any interest in the man. It covers the different aspects of his life: home, science, community, and politics. He was such an interesting man and ahead of his time!

The Federal Reserve Bank was our next destination and it was pretty anticlimactic. You get a free bag of shredded money, but the exhibit is just a tiny thing in their lobby that is half interactive games about things like identity theft and pretending to be a loan officer. Again, no pictures allowed!

Our final stop for the day was the Dream Garden Glass Mosaic in the Curtis Building. It was something we saw on Trip Advisor, but really knew nothing about. It's a giant mosaic that covers an entire wall and depicts a beautiful scene of mountains, flowers, and rivers. It was easy to get lost in it. If you're wondering about the Liberty Bell, there was a huge line and we heard it's anticlimactic to see in person.

Thursday was a travel day that brought us to Greenbelt Park in Maryland, just outside of DC. We are definitely near the south now. We passed through flat farmland and the forested areas are just dripping with green.

Friday was a maintenance day that included errands, doing laundry, and a stop at the eye doctor so Ryan could get contacts and I got new glasses. Ryan found the most delicious dinner spot in DC called Woodlands Vegan Bistro. They serve up giant plates of vegan southern and comfort food with live music to wash it down. I have never been so full. We drove around DC a little to get a preview and then headed home.

After a quick follow-up appointment with the eye doctor Saturday morning, we headed into DC for some touristing. We parked right off the northeastern edge of the Mall and headed in.

First on the agenda was the Capitol building. We walked around outside a bit before heading in for our tour. The first part of the tour was a movie about how awesome Congress is and how their job is to get things done. Riiiiiiiiight. Due to several factors, the tour was only of two rooms, neither of which was where Congress actually meets. We did see many, many statues, though, and learned some great trivial from our tour guide.

From the Capitol, we took the underground passage to the Library of Congress, an incredible building that looks more like an art museum than a library. They have several small exhibits tucked into halls and corners, so we checked out some maps, an exhibit on ancient Americas, and Thomas Jefferson's Library, an exhibit containing a circular wall of Jefferson's personal books tucked behind a layer of glass so you can peruse them as if you were a visitor in his home. Sorry, no photography allowed! We were also able to look out over the reading room from a balcony encased in a wall and ceiling of glass meant to prevent visitors from disturbing people who are actually using the reading room. It felt a bit zoo-like, but the room is beautiful and very similar to the library at Parliament in Ottawa.

Upon leaving the Library, we crossed the street to the steps of the Supreme Court, which, like everything in DC, was having some restoration work done. By that time everything was closing, so we decided we'd walk west on the Mall. Just as we hit the Mall, we noticed production crew trucks lining the street, several police cars, and a fake motorcade, and deduced that it was filming for the Netflix Original Series, House of Cards! We had heard on the radio the previous day that they would be filming in the area, but none of the stars would be on set. We watched for a little while, until the fake motorcade sped away.

We walked west toward the Washington Monument, and past all things Smithsonian. We stopped at a sculpture garden where we saw an installation by Yoko Ono called the Wish Tree. It's a regular tree to which people can tie on a small hand written tag with a wish on it. They hang on the tree until they're collected and sent to Yoko, who, in turn, sends them somewhere to be with all the wishes. We spent some time reading the wishes. Many are for peace in the Middle East or for health and happiness, but they also included things like a new car and to be with Joe forever. There is a clump of them that were clearly written by children all about animals. Some wishes are for more animals, but there are a couple for animal safety, which touched my heart.

We continued west and then cut up to Pennsylvania Avenue to see Chez Obama. We wrestled our way through the crowd, aware that the Secret Service was probably listening to every word we said and assessing our threat level. You can really only see a sliver of the Whitehouse, probably for safety reasons, but we also saw the Kitchen Garden and a squirrel that taunted us from the Presidential side of the fence.

On our walk back to the car we saw an alphabet soup of government agencies: IRS, FBI, DOJ, etc. We reflected on several things. One was how alone, any of the buildings would be standout spectacular in any other city, but in DC their grandeur and beauty just fit in with the landscape. Second is how different DC is compared to Ottawa, Canada's capital. It was a much more laid back and welcoming atmosphere in Ottawa. Our third reflection was on the incredibly humble beginnings our country had in Philadelphia and how it evolved into this massive machine with grand buildings filled with people who work in departments I've never even heard of.

Sunday was the most wonderful day! My cousin Luke and his wife Rachel, along with their sweetheart of a dog, Roxanne, just recently moved full time onto their catamaran in the Chesapeake Bay, near Deale, Maryland, and invited us for a sail. The weather was perfect for a day on the water and Luke and Rachel were the most wonderful hosts. We had a great time talking about the similarities between marine and RV living, and just alternative living in general. We are so excited for their adventure and they have inspired us to consider a boat home when we're done with this adventure. You can read about life aboard their boat at and see some of Rachel's beautiful photography. We can't thank them enough for their kind gesture. Tom, if you're reading this, Luke's plant, which is a cutting of a cutting of a cutting of your plant, has lived and died and lived again and is now happily aboard their boat!

We had originally planned on leaving the DC area on Monday, but decided to stick around one more day. We ran some errands and did some much needed general hanging out and planning. We also heard about the loss of Robin Williams to depression. We are both so saddened. Dead Poets Society has been my favorite movie for years, in big part to the role he played. He was an extraordinary man that should certainly be celebrated. The world is a better place because of him.

We will generally be heading south today with the details to be figures out later. See you on the flip side!

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