Joel & Deanna's Excellent Adventure
OUR TRAVEL BLOG
This is a story of two people, a motor home and a dream.
Starting from our home near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Deanna and I have embarked on a month-long, multi-state trek of the Great American Midwest in our home on wheels, with planned stops in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri along the way. This blog will be our running account of where we’re going, why and how, and what we’ll be seeing and doing along the way.
But before I get too far into it, I should take a few paragraphs to explain how we got to this point.
We bought our first motor home, a Winnebago Class C, in March, 2008, right around the time I celebrated my 52nd birthday (I sort of considered it my birthday present. Nice, huh?). We immediately caught the RV bug the first time we camped out with our new treasure.
We had many a fine and memorable adventure in that motor home, but quickly outgrew it and bought a larger Class A model, a Thor Windsport, in 2010. Somewhere along the way while we were enjoying our travels in that RV, we got the notion that we should become “full-timers” when the opportunity arose in our lives. In other words, we wanted to live in the motor home more or less year-round while traveling the country to see what we could see of the good ol’ USA. We yearned to live the nomadic life, and couldn’t wait till that day when our travel dreams would come true.
With that in mind, in August, 2015, we traded motor homes again and moved up to an even larger Class A coach, an Entegra 44-foot “diesel pusher” (the diesel engine is situated in the rear of the chassis), with all the creature comforts and amenities we could desire. We sold our home in North Myrtle Beach and moved to a “tiny house” that would serve as our home base on those occasions when we would not be on the road.
Then in March of this year, I went into semi-retirement and our long-sought opportunity to hit the road came within reach. And that’s about the time the reality of it hit us straight in our radiator grill. Were we really ready to pack everything up, fill the tank and hit the highway forever? How ‘bout we just commit to one month of travel first, as an experiment to see how it goes and determine whether we’re really fully prepared for the full-timer life before making such a big decision.
And that’s what brings us to today.
And we’re off!
We set out around 9:00 on this Friday morning, with the aim of reaching Newport, Tennessee on day one. Our ultimate goal is to spend Independence Day weekend in central Kentucky, but that’s a bit of a bridge too far for a single day’s drive from our Myrtle Beach-area home base. So we’ll overnight in Newport and head out toward Kentucky first thing in the morning.
And a good thing it was that we got off to an early start, since heavy holiday weekend traffic reduced us to moving-parking-lot status around the Asheville, North Carolina area. Along with idiot drivers and crappy weather, bumper-to-bumper traffic is one of the great annoyances of life as an RVer. While nobody likes traffic jams, it just seems to be even more of a pain in the drivetrain when you’re on a trip that’s supposed to be all about relieving tensions and enjoying yourself.
The campground in Newport is nothing to write Yelp about, but we’re only here for one night, so it’s not a big deal. We’re looking forward to Day Two, when the real fun begins. Or something.
Once again, we get off to an early start down the road and once again, that’s a good thing, since we are confronted with the Mother of All Traffic Jams just an hour or so into our trip today.
Traffic was backed up at least 4 to 5 miles in the right-hand lane of I-70 in central Tennessee, apparently due to (A) a traffic accident, (B) road construction or (C) a traffic accident combined with road construction. I’m going to bet on (C). It took us forever to reach the bottleneck and once we got there, it was unclear what had happened to cause the back-up. It looked to me like a car might have broken through a barrier on the side of the road and went down a steep ditch in a construction zone.
Regardless, it was smooth sailing once we got past the traffic tie-up. We made it to our destination in plenty of time to set up camp, rest a bit and then get to the train station for our dinner train ride (more on that to come).
Funny thing about central Kentucky. On one long, lonely stretch of rural two-lane highway, we saw people selling items out of their pickups along the side of the road. I’m not talking about the mini farmer’s markets of potatoes or apples or watermelons that you might see along the roadside anywhere in the country. These were people selling household items, furniture and clothing from their trucks, with the items often spread out on long tables and hanging from fencelines.
I mean, who says, Hey, let’s go out for a Sunday drive to get some ice cream and maybe stop to pick up a used toaster, a black velvet Elvis portrait and some blue jeans out of somebody’s car trunk along the way?
Well, apparently somebody must be saying that or these little spontaneous roadside flea markets wouldn’t be there. I’ll bet there was one of them set up every 3 or 4 miles on that road. Are they legal? Do local authorities just tolerate them? Who knows? But small-time capitalism is alive and well in this part of Kentucky.
Our goal for Independence Day weekend was to spend it in a place that embodied small town America, with lots of small-townish things to do. Toward that end, we found Bardstown, Kentucky, about a half-hour drive south of Louisville.
It’s one of the oldest communities in the Bluegrass State and a town that has truly embraced the legacy of Stephen (Oh, Susanna!) Foster, the beloved composer of mid-19th century American minstrel tunes.
There’s a Stephen Foster Avenue here, a Stephen Foster Motel, Stephen Foster Restaurant and probably somewhere if we could find it a Stephen Foster Dog Grooming Service and Used Car Lot.
So by now you’re saying, Well, the people of Bardstown are justly proud of their native son, the local guy who used his God-given song writing talent to make it big in the city… blah, blah, blah…
Um, no. Stephen Foster was born and raised near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and spent his adult life in Cincinnati and New York. He only visited Bardstown a couple of times to stay with relatives and was apparently so enamored of the place that he wrote My Old Kentucky Home, which immediately became a huge hit in the Bluegrass State and eventually the official state song. The tune is so popular, a state park in Bardstown is named after it and the great composer is still being immortalized here more than 150 years after he started decomposing (he died in 1864).
So maybe Kentuckians are more tolerant of Northerners than you might expect. Write one song they really like and you’re in.
The dinner train ride was a good time. We sat at the same table with a very nice married couple from Louisville celebrating their 17th wedding anniversary. Pleasant conversation, a scenic ride through the rolling hills of Kentucky and plenty of good food. Fun!
It’s Sunday and mostly a day of lounging in the motor home and watching TV.
The big event for the day was seeing The Stephen Foster Story, a local musical theater production based loosely (as we found out, extremely loosely) on the life of the composer. The show was supposed to be in an outdoor amphitheater, but rain forced the production inside to the local high school auditorium.
We thought the show’s singing, costuming and choreography were quite good for a local theater production. And as for the acting… well, did I mention the music was good?
We can live under clear blue cloudless skies, near-drought level conditions for weeks on end. Just as soon as we go on vacation… it rains. Not a good sign for a holiday.
Our Independence Day began with a trip to Mammoth Cave, about an hour’s drive from Bardstown in south central Kentucky. We didn’t get there in time for the start of the guided tour we had planned to take, but no matter. We did the shorter self-guided tour, which didn’t allow us to see many of the strikingly beautiful stalactite or stalagmite formations that we had hoped to see, but we did get to enough of the cave to take some dramatic photos, and seeing as how we’re not kids any more, we probably wouldn’t have been able to tolerate the additional walking of the much longer guided tour anyway.
That’s when the wet weather began. We had planned to spend the afternoon and evening in Elizabethtown, where a full day of festivities, including fireworks, were to take place. Didn’t happen. Cancelled by rain. But despite the raindrops, we did stop in Hodgenville, just a few miles away, to see the Abraham Lincoln birthplace and memorial. Interesting stuff. They have an early-1800s era log cabin there similar to the one Honest Abe grew up in (the fate of his family’s actual cabin is unknown), along with quite a few displays and dioramas about the 16th president’s early life.
As it happens, the birthplace museum on this holiday featured a special appearance by a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator (he likes to call himself a “reprisor”) who gave a fascinating and surprisingly humorous presentation about the 26th president in a small theater room. He looked a lot like the real Teddy and knew all sorts of interesting trivia about the former Rough Rider.
Bonus fact: One of Deanna’s ancestors was Charles Fairbanks, Teddy’s vice president, so she was particularly thrilled to hear this impersonator’s presentation.
Since Elizabethtown’s official 4th of July celebrations had been cancelled due to weather, we headed back to the campground, hoping to at least be able to catch some fireworks on TV. That didn’t happen either. We ended up watching an old Dustin Hoffman movie, The Marathon Man. It’s a spy movie with a plot that includes former Nazis and government agents and diamond smuggling and a hard-to-watch torture scene involving a dental drill. We missed about the first 10 minutes of the movie, so we had kind of a hard time following the plot. Maybe we’ll catch it on Netflix someday.
Mostly a day for Deanna to do her office work and for me to run a few errands.
When it rains, we have a leak above the driver’s side window on the motor home and it’s driving me completely insane trying to figure out how and where the water is coming in and what we can do to fix it. I worked on that today, along with installing a latch on the shower door, putting up a flag bracket on the back of the motor home and generally taking care of a few small things around the coach.
This is our last day in central Kentucky. Lots of scenic rolling forested hills and bucolic horse farms with long white wooden fences here. It’s beautiful country and we’ve seen a lot, done a lot and had a good time here.
With Kentucky behind us, we can add another state to those we’ve visited in a motor home over the years.
We’re up to 8 states on our map now, with a daunting 40 more to go (we don’t consider Alaska and Hawaii as possibilities at this point, though there might be an outside chance for Alaska someday, if we’re really ambitious). Of course, the rules are that we can’t just drive through a state for it to count as an official visit. We have to stay there at least one night before we can add it to the map.
Our map will be slow to fill, but we’ll make great progress this month.
It’s another travel day with Greenfield, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis, as our next destination.
Terrible travel weather, some of the worst I’ve ever driven in with an RV. Indianapolis is only a few hours’ drive north of Bardstown, but it seemed like much longer, as we endured near-torrential rain conditions for much of the trip.
Fortunately, by the time we arrived at the campground near Indy, the horrible weather had subsided and we were soon set up and ready for a 3-day stay in central Indiana.
This is probably as good a time as any to offer a few words of appreciation for a man who did much to help make this month-long trip possible:
Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Could we even imagine making a trip like this without the Interstate Highway System? Doubt it. And it was our 34th president who championed and pushed for the legislation that made the interstate system possible.
I see on Wikipedia that the system is comprised of nearly 48,000 miles of divided freeway across the USA, with more being added all the time. Granted, there’s too much of it that’s bumpy and outdated and needs a serious reworking (Elected officials? Hello?), but for the dedicated RVer, there’s nothing better than a long, wide stretch of Interstate in front of you and a sunny day for driving. So, thanks Dwight.
I guess while we’re in the thanking mood, I should probably throw in a few words toward whoever it was who came up with the idea for Cracker Barrels, and the guy who invented GPS.
Today was a work day for Deanna, while I spent the day catching up on my blog and again trying to figure out how to stop the leak over the driver’s side window on the motor home. I am determined to solve this, but I’ve tried a few things already and I’m not sure which if any of them will work.
We spent the evening enjoying a live outdoor concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performing works by Mozart at a local winery.
The weather was pleasant (with thankfully few mosquito issues), the music was excellent and it was all-in-all a terrific night.
We both love small towns, but one advantage of camping near a big city is the opportunity to take in these kinds of wonderful cultural events.
Back in the early 90s, I spent five years working at a TV station in Lafayette, Indiana, just an hour’s drive from Indianapolis, so I was at least a little bit familiar with what Indy had to offer in terms of museums and other touristy places to visit, but Deanna knew little to nothing about the city.
So we spent today doing a 90-minute trolley tour of some of the hot spots around the city. The driver was overly talky and only occasionally funny (which is I guess how tour bus drivers are supposed to be), but he was a cheerful sort and certainly knew his stuff about Indianapolis, which is probably what you want from a tour director.
After the bus tour, we had lunch at the Weber Grill Restaurant. Yes, the same company that makes those iconic round red charcoal grills also owns a place where you can eat char-grilled anything. Very tasty.
Following lunch, we took our own little walking tour of downtown Indianapolis, including a closer look at the magnificent Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the center of the city.
The monument is a beautiful old historic obelisk that features several massive limestone statues depicting Civil War-era soldiers and sailors both in battle-ready mode and being greeted by loved ones upon their return home from war. The monument is nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty in New York and it offers incredible views of the city’s downtown for anyone willing to make the walk or ride (we chose the elevator) to the observation deck up top.
Indianapolis is an old and truly historic American city. We both came away from this day impressed with all the city has to offer.
Tomorrow, a tour of the one place that Indianapolis is best known for to the rest of the world and it has to do with…. speed!
You can’t really experience Indianapolis without a stop at the most famous race track in the world.
We toured the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum today and it was a fascinating place. I’d been there years before, but it seemed like there was more to it this time. It’s interesting to see the progression of racing vehicles from the earliest cars to the very latest, and observe how things like tires, engines and chassis have advanced over the years.
You can certainly admire today’s Indy car drivers for their prowess at navigating the famous oval at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. But then you look at the Marmon Wasp, the Tin Lizzy-ish contraption that took the checkered flag in the original 1911 race at a breakneck 74 miles an hour, and that’s when you realize that those early drivers truly knew courage.
I’d be hesitant to take a ride to the nearest Walmart in that thing and Ray Harroun did 200 laps on a 2-and-a-half mile oval at the car’s top speed, with only a thin leather cap and a pair of goggles between his windshield (well, the car really didn’t have a windshield) and at least a brain concussion, if not death. Those early guys had serious intestinal fortitude.
After touring the Indy 500 museum, we hit the road toward Parke County, about an hour’s drive west of the capital city to get a little flavor of the Indiana countryside.
Deanna is seriously into covered bridges. There’s one right in downtown Carmichaels, Pennsylvania where she grew up, which led to her affection for covered bridges today. So when we found out that Parke County is the self-described Covered Bridge Capital of the World… well, we just had to go.
The county helpfully marks the county’s back roads with various colored-arrow signs (we took the yellow route) to help lead visitors to the most picturesque bridges. We drove many a mile through corn and soybean fields, past countless silos and pastures, to track down and photograph as many bridges as we thought we could handle in one day. We ended up getting to 7 of them and thought we had a handle on an 8th but simply couldn’t track it down and eventually gave up.
Rockville is a quaint little town in the heart of Parke County, where we had lunch at a little mom-and-pop corner café that announced with a hand-written sign on the window, “Ice cold pop inside!”
Which leads to us to the age-old question about your favorite carbonated soft drink: When (or maybe where) is it considered soda, and when/where is it pop? Where I grew up in Iowa, it was definitely “pop” and Deanna says the same was true in Pennsylvania. But we’d probably get a strange look from the waitress if we ordered a “pop” where we live now in South Carolina and I’m pretty sure the refined folks of New York and New Jersey would be without a clue if you asked for anything other than a soda. In some places in the South, a lot of people just automatically ask for a Coke, which to them pretty much covers everything non-alcoholic.
Interesting, isn’t it, about these various regional differences, where we may all reside in the same country and speak the same language, but live in slightly different worlds. It took me awhile after we were married to figure out what Deanna was talking about when she said we needed to “redd up” the house (apparently it’s a Pittsburgh thing; it means “clean up”).
Anyway, we had a nice lunch and a fine time searching the farm fields of Parke County to seek out those covered bridges.
Next stop, Northern Indiana.
Welcome to Shipshewana, just a few miles outside Elkhart, Indiana. This is the center of the recreational vehicle world, where 80 percent of the nation’s trailers, campers and motor coaches are built.
One of the main reasons why we chose the Midwest for our first extended motor home trip was to be able to tour the factory near Elkhart where our Entegra Aspire coach was built. That will be on Tuesday. For now, we’re just pleased to have good travel weather and decent roads to bring us to Shipshewana.
As we came within a few miles of our destination campground, I noticed that nearly all the farms in the area had horses grazing in the pasture. Equine of every size, shape and color. You expect that sort of thing in Kentucky, where horse racing is nearly a religion, but I hadn’t anticipated it in Indiana.
Then it dawned on me. Of course. We’re in the heart of Amish country. Every farmer around here needs horses for transportation and fieldwork.
Along every highway you travel in this area, you’ll pass many a horse-drawn buggy clip-clopping along the shoulder.
Of course after the buggies pass by, you’ll also witness a long trail of “evidence” that horses had been along the side of the road. If you know what I mean.
A day for Deanna to concentrate on her work duties, and for me to prepare for tomorrow’s factory tour, catch up on blogging and figure out how to fix a temperamental toilet. It’s electronic. Yes, our coach has a fully electric, 21st Century loo. Great when it works. A high-tech frustration when it doesn’t.
We took in some more live local theater tonight. The play was about the difficult adjustment of a city girl who gets married and moves with her new husband to her in-laws' primitive home in rural Western Canada. The play was supposed to be set in 1910, but it annoyed Deanna to no end that the lead female character had hair, makeup and jewelry that looked decidedly more American Idol contestant circa 2016.
And once again, as far as the acting goes… well, my mother raised me to look on the positive side of things, so I’ll just say the lady who played the piano in between scenes was pretty good.
Tomorrow, tours of the Entegra plant, and the Studebaker museum.
We feel as though know much more about our motor coach, now that we’ve toured Entegra plant in Middlebury, Indiana.
Ours is a truly like a home, with all the issues you might normally find in a house (I’m looking at you, electric toilet), plus the many mechanical complexities of a large scale bus-like vehicle, including the diesel engine, tires, drivetrain and all the rest. So it’s a complicated machine and I’ve felt since we bought the motor home that there was so much about it that I didn’t know. So today, we toured the Entegra plant, witnessed how they are built and feel like we have a little better handle on things, now that we’ve seen the guts of the vehicle.
We also got to see the newest, techiest motor homes, with all the latest gadgets and features. Very nice, but are the big, new expensive coaches really all that much better than what we already have? We came away impressed with the construction of the motor home but ultimately happy with the one we own now.
After the factory tour, we made a short jaunt over to South Bend, for a look at the Studebaker museum.
The Studebaker Corporation has been out of business for more than 50 years, but in its time, the company made some popular cars and trucks for many years at the company’s northern Indiana plant. Deanna’s dad and older brother Dean are big Studebaker fans and wanted to be able to make the trip from their home in Pennsylvania to join us for the tour of the company’s official museum. Ultimately, they just decided they couldn’t make the trip, so we promised to take plenty of pictures and buy a few souvenirs for them.
It's a great museum. Who doesn’t enjoy getting a close-up look at classic cars, and here, we also learned a few things about the early Studebaker carriage works that crafted horse-drawn transportation for Presidents Lincoln and McKinley, among others.
Two stops today, starting with the flea market in Shipshewana.
Typical flea market stuff here. About 8 bazillion pairs of socks, lots of men's belts made out of what looks like braided cardboard and piles and piles of T-shirts printed with almost-hilarious messages ("Alcohol causes memory loss, and even worse, memory loss"). The market is the kind of bizarre bazaar where you find 127 million boxes full of cheap, musty made-in-Uzbekistan tchotchkes that you don't need and will never use but buy a few of anyway, just because they cost a buck each, so why not?
Deanna bought socks; I got a back-scratcher.
Our other stop today was a visit to the Recreational Vehicle Museum and Hall of Fame in Elkhart.
A 1913 camping trailer, built to be towed behind a Ford Model T? Who knew? Other classics: A pop-up camper from 1932, an iconic 1946 "teardrop" trailer, Winnebago's first motor home circa 1967 and something custom-built for Mae West that looks like a long touring car with a tiny, crude kitchen and a back porch.
Most of the classic RVs were cramped, itchy-looking and primitive (sink, shower and toilet all shoved into one little two-foot by two-foot space? No thanks. ) . It's sort of hard to fathom that people once traveled many miles across America in these Rube Goldberg contrivances, thinking, Gosh, isn't this fun!
The RV museum was one of those must-see places that I was determined to visit on this trip. Glad we got there.
The rest of today was devoted to office work for Deanna, and for me, another day of working on the pesky electric toilet (success! I think... I got it working for the time being, but let's see if it's still doing what it's supposed to do a few days from now).
Another covered bridge to look at today, this one just across the state line near Three Rivers, Michigan.
Built in 1887 and stretching nearly 300 feet, Langley is one of the longest covered bridges in the Midwest.
Question of the day: Why are covered bridges... covered? What's the purpose? Deanna asked me about that some time ago and I offered what seemed to be a logical answer at the time. On doing some research about it, I found out that I had guessed right. Covered bridges weren't intended as shelter for the people, animals or vehicles that would traverse them. They were covered in order to protect the bridge itself.
Years ago, rural folk built their bridges out of a material that was cheap, plentiful and familiar: wood. But
wooden bridges that were left exposed to the elements - rain, snow, etc. - would eventually rot and fail. So the builders put covers over them to protect the wood floor and trusses from the weather. And it worked remarkably well. Some of those structures are more than a century old, but still passable by today's cars and light trucks (although they always have weight limits. I wouldn't try driving a dump truck loaded with gravel over one).
Next question: Why are covered bridges nearly always painted red? I dunno. I would guess this also has to do with preserving the wood (that's why most barns are red - farmers added ferris oxide, or rust, to the paint for their barns because it helped prevent mold and moss), but I'll have to do a little more investigating before I know for sure.
After taking a few pictures of the Langley Bridge, we came back to Shipshewana for a tour of the Hudson Motors Museum, where we saw some beautiful old classic cars built by the auto maker that went out of business in the 1950s and eventually became a part of American Motors Corporation.
Whoever is tasked with taking care of these cars is doing a remarkable job, because the vehicles here are dazzling and spotless and awash in chrome. Hudson made some spectacular looking cars with ahead-of-their-time features. Makes you wonder why they couldn't survive.
The rest of today was a busy work day for Deanna and a day for me to catch up on blogging and get ready for a big travel day tomorrow.