Top 10 Keys to a Successful Long-Range Road Trip

I did not imagine that road trips, as a topic, would generate such fervently held opinions. Yet this was my discovery when I began to blog on the subject many months before our cross-country sojourn began.

DSC00357According to some, we were going to be slaves to an insanely aggressive schedule. The whole trip might be awful. These words were posted with swagger, as if chin-forward and repeated finger poking at my chest. One offered his own tale of past trip woes including blown tires, exhaustion and vows of never again.

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Fenway Park, Boston, MA

Well, we had a wonderful time, even with just a few setbacks. I will refrain from giving my critics the “neener, neener” taunt. Instead what I ought to do now is offer a good list of reasons why it went well. And despite my so-there attitude toward the folks who warned us, I have some of them to thank for our good time. A few of their warnings actually helped.

It is easy to have a miserable time on the road. These top ten keys to a successful road trip just might help you avoid that. Or you might even decide that you are not road-trip material, which is not a bad thing; if true, this realization will prompt you to choose a different travel idea.

But let’s approach this positively. You really want to do a long-range road trip, maybe to camp and hotel your way from sea to shining sea. It sounds like a kick with funky diners, hard-to-fold maps, great music in the car, little towns and American wilderness. How can you maximize your chances of succeeding in this?

photo-11. Love the Road. You simply must love the road. It’s a showstopper if you don’t. The 400-mile day should be valued with as much excitement and anticipation as the day by the pool or in the park. The highway’s line over the horizon should hold as much charm as the resort. If the road is simply to be endured as a way to get where you want to go, you might not like road trips. It is indeed about getting there, though it is to be enjoyed as much in the getting as in the there.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.00.07 PM2. Prepare Your Head. Attitude is nearly everything. Preparing your own outlook on the trip just might spell the difference between a lousy time and a great one. Decide in advance that you will think this way:

  • You do not serve the trip schedule; it serves you.
  • You are not in a contest (for speed, distance covered or early arrival).
  • If you have a reservation, it’s ok to be late. Play a little on the way. Don’t be a schedule Nazi.
  • There will be disappointments; be flexible.

IMG_11043. Pin the Map.  This is the first route-planning step. Pick a few key spots to pin on the map. This will begin to tell you if the trip can even be done. How long between them? How much will you drive? Will this be the kind of trip you want? We had 10 pins which gave us a wandering line versus a boring straight-shot eastward, weaving a route up to Tetons, southeastward to Iowa, northeast again to Niagara, etc.

At this point in your planning you start to face some choices. Read on.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 10.48.37 PM4. Pace the Plan. Decide in advance what kind of trip you want and translate that into plan “settings” you will use to calculate the trip. How much time do you have? How much of it do you want to drive? Is it all camping? Is it about slower roads? How long in each place?

Our settings were: a) about 50% will be driving days, b) averaging about 350 miles per driving day, c) put in a hotel stay about every 5 days and d) try to stay off the interstates. That sounded great to us; it was 4000 miles wide and an inch deep, to adapt a phrase. (This kind of trip is about loving the road. Remember?)

We actually enjoy researching sites and parks and getting reserved!

We actually enjoy researching sites and parks and getting reserved!

5. Be Reserved. Well, now you have to decide how much plan to have. Styles differ here. We created just enough plan with nightly reservations to give us some peace of mind. We could relax, wander, and not worry about whether we would have a place to stay or spend time calling ahead to places late each day. However, aside from a ballgame and two theatre shows, we did not fill each day with things to do, and kept open to spur-of-the-moment changes. By choice or chance we abandoned our overnight plans 20% of the time.

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6. Prepare Your Vehicles. Talk to mechanics, tire stores and to other travelers on blogs. It’s hard to be specific here; each vehicle is unique. Our pre-trip need was to fix our tow vehicle’s engine after a leaking head gasket soaked our alternator. And even after determined attempts to prevent trouble, it can still occur once underway. Under-inflated tires were an issue, and I can blame the store that mounted them on our trailer, but I still need to check it. I know this now. (By the way: The tire store was sorry and refunded on the tires).

IMG_12037. Pack Minimally. This keeps you agile. For 7 weeks we packed one suitcase each, plus a small batch of hanging items. This can be stretched over the span of the trip thanks to some laundry detergent and a roll of quarters. We included options ranging from camping clothes to theatre-going duds. With minimalist packing, we still brought too many things, but it was nice to have options.

8. Dial Back Expectations. Even after all the above re-thinking about your attitude, you can end up demanding more from this trip than it can deliver. Like a lot of big-deal plans in our lives, anticipation is often sweeter than the real deal. It does not have to be that way with your road trip.

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Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park, WY

The trick is to drop the demand, be in the moment, and practice a kind of mindful enjoyment, living out the phrase “wherever you go, there you are.” From a practical standpoint this might mean that if you intend to see three things on a touring day, reduce it to two; then don’t be surprised if you get to only one. Maybe sleep in to get rested, go to that one thing, and then see how many unplanned joys appear in the day.

Under

… or you might need to tape a leak on your water intake!

9. Manage the Disappointments. In point #2, I said one of the head-prep attitudes is to expect disappointments. Easy to say, hard to do when real trouble comes. National parks may close. Wall Drug may be the biggest drag to ever waste anyone’s noon meal. The Swedish town in Iowa might be depressing. The guy in the next site in Maine might run his RV generator after quiet hour. Your trailer tire might blow and give you an extra half-day to get to know Decatur, AL. Expect to be disappointed somewhere along the line. Go with the flow, change your plans and decide not to let anything get to you.

10. Be Open to Surprises. I alluded to this at the end of point #8. If you leave room to be surprised and you stay aware, you can catch the graces that come from wanderlust. Not everything happens because we planned it; otherwise we would be entirely too proud of our schemes. In fact, it’s even good to have some days with no plans in them at all. There were cliff walls in Wyoming that rivaled anything in Utah (who knew?) There were verdant rolling hills in SE South Dakota (who knew?) and a sweet Georgia State Park campground that held church on a Sunday (who knew?) You cannot plan these things.

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After church in Georgia

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The Sum of Seven Weeks on the Road: The Best, The Worst

Kirk Creek, CA to Acadia, ME back to Roseville, CA: 49 days, 8835 route miles on 26 travel days. Additional local sightseeing miles on 23 non-travel days: 1147. Total all miles: 9982. Average miles on travel days: 340.

Northern route going east: Kirk Creek, CA to Acadia, ME: 4322 miles, Then down eastern seaboard from Maine to Georgia: 1584 miles, Return west on the southern tier: 2929 mi (not including touring miles)

For want of 18 miles we’d have made it an even 10K.

The odometer tally for all miles topped out at 9982 as we pulled into our street on the last day. We were happy for almost every mile, and too road-weary to consider even one more. And no love of rounding up to a 5-digit total could have persuaded us to drive even one more, much less 18.

It’s done. And now, 10 days hence, we are summarizing the experience. Yes, there is an interesting statistical part of the story; the numbers show the trip’s infrastructure and how it was even possible. But the more satisfying part is to reflect personally, even emotionally, on its meaning for us.

photo 4-1But let’s do the numbers first. The trip took 49 days—seven weeks—which can roughly be chunked this way: Two weeks to get to the east coast, three weeks going southwestward down the eastern seaboard, and two final weeks across a more southern tier to get home.

Just the route—the distance we took pulling the pop-up—was 8835 miles, covered in 26 travel days IMG_2076(averaging 340). The other 23 days, interspersed in 1- to 4-day stops along the itinerary, were devoted to visiting locally. We would stay in camp those days and venture out for local sightseeing. The sum of those unhitched touring miles amounted to 1147.

Just a few steps from Blackwoods Campground, Acadia, ME, noting arrival after 4322 miles.

At left: At Mile Zero, departing Kirk Creek, CA. Above: At the Atlantic in Acadia, Maine, Mile 4322. Below: Our easternmost site, Blackwoods Campground, Acadia.

Our shortest travel day was 120 miles, the longest 495. Nine travel days racked up less than 300 miles each, ten days were over 400.

We stopped at 15 campgrounds, 8 hotels and 3 friends’ houses. Of the campgrounds, only three were for one-night-stays, the rest were for longer durations of 2, 3 or 4 nights. The occasional hotel for one night gave us the chance for a decent shower; the six evenings with friends provided that
also, but more: some extended time to catch up with some dear souls.

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The plan held up well, and gave us the freedom to stay late on the road and not have to fuss with where we would stay. And we were not completely bound by our plan either.  Ten of the days were changed from the original (about 20%). We changed six of the days to gain more time with friends. The government shutdown moved our plans for 3 nights, and one was altered due to a blown tire. (Previous blog post about whether it’s better to plan or just be spontaneous).

Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be broken.

Trip Top Five

  • The people we met along the way, both incidentally and intentionally: The incidental people included clerks, servers, rangers and campers. The intentional visits were

    wonderful reconnections with friends from decades, or maybe just a few years, ago. Some are pictured here, though we neglected to get Joan, Chris, Laura and Paul.

  • Natural Wonders: We saw desert and high ranges, caves and waterfalls, lakes and trees. Our wheels traced the lay of the land, which was at first vacant, then sharply escarped, then ramped down to forest and river, then notched into the sea or balancing a metropolis on a small island.
  • That it happened: that we dreamed it, planned it

    and did it. That we saw 36 states through a windshield and the steam off our morning coffees; that we recorded it in our hearts and cameras; that we arrived where we intended (mostly); that we would say from a desert in Utah “can you believe we were in Times Square a couple weeks ago? And we drove there!”

  • History, culture, and geography: This was a 49-day trip to a living, breathing outdoor museum. It was a tableau upon which we could picture our history—Lewis and Clark paddling the Missouri; patriots dying at the Boston Massacre site, now a busy intersection; a field of battle in our Civil War, now closed to us by a battle in Congress. We experienced real-time how the east is scrunched, the south is gracious and the west is spacious.
  • DaveLGoing in the off-season: We were alone in upstate NY, barely dodging smallish crowds in Acadia, getting into the Empire State Building with barely a wait; with advance planning, able to get into Dave Letterman, a Broadway show, and a ballgame at Fenway.

OK, that was a pretty general list. Can you get more specific? Sure:

The Bottom Five

  • Tires in NY / VA / AL:
    Clockwise from left: The second tire debacle in AL, the water intake leak, its attempted repair (WY), the closed battlefield park at Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, TN.

    Clockwise from left: The second tire debacle in AL, the water intake leak, its attempted repair (WY), the closed battlefield park at Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, TN.

    One of our friends called this our kryptonite. Truly it tested our attitude and enjoyment, but we didn’t let it get us down. Improper pressure led to a need for two new tires (problem discovered in NY, tires replaced in VA). Then, about 1000 miles later, one of those new tires fell apart on an Alabama highway. The story of how we quickly recovered and kept our date with the Ozarks is near miraculous.

  • Government shutdown: This was another test of our flexibility. The barricades went up in time to turn us toward state, local and private parks and museums; they came down in time to allow us to keep our camping reservation in Zion, UT.
  • Water in car: I left the sunroof open overnight during torrential rains in Georgia. The blog about my idiocy, and my wet behind, is a fun read.
  • Trailer water supply, intake tube failure: First noticed in WY, and first repair attempt was with tape. A good new pipe was bought in Casper and installed by Cal the handyman in Springfield, IL.
  • 1-night stops (Wells, Niobrara, Mancos): These were not all bad, they just rate ho-hum because they were simply necessary, and a lot of work to set up/take down just for one night. The campsites were mostly forgettable, but that’s OK.

I reflect a bit on having actually completed the cross-country dream, written shortly after this was achieved in Maine. Recommended reading.

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The Last Days (Zion to Home, Days 48-49, Oct 18-19)

ET Highway

ET Highway

The “Extraterrestrial Highway” is trying too hard to be weird. Nevada route 375 gained this nickname due to its proximity to the legendary Area 51, one of the American centers of faddish speculation about alien spacecraft. We were neither impressed nor frightened, considering that from a scenic standpoint the road is remarkably devoid of interest.

But then we saw the two dead cows along the highway! *Cue the Twilight Zone theme* Nancy commented: “that’s weird” … and then we resumed our struggle against scenic boredom for the next 100 miles.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 8.20.27 AMYes, I was stumped here.  ET Highway was a yawner. And that’s rare for my commentary, as I will go eyes-wide-open to see something good. Wyoming high desert, New Jersey Turnpike, and Kansas prairie will all … wait, I take back NJ Turnpike.

You get the idea. I enjoy finding what’s interesting, but Nevada 375 gave us one Alien Café (did not stop) and two dead cows. We kept playing our audio book and drove on.

Morning sun in Zion, moonrise at Mono: Great start and finish to the day that was dreary in the middle.

Morning sun in Zion, moonrise at Mono: Great start and finish to the day that was dreary in the middle.

But there were pleasures before and after this stretch that we did notice: The first rays of the sun hitting the peaks in Zion as we depart, the Virgin River gorge in the corner of AZ, plunging dramatically off the plateau, spilling us into the flat of the desert; the expansive and nearly empty valleys and pines of US6 when it crosses into CA, the forests of CA120 south of Mono, the moonrise over the lake, the crisp views of the Sierras at Bridgeport.

All of these things arrested my heart. There were mountain views both familiar (Mono, Bridgeport) and new (CA120 route from US6 to US395). The overnight in IMG_1554Bridgeport was in a hotel I last visited when I was 9 or 10. And then the familiar heights of Monitor Pass compelled us to stop, in spite of being so close to home.

The eastern Sierra is an area that never disappoints. It brings memories back vividly of our youth when we backpacked and camped there. In all those years we have approached these assertive peaks from US395, from either the north or south, sidling up Last3to them in the Owens Valley. But our approach was nervy this time, full-frontal, from desert two-lanes coming out of Nevada. The range is a row of immense peaks which resolutely say you shall not pass. So we scurry up to their base and then yield, turning sideways north to find where they will allow passage.

At Monitor Pass, overlooking where the Walker runs down to the Carson Valley Plain

At Monitor Pass, overlooking where the Walker runs down to the Carson Valley Plain. Only 125 mi from home.

We behaved in these last days as if we did not want it to end. We were so anxious to get home, but this was like the last two bites of ice cream in the bowl. The last spoons of dessert might even be more carefully savored. We did not want to cheat what the trip had to deliver, expecting that the last 150 miles could satisfy as much as the first, or as much as the miles from Augusta to Acadia or any other segment.

OK, the last 30 miles or so—those went unnoticed, truly. Those suffer from familiarity, and the non-photogenic “white sky” haze of Sacramento that afternoon. But by then we’ve had it, we are full up, ready just to stop moving for a while.

The tablecloth map needs the last days marked in; shall we draw an alien face in NV? Two dead cows, perhaps?

The tablecloth map needs the last days marked in; shall we draw an alien face in NV? Two dead cows, perhaps?

Did we just do that? Did we really cross the country? I think we did. For now, for a day or so, we will be still, unwind, review pictures, wash and unpack, and spend a little time planted on the couch.

What do we do now? I expect to write some overview commentary, perhaps some tips / tricks for how to put together a satisfying and enjoyable cross-country road trip. Stay tuned for that. As for future travels, we’ll consider that after the recovery period.

First light at Zion

First light at Zion

Virgin River Gorge

Virgin River Gorge

Moonrise at Mono Lake

Moonrise at Mono Lake

Monitor Pass

Monitor Pass

A to B: Day 48 (Oct 18), Zion National Park (Watchman Campground) to Bridgeport, CA, 495 mi, 17.5 mpg B to C: Day 49 (Oct 19), Bridgeport, CA to Home (Roseville, CA), 173 (8835 total route), 20.1 mpg

A to B: Day 48 (Oct 18), Zion National Park (Watchman Campground) to Bridgeport, CA, 495 mi, 17.5 mpg
B to C: Day 49 (Oct 19), Bridgeport, CA to Home (Roseville, CA), 173 (8835 total route), 20.1 mpg

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Still Amazed, After All These Days (Front Range to Zion, Days 45-47, Oct 15-17)

Watchman Campground, site 41

Watchman Campground, site 41

This is the part of the trip when we are supposed to be maniacally focused on just getting-the-freak-home. The grip on the wheel becomes white-knuckled. Bladders are tested as the driver shuns any stops. Any last destinations, when you visit a place for a day or two are barely endured; you count the hours until you can get back to the road to home.

This did not happen. It might be our attitude, but the credit for this savor-every-moment experience is also shared by the Springs, Southwestern Colorado, the desert and plateau, and Zion. As eager as we are to get home, these places (along with the people) help slow the clock.

Crossing Nevada might give us white knuckles, but that’s the next blog post. Stay tuned.

John, Nancy, Cal at the Narrows

John, Nancy, Cal at the Narrows

Zion in particular was a delight, accentuated by our son, John, camping with us. This was a clue, if any was needed, that our route had come further west since it was only a 6 hour drive for him from LA. His familiarity with Zion was a plus, and his company around the campfire for two nights was a treat.

The road to Zion is one of wonder. If the east is full of charm, forest, history and consistency, these western lands are by contrast stark and vast, full of gargantuan forms, severe angles and elevations. Snow in the Front Range gives way to crisp air and a mix of

Colorado, between the ranges

Colorado, between the ranges

sun/clouds in the interior parks of the Rockies. Over one range, into an intermountain “park” (a rangeland between ridges), winding up a canyon speckled with aspen autumn colors and then dropping to a desert.

Even the desert charms us, and maybe we are allowed that cheery assessment because we are there in October, and not August. After our coldest overnight of the trip, in the 27 degrees of Mancos, CO, our road left the pines quickly. Oceans of sand is an over-used metaphor, but it’s hard to resist when the rock spires resemble sea craft (as in Shiprock, NM).

UtahsignThen the land rises again for us and we scale the Colorado Plateau in Utah, that high landform which, as it eroded, gave us the wonders of Grand Canyon, Bryce, Canyonlands, Zion and others. Scrub pine and sandstone bordered our route as we entered Zion. And, as if to add to the drama, we emerged into the canyon via a 1-mile tunnel on the east side of the park.

First rays of the sun on the peaks of Zion

First rays of the sun on the peaks of Zion

Meeting up with John on our first night in Zion, plus some hikes and a museum the next day, gave us the good kind of tired. Aching muscles do not even feel like a price paid, but are more like a memento.  The place names are mysterious and spiritual: Great White Throne, Altar of Sacrifice, Court of the Patriarchs; others are descriptive: The Narrows, Emerald Pools.

Our visit was too brief here, as in all the places on this cross-country trip. When it’s time to pack up for the last leg home, however, we look westward … and anticipate being in our own bed again after our 7 weeks away.

Traversing southwestern CO on the way to Zion

Traversing southwestern CO on the way to Zion

Panorama of Zion Canyon from behind the waters of Weeping Rock

Panorama of Zion Canyon from behind the waters of Weeping Rock

Virgin River near Emerald Ponds

Virgin River near Emerald Ponds

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A to B: Day 45 (Oct 15), Colorado Springs to Mancos, CO, 366 mi, 18.9 mpg B to C: Day 46 (Oct 16), Mancos, CO to Zion National Park (Watchman Campground), 343 (8167 total route), 18.5 mpg Days 47 (Oct 17): Around Zion, 2 mi

A to B: Day 45 (Oct 15), Colorado Springs to Mancos, CO, 366 mi, 18.9 mpg
B to C: Day 46 (Oct 16), Mancos, CO to Zion National Park (Watchman Campground), 343 (8167 total route), 18.5 mpg
Days 47 (Oct 17): Around Zion, 2 mi

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Boot Hill and the Ramp to the Rockies (Days 42-44, Oct 12-14)

PlainsWell, this is going to be flat. But at least we’ll have a room right next door to Boot Hill!

That was my thinking. At this latitude, there’s no way to return west on a cross-country trip without the nothing that comes between the Ozarks and the Rockies. But legendary Dodge City and Boot Hill! The rich history of lawmen and outlaws!

I pictured driving up on US50, pulling into a decent hotel in the dusk of day one, and seeing the actual hill, the legendary Front Street, the saloons and general store, probably restored, where I can imagine all the cowboy movies of my youth.

The glow of neon from the property, as we turned in, was my first clue to this lesson in assumptions.

Casino

Not the real Boot Hill…

But the room was great!

But the room was great!

This Boot Hill is a casino. It was not, as I imagined, an outdoor museum on Dodge’s wild west past. Instead it was a park-ing lot and a neon-bright sanctuary to modern gambling, a bit of Vegas deposited on the west side of Dodge City, KS. The folks there looked like a mix of ag and townies, all busy with the one-armed bandits. Well, OK, let’s just regard this as the modern version of Front Street saloons and poker games.

The real Boot Hill is behind front street, pictured here

The real Boot Hill is behind front street, pictured here

If only I had done my research, beyond the hotel listing that said “next door to Boot Hill!” Ah, well. The hotel was nice, and the casino had sandwiches. We saw the real Boot Hill the next day.

It was not an unpleasant surprise, just another illustration of how my assumptions can lead me astray. I had also anticipated that the whole drive before and after Dodge would be nothing but the seemingly interminable flat, more to be endured than enjoyed. Assumption again! We were surprised at the variety in the Plains: bluffs, shallow valleys, trees and meadows, farms and cities. I confess that if we are spoiled by 14k peaks, our threshold for amazement gets too high and we can miss the subtle variations.

Borders

On the second day, western Kansas into Colorado, we could not help but notice how the land ramped upward. It is not just flat, and then the Rockies come. It’s more like an incline plane. There was a slight “up” to even the most flat-appearing sections–I could hear it in the engine, downshifting to 4th often on barely detectable grade.

These two travel days brought us to Colorado Springs. This city is different from Denver where the city lies on the flat up to the point where the range rises abruptly to the west. In the Springs, clumps of mountain and forest have strayed from the range into the city, offering a preview of what’s up in the mountains. From Monument and Black Forest southward, this city enjoys a bit of Rockies spilled onto the plains.

Old pals. Evan (r) and Cal

Old pals. Evan (r) and Cal

With home beckoning us soon, we took a day to visit friends here before determining to cross the peaks. Evan, a refreshed and valued relationship from decades ago, met with us for an afternoon of catching up. Paul, a much more recent friend, offered his home, some good laughs, a building friendship and Monday Night Football!

Colorado Springs, with weather festering over nearby Pikes Peak

Colorado Springs, with weather festering over nearby Pikes Peak

A to B: Day 42 (Oct 12), Branson, MO to Dodge City, KS, 473 mi, 18.1 mpg, 11 hrs (w 2 hrs stop in Pittsburgh, KS) B to C: Day 43 (Oct 13), Dodge City to Colorado Springs, 332 (7458 total route), 18.4 mpg, 8 hrs Days 44 (Oct 14): Around Colorado Springs, 13 mi, 16.1 mpg

A to B: Day 42 (Oct 12), Branson, MO to Dodge City, KS, 473 mi, 18.1 mpg, 11 hrs (w 2 hrs stop in Pittsburgh, KS)
B to C: Day 43 (Oct 13), Dodge City to Colorado Springs, 332 (7458 total route), 18.4 mpg, 8 hrs
Days 44 (Oct 14): Around Colorado Springs, 13 mi, 16.1 mpg

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Branson and the Road to Re-Tirement (Days 38-41, Oct 8-11)

The offending tire and wheel after the spare was mounted on the axle.

The offending tire and wheel after the spare was mounted on the axle.

This road danced between state borders, skirted Civil War battlefields, wound along canyons and between farms.  It delivered us, late and weary, from northern Georgia to Branson, MO, but not without also providing the frightening disintegration of a trailer tire, the second such problem of the trip. Disheartening at first, the circumstances that led to its repair were nearly miraculous. More on that in a bit.

Many US highways (not interstates) in the east, particularly the southeast, almost flaunt their use of space. The opposite-direction roadway is to your left across a huge grassy median, in the next county it would seem. These highways say yes, I am something of a big deal. North Carolina in particular pays attention to what their highways say about them, or they have more budget for this anyway: Flower beds and mown grass give a genteel look. Ads for tobacco, guns or porn, visible on other states’ roads, are not seen.

Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain

Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain

The first of two road days to Branson gave us some more Smokies, and then the charming views of Chattanooga, with a trip to Lookout Mountain battlefield which, though locked by our government’s shutdown, still allowed us to imagine the fighting there. Through more open fields of Alabama to Huntsville, sporting rockets and aerospace industry, we had our sights set on an overnight in Corinth, MS, when the awful sound of something isn’t right came from the right side of the trailer.

A quick pull-over. We were running on the rim and the tread had come apart from the walls and was hanging like a big rubber o-ring on the axle. It added to our difficulties that we stopped next to an ant hill. Any work on the tire had me, and the AAA guy, dancing… and not for joy.

After re-tirement, a kick-back spot for us near Branson

After re-tirement, a kick-back spot for us near Branson

Disheartening, I said. Nothing else has tested our delight in this trip so much as this. This was a new tire, replaced in Virginia because (my bad) I had trusted the air pressure to be right per the tire guys in California. (Note to self: Trust but verify). And AAA does not cover changing tires on my trailer. And the tire size is hard to find. And I’m parked by an ant hill.

Things work out, thank God. It’s my habit to analyze all circumstances through the lenses of faith, so I’m often baffled why some things go wrong, and then the repair of those things work out nicely. Why wasn’t that kind of management of circumstances active to prevent the problem in the first place? Yes, I know…life lessons are probably the reason. I persist in needing those, I guess. I am now the proud owner of a new digital-readout tire pressure gauge.

Cruising Branson

Cruising Branson

And this worked out OK: The hotel in Corinth let us cancel, no late fee. Their sister property in Decatur, AL, just a few miles from our ant hill, had just one room left. And the only—seriously, the only (I checked!)—store with a ST180/80/D13 available the next morning was right next door to the hotel. I mean right next door. We pulled the trailer on its spare to the hotel, replaced the tire at the tire shop next door, and left for Branson by 1:30 pm. We set up camp in the dark that night at 10:30.

Table Rock Lake near our site.

Table Rock Lake near our site.

Branson is set in the Ozarks. The setting is a beautiful bumpy jumble of rock strata and trees. Table Rock Lake, which we could see from our camp, sported a marina and trails; the camp itself was well-managed and its culture was restful, not rowdy.

The town of Branson is in some parts a caricature. It is the old TV show Hee-Haw. It is like a smaller Las Vegas, in its attempt to use neon and shows to invite crowds, but there the comparison ends. Replace the casinos with theatres, churches and amusement parks. No partying drunks here, but there are plenty of bus tours depositing seniors at country-themed mini-malls. Take Jay-Z or Wayne Newton off the marquees and replace them with the Oak Ridge Boys or Tammy Wynette tribute shows.

Shops in old Branson, like Dick's 5&10 are classic, offering amazing American kitsch.

Shops in old Branson, like Dick’s 5&10 are classic, offering amazing American kitsch.

MerchThe town is family-friendly. And the people are marvelous. Here, as throughout the South, we are every waitress’s darlin’. We did not get to a show, maybe next time. And maybe next time we’ll see a grandchild or two on the miniature golf course, go-kart track or one of the area’s zip-lines.

The sunset gave a show over Table Rock Lake, a fitting last memory as we prepare to journey on. With 65 psi in each tire under our mobile camp, we wheel westward.

Panorama at lakeshore

Panorama at lakeshore

Sunset at Table Rock

Sunset at Table Rock

A to B: Day 38 (Oct 8), Moccasin Creek State Park, GA, to Decatur, AL, 279 mi, 17 mpg, 9 hrs (w 2 hrs stop in Chattanooga) B to C: Day 39 (Oct 9), Decatur to Table Rock State Park, MO (Branson), 468 (6653 total route), 18.6 mpg, 9 hrs Days 40-41: Around Branson, 62 mi, 17.4 mpg
A to B: Day 38 (Oct 8), Moccasin Creek State Park, GA, to Decatur, AL, 279 mi, 17 mpg, 9 hrs (w 2 hrs stop in Chattanooga)
B to C: Day 39 (Oct 9), Decatur to Table Rock State Park, MO (Branson), 468 (6653 total route), 18.6 mpg, 9 hrs
Days 40-41: Around Branson, 62 mi, 17.4 mpg

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Smokies Gets In Your Eyes (Days 35-37, Oct 5-7)

Couple71 Couple13The Dating Game sent us to the Smoky Mountains in 1971. We were 21, two kids from different southern California towns who had agreed to be contestants on the show, and now found ourselves to be minor celebrities for a weekend. We had not met before the taping which was a few weeks before the actual date.  The show was legit, we really did meet that way. She picked me, bachelor #2.

Nancy71Nancy13We were the guests of Outdoor Resorts, an RV park and campground outside Gatlinburg, TN. Our chaperone from Chuck Barris Productions and hosts from the resort took us around the town and the national park. With some of the few moments we had to ourselves, we posed near the resort entrance where they had posted a huge sign announcing our presence there. (More on the date here).

Cal71Cal13Forty-two years later, almost to the day, we re-posed in front of the same resort entrance. Nancy had saved the colorful vest she had made while in college and wore it again for the shot, but I could not find that ordinary yellow shirt.

The Smokies got in our eyes a long time ago. The images of that scenery are blurry in our collective memory, so this re-visit—our first together to this spot after all those years—will give us a chance to take in the beauty of this area. The beauty of the area was the girl right beside me at the time, so I remember little else.

1393067_659367290762860_514241374_nOur original plans to camp in the national park were foiled by the US government, so we set our sights on a northern Georgia State Park called Moccasin Creek. This was handy, too, for Nancy’s brother and his wife to camp with us over these days. They were planning on coming up to the national park, but in the end, we were able to meet closer to their home in nearby Blairsville.

The campground is “intimate” (as described in some reviews) which means small, 57 sites, and not much distance between them, but there was some kind of charm that overcame this deficit. The charm is partly the lake, hiking and well-kept facilities, but it is mostly the sweet personal culture. In the national park we’d have met people from all over, but all the folks here were from Georgia. Where y’all from? was asked and answered with the names of whichever Georgia city or county is your home. To give California as the answer brought delight and an easy conversation.

Hemlock Falls

Hemlock Falls on a Sunday afternoon

Sunday was church. Folks boated in to the camp or drove, and a few campers joined in as well. We sauntered over, coffee in hand. The benches in the open-air pavilion at the side of the lake filled in with a hundred people or so. It could not have been more iconic for our setting that we actually sang I’ll Fly Away.

Religion easily blends here. I thought of whether a California State Park would overlook the church/state arguments and allow a church to meet on its grounds. Of course not. But in decades of this congregation’s existence, no one in Georgia would object. Even the waste management utility used by the park system there put “keeping God’s creation beautiful” as their motto on the park dumpsters.

Our tablecloth map, route-marked and illustrated for our travels-to-date

Our tablecloth map, route-marked and illustrated for our travels-to-date

God let it rain on our camp that night, but there’s no blaming the Deity for leaving the sunroof open on our car. That one’s on me. And it poured, I mean it was torrential. There were puddles in camp come morning, and some unholy self-loathing the moment I checked the puddle in the car. Monday’s side trip up to Gatlinburg gave us a glow in our hearts and wet spots on our backside. I wonder now whether there were wet footprint marks on the pavement whenever we got out of the car on that day.

Fortunately, we were in Gatlinburg where having a John Candy / Steve Martin-type experience (a la Planes, Trains and Automobiles) probably helped us fit in. Wet clothes and footprints cannot out-circus that town, which now presents itself as a mix of Disneyland and Dollywood. (This is similar to the environment at Niagara, about which I wrote earlier).

Visit Gatlinburg for kitsch, but see the park for the scenery. The highway was open through the park, but the government closed even the turnouts, except for Newfound Gap. Making the best of a bad situation, we clicked photos on the fly, got Smokies in our eyes (again) and took our wet backsides back to camp for smores.

Day 35: Richmond, VA (Pocahontas State Park) to Clarksville, GA (Moccasin Creek State Park): 459 mi (5906 overall route), 18.4 mpg, 8 hours Days 36-37: Local sights (Gatlinburg, TN): 248 mi, 21.3 mpg

Day 35: Richmond, VA (Pocahontas State Park) to Clarksville, GA (Moccasin Creek State Park): 459 mi (5906 overall route), 18.4 mpg, 8 hours
Days 36-37: Local sights (Gatlinburg, TN): 248 mi, 21.3 mpg

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