Phannie

Phannie
Photo taken at Winchester Bay, Oregon

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

In What Phase of Fulltiming Are We? Not the Beginning, But Not The End, Either

At Lake Conroe Thousand Trails, Willis, Texas...

As our fourth year of fulltiming is rapidly coming to a close, we've been talking more and more about how much more of this we'll be doing and what our exit might look like. There are a probably a couple of reasons that have led us to this contemplation: 1) A shocking number of our fulltiming friends have suddenly sold their rigs and gone back to stick and brick houses; and 2) This has been a bit of a a rough year for us, healthwise. If these things hadn't happened, we probably wouldn't even be talking about it.

Our friends who came off the road made their decisions for very disparate and valid reasons, including age, health, family needs and, well, just because they wanted to settle down again. This is all understandable and quite inevitable at some point for all of us, but it is a little sad in that we will not be crossing paths as often now that they have settled permanently in distant locations. 

The number two issue that has affected our thinking is the health challenges that have befallen us. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll remember that Sandy and I took a nasty spill on a sidewalk in Fredericksburg, Texas back in April, in which she broke her nose and I wound up severing most of the tendons in my right shoulder that control my arm, rendering it more or less useless.  Sandy recovered pretty quickly, thankfully, but regaining the use of my right arm after the painful shoulder surgery has been a slow process that is not yet complete. I would say I'm about 85 percent back to normal, but that's largely because I'm still doing the daily therapeutic exercises they prescribed; I'll probably be doing some of these for the rest of my life, they tell me. If that weren't enough, I began having difficulty with my left knee after the fall, as it was that knee and my right shoulder that took the brunt of the impact. The knee, which was already arthritic to a degree, finally became painful enough that I began using a cane for walking. With all this going on, I suppose it's no surprise that we began assessing just how fit we were to continue this freewheeling lifestyle that is not without its own kind of physical demands.

Fortunately, as fulltimers, we had the ability to relocate ourselves to where the best medical care is available. The Houston area made the most sense, as our family lives nearby, and I was able to get surgery, therapy and other treatments from the very best medical professionals that Houston has to offer. Because of the efforts of these talented doctors and therapists, my shoulder and knee problems have largely diminished to a point where they don't really bother me any longer, and a knee replacement is not even a remote consideration, thank God. So, if you ever have medical issues like mine, I would highly recommend Sterling Ridge Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in Houston as nearly being able to perform miracles, so long as the patient does his/her part in doing the prescribed therapy--something that is critically important. So, with all this being said, we no longer think that medical issues will be forcing a change any time soon, thankfully.

Let's talk about the fulltiming phases that we've been through in the last four years, acknowledging that there may be similarities and differences when compared to others' experiences. 

The usual first phase for fulltimers is the vacation phase. That's when they are finally free, like horses escaped from a corral, and they zoom around the country, thinking they have to see it all as quickly as possible. We really didn't go through this phase, as we had already been RVing for more than ten years, and we had already seen a lot of the country. Besides, being on the move all the time is exhausting and not conducive to any real enjoyment of taking a more in-depth look at the wonders all around us and visiting with friends. So, what did we do? We went to the Rio Grande Valley for a good part of the winter, thankful that, now as fulltimers, we didn't have the obligations and worries about the house we just sold.

So, I suppose we went right into phase two, which was more of a "taking it easy" traveling phase, in which we avoided one-night stops if at all possible. We discovered that we could find interesting things to see just about anywhere, so we made as few one-night stops as possible; instead, they extended to two or three nights unless we were on a tight schedule for some reason.

Phase three became more of a "go and stay" phase, in which we pick a wintering area in the south and somewhere up north for a stay in the summertime. Sometimes these involve staying at one park for the whole time but, usually, we have to move around now and then, as long term reservations are harder to find, especially if we don't make them early--something we don't do very well. This "go and stay" phase is the one we're in now, we think. Something we haven't settled is finding RV parks desirable enough that would entice us to return every year for an entire season. A complication is that many of our friends who have left the road don't travel to our former destinations for the whole season any longer, so we are a bit rudderless in that regard. However, there are still places we want to go and things we want to see; we haven't yet exhausted our bucket list. We think that when we find the perfect place to which we will likely return for the season, we'll know it.

Meanwhile, of course, we are frequently drawn back to the Conroe area for obvious reasons (see below):


It's hard not to be around grandsons Mason, Sutton and Pryce. They are the greatest! 

Meanwhile, Mindy is getting started in a new nursing job at a local hospital that she says she likes much better than the old one; that's pretty exciting, too:



She's even been given a nickname by her new co-workers, that being "Barbie." I think it fits, don't you? It also means she's finding acceptance and friends, fitting in nicely with her new fellow employees. 

I'm also very proud of son-in-law Tyler, who is a site superintendent with a large commercial construction company in Houston: 



Although very young for such heavy responsibilities, his talent and work ethic drew quick recognition from his superiors, and he is currently in charge of multiple phases of the construction of a huge 200,000 sq. ft. hangar/maintenance facility for United Airlines in Houston:



Meanwhile, we're getting ready for our winter travels again--just as soon as I'm finally released from treatment by my knee doctor--I have a series of injections that I must complete first. This winter, we'll be in the southwest U. S.--New Mexico, Arizona and California. This will be the first time we've wintered there, so we'll have a lot more stories, I'm sure.

Frankly, we have no idea what our fulltiming exit will look like. We know we're not ready yet, now that our injuries and health issues seem to be fading factors. We've noticed, of course, the very nice houses that our former fulltiming friends have chosen, and they look beautiful and appealing as stick and brick homes. However, we are not yet at the point where we want to return to the upkeep and confinement that this would mean for us. I'm sure we will know--as they did--when the time is right and where we should end up.

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; 
please forgive me if I fail to appreciate it each day as I should.

We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw

"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Phannie Acts Up Again; Texas is Still Hot

At Shallow Creek RV Park, Gladewater, Texas...

It was almost unbelievable. You will recall in the last post that we blew a tire approaching Franklin, Kentucky, and we had a problem with one of the new BigFoot levelers, prompting our return to Michigan.

Then, finished in Michigan, and while cruising along I-65 upon our return trip back to the same RV park in Franklin and--this is the unbelievable part--not far from where the blowout previously occurred, two bright warning lights suddenly appeared on Phannie's annunciator panel (sorry, that's the aeronautical term; I don't know what else to call it). One of the lights proclaimed that the parking brake was set while Phannie's transmission was in gear; the other called attention to the fact that the other light was on. Along with the lights came a constant intermittent buzzing sound that provided yet an additional warning that the parking brake was set when it shouldn't be. Well, I appreciated all the warnings, but the only way I could have missed any of them was to have suddenly expired at the steering wheel. There is no way to miss these warnings if you're alive.

Ominously, the rearview TV monitor and the dash air conditioning went dead at the same moment the annunciator lights illuminated and the buzzer sounded. This can't be good, I thought. I didn't know until a bit later just how not good it was.

At that moment, I reverted to the training from my airline flying days when presented with a whole slew of problems:  Fly the airplane first, analyze the situation and then work on the fix according to procedure. Since Phannie was driving in a perfectly normal manner, I kept going straight down the highway and analyzed the problem. I knew that if the air brakes had suddenly deployed as indicated, there would be mayhem in the coach, as everything not tied down in the back would suddenly be in the cockpit. Then, as a test, I applied the brakes gently, which appeared to slow the bus normally; when I released the brakes, Phannie returned to normal speed smoothly with no resistance. So, from that, I knew there was nothing wrong with the brakes. I thought about the non-functioning rearview camera monitor and the dash air, and I figured this had something to do with the ignition switch, as the ignition key must be on for these things to get electrical power to operate. The same is true of all four of Phannie's slides. As soon as we reached our RV park in Franklin, I immediately tried to operate the slides which, as I suspected, didn't move. Having completed this bit of troubleshooting, I was pretty sure the problem was with a fuse, relay or solenoid associated with the ignition switch. I had spare fuses, but none of the other parts.  I also didn't know where to look for any of these things on the coach. There are several fuse panels in various places with many fuses in them, and I didn't relish the idea of pulling each one and then perhaps not even finding that one had blown. 

Facing the prospect of spending the night with all the slides in was not something very desirable, and not being any good at reading electrical diagrams, I went to the Tiffin RV Network Forum on the Internet--probably the best resource ever for a Tiffin owner. Any problem that has ever occurred on a Tiffin coach can probably be found there and discussed exhaustively.  I typed in a short descriptor of the problem and, in seconds, I had the answer--just as I suspected, it was probably a bad ignition solenoid, and I even learned where I was likely to find it. It also identified the location of a 10 amp fuse that protected the solenoid. I quickly found and checked the fuse mentioned and, sure enough, it was blown. I replaced it, turned on the ignition, and it blew again instantly. This seemed to confirm that the problem was the solenoid.

Well, I was no better off, because I didn't have a replacement solenoid, and I was pretty sure no one in Franklin, Kentucky had one, either. However, Red Bay, thank God, was our next stop, and taking a Tiffin product to Red Bay is like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead as written in the Bible. Like Lazarus, even a dead Tiffin could be brought back to life in Red Bay!

Sandy and I looked at each other and marveled at the coincidence of all the problems we've had at this location. Phannie, who has performed almost perfectly for more than 90,000 miles, seems jinxed by Franklin, Kentucky. This, unfortunately, did not leave us with good memories of this town, which is unfair, because I'm sure it's a very nice place.

My attempts to fix the problem had reached the limit of my meager capabilities, so we began to accept the reality that we would be spending the night without extending any slides, especially the bedroom ones, which were kind of important for getting ready for bed. While this was certainly do-able, as Phannie's roof air conditioners worked fine, there were a couple of problems: 1) The king-sized bed was now blocking the drawers where our underwear and other sort-of essentials are kept and 2) We would have to crawl over the bed instead of walking around it like civilized old geezers. Now this might not seem like a big deal to those of you youngsters or you oldsters who are not besieged by arthritis, knee problems, fake joints and a little excess portliness.  However, for us, who have all of these maladies, I can tell you that it was not pretty. I can only thank the good Lord that no one took a video of the gyrations, flops and grunts involved. It would have been a viral sensation on YouTube, I can assure you. 

Although I thought about it, I was not about to try to open the slides manually because I've never had to do that, and I could readily imagine that if I had been able to get them open somehow, I might not have gotten them closed again, which would have grounded us in this backwater place for no telling how long.

We slept fine--probably due to the exhaustion of getting into bed. The next morning, we were up early after another embarrassing episode of grunting and gyrating as we crawled back out of the bed. When we were ready, Phannie's engine fired up just fine, and we filled up with diesel and pointed her toward Red Bay and our salvation. Because we had gotten on the road fairly early (something we never do and have always thought of as a curious phenomenon that might be related to demonic possession), we were able to drive a hundred miles or so without turning on the generator and running the roof airs to keep us comfortable. Meanwhile, the warning lights were still illuminated on Phannie's annunciator panel, the rear monitor was still blank, the dash air was still inop, and the annoying buzzer continued to sound for 254 miles. If you skipped over that number, let me mention again that that infernal buzzer sounded for 254 miles. After a few hours, I think I was too close to insanity to think of checking the Tiffin forum about silencing the buzzer. During this time, Sandy stayed fully awake, keeping her eye on the locations of any firearms that we may carry aboard, in case I was thinking of using that method to silence the buzzer or, worse, silence myself.

But we did make it after all, without offing myself or Phannie. It was a while before I could say anything, however; the buzzing in my ears finally faded away, and I could hear myself speak well enough to form words. 

(Note: In an abundance of caution in today's nonsensical politically-correct culture, I am using my editorial discretion to avoid identifying some of the entities and persons discussed in the next paragraph.) 

I drove to a local Red Bay shop we've used for years and talked to the owner, Gus, who, seeing I was close to a breakdown, told me to sit and tell him all about it. I told him what was going on, apologizing that the problem Phannie had now was far more serious than the relatively minor things for which we had made our appointment. He said not to worry, and went to work himself on the problem. In a few minutes, a guy appeared from the parts department and handed him a new solenoid and, within 30 minutes, all was normal again. I told Gus I could hug him, after which he turned to me with a scowl and said sternly, "We don't do that here in Alabama."  I stepped back, due to my relatively low pain threshold, but then he started laughing, as I figured he would. Nevertheless, there was no hugging that day, just profuse thanks and firm handshakes.  

So it was that simple. A week or two in which nothing seemed to go right ended with everything back to normal, and we were headed home. We stopped in Searcy, Arkansas, to see great friends Carolyn and Larry, who treated us like royalty and gave us a fine tour of their home and city, even taking us out to dinner. Thanks, guys, for your kindness; it was good to see you again.



Our next stop was near Longview, Texas, where I wanted to spend a few days seeing my old stomping ground where I used to work fueling airplanes at the airport and where I received much of my advanced pilot training back in the mid-1960s. This is also where I was based when I got my first real flying job back in 1968, flying night mail between Longview, Tyler and Dallas. It was also where I had a part time job flying as first officer on a Lockheed Super Constellation for a flying club. I'm afraid I didn't appreciate at the time what an iconic old airliner that was and that now there are perhaps only one or two still flyable anywhere in the world. Many pilots, including me, think it was the most beautiful airliner ever built. Here is a photo of the airplane I flew; we were on a layover in Acapulco when the photo was taken in 1968:



It is very sobering to realize that I am one of only a handful of active pilots remaining today who have actually flown a Lockheed Super Constellation. I was so young back then; I wish I had it to do over again. I would have appreciated it so much more.

So much had changed here in Longview over the last 50 years. I was young then, full of excitement about my chosen career, and the future and possibilities seemed limitless. It was here I knew great friends and legendary aviators who were skilled peers and mentors of mine. And now, they're all gone.

To my delight, the old familiar hangar where I worked and from which I flew, is still there:


But sadly, gone are the old airplanes and the sounds they made that are largely unheard today--the belching and coughing of radial engines like the Pratt and Whitney R-985s that powered the Beech 18 in which I flew the mail and the immense 18-cylinder Wright 3350s on the Constellation. No one there there at the hangar now knew any of the people I knew or the planes I flew and how important they were to me. And why should they? They weren't even born then. They are today who we were then, and all of their knowledge and energy are devoted to the present and the future. I am here, loitering as a stranger, an unknown and unrecognized relic of the past, and I am the only one who knows anything of that time and how wonderful it was, even though it seems like it all happened only yesterday. Bittersweet? A little; but the memories and rich and good, and I'm glad I stopped here to reminisce.

Here's a photo of one of the Beech 18s in which I flew the mail. I haven't seen one of these old airplanes in years:



Well, it's time to get back to the present. I hope I don't eventually become one of those old people who just live in the past. I don't think I will; we have too much of an exciting life nowadays, especially that awaiting us when we see our family and the grands in just a day or two. Can't wait!

Oh, by the way, while we were here, I bought and had installed a brand new set of Michelins for Phannie. The set on which I had the blowout was the better part of seven years old, so they clearly had aged out. I bought these new ones through the FMCA Michelin Advantage program, and that saved me a few hundred bucks. 

I have to tell you that Phannie needs to get her act together; I've spent about ten grand on new jacks and tires in the last couple of months, so she owes me some smooth sailing for a while. Are you listening, girl? 

As we head toward Conroe, I'm aware that I've lived through enough Septembers in Texas to know that this month is not much different from August and July, months when the state is largely uninhabitable, except for certain cold-blooded lizards and snakes--creatures that obviously must have slipped by Noah and boarded the Ark unnoticed, along with mosquitoes.

Anyway, I thought I was prepared for the heat again as Phannie's OAT (outside air temperature) gauge slowly climbed while we edged farther and farther southward. As it passed 90 degrees, I looked forlornly at the jackets that were still hanging on hooks behind us. We had needed them at times in Michigan and hadn't returned them to the closet, as if being within reach would somehow influence the sauna-like temperatures all around us now.

Our unexpected return to the BigFoot factory in Michigan, while tiring and frustrating, gave us at least an extra week of moderate temperatures, so we appreciated that part of it.

It won't be long until we can enjoy sitting outside again but, in the meantime, we will enjoy ourselves with the younguns. We probably won't even notice the heat; Houston--a suburb of Conroe--is the most air conditioned city in the world, I'm told.


Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; 
please forgive me if I fail to appreciate it each day as I should.

We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw


"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood

Monday, September 16, 2019

Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This

At the KOA Journey, Terre Haute, Indiana...

The meaning of this post's title, from the 1961 hit by the Shirelles, will become evident much later as you read this. As we headed south toward Red Bay after the installation of our new jacks and the subsequent Michigan adventure, our first stop was Indianapolis, and all went well to that point. We spent a couple of days there looking around and discovered their wonderful old Union Station, built in 1888 when Indianapolis was becoming a major railroad hub. It replaced, in grand architectural style, a much more modest edifice built in 1848. 



Indianapolis was the first city in the country to develop the concept of a union station serving several rail lines. The station in the photo above has a grand hall and wonderful stained glass windows, but here's the kicker: You can't see inside!  We walked to every door and found it chained and locked to visitors, although there was no construction going on and the interior seemed fully intact. It was just closed to the public. We were dumbfounded! How could a city with such a spectacular historical masterpiece not pridefully allow it to be shown to the public including, of course, out-of-town visitors?

I did some research on the Internet and found a newspaper article excoriating the city fathers for their shortsightedness. According to the piece, the station was at one time open to the public, but it also housed some shops and restaurants, the leasing of which was supposed to support financially the total cost of operating the building. Well, apparently, there weren't enough customers for the tenants to keep their businesses open so, when they closed up, the station closed as well. It is used now only for paid special events. 

I'm sure there are a majority of the major historical venues in our cities that don't fully pay for themselves, yet they are open for sightseers, history buffs and visitors of all kinds who come into town and do what? Spend money!  For the city fathers of Indianapolis to thumb their noses at their heritage in this way is almost nauseating. What in the world are they thinking? What are their priorities? 

I was so upset that I wrote the mayor, a former chairman of the Indiana Democrat party, a seething email, to which I'm sure I'll never get a response. Our disappointment left a bad taste in our mouths. Sometimes it doesn't surprise me how unimportant history is to the younger generations, as they either don't learn about it in school or learn it in a distorted way that makes it fit certain political, social, racial or gender notions that may have no basis in fact or the real meaning of events that made the country what it is. Sorry for the rant, but Winston Churchill was right when he said in 1948, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."  (Yes, I know he paraphrased a similar quotation from Santayana in 1905, but I like Churchill's better.)

If that weren't enough, the Interstate highways that loop around and feed Indianapolis seem to be in a perpetual state of construction, as they were a couple of years ago when we went through there on our way to Detroit. It is a teeth-rattling experience with narrow lanes and delays everywhere. 

Little did we know that we would be passing back through this mess again in just a couple of days after we left it.

Now, that little teaser gets us to the reason why this piece is titled as it is. We had left Indianapolis, heading south on I-65 through Louisville and on to Franklin, Kentucky, just south of Bowling Green and our next overnight stop. Just before reaching the exit for our RV park, I noticed an unusual thump near the rear of the coach but, since it was still driving okay, I decided to continue to the RV park, which was less than a mile away; I then got out and took a look.  As I walked to the back wheels, I noticed that the outside tire on the passenger side had blown and had begun to shred. The inner tire was okay, thankfully. Yep, mama said there'd be days like this.

As luck would have it, the entrance to the RV park was between two truck repair shops, both of which sold and repaired truck tires. I unhooked Mae and drove about a block to one of the shops and asked if they had a Michelin replacement tire for Phannie. They did, so I returned and drove the bus the one-block distance to get the tire replaced. Here are some photos of the blown tire, the installer at work and the new tire:







Now, I have several comments about this experience:  

1) In 15 years of RVing, this is the first tire failure I've ever had on an RV, although one occurred on Mae a few years ago, caught by the TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system). 

2) I was fortunate in that Phannie's tire didn't explode and do any peripheral damage, perhaps because I stopped almost immediately after I noticed the unusual thump. (I use a TPMS on Mae, but not Phannie, because I probably would not notice a tire failure on a toad until a lot of damage had been done.) I am careful to check tire pressures on Phannie and Mae, and I replace the whole set of tires on the bus every six years and the tires on Mae as they begin to show signs of wear. I am also careful to do walk-arounds at every stop (a habit from my flying days). My thinking has been that taking these steps would be sufficient to avoid a blowout, and they have been successful for 15 years--up until now, that is. 

3) I'm pretty sure angels watch over us. Who would have thought the RV park I picked days previously would be located a block from two truck tire shops, and that our tire failure would occur within a mile of them?

4) As it happens, this is the sixth year for this set of Phannie's tires, and we all know that RV tires deteriorate from age before they wear out from miles driven. I was planning to replace the whole set when we get back to Conroe. Now, it appears that I will have only five tires to replace; one just got replaced a bit early. I also think I will go ahead and get TPMS sensors for all the tires on both vehicles. Fifteen years without an RV tire failure is a pretty good track record, but I think I'll go ahead and get sensors for both vehicles since this happened.

Now the next bad news:  After getting the new tire, we drove to our parking spot at the RV park, and I dumped the airbags and hit the auto-level switch on the new Bigfoot levelers. Nothing happened! I tried again, and this time the system began working but seemed confused and suddenly stopped during the process.  I tried putting the jacks down manually, but the left front jack didn't move. After several tries, I retracted the jacks, and we retired for the evening. The next day, I called Bigfoot in Michigan, and they said it was probably a grounding issue and that I would need to take it to an RV repair center of my choice and the factory experts would talk them through how to fix it at no charge. Yes, mama said there would be days like this.

Well, you can imagine what I was thinking after paying six thousand bucks for this new system that worked for just a few overnights before breaking down. I decided that the factory was the only place I was going to take it.  No one knows the system better, and who knows when some repair outfit would have time get to it? They might even do more harm than good, I thought. (There aren't many RV repair places in which my confidence is very high.) I told the Bigfoot folks that I was in Kentucky at the moment, but I would be in their parking lot when they got to work in the morning. They said fine, they would be waiting for me.

By this time, it was past noon there in Kentucky, but I was full of  energy. I wanted my jacks fixed, but mostly I wanted some reassurance I hadn't made an unwise purchase. White Pigeon, Michigan was 454 miles north of where we were, and we would have to go back through Bowling Green, Louisville, Indianapolis, Elkhart and then to White Pigeon, Michigan, but so be it. 

Without further ado, I hooked up Mae, gassed up Phannie and headed back north on I-65. After a couple of rest stops, we pulled into the overnight parking area of the Bigfoot factory about 1:00 o'clock the next morning. It was a miserable, exhausting trip. We had already observed all the road construction north of Indianapolis, so I decided to try I-69 from Indy to Fort Wayne, but it was even worse. Almost all of it was under construction, with narrow single lanes laid out on the shoulders and, to make matters worse, it started raining--heavy rain with thunderstorms for the last couple of hours. Yes, mama told me there would be days like this.

After getting a little sleep in the factory parking lot (they have a dedicated parking area with electricity provided for customers' rigs), I strode into the Bigfoot office and was met with profuse apologies and an assurance that this almost never happens, saying they were as curious as anyone as to what the problem could be. They took Phannie into the shop immediately and, since we were starved, we went for a bite of breakfast in downtown White Pigeon. In about an hour, I got a call from Matt, who was my contact at Bigfoot and very good at schmoozing customers like me whose fuse--with some justification--could be a little short. Matt said the bus was ready to go, and he would explain the fix when we got there.

It seems that it was a grounding problem after all. The powder coating of one of the components was slightly overdone and didn't allow for a good ground through bolting these components together. So, they removed the excess powder coating and affixed an additional grounding wire just for sake of redundancy. 

They apologized profusely again and assured me these systems are usually nearly bulletproof, and that mine is, of course, under warranty. Matt also gave me contacts for maintenance outfits that are familiar with and competent to work on this system. Matt's coolness and reassurances seemed to work; no firearms were needed. Besides, I really like the system, and I'm glad the problem was such a minor one. This put me in a better mood, so we left again, this time spending a couple of days at Elkhart to rest up before starting the trek south again. 

While at Elkhart or, I should say, in close-by Mishiwaka, we had a rather unusual experience at a Thai restaurant--unique, I must say, in all the thousands of restaurants we have patronized. It is no secret that I am a huge aficionado of Thai food, and I found this restaurant, Thai Lao, to be open only for one meal a week, that being dinner on Fridays. Well, it happened to be Friday, so Sandy agreed that we must give this a try. 

The one-day-per-week opening was not all that was unusual: The restaurant has no menu; the patrons have a choice of only one meal, and that is whatever the chef decides to cook. Besides that, there is no fixed price; when finished eating, the customers merely pay what they think the meal was worth. I gave them $50, which I thought was a bargain, considering what we were served. The owner seemed happy with this, so winner-winner!

The meal was not only delicious, it was enormous--six courses in all, including appetizer, soup, curry, pad Thai, a fish entree and dessert.  Everything was superb, but impossible to finish. The restaurant was crowded, and everyone seemed to take some of the leftovers home, as did we. Here is a photo of the modest little restaurant: 



Here's a photo inside, Sandy looking a little dubious of what we were about to be served::



Below is the appetizer we were served--wontons, barbecued chicken wings, egg rolls and crab Rangoon with three delicious sauces. I didn't want to overdo the photos, so I didn't include one of each course; but, take my word for it--each dish was beautiful and plentiful:



I think we had enough food left for another full meal, and it was just as good the next day.

On the trip south again, I was determined to avoid Indianapolis and Fort Wayne at all costs, due to the highway construction nightmares we had already experienced. So, I'm writing this from Terre Haute, Indiana. We came this way, mostly driving on two-lane roads through a dozen small towns and a million acres of cornfields. This was actually a very pleasant journey through middle America and little burgs that are good places for kids to grow up and get a good sense of family values and being good neighbors. They reminded both of us of the small towns in which we grew up and of which we still have good memories.

We are parked at a small but very nice and relaxing KOA park, and we have a great site. 




We liked the park so much that we decided to stay for three nights and take a looksee at Terre Haute, a new stopover for us.

Terre Haute, "Highland" in French, is a moderate-sized city on the Wabash River--so named because of some high bluffs on the riverbank near town. There is some industry here, as well as Indiana State University. However, what I found interesting was a couple of things that are familiar to everyone in the country, except almost no one knows their connection with Terre Haute.

One of these is Clabber Girl baking powder, which is manufactured here in Terre Haute. They make other products as well, but none as familiar as Clabber Girl. Baking powder was invented in 1843 in Germany and would ultimately be brought to Terre Haute through the wholesale grocery business that German immigrant Francis Hulman started in 1850. Clabber Girl baking powder dates from 1859 along with another less well-known brand, the substance being an acid-based leavening agent that was revolutionary for baking at the time.

Without getting too deep into its history, the Hulman family became very prosperous--so much so that one of the Hulman scions purchased the Indianapolis 500 Speedway in 1945. They were also very philanthropic and a major employer in Terre Haute and elsewhere in Indiana. The factory is still located in downtown Terre Haute behind this, the Hulman office building, the bottom floor of which contains an interesting museum:




One of the least noticed relics in the museum was a copy of a letter written in 1849 by Francis Hulman to his brother Herman in Germany, imploring him to come and join him in America. With all the controversy about immigration that is in the news these days, I thought it would be interesting to read the thoughts of this immigrant about his new country and its potential for success instead of its potential for handouts:

O Herman! Herman! Follow my advice. There is still time. You will lead an entirely different life, be a different person, a free man and a republican (he didn't mean the party, but the form of government) who is conscious of his worth and dignity as a man. In this free and happy America, poverty and ignorance do not reign; one can express his opinion freely, and there is no censorship. The laws are good, and wealth and well-being reign everywhere.

I try not to be too political in this blog, for it leads to nothing but controversy, but I do hope that we can keep this country like the one lauded above by Francis Hulman and avoid a descent into the socialism that inevitably brings about the destruction of what has made us so prosperous and free.

The other bit of historic trivia that I found interesting about Terre Haute involves Coca-Cola. Yes, the brand of soft drink that has the good fortune of more worldwide recognition than any other. It seems that, in 1915, the company was looking for a bottle design that would also be as distinctive as their logo, and the winning design was submitted by the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana. Root Glass Company survived under the ownership of several corporations until its demise in 1984. As you travel through town, visitors may notice that the local county museum proudly displays a commemorative sign on the side of its building:



Well, that's about it from Terre Haute; it's on to Red Bay from here. Stay tuned!

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; 
please forgive me if I fail to appreciate it each day as I should.

We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw

"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood








Monday, September 2, 2019

Sault St. Marie, Pictured Rocks, a Vision Problem, and a test for the Bigfoot Jacks

At Hidden Ridge RV Resort, Hopkins, Michigan...

I'll just go ahead and admit it now...we didn't allow enough time in the UP. There are a number of things we missed seeing, but we would have had to change RV parks to stay longer, and looking for RV space up here in the summer is quite a chore. However, that effort was eclipsed by another reason we had to start southward: I broke my eyeglasses beyond repair. It wasn't my fault; the glasses somehow jumped to the floor and, unnoticed by me, got in the way of my foot. I don't know why they didn't withstand my wispy 250 pounds on top of them, but they didn't, and they were a sorry sight afterward. Unfortunately, I did not have a spare set other than my prescription sunglasses, which aren't very helpful indoors or at night. My vision without glasses is not terrible, but definitely not sharp enough for safe driving. Watching television is like it was back when there were picture tubes, before HDTV came along.

This, more than anything else, required us to pull up stakes and head south to a larger city where I could get an exam and glasses ordered for the quickest delivery. Luckily, our travel day was bright and sunny and the sunglasses were perfect for driving, but I have vowed not to be without a spare set of regular eyeglasses in the future. So, we drove to Hopkins, Michigan, not far from Grand Rapids, and we are set up at Hidden Ridge RV Resort, a beautiful RV park where waiting for the new glasses will be a pleasure. 

Yes, I remember the title of this post, and I'll get to the subjects of Sault St. Marie and Pictured Rocks eventually. But first, let me show you a few photos of Hidden Ridge. This place has long been listed on our "Best of the Best RV Parks" page, and it is more than worthy of this rating:







We were assigned site #1 which, to our surprise, was not level at all. This was hardly in keeping with the park's status as one of the 'best of the best,' but I'm giving it a pass because this was clearly not the norm after looking at the rest of the sites. 

You can probably tell from the photo above that Phannie sets very high in the front and low in the back and with the right front wheel quite a bit higher than the left front. This was no problem for the new Bigfoot leveler system, however, for which this was its most significant test so far. After dumping the air from the suspension system and pressing the auto level button, Phannie leveled right up after a few tweaks by the big jacks. Such a leveling job would have been impossible with the old Atwood jacks. They would have just given up after a few clunks and clatters, and we would have been cockeyed for the whole visit. I am incredibly pleased with the new Bigfoot system; it is worth every dime. I wish we had upgraded sooner!

Okay, let's get back to a few days ago before the saga of the eyeglasses: 

After our fun visit to Mackinac Island, we hopped into Mae the next day and set out to Sault St. Marie to take a look at what we learned was the oldest town in Michigan, founded in 1668. This was a bit coincidental to me, as my home town is Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas, founded in 1779. Both towns have a rich history, having first been Indian settlements dating back thousands of years. The name Sault St. Marie, in French, refers to the rapids of St. Mary's--that being the river flowing from Lake Superior to Lake Huron, which is 21 feet lower than Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. The drop in elevation, of course, caused the rapids formed by the river.

Shipping in the early 19th century was almost impossible from Lake Superior to Lake Huron due to the rapids. Anything contemplated for such a journey would have to be floated to the shore of Lake Superior, dismantled, carried around the rapids and reassembled at Lake Huron's shoreline.  Finally, the first locks bypassing the rapids were built in 1855, and four others were built between 1896 and 1943, the latter being able to handle oceangoing vessels. There is also a new "super lock" under construction. The four current main locks are operated by the U. S. Corps of Engineers, and there is one small lock operated by the Canadian government that is too small to be used by other than pleasure craft. (The center of the St. Mary's River separates the U. S. and Canada at this point so, if you go through the Canadian locks, you are, technically, in Canada, as you are on the Canadian side of the river.)

Since we had had never seen the Soo locks before (or any locks, for that matter), we decided to go on a tour boat that would itself traverse the locks, giving us a hands-on experience, so to speak:



We had a little time to kill before our tour, so we decided to have lunch at a local restaurant, where we ordered a seafood platter that was so-so and whitefish chowder, which was pretty good; it was, however, a long way from really good clam chowder:


This might be a good time to comment on our seafood findings in the UP. Frankly, we haven't been impressed. Whitefish and perch seem to be the most popular varieties of fish available and, frankly, they just don't compare with good ol' southern catfish, plus the shrimp and salt water varieties of fish we get from the Gulf of Mexico back home. 

We've found a few places up here that do certain dishes well enough (pasties, for example), but at the time of our visit to Sault St. Marie, we had found only one that made our favorites list here on the blog, and that was in Traverse City. There will end up being more, as you will soon see.  

We've found a killer little Chinese joint here in Grand Rapids that will make the list, for sure--Chopstick House--a tiny, inexpensive hole-in-the wall with six tables and huge servings so good and fresh that it will almost make you cry. We will definitely return there.

Yes, yes, I know--I'm digressing again; let's get back to the tour of the locks. The boat ride was very informative and worth the price of admission. The weather wasn't too great, however; it was rainy and cold, and we spent a good deal of time on the enclosed lower deck.  I do have some photos, however. Here's the boat entering one of the American locks on the Lake Huron side. Once inside the lock the boat will have to be raised 21 feet to get to the elevation of Lake Superior:



Here is a photo after we entered the lock, showing its gates closing behind us. The lock will now be filled with several million gallons of water from Lake Superior. Note the depth of the boat in relation to the concrete walls. The deck we're on will eventually rise completely over this wall as the water also rises:



Here's a photo of the boat having been raised to Lake Superior level; the gates will soon open, allowing us to proceed. Note how much higher the boat is now in relation to the concrete walls still visible on the left and right:



Coming back from the Lake Superior side to the Lake Huron side, we went through the small Canadian lock. This time, the water had to be drained from the lock to lower it to the Lake Huron level. Here are three photos showing the progression against the side of the lock. Here's the first, with the lock full (see the Canadian flag?): 



Here, the lock has half emptied. The vertical cables you see behind the yellow protective material is for the boats to tie onto, allowing their shore lines to move upward or downward as the water level changes:


Below, the lock has emptied and the gates to lake Huron have opened:



Okay, that is probably enough about the locks; you get the idea. It's not rocket science, but one has to be impressed with the engineering and work that went into building these very busy locks, some of them having been constructed more than a hundred years ago. Amazingly, 10,000 merchant ships transit these locks each year, and you have to remember that the locks are open for only six months out of the year due to the long frigid winter when everything is frozen over. During the months they are closed, maintenance is performed on the locks to keep the ancient machinery operable.

We weren't really motivated to take photos of the town because it is relatively nondescript and weathered looking (for obvious reasons), and the cold rain that day wasn't really conducive to our getting out and looking for memorable things to photograph. We did enjoy our very informative tour of the locks and this area of the country we had always heard about but had never seen before. 

The next day was to be the last at our RV park in St. Ignace, so we headed for Munising, a couple of hours away, to take another boat tour--this time of Pictured Rocks. I had heard of these for decades, and we were glad finally to be seeing them in person. We arrived just before our sailing time, so we went right on board with about two dozen other passengers:



Sitting on the top deck, we were quite cold in the windy ride out to the rocks. Sandy was glad she had a hooded coat (sorry, fellow Texans; we see the temps down there):



I hate to admit it, but we were a little underwhelmed by Pictured Rocks, which is merely the exposed rocky shoreline of a part of Lake Superior near Munising. The boat captain performed a lively narration of the rock formations, pointing out images that could, in some places, be recognized in the sandstone shoreline. I think the problem was that my amateur photography couldn't possibly capture the beauty of the area that I had seen in magazines where the images were photographed by professionals. But it was interesting, and we learned a lot from the glib narrative--especially about lake Superior and how immense it is. (For example, the water within it could fill three of the smaller Great Lakes.) 

Here are a few photos I took that really don't do justice to the place. I wish I could have captured fully the beauty of the clear bluegreen water juxtaposed against the sandstone cliffs that were eroded in strange ways by the water and crumbling in some areas:










Near the end of the tour, we saw a lighthouse built during the civil war and decommissioned in 1906 when other lights were installed at the harbor. I liked the look of it, and I'm glad it's being restored. Notice that some of the leaves are already turning fall colors here, even though it was still August when I took the photo:



After the boat tour, we were hungry, so I tried to find a good local restaurant on Yelp. Up popped a Mexican joint named Taco Primo with some really good reviews. We were instantly skeptical, for we have had very poor luck finding decent Tex-Mex food outside Texas. And in Sault St. Marie? Really? What were the chances?  (And don't even think about mentioning Taco Bell as a possibility; no self-respecting Texan would show his face in one of those.)

However, sometimes Yelp can produce a hit; that's how we found the Chopstick House in Grand Rapids. So, we held our breath and asked Siri to take us there, praying all the way. We were desperate for Mexican food, yet had been afraid of trying such places for the last thousand miles because of the likelihood of disappointment (or worse). We braced ourselves for a another letdown, but we ordered some carne asada tacos. I handed back the menu and thought about our FMCA insurance benefit of being able to call for a life flight jet if we needed to be flown somewhere for treatment. 

The friendly waitress promptly served us chips and salsa while we waited. The tostadas were okay, but the salsa--oh my, was it wimpy! I had to pour a stream of hot sauce into it to get it up to an edible level of heat. Soon, the tacos came, and we gingerly took a bite. Dang! They were good--really good! They were so good, in fact, that we wished we had ordered more. And, just at that moment, the waitress brought two more servings that we hadn't ordered. Sandy and I looked at each other, and I pondered for a moment whether I should say something about the extra little treat or just consume the windfall before they discovered the error.     

Then, afraid that God was testing my honesty, I called the waitress over and pointed out the error. She said, "That's okay, it was the chef's mistake; he read the ticket wrong. They're on the house." I was giddy, just giddy, and we ate every bite of both orders. I thought that, since I passed the test for honesty, God just might give me a pass for my obvious gluttony. 

I just have to include a photo of the place. I am still incredulous that we would find decent Mexican food in this little lakeside town within a stone's throw of Canada, of all places. After a little indecision, I've decided to include Taco Primo in my favorite restaurants list, in spite of the wimpy salsa. And for those of you who would think the worst of me (and you know who you are), I was not at all influenced by the extra serving I got for free. At least, I don't think I was. It's because the food was good, and I credit it for helping me survive until the next satisfactory Mexican food fix.



And so, we bid farewell to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a place we had been a little lukewarm about visiting, but so glad we did. We have even decided to return  someday to see some of the things we missed. 

I'll leave you with this sunset photo (my favorite thing to shoot) that I took as we were leaving Munising and the Pictured Rocks area. 




Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; 
please forgive me if I fail to appreciate it each day as I should.

We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw

"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Mackinac Island

At Lakeshore RV Park Campground, St. Ignace, Michigan...

I need to back up a day and show you a photo of a storm approaching our RV park on Lake Michigan around sunset when we returned from Petoskey:



I was captivated by the speed at which the storm was moving and the waves the wind produced. Since the far shoreline is so distant, the body of water looks like an ocean, especially judged by the breaking of the waves onto the beach. 

Although this was a fairly mild storm, I can see how vicious the weather could be on the Great Lakes and how a huge ship like the Edmund Fitzgerald met its fate. By the way, I had a bit of a surprise from younger members of my family who had no clue about the Edmund Fitzgerald, even though I thought her sinking in 1975 and the loss of all hands aboard seemed pretty well immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot's song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. But then, I thought, that really was a long time ago to the youngsters, who thought that time period was when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. 

Oh well. I won't go into the details of her sinking here; it's too easy to get it from Wikipedia. For those whose interest has already waned to a point where not a single mouse click is worth it, here is a photo of the freighter four years before her sinking near Sault St. Marie, Michigan in 500 feet of water. At the time, she was the largest freighter sailing on the great lakes, and I find her story quite captivating. It is available in a number of books written about the accident.

Photo from Wikipedia

So, I digress; well, that's nothing new, is it? Let's get back to Mackinac Island. We bought a round-trip ticket from St. Ignace on Shepler's, the oldest ferry boat company with the best facilities, we observed. The trip to the island took about 15 minutes, and some of the passengers on the top deck got a little wet from the bow wake caught in the wind. I was one of them, of course. Sandy took this photo of me with my sunglasses removed due to the spray. The right side of my shirt was also wet:



The weather was just about perfect, as you can see...puffy clouds and the temperature in the low 70s.  In the next photo, we're approaching the harbor. I'll have a good photo of the boat later:


The first surprise was that the Michigan governor's summer 'house' is here on Mackinac. Here it is, overlooking the harbor:



 Once docked, you stroll out onto the main drag where, of course, there are no motorized vehicles--just horse-drawn carriages and lorries and about 50,000 bicycles that can be rented from several places near the harbor. If you look closely in the photo below, you can see a horse-drawn carriage going away from the camera and another coming toward it. There's also a bicycle on the right side of the street. I'm amazed that the camera caught only one bike. In another minute, there would probably have been a dozen more in the photo:



The next photo shows some of the very nice older homes on Shoreline Drive, a lovely street very close to the waterfront. We took a long walk on this boardwalk, enjoying the perfect weather, not thinking all that much about the Hades-like oven in some of those states way down south, including the one we call home, whatever it is:



The main attraction in Mackinac, of course, is the Grand Hotel, built by a railroad consortium in 1887 and claiming the world's longest porch, something that is quite believable. Rooms at the opening of the hotel rented for $3 to $6 per night, the equivalent of $85 to $140 nowadays. By the way, you can rent a standard room  today for around $500 per night (but here's the good news: You also get breakfast). It is, of course, the setting for the romantic movie, Somewhere in Time, filmed in 1979, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour:



Below are some more photos of the hotel, starting with the front entrance, where guests are dropped off from carriages and greeted by liveried bellmen with the iconic round hats you see in the old movies. (I'm very irritated that I failed to get a photo of one of the hotel's beautiful carriages, which commoners like us can ride to the hotel for $5.50.)



Inside the hotel to the right is a promenade leading to very upscale shops and a venue for tea:



Forward and left is the main lobby where, if you look closely, you can see a harpist, who was playing softly in the background at the time. It was all very, well, Grand:



Of course, Sandy and I were obligated to make an appearance on the famed porch, in order to get full value for the $10 each they charge just for you to look at the place if you're not registered there:




At the risk of bringing way down the level of sophistication of this narrative, I feel compelled now to point out an observation regarding, well, horse dung. I can't help it; I see things that are unusual or unexpected, and I feel an obligation to comment on them, my only thought being for the humor, edification or disgust of my dear readers, as the case may be. I hope it is more of the first two than the last.

You see, with hundreds of horses pulling carriages and wagons through the streets around town and in the driveways encircling the pristine grounds and buildings of the Grand Hotel, there is almost always within view a little smattering of excreta from these magnificent animals. One thing I've noticed about horses is that they appear to have no sense of timing or modesty as to when or in front of whom these expulsions occur, bless their hearts. 

If these fragrant little piles were allowed to linger through the passage of several dozen horses, the result would be an accumulation that would not fit perfectly the general theme of opulence that is obviously the desire of the hotel management. To my utter amazement, with every one of these, ah, aromatic events, a hotel attendant suddenly emerges from some unseen hideaway, pulling a cart containing a shovel and a broom, deftly scooping up the detritus, leaving the roadway as clean as the day the asphalt was laid down. I estimate that the time that passed before the little pillows dropped and then disappeared to be approximately three minutes. Don't believe me?  See for yourself:



Now this begs the question, "Who, exactly, applies for such a position and how much is he paid?" I also wondered what he says when someone asks what his profession is. I thought it would be a bit unseemly to ask these things of the worker in the photo, so I suppose I will never know the answer. That will be another one of those imponderables, of which I have many, I'm afraid.

I should mention that the gentleman above is not alone, by any means, in his performance of this obviously necessary duty. The town itself employs a whole regiment of these brave poop scoopers, whose job downtown is ever so much more intense, due to the far greater number of horses involved. They do an amazing job of keeping the streets fairly clean but, even so, I must tell you that there is the almost constant slight odor of horse manure in most parts of the town, unless there is a strong breeze blowing off the lake. I would assume, then, that the residents themselves would have the scent wafting up the hill toward them from the harbor. But who knows--perhaps to the natives, it is the smell of money, and there is no shortage of that left behind when the tourists sail away on the last ferry at 10:00 p.m. each evening.

Well, I trust that was quite enough narrative on the matter of horse droppings, so let's move on to something more pleasant--fudge! It is not clear to me what it is about Mackinac Island that compels tourists to buy fudge--and quite a lot of it, based on the number of 
dispensaries lining Main Street. There are no fewer than 13 fudge shops on the island, requiring the importing of ten tons of sugar per week to supply the demand. This is incredible, based on the fact that most of the visitors we saw were hardly spring chickens, including ourselves, and most of whom, in all likelihood, would have gotten a stern lecture from their doctors if they knew they were fudge-diving like this. 

So, you're assuming that we put our good health above the temptation, right?  El wrongo! We moseyed into Murdick's Fudge Company and, immediately spying a stack of substantial little slabs of butter pecan fudge, I demanded a sample, which the young lady behind the counter happily provided. This was lucky for her, because I think I could have taken her hostage, even at my age, if she had refused. 

The sample was small, but it was enough. Sandy and I both love anything butter pecan, and this little morsel was like opium to an addict. "I'll take two dozen," I almost said, catching myself and instead saying, "I'll take one." I thought that was remarkably restrained, and I hoped that some of the chemicals in the the many prescriptions I ingest have taken care of the sin of that indulgence. 

Here's a photo of one of the candymakers who has just poured out a fresh batch of hot fudge onto a marble slab and is waiting for it to cool. The piece in the foreground has been formed and cooled and is ready to cut into slices:



This is the slice of butter pecan fudge that we bought. (It no longer exists):



We also bought some souvenirs for the kids, and there were, of course, many shops open for that purpose.

So that was our experience at Mackinac Island, and we're glad we went. We had always imagined what this famed place looked like, but there's just no substitute for being there.

Leaving for St. Ignace, we thought our ferry was having a race with another Shepler boat of the same type as ours. However, the other boat broke off in a few minutes, as it was headed to nearby Mackinaw City:



I hope you enjoyed our story about Mackinac Island. Our next post will be about Sault St. Marie. Stay tuned!


Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; 
please forgive me if I fail to appreciate it each day as I should.

We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw



"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood