Corn, Corn, Soybeans, Corn

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Once you clear Joliet when traveling west through Illinois, you find yourself in the corn belt. I’ve heard people talk about driving through states like Iowa or Kansas: “it’s just a lot of corn.” Well, that is an understatement! We have never seen so much corn in our lives! It’s more than acres upon acres, even more than mile after mile. It’s really difficult to describe. From the passenger seat, I kept trying to capture the vastness of the corn fields through the window and it was just impossible. Even this picture, which I found on the internet, doesn’t really do it justice.

If it’s not corn growing in the fields, it’s soybeans. I’d say maybe one field of soybeans for every three of corn. There aren’t really a lot of cattle or dairy farms out here because the land is devoted to growing these two crops. In Iowa, there are currently 86,900 farms, most of which are family owned (only 3% are corporate). Around 90% of Iowa is farmland. In 2019, Iowa farms harvested around 2.5 billion bushels of corn from 13.1 million acres of land. It isn’t the sweet corn we wait patiently for every summer, this is “field corn,” primarily used for livestock feed, ethanol production and manufacturing, as well as corn cereal, corn starch, corn oil and high fructose corn syrup. Corn is in more than 4,000 other manufactured products like shampoo, toothpaste, chewing gum, marshmallows, crayons and paper. I won’t even get into how much corn is exported. In 2020, corn production in the United States was a $75 billion industry and in Iowa the majority of farmers are over the age of 60; only 9% are under age 35, which is a real concern — who will continue to farm this land in the future? If young people don’t become farmers, who will grow America’s crops? Will we end up buying them from other countries?

We have been traveling for a few days past the corn. Looking at this map of the corn belt, the red dot farthest to the right is Joliet, Illinois. You can follow the red dots and arrows west along our approximate route. We’ve visited Tiffin, Iowa (just outside Iowa City), then northwest to Mason City, Iowa, further northwest to Victoria, Minnesota, back down southwest to Jackson, Minnesota and finally landing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Although this map illustrates the amount of corn production, you can also consider it a reflection of the density of corn fields.

Hard to see, but connecting the dots from right to left: Joliet, IL, Tiffin, IA, Mason City, IA, Victoria, MN, Jackson, MN, and Sioux Falls, SD.

The Iowa City area was a real surprise. It’s a good sized city, but there are no high-rise buildings so it looks like the midwestern city you’ve seen in geography books, sort of caught in time. It’s growing, though. That’s evidenced by the interstate construction taking commuters to a lot of new housing and retail developments in neighboring towns.

Just outside of Iowa City is possibly the most beautiful park we’ve camped in yet. I know, I said that about Letchworth! F.W. Kent Park is equally beautiful, but in a different way. This is tallgrass prairie, where the rolling hills used to grow tall grasses and wildflowers that thrived on the rain and snow melt. F.W. Kent Park is over 1,000 acres of rolling prairie with a lake and nine miles of hiking and biking trails. It’s incredibly well-maintained. There’s an accessible fishing dock, a beach, multiple private picnic pavilions, a developed walking path around the lake with historic bridges and an 84-site campground that is entirely first-come, first-served with electricity (no water at the sites) at a cost of $20 per night. It was just beautiful! I booked only one night here, and am sorry that I didn’t book a week. We’ll definitely visit this park again!

The pond at F.W. Kent Park, Tiffin, IA.
One of seven historic bridges that were moved from other parts of Iowa to this park.
Our campsite at sunset.

Mason City, Iowa, was just an overnight Walmart stop … a place to get some sleep for free before moving along. Just before departing the next morning, I happened to take a look at one of our favorite websites, Atlas Obscura, to see if there were any sites worth seeing nearby. Believe it or not, we were about five miles from the site of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper! There’s a memorial set up on the side of a gravel road beside the corn field, and about ¼ mile into the field is another memorial at the actual crash site. The field is still privately owned and they still grow corn, but there is a path to the memorial. We couldn’t leave Mason City without paying our respects!

Memorial to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper,
the day the music died.

You might wonder why we bothered to jag northward into Minnesota. We were here to see Paisley Park, the home and recording studio of Prince.

I’d never been a huge fan of Prince’s music … I liked a couple of songs, but most weren’t my cup of tea. Then, in 2013 some friends invited me to a concert of his in Connecticut. We ended up in the seventh row center. I have to say that Prince put on the most entertaining concert I’ve ever seen. He’s an incredibly talented guitarist, band leader, dancer and showman. I am very glad that I got to see him live.

This past spring, we caught a 60-Minutes story about Paisley Park, Prince’s studio outside Minneapolis and, more interestingly, his vault which is supposed to contain somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 songs that he has written and, in many instances, recorded. We were curious and wanted to learn more. The story of Prince is so much more than that crazy artist who dropped his real name and used a symbol — the guy really was a musical genius. He played almost every instrument on his recordings, he wrote the songs, arranged, mixed, edited and produced them all. He wrote songs under pseudonyms so that nobody would know it was him, songs for Patti LaBelle, Cyndi Lauper, Chaka Khan, Madonna, even Kenny Rogers. You wouldn’t have known it by looking at him or watching him perform, but he was only a year younger than me. He was obsessed with looking youthful and worked hard at it. It’s such a shame that he fell victim to opioid addiction as so many others have.

When I looked at Atlas Obscura a couple of months ago and realized that we would be passing just an hour or so from Paisley Park, there was no question that we would stop and check it out. This is a 55,000 square foot facility that looks more like a commercial building than a home and studio. We toured the first level which comprised 4 recording studios, offices, a basketball court/dance rehearsal studio, a sound stage and nightclub where he would occasionally invite the public for private concerts. Security was incredibly tight, with tall fencing around the perimeter, guards, etc. They even made us turn off our phones and place them into little locked bags which were unlocked just before we left the building. Needless to say, it was pretty interesting.

Clockwise from top: Exterior of Paisley Park, entrance to first floor recording studios, and the nightclub where he’d perform for neighbors and the public for free.
Standing only 5’3” tall, Prince wore a lot of costumes with long coats to give an illusion of height. He also almost always wore high heels. Hard to see in the bottom picture, but this is how his security detail got him into concert venues: he sat on a little bench in an empty wardrobe locker and they wheeled him in!

While in Victoria, we stayed in a large and lovely park called Lake Auburn/Carter Park Preserve. The park is huge with miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding plus a beautiful paved bike path and a 27-acre totally fenced dog park where Tessa could run free. The campground only provides electricity at sites, bring your own water or fill up at a community spigot. This is the first campground we’ve ever been to that does not provide a shower house for campers! So, while it’s a lovely park, plan accordingly!

Tessa enjoying the huge dog park and relaxing at our campsite.

We left Victoria and headed back southwesterly to Jackson, Minnesota, for a Harvest Host stay. Fort Belmont is a recreated prairie fort that was used by civilians in the mid 1800’s when they were threatened with attacks by Indians. This was not a military fort. We were met by Doug, who was beyond friendly and gave us a personal one-on-one tour of the museum complex. All of the buildings on the property were lifted off their foundations in other parts of town and relocated here on flatbeds except the sod house, which was built by historians. It’s a pretty cool place that I recommend to our Harvest Host RV friends, especially those interested in history.

Clockwise from top: Civilian fort and blacksmith’s shop, the church which was moved on a huge flatbed, and sod house.

There was a bonus to staying at Fort Belmont … a music festival! The Rhythm on the River festival was a day-long concert by various local artists. Although we had reservations at a campground to get to, we made sure we stuck around for a couple hours of live music!

Rhythm on the River Music Festival.

And, finally, we arrived in South Dakota, which has been our first goal of this trip! We’ll be touring this state for a few weeks, so until the next blog post . . . Be well!

Not Our First Rodeo

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It feels like a long time since we visited upstate New York, but it’s been just over two weeks. That shows you how experiences can matter more than dates on a calendar!

We left beautiful Letchworth State Park and continued west. We’ve been enjoying traveling on local roads instead of the interstates. Sure, it takes longer to get to your destination, but you can relax more on the drive and see so much more along the way. We traveled on route 20 along the southern shore of Lake Erie through western New York, the Pennsylvania panhandle (I never realized that PA had a panhandle before), Ohio and Indiana. Yes, we’ve been on the move!

Our first stop was a Harvest Host called Arundel Cellars & Brewing in a town called North East, PA. (That could get confusing … “Where are you from?” “North East, PA.” “But, what town?” “North East.” Sort of like Who’s on first!) Usually, when you arrive at a Harvest Host there is a very brief sign-in procedure followed by instructions on the best place to park for the night and an invitation to go in for some refreshment. When I entered this place, there was a woman behind the bar, so I stepped forward and introduced myself: “Hi! We’re your Harvest Host guests for this evening!” She seemed a little frazzled and detached and replied, “I’m a little busy right now, so … you can just drive out past the dumpsters and there’s a field out there. Park anywhere out there.” 

Since this isn’t our first rodeo, we knew better than to blindly drive our class A motorhome with an attached car down a narrow dirt road and into an unexplored field! Besides, there was already another class A that had arrived ahead of us and they were not in the field, they were in the parking lot off to the side. We decided to park near them and take the dog for a walk down the dirt road to investigate. 

Before I go further, you should know that RVing and trains are a running joke between the two of us. Its amazing how many campgrounds and RV parks are built near railroad tracks. We’ve gotten used to hearing the occasional train rumble by at night, we’ll hear the horn and go right back to sleep. So, when we stepped out of the motorhome at Arundel and the first thing that happened was the very loud “WHAAAAAAA-wa-WHAAAAAAAAA” of an approaching train, we started laughing. We walked down the dirt road past the dumpsters and found ourselves walking toward the field and the train tracks! As we walked, another train announced itself and passed. Within the first 15 minutes of our arrival, we counted SIX trains! 

The field looked soft, unmowed, sloped down from the dirt road and there was a hidden culvert pipe that anyone could get stuck on. That field was a hard no for us! We would have been calling a tow truck to pull us out of there the next morning! Plus, instead of being 600 feet from the tracks, we would have been 100 feet. No, thank you! We stayed put in the parking lot. 

Fortunately, the train activity slowed down at night. We tasted some of Arundel’s offerings, had a bite to eat and managed to sleep fairly well that night. The next morning we moved on to another Harvest Host location.

Rainbow Farm in Madison, Ohio, is a vegetable and fruit farm with a cute little market store. It’s in an interesting location, tucked into a neighborhood, their fields go way back with a dirt road winding it’s way past pick-your-own currants, gooseberries and strawberries. We were parked between fields of newly-planted strawberries and pepper plants just starting to blossom. In front of us were squash and pumpkins, and we could see a blueberry patch a little farther up the road still maturing. A couple of other rigs arrived and were parked in a different part of the field so everyone had space. We watched the field hands lay irrigation pipe while the baby Killdeer birds chased their parents down the rows begging for food. It was pretty peaceful. I visited the farm store and bought some fresh eggs, but it was too early in the season to be able to stock up on fresh veggies. After a leisurely breakfast the next morning, we hit the road.

Most of the time, our campground stops are good, but now and then there is a disappointment. Our next stop was one of those. East Harbor State Park sits on a peninsula just east of Toledo, Ohio. It juts out into Lake Erie and boasts a few hundred level asphalt campsites, a beach, a dog beach and a hiking trail along the lakeshore. Because of its location, this park is very popular and gets booked quickly, so I had spent a good amount of time searching for the right site for our class A. I often don’t have much to go on … I read all the reviews I can find, look at any campground maps and photos I can find online and use Google Earth to see what the sites look like from above. Sometimes, unfortunately, that just isn’t enough.

We arrived at the campground two hours early because I mistakenly read that check-in time was 1pm … wrong, that’s check OUT time. The gatekeeper told us that we’d have to wait until he received word that our site was ready. Understandable. While we waited, I went out for groceries while Bob took Tessa for a walk. 

When I rejoined Bob, the rain started … pouring rain! Of course, that was when we were told we could proceed to our site! We arrived at our site only to discover that it pitched down 12” making the site impossible for us to use. (We would have had to park our rear wheels on top of several leveling blocks, and we are not willing to use that many blocks.) Fortunately, the woman in the office was super helpful and we were able to move to a site that was much flatter.

Ultimately, although we had booked two nights at this campground, we left after one. There were just too many things wrong at this place. The sites were narrow, the fire rings were very close to the neighbor’s rig, our walk on the lakeside path was a mine-field of goose poop, we tried and tried but never did find the dog beach. Our neighbor on one side had parked right up next to our site and when Bob knocked on his door asking him to move it, he was told “not until it stops raining” (we had been standing out in the rain trying to figure out how to get into the site, so that didn’t fly with us). The deciding factor was when our other neighbor’s fire, on a very humid night (humidity not allowing the smoke to rise into the atmosphere) smoked us out forcing us to close our windows for the entire night … East Harbor State Park just wasn’t for us.

Our neighbor’s fire ring about 12 feet from our windows.

Fortunately, most of our campground experiences are positive, or at least neutral. We rarely find ourselves in a park that we really don’t care for. This was one of the rare instances.

We moved on, pushing west through Ohio. Fun fact: Ohio’s interstate rest areas have RV parking lots with about a dozen spaces and electric hookups! If you’re looking for a place to sleep, for $20 you can plug in, get something to eat and a good night’s sleep without even leaving the highway. It worked well for us, and the next day we arrived in Elkhart, Indiana.

Elkhart is the RV Capital of the World. Many of the major RV manufacturers have factories there, as well as all the smaller companies that supply parts. We saw flatbed trucks filled with RV doors, axles and chassis frames. The reason we came here was to replace the sofa in our motorhome, which was starting to deteriorate. We purchased two swivel recliners from Bradd & Hall furniture. The recliners are made by Lambright, which is an Amish furniture making outfit in nearby Shipshewana, Indiana, where there is a large Amish community. We love the recliners! We also had a rock chip fixed by the RV Glass business that was right next to Bradd & Hall, so Elkhart is sort of a one-stop shopping place for everything RV related.

Out with the old, in with the new!

We really enjoyed our stay at Elkhart Campground. It was clean, well-maintained, and the staff was very accommodating when I asked if they could relocate us from a site in full sun to a site with trees. Elkhart also has an RV museum, which was a lot of fun to explore.

The first “motorhome” – 1916 “Telescoping Apartment” on a 1915 Model A Ford. The kitchen and wardrobe compartments “telescoped” out from the sleeping compartment. Warm water for a shower was produced by radiator heat for the engine. The unit sold for $100.

Our last night in Elkhart, Bob returned from walking the dog to say that he had met a couple who invited us over to sit outside and strum guitars. It could have been the craft beers we were sharing, or the great music and conversation, or it could be that there are some people you just “click” with. We had a great time meeting Priscilla and Scott! We found that we have a lot in common. The funniest thing was when we discussed our various stays with Harvest Hosts, and Priscilla said that they had recently stayed at a winery where a previous guest had posted to be careful if they tell you to park in the field near the train tracks … that was Arundel Cellars and my review that she had read! LOL. We hope to meet up with Priscilla and Scott again on our travels.

Priscilla, Bob and Scott. It’s great making new friends!

We left Elkhart behind and continued west. On I-80 south of Chicago we crossed over a massive chasm that had been cut into the earth. It looked like a quarry, and a little research proved that it isn’t just any quarry, but one of the largest aggregate (i.e., sand & gravel) quarries in the world, Thornton Quarry. It was startling how large it was, and that the interstate crossed right over it. I tried to take pictures from the motorhome, but of course they didn’t do it justice, so here’s a bird’s eye view from Google Earth.

Still heading west, heading for the Hawkeye State! Stay tuned!

Wow! It keeps getting better!

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Each time I finish a blog post, I think that our next stop can’t possibly be as good as the last. And each time, I’m proven wrong.

We left northern Vermont and crossed the bridge over Lake Champlain into upstate New York, known locally as the North Country. As I said in a previous post, it’s amazing that we never visit the places close to home, but are quick to jump on a jet and travel hours to the other side of the planet when there is SO much to see right in our own backyards. This proves the point.

How did I not know that the “thousand islands” and the St. Lawrence River was so spectacular? Or that Letchworth State Park even existed??? Both are such an easy drive from central Connecticut!

We started in Grass Point State Park campground, which is right on the St. Lawrence River nestled among the 1,000 islands. The islands are fascinating, having been formed at the end of the last ice age by glacial runoff that filled what is now the St. Lawrence River. Thousands of islands were left exposed. There are 1,864 islands, to be exact. In order to be considered an island, the land that sticks above the water must have two features: it must remain above the water all the time, never being flooded over, and it must have at least one tree. The islands range in size from 30,000 acre Wolfe Island to the smallest at 1/13th of an acre, an island called “Just Room Enough Island” which was just big enough for a small house.

One of the islands was purchased by George Boldt, the man who founded the Waldorf Astoria hotel empire. A self-made millionaire who immigrated to the United States from Prussia, Boldt owned several hundred acres of land and a home on nearby Wellesley Island. He and his family would spend summers there, and in 1900 he purchased an island, hired an architect and hundreds of workers to begin work on a gift for his wife, Louise: a six story, 120 room castle complete with tunnels, a powerhouse, boat house, Italian gardens, a drawbridge and a “play house” for the children. Unfortunately, in 1904 Louise died unexpectedly. Boldt sent word to the construction crew to cease work immediately. The castle was never completed and Boldt never set foot on the island again. The island lay dormant for 73 years until the State of New York bought the property and eventually opened it to the public for tours.

On our drive toward the Thousand Islands area, we passed an old gas station with an interesting sign out front. It was called “Dick’s Country Store and Music Oasis.” Well, anything calling itself a “Music Oasis” turns our heads. I grabbed my phone and did a quick search online, revealing that Dick’s started as a small gas and grocery business several decades ago, and over the years they added guns and guitars to their shelves. The business took off, expansion was necessary, and now this is a well-known store for regional musicians as well as those passing through, who will occasionally pull together a random jam session in the store (we were not lucky enough to witness that). The store was so interesting … all the way up here in New York’s north country, a thousand guitars, a thousand guns … and a few groceries. Oh, and if you saw the 2012 film “Promised Land” with Matt Damon and John Krasinski and remember “Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas,” this was the basis for that characterization as they visited the store while filming in the north country.

Next stop, after the Thousand Islands, was a Harvest Host location for one night. Prison City Brewery in Auburn, New York, is pretty new, having just opened their first location in 2014. Since then, they bought a farm in town and started building a new brew facility and taproom, which opened in mid-pandemic December 2020. Somehow, they managed to stay afloat (maybe their great beers had something to do with that), and their new facility is large and awesome. Not only did we enjoy a flight of brews and get a good night’s sleep in their parking lot, but we met a great RVing couple, Lauren and Jeff. They are of similar age to us, live in upstate New York and are seriously considering full-time RV life. They’ve been traveling for a few winters now, so we exchanged lots of thoughts, ideas and laughs.

Finally, we arrived at Letchworth State Park. I never knew about Letchworth, but a few months ago a Facebook friend, Sharon, posted some pictures of incredible waterfalls that she had stumbled across. It was Letchworth State Park, also known as The Grand Canyon of the East. What??? I’ve lived in Connecticut my entire life and never heard of the Grand Canyon of the East. Bob had also never heard of it. Well, this park turned out to be a great Father’s Day gift to my husband!

This is one of the largest state parks we’ve ever visited, and by far the most beautiful. USA Today called Letchworth the #1 state park in the entire country. From small things that we usually take for granted, like the pristine roadside landscaping, to the grand things like the three impressive waterfalls, this park does not disappoint! There is a huge campground with almost 400 sites, but it is very well planned with multiple smaller loops so that you feel like you are in a small campground, yet there is a camp store, playground, and even a laundry facility in the middle accessible to all. There are hiking trails everywhere, as well as mountain biking and horseback trails. Bob described the gorge best: it is a blend of Niagara Falls and The Grand Canyon. The waterfalls are spectacular! For accommodations there’s the campground, three different areas of camping cabins, a handful of historic private homes for rent, a rustic lodge and the historic Glen Iris inn … they have given you every opportunity to visit. At only 6 hours from the Hartford area, there is no reason why anyone in New England should not see this park.

The local Seneca Indians were fond of saying that once a day the sun would pause in the sky and smile when it saw the waterfalls. William Letchworth, a very successful entrepreneur and humanitarian, spotted this gorge during a train trip, purchased 1,000 acres and an old house here in the mid 1800’s and turned it into a beautiful lodge, a place where he could escape from the city and grinds of business. Never married and worried that the gorge would not be protected after his death, he donated the property to the State of New York just after the turn of the century. His home, Glen Iris, is now an inn and restaurant within the park.

Way down river at the northernmost edge of the gorge is a large dam constructed and maintained by the Army Corp of Engineers. We took a tour of the dam and learned that it’s a dry gravity dam, constructed of 22 different vertical concrete sections. It boggles the mind, really, to think of how it was built with poured concrete, pouring the odd-number sections in place first, and after those were thoroughly cured the even-numbered sections were poured. Inside the dam is a series of tunnels, stairs, ladders and doors making it possible for personnel to move from one side of the dam to the other no matter what the situation. Being a dry dam, under normal circumstances you do not see the dam holding back water, it’s purpose is to control flooding down river. During those flooding events, which happen about once a year, the water level increases on the up-river side of the dam. The weight of the water pushes against the concrete structure causing the front of the dam to “dig in” and hold the water back. A series of conduits and baffles at the bottom of the dam allow water to escape in a controlled manner so that towns and farms are not flooded. Pretty darn interesting!

In the interesting people department, we met a pair of sisters on the dam tour. Helen and Cathy are retired nurse and teacher from Long Island, New York. They love hiking, kayaking, skiing and pretty much just being active. We had a great conversation with them about travel and our previous careers but had to part ways. When we returned to the campground, we met a fellow named Mike while walking our dogs. When asked about his beautiful senior golden retriever named Luke (who looked amazingly like the golden we had years ago), he mentioned that he had received Luke years ago as payment for guitar lessons. Yes, he taught guitar for many years so, of course, we invited him to bring his guitar over and “jam” with Bob.

We finished up five fabulous nights at Letchworth State Park with dinner at the Glen Iris Inn. I can’t wait to see what the next leg of our journey has in store!

Friends and Family

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Bob’s mother was originally from Ft. Kent, Maine. That is way the heck up there, a farther north latitude than Quebec City, Nova Scotia or even Prince Edward Island. Several of her family members moved south to Lewiston and she did the same, eventually moving even farther south to Connecticut. After we left Gloucester, we stayed with Bob’s cousin Jim and his wife Debbie in the town of Buckfield, Maine, about 30 minutes outside Lewiston. They have a lovely home, at the end of a dirt road with acres of woods, ponds and frogs that chorus all night! We had so much fun with Jim and Deb, watched the Bruins, ate great meals, cooled off in their pool and spent hours talking and laughing.

One day, we drove around Lewiston visiting family. First stop was Uncle Vernon, who I had never met before. Such a sweet man and full of stories! I felt bad that we were only able to visit for a short time, but the next day he stopped by Jim’s house and stayed for a few hours visiting. We also visited Uncle Larry & Aunt Anita, their son John and his girlfriend Liz. A skilled guitarist, Uncle Larry checked out Bob’s new guitar and showed us several of his own.

We’re so glad that we were able to visit these folks. Getting together with Bob’s family is always fun. Great conversations and lots of laughs. Tessa loved having the freedom to roam around Jim’s yard and woods … we almost didn’t want to leave!

EDIT: I just realized that I have a picture that I meant to post. It concerns the Buckfield Mall in Maine. Here is the story: Several years ago, Bob’s mother visited family in Lewiston and, during an outing with Uncle Larry and Aunt Anita conversation turned to the subject of shopping. (Bob’s mother loved to shop.) Uncle Larry offered to take Priscilla to the Buckfield Mall. She was delighted! She said she needed a new pair of shoes, and what better place to search than at a mall. They piled into the car and Larry drove and drove until they finally reached their destination … Bob’s mother was fit to be tied!! I’m sure she had a couple of choice words for Larry that day!!! Here is the Buckfield Mall …

But, we did move on. We continued northwest to Newport Center, Vermont and the home of our friends Judy and Vern. The four of us met three years ago when we all signed up for a two-week long Habitat for Humanity building project in Las Cruces, New Mexico. We parked our RV next to theirs, saw their Vermont plates and almost immediately became friends. We worked together every day and Vern taught me how to cope! Judy and Vern have a large farm and have become Boondockers Welcome hosts. Although they no longer keep a milking herd, they still crop the land and lease some pasture space for a neighbor’s cows. We were parked right next to the pasture. The cows were enthralled with Tessa and kept us entertained for three days. Our RVing friends who are members of Boondockers Welcome should look them up if you’re heading to the Northeast Kingdom … Hurdland Farm in Newport Center. You won’t be disappointed!

The city of Newport is about five miles from the Canadian border, and the town of Derby Line lies just a little farther north right on the border. We went there to visit the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. The library was built 1901-1904 by Martha Haskell, a Canadian, in memory of her husband Carlos Haskell, an American sawmill owner and merchant. They lived in Derby Line and she wanted everyone to have access to a free library and music, so she had a combination library and opera house built straddling the international border. We were unable to see inside as the building is still closed due to Covid, but there is reportedly a black line painted along the floor marking the border. The library collection and the opera stage are located in Stanstead, Quebec, but the most opera seats are located in Derby Line. Because of this, the Haskell is sometimes called “the only library in the U.S.A. with no books” and “the only opera house in the U.S.A. with no stage”.

Outside the building, there is a small obelisk with United States engraved on one side and Canada on the other. Since the pandemic, yellow police tape spans the street. On the other side of the tape, you see cars with Quebec license plates. There is apparently more than just tape preventing people from crossing the border, because seconds after Bob allowed Tessa to step beyond the tape, a border patrol truck came by to investigate! We’re lucky they didn’t confiscate her!

Judy and Vern took us on a drive around the area and brought us to two farms, one where they have a big maple operation and the other which uses robotics to milk the cows. Yes, we bought a bunch of maple products … our last name is Viens! And the robotic milking operation was fascinating. This is how it works: there is a large barn with a number of cows inside roaming freely around. They have stanchions which are open with hay and water and the cows can choose to eat hay, drink, change locations, walk around, etc. There is one “stall” just wide and long enough for a cow with a grain feeder at the head. When the cow starts feeling uncomfortable and she knows it’s time for milking, she enters the pen, an ID tag is scanned that tells the system when the cow was last milked, how the udder is shaped and the rate at which each teat dispenses milk.She steps forward, the grain bin opens and she begins eating. In the meantime, a robot cleans her udders, rinses them, and using laser beams it lines up the suction cups which latch onto her teats and begins milking. Fascinating!! When milking is done, she is rinsed, the grain bin closes and she exits.

There was one cow, #1001, who we thought was interested in us as she kept looking through the door. Turns out, she was waiting to go through the milking machine. When it was vacant, she walked in. The robot read her stats and rejected her because she had recently been milked (she was not swollen at all). Well, #1001 has a little problem with the grain, we think, because she kept circling around for another turn in the stall! LOL

After three days at Hurdland Farm, we had to continue on. Our drive around the northern end of Jay Peak mountain brought us to the other side of Bob’s family. The Viens’ originated in St. Albans, Vermont by way of Quebec, Canada. Bob’s father was born to a dairy farmer and had 14 siblings! There are tons of cousins and many of scattered, but we were able to catch up with a few who remained here.

We stopped first at Cousin Richard’s retirement farm. He sold the 300 acre farm that he worked his entire adult life and settled just a short way up the road on a 45 acre farm. As usual, he doesn’t sit still much, and he’s cleared a ton of the woods to let the maples get more air and spread their canopies. I have been kicking myself for not getting a picture with Richard & Maggie!!

One evening, we met up with Cousin Jeanne and her husband Bob and Cousin Betty. We had a great time chatting and catching up at a nice little outdoor cafe in St. Albans. Good food and better company!

We also stopped at cousin Donna’s house to visit her, husband Mike and, of course, Aunt Joanne. What a sweet woman. She’s still smiling and laughing at life. It was really great for everyone to catch up.

All in all, this portion of our trip has been all about visiting family and friends, spending time and sharing the love. Along the way, we’ve had some interesting experiences. What a great combination! These couple of weeks have been good for the soul!

PS: I’m trying a new tool to insert photos into the blog posts. This should make them load faster, but I’m not sure if the pictures will be large enough. I appreciate any feedback you want to send!

Our Backyard

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“ … if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Dorothy Gale

Our trip has gotten off to a great start! First stop was in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Bob and I have lived in Connecticut our entire lives. With family members in all of the New England states, we’ve traveled all over the region as children and adults. But neither of us has ever visited this part of Massachusetts. Just like Dorothy, we always go looking in far away places when we haven’t really enjoyed what’s in our back yards. This is a beautiful part of New England! If you haven’t visited the area, make sure you do!

We began by getting together with our friend Maureen who moved from Connecticut to this area a couple of years ago. She has an awesome little Cape Cod style cottage within walking distance of a quaint little downtown. She can walk to shops, banks, the library and one of the best bakeries ever! After eating the superb pastries, she can hop on her bike and pick up the rail trail. This would be the ideal location for us, except for the winter, snow, cold, ice, sleet, etc.

Maureen and me!

Our campground, Cape Ann Camp Sites, was not the best we’ve been to, but not the worst. It’s an older facility and could use a little updating. Larger RV’s like our class A were relegated to a handful of spaces as soon as you pull in. The largest part of the campground was up a steep hill with narrow, curvy roads where only smaller campers could venture. The lower sites were all grass, and after 3 solid days of rain it was very soft. We were 12” off level in the first space assigned to us. The staff was wonderful and moved us to a different site which was only about 5” off level. But, we made it work, and we did have a water view. What this campground had going for it was proximity … it was an easy trip to Gloucester, Rockport, Essex, etc. We got some great fresh fish and ate lobster rolls, so what more can you ask for??

Walking around Gloucester.

We went on a great whale watch with Maureen, and that was a highlight of this stop. I’ve been on whale watches off Cape Cod, and the whale watches from Gloucester go to the same location … Stellwagon Bank, a protected feeding area for fish. All the whale watch companies talk to each other, so they guarantee that you’ll see whales. We used Cape Ann Whale Watch and were particularly impressed by the staff of marine biology majors who had paid internships with this company to study whales. Kudos to them for not making it all about the money!

Humpback whale’s tail.

I was surprised to have a conversation with someone who had never seen the movie A Perfect Storm. If you haven’t seen that one, you must. It takes place in Gloucester and is about the fishermen who risk everything to go out and catch your dinner. A little melodramatic, and Diane Lane (who I love as an actress) does the worst Boston accent in any movie ever, but it’s still one that every New Englander should see.

Fisherman’s monument, Gloucester.
Monument to the fishermen’s wives.

After a few days in Gloucester, it was time to move on! This was a perfect start to the trip … great company, great food, and fun touring. With a heat wave coming, there’s no better time to keep heading north to Maine!

Motif #1, Rockport, Massachusetts.

Full Time … Take 2!!!

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Hello! After a two-month hiatus, we are back on the road!

For readers who didn’t know where we disappeared to … in March we received the upsetting and unexpected news that Bob’s mother had taken ill and was hospitalized. At the time, all indications suggested that Mom would be returning home with round-the-clock assistance in addition to the daytime aides that were already taking excellent care of her. We quickly decided to return to Connecticut so that we could help provide that overnight care. About eight days later, we pulled into my daughter’s driveway in Connecticut.

Unfortunately, our expectations did not go quite as hoped for Mom. She passed a couple of weeks after we returned. We feel SO blessed and fortunate to have had the chance to spend Mom’s final days with her. She was a wonderful woman who, at 93, defied all the medical statisticians with no health issues until this last one. She was such a sweet, funny, generous, loving woman and we miss her very much.

We left Connecticut on September 19, 2020, with bittersweet emotions as we ventured into our new life as full-time RVers. That gig ended up lasting exactly as long as our usual 6-month snowbird trip! We just left Connecticut again on June 1, 2021 for our second attempt at full-time RV living! 

Most of our previous travels have taken place in wintertime, so this gives us the opportunity to visit places that we haven’t seen before … places that are too cold and snowy during winter months. We’ll be taking a slow, meandering route first north to Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont to visit friends and family, and then west where we’ll eventually land in South Dakota. 

We’re excited to be on the road again! Follow us!

Our planned route from Connecticut to South Dakota and eventually Texas.

Rockin’ and Rollin’

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Quite a bit has happened in the weeks since my last post. We drove through far west Texas, El Paso, and into New Mexico. When we were in Las Cruces, NM, two years ago, we were enchanted by the ruggedly beautiful Organ Mountains that frame the city. At that time, there was a long country road that passed through Bureau of Land Management property and we could see many RV’s parked out toward the base of the mountains. We wanted to do that, too! So, the goal of returning to Las Cruces was to do just that!

Organ Mountains at sunset.

Unfortunately, we were unable to make that happen. There are a few reasons. One is that a large section of land was developed with housing. That was quite a surprise! Beautiful very expensive homes at the base of the mountains. A second reason is that the BLM has gated off one or two of the dirt roads. Those that are open … every site was taken by one, sometimes two, RV’s. We were lucky enough to find a spot that another RV was leaving but we could not level the motorhome … and we tried and tried! Since we can’t put our slide out unless the rig is level, it just wasn’t going to work. We spent that night in a Walmart lot. The quietest Walmart lot I’ve ever slept in, too! 

The following day, we drove to one of our favorite campgrounds – City of Rocks State Park in Faywood, NM. We visited this park two years ago after our good friend Janlyn raved about it’s unique beauty. Boy, was she right! You approach the park after driving several miles through a flat high landscape, go over a rise and the valley below reveals a “city” of enormous boulders clustered in the middle of the desert. These boulders, some as tall as 40 feet, encompass an area of one square mile. They were pushed up through the earth’s crust during a volcanic eruption some 34 million years ago. The state of New Mexico has done a fabulous job locating 50 campsites among the rocks. There are more than 7 miles of trails around the park and through the boulders. Mountain bikers are even allowed to bike through them if they dare! The boulders are an incredible playground for kids, too. After sunset, you’re treated to the darkest skies and the most incredible stars! We didn’t do much here except walk, explore the rocks and soak up some vitamin D!

Scenes from City of Rocks State Park.

Our next stop was the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. If you haven’t heard of this town, there is a very fun story about how this town got its name. There was a radio game show in the 1940’s called Truth or Consequences. (That show moved to television in the 1950’s.) As the show’s 10th anniversary on the air approached, Ralph Edwards, the host and creator, wanted to do something fun and different to mark the occasion. A staffer suggested, ““Why not find a town or city somewhere in America that would be willing to change its name to ‘Truth or Consequences,’ and do the anniversary broadcast from that city?” Edwards loved the idea! Soon, they had a list of several towns that were willing, but scouts who were sent to investigate took one look at Hot Springs, New Mexico and decided this was the place. They liked the healing hot springs, the small town charm, the friendly people and the warm climate. The town’s 1,600 residents voted in a special election and more than 80% of them voted to change the name of the town. On March 31, 1950, the new name became official. On April 1, 1950, Truth or Consequences held it’s anniversary show in town. Subsequently, the town built a park and named it Ralph Edwards Park. Edwards was so smitten with the town that he promised to return the following year, and he did! He also returned to visit “his” town every year after that, and he always brought celebrities with him. 

Like so many towns we travel through, Truth or Consequences’ heydays are behind it. Except for a small, quirky downtown area of a couple blocks, many buildings are run down and shuttered. It’s sad to see a town with so much history disintegrate like this. There is a huge lake with a beautiful mountainous backdrop, a huge state park surrounding the lake, multiple campgrounds, miles of trails.

Crazy clouds all around us at Elephant Butte State Park in TorC, New Mexico.
Small sand storm blowing past the lake.
Love those mountains!

Another thing this part of New Mexico has is wind. Oh, my goodness, the wind! Every single day that we were here, the wind howled in the 20-25 mph range during the day with gusts in the 30’s and 40’s! It would generally start up by late morning, blow all day long, and once the sun set, the wind would calm only to ramp up again the next morning. Searching for answers, I asked Google, “Is it always this windy in New Mexico?” Turns out, it IS always windy in March, April, May and June. Go figure! The last time we visited New Mexico was in the spring, too! We’ll have to come back in the fall next time!

Yes, they may!

We’re heading to Albuquerque to have some maintenance done on the motorhome. Time for an oil change, and we want to have the brakes checked. The most important aspect of maintaining this lifestyle is maintaining our home on wheels!

Wild Things!

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We spent a very interesting couple of nights at Falcon State Park in Falcon, Texas. The Rio Grande feeds this lake which is popular for bass and catfish fishing. It’s also well-known for the wildlife as the website warns of proper food storage and safety of people and pets, and, boy, did it prove true!

No sooner did we get our campsite set up and sit down to relax at the picnic table when a javelina strolled into our campsite. He looked mildly surprised to see us and we were very to see him! I almost had a stroke getting Tessa into the house. Javelina can be aggressive, especially if they see a dog … coyotes are their #1 predator in this part of Texas, so they may think dogs are coyotes. Tessa, of course, has never seen a Javelina before, but she has such a strong prey drive with other critters that we didn’t want to take a chance that she’d try to chase it.

Javelina are not as docile as they look.

I got Tessa into the house, looked out the windows on the other side and saw two more javelinas heading our way. Bob stayed outside at the picnic table taking pictures while they strolled through. They didn’t seem bothered by his presence at all and even got a little too close to the table for my liking!

Javelina are distant cousins of pigs. They are considered “New World Pigs” while hogs on the farm are “Old World Pigs.” The two branches split from one type of pig about 50,000 years ago. Javelinas are only found in South and Central America and the southwestern US while Old World Pigs are found all over the world. Javelina have poor eyesight, a short fuse and short, straight, sharp tusks. They also have a scent gland on their backs which they use to identify themselves and the members of their herd. The scent is supposedly similar to that of a skunk, which is why they are also known as “skunk pigs.” I’ve read that sometimes you smell them before you see them … that’s pleasant.

The next day, sitting at our picnic table, I was thinking about how common Cardinals are down here … the Cardinal is not the Texas state bird but it should be as they are everywhere. Sitting at the table, I heard cardinals calling all around me. A bird flew in and perched on top of a shrub in front of me. The lighting was such that I could only see it in silhouette, but I took a picture anyway. I was so surprised when I saw the picture! It wasn’t a Cardinal, it was a Pyrrhuloxia, a cousin of the Cardinal. Same shape, different coloring. Even the song is similar to the Cardinal.


Then, Bob spotted something moving at the edge of the brush. It was a Hispid Cotton Rat. It stepped out just long enough for me to snap a picture, then it scooted back into the brush. Good eatin’ for coyotes, bobcats and owls, no doubt. Not long after, a good size doe came to visit.

Hispid Cotton Rat

The weather was warm enough that we slept with the window open, and listened to coyote choruses off and on all night long. They woke me up several times during the night, but I didn’t mind. There was also another critter calling out there, it may have been a fox. Just as we were waking up, we smelled a skunk … or was it a javelina? Just before we left the park Friday morning, Bob spotted a bobcat crossing the road just a little ways down from our site, and then a trio of javelina mosey’d by. It was an awesome two days of “Wild Kingdom” at Falcon State Park!

Tres Javelinas.

After Falcon, we continued following the Rio Grande northwest and stopped just outside Del Rio at Amistad National Recreation Area. Falcon Lake and Amistad Lake are both huge reservoirs built by damming the Rio Grande to provide flood control, irrigation and power to this area. Amistad is supposed to be especially beautiful because of its limestone shoreline and crystal clear blue water, but when we visited the water level was down by 40% and we found few places where you could actually view the lake. It seemed that every road to the lake went into the lake in the form of a boat launch. There are several dry campgrounds surrounding the lake (campsites with picnic tables but no hook-ups), and we settled into the San Pedro campground. There was no view of the lake from the campground. We were surrounded by scrub dessert filled with mesquite, prickly-pear cactus and sagebrush. One would think wildlife would be abundant here, but it wasn’t. This was one of the quietest places we’ve stayed, especially at night.

Amistad Lake.

We had not boondocked in a while, and only expected to stay at Amistad one or two nights. We arrived with about a half tank of water and expected that would be sufficient, but when I had trouble getting a reservation at our next stop, our stay at Amistad turned into a three-night layover. We ran out of water! Then the car wouldn’t start because the battery died. It was an interesting refresher in “how to boondock.” Always go into it with full tanks of water, gasoline and propane, and empty waste tanks, even if you think you’ll only be there one night, because you just might be there longer! We were fine. We had to break camp and drive the motorhome out to get water, so it was an inconvenience but certainly not the end of the world! And it was actually good that we had this refresher, because we have several days of boondocking coming up. Now we’ll be prepared!

“Go to Brownsville,” they said. “It’s always warm in Brownsville!”

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Brownsville was not on the list of places we intended to visit, but several weeks into our San Antonio stay, with temperatures fluctuating between the 50’s and 60’s, Bob had enough. “Maybe we need to rethink Florida,” he said, “I was hoping it would be warmer here.” So, we changed course and headed south … as far south as we were able to go. We went to Brownsville, the southernmost town in Texas. 

We knew that a “cold snap” was coming. Although we don’t watch much TV, we have multiple weather apps and read the news every morning, but we never got the message that the arctic was sending a blanket of freezing wind our way that would last for days. We arrived on a grey, blustery Friday in the 40’s. Saturday, the temperature dropped to the high 30s and the wind picked up. We didn’t really prepare for this! Shortly before leaving Connecticut, we had gone through our clothes one last time and got rid of a lot of stuff that we didn’t think we’d need. I pared down from two pairs of sweatpants to one, but I brought gloves. Bob packed long Johns, but no winter gloves! Most of the time our winter jackets just take up space in the closet and get pushed from side to side, but we are so glad we had them this week! We went to Walmart to see if we could get a pair of warm gloves for Bob, but they don’t even sell warm jackets or gloves down here!

Sunday we woke to the low 30s and the wind ramped up to 22 mph sustained. Because this RV park is brand new, the trees are babies and do nothing to block the wind. It’s also very flat here at only 33’ above sea level. The wind was constant and by nightfall, the sustained winds included gusts as high as 36 mph and the temperature dropped into the 20’s. Bob had disconnected our water hose and put a shop light in the basement near the tanks so they wouldn’t freeze. We lost electricity and started the generator to keep our heat running.

Now, I know folks back in Connecticut are probably reading this and thinking that it’s just a normal winter, but think about this … Brownsville is 1700 miles southwest of Connecticut, and the equator is only 1700 miles further south from here. Brownsville is on the same latitude as Miami and just three degrees farther north than Kauai, Hawaii. This kind of weather is not supposed to happen here!

The ice-covered baby palm next to our RV.

It took a few days, but Brownsville got itself back to normal. We heard from friends in San Antonio, 275 miles north of us, that so many water mains broke that they are under orders to boil water, and the park’s laundry room and bath houses are closed. 

A news article said that Harris County, which includes Houston, has an estimated 55,000 buildings with burst pipes. It will be several weeks until they have an actual number. That’s just one of 254 counties in Texas. Another article said that because Texas doesn’t regulate electricity, there has been no incentive for the 70 power companies in the state to winterize their equipment. The last time an arctic storm hit Texas was 2011, but that storm was more localized on the eastern side of the state and didn’t drop as far south or spread as far west. Storms in 1899, 1951, 1983 and 1989 were as bad as the one we just experienced. Since these storms are anomalies, the power companies have not found it worth the high cost of winterizing. These storms will happen again and so will these failures.

Another news article, this one in the Washington Post, called Texas’s electric grid a “Wild West market design” where suppliers can charge whatever they want. The “train wreck of that market Monday and Tuesday has seen the wholesale price of electricity in Houston go from $22 a megawatt-hour to about $9,000.” There are 1,000 kilowatts in a megawatt, and the average household in the US uses 900 kilowatts of power in one month. At $9 per kilowatt, that average household in Texas could see their electric bill jump from less than $100 for January to over $8,000 for the month of February! 

Other News …

After a few days, we started suffering cabin fever and had to get out and see something other than our walls. We took a drive to Boca Chica Beach. Boca Chica is a part of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge. We didn’t expect to see wildlife because of the freezing temperatures, and we were right … we didn’t!

What we DID see was SpaceX! Turns out Elon Musk has been either buying or leasing acres of land (I’ve read varying reports, between 24 and 41 acres) in the Boca Chica area. They have been testing rocket engines down here (we think we accidentally saw a launch while we were in San Antonio) and building rockets. You can drive RIGHT past the facility. It’s so weird that you can get so close. What’s odd is that they are in the process of building a launch facility, so the site is all dirt, trucks and construction workers with rockets dotting the facility.

Here a rocket …
… there a rocket.
Over there a future rocket!

We went to Mexico yesterday. The man who runs this RV park goes over to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, once a month and takes a caravan of people from the park. We gave it several days of thought and decided to go. We were very curious and had read about all the little shops, restaurants and bars there just to Americans. Our guide recommended we stay on the main drag and meet again to count heads. So, we went. We took no handbag or backpack, about $60 each in our pockets. 

Nuevo Progresso looks like one of those honky-tonk, seaside, souvenir towns on steroids. You park in a lot in America and walk across the bridge to Mexico, paying $1 at the border. No documentation needed. As soon as you step off that bridge, you are hit with the shops. Mixed between the trinket shops were dozens of dentists, nail spas, barber shops, opticians, pharmacies, taco stands and liquor stores. Someone stands in front of every shop hawking the same things over and over again, “Lady, pedicure? Manicure? Teeth cleaning?” On the sidewalk were the tables of jewelry, leather belts, hats, bags, etc. Lots of masks! Both being worn and being sold. I was surprised (and relieved) to see so many masks! I said, “Gracias, no,” to vendors about 438 times. That’s an exaggeration, but it felt like a lot. Anyway, we walked up and down the street, Bob got a haircut for $5 and we left. Deposit 25 cents into the turnstile at the border, show your passport and you’re back in the US. We didn’t buy a single thing, but we did have an experience!

Walking across the bridge to Mexico.
Lost opportunity … I could have taken a photo of Bob with one foot in each country. Just thought of it! LOL
Stepping off the bridge into Nuevo Progreso.
Bob’s $5 haircut looks really nice!

Here’s the saddest thing. As you walk across the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande, you begin to hear lots of voices. The second you are above Mexican soil, you hear and see the children under the bridge yelling up at you. They have long broom sticks with half of a milk jug or soda bottle taped to the top of the stick, and they begging for change!! Some kids not lucky enough to have a stick would hold out their caps. The guy leading our group told us that if you give them money, they’ll follow you, so don’t do it. 

Walking up and down the street, we saw a couple of VERY elderly people. One old man with a walker shuffled down the sidewalk with a cup begging. He looked late 70’s and frail.  And a lady who was tiny and weathered, she had to be 80’s, wearing bright clothes like indigenous clothing was all hunched up, shuffling along with a cup. Bob turned and went after her and put some change in her cup. I saw a mother with a baby slung over her back with a shawl like you’d see in National Geographic or something. Most of the vendors and hawkers were talking and laughing, but interspersed were all these very poor people. Kids everywhere! Selling stuff with their parents or just sitting nearby. 

On our way back across the bridge, the beggars were yelling up from below again. I looked down and saw a young woman holding a toddler and a boy around 7 or 8 holding his cap out upside down and waving, begging. The woman was wearing a red shirt and I thought, ‘My God, she has two little ones and she lives under a bridge.” I pulled a $20 out of my pocket, tossed it down and kept walking. A minute later, the woman ran back into my view and she looked up at me like she had just won the freaking lottery. I wish I had thrown a handful of money over that bridge.

Today I found this story online. These are the people under the bridge. Matamoros and Nuevo Progresso are neighboring towns. It’s definitely worth a read.

And now we continue our journey. From Brownsville to New Mexico, mostly following the Rio Grande. ¡Hasta luego!