Thursday, September 28, 2006

We're done here

Brenda is still looking at real estate!!

In the past few days, at the urging of people we met along the way, we took a fast trip to Ashville, North Carolina and visited the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore Estate. Good advice! The Newport mansions ARE summer cottages compared to this place. We have visited Buckingham Palace, Versailles, and numerous of the castles and estates around Europe and North America but, Biltmore takes the cake! The Vanderbilt descendants still own the estate and, still run the farm (2500 acres) and the winery (1,000,000 bottles per year). It takes almost an hour driving slowly through the manicured estate to get from the gate to the house, to the winery, to the farm, and back to the gate. One hell of a lawn to cut!!! All the family’s furniture, many family pictures, all the art and many of the numerous collections still occupy their places from the 1890’s. It is obvious that this place is being run by the private sector as opposed to a governmental agency. The staff can answer any question you ask, they are sharply dressed and, all eager to make one’s visit memorable. Everything, everywhere is in perfect shape.

I have been remiss in not introducing our constant traveling companion – Nellie. Nellie is our Gamin 276C GPS (as in “Navigator Nellie”). Nellie has made the trip extremely easy and enjoyable. She sits in a seat (plastic Saddle actually) on the dashboard, eats very little (a few volts and amps occasionally) and normally only speaks when spoken to. She does, from time to time say “off route….recalculating” when I have failed to follow her previous instructions to the letter. She offers a moving map picture, alpha numeric written instructions and a gentle, female voice offering her directions. She has never once used the somewhat colourful language which I often hear after not following Brenda’s directions. If I don’t follow her route she keeps recalculating a new route to our stated destination until WE finally get it right. Invaluable! If anyone is silly enough to want to do this type of trip, we highly recommend the best damn GPS available and, the best available software to run on it. XM satellite radio is pretty nifty too!

In Atlanta we visited an RV dealer that had 100’s of units lined up for sale. Huge! They fixed our “chronic leak” and tweaked a few other systems. So now we’re “good to go”…………to storage. We close it down and fly home tomorrow (Saturday). Stay tuned for chapter II in November.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Hokey Smokey

Brenda has been looking at real estate in the mountains - Glad we're coming home!!!

I don’t know if anyone has been to the Smoky (the spelling is correct) Mountains in Tennessee but….were we ever surprised! Smoky Mountain National Park (the most frequently visited national park in the country) is a beautiful wilderness area. And IMMEDIATELY outside its northern border lie the towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville (pronounced Severville in American). Think Banff Alberta with a pinch of Las Vegas and a whole bunch of Niagara Falls thrown in. The only thing missing is Madame Tussade’s. There are more damn go-cart tracks and fast food joints than you could possibly count but………drive into that park and…..miracle of miracles…….peace and quiet; raging white water beside almost all the (few) roads; hiking trails forever; majestic vistas, wildlife galore (we only saw two black bears today); Rhododendrons the size of maple trees; Mountain Laurel everywhere…….this place must be all abloom in the early summer!!! We saw deer, wild turkeys, many bird species and the ubiquitous 300 lb. American (They are definitely not endangered…………I am actually feeling quite svelte!!)

Inside the park is located a former pioneer community, named Cade’s Cove, which has been wonderfully maintained in perfect condition. Other that this sole example, all traces of past human habitation have been methodically eliminated from the park, including non-indigenous flora and fauna. Touring “the Cove” provides an amazing glimpse at pioneer life in the mountains, with a working, water-powered, corn-meal mill; sorghum press and other primitive infrastructure. We have certainly come a long way in 200 years (or not)

Brenda had her stitches removed today without fanfare (What a trouper eh girls!!!) And to ease the pain, we had to stop in at one of the HUGE outlet malls (outside the park). We only stayed 3 – 4 hours (she has always claimed that she hates to shop). Tomorrow we are heading off for some more aggressive hiking in the mountains. Hopefully the bears will remember how respectful we were today!

We have come to have a great level of respect for the US National Park Service. In addition to managing the many national parks, they also manage the presidential sites and other sites (historical and otherwise… the St. Louis arch) of major import. By now, we have visited numerous of their projects and, are much impressed. They are keen, knowledgeable, helpful and, don’t allow any nonsense. I would compare them to our LCBO……..a governmental agency that works really well (they ARE endangered… aren’t they?).

In a couple of days….Atlanta….drain all the tanks; top the batteries; turn everything off (hopefully); make sure all the potential stinky stuff is removed from the fridge (my gym socks aren’t there are they?); and……..home for Thanksgiving. This has definitely been a great “Chapter I”. We have seen more that 1-2 live music acts per day of our trip and, visited diverse examples of the “American mosaic”. We’ve had fun, learned a great deal, and, seen things we would not have experienced without the “trailer trash” experience. We’ll be back!!!

Friday, September 22, 2006

When in Rome................

Are we good tourists or what? I sincerely thought I would die one day, able to say that I had never been to the Grand Ole Opry. Not any more! Hell…… neither of us even knew that the Opry is a three times a week radio show that is performed in front of a live audience. That was news to us!! HOWEVER, it is slick. Of course they have been doing this show since Marconi invented the radio. They can tear down one band’s equipment and set up the next one in the time it takes to do a radio commercial. Very slick. Been there, done that, DO NOT have the “T” shirt.

The Nashville area is beautiful. We drove out to “the Hermitage”, Andrew Jackson’s plantation and, toured some of the historical towns along the “Natchez Trace Parkway”. The high end residential neighbourhoods are amazing. The owners can’t all be country and rock stars. Everywhere you go, the rolling countryside is heavily forested and dotted with country estates and horse farms. And, they’re building new ones all over the place. The country music business must be good.

Still have not got our water leak fixed. Since we keep moving, the factory cannot get the replacement parts to us or a dealer fast enough so, we are making arrangements for parts to meet us in Atlanta. I must say that I can highly recommend the service offered by motor home manufacturers and their dealers. No questions asked just…get it done. They seem to take their warranty commitments very seriously. Now we’ll have to see how they react when something major goes wrong!!!

We’re heading to the Great Smoky Mountains, south west of Knoxville. Dollywood will be nearby. WE”RE NOT GOING TO DOLLYWOOD!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Good bye Memphis - Hello Nashville

The Clinton Library is a beautiful, modern building literally hanging out over the Arkansas River and, its contents could take weeks to fully appreciate. Every foreign visit, every US visit from a foreign head of state, every legislative bill, every major election event, every daily schedule, during the Clinton presidency is detailed. And, Bill Clinton’s stamp of approval is everywhere as evidenced by his narration on the audio tour, his hosting of the video presentations and, his written quotations in every display. He is obviously concerned with his legacy and, has taken all possible steps to ensure that future assessment of his presidency will be positive. I was more impressed with his accomplishments after reading “My Life” – his book. By contrast, the Lincoln Library deals with Lincoln - the man. We felt like we came away from that facility having an appreciation for who Lincoln was, as opposed to every single thing he accomplished. Next……the Carter Library in Atlanta.

We are packing up to leave Memphis after a very rainy day yesterday (tornado warnings all around us 2 nights ago). As seems to be our new custom, we could not get through a rainy day without a “little incident”. We took advantage of the less than favourable conditions to re-provision and do other “maintenance” tasks. As Brenda was carrying groceries into the RV, she smashed (and I do mean smashed) her head on the corner of our less than well positioned TV. As I was stopping the blood and cleaning her head, it became clear that a visit to the local ER was called for. We drove to the hospital and were seen less than 1 minute after arriving. Brenda was prepped by nurses and seen by the attending doctor very quickly. After 9 stitches (did I mentioned that she SMASHED her head) and the usual clean up, we left. Fortunately she is fine and not even complaining of a head ache this morning. Her great fear was that they were going to cut a large chunk of her hair so; I wasn’t too worried about her. We left the hospital without even seeing a bill. They simply said that they would mail it to our house.

Today dawned bright and cool, a welcome relief from the 35 degree, high humidity, we have been experiencing. At least the torrential rains have cooled things down. See you in Nashville.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Bluesville USA

For lovers of the blues, there is no place like Memphis. Elvis and the early rockers got their start here at Sun and Stax record companies. But, prior to the birth of rock and roll, Sam Philips, the founder of Sun Records, used to travel around the rural south with rudimentary sound equipment, recording regional blues players in their homes. As a result, Memphis was the city to which all the bluesmen (no women….but that’s another story) gravitated.

“Good Morning America” was in town on Friday but, since my “good friend” Diane Sawyer did not make the trip, we stayed in bed. Justin Timberlake (local boy) announced that he is going to resurrect Stax Records (local icon). Big news in M’town.

We spent the past 2 nights on Beale Street, which is just like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, only better. In a 3 block area of the street there must be 20 blues clubs. And these are the real deal!! For $12 on a Friday night you can buy admission to almost all of the clubs, allowing you to hear some of the best live blues ever. Some of the performers have been playing “the street” for 35 years. There are even bands set up in alleys and out on the sidewalk. The aroma of barbequed pork (Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it) hangs in the air everywhere. In our favourite club, the Rum Boogie CafĂ© (motto…….Eat, Drink, Boogie, Repeat), there hang signed guitars from just about any blues or rock guitarist you can name, past and present. They have all played here. At B.B. King’s club, the house band is better than any we have ever heard. And, Hammond B3 organs (rare and….. THE blues organ) are all over the place.

Since Brenda is still sound asleep (it is 9:00 on Saturday morning) and, the performers were starting to recognize us when we entered Beale Street clubs, it is probably time to move on and do something a bit more cerebral. We did do much more in Memphis (visited the Peabody, museums, and yup, to our mutual surprise, we even took in Graceland. Now there is garish decorating taken to a new level!!)

We are staying outside Memphis on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi and, will drive the car over to Little Rock to take in the Clinton Library. When it is said that the Mississippi alluvial plain is flat, they’re not just kidding. However, the corn and soy beans which dominate the landscape south of Chicago have given way to cotton. Neither Brenda nor I had ever seen ripe cotton, ready for picking. The fields look like they have experienced an early season snowfall; mostly white with the brown branches of the cotton plants sticking up through. In some areas the fields are white to the horizon.

We are told that the Ozarks of Arkansas are not to be missed. However, we may not get there on this leg of the trip. We have to be in Atlanta at the end of the month to catch a flight home and, have to make sure we stay on SCHEDULE. The pressure is unbearable!! ;-)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A "little" incident

We finally reached the Mississippi and were so impressed with the early views; we intentionally turned north to “cruise” along the eastern shore. The day was dull with a light mist and, every so often, we ran through a light rain. You could almost imagine Huck and ol’ Jim huddled together on a raft drifting by in the mist, except for the river tugs with large rafts of 8 or 10 barges stretched out before them. The guide books all extolled the virtues of a quaint little shore-side village named Elsah, which we picked as our turn-around point in order to continue our journey south. AFTER we turned onto the one lane, and only, road in and out of Elsah, we were greeted with a “5 Ton Load Limit” sign (our rig weighs 32,000 pounds without the car!) immediately before the bridge in front of us. We also found that there were no “blocks” to go around. All roads in Elsah “T” off the one main (one lane) road. So, we could not go forward, couldn’t go around the block to reverse direction and, could not back up due to our rigid tow bar connection to our car behind. Did I mention that by now it was POURING rain?

While Brenda remained cozy and warm in the RV, I got out, disconnected and started the car, at which point, dry Brenda dashed out and drove the car out of the way. I was able to back the RV into the only driveway wide enough to take it and finally got the rig turned around. Then, dry Brenda appeared in the car. While dry Brenda inched the car toward the back of the RV, I got it re-hitched and we were…….. outta there!!!

Elsah was, in fact, a cute little village and, we think we will take a ferry back across the Mississippi River with THE CAR and revisit. We are currently at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, just outside St. Louis, in the city of St. Charles, made famous as the departure point for the Lewis & Clarke expedition (and numerous other explorations of the west).

Due to the heavy rain and my rather dour mood, there were no pictures taken of the above incident (Dry Brenda was either laughing too hard or, thought better of it……I’m not sure which)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Mr. Lincoln was quite a guy

One thing Americans do very well is package their history for future generations. We visited New Salem, where Lincoln spent the early years on his own, in a log cabin and; toured Springfield, where he lived 17 years before becoming President. To physically visit the log cabin, then a middle class home in the city where his family grew up and then; to contemplate his journey to the White House, is to appreciate a truly amazing journey for a man with one year of formal education. To visit the Lincoln Library and Museum, which was completed just over one year ago, is a truly stirring experience, even for one who is less than enthusiastic about the Americans' propensity to wave the flag.

The examples of Lincoln’s oratorical skills, which we sampled today, lead us to assess the skills of our current crop of politicians and, they are left wanting. The juxtaposition of Lincoln's serious problems with the Civil War and George W. Bush's problems in Iraq, Afghanistan and, the rest of the world is striking! As we left one theatre after listening to snippets of some of Lincoln's speeches, Brenda commented that George W. could take some lessons here.

We are off, tomorrow, to St. Louis and then Memphis, via that Old River Road, to which I referred a few posts ago. According to web schedules that I have consulted, we are about to have another immersion in the blues (B.B. King too!). Oh boy!

In the near future we hope to hit Little Rock, Arkansas. I am looking forward to the comparison of the Lincoln and Clinton Presidential Libraries. I cannot imagine that there will not be interesting comparisons.

The first picture is of a general store owned, for a short period, by Lincoln and a partner (it failed due to competition across the street). The second picture is of Lincoln’s home, for 17 years, in Springfield where he practiced law, prior to being elected President.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Chicago & Route 66 Southwest

We may move to Chicago!! What an amazing city. Having traveled here since the early 70’s, I have seen the city evolve from a dirty, dangerous city to a world class, airy, people-friendly, city of gardens and many, many attractions. Toronto’s city fathers should camp out in Chicago until they can figure out how to develop a waterfront city to the advantage of everyone. If you live on the 5’th floor of a high rise, nearest to the water, you have a waterfront view whether your building is 100 feet from the water or 3 city blocks away! Chicago is a city of parks, gardens and waterfront, public infrastructure unparalleled in our experience.

We were able to take a city tour; the architecture tour; drinks and a sunset at the top of the Hancock Building; a fortuitous dinner reservation at Tru; an afternoon at the Art Institute (one of the most well organized art museums we have ever been in); a bit of shopping on the Miracle Mile; 6 different blues bands (including blues legend Koko Taylor) in 4 different venues and; walking, walking, walking. Not bad for a few days, huh? To all of you who recommended the architecture tour (and you are very numerous), thank you. It was a highlight! We also managed to try all of the famous Chicago food groups (one never, never puts ketchup on a Chicago hotdog…….instant tourist recognition)

Last evening at 9:30, as we sat dressed in shorts and golf shirts, at the outdoor Koko Taylor concert, Brenda was fanning herself to cool down. Great weather!

We are just now far enough south that we are in “serious RV country”. We are parked in a casino’s RV Park outside Chicago, where we are surrounded with other “big rigs”, all of which are towing cars and, equipped with all the toys. A few spaces down, there is a $ 1 million+ mobile home, which really does stand out. We are carrying a small, handheld CB radio, which has proven invaluable in dealing with traffic tie-ups; however we otherwise never have the thing on. The chatter is just too inane. Sue Stillar asked if we have learned any new “rubber ducky” slang. So far, our favourite was being invited to a “carbeque”, occasioned by a road side fire involving a “4 wheeler” (car).

The casino RV Park is a great facility. Beautifully landscaped and, all the RV amenities. However, since neither of us are gamblers, we are off tomorrow to Springfield Illinois, for a crash course in American History 101. Springfield is the home of honest Abe and, much of the surrounding country-side is filled with Lincoln history and memorabilia.

We are sitting today, waiting for our mail from home to catch up with us. I guess we can’t outrun our bills. However, if we owe any of you any money, we may try!

FOOTNOTE: I could not post the above on Friday due to the lack of an internet connection. Today (Saturday) we were packing up to leave, to the roar of Indy Car (IRL) engines less than 1 mile away, at the Chicagoland Speedway. We learned that Danica Patrick (hubba hubba) and most of the male (who cares) IRL drivers have been staying at the casino hotel less than 100 yards from our RV. I can’t help but think that hanging around that hotel bar last night could have yielded a couple of paddock passes for the weekend. Oh well……..roaring race cars and scantily clad women or…….Lincoln history. Tough choice. There had better be major “brownie points” to be had for our decision to hit the road for “Lincolnland” today. That being said, we did follow (more or less) the old Route 66 out of Chicago. (Route 66 doesn’t really exist anymore. It has been cut and chopped up. Pieces of it are now part of numerous highways heading south west out of Chicago). Memorabilia from the glory days of the old highway are everywhere. We stopped at a Route 66 festival in Lexington Ill. From the main street of town you could see corn fields to the horizon one block in either direction. Middle America. It’s sort of neat!!

By the way, the picture is of Brenda getting her “kicks” on Route 66.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Oh oh......It happened already!!!!!

Yup. We did it. We booked our first hotel room on the trip! But, it's not what you think. Brenda is not threating to leave me (at least not for lack of a hotel room). We are sitting out the Labour Day traffic jam in a little RV park in Holland Michigan, waiting to hit the road early tomorrow (Tuesday) into the Chicago area (Joliet, Ill to be precise). Not only is Chicago not very RV friendly, it's commuter train service to the suburbs makes Toronto's GO trains look like the Mercedes Benz of commuter services. As a result, we will leave our mobile palace in Joliet and take the METRA commuter line in to the city to stay a few days in a hotel. Failure is such a hard pill to swallow! But...that's it .....never again!!

However, when we listen to the weather back home, we feel truly blessed. Today we were at the beach (warm and sunny) and, who knew that palm trees grew on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. Look very closely at the attached picture. Plastic technology has advanced so far, don't you think? We missed the Chicago Jazz Festival over the long weekend but, hope to make up for it by hitting some of the city's many Blues clubs (from the comfort of our nearby hotel room). After a few days of history, art galleries, and the odd good restaurant (blues clubs too) we'll be heading west to the Mississippi for a sharp left turn to the south following what is known as The Great River Road all the way (almost) to Louisiana. We decided today to fly home for Thanksgiving from Atlanta and have found a place to leave the RV for a few weeks while we get a direct flight home from Atlanta. We'll complete the southern section of the Great River Road when we return.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A "Grand" time

Visiting Agawa Canyon was a wonderful relaxing experience although, with a 4 ½ hour train ride in each direction, the trip makes for a long day. Autumn is definitely on the way. The trees were just beginning to show colour with the odd maple here and there already exhibiting a brilliant scarlet. Given all the logging depots and log piles we saw along the route it is surprising that there are any trees still standing. We crossed the border at the Soo without so much as a glance from US Customs. I would have thought that a large RV would have attracted a bit more attention, given the carrying capacity of these rigs. Oh well, booze is cheaper in the US anyway so there was no sense in trying to smuggle anything. And, I guess a couple of old retired farts aren’t the demographic they’re looking for.

Joan and John had told us not to miss Mackinac Island and, more specifically, the Grand Hotel. Were they EVER right! With very few exceptions (an ambulance), there are no motorized vehicles on the Island. Horses and bicycles are everywhere; the entire island is a state park; the Victorian houses and buildings are perfectly maintained and; life is lived slowly. The Grand Hotel is…….well…….grand! It is the largest summer resort in the world, with a 3 story, covered verandah that leads you to believe that Rhett and Scarlett will show up at any moment. It is “old time sophistication”.

Today is a work day (laundry, clean the RV in and out, wash the car, shop, etc.) then we continue south towards Chicago. It seems that living the RV lifestyle requires about one “work” day for every 10 days. I guess nothing is perfect!

Most of the RV’s produced in the USA are manufactured in northern Illinois, in largely Mennonite communities, which lie directly on our route. Since we have developed a small water leak under the kitchen sink and, since the factory at which this rig was produced is straight ahead, we may stop in and have them tweak a couple of things. (Good excuse to see what the 2007 products look like…….don’t tell Brenda)