Expedition 2023, part 2, week 4: Florida to Georgia

Monday, September 11, we got up early and drove south to the Alabama shore, expecting to park near the beach for breakfast, but were put off by the $15 all-day parking fees.  We found a nature trail on the inland side of the island with free parking to make our breakfast, then back up to cross over into Pensacola, Florida, then down along the gulf islands.  Like all the barrier islands along the Gulf, from Texas through Florida, they are one long strip mall, punctuated by shark-mouth entrances to souvenir shops and expensive high-rise resorts.  And, of course, no free parking anywhere.  We paid $6 to use the toilet in a state park, permit valid only at that state park for that day only.  And, the heat on the beaches was blistering.  We drove on, air-conditioning on high, windows rolled up.  Our impression of the Gulf Coast:  “Put your money here, then leave.”

Entering the Eastern Time Zone, we soon turned inland and up to I-10 to refuel and spend the night.  The next morning, we traveled east on I-10, where we noted a lot of tree damage from the last hurricane that blew through.  We turned north to Yulee, where we retraced in reverse our 2016 self-supported bicycle tour, through Fernandina Beach, and down the A1A highway, taking the St. Johns River ferry to Mayport, and down through St. Augustine to Ormond Beach, where we had come out from the interior.  At Daytona, we got on the I-95 and headed for Merritt Island, intending to visit the NASA museum.

When we arrived at what the GPS said was the NASA Visitor Center, it has apparently been turned into a theme park, with huge numbered parking lots and a huge entrance fee, which we declined.  We got back in our van and joined the throngs of Blue Origin and SpaceX employees headed for the mainland at the end of the shift.  The road to Orlando is, of course, a toll road.  We elected to pay cash to avoid the pay by mail according to license plate extra fee, so many stops to throw dollar bills and spare change out the window.

At Orlando, we spent a few enjoyable days with our niece and her husband, both retired after 45 years working for Disney, so one of the days was spent walking the world tour at Epcot Center.  Being ever the handyman, I was turned back at the gate for being armed and dangerous with my dad’s nearly 100-year-old electricians knife in my pocket, forgetting I was carrying it.  With the precious heirloom safely stashed in the car trunk, we did enjoy the rest of the day, and dinner at an Italian restaurant in the park.

At the end of the week, our grand-niece and her husband returned from a business trip to California, so we took a tour of their house on the other side of Orlando.  We had fun playing with their dog, Luna, while she was staying with the “grandparents.”  On Sunday, the six of us formed a two-vehicle convoy and headed north to Athens, Georgia, at the usual Florida pace of at least 20% over the posted speed limit, which raised our fuel burn rate alarmingly.  We refueled at our first visit to a Buc-ees mega gas station, which we’d heard of but hadn’t seen up to now on our travels.  Hundreds of gas pumps and tons of junk food and souvenirs didn’t appeal much to us, but the gas prices were .

We spent two nights at an RV park.  We spent two days visiting with our grand-nephew. The gathering was to celebrate the life of his dad, our nephew, who passed earlier this year.  Our other nephew from California and his wife also traveled in their van across the country to be there, and our grand-niece from New Jersey also came.


Monday, Labor Day, we set off early from Caldwell, cruising I-80 across the state and into Utah.  Near Tremonton, two white cars zipped by us, dodging in and out of traffic.  As happens to us often when traveling through this area, the rains came in sheets.  Soon, traffic backed up to a walk near Brigham City.  Twenty minutes later, we passed the two white cars, both being loaded on wreckers.  We turned east at Ogden in spotty rain, climbing over the Wasatch Mountains into Wyoming, putting in for the night at a truck stop in Green River.

Tuesday, we pushed across Wyoming, over the Continental Divide and into smoky, hazy Nebraska, cruising between truck speed and car speed, ending our day in North Platte with a now-routine refuel and bed down in a parking lot.  Wednesday, get up and do it again, chasing trucks and being chased by cars through Nebraska and briefly into Iowa, before heading south to Missouri.  A nice lady at the Missouri welcome center rest stop said it was OK to stay overnight at rest stops, especially the spacious welcome center parking lots, but we pressed on through the Kansas City beltway and the I-70 rush hour traffic to Boonville for our usual gas up and sleepover.

Thursday, we took the van in to the Boonville Ford dealer for its 35000-mile oil change, then a short drive over the Missouri River to the settlement of McBaine, where we unloaded the bicycle and rode 15 km upriver on the Katy Trail State Park rail trail to Rocheport, where we chatted with two other tandem couples, one from Virginia, and the other from Michigan, before riding through the one and only tunnel on the 240-mile long Katy Trail and tracing our way back to the van.  We loaded our bike, covered in limestone dust from the trail, into the van and headed south to Rolla, on I-44, for the night at yet another truck stop.

Friday was a true touring vacation day, as we drove slowly down the scenic byways through the Mark Twain National Forest and the Ozark National Riverways through Missouri.  We had lunch at the Black River Overlook in Pocahontas, Arkansas.  We stopped at Lake Poinsett State Park in Arkansas to wash down and lube the bicycle, and later at Village Creek State Park for dinner, after a bit of GPS craziness that sent us off the end of the paved highway into a maze of steep gravel roads, from which we eventually turned around and retraced our steps back to a paved route to the park.  Sunset found us at yet another truck stop, in Palestine (Pal-e-STEEN).

Sunrise from our overnight parking spot in Arkansas

Saturday, we left early again and headed south to the Mississippi River State Park, for a slow drive on the ridge parkway to West Helena, then across the Mississippi River to Mississippi Hwy 1, which we followed through the fertile and flat river-bottom lands, then finally inland, picking up the Natchez Trace Parkway near Utica.  We stopped in mid-afternoon at the Rocky Springs Campground, the only campground on the Parkway, for a relaxing short day and visits with other campers in this quiet and free campground.

Rocky Springs Campground, Natchez Trace Parkway

Sunday morning, we drove up to the Rocky Springs townsite, which was closed off because of trail bridge decay, but toured the still-active church and cemetery.  The town flourished in the early 19th century until the Trace became less of a highway with the advent of steamboat traffic on the rivers.  Then, the spring for which the town was named dried up.  The yellow fever epidemic of 1887 spelled the end for the once-prosperous town.  We continued down the Parkway toward Natchez, stopping at the Sunken Trace, the only part of the original path still preserved, worn down from centuries of foot travel.  We also stopped at Mount Locust, the only inn still standing on the Trace, a humble house, which has been refurnished with period fixtures.  The Elizabeth Female Academy, the first women’s college in America, from 1811 to 1842, stands in ruins near Washington, MS, the first capital of Mississippi, closing when the capitol moved to Jackson.  One brick wall remains of the facility.

The Sunken Trace–original part of the historic Natchez Trace, worn down by centuries of foot traffic.

Leaving the Trace, we journeyed across Mississippi, down the east edge of Louisiana, and across the Mississippi Gulf Shore.  In the late 1970s, I had spent a week in Pascagoula at Ingalls shipyard, working on a computer problem aboard the Navy’s newest Marine assault ship, USS Peleliu, LHA-5.  It had been a stressful week, with resentment from the shipyard workers, ship’s crew, and the local townspeople, because I was an outsider, and the computer problems were delaying delivery of the ship to the U.S. Navy.  I managed to pinpoint the problem, which was neither the fault of the shipyard or the crew, but a factory problem.  A factory team was dispatched, and I was finally able to escape this traumatic point in my career.

From that point on, I strove to avoid returning to Mississippi at all cost.  But, here we were.  Modern-day Pascagoula was unrecognizable: the shipyard is now busy building off-shore drilling platforms instead of Navy ships, and the two-lane highway is now four lanes through a commercial strip.

Crossing Mobile Bay

Flush with old, unpleasant memories, we quickly drove  into Alabama, through the Mobile tunnel, and across the bay, where we put in for the night at yet another truck stop, and the first refueling since Arkansas.  The next leg will take us along the coast of the Florida Panhandle and down to Orlando for a few days visit with our niece and her husband.

Expedition 2023, Part II, Week 2: Idaho

Early morning at the Bayhorse BLM Campground

Winding down the Idaho side of Lost Trail Pass, we followed the Salmon River on U.S. 93 south to Challis, where we refueled and turned up ID 75, still following the river, to the Bayhorse Campground, a wonderful BLM facility with clean vault toilets and sweet water.  Not long after we arrived, the winds rose fiercely down the canyon, followed by heavy rain.  The storm passed quickly, and we were able to explore the area on foot.  The recreation area included a boat launch and an irrigation diversion canal. The irrigation ditch featured a smolt diverter screen that serves to redirect tiny salmon back into the river for their journey 1500 km to the sea, instead of into a farmer’s field.

Salmon smolt diverter screen to keep fish out of the irrigation canal

Early in the morning, we turned off the highway onto a rickety bridge across the river and up a steep dirt road to the Bayhorse Ghost Town, an abandoned silver mining town now maintained as a tourist attraction.  Arriving well before opening time, we took pictures through the gates and headed back down the hill.  

Bayhorse, Idaho Ghost Town

Crossing the one-lane bridge, we must have driven over a protruding spike, as the “low tire” warning soon came on, not a good sign on a no-shoulder highway with no cell service.  We managed to get to the next BLM camp, Deadman, before the tire went completely flat.  After reading the truck manual, we were able to release the spare tire, but the combo lug wrench and tire iron foiled attempts to break loose the lug nuts.  After struggling for some time trying to devise a work-around, we saw a pickup truck turn off into the recreation area.  Judy tracked them down at the opposite end of the campground, and the kind couple agreed to help.  They were in a hurry, and we didn’t even get their names: but younger, stronger arms started loosening the lug nuts, and I was able to finish the job, replace the tire, and we were soon on our way.

Finally, got the flat tire off

We continued up the spectacular Salmon River to Stanley, then over the pass and down the Payette River canyon to Boise.

Sawtooth Range, Stanley, Idaho

We drove west through urban traffic to Caldwell for a few days visit with Judy’s brother and his family.  The next day, we had a delightful visit with our niece and her husband, a full day of lunch out and winery tours.  The following day, the Friday before Labor Day, was spent taking care of business, getting our tire fixed to be ready to continue our journey and picking up a tire wrench that might make it easier for us to change a tire should the necessity come up again.

Saturday, we took an early morning stroll through downtown Caldwell, a pretty little town with a busy creek running under part of the downtown, with parks along the banks.  Otherwise, a quiet day with family.  Sunday, another stroll, in the rain, though we had intended to ride our bike. Judy’s sister-in-law busied herself packing leftovers and garden fruits for our upcoming trip east.

Expedition 2023 — Part II, week 1: Montana

In part I, in January and February, we traveled along the southern border to Boca Chica along the Gulf Coast, and visited with Larye’s side of the family.  In Part II, we head east, visiting Judy’s side of the family, then up the east coast to the Maritime provinces and along the southern border of Canada back home.  Anyway, that’s the plan.

Smoke from the massive fires in British Columbia blankets Eastern Washington from the Cascades to Spokane. Photo by Judy.

Like the earlier expedition, we started with a major refit on the van: this time, it was a few weeks in the body shop for a very expensive minor repair that saw us pulling the interior out of the van and making modifications to the electrical system and structures in the garage, followed by a frantic three-day re-installation and load-out. The first day’s drive was through thick smoke across Washington State, culminating in a surreal drive through the Gray Fire still smoldering on both sides of I-90 just west of Spokane.

Fire crew mopping up the Gray Fire, along I-90 between Medical Lake and Cheney, WA. The freeway was closed for several days while the fire raged between the two cities. Photo by Judy.

Fortunately, the skies were clear beyond, and we put in for the night at a big box store parking lot just across the Idaho border.  In the morning, we headed early to a freeway rest area where we made coffee and breakfast before continuing on to Montana.

Our original plan to go to Idaho, Montana, and then across Canada before heading south to visit the east coast family was turned inside out as we got news from friends and relatives we intended to visit along the way. Exigencies of health and their travel schedules dictated that we head first for Montana to visit a friend who had broken her elbow in a freak home accident, then continue on to Idaho, Florida, and Georgia.

Our Montana visit was most welcome: Judy provided expert nursing care and advice and Larye cooked for the few days we were there.  We saw other friends from our quilting years, and took a few hours off for a bike ride in the midst of running an errand in Missoula. With our pattern of riding parts of long trails each time we pass by, we finished the last section of the Bitterroot Trail, from Missoula to Lolo.

Bitterroot River, from the Bitterroot Trail, a mult-use trail from Missoula to Hamilton. View: between Missoula and Lolo, MT.

Somehow, we managed to accept a stash of yarn from another friend, which took some creative rearranging of our storage in the van to accommodate.  The yarn will be left with family in Florida, more than two weeks hence.  We spent two nights and a day visiting another friend who shares Judy’s crafting and beading activities: Judy spent the afternoon creating decorative papers while Larye uploaded video footage from our bike ride, parked outside the local library to use their WiFi.

Sunset, Hamilton, MT

Finally, it was time to move on, into Idaho: we said our goodbyes, Judy caught up on WiFi at the library, we grabbed some pastries and espresso at a bakery, and headed south over Lost Trail Pass, into darkening skies.

Trapper Peak, the tallest peak in the Bitterroot Range. Photo from US 93, near Darby, MT.