Very early in the morning, in the dark, we packed up and left the Flying J, stopping at a freeway rest stop for breakfast just as the sky began to brighten. Then, on we went, crossing yet another time zone, the third in as many days, and into Montana, where we turned off the freeway onto MT-200, a lonely two-lane highway that crosses the entire state in nearly a straight line from east to west, passing through few towns on the way.
Finally, after three days of fast driving and high winds that drove our fuel economy very low, we puttered along at 100 kph, well below the 112 kph limit, and kept the day relatively short, 690 km/427-miles, checking into the Kiwanis Rest Stop/Campground in Lewistown, Montana. This is one of the few rest stops that permits overnight camping, and, indeed, has a 10-day limit. We’re here for the afternoon and overnight, but it looked like some of the campers had been there for a while, and it was nearly full when we arrived at 1430, though some left. Primitive camping, but we were able to refill our water supply, for the first time in more than a week.
Crossing so many time zones in so short a time has left us a bit jet-lagged, which explains in part why we are early to bed and early to rise, and tempted to drive the extra daylight west-bound travel provides, as the days get shorter and the nights colder.
The weather forecast, which we heard because the Montana Department of Transportation has the report running at all highway rest stops, called for dangerously high winds and rain in Eastern Montana. We arose very early and drove the 175 km to Great Falls in the dark. On time, the winds came up over the Belt Mountains. By the time we had stopped to refuel and shower at our favorite truck stop chain, the gusts had increased and we were treated to spectacular rainbows in between the fierce rain squalls as we continued on MT-200 toward the Rocky Mountain Front. The skies cleared over Rogers Pass, but the gusty winds continued down the Blackfoot River to Missoula.
We stopped over at our friend’s house near Florence, where our journey started two months ago, for a night of “moochdocking,” plugged in. Despite running our small electric heater overnight, the temperature inside the van dropped to 54F/12C, and the grass was frosty in the morning. After a great breakfast, we headed south to celebrate another friend’s birthday and overnight “moochdocking” in her yard, dinner “out” at the Bitterroot Brewery, which, since we left 14 years ago, has a new chef and an amazing menu with lots of vegan and gluten-free items, plus great microbrews.
Finally, after yet another great breakfast, we were on the home stretch, headed north to US 12, over Lolo Pass for our 4th timezone change in six days, back to our “normal” Pacific Daylight Time. We took our time, stopping at a picnic area along the Clearwater River, then crossing into Washington over the Snake River between Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington. Sunset came as we crossed the Columbia River, and we stopped for the night at yet another truck stop. In a rare move, we picked up fries and jalapena poppers at the fast food restaurant attached to the truck stop, and, as we had the last few days, grabbed a coffee at Starbucks in the morning to go with our usual van-made cold breakfast, getting underway just as the sky began to brighten.
We stayed off the I-82 through the Yakima Valley, taking the old highway, until forced onto the freeway to bypass the slow Rattlesnake Ridge Landslide at Union Gap, which has been sneaking up on the freeway since 2017 when Thorp Road, the extension of the Yakima Valley Highway on which we had been driving, was closed. Back on US 12, we headed for White Pass, following alongside the path of last year’s bike ride on the Yakima Greenway along the river and along US 12 toward Naches.
Climbing up to the pass, we were amazed to find Rimrock Lake, the main irrigation reservoir for the Yakima Valley, nearly empty. It was low last year when we went over to Yakima, but Washington State is truly in a drought with nearly non-existent snow pack the last few years.
Over the pass, we were treated to a clear view of 14,414-ft Tahoma (Mt. Rainier). Down into the more populated corridor, we took the Jackson Highway through Chehalis and Centralia, again uncharacteristically stopping for lunch at the Country Cousin Restaurant, a fixture off I-5 for 50 years, serving huge portions on an “American” menu. Judy opted for her favorite non-vegetarian BLT, while I had the veggie omelet, which was huge and packed with mushrooms and broccoli, serviced with *real* (not reconstituted from dried shreds) hash browns.
Taking our usual back roads through Littlerock and past the Mima Mounds on Waddell Creek Rd, we came out onto US 101 at Mud Bay for the final 25 km home, stopping at the post office to pick up our two-month pile of mail.
We were gone for 61 days, drove 19017 km (11819 miles), and rode our bicycle 91 km (57 miles).
We filled the gas tank with 665 gallons of fuel, for $2545 USD. an average of $3.83/gallon.
We stayed at paid campsites 9 nights, for $280 (average $31), and one night at a B&B, for $128. We paid about $45 for showers at truck stops. Campsites ranged from RV parks, Provincial Parks, State Parks, National Parks, Bureau of Land Management sites, and a city park.
We stayed for free at two Cabela’s parking lots, two Walmart parking lots, a national park campground, a rest area posted for camping, and 12 truck stops.
The other 32 nights we stayed with five friends and relatives seven times for one or more nights.
Despite the common wisdom that gasoline is always more expensive in Canada, the highest price we paid was actually in Washington State, $4.83/gallon, on our first fill-up, with the highest price in Canada a penny less, in New Brunswick, at $1.748/liter ($4.82USD/gallon. The lowest price in the US was at Buc-ees in Georgia, at $2.95, and the lowest price in Canada was at Canadian Tire in Ontario, at $1.50/liter ($4.19 USD/gallon).
Monday, Thanksgiving Day in Canada, we awoke to find the power had been restored, mostly. We had to use our 30-amp adapter, as the 15-amp circuit didn’t work. The washrooms remained locked at 7:45, so we drove up to the pit toilets in the day-use area, then headed out to make a partial tour of the Cabot Trail before heading westward.
The storm had abated, but such weather comes in waves. We turned off at the west entrance to the Cabot Trail and up the beautiful Magaree River Valley, where the fall colors had popped in great profusion, then up the west coast of Cape Breton to the town of Cheticamp, the gateway to the Breton Highlands National Park. There, the weather turned dark, the clouds lowered, and the main came in squalls. We headed back, toward New Brunswick, along the coast rather than up the river.
Crossing over onto the mainland, we tried to get WiFi coverage to check for camping and weather, but to no avail: the coffee shops at gas stations apparently don’t provide WiFi, or it simply wasn’t available in the remote area. After bumping along with the Thanksgiving traffic headed back to the cities after the long weekend, we again turned off the busy freeway onto the coastal roads, through such towns as Pugwash, which we thought hilarious and took photos to send to our Pug-owning friends and relatives. We were seeking a campground, but didn’t find one, so headed inland to the freewayin another search for WiFi. We found a Walmart, but it was closed for the holiday, so parking there was out, but we found a truck stop just over the border in New Brunswick, so that’s where we ended up for the night.
It rained most of the night, but promised to clear later, so early in the morning, we headed up highway 16 to the Confederation Bridge, 13 kilometers across the Northumberland Stait to Prince Edward Island. We got advice on a practical day and a half tour of the Province and set off around the center of the island. PEI is very much like our part of the world–rain, farms, factories, and ocean, but very Canadian. We found a bike trail we liked, but decided to come back when rain didn’t threaten. Driving into Charlottetown, we threaded our way through throngs of cruise-ship passengers to find the B&B we had booked. Settled in, we walked around the waterfront district, found an Indian restaurant for our first sit-down restaurant meal without being dragged by family since the pandemic. Even the mild was hotter than I make the dishes at home, so Judy didn’t have as enjoyable meal as I did. On the way back to the B&B, we saw a vegan restaurant across the street that would have been a better choice. Such is the outcome of adventuring when you’re hungry and haven’t made a thorough search of the area.
After an excellent breakfast at the B&B, we headed out, swinging out through the center of the island to check out areas we missed, then headed for the toll bridge in a driving rain shower. The Confederation Bridge toll is $50.25, collected on the island side, so the round trip cost is about $1.89 per kilometer, not bad as toll bridge prices go. Immediately over the bridge, we took the scenic route along the Strait, and, ignoring the GPS, headed north instead of south at Hwy 11, electing to take the shorter, but slower Hwy 108 across the province instead of the 4-lane freeway on Hwy 2. It was a rough and bumpy afternoon, but virtually no traffic, and great autumn colours over the Appalachians, ending up at a truck stop at Edmonston, a few kilometers from the northern tip of Maine and the eastern border of Quebec, where the time zone will change soon after we get underway in the morning. Soon after we settled in, the rains we had fled from all day arrived, and continued most of the night.
Fuel prices in PEI were the lowest we’ve seen so far in Canada, and the prices in New Brunswick were the highest. All of the stations, except the one near our campground in Nova Scotia–that didn’t have a credit card reader at the pump–limit purchases to $100, at least on U.S. issued cards, which gets us about half a tank, 55-60 liters, depending on price. We had topped off on PEI just before getting on the bridge, $135 total in two fill-ups for 80 liters, so our 500-km daily distance costs us about $125 CDN, or $92.50 USD. With about 6000 km ahead of us, our trip home will consume over $1000 USD in fuel charges alone. So, our extravagances in the last week with State Parks, National Parks, Provincial Parks, and Bed and Breakfast hotels needs to be in the past for the rest of the trip, if we expect to get home still solvent. Likewise, we need to curtail eating out, even fast food and the delicious pastries and coffee from Tim Horton’s, which are everywhere and often the only source of WiFi connections.
In the morning, we dropped in at the Ford dealer across the street from the truck stop and made an appointment for an oil change, having traveled nearly 10,000 km since our last oil change in Missouri. Our appointment was for 11:00 am, so we took advantage of the time to make a brief tour of Edmondston, finding a wonderful city park that wound around the pool behind the hydroelectric dam on the river. After we got our van back, we headed northwest, intending to tour Quebec City before continuing on toward Montreal.
We had a good day, gaining an hour as we crossed the border into Quebec. We dropped off the freeway as the highway turned southwest, to drive through the farming towns along the shore of the St. Lawrence seaway, where we were also treated to vibrant fall color in the trees along the cliffs and hills above the farmlands. From time to time, when we stopped, the rain clouds that had continued west overnight caught up with us. After one of the stops, our GPS decided we would be getting into Quebec City during rush hour, so rerouted us to a ferry. We realized this only when we arrived at the ferry dock. We declined, backtracked to the freeway, and joined the creeping traffic toward the bridge, further upriver. As a result, we once again changed our plans, and decided to abandon our visit to Quebec City, a stop we had been looking forward to for several years as a “bucket list” destination. But, we simply couldn’t afford to backtrack from Montreal, a full day’s travel.
The traffic finally cleared, and we arrived at yet another truck stop halfway between Quebec City and Montreal, just as the sun touched the horizon. The temperature, which had hovered in the low teens (Celsius) all day, began to drop, making us glad we had bought heavier clothing at one of our stops in the U.S.
Friday the 13th of October turned out to be a typical run of luck. We got up early, topped off the fuel, and headed for Montreal, mixing with the Drummondville morning rush hour. We missed a turn for the bridge, and had to backtrack. Once in the city, we headed for the location indicated for our friend Marge’s vegan cafe, only to find it was not a storefront, but an on-line only ordering service. So much for reading the entire website when pressed for time and having to “surf the web” standing in the gas station convenience store, the only place the WiFi worked at our Thursday night stop. We discovered that there was a full-service truck stop just past Drummondville, had we checked, which would have been a better place to stay. As it was, we had been surrounded by idling diesel trucks most of the night: for some reason, all of the drivers chose to stay on our side of the store instead of the larger lot by the diesel pumps.
Anyway, we had a delightful tour of the old neighborhoods of Montreal and were delighted by the sight of dozens of bicyclists zooming along the separated bike lanes that lined most of the streets in that part of the city. Working our way out to the freeway through a newer, less genteel part of the city, we were soon on our way to Ontario and the national capital, Ottawa, passing through a seemingly endless warehouse district with a lot of new construction. One item of note: Canada is convinced of the worth of light rail, and is building elevated track “everywhere.” The new track out of Montreal is nearly complete, and work is well underway on a ground-level track west of Ottawa. Once over the massive Ottawa River, we were in the countryside and headed in a northwesterly direction, following the river, which, north of Ottawa, is the border between Quebec and Ontario.
By chance and a wrong turn,we got a front-on view of the Parliament building and were able to loop around and cruise past the government complex without stopping, as Judy shot photos out the window.
Our excursion past the Parliament buildings saved us from a horrific traffic jam on the 417 freeway, as we got back on the freeway on the west side of the city. It was refreshing to see road signs in both English and French again, as Quebec does not provide dual-language signage and the Canadian version of French is obtuse, if not colorful, and we read neither classical nor the Quebec variation. During most of the drive north, many signs were in English only, but, as we neared our westward turn, more bi-lingual and Quebec-style signs appeared. The town of Mattawa, Ontario, is across the only bridge between Quebec and Ontario, and it appears that a great deal of Quebecois influence has crept across the border.
Westward, we were treated with increasingly rolling hills and great expanses of autumn color, with maples, birch, and larch in full dress, framed by the increasingly common evergreens. We had set an ambitious goal, to reach Sudbury, but, despite the headlong rush toward the sunset, we failed to gain enough minutes of daylight, and found ourselves groping in the dark around Sudbury for a place to park for the night. Our first choice, a truck stop, was just a closed truck fuel station, with no overnight parking and no car facilities. Next, we checked out a shopping center noted for proximity to restaurants and WiFi, but it was crowded and not at all level, so we ended up at a Walmart, our first foray into that mainstay of the Van Life and RV crowds. Of course, in the off-season, there are only a few other hardy souls in residence, and it feels a bit spooky.
A cold, dark morning, in the back of the Walmart. We quickly packed up and headed out to refuel. Canadian Tire in Ontario had the lowest gas prices in Canada so far, $1.50 per liter, though we saw a few independent stations at $1.41. That works out to $4.19 USD/gallon. We ate our Tim Horton blueberry muffins we had purchased the night before and headed out into rain squalls on a dark highway. Along the way to Sault St. Marie, we stopped at roadside rest stops and a beach on Lake Huron. On our third attempt, we found the well-disguised turnoff onto the international bridge to Michigan, where we joined a very slow line at U.S. Customs. We’re always a bit apprehensive about returning to the U.S., with the possibility of yet another car search. But, the agent, an older woman, was kind and cheerful. She did confiscate our left-over tomatoes we had purchased in New Brunswick a week ago, and suggested an author who writes mysteries in Quebec setting.
Once onto U.S. soil and finding cellular service, we headed west on M-28 across the Upper Peninsula, in strong winds and intermittent rain squalls, refueling in Marquette, $3.79/gallon. Not finding any convenient stopping places in the sparsely-settled forests in the western half, we pressed on until dark, arriving at yet another Walmart in Ironwood, Michigan.
In the morning, it was very cold: only one other van and a car that we surmised was a Walmart employee who lived in his/her car. Still, dark, we moved on, stopping at a lakeshore park in Ashland, Wisconsin at sunrise for breakfast. Soon, we were through the short section of Wisconsin that has Lake Superior waterfront, and into Minnesota, skirting the city of Duluth and heading west on Highway 2, then backroads across the upper Mississippi River, where a rest stop was closed “due to vandalism,” so we pressed on to Hill City, which had a great city park and campground on the lake. We passed through Walker, and across the Paul Bunyan Trail, at which we decided not to stop and drag out the bike to ride yet another segment: the day had warmed up, but we needed to move on before nights got too cold. We drove along MN-34, parallel to the Heartland Trail we had ridden back in 2015.
We continued over the border into North Dakota, stopping to refuel at Fargo, and then raced two-thirds the way across that state before turning in at a Flying J truck stop outside of Mandan. We’ve been spoiled by the Love’s Travel Stops, Irving Big Stops, and the Edmundston Travel Center. This stop was not up to standards: the perimeter of the lot, where overnighters were directed to park, was dirt, not level, and the look and feel was chaotic and not well-monitored. Nevertheless, we had arrived at sunset after a 530-mile/918-km rush across four states and nearly the entire Central Time Zone and weren’t anxious to move on to the next one.
Monday, October 2, we made a decision: we had been intending to turn east to make a quick tour of the Capitol and across Chesapeake Bay, through New Jersey, before detouring around New York City and up the coast. Instead, we elected to make an end run straight north and east, up I-81 to Scranton, PA, and east on I-84. And, so we went, with an early start and back on freeways again for the first time since our Florida to Georgia run. We made good time, and ended up west of Boston just off the I-495, in Berlin, MA, in a shopping center parking lot, 850 km from our starting point.
Continuing our avoidance of the congested coast around Boston, we headed north, in the metro rush hour, with our carbon monoxide detector chirping at us every time the traffic slowed to a crawl past interchanges. Once out of the metro area and into New Hampshire, we made our way around Lake Winnapasaukee, to camp at White Lake State Park, with a view of the White Mountains across the lake. The site was pretty, but primitive, and the water was heavy with iron. Fortunately, we had a good supply onboard. The next day, we drove through small towns to Portland, Maine, where we stayed off the freeway, winding up the coast to Camden Hills State Park: primitive camping with iron in the water, again.
Our bucket-list goal for this leg of the tour was Acadia National Park. Our round-about journey through New Hampshire and southern Maine was designed to work around campsite availability at Acadia. With the resurgence of camping post-pandemic, the peak camping season extends year-around where feasible, and the campgrounds, especially the National Parks, are always full. We were able to get the last available site at the campground furthest from the major attractions, after a frustrating episode trying to get the recreation.gov web site to work on Safari on an iPhone. Did not work, had to resort to using the computer. Throughout the transit segments of our expedition, cell-phone connectivity has been an issue, and this was no exception. We have also had frustration with poor WiFi signals. We have a loyalty card with a major truck stop chain, which gives us access to their customer WiFi, but it doesn’t always reach to the parking lot, and is at the mercy of the local providers for bandwidth. Our camping experiences have been mostly “No Service, No WiFi.”
But, despite the hurdles, we had a glorious day touring Mount Desert Island and the Park Loop–in the fog, with parking lots at major attractions overflowing at 9:30 in the morning. The less-popular stops along the way had plenty of parking, so we avoided long waits and huge crowds, and our out-of-the way campground was a unique gem in the National Park system: electric service at campsites and WiFi, which, typically, only worked in the restrooms. But, it was there, and we had a hot meal for the first time in a while, since we were able to use our hot plate.
Friday, the start of the long Thanksgiving holiday in Canada, we once again braved the fog and steered north on the coast highway, US 1, crossing the border into New Brunswick at Calais, ME, USA/St. Stephen, NB, Canada, and into the Atlantic Time Zone. For the first time ever, we were selected for a thorough vehicle search. While one of the customs agents assured us it was routine, and a small percentage of vehicles are selected, we are convince it isn’t random, as van-lifers do report this does happen to them, and sometimes they are not permitted entry. But, it seems our declaration was accurate and we didn’t actually have any of the contraband they ask about, so we were soon on our way, and the Canadian customs officers were polite, unlike the U.S. customs service, which has been known to toss the contents of vehicles with abandon, when violations are suspect.
The second disturbing revelation of the day was observing the notice from our cellular service that International Roaming for data and texting would cost us $0.10 to $0.40 a Megabyte, and a dollar per minute for phone calls. We normally use 10 to 15 Gigabytes (a thousand Megabytes each) in a month of travel, so the thought of coming home to a $150 to $600 phone bill from a couple of weeks in Canada had us quickly turning off cellular data for the duration of our Canada stay, depending on coffee shops for WiFi not only for data but for phone calls, relying on WiFi for phone service as well.
So, late afternoon, because of the van search and the time change to Atlantic Daylight Time, we arrived at beautiful Fundy National Park. Like the U.S. parks, the entrance fee is separate from the on-line camping registration fee, and we don’t have a pass, like we do for U.S. National Parks, so it’s a little expensive. But, the campground not only had electricity, but good water at the campsite, and a coin laundry. We got caught up on our laundry for six Loonies (Canadian $1 coins, with a loon on the back) . Without internet access, we were a bit unsure about finding places to stay on this holiday weekend after tonight. We realize it’s a long way home, and many campgrounds close for the season on Tuesday morning after the holiday.
Fortunately, the kind ladies at the campground registration booth informed us of free WiFi at the park resource pavilion, 4 km up the mountain. So, the next morning, we drove up into the fog bank and got on the Internet, where, despite the three-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend, we secured two nights at Mira River Provincial Park in Nova Scotia, near the very eastern tip of Cape Breton, with electricity.
So, off we went, on another 600-km day on a difficult route that took us on back roads along the Bay of Fundy, where the tides are three to four times the 4-meter tides we experience in Puget Sound. The tide was running out, showing us boats grounded far below the tall piers, and steep high banks that were obviously inter-tidal. We passed through the city of Moncton, and on into Nova Scotia, on freeways and a toll road that depleted our supply of Toonies (the Canadian two-dollar coin), to the famed archipelago, finally arriving at our campsite just at 5:00 pm. It’s already after the season, most of the campgrounds are closed or partially closed: this one was, but still allowed on-line reservations, so we drove directly to our campsite and settled in as the sun set.
At 60°2‘17“W, we’re farther east than we’ve been before, and four hours in the future from home. But, at nearly the same latitude, so the flora, fauna, and seascape looks vaguely familiar, with the Cape Breton Archipelago looking a lot like the Salish Sea Archipelago of the Gulf, San Juan, and Puget Sound hilly islands. Our third big shock of the day was paying $100 CDN for 55 liters of petrol, which turns out to be about $5 USD per gallon, and the annoyance of being limited to $100 purchases at a time, which barely fills half the 115-liter tank.
We discovered, after reading the maps we picked up at the Nova Scotia Welcome Centre, that the Cabot Trail is 300 km of tortuous mountain and cliff-side driving. Whoops. Not a casual day ride, especially since we are nearly 100 km from the trail access. So, we decided on a new plan. Saturday, after a series of dash-and-run long-distance drives, we would explore around the Sidney area, which we did. First, we discovered that we were within 20 km of a national treasure, the Fortress at Louisbourg, an early French harbour fortification that was faithfully reproduced from ruins between 1960 and 1976, similar to but much larger and more elaborate than Fort Ross, the Russian outpost we toured last year on the California coast.
So, without any Internet or Cell coverage, we went in early morning to check out the hours, etc., of which we were a bit early, but the nice lady at the entrance gate told us the hours and advised us to just do part of the Cabot Trail, instead of the entire long loop. In the meantime, since it was a gray and blustery day, we drove into Sidney, checked email and Facebook, courtesy of Tim Horton’s excellent WiFi, while munching on bakery goodies and drinking great coffee. We did a quick driving tour of the waterfront (huge Norwegian Lines cruise ship in port) and headed back to start our fortress tour by noon. Unfortunately, the ragged remains of Hurricane Phillippe chose that moment to dump a lot of water, driven by high winds, at that very spot. The Fortress is a big place, and we were soon soaked to the skin, but had a great time poking around in the buildings and talking with the costumed re-enactors, who represented members of the fortress staff in the year 1744, when the fortress was complete and at its heyday, one year before the first British siege and occupation.
Fortunately, we are currently living in our van, so we piled in and changed out of our wet clothes, then waited for the next busload of tourists to offload into the storm before driving slowly back to our campground, buffeted by winds and hammered by rain, dodging standing and running water on the roadways. Back in camp, we plugged in to the power just before it went off, all over camp. The park staff said it might be back on but not until after 4:00pm. Meanwhile, the washrooms were locked–no lights, no hot water, etc… We drove a few kilometers to a nearby gas station/convenience store where there was power to use the washroom. The power returned, but not until more like 4:00am, and the washrooms remained locked. For our $40, we might as well be in some parking lot somewhere… We discovered that we’re too far east: our Sirius/XM doesn’t reach here, either, so no radio reception, and we elected not to cook with gas inside, so a quiet Sunday evening with our paper books and no-cook dinner.
Here’s a note while we have all this idle time on our hands: we’ve used the metric system for some time, but, here in Canada, we’re immersed in it, which suddenly means we don’t need to convert miles to kilometers, everything is metric. But, we’re sort of into converting backwards: how many miles do I put on the cruise control to get the right speed on the signs? I got to thinking that, by pure coincidence, metric to miles is essentially the Golden Ratio: 1 mile is 1.609 kilometers, and the Golden Ratio is 1.618: close enough. To convert miles to kilometers, just pick the next number in the Fibonacci sequence, (1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,…). It works, after the 1,1,2, anyway. 3 miles is 5 km, 8 km is 5 miles, 8 miles is 13 km, and so forth. Easy, huh? Mainly, the speed limits go up and down by 10 kph, so I just hit the button 6 times for each increment. 3 clicks speeds up or slows down by 5 klics. 90 kph is close to 89, for which the next previous Fib number is 55, so 56 mph is close. Anyone else would simply look at the “mph” outer ring on the speedometer next to the “kph” inner ring, but that’s too easy.
With a few days downtime, we rested up from many trips on foot up and down the mountain between the van and the cabin, catching up on visiting and Internet. Judy spent a day helping with a sewing project, and I roasted up a pan of vegetables to get back to real cooking. We had to move the van to make room for the power company crew that came in to reset the guy wires on the power pole we parked next to. The tires spun as we backed up into the next leg of the switchback, but far enough.
Mid-week, we made a trip into town, with much rocking back and forth to turn around and aim down the mountain, following instructions to swing wide at the last switchback, barely clearing the edge of the road. The paved road seemed even steeper, descending into the touristy strip town and again down to the next town, where we refueled and did a bit of shopping before climbing back up to the mountain and once again skidding through the switchback and positioning the truck at the small parking area at the next, too steep switchback. Loading our purchases into a backpack, we trudged up the next two switchbacks to the cabin. That evening, the rains came, as predicted, promising to continue into the next day, when we hoped to help with the building project in front of our van.
With Matt home, and the rain stopped, the safari tent platform project began again. A few last minute major design changes ended up with a rectangular platform 14′ x 16‘1“ (Matt assumed the boards were exact length…). We took time out to attend our Thursday Yoga session with the Mason County Senior Activity Center at home, via Zoom. The plywood flooring got put in, but the rains came again overnight, making it necessary to screw down several panels that started to delaminate. So much for outdoor rated plywood. But, all was well and square, and the dynamic duo fired up a propane torch, the kind used to kill weeds, to scorch the flooring to bring out the grain, a nice effect.
Friday, the tent went up, taking all four of us to spread it out, rig the steel tubing frame, and raise it up. Wow! This tent is huge! A quick call to the manufacturer to clarify some issues about how the “porch” was attached, and all was well, ready for the assembly of the porch and rain fly on Saturday.
But, Saturday was our time to move on: we packed out early while the team made yet another lumber yard run and were ready to ease the van down the mountain by the time they returned. I had carefully turned the van around to face downhill the previous afternoon, a tricky maneuver, to say the least.
Down off the mountain in one piece, we headed back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and wound around the northbound path, which first took us far south, over the highest point, and then north to Ashville, three hours later. Ashville is about a 40-minute drive had we taken the highway.
By this time, Judy had had enough of white-knuckle hairpin turns with no guardrails and sheer drop-offs thousands of feet to the valley below, so we consulted with the rangers at the visitors center and chose to jump around the Parkway, skipping 150 km of winding ridge-running, and resuming the tour before the famous viaduct that suspends the Parkway out from the cliffs. Soon after, we came to a detour necessitated by a bridge repair far ahead. Instead of returning to the Parkway at the end of the detour, we continued on the parallel valley back roads that led to our destination for the night, as the Parkway route would have necessitated backtracking several miles. We put in just at sunset and just over the Virginia border.
On Sunday, October 1, we awoke early to thick fog. We packed up in the dark and drove over the Ridge to the New River valley, where we broke out the tandem bicycle for the first time since the Cades Cove run in the Great Smoky Mountains. We had read another couple’s story of their journey on this famous rail trail, and were anxious to try a short section of it. However, in the week or so since their report, the very section of the trail we wanted to ride had been closed for bridge repairs. Undaunted, we elected to ride the scenic section before that, from Foster Falls to the settlement of Austinville, a short five-mile segment, but entirely along the river and through one of two tunnels on the 57-mile trail. The fog was still heavy, so we had a wet passage upriver to Austinville, but it lifted enough we had some views of the other side of the river on the way back.
After finishing our ride, we resumed our trip on US 221, which parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway, but through the valleys, heading north, ending up near I-66, the route to Washington, DC.
A day into week 5, we bade farewell to the family and headed farther north, to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where we camped for two nights at Cades Cove. Wednesdays from May through September, the one-way loop road around the spectacularly beautiful valley is closed to cars, so on Wednesday morning, we joined hundreds of other cyclists of all ages, on all manner of bikes: road, hybrid, trikes, mountain, kids, e-assist, and our one lone tandem, for the 18-km rolling loop. We were a bit unprepared for the Category 4 and Category 3 climbs, but enjoyed being scofflaws, breaking the 20-mph (32 kph) speed limit on the downhills while filming forbidden video (though the NPS more or less ignores casual filming for personal, non-commercial use). We pushed the heavy tandem up a lot of hills, but had an excellent time. Link to video below:
Leaving at dawn on Thursday, we traveled back though the park, with a brief detour to Gatlinburg, TN, for groceries. We took a side trip to Clingmans Dome, where we hiked the steep 800-meter trail up to the observation tower, 2000 meters above sea level. The Smoky Mountains earned their name, with the cloud cover and haze obscuring all but the nearby peaks, but the view was spectacular nevertheless. We took a few steps on the Appalachian Trail just below the tower, to say we had “hiked” it.
Continuing on, we turned onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, getting off at the first exit on US 19 to spend the rest of the week with our son and his wife at their cabin a few miles off the Parkway and up a steep mountainside. We parked at the future “Glamping” site at the second of four switchbacks on the way to their cabin, with a good southern exposure for solar to keep our refrigerator running.
Our planned itinerary went awry once again, as our son’s work schedule had changed. With only the weekend to visit, we decided to spend a few days into the next week to wait for him to return from his out-of-town job, and help a bit with their construction projects in the meanwhile.