All posts by exploRVistas

We are full time RVers on a mission to find America's story. We feel that by moving our house to a location and living among the locals for a bit, we allow ourselves the opportunity to understand that area's people. Our motto is "Don't just see it...BE it"©

Goals Set and Goals Achieved

September 1, 2020 – Leelanau County, Michigan

When we left Florida this spring, we had a set of goals in place to install our utilities and build our barn on our property in Michigan. With the onset of COVID-19, we figured that we might have to scale those goals back a bit. Well, here we are at the beginning of September with all of our plans completed and more. It has been a great summer for us, despite the pandemic!

We last left you with siding on west side and back of the barn. Since then, we’ve finished the east side, then moved the scaffolding around the front.

The peak was a real trick to reach. Good thing we had the extension levelers for the bottom!

Here I am with the last piece of shake siding.

It was tippy-toes to get that up there!

Before long, we had all of the siding complete! Coach lights and gutters put the finishing touches on the exterior…

…while lights finished off the interior. That officially wrapped up our goals for the summer! We didn’t stop there though. I added a workbench inside the barn and then focused on finishing our shed that I rushed to build last summer.

I tacked on the batten strips, painted it and then roofed it to match the barn.

Another project we had was to cut up all the logs from the trees we had cut down along the driveway. We gave the wood to Lane and Patti, as they had helped us out earlier by supplying us with water the first month we were here.

Lane and I had a couple days of cutting.

We ended up with three loads like this. Diana and I saved two nice logs and took them to the sawmill near us to make into some pieces for the cottage. More on that in a future post.

While Lane and I were doing that, Diana had noticed that a bush she had trimmed earlier had sprouted a bunch of new shoots. Looking it up, she discovered that it was Autumn Olive, a highly invasive plant that takes over the forest edges. Turns out that it was a suggested planting for erosion control in the mid 20th century…until it started taking over everything. Diana went on a mission to rid our property of it.

Here she is, loppers in hand! Per the NW Michigan Invasive Species Network and her own research, she is cutting them and chemically treating the cut stems.

We pile them up and chain them to the bucket of the tractor…

…and stack them on our burn pile.

We will wait until there are no leaves on the trees to torch this…preferably on a rainy day. We still have a lot more to add to this pile.

We are also trying to grow grass in several places. That means spreading topsoil, seeding and putting straw on top.

It’s nice having a car hauler for a trailer, as I can drive right up the ramps and scoop off the dirt with the tractor.

Here I am spreading it out before seeding it. While I am doing that, Diana has been planting Daylilies that Mary gave us and Iris that Lane and Patti gave us.

Here are the Daylilies…

…and here she is planting the Iris.

So as you can see, we’ve accomplished a lot this summer! It hasn’t been all work though. We’ve had several physically distanced get-togethers with several friends and family, along with a day of kayaking at Sleeping Bear Dunes. We even got to meet our great nephew for the first time!

Miles is wearing a little outfit we got him at RonJon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach. Becky and Dan couldn’t be happier, and Charlie even approves. 🙂

As we reflect on the summer, we look back to a photo Lane and Patti sent us the week before we arrived on May 2nd:

Our place was nothing but our little shed and a building site in need of leveling. Compare that to this photo I took today from the same place, a mere four months later:

We are thrilled with where we ended up. Hopefully our cottage build next summer goes as smoothly as this year’s barn build did. 🙂

Be sure to stay tuned for our next post, as we wrap up our summer here in Leelanau. Until then, safe and happy travels to all!

She Sells Sea Shells by the…Cherry Orchard?

July 22, 2020 – Leelanau County, Michigan

Written by Jim

One of the more interesting discoveries on our property in Leelanau County has been what lies just below the surface. Our land sits perched on a hill about a mile west of Grand Traverse Bay and four miles east of Lake Michigan. We are 150 feet above those bodies of water. Our soil is well drained, with a mix of topsoil, sand and lots of gravel. That gravel…and our hill…is courtesy of the Laurentide Ice Sheet that plowed its way southward from Canada 10,000 years ago. As it moved, it pushed whatever soil and stone it could dislodge in front of it. Much of that rock was sedimentary, having been laid down at the bottom of an ancient sea that once covered the central portion of North America. In our case, that sea was well to our north. Some of the gravel and stone is pink granite, which is found along the Canadian Shield on the north shore of Lake Superior…again, well to our north. In any case, sticking a shovel in the ground around here will bring up a multitude of surprises!

Mid June brought a project that required a bit of digging. We needed to run an electric line from our barn to our new RV sites, a distance of 100 feet. Rather than fight the rocky soil, we rented this beauty:

Four hours with this trencher goes for about $250, so we also cut a trench to the future cabin and put 2″ conduit in. That saved having to rent this again next year.

The trench to the RV sites was fairly easy, as the top portion was fill that the excavator brought in.

Not so on the other trench. This was all glacial till. Note how it is not a straight line, as the Ditch Witch was bouncing off of every boulder it encountered! Let’s just say that we were glad it finished the project in one piece. This particular slice required quite a bit of hand digging, as the machine couldn’t go deep enough because of the rock.

So what did we find?

This is an example of a Charlevoix stone, a cousin to the Petoskey stone. Both are some 350 million years old and are forms of coral from that ancient seabed I spoke of earlier.

Here is a Petoskey stone, which can be distinguished by its geometric shaped coral.

On occasion, I would toss a seemingly mundane gray rock onto the pile, only to have it split in two.

This one split and left not only the imprint of a shell on the right half, but the actual shell on the left half. Once again, that shell is millions of years old.

And check out this one. There is a lot going on in this beauty! This is not anything that would’ve lived on the bottom of freshwater Lake Michigan, but rather the shallow saltwater sea that was to our north and west. This was dredged up by the glaciers and transported here during the last ice age…high up on our hill.

Finding treasures like those makes doing work like this a lot more fun!

The rest of our project is coming along right on schedule.

We’ve been busy putting up fascia and soffit…

…and siding! We are just a few days from being done with that project. The back of the barn is built into the hill; that’s why the red portion looks so short. We should be able to get our final inspections within the next couple of weeks. Look for photos of the finished product in our next post.

The other excitement around here was when we discovered that a few of our large maples were hollow inside and were in danger of falling on our barn and future cabin. Had we noticed them before we built the barn, we could’ve cut them down ourselves. We chose to have a tree service come in and take them down for us.

That was a job better left to the professionals!

That’s about it from northern Michigan and our little slice of paradise. Until next time, safe and happy travels to all!

From the Beach to a Barn

June 11, 2020 – Leelanau County, Michigan

Written by Jim

Soooo…did you think we fell off the face of the earth?

When I wrote last, the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to make it’s presence known in a big way. We were at the beach in Florida with a handful of approved building permits for our summer projects in Michigan. As time progressed, it looked like our plans were in danger of drying up, as states began to lock down in earnest. We watched daily to see if we were going to be able to make the trek through the center of the country, and we paid close attention to the situation in Michigan. Our wheels didn’t roll until late April, which put us in Michigan in early May.

Our original plan was to stay at our former work camping spot, Wild Cherry Resort, for a few months while we got things situated on our property. Unfortunately, the county health department put a 14 day quarantine period in place, so we instead opted to go directly to our property and boondock on it without hookups. In the long run, that ended up working in our favor. We weren’t even sure if we could make it up our steep gravel driveway with the rig, so it was all a big gamble. Our friends Lane and Patti had checked things out a few days ahead of time and cleared a few downed limbs for us. Below is their photo:

As we headed up to Leelanau, Diana took a 20 minute lead in the Escape to make sure everything was still ok, which it was. I pulled in and put Hank the Deuce in 4 wheel low and proceeded up the hill. Piece of cake!

We rented a porta-potty (a requirement of our building permit) and settled in with our generator. Both Lane & Patti and Rod & Mary supplied us with water from their wells until we could get our own well installed.

One of the first deliveries was our 30 foot long trusses. Dropped at the road, we had to figure out how to get them up a 60 foot hill and a couple hundred yards to our building site.

Let’s just say, there isn’t much a John Deere, some scrap lumber, a C clamp and a handful of bungee cords can’t do. Bad part was, the delivery driver showed at 6 PM and Diana and I ended up finishing at 11:15.

Our next order of business was for Diana and I to clear a 10 foot wide, by 100 yard long path through the trees for our underground power cable to come in from the pole at the road.

This is a photo of that pathway after the cable was installed.

Following that, our excavator came onsite and got busy. He installed water and sewer lines, our septic system, and provided us with a great upper driveway. He also dug the foundation for the barn.

This is our drain field before it was totally covered up. Our permanent RV site was quite low, so he built it up for us.

That resulted in a fairly steep hill off the backside that we were worried would wash out, so I started gathering rocks from wherever I could find them on the property.

Most of Leelanau County is a glacial moraine, so finding rocks was not an issue. We ended up terracing the hill and planted grass and periwinkle to hold the soil.

We’ve had a few heavy rains since we did this and it is holding extremely well. Every bit of that rock is from our property. There is a lot more where that came from!

The sites passed my inspection, once all was said and done.

Next up was the barn foundation.

Footings, then…

block walls. Our excavator suggested using a taller rear block wall, as there is a hill that we would be dealing with in the back.

It got pretty crowded up on our little hilltop a few days. One day in particular saw two cement trucks, two well drilling trucks, three power company trucks and a bevy of personal vehicles. It wasn’t long and we had things ready for the framers. They showed up last Thursday.

By Thursday evening, we had three walls! And as of Wednesday…

…the barn is framed in! Not bad for 37 days on the property. 🙂

Has it been all work? Mostly…but we also have taken in the beauty of our little slice of Leelanau.

We had plenty of trillium in our woods, along with several other species of wildflowers.

We also found quite a few morel mushrooms!

Our neighbor’s cherry orchard was gorgeous when it was in bloom. We have several old apple trees on our land, as it was an orchard in a long ago life.

Stay tuned for our next post, as we continue to finish the structure. We will be doing the siding and plumbing, and will hire out the overhead door and the electrical work. We will also dress up the shed to match the barn. We’ll fill you in on our well story, which was a doozy.

Until next time; stay safe out there!

Scanning the Skies for Rainbows

March 21, 2020 – Melbourne Beach, Florida

Written by Jim

In September of 1980, my phone rang in my college dorm room at Western Michigan University. It was my mom calling from Ohio to let me know about something that had happened to her and my sister. My grandpa had died a few days before in Indiana. He had been the only male resident of the Catherine Kasper Home for aging Catholic sisters at my Aunt Marge’s order’s motherhouse in Donaldson, Indiana. He had broken his hip while visiting and was granted permission to stay. I would visit him there, as it was a short drive from Kalamazoo. When I asked him how he liked it, he replied “Too many queens and not enough kings.” Truth be told, the only queen that mattered to him was his dear Minnie who had passed six years prior. This iron-willed homebuilder from Detroit sobbed that fact to me on more than one occasion.

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Back to that phone call. My parents were returning from a trip and stopped for the service the sisters had for him. I was going to meet the family for the main funeral in Detroit a few days later. My sister went to Indiana and drove Mom back to Ohio, as my dad had some loose business dealings to take care of before the funeral. As Mom and Judy were heading east, a rainbow appeared before them. The phone call had to do with that, as a rainbow is what my Aunt Marge requested when my grandpa asked her what sign she wanted when he got to Heaven. As I talked to Mom, I was looking out my dorm room window at a dazzling rainbow. While it was sad that Grandpa K had died, it brought a quizzical wonder at the coincidence of those color filled arches across the sky. Oddly enough, my aunt…the most spiritual one among us… never saw her rainbow. I’ll expound on why I think that is later in this post.

Over the years since, Diana and I have been treated to rainbows soon after a family member passes, almost without fail. Each time a gentle reminder that there is a God and a Heaven. This past Sunday, the requestor of that original rainbow passed away. My Aunt Marge, known to the sisters as Sister Mary Conrad Kirchhoff, was 95 years old.

As a child, she looked up to her older sister, my mom. Blackie and Blondie were their nicknames. She also looked up to her brothers Fritz and John and was protective of her little brother Ed.

After high school, she held a couple of secretarial jobs in Detroit before she heard the call from God to become a nun. She chose the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, an order that originated in Germany and had an American group of sisters in Donaldson, Indiana.

As a novice, her ‘little’ brother Ed came to see her. He would soon be off to war in the U.S. Navy, along with his older brothers who were serving in the Army.

Once she took her vows, she hit the floor running. She earned a Bachelors Degree from Loyola in Chicago and masters degree from St Francis College in Ft Wayne. She was a teacher and principal in Chicago, Director of Novices in Donaldson, the head of the order in the U.S. from 1973-1979, and then returned to teaching.

From 1983-1989, she was the first non-German sister on the worldwide board in Germany. Over the years, she travelled the world to places from Germany to India and Italy.

She even was able to meet Pope Paul VI. She was even fortunate to witness the day that same pope became a saint; the same day the foundress of her order did (Sr. Mary Catherine Kasper). She spoke with Diana and I about how she thought my mom would have been able to see more of the world than her. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she would be so blessed to have experienced so much. She finished her career as the Vice President of Mission Effectiveness at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Fort Wayne. Throughout her life, she opened doors to opportunities for her sisters to follow. When she didn’t know the path to take, she trusted God to show her the way.

And that is my belief on why she never saw that rainbow. Of all of our family members, she was the only one that didn’t need to. She had faith that her dad made it to Heaven…no rainbow required. God bless you, Aunt Marge. You were our moral compass. The world is better for you having been a part of it.

Below is a link to a YouTube video where she speaks of her years in Detroit and how she was called to become a sister. It’s a nice way to spend 5 minutes, if you have the time.

Sr Conrad’s calling (YouTube)

A Snowball in Florida?

February 1, 2020 – Melbourne Beach, Florida

Written by Jim

The metaphor of a tiny snowball rolling down a hill and gaining size was a thought that kept going through my head in early January. With the fact that we were on the coast in Florida…at an elevation of 10 feet above sea level and with us in shorts…it was just that; a metaphor. That thought was rooted in my attempted recovery from the most recent bout of whatever crud was going around. It turns out that it had snowballed into a full-blown case of bronchitis. I ended up coughing so hard that I pulled muscles in my back and aggravated my sciatic issues on my left side. I could barely walk, once I mustered the energy to get out of my chair. I was a mess, to put it mildly. On more than one occasion, I thanked God that I had decided against working for UPS this year.

First order of business was to get over the bronchitis. A trip to Surfside Urgent Care netted me several prescriptions, including an inhaler to stop the out-of-control coughing. If you owned stock in Walgreens over that period of time, you are welcome for the upswing in your portfolio. 🙂 The concoction of drugs, coupled with some great nursing from my lovely caregiver Diana, did the trick. By mid month, the snowball had stopped rolling.

The next thing on the agenda was to address the sciatic issue. My leg pain had subsided, but it was replaced with numbness. I contacted my nephew Dr. Dan, who is a physical therapist in Michigan, asking advice on what direction to go in seeking health care. My primary care doctor is in Michigan, and I really wanted to get a jump on this. Dan provided me with a ton of information (Thank you!) and a recommendation to seek out a good physical therapist down here. Florida has a law that allows a person to get 30 days of PT without a physicians referral, so I connected with one that was highly rated and accepted by our insurance. I’m happy to say that after a week and a half, I am making great progress! The snowball is indeed melting.

In Space Coast news, we’ve had three launches so far this year. January 6 saw the launch of Starlink 2, the second operational flight of SpaceX’s constellation of internet-providing satellites. With it being an evening launch that was flying northeast, we knew our best views would be further north of our winter home. We headed up to Patrick Air Force Base, which sits just south of Cape Canaveral.

What a show! What you are seeing in this photo (left to right) is the trail from the main engines, followed by MECO (main engine cut off). The next dot is the second-stage engine start (SES), followed by that portion of the rocket fading off into orbit. At that point, the rocket is outside of the atmosphere, so the flame disappears. Farther to the right, the first re-entry burn from the first stage can be seen, as it slows down to land on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, located several hundred miles out to sea. The final burn wasn’t visible, as it was over the horizon. I guess Earth isn’t flat, after all. :). For a full list of SpaceX acronyms…some of them hilarious… click HERE. BFR is one of my favorites, as is FTBA. 🙂

The next launch was the much anticipated IFA test. IFA stands for In-Flight Abort. NASA will be launching astronauts on SpaceX rockets, and this test was performed to see if the capsule could escape from an exploding rocket. We decided that Patrick AFB was the best spot to view it from, so away we went!

The weather had other plans, as the rocket disappeared into the clouds. We did hear a tremendous BOOM though (that’s not an acronym), as the rocket experienced RSD (rapid scheduled disassembly). Here’s what it looked like on Doppler radar:

The smaller green dot to the right of the explosion is the capsule flying away from the exploding rocket. The flight was a success and we should expect to see astronauts headed to the space station this spring.

The last launch for January was another SpaceX Starlink launch. Having a PT commitment later that morning, we chose to view it from our park:

It never gets old. 🙂

The other entertainment around here is Bingo and the weekly meat shoot at the local Moose lodge. This version involves a deck of cards instead of guns, but the prizes are still sizable cuts of meat. I won some delicious pork chops and Diana scored the 50/50 a few weeks back. It’s always a good time, as a large group of us from the park shows up. The caller refers to us as the Big Table.

We also had lunch with our friends Rod and Mary, we went to Merritt Island with our friend Paul and his Aunt Joan, and we did a Costco run with our full-time RV friend Kathy. This is the fifth state we’ve connected with her in.

And we’ve gained some ground on our garage project. We have all of our subcontractors lined up now and we’ve secured our land use permit. Once we have the building permit in hand, we can begin!

Actually, there is a fair amount of white stuff up on our hill, so we will wait until it melts before we head up there. We don’t want my snowball metaphor to become a reality. 🙂

Until next time, safe and happy travels to all!

Things Are Looking Up!

November 1 – December 21, 2019 – Florida’s Space Coast

Written by Jim

With all the people along the Space Coast of Florida looking up at the skies recently, it’s a wonder we haven’t all tripped and fallen over each other. Several launches have occurred since we’ve arrived, along with a unique event that had our eyes on the sky. More on that last one in a bit. We will also fill you in on a few things that have been happening with us lately.

Our first goal when we arrived in Florida was to get our first of two rounds of Shigrix shingles vaccines. That had to be put on hold after Diana and I came down with some pretty nasty colds from our trip south. Those carried on for two weeks and kept us home bound except for one trip to the beach on November 11 to watch SpaceX launch another 60 satellites into their Starlink internet constellation.

I did manage to grab this short video of it peeking through the clouds as it soared over the ocean. After it disappeared into the clouds, we followed suit and vanished from sight into out RV to continue our recovery. And SpaceX recovered their booster, after it landed on the barge Of Course I Still Love You 250 miles off the coast.

Once we felt we were over our colds, we made our way to the pharmacy to get those vaccines. We knew the side effects of them was flu-like symptoms for a day or two, so we weren’t looking forward to that. The pharmacist told me “As quickly as the side effects hit you, they will be equally quick to leave.” He wasn’t kidding. I felt as if I was hit by a truck, as every joint in my body ached until 1 PM the following day. By 1:15, it was gone. Fortunately, Diana had just mild symptoms. We have one more round to go in mid January and then we are (hopefully) protected.

The rest of November had us sprucing up our lot.

The sticker grass invades the plantings each summer, so it is up to us to clean it up. The park owners didn’t plant this landscaping (previous residents did), so they require us to maintain it or they will take it out and let the grass take over. We like the look of the plantings and gladly put in the effort to keep them looking nice. It’s only labor, and the sandy soil is easy to work with.

On December 4, we headed up to Port Canaveral with out friends Bob and Pat to view the next SpaceX launch up close. We were actually a bit too close, as we had a hill blocking our view of the pad. It would’ve been great once the rocket came over the hill, but unfortunately the winds were too high to launch. It did launch the next day, and we viewed it from our beach. This particular mission was a resupply trip to the International Space Station.

This is a frame grab from a failed attempt at a video. I made a rookie mistake and left it on autofocus. Still, not too bad considering the rocket is a good 50 miles away at this point.

Once again, SpaceX recovered their booster, landing 250 miles off of Jacksonville on Of Course I Still Love You. These people are good at what they do.

Our next event was a quick day trip to Lakeland to meet up with fellow RV-Dreamers for a picnic.

What a treat to get together with these folks! The big news this year is that several couples…including Howard and Linda (RV-Dreams founders and owners in the center of this photo)…have transitioned from full-time to part-time status. Many of us have bought houses or property and are establishing roots. The two of us are still officially full-timers for another three years or so, until our heads hit the pillows in our cabin.

And on that home front, we have made some progress on our Northern Michigan property. We have our garage plans drawn and are in the middle of securing permits. Most of our subcontractors have been lined up and we are awaiting quotes from a few more. We feel we are on track to have a completed garage and utilities by the time we head back here next fall.

Following that, we headed to Cocoa Beach with Bonnie and Fred for that unique event we mentioned earlier.

Here are the four of us, ready for the show! And what might that show be that had us looking skyward?

Skydiving Santas! Plane load after plane load full of Santas dropped from the sky and attempted to hit giant inflatable targets on the beach.

This Santa even hitched a ride on his buddy’s parachute on the way down! It was a really fun way to spend the day! Unfortunately for me, I was beginning to come down with yet another cold. Spending the day in breezy conditions probably didn’t help matters. I’m still recovering.

Speaking of recoveries, SpaceX managed the quickest turnaround of a launch facility by sending the JSAT communications satellite on its way on December 16 at 7:10 PM. It flew from Pad 40, which had seen the ISS resupply mission depart just 11 days earlier. Feeling as crummy as I did, I wasn’t thrilled about hanging out on the beach in the cool night air, so I opted for an attempt at a ‘streak shot’ over our Christmas decorated RV. It involves using a tripod, an iPhone, and the Slow Shutter app. Added bonus this time around is that my new iPhone 11 has a wide angle lens available, ensuring more field of vision to catch the rocket’s flame trail.

To say I am pleased with the result is an understatement. From left to right is the first stage trail, main engine cutoff, second stage ignition and the trail until it disappeared from sight. The soft white jumbled blob to the right of our lit up palm trees is our illuminated American flag. That’s the result of the camera overlaying successive photos over each previous image to create the effect. Diana pointed out that it looks like a Christmas angel. 🙂

On Thursday afternoon, after an almost three day voyage from 450 miles offshore, the SpaceX first stage made it back to Port Canaveral.

This is the third time this booster has flown, and it will most likely fly again. Again, SpaceX is good at what they do.

On Friday, December 20, another launch took place. This one was the test flight of the Boeing Starliner, one of the two entries into the Commercial Crew program designed to launch astronauts from American soil again…the other being SpaceX.

With the launch occurring at 6:36 AM, we opted to view it from our corner. This is the view looking north as it disappeared into the clouds. It was clear up at the Cape, so early risers to the north ended up with a great show.

Quick note: As of this writing, the Boeing Starliner experienced a problem and will be returning to Earth early. It is an un-crewed test flight, so no lives are in danger. Stay tuned for updates in our next post. Until then, safe and happy travels to all!

Following the Autumn Leaves

October 6 – November 1, 2019 – Michigan to Florida

Written by Jim

In our last post, I mentioned relearning how to drive in the U.S. after spending a month in the U.K. and Ireland. Our delayed flight got us back after dark, so we had to navigate the aggressive freeways of Chicago in an unfamiliar rental car. Talk about wanting to get back on the plane! Once past Gary and into Michigan, the traffic eased and we were able to relax. Jet lag caught up to us soon after, so we grabbed a comfy room at the Hampton Inn in South Haven. After a delicious breakfast at the Phoenix Street Cafe the next morning, we headed back to Grand Rapids to get our vehicles. A huge thank you to Terry and Diane for allowing us to store them at their home!

We moved to our base for the next week, Woodchip Campground. Our spot was just a few sites east of where we spent the winter of 2014-15. This go around, we spent the week taking care of annual physicals, dentist appointments, haircuts and such. We even bopped over to Detroit for one appointment at Henry Ford Hospital. That gave us the opportunity to drop in on Diana’s cousin Debbie on our way home. It was great to see her again. We finished up the week with our annual trip to Kalamazoo for WMU homecoming.

It’s always good to to be with our crew! After watching the Broncos beat Miami of Ohio, we headed back to our old dorm, French Hall, to check it out.

Here’s Diana knocking on the door of her old room. No one was there, unfortunately.

From Kalamazoo, we headed back up to our property in Leelanau County. We wanted to get some measurements and talk to the county building personnel while we were there. Knowing our land is loaded with maples, we were hoping our trees were colorful.

Needless to say, we were not disappointed!

It was very exciting to be able to experience our first autumn on our little slice of heaven! A note of interest: one month after this photo was taken, three feet of snow fell here. The scene is far different, indeed. With the temperatures plummeting, we made the decision to head south.

After stopping to see Diana’s sister and family in New Baltimore, Michigan, we headed towards Wapakoneta, Ohio. This tiny town is home to Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon.

It is also home to the Armstrong Air and Space Museum, which is situated just a few yards from Interstate 75. We’ve driven by this unusually-shaped building many times since it opened in 1972 but have never stopped in. Fifty years and three months to the day of Neil taking that otherworldly step, we finally walked through these doors.

We were amazed at the amount of artifacts in this small museum, which included this space-flown shuttle tire that you could touch. It was far thicker than any tire I had ever handled. The exhibits also detailed the 25 astronauts that are native to Ohio. Some of the most famous are John Glenn (first American to orbit Earth) and Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13.

Ohio is also the birthplace of Judith Resnik, a member of the crew of the ill-fated shuttle, Challenger. The small U.S. and Ohio flags to the right were in her personal bag that was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean floor. She was America’s second woman in space, having flown on the space shuttle Discovery in 1984. Not only was she an astronaut, she had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, was a biomedical engineer, and an accomplished concert pianist.

And does anyone remember these? I drank many a glass of milk out of one of these as a kid. Libby Glass and Marathon Oil, both Ohio companies, manufactured and distributed these glasses during the Apollo missions. They have them for sale at the museum.

As we made our way through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, we were surprised that we hadn’t gotten ahead of the autumn leaves changing color. The drive south was much prettier than we anticipated. Our goal was to stop and see Diana’s brother who recently moved to Franklin, NC.

After setting up camp, we took a drive to see Dry Falls. This beautiful set of falls is located along US-62, one of the most twisty and narrow U.S. highways we had ever been on.

They were named for the fact that a person can remain relatively dry when walking behind them.

The next day, we spent the day with Dan, driving into Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Our destination that day was Clingman’s Dome, one of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River.

Dan had been here in the past, having hiked this portion of the Appalachian Trail with a friend of his.

The colors from the top were outstanding. These mountains were where we drove out of the autumn display, as green leaves and palm trees soon took over as we headed further south.

Before too long, we made our way to Melbourne Beach and our little slice of Florida paradise.

We look forward to a winter filled with friends and rocket launches, so stay tuned for that. Until next time, safe and happy travels to all!

Aimless Felines and Fitted Sheets – UK and Irish Travel

September 4 through October 6, 2019 – United Kingdom and Ireland

Written by Jim

Our choosing the U.K. and Ireland as our first destination outside of North America was, first and foremost, a journey to explore Diana’s ancestral roots. With that being said, there also was a certain comfort in knowing the people of these lands spoke the same language as us. That fact allowed us to acquaint ourselves to European culture with relative ease. In wrapping up our trip, I felt it would be fun to highlight some of the unique differences we encountered. If you ever find yourselves making a similar trip, perhaps this post will help in some small way.

Roadways and driving

In speaking with people about our trip, the first thing that usually comes up is the fact we drove a motorhome on the opposite side of the road. While I knew that travelers make that switch every day, there was a bit of fear involved before we got there. We learned early on that we were wise to refer to their style of driving as the ‘opposite’ and not the ‘wrong’ side. Why do they drive that way? Traveling on the left dates back to jousting days, when right-handed swordsmen preferred to keep their opponents on their right. It was the teamsters of the U.S. and France who changed our way of travel in the 1700’s. Using their right hand to whip the teams of horses meant they had to sit on the left. Defense of the wagon fell to the person in the right hand seat, hence the term ‘riding shotgun’. Anyway, the opposite side driving turned out to be a non-issue for me. Perhaps it was the physical act of climbing behind the wheel on the right side of the vehicle that caused me to think ‘this is different’. After a month of driving that way, I was so at ease that I began to fear I’d screw up when I got back home to the States!

So what about driving on the British Isles proved challenging? The biggest issue had to be the varying width of the roads. To be specific, the narrow side roads in England and Ireland which had tall hedges and walls within a foot of the edge of the pavement were the toughest. In a lot of situations, our mirrors were hanging over the lines on each side. I quickly learned to visualize my right front tire (which was under my right foot) tracking just to the left of the center line. Looking in the mirrors on an uncrowded straightaway, I was able to verify that we were centered in the lane. It worked, as we finished the trip with both mirrors intact.

Scottish roads were easier, as roads like this were wide open. If someone had crested the hill in the above photo, I would’ve waited just this side of the pullout to the right up ahead and given a quick two-flash of my lights. They would pull in, I would pass and we’d both give a wave and a smile. And before you think a motorhome doesn’t belong on a road such as this, semi-trucks (known as lorries), tour buses, and farm tractors all use these. Oddly enough, it works well. The main reason it does can be summed up with two words: patience and courtesy. I won’t say road rage is non-existent on the British Isles, but it is extremely rare. Grid lock ends up being a chance to say hi to your neighbors and share a laugh.

Freeways (known as motorways) also present their own challenges. Reverse everything you know, as the left lane is the slow lane. Entrance and exit ramps are also on the left. What is really odd is to look in your mirror as you are entering the motorway and see everyone moving to the center lane. That sort of courtesy is rare in the States. If you ever have the opportunity to drive in the UK and Ireland, its best to leave any aggressive tendencies you may have at home.

Signs take a bit of getting used to. Speed limit signs are round with a red circle around them. I like the red, as it is easy to spot. The UK…including Northern Ireland…are in miles per hour. The Republic of Ireland is in kilometers per hour. That took some getting used to during our five days in Ireland. One note on that: Our rented Tom-Tom GPS only worked in the UK. Once we left Northern Ireland and entered the Republic of Ireland, we totally relied on Google Maps.

Speaking of Google Maps; Diana used it extensively. We had rented a wireless hotspot from Tep Wireless that worked pretty well while on the road. In hindsight, we might have been better to get a SIM card at the airport. There are people in both camps on that subject. When traveling in the States in the same vehicle, Diana would often navigate for me. On this trip, she was more of a co-pilot than navigator, in that I relied heavily on the information she was sending me. She was constantly monitoring the route as if she was driving herself. Roundabouts are plentiful over there, and she developed a great way to get through them.

In this instance, If we entered below and exited at the right, she would say “Roundabout in a half mile. Enter at 6, leave at 3. It’s the 3rd exit, East on A-162”. It was very easy for me to visualize, allowing me to keep my eyes on the road.

A few more things: Signs saying “Slow Down” are there for a reason. The speeds posted going into corners are very accurate. We would go as slow as we needed to. Out of courtesy, we would pull over to let others pass when the opportunity presented itself. With that being said, rest areas are few and far between. In place of that, we found plenty of well marked ‘parking areas’…which are usually a paved pull off on the left. We found those a great spot to not only let people pass, but to also use the motorhome’s bathroom.

On the subject of signs: a few signs had us scratching our heads…especially “Cats Eyes Removed”. Our thoughts immediately went to some poor kitty who had to have it’s eyeballs taken out, and was wandering aimlessly along the roadside. Silly Americans….

These are ‘cats eyes’, the little reflectors in the middle of the road. Where we have a single reflector in the U.S., they have two…giving the appearance of a pair of cat’s eyes reflecting back at you. The U.K. puts up those warning signs during road resurfacing. 🐱

Groceries and Big-box Stores

If you are an American and you shop at Aldi, the experience of grocery shopping in the UK and Ireland will be nearly the same for you. They also have a chain called Lidl (pronounced like Little) that operates on the same concept. As far as traditional groceries go, Morrisons, CoOp, Tesco, Waitrose, and Sainsbury are similar to the U.S.

Asda stores are the most like a Walmart. They should be, as Walmart actually owns them. In general, not one of the grocery stores has the vast selection we have in the U.S. However, we found prices to be much cheaper than back at home. The greatest grocery success story for me personally was the gluten free selection and pricing.

Especially in the UK (not so much in Ireland), the stores had large ‘Free From’ sections. Bread was fresh (not frozen), tasty and cheap. A normal sized loaf of gluten free bread in the UK could be had for just over £2…around $3 US. That would cost me $10 at Publix in Florida. Downside to that is that I would be much heavier if I lived there. 😉

Check this out. All four wheels swivel on their shopping carts. When I first looked at them, I thought ‘how the heck am I going to control that???’ Oddly enough, I left thinking they were the greatest thing ever.

At the checkout, all of the cashiers are seated in desk chairs. Most foreign credit cards require a signature, unless your card has a ‘tap’ feature. Bring your own bags. This store was on the Isle of Skye, where Gaelic is first and English is second on all of the signage. This woman had met U.S. citizens from 48 of the 50 states, needing only Idaho and South Dakota. I told her we would send our friends Jim and Barb her way from the latter state.

Old Buildings

One thing the UK and Ireland do exceedingly well is to reuse older buildings. It is common to walk into a 200-plus year old structure and find it bustling with activity. Nothing nicer than to see modern wares displayed in a building with character. The downside to that is that they are, for the most part, not wheelchair friendly. Having dealt with Diana’s mom’s wheelchair, I thought ‘this isn’t ADA compliant!’ I then chuckled to myself when I remembered ADA’ stands for American Disability Act. The other safety concern I repeatedly encountered was outside doors that opened inward. In a fire situation, that could be deadly. It’s rare to find doors on businesses that are like that in the U.S.

Discounts

In the U.S., most senior discounts start at either age 62 or 65. A bonus for those of us just below that threshold: concession admissions (senior discounts) begin at age 60 in the British Isles, for the most part.

Campgrounds

Almost every part of RVing in Europe is different than in the U.S. We stayed in campgrounds wherever we went, as we liked having services available to us. Where our fifth wheel in the U.S. has four 40 gallon tanks on it (fresh, galley, grey and black), our Scout’s tanks were much smaller. With a little effort, we could’ve gone two days without dumping or refilling. We chose to do that daily, so as to not run into any issues. Dumping the black tank is not as simple as attaching a hose and pulling a lever. Instead, we (Jim 🙂 ) had to physically remove the tank (called a cassette) and take it to a central dump (called a chemical waste point). Not fun, but not terrible either. Grey water was dumped by driving over a drain and pulling the lever. Fresh water required us to fill our tank; there was no way to directly connect a hose. Electricity was 10 amp, 230 volts…so we didn’t have a microwave or air conditioning. Nina at Wheelingit can speak to that better than I can, as I believe they just put A/C in their rig in Europe. We also had only a tea kettle, as drip coffee isn’t a thing over there. Neither are fitted sheets. You get one flat sheet and a blanket…which you sleep between.

Restrooms and showers all featured no-peek partitions. Europeans all think we are nuts for having gaps in our stalls. I agree. Who on earth came up with peek-a-boo stalls?

We also were asked when making reservations if we had an awning. There is an extra charge, if you do. We thought to ourselves ‘why would that matter???’ Well…

…this is what they consider to be an awning. We refer to these as add-a-rooms. Most vehicles are too small to haul trailers (called caravans), so people set them up seasonally in these parks, along with an ‘awning’.

And one of the few campground dryers that’s actually dried our clothes was made in the U.S.A. This unit had a traditional vent on the back that allowed the moisture to be released outside. Most dryers were condenser dryers, meaning the water would condense and fall into a tank in the bottom of the unit. They basically get your clothes hot and humid, but nowhere close to being dry. Our purchase of twenty cheap hangers at Tesco the first night proved to be invaluable. There were times our Scout looked like a rolling walk-in closet, with clothes hung from every cabinet handle. 😊

Most parks had well manicured sites that were gigantic. We rarely felt like our neighbors were on top of us. All in all, we really enjoyed the experience of RVing in the British Isles.

Well that wraps up our posts about the UK and Ireland. Next up, we detail our return to Michigan for a bit along with our trip to Florida for the winter. For now, we leave you with a traditional Celtic prayer:

May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Especially that “May the wind always be at your back” part. 😊

Until next time, safe and happy travels to all!

Buttoning Down Oxford and the UK

October 3-6, 2019 – South-central England

Written by Jim

We are back home from our UK adventure, catching up on our blog.

When we first planned this trip, Diana had expressed interest in going to Oxford. The town is famous for its university and some of the world’s greatest scholars. I had a preconceived notion that it was loaded with scholars walking around in tweed jackets and button-down collars. That is, after all, where they got the name for the Oxford shirt, correct? That was my dress shirt of choice during my career, so maybe I could pick up a few deals on some snazzy threads while we were there. Boy, my assumptions were way off. Oxford was anything but a stuffed shirt. We discovered a city that was cosmopolitan, vibrant, and an all-out fun place to be.

As had become our mode of navigating a city with a motorhome, we researched ahead of time to find which park-and-ride lots allowed large vehicles. In the case of Oxford, we used the Redbridge lot on the south end of town. Hopping on the double-decker bus, we quickly scrambled up the stairs in hopes of securing a front seat. Bagsy! We plopped down behind the windshield and enjoyed the ride from the outskirts of town. Hang on!

What a ride! We were downtown in a flash.

Oxford University is not one centralized campus, but rather more than thirty independent colleges throughout the city. Our choice for a visit that day was Christ Church College, a rather famous place in its own right.

Upon entering the gates, we realized we were in a very special place. Was this a church or a college? That building towering in the background looked a lot like a cathedral to me. It actually wasn’t…but more on that in a minute. 🙂

For a split second, I thought we were at an agricultural school in Iowa. This was actually just the grounds department doing a little maintenance. John Deere has a huge presence in the UK, as it seemed that we saw their familiar green tractors wherever we went.

Check out that courtyard! This was actually supposed to be a cloister…or covered walkway…when it was started by Thomas Wolsey in 1525. You can see the beginnings of the arches on the walls and the pedestal bases that were meant to support the columns. At the opposite side of the courtyard sits Tom Tower, which houses the largest bell in Oxford…Great Tom. Weighing in at an impressive 12,500 pounds, it is also the loudest bell in town. The college rings it 101 times at 9:05 PM every single night…a 20 minute process… so no sense in hitting the pillow early. The 101 is for the original 100 students plus an extra one that was added for a bequest made in 1663. The five minutes past the hour signifies the fact that high noon occurs five minutes later than it does in Greenwich…the measuring point for time on Earth. Whew…I knew I would get a higher education by coming here!

And that cathedral-looking structure I referred to earlier? Well, the interior might look familiar, if you’ve ever seen a Harry Potter film…

The infamous dining hall! We weren’t able to get in, as it was being used by the students while we were there.

We also visited the chapel while we were on the campus.

This gorgeous building has seen its share of influential people over the years. Countless leaders, writers, academics, theologians have been here.

It was within these walls that John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist Church, were ordained in the 18th century.

The stonework on the ceiling was outstanding….

…as were the carvings throughout the chapel.

From Christ Church, we went in search of lunch. One of our favorite grab and go items on our trip has been Pieminister meat pies, as they come in a gluten free version for yours truly. They are available in Tesco grocery stores.

Luckily, Oxford happens to have a Pieminister Pie Shop in their Covered Market.

Their gravy was even gluten free…a rarity! 😋 Downright delicious.

Once we were done in Oxford, we found our way back to our first campsite of the trip, Town Farm in Ivinghoe. It was there that we managed to shoehorn all of our belongings back into our suitcases for our trip back to the States. Once that was done, we put on our Oboz hikers and took one last foray through the sheep meadow to grab some dinner.

We answered the locals question as to why their sleepy pub saw so many foreigners. They are within walking distance to the closest campground to one of the UK’s largest RV rental companies! Worked for us!

One last stroll back home through the sheep poop and we were ready to roll.

The next morning, we bid farewell to our trusty Scout. We were thrilled to have made it back to Just Go without clipping a mirror on the narrow roads along our month-long journey. One of the other returning couples wasn’t so lucky, as their mirror was held together with duct tape. The first words out of the rental agent’s mouth was “is everyone ok?” We found Just Go to be a first class company and we highly recommend them.

And, right on cue, our favorite Uber driver Dhana pulled up to haul us back to our hotel near Heathrow! We prearranged our trip with him when he dropped us off at Just Go in early September.

Diana, Dhana and Jim. 🙂 Thank you so much for the excellent rides, advice and friendship, Dhana!

And our nice little surprise we spoke about in our last post? Well, what started out as a sour note ended up being an exclamation point. After arriving for our flight early the next morning, we were scheduled to fly out at 10:20. As first class lined up to board, an issue with the plane came up, causing a 3-1/2 hour flight delay while British Airways found us another 747. As we were sitting around in Starbucks, we overheard one of the other passengers mention an EU law that stated we would get a considerable sum of money back for our troubles “if the delay was longer than four hours.” She lamented ours was shorter, so we were out of luck. With my curiosity piqued, I went on a web search. There actually are different amounts of money for different lengths of delay, and the time is calculated in how late you arrive at your destination…not how late you depart. Being pushed into the afternoon allowed the prevailing winds to pick up over the Atlantic, causing us to arrive 4-1/2 hours late in Chicago. Long story short, we were each awarded €600, which covered most of our round trip fare. If you’ve ever been delayed on a flight originating in the EU, look into it…as there is no statute of limitation. In our case, Brexit hadn’t happened yet, so the UK was still in the EU. You have to request the compensation from the airline, as they aren’t required to automatically hand it out. The delay has to be caused by something within their control, such as a mechanical issue. We had the money within a few days of our return.

While that wraps up our trip to the UK and Ireland, we are going to do one more post on some of the unique differences we encountered on our trip, as opposed to our daily lives in the United States. We hope you will enjoy that one. Until then, safe and happy travels to all!

Finding Shephards Among the Sheep

September 30, October. 1 & 2, 2019 – Ironbridge, Corsham, & Avebury, England.

When this posts we will headed to Florida, but still catching up on the UK & Ireland trip.

Written by Diana

September 30, 2019

We visited Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. This is a group of ten sites within a six square mile area. These museums focus on the Industrial Revolution in England. Turns out this was the first phase of the Industrial Revolution. The one I’m most familiar with growing up in Michigan was actually the second phase. Boy do I have a lot to learn! We had time to see the Bridge and Blisshill Victorian Town. The bridge was built over the River Severn at Coalbrookdale in 1779 when advances in iron smelting allowed for such a feat.

I loved the sign with the rates for crossing the bridge. Even the Royal Family had to pay to pass over it.

We enjoyed talking with the young man who is college educated as a blacksmith, and has recently taken over the shop at the Blisshill Victorian Town.

October 1, 2019

My maternal grandmother was born Jessie Shephard. Although she proudly took the name O’Morrow when she married my grandfather, I believe she always remained a Shephard in her heart. She lived close to us after my grandfather’s death, and I was lucky to spend a lot of time with her. She loved to tell stories of her father and Grandfather Shephard. Our family is fortunate in that she also wrote down many of her memories of growing up on a dairy farm in the thumb area of Michigan. The farm is still in the family and the road in front of it is named Shephard Road, as they were one of the first settlers in the county. My grandmother wrote about her grandfather being born in Wiltshire, England in 1821. Her grandmother was actually born at sea in August of 1831, while her family was immigrating from England to Canada. My Grandma O’Morrow would be amazed and pleased to know that Jim and I visited her ancestral home. This is a photo of my mother and grandmother that was taken at our wedding. I love how their strength and confidence shows in this picture.

In addition to the information my grandmother provided, I learned from ancestry.com that my ancestors were from the Parish of Corsham, Wiltshire County, England. Jim looked at an aerial view of Corsham on Google Maps and found an old church with a graveyard. This is how we decided to head to St. Bartholomew’s. We have seen lots of sheep on this trip, today is the day we find some Shephards!

St. Bartholomew’s was locked, but we wandered around looking for Shephard graves. Part of the cemetery was mowed and kept up pretty well.

Keeping with our Halloween theme, further away from the church the graveyard was very overgrown. This time complete with a black cat! Maybe he is trying to point out a Shephard grave, but time has erased any engravings.

This is one of my favorite stones that I found. Not a relative, but great genes and teeth!

As we walked through the cute town, we stopped at Corsham Area Historical Heritage & Information Center. There a nice lady suggested that we should also try the gravestones outside of the old Methodist Abby, which is now a restaurant called Grounded. She told us that Aust is still a well known and respected name in the area. My 3rd Great Grandfather married Sarah Aust on June 6, 1821 in the Parish of Corsham. We also saw Aust graves at St Bartholomew’s.

We decided to treat ourselves to dinner at a pub called, “The Salutation Inn”, in Castle Combe, Chippenham. It was a bit of a trick to park the motorhome, but Jim did a great job. An authentic pub that has been there since the 17th century, and a gluten free bun for Jim. What’s not to love!

October 2, 2019

We went to St. Bartholomew’s Church first thing in the morning because it wasn’t open yesterday, and they had a service today.

It’s amazing what a difference sunshine and blue sky make. This is the same building we visited yesterday, just viewed from the other side.

We got there a half hour early, so we could talk to the clergy. He made us feel welcome to look around. It was beautiful and very moving. The font is from the 15th century, so it would have been the same baptismal font that was there when several generations of my ancestors were baptized in this church.

Next we went to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Center, in the town of Chipppenham. They were very nice and very helpful. Since we knew the parish, they were able to bring us three books that had been transcribed from the Parish of Corsham. One book had the births and baptisms, the second book was marriage records, and the third book contained death records.

Jim and I traded off books and had fun, as for the first time we were able to get lots of information. We were indeed finding some Shephards! He even had to go and put more money in the meter as we ended up staying longer than we planned. Each time we had a question, I would ask the genealogist and she would answer my question and add something else to consider. This made me feel comfortable to ask the next question that arose. They get great reviews for being the friendliest and most helpful of these centers. I certainly agree.

The genealogist told us to ignore differences in spelling. Since many people did not read or write, the person recording the information just spelled names the way they thought was correct.

This is the marriage record for my 4th Great Grandfather Matthew Shepherd and his first wife Sarah (Greenland) Shepherd. They were married April 9, 1792. I learned “tp” after Sarah’s name means “of this parish”, which in this case was Westbury, Wiltshire, England (found in an additional book). “Ban” after their information means rather than getting a marriage license, they announced their intention to be married in church three weeks in a row. The “banns of marriage” gave notice to anyone who might wish to object. And I thought the slight pause for an objection in our wedding service was nerve wracking enough!

Before we arrived I had gotten back as far as my 5th Great Grandfather, William Shephard. There was some confusion, as the year of his birth was listed as 42/43. I learned that at that time in history, the new year did not start until March 25th. At the time of his birth William was born in 1742, but according to today’s calendar he was born in 1743.

Notice that John and Betty Shepherd also had a son John that was born on the 9th and baptized on the 10th. The genealogist confirmed that this would have been William’s twin, and suggested that I look to see if the mother or John died at or near the birth date. Luckily that was not the case. My grandmother was proud to have twin brothers that married sisters. She took full credit when one of my cousins had twins. She would have been thrilled to know how far back twins occur in her family tree.

Next we looked for a marriage record for John and Betty, as their name on William’s birth and baptism record advanced my knowledge by another generation. This is the first I had seen the names of my 6th Great Grandparents. Betty (Holberah) and John Shepherd were married July 2, 1741 in the Parish of Corsham. Thrilling! I did double check with the genealogist that St. Bartholomew’s, which we had visited that morning, was indeed the Parish of Corsham at the time. She assured us that it was.

We searched, but were unable to find further information on Betty and John. We did confirm several other birth, baptism, and marriage records for several of my ancestors. We also found possible leads for other family members that I need to further research.

We decided to complete this awesome day with a visit to Avebury Henge. This is the largest stone circle in the world. It was a wonderful place to get out and walk after being inside for much of the day. The stones were buried at one point and millionaire Alexander Keillor, excavated them in the 1930’s.

Of course we walked among the grazing sheep, as we have done on much of our trip. I loved looking out at the countryside and knowing that it still looks much the same as when my Shephard relatives were in this area.

So glad we found some Shepards among the sheep!

Next up, we head to Oxford to educate ourselves on that beautiful city. We also button down our trip to the UK with a nice surprise. Be sure to stay tuned for that. Until then, safe and happy travels to all!