Celebrating three years on the road!

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It’s hard to believe we’ve been on the road for three years now.  It seems like just yesterday that we embarked on this journey to explore our beautiful country on March 1, 2012.  How time flies!  And here we are three years later, continuing to make wonderful memories along the way.

We are pretty much still on track with our set goals, and we picked up 10 new states during the past year.  But unlike previous years, our pace slowed down a bit and we stayed longer at most stops throughout the midwest.  On previous anniversaries I posted about our favorite hiking and biking trails.  Alas, we had fewer opportunities for those activities this past year.  It’s not that we didn’t stay active, but we just didn’t do enough memorable walks or bike rides to give a useful report.

So instead I will commence our celebration with highlights of what things come to mind as we review our third year on the road.  Note that the map below depicts our travels during calendar year 2014 – on March 1st we were in northern Florida and heading west:

Our actual route followed our planned route fairly closely, including a couple of detours. We began our third year in the Florida panhandle and traveled  to our farthest northern stop at Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Then, back down we went – about as far as you can get in south Texas – for the winter.

Along the way, we just had to detour for some time with the birds on our favorite Island at Dauphin Island, Alabama.  And even though it was a bit out of the way, our second detour was to have the excellent team at Freightliner do Betsy’s annual maintenance in Gaffney, South Carolina.

Highlights during our third year of travel:

Weather – Gulf Shores, Alabama

Looking back at what we endured while at Gulf Shores, Alabama makes us shudder.  A five-hour non-stop parade of severe thunderstorms went right over us, with the downpour, winds and thousands of lightning strikes forcing a sleepless night.  We got 15″ of rain that day, an all-time record for the area.  Being in the middle of an historic storm was not exactly what we had signed on for, but we really had nowhere to run to.  We were fortunate to not have any serious damage from that one, because other folks around us certainly did.

The full story is here.

Chiggers Attack – Peru, Indiana

How can I forget those nasty bites?  I was miserable for several weeks from the party those microscopic monsters had on my waist and tummy.  Non-stop itching and scratching reddened my skin and was very uncomfortable.  Oh my, I’m scratching myself right now just thinking about it!

The full story is here.

Adult Chigger

My number one arch enemy, the larvae of a nasty Chigger.  Look out you little monster, here comes my finger to crush you!

The Great Lakes

As we hail from California, the Great Lakes were just “big lakes out there somewhere” to us.  But after seeing and touching all of them I can easily name them now – with a vivid picture of each in my mind.  Now I know that the Great Lakes consist of five separate lakes, and together they form one interconnected body of fresh water.  Four of them are bounded by both the U.S. and Canada – Lake SuperiorLake HuronLake Erie and Lake Ontario.  Only Lake Michigan is entirely within the United States.

The full story is here.

Great Lakes

The Great Lakes on a t-shirt

Film Locations – Mackinac Island, MI and Dyersville, IA

Who doesn’t want to see a place where a great movie was set?  Biking around Mackinac Island was a must for us and our friends, and while there we stopped at the Grand Hotel. That’s where the 1980 film “Somewhere in Time,” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, was filmed on location.  We just gawked at the grounds and outside of the majestic hotel, as $10 was a bit pricey just to step into the lobby for a picture.

The full story is here.

Grand Hotel, Mackinaw Island

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, viewed from the ferry we took across

25 years later, the iconic phrases “If you build it, he will come,” and “Is this heaven?  No, it’s Iowa.”  are not forgotten.  We visited the site that made those words famous, the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa.  The cornfields and baseball field were just as they looked in the 1989 movie. To complete our experience, we watched the movies again and commented about how fun it was to be there.

The full story is here.

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams – Dyersville, Iowa

Man-made Marvel – St Louis, MO

Yup, you guessed it – the 630 ft. tall Gateway Arch.  It is the monument to memorialize the role of St. Louis in the westward expansion of the United States.  Riding to the top of this awesome structure was on our bucket list, and we were amazed by the grand view of the city of St Louis and beyond.

The full story is here.

Gateway Arch, St Louis, Mo

You have to see this thing in person to believe it!

Fall Foliage in the Ozarks – Fayetteville, Arkansas

The south has its own version of Vermont for taking in the fall colors – the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.  If you can’t make it to Vermont for leaf peeping in Autumn, a great alternate would be the Ozarks.

The full story is here.

Yellow Rock Outlook

Vermont? No, but still gorgeous!

Birding Galore – Alabama, Wisconsin and Texas

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting is so darn beautiful!

The birding experiences I had during the past year were rich and varied, from Alabama to Wisconsin to Texas. We were very fortunate to be at Dauphin Island, Alabama when spring migration was underway.  It seemed to be just raining beautiful birds!

At Gulf Shores, Alabama I joined Laurel and Eric to observe bird banding and do some bird watching as well.  In Baraboo, Wisconsin I visited the International Crane Foundation, whose stated mission is to work worldwide to save the endangered Whooping Cranes.  It was here that I saw all 15 species of cranes in the Gruidae family.

Coastal birding with Ingrid in Port Aransas was so much fun – I think the birds knew our names and tried to hide from us!  Then at the birding mecca, also known as the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, Birdie and I were involved in finding and identifying our feathered friends.  Many of them are Texas specialties.

Full stories of my birding escapades:

Dauphin Island is for the birds – Dauphin Island, Alabama

The blogger’s biking and birding bonanza in ‘bama – Gulf Shores, Alabama

If you’re into Cranes, read on! – Baraboo, Wisconsin

Two Birders of a feather – Port Aransas, Texas

Winged Wonders Abound – Rio Grande Valley, Texas

Hiking

We did lots of hikes, but the best of them were in the Great Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.  Those mountains provided a beautiful scenic backdrop for some heart-pumping, lung-busting hikes.  We’d love to go back there!

Full stories on the Great Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Mountains

Family and Friends

Family and friends, old and new, always make our journey fun and exciting.  Reconnecting with old buddies from my hometown and some of my family is always a joy.  Best of all, I got to spend quality time with my super-cute grand niece Hattie in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The connections we made with fellow bloggers continued to flourish.  We met new friends Laurel and Eric of Raven and Chicadee; Carla and Jerry of CozybeGone and Faye and Dave of the Wandering Camels.   Reuniting with Ingrid and Al of Live Laugh RV and Bob and Susan of Travelbug in Texas was icing on the cake.  Bloggers are all fun-loving people who shared travel stories, a few drinks and some home-cooked meals and outdoor activities.  Having a grand time with these lovely people created memories that we’ll always cherish.  Somewhere, someday we’ll meet again.

Health

While in Port Aransas in January, we kept several doctors busy as we were pronounced alive and well.  But come February, shortly after our birthdays, I had some scary symptoms that prompted two visits to emergency rooms.  For unknown reasons, my blood pressure had spiked like crazy.  Much to my disdain, I am now taking daily medication and everything seems to be fine.

An eye exam for Steve showed early traces of glaucoma, which was not unexpected since his dad had it when he was in his 50’s.  He decided to be proactive and underwent laser surgery.  This was the best option for our nomadic lifestyle, since it should lower his eye pressures for quite a while with just daily drops and fewer follow-up appointments.

Now we are in good health, and Steve determined that we can haul our new medications around without exceeding Betsy’s weight limit 🙂

Steve said he’s glad his heart is in good shape, because the medical bills should start coming in any day now!  We’re glad to have Betsy and ourselves “good to go”, and excited to start heading back north to get back on track with some serious hiking!

Finally, the stats for the past year:

My wonderful hubby and recorder of all things travel-related has this to report:

Miles traveled:  5,631

Diesel burned:  729 gallons

Average mileage:  7.7 mpg

Average price per gallon for diesel:  $3.66

Number of campgrounds we stayed at:  46

Average campground price:  $29/night
(we budgeted $35/night, so we’re happy with this)

In closing

Blogging is sometimes a chore 🙂   But with the connections we have made during the past three years, sharing our experiences in the blogosphere is so worthwhile and satisfying.  I thank all of our readers and followers who have been with us for the ride.  I hope you are still enjoying it, for we are not done yet!  Whether you’d like to drop us a line or just read through our stories, we appreciate you stopping by.

We have 10 states to go, and estimate that we’ll have them all completed by the fall of 2016.  Then we’ll start traveling more like “normal” adventurers, taking long trips to places we missed or just want to spend more time at.

 

Next up:  Where to in 2015?



 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With Steve’s mini-project out of the way, lets talk travel again!

I was surprised to learn before we arrived at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) that this is the most-visited National Park in the USA.  Hmm… and all along I thought that honor went to my favorite – Yosemite National Park in California – which is ranked third.  And I was pleasantly surprised when we drove right into the park without encountering a gate with someone collecting fees.  Entry to this park is FREE!

Perhaps that’s one reason it’s the most visited park, but another is its proximity to several major eastern urban centers in 2/3 of the states that surround it.  The fact that this park offers fantastic scenery, accessible wildlife, a sense of history and many outdoor activities no doubt contributes to its popularity as well.

Clingman's Dome Trail

Lots of visitors on the Clingman’s Dome trail, even before the Memorial Day weekend hit

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was first established in 1934 as a way of protecting it from logging companies which were planning to continue logging the area.  It straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, a mountain range rising along the Tennessee–North Carolina border.  That border runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park, and I had to pose at Newfound Gap Road on Highway 441where the two states meet:

Newfound Gap, TN and NC Border

Straddling two states, Tennessee and North Carolina

The land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was owned by hundreds of small farmers, plus a handful of large timber and paper companies.  They were all bought out with the support of the people of North Carolina and Tennessee, and a donation from Laura Spelman Rockefeller. When the state of Tennessee transferred the land to the federal government, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…” to travel the road.  Hence, no entry fee – that works for us!

Great Smoky National Park

So the next obvious question is why are the mountains called Smoky Mountains or “the Smokies”?  Settlers coming to this land noticed a smoky haze that rose from the vast vegetation and decided on the perfect name: the Smoky Mountain Range.  But here is the more scientific version that I gathered from the Visitor Center; Water carried through plants is released through the leaves as a vapor.  The vapor from the conifer trees of the Smokies contains terpenes, an organic chemical.  As the vapor is released, the large amount of terpenens create the smoke-haze, or mist, that gives the mountains their name.  You can clearly see the haze below:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Yep, those are the Smokies!

We accessed the park from the town of Cherokee, which is located in North Carolina just south of the park.  Our home base for almost two weeks was the Flaming Arrow Campground, which was about five miles from the park entrance.  Steve’s review of this nice park can be viewed here.

Flaming Arrow Campground, Cherokee

During our twelve-day stay here we took several scenic drives, and hiked to our heart’s content.  The scenery was diverse – mountain views, old-growth trees, waterfalls, streams, and more shades of green than we’ve ever seen.

Newfound Gap road

No elk here, but we finally saw one elsewhere in the park

US 441, Newfound Gap Road

Great Smoky Mountain Drive

Green, green everywhere!

Our first excursion was to the very top of the Smokies.  At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest mountain peak of the Smokies and one of the highest peaks in the eastern United States.  The trail to the observation tower was steep and a real lung buster, as it gets chilly up there.  It’s about a half mile ascent from the parking lot to the top, and a pretty good workout.  This is a very popular stop, and it was getting quite crowded already even in the early  morning and before the holiday weekend. This is the most visited park after all!

Clingmans dome observation tower

Clingmans Dome observation tower

The trail was so steep that this man thought it might be too much for his chubby dog to handle!

Clingmans Dome Trail

The observation tower provided us with great panoramic views of the Smokies.  Although not as spectacular as the towering mountain ranges we experienced in Alaska,  or at the Top of the World in the Canadian Yukon, the Smokies definitely had their own unique and magnificent beauty.

Great Smoky Mountains, southern view

Southern view

Great Smoky Mountains

Northern view

Western View of the Smokies

Western view

Clingmans Dome

Lunch View

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s and mountain lover’s paradise, with something like 800 miles of hiking trails to explore.  And that’s where we’ll take you next…our hikes and the many eye-catching views along the way.

 

Next up:  Hikes, wildflowers, and waterfalls