Every summer, Bob and I go on tour with the CAF Airbase Arizona B-25 “Maid in the Shade.” Bob serves as a flight crew chief, and I contribute as a ride coordinator and flight loadmaster. Each tour takes us to various places across the country and even into Canada. This year took Bob to Indiana and Illinois and both of us to Missouri and Oklahoma. But we spent most of our time in Missouri.
On every B-25 tour, we work long hours to fulfill the Commemorative Air Force mission to honor, educate, and inspire. When the plane is on the ground, we’re open for tours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On the weekends, we sell rides in the plane in the mornings and then open for static tours on the ground after, again until 6 p.m.
It’s a rewarding, completely volunteer effort, and we’re honored to be part of it. This year’s tour brought us many firsts.
While flying weekend passenger rides in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Bob and the two pilots spotted a locomotive from the air that caught their attention. The B-25 was built to take out trains and other forms of transportation. In fact, our plane flew 15 bombing missions during WWII, and most of them were to destroy railroad bridges.
Upon landing the last passenger flight for that day, Bob and the two pilots hopped into a vehicle and drove off to find the train they had seen. It turned out the Union Pacific Railroad’s Big Boy No. 4014, the world’s largest and most powerful steam locomotive, was on tour through 10 states, and we happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The WWII era steam train was one of 25 that could carry up to 56,000 pounds of coal and cruise at up to 80 mph. Starting in 2016, after 55 years of lying dormant, No. 4014 underwent a three-year restoration, including converting it from a steam engine to burn No. 5 fuel oil. Today, it’s the only operational Big Boy left.
Amusement Park-Size Store
Because of our busy tour schedule, we don’t get a lot of time off. We were blessed to have a window of opportunity to do a little exploring in Springfield, Missouri, the home of Bass Pro Shops. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the “Granddaddy of All Outdoor Stores,” which houses three museums and a whole lot more — and is in an expansive complex that also includes the Bass Pro Shops Catalog Outlet store.
One museum is dedicated to the humble beginnings of the enterprise giant. Another is a rifle museum. But the most prominent is the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, which features 35,000 live fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds and is said to be larger than the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
We wanted to tour the wildlife museum but didn’t have the three to fours needed to do it justice, so we’ll have to go back another time with Gulliver and Tagalong when we can explore Branson too.
If you want a truly unique experience in Springfield, you’ll want to head to Lambert’s Cafe. Known as the “home of throwed rolls,” the restaurant provides a rustic experience in a fun atmosphere. Wait staff walk up and down the aisles between tables to dump a spoonful of fried okra on a napkin for you to enjoy. A roll tosser flings hot rolls at anyone who wants them. All you have to do is catch them.
Once you order and receive your food, more wait staff traverse the aisles to deliver pass-arounds of fried potatoes, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, and other additions to your plate. Lambert’s motto is “Come hungry, leave full & hopefully have a laugh or two,” and they mean it. We and the rest of our B-25 crew certainly left full.
In addition to those extraordinary encounters, we had our first evening flight on the B-25 as we had to dodge bad weather in Cape Girardeau and Springfield. That led to another first: seeing a rainbow from the air.
A torrential rainstorm in Springfield trapped us and the rest of the crew in the B-25 trailer, still another first. Fortunately, the guys had secured rain covers on the aircraft just in time. After about a half hour, we were able to escape our shelter and head to our hotel for the evening.
Our favorite experience, and the main reason we do what we do with the B-25, was a visit from a WWII veteran who said seeing our plane was “the best day of my life.” Ruben Olson was a heavy equipment mechanic on B-24 Liberators from 1943 to 1945 and gladly shared about his experiences. You’d never guess he’s 96 if you saw him dash up the ladders to see inside the B-25. We’re not sure who was more honored by the encounter: Olson or our crew.
Although we had driven through Iowa a couple of times, we had never spent any time in the state until traveling through in our fifth wheel. Our ignorance about Iowans and Iowa life quickly became apparent.
We thought Iowa was nothing but farms for miles and miles and miles. Indeed, as the largest producer of the nation’s corn, it's covered by expansive farms and is sometimes called “The Corn State.” But there’s much more to Iowa than that: a storied past, people with an affinity for old cars, abundant aircraft, and the world’s largest truck stop.
Some of Iowa's farms date back hundreds of years. Perhaps one of the most notable is the Amana Colonies, which spans 26,000 acres and is divided into seven villages.
A religious sect of Pietists fled persecution in Germany in 1844 and started a commune in Buffalo, New York, where 1,200 people shared all their property and belongings and worked cooperatively. Eleven years later, when they needed more farmland, they moved to Iowa and settled along the Iowa River near Cedar Rapids.
The communal ways went by the wayside in 1932 but, wanting to preserve their heritage, residents set up a profit-sharing corporation, the Amana Society Inc., to manage the farmland. Today, the villages welcome visitors and provide a look and feel of what life was like 150 years ago.
This is the same Amana behind the appliance company, which started in Middle Amana, Iowa, in 1934 as Amana Refrigerator Inc., a manufacturer of walk-in coolers. Today, the company bears the Whirlpool name.
Silos vs. Grain Bins
Many, if not most, Iowan farms feature round structures in varying heights, but they’re not all silos that store grain like we thought.
Silos tend to be tall and narrow and made of concrete, bricks, or metal. They’re easy to recognize by their dome roof. The shorter, stouter round structures are called grain bins. They’re made of corrugated steel and have peaked roofs.
As their name implies, grain bins are used to store grain — most often corn or soybeans. Silos, however, house what’s called “silage”: grass or other green foliage harvested and stored wet. This then ferments and is used to feed cattle. As a result, you’ll most likely see silos on cattle farms.
In addition to taking pride in their farms, Iowans love their country. The Brooklyn Historical Museum in Brooklyn, Iowa, is evidence. A WWII display has taken over the exhibit about John Wayne, who attended second grade in the area.
Research has revealed that a soldier from Brooklyn played a part in raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima — one of the most famous pictures from the war. Although somewhat hidden in the photo, Harold “Pie” Keller has been recognized for his role, and the town couldn’t be more thrilled.
Brooklyn is also home to the Avenue of Flags, where the town proudly displays a collection of flags from each of the 50 states, the four branches of the military, and even some other nations. The idea surfaced in 1991 when the city first assembled an avenue of flags to welcome the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa riders. The city is raising funds to add a life-size bronze statue of Keller to the avenue.
Iowans’ love of America extends to classic automobiles. In one week in the area, I saw three car shows:
I had the privilege of truly immersing myself in history by driving a 1958 Edsel with Teletouch push-button transmission. In the 1950s, car manufacturers started experimenting with alternative ways to shift transmissions. One of the most notable of the time was a push-button solution. Most manufacturers had some version of this, the last of which was Edsel in 1958. The idea was to free visibility to the car’s dashboard.
The car may lack power steering and power brakes, but it definitely provides full visibility of the dashboard. And, with no air conditioner, the ingenuity behind the curved windshield and quarter glass vent windows that deflect the wind and prevent hair from blowing impressed me.
Appealing Plane Conditions
Like Arizona, Iowa is largely a grid state, with roads in straight lines every mile. And, like Arizona, it has a lot of sunny days — about 200 a year. That sunshine and wide visibility are inviting to pilots. Bob and I both got to experience two-seater planes for ourselves while there.
Our Iowan hosts, Gene and Ann Adkins, own a 1960 Cessna 150 taildragger. Gene let me fly with him from Grinnell, Iowa, to a little city called Monticello for a fly-in. All kinds of personal aircraft lined the airport ramp as pilots and passengers gathered for a pancake breakfast put on by the Lions Club.
When the B-25 WWII bomber we tour with had a maintenance issue that needed to be addressed, fellow Commemorative Air Force member Frantz offered to fly Bob from Grinnell to La Porte, Indiana, in his RV-7.
Bob had been scheduled to fly commercially a couple of days later to join the B-25 on tour. With this turn of events, we packed Bob in an hour and sent him on his way the day after we arrived in Iowa, thankful for the private flight blessing.
World’s Largest Truck Stop
As the nation’s top corn, pork, and egg producer, Iowa requires a lot of semi-trucks to traverse its highways to deliver these goods to other parts of the country. Perhaps that’s why it’s been home to the World’s Largest Truck Stop since 1964.
After 28 expansions and remodels over the years, the Iowa 80 Truck Stop today features space to park 900 trucks, a Super Truck Showroom, a movie theater, laundry facilities, a dentist office, a museum, and a whole lot more. It’s worth stopping to see if you find yourself traveling down Interstate 80.
Not all campgrounds are created equal. Sometimes, we encounter some that clearly weren’t made for modern-day big rigs like ours. They have narrow roads, low-hanging tree branches, and tight turns. The state park in Traverse City, Michigan, comes to mind.
Thomson Causeway Campground in Thomson, Illinois, is not one of those. An Army Corps of Engineers campground, it offers plenty of room for big rigs and features expansive views of the mighty Mississippi River — for only $20 a night for 50-amp electric hookups, a necessity in this incredibly humid area. It also offers access to potable water and a dump station.
The Thomson Causeway Recreation Area is actually built on an island in the Mississippi. The Woodland Indians used this island for hunting, trading, and rituals. You can even find Indian burial mounds on the premises.
Clinton: Iowa’s Easternmost City
We chose Thomson Causeway for its proximity (across the river) to Clinton, Iowa, where we had friends we hadn’t seen in 15 to 20 years. We got together with Shawn and Christina and their amazing children many times to catch up, play games, eat, chat around a campfire, and sightsee.
Fulton, Illinois, and an Engineering Wonder
The Great River Bike Trail spans 60 miles along the river in Illinois. We took out our bikes for a 13-mile round-trip adventure on a portion of it to see Lock and Dam No. 13, an engineering marvel of the Army Corps of Engineers in Fulton. A series of 29 locks and dams stretch along the upper Mississippi from Minneapolis to Granite City, Illinois, to help boats gradually adjust to the 420-foot drop in the river’s water level.
We didn’t get to see a boat going through the lock but are glad we visited the structure nonetheless. It reminded us of our trip to Soo Locks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Our bikes survived the ordeal without running out of battery power, but we learned that distance was about the extent they can go on a single charge.
Wisconsin: Across the River from Dubuque, Iowa
We glimpsed our first view of the Mississippi River on our way westward in Dubuque, Iowa. We stayed at a campground in Cuba City, Wisconsin, across the river from Dubuque and ventured into the Iowa city for a pleasant evening on the river.
For a nightly fee of $50 for full hookups at the Wisconsin campground, we got to be packed in with other RVs like sardines. When we set up, all I could see outside my office window was the window of another RV. Thankfully for us, the RVs on either side of us left the next day, and those spaces stayed free until the night before our departure.
Despite the tight accommodations, we enjoyed our stay in Wisconsin, sampling different cheeses (and, of course, cheese curds), playing some pool, and photographing gorgeous sunsets.
One of the most important considerations when setting up an RV is how level the parking area is. We can take measures to prop up one side of our trailer or the other, but front to back is a different story.
Most RV refrigerators don’t work properly if the rig is more than 3 degrees unlevel. How do we know that? We had to look it up when we found ourselves 3 degrees off level while parked at our daughter Megan’s house in Tennessee.
When we arrived at our destination near Peoria, Illinois, to catch up with an old classmate of mine I hadn’t seen since high school, we kept that fact in the back of our minds. Wendy and her husband, Ted, invited us to moochdock on their property after reading about moochdocking on our blog. Wendy had warned me the property was sloped, but she sounded confident we’d be able to get mostly level.
After an hour of maneuvering in and out of different areas on the property, we finally settled on the most level spot: smack dab in the middle of their 80-yard-long driveway.
Knowing we’d need space to jockey into position, Ted and Wendy had moved their vehicles to the grass toward the front of the property before we arrived. But I’m pretty sure they had planned to move the cars closer to their house after we got settled. Because our home took up a chunk of their driveway, that was out. They were super gracious, though, to allow us to take over their driveway for a week.
How We Get Level
Once we get our rig pretty level side to side using our LevelMatePRO* device, we detach it from the truck, extend the middle and rear stabilizers and put pads under them, push a button, and watch the magic happen as the trailer levels itself using its Lippert Components automatic leveling system.
First, Tagalong levels front to back and then side to side. If the automatic leveler is unable to get level front to back, it flashes a red light and stops the whole procedure. And we’re stuck.
The problem? We can’t be more than 10 inches lower in the front than we are in the back before starting this process or the rig can’t level itself. With a nearly 42-foot-long coach, that’s not always attainable, which was the case at Ted and Wendy’s (and at Megan’s earlier in the year).
In this case, however, our LevelMatePRO confirmed our rig was pretty level front to back. (Tagalong tends to raise the front a little above level.) But, because the coach didn’t consider itself level, the middle stabilizers didn’t descend to the ground to stabilize the rig side to side.
When we experienced a similar situation at Megan’s, but on a larger and scarier scale, we purchased some Camco Stack Jacks* to prop under the rig to add some stability. Those came in handy in this situation. We also secured our tripod stabilizer in place to add more contact points with the ground for even better support. And, we always use X-Chocks* between the two tires for an added layer of stabilization.
After overcoming the leveling challenges, we set up our home for the week and caught up with Wendy and Ted. They taught us a new card game: a variation of golf. Instead of playing with nine cards per player where you try to get the lowest score, we played with four cards — for 18 rounds: the front nine and the back nine. It’s a much faster-moving game that quickly became part of our nightly routine while there.
Friends in Low Places
Ted and Wendy live on a beautiful piece of property in a farm country hollow. Because it’s a hollow, it’s not subject to severe storms such as tornadoes, but neither does it have superb internet or cellphone access. Knowing Wendy successfully worked from home, I hadn’t thought to ask about that before our arrival.
People in the area rely on DSL for their internet. DSL uses phone land lines to carry data, so it’s always on. Unfortunately, speeds can fluctuate, making it a less than ideal option for remote work. The connection made for decent internet most of the time, but it didn’t work so well for my Zoom meetings. (Ted and Wendy have issues with it on occasion, too.)
We attached our 25-foot cellphone booster antenna to the side of Tagalong, which helped some, but not a lot. After facing torturously slow speeds for a couple of days, I packed up my laptop and went to a local library to get through my workday. It’s nice to have options, and we’ve learned to roll with the punches and be flexible as a result of our RV lifestyle.
It’s All About People
Our leveling and internet troubles have all been worth it to get to see friends and family across the country we haven’t seen in months or years — friends like Ted and Wendy.
After leaving their place, we met some more wonderful people as part of Boondockers Welcome who quickly became friends. We spent a night at their expansive farm on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin.
Upon our arrival, seven Great Pyrenees dogs greeted us, along with their owner. Also known as livestock guard dogs (LGDs), the pack we saw only represented half of the LGDs on the property whose job is to protect the cattle and sheep from coyotes, wolves, and mountain lions.
Our hosts invited us to join them for dinner in the small town. Over spaghetti and wings, we chatted about their farm, their Boondockers Welcome experiences, and our lifestyle. They plan to sell the farm and become full-time RVers.
A short drive the next day afforded us a super relaxing morning. We sipped coffee outside while reading and taking in the views around us, feeling extremely blessed at the experiences we get to enjoy and thankful for the best travel day ever.
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After 11 weeks in Michigan, we traveled south to visit some friends, Jordan and Niki Brown, in Indiana. They had planned to house us on their property, but rain had softened the ground prior to our arrival. So, they decided to move us to the Terre Haute Regional Airport to park next to their airplane hangar. The setup included a picturesque view of their C-47.
C-47 Skytrains served as military transport aircraft in WWII. They hauled 75mm guns and other supplies through mountains, transported spies, and were used to rescue the forgotten 500 from Yugoslavia.
This particular C-47 had been designated to be the backdrop for an airport event the night we arrived, so we got to taxi in it with our pilot host to get it into place.
Another WWII aircraft needed to be moved to the event as well, so we also got to taxi in the Twin Beech C-45. These planes served as light bombers and transporters, as well as trainers. They were also used for scouting missions.
I got to take a flight in the C-45 before the week was up. You get a much better feel for a location when you see it from above. Green wooded areas and farm fields surround houses and small communities in this section of rural America. We’ve grown to love small-town USA — especially after living in a large metropolis for 24 years.
As it turned out, the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Airbase Arizona’s B-25 “Maid in the Shade” arrived in Terre Haute two days after we did as part of its mission to educate, honor, and inspire. This iconic warbird, made famous by the Doolittle Raid, is the one Bob serves as a crew chief on and that we tour with every summer.
This year, Bob volunteered to be a summer tour coordinator and had actually coordinated this stop. We had planned to visit at this time before we knew the B-25 would be here at the same time. It made for a nice reunion with our CAF friends, and we were able to pitch in and help the crew as needed. It was like being on tour without being on tour.
A couple of days before we left, an SBD Dauntless WWII dive bomber and scout plane landed at the airport and parked next to the B-25, providing a bonus peek at history for onlookers.
To get back to our trailer after taxiing the warbirds to the Saturday evening event, we had the privilege of riding in a half-track military vehicle, a hybrid between a tank and a Jeep. These vehicles were used in WWII to transport supplies across uneven terrain.
While in the area, we also toured a metal shop that fabricates aircraft and ship parts. The massive specialized machines we saw made us “wow” in amazement. And if that wasn’t enough, a Patton tank and a Deuce military truck stood on display outside the shop, reminding us of the sacrifices made for our freedoms.
We saw a third tank too: our hosts’ tortoise, aptly named “Tank.” He can move faster than you might think and leaves circular “trails” around, marking where he’s eaten grass. He wears a bright orange flag so his owners can find him.
The day before we left Indiana, we got to do some target shooting, making it a completely all-American stop. We both shot a lever .357 rifle for the first time, aiming to hit five plates on a Texas Star shooting target. I got all five in six shots. We also shot some handguns.
The humidity got to us after a while, so we dipped in our hosts’ pool with a cornfield backdrop as our Indiana stop wound to a close.
We left Indiana feeling extremely blessed and appreciative. We were thankful to visit my cousin, Beth, and her husband, Dave, near Indianapolis and catch up and play games. And we greatly enjoyed our time with Jordan and Niki and the B-25 crew.
It’s always an honor to be around warbird planes. We never get tired of hearing the B-25’s engines roar to life and rev up for takeoff. It’s an amazing sound that makes us feel alive and proud to be Americans.
Hoosier Aviation took wonderful care of us and the B-25 crew while we were there. If you’re ever in the Terre Haute area, drop in and say hi to Josh and Becky Thompson and let them know Bob and Lana Gates sent you.
It should have been an easy brake job. Bob had all the parts to replace the trailer brakes and the mechanical know-how to get the job done. The problem was trying to lift all of Tagalong’s 17,000 pounds to get the tires off.
Bob had successfully jacked up the trailer before to grease the axles. We had hooked it up to Gulliver for better stability and carefully raised Tagalong’s back end. Bob had also succeeded in lifting Tagalong when we needed to change a flat tire.
When Bob attempted to lift Tagalong this time, however, I received a text message while working across the street at my cousin’s house: “I broke the trailer. Come see.”
Thoughts flooded my mind as I made the short trek across the street. “Oh no! That’s our home!” “At least we’re with family and have time before we plan to journey on.” “That’s more good fodder for the blog.”
Jacking the Trailer: Take 2
The pressure of Tagalong’s weight against the jack ended up breaking the welding joint of a metal beam spanning the trailer’s underside. Fortunately for us, the farm mechanics were having a slow day, and one of them had time to re-weld the joint on our trailer.
After that, Bob tried a different method for his second attempt at raising the trailer. To make up for the gap between the jack and Tagalong’s main structural I-beam, he used an 8-inch section of a 6x6 beam. As the beam took on Tagalong’s heavy weight, it couldn’t stand up under the pressure and split in two pieces, rapidly dropping the trailer back down. Thankfully, Bob stayed safe during that ordeal.
The difference between this time and the previous successes of lifting the trailer had to do with the ground. Here, we started from an uneven rather than level surface. Plus, it had rained recently, which only complicated matters by making the ground softer than normal.
We decided not to attempt the brakes a third time but to get professional help. Because Bob had planned to do the work, we had all of the parts. That meant we’d only have to pay for labor. A local place about 10 minutes away offered the service we needed but had a reputation for not getting to jobs quickly. We wanted to be homeless for as little time as possible.
Dropping off your home is an eerie and humbling feeling. And this time, we left Gulliver too. We reminded the shop techs they had everything we owned, and then we watched one of them drive our earthly belongings away, leaving us with the clothes on our backs and a few things we had taken to my cousin’s house.
It brought me back to the age of 10, when I stood with my family as we watched the mobile home we had lived in for a year drive down the street and out of our lives. We had rebounded from that short time of homelessness just fine, so I had hope Bob and I would rebound from this one too.
A Blessing in Disguise
One day at the shop stretched into two. Bob got a call notifying him that our trailer would definitely be ready for pickup by the end of that second day. But a subsequent call informed us of a new discovery. The shop successfully changed the brakes and the wheel bearings, but the trailer brakes still weren’t grabbing. A larger problem loomed, but the techs wouldn’t be able to troubleshoot it until the following day.
This explained the problem we first noticed when leaving our daughter Megan’s in Tennessee. The electric trailer brakes didn’t grab like they should — a huge safety issue. We were able to increase the grabbing power of the brakes and stop when needed, but this new discovery confirmed the brakes themselves weren’t at fault. Rather, the issue lay with the wiring or a connection.
Had Bob succeeded in changing the trailer brakes, we would have presumed the trailer was good to go. We wouldn’t have attempted to use the brakes until hooking up the trailer to Gulliver and leaving for our next destination. So, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that we ran into so many issues with trying to change the brakes.
The techs replaced a small section of faulty wiring and, after three days, we got our home back. This whole experience left us with immense gratitude — for our safety, our home, Ethan who welded the beam back together, my cousin Debbie's hospitality in our time of homelessness, and the professionals who discovered, troubleshot, and repaired the source of the problem. God is good.
No one wants to be jarred awake by the warning sound of the Emergency Broadcast System on their cellphone. Normally, it’s to alert us of an Amber or Silver Alert. I say a prayer and go back to sleep. But when it’s followed by “Take shelter immediately” and you live in an RV, it’s pretty sobering … especially at 1:30 in the morning.
Having experienced a hailstorm earlier in the day and knowing another storm would be passing through after midnight, we took down our cellphone antenna (which gives us internet) and closed our slideouts before going to bed. So when I first heard the warning to take shelter, I didn’t think much of it. We had checked the weather and knew the predicted storm was supposed to pass over by 2 a.m.
But then we received a text from my cousin, Debbie, across the street offering for us to come there to ride out the storm. That gave me pause. Maybe the storm was worse than I thought. And then Bob read the National Weather Service warning to me, including “Mobile homes will be damaged or destroyed.”
That was all I needed to hear. “OK, let’s go,” I said. We grabbed some warm clothes and our jackets and trudged through standing rainwater to climb into Gulliver and drive across the street. Sleep was out of the question.
Listening for the Train
Debbie said, “If we hear the train, we can go down to the basement,” referring to the unmistakable sound that precedes a tornado. I had never experienced a tornado before, so my ears perked on alert. Any noise out of the ordinary made me wonder, “Is that the train?” Nope, just the air conditioner kicking on.
Bob tracked the rapidly moving storm on his phone and kept me abreast of its direction. It developed two twisters but, thankfully, took a turn and missed us. By 2 a.m., just as predicted, the winds died down. We decided to head home to sleep in our own bed and evaluate the aftermath in the morning.
Assessing the Damage
The hailstorm had a greater impact than the tornado-producing storm. Golf ball-sized, spiky hail broke zucchini plants and marred it and other produce, making it unsellable. The accompanying wind toppled trees and flung branches.
I climbed to the roof of our trailer to see what it looked like. Our shower skylight and three vent covers showed no signs of hail. Our Renogy solar panels, equipped with tempered glass on top, withstood the beating too. It turns out they, like most solar panels, are rated to handle 1-inch hail at 50 mph and up to 140 mph wind. Now we know ours can tolerate hailstones larger than 1 inch.
Although Tagalong’s roof fared well, he did get some cosmetic damage. In our haste to close our slides the day before, we forgot we had stashed our bikes under one of the slides. Closing it with them there wedged one under the passenger side fender, the same area damaged by the cattle guard when we first ventured out.
Other than that, Gulliver and Tagalong came through unscathed. We did find a few small dents in our truck bed cover as a result of the hailstorm, but that was it. The damage could have been much worse. Although some of the area farm crops are unsalvageable, others received some much-needed rain. We thank God for keeping us safe.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan visiting idyllic towns, exploring the sights, sampling regional delicacies, and absorbing the area’s beauty. There’s much more to see and do there than we could fit in.
For our Lake Superior stop, we camped in the little town of Christmas near Munising. These are our three favorite activities from that jumping-off point:
Viewing waterfalls never gets old. Something about the way water gushes over a cliff is awe-inspiring. Within a 30-mile radius of Christmas, Michigan, you can hit about 15 different waterfalls — and they’re all a short distance (maybe ¼ mile at the most) from the parking area. We hiked to Wagner Falls and Munising Falls to take in their beauty.
One of the UP’s most popular waterfalls is Tahquamenon Falls in Paradise, Michigan, a 1.5-hour drive from Christmas. We made the trek to see the wonders many people compare to Niagara Falls. The Tahquamenon Falls State Park comprises two areas: the upper falls and the lower falls.
We started at the lower falls, a series of five cascades rushing around an island. Tannins from cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees have made the water an amber color.
From there, we drove 3 miles to the upper falls and hiked a paved trail to a few different viewing areas, including right up to the brink, where we could feel the spray. The upper falls drop 50 feet and stretch 200 feet across, dumping 50,000 gallons of water per second into the Tahquamenon River.
The UP is known for a food staple called pasties (pronounced with a short “a” like nasties). These delectable meat and vegetable-stuffed handheld pies played a major role in the UP’s mining industry in the 1800s. Finnish miners took pasties down in the mine with them for a hearty midday meal that would sustain them through the long workday.
We had to try the signature dish. We found one location that sold gluten-free pasties, but it was farther than we wanted to travel. Instead, we bought some frozen pasties closer to our campsite to take home and enjoy for breakfast.
The original and most popular pasty includes meat, potatoes, onions, carrots, and rutabaga. We got one of those and a breakfast pasty filled with eggs, sausage, potatoes, onions, and cheese. Both were good and tasty, and quite filling. We clearly understood why and how these sustained the mining industry for so many years, and why their legacy lives on.
3. Pictured Rocks
The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is another popular destination in the UP. Spanning 42 miles, the area offers streams, beaches, campsites, and hiking trails. Anyone who’s been there will tell you the best way to see Pictured Rocks is from the water, where you can explore the beauty of 15 miles of limestone cliffs. To do that, you can take a Pictured Rocks boat tour, rent a kayak, or rent a pontoon boat.
We took option 3 and hit the water on a cold but sunny May day with a temperature of 49 degrees (forecasted to rise to 52). We planned ahead and wore layers of clothing and packed warm food to help us through. The cold wind in our faces didn’t make the trip super enjoyable, but we made the best of the experience anyway.
A water tour of Pictured Rocks provides views of the East Channel Lighthouse on Grand Island, Miners Castle, Mosquito Beach, Chapel Rock, and Spray Falls — yes, more waterfalls.
We actually anchored at the falls and enjoyed some warm soup before venturing on. From there, we headed to 8-mile-wide Grand Island. Its 21-mile perimeter includes a couple of beaches you can boat right up to. We took advantage of that and docked at Trout Bay for lunch.
The Seaberg Pontoon Rentals company had told us to pull the boat up on shore if we stopped at a beach. We did that and walked around the area in search of a charcoal grill. As we surveyed the beach, our boat started to turn so that it was no longer perpendicular to the shore. We thought we might be able to back it up and pull it into shore again.
Bob took off his shoes and socks to wade in the frigid water (less than 40 degrees) so he could push the boat out while I started the engine. It didn’t work at first. The boat became parallel to the shore. Not a good situation. Bob was able to maneuver it to get it perpendicular again, and we finally got the engine started. Bob hopped on, we backed up the boat, and then navigated and beached it closer to the grill. And this time, we put the anchor in the sand to keep from having to chase the boat again.
We enjoyed a warm lunch and basking in the sun before boarding the boat again for one last stop to see a shipwreck. A wooden schooner called the Bermuda sank completely intact in 1870 and is resting with her top deck only 12 feet below water. We were able to zig-zag across her length, imagining what it must have been like when she sank.
After that, we returned our boat and reunited with Gulliver, who spent the day on a pier watching activities in the water. Our hearts swelled with gratitude at the beauty we got to behold together celebrating a unique experience.
You might also enjoy 4 Cool Things to Do Along Lake Huron in Michigan’s UP.
We never thought we’d get stuck … especially in a state campground. But, after trying to maneuver into our Traverse City, Michigan, campsite from a very narrow road, we decided to attempt a different approach.
Bob pulled into the empty site across from us and tried to back Tagalong in from there. As he did, Gulliver’s dually tires dug into the soil until they were spinning but not moving the truck. We excavated some of the soft sand, put wood planks in front of the tires, and tried again. They still didn’t grab.
Desperate, we replaced the planks with firewood we had brought with us from our previous stop to build a platform in front of the tires. Still no traction. We were so stuck that we needed help to get out.
Campers tend to be friendly, helpful people, and the campers in Traverse City didn’t disappoint. Bob found a guy with a Ford truck who was more than willing to try to pull our Dodge Ram and trailer out of the sand. We only needed a tow strap.
Another camper on a bicycle stopped — mostly because we were blocking the road, but also because he wanted to watch. He said he had a tow strap and zipped off to get it. After he returned, the guys hooked the strap between the front of Gulliver and the back of the first guy’s truck. That did the trick and pulled our truck up out of the soft sand. Whew!
We attempted once again to back into our campsite. And, once again, we got stuck in the same soft sand. By now, a third good Samaritan, Ernie, had joined the party and offered to pull us out with his GMC 4x4, wanting to show up the Ford — and eager to keep the cyclist from going to get his Toyota.
The GMC, like the Ford, succeeded. But we still couldn’t get into our site without our tires digging into the sand.
A New Tactic
Ernie recommended we unhitch the trailer and reposition the truck to where it would be out of the sand before reconnecting. That would mean we’d have to connect to the trailer from a side angle rather than directly in front of it, something we’d never attempted. But Ernie, who had a fifth wheel about the same size as ours, had done it before. What did we have to lose?
We unhitched, leaving our trailer sticking out in the road, and Bob moved Gulliver. To prevent another tailgate mishap with the trailer in tow, we removed the tailgate. Reconnecting the truck to the trailer at an angle worked and enabled Bob to pull Tagalong forward — away from the super soft sand — and get enough running room to back into our campsite. What a relief!
I would have been happy just to leave the trailer right there and set up camp. But, to prevent getting stuck again when leaving, we realized we needed to finagle Tagalong for an easy getaway. So, Bob moved the truck forward and backward time after time after time to get our very long trailer situated just right to give us the best chance at success.
More than two hours after arriving at the campground, we finally parked in our campsite and unhitched from the truck for the week.
4 Lessons Learned
After our frustrations died down and we were able to evaluate the situation, we realized four valuable takeaways:
1. Always carry a tow strap.
When we purchased Gulliver, we purposely got him without four-wheel drive, thinking it unnecessary and not wanting to spend the gas mileage for a nice-to-have. We didn’t regret that decision until this day. Similarly, we didn’t think we had any use for a tow strap.
We’ve since ordered a heavy-duty tow strap and will pick it up at our next location. If we ever find ourselves in a similar situation to this one — and we hope we never do — we’ll be better prepared.
2. Check the soil before parking.
We had no idea the ground we were attempting to drive on would completely give way, but we could tell by looking it was soft. Next time, we’ll get out and assess the terrain closely before attempting to pull our 17,000-pound trailer onto it.
3. Think outside the box.
Sometimes, to find the best solution to a problem, you have to look at the situation from a different angle. Taking the advice and experience of our friendly camping neighbor, Ernie, we learned to look at our fifth wheel kingpin and hitch at a different angle — and realized we don’t always have to square the truck to the trailer to connect it. After all, the kingpin is round.
4. Don’t be afraid to look like a fool.
No one wants to be the campground entertainment, those campers everyone stops what they’re doing to watch. But that’s what we were that day. One couple even got their lawn chairs out to enjoy the festivities.
We looked like newbies rather than full-time RVers who’ve been on the road for more than a year. Our pride got in the way, resulting in embarrassment. And that only added to our frustration throughout the parking ordeal.
We all have hard days we can learn from. Perhaps our experience will help someone else in the future.
After a successful and adventurous stop at Lake Huron in St. Ignace, Michigan, it was time to move on. Before entering the Upper Peninsula, we had determined that we wanted to spend some time on each of the three Great Lakes surrounding it. One down, two to go.
Our next stop: Lake Michigan. When we booked a campground in Gladstone (near Escanaba), we knew we’d be near the water. What we didn’t know was how wonderful the scenery would be. From the satellite view on Google Maps, it looked like we’d be able to see the water from an angle because of a campsite in front of ours.
We arrived on a Saturday. The rig blocking our view left on Sunday. A couple of other neighbors came and went during our time there, but we didn’t mind. For their short-term stays, they deserved the wonderful view we got to enjoy for the whole week.
When your home overlooks an expansive lake, you can’t help but be thankful. Every day there, we woke up in awe of the beauty outside our windows and door. The blue body of water stretched as far east and west as we could see, providing a welcome respite to a busy work week.
A Tale of 2 Gullivers
Our journey to Gladstone took us through the little town of Gulliver, Michigan, population between 600 and 700, depending on the source. Of course, we had to stop, for Gulliver’s sake.
Gulliver enjoyed a nice rest at Gulliver’s Crossroads — a fuel station with a roomy parking lot and raved-about food made to order — while Bob finished a Project Management Professional (PMP) call. He facilitates a study group to help up and coming PMPs pass the Project Management Institute exam and was recognized as the April Volunteer of the Month.
We couldn’t leave the small town without purchasing sweatshirts in honor of our hard-working truck.
After fueling both Gulliver and us, we traveled along Lake Michigan about an hour to reach our campsite right on the lake. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend the week. We enjoyed walking along the lake every day — except for the midge flies.
We had planned our visit to the UP early to avoid mosquitoes and black flies, and we succeeded. But we didn’t know about midge flies. They’re little black flies about the size of mosquitoes that don’t bite, thankfully. But they do swarm, and they do get in your nose and mouth. They like humans for our carbon dioxide, and they can be found near water. Surrounded by water, the UP is host to many such flies.
On our drive to Gladstone, we hit a swarm of the pests, and the rush of them hitting our windshield sounded like rain. Needless to say, dead bodies collected on Gulliver and Tagalong, making quite a mess and necessitating a trip to a car wash to give Gulliver a much-needed scrub-down. Bob scrubbed them off Tagalong as well.
Another thing that can be found near water is lighthouses. They’re all over the place in the UP — so much so that they’re easy to take for granted. You can get up close and personal to a lighthouse in almost every town along any of the three lakes.
Interestingly enough, the only working lighthouse on northern Lake Michigan, Seul Choix Pointe, is in the town of Gulliver. We didn’t see that one (it doesn’t open until Memorial Day), but we did visit one in St. Ignace, rode our bikes to one in Gladstone, and walked to one near Lake Superior.
Christmas in May
After a rather uneventful but much appreciated stay on Lake Michigan, we reluctantly packed up to move on to Lake Superior. Wow! The biggest of the Great Lakes, this one is truly massive and actually contains 10% of the earth’s fresh water, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
We journeyed to the little town of Christmas, Michigan (near Munising), population around 400, where a 35-foot Santa Claus greeted us. The town got its start in the 1930s, thanks to a man opening a factory to make holiday gifts. Although the factory no longer exists, the theme of Christmas lingers, with roads named St. Nicholas Street, Santa Lane, Mrs Claus Lane, Mistletoe Lane, Jingle Bell Lane, Holly Drive, and Sleigh Way, among others.
Each of the three Great Lakes in Michigan’s UP is freckled with small towns offering lots of things to do and loads of sights to see. We’ve been gratefully basking in the beauty of our surroundings and exploring as much as we can.
This is the travel blog of Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong. We live on the road full time, enjoying all the adventures that come our way.