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.
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.
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.
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.
Having been born in southwestern Michigan and being left out of a trip to the Upper Peninsula (UP) with my older sister and cousins when I was 11, I’ve always wanted to go. Bob got to visit the UP during his 1987 tour with the Continental Singers and Orchestra. More than 30 years later, my wish finally came true.
Surrounded by Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan, the UP boasts beauty, forests, unique sights and experiences, pasties, and much more. There are three ways to get to the UP: through northern Wisconsin, by boat, or by driving from the lower peninsula of Michigan over the 5-mile “Mighty Mac” Mackinac Bridge, the fifth longest suspension bridge in the world.
We took option three and spent a week on the Lake Huron side of the UP in the vacation town of St. Ignace. These are four cool things to do from that base location:
1. Mackinac Island
Pronounced “Mackinaw,” this island is visible from St. Ignace and is only a 20-minute ferry ride away. No motor vehicles are allowed on the island, so the main modes of transportation there are horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and feet. We intended to rent bikes and ride the 8.2-mile loop around the island. Instead, we found ourselves enamored at Fort Mackinac and spent most of our day there.
Fort Mackinac dates back to the American Revolution and has a storied past that includes British and American military control. You can tour 14 buildings and be taken back to the 1880s. But that’s not the coolest part. The fort offers daily demonstrations, including cannon firing and rifle firing, complete with workers dressed in period costume.
The fort also features the Tea Room Restaurant, which isn’t a room at all but a patio that presents the most spectacular views on the island. We basked in the sun there over lunch while gazing at beautiful blue Lake Huron and watching goings on below us.
When we finally left the fort, we walked to Arch Rock and climbed 207 steps to see the natural limestone arch that stands 146 feet above the water.
No trip to Mackinac Island would be complete without partaking of the island’s famous fudge. Many shops pedal the sweet treat, and all offer a variety of flavors. We scored a chocolate-peanut butter combination and an Irish cream delight and were not disappointed.
2. Castle Rock
We certainly got our steps in while in St. Ignace. Known as “Pontiac’s Lookout” by the Ojibwa Tribe, Castle Rock, located right off I-75, is another limestone stack that rises 195 feet (171 steps). It only costs $1 per person and is well worth the amazing views overlooking Lake Huron and Mackinac Island. You have to pass through a little gift shop to get from the parking lot to the overlook, but doing so also warrants a photo op with Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox.
3. Soo Locks
A 45-minute drive north of St. Ignace will bring you to Sault Ste Marie and the Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron so freighter ships can get their goods in and out of more ports. The locks date all the way back to the mid-1800s, and a free visitor center offers period photos to prove it.
You can linger in the visitors center and take in the history of the locks, learn about the Great Lakes and the passageways between them, and interact with a number of displays. Right outside the visitor center stands a viewing platform where you can witness ships passing through the locks. We watched a Canadian Coast Guard ship enter the lock from the Lake Huron side and wait for the water to rise in the lock before moving out toward Lake Superior.
Although we’ve been through the Panama Canal on a cruise ship, we found this experience fascinating as it gave us a different perspective.
4. The Antlers Restaurant
We researched other things to do in the Sault Ste Marie area and happened upon the most unique restaurant we’ve ever frequented. Antlers, as its name implies, showcases lots and lots of antlers throughout, including chandeliers made of them.
In addition, a sprawling collection of taxidermied critters are on display, staring down at visitors while they eat. The building was built in the 1800s and still features unlevel floors in areas. Story has it that the taxidermied specimens were accrued in bartering.
We saw a two-headed calf that actually lived six days, a wolverine, moose, an armadillo, lions, an anaconda, a hammerhead shark, a fur-bearing trout, and much more.
Lake Huron only provides a small taste of life in the UP, which spans 240 miles wide and 490 miles long. Yoopers, as residents of the UP are called, consider it God’s country and paradise, and we can certainly see why.
You’ve no doubt heard the saying that “everything’s bigger in Texas.” We certainly found the state campgrounds to be bigger and more expansive and found the night skies bigger and the stars brighter. We also saw a 20-foot-wide British bowler hat statue, and brother Tom and his wife Molly saw a 30-foot eyeball.
Besides big things, the Lone Star State is known for the yellow rose, BBQ, longhorns, the Alamo, and live music — and armadillos.
Inspired by Molly, who makes a point to explore each area she and Tom stay in before moving on, we determined to have a Texas experience that didn’t center on an attacking bird. Since we camped equidistant from Fort Worth and Dallas for two weeks, we wandered into both cities.
In Search of the Yellow Rose
We visited the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, where beautiful tulips in every color proudly stood on display for passersby, and Japanese maples stood sentry over walkways. Other flowers abounded as well, signifying spring had indeed arrived.
After surveying the 66 acres of perennials, we spread a blanket and reclined on a grassy amphitheater overlooking a lake to enjoy a brass band concert. We watched sailboats drift this way and that, carried by the wind. Although we didn’t see the famous yellow rose, we left satisfied and grateful that we had gotten out and explored on a beautiful spring day.
An Old Western Adventure
Eager for an authentic Texas experience — especially after getting cowboy boots for my birthday, which we celebrated in the state by eating BBQ — we ventured to Fort Worth. Our mission: to witness the daily longhorn cattle drive up close and personal, a unique sight to behold. The cattle moved slowly, their heads swaying with the weight of their horns, some of which stretched more than 8 feet from side to side.
After the cattle drive, we followed our ears to a live music venue playing country tunes.
Before completing our Fort Worth excursion, we traveled downtown to the Fort Worth Water Gardens, where we marveled at the architecture before us. The design that went into the three water features was nothing short of amazing. Tom, Bob, and I carefully walked down the rail-less steps to the active pool while the water rushing between steps played tricks on our eyes. After recovering at the bottom, we worked our way back up and out — an easier feat than the descent.
Having participated in Texas BBQ, flowers, longhorns, and live music, we only had one thing left to complete our Texas experience, as we were too far away to “remember the Alamo.”
So, we went on a nightly armadillo hunt in our campground, anxious to get a glimpse of the creature we kept hearing rustling leaves and bushes and racing for safety when we shined our flashlights in its direction. This continued evening after evening while we sat around a fire at Tom and Molly’s campsite. And the creature continually evaded us.
After relocating to another Texas state park northeast of Dallas, we heard a familiar rustling in the bushes one evening while sitting at a picnic table. We had seen white-tailed deer in the area, so we thought that might be the source of the noise. But, as the scurrying continued, we weren’t convinced.
We got closer to the noise and spotted what we had been looking for: An armadillo crouched, hoping we’d keep our distance. We chased it a little, never intending to catch it, and then lost sight of it.
Those creatures are fast. They can actually run up to 30 mph — 5 mph faster than our electric bikes can go.
We returned to what we had been doing before the disruption. After 10 minutes or so, we heard some more rustling. So we got up again, and the armadillo ran across the street, letting us get evidence of our sighting and making our Texas experience complete.
Aliens, boonies, and winds … oh my! The Carlsbad, New Mexico, area is known for Carlsbad Caverns, its close proximity to the Guadalupe Mountains and Roswell, and the wind.
We thought we had experienced the most extreme weather we’d face in our travels when we survived a major windstorm in the area. But, the following weekend, the forecast called for gales of 30 to 55 mph with gusts up to 75 mph.
Battening Down the Hatches
Our rig wasn’t built to be lived in with the slideouts closed. In fact, when the four slides are in, we can only get to two rooms: the bedroom and the bathroom (the most important rooms on a long journey). Because of the severe weekend weather, we closed all the slides to give Tagalong the best chance to handle the storm unaffected.
Saturday, we ventured into town, a nice reprieve after a busy work week and a welcome break from the wind. Upon return to the trailer, we hunkered down in the bedroom for the evening.
The winds continued to roar the next morning, and our tummies grumbled. Eventually, we had to get into our kitchen to get some food. But that required opening our dining room slide. Bob figured out an app on his phone would allow him to close the dining room slide with us in it — even though we’d be cut off from the bathroom. But the winds were too great to keep the slide open.
We locked ourselves in the kitchen and living area, fed our bellies, and rode out the storm, enjoying the adventure as if we were kids in a self-made fort. It gave us a good taste of what Tagalong normally experiences when we travel down the highways: lots of rattling and shaking.
By Monday morning, the winds finally subsided, and we emerged whole — as did Gulliver and Tagalong.
When boondocking, you have to be self-reliant, and that includes filling your rig with freshwater and emptying the black (toilet) water. Bob’s brother, Tom, let us borrow his macerator and portable black tank for the latter process, which turned out to be a two-person job. Tom ran the macerator attached to Tagalong, and Bob monitored the waste level in a portable black tank situated in Gulliver’s bed.
A loud vibrating sound emanated inside and outside the trailer for about five minutes while the macerator chopped our sewage into tiny particles and propelled it through a hose into the carrying tank. The transfer successful, Bob drove to the nearest established campground and paid a fee to dump the contents of the portable tank into the dump station there.
The fee also covered the purchase of freshwater. Bob filled a couple of portable bladders with a total of 37 gallons of water to refill our depleted resource. Once he returned, Bob hooked up a pump to Tagalong’s water inlet and force-fed the water into the tank, a process that took about 20 minutes — but meant we could continue to shower and wash dishes.
Third Time’s a Charm
We couldn’t pass on the opportunity to visit Carlsbad Caverns while in the area. Unfortunately for us, many other people had that same idea, as we quickly discovered. After two failed attempts to arrive at the national park early enough to be counted among the day’s 1,000 permitted cavern visitors, we got smart.
We rose early, dressed in layers, packed chairs and blankets, and headed to the park — about an hour and a half before its scheduled opening. A long line of visitors greeted us, and we settled in for the wait with hopes that we had arrived early enough to get in this time.
After about an hour, a park worker made her way down the line, taking a count of how many tickets people intended to purchase. Fifteen minutes or so later, two rangers greeted each visitor and handed out time slot markers to go down and see the caverns. We made the cut!
When our scheduled time came, we took an elevator 750 feet below ground for a self-guided tour. The elevator doors opened to an expansive, dark cavern. Our eyes adjusted, and we followed the 1.25-mile trail around the Big Room, in awe of the beautiful formations surrounding us.
We felt like we had walked into the belly of an alien’s nest. Either we spent too much time in southern New Mexico, or we’ve seen too many science-fiction movies. Regardless, we plan to visit Carlsbad Caverns again when we have more time to spend there.
Anywhere we visit offers sights to see, so we try to take advantage of those opportunities whenever we can. Our stay in Yuma was no exception. From its mountains to its history to its close proximity to the Mexico border, the “Gateway to the Great Southwest” has much to offer. Here’s a look at some of the most visited attractions we enjoyed:
Located on the border of California, the Yuma Territorial Prison is the oldest in the state of Arizona, dating back to 1875. The first inmates built the facility, some of which is still standing today. You can walk through a sally port to enter the prison museum, tour the cell blocks, peek into the hospital, and even enter a cell in the newest yard, opened in 1900. You can also climb a guard tower that overlooks the Colorado River.
One of the biggest highlights is the Dark Cell, aptly named for its dungeon-like atmosphere. This served as the cell for solitary confinement, although multiple inmates shared it at the same time more than once.
After 33 years in operation, the prison closed — but not for good. It actually served as the city high school between 1910 and 1914, after the area high school burned. I don’t want to give away all the interesting details of this unique state park. It’s worth a visit if you’re ever in Yuma.
An International Adventure
We may not have been able to take a cruise for a year, but that didn’t stop us from leaving the U.S. for a short excursion. Not only does Yuma border California, but it’s also close to Mexico — specifically Los Algodones, Baja California, a popular destination for dental work and eyecare. So close that you actually have to drive through the tip of southeast California to get there.
Having no medical or dental insurance for 10 months, we were in need of teeth cleanings. So, we left Gulliver and Tagalong behind and ventured to the border with my dad, parked on the U.S. side, and walked across to Mexico. Only 400 meters in, we arrived at Castle Dental, where we had scheduled appointments.
I’ve never had such a smooth, painless teeth cleaning. Nor have my teeth ever looked as clean after. Bob and I both got exams and X-rays — not the super uncomfortable kind where you have to bite down on what feels like a strong piece of plastic sticking up in the roof of your mouth. No, the dentist held something up to the roofs of our mouths, nodded to his assistant, and a picture of our teeth showed up on the computer screen in front of our chairs. Technology at its finest.
Two cleanings, two exams, and two sets of X-rays — all for the reasonable price of $60. You can’t beat that.
Bob also ordered a backup pair of glasses from another shop in Los Algodones, Castle Optical. He and Dad ventured back down to Mexico the following day to pick up the glasses, and Dad got his teeth cleaned. He left just as amazed as us at the quality of work.
My parents have a view of the Gila Mountains from their house. Part of that view includes the well-traveled Telegraph Pass Trail, a 5.3-mile path that leads to a peak dotted by communication towers.
In November, Dad started hiking this trail three times a week and was eager to share the experience with someone. I’ve always liked the great outdoors and physical activity, so I jumped at the chance.
The trail starts off easy enough. We faced a few rolling hills for the first 1.5 miles or so on the way from the car to a utility gate. And that’s where the real climb starts. It’s paved all the way up from that point, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy climb. Far from it.
Clad with a Camelbak hydration pack, I was determined to make it all the way up without taking a break. I figured if I sat down, I might not want to get up again. I knew slow and steady wins the race. If I’d just keep putting one foot in front of the other, I’d make it to the pinnacle.
The closer we got to the top of the trail, the steeper it grew. I finally succumbed and took a sit-down break. I hadn’t done anything this strenuous in quite some time. After about a 10-minute breather, we set out again and didn’t stop until we topped the peak … well, almost.
The first communication tower we came to wasn’t at the very top. After we sat there long enough for me to inhale a snack, we continued northward on the path to all of the towers, which meant more climbing. Upon finally reaching the true apex, we enjoyed a respite and the view of the valley below.
Rested, we slowly made our descent. About halfway down the really steep part, my legs felt like Jello. I had to sit. When we restarted our decline, my thighs voiced their disapproval, but I pushed on. Part of the way, I zig-zagged to lessen the stress on my ailing muscles.
Before long, our hiking boots transitioned from concrete to rocky terrain, and we arrived at the utility gate. The hardest part behind us, I forgot we still had another 1.5 miles to go over some rises and dips. We trekked on, and I’m happy to say we made it.
The activity may have adversely affected my walking ability for a few days, but I’m thankful I got to share the experience with my dad.
After 2.5 months of staying in the same spot, the adventure bug hit. So, we heeded the call and jetted to Las Vegas to celebrate 30 years of marriage, leaving Tagalong secure in the mobile home/RV park we’re at through mid-February. Gulliver stood sentinel at the Phoenix Airport economy parking for four days, watching cars, trucks, airplanes, and passersby.
The hotel we stayed at in Las Vegas, Treasure Island, upgraded us from a deluxe king room with a view of the Strip to a petite suite with the same view, for no additional charge. This suite housed two bathrooms, both of which had a toilet, sink, counter, and closet. The larger of the two bathrooms featured a jacuzzi tub, while the smaller held a shower.
Living in a fifth wheel, we’re used to sharing one bathroom just big enough for one of us, with a decent-size shower. The large bathroom alone spanned more than the living room in our trailer.
Our typical RV showers consist of turning on the water, getting wet, turning off the water, lathering up, and then turning on the water to rinse. That’s it. And that’s after turning on the water heater and waiting a half hour or so for it to generate warm water.
Living in the Lap of Luxury
As you can imagine, we lingered in the luxurious tub, soaking up every minute of it. We could have stayed in our hotel room for the duration of our trip and been just fine, other than needing to go out for food on occasion, but we could do that anywhere. Since we were in Vegas, we took the opportunity to do some sightseeing.
This was the first time we stayed more in the heart of the Strip rather than at one end or the other. We visited the “Avengers” interactive exhibit in our hotel and enjoyed seeing costumes and props that were actually used in filming the movies. (Don't worry, we used hand sanitizer before and after touching any of the exhibits.)
We also roamed the Forum Shops of Caesars Palace, the Grand Canal Shoppes in the Venetian, and the Fashion Show Mall — all of which were within walking distance of our hotel. We walked to the Bellagio and watched the fountain show, toured the Paris hotel, observed the volcano show at the Mirage, and ventured to various restaurants when our tummies rumbled.
We commemorated our milestone anniversary at our favorite restaurant in the area, Battista’s Hole in the Wall. After learning about this gem on our very first Uber ride (years ago), we try to visit it every time we’re in the area. It had been closed when we were stuck in Vegas in the spring to get Gulliver’s new shoes, so we were thrilled to find it open this time.
When we did hunker down in our room, we streamed the “Avengers” movies I hadn’t seen yet, inspired by the exhibit we had witnessed and beaming with excitement whenever we spotted one of the props we had seen.
We’re glad to have gone on another adventure, but that old saying holds true: “There’s no place like home.” Although we may miss that glorious jacuzzi tub, we’re happy to be back in our own space with our own things, including our many windows that showcase the beautiful desert scenery around us. But mostly, we’re thankful we have each other to enjoy this adventurous life journey with.
We didn’t expect to see fall foliage after leaving Massachusetts, but we’ve been following it (or it’s been following us) ever since. We’ve been relishing the reds, yellows, oranges, and purples of the changing seasons.
Between Pennsylvania and Tennessee/Georgia, our “rolling stone” spent a week in College Park, Maryland, at a campground close to Washington, D.C. We had planned that stop early in the summer so that we could attend the Arsenal of Democracy flyover to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII.
The event was to feature 60 or so WWII airplanes, including the CAF Airbase Arizona B-17 “Sentimental Journey,” flying over the Washington Mall. Unfortunately, weather scrubbed the flyover two days in a row, so it never happened.
We enjoyed our time in the area nonetheless, catching up with some friends near Annapolis and some friends from the Virginia Beach area who stayed at the campground a few nights. We visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Washington Mall, Washington Monument, World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Marine Memorial.
Between Maryland and Tennessee/Georgia, we spent a night at a rest area in Virginia to cut down on our long journey and to be able to put Virginia on our map.
While in Tennessee/Georgia, before Bob’s head incident, we toured Dollywood with our daughter, Megan, and her fiancee, Sydney, and rode most of the rides. We also ventured to an area between Chattanooga and Nashville, where we hiked to some beautiful waterfalls. And, we sampled some Southern BBQ and enjoyed seeing and playing with the dog we had shipped to Megan in March.
All the sightseeing we’ve done may give you the impression we’re on vacation. We’re really not. I’ve still been doing contract and freelance work and applying for jobs. And Bob’s been actively involved in helping facilitate Project Management Professional classes on Saturdays. Thankfully, neither of us had a lot of work while in the Tennessee/Georgia area or we wouldn’t have been able to spend as much time with Megan.
Go West, Young Man and Woman
We may not be all that young anymore but, after leaving Tennessee/Georgia, we headed west and spent two nights in Arkansas as part of the Boondockers Welcome program. We met some fellow travelers at our stop who were also en route from Tennessee to Arizona and exchanged stories. We took a much-needed day of rest the second day there, not even leaving the trailer.
From Arkansas, we moved on to Oklahoma where warmer temperatures greeted us, a bit of a shock to our systems after experiencing fall weather all of September. We took advantage of the warmth and relaxed pace to clean all the bugs off Tagalong. We also participated in the Friday night ritual of BBQ and catfish at a local restaurant.
We’re moochdocking at a friend’s house on a quiet country road. Our windows overlook barns and pastures where horses feed. Occasionally, we hear the bray of a donkey. We find the laid-back farm culture very refreshing after the last few busy weeks we’ve had.
Bob’s head is healing nicely, and we’re feeling extremely blessed with our lifestyle and the friends and family we’ve seen and stayed with along the way. We appreciate being able to travel and still be home every night. Life is good.
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.