A day off work while in Massachusetts gave us an opportunity to travel into Boston for a day of exploring. We gathered with friends at a commuter train station in Fitchburg and boarded for a 1.5-hour journey into the city.
After deboarding, we went underground to catch a subway that would take us close to the start of Boston’s Freedom Trail at Boston Common. The 2.5-mile, red-brick trail meanders through the city, with stops and plaques at important places in history along the way. Here are some of our highlights.
Erected in 1897, a bronze, sculpted memorial pays tribute to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment, the first all-Black volunteer unit in the Civil War. (Think “Glory,” the movie that tells the story.) Although most of the regiment lost their lives in the attack of Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863, they changed the tide of American sentiment regarding Black soldiers.
Across the street from the memorial stands the Massachusetts State House. The gold-domed building is open for free guided tours. We didn’t plan ahead, unaware we needed to schedule a tour.
From there, we navigated past the Park Street Church (think “National Treasure”), King’s Chapel, the Boston Latin School, the Old South Meeting House, and two cemeteries in which key historical figures are buried: Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, and John Hancock, just to name a few.
Opting to save our funds for melting pot food, we bypassed going inside King’s Chapel and the Old South Meeting House, both of which required payment for entry. Ready for a rest and a bite to eat, we stopped at Faneuil Hall, the home of America’s first town meeting. Directly behind it is Quincy Market, which hosts stalls peddling all kinds of food.
We settled in at an outdoor Irish eatery that could seat our group. Our niece, Sarah, who lives in Boston and just graduated from nursing school, joined us for lunch. We munched on chicken and fish sandwiches, French onion soup, southwestern salads, and other delectable delights.
Water Views and Italian Desserts
Refreshed and refueled, we took a brief detour to explore beautiful Boston Harbor and its wharfs before rejoining the trail. It took us to Paul Revere’s house (another fee-for-entry point) and the Old North Church, the start of Paul Revere’s midnight ride to announce that the British were coming.
Wanting to sample some sweet treats while in the area, we veered off the trail and into the North End, known for its authentic Italian dishes, pastries, and coffees. Mike’s Pastry is where most visitors go. Sarah gave us the inside scoop and directed us to where the locals go: Bova’s Bakery.
Pastries of all kinds and colors filled the glass showcase: cheesecakes, cannolis, lobster tails, cakes, cookies, chocolate-covered strawberries, and more. I chose tiramisu, and Bob selected Boston cream cake. Our friends got their goods, and we headed back to the tree-shrouded courtyard between Paul Revere’s midnight ride statue and the Old North Church to enjoy our delicacies.
Relaxation on the Wharf
Electing to save a mile of walking by skipping visits to the USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument, both of which we’ve seen before, we headed back toward Quincy Market. Bob and Sarah made a stop at the Union Oyster House for some fresh raw seafood. The rest of us moseyed on to Faneuil Hall, where we decided we had had enough walking for one day.
After Bob and Sarah caught up, we ambled back to the wharf to a place called Joe’s for rest and refreshment. Seated with an expansive view of the water, we shared appetizers of buffalo chicken tenders, spinach and artichoke dip, nachos, and candied brussels sprouts.
Satisfied with a good day in Boston, we navigated to a T subway station, stopping to pick up coffee at Dunkin’ on the way. Dunkin’ got its start south of Boston in Quincy in 1950. We said goodbye to Sarah and descended to catch a subway that would take us to Union Station, where we boarded a train back to Fitchburg.
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The state of Virginia has a lot to offer visitors. From history to beaches to natural attractions (think caverns and a bridge) and more, you’ll find something for everyone. What we enjoyed most was exploring the state’s vast history, thanks to our friends, Jim and Jenny, treating us to an amazing tour. Here are seven highlights, in no particular order:
1. George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Spanning 500 acres today, Mount Vernon pales in comparison to its expansive 8,000 acres when the first U.S. president lived on the 18th-century plantation. The estate maintains a colonial feel, with workers dressed in period costumes to tell visitors about life in the 18th century.
A walking tour will take you through stables, a blacksmith shop, gardens, the mansion, the distillery and gristmill, and even down to the wharf on the Potomac River. You can sit on a rocking chair on the mansion’s back porch and enjoy the view. Two museums on the property provide more details about the colonial days and estate.
Ever heard of Virginia ham? What designates a ham with the Virginia label is the curing process: cured with salt, then smoked and hung to age in a smokehouse. The town of Smithfield, established in 1752, started its own Virginia ham business early on, thanks to the vision of Mallory Todd.
Today, Smithfield houses the headquarters of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork, with locations in 29 states, as well as Europe and Mexico. Pork may be the staple of the town of Smithfield, but that’s not what draws visitors there today.
Fifteen 18th-century houses and boutique shops line its main streets, offering a walking tour through history. You can even eat at a soda fountain and go inside a replica of the 1752 courthouse. And, for the small fee of $2 per person, you can see the world’s oldest ham and oldest peanut at the Isle of Wight County Museum.
3. First Landing State Park
The first English settlers arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1607 at Cape Henry, right around the corner from First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. The park spans 2,888 acres, offering 20 miles of trails, more than 200 campsites, 20 rustic cabins, four yurts, and 1.5 miles of Chesapeake Bay beach.
The campground pays homage to the first landing with a historical exhibit in the office. Camping here served as a jumping-off point for us to investigate other historical attractions in the area. It also provided ample opportunities to walk to the beach on a whim and take in sunsets.
4. Jamestown Island
After exploring the coastal areas of Virginia, the 104 English men and boys who landed at Cape Henry decided to make Jamestown their permanent home. The Jamestown Settlement, a living-history museum, lures visitors to relive life in the first English colony.
If you want a more authentic experience, don’t stop at the Jamestown Settlement. Keep driving to Jamestown Island and visit Jamestown Rediscovery, where archaeologists are at work unearthing the historical Jamestown Fort. You can see the foundations for yourself and a replica of the Memorial Church, built to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the settlement.
A tour through the Archaearium Museum gets you up close to artifacts the settlers used and provides insights into what life was like during the “Starving Time,” when two of every three Jamestown colonists died.
5. Colonial Parkway/Yorktown Battlefield
After exploring Jamestown Island, you can enjoy a scenic, relaxing drive on the Colonial Parkway, which will take you from Jamestown to Yorktown. The 23-mile drive navigates through tree-covered roads, with historical stops along the way, including colonial Williamsburg. We didn’t stop there, opting to keep going to Yorktown.
There, a driving tour meanders through the Yorktown Battlefield and the allied encampment, with placards detailing historical facts along the way.
6. USS Wisconsin Battleship
With its location on the water, Norfolk has a long military history, dating back to 1917, when the U.S. entered WWI. The Naval Operating Base of yesteryear is now Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval station, supporting 75 ships and 134 aircraft.
As a government employee, our host, Jim, was able to get us onto the naval base for a closer view of the amazing watercraft and aircraft our military uses. We saw carriers, supply ships, helicopters, airplanes, and much more.
If you’re not able to get onto the base — and even if you are — visit the static display of USS Wisconsin, one of the Navy’s largest and last battleships built. You can take a self-guided tour to explore its decks. For a guided tour, $20 per person will get you either the engine room tour or the command and control tour.
7. Military Aviation Museum
Because of our affiliation with the Commemorative Air Force, we’re drawn to aviation museums. The Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach did not disappoint. It offers a hangar dedicated to WWI planes and another two to showcase WWII planes, separated by Army and Navy.
The extensive collection of airplanes that still fly, landing on a grass strip, includes a B-25, “Wild Cargo,” named for her civil duty of transporting snakes and alligators after the war. Another notable warbird is the PBY Catalina, a mammoth flying boat. The collection spans fighters, bombers, trainers, liaisons, and more.
And, you can take a guided tour of the Goxhill Tower, the authentic British “Watch Office” transferred from Europe to Virginia brick by brick and put back together.
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When we think of Florida, we think about beaches, Disney World, the Everglades, alligators, orange juice, and hurricanes. We don’t think about murals — at least we didn’t until we made a stop in Lake Placid, Florida, near Sebring in the central part of the state.
Philadelphia may be the “Mural Capital of the World,” but Lake Placid is known as the “Town of Murals.” In 1992, residents were looking for a way to liven up the small town (population 2,223 as of 2010) after an economic downturn. A couple suggested murals could draw visitors. The town liked the idea, and the couple founded the Lake Placid Mural Society with the goal of beautifying the town and telling its story.
Today, nearly 50 murals cover building walls in the downtown area, bringing history to life in picturesque detail. To ensure the murals capture the story of Lake Placid, the mural society only allowed depictions of things that are native to the area, including plants, birds, animals, and people.
Perhaps more interesting, most of the murals include hidden objects. The artists purposely added mystery and intrigue into their lifesize drawings. A book is available at the city’s Chamber of Commerce for $4 that tells the story of each mural and provides instructions on what hidden items to look for. We enjoyed touring the town and searching the images for the hidden treasures.
Known by Many Names
Murals aren’t the only things attracting people to the town of Lake Placid. It’s also known as the “Caladium Capital of the World” and the home of Toby’s Clown School. Altogether, these three nicknames earned the town the moniker of “America’s Most Interesting Town” by Readers Digest magazine in 2013.
Lake Placid grows 95% of the world’s caladiums and has an annual caladium festival. If you’re unfamiliar with caladiums, like I was, they have heart-shaped leaves and are also referred to as elephant ear and angel wings. More than one of the town’s murals depict the plants.
The clown school still churns out graduates, to the tune of more than 1,500 since 1993. Wannabe clowns take 25 hours of classes to become certified entertainers.
Although interesting, the murals, caladiums, and clown school aren’t what drew us to Lake Placid. We went there to visit friends. Greg and Sharon are some of the kindest, most generous people we’ve ever met. They even let us moochdock on their lakefront property, which gave us an inviting taste of paradise.
We know Greg and Sharon through the Commemorative Air Force, so it only seemed fitting that the four of us visit the state’s annual weeklong fly-in and airshow, Sun ‘n Fun, in Lakeland. We arrived at the show on the last day and were a bit disappointed to have paid full price only to find aircraft leaving early to return to their home bases.
Despite that, we saw all kinds of planes, including a PBY Catalina “flying boat,” an A-26 Invader, a B-1 supersonic bomber, the second of only two airworthy B-29 Superfortresses (“Doc”), a number of Stearman bi-planes, and some fighter jets. We got to tour a still-active KC-135 Stratotanker and even talked to the boom operator who has to align the boom with another plane in flight to fuel it.
Wanting to get our money’s worth, we stuck around for the airshow in the afternoon, and it did not disappoint. From skydivers who flew in formation to proudly display the American flag to an F-18 Rhino and A-10 warthog performing maneuvers, we watched in amazement as announcers explained the planes’ actions and pilots pushed the machines’ limits. We definitely got our money’s worth.
Another tornado warning sounded from our phones, alerting us to take cover in a basement. But in the Gulf city of Waveland, Mississippi (elevation 16 feet), there are no basements to be found. Many buildings are built on stilts to protect them and their inhabitants from flooding.
Although we were camped next door to a brick bath house at a state park, we loaded into the truck and headed to a different building, one on stilts. It went against my better judgment to ascend stairs when the National Weather Service encouraged people to descend to the lowest area they could find, but fellow campers followed suit.
The truth about safety in numbers rang true. Bob and I could be together in the laundry room to ride out the storm instead of separated in his and her restrooms. And we were in the company of other campers in the same boat.
We stood outside on the balcony, enjoying the cool breeze. When the wind picked up, I took it as my cue to move indoors. Bob stayed outside until the storm grew in intensity and he started getting wet.
The electricity in the warm, humid laundry room blinked off but came right back on. After about 20 minutes, the tornado warning expired. The fierce thunderstorm responsible for it continued to make its presence known with bright flashes of lightning, loud booms of thunder, and a deluge of rain.
Thankfully, we had already closed our slideouts before taking shelter. We headed back to our trailer, completely intact, to sleep for the night, thankful once again for our safety.
An Eerie Night
The rest of our time in Mississippi was uneventful, other than an afternoon to the beach to bask in the sun. After relocating to north-central Florida, we started looking for things to do in the area. It turns out the University of Florida in Gainesville has bat houses, and every warm evening, the nearly 500,000 bats emerge from the houses to forage for the night.
Unsure we wanted to make the 40-minute, one-way drive to see this event, we read reviews from others who had experienced the phenomenon. The reviews convinced us the drive would be well worth the trip.
We arrived at the University of Florida to find three houses on stilts, each with a bat insignia on the side and an overpowering stench of guano to let us know we were at the right place. The bats fly up under the houses and nest there during the day upon return from an adventurous night of hunting.
While waiting to see them emerge, we watched in wonder as a fence rail moved in front of us, alive with moth caterpillars and spiders. Bob joined some caterpillars on a bench. I stood, not wanting to share space with the creatures and too excited to relax. More people arrived, eager for their chance to see the bats.
The sun set, and we waited another 10 to 15 minutes. Then it happened. One bat left one of the houses. And then another. And another — until a tornado of bats spun from one house and flew over the tree above our heads, the guano scent stronger as they approached. The bats joined their comrades and, together, they made a trail in the sky.
When one house emptied, bats started emerging from the next one, and so on — truly a sight to behold (pictures don't do it justice).
Glad we had made the trek, we headed back to our trailer on a Boondockers Welcome farm. Tall oak trees dangling Spanish moss shrouded the dirt road to the farm, more eerie at night than during the day. After a moving fence rail and the bat barrage, it made for a creepy evening. But we made it home just fine.
Attack of the Ticks
Because we were boondocking at a farm, we didn’t have electric hookups. That meant no air conditioning. Three days of rain made for some muggy, sticky conditions inside the trailer and out. Wanting some relief, we decided to go out to dinner to take advantage of the A/C in the truck and the restaurant. What a difference that made!
Upon our return, I got ready to shower to wash off the stickiness from the humidity in the hope I’d sleep better. As I looked down, I found what appeared to be a scab on my upper left thigh, where my leg bends. I didn’t remember injuring myself, and I could get my fingers around the “scab.”
Grabbing a flashlight, I had Bob examine my leg. He pronounced the “scab” a tick.
I had taken a walk through the woods earlier in the day and must have picked it up then. Fortunately, we’ve carried a tick remover* tool with us since we started traveling. It made relatively easy work of removing the tick. Before long, Bob found and removed two more ticks — one on my back and one on the back of my knee.
Although we still had another day and a half in the area, I stayed away from the woods.
Absent of cows, chickens, or crops, this farm didn’t have the familiar E-I-E-I-O sounds. The owner told a fellow camper he grows campers in the winter and weeds in the summer. Regardless, the farm came to life after sunset.
Camped near a pond, we learned just how loud frogs can be — and they don’t all ribbit. The American bullfrog blared its raucous, low-pitched, bellowing call. The Southern chorus frog emitted a rapid clicking sound. The Southern leopard frog added to the symphony with a laughing noise and a chitter. And the Northern cricket frog joined the chorus with a chirping cricket sound.
This “song of the South” played us to sleep every night, reminding us how blessed we are.
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New Orleans is known for many things: jazz, Mardi Gras, the Saints, the French Quarter, creole food, and Hurricane Katrina. One thing the city isn’t well-known for is tornadoes — until recently.
On a cloudy, windy, rainy evening at a state campground outside the city, Bob cooked a nice gumbo to warm our insides. Just before we were about to sit down and partake, our phones alerted us to a tornado warning.
Unlike the last time we experienced such an alarm while in Michigan at my cousin’s farm, we were on our own. Bob turned off the stove, and we scurried about the trailer to gather a few things. Then, we loaded into the truck, knowing it would be safer in swirling, high-speed winds than our fifth wheel, which could disintegrate in an instant.
Gulliver navigated us to a vacant parking lot, away from potential debris, to ride out the storm. As we watched angry clouds hurry by, dropping rain as they passed, we breathed a little easier at the blue sky trying to peer through directly overhead.
After about 20 minutes, the Weather Channel app on Bob’s phone confirmed the worst of the storm cell had moved on. We returned home to our intact trailer and warm dinner, thankful for our safety.
An F-3 tornado did touch down in the New Orleans area that night, about 20 miles from our location. We saw some of the damage from it while celebrating my birthday on a river cruise a couple of nights later: a building with a missing roof.
A River Sailing
It’s no secret that we enjoy cruising. We’ve sailed eight ocean cruises and have our next one planned. But we had never experienced a river cruise. New Orleans’ location on the Mississippi River presented an opportunity for us to do so — on an authentic paddlewheel steamboat.
We boarded the four-deck vessel for a sunset dinner cruise and perched on outdoor seats on deck 4. A live jazz trio serenaded us while a narrator shared interesting facts about the mighty Mississippi and New Orleans.
After the sun set and the temperature dipped, we descended to the galley on deck 2 for our turn at cajun fare: chicken and sausage gumbo, baked chicken, bayou seafood pasta, fingerling potatoes, and green beans almondine. Bread pudding and bananas foster over ice cream with coffee finished the meal as we pulled back into port.
A National Treasure
Food is one of the big attractions of New Orleans. Another, and what drew us there, is the National WWII Museum.
One day is not enough to take in all this 6-acre, five-pavillion facility has to offer. From D-Day to the European and Pacific Theaters — including the Road to Berlin and the Road to Tokyo — the organizers did an excellent job capturing all the important aspects of the war and telling them in a detailed, immersive story.
The experience is interactive too. At the start of our journey, we each got a dog tag that represented a real person who played a role in the war. At different stations throughout the museum, we scanned our dog tags to learn more about each person’s involvement and contributions.
In addition to the rooms showcasing the detailed war history, the museum houses a separate wing. The Boeing Center displays a handful of aircraft that were pivotal to the war: a B-17E Flying Fortress, a B-25J Mitchell, a P-51 Mustang, an F4 Corsair, an SBD Dauntless, and a TBM Avenger.
Heavy-duty cables suspend these warbirds in the exhibit, and visitors can go up two and three levels to view the planes up close and personal — at eye level and from above — from catwalks.
Our visit to New Orleans left us more appreciative than before for all those who sacrificed and gave their lives for our freedom.
One of our favorite things to do as we travel the country is to sample regional cuisine to get a taste (pun intended) for the area: pasties in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, cheese in Wisconsin, Tex-Mex in Texas, etc.
While in the San Antonio area, we made a point to tour the River Walk, a hidden gem that sprawls 15 miles beneath the city, offering shops and all kinds of ethnic fare–not just your Texas standards. We arrived at lunchtime and bypassed a Mexican restaurant to visit an Irish one, where we shared bangers and mash buried under a thick brown gravy.
After finding our way to the Alamo, which was worth the visit, we ventured back to the River Walk and stopped at a German restaurant before strolling back through the walk, past Love Lock Bridge, to our vehicle. Bob indulged in a German pretzel, and we shared a plate of Nuremberg sausage (yum!), Polish sausage, mustard mashed potatoes, pickled vegetables, and sauerkraut.
Inspired by a friend who had told us about camping opportunities on Padre Island, we traveled from the San Antonio area to Corpus Christi. We spent a week on the beach at sister Mustang Island.
Unlike our friend’s sunny, warm experience in the area (in August), we faced cold, clouds, and wind (in March). But we didn’t let that stop us from strolling along the beach to take in God’s beautiful creation. We even braved a chilly bike ride to sample the local cuisine at a BBQ restaurant.
After weathering hours of 30 mph winds the night before our departure, the sun came out victorious. But it was too late for us. We had to be on our way to make room for the next camper scheduled to arrive in our spot. So, we packed up and hit the road on a brisk, 47-degree morning.
Two days later, we pulled up at the home of our friends, Dwaine and Belinda, oblivious to the treat that lay in store for us. We met this wonderful couple on our Panama Canal cruise in 2019 and have kept in touch. They offered to let us moochdock on their piece of paradise, and we gladly accepted.
Authentic Cajun Cooking
Dwaine and Belinda are born and bred Louisianans, and they made sure to immerse us in the staples they love. Most of the food in the region consists of rice and some sort of meat-laden, spicy gravy.
They fed us seafood gumbo, turtle (tastes a lot like chicken), red beans and rice, and tasso and cabbage. Tasso, we learned, is a smoked, spiced, cured meat–typically pork. We found it quite tasty.
Our Cajun food highlight, though, has to be a crawfish boil. We had heard of such a thing but had never partaken. Wanting to give us an authentic experience, our hosts enlisted the help of their son and daughter-in-law to do the cooking. And what a spread!
In addition to the crawfish, they boiled potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, onions, Brussels sprouts, and corn on the cob. After seasoning the water and bringing it to a boil, they threw in all the veggies to cook. These served as appetizers while the crawfish boiled.
Before we knew it, the crawfish, essentially tiny lobsters, were ready to be eaten. As with lobsters, you break off the head of the crawfish and eat the tail meat. If you get one with decent-sized claws, you can eat the claw meat too.
We ate and ate and ate until we couldn’t eat anymore. And we even took home leftovers. Bob spent hours digging the meat out of the leftover crawfish, and I enjoyed it on my lunch salads the next few days.
We couldn’t have asked for a better, more authentic Louisiana stop. Thank you, Dwaine and Belinda, for your wonderful hospitality and for giving us such a cultural experience.
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Our RV travels have afforded us lots of beautiful scenery and landscapes, from deserts and caverns to ranches and farmlands to forests, lakes, and prairies. One thing we don’t tend to see a lot of is rock formations — well, at least we hadn’t until our trek west.
Fellow full-time RVer family members Tom and Molly met us in Iowa, and we formed a caravan. They had boondocked in picturesque areas before, and we welcomed their experience as the only other boondocking we had done had been with them.
Badlands National Park
Named “bad lands” in both Lakotan and French for its difficulty to cross, Badlands National Park near Rapid City, South Dakota, stretches across 244,000 acres and houses some of the most unique geological formations you might ever see. Driving through the park — which you can do in about an hour without stopping — can leave you feeling as if you’re in a dystopian or apocalyptic movie set.
Jagged limestone and sandstone peaks rise from the ground, lined with browns and pinks. As you keep driving, you come across some yellow mounds, strikingly different from the other rock formations as they’re rounded and display yellows, greens, and pinks.
The extraordinary landscape draws 1 million visitors per year, and it offers much in return. You can spend hours there photographing the landscape, hiking, seeing the scenery change as the sun hits it differently, and watching the wildlife. Bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and prairie dogs roam the area — and seemingly pose for photographs to make your visit that much more rewarding.
While boondocking near the Badlands, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the landmark that gives South Dakota its identity as the Mount Rushmore State. The presidents etched in this iconic monument represent the country’s birth, growth, development, and preservation. It took 14 years to complete and is quite a sight to behold.
An avenue of flags leads visitors to the viewing area and amphitheater for a closer look at the granite sculpture. You’ll find flags for all 50 United States, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories and commonwealths of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
We would have liked to have visited the Sculptor’s Studio while we were there to learn more about the creation of the monument, but it was closed at that time.
As our caravan ventured farther west, the plains of Wyoming gave way to more rock formations. We boondocked on a mountain near Rock Springs, where we had an expansive view overlooking the city and I-80 below. Getting there took us over the best-maintained dirt road we’ve ever seen and presented various rock formations along the way.
Tom and Molly lingered in Wyoming while we traversed south. We decided to avoid the interstates and take the more scenic route. It took us along mountainsides dotted with oranges and reds in acknowledgment of the changing seasons and skirted Utah Lake, where boaters and windsurfers enjoyed their sports in the sun. Staying to the east of the state brought us close to Arches National Park and through the beautiful red rocks of Moab.
We spent a night in the small town of Bluff, a jumping-off point for both the Four Corners area and Monument Valley, among other geological wonders. Gulliver led us to scenic Monument Valley, with its rising red-sand formations that left us in awe. God is an amazing artist, and we’re thankful we were able to see such beauty on our journey.
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.
This is the travel blog of full-time RVers Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong.