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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Living in a fifth wheel has its pluses and minuses. If we could change anything about it, we’d make it shorter. Our 13-foot, 3-inch height makes it tricky to navigate a lot of areas, including state campgrounds. We always have to be on alert for low-hanging branches and low-clearance bridges.
The Northeast U.S. is notorious for low-clearance bridges. When its towns and cities were established in the 1600s, most people got around on foot. If they had to travel great distances, they would take a stagecoach. Although New York’s first bridge emerged in 1693 to connect Manhattan and the Bronx, most bridges didn’t appear until the 1800s. At that time, tall vehicles didn’t exist.
The first semi-truck came on the scene in 1898. Alexander Winton designed it specifically to deliver a car on a trailer to its buyer somewhere in the country. This eliminated wear and tear on the vehicle from driving it to its purchaser.
In 1914, August Charles Fruehauf invented a more substantial semi-trailer to transport his boat. It was later adapted to move lumber.
As automobiles became more popular, car dealers needed more efficient ways to deliver the vehicles to purchasers. So, in the 1930s, George Cassens crafted a trailer that could carry four cars at a time.
Between 1929 and 1944, Mack Trucks entered the market, creating 2,601 semi trailers. Peterbilt trucks followed in 1939 to transport logs.
These early semis paled in comparison to today’s mammoth 18-wheelers that stand 13 feet, 5 inches tall. It wasn’t until 1983 that trailers stretched as long as 48 feet, only 7 feet shy of today’s standard 53 feet.
Increasing RV Heights
Early campers weren’t much taller than the trucks pulling them. Even initial fifth-wheel campers averaged 8 to 8.5 feet tall. Many original models required people to crawl up to the bed over the top of the truck bed.
Gradually, fifth wheels increased in height to about 10 feet, making them easier to live in for a weekend or vacation getaway.
RV manufacturers started installing slideouts in fifth wheels in the 1990s to create more living space. Providing adequate ceiling height in these slideouts meant the supporting rig around the slideouts had to be taller. The average height of a modern fifth wheel RV is 13 feet, with many as tall as 13 feet, 5 or 6 inches.
Today, towering RVs and semi-trucks roam the highways. Although the width of these vehicles is limited to 102 inches (8 feet, 6 inches) in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there’s no nationwide vehicle height limit. That varies per state, typically between 13 feet, 6 inches and 14 feet.
In New York City, arched bridges force high-clearance vehicles to drive in the middle lane to ensure they can clear. They’re prevented from certain roadways, where clearance is too low for safe passage.
New York also lists clearances as 6 to 12 inches lower than the height of vehicles that can clear safely — unless the bridge says ACTUAL CLEARANCE. We found this out when we approached a bridge labeled 12’-11” and watched a standard semi pass through unharmed. We followed suit.
Rumor has it this height discrepancy is to allow for safe passage even when roads are packed with snow.
Low-clearance challenges aren’t limited to New York. They span all of New England too. Athol, Massachusetts, for example, has an overpass that’s only safe for vehicles 12-foot, 7 inches or less to maneuver.
For some reason, a semi-truck driver tried to take the route. Maybe he thought the actual clearance was 13 feet, 7 inches, like in New York. His trailer hit hard, denting the top, and creating a loud boom.
Ensuring Safe Passage
Most road atlases don’t display bridge and tunnel clearances. Similarly, although Google Maps does a good job showing us the quickest, most direct route between two points, it doesn’t take into consideration the height and length of our vehicle. Because of that, we can’t always trust that Google will navigate us safely, as the trucker in Athol discovered.
For better results, we use an app called CoPilot. Its $30 annual fee is well worth the peace of mind it provides. We’re able to enter our vehicle dimensions and select if we want to use toll roads, ferries, propane-restricted routes, and more. Based on our choices, the app directs us safely to any destination we enter.
Only one time we questioned the route CoPilot directed us to after a white-knuckled drive through winding roads in northeastern Tennessee. Other than that, we’ve fared well.
We also make a point to look at the satellite view on Google Maps of any destination we choose and the path to get there to ensure it’s navigable for a rig our size.
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After an eventful time in Virginia Beach, Virginia, we wanted to venture to Ocean City, Maryland, to visit some friends we had made on our 2022 transatlantic cruise. Crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel offered the quickest, most direct route, saving 95 miles and about three hours of travel time through the congested Washington, D.C., area.
Considered one of the seven engineering wonders of the modern world, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is a 17.6-mile crossing of the Chesapeake Bay. Since opening in 1964, it’s taken more than 140 million vehicles from Virginia Beach to the state’s Delmarva Peninsula, or vice versa, traversing both over and under the water.
The bridge-tunnel includes not one, but two tunnels, each about a mile long. Crossing the bridge-tunnel takes only about a half hour but can be nerve-racking in an RV if you’re unprepared for it.
To Cross or Not to Cross
As the time approached for us to travel to Ocean City, Bob put his excellent research skills to use to explore our options to get there. The bridge-tunnel’s direct route and time savings made us give it serious consideration. Had other RVs made it through? Did semi trucks use the route? How tight were the travel lanes?
We had read that the max vehicle height for the tunnels is 13 feet, 6 inches, the size of semis. Our rig is 3 inches shorter, so we took some comfort in that, knowing we had a little more clearance than trucks did.
Because of the potential stress of driving the bridge-tunnel, Bob had decided we’d forgo it and take the long, inland route instead. But advice from a friend made him reconsider. Jim had traveled the bridge-tunnel numerous times and had seen semis and RVs make it through with no issues. The only potential risk was weather. If conditions are too windy, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission closes the bridge-tunnel until conditions improve.
We decided to keep our trip short and take the direct route across the bridge-tunnel.
The weather looked good on our day of departure. We waited to leave our campsite at First Landing State Park until about 9 a.m. to let traffic die down. Navigating to the bridge-tunnel proved easy enough. We made it to the toll plaza with no problems.
Because we have E-ZPass, a transponder in Gulliver that electronically pays tolls we encounter, we didn’t have to exchange any funds. The toll worker asked if our propane was off. We assured her it was, and we were on our way, starting across the bridge.
A semi-truck passed us, relaxing any remaining frayed nerves. Prior to this experience, we had thought the dimensions listed before tunnels and overpasses — 13’ 6” max height, in this case — were the measured distance from road to overpass/tunnel bottom. We learned those signs actually mean the listed dimensions are the maximum height for a vehicle to safely pass without hitting the bridge/tunnel.
As we approached the first of the two tunnels, Thimble Shoal Channel Tunnel, and two-way traffic, Bob concentrated on keeping Gulliver and Tagalong in the middle of our lane. Clearance under the tunnel was fine. We had no problems, although we still got excited when we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
We emerged onto another bridge that led us to the second tunnel, the Chesapeake Channel Tunnel. As we approached that one, a semi-truck came out and toward us, clearly demonstrating plenty of clearance. After that tunnel, we crossed another bridge before finally returning to land.
Thankful for an uneventful experience, we pulled into the Eastern Shore of Virginia Welcome Center. There, we turned our propane back on to keep the food in our fridge and freezer cold as we journeyed to our destination in Ocean City.
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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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A loud, incessant beeping from our tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) alerted us to a “fast leakage” from one of our trailer tires. The narrow, back-country roads of the South didn’t offer anywhere to easily get our 50-plus feet of truck and trailer off the road.
After turning on our emergency flashers and driving slowly, we finally found a place we could pull over to assess our situation and let the vehicles behind us pass. The faulty tire was on the driver’s side. We couldn’t change it in this spot as we were blocking a road.
We had only 3 miles to our destination for the day. Could we make it if we nursed the tire along? Although the TPMS said we had a fast leak, the air pressure wasn’t decreasing rapidly. We decided to try to make it to our stop, watching the tire pressure slowly go down along the way.
Oasis in the Forest
As we pulled onto the gravel drive leading to our stop, the tire pressure steadied at 40-something. Mind you, these are 80 psi tires. Smiles flashed across our faces as we approached the property of our Boondockers Welcome host and saw a concrete pad for us to park on.
It’s much easier to jack up our 17,000-pound fifth wheel on a flat, stable surface than it is on a grassy area off the side of the road. We know from experience.
The host greeted us and helped Bob get Tagalong into parking position, leaving enough room for us to get the flat tire off and put the spare on.
Work Must Go On
We don’t usually relocate during the work week, but we had made an exception this time. Bob got busy loosening lug nuts, and I lowered the spare tire from its stowage spot under the trailer. Leaving him to make the tire change, I set up my camping chair against a nice green background of trees to attend a Zoom meeting for work.
Fortunately, temperature and dirt don’t show through video calls. Someone in my meeting said they wanted to be where I was, based on the inviting background. Little did they know I had sweat dripping down my back from the 80-plus degree humid weather.
With the tire changed and my call ended, I helped Bob detach the trailer from the truck and try to level Tagalong. The auto-level function errored out before the job was complete. I left him to troubleshoot while I joined another call.
When that meeting concluded, I found Bob sitting on the steps inside the trailer with the air conditioning on but no slides open. The button to open the living room slide, which allows us to get to the kitchen and office, didn’t respond to being pushed. Bob suddenly remembered an app on his phone allows him to control trailer functions. He succeeded in opening the slide from the app. Whew!
The other slides opened with the buttons on the trailer control panel, and we set up our home for a five-night stay.
Leaks and God’s Providence
Google Maps showed a Goodyear tire shop about 20 minutes away. Bob called and found out they could replace a tire stem. That’s where the leak happened. That’s also where it was when we had a flat tire last year: in the stem. Both incidents must have been a result of the tire pressure monitors attached to the stem.
We headed to the Goodyear store, dropped off our tire, and went to get groceries. We returned to the shop to find our tire fixed and ready to be picked up. And the price? Only $3.47!
On the surface, this event looked like a terrible inconvenience and frustration, but it served as a reminder that God consistently watches over and provides for us. From the flat tire happening 3 miles from our destination and being able to make it to our stop, to the concrete pad, trailer slide, Goodyear shop, and amazing price, we were — and are — extremely blessed.
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Spain does a few things extremely well. It has designated bike/scooter lanes separate from where vehicles travel and pedestrians walk. It has inviting outdoor eateries down its many narrow alleys. It features amazing architecture. And workers keep it beautifully clean.
How do we know? We embarked on a transatlantic cruise from Tampa, Florida, to Barcelona, Spain, with stops in Bermuda; the Azores; Malaga, Spain; and Valencia, Spain. Here are the highlights.
Although we delight in sea days, we enjoy visiting ports of call too. After three days at sea, we disembarked in Bermuda. Rented bikes gave us wheels to tour the pink beaches, where Portuguese man o’ war in the sand deterred us from entering the water. Realizing we were no match for the narrow, hilly roads we had to share with motor vehicles — even if they were only going 25 mph — we returned the bikes to explore on foot.
Four sea days later, we fell in love with the quiet, laid-back culture of the Azores, where commercialism is kept at bay. Our tour guide, Telmo from T4W, gave us a comprehensive taste of life on Sao Miguel Island, the largest of the nine islands that make up the archipelago that belongs to Portugal.
Telmo entertained us with folklore about how the blue and green lakes came to be and how old women throwing rocks from the top of a cliff into the bay kept would-be invaders from overtaking the island. We sampled Portuguese coffee and farm-to-table delicacies from the livestock and produce on the island, including custard tarts and fresh blackberry cheesecake.
Malaga, Spain, treated us to a familiar sight and taste: Dunkin’ coffee. After caffeinating, we toured the city on rented bicycles, getting past the typical tourist traps to experience a less crowded beach, even dipping into the Mediterranean Sea up to our necks.
Having made fast friends with our assigned dinner companions on the cruise, we joined Frank and Pam to explore the city of Valencia. A bus delivered us to the heart of town, where we had a wonderful time walking the alleys, taking in the city’s beauty, and sampling local meats and cheeses.
The cruise came to an end in Barcelona the morning of Mother’s Day. It happened to be the same day as the Barcelona Marathon, so we sat and watched runners pass us by for about an hour, thrilled at the opportunity to see such an event in person rather than on TV.
Wanting to make the most of our day in the city, we navigated to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, a 14th-century cathedral built over a total of 55 years, with setbacks due to an earthquake and a fire. Today, it’s open to visitors daily.
Arriving just in time for the Sunday mass, we decided to stay. Bob used Google Translate to try to understand the message. The app got some things right, but others it didn’t, such as something about six German sisters with ducks. That gave us a good chuckle.
From there, we wandered the narrow alleys in search of lunch, stopping at a little place where we ordered mussels, a cured meat plate, and a cheese plate. But the best part was the toasted fresh bread smothered with olive oil and tomatoes. I risked a gluten-induced headache to partake. The bread melted in my mouth with explosive flavor. Delicioso! And I’m happy to report no headache ensued.
The Longest Travel Day
We spent the night in Barcelona and headed to the airport early the next morning for our required COVID-19 test before we could fly back to the United States. After getting confirmation that we both passed the test, we headed to an airport lounge for breakfast before boarding a plane to gain back the six hours we had lost traversing the Atlantic Ocean.
Arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York eight hours later, we quickly learned why three hours are needed for international flights. We had to jump through a lot of hoops: customs, a passport check, and navigating to the correct gate.
We connected through Atlanta before landing in Tampa, Florida, where a parking lot attendant whisked us to the lot where we had left Gullliver 15 days earlier. Happy to be reunited with our vehicle, we climbed aboard and drove two hours to reach Tagalong, finally arriving home at 3:30 a.m. after 28 hours of travel. What a day!
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When your home is on wheels — and it’s everything you own in the world — you can’t leave it just anywhere to travel via airplane, train, or ship like you can if you live in a sticks-and-bricks house. Instead, you have to put a lot of thought into planning to identify where you’ll be when you want to start your travel, what airport you’ll be flying out of, and things like that.
Living the lifestyle we do, we don’t like to plan very far in advance. We’ve learned that plans change and things break. It’s nice to have flexibility to adjust accordingly.
But, when it comes to long-distance travel outside our rig, we can’t afford not to make far-out plans. It’s a necessity for peace of mind that our home and truck will be OK while we’re away. So, where do we park for these getaways? It depends.
RV/Mobile Home Parks
When we’re stationary during the winter months, we stay in a gated, 55-plus mobile home/RV park. We know our neighbors and the maintenance man, so we feel quite comfortable leaving our rig and truck there. The fact that the community is gated adds to our peace of mind.
We left both Gulliver and Tagalong there while we ventured to Las Vegas and again when we went on a cruise out of Long Beach, California.
When we’re not stationary, we reach out to friends or family in the area from which we want to depart. If they have room for our rig and are willing to have it sit on their property while we’re gone, it’s a win.
Bob’s brother Bill let us park on his property in Massachusetts in 2020 while we went on tour with the B-25 as part of the Commemorative Air Force. Our good friend Darryl drove us to the airport, so we left Gulliver at Bill’s too.
In 2021, we left Gulliver and Tagalong at a fellow CAF member’s home in Iowa. Like Darryl, Gene drove us to the airport.
Our friends Greg and Sharon, also from the CAF, let us leave our rig in the driveway of their central Florida home while we went on a cruise out of Tampa. Because their place is a couple of hours’ drive from Tampa, we drove Gulliver and left him in long-term parking there, researching the lot first for peace of mind.
Other options we’ve looked into but haven’t used yet are RV storage lots. This is a practical choice if we ever depart from an area where we don’t know people. Having paid for RV storage when we first purchased our rig before moving into it, we know the storage fee should include some level of security that our rig will be protected while we’re away.
Depending on the storage company, we may have to pay for a month of rent. Many don’t offer weekly storage options. But the extra cost of that full-month fee may be worth it to set our minds at ease that our home is in good hands.
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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We stay at a lot of different places as we travel the country, from the property of friends and family to rest areas and Walmart parking lots to forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land to established campgrounds.
Not all campgrounds are created equal. They can range from primitive, dirt parking spots with no hookups to wide concrete pads with full hookups — water, electricity, and sewer. One of our favorite types of campgrounds to stay at are state parks, but they can leave much to be desired too.
What is a state campground?
A state campground is an amenity offered by many state parks, which are areas set aside or preserved for their history, natural beauty, or recreation. Unlike federal parks, which fall under the administration of the federal government, state parks are controlled by the local state government. More than 8,500 state parks with more than 200,000 campsites span the country, according to America’s State Parks.
Although most state parks came into existence in the 1930s, some in New York and Pennsylvania date back to the 1880s. In 1933, as part of his New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps to put unemployed 18- to 25-year-old single men to work to improve America’s public lands. Their work included planting billions of trees, constructing trails and shelters, and establishing more than 800 state parks.
Let’s look at four pros and two cons of state campgrounds, starting with the cons.
Con 1: Not Built for Big Rigs
Nearly 100 years ago, when most state parks were built, the big-rig RVs people drive and live in today didn’t exist. With a few exceptions, the travel trailers of yesteryear were less than 20 feet long and not much taller than the vehicles pulling them.
Today, trailers and motorhomes come in all shapes and sizes. The largest stretch 45 feet long, reach 13 feet, 6 inches tall, and span 8 feet, 6 inches across. Because state parks were built with smaller rigs in mind, they have narrow roads with tight turns that can be difficult for big rigs to maneuver.
In fact, it was at a state park in Michigan that Gulliver needed a tow because we got stuck while trying to park our rig.
In addition, parking pads tend to be short and narrow. We encountered some parks where the max RV length allowed was 40 feet. Our rig stretches nearly 42 feet. If you can find a campground with a long enough parking pad — and they do exist — truck or toad vehicle parking can be a challenge.
Con 2: Trees in Need of Trimming
Because of state parks’ ecological nature, and because they weren’t created for today’s supersized rigs, campgrounds in wooded areas tend to have low-hanging trees. With all the people camping these days, rangers don’t seem to prioritize trimming trees to make it easier for rigs to get in and out of campsites. They have many other things to tend to.
The roof of our 13-foot, 3-inch tall fifth wheel is a rubber membrane. If it comes in contact with prickly branches, they can poke holes in it. And that’s happened more than once. Many times, we have to crawl up on top of the roof and trim trees to prevent damage during wind or storms.
Pro 1: Economical Price
Despite those drawbacks, the economic value is what draws us to most state campgrounds. They usually average between $20 and $30 per night, depending on the area and amenities. Compared to an RV resort that can charge more than $50 a night, state campgrounds win for us, hands down.
We’re very careful to research the campground and look at its satellite view on Google Maps to choose spots that can best accommodate our rig.
Pro 2: Hookups and Bath Houses
Most, but not all, state campgrounds offer at least water and electricity hookups. If they don’t offer sewer hookups as well, they contain a dump station so RVers can empty their black and gray tanks before departing.
In addition, most state campgrounds feature bath houses with flushable toilets, sinks with running water, and showers. These are a boon for tenters and for RVers with limited tank capacity. You may even find laundry facilities at a state campground.
Pro 3: Trails and Activities
Because state campgrounds are part of state parks, they typically include trails for visitors to explore nature. Campers can get out and enjoy room to roam. We often hop on our little electric bikes to explore state campgrounds.
Most provide a playground for kids. Some have access or at least close proximity to lakes, rivers, or the ocean. Some even offer organized activities, such as lectures about wildlife in the area.
We stayed at a state campground in central Texas that contained bird blinds with seating for visitors to watch birds through plexiglass. The other side of the plexiglass comprised natural foliage, water features, and platforms where rangers would lay out seed to invite the birds to linger.
One of the best things about state parks is that they include plaques and information about the history of the area. At a state park near Dallas, we learned about and explored buildings and old machinery left over from an 1800s farm. Another state park informed us about turkey roosts.
Pro 4: Online Booking
We’ve encountered numerous campgrounds that don’t have an online presence. To book a reservation, you have to call. We did that to stay at a beach campground near Corpus Christi,Texas. But, more often than not, no online booking option is a no-stay for us.
State campgrounds have interconnected online booking availability through reserveamerica.com. That means with one username and password, we can book reservations at state campgrounds across the country. That convenience makes it easy for us to book at our leisure, even if it’s after traditional open hours.
Although state campgrounds aren’t ideal for today’s big rigs, the pluses they offer keep us going back. We just have to be particular and intentional about the campgrounds and campsites we choose.
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.