Traveling with a small camping trailer is a lot like gunkholing in a sailboat. You wake up in the morning, cook some hash browns and eggs, do the dishes, get organized, and pull the metaphorical anchor. You travel down lonely country roads. It’s an advantage that we don’t have to worry about headwinds, but we nevertheless tack left and right to avoid the interstates with their wide pavement and trucks. By mid-afternoon we look for a safe anchorage: in this case, this means quiet, near a lake or stream with shade. Potable water and a shower facility are a bonus.
Like good anchorages in sailing, secure and desirable campgrounds are scarce. Travelers congregate in the best spots. Once settled in, we relax and look around at who is nearby. We don’t have to worry about dragging anchors, the relative position of boats, or changing wind and tides, but the layout of a campground matters. We try to stay away from generators, away from loud and partying sorts. And we find boom-boxes and loudmouths are rare. The forest, the streams, lakes, and our self-sufficiency serve as equalizing agents. We are subject to the whims of the same weather, and the same bugs. We wind up speaking with fellow travelers from a common place. We have conversations with people from very different walks of life, without pre-judgment; we are all peers.
At Custer we were next to a family who comes regularly. They use the park as their trusty nearby anchorage. They invited us to share their camp-fire. Mother was a teacher, about to begin another school year. Father works as a splicer for a cable company. Their grown up son was along to share a weekend, and to do some bike-riding with dad; he works in a plastics factory nearby. “We make all sorts of parts: for cars, computers, and machinery,” he said. The next morning we shoved off early, towards Indiana.
Indiana (total state pop. 6.6 million) is like the spoke of a square wheel with Indianapolis (metro pop. 2 million) as its hub. The industrial center around Gary (metro pop. of 700,000), South Bend (metro pop. 320,000), Fort Wayne (metro pop. 410,000), the Louisville, Kentucky suburbs, Evansville, and Terra Haute define its rim. An inner circle of Kokomo, Muncie/Anderson, Columbus, Bloomington and Lafayette are like rim reflectors on a kid’s bike. We stayed away from all those places (except for Bloomington) and navigated through beautiful, tabletop flat fields of corn, accented by stands of trees and well kept farmsteads. We set up camp at Salamonie Reservoir and played tunes to the delight of nearby campers and a 20 years young park ranger. “I’ve worked here three season and never heard a fiddle before,” he said. He is studying law enforcement at a local college. Someone offered him a beer. “No thank you. I’m only twenty, and I’m studying law-enforcement,” he said. Indiana is building integrity from the ground up, while DC burns, and Trump fiddles. I took it as a sign of hope.
The park ranger steered us to McCormick state park outside Bloomington for our next night. There we walked up a limestone canyon and frolicked in the creek and waterfall. A mixed-race college couple joined us, with a beautiful young husky. She was Indiana white, he dark complexioned from India. “What are you studying?” I asked. “Coding for analyzing big data,” he said. He is on the seven-year plan. The young couple looks like a good investment for parental support.
Bloomington is a university town: 40,000 college kids and some ancillary services around the edges (total population 85,000). There are good coffee shops near campus. The place was full of nervous energy from returning students, moving vans, and parents eating a farewell and good luck meal in restaurants. A leggy young woman in tight jeans, classy, loose fitting sweater, and subtle, skilled use of make-up, walked up to the counter to order coffee. “Don’t touch” said her look, a little cold. Forty years ago I would have found her intimidating. Now, the insecurity shines through. There’s a big difference between—what the hell am I going to do next year when I graduate—and sitting in the cat-bird’s seat at the end of a successful career. Age has its perks.
We kept heading south, through the gentle rounded hills of Southern Indiana, crossed the Ohio River at Evansville to dip into Kentucky, and turned west towards Southern Illinois and the Shawnee National Forest. Southern Illinois, bounded by the Ohio River on the south, and the Mississippi River on the west is full of verdant rolling hills and beautiful forests.
|Mississippi River marks western boundary of Illinois, |
the Ohio river marks the southern boundary
After a stretch of staying in state parks (cost $22-$28/night) I was looking forward to a night of dispersed camping in the national forest. Instead we found ourselves at the Double M Shawnee Campground. It is owned and operated by Amy and Heath, who offer a bar, restaurant, a charming porch, and cater to horsemen and horsewomen who come to ride the ample trails of the Shawnees. “I bought a hundred acres with my dad when I was seventeen years old,” said Heath. “We built it up together, and I bought him out back in 2000.” We played some tunes on the porch and Heath bought us a beer. “You guys need to stay,” they said. “We’ll have music every night.”
Amy and Heath have a son in the army, working as an airplane mechanic. He is being deployed to Afghanistan next month. They expressed pride and happiness at the adventure that lay ahead for their son. In the meantime, they were expecting a full house for the eclipse. Two days before the event there was no sign of it. “Everybody says we’ll be swamped. . .,” they said. Although the Double M was on the path of totality, they weren’t quite sure. “Have you got your viewing goggles?” we asked. It had not occurred to them. “I might take a peak, but I’m not really planning to watch,” said Heath. “We could live here,” we said. And we meant it. They have internet access. One of our baseline requirements.
Finally heading west, we passed through Carbondale, the geographic center of the eclipse—the place where totality lasted 2 minutes 40 seconds, longer than anywhere else. In the Garden of the Gods we ran into a couple from North London. “Have you heard, Bannon is out,” we said. We were excited, reading the news bulletin. “Ah, you have Trump; we have Brexit! We were strong remainers,” they commiserated. They booked a house in Carbondale for the eclipse a year ago. They flew to Chicago and rode the train down.
We crossed the Mississippi at Chester, the only crossing between Cape Giradeau and the outskirts of St. Louis. E. C. Seger (1894-1938), the creator of Popeye, was from Chester. No one is agitating to tear down the six foot statue of Popeye at the east entrance to the Mississippi bridge. The bridge was built in 1941, and like the Tacoma Narrows bridge of the same era, it collapsed soon thereafter in a storm and had to be rebuilt.
|Safe and sound: Popeye statue, Chester, IL/Nikles|
|Jour de Fete in St. Genevieve, MO, at the Jacob Phillipson House|
|A Beautiful Coincidence, Sharon Rosenzweig|
We headed north and crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph, west bound, briefly tied down in post-eclipse traffic. But not for long. We crossed the broad, northern expanse of Kansas on the lonely Pony Express Highway. The Pony Express relayed letters from St. Joseph to Sacramento on horses at full gallop from April 3, 1860 to October 1861, soon replaced by the telegraph (1861) and the first transcontinental railroad (1869). The pony express could deliver a letter from St. Joseph to Sacramento in 10 days, a vast improvement from the 110 days it took for news of the death of President William Henry Harrison to reach Los Angeles. [Harrison died of pneumonia on April 4, 1841, just 41 days into his term] “Flat enough for you?” quipped my sister-in-law in a text. But northern Kansas is no more flat than the Pacific mid-way between Santa Barbara and Hilo. The ground moves, like the ocean swell. When sailing I always felt “if purgatory is sitting at the helm of a sailboat in the trade winds forever,” I’m O.K. with that. Driving through the plains of Kansas evokes that feeling.
|Route of the Pony Express, 1860-61|
At Washington, Kansas, we turned south and stayed in a lovely City Park in Cheyenne-Wells, Colorado. We had the place to ourselves.
|The eastern plains of Colorado, no buffalo/Nikles|
Eastern Colorado is like sailing across the primordial prairie. Only the delicate balance between the buffalo and nomadic Indian bands is absent. And suddenly, there they were majestically rising in front of us out of the prairie: the Rocky Mountains. Colorado Springs. . . . We had 1,400 miles to travel, but we felt like we were home.
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