Thursday, January 30, 2020

Where we've been, where we are, or Campground Reviews, sort of

We’ve been on the road for two weeks now, sort of ambling toward southeastern Arizona and the opportunity to annoy the Younger Daughter. We had more or less planned to be there by February 1, but it’s looking like that timetable might get pushed back by a few days. The Guppy is currently suffering from a glitch in the fuel line. At the moment we’re mooch docking in Brownwood, Texas, while the S.O. and Billy Cook (aka BBC) work on replacing various pieces parts. They thought they solved the problem by replacing a fuel filter, Guppy fine ran for 36 miles. Managed to get it started and limped back to Brownwood. It died again after a little over 20 miles. Restarted, and now we’re back where they did the first attempt at a fix.

The current diagnosis is a dying fuel pump. A new one has been purchased, but the weather turned to what might be termed shit: dramatic thunderstorms and heavy rain during Monday night, mud and sopping wet grass and a bitterly cold wind Tuesday. Not much mechanicking got done. Today’s supposed to be better. One can hope.

It would, incidentally, be easy to just sit here for awhile if we didn’t have a strong reason to get to Arizona soon. One of Billy’s friends allowed us to park the Guppy in her yard, we have electricity, and we have access to her house for replenishing water, taking showers, and doing laundry. She has been remarkably generous to people who were complete strangers. Best of all, there is no snow on the ground. I even dug out the sandals and wore them for a day or two. 

Then again, Billy has also been generous with his time and expertise. He was a professional mechanic and knows more than the S.O. about vehicles, but he’s also older than us, retired, and could easily have said he wasn’t up to doing anything hands-on. But as usual I’m starting off with a long digression. The title implies I was going to talk about the stops we’ve made along the way and not just the Guppy’s current woes.

This is a handicapped site so has more space next to it than the regular spots.
We hit the road Tuesday afternoon, January 14. It was a later start than we planned to make. Between a late morning dental appointment and the inability to load anything perishable until the last minute, it was after 2 p.m. before the Guppy was rolling south. Our first night was in a motel in Wisconsin. We had no desire to Wally dock when the interior of the Guppy was still similar to a refrigerator. We just kept our fingers crossed that it did not get cold enough in the Guppy for the canned goods we loaded to freeze. They didn’t.

In researching our possible route, I discovered the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, Illinois, has a campground that is open year round. During warmer months the campsites – 300 or so of them – are full hookups. November through March there’s electricity, access to a heated showerhouse, and a dump station. We wouldn’t need the later but power and a place to bathe sounded good. We planned to stop there for two nights. That would give me time to organize some of the chaos in the Guppy, get things that just got sort of tossed in at the last minute stashed more neatly, and also allow us to play tourist, which we did. Woke up on Friday to freezing rain so decided to sit for a day, which gave us more time for organizing stuff in the Guppy.

Each of those posts is the hook-up for a camp site. They're on both sides of that guard rail so the spacing isn't quite as tight as it looks. Still tight, but at least you'd be able to open side doors. 
The Illinois State Fairgrounds campground is a good example of the loose way the term “campground” gets tossed around. It’s more like a set of parking lots with utilities provided. There are about 300 sites, but the majority are in flat paved parking lots with the sites so close together that in the summer when it’s busy it must look like an RV dealer’s lot. There are tent camping sites on grass with shade from mature trees, but not many of them. It looked like there might also be some RV sites on grass, but again, not many. Most people who stop at the Fairgrounds campground are going to be backing their rig into a parking space in a lot.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It worked fine for us. It was actually a great place to stop at the start of our trip, just like it would be at the end. If a person just needs a safe, clean place for a night or two, it’s great. The showerhouse is clean, the fairgrounds overall are well maintained and secure. The grounds are fenced with access through just one gate at night and there are security patrols. It’s also quiet and easy to get to from I-55. If a person is interested in Lincoln sites, it’s not far from the cemetery where Abe is buried and it’s an easy drive into downtown Springfield to visit Lincoln Home National Historic Site and the Abraham Lincoln Library. Best of all, during the off season it’s cheap: $15 per night. It’s pricier in warmer months, but they do veterans and seniors discounts. There is also decent wifi, which seems to be a must for a lot of people these days.

Our next stop was at the Almost Home RV Park in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. I had found a couple of state parks close to US-67 that sounded interesting, but high water levels made us re-think that option. It seemed like once we dropped down into the five rivers area and saw that what was supposedly the Current River was looking a whole lot more like a lake (definitely way over its banks) we started thinking that maybe, just maybe, the campgrounds we’d considered cwould be a wee bit damp. Almost Home was in a good location, promised full hookups, and had the added bonus of a laundry room. When the S.O. spotted the sign, we pulled in.

There was no one around, so we called the posted number at the information kiosk. Turned out the owner was in Missouri at an auction. He told us to pick a site and he’d collect a payment in the morning. So we did. Almost Home is a small RV park and is probably an older one. It is clean, though, the wifi  was decent, the laundry room and shower house were fine, and there’s a play area for kids. Some sites are pull-throughs. Because the Guppy is a smallish motorhome, we did a back in. It seemed a little bleak in January, but I think it would be quite pleasant once the pecans leaf out. Most of the sites are shaded, or would be once there are leaves on the trees. We were close to the highway so did hear truck traffic, but that’s true of any RV park that’s close to a busy road.

As far as cost, it falls right in line with the typical private RV park that provides FHUs and wifi: it was $35 per night if you pay cash, slightly more if you use plastic (they tack on the fee Square charges them). I had no complaints; we’d stay there again. 

Our stop on Monday was our first on this trip at a federal campground, Beaver Dam in the Caney Lakes Recreation Area on the Kisatchie National Forest. I can say without hesitation it is the nicest national forest campground I've ever seen. We've stayed at some good ones, but this one hits all the high points. The individual campsites are big, none are in a bad location, the campground is clean and well maintained. The picnic tables had been replaced fairly recently (they look close to new), the showerhouse is spartan but clean, ditto the restrooms. There 27 sites with water and electricity, and the campground has a dump station so you can empty your wastewater tanks when you leave. I was regretting the decision to make it a just one night stop. I could see staying for the full 14 days you're allowed. 
Site was really deep. We could have parked the largest Class A easily. 

Like many federal campgrounds, sites are reservable through This particular campground has a limited number of first come, first served sites in addition to the reservable. We did not have a reservation, but I had checked the website and saw that things were very slow in January. At a busier time of the year, I would have made a reservation rather than take a chance on doing a successful walk-in.

The itinerary put us in Waco, Texas, next. We planned to visit Yellowdog Grannie, do lunch and get caught up on what's been happening with her, and also take some time to play tourist in Waco. I wanted to visit Waco Mammoth National Monument, one of the newer parks in the National Park system. We hoped to stay at the same Corps of Engineers campground we'd stayed at before, but when we got to it the campground was closed. It is apparently still repairing flood damage from last year. That kind of threw us for a loop. 
View from a campsite at Beaver Dam

There was a private campground and marina nearby on Waco Lake so we went to check it out. One problem: no place labeled "Office" or directions on finding it, and when we called the number posted on a small sign the call went to voice mail. We drove around, discovered the RV area looked horrible, very raw and new with lots of loose gravel and no shade whatsoever -- the place is going to be hell in another month or two when the sun starts beating down on whoever is parked there, and no signage telling people where to find anyone in charge. So we did a Google search and found information for an RV park north of Waco. It looked pretty good on the web site.

Unfortunately, it apparently not being our day, it got dark before we got very far up I-35. We got far enough north that the S.O. became concerned we'd missed the exit. We doubled back, and then saw a sign for Waco North RV Resort. We figured that was it. Pulled in, discovered the office was closed already but there was a number up. Called it, asked about a site for two nights, and was told what might be open. The woman on the phone said we could just come to the office in the morning and also told me how to find the wi-fi. 
The Waco site was a pull-through but very narrow and short.

We found a site that looked okay, well removed from the interstate, so figured it would be fine for two nights. The park didn't look like what I'd seen on the website, but websites get creative with photos all the time. It was a full hookup park, which was nice. And the wi-fi worked, although it was an open network so not particularly secure. We were feeling pretty relaxed, glad the day was over and we were off the road for awhile. That's when the freight train came through the living room.

Or at least that's what it felt like. Loud, very loud, and very close. Turned out that train was not an anomaly. There were a frequent trains. Luckily, the S.O. and I can tune out freight trains. I grew up in a house next to railroad tracks. I find it easier to sleep next to railroad tracks than next to a highway with truck traffic. In the morning we discovered the only way we could have been closer to the tracks would have been to be parked on the right-of-way. The back end, the "quiet" end of the park is next to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. 

We also discovered when we drove up to West to do lunch that there are a lot of RV parks along I-35 north of Waco on both the east and west sides of the interstate. All of them seemed to have "Waco" and "North" in their names, so no doubt all of them are hoping to be mistaken for the really good Waco North (North Waco?) RV park, the one that's a Good Sam park and gets really high ratings in the Good Sam guide. Live and learn. 

And now we're mooch docking. The Guppy developed a fuel line problem between Waco and Brownwood so we've been sitting for a few days. We were aiming for Brownwood so we could stop to visit Billy Cook, someone the S.O. and I met through blogging but had never met IRL until last week. He's a retired mechanic (among other things) but I don't think he expected the first phone call from us to be "Help. The Guppy died." 

He found us a place to park the Guppy while he helped the S.O. with repairs. The initial diagnosis was a bad fuel filter. Replacing the filter didn't make a difference so then the fuel pump got swapped out. We're still waiting to see if the fuel pump was the problem. There will be a test drive or two locally before we venture farther down the highway. 

If the Guppy had to develop a glitch, I guess Brownwood was a good place for it to happen. For sure it beats being broken down by the side of the highway.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Lincoln Home was one of "my" parks back when I counted buildings and bushes for a living, but the S.O. had never been there. I told him that it was definitely worth taking the time to see it, and not just because of the infamous tree that gets replanted every time it has the nerve to grow much past what it looked like when Mr. Lincoln left for Washington in 1861.
The Lincolns bought the house in Springfield shortly after Abe married Mary Todd. It was where all of their children were born and where one of them died. It was very much Lincoln's home. He planned to return there after he finished his term (or terms) as President. When he bought the house in the 1840's it was a modest one-and-a-half story house. As both his income and his family increased, he hired a contractor to expand it to the full two-story house that exists now.
The small tree with the white cage is the one that is periodically replaced.
In terms of both preservation and restoration, the Park Service got really lucky. One of the popular magazines in 1860 published an article on the Lincolns at home. They had an artist prepare detailed drawings of the public areas in the house (the formal parlor, for example). In addition, the house includes many pieces of furniture that belonged to the Lincolns. When they left for Washington, they rented the house. They leased it out fully furnished. The tenant remained in the house for almost 20 years and kept the big pieces (sofa, side chairs, the ornate cast iron stoves in various rooms, etc.).
The Victorian age is noted for gaudy colors. The carpeting is an exact replica of the carpets the Lincolns had. I think it's remarkably ugly, but the Lincolns must have loved it because it's in several rooms.
The tenant was evicted when Lincoln's son Robert got wind that the tenant was abusing his position. Not only was he being laggardly about paying rent on time, he was charging admission for tours of the house and selling off small pieces as souvenirs. Robert booted him out and then gave the house to the State of Illinois. The state maintained it as a historic site until 1971, which is when it became a National Historic Site and a unit of the National Park Service.

One of the cool things about Lincoln Home is it's not just the house. The park includes property on four blocks. A number of houses that existed when Lincoln lived in Springfield have been restored to their 1850's exterior appearance. Some are used for exhibit space, some are utilized for park offices, and some are leased. When I visited the park for work in 2006 Senator Durbin had an office in one of the houses. From the sidewalk the building looked like all the other 1850's structures. Access and parking for staff was from the alley behind the building.
The Dean House. It's used for exhibits. 
We got lucky with our visit. It was cold, really, really cold, but there was a clear blue sky and brilliant sunlight. The visitor use assistant/tour guide/wannabe interpretive ranger (she was a volunteer but fantasizing desperately about getting hired as a real employee) was quite good. There were a couple questions I tossed at her that she couldn't answer, but I was nice. I didn't tell her I was former NPS and had been there before.
Mrs. Lincoln loved to bake. The fake food represents two of her favorite recipes. I am curious about the one that looks like a pile of cotton bolls covered with spider webs, but haven't found the actual recipe yet. According to the guide it's a coconut meringue with a chocolate drizzle. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

So where is it?

We decided to linger in Springfield, Illinois for another day to avoid driving through freezing rain that was predicted for the St. Louis area and southeast Missouri. It's supposed to hit here, too, but so far all that's happening is it's gotten windier and grayer. Theoretically, the freezing rain hits here this afternoon, early evening, and then turns into just rain. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and above freezing so by the time we get our shit together and head out driving conditions should be fine. I hope. The older I get the more of a wimp I become.
The cow pilot my friend Teresa gave me  almost 20 years ago is still traveling with me. Think she's on her third dashboard.  
We're now into Day 4 of the Road Trip. We're convoying because we never got around to replacing the tow dolly that fell apart in Kansas three years ago. Allow me to say that I am not particularly enthusiastic about staring at the back end of the Guppy for 2,000 miles. That view gets old -- although the two legs had some potential excitement. There was still snow on the roof when we pulled into Springfield. Every so often a chunk of it would fly off. I was hanging back just in case a really big piece became air-borne but it never happened. No ice to speak of either, which surprised me. And, yes, we know that roof should have been cleaned off, but good luck doing that on an RV that's been sitting outside uncovered for multiple months.

Stop before getting to the highway so the S.O could check fluid levels. The snow on the bumper hung on until we were almost to Madison, Wisconsin, about 300 miles from home. There was still snow on the roof when we got to Springfield, about 575 miles. Which isn't bad. A few years ago there was still snow on the Guppy when we got to Farmington, Missouri, over an hour south of St. Louis.  
Got a late start on Tuesday, thanks to the combination of one final dental appointment and the inability to put anything that might be damaged by freezing into the Guppy too far in advance. I think when we were loading the Guppy the temperature in it was in the mid-20s. I had pre-packed all the canned goods, but even so . . . we had a lot more stuff than I would have believed before we started packing it all up. We did not get far the first day; wound up in a motel in Rhinelander feeling exhausted and vowing to never start a trip in mid-winter again.

Pulled into the Illinois State Fair grounds Wednesday evening. This is probably a pretty busy "campground" in warmer months: it's a convenient location and it's cheap. Right now it's rather dead. The fair grounds do extended stays so there are some RVs parked here that have obviously been sitting here for awhile. The folks to the north of us have skirting in place and enough dust-covered clutter around that it's clear they haven't moved  in a while.

I don't think I'd want to do extended stay here. The campground is fine as a transient, but considering it's basically a series of large paved parking lots it wouldn't be real pleasant for more more than a few days at a shot. The sites are full hook-up in the summer (right now they're electric only) but there isn't much space between them. I can see where when it's really busy here (like during state fair week) the "campground" would bear a strong resemblance to a RV dealer's sales lot. The people with slides would have a hard time extending them. It is also huge -- 300 total sites, most of which are full hook-ups in warmer weather.
S.O. in a typical vacation pose. 

On the positive side, the showerhouse is super clean, water pressure is excellent, and there's plenty of hot water. The fairgrounds do have security, and the grounds are fenced with limited access. It's also fairly cheap. We'd stay here again if the timing was right.

It is kind of neat seeing the fairgrounds. Really nifty old exhibit buildings and barns. It's an interesting site -- definitely not level, not at all the sort of topography where one would expect a fairgrounds to be built. It has an over-sized statue of a young Abe Lincoln, a sculpture that bears a strong resemblance to a muffler man but thinner. Muffler men are rather muscular; beardless ax-wielding Abe Lincoln is definitely lean. No photo because it's just too damn cold -- one thing I was not expecting was that central Illinois would be more frigid than the U.P.

We did play tourist yesterday and visited Lincoln Home National Historic Site. It was a gorgeous sunny day -- colder than the proverbial witch's tit but totally clear with an amazing blue sky -- but will do a separate post with photos. We skipped going to gawk at Lincoln's Tomb. I've seen it before and the S.O. wasn't interested. We also skipped the Frank Lloyd Wright house (the Dana-Thomas house). I've always thought Wright is overrated -- what's the point of designing eye candy if it's impossible to maintain and really hard to live in? -- and the S.O. has never been as keen on architecture in general as I am.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Speaking of Finnish music

Okay, so no one was actually speaking of Finnish music, but Ol' Buzzard stumbled across a Finnish bluegrass band so I'm reciprocating with my personal favorite. Nightwish. Symphonic metal at its finest. My  younger Finnish friends think it's a little weird for a little old lady to be into Nightwish, but, hey, I liked Black Sabbath back in the day and they weren't nearly as good as these guys. 
A couple things are true about Finland. One is that you can find any genre of music being cranked out by various groups, everything from traditional folk to symphonic metal. Lots and lots of bands, musicians, and singers for a rather small country. The other truism is that whatever the genre the music will be played well. Music is an integral part of the school curriculum so odds are you'll never hear a Finn hit a sour note.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Tired of winning yet?

A few months ago the S.O. decided to try applying for assistance from the local Community Action Agency. He was hoping for heating assistance or maybe weatherization, but turns out the waiting list for weatherization is remarkably long unless your circumstances are dire, and heating is now processed through Michigan's state social services department. Our circumstances aren't dire and we have no interest in ever dealing with DHS. Our combined income isn't much, but we do fall above the official poverty line. We are, however, sufficiently low income to qualify for the semi-regular Community Action food bank distributions.

We debated whether or not we should do it. We're not exactly starving; we'd been managing just fine without standing in line on Donald Day (it was known as Obama Day under the previous administration, and no doubt was W. Day before that). But what the heck -- we qualified, we might as well go pick up our lifetime supplies of lentils and kidney beans. Who knows. Maybe it would turn into a trip down Nostalgia Lane and there'd be buffalo meat (aka canned beef) or a few blocks of processed cheese food. Anyone who ever lived in a household where there was commodity cheese 30 or 40 years ago tends to wax nostalgic about it. It was really good cheese. But I digress.

We have not made it to every food pantry distribution day, but we did get to one yesterday. The Baraga-Houghton-Keweenaw Community Action Agency uses an old supermarket building in Houghton as a warehouse and for the distribution they do there. Remember, you don't have to fall below the poverty line for this one. The cutoff is something like 200% of poverty using a sliding scale (the same one the government does) based on family size. Income that puts people under the poverty line if you have a family of 4, for example, is a higher cut off than for a family of 2. Not that family size matters at the actual distribution: everyone goes down the line with a container (we use a laundry basket) and gets the same stuff placed in the basket.

CAA does two other food pantry distributions. One is held once every 3 months and is also one where you can be slightly above poverty to qualify; the other is monthly and for low-income (as in really low income) senior citizens only. For that one they use a truck to go to the different senior citizen housing complexes in the 3-county area.

Every time we've gone there have been literally hundreds of people lining up to get their laundry basket of whatever. Yesterday was no exception. Temperatures were down in the teens, it was snowing like the proverbial son of a bitch, roads were treacherous (we were having second thoughts, but we also needed to go to Auto Zone to get a core charge refund), wind was blowing, and there were still hundreds of people queuing up in the parking lot, boxes and baskets in hand. Looking at the crowd, it was like a cross section of American society. Young, old, dressed extremely well and dressed in thoroughly worn and faded clothing. Relatively homogeneous ethnically because this is the U.P. (translation: close to 100% white, although not totally).

And because people are prone to chat a bit, even notoriously taciturn Yoopers will engage in some small talk to pass the time. A favorite topic, of course, was if the economy is doing so well, the stock market is booming, and everything is going as good as The Donald claims, why are we all standing in line hoping that this time we'll get some peanut butter? Somehow hundreds of people risking frostbite to wait patiently to fill a basket with random groceries doesn't look much like winning.

Because inquiring minds no doubt want to know just what type of wonderful free stuff the poors are being given, here's the inventory for yesterday. Sadly, there was no peanut butter.
  1. Three 15 ounce cans Royal unsweetened applesauce
  2. Four 10.75 ounce cans Prima Qualita low sodium tomato soup
  3. One 15 ounce can Mission Pride unpeeled apricot halves
  4. Three 22 ounce cartons Granby Farms reduced sodium Cream of Chicken soup
  5. Three 15 ounce cans Hart Brand low sodium mixed vegetables
  6. Three 16 ounce bags Kings unsalted roasted peanuts
  7. Four 7.25 ounces boxes Pasta USA macaroni & cheese dinner
  8. One 12.8 ounce bag of Mountain Maid powdered milk (makes 4 quarts)
  9. One 16 ounce bag Betty Baker extra wide egg noodles
  10. One 16 ounce box Lil Dutch Maid unsalted Saltines (aren't unsalted Saltines theoretically impossible? How can any cracker be a Saltine with no salt on it?)
  11. One 16 ounce Basic American Foods instant mashed potato flakes
  12. Two 24 ounce bags Market Street Premium beef stew 
  13. One 10.5 ounce can Venice Maid vegetarian vegetable soup
  14. Three 8 ounce boxes Gosner Farms liquid 1% milk 
  15. One 5 pound of The Stafford County Flour Mills Co. bleached all-purpose flour
  16. One 24 ounce can Crider fully cooked ground pork with juices (I am, quite frankly, a little afraid of what I'm going to find when I open this can, although I'm thinking that it might be edible as sloppy joes)
  17. One 64-ounce bottle Fruit Patch apple juice
  18. Two 18-ounce boxes Malto Meal corn flakes
  19. One 15-ounce Del Monte lite sliced pears
  20. One 64-ounce bottle tomato juice
  21. Two pounds Dinner Bell Creamery salted butter
  22. Two packages frozen cooked pork patties (they look like hamburger but are ground pork), no visible brand name labeling on package, 12 patties in a package 
  23. Two frozen shrink-wrapped packages of mystery meat, possibly ham, each weighing about 2 pounds. 
  24. One 5 pound bag of potatoes
  25. One 3 pound bag of oranges
Offered and rejected: two large boxes of Kellogg's S'more flavored Pop Tarts. Made the mistake of accepting them a couple months ago. Never touching that nasty crap again. 

There is some good stuff on the list, like the butter. There's also some weird stuff, e.g., the ground pork. There is stuff we're not too enthusiastic about (unsalted peanuts?) but every thing in the basket is something we'll eventually eat. The FEMA meals (stew in bags) can't be any worse than Dinty Moore, and we used to eat that. Other than the fact the brand names are ones you're more likely to see at Dollar General than at Safeway, it wasn't a bad mix. No lifetime supply of dried beans (just what do people do with kidney beans besides use them in chili a couple times annually?), no truly strange stuff.

Now all I have to do is figure out where to stash it all in the Guppy.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Adventures in gastronomy

Hardee's has a buy one, get one free deal going for the Beyond Meat Thickburger so the S.O. and I tried it today. It's been a while since my last trip to a Hardee's, but I'd swear the faux meat tasted better than what they claimed in the past was the real thing. Then again, there is a reason it had been quite awhile since our last visit to a Hardee's.

They're doing a sausage patty with faux meat, too, but I have no desire to ever try that. I figure one fake meat patty in the interest of research is enough not just for now but indefinitely.

The S.O. said that to him the Beyond Meat patty was rather flavorless. I didn't see the problem. So are the real beef ones Hardee's serves so flavor is kind of irrelevant. I was more interested in texture and how close the patty came to masquerading as a regular fast food burger. It passed that test, but considering just how bad the typical fast food burger is that's not saying much. Damned with faint praise?

In the good news part of the experience, the fries were better than I remembered.