Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Happy trails

Ottawa, ON -- We are home! It was a short drive today from Mexico, so we pulled in just before lunch and found the place freshly cleaned and oh! so spacious!

The decision about whether or not to winterize (see yesterday's entry) was more or less made for us this morning. We awoke to the steady drum of raindrops on the roof, and, considering the sea of mud that surrounded the RV, we decided to skip it. We didn't even stop to have breakfast, opting instead to stop by a nearby McDonald's for a take-out Egg McMuffin to eat as we drove. Were we anxious to get home?
In no time, we'd passed through Watertown and saw the last bridge over the Thousand Islands into Canada. The view of the St Lawrence River from the top was terrific, as by this time the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. The water looked pretty high, which was not surprising to us as we'd heard a lot about the flooding in the area after heavy rains.

Next, we were changing the settings on the RV from miles to kilometres and eagerly passing the familiar landmarks along the 401 toward Ottawa. As expected, the signs of spring were not as far along as we'd seen in the states to the south, but I did glimpse a few clumps of trilliums in the bush, and I was delighted to see hyacinths in bloom in our front garden.

The remainder of the day was devoted to carting all the 'stuff' from the RV into the house, a lot of which still needs to be stowed in its proper place. In the days ahead, we will reflect on all the interesting places we've seen, the fine people we've met, and the adventures we've had. It is so good to be RVers again! Stay tuned for the next chapter, whenever that comes about. And thanks for following along with us this time around.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Backwards in time

Mexico, NY -- Nearly every site in this family-themed RV park is empty. That's because Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp Resort just opened for the season five days ago, so when we rolled in, we had the choice of practically any site we wanted. Many of them, including the most picturesque ones down by the Little Salmon River that's flowing swiftly past, will be very attractive in a few weeks. Right now, however, there is a lot of mud around, so we're parked up on the hill where it's a bit drier.

Dry was a happy thing when we woke up this morning back at Jonestown, after a day of constant rain. And although there were a lot of clouds overhead as we headed north once more on the I-81, as the day progressed the skies cleared and it turned out to be a lovely day.

Our route was quite straightforward -- I-81 North till the turnoff for our campsite -- but the conditions varied greatly through the day. Since it's one of the country's most heavily-traveled roadways, it gets pretty worn down over time, so one is either traveling on some pretty rough surfaces, or crawling through a construction zone, or (yay!) zooming along some freshly-paved ribbons of smooth, beautiful asphalt -- within the speed limit, of course.

The other thing about traveling north over many miles at this time of year is watching spring at several stages of its appearance in reverse order, from fully-bloomed to just emerging. In Virginia, at Monticello, the tulips had come up, had their moment in the sun, and had already faded when we visited two days ago. The trees along the highway were in full leaf, and people's flowerbeds were set for the season. As we proceeded into Pennsylvania, the trees were well on their way but not fully leafed yet, and today, having crossed into New York state, we saw many trees that were still bare, and lots shaded in that lovely pale green that's only present for a week or so. We also saw dogwood, cherry and apple trees, as well as forsythia, lending splashes of pink, white and yellow to the roadsides. It's almost like traveling back in time! We are confident that tomorrow, when we roll in to our neighbourhood, there will not be any snow whatsoever! We don't want to go that far back!

Val's big decision, on this our last camping day till some time later this summer, is whether or not to winterize the RV. Is there a risk of frost in the coming weeks that could damage some of the more delicate parts of our plumbing system? Or can we dispense with this step since we are already into May, after all. We've winterized our previous RVs many times, so it won't be a difficult task, but it will be different with this new vehicle. We have already purchased the three large bottles of pink antifreeze, and squeezed them into the back storage area. And the long-accepted cut-off date after which all likelihood of frost is past in Ottawa is May 24. Of course, that was before the climate began to change, so who can say for sure any more? Anyway, whether we do it or not, it shouldn't present much of a delay in our departure tomorrow morning. We await the final word with bated breath.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Drip, drip, drip...

Jonestown, PA -- That's the sound of the rain on the roof of our RV. It started our day, and now as we sit after our dinner, it's still playing the same tune. We are so fortunate that the wet weather hit us on a travel day, instead of a visiting day spent mostly outdoors!

It did have an impact, nevertheless. When we left the Charlottesville area, the mountain roads were slick in addition to all their ups, downs and curves, with dense forest on either side, no shoulders, and sometimes a canopy of branches over the road. We felt like everything finally opened up when we emerged near Interstate 64 and headed west on it to connect with the northbound I-81.

That open feeling lasted only a short while. In no time, we entered another mountainous area -- we were, after all, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian ranges -- and the trees were shrouded with wisps of fog. The further up we went, the denser the fog, till we could barely see 20 feet in front of us! The programmable roadside signs warned of foggy conditions and falling rocks (oh, GREAT) so we reduced our speed and hoped for the best. Good news: no rocks.

Although the bulk of our travel today was on a single highway -- I-81 -- we actually hit four states, starting in Virginia and then crossing two narrow strips, one of West Virginia and one of Maryland, before entering Pennsylvania where we now are. I'm not sure why the folks who mapped out the states set it up that way but it made our itinerary sound pretty impressive. In all, we covered some 260 miles.

Toward the end of that journey, more highway signs warned of heavy rain and possible standing water. Flying would be more like it. Every time a transport truck went by, we were engulfed in great plumes of water that our full-speed windshield wipers only just kept up with. Several times, the heavy traffic slowed almost to a halt as well, which we thought was unusual for a Sunday afternoon.

To break up the trip a little, we pulled off the interstate for a restaurant lunch at a Cracker Barrel. We'd forgotten that it was Sunday, till we stepped inside and saw the waiting crowds. Sunday brunch seems to be pretty popular in these parts. I didn't mind the 20-minute wait; it meant a good long browse in its well-stocked country store. And lunch was delicious!

Jonestown is just north of Harrisburg, PA and the KOA campground where we're parked tonight is a stone's throw from the interstate. It's quite lovely, too. Our site is right next to a picturesque stream where Tyler, the young staff member who led us to our site, says there's very good fishing. If we had a rod, we could cast off from the RV's doorstep! Let's just hope the stream stays its course; Tyler says this time last year it was six feet higher and flooded the whole campground. I got him to promise he'd knock on our door to warn us if that happens tonight.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Jefferson paradox

Charlottesville, VA -- When we were last here, at the beginning of our trip, we stayed in a hotel because it was too cold for camping. Today we're back, and it's too hot to camp without using our air conditioner! Fortunately, we are so equipped and are therefore quite comfortable.

It was a short hop from Appomattox to Monticello, just outside of Charlottesville, so after our drive through a winding, up-and-down country highway, we had plenty of time to spend on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson's estate, which has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Set atop a mountain in the midst of a 5,000 acre property, the third president's home was built according to his own architectural design. With its dome and columns and large windows, it dominates the hilltop, with a wide lawn in front of it edged with flowerbeds and tall trees. The view from the top is breathtaking, with the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance and green fields and forests spread out below.

Ariel, our guide, took us inside and showed us many examples of Jefferson's ingenuity. One item, his seven-day pendulum clock, caught my attention in particular, because I came to Monticello as a child when we were living in the US, and I remembered the cannon-ball weights that operated the clock, indicating the day of the week down the wall, with Sunday at the top near the ceiling and Friday at baseboard level. Jefferson had to cut a hole in the floor so the weights could go through, and Saturday's spot was one floor below in the basement!

Other gadgets included a dumb waiter in a sitting room, hidden on the side of the fireplace, which could carry up bottles of wine, placed in it by a servant in the wine cellar. Jefferson also invented a globe-shaped sundial that still works today.

Of course, Thomas Jefferson is best known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, with its inspirational phrases such as "all men are created equal" and everyone has the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". But his personal life seems to fly in the face of these exalted principles; he owned some 600 slaves and believed black people to be inferior, ignorant and incapable of abstract reasoning.

After touring the rooms of the mansion, with their classical paintings, displays of aboriginal art, and vast collections of books, as well as rich tapestry drapes and fine furniture, we went outside to take the tour of the grounds where armies of enslaved people grew crops, prepared food, tended livestock and kept the household running.

Two rough one-room shacks depict a typical home for the enslaved men, women and children who worked on the plantation from sun-up to sundown six days a week. They are copies of what originally stood along the side of the main house. Zella, our guide for this portion of the visit, had the difficult job of describing the hard life of Jefferson's slaves, who lived constantly with the fear of being separated from loved ones if they got sold off. While some who worked in the kitchen produced sumptuous meals in the French cuisine style Jefferson preferred, their own meagre rations of food consisted of dried corn, salt pork and fish. And they had to till the fields, cure the meat and catch the fish themselves.

It was hard to listen to the stories of the African-American people of those times, and to gaze at some of the other visitors in our tour group with black skin and wonder what their thoughts might have been. It was hard to understand how a brilliant man like Jefferson could draft documents that stirred the hearts of his countrymen to strive for human ideals, and at the same time could countenance the whipping of enslaved children and the hard labour of their mothers and fathers.

So, our day was a varied and interesting one that gave us lots to ponder. Our last stop on the property was the Jefferson family cemetery where a large obelisk stands above Jefferson's grave. On it is engraved the three accomplishments of which Jefferson was most proud, the Declaration of Independence, his statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and his founding of the University of Virginia.

Once settled at our campsite, a few miles from Monticello, it was time to get the laundry squared away for another week. From the sublime to the ridiculous!

(We also discovered we don't have cellphone connectivity here, so I will have to post my photos of the day some time tomorrow when we do.)

Friday, May 3, 2019

A country reunited

Appomattox, VA -- This is the place where Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee  came together to negotiate the terms of surrender and bring the Civil War to an end on April 9, 1865. Today Val and I stood in the parlour where these documents were prepared, and walked along the roadways where Union and Confederate troops marched.

Appomattox National Historical Park has recreated the small village of Appomattox Courthouse, with reproductions and original buildings arranged as they were at the time. The home of Wilmer McLean, whose parlour was used for the historic meeting mentioned above, had been dismantled years ago with the intention of moving it to Washington, DC for display. When the plan fell through, the house was reconstructed on its original foundation, and the rooms furnished as they had been.

In addition to the McLean house, there's a general store, the courthouse that gave the town its name, a law office, a jailhouse, slave quarters, a tavern and other smaller buildings.They're laid out in a grassy area with stately trees and gravel roads.

In the courthouse, which is now the park's visitor centre, we watched a short film about this pivotal event in US history. We also read about soldiers, mothers, slaves and others whose memories of the final days of the war were preserved from letters and diaries and displayed for us to read. The heartbreaking human toll of this war felt so real as I read the scrawled misspelled words of a worried father hoping to see his son again. Another soldier who took a bullet in his back that came out through his chest had scribbled a farewell note to his mother as he lay dying -- but in the end, he survived.

Outside, a fresh warm breeze ruffled the grassy fields under a bright sky, and a group of school kids chattered excitedly as they headed to the gift shop. A little further down the road, we stopped at a cemetery where the remains of 18 Confederate soldiers and one federal soldier are buried, some of the last to be killed in the Civil War.

Even closer to town, we stopped at the American Civil War Museum, which provided the perspective of the Confederate states, including memories from slaves who joined the North in order to obtain their freedom, and many artifacts donated by descendants of soldiers. We saw a Confederate flag with some of the stars cut out, removed by souvenir hunting soldiers as they headed home. There was also a scrap of the white flag that a Confederate soldier carried to the McLean house when the surrender talks began.

Everything we saw today was so well done. None of the texts were preachy or defensive, but simply presented the facts. Great care was taken to provide information from every side, both military and civilian, with photographs, paintings and artifacts, and to correct any misrepresentations that may have circulated at the war's end. For example, a painting of the signing of the surrender documents included General Custer, but the caption noted that in fact he had not been in the room at the time. Another text recounted General Grant's generosity, when he allowed food that had been shipped in for his soldiers to be distributed to the defeated and nearly starving Confederate troops.

No one could walk away from a day like this without pondering the high price paid for the peaceful democracy so many take for granted now.

Our campground tonight is in a field right next to the highway, with trucks, motorcycles and emergency vehicles roaring past. It will be a night to unearth the earplugs, methinks. At least we will not have far to go in the morning when we hit the road once again!

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Purple mountain majesties

Lynchburg, VA -- As we came to the end of our travel day today, we could see distant blue mountain tops on the horizon, and the highway resembled the ups and downs of a fairground roller coaster. The peaceful country roads were nevertheless a pleasant contrast to the tangle of highways that ringed the city of Richmond at the start of the day.

With 20-20 hindsight, we might have accepted the brief intensity of interstate highway travel for the beginning of the trip just to get around Richmond. (We decided to 'do' Richmond at some later date, as our time grows short before we need to be home.) But in my determination to use only non-interstate routes, we instead stuck with Highway 60. I could see it going in to Richmond and coming out on the other side, so I figured we should be able to get through the city OK. And, in fact, we did, but not without a couple of U-turns and hasty recalculations that, shall we say, added to our adventures.

Once the city was in our rear view mirror, we engaged the GPS lady to take over, since she was most likely to work out the route along Highway 60 as we wanted, given that it was the most direct route from that point on. It was also a very picturesque one, passing through tall forests and past rolling fields splashed with colourful wildflowers, as well as through little towns and villages.

It was another very warm day -- reaching the mid-eighties -- but there was some cloud cover that attenuated things somewhat, not to mention the RV's air conditioning system.

When we reached our campground, great puffy clouds had started forming, some of them with iron-grey bases, and as we got settled, great rumbles of thunder warned of weather to come. Fortunately the storm broke once we were well in place, so we turned on the A/C and relaxed.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Of muskets and quill pens

Williamsburg, VA -- Today we hit the two other points on the so-called Historic Triangle around Williamsburg -- Jamestown and Yorktown. It was a busy day for teachers in the area; in both venues, armies of wiggling, squirming, excited school kids trooped through displays and interpretive stations, learning about life in colonial times and, hopefully, about how their country became a country back in the 1700s.

A beautiful parkway links all three points in the triangle, and we started down the part leading to Jamestown first. It's here that three ships, the Susan Constance, the Godspeed and the Discovery, landed after making the Atlantic crossing from England. Replicas of all three ships are moored on the James River next to the historic property, and visitors could climb aboard and marvel at the coffin-sized bunks and cramped quarters that passengers had to endure for months to get here.

Gracious buildings with large exhibition halls provided an informative introduction to the site, with artifacts, dioramas, artwork and text explaining the early encounters between settlers and native peoples. Several short films also depicted the events, and costumed staff members outside were on hand to answer questions and explain what life was like in those early times for both the colonists and the aboriginal communities in the area.

The weather was a bit kinder today, so we weren't quite sweltering after trekking about. After our morning at Jamestown, we ate lunch in our RV in the parking lot before setting out on the Colonial Parkway for Yorktown. It was about a half-hour drive, but on a gently winding road through tall shade trees, under red-brick bridges and past nearby waterways. One would never know we were traveling through some fairly densely populated areas for the entire way. Had we known how scenic it was, we would have pulled over on one of the lay-bys for our lunch instead of the parking lot!

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown was another beautiful facility, set back from the edge of the York River and landscaped with lovely flowerbeds and a display of state flags. High-ceilinged halls housed exhibits and artifacts that explained in great and varied detail how the beleaguered Virginians came to the point of severing relations with the British and forging a new world of independence and freedom. We kind of felt like we were interlopers in a family conversation as we listened to videos and read texts describing this country's personal history.

One short film presentation was projected onto a 180-degree screen and included vibrations under our seats, flashing lights and even smoke as we watched battle scenes that were happening all around us! The section I really enjoyed was a gallery of portraits of ordinary people with quotes from their personal journals about the happenings throughout the war years.
Outside we wandered through a military camp where a costumed gentleman showed us the contents of a typical soldier's backpack, from his straight razor to a tin box with flint and linen fibres that helped him start a fire. Combs were made from cattle hooves, and there were even iron picks he could strap onto his boots to allow him to march on icy surfaces without slipping. In the colonel's tent there was a small wooden desk with quill pen and inkwell where he could record his strategies. We jumped when a soldier fired his musket with a loud 'crack' down the way for a crowd of school kids.

It was back to reality when we headed out to gas up the RV and pick up some groceries. I imagine the designers of these excellent historic sites hoped visitors might leave with a better appreciation for the day-to-day freedoms we all enjoy these three hundred years later.