Hacking the Sun

As “Tim the Toolman” used to say on TV, “More power!”

We are planning to spend a good portion of the winter in the desert southwest.  Three main requirements for “boondocking,” also called “dry camping,” are having:

  1. self-contained fresh water,
  2. adequate waste storage, and
  3. electrical power.

While many people carry portable (or installed) generators (as do we), using generators on a continuous basis isn’t very tenable.  So we’ve added solar power capabilities.

This is an unusual post for us, in that it is fairly technical (also called “geeky”): nuts and bolts (and wires).

We wanted to be able to use all the devices we normally do, some of which use 12 volts DC (battery power): the lights, radio, water pump, ceiling fans, etc., while others use 120 volts AC (household power): the TV, Instant Pot, microwave/convection oven, etc.  We also knew that we wouldn’t be able to use our air conditioners, at least for any extended period.  They simply draw too much power.

The basics of a solar system for an RV are:

  1. solar (“photo voltaic”) panels to gather energy, and their controllers;
  2. 12 volt batteries to store the collected energy; and
  3. an “inverter,” which changes the stored 12V DC energy into 120V AC, for those components which need it.

First, some pretty (or pretty geeky) pictures.  Then for those who are interested, the details.

Our solar panels are mounted on the roof.  They can be flat for travel and we will leave them flat when we’re somewhere that we will only be staying briefly, or where we can’t orient the trailer to be on an east-west axis so that tilted panels can face south.

Six of our eight panels, without tilt

When we will be somewhere for a while and can orient the trailer properly, we can tilt the panels to more directly face the sun.

Panels can be tilted to capture more solar energy
Three panels, tilted to face the sun

The solar panels can generate a range of voltages.  We need controllers to change the incoming voltage into the proper voltage to charge the batteries.

Controllers for the solar charging system

One hundred seventy four pounds of batteries equals 600 amp hours of lithium storage.

600 amp hours of Lithium batteries

Our inverter changes the 12 volts DC into 120 volts AC.

Our inverter for 120 VAC–household current.

Now the details… only two more detail pictures below.  Feel free to stop reading if you don’t want to dive into those details.

Solar panels

Solar panels are measured in terms of the number of watts they can generate under “standard” (ideal) conditions.  We chose to use eight panels, each of which can nominally generate 180 watts.

Watts and watt hours

Watts measures the amount of electrical power in use right now; it is analogous to speed.  Think “60 miles an hour.” If you want to know how far you’ve traveled, you need to know how long you have been traveling at 60 miles an hour. The electrical equivalent to distance is watt hours.  If you turn on a 60 watt light bulb, you are using electricity at the rate of 60 watts.  If you leave the bulb on for an hour, you have used 60 watt hours of power. The electric meter on your house measures the number of watt hours your activities consumed.

With our eight 180-watt panels, we theoretically have the ability to generate 1440 watts of power from the sun, under “standard conditions,” which are not often equaled in real use.  The amount of watt hours we can generate will depend on how many hours of sunlight we have (and whether it is cloudy or sunny, winter or summer, etc., etc.)

We’ll get back to watt hours below when we talk about our batteries.


Two of the primary characteristics of batteries are the chemistry used, e.g., lead-acid, alkaline, or lithium-ion, and their capacity—the amount of energy they can store.


Until recently the standard battery chemistry for use in RVs was lead-acid, the same as in your car’s battery if you don’t have an electric car.  They are still very popular, primarily because of initial cost, but they have several disadvantages when compared to a newer chemistry, lithium iron phosphate which is abbreviated LiFePo4—say that 3 times fast!  In the comparison  LiFePo4 batteries:

  1. store more energy in the same size battery;
  2. are much lighter, at 29 pounds per battery instead of 61 pounds;
  3. can charge more quickly;
  4. have a much longer lifespan (in terms of the number of charge/discharge cycles and years); and
  5. can be discharged much more deeply.  Lead-acid batteries can only discharged to the 50% point without damaging the battery; LiFePo4 batteries can be discharged to the 20% point. This gives much more usable energy.

The LiFePo4 batteries  have some downsides as well.  They can’t be charged below freezing, and they are very expensive.

For us, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, so we bit the bullet and got six 100 amp hour LiFePo4 batteries.  Ouch!

Finally, although both battery chemistries have “lithium” in their name, the LiFePo4 batteries are not the same as the Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries that are in your cell phone and in my Chevy Volt. Our batteries are slightly less energy-dense than Li-ion, but our chemistry is intrinsically fire-safe.

Capacity: amps and amp hours

Batteries are measured in terms of amp hours of energy that can be stored.  There is probably a reason the industry doesn’t use watt hours, but I don’t know what it is.

Amperage is the measurement of how much electricity is moving through a wire. It is similar to the amount of water coming out of a hose.  Like watts, it has a corresponding measurement for use across time, which is amp hours. In our water hose analogy, this would correspond to gallons of water.

Fortunately, amps and watts are related by a third factor, voltage. Voltage is like the pressure inside the water hose. Watts is amps times voltage.  If our battery is a 12 volt battery, then a one amp flow delivers 12 watts of power.  I hope I didn’t lose you there.   Our 600 amp hours of 12 volt batteries stores nominally 7200 watt hours of power. (I’m ignoring complications like “12” volt batteries are actually 13.2 – 14.4 volts.)

This picture shows the panels generating 42.7 amps of power at a voltage that is too high to apply to the batteries.  The controllers change it to a lower voltage at higher amps–retaining almost the same number of watts (there is a slight loss caused by the controller’s operation).

Lower voltage and higher amperage out–same watts.

And here is the current battery state.  Fewer amps going into the batteries because the RV is consuming some.

Bringing it all together, since our panels generate (nominally) 1440 watts of power, and our batteries store (nominally) 7200 watt hours, we can completely charge our batteries in five hours on nominally perfect days!

Your our mileage may vary.”

The inverter

The last major component in our system is a 3000 watt inverter. This can supply about 25 amps of 120 volts AC power.  However, to do that it has to consume over 250 amps of 12 volts DC from our batteries (inverters are not 100% efficient).  Remember that we have only about 480 amp hours of usable storage (80% of 600 amp hours).  So obviously we wouldn’t be using that much power for very long!

The inverter is sized large enough that we can run one air conditioner from it for a while, especially in the peak of daylight where we can pull power from both the solar panels and the batteries.  But if we need to run it continuously, we’ll have to spin up one of the generators!

To the desert!

So that is the package that we are counting on to keep us going in the desert this winter.  We’ll see how it goes… After all, this trip is an adventure!

Fire, Friends, and Dolphins

Another rally – yay! This time we were at the Massey’s Landing RV Resort in Millsboro, Delaware.  Set on the Rehoboth Bay, this gem of a campground was a perfect spot for the Grand Design Northeast Owner’s Rally (can you say white sand, lagoons, pool bar, and ice cream sundaes?).  There were approximately 200 rigs and about 500 attendees; we broke a record for an owner’s rally (a rally not sponsored by the manufacturer, but organized by a community of owners).

A record-breaking owner’s rally

Once again, a number of workshops were offered. We didn’t attend too many this time since they were ones we’d already attended at the Hershey RV Show last fall or at the recent Indiana rally. However, there was a really important session on RV fire safety which was sobering.  A husband/wife team both of whom are firefighters shared the story of a recent RV trip they took. Upon arrival at their campsite, they discovered a drawer in their kitchen that was completely charred as were the two drawers above it! This was the results of loose batteries in the drawer that had sparked a fire while they were bouncing around while underway—yikes! You can bet that every one of us went right back to our RV to tape the ends of every battery that wasn’t in its original package — I know I did!

The best part of this rally was the new friends we made! THIS is the best part of traveling the country — meeting wonderful, interesting people who share a sense of wanderlust. We spent plenty of time sitting around the campfire or picnic table sharing ideas about modifications we’ve made to our RV,  making suggestions about where to camp, and just getting to know each other. Here are some of the folks we met …

Patti and Steve

Patti and Steve have recently ordered a new Grand Design RV (their second!) and were trying to decide on what brand of truck to purchase; this is a common quandary. And RV owners are often eager to shareopinionated, pushy, overbearing, obnoxious, enthusiastic about which brand of truck to purchase. Patti had lots of questions and took lots of notes. She was looking for as many ideas, suggestions, and tips as she could. It was great fun to show her a few of the modifications we’ve already made.  Steve has a wicked sense of humor and we had a great time visiting and laughing with them both!

Paula and Chuck

Here are Paula and Chuck. We got to know them when we went on an evening cruise up the Broadkill River. We really *clicked* and enjoyed our time together throughout the weekend. It turns out that Paula had actually discovered us on the Grand Design Owner’s Forum online—Al’s been very active on the forum for a year and  lists our address as Bass Harbor, ME. She was searching for us at the rally because they’ve vacationed in Maine, in fact in BAR HARBOR for many, many years. We had fun comparing notes (and we couldn’t help but mention that we may have a home for sale there next year!).

We went out for breakfast together and on our last evening at the rally, Paula and Chuck invited us over to their RV to watch a beautiful slide show of their walk on the Camino. They encouraged us to think about it.  Paula and I have so much in common (separated at birth?) and have already texted each other a couple dozen times since we left Delaware. Such fun to make new friends!


As we travel to new places, we try to take advantage of as many new activities as we can—who knows if we’ll ever be back this way?  There were several offerings at the rally (shopping trip, casino visit, and boat trips) and we signed up for two evening cruises — the first was on the Broadkill River and the second was on the Delaware Bay.

A flock of ibis overhead

We were thoroughly entertained by some dancing dolphins!

Breakwater birds serenade us
Sunset at Delaware Breakwater East End Light

Making new friends as we travel — it’s like finding a lighthouse out on the bay. It’s a beacon that reassures us that we’re on the right course. Full speed ahead!

Let the Wild (Pony) Rumpus Begin!

When we first started building our itinerary and knew we’d want to be in Delaware early in October, I thought it would be fun to get back to Assateague Island — and maybe my brother, Richard and sister-in-law, Carol could join us! They made hotel reservations as soon as we told them our plans. They come to Chincoteague Island annually and were just looking for a good excuse to come back this fall. We’re SO glad they did!

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is on Assateague Island, abutting Assateague Island National Seashore. One of the  primary draws to come here was the two herds of Assateague ponies, one in Maryland and one in Virginia. We remembered coming here about 30 years ago when our kids were young. Of course, neither of us remembered too many details. It was great to return.

The refuge has much to offer in addition to the ponies, with many varieties of birds, sika deer–actually a small type of elk, not a deer–rabbits, and many other species.

We stayed at a campground a very short distance from the refuge on Chincoteague Island (VA) so we could bike in.  We can see the Assateague light from our “living room” (and kitchen, and dining room, since they’re all the same).

Assateague light from our campsite

Assateague Light was built at the southern tip of Assateague Island, but the island is basically a sand dune, and every storm moves it.  It is now significantly south and west of where it was when the light was built, so the light is now 1.5 miles from the current southern tip of the island.

Southern Herd

The southern pony herd in Virginia is the larger of the two, at about 150 ponies.  They are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.  The department has a special use agreement with the  Wildlife Refuge to use a large fenced-off marshy area where the horses are kept.  This area is so large that even with a 540mm lens, the horses at the far side are not able to be reasonably photographed.  These horses are less than 1/2 way across the marsh.

Ponies at dawn (540mm lens)
Same area, later in the day.

Sometimes they do indeed come closer.  The road into the refuge goes along one side of the marsh where I got the pictures below, and there is a mosquito-infested trail that goes along another.  We didn’t last long on that one.

Chincoteague Pony

Whether they’re in the Chincoteague or Assateague herds, the breed is Chincoteague Pony.  The reference I saw said “All colors.”

Another that came close-ish.
I called this one, “Black Beauty”
Mare and foal

And sometimes they get even closer.  Notice the brown and white mare and the smaller pony just to the right in the picture below. They are the same as in the picture above, but somehow they got out of the enclosed marsh area!

When out early one morning getting some of these pony pictures, I saw a wonderful sunrise across the street from the marsh area.

A few minutes before sunrise
Panning to the right a little bit…

“Our” Herd

We hadn’t made too many plans ahead of time with Richard and Carol but knew we’d be sharing many restaurant meals together, and boy, DID we! Our first day together, I offered to drive us all to the northern end of the island so we could visit both the Assateague State Park (run by MD) and the Assateague National Seashore. (Don’t worry — it took us all week to be able to get it all straight!).

We piled into Scarlett (our F350) and headed out. It only took a bit over an hour to get there and with all the conversation in the car, it seemed like a very short ride. The Visitor’s Center for the national park is quite large and just before the bridge that heads onto the actual island. And of course, there were ponies on the side of the road as we approached the bridge —- Move on! Move on! No stopping! scolded a park employee. We ducked  briefly into the state park and then onto the adjoining road into the national park.

The speed limit is only 25 MPH so it allows you to peer into the woods and toward the beach looking for ponies. We found a beautiful long (!) boardwalk that lead out over a brackish marsh in one direction and out to the bay on the other. It was so peaceful.

We spotted quite a few RV’s parked (camping) in the parking lots adjacent to the beach. It piqued our curiosity and it looks like we’ve put camping at either the state park or the national seashore in the future.

Richard and Carol suggested we share dinner at one of their favorite restaurants followed by amazing ice cream! Who can say no to fresh crab cakes and an ice cream sundae? And so, over the next few days, we shared dinner at a different restaurant each evening. Wow!

The next day, Al and I returned to the northern side of the island but brought our bikes. The part of the park that you can access by car and bike isn’t all that long (maybe 3 or 4 miles) and beyond that, it’s all OSV (over-sand vehicles) —- a permit is required, and alas, Scarlett weighs too much. The biking was perfect and we had our PB&J sandwiches at the beach. A mare and foal were there along with many surfers!

Northern Herd

The ponies in the northern herd in Maryland are owned by the US Government, and are free to roam wherever they want to in the Maryland section of the island; there is a fence at the state line to keep the two herds separate.  This herd is smaller, estimated at 70-80 ponies.  They can be hard to find, but there are “leavings” everywhere!

There are “Pony Patrols,” volunteers who are charged with keeping visitors at least 40′ away from the ponies when they roam into heavy tourist areas like the beach.  But a long lens can bridge that 40′ gap pretty easily!  Since these are wild animals, I didn’t want to be any nearer—but I guess there are a lot of people who aren’t as smart.

We saw this mother and colt pair next to a restroom at the beach of the National Seashore.

Mother, ever so sanguine.

The colt seemed to be bothered by the bugs in the area (mosquitoes and biting flies), and was squirming on the sand.

Man, quit bugging me!

Birds on the island

This island is on a major migration flyway for many species of birds.  Later in the fall, apparently the ground looks like it has snowed when several tens of thousands of snow geese congregate on the island!

Here are some of the birds we saw on the island.  Egrets of several subtypes are everywhere!

Why don’t sailboats have an egrets’nest instead of a crows nest?
Not sure what this one is looking at or for!
Fishing, definitely fishing!
Flying too fast for me to keep framed properly. Oh, well.
Flight attendants, prepare for landing!

We saw several other species too.

Great Blue Heron
Osprey; look at the talons!
Bald Eagle
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture

And of course, we have the ever-present seagulls and Canada Geese.

Don’t even think about taking my sandwich!
Geese at our campground

We spent a couple of days at the beach with Richard and Carol on the Chincoteague Island side. It was lovely! So much long-overdue visiting while being serenaded by the surf and warmed by the sun.
Having never vacationed with any of our siblings as adults, we were so happy to get so much time with Richard and Carol. We had a blast and we’re already making plans for the next time!

Other animals in the Refuge and at the Seashore

Lo and behold, there are animals other than ponies and birds here! Some are very well hidden like this crab.

Maryland crab hiding in the grasses.
Don’t know what kind of butterfly this is…
Sika “deer,” actually a type of small elk
Homo Sapiens Surfaris
Anyone know what this moth is?
White tailed deer

Camping, the beach, wildlife, photography, and family — what a winning combination! We look forward to returning to Assateague and hope that Richard and Carol can join us the next time.

Destination: Washington, D.C.

We were giddy when we realized we could spend the better part of a week in Washington, D.C. We’d only ever been with kids or as kids ourselves. We were long overdue for an opportunity to experience our nation’s capital as adults with no real responsibilities for anyone else!

We camped at the Cherry Hill Park Campground, in College Park MD.  If you’re coming this way in an RV, we highly recommend it. It’s the nicest place we’ve stayed so far, and by no means the most expensive. The Metro bus comes right to the campground and it’s a quick ride to the train station. And then just a 20-25 minute ride into the heart of D.C. It was SO easy to navigate.

And… the campground has single-stream recycling!

Each day at 4 PM, the campground offers a great orientation to the D.C. transportation system and an intro to two tours—we signed up for both. Terrific.

A week in Washington Is not nearly enough!  We didn’t have even that much time, but we had a wonderful time.  We went into the city four times; twice on our own and twice as part of the tours organized by the campground.

The first day we were there, we went into the city on our own and split up.  I (Al) went to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum near Dulles Airport.  If you are into the history of aviation and space exploration at all, this is a must see.

The museum is in  a huge hangar, and has a wide range of planes and space craft from very early days to recent history. Main displays include a Concorde SST, an SR-71 (the fastest—2000 MPH—and highest flying—80,000 ft—jet ever built — 32 were built in all), the space shuttle Discovery, and the Enola Gay. Beside those four, there are aircraft and space craft densely packed in the hanger, in three layers: one on the hangar floor and two layers creatively suspended in the air from the ceiling. I spent over three hours there and only scratched the surface. The density actually is a problem in trying to get good pictures of the craft because of the visual clutter in the background.

The SR-71 is very difficult to photograph in its entirety in this setting. It is huge.  It is jet black (get it?).  It is crowded by other craft.  Here is the port engine, a marvel of slide rule engineering—it was designed in the late 50’s—early 60’s— with NO computers!

SR-71’s engine and “spike”

The A-6 was one of the key bombers of the Vietnam era.


The Discovery has a prime place on the display floor.

Discovery. Thank you for living up to your name…
The engine nozzles. This thing is BIG!

If I had to have an Airstream instead of our current trailer, this is the one I would want!


(Actually, it wasn’t made by Airstream.  Sure looks like one, though!)

One of the most famous airplanes in history:

Enola Gay–it dropped the first atomic bomb , on Hiroshima.

The Boeing 307 was one of the, if not the, first commercial airliners.  It  was based on the B-17C bomber from World War II.

Boeing 307

I wonder whether or when we’ll have another supersonic passenger plane.

The Concorde

The Global Flyer accomplished the first solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world. Sixty seven hours and one minute.

Global Flyer .  The wingspan is HUGE!

A sampling of the planes suspended from the ceiling.

Too many planes to keep straight!

The museum is quite a distance from downtown area, but is well worth the trip!

Kathe: While Al was at the museum, I visited several museums on and near the National Mall. Within just a couple of blocks of wandering, I came upon a very long queue of folks waiting to get into the Newseum. As it turned out, it was FREE MUSEUM day in D.C. I hopped into line and immediately started chatting with a couple of women. Before long I realized that even though it was a free entry day (usually $25), I still needed a ticket. One of the women I was in line with graciously offered me a second free ticket that she had. Score!

I stayed at the Newseum for two solid hours and thought my head would explode! This museum focuses on the world of journalism and promotes first amendment rights through exhibits that include (among many others): 9/11, the Berlin Wall, a special FBI exhibit, a daily display of 80 first pages of newspapers from around the US and the world, a wide range of films documenting important world events, and an extraordinary gallery of decades of Pulitzer Prize winning photos.

The remains of the antenna tower from the top of the World Trade Center. Front pages of international newspapers reporting on 9/11.
This display includes eight panels from the Berlin Wall and the guard tower from Checkpoint Charlie – extraordinary!
During the overnight hours, the Newseum receives copies of the front page of more than 80 newspapers. They are printed oversized and displayed – fascinating to see how the same story can be reported from so many perspectives. An important display!

What is striking is that each of the exhibits includes a range of short videos by journalists who covered the story. It is without a doubt the most current, dynamic, compelling, and thought-provoking museum I’ve visited; I considered suggesting that they hand out Kleenex as you come through the main door — and yes, I took Al back to it later in the week! I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

You can also make YOUR opinions known at the Newseum. The opinion poll question is always related to the current day’s news.
It was refreshing to reread the First Amendment. Do you know what the five rights are?
A sobering memorial (at least two stories high) of journalists who have given their lives in their pursuit of the truth.

Just in! The Newseum set its all-time single-day visitor record on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, with 11,815 people visiting the one-of-a-kind institution. (Guess it helped that I was there!)

I also visited (somewhat briefly) the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. It was a whirlwind and honestly, I could have spent days upon days visiting so many more museums — alas, I needed to meet Al and we needed to figure out where we would eat dinner.

Never underestimate the power of Google! We searched “Restaurants near Me” and found an Indian restaurant nearby — what a find! It turns out that Rasika is a restaurant which has won a James Beard award and we can see why. It was amazing!

On the second day we took a day-long guided tour of the city with a very knowledgeable guide. We visited the Air Force Memorial and the Marine War Memorial (also called the Iwo Jima memorial).  Then we took a water taxi ride from the wharf near the Lincoln Memorial to Georgetown.

“Bomb burst” maneuver, missing man formation
The Marine War Memorial, “Iwo Jima”
Lincoln Memorial from the Potomac River

We stopped at the Pentagon City Mall for lunch, and found a stand offering a wide variety of baklava squares that were imported directly from Lebanon.  They were incredibly delicious and oh, so sweet.  We got several and were able to make them last for several days, but it was tough.  It would have been so easy to eat all of them before the end of the tour!

After lunch we went to Arlington National Cemetery, and took their tram tour.  We hadn’t known that Arlington was originally the estate of Robert E. Lee, which was confiscated after the Civil War.  The very first graves (Union soldiers) had been interred in Mrs. Lee’s garden (making a clear statement to Lee). We stopped at the grave of President Kennedy, where Jackie Kennedy Onassis and two of their children are also buried.  The site is directly below Lee’s house, and was actually selected by the president when he visited the cemetery.  Admiring the view, he was heard to say, “I could stay here forever.”

JFK’s grave and RE Lee’s house

Next we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a very sobering place.  We had both been to this site before but it was good to revisit it.  We were present for the changing of the guard ceremony.   The guard has been present 24/7/365 since it was initiated on April 6, 1948.  The markings of so many years of the sentries’ precise steps were visible in the dark orange on the granite platform. It is an incredible honor to be chosen for this highly competitive post.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

There are graves for one soldier each from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.  The crypt for the Vietnam War unknown soldier is now empty, as the entombed soldier was identified  in 1998 as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie through mitochondrial DNA.

Here is Kathe’s video of the Changing of the Guard ceremony.

Since the rain had picked up and no one really wanted to get off the trolley, the tour of Arlington was a bit shorter than usual. Our tour guide asked if we would like to visit the Pentagon Memorial. Yes! Several others on the tour had already seen the NYC 9/11 Memorial and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, PA and were eager to see this 9/11 memorial as well.

The Pentagon Memorial is breathtaking — and a feat of imagination. There is a stainless steel cantilevered bench inlaid with granite for each of the 184 victims with their name engraved on it. The bench has a lighted pool of water underneath which reflects light onto the gravel field at night.  Each bench resembles an airplane wing and points one of two ways depending on if the victim worked at the Pentagon or was fated plane that crashed into the building. All of the benches for people born in the same year are arranged in a line going diagonally across the large area.

If the base points toward the Pentagon, it commemorates an employee. If the base points in the opposite direction, the victim was on the plane.
The victim’s name is engraved on the edge of the bench.  However, in this case, three other names and birth years are engraved below; this represents four members of the same family who were all victims aboard the hijacked plane.

Commemorative benches in line with this marker represented those born in 1953.
You can follow the stainless steel tracks across the memorial to count how many victims were born in a particular year. It was harrowing.

The third day we took a night tour to several memorials including the Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, MLK, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War memorials. While we had been to several of those before, those visits had not been at night nor in the rain.  Washington looks different at night!

Two of the memorials that really struck us were the Korean War Memorial and the FDR Memorial. The nineteen statues of soldiers in the Korean War Memorial were all facing in different directions, on guard, each wearing a rain poncho, and some in full combat gear. It was fitting that we visited the memorial at night and in the rain. The statues were surrounded by low shrubs that gave the sense that they were standing in rice patties. It was striking.

The bronze statues seemed to come to life.

The FDR Memorial was huge—it’s the largest memorial on the National Mall. There was a large open air room that depicted each of FDR’s four terms as President. The pathway through the memorial was meandering and featured bronze statues, water installations, stirring wall art, and FDR quotes. Near the end of the walkway was a beautiful statue of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It was hard to take it all in; we’ll certainly visit it again. You can learn more about this monument here.

The first statue in the memorial depicts FDR in his wheelchair.
FDR was in office during the Great Depression.
FDR was a man who took his role as President seriously and with great humility.
One can see how tired FDR looks during his third term in office. His beloved dog, Fala, was always at his side.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the only First Lady depicted in a presidential memorial in D.C. She was a steadfast adviser to her husband and also served as our first ambassador to the United Nations.

The World War II Memorial was impressive and particularly beautiful lit up at night.

The World War II Memorial.

At the WW2 Memorial

Our last day in the city we visited two keystones in the federal government, and then re-visited the Newseum so that Al could see several of the exhibits that wowed Kathe on the first day.

We first visited the Capitol, which requires a guided tour unless you contact your Representative or Senator.  The guided tour was slightly disappointing to Al.  It covers just the crypt below the Rotunda, the Rotunda itself, and the Statuary Hall.  All of these were very crowded and we were not allowed to separate at all from the tour group, so that good photography was not possible.

Walking from the mall to the Capitol, you have to go to the far side to reach the visitors’ center.  When you get to approximately the  front side of the Capitol, the sign says “Average walking time: 8 minutes.”

Walking past the building you get several views of the Capitol.

On the side  away from the mall, you pass the main (ceremonial?) entrance to the Senate building, which is a wing added to the original Capitol building.

Here is the original Capitol building.  Until Reagan, presidents were inaugurated on these stairs.  Starting with Reagan, the inaugurations switched to the other side because the crowds could overflow onto the National Mall.

Every state can send two statues depicting important (dead) people from the state.  Most are in Statuary Hall, but some are in the main hall of the visitors’ center.  Here is King  Kamehameha I from Hawaii, the largest of the 100 state statues.

After an introductory film, we began the tour in the crypt, just below the Rotunda. The crypt is so named because it was intended to be the burial place for George Washington.  Washington’s express wishes in his will were to be buried in his Mount Vernon estate, which eventually were acceded to. In the center of the crypt is a marker which is the geographic center of the original extents of the District of Columbia.  If it were not roped off, here you could stand simultaneously in Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, and Southeast DC!.

The Rotunda has eight murals depicting  historic moments.  It also has a circular mural around the dome opening showing 400 years of American history.

The ceiling of the Rotunda has a painting named “The Apotheosis of Washington.”  Apotheosis means to elevate someone to the status of a god.  Washington, who twice voluntarily relinquished power, would have hated it.

The Statuary Hall was originally the House Chamber until the members could no longer fit, at which point the separate House building was added.

The ornate ceiling of the National Statuary Hall, formerly the House chamber

The spherical shape of the ceiling caused the room to have terrible acoustics,  making it very difficult to conduct business. The solution?  Build  a new House chamber!

We then walked through the tunnel from the Capitol to the Library of Congress, specifically the original Jefferson building.  The Library currently comprises four buildings: three adjacent ones in the Capitol district, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, and one at Fort Meade.

The Jefferson building’s interior is overwhelmingly beautiful. Whereas the Capitol required one to take a guided tour, here we opted for one which was leaving as we emerged from the tunnel. We’re glad that we did.

Our tour guide was an older gentleman who was so engaging and knowledgeable. He was overwhelmingly proud to be able to share the LOC with us. His main message to us was that there is no happenstance about ANYTHING in the LOC — every ceiling, wall, mural, stairway, statue, inscription, etc. tells a story about the pursuit of knowledge and the importance of reading and learning.
It is an inspirational place and yet one more place in D.C. that you couldn’t possible take in in just one visit.

One of many inscriptions throughout the Library of Congress.

The main reading room seen from the balcony above.

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world (in terms of its collection), the official research arm of Congress, and also home of the U.S. Copyright Office. It comprises more than 167 million items, and adds 12,000 items to its collection each working day. It is considered our national library. It has more than 838 miles of bookshelves!

We left our nation’s capital with such a sense of awe and deep reverence and appreciation, especially for those who have served our country in the military and in service to our country. Perhaps it’s being a bit “older” that helped us to appreciate this beautiful city in a humbling way. We will certainly visit again!


Grandkids! Water!


Just before the time we’re writing about here (we’re a bit behind the times) Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina and affected so many people in the southeast.  We’re very thankful that those we know who were in the area are safe, and are keeping those more seriously affected in our prayers.


We’ve had our first “house guests!” (RV guests?)

We traveled to Watkins Glen, NY, to spend some time with our son Mike, our daughter-in-law Laurelyn, and four of our grandkids in Corning, about 20 minutes away.

Friday night dinner — delicious Mexican food.

The two boys, Dean, 10, and Graham, almost 13, spent Friday night with us.  They were the first to use the convertible couch in the RV as a bed.  They reported it to be comfortable (phew!).

We had an early birthday  for Graham, and then played one of his new games.  Graham will soon be a teenager! How did that happen so quickly?

Early birthday!

Also Grandpa got a lesson in GoPro from Dean!

Saturday morning, Graham and Dean’s sisters, Mira, 7, and Brynn, 5, joined us—Saturday night was the girls’ night to sleep in the camper and boy, were they excited!

No, they didn’t ride over in the back of the truck!

The plan for the day was to enjoy the features at the campground. But before we headed out, everyone had to try (again and again!) the magic recliners in the camper — they’re powered to recline, heat, and massage and were a BIG hit!

We lost count of how many turns each of the kids had trying out the recliners.

Time to play! Grandma and all four kids took advantage of the campground’s mini-golf course.

Ready for the U.S. Open! Look out, Tiger…

Then we all made use of the on-site water park.  The big hit was the water slide.  Grandpa L. also gave the slide a try! Graham just about wore the slide out…

Grandpa was happier about the ride than he looked!
Oh, my goodness!
Some serious concentration. Go, Dean!

What’s happening here?

We also made use of bumper boats and the jumping pillow. Grandpa L. tried the jumping pillow, much to the amusement of those watching.  By getting back off the pillow very quickly, he avoided permanent injury! (Note to GL: you’re not 14 any more!)

Mira, Brynn, Dean, and Graham on the jumping pillow
Grandpa L, just before he failed miserably!

In Corning Sunday night, we saw what we all agreed was the most intense rainbow we had ever seen!

The picture does not do it justice!

More water: Watkins Glen State Park

May we introduce Lolly Lobster, our traveling mascot.

The remnants of Hurricane Florence came through our area on Monday.  We were scheduled to leave on Tuesday, but the weather between there and our next destination, French Creek State Park in PA was predicted to be lousy for driving.  We delayed our departure by a day and took advantage of the extra day to visit Watkins Glen State Park which we had never been to before.


One fall, near the start of the walk.

The heavy rain of the day and night before gave us some spectacular scenery as we walked up the gorge path along Glen Creek.

A torrent

They claim that there are 19 waterfalls along this mile and a half path. We have no idea how they count.  It looked like one continuous cascade to us!

What number is this, honey?

Yes, the trail goes behind several of the waterfalls!

Awe-full to have all that water cascading over your head!
Fun playing with shutter speeds…
Another waterfall to go behind!
We’re embarrassed that this was our FIRST visit to the park — what an amazing spot!

We rounded out our visit to Corning and Watkins Glen with a lovely dinner out overlooking Seneca Lake. It was a sensational visit, albeit all too quick. We’ll be back!

Sunset over Seneca Lake


Al: I never served in the military; I know that I don’t have a soldier’s “headset,” for lack of a better word. I have high respect and admiration for those who have.

I considered not writing about Gettysburg.  The scope is too large.  Being on the battleground is completely overwhelming; I don’t know really where to begin.

One way could be to look at the sobering statistics. In three days of fighting, July 1 – 3, 1863, approximately 7000 soldiers were killed. There were approximately 51,000 casualties (soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing). There are many estimates of the casualty count; we have seen higher and lower estimates. Some units lost two thirds or more of the men who were present at the start of the battle. 158,000 were engaged in the battle across the three days.

Casualty figures for a unit

Amazingly for a battle that surrounded a city, there was only one civilian casualty; a twenty-year-old  woman named Jenny Wade was killed by a stray shot.  How times have changed.

The civilian structures were damaged, though, and some still bear the scars.

Bullet scarred wall
Through-and-through cannon ball

Occasionally we’ll include a reference, “(NPS)”. This indicates that a particular statistic or comment came from the National Park Service’s Gettysburg FAQ web page.

Kathe: I’ve been to Gettysburg in recent years but Al had never been; I couldn’t wait to share it with him.

When we entered the visitors’ center, we headed right for the ticket booth and decided to purchase the three-way pass that comprises the Cyclorama, the museum, and a two-hour bus tour of the battlefields. As we always do with every National Park we visit, we started with the orientation film. It gave an overview of the three days in July 1863 — narrated by Morgan Freeman — and I was already in tears.

From the overview film, we were shepherded upstairs to the Cyclorama. It’s breathtaking – a 360-degree painting of the Gettysburg Battlefield that was painted in 1883 (it’s one of four that have been created – this one was acquired and restored a few decades ago). It is 42 feet tall and 377 feet around. We all stood on a raised platform in the middle of the room and were surrounded by images, lights, sounds, and narration that made it all come to life. We were in the midst of the battle. It was sobering. More tears.

Detail from the cyclorama

Us: Later while on the battlefield, one of the things that surprised us was the terrain. This is open, mostly flat, land.  In 1863 it was even more open; many of the trees now present were not there.  Then it was agricultural fields. The National Park Service has an ongoing program to restore the area to the conditions at the time of the battle, removing trees, planting orchards, and restoring walls and fencing. Local farmers have access to the land to plant crops.

According to our tour guide, the tactics had not changed much from the days of the Revolutionary War, with the soldiers often marching in a line across an open field toward the opposing side.  A rise of only 100 feet (sometimes less) could give a dominant position.

The key high point was Little Round Top, at 150 feet above the fields.  The higher rise next to it, Big Round Top, was not useful militarily because it was (and remains) completely wooded.

View from the top of Little Round Top; only 150′ gives a strategic “high ground” advantage

Shortly after the war, various groups began placing bronze and stone (mostly granite and marble) monuments on the battlefield honoring regiments, divisions, corps, and armies.  Now there are approximately 1328 (NPS) monuments within the park. They range in size from gargantuan (Pennsylvania and New York) to diminutive and hidden in the woods (Maine 20th). The brigade monuments had either round (Confederate) or square bases (Union).

The Pennsylvania monument
One of many New York monuments, this one in the cemetery

Detail of the New York monument

There were also many markers across the battlefield that indicated the midpoint of each regiment and their right and left flanks (ends). You can see how closely the units were deployed.

Markers indicating the right flank of one unit and the left flank of the next

We walked the range that the Maine 20th Regiment had spread across on Little Round Top; it was amazingly short. Due to where they were deployed, their monument is a short walk into the woods. The inscriptions on the sides of the monument list the soldiers who were killed or died of their wounds inflicted during the defense of Little Round Top.

We took advantage of a free Ranger Program in the park on our last morning there: a tour of the National Soldiers’ Cemetery on Cemetery Hill. This area was known as Cemetery Hill at the time of the battle and was one of the contested regions.  The Soldiers’ Cemetery is adjacent to a pre-existing public cemetery which gave the hill its name.

Soldiers were originally buried in shallow graves on the battlefield. They were then re-interred with great effort at the Soldiers’ Cemetery.

Originally set aside by the state of Pennsylvania, it was for the Union dead only.  Most of the Confederate dead were interred in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA, in a special section set aside for Gettysburg casualties (NPS).  Now it is a national cemetery and is still in active use.

Initially the plan was to bury soldiers without regard to rank or unit.  However it was decided to bury them in sections, according to the state they were from—still without regard to rank. Remarkably, most of the graves have names.  Each state section has some graves marked “Unknown.”

Most graves are identified
Sometimes the state and even the regiment were known, but the soldier’s identity was not

Each state had a marker indicating the number of soldiers buried here.

The marker for the Maine section

Additionally, there are many simple numbered marble markers for soldiers for whom their state was unable to be determined.

One section of graves of unknown soldiers

All of the soldiers are arranged in a semicircle around the Soldiers Monument that is the focus of the cemetery.  The way they are buried seemed unusual; they are buried behind their headstone with their heads toward the center.  In this way should they rise they will be facing outward, ready to defend Cemetery Hill again.

The cemetery is still in use; here are some graves from the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II.  Still newer graves are in an adjacent annex.

Graves of soldiers from the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II
Marking newer graves of unknown soldiers

Being on the battlefields of Gettysburg gave us a deeper understanding and reverence for the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is an awe-inspiring and humbling place that we hope each of you will have an opportunity to experience.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln.
November 19, 1863.

Delivered at the Soldiers’ Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania


They say things happen in threes.  Or fours.  Fives?

We’ve had very smooth sailing until now.  This stop has made up for that, but we’re still laughing and smiling.

We stayed at Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania.  The campground is about 50 years old according to the campground host.  Back then the trailers were not as big as they are now, and some of the corners are very tight.

“They want us to fit into THAT space?”

The road to our site was very narrow, making maneuvering difficult. The site was very short. But with a fair amount of backing and forwarding we were able to get the trailer into position and the truck off the road.

“Ummm, Honey?  I can’t find the water spigot.”

Look at the reservation slip… oops!  This is an electric-only site.  Good thing we have large tanks for “ins” and “outs.”  But we don’t travel with the fresh water tank full because of the weight it would add, so… Ask another camper where the water access is.  Hitch the trailer back up to the truck, and drive to the water.  Fill up.  Now get into our spot again. (Did a better job positioning the trailer this time!)

Since we plan to “boondock” (camp with no hookups at all) for a good portion of the winter, we look at this “opportunity” to use only the water we’re carrying as good practice.

Still smiling.

We start to open the slides that turn our narrow trailer into a much more spacious (400 sq. ft.) living area.


What the…?  Haven’t heard THAT before.

A small rug that we use at the sink hadn’t been put away, and is now under the slide, between a roller and success.  It is about 18 inches inside a ½” slot.  Our fingers aren’t that small, nor long.  Cannibalize the metal handle of a fly swatter to form a dual-hooked gadget with which to snag the rug and pull it out.

We spent three days and 4 nights here visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park.  We’ll write that up in a post soon.

Time to leave, and it rained overnight. We squeegee the rain off the slides, so it doesn’t end up inside the trailer.  Wait.  Why is that slide topper (like an awning over the slide, to keep leaves, etc. off the top of the slide) about 10 inches too far back?  Why is that end cap missing?  Why is that other end cap broken?

We have the first damage to the trailer.  Did we mention that the campground was too small for our rig?  We apparently clipped a tree at some point without feeling it. Two inches closer and we would have met the tree with the body of the trailer resulting in much worse damage.  So… disappointed that we have damage to fix, but we’re glad it wasn’t worse.

Finally (we hope!) as we return to the truck from a rest stop we notice…

The tailgate is DOWN!  Oh shoot!

We lost a few small items from the bed.  Apparently one of us had accidentally pressed the tailgate release on our fob at some point.


We’re ready for a few problem-free weeks of travel now.  We deserve it!

The Ohio and Erie Canal

In my post about our recent biking, I promised a separate post about the Ohio and Erie Canal per se.   True to my word…

I’m not going to try to regurgitate all that has been written about the canal and its history. Use the link above for a Google search page of sites about the canal.  Instead, I want to offer what I saw of it and my impressions.  I learned any history that I include here from Interpretative Rangers or the various informational signs posted throughout the park.

The name Ohio and Erie Canal stems from the two ends of the canal: Lake Erie and the Ohio River. By connecting the two, commerce was enabled between Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.  It turned Ohio into the third wealthiest state.

The canal was a huge undertaking!  It was dug entirely by hand in the 1820s and completed in 1832.  It was specified to be a minimum of 40 feet wide at the top and 26 feet wide at the bottom, with a minimum depth of 4 feet.  The canal was used for cargo until 1861 when rail transport took over.  From the 1870s it gradually degraded until 1913 when massive storms damaged much of what was left, and lock #1 had to be dynamited to allow flood waters drain.

We rode along 25 miles of the tow path, from the southern end of Cuyahoga Valley National Park to the northern end. In the southern end it is hard (for me, impossible) at times to discern the path of the canal. Gradually, the outline of the canal becomes visible as a large dry trench.  Much of the tow path is between the canal and the Cuyahoga River. Toward the northern end, the canal still holds water, although probably no longer four feet. I was told that some industrial sites still draw water from the canal.

I don’t know how many locks were originally in the region we biked, but we saw many—again, mostly in the northern half.  Canal barges were specified to be a maximum beam (width) of 14 feet and length of 85 feet. Although the canal trench was specified to be 40 feet wide to allow boats to pass each other, the locks were much narrower averaging only 15 feet wide and 90 feet long, thus fitting only one boat at a time.

Looking south (upstream) through a lock.
Another lock, also looking upstream.

The lock gates were massive wooden structures, some operated by hand, others by horses or mules.  The average lift capability of the locks was 9 feet, with the largest (called the “Deep Lock”) being 17 feet.

I wasn’t able to find any sign of the pumping equipment they would have needed to manage the water levels in the locks.

Near the north end of the park is the Canal Exploration Center, a CVNP visitor center. The exhibits are very well done!  Stop in, if you’re in the area.

At the CEC is a restored lock with the gates in place.

In this era of GPS location accurate to a few feet and laser transits, it was sobering to think back about the tools available when the canal was built.

A surveyor’s compass.
Surveyor’s chains, for distance.

At the Canal Exploration Center I found this modern flood control device; it had valves that would send canal water into a side arm of the Cuyahoga River.

Flood control valve.


One of the things that Kathe and I were—and still are—looking forward to on our trip is riding our bicycles.  We even got new ones before leaving (our then-current ones were about 16+ years old).

I don’t think that I’ve biked 50 miles total since I was a teenager, back in the paleolithic era.

We’ve done about that in the past 6 days.

Back in Indiana (we’re now in Ohio), we pedaled either 22 or 25 miles, depending on whose odometer/GPS you believe, on the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail from Goshen to Shipshewanna and back.

Today, we rode 25 miles on the Ohio-Erie Canal Towpath in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  I’ll write about the canal in another post.  Today is about biking!

One of the nice things about biking is that it slows us down, allowing us to observe what’s around us.

Flowers along the Pumpkinvine trail

Pumpkinvine Nature Trail

The Pumpkinvine trail is 25 miles long, joining the towns of Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury, and Shipshewana.  We only took the middle section, about 11 or 12 miles.  Some of the trail is through miles of agricultural land with fields on both sides as far as you can see.

One of many fields we passed.

Some of the trail is wooded.

Al, facing heavy traffic on the trail!

Other parts are on sidewalks along the street.  I was always told as a kid not to ride on the sidewalk, but on the street.  At least where the trail runs along a street, they want us on the sidewalk, not the street!

There is a 1.7 mile section of the trail for which the property was only recently obtained; there the trail is under construction.  For this section we had to ride on the side of three county roads, but there were very few cars.  It probably isn’t true, but it seemed like we saw more buggies than we did cars. Being a Sunday, we passed several homes where worship was being held, with many buggies parked outside.

Parking for worship
An Amish farm along the Pumpkinvine trail.

In MIddlebury, we wanted to see the Krider Gardens which we had heard about from other rally attendees. As we approached Middlebury we were waiting at a street crossing.  We asked another cyclist if he knew the trail here.  “Pretty well.” We asked how to get to the gardens and he offered to show us (it was right on the trail). As we parted, he told us he was the chair of the Middlebury Parks Commission, which oversees / maintains both the Middlebury section of the trail and the garden!  “Pretty well,” indeed!

Kreider Gardens

We had planned to turn around in Middlebury since this was our first ride of any significant length, but certain protocols must be observed.  First we needed to find ice cream.  Unfortunately this was Sunday so the only place in range was a Dairy Queen.  But it sufficed.

Sorry, I don’t have any pictures of the Dairy Queen to insert here…

On our way back while we were riding on the county road section of the trail we noticed that we were about to be overtaken by a buggy. (Yes, there is something slower than a horse-drawn buggy: tired-people powered bicycles!) But they disappeared!  Then we realized that these were people returning home from worship and they were turning into their driveways.

Funny how the miles on the way back seemed longer than those when we were fresh and just starting out!

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

Cuyahoga Valley National Park entrance sign

Much like Acadia National Park, Cuyahoga National Park was built from many individual land acquisitions. As a result its borders are irregular where it sits in Cuyahoga Valley between Cleveland and Akron in the Ohio & Erie Canalway. Because it is situated among existing communities there are many entrances (again like Acadia); because of this, CVNP is a no-fee park.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs the length of the the park through the Canalway, with both it and the canal taking advantage of the valley’s terrain alongside the Cuyahoga River.  If you don’t know the recent history of the Cuyahoga River, it is really interesting.  Once one of the country’s most polluted rivers (quiz: what happened in 1969?), it was effectively “dead,” with no animal life in the river.  It now supports fish, beaver, otters, turtles, eagles, and many more species.

Turtles soaking up the sun

This area had been a car dump before the park.  It was cleaned up with the intention of making it a parking lot, but the beavers had a different idea.  It is now a marsh supporting many types of wildlife.

Courtesy of the beavers. Don’t park here!

We rode the Scenic Railroad on a round trip through the entire length of the park.  We rode in a dome car, offering 360° views.

Cuyahoga River from the dome car
Have to have a pic of a train going ’round the bend!
Looking north on the Cuyahoga, heading toward Lake Erie.

While the ownership and maintenance of the rolling stock and the daily operation of the railroad is the responsibility of the non-profit Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad organization, the right-of-way and railbed is maintained by the National Park.

Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath

So what is a towpath? Before motorized vessels, barges were pulled through the canal by mules. The path they took is the towpath. Mule teams were available to rent, but many barges carried their own (two) teams of mules because they found it more economical.  We were told that the passenger barges, also called “packet boats,” were often pulled by horses; I guess they were deemed to be more appropriate for the cultured (wealthy) passengers.

Because the tolerances are so tight in the locks, some canals including the Panama Canal still use “mules” in a tow system. The ship uses its own propulsion system for forward motion; the mules are now powerful electric tractors on geared tracks which use cables to maintain the ship in the center of the lock.

Overall, the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath runs 87 miles, approximately 25 miles of which is inside the park. The section in the park has been rehabilitated into a multi-use trail (walking, bicycling, and horse riding—but horses are not allowed on some sections).  It is well surfaced with much being paved and the rest being hard packed; it is all suitable for road bikes and was very easy riding on our hybrids.

At times we were riding through woods, some times along the Cuyahoga River, and still others right along the canal.

Along the towpath

The canal brought prosperity  to the area with many businesses set up along its path.  Here are the remains of a mill, the raceway which powered the wheel.

A mill race on the Cuyahoga River.

We were told by one of the Scenic Railroad staff that at the time it was constructed, this was the largest concrete bridge in the world, but I’ve been unable to confirm that.  Either way, it is quite an impressive structure

Concrete bridge over the Cuyahoga River and Ohio & Erie Canal.

We don’t think that this will replace Interpretative Rangers, but it was an interesting method for providing information about the surrounding area to the hikers and bikers.  It had a small hand-operated generator powering the player.  My arm tired out before the ending of the first recording we listened to!

Hand-operated “Audo Station.”

Being “lapsed” (out of shape) riders, we chose to ride toward the north, following the flow of the river; it is nominally downhill, although a drop of approximately 400′ in about 25 miles is not an overwhelming grade!

Then came the ride back to our starting point…but this time not on our bikes (they actually rode with us!).  The Scenic Railway offers a program called Bike Aboard, where bikers can ride the train. This allows many people (including us) to ride the towpath for longer distances, and see more of the valley, than they would be able to if they had to make the return by pedal. The railway has three scheduled stops in its run: at each end and in the town of Peninsula which is about the midpoint. However there are six other “stations” (sometimes simply a widened spot on the right of way with a bench) at which bikers can flag down the train to board, or request the staff to stop the train so they can debark.

We’re certainly looking forward to our coming bike adventures!

Meeting the Amish

Last week, while at the Grand Design Owners’ Rally in Goshen, Indiana, I took an Amish Brown Bag Tour.  We would visit a number of different Amish businesses in Elkhart County, mostly in the Middlebury/Shipshewana area. It included a “Thresher’s Dinner”
so I was a bit confused as to why I’d need a brown bag lunch, too. Hmmm. . .

The large group traveled on two large, luxury buses with VERY efficient air-conditioning. Our tour guide, Carlene, is the founder and owner of the tour company and she REALLY knows her stuff! She narrated along the way as we motored through stunning farmland and past home after home with meticulously maintained grass and gardens (they’d never let us live here!).

We passed miles and miles of farmland.

We passed several “quilt gardens” (too quickly to get a picture but you can see some samples here) and learned that they are a special tradition here. Each garden replicates a different quilt block that is made with annuals — it takes lots of planning and long-lived dedication. To be included on the Quilt Garden Tour, you need to submit your plan for approval in October and then the annuals are ordered. Your garden must be maintained throughout the entire season to remain on the tour.

Our first stop was the Rise ‘n Roll Bakery.  Carlene had prepared us well, telling us that their donuts are considered “Amish crack.”  She was SO right! As we entered the store, we were greeted by a young woman who handed each of us a piece of freshly baked donut. OH. MY. GOODNESS. It was amazing. We had about 25 minutes or so to shop — all kinds of pastries, cookies, breads, jellies and jams, and crunchy candy (think brittle) made with a variety of nuts, some with a chocolate dip. I chose a package of 6 chocolate chip cookies (my favorite), a double-chocolate muffin (do you sense a theme here?), a package of 3 monster cookies, and a box of donut holes — the same flavor as the sample we got at the door. Yeah, we like sugar.

The Rise ‘n Roll Bakery – it was busy!
An amazing Rise ‘n Roll muffin (it’s still in our RV freezer).

Well, I soon learned that the “brown bag” was a huge brown shopping bag that Carlene handed us as we approached the bus. AND SHE GAVE EACH OF US A HUGE PIECE OF CAKE from a large rack that had been rolled out to the bus. Uh oh. I wish I’d known what we were getting — I wouldn’t have bought so much inside. Yeah, riiiiight.

My large brown paper bag was already quite full and that was only stop #1. Uh oh.

Here’s the evidence that Al and I have been enjoying these treats!

Along the way to stop #2, we passed several Amish schools. Carlene shared some interesting facts with us, some of them surprising:

  • Amish children don’t start school until they’re 7 years old.
  • Pennsylvania Dutch is a language derived from German and is spoken by the Amish in their homes. Children begin to learn to read Pennsylvania Dutch in the third grade; the focus is on reading, NOT writing.
  • Children finish school at the end of their 8th grade year (age 15).
  • Sometimes a youngster might want to go on to HS at which point they’d attend an “English” school but it’s not common.  If an Amish student is particularly athletic, they might be recruited to attend a local English high school.
  • Each school has two baseball diamonds; softball is played at every recess including during their hour-long lunch break. One field is used by the younger children, the other for the older kids. ALL the kids play and they love it!
  • The teacher is also Amish; the only requirement to teach is that they finished the 8th grade in good standing. There is no teacher training.
  • Some children use their pony carts to get to school. Others come by bicycle. We didn’t see any pony carts; I would assume they have a shed for the ponies and carts just like we saw at Walmart.
School’s in session.

Stop #2 was Teaberry Wood Products and it was probably my favorite stop on the whole tour. We were greeted by Lavern; he hopped onto the bus, a beautiful family portrait in hand, and gave us some background about the family business. The long and short of it is that he works for his wife! Rachel is the primary designer of their baskets and puzzles.

They are best known for their beautifully-crafted, wooden, woven baskets—each one is made from a single piece of wood! The pattern is such that a scroll saw cuts the base of the basket and all the  ‘weavers.’ The stakes are the upright sticks that are woven in and out of the weavers to hold it all together.

Rachel showed us how a basket is cut from one piece of wood. Beautiful!
The weavers are stacked (offset) and then held together by the staves.

They also make many others items including beautiful cutting boards, handsome pens, amazing puzzles (that can be stood up and will stay altogether), stunning nativities, and wooden seam rippers.

Lavern told us the story of how the seam rippers came to be a part of their business —– they found that men were interested in the pens  but when they wanted to come up with something for the “women”  in an area where quilting is common, the idea for the seam ripper emerged. They can’t keep them in stock.  Lavern told us that since men don’t make mistakes, they don’t NEED seam rippers! No stains are used on any of their products, but each item is dipped into a large vat of oil which brings out all the grain of the wood. They use exotic woods to create the color dimension.

My gorgeous seam ripper (because I DO make mistakes!).
I’ll always remember Rachel when I use this basket — a perfect size for our RV.

Back on the bus and after a quick stop at a small quilt shop that was going out of business — we were on our way to lunch. My “brown bag” (not my lunch!) now had a bag of “Horse and Buggy” pretzels and a jar of Amish jam — I’m going to need more storage in my kitchen!

We were treated to a hearty Thresher’s Dinner at a large dining hall built and run by a lovely young Amish family. (A Thresher’s Dinner is a family style Amish dinner; it’s similar to a harvest meal.) Seth (in his early 30’s) welcomed us and shepherded us to the pie table before we entered the dining room. FINALLY! Someone ELSE who agrees that you have to know what’s for dessert before you have dinner. I chose a piece of fresh peach pie and took it to my table.

The hall is also used for quilting bees — we were surrounded by colorful quilts.

We got to our tables and were served a scrumptious feast of baked chicken, meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, amazing “slaw,” and bread — lots and lots of bread. The bread is served with two spreads — a “peanut butter spread” and apple butter. We tried to figure out what made the peanut butter spread so airy — it was almost like it’d been whipped with a little marshmallow fluff. The slaw was actually a cauliflower/broccoli salad, very finely chopped, crunchy, and delicious.

What a meal!

A second wave of serving plates and bowls came around the table — most all of us were too full for seconds! And we still had dessert. Just as we were finishing our pie, Seth announced that homemade vanilla ice cream was coming out in a moment with caramel sauce. Wow!

More handmade quilts to admire.
Such fine stitches – wow!

After lunch, Seth answered lots and lots of questions from our group (both buses – about 120 people in all) — interestingly enough, most of the questions were from the men and nearly all of them were about marriage and church traditions. Seth told us all about how once they’ve completed 8th grade, young people travel quite frequently to other Amish communities (even in other states) and that’s sometimes how they meet their future spouse. He also told us about his young family (a wife and two young children) and how he hadn’t had any schooling beyond 8th grade. Several people on the tour asked questions about whether an Amish person is shunned by their family and/or community if they marry outside of the Amish faith. Seth explained that they could still visit (and would be welcomed by) their family and community but that they just couldn’t attend worship. He doesn’t like the word shunned and thinks that it makes it sound too harsh.

Seth told us that his mother had been a teacher (she was standing right behind him at that moment and chuckled!) and that he was always careful to speak as correctly as possible. Sure enough, she had finished 8th grade in good standing and decided she wanted to teach when it was time for her own kids to attend school.

We were quite struck when Seth explained that in the Amish community, no one has insurance — neither health nor homeowners. They consider buying insurance a form of gambling (and I guess it is). The community IS the insurance — if a family loses their home or barn in a fire, by that evening, community members have plans in place and the new structure is completed within a week! Seth also told us that families in the church communities (usually about 1 mile wide by 2 miles long) each contribute to help each other out. For instance, if a family has a huge medical expense, the community will provide money to cover the expenses.  What incredible generosity and commitment!

As we boarded the bus to leave, we saw a large trailer packed tightly with benches (and songbooks were in there, too). Seth’s family was due to host this week’s worship service. The trailer of benches is moved from home to home. They only have church every other Sunday and always meet in homes.

Note: At our next stop, one of our group realized that she’d dropped $20 at the dining hall when she pulled her cellphone from her back pocket. She let our tour guide know. At about the same time, the tour guide received a phone call from Seth that someone had dropped $20 on the floor at lunchtime.  Seth told us that he’d ride his bicycle out to the road and meet us as we came by on the bus— and surely he did.

We visited a buggy shop in the afternoon — here’s the show lot. 🙂

We visited a buggy shop in the afternoon — it was impressive! The owner, Maynard, runs a one-man shop; he builds and repairs Amish buggies. His craftsmanship is in such demand that he has an 18-month waiting list for new buggies. It takes him about two weeks to complete one.

One of several tool benches in the buggy shop.

All kinds of special options can be ordered– everything from LED headlights to blinkers, from hand-operated windshield wipers to extra spacious carrying room for groceries, etc. The interiors are stitched on his heavy-duty sewing machine (one of his favorite parts of the process).  They were amazing!

A buggy being built in Maynard’s workshop.
Wheels and more wheels.

Maynard explained that well-built and well-maintained buggies can last forty years or more and are often passed on from one generation to the next. They can sell for about $12,000 new.

And, of course, we were each given a bag of Horse and Buggy Pretzels as we reboarded the bus. My brown bag was heavy!

Can you see the horse and buggy shape of each pretzel?

This incredible journey into the world of the Amish community was my favorite part of our trip to Indiana.  It’s a treat to learn so much about an area we’re traveling through. I’m so glad that I am able to share some part of the experience with you.

Exploring the United States and Canada by RV