Friday, September 4, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Canadian Detour, Iowa Hospitality, and Road Food

While at the Alto rally, Andy from Can Am, where we purchased our Alto, suggested we come in for a new fridge since we'd been having trouble with ours. It meant postponing our trip to the Ingalls Homestead and losing one night in the Badlands, but we figured we weren't going to be any closer to Ontario in the near future. Thankfully, we had our passports and registration for the Alto with us which made border crossings pretty straightforward.

Can Am is in London, Ontario and the drive there is very beautiful and pastoral with lots and lots of windmills.

Windmills as far as the eye can see.

Unless you're interested in all-things RV feel free to skip this paragraph. We have had problems with our dometic two-way (propane and electric) fridge from the get-go. I won't go through all the work we've had done on it, but suffice it to say, it has never cooled correctly. So we spent a night camped in the Can Am parking lot, and got to become recquainted with several of the great folks we'd met last summer when picking up the Alto. We headed out with a new fridge later that day, but not before purchasing one of these stovetop toasters. Sadly we've had issues with the new fridge too, but I won't bore you with the details.

After passing back into the US we wanted to drive as far as we could and find a quick place to overnight. I heard that Cracker Barrels will let RVers overnight in their parking lots so I called ahead to check. I called 3 stores and 2 of the 3 were happy to have us stay, while the third does not allow it. So we made our way to Kalamazoo and spent a mostly uneventful night there. It did get a little stormy, but everthing had passed us by by about midnight and we were able to have a pretty restful night. We felt we owed Cracker Barrel some of our cash for the free lodging so we ate breakfast there and then headed out.

I bought Jane and Michael Stern's book Road Food several months back, hoping we could catch some of the recommended restaurants on our route. I'd forgotten I even had it until a friend mentioned stopping at several of their recommendations when on a road trip as a child. I had the Kindle copy so it was easy to search and I found a spot on our route that day that promised a beloved decades old hot fudge recipe. Barry is not one for sweets but Nella and I outnumber him, so we took a 15 minute detour to Lagomarcino's in Moline, Iowa.

I called ahead to check on parking options and we were able to find an easy parallel spot a couple of blocks away. I learned on this trip that Google Earth is your friend when you want to find somewhere with trailer-friendly parking.

The hot fudge was a little on the sweet side for me, but Nella and I both liked being able to add it ourselves so we could make the ratio of ice cream to hot fudge just right. The whole place was remarkably preserved and had that great old-fashioned soda fountain feel.They also had a beautiful selection of handmade candy so we picked some up for our friends who we were meeting up with that night.

We didn't decide on our route to South Dakota until that day, but when we realized we'd be heading through Grinnell, Iowa I wanted to get in touch with our friends Nicole and Russ. I first met Nicole when we lived in Iowa and she and I worked on a housing grant together. She later game to Austin to get her Ed.D at UT when Barry and I were there for his law degree so we got to overlap for a year or two there. We were still in touch via Facebook but hadn't seen each other since probably 2002, so when I messaged her on Facebook to say we were coming through and would love to meet up, she graciously invited us to stay at her house. I hesitated, explaining that we had loads of laundry to do but they welcomed us and our piles of laundry. In case you haven't had the pleasure of knowing many Iowans, they're about as nice as people come--at least these Iowans are. So we got to catch up, meet their two beautiful daughters and nieces who were visiting, and Nella got an unexpected playdate and sleepover.

Nella and Claire after walking their dog. I regret not getting a photo of the whole crew!
We headed out the next morning after a great visit. Come see us soon Behrens!

I had forgotten how beautiful the wide open spaces of Iowa can be.
There's something mesmerizing about all those cornfields.

We decided to try another of the Stern's recommendations for a late lunch. Althogh Barry and I lived in Northwest  Iowa for two years, we somehow missed the phenomenon that is loose meat. We decided to rectify that by going to the Tastee Inn & Out in Sioux City.

It's one of those places that has been around for decades. I'd try loose meat again, but we didn't think this spot lived up to the hype.

Next stop, a childhood dream come true for me, the Ingalls' Homestead in DeSmet, South Dakota.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Kelleys Island Alto Rally

On Wednesday July 7 we departed for Kelley’s Island, Ohio in Lake Erie. As we headed out of town, I messaged Diana to ask about preferred routes through Cincinnati. She invited us over, but since we had lots of miles to cover and a ferry to catch, we felt like we'd better hit the road and see her at the rally. On route we passed through a small Ohio town with this amazing and very timely trompe l'oeil mural on Main Street. Sadly I don't remember the name of the town. Please let me know if you know it.

While choosing a camper, and after we’d ordered, I communicated with other Alto owners on the Safari Condo forum. Since it was in French, and Google translate only goes so far, I had floated the idea to Safari Condo about starting a Facebook page for enthusiasts. They seemed content with the corporate page they currently had, so I was thrilled when another English-speaking Alto enthusiast started one. (I guess that thing about asking for forgiveness later really works!) I was the third person to join the page, and only Alissa (the founder) and I were really active for a while so it was wonderful to have someone to talk to about all things Alto.

We now have more than 350 members with new requests to join coming in daily. As our numbers grew we began to chat about having a rally and based on our members locations, the Upper Midwest seemed to make sense. Diana and Len were kind enough to volunteer to organize our first rally for Kelleys Island.

Getting there required taking a ferry. This was Snug’s first time on a ferry and Nella’s first since a trip to the Outerbanks several years ago, so it was a fun adventure in and of itself. I don’t know if this was the first Alto on Kelleys Island, (Diana and Len may have been previously with their Alto) but it was the first some of the workers on our ferry had seen so it got a lot of attention.

A nice young guy offered to take our photo when we were working on a selfie. He took several because I think he was 
expecting my hair to eventually behave in the wind. It did not!

We had decided that if we were going to all this trouble to get to an island, we’d stay a few days. Since we needed to be back in early August for school and work, we added a couple of days on the front end, making us the first Alto to arrive at the rally site.

Our sweet waterfront site on Lake Erie.

We had lucked into a great water-front site for the first two days. We had some serious rain and a fair bit of wind. We were snuggled inside and all of a sudden Nella said, “the pole is in the air!” referring to one of our awning poles. Barry and I climbed out to hold the poles down, and figure out if we could do something to anchor them more securely, but it quickly became clear that being lakefront on Lake Erie sometimes brings some brisk winds that were more than the awning could handle. Barry braved the storm and took it down, which thankfully was a fairly quick task.


In between massive rain showers, on Thursday, Nella, Barry and I biked to the Glacial Grooves, the beach, and the lighthouse. 


A few others came on Thursday and Neil and Rachel, who had come from Kentucky to see our Alto weeks ago and who were vacationing in the area, decided to come just for the evening to get to meet more owners and see their Altos. Nella and I biked around to invite owners to come to our site to meet up that evening. It was a drizzly evening but we got the propane fire pit out and enjoyed chatting with our new friends on the shore of Lake Erie. Neil and Rachel had biked from the ferry, and she had an injured leg, so we offered to shuttle her back to the ferry while Barry rode her bike with Neil. This worked out well because it gave us a chance to hang out with them a little bit more (Nella and I with Rachel in the car, and Barry with Neil by bike) and let Barry get a lengthy ride in which he'd been wanting to do.

We had to move to a new site on Friday, which was a bit of a pain but had the benefit of bringing us nearer other rally participants. One of the really fun benefits of the Alto group is meeting people from around North America and Australia—folks we would very likely not have met otherwise, but who we have a surprising amount in common with. When chatting about this with Emily and Tony, Alto owners from Alaska, they pointed out that Alto owners are a pretty self-selecting group. Most camping trailers sold are huge. Clearly, not everyone wants a small trailer that can fit into state parks and go boondocking, but it turns out that the people who do are really cool! This is my first experience with meeting virtual friends in real life, and it really was wonderful and fun to put voices and three-dimensions with those I had only known online. (How else would I have learned for instance that Jim of Alto 80 fame has a very firm handshake and makes delicious pancakes? Or that Pete's special homebrew is named Beard Burner for a reason? Or that Emily is making a film for kids?) It was a bit surreal especially meeting Alissa and Karen in person, when we had been chatting online like old friends for months. Barry is not on Facebook and when I proposed attending the rally, he was willing but a little fearful of what being with 20+ Alto fanatics would be like. He was pleasantly surprised, and truly enjoyed meeting everyone. Nella was the only child among the group but everyone was very kind.  She was especially drawn to those with canine companions so she sought out and struck up friendships with these folks and their pets right away. 

Friday brought lots more Altos and Nella and I wanted to greet each one by bike so we were busy buzzing around the campground. Nella and I also fit in a trip to the beach with Emily, though we were disappointed that pets weren't allowed on the beach.

Emily and Nella with Bip.

Nella, Zoe and Linda.

Friday evening we had a gathering between our site and Diana and Len’s. Home brew by Len and Pete was on tap and lots of tasty hor d’oeuvres including salmon all the way from Alaska thanks to Emily and Tony, and fresh caught tuna from Paul and Christine. 

Saturday started with a tour of Altos which was great fun. It was cool to see how everyone had outfitted theirs and what organizational tricks they’d developed for keeping things accessible. We came away with a lot of great ideas and a recommitment to bring less next time. We also got to see the fixed roof models for the first time and oohed and awed over their storage options and larger bathroom. Some folks even brought along gifts for each of us such as the delicious preserves Tanya made us, and the Otterbein's sugar cookies from Karen and Steve. Those things are seriously addictive! 

Steve and Karen outside their Alto.

Saturday afternoon we headed back to the beach with Karen and Steve, and we also got some paddling in. That evening we had a potluck by the lake. Barry walked back to get something from our campsite and was attacked by a bird. The culprit was a red-winged blackbird. It happened four different times, and finally a long-time Kelleys Island camper told Barry the birds like to go for people in caps. You have been warned!

Playing innocent. From

In attack mode. From

Apart from the hostile birds, the lakeside pavilion was a beautiful serene setting. We hadn't had a good spot to hang our ENO hammock so we brought it along for the evening. 

Nella swinging.

After eating and chatting, Mark L. organized us to have everyone share a favorite campground in their state. This was followed by firefly catching for a few of us, and a talk by Andy with Can Am on towing. 

Who knew towing could be so riveting? (The pun is for any airstream enthusiasts out there.)

Sunday morning we shared a potluck breakfast and I lingered for a meeting about future rallies, while Barry started packing up. The group unanimously agreed the rally was great fun and we wanted to do it again. It was decided that there will be a West Coast rally next year and an East Coast/Midwest rally in 2017. Alissa will plan the West Coast rally and is hoping for help from Lissa. Karen and I volunteered to plan the East Coast/Midwest rally, so please let us know of any ideas you have for locations!

Next stop, The Ingalls Homestead in DeSmet, SD with a slight detour to London, Ontario.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Road Trip 2015: And We're Off!

4, 945 miles,
14 states and 1 province (with overnights in 12 states and 1 province),
5 Roadfood recommended restaurants,
3 National Parks,
2 Overnights with Friends (old and new),
2 Overnights at Wineries,
and 1 Oil Change.

Now that we’ve been back a week and are mostly back in the swing of things I wanted to share some photos and highlights of our trip to Glacier. My hope is to cover a segment of the trip in each post.


Our dear friend, Bekki, agreed to be our house-sitter while we traveled. Bekki’s a professor who teaches online in the summer, and loves Asheville, so she was up for leaving steamier climes to spend the summer in the mountains. Having a house-sitter had many bonuses. We wanted to leave things in good shape for her, so we left our house more organized than it has ever been when leaving for a trip. Unexpected bonuses included coming back to fresh-baked cookies, a sparkling clean house, a new coffee-maker, and much-needed new-casters on my office chair. There was more, but I don’t want to make you too jealous. There is a reason I’m leaving her last name out. She’s taken, people!

Nella and Bekki in Superhero mode. Halloween 2014.
We had planned to leave on Monday, July 6th, but packing for a month-long trip is no joke, especially when you have lots of different weather to contend with. And if, like me, you like being prepared for every eventuality that takes on a whole other level of complexity. We were also taking our new kayaks for the first time on an extended trip which was a stressful notion for Barry.

Nella on our maiden voyage on the French Broad in May.

Making sure the kayaks aren't moving while in transit. So that's what a sunroof is good for! 

We eventually realized we weren’t getting off early enough to make it there so we hoped to get at least a couple of hours down the road. As the day wore on, we wore out and Barry rightly convinced me to wait until the next morning so we could leave refreshed. We had a lovely dinner with Bekki and waited until Tuesday the 7th to head out. We still didn’t get off bright and early on Tuesday, but we were in a much better frame of mind to hit the road. 

My Dad was keeping an eye on the weather for us and texted to say he saw major storms moving through Kentucky and Ohio that evening and overnight. He and Mom offered to put us up for the night at a hotel, which we gladly accepted. The Alto does quite well in bad weather, and a rainstorm can be good sleeping weather, but not when it’s accompanied with lightning and high winds. We had hoped to get North of Cincinnati but the weather was looking scary, so we stopped at a hotel in Northern Kentucky.

We stayed at the Hyatt Place Cincinnati Airport Hotel, in Florence, Kentucky. Barry asked me to inquire about parking when I checked in. The hotel did not have any pull-through spaces, which meant we’d be parking perpendicularly across several spaces. We were told they were fully booked and we might not be able to park there, but could park at a nearby grocery store. We did not feel good about leaving Snug in a random grocery parking lot, so the manager reluctantly agreed that we could park there, but said they might call to have us move. We decided to risk it, and thankfully did not get any late night phone calls! 
Barry managed to fit us in 4 spaces, while angling the Odyssey so we had room to get out.

Our suite was nice and roomy. We savored one last nice long shower and ordered in for dinner.

Next stop, Kelleys Island!