Camping With Canines: The Plan and First Leg of Our Great Lakes Trip

4 07 2018

Our adventure to the Great Lakes evolved with twists and turns from the planning stages up until our last night camping.  We started planning months in advance with our friends John and Deborah McMurtrie, looking for somewhere to go in June that would be cool and scenic, our two criteria for a summer vacation.  We were intrigued by Isle Royale National Park, an island in the middle of Lake Superior, but it soon became apparent that it was out of our reach.  We settled on Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan and Pictured Rock National Lakeshore on Lake Superior in Upper Peninsula Michigan.


As time went on, a cousins’ reunion in Indiana was added to our plans as was a visit with another cousin in Michigan and a stopover in Minocqua, Wisconsin where my niece and her family would be vacationing. Our plans were to tent-camp on the way up, leaving our dogs under the care of our daughters, and meet up with the McMurtries at Sleeping Bear.  We arranged for a VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner, to the uninitiated) that we would share in Grand Marais, a little town just outside of Pictured Rock.  Babe’s Place was a two bedroom house conveniently located for all our adventures. Perfect!

6.26.18 Grand Marais near Pictured Rock (37)

Babe’s Place, Grand Marais, MI

Our first game-changer came just a few weeks before we were to leave.  We bought a used A-frame pop-up camper.  Outfitted with AC, heater, microwave, stereo, and refrigerator, this was living in the lap of luxury when compared with our normal Spartan tent life.  No more sleeping in a hot, stuffy tent and worrying about the chance of rain!


The second major twist in plans came two weeks before leaving, when we decided that rather than leave our pups behind, they would come along.  As mobile as babies (but with a lot less noise), camping with canines was not an issue.  Our dogs would stay on leashes or long leads and could sleep in air-conditioned comfort with us. However, the house in Grand Marais was a problem.  Understandably, no dogs were allowed.  We sent word to the owners, inquiring about nearby kennels (none) and asking as a last resort if it would be possible to park our camper there for our dogs to stay in.  Their response stunned us.  No.  And furthermore, it was strongly suggested that we cancel our reservation.

Cancelling was not an option.  Deborah was flying in from California with their grandson Tristan, and John was driving up.  They needed a place to stay.  Scrambling, we assured the owners that of course we would never have the dogs in their house and we did not wish to cancel.  After a search on the Internet, we discovered a campground nearby, and decided to tag-team staying there with the dogs.  Our only concern was that this campground did not take reservations.  We would have to get there as early as possible and hope for the best.

Our first leg of the trip took us almost-uneventfully to Franklin, Tennessee, where we would drop off my g-nephew Nate who had been with us for the week and then spend the night with my niece Becky’s family.  I say “almost-uneventfully” because of what happened in Atlanta.  Atlanta, a city that I will never willingly travel through again.  Driving through the center of the city (which was actually suggested by our GPS as shorter than the I-285 bypass) in four lanes of unyielding traffic and pulling a 1500 pound camper, our car’s engine inexplicably shut off.  Power steering off, hazard lights flipped on, heart pounding, hoping that for once Atlanta drivers would show mercy, somehow I was able to move the car slowly to the outside lane and then onto the shoulder of the road. Whether by the grace of God or the self-preservation instincts of the other drivers, I brought the car to a stop without so much as a horn blowing.  Once stopped, the car started again without complaint and I was able to inch up the shoulder to a nearby exit and then through the streets of Atlanta and back on the highway.  Hours later when we reached Tennessee, my heart was almost beating normally.

Despite our concerns, our mixed-breed mutts Shae and Pip took to the long car rides without hesitation.  Pip stayed in the back of the car while Shae commandeered the entire back seat; they settled in quickly and slept most of the way.  We stopped more frequently for stretch breaks, something as useful to us as for them.  They became adept at jumping back into the car and later sleeping on their beds wherever the night found us.  And likewise, our noses adapted to the constant doggy odor that soon pervaded the car and camper.  Traveling with canines was easier than we had imagined!


This photo is from a previous trip; without tent gear in the car, this time the dogs had much more space!

Our Maine Event: The Catskills

2 08 2017


Since our trip to Maine involved lots of hours in the car, we planned to offset the driving with a full day in an interesting location.  All my life I’d heard of the Catskills, mostly in the context of the story of Rip Van Winkle, so we made this one of our stops.  And I’m glad we did!  Although we never saw old Rip, we did see signs of life, both past and present.

7/9/17 Day 3: Drove to the Catskills. Russell Brook Campsites. 379 mi./6 hr. 50 min. 

We’re getting good at this traveling thing.  Up at 6:45 and on the road by 8:00.  We traveled through some beautiful countryside as we passed through Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and finally New York:  rolling hills, fields of crops and pastures with horses, old red barns with white stone silos.  Air travel may be faster, but you miss so much.  Our campsite was in the woods by a babbling brook with a crackling fire, the air just crisp enough to appreciate the fire’s warmth.  Picture-book camping!


7/10/17 Day 4: Explored the Catskills.

After an egg burrito breakfast and a free, hot shower  that cleansed our bodies and our spirits (showers at Shenandoah N.P. were $1.50 for 5 min.), Brian and I set off in search of a hike.  Coasting down a steep hill, I didn’t notice the patrol car with a radar gun at the bottom until it was too late, and although Brian cringed, I made a quick U-turn which brought us side by side since this just happened to be at a trail head.  But all was well.  The police didn’t even glance our way, so we took off up the little-used trail that was part of the Finger Lakes Trail system.  Crumbling stone walls led us to marvel at the effort needed to build these property markers.

2017-07-10 7-17 Acadia trip 023

Nevertheless, but for a couple of chipmunks and a couple piles of intriguing scat, there were no signs of life.  We soon tired of hiking uphill with no idea what was ahead, so we turned around and headed back to the car.

2017-07-10 7-17 Acadia trip 001

I’m guessing, bear?  (And yes, I do brake for scat.)

We drove around the reservoir that supplies water to NYC, noting the restrictions on its use: only paddle boats allowed.  At one landing, we were impressed with the number of row boats, kayaks, and canoes that were tucked away on the edges of the lake, although we didn’t see a soul around.  What a shame on this beautiful day!  And too bad these boats were tied down with no paddles around or I might have been tempted to take one out for a quick spin.

We happened along a trail head called the Palmer Hill Trail, so after eating a quick lunch from our cooler we set off down the path.


2017-07-10 7-17 Acadia trip 022

The trail led through woods into a beautiful meadow shoulder-high with milkweed, black-eyed Susans, pale yellow sulphur cinquefoil, barely pink musk mallow and a yellow flat-topped flower I took to be some kind of Queen Anne’s lace.

musk mallow

Musk Mallow

Fortunately, I didn’t pick any of this buttery beauty as I later found out this was wild parsnip, whose sap can cause phytophotodermatitis, that is, a blistering rash that develops when the sap is exposed to sunlight.  Ouch.  I hope whoever mowed the path wore long sleeves!

wild parsnip

Wild Parsnip

Standing on a rock at the top of the meadow, I heard a huffing sound coming from the woods.  Immediate thoughts of bear hurried me back down through the meadow, past ancient apple trees loaded with hard green fruit, and over a small brown snake that slithered under my feet without me even noticing.   A grand, glorious ramble.

eastern tiger swallowtail on common milkweed2

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Common Milkweed

Skitters, Swamps, and Sand: Spring Break Defined

11 04 2013

“Hey, you got long hair?”  The disembodied voice carried from one shower stall over to mine.

“No…”  I replied.

“Than you prolly wanna use this shower.  It’s better than that ‘un.”

So I moved over, and she was right.  The woman obviously was well-acquainted with them both.  At $18 a night including water and electricity, Shepard State Park on the coast of Mississippi made a good stopover on our travels, as well as a cheap place to hunker down for those caught in economic distress.  That night, we chatted with a bird-watching retired couple taking a two-month sojourn from Oregon to visit relatives in Florida, and the next morning I learned from another long-term camper that there was a vent connecting the men’s and women’s bathhouses that every morning brought over the stench of tobacco smoke from “someone smoking in the boys’ room.”  Camping.  There just isn’t anything like it.

Spring Break is all about breaking from the routine and getting refreshed for the last few weeks of the school year.  Which is why I twisted Brian’s arm, slightly, into taking a camping trip.  I was interested in the Florida beaches on the Gulf Coast and in looking at the map noticed that Pensacola was a mere three hours from New Orleans, where coincidentally the National WWII Museum beckoned.  And so we set out.

We spent the first night communing with mosquitoes at Florida Caverns State Park.  In hindsight, camping in a swamp was not the best idea, even in April.  According to the ranger, massive rains about a month earlier had hastened mosquito season such that it was hard to breathe without inhaling a few of the swarming pests.  We set world records getting in and out of our tent and managed to spend a fairly comfortable night without the whine of insects in our ears, although our spaghetti dinner was doubtlessly enhanced with their protein.  Fortunately, by that point it was dark.  Barred owls and howling dogs (coyotes?) kept us entertained through the long night.  2013-04-08 08.31.42

2013-04-08 08.36.21

2013-04-08 09.33.11

2013-04-08 08.04.48

The virtues of a swamp do not include mosquitoes.

The next morning we broke camp in record time, leaving the tent to dry on the picnic table while we toured the park’s main attraction, the caverns.  The solitary bat we saw there, try as he might, obviously could not make a dent in the mosquito population.  The tour was thankfully pest-free, and we enjoyed our walk through the cave system as our guide pointed out stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies, flowstone, and other features that made this underground section of the park so much more pleasant and remarkable than the topside.  In our haste to leave, we almost made it out of the park before remembering to go back for our tent.

Ahh, the beach.  A short three-hour drive promised the white sands and blue skies of Florida’s Gulf coast at Big Lagoon State Recreation Area.   We pulled in to the park to see a scruffy sand dune desert: rolling dunes covered with saw palmetto, vines, and more than a few dead tree scrags.  The campground map showed us beachside, so upon finding our site, I climbed over the dune to gaze upon the shore.  A swamp.  Again, a swamp!  Yet when I squinted my eyes, I could just barely make out the white sands of the beach.  A walk on the boardwalk gave us the names of the local flora: sand pines, sand live oaks, sand everything.  And in-between the sand dunes, stagnant water covered with duckweed, hiding, no doubt, the gleaming eyes of hungry gators.  Yet a constant breeze kept flying insects at bay, so all was not lost.

We got back into the car and drove down to the beach, which though quite nice, was only on the lagoon (hence the name “Big Lagoon”).  Back in the car, we drove a few more miles out of the car to Perdido Key and paid a few dollars to drive on Gulf Islands National Seashore, where the dazzling white sand and crashing surf confirmed every preconceived notion we had of Florida’s beaches.   2013-04-08 15.36.25    Breathing deeply, we stretched out on the sands, then walked the surfline for a while, snapping shots of a disinterested great blue heron who obviously was used to the invasion of human-types.  2013-04-08 16.12.24All too soon, we headed back to the campground.  Lulled to sleep by the croaking rhythm of a bajillion frogs, we were awakened early by the chirps, tweets, songs, and squawks of a bajillion birds.  Sleeping in was not an option.

2013-04-09 06.56.48

Morning breaks over the swamp

By 8:15, we were on the road, headed for New Orleans and the National WWII Museum.  The next six hours was spent reading every exhibit, watching every short video, and listening to every audio in the entire museum.  No, that’s a lie.  I didn’t get to take in everything, but we did take our time and see as much as we could.  There’s always next time.

2013-04-09 15.35.12

A victory garden outside the WWII museum

2013-04-09 15.38.16

A half-track similar to the one that carried my father across Europe

Although it doesn’t have the emotional angst of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, it did present a thorough view of the War along with insightful observations (America fought Hitler, the world’s worst racist, with our own segregated army).  Back in the car, we headed out of New Orleans at rush hour, an experience with all the thrills and excitement of an amusement park roller coaster.

Into Mississippi, we found Shepard State Park.  Within seconds, the sand gnats found us.  A glance behind our campsite confirmed the obvious:  another swamp.  Again, world records were set in unzipping and zipping the tent door.  A quick meal of partially-rehydrated vegetable soup, enhanced with insect protein, then the plaintive call of a locomotive every half hour to keep us company through the night.  The next morning, we broke camp in under half an hour, eating breakfast at a rest area down the road a ways.  A long drive home ahead of us, we entertained ourselves scaring the several hundred sand gnats who had decided to journey along with us.

Into Alabama, with only five or so hours separating us from the comforts of home, we came to a brown sign on the highway indicating that Tuskegee Institute was a short distance off the road.  “Shall we?” Brian asked.  “Silly question,” I replied as we veered off the highway: yet another reason why I love my husband.

Not knowing exactly what we were looking for, we passed a cemetery with the obvious grave of Booker T. Washington, etched with “Education is the answer.”  We drove through the impressive campus of Tuskegee University: distinctive, well-kept buildings with a student population still thriving after all these years.  The campus was, however, an island of prosperity amid an ocean of poverty.  The city of Tuskegee had the paint-peeling run-down feel of a scrubby deep South town where laundromats, tattoo parlors, and Quik Cash marts were the only thriving industries.  On the way out of town, we came to Moton Field, training site of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.  We stopped and went through the hangar where exhibits told the story of the famous experiment that proved Blacks were capable of serving in combat operations.  I always feel embarrassed that it took us so long to admit what should have been obvious.

2013-04-10 12.39.28

Moton Field, training site of the Tuskegee Airmen

2013-04-10 12.31.56

Inside the hangar at Moton Field

The rest of our trip home was spent in a state of boredom-induced drowsiness when Brian drove the long highways and wide-eyed two-handed alertness as I drove through the convoluted construction-ridden areas around major cities.  Home again, after three days of camping and some 1400 miles, history and nature seamlessly interwoven on the wings of countless insects, reminded once again of the world outside my classroom, thinking all the while of ways to bring it back within the walls of my school.  Spring Break, indeed.

Diamond Impressions

31 07 2011

My sister and me with our Rambler

Walking down the sidewalk of downtown Columbia, SC, I had a flashback.  It was another sticky hot day, so hot that even the squirrels were stretched belly down on shaded bricks, trying to cool off.  A woman walked in front of me wearing shorts and a sleeveless blouse.  Imprinted on the back of her thighs were diamond tattoos, not made with ink, but rather from the weave of the chair she had been sitting in.  Well do I remember those diamond tattoos.

Playing Traffic Cop

The year was 1965 when my parents bought the Rambler.  It was a blue station wagon, equipped with a radio and (drum roll please) air conditioning.  I spent a lot of my growing up years in that Rambler, so air conditioning was a real bonus.  Each summer, my family would take off for another part of the United States, pulling the pop-up trailer behind us as we traveled for weeks on end.  My father had worked his way up to five weeks of vacation a year at that point, so we would often be gone for three or four weeks at a time.  With this being a new car and all, my parents covered the vinyl seats with clear plastic seat covers with a raised diamond design.

Just because we had air conditioning did not mean we used it all the time.  A typical day’s drive would start with the windows rolled up for the first few hours, seeing as how we’d get better gas mileage without the wind resistance.  By 11:00 or so, sweat would be trickling down my mother’s face and neck.  Folks like to say that Southern women don’t sweat, they glow.  Although by then she had lived in the south longer than from her home state of Illinois, Mom was definitely not a Southern woman.  She didn’t glow; she poured.  She never complained (we did enough of that for her), but by the time we stopped for lunch she would be soaking wet.

Getting out of the car was always an experience.  My sister and I would have to pry our legs off those plastic seats, our legs making squelchy wet sounds as we eased them out the door.  And no matter how much we tried to sit on our hands or shift around, we always had diamond tattoos on the backs of our thighs.

More times than not, our lunch stop would be at a roadside pull off, where we would drag out the cooler and have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and warm lemonade.  Sometimes after lunch Daddy would stretch himself out on the top of the concrete picnic table, crossing his legs and interlocking his fingers over his stomach.  Within minutes, he would be asleep while we entertained ourselves by pretending bahia grass stalks were magic wands or, better yet, by throwing acorns at each other.  Soon enough we’d be on the road again, this time with the air conditioning on for a few blessed hours.

It was on these trips in that Rambler that I taught myself to read without getting carsick.  I had to.  There was nothing else to do, other than letting the telephone lines hypnotize me as they swooped past.  I have mixed feelings about the video games and DVD players that kids have in their backseats today.  I understand parents needing some quiet time in the car, but sometimes kids have to be bored into reading.  Those books took me farther than that old Rambler ever did.

We played “I Spy.”  It usually went like this:

ME: I spy something green.

MY SISTER: Is it grass?

ME: Yes.

MY SISTER: My turn.  I spy something gray.

ME: Is it the road?


BOTH:  I’m bored.

PARENTS (in unison): Read a book.

I remember one time we were somewhere in New England, or maybe Ohio, and Lucy and I both got sick.  Really sick, the throwing up kind.  We didn’t head for home.  We hardly slowed down.  My mother cleaned out the Way Back and threw in a couple of pillows and a bucket.  Lucy and I lay down with that bucket between us, and we continued on.  I felt like a martyr.

Just call me "jughead." That's Daddy and me in front of the tent-trailer.

We camped all over the United States this way.  I learned that Sault St. Marie is pronounced “Sue Saint Marie.”  I learned that empty gas cans are best not thrown in the campfire.  I learned that the Golden Eagle Passport gets you in most national parks (much later, this was the answer to a high school current events question that I answered correctly, much to the surprise of my teacher).  We traveled to museums, national parks, monuments, battlefields, and beaches.  We ate black walnut ice cream on the hood of that Rambler, out of the carton, finishing the whole thing before it melted.  We waited out storms that kept us cooped up in the car for hours before we could set up the tent-trailer.  I can count on one hand the times we stopped at Mickey Dee’s or any other restaurant.  I was in eleventh grade before I stayed in a hotel, when my best friend invited me on vacation with her folks.  I thought all families traveled like we did.

Traveling is so much more comfortable now.  We have soft seat covers, leather even.  We run the air conditioning just as soon as it starts to get warm.  Electronics keep our kids entertained.  We stay in nice hotels, condos, or resorts.  We eat out without even thinking twice.  We let tour guides show us the best sights.

Eventually, the long road trips came to an end.  The Rambler was put to rest out at Sassafras, the hundred-acre plot of land out on Highway 302 that my father bought upon retirement.  I went to see her once.  She was resting comfortably under a shed, sharing space with stacks of old lumber, windows scavenged from a house Daddy tore down, and rolls of chicken wire.  Her blue paint was dull with age, pine needles clogged her wipers, and her tires were up on blocks.  Inside, though, her seats were in pristine condition under the now-cloudy plastic seat covers.  I ran my hand over the raised pattern, remembering the temporary indentions they made on my thighs.  Although they faded from sight fairly quickly, those diamonds had left a permanent impression on my life.