March 1, 2011 – Day before departure, and the story is more snow

This weather is just nuts. We’ve lived here for 25 years, and this is easily the coldest, snowiest end of February/beginning of March we’ve ever experienced. When I got up yesterday morning I was greeted with over a foot of new snow. Time and energy which I needed to expend on final preparations was spent cleaning the boat off, again, and shoveling driveways (we have two). And, it continued snowing throughout the day, with half a foot of additional heavy, wet snow accumulating. It finally quit by late afternoon, but the forecast didn’t look good. Sure enough, this morning it’s started to snow again, and 6 to 8 inches is forecast for today and tonight, with more predicted tomorrow. I’ll have major work just getting the boat down my 16 percent slope driveway tomorrow morning.

Wintry weather is not just a problem here at home. It’s totally disrupting our road trip plans. I’d intended on taking a northern route, via I-90 as far as Sheridan, Wyoming. This involves crossing the panhandle of Idaho, over 4th of July Summit and Lookout Pass. I checked the road report for these two passes last night, and was seeing serious travel warnings and “chains required” notes for vehicles with tows. Further, an arctic outbreak is bringing severe low temperatures to the northern plains. I definitely want to avoid having to chain up, so my preferred route, which included a sightseeing stop in the Black Hills, is no longer being considered. Instead, we’ll swing south, taking I-84 through Boise and pick up I-84 just north of Salt Lake City. We’ll stick with I-84 as far as Lincoln NE, and then pick up our planned route east. We drove this route 2 years ago and wanted to go a different way this trip, but the current weather pattern is forcing our hand. Today, I’ll have to drag out the AAA camping directories and try to locate campgrounds which are open year round. Most campgrounds don’t open until later in the spring. I like having specific destinations targeted when towing the boat cross country, and I don’t appreciate surprises such as “campground closed” signs. Meanwhile, today I’ll keep the driveway cleared off, finish last minute preparations, and finalize route planning. The old saying goes, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it”. Well, tomorrow morning I plan on doing something about it. Namely, getting out of here and searching for some place warmer.

March 2, 2011 – 6 pm – Hagerman National Fish Hatchery

553 miles traveled for the day

We’re parked on the grounds of the Hagerman National Fish Hatchery, which is located in the Thousand Springs region of the Snake River in southern Idaho. We’re visiting with Eric, a long time family friend, who works here at the hatchery. It was a long day’s drive, but we made it in good shape, arriving at 5:15pm. This is a great place to stay the night. In addition to catching up with Eric, we’re able to plug in and heat the boat cabin with our portable electric heater.

It took an early start to make it here that soon, especially considering we lost an hour to the time zone change along the way. I’d planned on getting up at 5:30 am this morning, but was awake at 5:10 am, eager to get going. I was greeted with 3 inches of heavy wet snow which had to be pushed off the driveway before I dared try rolling the truck and boat down to the street. The chock blocks were frozen in place, so I whacked them loose with a lug wrench, and at 6:45 am we were actually on our way. We encountered slush on the roadway for the first 30 miles, but after that the roads were clear. We crossed the Columbia River into Oregon just south of Richland WA, and picked up I-84 near Umatilla OR. This highway follows the old Oregon Trail route through northeastern Oregon and southern Idaho. It’s remarkable to consider that in just one hour we travel about as far as an emigrant’s covered wagon could go in a week.

Mileage was rather poor (11.7 mpg for the first tank and 12.9 for the second), due both to some steep grades on this first leg of the trip, as well as to the surprising headwinds we encountered. I was driving a bit faster than usual, which also didn’t help. I am hoping to average 13 to 14 on the flatter terrain, and holding the truck down to around 60 mph should do the trick.

We’ve just returned from a delightful evening walk along the hatchery entrance road. This place is a true wildlife haven, with hundreds of ducks and geese winging their way overhead, and taking flight off the spring creek which flows through the grounds. We were favored with a beautiful sunset while on our walk. The low sun angle brought out vivid highlights in the trees and brush, and illumined a brief but intense rainbow just before setting.

March 3, 2011 – Rock Springs WY – KOA campground

Clear and cold outside, wind gusting to 30 knots; 384 miles traveled for the day; 935 miles total

We’re moored in the Rock Springs KOA for the night. Based on info from the AAA camping guide, this may be the only open campground along the entire length of I-80 this time of year. We’re the only ones here, so it’s not hard to understand why. When I went into the office to register, the lady asked what type of camping vehicle we were staying in. I replied “sailboat”. She didn’t believe me, and I had to persuade her to look out the window. I guess they don’t get many MacGregors checking in around here.

It’s in the low 20’s outside, and the wind has really kicked up. If I didn’t know better, I’d think we were at anchor in some harbor, from the way the boat is bouncing around in the wind. If it blows any harder outside, I may be tempted to set my anchor. We’ve got an electric heater as well as the Wallas heater going, and the temp in the cabin is up to 70 degrees. It will get into the teens outside, and we’ll run the electric heater all night, so we should stay nice and cozy.

We took our time getting started this morning, and weren’t on the road until 9:30. It rained most of last night, and was still raining when we hit I-84. Rain turned to snow as we angled southeast toward the Utah border. It snowed hard for a while, but wasn’t sticking to the roadway. We stayed with I-84 down to Ogden UT and then eastward through the canyon to the junction with I-80 in occasionally rainy conditions.

We stopped at a rest area a few miles shy of Evanston WY, and I talked with a trucker who said he’d heard that the eastbound interstate was closed about 20 miles east of the rest area. He’d gotten the report on his CB radio from a westbound trucker. The sun was poking out at that point, and I couldn’t imagine a closure due to weather problems. Perhaps an accident, I thought. We pushed on, and made it to Evanston just fine. Lots of fresh snow in the area, but none on the road. A few miles east of Evanston, however, we crested a hill and saw traffic starting to slow and back up. It was moving however, and we were able to continue on. The semis were bumper to bumper ahead, but all moving. I noticed plows clearing slush off the westbound lanes and a couple of miles further on, saw traffic on the other side of the freeway completely stopped. They must have shut the westerly lanes down while the plows worked. The instantaneous traffic jam was incredible. We cruised past at least 15 miles of vehicles, 90 percent big rigs, completely stopped. Some of the truckers had their hoods tipped up, checking oil or whatever. We must have come along just after the eastbound traffic got moving. I’m sure glad we didn’t get caught up in the mess we were seeing on our left.

We got in to the KOA around 4 pm, and went to go for a walk up into the foothills. It felt great to stretch the legs, and I had just enough time after getting back to barbque some steaks at the picnic table. We’ll try to get started a little earlier tomorrow morning, since we plan on driving about 100 miles further than today. Hopefully, it won’t be quite so cold down along the South Platte River in Nebraska, where we intend to camp next.

March 4, 2011 – Rock Springs KOA – 7:30 am

It’s mostly clear outside, and a raw wind is blowing. It’s clocked to the northwest. The weather forecast calls for a severe storm to hit southeast Wyoming and the Nebraska panhandle on Monday night and into Tuesday. Supposed to be the most severe single storm of the winter. It looks like we’re sneaking through this area just in time. I really wouldn’t want to be here in severe low temperatures, with heavy wind driven snow. That kind of weather can become lethal in a hurry.

I fueled up in Rock Springs yesterday, just before pulling in to the KOA. I had held driving speed down to around 63 mph for most of the day yesterday, and was pleased to find my mileage had improved to 15.2 mpg for the day. I should be able to at least equal that today, with this tailwind.

March 4, 2011 (continued) – Holiday RV Park, North Platte NE – 8:40 pm

490 miles driven today; 1,426 for the trip

That tailwind more than did its job. Coupled with smooth roads, a gradual but steady downgrade, and a consistent driving speed of 65 mph, we made it all the way here to North Platte on a single tank of fuel. Granted, the “low fuel” light was on for the last 20 miles, but still, it was a remarkable run. I calculate that we got 16.5 mph for the day, which is the best I’ve ever recorded while towing the boat. I doubt I’ll see mileage that good for the rest of this trip.

Temperatures were cold to frigid all day today, with mostly gray skies. These conditions made the drive across dreary southern Wyoming all the more boring. It’s apparent that energy is big business in this part of the country. We passed through places with names like Carbon County, and watched freight locomotives hauling uniform strings of coal cars several miles in length to plants like the Jim Bridger Power Plant, with its massive stack creating a huge plume of vapor. We skirted the town of Sinclair, whose oil refinery is apparently considered a historical landmark of sorts. The industrial structures there seem almost Gothic in appearance, and are reminiscent of one of those post apocalyptic science fiction movie sets. The scenery briefly improved between Rawlins and Cheyenne, where I-80 passes by the north edge of the Big Snowy Mountains, which certainly lived up to their name. The summit there is almost 9,000 feet above sea level, and the wind really howls through the area. I was almost tempted to set a sail. If I had, I’m sure I could have topped 20 mpg.

Today we crossed the continental divide, which along I-80 is just a small rise in the midst of a sagebrush covered desert, although the elevation is 7000 feet. Just east of Cheyenne we began our incremental descent, crossing the great plains in the valley of the Platte River. We were once again tracing in reverse the path of the historic Oregon Trail. North Platte, where we’re camped, is located where the North and South Platte Rivers join to become simply the Platte. Further east, the Platte was described by early pioneers as “being a mile wide and an inch deep”. Almost sounds like MacGregor waters.

After fueling the truck and checking in at the RV park, I unhitched for the first time since leaving home, and made a short shopping trip into town. Earlier in the trip I’d noticed I had a burned out headlight, and so picked up a pair. I had just enough daylight to pop them in.

March 5, 2011 – Waubonsie State Park, IA

306 miles traveled today; 1,732 miles total

I got up at 6:30 am. The robins were making a lot of racket, but as cold as it was, I couldn’t imagine they were finding any worms. Sky was clear, and it was 20 degrees outside. We decided to drive across town to the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Park. We had intended on camping there, but when we phoned ahead, we learned it wouldn’t be open until March 21. We wanted to drive over and look the area over, and perhaps go for a morning walk through the grounds. We were able to park in the lot in front of Buffalo Bill’s house, which he called home during his Wild West Show period in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The house itself is highly embellished, in what the sign said was “Italian Ornate” style architecture. Beyond the house is a large red barn, which Buffalo Bill built to stable his horses. The barn features rafter tails under the eaves which are cut in the shape of a rifle stock, a tribute to Annie Oakley, one of his star Wild West Show performers. We enjoyed having the grounds to ourselves during our morning walk. It certainly looks like a place worth a return trip when the house, museum, and campground are open.

Our destination for the day was of modest distance, around 300 miles, following the Platte River and then cutting over to Lincoln and crossing the Missouri River into southwestern Iowa. As we cruised along, I tuned in the am radio and picked up a weather forecast: clear and cold for the day, but with a series of snow storms sweeping through the Great Plains over the next several days. We are fortunate to be crossing the region ahead of this weather, since they’re talking about potentially hazardous winter driving conditions by the middle of next week. And that’s not the only hazardous weather in the general neighborhood. According to the internet report I studied last night, all this frigid air is colliding with warm, moist air moving in from the Gulf of Mexico over Arkansas and southern Missouri, resulting in severe thunderstorms, damaging hail and possible tornadoes. Our route will keep us a good 300 miles north of these conditions. I guess being cold isn’t so bad after all. As long as the air stays chilly, we shouldn’t have any problems with hail or tornadoes.

I-80 between North Platte and Grand Island closely follows the Platte River, and during our drive along this route, we were entertained with one of North America’s greatest wildlife spectacles, namely the northerly spring waterfowl migration. We’re in the middle of the great Central Flyway, and I’m guessing the spring migration must be near its peak. Clouds of ducks, swirling masses of sand hill cranes, strings and vee’s of geese filled the sky. Corn stubble fields near the freeway looked gray in some places, but a closer look revealed that we were seeing dense masses of sandhill cranes. Some of the borrow pit ponds next to the freeway were solid white with snow geese. Some of the flocks we saw easily numbered in the thousands, if not tens of thousands of birds. It appears these birds use the Platte River area to pause, rest and feed during their migratory journey to nesting grounds further north.

We headed for a lovely park in southwest Iowa, Waubonsie State Park, where we’d camped in the boat while on our trip to Chesapeake Bay in September 2009. We are camped there now, the only campers in the entire park. We went for a nice long walk along the ridge top trails which wind through oak woodlands and small remnant pockets of native Iowa prairie. This park is perched on a hilly ridge above the Missouri River. Overlooks along the trail provide impressive views westward, looking beyond the Missouri and out across the Nebraska plains. These hills were created by wind deposited dust called loess. We carried binoculars and a bird book, but we’re a bit early for most birds. We did see a pair of golden eagles, a brown creeper, one eastern bluebird, lots of robins and crows, and we think we heard a cardinal calling. And overhead, of course, we continued to marvel at the flights of white fronted geese, snow geese and sand hill cranes.

March 6, 2011 – 7 am – Waubonsie State Park IA

Cloud cover drifted in overnight, which helps explain the somewhat more moderate temperature first thing this morning – it’s all the way up to 24 degrees outside. We’re nice and warm in the cabin, though, enjoying our breakfast and preparing for the day’s drive. It will be a relatively short one, less than 300 miles, down to St. Joseph, MO and then across northern Missouri to Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal, on the banks of the Mississippi. We will check into a motel there, and take some time to see the sights.

March 6, 2011 (continued) – Quality Inn, Hannibal MO

294 miles traveled today; 2026 total

We passed the 2000 mile mark today, while crossing the State of Missouri. Our route took us south to St. Joseph on I-29 and then east via US 36. We admired the dark, rich bottomland soil along I-29, noting that cemeteries in that area are perched up on hillsides too steep to cultivate. We commented on the large fireworks outlet stores along I-29, just south Iowa. Missouri must have very lenient fireworks laws, making the sale of bottle rockets and such a lucrative business near the state line. Indian reservations serve the same purpose in Washington State.

We arrived in Hannibal around 1 pm and checked into a Quality Inn, to take a break from camping inside 26 feet of uninsulated fiberglass. After hauling things up to the room, we unhitched the truck and drove into the historic district of Hannibal. This town is, of course famous as the boyhood home of Mark Twain, and we were pleased with the nicely preserved historic downtown area. An affordable price grants admission to the visitor center, an excellent museum, Twain’s well preserved boyhood home, a reconstruction of Huck Finn’s home, and several other structures which connect directly with Mark Twain’s early life here, as well as with the real people who inspired characters for his stories. Making our visit even more enjoyable, the sun came out and warmed the day up into the mid 40’s, first time we’ve felt that warm outside so far.

Tomorrow we plan on looking around some more in the morning, and then driving down to the outskirts of St. Louis in the afternoon, heading for a campground we stayed at on our way home from the Chesapeake.

March 7, 2011 – Babler Memorial State Park, just west of St. Louis, MO

110 miles for the day; 2136 miles total

We took it easy today, enjoying the complimentary hot breakfast at the Quality Inn, then hitching the boat up and driving back into Hannibal around 9 am. We drove over to the Mark Twain Cave, which is located about 2 miles south of the historic downtown. A very attractive commercial campground is situated in the hollow just beyond the cave entry building, and both cave and campground are privately owned and operated. The guided cave tour takes about an hour, and we felt it was very worthwhile. This is the actual cave which young Sam Clemens and his pals explored, and a number of features inside the cave are recognizably tied to incidents described in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Also of interest are the literally thousands of inscriptions etched along the cave passages. Most go back many years, with the earliest dated 1820, just a year after the cave’s discovery. The typical technique was to blacken a portion of cave wall with carbon from a candle’s flame, and then scratch names and dates into the black. Such inscriptions look very fresh. In one remote cave passage, the famous outlaw Jesse James left his distinctive autograph on the cave wall. We were told that Mark Twain visited the cave as an old man and was highly offended with the extensive defacement which he observed. The distinction between graffiti and historically interesting inscription, it would seem, has a lot to do with how old they are.

The cave itself is quite different in structure and appearance from the stereotypical image of a limestone cave. Mark Twain’s cave lacks large chambers of any sort, and is almost devoid of classic limestone cave features such as stalactites and stalagmites. Instead, this cave has developed along a series of cracks or fissures in the limestone. These run in surprisingly straight lines, and connect with intersecting fissures at acute angles, resulting in a highly complex series of narrow passageways. It is very easy to see how a couple of young kids like Tom and Becky could become lost in this cave.

After concluding our cave tour we drove back into town, parked, and wandered over to Lulabelle’s for lunch. This establishment is situated on a side-street just off the main street, right next to the flood wall which protects Hannibal from Mississippi floods. Lulabelle’s was once a bordello, but is now a fine restaurant and B & B. The food and service were excellent, and capped off a most enjoyable visit to Mark Twain’s boyhood home along the Mississippi.

We then headed southeast on US 61 toward St. Louis. We had camped just outside St. Louis while returning from the Chesapeake in 2009, and a stop at this familiar campground seemed like a good idea. We used the navigator feature on our cell phone (newly activated for this trip), and “Mabel”, as I have named the female voice on VZ Navigator, guided us right to the Babler Memorial State Park entrance. We drove past a crew of park maintenance workers who were cutting fallen trees and skidding them up onto the park road. We stopped at the camp host’s RV, and were told that 2 weeks ago, this park had suffered a direct hit from a tornado. Dozens of mature trees had been uprooted, and the trunks of others had snapped in half. We are camped in a nice spot, in a loop which appears to have escaped significant damage. Not far away, however, the devastation was quite evident. We feel very fortunate to have missed this dramatic weather event as it happened. We will be pulling out in the morning with the knowledge that thunderstorms are forecast in this area tomorrow afternoon. We hope our route will keep us out of any severe weather.

March 8, 2011 – Lincoln State Park, Lincoln City, IN

242 miles for the day; 2,378 overall

We’re tucked into a nice lakeside campsite at Lincoln State Park in southern Indiana. Once again and for the third night in a row, we’re the absolutely only campers in the campground. Midweek in early March is definitely not high season. We’re just grateful to find campgrounds which are open; having electrical hookups, but no water and primative toilets . We’re cocooned inside the boat cabin, with a chilly rain falling outside. This weather system has been steadily drifting northeast, up through Missouri and southern Illinois. We outran it for a time today, but it’s now caught up with us. I’m planning on barbequing this evening. Unless this rain eases up, that plan is sure to change.

The drive today went well. We got a nice early start and left Babler State Park at 7:30 am, just in time to catch the morning rush hour traffic pouring into St. Louis. We took I-40 and then I-64, which cut right through the heart of the city. Traffic actually moved fairly well, and we made it through without any serious delays,detours or false turns. The drive across southern Illinois was uneventful. We were somewhat surprised to see a goodly number of oil wells scattered out in farmers’ fields. They’re smaller in size than ones we’ve seen out west. I didn’t know this region produced oil. Spring flooding was also in evidence. Rivers like the Wabash are out of their banks and inundating forests and fields in their proximity.

Today we experienced our first little touches of adversity. It started with “Mabel”, who had done such a fine job of piloting us from Babler State Park onto I-40, and then through St. Louis. I was beginning to really appreciate her skills, and so confidently followed her advise as we exited I-64 a few miles away from our day’s destination, Lincoln State Park. She quickly got us lost, insisting that we turn into some suburbanite’s driveway. I had to revert to compass and dead reckoning navigation and eventually found our way to the campground. All was then well, I figured. Just pick out a campsite, unhitch, grab some lunch and then drive up to the Lincoln Boyhood Home National Memorial Park.

I backed into a nice lakeside campsite, best one in the campground. I leveled up the boat, but unhitching got a little complicated. On our Sea of Cortez trip I’d stripped out the stock trailer wheel jack, and since then had been using one of those clamp-on pivot models. The ground contour at this campsite wouldn’t allow the pivot jack to rotate into position. I was prepared for just such a situation, having brought a hydraulic jack from home, along with a goodly assortment of wood blocks. I noticed a problem right away. The jack had tipped over, and it’s hydraulic fluid had partially leaked out. When I tried using the jack, it refused to take the full weight of the boat. Oh well, revert to plan B, namely, the second backup jack I had along; an old housemoving screw jack, which uses a pair of gear wheels to turn the screw. It can lift tons of weight, but it operates very slowly. I managed to lift the trailer tongue off the hitch ball, and was then able to pivot the wheel jack into position. I lowered the trailer onto the wheel jack and removed the screw jack. All set. Almost. While inside the boat, helping Sandy with lunch preparations, we felt the boat lurch and go clunk. I knew immediately what had happened. I’d failed to fully snap the wheel jack into position and it had slipped, allowing the trailer tongue to drop to the ground. Actually, the spare tire was holding it just a few inches off the ground. Fortunately no damage was done, but I had a lot of work ahead of me, getting the trailer jacked back up. I grabbed my folding camp shovel and dug down into the gravel campsite pad, so I could slip the screw jack under the trailer frame. Then, I slowly jacked her up, lowered down onto stacked boards, and then repeated the operation until I’d lifted the trailer up to the proper level. I was glad that I’d brought the extra jacks, boards, and shovel, and even more glad that this campsite pad wasn’t paved. That would have really complicated things.

With the boat trailer back up where she belonged, we drove over to the visitor center. This is a National Park Service site, memorializing the location of the wilderness farm where Abraham Lincoln grew up, from age 7 to 21. The visitor center features a well done film which tells the story, as well as an informative museum. The highlight for me was a wooden cabinet which was made by Thomas Lincoln, Abe’s father. We then took a walk out to Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s grave site. Abraham’s mother died when he was 9 years old, from milk fever poisoning, which is contracted by drinking milk or eating meat from cows which have fed on a toxic plant called White Snake Root. A little further along the trail, we arrived at the actual site of the Lincoln family cabin. Nothing remains of the original cabin, but it’s location has been identified, and a bronze casting of a portion of the fireplace and some foundation logs marks the spot. Nearby, a replica cabin and working farm outbuildings have been constructed, where demonstrations of pioneer life are presented in the summer.

It’s still raining outside, so we cooked inside tonight. I took the Wallas stove in for service prior to this trip, and that precaution has proven worthwhile. The service technician discovered the ignition coil was very nearly burned out, and several other components were in need of replacement. So far, it’s been starting up and running perfectly. It rained so hard, an after dinner walk was out, so we watched a movie on the laptop computer. Occasionally, the drumming on the deck overhead overpowered the sound system, but we caught most of it and provided a nice diversion.