By Tom Nichols
We’re baking in the midday sun, even while sheltering under old-growth Douglas firs at Rockport State Park.
“I’m in the sun again and I’m about to cry,” Judy says, as our chair dance, perpetual jockeying on the checker-boarded forest floor, moving away from sunshine and into soothing shade. It’s our third day in the northern Cascades.
Blitzed by a record heat wave in the Northwest, worst since the 19th century, Judy and I scramble to stay as cool as possible while keeping close enough to a sports bar to enjoy the Phoenix Suns playoff run in the Western Conference finals.
Hurricane-force winds and an Arctic blast in early September wiped out our Rocky Mountain hiking days during our basin-and-range trip, the longest in a COVID-shortened travel year.
It’s clear and cool, near 50, with a few puddles left from showers last night as we skirt downtown Tulsa and go west. Since leaving the Blue Ridge foothills of South Carolina six days ago, we’ve traveled lands of abundant forest and plentiful rain. That’s all fading on Oklahoma 51, our lonely route to the Texas border, pavement fissured by oil and gas trucks and convoys carrying oversize pylons for windmills. Judy warns: “We’re going to have to get off this road if it doesn’t get better. It’s bouncing my tits off.” Central Oklahoma is transition country, not east but not west. Wheat is taking hold in fields of black, not red soil, and golden prairie grass is in retreat. We do a speed walk, one hour, at a high school track of asphalt in Canton, along the North Canadian (river). Judy and I travel past miles of windmills atop ridges and patches of snow east of Arnett, Oklahoma. We stop at a signpost near the 100th meridian. A plaque and post commemorate the Great Western Trail, the last route opened for cattle driven from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas, and points north. Settlers with barbed wire, quarantines to protect northern herds from Texas cattle fever and the arrival of railroads and refrigerated cars led to the demise of the Great Western Trail in the early 1890s. A compacted, eroded U-shaped portion of the hillside is evidence of more than 2 million cattle driven through here. Entering the Texas Panhandle, Judy and I agree we are getting close to our home, the West. Early evening shadows lengthen on U.S. 60 as we climb and dip through hills and folds. Snow is a few inches deep in wooded bottoms. We flatten out on the Llano Estacado before entering Pampa, Texas.
Judy and I are on a scouting mission in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas. We want to include water travel in our wandering next year. The Buffalo River, designated as America’s first scenic river in 1972, is on our bucket list. We want to float in mountain country to see bluffs of sandstone and limestone and look for basswood, Pawpaw, blue ash, witch hazel and spring flowers. Our challenge is to figure out how to synchronize our annual trip through the South to visit my sister Ronda and family in South Carolina with water flows on the Buffalo River, which peak in spring. Judy and I talked to a ranger at Tyler Bend Visitor Center near St. Joe, Arkansas. She gave us information on kayak and canoe rentals for the middle portion of the Buffalo River, from Carver to South Maumee. It’s the stretch of 120-mile river that fits our skill level: beginner. Judy is in for this adventure, as long as we float before the sweltering Arkansas summer.
I was ready to blow off Paducah, Kentucky, a once dominant ship and rail hub on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, now a backwater, like so many historic places we poke around. My thoughts were fixed on 1,500 miles of road ahead and a medical appointment in Arizona in less than a week. We stopped last night for German food and drink at Paducah Beer Works, a converted bus station on the edge of downtown. Instead of retreating to the Walmart on the outskirts of town, we ventured for ice cream on dimly lit Broadway, Paducah’s commercial center at the riverfront. Neither of us were impressed with downtown, but Judy saw a sign for the National Quilting Museum as we were leaving to overnight. We decided to check out the museum today, even though we should be driving for eight hours or so. We discover more merit in downtown in morning light. You can see the Ohio River and a mural of Paducah’s history. It’s a mighty social and economic narrative of a town that thrived in an era of steam ships and locomotives and faded with the triumph of the auto and airplane in the 20th century. It’s the best community mural we’ve seen in five years. One of the panels depicts the massive flood on the Ohio River in 1937, which left 95 percent of Paducah under water, and led to construction of a miles-long river barrier protecting the community. The National Quilting Museum, is a fabulous collection of contemporary quilting, global in scope. Never judge a town in the dark. That’s why I’ll always remember Paducah.
Judy and I divert from the route of the Erie Canal for a day trip to the Finger Lakes. I’m a bit disappointed on New York 414, the road to Watkins Glen. It’s all farm and no lake. Soon, the lakeshore dominates, with vineyards, hints of autumn leaves, and a small waterfall as we approach the southern tip of Seneca Lake. If you arrive on a weekday in off-season, the visitors center at Watkins Glen State Park is a pleasant place to step into natural wonder. A lot has changed since glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago. Water from Glen Creek, in a hanging valley above, has blasted through sedimentary layers, very soft shale and less soft sandstone, to create intimate slot canyons and waterfalls, all surrounded by an amphitheater of rock and forest above. The Gorge at Watkins Glen, which opened as a luxury resort in the Civil War era, was purchased by the State of New York in 1906. Beautiful stone steps along the 1.5 mile path are the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Crews had to redo much of their work because of a spectacular flood in 1935.) We camped at Watkins Glen amid the red pines on Tuscarora loop, one of two loops still open. No reservation was necessary.
It’s a beautiful sunny morning at Watkins Glen, but the weather forecast for later this week calls for rain farther east, along the Mohawk River valley. We planned to rent bicycles there to tour an eastern section of the Erie Canal. Instead, we head south to the Corning Museum of Glass, encouraged by Joe and Michele, camp neighbors from Hilton Head Island, who raved about it. I won’t venture into art criticism, but I loved the contemporary works, several focused on global warming, a glassblowing demonstration featuring a whimsical potato with delicate sprouts, and ancient glass from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece.
Judy and I must take care of errands before leaving the Walmart in Elmira, New York. Judy buys books for grandnephews and I poach salmon in the parking lot. She hates the smell. At a laundry in downtown Elmira, I pause my housecleaning to show a couple with lots of questions about full-timing all the features of The Epic Van. Judy can’t miss a chance to promote, joining in. I’m convinced they’re not lookie-loos. We travel east on Interstate 86. Gold and yellow are everywhere in folds along tributaries of the Susquehanna River. As we wind along the east branch of the Delaware River, sheets of fall leaves stream down on The Epic Van. Hard rain pours in the Catskill Mountains as Judy and I roll into Tannersville, N.Y., at 5:30 p.m. We find a campsite at North-South Lake. We’re the only ones on the first loop. I’m too tired to cook. Time for a beer and a third, and final, round of chili for dinner. I think about our camp friends Keven and Georges. He cooks fresh every night! What a dynamo.
We took The Epic Van across the border for the first time, overnighting at Scott’s Family Campground in Niagara Falls. It’s a convenient gateway for Horseshoe Falls, about six miles away. Judy is a first-timer at the Falls; I’d seen it as a grade-schooler from the United States. We began our tour walking along the Niagara River Rapids, strolling past a shuttered Beaux-Arts hydropower building, relic of industrial glory. Approaching Niagara Falls from above is the best way to appreciate the concert of fresh water below. Regionally, Lake Erie, Ontario, Huron, Michigan and Superior hold about 20 percent of the world’s supply. At the brink of Horseshoe Falls, I get a twinge of motion sickness, staring at the Niagara River curling downward. Judy and I weren’t sure a boat tour to the base of the Falls would be worthwhile, but we grabbed our glorified red garbage bag and rode out to spray and foam, blotting out sunshine above. It was a good idea.
In the afternoon, we begin our tour of the Erie Canal at Commercial Slip, under Interstate 190 in Buffalo harbor. Completed in 1825, the 363-mile canal linked the Great Lakes region to New York City ports, creating a trade superhighway of agricultural and manufacturing goods. Hence the title, Empire State. As railroads eclipsed water transport in the early 20th century, Commercial Slip was filled and abused as Buffalo’s sewer line. Reclaimed for tourism in the 21st century, slip, warehouse and military museum are part of the Canalside district.
It’s another beautiful Walmart-and-yoga morning, this one in the Buffalo suburbs. The covered gazebo at Stiglmeier Park in Cheektowaga is perfect. Later, Judy and I grab raincoats and tour Lockport and the Flight of Five, a famous feat of engineering on the Erie Canal. The lock network, five eastbound and five westbound, neutralized the Niagara escarpment, allowing vessels to climb or descend 60 feet. West of the locks, workers blasted a channel with newfangled DuPont explosives to supply water from Lake Erie for the hydraulic system underneath the Flight of Five. Despite steady rain, tourists and locals enjoy a farmers market and local music under tents of vendors. We drive north for Lake Ontario and red sunset, and feel a bit of autumn for the first time at Lakeside Beach State Park.
I ask Judy if she wants to go to Seneca Falls. What’s there? I promptly take her to Women’s Rights National Historical Park. She knows the history, but not the place where the Women’s Rights Convention was held at a Wesleyan chapel on July 19-20, 1848. Inside the visitor center are statues of several women’s rights pioneers, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and their chief supporter for equality, Frederick Douglass.
We take a guided tour of the reconstructed chapel (portions of bricks and plaster preserved) along with Debbie and Enku. Afterward, the four of us talk about the women’s rights movement and the path to realize the Declaration of Sentiments, that all men and women are created equal. Enku, an immigrant from Africa, points out that black men were given the right to vote generations before women, and that a black man, Barack Obama, was elected president while a woman has not. More than 70 years passed between the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls and the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. How many years will it be before a woman is elected president? We want to visit It’s a Wonderful Life Museum, but it’s closed. Instead, we take a consolation prize, looking around downtown Seneca Falls and a suspension bridge, said to be the inspiration for Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls. A plaque on the bridge honors Antonio Varacalli, a 20-year-old immigrant who jumped into a barge canal, rescuing a young woman attempting suicide. He lost his life saving another.
Pat and John shuttle us to the far south suburbs to retrieve The Epic Van at the Sprinter shop in Orland Park, Illinois. The engine is running fine and a crust of prairie bugs has been scrubbed clean. We say goodbye to our loving cousins, thanking them again and again for six days of feeding and tour-guiding. It’s almost 5 p.m. Judy and I have a Chicago dog and Italian beef sandwich, restock our refrigerator, carefully select some diesel fuel and get on the toll road to Indiana. We have no change in our pockets to pay $1.50. It takes us three hectic minutes in the back of the vehicle to scrape up the change. (Nobody honked.) We roll with the truckers to Michigan City, Indiana, overnighting at Walmart.
Our travel plan for the rest of the month, sketched out before we left Longview, Washington, on Aug. 19, needs revision. Our next “bookend” is Oct. 4, a family visit in New York. Judy and I ditch the Henry Ford and Motown museums in Detroit and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum of Art in Cleveland. On the way to Niagara Falls, we do stop at the RV museum in Elkhart, Indiana. Among my favorites: the 1935 Bowlus Road Chief, a sailplane-inspired aluminum design made famous by Airstream; the 1928 Pierce Arrow Fleet Housecar, one of three Gatsby-style luxury models built before the Crash of 1929; the 1964 Clark Cortez Motorhome, the first front-wheel drive RV built in the United States.
It’s been 36 hours since Chicago and we’re 400 miles down the road, a very hectic travel pace. Judy and I slow down a bit among the cultivated gardens at Holden Arboretum, east of Cleveland. We stroll by dozens of rhododendron species, large beds of lilac, a few ‘Princeton’ American elm, resistant to Dutch elm disease. The gardens also feature many tree varieties suited for northeast Ohio: Chinese ginkgo, Japanese maple, Norwegian spruce and European beech. The gardens are warmup for native trees, the object of our visit: maple, beech, oak and hemlock trees along miles of trail on the forest floor. There’s also a canopy walk, 65 feet above the native forest, and tower view, at 120 feet, offering a treetop vista stretching to Lake Erie. Over the next few decades, rising temperatures and heavier rain events will make northeast Ohio less suitable for American basswood, Eastern White Pine, sugar maple and Eastern Hemlock. Climate change models predict that Bitternut hickory, Bur oak and Eastern Red cedar will do better here. We wander for four hours, returning to the Epic Van for late lunch.
My cousin, Dick Almasy, of Freeport, Illinois, is my political bellwether for President Trump. I’ve talked with Dick, a retired industrial electrician, fundamentalist Christian and Vietnam vet, about politics for decades at family reunions in northern Illinois. Although our Red-Blue divide is deep, our conversations are always civil. Dick, a supporter of Ted Cruz during primary season in 2016, voted for Donald Trump. Has he done anything during the last three years to make you reconsider your vote? Without pause, Dick says no. According to Dick, Trump, as president, tells the truth and is law abiding, victimized by a mainstream media smear machine and unhinged Democrats, who never gave him a chance. (Aside from politics, Donald Trump is superior to Barack Obama in personal character, Dick says. However, he respected Obama during his presidency and prayed for him.) The re-election of Trump is even more important in 2020, given the threat of socialists bent on destroying the Constitution, Dick says. What about my political agenda for legislation to reduce global warming, create universal health care, raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy to finance a stronger social safety net, and establish humane immigration policy? To Dick, it’s just a thicket of abstraction for financially secure, educated elites, like me, to fret over. Dick’s agenda: “It’s all about jobs.” Wealthy corporations and individuals, already burdened by taxes that are too high, will create manufacturing jobs in the United States now that Trump is reversing unfair global trading rules and cutting government regulations. According to Dick, the economy is great. Dick and I end our gabfest, agreeing on only one thing. We both want a president who will act to improve lives in Freeport, a struggling, racially diverse, Rust Belt city, and everywhere in the United States. Dick, who has traveled to the Caribbean and Mexico on church missions to help those in poverty, believes in helping others, but also in the sanctity of work. He sees wrongdoing in his community, underachieving folks, white and black, who could work full-time at difficult jobs for low pay, but choose to work sporadically and game the welfare system. From The Epic Van, I see wrongdoing at the top of society, a self-dealing oligarchy that breaks and bends laws through money influence in our nation’s capital. Dick and I can’t agree on what’s fundamentally wrong with America. One of us will wake up the morning after the 2020 election, certain that our democracy is dead.
We wake up at a Conoco parking lot for truckers in Valentine, Nebraska, to the sound of one rig idling. Last night, the lot was partially filled with about a dozen semi-trailers. Shouts of Cornhusker football fans on game night rang from a bar next door. We’re here for a second time to enjoy the Niobrara, a National Scenic River. In 2013, Judy, Nate and I rented a Roadtrek for the first time. I was skeptical about living full-time in a 21-foot vehicle and wanted a trial run. Our float down the lazy river on a hot July afternoon near Smith Falls State Park was one of the highlights of our 10-day vacation. After that, I began to serious consider the possibilities of wandering full time. Our plan today is to hike on the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, which stretches 189 miles from Valentine to Norfolk along an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern rail line. Our segment begins several miles east of Valentine at a signed turnout on U.S. 20. We double back toward Valentine, enjoying a view of the Niobrara from a trestle 150 feet above. The river, originating in Wyoming and fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, drains a region where the Rocky Mountain forest we’ve traveled for weeks gives way to box elder and bur oak, and where western short grass, the mixed-grass prairie of the Sandhills and eastern tall grass intersect. We travel in afternoon sun in northern Nebraska, crossing the 100th meridian and moving into greener ranch country above the river. An hour of solitude on the plains on Nebraska 12, at last interrupted by a passing vehicle.
Leaving Ponca State Park in Nebraska, on the bluffs of the Missouri River, we pass a flooded riverfront campground and boat launch. Late-summer runoff, unusually heavy, is pouring in this unchannelized stretch of the Missouri River. As we enter Iowa at Sioux City, hay fields are out and corn and soybeans are in. I follow the lead of William Least Heat Moon. Our “blue highway” through western Iowa is Iowa 3, a more intimate alternative to four lanes on U.S. 20. I stop at a roadside stand near Cherokee to buy sweet corn and tomatoes, summer staples of my boyhood in central Illinois. I ask the seller about yellowing leaves in soybean fields. Was it because of heavy spring rains? No, the bean fields always turn yellow at the end of growing season. I was red with embarrassment. I left soybean country for Arizona 40 years ago, returned to Illinois many times, but never in September. I’d lost touch with the harvest cycle.
Sadly, there’s no time for rail trails in Iowa. We blow past the Hawkeye state. Judy and I gather groceries in Dubuque for a family reunion dinner in Freeport, Illinois. The Epic Van stammers a bit going up a hill in Dubuque on the way to the Mississippi River bridge. East of Galena, birthplace of Ulysses Grant, a bit of stammering turns into a whole lot of bucking and wheezing as we travel through steeper and steeper hills along U.S. 20, a route used by truckers. Near the top of hills, I edge onto the road shoulder as we slow under 30 mph with the pedal to the metal. Something’s not right, either with the transmission, or fuel system. (We filled up on biofuel about 50 miles ago.) We’re only 40 miles from Freeport. Surely we can limp in. Twenty-three miles from town, defeated, we turn off on a gravel road across from a herd of cattle and dial for a tow truck. It’s 3 p.m. Just before sundown at 7 p.m., the flatbed hauling vehicle we requested arrives. My cousin Jeanne and her husband, Dick, come from Freeport to rescue us. We load clothes and perishable food into their vehicle, and head back to pared-down dinner and lots of catching up on family comings and goings.
Hard rain and winds whip The Epic Van at Walmart in Spearfish, South Dakota, and the forecast calls for no letup all day. We’re reduced to our least favorite option for getting in 10,000 steps a day, the Walmart walk. Raincoats will be cumbersome indoors, so we dash to the entrance. Under fluorescent sky, we begin our walk through blue and yellow signage with constant reminders of Everyday Low Price! (The tariff war with China must be making a lot of this stuff more expensive.) We’ve tried spicing up the walking routine, which we’ve done several dozen times over the years, by going Pac-Man, gobbling every aisle in a store. It’s dizzying. Gets old fast. The Spearfish store has an unobstructed perimeter walk around the box, old-school Walmart design. Updated stores are partitioned to funnel shoppers into the maw. We take a drive in the rain, scouting a section of the Michelson rail trail near Lead, South Dakota, and seek wi-fi at a Pilot truck stop in Rapid City to watch the Democratic presidential debate and camp.
As we cruise toward a rail trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sun shines brightly for the first time since Idaho, eight days ago. Judy and I are doing our first shuttle hike, on the Mickelson Trail, a 108-mile biking and hiking route between Edgemont and Deadwood. If you are looking for ease of travel through steep terrain, nothing beats the gradual up-and-down gradient of a rail line. (This rail trail features smooth, fine gravel, though not all do.)
I start at Dumont trailhead at 9:30 a.m. and head north toward Lead, South Dakota, while Judy parks at the Sugarloaf Trailhead and hikes south toward Englewood to meet me. I stroll in a sweatshirt at 5,000 feet, climbing gently through Ponderosa pine, aspen and birch, dotted with slopes of knee-high emerald grass. I pass through open valley at Englewood, a railroad ghost town once named Ten Mile. In 1890, the town was a bustling junction for three lines: the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, Black Hills & Ft. Pierre Railroad, and the Spearfish line, popular with tourists.
I meet Judy on mile seven, just before noon as temperatures warm up in the valley. In a half-mile or so we’re back under cover of the Black Hills forest for our return to The Epic Van. Our half-day shuttle hike worked perfectly. We’ll do it again.
We begin our morning in Wall, South Dakota, parked on motel row on Main Street. Our plan was to camp last night in Badlands National Park at Sage Campground, but it was full. At least we drove out of the park under the glow of the harvest moon. After laundering and shopping (fixings for buffalo stew), we roll back to Badlands park. On the way, we stop at Prairie Homestead, one of the best-preserved sod houses in the United States. You can walk inside to examine earthen walls, cottonwood beams and a precious few milled planks used to build it in 1909. This was one of the last stretches of the Great Plains opened to the plow. Homesteaders, relying on about 13 inches of rain a year, said: “The government bet you 160 acres of land against $18.00 that you will starve to death before you live on the land five years.” The signs for hundreds of miles along South Dakota highways should lead to Prairie Homestead, instead of the drug store back in Wall. Later, we take a short, steep hike up to Saddle Pass, on the Badlands Wall, a 50-mile barrier that separates upper mixed-grass prairie from lower prairie to the southwest. I looked toward the White River bluffs in the distance, thinking about how grasshoppers, prairie fire, hail, sub-zero temperatures, blizzards and social isolation crushed homesteaders, forcing 80 to 90 percent of them to abandon their dreams in the Badlands.
Our rough outline for West to East travel has us in the Black Hills of South Dakota in four days. We should travel directly there, but the lure of the Little Belt Mountains is too big. Today is a drive-by, a 280-mile loop through low-slung, rounded mountains of pasture and forest. It’s a day to ponder the lives of the “lariat proletariat,” mid-century sheep and cattle hands and their families who eked out a living here. Ivan Doig describes it all wonderfully in This House of Sky. (Thanks to David McElwee for introducing us to Doig in a Dahl family holiday book exchange.)
Our drive-by begins at 11 a.m., taking us from the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers at Missouri Headwaters State Park to Townsend. Then we travel east on U.S. 12 to White Sulphur Springs, which figures in Doig’s childhood. (It’s still a town of many drinking establishments; the springs warm a motel pool.) At a ranger station, an employee suggests a visit to Neihart, Doig’s birthplace. That would extend our day trip until dark. Instead, we travel on U.S. 89 and dip into the Little Belts, about a mile high, driving a few miles north of Sheep Creek before looping back. As we travel east on U.S. 12 along the southern edge of the Little Belts on the way to Harlowton, Judy reads from Roadside Geology of Montana about Madison limestone formation, lignite (coal) bands and the Crazy Mountains. She’s OK with reading from Roadside this afternoon, though sometimes I test her limits. We reach downtown Billings by 6:15 p.m., honoring Montana ranching with a ribeye and filet at Jake’s. We bed down at a nearby Walmart.
Just as we launder clothing and clean The Epic Van on a 12-day cycle, we pick a place for a half day of business every week. Today’s agenda: shopping, blogging, prescription pickup, scheduling a family visit in Illinois and RV dump. We begin at 8:30. I shop for groceries; Judy reminds me to get more mouse traps. She’s bagged two since Idaho; peanut butter was licked off one trap last night. At Walgreens, I learn a prescription called in two days ago isn’t ready, and cancel it. Our RV dump app led us to a wastewater treatment facility without facilities for us. Business half-days often turn out to be close to an eight-hour shift. Traveling southeast on Interstate 90, we turn off at Little Bighorn Battlefield at 4:15 p.m. The visitor center and roads that overlook the 1876 battleground close at 6 p.m. Immediately, a man on a bicycle says hello and really wants to see The Epic Van. We can’t say no. Judy has invited about 200 or so curious folks into The Epic Van during the last five years, but no one was more enthusiastic than Tom Southern, a volunteer historical interpreter for the park service. He was smitten with the functionality of The Epic Van and the dream of full-timing. I predict he will be a road brother soon. Judy and I hurried through the visitor center, bought A Terrible Glory, Custer and the Little Bighorn, by James Donovan, then drove along grassy hillocks and coulees of the battlefield, viewing river plain where 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho camped, and Last Stand Hill, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and about 210 men of the 7th Cavalry were surrounded and killed. A park service vehicle herded The Epic Van and other stragglers out of the park at 6:15 p.m. We saved the day from routine, working overtime to witness history and proselytize for life on wheels.
Our plan was to camp and hike a little in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains near Buffalo, Wyoming, for two days. It’s much too rainy for that, and it’s a bit too cold, mid-50s, for park yoga, even if we found a pavilion for shelter. From the Walmart parking lot in Sheridan, Wyoming, I call The Hub, a senior center with a trendier name, and ask if they have a room or wide hallway to roll out two yoga mats. There are classes in the exercise room until 11 a.m., but we’re welcome to use the space afterward. The Hub is modern and well-appointed with a busy café and a spacious exercise room with large windows overlooking a park. It’s a luxury to have a level floor to move through our hour-long routine. We thank several employees for their welcome and leave a small donation After lunch and a shower in The Hub parking lot, we roll on Interstate 90 to Spearfish, South Dakota, through patches of rain.