On the road again. First stop: Yellowstone.

Well, not quite the first stop…

It takes 24 hours to drive from Indianapolis to Yellowstone, so we had a few pitstops along the way, as well as an unplanned detour back towards Chicago for 90 minutes, making our 24 hours closer to 27 (lesson learnt: always have Google Maps on, no matter how sure you are of your route).

We were actually meant to start with a 3-day jaunt in the black hills of South Dakota to see the Badlands, Crazy Horse, and where a few presidents are reportedly carved into the hillside. But, as we both contracted a lurgy within days of leaving, we postponed and the Black Hills had to be cut to make our date (booked 6 months in advance) with Yellowstone. Whilst we were both disappointed to be driving across such a vast stretch of the country only stopping for coffee, fuel (for both the roo and her human companions) and sleep it was amazing to see how much the landscape changed again and again.

Once we got to Yellowstone, it was incredible. It is the first National Park in the World (thanks again to our good friends the Roosevelts, although this one was Teddy’s doing) and you can see how it inspired the idea of National Parks. It is hard to do the rugged thermal beauty justice in the written word, so here is my photo essay of our highlights….

Old Faithful
Old Faithful being, er, faithful
Hiking out to Fairy Falls in the snow
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (yep, that’s its real name!)
Prismatic Springs
Grand Prismatic Spring
West Thumb
West Thumb, overlooking Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation lake in North America
More West Thumb. Steamy!
Yellowstone Lake
Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

As beautiful as Yellowstone was, it was also the most challenging stay so far.

Vanlife in the cold was something new to the Eagleroo crew. And when I say cold, some days barely crept above freezing and the overnight lows were -10C (14F). It was impossible to be outside without a ski jacket on, and most of the time I wished that I had brought my ski pants, too. This was a shock to our constitutions, having just driven from Indy where the mercury hung around the 30C (86F) mark. Erik drove us into the park in a blizzard (he agrees it was a blizzard, this wasn’t an Australian’s version of a ‘blizzard’) and although the snow generally melted pretty quickly once the sun hit it in the afternoon, there was plenty of the white stuff to be seen, crunched through and admired.

The night we arrived we jumped into bed fairly soon after arriving and, snuggling under our winter comforter with beanies on, we were cozy and slept pretty well. The second night, however, we left the doors of the van open for hours as we prepared, ate and packed up our dinner (Yellowstone is strict bear country. Absolutely nothing can be left out, meaning we essentially had to pack up camp after every meal). When we climbed into bed that night, we realised that our memory foam mattress which held the heat so well in summer also holds the cold equally well in winter. I am not lying when I say there was a moment that night when I genuinely wondered if this was how hypothermia started. It took a good two hours for the bed to heat up that night, and we vowed to buy some hot water bottles to help warm the bed up before we got into it in future.

The remoteness of Yellowstone’s campsites also meant that whilst we were at our home base we were sans hot water, showers, electrical hook up or any sort of phone reception. Fortunately, it did have fully plumbed bathrooms which were heated (yes, heated!) which provided a great reprieve from the cold, particularly when it came time to get changed in. We also were afforded many hours of blissful, uninterrupted campfire staring without being disrupted by social media, email or other online distractions.

Having no phone service meant we spent most of our working hours at the Old Faithful Inn which was fortunately pretty much everything you want from a mountain lodge. It was cozy, rustic and always had hot beverages available.

The threat of bears was ever present. And not just those cute black bears that we saw in Shenandoah, but also the great big eat-your-face-off grizzly bears. I’ll be honest: much like Americans are petrified of our snakes and spiders back home, grizzly bears scare the bejeezus out of me. This fear was not diminished by all the signs around the park saying ‘WARNING: BEARS PRESENT. THEY CAN KILL. DO NOT HIKE IN GROUPS OF LESS THAN FOUR OR WITHOUT BEAR SPRAY.’ Thus, I was nervous about hiking given it was just the two of us and we didn’t have proper bear spray (we did, however, have a small pepper spray that Erik insisted I carry to go running with in the states, which I kept in my pocket during all hikes and to go to the bathroom at night. Just in case.). At the start of one hike, someone had written an ‘EXTREME’ in red permanent marker above the ‘WARNING’. Needless to say, I was on high alert the entire trek.

On the look out for bears

Despite these challenges, it this didn’t diminish our pleasure at being at the park. We loved our time in this (sometimes austere) thermal wonderland, and given Yellowstone was closing down for the season as we left, we felt lucky to see it in the snow-covered state that many don’t experience.

Oh, and the only bears we saw were at the bear rescue centre after leaving the park. Phew.

This guy!





Soaking up both kinds of music in Nashville

Our first stop on the way in to Nashville was the Loveless Motel, which dishes up southern cuisine prepared in all manners from fried to deep fried. It was on Slinky’s dad’s must do list and I must say I’m glad we did. It was like Mecca for beige food enthusiasts such as myself. Even the biscuits were served with sorghum, which the waitress explained was best mixed with butter to achieve maximum beigeness. As I waddled out to the van, I swore to myself I’d go for a run the next day. But first we had business to attend to at the Grand Ole Opry.

Loveless Motel and Cafe sign
Just the place to take on ballast

Relocated from its original location at the Ryman Auditorium to a roomier venue out in the burbs, the Opry has hosted legends of country music since 1925, including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and about a hundred others. There is a circle in the center of the stage cut from the original stage so that performers literally get to stand in the footsteps of their heroes. The whole place had a great feel to it and there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. Well, normally there wouldn’t be anyway. As soon as we sat down, a man in a comically large cowboy hat took the seat right in front of Slinky’s dad, Andrew. I have to admit that my respect for him grew as I watched him tap the guy on the shoulder and ask him to remove his hat. I worried about being involved in an international incident but the guy, perhaps then noticing that he was the only one wearing a view-blocking hat, took it off and placed it in his lap. Thus Andrew got to enjoy great sets by the likes of Del McCoury Band and Vince Gill unobstructed. I think he asked the guy to put his hat back on during Rascal Flatts.

We continued to soak up more Nashville music goodness over the next couple of days at various sites up and down Broadway. It was fun to have Andrew and Tom along for that part of the ride. Andrew has spent more time in Nashville than I have and between his suggestions and Slinky’s mastery of internet research, Tom and I got to kind of go along for the ride.

Our country music indoctrination culminated in a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was a boys’ trip to the museum as Slinky was feeling a little worse for the wear by then and possibly had had her fill of lap steel guitar. Having started off leg one of the trip with a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, it seemed like good symmetry to spend our last day of leg one at its country counterpart. I can’t say enough good things about the museum. I find it mind-blowing that one building houses the telecaster that Charlie Daniels played on Nashville Skyline, the Bandit’s Trans-Am, and Gram Parson’s Nudie suit. If none of those things mean anything to you, I still suggest a trip. Not to out anybody but there was a member of our group whose response the mention of Willie Nelson was “who?” and he still enjoyed it.

As we left the museum, the rain that would soon spur tornados and cause flooding across Nashville started to fall. It rained hard enough  that evening that we drove the tenth of a mile to dinner and didn’t feel the slightest bit lazy about it. The rain continued on through the night and stayed with us for the entire drive back to Indianapolis the next day. Our caravan had to stick pretty close together to not lose sight of one another.

Our country music theme followed us through the rain to Indianapolis as well. A couple of hours after pulling into town, we were at the Melody Inn for Hillbilly Happy Hour with Rick Dodd and the Dickrods, a band I helped form and still feel like part of even living in a different country. They put on a really great show that made it even sweeter to be back in Indy. I even got to join them on stage for a few songs that I did my best to not mess up. It really did feel like a storybook homecoming.

I, for one, was excited to be in one place for a few weeks as we ramped up for part two of the trip. Slinky on the other hand barely had time to catch her breath before she was on a plane back to Melbourne to visit the rest of her family, meet with clients, and renew her visa status. Tom and Andrew headed to New York for the U.S. Open after a couple of days. I don’t think anybody wore cowboy hats in front of them there

Moonlighting in Memphis

We weren’t meant to be in Memphis, or not yet, anyway.

But the lure of two of my family members  – my Dad and brother – being in the country was great. Even greater still was the lure of ambushing them. As Erik said, ‘It’s not often you get to surprise a Linklater.’

So, after we disposed of our very sad, slightly grey pork loin in the Charleston Holiday Inn swimming pool bin (which you can read about here if that comment lacks context), we jumped in the van for our ten-hour drive to Memphis for project ‘Ambush Linklaters’. The drive was largely uneventful, although was almost made significantly longer by an attitudinal Google Maps app which kept rerouting us. I thought we had been super sneaky in our ambush plans (I even roped my mother in from Australia to call them on the auspice of ‘checking in’ so we could figure out what their plans were), so I was disappointed when we rocked up at the same dinner joint as them when we meant to be 700 odd miles away and my brother simply said “here they are” . Apparently, my second phone call to find out their exact locale as we entered the outskirts of Memphis was less than discreet. It’s not often you get to surprise a Linklater.

Gus' Fried Chicken
Fried chicken with my peeps

But, we were in Memphis with my Dad and brother, and that was all that mattered. We caught up over Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, whilst I answered my brother’s many queries about middle America, and marvelled at how far I had come in four months. Yes, you have to tip in a place like this. Yes, you will like iced tea. No, it doesn’t have sugar if you ask for unsweetened. Yes, when they say fried pickles they mean deep fried pickles.

After dinner, we checked in at the Econolodge, where Dad and Tom were staying. This was a dreary affair of a hotel, set atop an even drearier parking lot. As we walked the halls to our room, we tried not to touch anything. We arrived at our room, hoping for the best. Alas, our key didn’t work, so I guarded our luggage whilst Erik went all the way back down to the ground floor to wait 20 minutes for the desk clerk who had decided to abandon her post. When we finally got into our room it reeked of stale cigarettes, the hot water didn’t work, and our coffee pot looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the hotel opened in the 1970s. Not wanting to face the MIA desk clerk again, we decided to make do (and perhaps get an STD check later on).

Econolodge Memphis
Waiting to be let into our room at the delightful Econolodge. When Erik saw us he said ‘Get up! You’ll get hepatitis!’

As we wandered the streets the next morning marveling at the beautiful abandoned art deco buildings, we realised the state of the Econolodge was representative of Memphis itself, which has surely seen better days. There is nothing that represents a great city well into its decline more than a boarded up, midcentury office building with a revolving restaurant that has most of its windows broken. We spent the morning in the library, which left us feeling even sadder about the state of the world, before retiring to a coffee shop for the rest of our working day (Tom and Dad meanwhile enjoyed the excellent Civil Rights Museum and toured Sun Studios. Damn this working holiday.)

However, not all is lost in Memphis. We met up later that day for a cocktail in the Peabody Hotel and to watch the Peabody Duck March. Watching these five ducks waddle from their fountain in a four-star hotel foyer to the lift which took them to their purpose-built $200,000 duck penthouse was one of the most joyful things I have ever experienced.

After cocktails and ducktails, we wandered down Beale street – a part of Memphis that is fortunately alive and well – for a drink, some live music, and some local food.

Beale Street, Memphis
Soaking up the Beale Street ambiance

Our two nights in Memphis were bittersweet: we shared some great times with some of our favourite people, but it is sad seeing such a wonderful city in such a state of disrepair. We will be back in Memphis on leg 2 of our trip and hopefully will get to know the good parts of this tired old southern belle a little better.

We just won’t be staying at the Econolodge.


Transporting a tenderloin through Chucktown

Upon arrival in Charleston, South Carolina, we checked into our campsite at James Island and set up our shelter in the blistering heat. I was still carrying around a little of the cold I’d picked up in Savannah and the heat made the task miserable. I don’t think Slinky was having much more fun dealing with me than I was having being me. Eventually we got all set up and headed into town, vowing to return to camp to cook this pork tenderloin we’d picked up at the store on the way in.

We caught a distant glimpse of Fort Sumter, site of the start of the Civil War, and walked  around the beautiful city for a while before stopping in for a drink at Blind Tiger, a little pub that we had read about. Once inside and sipping cocktails, we were sucked in by the reasonably priced and tasty looking dinner options. We decided to cook that tenderloin tomorrow. After all we had the campsite reserved for 4 nights. Dinner did not disappoint and we had a lovely evening decompressing and soaking up all of Charleston’s southern charm.

Sun setting behind buildings on street in Charleston
Charleston at dusk

We both slept fitfully that night, woken up by thunder and kept up by heat. As we worked from the campsite the next morning, we started planning our getaway. By midmorning it was getting too hot to be productive from a picnic table so we headed into town to work from the library. Libraries have been our salvation on many an occasion and Charleston proved no different. We set up in the air conditioning, finished work for the morning and randomly selected a nearby deli for lunch. It was crowded with, if the name badges were any indicator, mostly local office workers. The sandwiches were delicious. We had no idea that, at that moment just down the street in another popular lunch spot, a deranged man was declaring himself “the new king of Charleston” and holding hostages at gunpoint. Blissfully unaware, we discussed what to do about the upcoming thunderstorms. It wasn’t until we were driving from lunch to the Holiday Inn Express that we’d identified as potential replacement lodging that we had any clue something was happening. Several city blocks were ringed with police cars and people were being moved off of the sidewalk. Slinky found the news about the active shooter situation on her phone as I worked my way around unfamiliar backstreets trying to reroute us.

As we checked in to the hotel, the lobby television played CNN’s coverage of the situation. One person had been shot and dozens more were held hostage. Thankfully they got the man into custody without anybody else getting hurt. We stood glued to the coverage for a while then realized weather was more pressing than news in our current situation. We rushed back to the campsite to try to get everything packed up before the rain started. We almost made it. We did manage to get the shelter packed up before it got wet, which we’ve found to be the difference maker in how our packups go. As soon as it was in the van, the drops started, at first just spitting then a little heavier. We scurried around to get the van packed up. The tenderloin was hastily chucked into the cooler.

Slinky in a tree lined park
Could you direct me to the spooky tree district?

Back at the hotel, we jammed all of the food in the tiny refrigerator, and hatched tenderloin plan c: we’d go to a park with a charcoal grill. Too tired to enact that plan immediately, we opted for a little bistro that had a fondue special on. It was an interesting little hallway of a restaurant with bar seating and a few tables in the back. A card on the bar informed us that this was a no-tipping restaurant. I have to say that one of the things I really miss about Australia is the lack of tipping. Things cost more but people make a living wage and I don’t have to do math at the end of a nice meal. Win, win. So, I was really happy to be eating fondue and not tipping. And as the clouds gathered, I was exceptionally happy about going back to sleep in a bed under a roof.

We spent Friday and Saturday strolling around Battery Park and a neighbourhood of multi-colored houses known as Rainbow Row. After taking in some of the beauty of modern day Charleston, we checked out some of the ugliness of its past. We toured the Aiken Rhett house, a faithfully preserved nineteenth century plantation. It was confronting to see the slave quarters and artefacts of that barbaric institution. Seeing the furniture and personal affects throughout the house drove home just how recently these atrocities were committed. I was glad that we went but was also happy to leave.

Chandelier and painting at Aiken Rhett house
Our economy depends on us denying the freedom of an entire race, also check out this dope chandelier

By the weekend, although we still had the best of intentions to cook our tenderloin, we’d submitted completely to the Charleston foodie culture. We ate bahn mi rolls at a downtown art and food market and fried pigs ears at a local brewery. Over half-price Vietnamese tacos, we discussed what to do after Charleston. We were supposed to meet up with Slinky’s dad and brother in a few days. They were headed to Memphis and we had planned to visit Alabama before meeting up in Nashville. The plan made sense at first but as we discussed it, it seemed crazy to be so close (relative to Australia anyway) and not to spend a few more days with them. So, we hatched a scheme to drive the 10 hours from Charleston to Memphis on Sunday to surprise them.

Slinky eating a Bahn Mi
Bahn You, Bahn Mi

Our last night in Charleston was spent strolling through the night market and listening to the local musicians. It was a beautiful night and while we were both excited about the new plan, we were sad to be leaving. We agreed that Charleston was one of our favorite cities so far. All the same, we called it an early night so we could hit the road early the next morning. The nearest route from our hotel room to the van was through the pool area. It was there that I finally admitted defeat and, with a glance over my shoulder, deposited that well travelled, still uncooked tenderloin into the swimming pool trash can. We tried. Just not that hard.


Savannah, sans an eclipse

Yes, we were in Savannah for the eclipse! The almighty eclipse that crossed the entire continental US in its arc of totality.

When we originally mapped our trip across the US we were only vaguely aware of the eclipse, but fortuitously planned to spend this time in Charleston, right on the path of totality. ‘Well, that’s worked out nicely!’ we thought…

Turns out Charleston’s campgrounds were completely booked out and any rooms available were in the thousands of dollars per night. Not being flush with this sort of cash, we decided to switcheroo our dates with Savannah which was scheduled for 98% totality, but whose accomodation was far more reasonably priced (and available!). Not a bad trade off when you consider the crowds of crazy eclipse chasers that were forecast to descend on Charleston during this time!

The weather was forecast to be cloudy all the way along the coastline, so we figured we had as good a shot as anyone to see the lunar-solar collision. We bought our eclipse glasses and picnic supplies. We located our picnic blanket to afford several hours of comfy eclipse viewing. We found a nice wide open park (complete with confederate statue – thanks Savannah) to watch the eclipse. We were ready.

Eclipse sunglasses
Eclipse ready!

We got down to the park and set ourselves up, praying for the spotty cloud cover to hold and hoping to at least catch glimpses. We were thrilled that with our eclipse glasses we could actually see the sun through the clouds. We were winning.

That was until, 5 minutes prior to the sun starting its slow creep across the moon, dark storm clouds started brewing, followed by a steady few hours of thick cloud cover and rain. It got colder and darker, but that was about it. Our eclipse experience was a bust. But hey, at least we got to look cool in our cardboard glasses for about 3 minutes, right? Right.

The eclipse, with Spanish moss
The eclipse, with Spanish moss

But it wasn’t all bad. We saw some art at SCAD, visited the Mercer-Williams house (of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame), went on a ghost tour with some drunk people and ate at Lady and Sons, a southern style restaurant owned by US celebrity chef Paula Deen. And, on the plus side, we can now at least wipe the word ‘totality’ from our vocabularies for the next little while.

Art time at SCAD
Artiness at SCAD
Savannah Prettiness

Ps. Savannah is actually very pretty – those who haven’t been should actually put it on their wish lists. Just don’t do it during an eclipse – you’ll be disappointed.

Upon the Blue Ridge Mountains

We wanted to drive from Shenandoah to Asheville, North Carolina on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Doing the whole trip would have made it a twelve hour driving day and neither of us were prepared for that. But we started out to see how far we could go. Ultimately, the Eagleroo made the decision for us, wafting an incense of vaporizing brake pads as we worked our way down hills and around corners. Fortunately, the state road we detoured to had similar beautiful views. Unfortunately, it also had the same hills and hairpins. So we made a few extra stops to let the brakes cool down and the drivers’ nerves settle.

Curve of highway in the mountains
Damn you beautiful roads!

When we finally rolled into Asheville, I was thankful to be in familiar territory and in one of my favorite places in the country. We spent the first day wandering around downtown. We stopped in at Jack of the Woods, a little bar that occupies the downstairs of the Laughing Seed Cafe and always seemed to attract a friendly clientele. Seven or eight musicians were gathered in the corner playing Irish music for the bar’s Celtic Jam night. It felt good to be back.

Our first afternoon, we decided to drive out to Chimney Rock to take in the panoramic 70 mile views. This also gave me the chance to drive by the house in the woods that I shared with my friend Shutz when we lived here. I was happy to find it still there and relatively unchanged after almost twenty years.  The town surrounding the house, on the other hand, had changed drastically. In the late nineties, Fairview was just a sleepy rural suburb of Asheville with a grocery store and quick access to the parkway. Now they have an acupuncturist. I’m sure I was driving Slinky crazy with the relentless ‘that didn’t use to be there.’ From Fairview, the drive to Chimney Rock offered more brake burning twists and turns but it was lovely. The sky was clouding up a bit as we paid our entrance fee and by the time we made it up to the parking lot, our sunny skies had turned grey and rain was starting to fall. Stubbornness propelled us up the 500 steps to the top of that beautiful rock and while the views that day were far less than 70 miles in any direction, it was still worth the climb.

Erik and Slinky on top of chimney rock in the rain
Standing in a cloud

Tuesday after work, Sarah headed off to the Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore is the main tourist attraction in Asheville. The Vanderbilt family, who seem to have built vacation houses in most of the cities we’ve been to, squandered the lion’s share of their fortune on this place. I’ve never been inside but I hear it’s glorious. It’s also $65 to tour and I have about a $40 threshold for looking at other people’s stuff. I’ll go $50 if you’re Elvis. Also, I’d made a discovery walking around the previous day that I wanted to explore a bit further: the Asheville Pinball Museum.

Pinball Museum
The digit counters fall

The Pinball Museum didn’t exist when I lived there. So when I saw it pop up on Google maps as we were scouting cafés the first day, I got a little excited. I love pinball. I had apparently been too excited to realize that the museum was closed on Tuesdays. I Charlie Brown-walked away from the pinball museum to roam around downtown for a bit. It was a strange feeling being in this place I’ve lived so long ago. This line from a James McMurtry song kept going through my head: “I woke up in a strange place I can aptly describe. Like the streets of a town where I lived when I was too young to drive.” I kept turning corners expecting to see one place but seeing another. It wasn’t just that all of those places had changed. Sometimes I turned the corner expecting to see one place and seeing another that was definitely there when I was there. It was fun but really surreal.

That evening we had one of my favorite dinners of the trip at a place called Tupelo Honey. We’d decided it was time for a date night so we splurged a bit. Dinner started with cocktails and candied bacon and kept getting better from there. Afterward we wondered over to the ironically named Asheville Yacht Club for a nightcap.  Before entering, we had to purchase a $1 membership. This was not just in keeping with the yacht club theme. Any establishment that makes over 70% of its revenue from booze has to operate as a private club. This rule had confused me in the nineties and I’d assumed it had been tossed out like a Footloose ban on dancing years ago. But apparently it’s still going strong. Only one of us had to be a member so I ponied up the buck and actually got a membership card. Let me know if you’d like me to take you to my yacht club sometime. I can do that now.

Statues of dancing girl and bluegrass players
Play me some mountain music . . .

Suddenly, Wednesday morning it was time to check out from our accommodations. It seemed too soon. We’d gotten accustomed to being able to stand up straight and having a kitchen table to work at. Thankfully we weren’t headed too far and we weren’t saying goodbye to Asheville just yet. After a day spent working at the library, I revisited the pinball museum. Thankfully it was open this time and it did not disappoint. All of my favorite machines sat side by side, all in perfect playing condition. When my arms and daylight both threatened to give out, we jumped back on the Blue Ridge Parkway  and headed Southwest to Mt Pisgah Campground. We continued our tradition of reserving one campsite and then finding a better one upon arrival. We also continued our tradition of setting up and tearing down camp in the rain. This time there was a upside to the rain in that it was followed by an amazing rainbow.

Rainbow over Mt Pisgah
It’s like nature did a mashup of the Hobbit and Sound of Music

After a day struggling to find signal at the campground, we decided to commute back to Asheville for our final workday before departing for Savannah. As we drove back in to town, I made a mental note that we were running low on gas and I should stop and fuel up before we started our day. Then I started thinking about breakfast and quickly discarded that mental note. Then, I parked on an incline. Five hours later when we went to move the van, it wouldn’t start. I have to say, for a 20 year old van, it has been such a solid and reliable mode of transportation that I’d almost forgotten the alternator issues that delayed us at the start of the trip. Though I was pretty sure we were just out of gas, that feeling of mechanical helplessness came rushing back. We were eager to ensure the problem was just an empty tank before mechanics started closing up shop, so Slinky found a gas station within walking distance and I headed that direction. The gas station, it turns out was only accessible by the highway and therefore not by me. On my way back I contacted AAA. Before we knew it, there was a guy pouring 5 gallons of gas into the tank. Eagleroo fired right up!

Equally as gratifying was the discovery I made walking back. I happened upon a crew setting up lighting and sound for a street stage and realized we were there for Friday after 5:00. When I lived here, it was one of my favorite things about Asheville. They’d bring in really great musicians once a month to play a free show and a good chunk of the population would show up to the party. One of my favorite gigs was Southern Culture on the Skids at Friday after 5:00.

Cedric Burnside at Friday after 5
Grandson of R.L. Burnside and great musician in his own right

This time it was blues master Cedric Burnside, who played a high energy, fun and downright impressive set. Engaging in an Asheville tradition and seeing some amazing music seemed like a great final night activity. It really meant a lot to get to share that with Slinky. I got to Asheville not sure how much of my fondness was, in fact, a fondness for that town and how much was fondness for a part of my life and left reassured that it really is a special place.


Chipmunks and horses, and bears, oh my

After the excitement of several back-to-back metropolises, it was a relief to get back to the cool greenery of the wilderness. We were heading to Shenandoah National Park, my first foray into the state of Virginia. Extending along the narrow ridge that is the northern apart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah’s spectacular views, star filled skies and cooler climes were the perfect antidote to the steamy hustle-bustle of the city.

Shenandoah Valley View from Skyline Drive
View from one of the many lookouts along Skyline Drive

Shenandoah and Skyline Drive  – the scenic drive which runs the full length of the park and eventually turns into the Blueridge Parkway – was established as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. The more we traverse the states, the more we are exposed to the long term impact FDR had on his country. It’s a nice reminder of the true beauty of America and its underlying values that can easily be forgotten today. As we started to traverse Skyline Drive and oohed and ahhed at the views to the flat plains to both the east and the west, I thought ‘FDR, you can be part of my American entourage’. (Just to be clear: so far it’s me, FDR and Ben Franklin… and I guess Erik).

It is truly a spectacular part of the country. Before we left Baltimore, our friend Jeremy ‘Drummer’ Carlson had told us that ‘you feel like you are on top of the world’ in Shenandoah. He couldn’t have been more right. In the same conversation, Jeremy also mentioned we might see black bears in the wild. And, as we drove towards our campsite on the first night, a car stopped on the side of the road alerted us to our first Ursus Americanus. Turns out the Australian response to seeing her first bear is similar to an American (or at least Theresa Venon’s) response to seeing her first kangaroo. It goes something like this: ‘SQUEEEEEEE!!!!!!’. Throughout the rest of our Shenandoah stay, we saw another 5 bears. My excitement didn’t lessen at each one, although I’m less concerned about been eaten by one now.

Bear in Shenandoah

Unfortunately, wilderness and wifi (or phone service) are mutually exclusive. Whilst this afforded us several days of zen unplugged camping, it made it more challenging to complete work. I had a meeting at 7pm on our first night there, and as we drove into our campsite at about 6.30pm with zero reception and no wifi, I had a minor freak out. We had heard that the nearby lodge had wifi, so scuttled up there and hooked into the slowest and almost non-existent service I’ve ever experienced. Disaster hovering as my Skype meeting loomed, I looked down at my phone and (insert hallelujahs and sun streaming from the heavens above) I had two bars of service. Perched right on the Western edge of the mountain range, the lodge just managed to pick up service from the town in the valley below. As I set myself up and tried to lower my blood pressure, an email popped up postponing the meeting. This is the life of a digital nomad.

Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah
Erik walking part of the Appalachian Trail that follows Shenandoah

Fortunately, the following days were blissful. We worked from the two lodges along Skyline drive, hiked to waterfalls, went on a slow but pretty horse ride, watched live music at the lodge, discovered the effects of drinking at altitude and spent a good amount of time just hanging at our second campsite. We didn’t like the one we were assigned initially so on our second day we found a walk-up site which was shared with a family of chipmunks (again: SQUEEE!), gave us more privacy and shade as well as delightful neighbours that invited us over for s’mores (or, as I can’t stop calling them: shmores).

Shenandoah Chipmunk
Our friendly neighbour

On our fourth day, we made the journey down the mountain to see Luray Caverns. This was another tip-off from our Shenandoah guru, Jeremy ‘Drummer’ Carlson. When we arrived, we were apprehensive at the tourist trap appearance of it (there were crowds of people, a ‘Toy Town Junction’, a maze, a ropes course, a gem shop… you’re getting the picture ). However, thinking Drummer wouldn’t steer us wrong, we approached the long line to buy tickets and asked an older gentleman exiting the caverns if it was worth the wait and the not-so-cheap price tag. He told us it was, although you have to listen to ’10 minutes of history bullshit at the start’. So, we made the leap and boy oh boy, was it worth it! We walked 2.5km through underground caves filled to the brim with stalactites and stalagmites. One section was even lit with 600 birthday candles (it was their 139th birthday . . . I’m not sure who did the maths on that one). It took us an hour and 30 minutes to wander through this underground natural wonder, and I even liked the 10 minutes of history bullshit at the start.

Luray Caverns
Luray Caverns in all their glory

On our last night, we packed up our camp early, ate at the lodge and then lay in a field watching a meteor shower (I know, this place is ridiculous!) until the sky clouded over. We had a long drive ahead of us to Asheville the next day, and wanted to drive as much of the Blueridge Parkway as possible on the way there. It was hard to pull ourselves away from Shenandoah but we did so at 5.30am, stopping at one of the Eastern overlooks on Skyline Drive to watch the sunrise as our farewell.

Eat, Drink and Be Maryland

It’s striking how close together many of these old east coast cities are. This is certainly the case with D.C. and Baltimore, to the point where I wasn’t really sure when we left D.C. and when we entered Baltimore. I could tell when we left Baltimore and entered Catonsville, however, as the dense apartments and row houses morphed into suburban two-stories with big front yards. It wasn’t quite going from The Wire to the The Wonder Years, but not too far off. We were heading to Catonsville because that is where our friends Drummer (real name reportedly Jeremy) and Kara live with their son Matthew. He was Matty last time I visited but now, as a mature nine year old, he’s dispensed with the truncating and appending a long e sound. Take note Australia, it can be outgrown.

I’ve known Drummer and Kara both since college. They are both awesome and awesome together so I was excited to see them both and excited for Slinky to meet Kara. She’d met Drummer earlier this Summer at Rabscuttlooza, a celebration of music, art and rabbit stories organized by our friend Dan Hawthorne. That was also, incidentally, the first time I’ve heard Drummer, whose primary instrument is oddly enough drums, perform a stellar acoustic blues set. I knew he could play but had no idea he could sing. It was good enough that I was a bit angry at him about it.

Our first night in town they prepared a feast of ribs and grilled goodness then followed it up with a campfire and s’mores. Kara and I debated how long it had been since we’d seen one another for a while. I’ve had that conversation a number of times on this trip. It’s a fun little trip down memory lane without ever having to utter, ‘Remember that one time . . .”  We landed on October of 2012 for those keeping score at home. Kara then spent some time being angry at me about the color of my hair, which is not to her estimation turning gray so much as ‘getting all weird and stuff.’ I assured her that I look exactly the same as I did when we met in college. It was probably a trick of the campfire light.

Drummer, Matthew and Kara eating ribs
Feasting in B-more

Eventually the guitars came out. Then their neighbour, who is also the sousaphone player in Drummer’s band, dropped by with cigars, whiskey and a deep catalogue of John Denver songs. There was much singing and playing and passing of guitars and bottles. Slinky and Kara peeled off as they saw where this was going. When Drummer and I eventually decided to call it a night, I was actually shocked to see it was 3:30 am. Damn you, John Denver! You get me every time.

I started the next day off fuzzy and a bit jealous that Slinky had gone to bed at a far more reasonable and less booze soaked hour. Drummer drove us into the city while Kara offered some helpful tips about speed and safe following distance. The plan was to lunch on the best pizza in town. We arrived early since we had a Baltimore Orioles game to catch and wanted to beat the crowds. We stood outside the pizza place with stomachs grumbling and waited for the doors to open. They never did. Half an hour after the purported opening time, we gave up and hangrily walked to another pub that apparently brings double of whatever you order. I ordered a coke and they brought me two. So I ordered a beer.

Soon enough we were on our way to Camden Yards to watch the Orioles take on the Detroit Tigers. Between walking through the gates and finding our seats our seats, the Orioles hit three homeruns. We saw none of them. It was bizarre. We got through security, the crowd erupted. We stopped into the bathroom, the place went nuts. We ordered some drinks, pandemonium. The final score was 13-4 in the Orioles’ favor, with half of Detroit’s runs scored in the hopeless 9th inning. It wasn’t a close game but if you like watching the home team hit some dingers, it was a good place to be. As we walked out of the stadium, huge lines of patient parents and eager children were forming. We were informed that kids could run the bases after the game. Thankfully, Matthew didn’t show any more interest in those lines than the rest of us, but I kind of held my breath until they were out of sight.

View of Camden Yards from behind third base
A rare homerun-free moment at Camden Yards

We didn’t do too much touristy stuff in Baltimore. We did take a rain soaked stroll around Fells Point but spent much of that time browsing old records in a cramped little shop. After loading up on history and culture in D.C., it was nice to just visit with friends, play music, and relax.

On our third and final night in town, Drummer and Kara took us to Ships Restaurant for Maryland crabs. They were difficult to eat, completely plastered in Old Bay seasoning and, well, delicious. The waitress dumped a giant pile of them on the table in front of us. She gave us paper grocery bags in which to hide the carnage. I warned Kara that sitting across from Slinky while she’s eating crustaceans carries a similar threat level to the front row at a Gallagher show. Kara barricaded herself with menus. I don’t know if it’s actually possible to hallucinate from a sodium overdose but I do know that, right before I passed out, one of the crabs told me he was my spirit animal.

Tuesday morning, Mathew went to camp and Drummer and Kara went to work, leaving us to pack up and go. In the process we discovered a chipmunk had found his way into their screened in porch. He made it under the ping pong table where I’d recently lost a game to a nine year old and hid under the shelving unit. When we couldn’t find him, we decided to leave the screen door open so he could get out. Not wanting other chipmunks to take advantage of the open door, I affixed a ‘No Chipmunks Allowed’ post-it note. We are nothing if not thoughtful guests.

Mr. Roo Goes to Washington

To be honest, my trepidation about visiting Washington D.C. started back in June when we visited Chicago. Walking around the corner and seeing the big dumb name of our current president on a big beautiful building just made me cringe. I knew that feeling would be magnified in D.C. but I have such fond memories attached to the city, including a 9th grade school trip where we got to roam around semi-unsupervised around the capital for 3 days. Besides, I was morbidly curious as to what it would be like now.

Fountain in front of the Capital Building
Beyond Fountaindome

In addition to loving the city itself, my good friends Carlton and Kellie live in Capital Hill and had invited us to stay with them. They are some of the nicest and most fun people I know, so I was very excited to catch up with them and for Sarah to get to know them. We had switched the order of Baltimore and Washington D.C to catch them before they left to attend a wedding in Canada. I’m so glad we did. It was really great to spend time with them. Carlton and Kellie’s location provided the perfect launching pad for our museum and monument bonanza. We could work in the mornings and plunge right out into the D.C. swelter in the afternoons.

Clouds over Union Station
Clouds over Union Station

We toured around Union Station and the Mall on our first day and spent a bit of time at the American History museum. That visit was cut shorter than anticipated because the entertainment wing was closed for renovations. I was bummed we didn’t see Fonzie’s jacket or Archie Bunker’s chair but we did get to wander through the gallery of First Lady’s inaugural gowns. That was like watching a timelapse video of the fashion trends of the last two centuries. They didn’t have Melania’s dress on display yet. I was heartened by their wait-and-see approach.

The next evening, our doting hosts took us to picnic at the capitol and watch ‘The President’s Own’ United States Marine Band perform. I guess they knew Sarah would be there because they dedicated part of their set to Australian composers. As the sun set behind us, the sky behind the Washington Monument turned bright pink. I forget how pretty a city our nation’s capital is when I haven’t been there for a while.

Though they had a brutally early flight to catch, Carlton and Kellie guided us around some of their favorite memorials, including MLK, FDR, Jefferson and Lincoln. We got back to the house exhausted, thankful and feeling a little guilty that they still had to pack. I guess they kept their eyes open long enough to fill their suitcases because by the time we woke up, they were on their way to Canada, leaving us with a hand drawn map of the area, some tips on things to check out, and their bikeshare keys.

Slinky looking at a painting
Slinky getting her art fix

We decided to give history a rest and to check out some art at the Smithsonian Gallery of American Art. I chose the least bicycle-friendly route so by the time we got there we’d be exhilarated and filled with the will to live, just as one should be when one views art. It worked. We both really enjoyed the museum. Also it was nice to view exhibits that didn’t involve Slinky asking me history questions that I really ought to know the answer to.

That evening we met more friends, Lindsey and Chris, for dinner at their place. We had a great time catching up on old times and learning about mythology from their daughters, who are far too bright for their single-digit ages. We had such a nice time that I forgot to take any pictures. So you’ll have to take my word for it, they are beautiful people inside and out.

On Friday, Slinky and I took an actual day off of work and biked over to the White House and Ford’s theatre . The Ford’s Theater tour contains two parts: the theater where Lincoln was shot and the rooming house across the street where he actually died. The museum itself was a bit all over the place, but the talk by the ranger was informative and interesting. Even so, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open so I decided to skip the second part and cycle back to the house. Slinky, ever the better traveller, toughed out the long line.

Slinky on a bike with the capital in the background
Two-wheelin’ with feelin’

When she went to retrieve a bike for the ride home, her key fob wouldn’t unlock one. She worked out that one of us hadn’t properly docked the bike on the last trip. Hot and stranded, she called me. Back in my air conditioned splendor, my mind flashed to the little sign on the bike that said failure to return it would result in purchasing said bike for $1000. So I quickly hung up on her. OK, that last bit didn’t happen. I called Kellie in Canada and she assured me that if it did cost them a grand that would count as both my birthday and Christmas present. She made some calls and straightened everything out while Slinky made the long walk home. I watched Crossroads with Ralph Machio on free to air television. We all made sacrifices.

Our last night in DC was spent at the sculpture garden listening to live jazz and dangling our feet in the fountain. The band’s 12 minute vamp on Donna Summers’ ‘I Will Survive’ eased the pain of leaving DC with so much left unseen and undone. I’m sure we’ll be back but it was still tough to go, to walk out the door, to turn around and not be welcome anymore.

Fountain at the sculpture garden with people listening to the jazz band play
Jazz in the Sculpty place

Thankfully we weren’t going too far and had more good friends to visit with in Baltimore.


Downtime with the Amish.

Our time in Pennsylvania Dutch Country was short and in some ways bittersweet.

We drove through the rolling hills of farms, overtaking families on their Sunday buggy drives whilst admiring the lush landscape. We tried some Amish food specialities (their version of Chicken Pot Pie, Shoofly Pie and Birch Beer) at a local restaurant, which were both filling and satisfying.

Amish Countryside
Dutch country!

To be perfectly honest, I was somewhat surprised at the welcoming nature of the Amish and Mennonite communities. I think I was expecting disdain for our technology and consumer driven lifestyles, but we received nothing but waves, smiles and general friendliness from the locals who we were essentially coming to ogle at.

Cabin and Eagleroo
Home sweet homes

We had originally planned to camp here but having previously experienced the whirlwind that is setting up and taking down camp in a 15 hour period we instead booked a cabin in an ‘over thirties’ RV ‘camp’ ground (we were the youngest there by a good 20 years). Our cabin was delightfully simple and homey and we drifted off to sleep listening to the gentle clip clop of horses driving past. Turns out the Amish are quite the night owls.

Our serenity was shattered the next morning as we attempted to meet work deadlines, do laundry and pack up our belongings before checking out of our cabin at midday and driving to Gettysburg for the afternoon. Being simultaneously pulled every which was at once was becoming a common and overwhelming emotion on this trip, but this was a tipping point for me.

Amish countryside
How can you stay stressed with this view?

In despair, I said ‘I didn’t know it would be this hard’. Erik responded with ‘I didn’t know it would be this kind of hard’. But as we sat, post meltdown, overlooking the beautiful Pennsylvania country side, eating our lunch, all the reasons we came on this trip came flooding back.

Being the generous soul that he is, Erik was kind enough to drive to Gettysburg as I met my work deadlines. We hadn’t really factored in enough time for Gettysburg, but it was almost on the way to Washington DC, so decided to at least swing past. We saw the video narrated by Morgan Freeman, the cyclorama and (to the disdain of the park ranger who we asked what to see if we only had an hour) did a quick auto tour of the battle field.

Gettysburg battlefield
Gettysburg battlefield

We were surprised by how well laid out and extensive it was, and have vowed to return one day to see more.