Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Ludington, Michigan

The beautiful blue waters of Lake Michigan have amazed us all summer so as our summer travels were winding down we decided to hang out in more coastal towns before heading south through the heartland.  This time we chose Ludington where rolling sand dunes meet Lake Michigan and iconic lighthouses penetrate the sky.  Ludington is beautifully similar to other western Michigan coastal towns each of which have their own unique charm and character.  Despite the fact that this beach town was slowly closing down after their busy summer season, we found plenty to do. 

Visiting in October meant we had the beach to ourselves, quiet in the campground, and beautiful fall colors to grace our hikes.  It’s easy to image downtown Ludington a bustling place in the summer with marinas and shoreline parks to attract beach goers and water lovers.  Lucky for us, it was pretty much empty which is just the way we like it.  Fall camping in northern states can be dicey weather-wise and campgrounds and attractions shut down.  The flip side of that is there are less people which sometimes makes for a more enjoyable experience overall.  There are trade-offs.

Downtown Ludington is cute with streets lined with shops, a few breweries, interesting restaurants, a great gourmet market, and various other businesses.  Venture west of downtown towards the water and you will find Pere Marquette Lake which connects to Lake Michigan but provides a protective harbor.  Along the lake you will find two large marinas sandwiching Waterfront Park.  The 5-acre park is home to a sculpture garden where nine bronzes highlight the area’s history and culture beautifully telling the story of immigrants, logging history, shipping, and more.  One prominent feature along the shoreline is the S.S. Badger – a car ferry that traverses Lake Michigan from Ludington east to Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  The Badger was launched in 1952 and is the only coal-fired steamship in operation in the United States and is a designated National Historic Landmark.


Along Lake Michigan is Stearns Park Beach which is home to the North Breakwater Light (one of two lighthouses in the area).  Originally built in 1871, the light was replaced in 1924 and is one of the most photographed places in Ludington as it has a distinctive design which some say resembles a ship (not sure how they get that, but o.k.).  The breakwater provides easy access to the lighthouse which is open for tours and tower climbs during the summer season for a fee.  The light shines across nearly 20 miles into the lake warning mariners of danger and guiding them through the channel into Pere Marquette Lake.

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We spent lots of time at Ludington State Park exploring the dunes, hills, and lighthouses via miles and miles of trails. Despite there being a couple of campgrounds in the park, the trails were never very crowded. The most popular trail is the Skyline Trail, a short 0.5 mile boardwalk that takes you along the crest of a dune where you get a great view of the lake and fore dunes; as well as the surrounding woods.  We were impressed with how much there was to do in this park and would be a nice place to camp if you are content without full hook-ups.  There is fishing, plenty of beach for enjoying (no dogs allowed though), hiking trails, watercraft rentals, concessions, picnic areas, playgrounds, and hiking trails.


Another hike we took led us out to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse.  You can only reach the lighthouse by walking or biking to it so we chose to hike out the Lighthouse Trail.  The trail starts off in the woodlands and then winds over and through open and wooded dunes.  Hiking through the dunes really gives you a sense of being small among the tall rolling dunes not to mention how the soft sand gives your legs quite a workout.  We opted to return to the parking lot via the shorter, level, and hard packed surface road.  Spirit was happy with our choice to hike the long trail out to the lighthouse but Betsy and I were tired and opted for the easy walk back.  The Big Sable Point Lighthouse is celebrating its 150th birthday in 2017.  The 112’ lighthouse sits beautifully perched between the sand dunes and blue waters of Lake Michigan.  Ever dream of staying in a lighthouse for an extended period of time? At this one you can. Volunteer “keepers” stay at the lighthouse for two-week stints between April and November serving as interpretive guides, performing maintenance tasks, and running the gift shops. (If you are interested, click here for more information.)  The lighthouse is also open for tours and to climb the tower for a fee and they have various events and programs throughout the season.


One day we took to exploring the more rural country side around Ludington – we called it “farm day.”  We drove north of town to visit Andrulis Specialty Cheese which has been around since 1940.  Andrulis cheeses are farmer’s cheese made from cows’ milk in the traditional Baltic-style.   In addition to the traditional farmer’s cheese, they make feta and a variety of flavored cheeses like chive, dill, caraway, basil, garlic and onion, and more.  We left with a free sample of feta which was delicious so when we found Andrulis cheese in the grocery store we decided to try the traditional farmer’s cheese and the basil variety, both of which were very good.

The woman we spoke to at Andrulis mentioned delicious homemade cookies at a local place called Orchard Market which sounded like a place we should visit.  The market has been around since 1960 supplying fruits and vegetables and cooking up fudge, fruit pies, and freshly daily baked goods.  The Orchard Market has two locations, and lucky for us, one was within walking distance of the campground.

Next up was a stop at Sander’s Meats which is a family-run butcher and specialty meat market that put down their roots in 1925.  The company specializes in smoked hams, homemade brats, hotdogs, sausages, bologna and much more.  We loaded up on porterhouse steaks and pork chops that were cut to our specifications.  This is one of those old style meat markets that has a local following and goes above and beyond to please their customers.

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There are a few notable Ludington eateries to mention.  You didn’t think we were going to starve, did you?
  • Just south of town is The Jam Farm - a little shop selling homemade jams, jellies, condiments, and gifts. All the fruit comes from their farm or a neighbors and when we walked in it was clear their goods were homemade as a women was stirring the pot creating a new seasonal jam flavor.
  • Ludington Bay Brewing Company is a new game in town serving up cold beer and a crafty menu.  We went a little overboard with our ordering which included warm pretzels with cheese and mustard dipping sauce, brats, and beer.
  • Downtown on Ludington Avenue (which is essentially the town’s Main Street) is home to Biercamp Market a neighborhood grocery with specialty items, prepared foods, a great deli, and a wine/beer bar.
  • After a morning walk along the marina, Spirit and us wandered up into town and found ourselves in the parking lot of Cops and Doughnuts - McDonald’s Precinct.  This is a doughnuts shop that has been around since 1898 and was known as McDonald’s Bakery before a band of cops bought it and changed the name.  Their wide range of fresh made doughnuts has generated quite the following and Spirit encouraged me to sample some of their flavors.
  • The last place to mention is actually a fast food chain but ranks high on Betsy’s food list.  She grew up on Big Boy’s and relishes the chance to eat that double stack of meat, cheese, lettuce and tartar sauce sandwiched between sesame seed buns.

Ludington was a great stop for us and one of those places that we kept extending our stay because we liked the town and the RV park (Ponchos Pond RV Park - review to follow) so much.  We would definitely return to Ludington and it was a great end to four months in Michigan. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

RV Park Review–West Lake Park, Terrace Campground (Davenport, Iowa)

This is a very nice county park and we really enjoyed our 8-night stay here.  We came to the area to visit the John Deere factories and other Davenport/Moline attractions (which is summarized in this blog post) and found that there was a lot to do in the area.  The fact that this campground was so nice was part of the reason we kept extending our stay (and it was only $18/night during the off-season with a senior discount for full hook up).  We did not have a reservation and showed up on a Saturday but figured since it was a cold rainy weekend in late October we wouldn’t have a problem finding a site. When we arrived there were plenty of sites to choose from.


West Lake Park has two campgrounds – Terrace and Summit.  Summit Campground was closed for the winter but we walked through it and it was very nice with long pull-thru sites; however, there is no sewer at the site.  Terrace Campground has two loops both of which are very nice.  The campground is nicely treed but not too much so that it is hard getting RV’s in and out of sites.  Some campsites have gravel driveways while others are paved but all have a paved patio and will accommodate any length RV.  All RV sites are 50 amp full hook-up and have picnic tables and fire pits with grill grates. 


There are 13 non-electric tent sites located in a grassy area towards the back of the campground with two pit toilets nearby.  Our Verizon phone only got 3G and two bars. The over-the-air antenna picked up about two dozen channels including three major networks.  The campground is open year-round but they shut off the water spigots around the end of October (depending on the weather).  There is a 14-day maximum stay which prevents seasonal campers or people from taking up residence in the campground.  We were there in the off-season so it wasn’t too crowded except it did fill up on the weekends.  This campground is probably very crowded in the summer and since they don’t take reservations it may be hard to get a site.  Due to the time of year we visited, the water at each site was turned off but potable water was at the camp host site (which was unoccupied) and the dump station.  The bath house was still open and kept very clean and warm.


The campground sits in a 620-acre park which has lots of things to do including a 24-hole disk golf course, multiple playgrounds, four lakes for fishing or boating (which you can rent and only electric motors are allowed in the lakes), a swim beach, picnic pavilions, concessions, hiking trails, boat ramp, and volleyball.  This park was great for walking our dog as there are many miles of trails along the lakes and in the woods which were not heavily used (but we were there in late October and not the busy summer season).


The payment process was a little confusing. Instead of having an envelope to put your money into, you are supposed to come to the office when they open. The sign on the door indicated they would be back at 3 pm. but nobody was there at that time. About 4 o’clock a ranger knocked on our door and told us to come pay.  They are a little vague about the office hours because the next day we went back around 3:00 and nobody was there.  Overall, we really liked this park and would definitely stay here again if we were in the area.

This park is great if you have a dog because there is plenty of room to walk them.  There is no off-leash dog park but miles and miles of trails wind through the woods and along the lakeshores. 


Friday, November 10, 2017

The Quad Cities of Iowa and Ilinois

For the last seven years we have been on an adventure to see America and what is more iconic American than that distinctive green and yellow tractor working the corn fields in the heartland?  So off we went to tour a John Deere factory in Davenport, Iowa and see what else was in the area.
Davenport would serve as our home base while we explored the “Quad Cities” which are the river towns straddling the upper Mississippi River comprised of Davenport and Bettendorf (Iowa) and Moline and Rock Island (Illinois).  We were shocked at all there was to do in the area.  Our days were jammed packed and our planned four-night stay quickly doubled.  We saw John Deere machines being made, visited a farm where cows are milked by robots, learned about the areas’ rich German-American history, admired the art museum, stepped foot in the World’s Largest Truck Stop, learned about the nation’s oldest Arsenal, and crossed another Presidential Library off the list.  Let’s face it, Iowa was never high on our list of states to visit but RVing has led us to places we never would have considered going before. And that, is why we love this RV life!

Farmers markets are always of interest to us so we headed downtown Davenport to the Freight House Farmers Market which is open year-round and is quite popular in the summer operating three days a week.  The first booth that attracted us was the Cinnamon Ridge Farm which had samples of their delicious cheese and a poster with an adorable face of a Jersey cow.  We met the owners of the farm who encouraged us to come out to the farm for a tour and learn about their unique operation. 

Cinnamon Ridge is a robotic dairy where four, quarter of a million-dollar each robot milk the cows up to six times a day.  Cows wear identifying collars that are read by the robots and keep track of various data like milk production/volume/pounds, percent butter fat, body weight, diseases, and their movements.  Cows voluntarily enter a chute where they are fed a very palatable feed (a.k.a. cow candy) while the milking robot goes to work.  The robot cleans the utter before attaching the milkers to prevent contaminates from getting into the milk.  Next, a laser identifies the location of the teats and attaches the milkers.  There is a predetermined amount of feed that keeps the cow in the chute based on how long it takes the robot to attach and milk the individual cow.  Farm tours cost $10/person but that includes a $4 gift card to use in their farm store which sells a variety of items from meat, eggs, homemade baked goods and the cheese they make on the property.  A small percentage of the milk is used on the farm for cheese but the majority of it is sold to a company that uses it to produce Swiss cheese.  We highly recommend the tour … and the cheese!


Downtown Davenport had a couple of arts and cultural attractions that intrigued us.  The German-American Cultural Center provided an interesting background about the German people that make up the Quad Cities.  The center is housed in an old hotel built in 1861 which housed thousands of immigrants. More Germans immigrated to the United States between 1820 -1996 than from any other country and they settled in the Midwest due to their farming backgrounds.  Germans settled comfortably into a new life and were accepted well by Americans because of their work ethic and education level.  But as WWI gained hold in Europe, and the United States was drawn into the war, more Americans became suspicious of German-Americans and thought they might be loyalists to the German government.  The museum also featured a traveling exhibit on Harry Houdini (a famous German-immigrant) highlighting his magical antics that captivated awestruck onlookers.


One of Davenport’s most recognizable buildings is the Figge Art Museum.  Every Sunday the museum is free so we decided to give it a look. Just so happens we were there when the family-friendly event going on celebrated Day of the Dead.  Let’s just say the museum was quite crazy with lots of people and kids running around with painted faces, working on themed crafts, and nachos and salsa being handed out.  We did manage to wander into some areas of the museum and take in some of the interesting artwork.


Back up to the real reason why we came to Iowa which was to tour the John Deere Factory.  The Quad Cities is the hub of Deere activities with the World Headquarters and the John Deere Pavilion being located in Moline and many factories scattered about.  Free, guided tours are offered to many of the factories (providing they are in production and you make a reservation).  We toured the seeding machines plant which was fascinating since we knew nothing about large-scale farm planting.  The technology that is in the equipment is mind boggling and is remarkably advantageous for the farmer to increase yield.  A “brush” system is used to evenly and accurately distribute seeds to the specifications of the farmer.  Seed spacing can even be changed mid-planting and some planters are GPS controlled so the farmer doesn’t even have to drive the machine.  The cost of the new computer-guided farming equipment was staggering to us with one eight-row combine costing over $500K which made us wonder how a farmer ever makes money.  At the John Deere Pavilion and World Headquarters are interpretive exhibits about the company history, evolution of their equipment, and current technology (like a robot lawn mower and autonomous tractor).  Plus, you can climb on all the equipment and get a sense of what it is like to drive through a corn or soybean field during harvest time. 


The Quad Cities has been doing some serious beer brewing which is reflected by the six popular breweries in the area.  We chose Front Street Brewery to sample some frosty mugs and vittles which garners the titles of “Oldest Brew Pub” and “Second Oldest Brewery” in Iowa.  Betsy tried their famous breaded pork tenderloin sandwich and I opted for a black bean burger and we loved the 100+ year old building it is housed in.  Two Vietnamese restaurants of note were Pho 9999 and California Pho (where we ate five times).  Davenport was a resettlement area for Vietnamese after the Fall of Saigon so the restaurants serve authentic food and there are plenty of Asian markets around.  Moline is home to Lagomarcino’s which has been making fine chocolates since 1908.  This turn-of-the-Century ice cream parlor and confectionery is also a winner of the James Beard “America’s Classic” Award which meant we had to go and try their legendary hot fudge.  So how was it, you ask?  Delicious and worth the calories!


One day I told Betsy we were going to the little town of Le Claire about 25 minutes away and the response I got was, “what is there to see there?”  I mumbled a few things that I didn’t want her to clearly understand and cleverly finished with “… a distillery …” which had her putting on her coat and grabbing the keys.  Le Claire is a cute little river town with a main street lined with boutiques, galleries, and restaurants that is a big draw for summer tourists. The most famous attraction in Le Claire is Antique Archaeology which is home to the American Pickers (a popular show on the History Channel). The two stores are filled with antiques and vintage items that have been featured on their television shows mixed in with t-shirts, hats and other Antique Archaeology souvenirs.


On a cold and rainy day there was only so much strolling down main street we were going to do so into the Mississippi River Distillery we went.  The distillery was started in 2010 by two brothers who were living in other parts of the country and decided to quit their jobs and come home to start making spirits. The distillery makes bourbon, vodka, gin, rye, an artisan spirit, and a variety of seasonal spirits.  One hundred percent of the ingredients are sourced from within 25 miles of the distillery.  Our tour guide, Jan, was very knowledgeable about the distilling processes and her enthusiasm for the company shined and you could tell she loved her job.  The distillery tours and tastings are free but if you want to linger longer there is a cocktail bar overlooking the river with an extensive drink menu and a great mixologist ready to help with whatever you fancy.


Some neighbors in our campground recommended visiting the Rock Island Arsenal which piqued my interest (especially since I have a nephew who just completed Army basic training). The Arsenal is an active U.S. Army facility and has been a fixture of the area since 1809 and is still a busy place today, employing over 7,000 people, thus making it the nation’s largest government owned and operated arsenal.  Almost every military-related item has been made there at some point.  The museum (which is the second oldest U.S. Army Museum and a National Historical Landmark) features exhibits that highlight the history of the island, items manufactured there, and a firearms display.  The Arsenal manufactured everything from rifles to canteens to cavalry equipment with a lot more in between. When in war time this place shifts into overdrive.  During WWII, some 18,500 people (32% of which were women) were employed to support the war effort.  Also on the base are a National and Confederate cemetery and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi River Visitor Center.


One of my favorite websites for trip ideas is Atlas Obscura that comes up with quirky and fun stuff to do in an area. With the World’s Largest Truck Stop just ten minutes away, you can bet that was on that list to see.  The truck stop has multiple eateries, a dentist, barber, chiropractor and plenty of chrome and accessories to trick out your truck.  There is even a semi in the truck stop.
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Also at the truck stop is the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum which has an amazing display of 100 antique trucks ranging from milk wagons to wreckers to moving vans.  This free museum was the dream of the truck stop founder, Bill Moon.  Moon was passionate about antique trucks and memorabilia and built a museum housing almost 100 rare and one-of-a-kind trucks.  The trucks are beautifully restored and show off the industry's unique and functional vehicles.  There are old milk wagons, moving trucks, snowmobiles, wreckers, and many more.


About 45 minutes to the west of Davenport is the little rural farming town of West Branch.  The quiet little town is home to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library and the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site (which is home to the final resting place for Hoover and his wife; as well as, a visitor center, birthplace, and a variety of other buildings).  The Presidential Museum features interesting exhibits, video footage, historical artifacts, and a short film about Hoover’s life and his private and public achievements.  Before becoming the 31st President of the United States, he was a successful geologist and engineer and amassed a sizeable financial fortune while traveling the world in search of potential mines.  But Hoover felt the need to enter public service instead of growing his wealth.  He became admirably recognized as “The Great Humanitarian” for his tireless successful efforts to relieve famine in Europe during and after WWI.  His premise was to organize volunteers to help those less fortunate and convinced Americans to do with less to help those overseas thus giving rise to “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays.”  After the United States sent flour to Europe hundreds of the sacks, beautifully embroidered were returned to Hoover in thanks.


Our time in the Quad Cities was busy and we thoroughly everything and being there.  Thanks for putting up with a super long blog post and coming along with us virtually.  Next time you are driving across the country consider swinging through this area for a visit.

And if you are wondering if Spirit liked the Quad Cities as much as we did?  Yes, we stayed at a great county park that had miles of hiking trails, four lakes, and lots of sticks.