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Archive for May, 2008

Assateague Island National Seashore, MD

I like driving Route 13 up the eastern seashore. The road is smooth, level, and lightly trafficked. All through the tow the Nissan hummed steadily as it tugged the Airstream through quiet green countryside up into Maryland.

We made one important stop, at The Great Machipongo Clam Shack, to stock the freezer and buy seafood sandwiches for lunch. I say “important” because we know the place and love the food, but also because it has fast wi-fi which reaches across their roomy parking lot. Twenty-seven huge emails had piled up over the last few weeks which I have been unable to download efficiently over my cellular Internet connection. All of them downloaded quickly while Eleanor was inside ordering lunch.


Assateague National Seashore looks at first a lot like the Outer Banks: a barrier island, lots of sand, sea oats, and other salt-adapted plants. But it has one significant element that other barrier islands don’t have, namely wild ponies. They have been living here for centuries, perhaps survivors of a Spanish ship that sank off shore, and they are a major tourist attraction.

assateague-manure.jpgWe have yet seen them, but their signs are everywhere. Hoof prints are in the sand by our campsite, and horse manure is scattered along the narrow campground roads. In backing up the Airstream I was forced to drive right through a nice heap of manure, which is the first time that’s happened in our travels.

If you come here, note that there are two campgrounds adjacent to each other on the barrier island. One is state park, and the other is national park. The national park sites are $20 per night (versus $30 for the state park) and have the same services: nothing. But the national park requires a $15 per vehicle entrance fee, so for a single night it’s cheaper to take the state park unless you have a national parks pass.

We ended up in the state park because of site availability. There, you’ll find a huge variation in the length of campsites. It’s impossible for longer trailers like ours to back into a site without the tow vehicle driving on the sand (and maybe manure) at least a little. The registration desk has a book listing all the site lengths and it’s a good idea to check it before you pick one. We needed a huge site to fit all three vehicles (remember the Honda?).

It’s beautiful on the island, but I can’t help the sense of “We just did this.” One barrier island is much like another. The wind this afternoon was like the Outer Banks at their worst, whistling and howling and throwing sand in our faces. We tried to walk to the beach but the tiny particles stung our legs and wriggled into our eyes. I’m afraid that means we won’t be able to properly investigate the place with the time we have.

We would stay several nights, but Memorial Day weekend begins tomorrow, and both the state and national park sites on the island are completely booked. We anticipated this. We could have allowed more nights here if we had left the Outer Banks a day or two earlier, or driven right through instead of stopping at Koptopeke last night. There’s always a compromise somewhere, and in this case Assateague got the short end of the stick. We will have to leave in the morning.

We could have made reservations for this weekend, but that would have required us to nail down our exact trip plan weeks ago. Instead, we left it open, trusting that some sort of plan would emerge, and one did: we are going to spend the weekend courtesy parking at the home of fellow Washington DC Unit (WBCCI) members Star & Peter, up in New Hope PA.

That’s ideal, since they have hookups on their property, don’t mind us coming or going whenever we want, and by courtesy parking we are saving money too. Their house is near Philadelphia so I expect at some point we’ll make a day trip in to the city.

Assateague will be on our “return” list to visit again someday when we have time to explore it. I’d like to be able to photograph the wild ponies, ride the bike trails, and drive down the 4WD section of beach. See, even full-timers don’t always have time to do everything they want. It’s a big country and a lifetime is barely enough time to explore it.

Our coordinates tonight:   38 °13’58.15″N   75 ° 8’28.59″W

Kiptopeke State Park, Cape Charles VA

Our next scheduled appointment is the Tuesday after Memorial Day, at Colonial Airstream in New Jersey. The plan is to stop there for a few days to get some service done, so if anyone wants to drop by, send me a note. Otherwise, I’ll have to fill the days by working at the computer, which is to be avoided at all costs.

In the meantime we have a week to get to Lakewood NJ and no particular obligations until then. We could have extended our visit to the Outer Banks but the mosquitoes were getting aggressive. Emma had a small reaction to insect bites and one of her feet swelled, along with a spot on her arm. So we spent some time in the morning to say goodbye to our friends the Hallingers, and they gave us some strawberries as a parting gift.   Then we started towing north with no set destination.

chesapeake-bbt-airstream.jpgWhen we have extra time, we slow down and try to travel no more than 150 miles on travel days.   This is mostly a strategy to allow us to see more than just roadways, but it also serves to spread out the cost of travel, which is especially important lately.

This meant we just got across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and then picked a place to stop, the tongue-twisting Kiptopeke State Park.


The Bridge-Tunnel is an amazing thing, and even having crossed it two or three times, I am still fascinated with it.   Stopping on the man-made islands and watching giant freighters float serenely over the submerged tunnel spurs my imagination. It seems impossible that the tunnel can exist with all that water and hundreds of tons of steel ship atop it. Then I think about the nuclear submarines that ply these waters, perhaps traveling by as I watch, but unseen by eye or satellite. And then we drive through the tunnel …

Just three miles south of Kiptopeke is the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge.   The visitor center for this   refuge is well worth a stop next time you are cruising up or down Rt 13 on the eastern shore.   Not only is it a top-notch visitor center with excellent exhibits, but it features a very cool indoor bird-watching room with binoculars and spotting scopes supplied.   There’s even a live TV feed from the nest of a pair of ospreys with two chicks, which was fascinating.   I’ve never seen such a good NWR visitor center before, and hardly anyone was there when we visited.

Setting up here at Kiptopeke, I was struck by two things. First, the park has the appearance of once having been a private campground.   Every site has full hookup, but you have the choice of using the sewer connection or not. If you use the sewer, it’s $5 extra.   Every site also has cable TV, which is unheard-of in most state parks.   Whoa, the luxury.   After ten days of zero hookups (eight in the Outer Banks and two nights prior), it’s a real adjustment.   But then, it’s $31.50 per night.

Second, there’s no wind today.   This is the first time in nine days that we haven’t had a stiff breeze.   I can open the dinette window again (the glass could not be opened earlier because the wind kept it pressed tightly against the frame).   I could put out the awning if I wanted.   I can even have a conversation on the telephone outside.   The wind was invigorating and at times, even thrilling, but there’s something to be said for a calm day too.


Emma works on a clay “pinch pot” project  

Tonight we will feast, because Eleanor wants to make room in the freezer for tomorrow’s stop at The Great Machipongo Clam Shack.   Ribs, cornbread, and strawberry pie.   It seems like summer is here at last.

Our coordinates:   37 °10’32.30″N   75 °59’2.24″W

Farewell, OBX

We’ll be leaving the Outer Banks tomorrow.   I have a pretty satisfied feeling about our visit here.   We ended up spending eight nights, which gave us time to see a lot of the area, and yet we’ve left a lot of exploration for the next time.   Most of the people I’ve talked to about the Outer Banks tell me they come again and again, and never seem to get tired of it.   So we can look forward to another visit someday.


Almost definitely we will camp in the National Seashore again, and we will also be likely to come in the ‘shoulder season’ before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.   The mosquitoes began to arrive with the humidity yesterday, which convinced us that we don’t want to be here with either of those things if we can avoid them.

The Outer Banks have also been good for our budget.   Our eight nights at the seashore cost us a grand total of $160, or about the cost of one night in a local inn. This is one of the reasons why most full-timers come to realize that being “on the road” is cheaper than staying home.   With some courtesy parking next week, and a few inexpensive state and national park campsites, we should be able to offset higher fuel costs and continue to save money.

Interestingly, I keep running into surveys and other indications that RV owners are not shying away from travel this summer.   State parks seem to be as busy as ever.     People I talk to say they are going shorter distances, and in some cases, driving more slowly, but they aren’t staying home.   It’s still a lot cheaper for a family of three or more to travel by RV for their vacation than to fly and get a hotel, as long as they aren’t going thousands of miles.

We would have continued on today but for two reasons.   The weather   forecast indicated a strong likelihood of thunderstorms during the day along our route of travel, and I had a lot of work to do.   We took the day to get caught up, which included Eleanor doing heaps of laundry up in Manteo. Now we are ready to hit the road on Wednesday, and complete the final twelve days of this phase of our travel with clean clothes, sheets, and towels.

As I write this, thunderstorms are rumbling overhead and huge bolts of lightning are striking nearby.   We’ve often talked about what thunderstorms mean to us, in the Airstream.   Mostly our concerns are tornadoes and hail, both of which are spawned from severe thunderstorms.   The current thunderstorms are producing neither, which means we can relax and watch the light show.   If a bolt of lightning were to strike the trailer, we would be well protected by the “skin effect,” which causes the energy to travel on the outside of the metal shell down to the ground.   Because of its aluminum construction, an Airstream is an excellent lightning shelter, much safer than many other structures.

So mild thunderstorms like we are having at the moment are no big deal.   We don’t even have to worry about power outages. It’s a nice change from last week when we were wondering if the trailer was going to fly to Oz without us.

Tomorrow these storms will be only a memory, and we’ll hitch up for points north.   In the next twelve days we have six stops planned, so we’ll be hopping most of the time.   A lot of details are still unresolved, but that’s part of the fun of it, isn’t it?

Wright Brothers Memorial

For me, it wouldn’t be a visit to the Outer Banks if we didn’t go to the Wright Brothers Memorial, so last week I had my mail forwarded to the Kill Devil Hills post office about two blocks away.   That made picking up the mail much less of an errand, and more of an exciting prelude.


It is a national park site, so our “America the Beautiful” inter-agency pass got us in without paying the $4 per person fee. Regardless of whether you pay, I think the site is well worth a visit.   The talk in the Visitor Center we attended was superb, and the whole area is beautiful, especially the view from the top of the hill where the monument sits.

I took many more pictures of the place than I can fit in the blog, so I’ve added 16 images to Flickr in a new photoset.   You can check them out here.

obx-mystery-light.jpgWe also dropped in on the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in Manteo.   This is an almost spooky place because of the strange history of the British colony which disappeared without a trace while their governor John White was back in England trying to get supplies.   We started the Junior Ranger program there, but it was a tough one and so Emma took it home for completion later.   There’s not a lot to see outside the Visitor Center since nothing remains of the original colony (unless you are an archaeologist), but I recommend it to history buffs.

Our third stop of the day was to yet another lighthouse. Care to guess which one?   It’s pretty easy, since we’ve been to the other two major lighthouses of the Outer Banks already.   Actually, you can tell by the stripes if you have a guidebook to North Carolina lighthouses.

obx-hallingers-trailer.jpgZach, Deb, and Zane have moved on, pressed by their schedule to return to home base in Massachusetts this week.   But we were delighted to find our new friends the Hallingers waiting for us back at the campground when we returned.   They moved up from Frisco to Oregon Inlet in part to hang out with us (I think, since they parked nearby us).   That’s a huge bonus for us since Emma is compatible with their 5 and 7-year old girls.

Our plan was to leave tomorrow, but I am rethinking it now.   I could use a pure work day, and Emma has friends nearby, so we may stay just one more night.   Of course, that’s what we kept saying back at Frisco and we ended up staying five nights … but now we have a plan for the next fourteen days and we have less flexibility.   I think we’ll have to get going soon.


We’ve finally moved on from Frisco campground, to a site about 50 miles north called Oregon Inlet. The Outer Banks are really too big to explore from a single base, unless you are willing to spend a lot of time in the car. We got a good look at the southern end, and now we are going to take a couple of days to check out things at the northern end. Zach, Deb, and Zane moved along with us, so we are parked directly across from each other in the campground.


As with Frisco, Oregon Inlet is a no-reservations “first come first served” campground. This time of year strikes me as ideal to come here, because the campgrounds are virtually empty (well, those campgrounds in the National Seashore, because they have no hookups), the mosquitoes are hardly noticeable, and the weather is fine. I’m told that in the summer the mosquito situation is quite different, and I’m sure even the primitive campgrounds get busy. Right now we are two of about 15 rigs camped here, so we had our pick of sites.

We chose a site far from the beach. The wind is back to the gale-force level, which it seems to be a lot here. It is a palpable and constant presence, thundering in the ears, rocking the trailer, and causing the little Honda to wander on the roads. It blows salt water from the Sound over the roads, leaving corrosive floods by the roadsides. Conversation outside is difficult at times, and fine sand blows across the roads and beaches with stinging force. I can’t remember being in a place where sand was constantly airborne in tan waves, other than here.

It is finally starting to affect me. This morning, practicing on the ukulele, I found I could no longer sing the high notes in most of the songs. I’ve begun to cough. The airborne salt and sand is aggravating my throat, I think. We’ll be leaving Tuesday, and I hope that by then I haven’t lost my voice entirely.

Since we were towing the trailer north this morning, we took the opportunity to take care of a few things it needed. We emptied the holding tanks and filled the fresh water tank at the unmarked (and unmentioned on the national parks website) dump station near the Hatteras Lighthouse. Go past the lighthouse about 1 mile and it is on the left side of the road. I don’t know why the location of this dump station is treated as such a secret since it is clearly there for the benefit of people staying at the Frisco or Cape Point national seashore campgrounds. Maybe signs go up when Cape Point campground opens later this month.

Another well-kept secret: in the town of Salvo is a BP gas station with an outdoor car wash large enough for easy entry and exit of a truck with 30-foot trailer. We found this and took the opportunity to rinse off the outside and underbelly of the Airstream, which had gradually become coated with a thin film of dried salt.

Also, on the way in through Ocracoke, we had splashed through a few of those roadside puddles. You can imagine the grimace on my face when that happened. The Airstream is in no way rustproofed, so I was eager to get it rinsed. We stuffed $2.50 worth of quarters in the machine and managed to get the job mostly done. A small amount of salt seems to have stuck despite the rinse, so we’ll have to stop for a better wash later.


Just south of Oregon Inlet is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a huge area maintained specifically to create an ideal environment for migratory birds. There’s a visitor’s center and a “boardwalk” trail 3/4 miles long, plus another 3 miles or so of good trail in a loop.

obx-pea-island-boardwalk.jpgI had visions of hiding in one of the bird blinds and getting some amazing photos, but my 200mm lens is not really up to the task. The serious bird photographers were toting 300 lenses at a bare minimum. The wind was also a detriment, so strong at times that it was hard to hold the camera steady.

Although the wind has been a nuisance at times, in another way it is comforting. We expected constant rain and we got it when we went to the Hoh rain forest of Olympic National Park.   We expected scorching heat when we camped in Death Valley two Junes ago, and we got it. The wind and blowing sand here is exactly what I expected, along with a parade of dramatic clouds and salty air. It will be the signature memory of the Outer Banks when we think of it later, the ever-present warm breeze that rocked our trailer and kept us comfortable despite humidity all night long.

The unexpected day

obx-spaceship.jpgEver have one of those days where you did everything except the one thing you planned to do? That was today. We had been looking forward to visiting the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge but it once again got shoved back in the schedule for a thousand little things. Even though the day dawned bright and beautiful, we stayed in the trailer most of the morning.

Not that it has been bad. Through a series of emails and phone calls and map reviews, we have finally developed a plan for our last two weeks of travel (before we settle into Vermont for the month of June). We’ll be visiting Assateague National Wildlife Refuge, doing some courtesy parking, and hopefully getting some service on the trailer too. We’ve got a bunch of interesting stops worked into this plan, so it should be a good time.

Emma and Eleanor made “Strawberry shrub,” which is apparently mashed fresh strawberries steeped in lemon juice, sugar, and water. It made a nice drink and a good project to learn about cooking measures (cups, pints, quarts, etc).

obx-uncle-eddys-frozen-custard.jpg We set out for lunch with a decadent plan to find the Orange Blossom Bakery and eat “Apple Uglies” for lunch. But it wasn’t open — for reasons we could not discern, since the shop doesn’t post its hours of operation. Thus we were not able to get Karen the cookbook she wanted (see comments from previous entries). We may try again tomorrow on our way out.

Seeking consolation, we stopped at Uncle Eddy’s Frozen Custard and Mini-Golf … and had custard for lunch instead. I don’t think you can find a more nutritionally unbalanced meal. Something was apparently telling us to go nuts today.

As you can see from the photo above, we did find the OBX “Spaceship” parked next to a junkyard. It appears to be a Futuro house. The owners have decorated it with alien pictures and mannequin heads, and the interior seems to be in tough shape. It would be an interesting restoration project.

In the afternoon we were happy to find our friends Zach and Deb arrived at Frisco in their Airstream Westfalia. We’ve been expecting them for days. Zach is an old friend from the days when I lived the bachelor life in the Boston area. We’ve stayed in touch for years, and lately he and Deb have produced an heir: 3-month old Zane. The three of them are off on their first long trip together, with three dogs … all in a B-van. They seem to do fine.
obx-hallingers.jpgWe were happily engaged in catching up when a late-model Airstream Safari Special Edition rolled up, with two adults and three children in the truck. Carl and Laurie Hallinger were scouting for a site for the weekend and happened upon us.

It turns out that Carl has followed this blog from time to time, and also has all the back issues of Airstream Life. They got parked and came back half an hour later to meet up. That launched a whole ‘nother discussion, and suddenly it was 7 p.m. … and the day was wrapping up. I hope to meet up with them again sometime.

We’re going to start moving again, but not far. Tomorrow’s tow takes us first to the dump station at Cape Point campground (near the Hatteras Lighthouse), since Frisco doesn’t have one, and then 50 miles north to Oregon Inlet campground. We’ll spend another couple of nights there before we leave the Outer Banks for good.

Why blogs are better sometimes

We are still parked in Frisco campground, National Seashore, town of Frisco, on Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Still enjoying the fresh breezes and dramatic view down to the pounding surf. But today was a work day and we didn’t go anywhere so I can’t talk of adventure.

It started off rainy as we expected, and for a while I was a little bit concerned about our power status since I knew I’d be on the laptop all day. But the weather here changes frequently, and the only constant seems to be wind. The rain gave way to overcast, the sun popped out right around midday to pump as much 12 amps into our solar panels, and in a few hours we were again in no danger of running out of power. Then clouds, sun, clouds, less wind, more wind, and now we are looking at overcast again.

Since our only outing was an hour-long walk at the end of the work day, I want to take this momentary pause in our travels to talk about something else entirely. Faithful blog reader and un-indicted co-conspirator Dr. C sent me a link to an interesting article about the declining quality of travel guides. Travel book publishers and authors are facing a challenge to remain relevant in the age of Internet-based information, and this is manifesting itself as increasingly poorer quality information in those books.

The good doctor suggested that our travels would be best presented in book form as a series of trip segments which bridge the gap between guide and travelogue, not attempting to be definitive in any way, but providing value through honest perspective. In other words, refuse to be pedantic or pre-judgmental, and let the reader be the judge of the experience. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here, but I haven’t been absolutely strict about that.

For sure, the RV traveler community deserves better than what it has for guidebooks. On the bookshelves today are an embarrassing heap of seriously outdated titles that purport to tell you how to become full-timers, how to work from the road, and how to camp. Some were written two decades ago and still (despite “updates”) have completely ludicrous advice in them.

I picked up a book about full-timing a few weeks ago which had several pages describing how to have a landline telephone connected to your RV at a campground, which is something few people do anymore. In an update, the book had a couple of paragraphs grudgingly acknowledging that since the book was written, cell phones have been invented and could be used if you were willing to try one of those newfangled “expensive” devices.

That reminds me of the full-timing seminar I went to last year. A speaker was set to talk to a roomful of wannabee full-timers about cell phones. I thought perhaps he was going to help potential full-timers choose the best calling plan? Identify how to use the cell phone to connect to the Internet? Talk about ways to charge the phone when boondocking? Nope, he very carefully explained how cell phones work as if we’d never heard of them before. I looked around the room: every man had a cell phone strapped to his belt already and half of them were texting each other to say, “OMG is this guy killing U?”

Sadly, this is not the exception. It’s the same with mobile technology topics of all types (the exception being Rich Charpentier’s radically different book on mobile technology), but that’s not the only gap. The RV industry has some of the worst guidebooks ever. Most are written as if the only people to read them are retirees, which is ridiculous. (Most of the readers of Airstream Life magazine are still working, so why are so many books pretending that only retirees own RVs?)

I like Mike & Terri Church’s “Traveler’s Guide” series, which is why I carry them in our online store, and the Woodalls/Trailer Life catalogs are good when used as RV yellow pages for finding commercial campgrounds. But other than that, the rest of the bunch really seem to stink. If anyone knows of some good RV travel books, post a comment below so we can all know.

What’s happening to the travel guide industry can be summed up in two words: The Internet. There are now tons of free information to be had, and for all their flaws, blogs like this are giving people a more realistic, more focused, and more relevant view of the travel experience. It’s not about providing great literature or comprehensive listings, but it is about honesty. Even if my experience will not be your experience (and it won’t be, I guarantee), the value is that I gave you a perspective on what lies ahead and let you be the judge of what it means to you.

Paradoxically, by not attempting to be a guidebook, and making no claims to accuracy or completeness, a blog is more useful because it focuses solely on the reality of what happened and what was seen. I won’t tell you the sands are dazzling white if I haven’t walked on them, but I will tell you if I see raw sewage draining into the harbor. Perhaps I can be more useful if I give out less advice and the more impressions. You can compare my impressions to others, and use Woodall’s and the Internet to find the phone numbers.

OK, now two completely unrelated anecdotes to wrap up this blog. First, when you have an Airstream, it’s always open house, and when you have one with big colorful graphics all over it announcing you’re on a TOUR OF AMERICA, it’s even more so. Today I was still in my pajamas at 11 a.m., in fact I was wearing my emergency backup pajamas with the holes in them because we haven’t done laundry in a while. I hadn’t brushed my teeth and was sitting at the laptop intensely multi-tasking while talking to Colin on the phone about Matthew McConaughey’s trailer. Eleanor is drinking coffee in her pajamas and reading an Agatha Christie novel, and Emma is doing who-knows-what. Got the picture?

Now add a “knock-knock” on the door, and the smiling faces of two people we’ve never met (Ann and Fim) saying, “Hi! We’re Airstreamers!”

Fortunately, they really were Airstreamers, evidenced by the fact that they were not at all put off by my attire or the disarray of the trailer interior, and soon were sitting down at the dinette drinking coffee with Eleanor. It’s a commonality to the breed that we are all very comfortable with each other right off the bat. We had a nice visit and gave them the interior Grand Tour, advised Ann on her next Airstream purchase, and exchanged business cards. More new friends!

Second anecdote. I have long wanted to write down all the “Eleanor-isms” that my wife utters. Some of them are just priceless but I never have a notepad when I need one. Yesterday we drove past the American flag here at the campground and noticed it was at half-mast. Eleanor gasped and said, “Why is that? Who died?” I didn’t know. (Turned out it was Peace Officers Memorial Day.) After racking her brain for former presidents who might have died, Eleanor turned to me and asked, “Is Reagan still dead?”

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