The Campbell camping experience has been filled with new things – some more pleasant than others and none more surprising than our ability to cope with each other in such small quarters… that beast might look big, but once you start on the road it closes in on you by the kilometre, or by the mile, depending on what side of the border you’re on. We have come away with great stories, endless laughs, amazing scenery, weird stuff and some small epiphanies. Here are some of the more significant things I have discovered (apart from the fact that you should never drive away from your campsite while the 8-foot awning of your RV is still out).
7 Things I Have Learnt On The Road:
- Our bed is super comfortable. No kidding. This is the biggest shocker. It’s not something I expected on a cross country RV camping trip. It is just the right combination of soft and firm and has this extra mattress layer on top of the regular thick bed mattress and the whole set up is actually hard to get out of it in the morning.
- The RV is not that difficult to drive. We have shared most of the driving and I have not driven it off the road, which I did dream about the other night.
- It takes longer than you think to get anywhere. We are pretty much consistently 3 hours behind schedule. Maybe 4. Or 5. Sometimes a day.
- Ben seems to have some sort of calamity in every stop we make. So far, he has given himself a fat lip by hitting bottom of swimming pool, smashed his head falling out of the top bunk of the RV while we were stationary at a petrol station, has sustained a nasty abrasion on his neck from his helmet during go-karting, he is having an allergic reaction to a bee sting/ant bite (we are unsure) on his right foot, and has been violently sick in the middle of the night due to over consumption of root-beer and popcorn. He is resting quietly now, with no incident to note and we are increasing the insurance when we travel into the US…
- There is a lot to do on a camping trip. And by this I mean chores. What with the dishes, the cooking, slushing out the plumbing, sweeping, tidying, setting up, striking down, campfires, map-reading, planning, debating, arguing about best routes and activities… there is a plethora of tasks to complete before actually sitting down to enjoy the scenery. We are getting better at this (the kids are in boot camp training) and by the time we get to Nova Scotia we are going to be super efficient campers, perhaps giving sage advice to other camping novices… Even arguing with the kids about activities and stops has become a whole lot easier. “Because we say so” is our new catch phrase.
- This RV camping lark is much more fun than I thought. My favourite time of day is early morning (before all three of these lazy male folk rouse themselves) with a coffee outside the RV enjoying the early morning sunshine and the quiet (even I can’t get up early enough to see the sun actually rise…)
- Good food is important. At least one meal when you sit down together, with fresh, well-cooked food (and several glasses of good wine) makes a huge difference. We have moved from pancake and bacon breakfasts with long cups of coffee in the morning to quick java’s, moving out of the campsite while throwing Fruit Loops up to the kids when they stir. Lunches have turned from lingering roadside stops at a picnic table with prepared sandwiches, to slapped-together ham and cheese while driving. But dinners have remained sacred. We try to buy local meat and fresh produce, then, usually I prepare it, and Mr C cooks on the BBQ while the kids chip in to help (by some miracle, this seems to have happened) and no matter how late it is, we sit down and eat outside, sometimes by candlelight. There has only been one time where I have had to cook grilled cheese on the stove in the RV for dinner (it was 11pm, we had just rolled in and we needed something before we slept – see the notes below on Michigan…)
Here is the journal from start to finish: 13,000 kilometres, so you might want to get a cup of something and sit down for a bit.
Mr C takes the short flight to Comox on Vancouver Island to collect the rig, and drives it back to Vancouver. We stay with friends and get over our jet-lag in West Vancouver overlooking the Eagle Harbour Yacht Club. We spend time with friends as they share the excitement of our trip. I find out that if you speak to ten people, you will get ten different ‘best routes’ to take. Our friends and hosts get so excited they decide to come along with us for the first 2 days. Ben gives himself a fat lip by hitting the bottom of the swimming pool and sustains nasty abrasions on his neck from the go-kart helmut. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The drive from Vancouver to Kelowna, via the north route down the Fraser River, up along the Thompson River and then beside the Nicola River… not a soul for 5 hours. When civilisation does appear, it is just a little bit scary. Hand-painted ‘Hal’s Gas Here’ signs don’t exactly instil confidence. Let’s just say we don’t stop at the first petrol station we see. Ben falls out of the top bunk of RV while stationary and bruises his temple. Mr C looks into extra insurance coverage in the US.
A true sign of friendship is when an old friend drives five and a half hours to meet for lunch. With his dog. We are determined to do some sort of wine tour in the Okanogan and with much ado about getting there, manage to get to the Burrowing Owl Winery with our friends. This is followed by tubing and waterskiing on Lake Okanogan (the 4 youths reach their saturation point on wine-tasting and long lunches, so we pull the emergency rip-cord and call the boat rental in Summerland). We stay in Peachland, which is just a peachy place. We rock up to a local restaurant for dinner – late, of course. After kindly refusing us, the German owner chases us down the street, calls us back in and keeps the kitchen open late just to feed 9 of us at 10pm… unheard of in Canada where public eating seems to stop just before sunset. Two rainbows and Ben does not sustain any injuries proving that miracles, in fact, can happen in three’s.
A swim in Lake Okanogan followed by ice cream and fond farewells to our west coast friends… and we hit the road towards Calgary, via Lake Louise, Banff and Canmore.
There is this place in Revelstoke called The Village Idiot. Excellent name for a pub.
It is late in the day when we get to Lake Louise but it doesn’t make it any less amazing. The drive from Golden by Kicking Horse Pass is spectacular and at 7pm when we roll into the Lake Louise parking area we are shocked by how chilly it is and that even at this time in the evening the sky is still blue. In some stoke of bizarre planet alignment, while we were staring out over the spectacular vista where 150 other people are roaming around getting that iconic photo, I run into my oldest friend from my hometown doing the exact same thing with her family! My hometown has a population of about 80 people so meeting her here with her family and friends is defying even the craziest odds. We are clearly so amazed we fail to take a picture. But we get some shots of ourselves shivering in front of the spectacular vista. We cannot believe how cold it is.
Canmore, Alberta. It is wet and rainy so we get some admin finished for the RV (somehow we have lost the BBQ between Vancouver and Canmore … how do you LOSE a BBQ?!) so another pit stop at Canadian Tire. For those of you who are not Canadian, this is The Shop That Sells Everything, not just tires as the name might suggest. Also we have been managing without a toaster which is fairly remarkable given our consumption of Nutella with a spot of toasted bagel in the morning. So today is spent wandering Canmore, a long lunch and good family banter. Yes, by the way, a toaster. We are in an 28 foot RV with a shower and a microwave, not a pup tent.
In the evening, we send the boys out to fill up jugs of drinking water (we are introducing them to the concept of chores…I know, I know… my only excuse is we live in Hong Kong) and they return to the camper wondering why there are fireworks outside and giggling about the fact that our next door neighbours were yelling at them about taking the water. This seems unlikely (both the fireworks on a Monday in mid July and shouty camping neighbours in Canada) so we pop our heads out to see what the fuss is about. After a couple of conversations with the friendly neighbours discover that in fact, the Canmore electrical plant has exploded – obviously – which is what the yelling was about. But it’s ok. We don’t need electricity. We’re camping.
Parallel parking – Canmore style.
I partner with Ben to get the fire going since he seems the most enthusiastic (this is on a relative basis, but he was flinging around wood and wanted to light something on fire). We manage, first try, thank you very much, without any of that lighter-brick nonsense. This is really all down to my training in the field with the Girl Guides of Canada, circa 1980. I manage to impress the kids, especially since most of the time I was doing it one-handed (other hand preoccupied with glass of wine). I am loving this idea of no wifi and books by the fire.
One of the itinerary highlights before we began this trip was the Calgary Stampede. This is a huge televised Canadian annual event involving all things that are Country & Western: Rodeo, Chuckwagon Racing, Cowboys, Cowgirls, Agricultural Exhibitions, and a general celebration of those people who work hard to put food on our tables, and tables around the world. The brother of a friend of ours in London is most definitely qualified as the resident expert: he has helped organise the Chuckwagon Races for 14 years, and he is going to be our tour guide for the day, thanks to a few emails with his sister last month.
Driving from Canmore to Calgary, the landscape all of a sudden gets very flat and we can see for about 40km in front of us. And beside us. And behind us. We pull into a site outside the city which we fear might be horrible but in fact is very well set up and has a pool and laundry (these are key). I find out in the laundry room – the place to find things out – from a fellow traveller that Glacier National Park is a great stop and I make a mental note. The woman (petite, coiffed blond hair, mid-fifties, neatly dressed, full makeup) gives me (not petite, rat’s nest hair, in my pyjamas, no makeup, possibly not washed) this information while explaining that the only reason she is in the laundry room is that she doesn’t think the washer/dryer in her RV will take it with the 30 amps they are plugged into at the moment. Washer/dryer? I wonder how big her RV is. Am I developing RV envy?
We make our way into the city by taxi and train. Our friend Andrew (Captain Stampede), sorts us out with the clothes we will need to fit in, helping us gear up with proper western cowboy hats (not the tourist version, the real deal – “if my sister sees you on Facebook with the wrong hat she’ll kill me!”). We have such a blast with a country and western theme, the enthusiasm is contagious. We get a tour of the stables and watch the rodeo and chuck-wagon races – and I develop a new appreciation of cowboys.
We decide that trying to get to Yellowstone in Montana is going to make the journey too long, so instead we head directly south to Glacier National Park (thank you neat and tidy lady in the laundry room) which begins in lower western Alberta and crosses down into Montana. We need to get south to warmer weather. It’s either that or buy a new warmer wardrobe. The drive from Calgary to Glacier National Park is stunning as we move from the prairie grasslands to the foothills of the Rockies again.
We stop in a tiny town called Claresholm, in the middle of Alberta farm country to get supplies. The kids want to stay in the RV and fight but I need to stretch my legs so I walk down to the IGA to get groceries. Like many North American small towns, the main street is actually the highway and is very wide with one intersection with a light. There is what looks like a Chinese Restaurant on the corner and down the way is the IGA, with a large Shoppers Drugmart next to it. Behind the till at the IGA there is a woman from Devon. Yes, Devon. England. She chats to all the customers at length as they pass through her till (there was a couple in front celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, and he was going to take his wife out). It was like I was in Eastenders. But I was in Alberta. I wanted to get her entire life story – this woman from Devon, now living in Claresholm – but I was only buying bread and milk and there were people behind me so there was no time.
The small, idyllic, outdoorsy town of Waterton sits inside the National Park on the edge of a group of lakes and is the starting point for some breathtaking hikes. National Geographic deemed The Crypt hike as one of the best in the world. It would take an entire day, however, and we are on a bit of a schedule to get across most of the United States by next Monday. We get a good hike in, and explore the lakes in kayaks. The campground is also an unexpected winner. Unlike most organised people, we are just winging it with the camping and staying at places that have last-minute availability as we roll up in the evening…
A spectacular hike up Bear’s Hump to the top of the hill overlooking Waterton and the surrounding lakes and mountains.
Top Camping Tip #1: How to manage a 4 minute coin shower:
Some campgrounds charge for water facilities – a dollar for a shower type of thing – but some go one step further and provide handy coins which you go to the front desk to buy (awkward if you are already in your shower gear). I perfected the four-minute shower routine in Waterton by placing my iPhone in front of me on the bench and setting the timer to count down … 30 seconds for shampoo, 30 seconds to rinse, 30 seconds to condition, 30 seconds for facewash… 60 seconds for full leg shave which possibly is not enough for a thorough job… and whatever is left to soap and rinse. It’s dicey. But I managed the whole thing with a fast rinse off at the end. You know, in a campground, people probably won’t notice the bits you miss. You are only going to sit in a kayak for God’s sake.
Spend the day in Waterton, exploring the lakes in kayaks and taking in the spectacular scenery before we pack up and leave to make a start on our long drive southeast into the States. We call my brother (it’s his birthday) from the campground and arrange to meet him in Manitoulin Island, Ontario on Thursday 21st July for a couple of days with his family – he actually has a job and holidays and normal things like that, so we need to adapt.
We can only get wifi at the front office, so we sit in the camper outside the doors like complete weirdos just flicking through our phones. The boys are trying to game, I am trying to update Facebook and Mr C is … I don’t know, but he is very busy. Probably trying to sell the RV.
We drive over the US border and come to a tiny customs office where we are stopped and hand him our shiny brand new Canadian Passports. We used to travel on our UK passports but not sure we’ll need them now…
OFFICIAL: Where are you folks from?
ME: Pause. (I could say the kids are British, we are Canadian, we live in Hong Kong, the vehicle has BC plates, registered in PEI… but this could trigger questions).
Vancouver. (I know, not strictly true, but that’s where we did come from…)
OFFICIAL: Are you carrying any alcohol?
ME: No. (This is not completely true either, there might be a half bottle in the back. And a couple of beers, but I think he knows this.)
OFFICIAL: Fruit and vegetables?
ME: We have apples and some vegetables in the fridge. (We probably have 2 pounds of beef, eggs, milk, cheese, berries, apples, bananas … but we are in a 28 foot RV – what does he think we have?!)
ME: What? Wood? No. (Again, not strictly true – we might have a couple of pieces left from the campfire last night, but really, do we want him routing around in the hold for wood?)
ME: Um… No. (This is the truth)
OFFICIAL: OK then. Y’all have a great trip.
Mr C is worried about my proficiency in sliding over the details.
Mr Customs Official should have warned us to watch out for all the cows lying around the highway because they seem to not fence in their livestock in Montana. It’s a sort of free and easy arrangement and cows and horses take to roaming around on county roads. Which takes a bit of getting used to. We move into the great expanse of land that is Montana. It is stunning.
It is late afternoon and we get as far as a little place called Valier (there are a lot of French names around here). We pull into the tiniest campground on the side of a small lake for $20 – we have developed a strategy for finding good spots which is to find a small lake where there is usually a site with a pretty area by the water. The manager is about to leave to ‘take a shower’ (what does that mean?) but we catch him in time and he gives us a place. It is pretty and peaceful. The boys play ball with their dad while I prepare dinner, then we BBQ and sit by the campfire… it is becoming a wonderful routine and we laugh a lot. We need to get up early tomorrow to stay on track for Monday arrival with our friends in Wisconsin.
What $20 can buy you:
We hit the road for our big drive day, but as we roll onto the main road, a mere 20 meters from the campground gate we have the first drama of the day.
Mr C pulls over and says there is a police car stopping us. There are a few expletives. Getting pulled over by the police in the US is one of my all-time nightmares, along with driving the RV off the road and getting eaten by a bear. In the time it takes the Sheriff to get out of his vehicle and walk to the driver’s door, I have gotten out of my seat, pulled the kids by their feet out of their mattresses above us and sat them at the table, with their seat belts on as I assume they are supposed to be – just in case he checks. As I climb back into my passenger seat, it occurs to me that having two bleary eyed, drooling and dazed teenagers, sitting in their underwear staring into space possibly looks worse than having them lying around up top, but it’s too late now. I don’t even know if they have seatbelt laws here. It’s not like it’s Canada. I don’t even know why we are being pulled over, which sort of terrifies me, because I can’t slide over details if I don’t know what I’ve done.
We sit and wait for Mr Police Sheriff to get to the window and try to look normal. He informs us, with his slow western drawl, that we have rolled the stop sign. Ha! Rolled the stop sign. This is OK. I can deal with this. It is 8am in a town of about 25 houses and no living human in sight, except for that Sheriff sitting in his car (next to the stop sign), so this really isn’t all that bad. It’s not like he’s going to get us out of the vehicle and strip search us for narcotics. Or find that wood I lied about. I look up at him and put my best ‘sorry aren’t we dumb but hey we all make mistakes‘ smile on, and very quickly realise that they really don’t like you rolling stop signs in Valier, MT.
He asks for the registration papers and Mr C has to go back into the camper to get them There is an awkward moment where the Sheriff and I look at one another and I am acutely aware of everything around me. I look back and see that Matthew now has his forehead on the table and Ben has collapsed completely from waist up and is asleep on the seat. I smile at the Sheriff. He might sense my discomfort so he apologies for pulling us over but explains that we rolled the stop sign right in front of him. He didn’t come right out and say we were morons. As Mr C comes back with the RV registration, he hits his head on a metal edge of the top bunk which is normally flipped back, but in the rush to get the kids out of bed, it was left down. Now he is bleeding. He gives the papers to the Sheriff and tries to look normal, but there is blood dripping down his temple. The Sheriff asks for a drivers license and Mr C hands him the UK one he uses. I guess it was a calculated decision not to show him the Hong Kong drivers license (which quite frankly looks like a bookstore card) or the International one which is just a piece of paper. The Sheriff seems surprised and holds the UK Licence away from him to get a better look. ‘Hmm, I sure never have seen one of these b’fore!’. He grins, shakes his head and goes back to his car, possibly thinking we have teleported here from the moon.
It takes forever (20 minutes) to track our Canadian vehicle, which was purchased in Vancouver with BC license plates but the address is registered in Prince Edward Island, which is not where we live. He comes back, still chuckling, and tells us that they had to get their Controller to google PE to find out where that was. All the way up in Canada! And most definitely due to paperwork overload, he decides not to give us a citation. We end with a nice conversation about driving across America and not rolling stop signs in the future. I notice he has a small camera attached to his front vest and wonder why.
We cover about 600km in one day. That is a lot, especially when you don’t break past the 100km/h mark. Montana is big sky country, all rugged with cattle ranch after ranch – I spend the entire drive sort of hoping that Marlboro Man will ride out in front of me, chaps and all… but then it is a long old drive and my imagination can get the better of me… especially when I seem to be part of Clint Eastwood movie set. The only people riding out in front of me are aged people with long grey hair riding Harley Davidsons. There are no helmet laws in the States and we ponder how that works in terms of fly/bug impact on the road. They must carry dental floss with them. And special beard combs.
We have a thing while we are driving and questions come up. We write them down so we can google them the next time we have wifi. Here is our list:
- Helmet laws in the states – which ones have them and which don’t
- How many people have died taking a barrel over Niagara Falls
- The words to Stompin’ Tom Conner’s hit single ‘Bud The Spud’
- How old is Gordon Downie?
- The population of Green Bay, Wisconsin
Pit stop in Judith Gap, the windiest place in Montana where there is a massive wind farm, owned by Germans as it happens.
We notice that flags are flying half-mast and realise that anything could have happened and we would not know. Radio stations play two things – country and western – and we have been so out of touch without internet connection or phone coverage. We are not paying for Hong Kong data roaming. All those people on their summer holidays looking for Pokémon with their 3G data roaming in a foreign country may be shocked at the usage fees on their return. We tune in to the radio and find out about the shootings in Baton Rouge. The world is weird right now and we are happy to stay in our little moving home and block it all out for a few weeks. We drive on through Montana over the state border to Sheridan, Wyoming, where we stop for the night.
A shorter drive to Mount Rushmore which actually takes all day (see Point 3 at the top). We stop in Sundance – not to be confused with Park City, Utah where they hold the Sundance Film Festival, of course. Sundance seems to be the gathering place for Harley Davidson owners. They should have a Sundance Harley Convention… maybe they do. We have lunch at the Bighorn eatery, which is surprisingly busy for such a little place. It is about 95 degrees in the burning hot desert sun (we are all fahrenheit and miles here, which might explain the longer-than-anticipated travel times…). The boys want to stop at the Hardware Store where they are having a blowout sale on guns and ammunition, but I suggest we have to get going and maybe next time. We are surprisingly high: 1300-1500 meters on these plains.
There is a lot of history surrounding this part of the US. This is where Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse beat General Custer in the famous Last Stand battle. There are monuments everywhere and of course the random attractions that come with and spot of interest… not sure what the Dinosaur Park or the ‘Guns, Gold and Rock & Roll’ Speedway has to do with Sitting Bull, but whatever.
We pass over a river aptly named.
As we roll towards South Dakota, the landscape becomes rocky and mountainous again.
Across the next state border, and finally, the founding fathers, etched forever in stone…
It’s a busy place. The National Park is packed with campers, but after one failed attempt, we find a great destination RV campsite that is massive. Our site is nicely secluded amongst the pine trees. There is a very friendly family opposite who has all the kit – bikes, kayaks, massive BBQ, those really high-end comfy folding deck chairs with drink holders. They even a little carved wooden sign (‘The Browns’) placed outside their RV to mark their space. Mr Brown welcomes us to the neighbourhood and I wonder just how long ‘The Browns’ have been here.
A friendly man comes along with his daughter and tries to talk to me about the size of the engine on my rig. I don’t have a clue what he is on about: 10 cylinder, 450 CC’s blah, blah, blah… I laugh and say I can drive it. I sense Mr C is smirking on the other side of the site as he puts his bike together.
Mr C takes his bike out for an overdue spin and returns unscathed from bears. I am relieved as I have been looking at my watch since he left. The kids have just finished watching The Revenant, which is a) inappropriate violence and b) involves a half hour bear attack in graphic detail which I think might not be the perfect viewing material as we camp around this part of the country. I decide against a run. I will venture out when there is less likelihood of being ripped apart by a black bear.
We pour over the map while pouring lots of wine and discover that we have another huge long drive ahead of us through South Dakota and into Minnesota. Our schedule is fairly tight if we are going to visit our friends in Wisconsin and get to my brother at the arranged date. More wine.
We try to get an early start on the road – we have accepted that we are no good at early starts – and then decide we need to get another glimpse of Rushmore so we take the beautiful drive through the forested park. It is impossible not to stop. I am more taken with the surrounding landscape than the Presidents’ faces in rock, but the kids love seeing it. The intense smell of pine needles everywhere reminds me of Canada.
Then we hit The Badlands.
They call them this because in amongst the fertile farms of South Dakota, this geological formation yields nothing. Nothing grows and it is the most inhospitable (and freaky) landscape. We make very bad time because we keep stopping. I wonder, not for the first time, about those early pioneers who came across this vast expanse to ‘work the land’ for a living, and how on earth they coped. No wonder the wild west was so twisted. I find I am still thinking of all the cowboys riding out over this eerie landscape…
There is a small attraction as we leave the badlands: a completely preserved ‘turf home’ which was a small hut built into the ground which offered protection from the elements and natural insulation, much like a hobbit house. There is a 10 dollar entry fee and a tour with a gift shop. The poor pioneers that built that hut more than one hundred years ago, living hand-to-mouth, scraping out some sort of existence as best they could probably didn’t see that coming.
We are up ‘early’ again after making it to Jackson, Minnesota the day before – an epic 7 hour drive through endless South Dakota corn fields. I am amazed at how good the kids are with this… Mr C and I came crawling out of the RV after taking turns driving all day and they were all ‘hey, that was an OK drive wasn’t it?’… but they were playing Monopoly all day (this no wifi is so great…)
We stop on the I-90 for a break and somehow manage to collect a flock? herd? swarm? of flies (we are not actually sure of the origin of these flies, which is slightly disturbing). There is nothing that disgusts me and Mr C more than flies, so he organises the team to get busy with extermination while I drive (I know, not strictly legal). Matt and Ben must be harbouring something deep within, or perhaps they are suffering from gaming withdrawal and have not virtually killed anything in a while. That can be the only explanation for the Quentin Tarantino-esque violence that erupts in the back of the RV. That long stretch of highway will now go down in the annals of Campbell camping history as the South Dakota Fly Massacre. It is not pretty, but it is effective and we are now fly-free and clean, if our consciences are not.
We drive through Minnesota and Wisconsin, again changing our minds en-route to avoid the big cities (we were going to stop in Minnesota but decide cities and 28 foot RV’s are not compatible). We want to get north of Green Bay in time for our friend’s birthday. They spend their summers on a small peninsula jutting out into Sturgeon Bay, part of Lake Michigan and we will rest there for a couple of days to engage in a bit of relaxation before our next leg. Yet again, the whole thing takes longer than we expect and we are in the RV from 8:30am until 6:30pm when we arrive, with very few stops along the way.
Top Camping Tip #2: How to prepare lunch on the road:
When time is of the essence and it is taking you longer than usual to drive 650km, sometimes there is little or no time to stop for things like lunch. In this case, preparing food in a moving vehicle is necessary, and not as difficult as it sounds. Children do not need to be strapped down, but do not expect them to help in any way. You can either remove all ingredients from the fridge and place on the table, preparing the sandwiches in a seated position, or you can handle it standing up against the counter, although this requires a bit more dexterity (the trick is to plant one foot firmly on floor and wedge the other knee against the cupboards). Do not try to be precise. As long as the slice of ham and slice of cheese is somewhere in the middle of the pieces of bread, you are doing fine. Do not try to use plates, just wrap in paper napkins – these are easier to lob into the top bunk and can be caught mid-air. Apples are good for dessert – easily thrown, no fuss. For drinks, grab first fizzy drink that you find in fridge – the kids have probably already had three before 10am that you didn’t notice. Try not to grab a beer if you are driving.
We need to stop for wifi. I realise that I do not have the address for our friends in and have absolutely no idea where we are going. The kids are desperate to find Pokémon (really?! I mean, really?!). There is a town called Sparta which we feel might have a McDonalds judging from the size of the dot on the map, and we are not disappointed by the length of the strip malls in Sparta. We pull in and set up at a table – we are that family not speaking to one another, glued to our phones. No one here knows that we have been in an RV for 10 days and we are quite frankly, exhausted by all the real conversation.
I pause momentarily and look around me. I see Mr C staring at the table beside us, verging on some sort of hysterical fit and glance over to witness the scene. Four old men, average age 90, deliberating on the state of the world (the roads, the size of young people these days, the election… etc) , sentences peppered with fragrant language (sons of bitches, Jesus Christ almighty, God-damned idiots, etc) while one of them swats flies with a fly swatter he presumably brought into McDonalds from home. I have to turn away and I am consumed by a fit of giggles I have not experienced since Grade 12 Calculus class in 1986.
We leave the disgusting drinks we have purchased on the table, get what we need on the internet and finish up. Our friends are in a place called Ephraim. We are all set to go and hit the road, still giggling about the men from Sparta.
The tiny town of Ephraim is gorgeous – all whitewashed wooden homes, home-made cherry pies, sailing and friendliness. Drinks on the porch have never felt so good.
Sunsets in Ephraim are spectacular and drinks down on the dock are perfect. This is the west side of Lake Michigan, one of the vast Great Lakes and it is big enough to feel like the ocean but the clear, deep fresh water makes it feel undeniably lakeshore. We are enamoured with life on a lake. It started in the West Coast and we are now officially obsessed.
I am busy with forty loads of laundry. But in between that, we catch up with our friends, go out in the boat and linger on the docks. I go for an overdue run and it feels good to stretch my legs. I have not seen my kids since we got here – they are off with new friends out on the boat tubing, jumping off the dock to swim, getting obscenely oversized ice creams down the road or playing cards… it is an idyllic summer scene. I think we are all happy to get some space, and it give the adults some time to catch up – there is ground to cover since our last reunion – and a lot of laughter. We tell them about Sparta men.
I finally get in touch with my brother over the phone, and am somewhat startled to hear he is in a Home Hardware buying a hose for his garden and not driving northwards to meet us in Manitoulin Island, but he assures me they will be there by Thursday which is our scheduled rendez-vous … the boys are excited to be meeting up with their cousins and we must not fail them. We plan to leave our American friends by 2pm in order to make it close to the border by the evening, but of course, in a predictable fashion we roll out at 5pm after chatting on the front porch and stopping for ice cream.
The drive north into Michigan is pretty by the lake, but more familiar Eastern landscape keeps me less occupied and I find myself counting the mileage as we drive on. We are aiming for a place called Manistique only because I have researched 2 possible campgrounds in the Indian Lake Forest Park.
Matthew tells us it is 9pm and we tell him not to be ridiculous, it is 8pm – although it looks dark. We check our iPhones and they all tell us it is 9pm, but this cannot be right – our watches say 8, we left Wisconsin at 5 and have been driving for 3 hours. Oddly, somewhere in between Wisconsin and Michigan state, going north, we have passed over a time line. This seems apt and adds to the general atmosphere of weirdness. We have now lost an hour, it is pitch dark and we have no idea where the campground is. We find ourselves driving down a creepy road with swampland on either side, seemingly going nowhere and decide to turn around, driving down towards the lake in hopes that we will run into the state park or any evidence of humanity.
The kids are getting nervous and we try to reassure them that this is perfectly normal. Nothing weird here. Nope. We come across a cul-de-sac of homes. At the end there is a man (lurking?) outside his house … Ben finds his Batman t-shirt and matching baseball cap extremely suspicious. He cowers in the camper while Mr C gets out to ask for directions. Ben is certain that Batman Guy has a gun and is going to start shooting everyone and I try to reassure him that this is ridiculous, but inwardly note that if Batman starts leading Mr C into his house, I will need to make a move. This may all sound far-fetched, but the level of general oddness that the evening has attained, mean my son’s fears are not altogether misplaced.
Mr C returns all in one piece, and more importantly, with directions to the park, and after some driving we reach the campground. At this time of night there is obviously no one at the Reception and we drive in, find an empty spot, hook up the water and electrics and breath a quiet sigh of relief. There is no time for a proper dinner as we normally have (there is no way I am going to start on the tacos) so I cook up quick grilled cheese and we collapse into bed.
Of course, I can’t sleep. I go to the fridge and find a can of Perrier water, bring it back and try to open it as quietly as I can, but the ‘snap’ and ‘fizz’ is audible. There is a pause and then Mr C’s voice resonates in the darkness.
“Are you having a beer?”
I awake early and receive a text message from my brother informing me they have taken the early morning ferry onto Manitoulin and when will we be arriving? I let him know we will be arriving in 500km or so, and he needs to hang tight. I wonder if that surprises him.
The front desk is still deserted so we leave $26 at the door for the night’s accommodation and we head out, bleary eyed but determined. The kids are still asleep and we have to wake them up when we reach the border just in case there are over zealous custom officials that need them to be seat-belted into their straight-back chairs facing forward. After all, this is Canada. It starts to rain, the first we have seen in weeks.
The drive to Manitoulin through northern Ontario reveals another new landscape, the Canadian Shield. The roads are cut through the thick layers of rock with a mix of deciduous an coniferous trees, evidence of the last ice age millions of years ago. After much texting with my brother, an informal discussion group at the counter in the village grocery store in Mindemoya, and some intel from an old friend who lives on the island, we find a lovely campsite in a place called Providence Bay, right on the shore of Lake Huron.
It is pleasant and has a lovely aspect out over the water… plus there are fewer permanent trailer residents than the spot we had investigated earlier, a sort of litmus test we use on the suitability of campgrounds. The more fencing, flower pots and permanent sewer hookups around the RV’s and trailers, the more likely you have descended upon the summer resident crowd, and we don’t like to intrude. We are pleased with our location, and plan dinner at the site with my brother and his family – there is much to catch up on and so many stories to tell.
After an unfortunate incident and my accidental foray into the men’s shower (yes, I unwittingly showered in the men’s … what kind of men’s toilets don’t have urinals? … the only hint I was in the wrong place was the baritone humming next to my stall and by then it was too late). We head out to explore the island.
We have a sort of loose system to check the RV before pulling out of any spot – we check that we have unplugged the electricity and water, we take things that will fall off the counter and store them away (except for once … but the red wine didn’t stain anything), and we make sure the kids are in the RV. After completing our rigorous safety check we pull out, but pause half way down the exit pathway after rounding the first corner. We have noticed a slapping sound at the top of the RV and immediately remember the top vents which might have been hitting the low hanging trees… but I had closed them for sure. Mr C stops the vehicle and I lean outside only to discover we have, in fact, neglected to roll in the 8-foot awning on the side of the RV… and we have been driving around the campground with the entire thing open, taking down everything in its wake. As if that isn’t bad enough, ten minutes later we are pulled over by a young dude in a hatchback, sporting a baseball cap and goatee, informing us that ‘um… the cap is like, hanging off your um…your um… shit pipe, eh?’. Terrific.
As much as we want to believe contrary to the fact, we are complete amateurs.
We park the vehicle and swim under the Bridal Veil waterfalls which is hugely refreshing and across the road Ben experiences his first root beer float without being sick to his stomach which makes everyone happy. We visit a very funky coffee-house with super groovy local art which we almost purchase, and then meet up with my old school friend for dinner. We go back to hers for a nightcap (Mr C is kindly driving) and the kids are beside themselves when they see the xbox in her living room. They have not had access for some time, but they don’t appear to be rusty – they sort of fall into it as if they have been on her sofa forever. There is such excellent banter in the kitchen that you can only have with someone you have not seen in years, while the war rages on the TV in the living room. We pull out much later than we should, returning back to our campsite. For some reason, when we drive into a campsite late, I always feel like I did as a teenager coming in after curfew… but it’s impossible to tiptoe in when you are driving an RV.
Top Camping Tip #3: How To Handle Being Accidentally Trapped In The Men’s Shower
From time to time, you might find yourself in an awkward predicament, such as entering the washroom of the opposite sex due to poor signage, lack of urinals, etc, etc. If this happens to you, do not panic. It’s particularly important not to dwell on how you managed to get yourself into the situation in the first place. You need to use all your mental capacity to concentrate on getting out. Do carry out the task that you intended to do in the first place (e.g. shampoo and condition your hair as normal), but do not linger. Get dressed back into your loungewear as soon as humanly possible. Listen carefully through the flimsy wooden partitions for what is happening around you – wait for the baritone next door to vacate back to his campsite, keep an ear out for movement around the toilets, and be patient when waiting for the man at the sink to finish shaving. When you hear that the coast is clear, unlock the door quickly, take all your girly belongings and sprint out as fast as you can. Take the forested route around the back of the washroom area to give the illusion that you are exiting from the Ladies instead of the Mens. If this results in some residue foliage in your hair, try to remove this discreetly as you walk across the campground. Avoid any eye contact with fellow campers for the rest of the day.
We have made contact with another old friend who we are supposed to meet in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia on our way through. He is not in fact, in Lunenberg, but is holidaying at his cottage in the Muskoka Lakes which is only 50km off our route east through Algonquin park towards Ottawa. We decide to stay with him and his wife for the night and we have a short drive and a purely Canadian cottage experience – swimming in the lake, waking to the smell of pine trees, and conducting proper garbage storage so the bears don’t bother us.
Cottage life: it’s official, we are smitten.
We have now all decided (as a family, because no discussion is private in an RV) we would like to have a cottage by a lake to come to every summer. Maybe somewhere the kids could actually get a – shock and horror – summer job! Yes, work and earn money before they are out of school. Practise some sort of life skill. A remarkable notion to be sure. Driving across country, meeting people from all walks of life and in different circumstances has highlighted and reminded us of the fact that life in Hong Kong is a wonderful bubble of existence, and sometimes a little bit removed from reality, perhaps?
We have discovered a small leak coming from the engine. Mr C, in a manly fashion, got underneath the rig and tasted the leak to make sure it was not oil. It is definitely water but we don’t know if it is coming from the radiator (very bad) or from the window washer fluid container (relatively ok). As proven earlier, we are complete amateurs but I have faith that Mr C knows something about motor engines and is not too worried. We will check it when we get to my mum’s house tomorrow and until then keep an eye on the engine temperature while we are driving, and hope for the best.
Mr C has sustained an injury while tubing with the boys. He has done something to the fourth finger on his right hand (possible torn tendon, possible nerve damage – he thinks he might have lost use of it altogether and is worried that he cannot play tennis for a 6 weeks. Or golf. Or throw a ball. Or work the brake on his motorcycle). He is vexed. I think it is less severe that he imagines, but then I am a woman and he is a man. We might be able to avoid amputation, but we’ll see how it goes.
Camping in Algonquin Park
It is raining in Algonquin park, so we abandon our plans to get bikes and go for a short ride before we leave and pack up right away. Even with the rain the forest is beautiful, and possible even more so as the dampness enhances the smell of pine. By 9am (come on, this is early for us) campfires are roaring and those who have not already pulled out with their canoes and kayaks are cooking up their breakfast. I am, as usual, pouring myself a third cup of coffee while hurling Fruit Loops up to the kids who are still in bed. Mr C is looking for a shower – there was a queue of thirty last night and really, once you’ve been on the road for 18 days, what’s a few more days without a shower? I seriously cannot remember the last time I brushed my hair and it now sits in a clip at the back in some sort of rat’s nest (I have in fact washed it, but brushing seems superfluous in this environment).
The drive from Algonquin park to my hometown near Ottawa is familiar and the route we take is the quickest drive but a rather desolate run after we get past the holiday lakes closer to the park. Miles of trees, no homes to speak of and one straight road to my village. The boys’ excitement to see their granny is palpable with every kilometer and they almost run her down at the door when she comes out to greet us.
The RV sits outside the house and now we are receiving phone calls as everyone knows we are home. It’s a small village.
Mr C and I decide to go to the local pharmacy and get a splint for his hand – we have duct taped his fingers together and figured that would be fine, but he is worried about tendon damage – this is his tennis hand, his football throwing hand, his motorcycle break hand, his beer drinking hand – and I cannot quite explain how badly Mr C takes injury. I am praying that this is not serious primarily because I don’t like to see him hurt, but really I also really don’t want to live through the emotional aftermath. After 3 hours at the Emergency the prognosis is a cracked finger and 7-10 days with no activity. This is not quite a disaster, but I am not sure how Mr C is going to handle inactivity. He, of course, goes for a 20km road bike ride the next day.
The prognosis on the RV is also good. The helpful people at Canadian Tire feel that it is the air conditioning condensation. I call my mum as we have been away for the entire afternoon and evening dealing with all of this admin and have left the kids with her for some quality time. She tells me its all good: the boys have found the Nerf guns in the basement.
We are based here for a week, and will be busy catching up with friends, sorting out the supplies in the RV and doing laundry. We go into the city to see Mr C’s sister and family – the kids are desperate to see their cousins and as soon as they do, the phones come out. What is it with this new Pokémon Go thing? Apparently – so I am told – it’s a great new way to randomly meet people on the street. Is this a good thing?
River swimming, CFL football games, granny and long runs…
After a fabulously busy week with family and friends, we hit the road again, aiming for a noon departure. Collecting the entire contents of the RV from each and every room in my mother’s house takes longer than expected, so we get on our way around 4pm, much as expected. We are heading northeast towards Montreal, up past Quebec and will try to get as far north along the St Lawrence River as we can. Again, we have deadlines to meet – every hour in the RV is an hour lost from time spent with cousins and our rather impatient and demanding younger team members are adamant that we take it as far as humanly possible tonight. Just for fun, I set the GPS to our final destination and 1,357km comes up. Excellent. This is the equivalent of driving from London to Paris four times. Or just shy of driving from London to St. Petersburg, and unless you are Jason Borne and need to get away from the CIA in a Mini with a girl, no one in their right mind in Europe would ever contemplate this kind of mileage.
About 100km north of Quebec City we call it quits and pull up to a gated campground that we hope will take us. We are in luck, and they open the gates for us to set up for the night. It is a jovial and friendly atmosphere with campfires and quiet conversations all around us in the darkness. But this time, for once, the kids are all business. We need to eat, sleep and get up and out early the next morning for the next 800km and there is no time for lighting fires and chitchat. With our focused task masters there is no doubt we will ever get off schedule. Unless of course, we sleep in.
We are up and on the road early. We can’t do anything unless we’ve made ourselves coffee and we had long since ditched the electric drip coffee machine and replaced it instead with the ever reliable Italian espresso stove top jobbie: this is surely a camping essential, whether you are in a one man pup tent with a wood fire or a 35 foot A-Class entertainment unit. Good coffee is good coffee and I can’t even contemplate 800km today unless I’ve had at least 3.
The journey is long, and the novelty of the all-day road trip has worn off. Matt’s laptop runs out of batteries, the Monopoly has lost it’s appeal, all the books have been read (apparently), and we are running out of ideas. They sleep a bit, drink 75 litres of root beer (each) and their voices reach that sort of high-pitched wail whenever they open their mouths to speak, which is only to complain. They are hitting each other a lot. I decide to distract them with music but all I manage is to get them addicted to Don McLean’s American Pie which they listen to at full volume until they know every single word (I count at least 30 plays) and then repeat while singing (another 20)… I am going to smash something if I have to listen to what was once a favourite tune of mine. I start driving and Matt challenges Mr C to a game of chess which is at least a diversion, although Don McLean is still hollering in the background.
We finally, finally pull up in front of The Big Yellow House, where we have been spending 2 weeks of every summer for the past 14 years. Nana comes out to greet us (crying, because that’s what she does – she is endearingly emotional) and the cousins are ecstatic that their playmates have arrived. They busy themselves immediately with writing down a list of what they intend to do over the next 7 days: paintball, mountain biking, water park, bridge jumps at the Basin Head beach, sailing, tubing, Escape Room, drive-in movie night, 180’s on the trampoline, building bike jumps at the old hotel, driving range, ice cream and jumping off the wharf… the list is pretty long. Mr C and I busy ourselves with opening bottles of wine. We have our own list: Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Unoaked Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Rosé …
Remarkably, and in a monumental effort that would have put most of the Rio Olympians to shame, we accomplish most of the items on the list over the next 10 days.
The last few days are rainy and all the playmates depart so we decide to start our journey back to Toronto – the last leg of the journey. We need to fight hard against that end of summer feeling, because we still have loads to do. We are entering a rainy patch: literally and emotionally. Everyone but us seems happy about the rain – Canada has been having a 2 month draught and they are all so pleased. I was rather hoping the rain would come after we had left the country.
I will miss these east coast sunsets.
Today we push out, and we have, perhaps understandably, a couple of reluctant travellers on our hands. 5 weeks on the road was a lot to ask. Mr C and I however, are still very keen. Although we have had 2 fabulous long stops with family, it’s time to move on… we need to ramble and our feet can’t sit still for too long.. I can almost feel a tune coming on. God help me, not Don McLean.
We do not have a huge drive ahead: we are heading for Halifax and have booked a campground outside the city where we have invited an old friend for dinner, which is easier than trying to navigate our 28 foot home around the city, something we have successfully avoided up until now. We like to entertain. In Hong Kong it’s the China Club but here, we have people around to the trailer park. The BBQ at the mobile home is much more fun, and gets so many more laughs. Which is, of course, what the whole thing is about.
For one of the first times in camping history, we are not rushing out to get anywhere. We have less than an hour’s drive south to Chester to stay with more old friends from London. We leisurely have breakfast, pack up and take a very short drive to their gorgeous summer home overlooking the harbour amongst gardens and a beautifully landscaped setting. We are pampered and rest with our friends for a night, gathering in front of the TV after dinner to watch the Olympic pole vaulting, naturally.
And also making trip history – one of the first sightings of actual wildlife. We have now driven over 10,000km and I have not seen one elk, moose, bear, or beaver: why have I not seen more wildlife? Is this not the land of wild animals roaming the paths? I am slightly disappointed. I have seen one fox in the past 3 weeks. But on my morning run, I come face to face with a deer – one of 2 that gallop off the road in front of me.
A day trip to historic Lunenburg is met with some resistance; however, we are unmoved. The drive is pretty, the town even prettier, and it is a nice diversion. We have tracks to make in the afternoon: we are heading up to New Brunswick again. We have made a minor planning error in the fact that we failed to book the ferry across, thereby making a drive back across the most uninhabited section of eastern Canada necessary. Sigh.
We stop at a rather uninspiring RV campground outside Moncton, but perhaps it was the sideways rain that made it seem grim. That and the 6 ‘avenues’ of trailers. We encounter our first grumpy camping neighbour, but hey, maybe he was just sick of the rain as well. The fact is, the rain is rather calming when you are lying inside your RV, all tucked up asleep, but it’s when you step outside the door and your flip-flop sinks into mud that it all starts to look rather dull.
We drive north-west up to Rivière du Loup where we will cross over the St Lawrence river and travel southwards, this time along the north side of the river which we have heard is a beautiful drive. On our way eastwards a couple of weeks ago, we had moved along the south side for speed, but this time we will take the leisurely scenic route. We camp at a lovely little roadside campsite which is friendly and quaint. We need to get up early in order to wait in line for the ferry that leaves at 8am. It’s first come first serve and our hunch is that the ferry is only big enough to take 1 or 2 RV’s so we need to make sure we are first in line. Last night we worked on getting our Camp Campbell family vibe back: boys did the dishes and we sat around drinking, so we are a bit jaded this morning at… um… 6am.
The ferry ride across a very wide St Lawrence river: our hunch was correct, only one place for the RV – we saw one turned away after we got on.
Just as advertised, the drive is spectacular along the river and we make tracks down as far as Quebec City, where, through a planning stroke of genius, we decide to stay outside the city and take a taxi into town for a small city-break excursion. I am not quite sure how I am supposed to dress. I have been in denim cut-offs since July.
The old walled city of Quebec is fabulous and we walk around, taking in all the areas of interest: most notably, every place that Mr C has lived and worked. Of special interest was the alley where he sold (other people’s) paintings to fund his ski habit during University. We visit the great Plains of Abraham, where the British beat the French during an epic battle in 1759 which historically speaking was significant, but is also home to many great and rare Pokémon – we are told by the younger members of our touring party. We have dinner in town and head back to our campsite, which is located next to a construction site, but oddly tranquil owing to a severe dip downwards from the entrance.
The sights of Québec City.
Next stop, back to Granny’s house. We are coming in for a quick pit-stop, picking up my mother and taking her on to Toronto for the wrap-up. We stay with my brother north of Toronto in King City and deal with the selling of the RV, visit some old university friends and have a final farewell with family. We clean out the RV and get oddly nostalgic.
Scenes from Toronto and King City.
We are road weary, but still – remarkably – in good spirits, still speaking, still married, still happy to know one another. The kids are now murmuring about being excited to get back to school. If nothing else, we have given them the desire to return to school.
I will miss our house on wheels. Site of so many good bants.
So, when all is said and done, when we’ve traveled more than 13,000 kilometres together in a small box on wheels, when we’ve crossed an entire continent, what is the take-away? I really rather hate that expression, but the meaning is clear enough.
I know that the North American continent is vast, with as many different geographical formations as there are people. I know that Americans are some of the most friendly and lovely people I have ever encountered. I have a renewed appreciation for Canada, my birth country, a land so blessed with oceans, mountains, lakes, fertile farm land and stunning beauty. We have reconnected with so many friends from our recent and more distant past and met some new remarkable people, all with stories to share. And what about our family? We have laughed a lot, that is for sure. I’m pretty sure our kids know us better than they did before. For better or worse, they know that a lot went on before they were born, that at one point we were poor starving students, we actually do swear a lot, we do have quite a few friends, and probably lots of stuff we don’t want to admit they know. We have collectively had a small epiphany about how we want our summers of the future to look, which involves a cottage on a lake. And most importantly, I now know the difference between an A-Class and C-Class Recreation Vehicle.
I believe we know a lot of things we didn’t know before.
Which is always a good way to finish.