Congaree Swamp National Park, South Carolina

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

The swamp lies within 20 minutes of Columbia, and the locals seem to take full advantage.  The parking lot was packed at lunch time as were the nearby boardwalk trails.  Several enthusiastic fishermen occupied the river bank.  The temperature was significantly cooler than one might expect, probably in the 60’s.

Congaree Swamp; Palmetto and Water Tupelo.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Palmetto and Water Tupelo. Click to enlarge.

By early evening it was just me and a group of 4 young Canadians.  We camped at opposite ends of the otherwise deserted campground.  I set up well ahead of them and directed them to the water – a dingy drinking fountain running at low pressure.  Every aspect of the park was free.  While several national parks allow free admission, free camping is virtually unheard of.  I was very appreciative and so, seemingly, were the Canadians.  Outside of Kel and Julie in Big Bend they were the most courteous people I have ever shared a campground with.

After dark I headed into town and spent a couple of hours in the Starbucks wifi lounge.  The girls let me stay and work even though they were closing down the shop.  When I arrived back in camp the Canadians were already in bed.  I ran into an opossum on the way back to my tent.  I walked along side him, inches away, for 15-20 yards.  It took him some time to realize I was there, even though my headlamp was shining on him full-bore.  Eventually he took off into the woods.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

The next morning I spoke with the ranger, an articulate blond in her early 20’s.  We compared notes on opossums and water boatmen (bugs that swim in groups on the water surface).  “So you enjoyed the swamp then?” she asked with anticipation.  Of course I had.  Still, I was tired and beat up from 7 weeks of traveling.  I had surpassed my limit of endurance.  I decided to head home that morning, saving my remaining plans in Georgia and Florida for another time.  The ranger asked about my route and wished me safe travels.

The drive west through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi was beautiful, featuring warm sun and brilliant green forests.  After entering Arkansas the temperatures became progressively more frigid.  The cold helped to confirm that I was, eagerly, nearly home.

Congaree Swamp; palmetto.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; palmetto. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; switch cane and water tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; switch cane and water tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; vines on water tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; vines on water tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

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Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire

Swift River, Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Swift River, Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Locals call this highway “The Kanc.”  It is a beloved scenic route through the White Mountains, and the fall colors are stunning.  I mainly want to share the photos.  The Forest Service wanted to charge people for everything — even hiking or just parking next to the river for a minute.  Where I come from we don’t pay to use our own public forest land, and I refused to pay here.  For my trip to the river I parked across the highway outside the gate of a closed forest road, then hiked down and across the highway to the river.  Although this was free it was still technically against the rules because there was a prohibition on blocking the closed gate.  If the road’s closed anyway what difference does it make?  I thought it would be fine since it was after the end of the federal employees’ working day.  This was pre-gov’t shutdown, of course.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.
Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. Click to enlarge.

New Hampshire.  A message we can all unite around. Click to enlarge.
New Hampshire. A message we can all unite around. Click to enlarge.

The Lobster Roll and Presidential Adventure, Maine

Red's lobster shack, Wiscasset, Maine. Click to enlarge.

Red’s lobster shack, Wiscasset, Maine. Click to enlarge.

I saved an article from the Wall Street Journal detailing the best places in Maine to eat the state’s trademark lobster rolls.  The concept is similar to a hamburger, but with lobster.  I set out to eat as many as I could over two days.  I first went to Red’s in Wiscasset.  I waited for an hour in a long line to place my order and another 10 minutes for the food.  This was the largest and best lobster roll I received anywhere.

The last place I visited was an upscale restaurant called Pier 77.  It’s in an out-of-the-way location between Kennebunkport and Cape Porpoise.  Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush (the elder one) lives just outside of town on his own little peninsula.  I parked on the beach ¼ mile away and walked to the compound.  Parking and sidewalk areas directly across the road allow tourists a full frontal view of the home, grounds, and staff buildings.  The whole complex is perhaps 150 yards long and most of it juts into the ocean.  A stout-looking gate controls access.

I crossed to Bush’s side of the street and walked up his driveway to the guard house.  A muscular Secret Service agent greeted me.  “May I help you?” he asked.  “Could I say ‘hi’ to the president?” I replied.  He patiently explained that Bush saw people by appointment only, and his staff fielded all meeting requests.  He suggested that I request an appointment, but I explained that I was just passing through town and would be gone by the end of the day.  “I didn’t expect to get in, but if I’m here I have to try,” I said.  I laughed when the agent said, “They don’t take walk-ins.”

I was a high school freshman when Bush Sr. was elected president.  I remember the competent presence he brought to the office.  No scandals, he just did the job.

Acadia National Park, Maine: I Ain’t Gonna Charge You Nothin’

Acadia National Park, Maine. Click to enlarge.

Acadia National Park, Maine. Click to enlarge.

During my travels I seem to attract the best people just when I need them.  I was on my way to exploring the park’s forested dirt roads when I made a wrong turn.  While turning around I managed to back up onto a small boulder.  The rear axle and a corner of the frame were suspended on the rock, and one rear tire turned in midair.  It was an embarrassing thing to do.  Four wheel drive and a locked differential weren’t enough to free the truck.

Acadia National Park, Maine. Click to enlarge.

Acadia National Park, Maine. Click to enlarge.

Just then a man pulled up in a pickup and offered to pull me out.  His truck displayed information for a contracting business, so I thought he was offering a professional service.  That would be great, I said, but how much would you charge?  I meant this as an innocuous question, but the man became excited.  “I ain’t gonna charge you nothin!” he exclaimed.  “I’m not that kind of a guy.  I may be rocked up in Colorado sometime and I’ll need you to pull me out.”

We made a great team.  My truck was free in less than two minutes.  The only damage was a shiny scratch on the frame.  I hadn’t noticed the fancy landscaping at the road’s entrance, and thus backed onto the boulder.  I incidentally left a prominent tire track in the otherwise pristine wood chips, which I considered fair payback.  The man was on his way home from shooting two moose on a weeklong hunting trip.  Next he was going out for deer.  I wished him good hunting.

Sand Beach, Acadia National Park, Maine. Click to enlarge.

Sand Beach, Acadia National Park, Maine. Click to enlarge.

The Acadia coastline features rugged rock formations and dense stands of trees.  Sand Beach, the only sandy beach in the park, is a popular attraction.  Throughout Maine I was struck by the glassy water along the coastline.  It was so calm it didn’t even look like the ocean.  The rare sand beaches were the only places I saw waves come in as one would typically think of them.

The U.S. Coast Guard operates the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse on Acadia’s southwestern coast.  I arrived there shortly after dark to find a “Day Use Only” sign and a ranger on station to enforce it.  I told him I saw the sign and realized it was dark, but this was my last day in the park and I was pushing to see everything possible.  He let me in, told me to avoid the residential area, and pointed me to the lighthouse trail.  It was great to stand on the shore in the dark and watch the lighthouse in action.

Long Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine. Click to enlarge.

Long Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine. Click to enlarge.

After a hard-charging day in Acadia I headed to Bar Harbor for dinner and ice cream.  I ended up in a place that also sold hand-made chocolate truffles.  As I talked with the young woman behind the counter, another young woman in line behind me joined the conversation.  She was headed to Acadia the next day and needed an entrance pass.  My pass was valid for another 6 days, so I gave it to her.  I had been hoping for a way to pay forward the free tow I received earlier in the day.  Marci, the recipient, was very appreciative.  Like me, she preferred manual transmission cars.  Finding this rare common ground we chatted for several minutes before parting ways.

It was 10:15 pm and I still needed a place to sleep.  Driving through two towns and over 20 miles, I could not find a single hotel that was open to take a guest.  I ended up at the far end of a Wal-Mart parking lot among the RV’s that typically overnight there.  Reclining the passenger seat made a passable bed.  This is a scenario I’d prefer to avoid going forward.

Vermont: Trespassing and Maple Syrup

Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

There are no national forests or parks in Vermont, yet the vast majority of this tiny state is rural and forested.  Farming, maple sugaring, and logging seem to co-exist in peace.  Quiet dirt roads lined with dense stands of trees are plentiful in the Northeast Kingdom, the region known for its wild and unspoiled character.  During my visit the fall colors were in full force.

Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

The first day I happened on a self-service farm stand along a state highway.  Take what you want, write the items in the log book, and deposit your money.  Alongside herbs and vegetables were 1960’s-era newspapers, artwork, and old, undesirable clothing.  Prices were high.  I moved on.

Finding a campsite was challenging due to the lack of officially marked public land.  I drove down two 4×4 roads to find farms at the end.  The next promising trail ended at a large bog.  I drove out of that one in reverse the whole way because there was no place to turn around.  Finally I found Mud Pond Pass, a forest road riddled with large puddles.  A dry and otherwise perfect camping spot sat at its end.  Shortly after going to bed I started hearing loud booms.  At first I wondered if I was being shot at.  Vague flashes of color against the cloud cover and the sound of rockets led me to conclude it was harmless fireworks.  I went back to bed.  They shot until midnight.

Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

The next morning I explored additional dirt roads.  One particular road attracted me due to its exceptionally narrow and rough tread.  It led through some woods, past a farmhouse and agricultural field, and into the woods again.  There I ran into a landowner felling an approximately 100-foot-tall tree with his chainsaw.  The man’s name was Nolan, and he owned all of the land from the beginning of this road to its end.  He never told me I was trespassing or complained about my being there.  He never even brought up his status as the owner until I asked him specifically.  He appeared to be well over the age of 60 but still very capable of hard physical labor.

I never meant to trespass on anyone but was glad I did.  It allowed me to meet Nolan, and we had an interesting talk for at least 10 minutes.  Nolan worked in a factory for 18 months as a young man, but couldn’t stand it.  After a long stint as a dairy farmer he bought a tract of maple trees.  “There was no future in milking cows,” he said.  “This way I can sugar and have a retirement.”  I told Nolan he didn’t seem like a man who took a lot of breaks.  We shook hands, said goodbye, and I left.

Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

My next stop in Vermont was the Goodrich Maple Farm.  I love real maple syrup, and the farms advertise free tours and tastings.  Upon arrival I was told that the next tour would commence after a few more people showed up.  In the meantime, a guide and his two tourists arrived in the tasting room at the conclusion of their tour.  I tasted with them, and still no other customers showed.  Finally the employee put me in a room to watch a video by myself.  The video went over how maple syrup was produced, harvested, and boiled into the end product.  The amateur narration was laced with a strong dose of propaganda around the superiority of Vermont syrup.  At the end of the movie I asked the employee about the rest of the tour.  She replied that the movie was my tour.  I left feeling that I had been lied to and short-changed.

Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Click to enlarge.

I next stopped at Bragg Farm and requested the advertised tour.  The employees explained that since this was the off-season I could watch a video for the tour.  I told them I had already seen the video, and a video was not a tour.  I was then taken to the sugar house and given a proper showing.  Bragg produces only 900 gallons of maple syrup per year.  It uses old-fashioned equipment and processes to produce the best flavor.  The Bragg syrup was tastier than the competition.  I bought some at a 10% discount.  At only 900 gallons per season I’m surprised there was any left.

Isle Royale National Park: The Amazing Race

Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan. Click to enlarge.

Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan. Click to enlarge.

“Royale” is pronounced “Royal.”  This is a road-less, car-less island in Lake Superior.  The only access is by boat or seaplane.  I rode in on the Park Service’s very own Ranger III, one of the slowest boats on the water.  The boat itself is quite capable, but the Service runs it at half speed to conserve fuel.  This gives passengers a thrilling 5 ½ hour voyage and ensures that there won’t be enough daylight to hike very far on the day they arrive.  But the ticket is cheap.

Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, MI. Click to enlarge.

Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, MI. Click to enlarge.

During the ride a tall, affable ranger named Paul gave a shamelessly half-assed speech about the Leave No Trace principles.  He then sang us a song while playing his own guitar and read a poem he had composed about the park.

The park is built for backpackers, with foot trails spreading across the island in every direction.  On the first night nearly all of the 40+ boat passengers stayed at a campground located 3 miles from the dock.  So much for the park’s claim to a “premier wilderness experience.”

The general idea was to find an un-crowded campground and get there early enough to claim one of the coveted cabin-type shelters.  Tent sites were always available as a last resort.  Though I tended to walk faster than everyone else, I got sidetracked eating the various wild berries along the trails.  I was thus one of the last arrivals in camp on the first night, but somehow managed to get the nicest campsite.  One young couple even came by to tell me they envied my site and had looked at it themselves sometime earlier.  Why didn’t they take it?

Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

I started behind again the next morning, having slept in.  I hit the trail around 10 am and headed for what I hoped would be a secluded area.  Again, berries and other attractions slowed me down.  Upon arrival at the lake some 10 miles down the trail I met a fellow Coloradoan.  He was a self-described ski bum and a refugee from a high-pressure construction management job in Chicago.  He fished while I rested sore feet.  I hadn’t backpacked in years, and my pack was too heavy.  Chris landed several small pike and told me about his work at the ski slopes and kids’ summer camps that supported his lifestyle in Aspen.  He preferred to create a way to enjoy his outdoor passion full time rather than live in the “suffer and escape” cycle of his peers.

Chris was a typical example of the demographic attracted to Isle Royale: fit and skilled in the outdoors.  “The people who come here aren’t the average national park visitor,” he said.  One tip from Chris that I am eager to try is walking poles.  He says they save his knees, feet, and back and make walking long distances more pleasant.

The next day I set out to traverse 6 miles of Greenstone Ridge, the hogback that runs the length of the island.  Early on I met a couple from Minnesota heading in the opposite direction.  I wanted to dump some weight.  I gave them my rain gear and received sausages in return.  The man said he felt like a white settler trading with the natives back in the old days.  My body felt unusually tired but I kept going.  I was here to test my limits for international adventure travel and had yet to find them.  That would change by evening.

Greenstone Ridge, Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

Greenstone Ridge, Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

After a 10-mile day in total, I strolled into camp with sore feet, aching Achilles tendons, and an intermittently screaming knee.  Luckily, a doctor happened to walk by my shelter.  “Have some Tylenol to knock out the inflammation, and stay off your feet for a while,” he said.  “On your way back to the Harbor, take the Tobin trail instead of the Rock Harbor trail.  It’s much easier on your joints.”  With that he was off, and the interaction reminded me of seeing a doctor in an office setting.  When I went to filter water to take my anti-inflammatories, another guy asked if I was limping.  “Yes,” I said, and told him the story.  He told me to go lie down.  This campsite was full of caring souls just when I needed them.

Ranger Paul had told us about the brazen foxes on the island, and the next morning I got to play with one.  I walked up to him as he was digging.  Upon seeing me he darted a short distance away.  I turned around and went the opposite direction, and he chased after me.  And so it went for a few rounds.  This was the largest and most colorful fox I have ever seen.  Another fox stole my friend Chris’ belt the day before.  The island also features moose, wolves, and snakes.  I saw several snakes and one wolf for a moment, but no moose.  The night before our return to civilization a young European couple had their tent trampled by a moose.  Fortunately they were away at the time.

Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

Given how beat up I was from the previous day, I was concerned about the upcoming 7.4 mile hike to the harbor.  I was prepared to abandon my roughly 50-pound pack if I needed to.  Two other guys, before setting out ahead of me, agreed to watch for my arrival in base camp.  After limping along for a short while I stretched my leg muscles extensively using a log jutting out of the trail.  From then on everything felt much better, and I walked at my usual pace most of the way in.  I caught up to my new friends and guided them to the easier trail as the doctor recommended.

I arrived on the mainland sore and tired, but was pleased with my body’s performance.  I had walked 32 miles in a few days with a heavy pack on treacherous terrain – all with little training.  I’m eager to see what I can do with better preparation, a lighter pack, and walking poles.

Ford F-150 Plant and Henry Ford Museum, Detroit

Ford Rouge F-150 Plant, Dearborn, MI. Click to enlarge.

Ford Rouge F-150 Plant, Dearborn, MI. Click to enlarge.

Just outside Detroit’s southwestern boundary sits a series of beautiful and sprawling Ford facilities: the Rouge F-150 plant, corporate campuses, and The Henry Ford Museum.  Touring the F-150 plant was interesting, but it did not inspire me to buy a Ford.  The employees (“operators”) dressed ultra-casually in sweat pant cut-offs, t-shirts, and similar outfits.  The plant shuts down entirely for the 30-minute lunch period, and I arrived a few minutes before the ramp up.  I saw some operators sleeping on the floors of partially built trucks.  A manager explained that this is against company policy.  “I wish they wouldn’t do it, but a few of them do,” he said.

Ford Rouge F-150 Factory, Living Roof, Dearborn, MI.  Click to enlarge.

Ford Rouge F-150 Factory, Living Roof, Dearborn, MI. Click to enlarge.

I don’t typically visit museums, but The Henry Ford was well worth it.  I sat in the actual bus and seat that Rosa Parks refused to yield to a white person in the segregation days.  The museum also features every past presidential limousine, including the ones in which Presidents Kennedy and Reagan were shot.  You can see the dent in Reagan’s limousine where the bullet ricocheted before hitting him.

The museum’s theme is to document the evolution of American society, and it is intelligently executed.  Rosa Parks’ bus, for example, is one artifact within the context of a larger exhibit discussing segregation and the civil rights movement.  There is an actual segregated train station waiting room, and visitors can go into the white and black sections to see the difference.

Ford Rouge F-150 Plant, Dearborn, MI.  Click to enlarge.

Ford Rouge F-150 Plant, Dearborn, MI. Click to enlarge.

Much of the country’s story is told through its vehicles, as one might expect given the source.  There are brands other than Ford on display.  In an exhibit discussing the 1970’s energy crisis an early Honda Civic sits near a Dodge Omni.  Upon seeing the Omni I impulsively said, “That looks like a piece of crap.”  A friendly museum official said to me, “When you go to Disneyland everything is fake.  Here, everything is real.”