I love camping but putting up a tent and sleeping on the ground is good more for groans than a fun time when one reaches 60 years old. So I get brave and ask a friend if we can borrow their tent camper for this year.
“I have to tell you the lights don’t work,” she informs me.
“Not a problem,” I declare, “Do you care if my husband fixes it for you?”
“That would be fine.”
We pick up the camper on a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks before our planned trip in order to have time to make the repairs and test out our pop-up tent raising ability. Our friends and Hubby struggle to get the camper trailer hitched to the truck. The latch doesn’t want to drop over the ball hitch and as stated, the lights don’t work – not even one of them. But the hitch finally cooperates and snaps into place.
At home, my Hubby who is wearing a neck brace after obtaining a C4 fracture from falling down a customer’s stairs, has the privilege of backing the camper up by the shed. He accomplishes this with ease in spite of not being able to turn his head. That little camera on the tailgate in back of the truck is a nifty addition to the backing up task. But when we go to unhook and crank the stand down, the hitch has no intention of releasing the ball on the truck.
“How about a little WD40?” I suggest.
Even after a soaking in the magical fluid, the hitch remains tightly locked. Looks like we are going to be attached to this truck from this day forward.
“Maybe if I drive the truck ahead a little,” is Hubby’s thought.
He coasts the truck a few inches. With a snap, the hitch rotates down and the ball releases. Oh Wow! It might have worked better if we had thought of that sooner.
A couple of days later, we decide to make sure we know how to put up the camper before we set out on our journey. My hubby gets out his electrical handyman – his voltage tester. All the electrical connections test out as working and when we put the connections together, all the lights work except the right rear one. What was wrong with it? Maybe the connections were a little corroded from sitting around and that WD40 did its magic there too. At least there doesn’t seem to be a significant problem.
We start the process of cranking up the popup top. We make quite the pair. My hubby in his neck brace and stiff me trying to crawl around under the bed ends to insert the stabilizers and under the camper to put the feet down. I peer inside the camper as the roof moves skyward. A small rivulet slides down the inside screen and pools on the kitchen counter. A larger pool gushes off of the expanding canvas into the front bed.
“Stop,” I holler, “We need to catch the leaks.”
I sop up all the unwelcome water with 2 blankets close by. Still, the dampness meets my hand as I touch the bed surface. The same dampness is present underneath the mattress. Time to set up the fans and dry out the interior. We are not really sure where the water actually came in. This could be a rude awakening if it drips on us in the middle of the night. We are hoping it just came from the unsecured opening in the top. At least our excursion has resulted in us feeling proudly confident in our ability to set this thing up even as cripples.
The next order of business is to change the hitch on the truck that we will be using to one that allows the camper to tow more levelly. It soon becomes apparent that the current hitch has been on the truck far too long. It is rusted into place. The WD40 can is emptied and the hammer is swung over and over. The hitch does not budge. I craw under the truck and try to hammer from the backside. Soon I am covered in rust stains and WD40 spatters. Light beige colored pants really are not a good choice for this job. Hubby soon goes off to town to buy another can of WD40 and we begin our efforts again. Was that a little movement that I see? After over an hour of spraying and hammering, the hitch begins to move with each bang of the hammer. “Hurrah!” I cheer. “You have done it.” Now we are ready to camp.
July 11, 2019
We get up at the usual time of 6:30 am. Hubby makes a trip downtown with instructions for his help and I feed the cat, move the calves around, and get the rest of our stuff together.
We have no problems with hooking the camper and soon are on our way. I think I have done well this time, but I am sure there is something that I have forgotten. Even with his neck brace, Hubby feels he can drive with a little assistance from me. We do have to stop at the shop and pick up his sunglasses.
We make several stops during our travels and realize that the camper trailer lights only work sporadically. Oh well! It pulls well with the pickup with being able to use the truck trailer braking system. The last time we towed a popup camper with our Toyota RAV 4, it made us extremely light in the front end and difficult to handle. That time we had to stop and move our bicycles to the top of the car to distribute the weight more evenly.
We decide to stop at the Reiman Gardens in Ames, Iowa run by Iowa State University. We wander through flowers and vegetables and butterflies- paths that twist and turn amongst beautiful waterfalls. It is a warm day but not totally uncomfortable.
Around 3:30, we head for Ledges State Park by Boone, Iowa. We miss the entrance on our first pass through. I am expecting a well-kept, well-staffed entrance booth. The sign that points towards the “Park Office” seems misleading. It looks like a maintenance building, not what I think of as a park office. After realizing we have passed the park, we swing around in the middle of the road and head back again towards what I think looks like a park entrance building. It is the right place but there is no one staffing it. It seems to be a “register yourself” kind of thing. Well, we have reservations, so we decide to just go set up our campsite. And there is the green reservation card waiting for us.
Our trial run of setting up the camper at home pays off as we are efficient and competent. Starting our little Coleman camping stove does not turn out quite so efficient though. It has been probably five years or longer since we have used it and Hubby just can’t get it to light. He pumps and he pumps and he pumps but it just won’t light. Of course, when all else fails and it looks like there will be no supper, one should read the directions. Reading them slowly and carefully is helpful too. It says “turn lighting lever up, with a lighted match over main burner, open valve completely and light. After flame turn blue, turn lever down.” Clear as mud. Which is the light lever, and which is the valve? Hubby does vary his technique and at least we get flame- leaping dancing orange flame but it is flame, just not blue flame. After some more fiddling around, he finally gets the flame under control and supper is in the making.
And I now discover what I have forgotten – the water jug to carry our water. It wouldn’t be camping without a major forgotten item. I search through the camper and come up with a shiny blue covered cooking pot. That will work dandily.
We sit outdoors in the warm evening glow and enjoy the birds singing, the mosquitoes chomping on us, and the myriad sounds of nature. We do realize that the bathroom is quite a distance from us. Around the circle, down the road, turn right, walk another ¼ mile and circle again. Bummer. Don’t think I will be going over there in the middle of the night.
July 12, 2019
Scritch, scratch, scratch, scratch… I am awakened in the dark of night. What is that scurrying in the grass outside of our camper? Hubby is awake too and hands me the flashlight. I press the light against the screen of our sleeping area. Two sets of shadowy eyes glare back at me from the top of the picnic table. Ugh… I had left one empty package from our supper on the picnic table as I forgot to take it away with the garbage. It was weighed down with the water kettle. But those little bandits have found it and are busily chewing away on the smell of chicken and noodles. At least it is not a boogie man.
The night cools off and the air becomes deliciously cool. We snuggle down in our sleeping bags, but I still have a hard time sleeping. Hubby rolls over every hour or so, rocking the camper like a ship on the wavy sea. I briefly wonder if those cheap metal poles designed for holding up this extended sleeping end of the camper really are strong enough. I have visions of us awaking looking at the ground.
We finally slide out of our bed around 7 am and begin the routine for the day. Our breakfast consists of fried sunny-side-up eggs cooked over our gas stove. This morning, the lighting of it goes much more smoothly. Hot chocolate, Italian bread, and donuts complete our meal. After cleanup, we are soon on the road to the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone. We have tickets for the 11 am train ride. Or at least, that is what I thought. The gentleman at the desk looks at me and says, “Do you have reservations for the 1 pm train?”
Huh? I pause. “No, we have reservations for the 11 am train.”
“Well, there is no train at 11 am on Friday. Your reservation is for Saturday.”
I stare at the ticket and then I stare at my watch and back at the ticket. “Ah man. I must be mixed up. I thought today was Saturday.” Anyway, its nothing new to me to be confused. OK, I guess we will come back tomorrow.
Hubby and I wander around the museum for a while and then decide to head out and explore. One of the items of interest that I had come across on the internet and in travel brochures was the Kate Skelly Memorial Train Bridge. I could not find an address for it and one person who had commented said that he had to travel some country roads to find it. Google had marked it on a map for me as being east of Boone at about U Ave off 190th St. We leave town driving east. I do like the coolness of the truck in the 90-degree heat but as we drive along, Hubby questions our direction. “We have to go down to the river. There is nothing but flat farmland here. There would be no reason to build a railroad bridge here.”
Finally, I pull out a bicycle map Hubby has picked up and study it. Maybe our underlying information is wrong. The Des Moines River runs west of Boone and for the railroad track to cross it, the bridge needs to be on the west side of the city. We turn around and head west. There are no signs anywhere indicating where this bridge might be. First, we follow a major route west from Boone. Once we cross the Des Moines River with no sign of the bridge, we realize we have gone too far. Time to turn around again. I remember a road that we passed earlier that indicated it was a dead end. Maybe that is the one that goes along the tracks and will give us a view of the famous bridge. As we drive along, the road gets curvier and rougher. We bounce down the hill over rocks and washouts until we reach the end of the road.
“Well, that was a waste of time,” remarks Hubby.
“Wait, Look,” I point through the trees. “There it is.”
And sure enough, the tall stately bridge is visible in the distance through the trees. We tiptoe through the flood ravaged backwaters to the edge of the De Moines River. What a magnificent view! We are only wishing that a train would come over the bridge about now and Hubby would have the perfect photographic opportunity. But it is a hot day and the mosquitoes think we are tasty, so we do not linger long. We make our way back up the rock-strewn path and turn down another washed up road that has the potential to take us maybe to the other side of the bridge further downstream. This road does take us over the double railroad tracks on our path downward to the river. “Look for Trains,” says a big sign on a trailer. There are none to be seen.
This gravel road does give us a different vantage point, but the bridge seems further away, and we soon retreat to the coolness of the truck. As we drive back up and make the turn to again cross the tracks, I state the obvious, “Look for the train.” The words are no sooner out of my mouth and whoosh, an engine whizzes by followed by a second one just a few seconds later on the second track. Together the trains hurdle towards the Kate Skelley Bridge. “Ah Man! I wasn’t ready for that one,” blurts Hubby.
It is obvious that this tourist attraction is not advertised and only accessible to those who seek diligently. Hunger and heat soon drive us back to the campgrounds though, where we throw together a lunch of spam sandwiches, chips, and Oreo cookies. Then it is nap time.
We spend the afternoon driving around checking out Madrid and many back-country roads. We locate another high bridge, the High Trestle Trail Bridge, just out of Madrid that is used for a bike trail. The easiest access is a mile walk from the parking lot to the bridge. We shake our head that no, we do not want to walk a mile in 90-degree heat. We will come back later this evening when the sun is going down and it is getting cooler.
Later in the day, the sky has clouded over, so we decide to leave the campsite around 8:25 pm for the drive to the bridge parking lot. The sun is orange in the sky and sinking toward the horizon. We will be too late for a sunset picture at the bridge, but we are hoping with it now being cloudy that it will not be so hot. The trail slopes gently downward through the trees- not a hard walk. Even so, the sweat bubbles out on my brow and soon is making rivulets down my back. The mosquitoes decide to check us out as well and we soon slather more Deet on our already coated arms and face. Hubby keeps saying, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Aren’t you glad we didn’t try to walk this at 2 pm this afternoon?” is my comeback. It is only a .4-mile hike to the actual bike trail. There we are met by masses of people moving rhythmically toward the bridge – like worshippers drawn to the object of adoration. We melt into the flowing crowd. Bicycles with lights and loud music blast past us while the slower walking people meander along. Now that we have reached the trail, it is only another .5 miles to the bridge. However, with sweat running places you don’t want to know about, it calls for fortitude and the persistence of putting one foot ahead of the other. The air is still and hangs heavy in the slowly darkening sky. The moon sits high in the sky and thrusts lengthening shadows for the silhouettes now moving on the path.
As we near the bridge, we can see the white light that illuminates the entrance pillars. The bridge itself is another .5 miles in length as it spans the Des Moines River from 130 feet in the air. Part way across, it is lit by blue LED lights. This is the spectacle we have come to see. It provides a photo opportunity for my hubby’s hobby. Below us, the river flows lazily along illuminated by the light of the moon. We spend about a ½ hour on the bridge and then turn to trudge our way slowly back to the parking lot on the now dark path through the maze of ambling people and speeding bicycles. A moonlight walk on a hot July night does hold some romantic essence to it.
July 13, 2019
The fans in the camper keep us cooled down enough to sleep. We get more rest than the first night. I awake to rain splotches on the canvas. But it doesn’t last long. The weather is cloudy providing some measure of relief from the heat. It is actually quite comfortable this morning. Hubby cooks some pancakes for breakfast and then we decide to head out to the Kate Skelly Bridge again to see if we can catch a picture with a train crossing the trestle. Rain drops splatter on our windshield as we drive, and we decide that we do not want to be drenched for our train ride later. Rather than going down by the river, we stop on top of the hill where the trains pass by before entering the trestle. Soon it stops raining. Then I notice the railroad signal has changed to green on one track and to red on the other.
“I bet there is a train coming on each track. One going one way and one going the other,” hubby deduces.
“I bet you wish we had gone down below,” I respond.
“Yes, but it’s too late now.”
Within ten minutes, we are graced with a train horn and a speeding train. And then another one. Bummer. We should have gone down to the river and waited. We have missed the opportunity.
We head back to Boone for our lunch train run at 11 am – the one I thought we were supposed to do yesterday. It is an 11-mile trip to Wolf, IA and back in the comfort of air-conditioned reconditioned train cars. For some reason we are the next to last ones called to board and they need to ask us who we are.
“We have room for you. Don’t worry,” says the conductor.
As we are seated at our table, he brings us two tickets, “Here are your tickets.”
Hubby and I raise our eyebrows at each other and shrug. We already have tickets. Did we mess them up by picking up our tickets the previous day? We will never know.
The ride is pleasant. It is hard for Hubby to turn to see out with his neck brace and to top it off, he is the one going backward. They stop the train at the trestle so that we can look out and take pictures. There are no guardrails on the tracks. It is straight down from the railroad tracks to the valley below- a little too freaky for this “afraid of heights” person. But the scenery is magnificent and when we think we have been forgotten with the food; it arrives. We have pulled pork sandwiches, baked beans, and scalloped potatoes. Our ride ends around 2 pm and we head back to the campground for a nap.
During our morning drive to Boone, we had discovered the canyon and sandstone cliffs that are part of the campground. We decide to return in the afternoon. There are several places where the water flows over the road and we need to drive through it. This morning, no one was around but now there are crowds of people picnicking and frolicking in the water. The sweat again pours out of us with little exertion and to walk seems like a huge effort. But I am drawn to the water and I take off my shoes and socks and go wading. I expect a shock from the cold of the water, but it is warm like bathwater – hardly cool enough to cool one off. But it does feel sweet to the feet. Then I remember I probably should not be wading with my cell phone in my thigh pants pocket – just in case I fall in.
Children line the sides of the road where the cars drive through the flowing water and cheer for each car, “Faster, Faster, Faster.” Many drivers comply but Hubby just smiles and waves at them. I wonder how many cars end up with flooded engines from this practice.
We head back to the campsite mainly because we are not tolerating the heat very well to relax some before our supper. We struggle with the camp stove again as we do at every meal. Beef stroganoff is the food on the menu followed by Smore’s. It is too hot for a fire, but one cannot go camping without roasting marshmallows over a fire and making finger licking smore’s. The fire is soon crackling away. We settle into our camp chairs to read until our one bundle of wood burns away and the mosquitos are urging us to “take it indoors.” I decide to leave the garbage on the table until we make a trip to the wash house before bed. Then we will go by the dumpster and dispose of it. We are only in the camper an hour before we decide to make our last trip to the bathroom and turn in. I pick up the garbage bag and realize it has two huge holes in it and the garbage is spewing out on the table. Son of a biscuit! In that hour, the racoons have stealthily made their visit. So much for delaying the delivery of the garbage to the proper place of disposal.
As we prepare to get ready for bed, we try to figure out how to get undressed and redressed without flashing the community around us. We don’t have privacy curtains. Last evening, there were no neighbors around but tonight, we have neighbors on all sides. The solution we decide upon is to turn out the lights and change in the dark. It really is not that dark as the moon is moving towards full and there is light reflected from the adjacent campsite. I am confidently washing up and feeling quite secure when out of the door of the camper next to us comes a man with his flashlight. It hits me full in the face. Really? This is annoying. And then he sits down or so it seems, and it continues to shine into our camper. Is he watching? Is this entertainment? He probably doesn’t even know that it is pointed our way. But I do. I end up having to crouch down behind the stove to be insured that I am not providing a peep show.
July 14, 2019
We climb out of our bed around 7 am and Hubby cooks our breakfast of biscuits and gravy. Then it is time to tear down and head out. The temperature is already climbing, and rivers of water pour off of us. Our plan is to visit the Iowa Arboretum just south of the campground before heading home. The day is beautiful, and the flowers are magnificent, but Hubby and I move slower and slower. The heat has sucked all the energy out of us.
“I think I am going to throw up,” he says. Time to get ourselves to the cool truck and start our journey homeward.
We make one last stop in Clear Lake, Iowa looking for the Guardian Wayside Chapel which Hubby has seen advertised. The ad says it is located on South 24th St. There is no house number. I type a random 620 into the GPS. We follow our guide’s instructions to exit the freeway and take the second left. We drive maybe a ¼ mile on 24th street and the GPS announces that we are at 620. No more than it has said that than Hubby declares, “There’s the sign.” I don’t see any sign but good thing his eye caught it as it is weather beaten and peeling. That was way too easy. Maybe it is the guardian angel that has led us to it.
We walk back a grassy path into a secluded area of the woods in the middle of this city and there it is – a beautiful white chapel. It is quiet inside and peaceful and we spend a few minutes meditating as I read the story of the chapel’s history aloud.
Then it is time to find a place to satisfy our hunger and travel the remaining miles home. Our journey into nature has been successful. Our creaking not-quite-as-bendable bodies say, “thank you” to the popup camper and its owners for putting an extra few feet between them and the hard ground.