“Loops, what’s that smell?” I ask.
“What smell?” Sniff. “Hmm. It must be the bathroom, go check and just open the fan back there.”
I unsteadily walk down the moving bus and open the bathroom door.
Yes, it seems we have discovered another joy of living on the road – the smell of a partially full black tank being churned around as you drive.
It might amaze some RVer’s out there that it has taken us almost two months to experience the overwhelming ‘shit smell’ that can permeate a bus in a matter of minutes, but in fairness we usually have either stayed somewhere where we can dump out the tanks before we leave, or there has been very little in the tank after a dry camp to create such a foul odour.
This morning, upon leaving Auburn, our black tank is currently at 16% capacity and this appears to be the limit we can reach before the fumes start to overcome us.
Loops somehow seems to be under the impression that if we open enough windows and vents the smell will simply disappear, or at least lessen, and we can carry on with our several hour drive into Michigan. I on the other hand, with my extremely sensitive sense of smell insist this is not the case, a point proven when the pong becomes even more unbearable with the added ventilation – it’s just helping spread the smell more quickly throughout the bus.
After a heated debate, Loops finally concedes and I manage to find a campsite a couple miles away that will allow us to pop in and use their dump site – albeit for $15. Loops is absolutely disgusted by the cost. “That’s a whole night’s camping fee!” he protests. I however, verging on the edge of wanting to vomit from the stench, rather sternly tell him that I don’t give a toss about the costs and we aren’t going anywhere until the tank is empty.
After a 40 minute diversion, we are back on the road in a bus with a much sweeter aroma and can once again enjoy the passing countryside, without the fear of passing out.
Our final views of Indiana take us through LaGrange County, home to the third largest population of Amish folk in the USA. As we make our way along US9, the Amish presence first becomes apparent with the yellow warning signs for horse and buggies on the road, and sure enough a couple minutes later we see a couple heading in both directions on the road. Loops tries his best not to put the fear of God into any of the horses by slowing down as he drives past or overtakes them, and luckily we cause no accidents.
In addition to the buggies, we pass plenty of whitewashed houses and farms nestled amongst the corn fields, the Amish residences easy to pick out by the horses in the surrounding fields, washing lines in the front gardens and lack of electricity cables to the house.
Additionally, and rather startling I feel, we pass through the centre of LaGrange town where sitting to the side of the crossroads are two large grey stone pillars with the Ten Commandments inscribed upon them. No lie. Sitting there bold as day. I still can’t get over the huge religious presence in this country that is bold as brass – advertisements are everywhere, scriptures printed up on massive billboards, churches everywhere (in one small village we passed a total of four huge churches – in a single village!) and now the Ten Commandments for all to see and follow. I find it mind boggling and so foreign from the UK. Sadly we were travelling too quickly for me to get a photo (and let’s face facts, who would have had their camera at the ready expecting that?), however I did manage to get a picture of this…
Yes, this is a service station in the middle of the Indiana countryside which for some reason, though I can’t possibly think what that reason may be, has a castle façade stuck all the way around it and is decorated with knights inside it. I dread to think what the contractor was thinking when he came up with this idea, but I can hear the conversation now…
Business man: “Well, we need to build a service station here, it has a good trucking traffic flow I feel, lots of business and money.”
Building contractor: “I can see that, sir, a wise location choice indeed, but have you considered a design for this station?”
Business man: “Well, I thought I would like to have it in keeping with the local area, you know, Indiana type theme – maybe something farm related, we have a lot of tractors and corn, oh, and then there are the Amish which are a big attraction around here…”
Building contractor: “Well I can see you’ve given that a lot of thought, those are all sensible ideas for sure, so I’m thinking….a castle, maybe?”
Business man: “A….castle? Really? You feel that’s within the Indiana remit, do you?”
Building contractor: “Of course, everyone loves a castle! I promise you, if there’s one thing all the people in this state wish they had, it’s a castle right out here in farming countryside! And probably a couple knights thrown in for good measure, to make it proper authentic. ”
Business man: “Well, I’m not so sure about that, but seeing as you are the professional when it comes to this sort of thing…ok, I’ll take it…build me a castle and hire me some knights!”
Building contractor: “Well, hang on, let’s be clear about this, I can’t build you a castle per se, that’d just be a lot of money and a little bit silly really, I mean, a proper castle? And real knights? Who’d want to be hired for that? No, see I’m thinking more along the lines of a normal building, just with a really tacky castle wall front to it and some cheap plastic statues. Best of both worlds – cost effective and it makes people think they’re looking at a real castle. It’ll be dead amazing. Honestly.”
And if nothing else, it proved the last really interesting thing of note until we reached the state line of Michigan (though I did spot a crane standing in a field – Bunny and Phil – he was very well camouflaged, but I spotted him!).
Once again, the change in state does not fail to impress and awe. We cross over the border and within 20 minutes we have gone from flat corn fields for as far as the eye can see, to tree lined roads made up of a large number of pine and fir trees and a few small ups and downs in the roadway. It feels a little bit like I’m suddenly in a winter wonderland, albeit without the really cold weather or snow. It really is quite an astonishing that in what seems like a blink of an eye, the whole landscape can change and make you really feel that you have entered a completely new and different place.
As I’ve mentioned before, our trip to Michigan has a twofold purpose, to reach the northern land of cool weather and to visit with our Bluebird RV friends, Ron and Dorinda, who are based near St Joseph.
Well, for a start, let me tell you this…it’s bloody hot here. It’s still in the 90’s as far as temperature goes, and the humidity seems just as high as in the south. It’s not quite what I was expecting. But being greeted so merrily by Ron and Dorinda when we arrived helped make up for the weather, and even better, being 4th July and a holiday, they had arranged a mini ‘rally’ with three other Bluebird buses in the local area to go and watch the nearby fireworks in the evening. Excellent!
While we waited for the buses to gather later in the day at the industrial barn where Ron houses his RV, he took us for a quick tour of the local area and into downtown St. Joe. The town itself was very busy, with everyone flooding the streets and heading down to the river front where the local firework display would be later on. Apparently the whole thing is set to music and draws huge crowds to come and watch. The streets are not only lined with people, but plenty of shops with a mixture of everyday needs as well as plenty for the tourists who come to enjoy Lake Michigan over the summer.
We drive through the narrow streets, one of which overlooks the St Joseph River to my right, where I spy what I feel is a magical treat.
Sitting in the middle of the river is huge black girded bridge. But not just any normal bridge, because for a start it doesn’t connect the two banks over the expanse of water. This bridge is actually turned sideways, sitting parallel with the river, and in doing so seems to have no actual function. Who would build such a useless structure that can’t even take you over the water, you might ask? Well actually, it’s a rather ingenious turntable railway bridge.
Due to the ginormous tankers that come into the mouth of the river to serve the industrial business based here (and some pretty tall sailing ships too), and the fact the railway line is so low; rather than trying to build a tall bridge to accommodate the boats they simply built a bridge that can be turned horizontal across the river when trains need to cross or vertical to open the channel when ships need to pass through. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and am very taken with the design, another example of industrial beauty.
It’s not long before we need to head back over to the barn to posse up and travel convoy style to our firework rally extravaganza. At the barn we fire Belle up, Ron and Dorinda get the Piper 2 going and our newest acquaintances, Garry and Terry, also roar their bird to life (no idea if it has a name?!).
Now, I might be turning into a little bit of a geek here, because I did feel a little giddy and giggly seeing three massive Bluebird buses in one spot and then have us all line up and thunder down the quiet roads on the outskirts of St Joe. It was a strange but childish pleasure having all the passing people in their cars stop to look at us, rather how I feel when I see about 50 Harley motorcycles rumble through a town, you know a little bit like ‘How cool are we?’
Even better, when we arrive at the car park of the Trinity Lutheran Church in nearby Berrien Springs, there are another two buses waiting for us! Now we are five!
We all line up in a row and it doesn’t take long before the menfolk are pulling out their grills and flinging meat on to the BBQ for dinner. It’s a rather funny spectacle and so a couple of us ladies then pull up our chairs together to watch the men as they wander from one bus to the other comparing their grills and cook times, which then shortly turns into looking at water tanks or other bits and pieces in the compartments below the buses while they wait for the food to cook.
I sit with Dorinda and Terry and the three of us have a funny chat about the characteristics of the male Bluebird owner – the sort of chap who likes to constantly tinker, is a perfectionist when it comes to the smallest detail, is happy to spend hours researching electrical and engineering information and who spends a large percentage of their evenings on a certain internet forum discussing the ins and outs of gauges, instruments, tips for fixing this and that, upgrades and where to buy out of production bits and pieces. Yes, we have a good giggle about them for sure.
I realise after a little while that I very much enjoy talking to Terry – for a start she is from New Jersey and comes with a pretty distinctive accent which I think is fabulous. She likes to speak her mind and is a very strong character, and she travels with her cohort of three small dogs, two Chihuahuas and a Chinese Crested. So we talk about dogs and travel, she tells me about a recent trip to Arizona and we compare notes on what we like about the state. She is very creative and knits and crochets, which is something I have been thinking about trying (mostly because my friend Kerry G – from our Nashville trip – her mother has made me two beautiful crocheted cardigans which are some my most favourite items of clothing and I’d love to try and make something like them).
Just before the food is ready, Terry and I swap tours of our buses so that we can compare and contrast the interiors. Ladies and gentlemen, this has become one of my new favourite past times – I love touring other people’s buses! Those of you who know me well will know that I have a guilty pleasure of peeking into people’s houses – one of the reasons I love watching Location, Location, Location so much on TV (that and Phil Spencer) – now it seems every time we meet a new Bluebird owner, we get guided tours of their homes! It’s awesome!
It’s around this time that we hear the first pop and crackle of fireworks and so make our way to our outdoor seats to watch the show. For about 30 minutes I sit in my folding chair, root beer in hand, in the dark of night in the car park of a church with 5 buses and about 15 people I don’t really know; and I watch a 4th July firework display. This is the experience I came to find. This is my idea of beginning to live the dream, whatever that dream may be I’m not quite sure. But this here, this human experience, being part of something new and yet familiar in a way. These are the times I have come in search of.
The next ten days we spend here in Michigan, having found a lovely little RV campground called Shamrock Park over in Berrien Springs.
Admittedly our original stay was just for a week, but as we are finding, certain locations just seem to become a black hole for us, especially when we have friends who are nice enough to want us to stay around. We spend our days alternating between quiet time at the park on our own and Ron and Dorinda playing host and taking us out and about into the wider county area.
During times at the bus, Loops tinkers as always – trying to fix the CB radio, still trying to track down the click, adjusting door handles, changing fuel filters – he seems totally immersed in the bus. I on the other hand take advantage of our stillness to crack on with some school work, but am also able to take time out to exercise the Blue Bandit once more.
The Bandit and I head up the campground driveway (lined with pines and firs filled with a host of chattering sparrows), turn right and over a bridge and I’m in the little town centre of Berrien Springs. I cycle up and down the streets, pop into the post office to send my sister a postcard, and because the ride is so pleasant it’s not long before I find myself outside of town and turning into the open campus grounds of Andrews University.
Now for those of you not aware or have never heard of it, like me, Andrew University is an old institution founded in 1874 under the previous name of Battle Creek College – a name which I prefer actually – as the first higher education facility started by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Now I know nothing about Seventh-day Adventists at all, but I know the school puts a very large emphasis on theology and Christianity as well as academic study, so I’m guessing that Andrews is for Adventists as Brigham Young University in Utah is for Mormons, the flagship school where everyone would want to attend.
What I can tell you from first-hand experience is this, their campus is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful – as green as can possibly be, with tall stands of mature trees and large open grass spaces. As I cycle through the grounds the first building I come to is the arboretum. Wow, a university with its own arboretum, you don’t see that often. However, I am wrong, for while there is a building labelled this, after a little research I discover that actually the whole entire campus is actually a registered arboretum. The whole place! A little more digging reveals that there are also 11 miles of trails located on the campus that can be used for walking, running and mountain biking. Yes, I can see why people would want to come study here.
Our times with Ron and Dorinda take us further afield and with a little more activity. One afternoon sees us driving north to visit the little town of Saugatuck, sitting on the edge of the Kalamazoo River and Lake. It’s a touristy type haven with the streets packed with stores selling antiques and home gifts, coffee shops and eateries, art stores and galleries – and where I came across this wall painting which reminded me very much of a certain scene in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (there’s a prize if you can tell me why!).
We stroll along the river front, discussing the different boats and the accompanying price tags we feel go with them, until we come across The Butler, a restaurant overlooking the water and decide it would just be rude not to stop in for a burger for lunch.
Another afternoon we find ourselves at Warren Dunes State Park to the south of St Joe, where Ron explains to use that the whole coast of Lake Michigan is basically a sand dune that people have decided to build houses on. The erosion and loss of the sand dunes, which are a very sensitive ecological landscape, has become so bad in the state that in 1989 legislation began to be enacted to try and protect the dunes, including a 1994 act to protect them from indiscriminate development. Looking around at the few dunes that remain, I just want to say that the state government might be a little late to the party on this one, but at least they bothered to show up in the end I suppose.
Visiting Warren Dunes is actually the first time I have viewed Lake Michigan, and let me tell you this, it’s big. BIG. BIIIIIIIG. As in it is so big that it looks like the sea. This could be the shore of the ocean I am standing on. Don’t believe me? Have a look for yourself…
Totally like looking at the seaside, right?
It’s rather a stupid and obvious statement, but I can understand why it is named as one of the Great Lakes.
Ron and Dorinda kindly insist we both go and climb the dune (this is one area I suppose they allow you to enjoy, in order to protect the rest), so Loops and I set off for the 10 minute climb to the top. And yes, I huffed and puffed my way through the sand, opting at one point for a switchback method to try and make the climb easier. I’m such a fatty.
It’s as we get close to the top that Loops’ phone rings and it is Ron in the car park below telling us the direction we should look out to try and spot Chicago on the other bank across the lake. It’s in utter disbelief that I stare out, straining my eyes, to see a light shadow on the hazy horizon in the shape of buildings. I can see the city outline of the windy city – 60 miles away. Yes, that’s right, 60 miles and I can see it. Now either I have unknowingly developed some type of super sight, or there is some scientific explanation as to why I would be able to see that far away. If anyone knows why, please feel free to share that information with me!
Loops and I spend a couple of minutes taking in the view, watching children and adults alike take a headlong death dive run down the dunes (how do they move their legs that fast in order not to fall over?!), while we are just content to rub our feet through the warm sand; turning chilly as you dig your feet down further.
It’s on our way back down, as we slide our heels deep into the shifting grains that we spot three people hoisting a hand glider up the hill, taking a few steps before planting themselves firmly in the sand to catch their breath, before lifting and staggering another couple of steps. By the time we reach the car park again, they have made it to their chosen take off spot, so we all sit around waiting for the man to make his flight run. Twenty minutes later we are still waiting. Children have begun to chant at the group – ‘Jump, jump!’ – wanting to see the chosen man fly.
We can see the trio discussing take off, hold up wind speedometers, shifting the wing a little bit this way, a little that way, then more discussion. Just as we are fed up, get the car started and are ready to leave, we see him heft the wing and begin his wobbling trot downwind. It takes but a moment before the wing is swept up into the air, and then in less than a minute and after a single sweeping turn, it’s all over as he touches down at the bottom of the hill. All in all, a little anticlimactic after the long wait, but he seems pleased with himself.
It’s while we are having all this fun in Michigan that we receive a slightly unexpected message that will throw our travel plans into disarray. Loops has received word that the tenants who rent his house from him have decided to leave in a week and as a result we will have to travel 700 miles south again to go and take care of the situation. In part this is gutting news, it means we will have to spend at least two weeks of hard labour cleaning and fixing up the house and blowing our planned budget on excess fuel and camping fees; but on the other hand it means that we get to briefly visit Indiana again, so that’s a bonus!
As part of our farewell to Michigan we have a few final treats bestowed upon us by our hosts, first we are given a tour of the local riding facility where Dorinda keeps her horse, we get to meet Coco Bay and watch one of the trainers school a horse and rider. Having worked at a college with a riding facility, I can say hands down, this is far more impressive. There is an enormous indoor riding area and two equally sized arenas outside, 40 indoor horse stalls, 3 grooming stalls, 2 wash rooms and 2 tack rooms; not to mention all of the outdoor paddock space. This is like Buckingham Palace for horses.
We then enjoy the delights of visiting The Galley Grill for a wonderful cooked breakfast one morning, along with Ron and Dorinda, as well as Terry and Gary from the firework evening. They are such easy and pleasant company full of fun and smiles and, even more delightful and kind, Terry completely surprises me by presenting me with a bag filled with English teabags, Rich Tea biscuits and two bars of Toblerone chocolate. I’m absolutely gobsmacked. For a start, I have no idea where she found them to buy for me, and secondly I’m just in total shock over such thoughtfulness, for her to even think of me when I’ve only met her just once. She smiles at me and tells me she understands what it is to miss home sometimes. I really just want to cry, I am so touched the gesture.
We find one last evening for Ron and Dorinda to show us the true delights of Lake Michigan, by taking us out into the water and waves in their 42 foot sailing boat. To be honest, I accepted this offer with a little bit of apprehension, for while it sounds like total treat, I am not 100% sure about my skills on the water.
The very last time I recall being in some type of sail boat, I was about 10 years old and taking lessons at SWAC down on Southampton Water. I remember being given a Topper, a tiny red sailboat for one, and being told by an instructor that in order to pass the sailing course I had to show that I could capsize my boat and then right it again, and with that I was pointed in the direction of a wall and told to capsize or crash.
Now, rather understandably I feel, I was terrified. I didn’t want to fall in the water for a start – it was pitch black, cold enough to set your teeth to chattering and I’m not a strong swimmer – and then even worse when I decided to brave it and make the attempt to tip the boat by leaning on the mast as I’d been told, I found I didn’t have enough strength to push it over.
So there I am, heading for the wall, I think there were people on shore cheering me on, and there I was not able to tip over and fall in and so I burst into tears and was generally traumatised by the whole process. And while I am sure that has nothing to do with setting sail in a massive boat captained by a very able sailor, it sits in the back of my mind along with my biggest fear – I just don’t want to get ill and throw up.
It turns out I need not worry on any count, the small gentle waves were actually rather soothing, the action of slicing through the water in silence of with just the wind for power was serene and we had a beautiful sunset on the water to enjoy.
In fact there was only one flash of terror during the whole experience – sitting upon the bow as the boat took a turn, a sharp gust of wind tugged the sail and resulted in the turn being a little more angled than expected, with me rolling slightly to one side and almost over the edge. Luckily I had Loops to grab onto and saved myself from the swim!
As we made our way back towards land and the dock, Ron offered me the chance to sail the boat now that we were back under engine power. A little nervous, I took the wheel and wow! It was just amazing! There I was wheel in hand, guiding the boat left and right (port and starboard I discovered), over the waves as we rose and dived.
Wind and a wet breeze in my face, I felt like a real adventuring captain – like Ahab – but obviously not setting out to kill any whales because I like them, and also because Lake Michigan has none (in case you didn’t know). I was even trusted enough to steer us back up the narrow channel alongside other boats, and I didn’t crash into a single one!
All in all, a perfect end to our travels in Michigan.
Now though, we make a dash back south and a two week break from our traveling schedule, and from there, who knows?