Home in Washington County

Chris - happy in Washington County
Chris – happy in Washington County

I’m so happy to be here in Washington County!  As we drove in last Friday evening, crossing the Monongahela River, I experienced a great rush of familiarity, and even an awe of the place.  It is magnificent country, lush green everywhere with rolling hills, and expansive views around every other corner.  And I recognized so many place names, many from my family history research, and some from my childhood visits here to see my grandparents and extended family.

For the first time in over a month, I slept like a log, right through the night.  There’s something about being here….

The last two times I’ve been here have been with my mother; the most recent was five years ago.  I’m so thankful for those visits with her because she was able to show me the location of her grandparents’ farm, which is still standing.

As I’ve said before, the main reason I came here is to bury the cremains of my parents and my two brothers in the family cemetery.   I wanted to take care of that right away, so that’s what we did yesterday.  It was certainly a difficult and sad task, and brought back the pain of losing them all.  But at the same time, it’s closure for me, and a satisfying completion of a task which my mother asked me to do.  So the sadness is mixed with a sense of relief.  My family is finally home, and my mother is near her beloved grandparents, which was her wish.    May they all rest in peace together.

Now I feel like Washington County, Pennsylvania, is more my home than ever before.

The campground where we’re staying has everything we need, including terrific wi-fi, which is why I’m posting so much all in one day!  The sites are close together and there aren’t many trees, but we have full hook-ups, we’re sitting on level gravel, and the grassy areas between the sites means we aren’t tracking dirt or sand into the rig.  We have a picnic table between our two rigs, which we’ve set up with a checkered tablecloth and a large citronella candle.  Add two chairs and a fire pit, and we’re very comfy here!

I’m going to take some time today to plan my research trip tomorrow to Washington, the county seat.  I’ll be starting with the land records, to see what information I can track down about my great-grandparents’ farm.

Washington County campsite
Washington County campsite

Crossing the Appalachians

The trip from Gettysburg to western Pennsylvania was quite an adventure.  I’ve driven to Pittsburgh from Bucks County many times.  I was certainly aware that the Appalachian Mountains went through the area, but they were something to be admired, and not feared.  I’ve learned that when driving the rig, they are to be feared, respected, and then conquered if possible.

Our plan was to stop at the 9/11 Memorial in Shanksville on the way to our campground in Washington County.  We carefully chose a route which maximized the use of interstate highways, generally much easier to navigate than the smaller roads.  But to get to the memorial, there was no avoiding the two-laners.

Flight 93 Crash Site from Visitor Center, photo courtesy National Park Service
Flight 93 Crash Site from Visitor Center, photo courtesy National Park Service

The stop at the memorial was very somber, but it was important to us to see it.  One of the heroes of Flight 93, Todd Beamer, was a colleague of Eric’s at Oracle Corporation.  Eric was deeply affected by Todd’s death, and attended his funeral back in 2001.  Todd was the person who famously declared “Let’s Roll” when it was time to storm the cockpit.  The Visitor’s Center is very well done, with photos, videos, and artifacts.  Those forty heroes did an amazing thing that day, saving many lives at the probable target in Washington, DC.   We were glad we made the stop.

I can’t recall now exactly at what point we started with the hills, or which road we were on at the time, because both the two-laners and the interstate had steep grades up and down, before and after our stop at the memorial.  But that day, I learned something about weight, and how much my rig can handle.

The truck has a Triton V-10 engine and it really never occurred to me that it would have any issues pulling itself up hills.  My dinghy is very small and light.  But if the hill was long, the engine really struggled, sometimes to the point where I wondered if I would make it to the top!  If we were on a two lane road, I felt very badly for the train of cars behind me, as I slowed further and further down, several times as low as 25 mph.

I’m thinking ahead to my planned trip to the Finger Lakes area of New York – surely I will need to cross some mountains to get there.  What if the truck can’t make it up a hill – what if I get stuck?  I’ll be alone then, without Eric.  It’s a daunting thought.

So now I’ve started to think very critically about each and every item I have stowed.  Am I really going to use the 23 pounds of exercise weights I brought along?  How about the two boxes of Enviro-Logs Eric gave me, which weigh around 60 pounds? Do I really need six beach towels, or twelve pair of shoes? The extra box of office supplies?  What about the sleeping bags and the tent I’m carrying, just in case I have visitors?  The case of Barefoot Pinot Grigio? It all adds up.

I’m glad I’ve planned a stop in Bucks County in about a month – I will most definitely be offloading as much as possible into my storage unit there.  But meanwhile, I seriously have to figure out how to plan my route around the hills on my next leg.  Maybe if I just drink all my wine it will help??

Gettysburg

Gettysburg Battlefield at Sunset
Gettysburg Battlefield at Sunset

If you’ve never been to Gettysburg, I highly recommend it.

First of all, the countryside is stunning, as you can see from the photo.  As you look out over the battlefield, you see rolling hills, stone walls, green meadows, wooded areas, and mountains in the distance.

It’s difficult to juxtapose this peaceful and bucolic setting with the horrible fighting which took place here, resulting in 7,000 deaths, and many more wounded.  We attended an excellent ranger talk on the battlefield, which helped us to envision the soldiers, see the clouds of smoke, and hear the sounds of the cannon and musket fire, at times so loud that the officers’ commands could not be heard by the men.  We visited the cemetery where Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address was delivered, and where the Union soldiers are buried.  We watched various films in the very impressive National Park Service Visitor’s Center, and saw battlefield artifacts.   We purchased the auto tour CD from the Visitor’s Center, and drove to all the significant sites, which was an excellent way to get the full overview.

Eric has two great-great-grandfathers who fought at Gettysburg, one on his mother’s side and one on his father’s side, both from Elberton in Elbert County, Georgia.  They enlisted in the 15th Georgia Infantry on the same day in 1861.  Hosea Ballou Mattox was a Private, only 20 years old at the time of the Battle, and was shot in the neck and captured there.  Peter J. Shannon was a Major.  Certainly they would have known each other.

Hosea Ballou Mattox, 15th Georgia Infantry
Hosea Ballou Mattox, 15th Georgia Infantry

An online search yielded a fascinating account written by one of the officers of the 15th Georgia, Colonel DuBose, as well as a National Park Service blog entry, both of which described a battle near Devil’s Den on 3 July 1863, where the unit suffered great losses.  Our son isn’t much older than Hosea was at the time, and I can’t imagine what such a young man must have been going through, watching his comrades fall around him, and himself being shot and captured.

We located the place at Devil’s Den where they fought, and it was quite a feeling to stand there and know that Hosea and Peter saw the same rocks, the same hills, the same view, 153 years ago.

Benning's Brigade Sign at Devil's Den
Benning’s Brigade Sign at Devil’s Den

We stayed at Gettysburg for three nights at the Artillery Ridge Campground, which was very expensive ($60/night) but a comfortable and pleasant place.   So, we had two full days to explore Gettysburg, used every minute, and wished we had more time.

Finally on the Road!

Last Tuesday morning, on the 20th, Eric and I finally started west, heading to the Pittsburgh area via Gettysburg.  I didn’t sleep very well the night before – probably a combination of excitement and anxiety!  As I’ve said before, driving the RV by itself is one thing.  But driving it while towing a car is at another level entirely.

The Preparation

I very meticulously made a checklist so I wouldn’t forget all the little things I had to do, especially since this was my first time.  My plan was to create a checklist which I will laminate, and then re-use with an erasable marker each time.  There are so many critical items, and I don’t want to rely on my memory. For example, you don’t want to forget to close and lock an exterior compartment, and end up with your belongings littering the road behind you.  So I printed out the checklist and put it on a clipboard (what a nerd!).

Hitching up the Dinghy
Hitching up the Dinghy

The first thing I did outside was to work on securing my awning.  During the previous week, the RV mechanic had shown me how to do it.  I had taken a few notes, which I’d transcribed into my checklist.  Well, as soon as I unlocked one of the side brackets, that side of the awning immediately fell several feet, and drenched my nice neat and tidy checklist with gallons of water which had been sitting on the top of it.  This should not have been a surprise to me, since it had poured rain the day before, but I was unprepared.  Another lesson learned!

When I got to the point where I was supposed to push the awning up and it was supposed to roll itself onto the holder as it rose to meet the RV at the top, I realized that water was inside the two layers of the awning.  A great deal of water.   I’ve written before that I knew I had an awning problem when I bought the rig, but I thought it had some life left in it before it needed replacing.  Evidently not.  After consulting with Eric, we made three holes on the underside of the awning so the water could run out, and then closed it up.  A new awning is definitely on the list for when I take it into the shop in October.

Then when I was securing the shower door, I noticed some water in the base, and realized that the grey water tank was full and had slightly overflowed.  The weekly pump out at the campsite was on Wednesdays, and this was Tuesday morning.  I hadn’t overflowed before, so this was a surprise.  Most of my grey water use is by washing dishes; I’ve taken my showers in the bathhouse.  Thank goodness the overflow goes directly into the shower, and this bit of information was good to know.

The rest of the packing up was uneventful, including hitching up the dinghy to the RV.  And we were off – at the crack of noon!!

The Trip

According to Google maps, the drive to Gettysburg would be three hours in a normal car.  We figured it would take us four hours.  It took us five.  We did make a longish stop for lunch, but there were lots of times when we weren’t going the speed limit.  Eric drove behind me to keep an eye on me!

The scariest part was when I found myself in a construction zone with only two lanes.  I was in the right lane with no shoulder, and a stream of huge trucks was zooming past me on the left.  When trucks pass you, they create this vacuum which either sucks you toward them, or pushes you to the right, so you have to constantly compensate.  And I had no wiggle room.  Talk about white knuckles!  Eric told me later that he was sure I was going to scrape the concrete construction barrier – that’s how close I was to the right side.  But I didn’t, and with more practice as the day went on, I was able to better judge the center of the lane, and also prepare for those passing trucks.

And in between being terrified, I had this incredible feeling of relief and amazement that we were actually finally on the road, and all the plans were about to become reality.