Beast from the East

After two months in Northumberland, I prepared to set off on the 300-mile trip to Blaenavon, in South Wales, where I was scheduled to spend the month of March researching my Waters, Furlong, and Ball families.

The route from Newcastle to Blaenavon

I’d originally planned to drive straight through to Wales on the first of March, but my rental car had to be exchanged at Newcastle Airport on the last day of February, so I decided to begin my drive south directly from there, and make it a two day trip instead of one.  That decision turned out to be serendipitous.

The day before the trip, it began to snow, accumulating several inches by the morning of my departure.  I don’t drive in the snow.  I especially don’t drive in the snow on the left side of the road in a brand new rental car in a foreign country.

I did have another option.  I could have traveled the three miles to my friend Kay’s house, and waited out the storm.  But I was eager to get on my way, and I had pre-paid my lodging both at the half-way point in Nottingham, and at my destination in Wales.  So I left Northumberland as planned, hoping that the A-1 dual carriageway, the main north-south artery in England, would be sufficiently plowed that the trip to the hotel would be safe.  After all, it was just a few inches of snow and it was supposed to stop in the afternoon.

Well, it turns out that the British aren’t very prepared for big snowfalls because it just doesn’t happen that often here.  It was a dicey drive to the airport on side roads, one of which was closed off completely, and then the drive south on the A-1 was extremely stressful.

The main issue I had was that the windshield washer fluid was frozen, making it almost impossible to see when there wasn’t enough moisture to use the wipers.  I had to pull over a few times to wash the windshield at the side of the road, and I also stopped to buy some washer fluid suitable for the low temperature.  I put it in a spray bottle which I used while driving, by sticking my arm out the driver’s side window when necessary.

In addition to the problem with the windshield, the roads were slippery and the traffic moved very slowly.   Sometimes, only one lane had been plowed.  It was a 150 mile, five-hour ordeal to get to Nottingham.

That night at the hotel, I received a text from the owner of my lodging in Wales, letting me know that they were expecting a major storm the next day, which they were calling the Beast from the East.  Since it wasn’t expected until the afternoon, I decided to press on in the morning.

Once I uncovered the car from the few inches of snow that had fallen overnight, and made my way out of the unplowed hotel parking lot, the drive that morning wasn’t too bad.  I stopped for groceries in Pontypool, and arrived at the cottage in Blaenavon around noon on March first, literally sliding with relief into a parking spot on the icy hill.

And then the Beast arrived.  The pipes froze the first night, so I began using melted snow for washing the dishes, and conserved the drinks I’d brought with me.  My landlady lived in a rural area twenty miles away, so there was nothing she could do.  I saw images on the television of hundreds of people stuck on major highways for 12+ hours, and felt grateful to be warm and dry, and protected from the fierce wind I could hear outside.

A car outside my window

After the first two days, I was able to get outside – the snow was up to my knees – and walk over to the main street of the little town.  There was one shop open, where I bought some bottled water, and then trudged back to the cottage.  On the third day, the temperature went up, and my landlady was able to take care of the pipes.

She warned me that conditions were still too dangerous for me to drive – she said they had encountered roads where only one lane was plowed, so if you met a car going the other way, there was nowhere to pull over.  People were still getting stuck everywhere.  It wasn’t until the sixth day that I felt it was safe enough for me to drive to the archives and the supermarket.

So that was my first week in Wales.   They told me that they hadn’t had a storm like this in many years.  I thought about my ancestors, and what the winters must have been like for them.  I took advantage of the down time to plan my research, and I did some walking around the town as conditions improved.  And, I was very ready to get in the car and go when the right time finally came!

February in Northumberland

My good friend Agnes came to visit for the first two weeks of February.  It was such a pleasure to have a travel buddy, and to take time to do some sightseeing.  Agnes found a great round trip air fare from Newark to Leeds, so I made the two hour trek south to meet her at the airport.  We then went straight to the North York Moors National Park where we spent a few nights.

View on one of our hikes
Exploring Whitby, a little town on the Yorkshire coast

After a quick one-day break in Bedlington, we took off for Scotland, traveling up the Northumberland coast for part of the trip, where we stopped for tea and scones at a delightful little pub in Seahouses, and visited Bamburgh Castle:

The Olde Ship Inn, Seahouses
Bamburgh Castle
View from inside Bamburgh Castle

In Scotland, we very bravely tried a traditional Scottish dish called Haggis, Neeps and Tatties (uh…sheep stomach stuffed with other unmentionable parts, with turnips and potatoes), and spent a day in Edinburgh, which we loved:

Haggis, neeps and tatties – very tasty!
Part of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh
Edinburgh Castle
Dinner at the White Hart Inn, the oldest pub in Edinburgh

On our return to Northumberland, my friends Kay and Peter generously continued acting as tour guides, taking us on a day trip to see Washington Old Hall, which was the residence of George Washington’s ancestors, and the ancient Durham Cathedral, among other places:

Washington Old Hall
Durham Cathedral

For the last couple of nights before Agnes flew home, we stayed near Leeds, where we enjoyed a “high tea” and visited the fascinating ruins of an old castle which we could wander through to our heart’s content:

Spofforth Castle ruins

During my last couple of weeks in Northumberland, I wrapped up my research at the archives, and spent some final precious time with Kay and Peter.  They took me on two more day trips, one south to visit Beamish, a living history outdoor museum, and the other one north to visit various parish churches and towns where my ancestors lived.

A view of Beamish
Low Newton, a place on the coast where my Patterson family lived

Whew, another busy month!  I left Northumberland in a blizzard, but with lots of warm feelings, great memories, and a deeper understanding of my ancestral home.

Impressions of Great Britain

I spent the first two months of 2018 in a flat in Northumberland, England, and for the month of March I’m staying in a little town called Blaenavon in South Wales.  By now, I’ve become quite accustomed to life in the U.K., and I love it here!  Here are a few observations from a foreigner:

Weather

The Northumberland weather was a pleasant surprise.  With a latitude somewhere between Vancouver and Anchorage, and just an hour and a half drive south of the Scottish border, I expected it to be frigid.  Instead, being just a couple of miles from the North Sea on the east coast, the winter weather was more like Seattle:  damp, dark and cloudy, with temperatures generally in the 40’s.  In early January, the sun rose around 8:30 and set at 3:30, making for a short window of usually gray daylight.

What I really did not expect were the lovely green landscapes in the middle of the winter:

View of the landscape from a graveyard in Ford, Northumberland

As time has passed, I’ve noticed a very significant change in the number of hours of daylight every day – it’s staying light later and later, at a much faster pace that back home in Pennsylvania.  Obviously, that’s a function of the latitude here, but interesting to experience and have it be so noticeable.

They say it rarely snows here, which it didn’t much for the first two months, until the “Beast from the East” arrived at the end of February – more on that in another post!

Lodging

Both places I’ve stayed so far have been perfect for me, and in great locations, within walking distance to shops and restaurants.   A few things about the units are different than what we’re accustomed to in the U.S.

The electrical outlets here have on and off switches.  After a few frustrations thinking that my phone was charging when it wasn’t, I learned to always check that switch.  And there are no electrical outlets in the bathroom – at first I thought it was a quirk of my flat, but I learned that it’s a law here.  There was no light above the mirror in the bathroom in my Northumberland flat, and the one here in Blaenavon is quite useless – I get the impression that that’s typical as well.  So I had to find someplace else to plug in my electric toothbrush, and to do my hair and makeup.  Not a big deal – just different!

Outlet example – on and off switches are in the center.

The heating/hot water systems here are very in-your-face.  In both of my flats, the boiler was visibly hanging on a wall in the kitchen, like this:

The boiler in my kitchen in Wales

My experience with heating systems is pretty much limited to adjusting the thermostat.  At the flat in Northumberland, the fix for an issue with the boiler involved help from a neighbor to make a little tweak because of a change in water pressure or something.  In my house in Blaenavon, I’ve re-set the boiler often, sometimes multiple times in a day, because it seems to randomly stop working.

There are radiators in every room in the house, which have these little knobs down near the floor which you use to control the temperature in each room.  They’re very useful for drying clothes!

Typical radiator, with control knob at the bottom right.

The refrigerator and freezer in both places were smaller than the ones in my RV, which was fine for me being just one person.  For a family, I imagine they must need to visit the grocery store more often than once per week.

Driving

I thought I wouldn’t care about the weather because my genealogy research is very much an indoor hobby.  But as it turned out, initially I wasn’t comfortable driving in either the rain or the dark, which was quite limiting until I adjusted.

Every single time I got into my rental car, I chanted out loud “left, left, left” so I would remember to stay on the left side of the road.  Old habits are hard to break, and I had this fear that if I lost my concentration and focus, I would surely end up on the incorrect side of the road and cause a major accident.

Not only do they drive on the other side of the road, but the British use roundabouts way more often than standard intersections, and they’re completely intimidating at first.  For one thing, everything is backwards.  And there are rules for right of way, which lane to use, turn signal etiquette, and when it’s OK to go right through.

The roads can be extremely narrow, with no shoulder, so it’s critical to be very comfortable with the dimensions of your car.  I don’t know if it’s true, but my theory is that many of the buildings and stone walls were constructed before the automobile was invented, so they can be very close to the road.  Adding to that, cars are often parked directly in the driving lane when in a town, which means you have to weave in and out of the parked cars if traffic is coming the other way.   That’s normal here.

When I first arrived, I bought a British GPS, which they call a sat nav.  I wouldn’t be able to function without it!  The typical way to enter your destination is to use the post code, which is like a zip code only more specific.  So, I had to learn to be prepared each outing with the post code for the sat nav.

Distances here are measured in miles, which is extremely helpful and familiar.  When it came to filling up the tank, though, I had no idea how much the gas cost because it’s expressed in pounds (the British currency) per litre.  After a little calculation, much to my shock and dismay, I learned it’s about $6.33 per gallon!  My little Vauxhall Corsa gets about 40 mpg’s, so at least there’s that.

Oh, and one of the multiple times I had to call roadside assistance was when my rental car, with less than 500 miles on it, seemed to lose acceleration at certain times, as though it had run out of gas.  When the tow truck arrived and the mechanic took the car for a drive, everything worked fine, which was of course extremely embarrassing.  After it happened again, I took it back to Hertz to exchange it for a different car, and they “mansplained” that I had  set the “speed limiter” to engage at 17 mph.  Speed limiter?  Never heard of it.  Turns out its controls are on the steering wheel, so I must have hit them accidentally.  It resets when you turn the car off and back on again, which explains why the roadside mechanic didn’t find a problem.  Lesson learned!

Speaking of limiting speed, it took awhile for me to realize that the camera signs on the side of the road weren’t indications of a scenic viewpoint ahead, but a warning about the presence of speed cameras.  Camera sightings triggered frantic beeps from my sat-nav as well, which were so annoying that I had to disable that feature.  The minimum fine for speeding here is about $140, so it’s no wonder they take it so seriously!

Speed camera sign, from wikimedia commons

I did eventually become comfortable with driving here, to the point where I’m sure it will be an adjustment when I get back home and have to learn to drive on the right, right, right again!

Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping was initially very time consuming, because so many items were unfamiliar, and, like the gas, I couldn’t figure out how much things cost.  Weights are in kilograms, so price is expressed in terms of pounds (the currency) per kilogram.

For example, a simple purchase like finding half and half for my coffee stumped me.  There’s single cream, double cream, clotted cream, whipping cream – but nothing called half and half.  After some experimentation, I decided that single cream is what I like in my coffee.

The bakery items are fascinating, including scones, hot cross buns, meat pies, and crumpets.  Do you know what a crumpet is?  Because I didn’t, but when I saw it, I was so tickled to realize that it’s very similar to our “English muffin”!

This is a crumpet.

All over the UK, it’s BYOB when you’re shopping:  Bring Your Own Bag.  It was difficult to remember at first, and I showed up at the store plenty of times without one.  In California and Seattle, they also expect you to BYOB.  Now that I’ve gotten used to it, I like the policy and think we need to adopt it everywhere – it just makes good sense to reuse your shopping bags.

In the little town of Blaenavon here in Wales, I often see people walking to the local market carrying their empty shopping bags.  So now, I do the same!

The Language

Although English is spoken here (duh!), there are a wide variety of accents, and in combination with the use of different words for many things, it can be surprisingly challenging to understand sometimes.

In Northumberland, they call it a “Geordie” accent (pronounced with a hard “G”).  One time, I was chatting with an older man who was a retired miner, and frankly, could hardly understand anything he said.  All I could do was smile, nod, and feel foolish.

Another time, I asked someone where he lived, and he said something that sounded like “Geetz-ud”.  Sounded like a German name to me.  It’s a silly question anyway to ask when you’re not familiar with the area, but I had absolutely no clue what he was saying until I asked him to spell it.  It was Gateshead, which I knew was right near Newcastle.

I remember coming home from our year in England when I was 14, and speaking like a native Brit.  I was a total mimic, as we all are when we’re that age and just want to fit in.  I’m obviously not doing that this time, but I do find that I’m thinking with a British accent – so funny to realize!  I imagine that happening when you immerse yourself in a culture with a different language, but not necessarily when it’s English!

I truly love it here.  As a history junkie, I especially enjoy all of the centuries-old buildings – the castles, the cathedrals, the parish churches – which are everywhere.  My son, a real estate agent, posted this photo recently, of a lovely historic home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Bucks County Historic Home, posted by Newtopias

We treasure these rare gems in the U.S.  Here, they’re completely typical and part of everyday life.  Here’s an example in the little town of Hauxley in Northumberland:

A common scene in the U.K.

I’m soaking it all in while I can!

Arrival in England

I’ve been to England before; I’ve even lived here before.  My father was a Professor of Statistics at New York’s Downstate Medical Center, and took a one-year sabbatical at the University of Bristol in 1968.  So, I went to 8th grade there, and my family traveled around Europe in a VW camper van for the summers before and after the school year.  That experience was one of the highlights of my life, and explains why I love traveling and camping, and being in England.

My father, brother Jamie, and me, somewhere in Europe circa 1969
Our house in Bristol on right, circa 1968

The second time I was in England was in the summer of 1972, between my junior and senior years of high school. I went back to Bristol and stayed for two months with the family of my BFF from 8th grade, Joanna.

Joanna’s house was 3 Windsor Terrace
Summer love with an English bloke, 1972

Thirty-one years later, in 2003, I saw a last-minute fare special to London, and for $200 round trip, impulsively flew there for four days with a friend.  Which hardly counts – it was all a blur of jet lag!

Then in 2010, when I was deep into my genealogy research and knew that I had to see the places where my ancestors lived, I took my 20-year-old daughter for a ten-day whirlwind tour of England and Wales.

Me and my 8th grade English friend Joanna in Bristol in 2010

It was in the process of planning that 2010 trip that I met my fourth cousin John on Ancestry.com, and he introduced me to Kay and Peter (aka “KnP”), who are both avid genealogists.  Kay and I are connected by marriage but don’t ask me to explain further!  Ancestry tells me that she is the grand-niece of wife of 1st cousin 3x removed – which is way too complicated to understand.  Kay has drawn a tree so we have a visual of the relationship, which helps!

Exhibiting extraordinary generosity to people she had never met, Kay offered to house my daughter and I for our three-night stay in Northumberland in 2010.  We’ve been in close touch ever since.  It was Kay and John (Peter was feeling poorly) who met me at the airport in Newcastle when I arrived on December 30th.

The blue pin shows Bedlington on the UK map.

I spent the first couple of days at KnP’s house, recovering from jet lag, getting my phone set up with a local provider, and doing some grocery shopping.  Their son and daughter-in-law had a New Year’s Eve party, so we walked over to their place and celebrated with a houseful of their friends of all ages.  It was the perfect way to bring in 2018!

KnP were the ones who found me a flat for two months in Bedlington, beginning January 1st.  The town of Bedlington has special significance in my family history, which I’ll explain in the next post, so the location of the flat couldn’t be better.  It’s also within easy walking distance of pubs and shops.  The one-bedroom flat has everything I need, including unlimited wifi, television, linens, a fully stocked kitchen, a private parking spot, and the rent includes utilities and a weekly cleaning service.

My flat is on the first floor of this building.
Kitchen of the flat

So here I am, all settled in, and ready to experience Northumberland as my ancestors did before they emigrated to America in 1881.  So exciting!!

A Christmas DNA Surprise

I know I don’t have to tell you again how much I enjoy spending Christmas with my family:  my ex-husband and our two kids.  You already know, so I won’t go on about it for long.

What I really want to talk about is the new cousin we got for Christmas, thanks to Ancestry DNA.  You know those TV shows where adoptees meet their birth parent for the first time?  This was like that, except it was real life.   Our new first cousin was a wonderful, delightful surprise.

I spent a week in Seattle with my daughter before the family converged to spend the holiday week in a cabin in the foothills of the Cascades.   The four of us are on an app called “Life 360”, so we can track each other down if needed.  Before the holiday, we were all in different corners of the country – Washington, California, Pennsylvania, and Florida:

The four of us in four corners of the country!

It isn’t too often that we’re all together, so it’s precious time for us.  We went on a couple of incredible hikes, saw many bald eagles, and our daughter’s little dog Foxy stole the show. Here are a few pictures from our Christmas:

A scene on one of our hikes
Christmas Tree 2017
Chris and Foxy in Seattle

So, on Christmas Day, I received an email from an Ancestry user, saying that she was adopted and that we were a DNA match.  I’ve had emails like this before, and usually it’s a distant match and difficult if not impossible to determine the relationship. I don’t even know why I read the email that day, much less looked at the match.

But I did, and was completely stunned when I saw that we shared 935 centimorgans, which is a match at the first cousin level.  She also matched my two other first cousins, so I knew we were related on my mother’s side.  And when I saw a photograph of her, I knew she was ours.  Here’s the match page from Ancestry:

What would you think if you saw a match this close with a stranger? Yikes!!

Deb said she was born in LA in 1964, and learned only that her mother was from Montana, was staying with her uncle in LA, and was 21 years old.  She had a physical description of her father, and knew that he had managed some parking lots in the area.  The social worker also made a note at the time that the father had not been informed about the pregnancy.

My mother had two sisters and a brother.  Since Deb’s mother was from Montana, the only possible relationship was that she was my uncle’s daughter.  And my uncle lived in LA, matched the physical description Deb had, and managed some parking lots in 1964.

Both my uncle’s and my mother’s DNA are on FamilyTreeDNA.   I got Deb on the phone and walked her through downloading her raw data from Ancestry so we could upload it to FTDNA to confirm the suspected relationship.  But we had some technical problems, so Deb called FTDNA the next morning to try to resolve them.  As it turned out, the more recent Ancestry  files aren’t compatible with FTDNA, so it wasn’t possible to upload there.

We were saved by GedMatch, which is a free website accepting raw data from most of the big testing companies.  I had already uploaded both my uncle’s and my mother’s DNA there, and Deb was able to upload hers as well.  In a matter of minutes, we did a one-to-one match with my uncle’s DNA and found that Deb shares 3,500+ cms with him.  Bingo!! No doubt about it – Deb is my uncle’s daughter and my first cousin.

There’s always the concern, rightfully so, that the birth parents won’t want anything to do with the child they put up for adoption, and Deb was very sensitive to that.  I suggested that the next step was for me to call my uncle, and she asked me if I thought her father would want to meet her.  I know my uncle, and I was certain he would be very happy to hear that he had another daughter.

And he was.  In fact, he was downright excited!  He told me he remembered Deb’s mother quite clearly.  He didn’t know her for very long and had no idea she was pregnant.  Unfortunately, he can’t remember her name, so we’re still working on that part.

He called Deb right away, and within hours, they met in person.  I heard from both of them the next day – by all accounts they clicked immediately and it was an amazing reunion.  My uncle met a daughter he never even knew he had, and my cousin met a father about whom she had known virtually nothing.  A day to go down in family history!!

My extended family is just the best.  Everyone was very accepting and welcoming to Deb –  of course, it helps that she is such a great person and makes it easy to love her.  The family has a strong Facebook presence, so now Deb has dozens of new “friends” there, and it’s been buzzing with the posting of everyone’s pictures at different ages to see all the family resemblances.

It was a very happy ending, and it made our Christmas even more exciting than usual.  And I’m so thrilled to have a new first cousin – I can’t wait to meet her this summer!

Fresno – the Good and the Bad

My RV was in Fresno for about a month in November and early December, and during that time I had wonderfully high highs, as well as some challenges…so typical of life!

I spent Thanksgiving with my kids at my uncle’s house in the Los Angeles area.  I hadn’t seen my aunt and uncle in about five years, and hadn’t been to their home in decades.  My kids met my uncle when they were too young to remember much, so this was truly a family reunion.

The day after the holiday, my brother’s two kids rode a train for two hours each way to visit with us at my uncle’s house for four hours.  We hadn’t seen them in almost two years.  I can’t even describe with words how amazing it all was.  A fabulous visit!

The four loves of my life – the boys are 6’4″ and 6’5″ – my father and both brothers were also tall!

From Los Angeles, my daughter and I drove up to San Francisco to visit an old friend.   I lived there in my 20’s and early 30’s, and hadn’t seen my friend in 28 years – so many great memories!

My house in San Francisco in the 1980s

And, my father grew up in San Francisco, so we visited his childhood home as well.  From there, we drove back to the RV in Fresno, and Caitlin stayed with me for a few days before flying back to Seattle.

General Grant Sequoia at Sequoia National Park
Road to Kings Canyon National Park at sunset

That part of the past month was fantastic!  But, for the remaining three weeks of my Fresno stay, I was alone – two weeks before the trip, and one week after.  Unfortunately, I was able to do very little genealogy research, which was the whole point of being there.   I spent a few hours in the genealogy section of the library one day, and my daughter and I visited the cemetery together.  That was it.

Caitlin and I are fascinated with my great-great Aunt Elsie, who purchased a house in her own name in Barton, Wisconsin, where she lived with her mother until she died in 1895.  Then 45 year old Elsie went west.  On her own?  We’d love to know the details!

My time in Fresno was spent preparing for my trip to England, and taking care of a myriad of administrative details.  It was enrollment time for health insurance, which threw me into a financial tizzy for a week afterwards.  I researched trip insurance,  phone, internet and medical coverage overseas, RV storage options, car rentals in England, rental car insurance, how to get my prescriptions filled while I’m away, and what to do for a GPS.  I finalized lodging plans for England and researched options for my trip to Italy.  I did my online Christmas shopping and worked on my genealogy classes.  In other words, I was busy.  Not much fun, but all good.

When I was in LA, my aunt and uncle very generously offered to allow me to store my RV and car at their house while I’m in Europe, which will save me a ton of money, and give me peace of mind as well.  More good.

Moving on to my complaints, I truly did NOT like the Fresno campground.  I paid extra to be on the lagoon, but it was all dried up.  The site was sandy, which meant I tracked the stuff in to the RV and I was constantly cleaning.  There was no picnic table.  My fellow campers seemed to be more or less permanently there – perhaps seasonal workers – most of whom had dogs which constantly barked.  Either that, or there was loud music playing into the night.  Or both.

It was cold – the last day there, I woke up to 28 degrees – and the bath house wasn’t heated, so I had to wait until it warmed up in the afternoon to take a shower.  Not only that, but the bath house was disgustingly dirty.  Even my daughter said that she didn’t know how I could stand it.  I took really fast showers.

I had an infestation of ants and lady bugs.  I was under a tree which constantly dropped something hard, like a nut, which made me jump out of skin every time I heard it.  The tree debris also prevented my slide-out from retracting on the cold morning I packed up, so I had to get up on the icy roof with a broom to sweep it all off.

And, things started to break.  My brand new computer completely crashed and I had to send it back to HP for repairs.  My brand new microwave stopped heating food.  The hot water heater was emitting a horrible burning smell, so I turned it off and had no hot water for the last week there.

Oh, and let’s not forget the car.  I had a recall notice regarding the seat detection mechanism on the passenger side, which impacts the airbag.  There was no Mini dealer anywhere near Fresno, so I scheduled an appointment in LA.  Then, I had to jump-start the car with the RV several times the week before the appointment, so I asked the dealer to take a look at the battery.  The final bill was $1,200 – evidently the power steering lines were leaking and had to be replaced, which was completely unexpected.

For car repair news on the positive side, I took the whole rig into the Camping World in Fresno the day I left. They repaired the damage to the front end of the car at no charge.  The hitch shouldn’t dip more than 3″ between the RV and the car, and my level was something like 9″, they said.  They corrected the hitch by installing a down bar (which I understandably had to pay for), so it won’t happen again.

It was kind of serendipitous that as I was coming to the end of my time in the RV, things were falling apart and I was feeling very ready to move on.  I just felt done, and very much looking forward to the next chapter in my adventure.

Phoenix to Mexico to Fresno

As I’ve mentioned before, I love love love the southwest.  I hadn’t been there in so long that I’d forgotten how delicious the air feels to breathe, and how big the sky seems.  And a nice side benefit is that it completely takes all the frizz out of my hair!

View of Superstition Mountains from Lost Dutchman State Park Campground

I fantasize about wintering in Arizona, but I don’t think I’d want to be there in the summer.  The temperature was nearing 100 degrees in late October, and I came home one day to this:

Hot! Hot! Hot! Hot!!!

The outdoor thermometer must have been directly in the sun, because it wasn’t really 115 outside – more like 98.  But I’m sure the inside temperature was correct.  The air conditioner worked really hard to get that number down!  The desert is always much cooler at night, so there was some relief.

Sunset from my Arizona campsite

I only had a few days in Arizona, and I spent one of them with a genealogy friend, visiting the historic town of Wickenburg.  Then I caught up on personal business, and prepared for my trip to Mexico.  I put the RV into storage near the airport for a week (I would highly recommend Guardian Self Storage on Van Buren), and stayed at a park-n-fly hotel the night before the flight.

You may think that someone who’s retired doesn’t really need a vacation, but that’s not true.  Even though I’m technically not working, it’s still a great relief to take a break from the “real world”.  After seven months in the RV, it was truly terrific to just spend a week doing nothing but laying around the pool reading novels.  My good friend Sandra and her 28-year-old daughter joined me there.

View from our balcony in Puerto Vallarta
Sunset view from the balcony

Keep in mind that I’m still, and always will be, a Frugal Traveling Pensioner.  The timeshare week in Mexico was a gift from my ex-husband, back when I was taking care of my dying brother in 2013.  And the flight to Mexico was paid with frequent flyer miles.  So, my expenses were limited to food, drinks and incidentals in Mexico, storage for the RV, and a night in a hotel before and after the trip, all of which totaled less than $500.

Sandra flew back to Phoenix with me, and we made the two-day drive to Fresno together. I’d never had anyone ride shotgun in the RV before – what a difference that makes!  I mapped out a route which avoided any big hills, so we crossed the Sierras at the very south end, over the Tehachapi Pass.

During the second day of the drive, we noticed that there was a gap between the bumper and the hood of the Mini Cooper. The hood of the car was also slightly uneven.  I had no idea how or when the damage had happened.

Can you see the larger gap on the right under the headlight?

After more thought, my theory now is that it happened while driving along a road in California that had some unusually severe undulations (when I was off the interstate trying to avoid the mountains!).  When the hitch was originally installed last year at the Camping World in Lakewood, New Jersey, Eric was concerned that the height distance between the RV and car was too great.  At the time, the mechanic said it was on the outside of the range (we had read that there should be only a three inch height difference), but that it would be fine.  Well, it wasn’t fine.  At least, that’s my theory.

I stopped at the Camping World here in Fresno last week, and they seemed to agree.  I have a longer appointment scheduled in December to see what they can do.

As Eric and I often say to each other – IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING!!  But that’s true of life in general, right?  In my retirement, in my quest to avoid stress and conflict, I prefer to take these blips in stride, deal with them, and move on!

Missouri to Phoenix

From Illinois, I headed to Marshfield, Missouri, where I met a first cousin for the first time.  People ask how it’s possible that I have a first cousin I’ve never met.  It’s because my uncle had a daughter in between his two marriages, and he didn’t meet that child until she was a grown woman.  Once I knew she existed, I just never made it a priority to get to Missouri until now.  I totally regret that, because Dixie is an amazing person and I wish she had been in my life all these years.

I met five of Dixie’s six children, seven of her ten grandchildren, and two of her four step-grandchildren.  I have never seen a family where every single person is so happy, grounded, bright and respectful.  It just felt good being with them.  I especially enjoyed having 5 year old Abby take a nap on my lap, and holding little 8-month old Ellie while she laughed:

Ellie’s laugh was totally contagious!!

One night, we had a “Show and Tell”, with my computer hooked up to their television so together we could see our family tree and pictures of our relatives and ancestors, and hear all the family stories.  That was great fun and definitely cemented our family connection for all of us.

I was sad to leave Dixie and her beautiful family, but I was also excited to head west.  I hooked up my car in Marshfield in the dark, at 5:30 am.  Last Christmas, Eric gave me a headlamp which I use all the time – hands-free light, wherever I need it!  I try to hook the car up the night before a departure, but sometimes the site configuration doesn’t allow for it.

About halfway to my overnight destination in Sayre, Oklahoma, I passed a police vehicle with its lights flashing on the side of the road.   The next thing I knew, he was following me with his lights still flashing.  Did he want me to pull over?  I certainly wasn’t speeding – the limit on I-44 was 75 mph, and I was only going 62.  The shoulder was very narrow, but I decided I’d better pull over.

It took about a half hour for him to give me a written warning because my right front headlight was out.  Sheesh, it was broad daylight and I didn’t even need to have the lights on – I wished I had turned them off once the sun came up.  On the bright side, all of my paperwork was in order, thank goodness.

So of course for the rest of the drive that day, I wondered whether I would be able to figure out how to change the bulb, or if I would have to take the RV to a repair shop.  I was planning to leave in the dark again the next morning, and knew I needed to take care of it before then.

I arrived at the Bobcat Creek RV Park in Sayre around 2:30 pm, and the owner says, “Looks like we’ll be gettin’ some weather tonight”.  So I asked what that meant.  Well, there was gonna be some heavy winds and rain, and possibly a tornado.  He pointed out the underground tornado refuge not far from my campsite, and said I would hear the sirens in town, and he would make sure all the campers were gathered together.   Holy Oklahoma!!  A tornado is not healthy at all for an RV!

My first concern was to take care of the headlight before the storm came. I opened the hood, and it was just not obvious at all how one would access the bulb.

 

Right headlight with truck hood up. The left headlight was the one that was out, but forgot to take a “before” picture!

So I checked the internet, and to my great relief a kind soul had posted photographs of exactly how to remove the casing and access the bulb, which I was able to do with the help of the incredibly nice campground owner (the trick is to pull up and back on those two little black tabs above the light).

Headlight after removing the casing

Then it was off to the auto parts store, where they had the correct bulb; I bought two, just in case.  Back at the campsite, I was able to install it and put everything back together.  Whew!

About a half hour later, I saw the owner wandering around, and went out to ask him what was up.  He looked at the sky and said, “Looks like some wind is coming – you better get inside”.  And seconds later the wind was so strong that I had to fight it to get the door to the RV closed – I flashed on Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

It wasn’t a tornado, but the wind was so strong that the RV was rocking, and it was being pounded hard by what looked like white rocks.  I initially thought that the wind was stirring up all the gravel around us; the sound of those rocks on the roof was absolutely deafening.  It was frankly quite terrifying.

Hail storm in Oklahoma

It turned out to be hail – very large balls of ice. How does that happen on an 80 degree day??  My car now has little dents on the side that was facing the wind.

I was very glad to leave Oklahoma and head on to Albuquerque.

From there on, the trip was relatively uneventful.  I drove probably 200 miles out of my way to avoid going through the mountains.  The  direct route from Albuquerque is to head west on I-40 to Flagstaff, and then south on I-17 to Phoenix.   After referring to my Mountain Directory, which I acquired after overheating on a steep hill in upstate New York, I decided to go south from Albuquerque on I-25 through Truth or Consequences, and then west on I-10 though Deming and Tuscon.

I loved driving through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona – it brought back many memories of the time I worked at the Grand Canyon when I was 19 and 20 years old.  The whole area has always been magical to me.  It quite literally stirs my heart to be there.

And at the end of the road, this was my reward:

Campsite at Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona

More about Illinois

I absolutely loved being in Illinois along the Mississippi, near the little town of Fulton where my Abbott ancestors lived.  In fact, it was probably my favorite place to date.  In my previous post about Illinois, I included a picture of a gorgeous sunset across the river – I saw many of those.  Here are daytime pics in both directions from my campsite at Thomson Causeway:

View from my campsite in Illinois looking left
View from my campsite in Illinois, looking right

Toward the end of my stay there, I connected with the very friendly and helpful folks at the Fulton Historical Society, who put me in touch with present-day Abbotts in the area.  I promised to provide the Society with my research on the Abbott family, which I first need to write up properly so others can benefit from it.

I spent a delightful afternoon with 91 year old Bill Abbott at a local nursing home.  It turned out that he is from a different Abbott line, but I greatly enjoyed hearing his first-hand account of the history of the area.  The next day, I had a great chat over coffee with a distant cousin, a descendant of my pioneer ancestor Clark Abbott.  Unfortunately, no one had any information on Clark’s parents, which has been a long-standing brick wall for me.

Amazingly, I also discovered some collateral Goodenough relatives who lived in Morrison, the Whiteside County seat.  My branch of Abbotts left Illinois in the late 19th century, while the Goodenoughs didn’t arrive until the early 20th century, so the common location was purely coincidental.  It was certainly thrilling to see my maiden name on all sorts of dairy farm memorabilia in the Morrison Historical Society’s Heritage Museum!

 

Model milk truck from Goodenough’s Dairy Farm 

On the “RV Living” side of things, my microwave got fried. I had decided to steam a bunch of vegetables in advance, so I wouldn’t have to do it in single servings every night.  After almost an hour of using the microwave, the breaker blew, and the skin inside the microwave was peeling off.

The microwave breaker is tripped and won’t go back up!
When I saw the tear in the liner, I knew the microwave was toast.

It was quite distressing because I use the microwave all the time.  I cook in batches, freeze serving sized portions, and then use the microwave to warm up a meal.  In addition to steaming vegetables, since I don’t have an oven, I often cook a baked potato in the microwave.  So it was basically a microwave emergency.

You would think that replacing a microwave is pretty straight forward – you just buy a new one and plug it in, right?  Not so.  The microwave in my RV is built in to a cabinet, so I knew there would be issues with venting, and with keeping it securely positioned.

The old microwave in the cabinet. What to do??

I thought about having someone install a new one for me, because I didn’t really want to mess with anything involving the electrical system.   I could contact a mobile RV technician who would come out to the campground, but it usually costs somewhere around $100 for the house call, and then the hourly rate for the work can be $125 or more.  And my experience with taking it in to a shop, like Camping World, is that they are booked out weeks in advance.  So, besides the timing of getting it installed, I didn’t really want to spend the money.

After much angst, I decided to try to replace it myself.  How hard could it be?  If I failed, I figured I could get help any time in the process.

My first step was to remove it from the cabinet so I could see what I was working with:

 

The empty cabinet after removing the microwave.

It looked do-able, with a simple outlet in the back for the plug.  After hours of research online, and of course consultation with my RV expert, ex-husband Eric, I figured out what I needed, and then found one specifically for RV’s that was the correct size for the opening, the correct wattage, the proper venting, and with its own trim kit.  So I had it shipped to my next stop – my cousin’s house in Marshfield, Missouri.

I’m skipping a lot of steps, but the short story is that I did it.  Here is the final product:

Fancy new microwave, installed!

This may not seem like a big deal to you, but for me it was a tremendous challenge.  I was SO GLAD not to have to spend the money on professional services, and it felt GREAT to complete a successful DIY project!

 

The Heartland

I’m thrilled to be in Whiteside County, Illinois, camped directly on the Mississippi River.  After years of seeing the local place names on maps and in historical documents about my ancestors, I’m finally actually seeing the landscape here and visiting my ancestors’ graves.  That’s been the case with all the locations I’ve visited, but for some reason this one in particular has really called me.

View from my front door.

I’ve camped on or very near numerous bodies of water: Lake Ontario in New York, Lake Dunmore in Vermont, Mohawk River in New York, Clear Fork River in Ohio, and Lake Lenwood in Wisconsin.  But the mighty Mississippi is downright magical.

I’m so close to the water that I can hear the frogs plopping in for a dip all night.  In the evenings, the geese come to feed – it seems like hundreds of them.  I watch their little tails go straight up in the air as they dive for dinner.  And there’s always something  – don’t know what – coming to the surface and making a splash and a swirl.  I can hardly believe my good fortune in getting a front row seat for all the action.

The trip here from Wisconsin was relatively short at only 200 miles, so I only had to make one stop. But it was a memorable stop because about an hour past it, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach when I realized that I had left my credit card sitting on top of the pump.  After much gnashing of teeth and hurling of four letter words, I finally calmed down and decided to return the next day to fetch it, and take the opportunity to use the wifi at the local Starbucks since there isn’t one near my campground.

As it turned out, I truly enjoyed that drive.  While my RV GPS had routed me the long way around to stay on interstates as long as possible, the shortest route by car was an hour and a half of zig-zagging on two-lane country roads.  It was a gorgeous sunny day, so I put the convertible top down to soak it all in.  It was classic heartland landscape, but instead of “amber waves of grain”, there were endless corn stalks, interrupted occasionally by a farm house, a silo, a barn, or a few cows.  I passed through very few towns – maybe two – and saw very little traffic, except for gigantic farm equipment which took over the road here and there.

As I drove along, I tried to imagine what it looked like when my ancestors first arrived.  According to the county history books, Clark Abbot and his family were only the fourth to settle here.  Clark married Betsey Jennings Crouch in Vermont, then moved to Chautauqua County, New York in the mid 1830’s, and then Illinois in the early 1840’s.  They established a large farm and Clark was a prominent citizen until his death in 1880.  He and Betsey are buried in the little town of Fulton, just a few miles south of my campground along the Mississippi.

Henry Ustick, head of the other ancestral family which settled here, was born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and moved to Ohio after serving in the War of 1812, where he married Abigail Young.  He brought his family to Illinois in about 1848, using a land patent from his military service.  He and Abigail are buried near Morrison, the county seat.

One of the things I like to do, if I can, is to identify the location of the land my ancestors owned.  Usually, the land has been completely developed, but I have a feeling that here in Whiteside County, the land is still being farmed.  That will make it a lot easier to envision what it was like 160 years ago – I don’t think it’s changed much!