Planes, Trains and a One-Ton Truck (May 1 – June 3, 2018)

After all the issues we had in April, we were glad to begin a new month and were hopeful that things would go smoother in May. Since we had to be out of our site at Indian Spring Campgrounds in North Bend, OH by 8 am, we arose very early on Tuesday, May 1st and were on the road by 7:30. We drove 255 miles to Spaulding Lake Campground in Niles, MI. We had stayed at this campground about 1 ½ years ago and were very satisfied with the site we got this time. We had a nice view of the three ponds and actually managed to get a satellite signal despite the fact that it appeared that the dish was aiming right into a tree.

After getting set up, we drove to Hubbard Hill in Elkhart, IN to visit Phil’s mother and joined with the Anderson extended family to celebrate her 98th birthday with cake and ice cream.

After the party, we drove to Discount Tire and arrived shortly before closing time. We had them check out the tire that we had removed the previous night. We learned that the belts were pulling apart on the tire. This made us very glad that we had changed the tire at the highway rest area rather than experience another blowout. We were fortunate to discover that Discount Tire had our replacement tire in stock and were able to get it mounted despite keeping their personnel on overtime.

We had a very busy day on Wednesday. Jan was still experiencing a lot of ear pain so we went to Urgent Care in Elkhart. We learned that she had both inner ear and outer ear infections and was prescribed medicine for both. We next went to the post office and mailed a care package for Jarrod and Jess to receive at their next trail stop. Next we went to visit Phil’s mother. When she headed to dinner, we went to Gerber Collision and Glass. At our overnight stop in North Bend, OH, Phil had noticed that the truck headlight that been replaced by Gerber Collision in Nashville was considerably less bright than the other one. The service manager at the Elkhart facility agreed to order an OEM bulb for us, rather than the aftermarket bulb that had been installed. While looking at the dim bulb, the Gerber technician also identified that the driver’s side running light was out. They suggested that we should buy a running light bulb from the Dodge dealer and they would install it when they were replacing the dim bulb. After stopping at Walgreen’s to pick up Jan’s prescriptions, we were too tired to cook dinner so we went to Bacon Hill Kitchen and Pub instead. We both had barbeque and it was excellent. The portions were huge so we each left with take-out boxes. We managed to get home before the heavy rains and thunderstorm started. We later learned that the storm had been quite severe in Elkhart. The heavy rains we experienced proved to be a good test of our tightened-down air conditioner and we were quite relieved to discover no leaks in our roof during the night.

On Thursday, we went to visit Phil’s mother again. Then we headed to the Dodge dealer to purchase the running light bulb. The parts man at the Dodge dealer was quite confused by the request since his computer kept showing him that our Ram 3500 doesn’t have running lights. Finally we figured out that the bulb that the Gerber technician had thought was a burnt-out running light was actually the high-beam bulb and it worked fine when Phil flicked on the high beams. We ended the day at Phil’s sister’s house and had a delicious dinner with a large crowd of Andersons, Matas and Halls.

On Saturday, Phil washed the rig and then we went to visit Phil’s mother again. That evening, as we were preparing to move the following morning, Phil started to lower the TV into the cabinet and the motor died again before it was completely lowered. This was quite disappointing since we’d hoped that this problem had been solved.

On Sunday, May 6th, we drove 228 miles to Geneseo, IL where we spent the night at Geneseo Campground. Although the sites were rather close together, it was certainly nice enough for an overnight stay. After getting set up, we went for a walk along the Hennepin Canal. There were plenty of people fishing along the canal and we saw some river otters in the water.

On Monday, May 7th, Phil contacted Kay Cross at Indiana Interstate Enterprises in LaGrange, IN to ask if we could get them to work on our TV lift. We had had Kay and her husband, Paul, do some repairs on our rig in October 2016 and we hopeful that they might be able to fit us in before we left for Alaska. Kay called DRV and discovered that they no longer include the TV lifts on their Mobile Suites fifth wheels and they had none of the motors in stock. Phil suggested to Kay that we could park our rig on their lot when we returned from Iowa and leave it there while we were in Malta. Kay thought this was a good suggestion as it will give them two weeks to locate a motor or come up with another alternative. Assuming this results in a good outcome, it will actually save us the cost of putting our rig in storage while we’re in Europe.

After dealing with this issue and various others, we drove 180 miles to Pella, IA where we spent two nights at the Howell Station Recreation Area, part of the U.S. Corp of Engineers complex on Lake Red Rock. The drive took us through some very hilly territory in Iowa, not at all what we had experienced when visiting the state previously. The campground was one of the most beautiful we’ve stayed in, with a wide variety of large trees and bright green grass. All the sites were quite large back-ins but we managed to get parked without too much difficulty. The only real negative of the park is that there is no water at the sites, probably due to the large number of mature trees. Fortunately we had known this in advance and had partially filled our fresh water tank the night before arriving. After setting up, we strolled along the banks of the Des Moines River.

On Tuesday, Phil drove 25 miles to Kelderman Manufacturing in Oskaloosa, IA. This was the real purpose of our trip to Iowa (in addition to scratching off another state from our map of states we’ve stayed in). Kelderman has been in the business of building aftermarket air suspension systems for large trucks and agricultural equipment for 45 years. Phil had wanted to have a rear air suspension system on our Ram truck when he bought it in 2015 but the one he bought off the dealer’s lot had everything he’d wanted except air suspension. It took Phil three years to get it added but, with the Alaska trip ahead of us, he thought this was a good time to do it. The installation took five hours but Phil had the comfortable customer waiting room all to himself and managed to keep busy.  While Phil was at Kelderman, Jan enjoyed another stroll along the Des Moines River and visited the remains of the Horn’s Ferry Bridge.  The bridge had been built in 1881 to link the towns of Pella and Knoxville.  It was used for vehicular traffic for 101 years and then by pedestrians and bicyclists for another 10 years.  The bridge collapsed into the river in 1992.

On Wednesday morning we were very happy to find that the forecasted rain had not appeared and we were able to hitch up again in beautiful weather. This was especially important since Phil had to use our portable air compressor to add more air to the new air bags after we hitched up. The new air bags, which are mounted on the truck’s leaf springs, are designed to reduce the squatting of the truck bed when the fifth wheel is hitched and to provide for a smoother ride. We then drove 246 miles to North Utica, IL where we overnighted at the LaSalle/Peru KOA Campground. The sites were quite small but worked adequately for our one-night needs.

On Thursday we drove to 200 miles to LaGrange, IN where we were going to leave our rig at Indiana Interstate Enterprise for two weeks while we traveled to Malta. Kay and Paul Cross stopped by to welcome us and then returned in the morning to check out the TV’s power lift. We learned that DRV no longer offers power lifts in their new rigs and does not maintain an inventory of spare parts when they discontinue an option. Later Friday afternoon, Phil drove to Elkhart and returned to Gerber Collision to get the headlight fixed. After an hour, the Gerber service manager informed Phil that they now believe the issue is in the wiring, rather than the bulb, and we would need to leave the truck with them for a couple of days or take it to a Ram dealer and get it fixed. Since we were leaving for Malta the next day, neither option worked. Phil then visited his mother before returning home to join Jan in packing for the trip.

On Saturday, May 12th, we drove an hour to the South Bend airport to catch a train to Chicago. Phil’s sister, Barb, arrived to pick up his other sister, Joan, who was arriving from Chicago on the same train an hour before our departure time. We had time for a brief visit before boarding the train for a 2.5 hour ride to Chicago.

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After arriving at Millennium Station, we walked several blocks in the rain to catch the Blue ‘L’ Line to O’Hare Airport. We had a few challenges when we had to carry our luggage up long flights of stairs but managed to get to our gate in time.

Our flight departed O’Hare at 6:25 pm and arrived in Frankfurt, Germany eight hours later. We had a four hour layover before boarding our 2.5 hour flight to Malta. The flight to Malta was nearly an hour late and it was nearly 6 pm on Sunday when we arrived at the Westin Dragonara. We were pleased to learn that we had a room that overlooked the pool area. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant overlooking the pool and the Mediterranean, then went to bed exhausted.

Each weekday morning after that, Phil was picked up by a driver and driven to the office at 8 am and Jan was on her own to explore Malta. The first couple of days were spent exploring the neighborhoods close to the hotel. The hotel serves a huge breakfast buffet every morning so neither of us felt the need to have lunch each day. However, we did enjoy some wonderful meals each evening at a few of the almost unlimited number of restaurants in the area.

On Wednesday morning Jan went for a tour of Gozo, the second largest of the seven islands in the Maltese archipelago. Gozo has a population of 31,000 and is more rural than Malta. Gozo is home to some of the oldest religious structures in the world. The bus picked Jan up at the hotel at and took her to a ferry for the ride to Gozo; then her tour group boarded another bus for a tour of the island. First they visited to Ġganija Temples, one of the most important archeological sites in the Maltese islands. The site consists of two temples dating back to between 3600 and 3200 B.C.

Next they stopped in a little village called Gharb to taste samples of their goods. Continuing on, the tour headed to Inland Sea (a lagoon of seawater on the island of Gozo linked to the Mediterranean Sea through an opening formed by a narrow natural arch). Jan took the optional boat ride through the arch and various caves.

The remainder of the day was spent in the town of Victoria, the capital of Gozo. First, they had a three course lunch. Then, the group was given the afternoon to explore. Jan started by visiting the Cittadella, a small fortified town located in the center of Gozo, on a hill overlooking Victoria. Cittadella finds its roots in the late medieval era. After visiting Cittadella, Jan explored some of the narrow streets and alleys filled with shops, restaurants and homes. After returning to the ferry, another bus brought Jan back to our hotel shortly after 6 pm.

After a relaxation day following the Gozo tour, Jan spent the next couple of days walking for hours through shops, neighborhoods, parks and all around the waterfronts.

On Sunday Phil took a day off from work and we did the South Route of the Malta Hop on, Hop Off bus tour. We began the tour on the upper level of a two-tier bus but, after we passed through the city center of Valetta (Malta’s capital), it started raining hard and we all had to move to the lower level. We got off the bus at the Marsaxlokk fishing village. We waited until the rain subsided and then wandered through the Sunday market. Although it was originally just a fish market, it has grown over the years and now sells a little bit of everything.

Our next stop was at the Blue Grotto sea caves. The location of the caves, combined with the rays of sunlight, lead to numerous shades of blue on the cave walls. We had hoped to take a boat ride through the caves but, unfortunately, the sea was too rough and the boats were not running.  Filfal Island, visible off the coast, was used in the past as a practice bombing target by the British air force and navy but is now a bird sanctuary.

By the time we returned to the hotel, the skies had turned sunny so we relaxed by the pool before heading out to dinner. Before dining at the Portomasso Marina, we visited the nearby Cat Village. Malta supposedly has hundreds of thousands of stray cats on the islands and, based on our experience, we wouldn’t dispute that. Despite being strays, none of the cats we saw appeared to be underfed. This is largely due to the thousands of Malta residents and tourists who feed them, take them to get their shots or to be spayed or neutered, or just sit with them awhile on a park bench. We had previously visited Independence Gardens in Silema where a section of the park is a sanctuary for cats. The Cat Village in St. Giljan, although smaller, was similar. In both places, people had brought bedding, food and water for the cats. The Cat Village had actually faced demolition due to building development but there was such a public backlash that they spared it. Although there were quite a few cats at these sanctuaries when we visited them, at nighttime many more cats return for a safe place to sleep and get a meal. After visiting the Cat Village, we went to dinner at the Marina Terrace. While we were dining, a stray cat strolled in. We wondered what the waiter would do. Instead of shooing the cat away, he brought the cat some food and milk and led it to an outside corner where he fed it. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the local convenience store and bought a packet of cat food. Over the next few days, we fed several of the stray cats.

On Monday, it was back to the office for Phil while Jan did the Malta North route of the Hop On, Hop Off bus tour. She spent the morning walking through the city center of Valetta, Malta’s capital.  The tour also included a visit to the walled city of Mdina, the former capital of Malta, which has a history going back 4,000 years. The Apostle Paul is said to have lived here in 60 A.D. after being shipwrecked on a nearby island. The city is still confined within its walls and has a population of just under 300. The neighboring town of Rabat, which takes its name from the Arabic word for suburb, has a population of 11,000.

Jan spent the last two days in Malta going for more long walks.

On Thursday, May 24th, it was time to leave Malta and return home. Our driver picked us up at the hotel at 4:30 am to drive us to the airport. We had a 2.5 hour flight back to Frankfurt, Germany, followed by a 9-hour flight back to Chicago. We were fortunate to have a 4-seat row all to ourselves on the longer flight. That was followed by another ride on the Blue Line to Millennium Station, then the South Line train to South Bend airport (actually the last 45 minutes were by bus due to track maintenance),and an hour-long drive back to LaGrange. We arrived home at 8:30 pm, 23 hours after leaving our hotel in Malta. Our long return trip was rewarded by discovering that our TV power lift had been repaired in our absence.

We had made reservations to spend the Memorial Day weekend in South Haven, MI. However, during our time in Malta Phil received notice from the campground that they had received 20” of rain in the previous two weeks and our site was too flooded to enable us to park there. That was not good news since we knew that most campgrounds would be filled for the holiday weekend and there was nothing we could do about it until we got back to the U.S. So, much of Friday morning, after our long travel day, was spent trying to find a campground for the weekend. We ultimately ended up spending another night on the lot at Indiana Interstate, then returning 60 miles west to Spaulding Lake Campground in Niles, MI for Saturday and Sunday nights.

On Sunday, we drove about 50 miles to visit South Haven, MI so we could get a sense for what we had missed due to our cancelled reservation. We parked at City Hall and walked a short distance to the old downtown district. The first thing we encountered was a Mermaid Festival. Since we were not aware that mermaids were so popular, we were surprised to see all the booths selling all kinds of mermaid-related goods, ranging from mermaid costumes to mermaid cupcakes.

After getting our fill of mermaids, we strolled through the downtown district and visited many of the small shops. At the end of the downtown district, we found a narrow park that bordered the marina and led us out to a lighthouse on Lake Michigan. We stopped and watched for quite a while as a long procession of motorcyclists rode through town. There was a nice beach by the lighthouse that was quite popular on such a hot day. The temperature was in the low 90s in town but there was a nice breeze by Lake Michigan that made the weather more bearable. After visiting the lighthouse, we sat in the shade by the marina and watched the many boats coming and going. We really enjoyed our time in South Haven and may try to make reservations there again in the future. That evening we met Phil’s sister and brother-in-law, Barb and Dan Anderson, for dinner.

On Monday of Memorial Day weekend, we got on the road early to avoid the holiday traffic expected later in the day. We drove 160 miles to Rockford, IL where we will stay for six nights at Blackhawk Valley Campground. The entrance to the campground was at the bottom of a very steep decline which made us wonder how the truck would handle our exit. Although the campground had been fully booked for Memorial Day weekend, there were a large number of empty sites when we arrived. Our site was a grassy pull-though. Although our rig was parked on a fairly level area, the truck had to park down a slope.

On Thursday, we got up at 3:45 am to begin our trip to NYC for the college graduation of Jan’s niece, Katie Schlegel. Although our flight wasn’t until 9:30, Phil had scheduled a 7 am appointment at a Dodge dealer near O’Hare to get the headlight issue addressed. He dropped Jan and our suitcase off at the airport, dropped the truck off at the dealer and caught an Uber ride back to O’Hare in time for our flight. The only nagging issue was that the dealer’s service department closes at 3 pm on Saturdays and we weren’t scheduled to return until after 4 pm.

After we landed at LaGuardia, we caught a Via ride to our Airbnb apartment in the Upper East Side at 96th Street and 2nd Avenue. It was a small studio apartment but had everything we needed, except for coffee and an iron. Phil heard from the service consultant at the Dodge dealer that the truck was fixed and that two recall items had been addressed. Unfortunately, he could not offer any ideas on how we might get the truck back after 3 pm on Saturday. We had lunch at Joy Burgers, a place we had visited twice at Christmas. Phil discovered that the Chicago Cubs were in town to play the NY Mets so we took the subway to the game. Since the weather was overcast with intermittent mist, we were able to get very good seats by the Cubs dugout on StubHub for less than we would have paid at Wrigley Field. The Cubs won 5-1, which made it even better. We each had a slice of New York style pizza for a late dinner across the street from our apartment.

On Friday morning, we met Katie, her sister Brittany, and her mother Missy for breakfast at MYNY Bakery. Then we returned to our apartment to get ready for the graduation ceremony at Lincoln Center. The weather was in the upper 80s and very humid so we took the subway most of the way. The graduation ceremony was more entertaining than most, with an amusing Associate Dean serving as emcee. The keynote address was given by Shaun King, a journalist and social activist. We were not surprised, given the speaker’s background and the diversity in the graduating class, that the address was very heavily anti-Trump. After graduation we returned to our apartment and then met the group for dinner at a local Mexican restaurant.

Phil had spoken to the Dodge service consultant again Friday afternoon but he was still unable to suggest how we could get the truck keys after 3 pm on Saturday. Phil spent much of Friday evening and Saturday morning trying to find a way to get back to Chicago earlier. Our airfare on Delta had been so low that the ticket was not eligible to fly standby or change. Finally, out of ideas, Phil called the service consultant and asked if he could leave the keys with someone in the Sales department since the sales office was open until 6 pm. Although Phil had suggested this on previous calls, this time the service consultant agreed to that solution so our crisis was averted.

We shared a Via ride to LaGuardia with Brittany. Our flight to Chicago was uneventful. We took a taxi to the Dodge dealer and picked up our truck. On the drive back to our campground in Rockford, we drove through our old neighborhood in Schaumburg and stopped for pizza at Lou Malnati’s.

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Shortly after returning to our campground, Jan received word that her younger brother, Keith, had been killed in a car crash. It was a long, sleepless night for Jan as she struggled to get further details and notify family members before they read the news on Facebook.

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