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Filtering by Category: waltzing Matilda



I’ve never been the most consistent housekeeper, but you all pretty much know that by now. I do make lists often though, so will attempt to briefly update you on what we’ve been up to since the last post about the Land Ho! Art Sale in June.

The Sale is over!


The Land Ho! sale ran for two weeks, and we sold a nice amount of work! Enough to get a good nest egg going for our Land Fund, even after paying off all of the costs of scans and canvas and paint and shipping supplies. It was a lot of work to get everything ordered, packaged, and shipped, but it felt good to wrap up that whole effort and call it finished. Big thanks to everyone who ordered something, or sent in a donation, it was mightily appreciated!

Finishing up at Keren and Bobby’s …


After hogging Keren and Bobby’s basement and driveway and back yard for months on end, with all the forging and art making and sprawling that we seem to do, it was time to move on. We had to finish up some work first though that we’d started before the Art Sale became a thing, so we focused on the renovations in the basement that had been started before it was turned into a temporary studio and shipping center. Lots of trim and painting and flooring and sanding and door hanging before we had to call it quits because Michael had a Sol LeWitt job coming up in Cambridge Massachusetts … but first we had to get the trailer to Chicago so the boys and I could help out at my folks while he worked at Harvard.

Getting Out …


Getting out of any long-term stay is hard, and leaving after 6 months is even more difficult. There was a torn awning to remove and dispose of (sadly), many tools to sort and stow, and a seemingly endless list of things to pack and dispose of and tend to. We badly wanted a few days to ourselves before landing in Chicago, but it seemed like the window was getting so small that we might not have more than a night or two on the road. We had to be there by Friday August 10th at the latest. On August 3rd, we got a call that my Dad had something that appeared at first to be a heart attack, and he was in the hospital. We prayed, packed faster, and managed to get on the road on the 6th. After a few hours of heading over the mountains, we knew that Matilda’s transmission wasn’t just sending out warning signals, it was in its death throes.


After stopping for a night with Caleb and boys (pure bliss!) we tried to limp North but had to admit that we weren’t going to make it. We were forced into a …

Mini Transmission Vacation!


It was now Tuesday August 7th and we were in Wilkesboro NC with just 4 days until Michael had to hop on Amtrak in downtown Chicago. It was now looking like Dad had open heart surgery looming in the next week or so as he had some afib and a faulty valve, and they were busy giving him tests to rule out possible complications. We had to find someone who could get and replace the transmission in a 1995 F250 in 2-3 days. We asked God to point us in the right direction, limped into a big truck body shop, got a recommendation for a transmission place in the next town that said they might be able to help, and landed in a VFW campsite nearby.


After chatting with a friendly veteran, befriending the camp host’s 4 crazy dogs, and getting the camper set up, we took off to see if these folks could indeed help us. Matilda’s 20’ of red and white loveliness looked like the runt of the litter when parked among the rest of the trucks in Gear Jammer Transmission’s crowded lot. The mechanics came on out, crawled under Matilda and poked around, and made a few phone calls. After being assured they could get a new one and put it in in the next 48 hours, we hitched a ride back to our campground with the friendly owner.


Before collapsing for the night, we took the transmission guy’s recommendation of a hole-in-the-wall BBQ place a short walk from our campsite, devoured a quiet and delicious meal together, and mused on the way in which we were getting my strongly desired “few nights to ourselves” before landing in Chicago. It was hard to fully relax with the worries about Dad and his pending surgery, which ended up suddenly scheduled for Friday the 10th, but it was still lovely to be on our own and puttering for a couple of nights. We got a purring Matilda back late on Thursday, and prepped for an early Friday morning start.

Dad’s Surgery


Friday was our drive to Chicago day, and Dad’s surgery. I’d talked to him a couple times by phone, and knew he had no fears at all. We trusted that all was in God’s hands, and got on the road. He was scheduled for a valve replacement, a double bypass, and an ablation. He ended up with a quadruple bypass, a new valve to replace what they discovered was an abnormal 2-flap one, and a maze procedure. By the time we arrived in their driveway just before midnight, he was out of anesthesia and back in one piece in the ICU.

Michael and Harvard


Saturday morning we took stock of the state of things at the house where my brother Stephen and his wife Rene and son Paul were caring for Mom, briefly visited Dad in the hospital, and then Michael packed up in time for me to take him to the train heading downtown, where he’d hop on Amtrak to go East. I must have messed up my Metra schedule while reading it on my phone in the truck the day before, because the train he was to catch only ran on weekdays, and at the last minute I had to hightail it into Chicago to drop him directly at the station. The prospect of Michael being gone for 5 weeks while I was helping with Mom and Dad and the household, while also parenting and homeschooling, loomed large, and I tried to get my head around how to handle it all as I drove back to the house.


Michael dove deep in Cambridge where he was helping re-install a huge Sol LeWitt wall drawing in a museum on Harvard’s campus. A 5-story atrium with tight spaces and convoluted scaffolding and minimal AC was more challenging than some jobs, and between Harvard’s work rules and delays from the construction crew working in the same space, the job stretched to 7 weeks. Getting him back at the end of that time was pretty delightful.

The Scene at 4N405


Since we arrived on August 10th, much has changed. Dad was in the hospital for another two weeks after we got here, and was more than ready to come home when they pulled the final drainage tube out. Mom took a pretty steep dive downwards after he went into the hospital, missing the connection of being with him daily, and having seen what happened to him when he passed out while at the park. Their bond is a huge part of what keeps her going, and without seeing him or being able to be with him at all, she lost a lot of ground and basically stopped being able to walk.


Her care needs increased a lot as a result, and she currently needs 2 or 3 people’s help on a daily basis. They decided to move into the in-law apartment at my brother’s new home, which includes a flat floor plan and wider doorways, and plans are in motion to add a kitchenette and laundry to accommodate their needs. In the meantime, we have added a Hoyer lift, a wheelchair, and a ramp down the front steps to the household. Dad has gained strength steadily, and recovery is going well enough that he’s back to work and up to long walks and carrying boxes to the car. Those boxes would be the result of the sorting of his vast book collection down to one bookcase’s worth to take along to the new place.

A telegram my grandfather Elmer sent to his fiancée Juanita for Valentine’s Day in 1937, 8 weeks before they were married.

A telegram my grandfather Elmer sent to his fiancée Juanita for Valentine’s Day in 1937, 8 weeks before they were married.

We’re currently taking care of Mom with a lot of help from my sister Martha, working on sorting and emptying the house of a lifetime of accumulation (it is minimal by most standards!), and preparing to fix the house up for sale once they move. There’s a lot to do, and we’re here as long as we’re needed.


The land we had our eye on is still available, but we’re not focused on it at the moment. We’ve tried to just do what’s in front of us for years now, and the current situation is no different. There are needs, there is work that we know in our hearts is ours to do, and we’re in it with everything we’ve got.

Onward …

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Westward Ho! / Day 6 ... The Great Divide


Saturday, August 20

Fynn and I snuck out early to take some bird photos on the local lake, but were back in time to get breakfast before getting on the road at 9:30 … a real feat for us. We are not Morning People, ever, though Fynn and I are traditionally up a fair bit before the other two. It's a chance for a bit of quiet time that I'm sorely lacking most days.

Once underway, we got our first glimpse of the mountains 20 miles east of Denver. Once around the city, Matilda got her first real workout, and we were a bit dismayed by the amount of black and white smoke she belched. We paused for a rest and a Google, deciding that we needed to keep her RPMs up on the hills, and that her turbo filter badly needed a scrubbing.

Winding through the mountains, we got off at a small town hoping for a spot to eat our lunch, but nearly got stuck in the process. The valleys are so narrow that turnarounds aren't possible at many exits, and this one would have been a real issue as we're 7+ tons total and the bridge we were facing had a 4 ton limit, but we managed to turn around in a nearly empty Dollar Store lot. The alternative would have been backing down the main street and around a tiny traffic circle … not a pleasant thought at all!

We hiked up over the Continental Divide's 9800' pass via the Eisenhower Tunnel, and got a taste of the first of many 6% grade signs, with the occasional 8% thrown in for good measure. We stopped in Silverthorne CO for gas, and Michael asked at the local National Parks office for any nearby boondocking spots. The attendant tore himself away from a private conversation long enough to tell him about a small free campground 8 miles up the road on the Blue River. Yay!

It ended up to be a gorgeous place with one spot left that we could squeeze into. Michael washed the turbo filter in a bucket, I read a book in the sun, and the boys chased each other with Nerf guns. They came back wheezing a bit, feeling the effects of running at 6500' :). Nice to have a few hours of quiet before dark … it was an incredibly peaceful spot, and the down time wasn't just welcome, it was utterly necessary.

We were very tempted to stay a 2nd night, but didn't in the end. Both Michael and I were feeling sick with colds, his sciatica was still nasty, and we were both struggling with the pace of things. Leaving ourselves only 13 days, starting with an emotional deficit from the previous two months and rather precarious health ... we'd added in the desire to stop and see the sights, but not be bound to a schedule. That meant campsites were always found at the last minute, often on an empty stomach, and always on a tight budget.

My navigational nerves were strained to their very last thread, sawing against the wings of Michael's freedom bird, which was weakly fluttering along beside us while we tried to reconcile the realities of the trip with the dreams of many years. Not a pretty sight, and one that came to a head the next day.

lots more pics here

previous posts : DAY 1  / DAY 2 / DAY 3 / DAY 4 / DAY 5

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Westward Ho! / Day 5 ... Crossing into Colorado


Friday, August 19

Our neighbors pulled out long before we did, but after giving Matilda's engine a once-over and tweaking the fan shroud, we made a quick jaunt into town to get groceries, and check out the Pony Express Station/Museum that had been relocated into the local park. After gathering tidbits like the fact that the service only operated for 18 months, riders were preferred to be teenage orphans, and that the fastest trip over the whole 1840 miles was 7 days and 17 hours and carried Lincoln's inaugural address … we scurried back to the camper, hitched up, and headed west towards I70. We had debated the whole I70 vs I80 thing, but opted for the hillier and more scenic southern route.

Our late start meant that we decided not to push through Denver that day, but took our time. At one of the big truck stops, we finally got our rig weighed, something we'd never yet dared to do. We knew the empty weight of Matilda was 6300 lbs, and the empty trailer was 5400 lbs, but I'd long suspected that we were a fair bit over our GVRW load limit given that we've got a lot of tools and books in every nook and cranny. We can add about 2200 lbs of stuff, but that includes any water and propane in the tanks, not to mention all our personal belongings. It adds up fast!

After asking at the trucker's counter how the whole system worked (and being a bit sheepish about it, just because camper folks aren't always welcomed with open arms there), I paid for the required access code and got back in the truck. We swung through the scales, picked up our results, and discovered that we were just under our overall limit! Phew. Nice to know before heading over the Rockies :).


Crossing into Colorado was a bit weird … the scenery changed almost immediately to scrubby hills full of cattle, and corn fields. The views were a lot longer, and it just felt different.


We found a free city park “campground” in Fort Morgan that included 15amp electric, which turned out to be a parking lot with a small median strip that had some outlets 6' up on the streetlight poles. We jury rigged our cord to one of them so that the weight of the extension cord wouldn't yank it out in the night, and I started in on dinner. Our neighbors, with the exception of one spiffy looking 5th wheel, all seemed to be living out of their cars or trailers, and not by choice. It became the Friday night drag strip for awhile, but quieted down early enough to get some really good sleep.

previous posts : DAY 1  / DAY 2 / DAY 3 / DAY 4

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Mainly Maine


Matilda + rig, as seen thru the periscope at the Naval Submarine Force Museum in Groton CT

Matilda + rig, as seen thru the periscope at the Naval Submarine Force Museum in Groton CT

Speeding east from Michigan, which I last blogged about, we made two quick and lovely stops in PA with friends and neighbors, spent a month at a family-style campground in CT while Michael did a Sol LeWitt job at Yale, and then wandered up into Vermont for a week of family downtime.  We badly needed it after spending 4 weeks cozied up to mostly cliquish neighbors who were "seasonals" and all knew each other, and whose kitchen sinks and flickering TVs we could easily see.  We're slowly learning how to choose campgrounds, and going with the smaller family-run ones that have few seasonal spots seems to be the way to go. 

We reluctantly packed up our VT hideaway, which was the nicest campground to date, and started towards friends and work in Bangor Maine on the back roads.  We've come to realize that small towns aren't as scary as we thought in a 55' long rig, that Matilda really can pull us over the mountains (Eastern ones at least), and that there are ways of finding places to park that open up more meal possibilities.  I've come to hate the travel plazas on the highway, aside from the fact that parking is easy.  The food just sucks, and it didn't help that at the last one we stopped at, I came into the dining area after Michael and the boys were already seated and eating on the far side of the room, and Michael chose to holler at the top of his lungs "BETHANY! WE'RE OVER HERE!" and then smirk as every single eye in the place watched me waltz/slink across the room to where they sat.  Yup.

So we took two days on the back roads to get from SW Vermont to Bangor, including truly boondocking for the first time at a trailhead parking lot right on the NH/ME border.  We finally got a second battery hooked up, and now have enough power for a night or two.  After poking around roadside stands, playing on the banks of the Kennebec River, and watching Fynn for signs of concussion as he landed hard after falling 8 feet out of a pine tree (thank God for Arnica!) ... we arrived at the Drown's place on a Saturday afternoon, their open arms a very welcome sight.  

We know Tim and Karen from waaay back, before they were married, and though we hadn't seen each other for about a dozen years, it was like nothing had changed.  We immediately felt right at home.  It's really a funny thing though, this staying in people's driveways business.  We're guests, but we don't sleep in the house.  We're working on projects a lot of the time, so we tend to stay a bit longer than the typical guest anyhow and are in/out of the house constantly, while our hosts are going about their work and usual commitments.  It doesn't take too many days for the "company face", if there is one, to fade.  We seem to become a part of the landscape, learning how much socializing is desired, and when to stay in the camper and do our own stuff.  The balance is different at every stop.  

It takes a certain vulnerability to let us in, trust that we'll all get along, work out the best boundaries for each family, and leave before we start to get too tiresome.  It's been a huge learning curve but it's getting a bit easier I think to read the signs.  We're finding that we can't really commit in advance to arrival dates, as it puts way too big of a crimp in the feeling that we need to stay as long as it takes to be done, whatever Done is.  Whether it's finishing a project, a conversation, an outing, or simply the feeling crystalizing that it's time to Go.  It's a product of being wayfarers, but something that I didn't really understand before we started out.  

I'm struggling to find the words to describe it, but this life feels a lot like boating to me.  Nothing is ever fixed, there's always a bit of a rocking motion even if you're anchored, and progress is hard to see but there's no doubt that we're moving towards something.  I'm finding my sea legs, perhaps?  I'm seeing though that the more at home I feel somewhere, the more I get a bit antsy/wistful and feel like I need to move on before I lose my nerve.  I'm a homebody.  Yes, the camper itself is completely and entirely home, and I love it.  It's just big enough, cozy enough, and nicely portable ... and I always have my own bed!  But there is a goal at the end of all this, which involves community of some sort, and when I find a particularly delicious bit of fellowship somewhere, or a super homey home, it makes me a bit hungry to have more consistent access to things like that.  To build our own stuff, not just things for other people.

That time is coming, but it can't come until this trip is done.  And when that will be is just as vague as how long we're staying at our current stop.  (We're in Shadyside MD, by the way, in case you're wondering).  We'll know it's over when it feels like time to stop, and I trust God to make it clear to both of us.  In the meantime, we're learning more than I ever thought possible, in both heart-knowledge and building/fixing/creating skills.  People keep letting us do all kinds of fun projects, trusting us to get it done even when we don't have a portfolio that shows any real experience in that particular arena.  It kinda surprises me every time, but it's a lovely trust to have.  

Have I mentioned lately how much we truly love working together?  It's keeps getting sweeter, and just plain feels really really good when we get to.   I don't know if it has anything to do with people trusting us to get stuff done, but there's something about combining our skills and thought processes that gives us a joint confidence that's almost started to erode our ability to work separately.  Feels like a somewhat dangerous comment, but it's true.  When you get in the habit of trading responsibilities back and forth, trusting the other person to fill in your gaps, it becomes a lot more like swing dancing, and a lot less like YMCA.  The possibilities increase, as do the risks.  I wouldn't have it any other way.    

So ... back to Tim and Karen's driveway, where we ended up parked for 2 weeks.  They're both teachers now, having made a career switch nearly a decade ago when Tim was diagnosed with MS.  They have a big rambling old house that's full of charm and character and love.  Their 5th (and last) child left for college right before we arrived, but the house isn't empty as they have 3 high school exchange students living with them, two from China and one from Vietnam.  The dinner table was lively and lingering, the flow of the house harmonious, and we all completely relaxed.  

We painted a couple of rooms, landscaped, roofed, organized, porch fixed, went to church, walked Fritz, and went sight seeing.  Acadia National Park wasn't too far away, so we visited Sand Beach, Schoodic point, and Bar Harbor (once frustratingly as Google doesn't know how to get to Sand Beach), and once deliberately so we could go whale watching.  We stuffed ourselves with lobster, played ping pong, saw sperm whales, climbed rocks, played with dead jellyfish, watched piles of Star Wars, made new friends, ate real chinese food, and were loved on in countless visible and invisible ways.  

We seriously toyed with the idea of heading to NS/NFLD from Maine, but weather and finances dictated a turn south, so after we reluctantly left Tim and Karen waving in their driveway, we wandered southwest to Turner where we'd booked a week at Martin's Creek Campground for down time.  It jumped into the "best campground so far" slot on the first morning (after parking in the dark, never fun!) when Fynn and the cats and I skidded down the bank behind our site and perched on a fallen tree that spanned the creek ... only to have a great blue heron land 10' away on the end of the branch we were sitting on, stare at an utterly oblivious Edmund for a minute or two, and then launch himself off again in search of a more likely breakfast!  It was truly idyllic ... Michael managed to get a painting done, we found a local cider brewery (yum!), watched a mink plonk it's way up and down the creek bank while we were out canoeing, and soaked up sun and solitude.  It felt like we'd finished the unwinding we started in VT, and was truly healthy for us all.

Next up was Mike and Ruth Anne's place, in Brunswick Maine.  Ruth Anne and I are birds of a feather for sure, and though we'd only met in person the week before (when she came up to our campground for an afternoon) it was a delight to spend a whole week together, catching up on thoughts and experiences and life ... it felt like picking up right we we left off, even though most of our communicating had been via the web and phone up until then.  We share a past in that we both grew up in the same church group, and that gave us a tremendous amount in common.  Adding to the delight was the fact that our husbands spoke the same language, and got along famously.  

While we didn't do too much to their rental house other than a bit of winterizing, we did do a lot of hiking ... and Ruth Anne is a champion hiker!  Their son Bradley was only 7 months old, but no stranger to taking a 5 mile tromp through woods or salt marshes or over boulders, strapped to his mama.  While there was a wee bit of initial grumbling by my two boys, they were soon won over by the views, the trees, the remote beaches, and the rocks to run over or build with, depending on the size.  Fynn especially caught the bug, and asked to go again and again.  It made me wonder why we don't voluntarily hike, but we never really have, at least as a family.  Ruth Anne's enthusiasm kindled a real spark though, and the exercise was great for us all.  Maine really wormed it's way into our hearts. 

It came time to move on however, and we pulled out of our (front yard this time!) spot and got back on the road.  Temps had dropped yet again, and we were really feeling the pressure to get further south. We were heading to Massachusetts and family and friends in the vicinity of Boston next, but wanted a night to ourselves in between.  I'd reserved a spot at a nearly-deserted campground that was open for a couple more weeks, and just before we got there Matilda started making funny noises.  Increasingly funny noises.  We hit a rest area, pried her hood open, and started poking around.  Dressed up more than usual from going to church with Ruth Anne that morning, and both too short to see much in the engine without climbing half into it, we provided some amusement to the truckers we were parked next to.  Eventually suspecting the vacuum pump, we called a mechanic friend for confirmation (thanks Tim!) and limped on to the campground and a late supper.

Our one night turned into I think four, as we found a very taciturn man in a local shop who agreed to put it in, but said the part was over $400 and would take 3 days to get there.  After Amazon Prime came to the rescue with a $90 part, he agreed to put it in.  I'm not sure more than 50 words were exchanged in the entire process, including bringing the part for inspection, dropping the truck off, and picking it up.  Ayuh.  


Michael suggested a hike on the day we were waiting for the part to show up, and plotted a 2.5 mile course to a local beach.  (We didn't dare drive the truck any more than absolutely necessary.)  I packed apples and nuts and some water in a backpack, and we took off.  The sun was intermittent, and once we got off the main highway the roads were pretty.  Michael ducked off the road into an unmarked side path to go pee at one point, and came back with "You guys better come take a look at this!"

"This" was the stuff of fairy tales.  Mossy carpet for a path, ferns, dappled sunlight, and leprechauns lurking in the trees.  We took it, despite not knowing where it ended up or how much it would add to the hike.  We wound through a forest of huge old trees, a salt marsh, an apple orchard gone wild, and ended up on a crashing rock-lined beach, the same one we'd intended to get to via the road.  We left before we wanted to, as the snacks were running out, the path home was long, and the sun was setting and temps dropping.  We stopped long enough to fill the backpack with wild apples, got entirely fed up with eating said apples, and managed to get home just before dark.  An awesome day.  


The next day we had to pick up the truck, but it also happened to be our 15th anniversary.  We left the boys in the camper for a couple hours while we wandered through a huge old/rare book store that was in a converted home and super well organized, and then sat at the counter at a local restaurant for a cup of excellent chowdah.  Short but perfect.  

This trip is so full of delight and growth and pain and humor and connection and overwhelm that I have no real way to describe it.  There's a faint rhythm to it, but no real marking of days.  There are needs, there are jobs, there are realizations, there are breakdowns.  Pain seen, but not fixed.  Hearts hurting, bandaids shared.  Conversations that rip me open, others that pour in the oil and wine.   Days of physical labor and exhaustion that feel like the best workout ever, and I can't wait to wake up and do it again.  It feels like I'm truly living in a way I never have, choosing every morning what Can We Do today, and then reaching for it, together.  Sometimes actually getting it, often not.  There IS joy in the journey.  I'll take it, messy bits and all.  


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Maiden Voyage part 2 : Christmas Jam


Two hours of 60 mph in steady rain brought us about 30 miles from Harrisburg on 81.  We pulled into a Pilot and parked at the end of a row of sleeping tractor trailers.  We staggered out and went to check on the cats who had been locked in the bathroom.  The trailer suddenly seemed very small next to the big rigs, but it was still exciting to be a part of those-that-sleep-on-the-road. The cats were curled up together on a towel sleeping like this-was-how-they-always-did-it.  We got the kids out of the truck into their bunks and Bethany and I headed for the big neon DINER sign.  I was starving.   We’d lived on nothing but snacks for the last 36 hours, and I could already taste a big greasy cheese-burger and fries.  I’d forgotten it was Christmas Eve.  The diner was closed.   We went back to the camper, crawled into bed, and fell asleep to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof and cat-feet in the camper.

Four hours later we awoke to no rain and the sun breaking over the tail-end of the cloud-bank.  This was a truly fantastic Christmas morning.  I just went back and checked weather history to make sure I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it had misted for 2 straight weeks, and found that on Dec. 15 the sun HAD come out for 2 hours in the morning, but that was it.  From the 10th on it had been sunless.  There was a Ray Bradbury story we read in grade-school about these kids living on Venus where the sun would shine for 3 hours every 7 years.  It felt about like that.


I grabbed my moustache-soap and the kids, and we headed for the Pilot restrooms to freshen up.  What a motley lot of transients deck the halls of a truck-stop on Christmas morning!  It was an honor to belong in a way I never had before.  I fell to conversating in the mirror with a trucker fascinated by my waxing process.  Turns out he used to be a scenic working on set designs for commercials in Atlanta.  Anyone remember a Nintendo commercial for a Star Wars game where Darth and some storm troopers burst through the door on these kids playing the game?  This trucker was operating the fog-gun on his back under the bed.

We got the cats back in the bathroom, hopped in the cab with some fresh coffee and beef-sticks, and hit the road by 8:30.  SUN!  If all went well, we’d hit Knoxville in time to open the presents Keren and Bobby had for the kids before Christmas was over.  We hadn’t had time or mind power to get the kids anything ourselves, but we all agreed a camper on the road was what we’d all wanted most.  Just when it seemed my confidence would allow me to keep up with traffic at 65-70, the winds began.  All through Maryland and into West Virginia we were yanked this way and that, forcing us to go 55-60.

We made our first stop at the West Virginia welcome center.  Bethany went into the camper to get something and discovered the bathroom door had not been latched properly.  The cats were at large and quite at ease.  Well, that was that, then.  Actually, it was a relief.  We had hoped they could adjust enough to watch out the windows while we drove, but no-one expected this much progress in half a day. 

By now everyone was ravenous.  I could tell by the way Douglas and Fynn said such beautiful things to each other.  We determined to pull off at the next exit with food.  A mile before the exit the truck started losing power.  All of it, really.  “What’s happening?” Bethany asked, as I futilely kept tromping the gas, pulling to the side.  “I don’t know.”  The truck putt-puttered to a stop, and the battery light came on as it coughed its last and died.  “Maybe it’s the alternator.” I remembered noticing 2 weeks before that the headlights would brighten slightly when revving the truck at an idle.  I turned the key off, then on.  The truck turned over sickly but did not catch.  We looked under the hood, feeling completely inadequate at diagnostics.  My stomach was singing a mournful song of auto-cannibalism.

“Maybe having the heat on in the camper is draining the truck battery,” Bethany suggested.  “That’s run off the propane,” I said.  “The fan is electric,” she said.  “Oh, yeah, right!”  We turned off the heat.  We hauled out a compact battery charger we were bringing to give to Keren and Bobby, hooked it up, and what do you know?  VROOOM, VROOOOM, VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!  Matilda was back in action.  We revved at high idle for a while, then put it in gear and headed for the Waffle House.


“Do we turn it off?” Bethany asked in the bank parking-lot next to the Waffle House.  “Yes. If it doesn’t turn back on, we’ll figure it out.  At least we’re in a town now.”  Matilda was purring normally and if there was still a problem, I didn’t want to pussy-foot around it.

I can’t remember ever enjoying a Waffle House meal more than that.  I had a bacon-egg-n-cheese on French toast with hash-browns and everything else my family didn’t eat.  Douglas, who is normally Bethany’s gluten-free partner, was allowed to eat Waffles for Christmas.  It was bliss.

The truck started fine.  We headed into Virginia.  The wind stopped and I got up to 75.  The sunlight on the Blue Ridge mountains was glorious.  They were really blue!  And only got more so as we enjoyed a fantastic sunset.

When night settled, we received a text from Keren: Dear Douglas and Fynn, This is Santa.  If you don’t make it to Knoxville before midnight, I’m taking all your presents back up the chimney!  We laughed.  Then we noticed the running lights of the camper winking off and on in our mirrors with every bump.  We pulled off at the next exit, strapped on our headlamps, and went to investigate.  We unhooked the supply at the hitch and there it was: a bent prong in the plug.  A small flat-headed screwdriver unbent it. All the lights came on, and we were back on our way.

We got 3 miles farther before the lights started winking again.  AAAAAAAAAAH!  We took the next exit and found a well-lit gas station this time.  I crawled under the truck and began checking the truck wires surrounding the hook-up.  Two sets looked hand joined with electrical tape.  I held one and wiggled the other.  “Bethany! What are the lights doing?”  “Nothing.”  I held the other and wiggled the one.  “They’re flickering!”  I stripped and sanded the wires and twisted on a wire-nut.  Bethany fed me tools.  The lights came on and stayed on.  Not a flicker.  The store there had camper bulbs (2 were out) and we got a jar of Nutella for Fynn and a jar of Homemade Black Cherry Jam for Douglas as Christmas gifts.  We had to get them Something!

It was about 9:30 and we were back on the road.  The wire problem was fixed, and it sure explained the burning brakes on the top of that first mountain!  It looked like we’d hit Knoxville by 11:30.

At 10:30 the truck began losing power.  I tromped futilely on the gas as we putt-putted to the side of the road.  The battery light came on but the headlights didn’t dim.  This made me think it might not be the alternator.  We were out of ideas.  “Maybe it’s the timing belt,” I posed, remembering a similar incident with my dad when I was about 9.  I found out later Matilda doesn’t even have a timing belt.  “Um, I guess we pray.” I said.  We told God we didn’t know what to do and we could use some help.  We tried starting the truck.  I came to life like nothing was wrong and after a few minutes of revving we pulled back on the road, and made it into the city limits of Knoxville by 11:58.

Four hours of sleep wasn’t much to go on, considering that had been the average for the last few weeks, but we were almost there.  The impending relaxation was palpable.  Keren texted to say we shouldn’t go the route Map Quest proposed but should come a different way.  An easier way.  Now my sister is a very visual person, so things like what color gas station sign can be seen from a curve to the left, or how high the Starbucks sign goes above the trees, stick in her mind a lot easier than which direction North is and what number exit to take.  Bethany was tearing her hair out to establish where to put Map Quest down and pick up Keren’s texted fragments and clarifications.  Exit 6 was actually exit 3A which would have been the first exit after exit 5 were we going East not West.  But after a Merry tour of Knoxville’s North side and Bethany got Keren live on the phone, we were guided into the skinny lanes of Sherwood Forest, Keren and Bobby’s neighborhood.  It was 12:30.

I was able to back the camper down a hill and turn into their 40 foot drive in one shot.  The satisfaction of that helped unclench my jaw a bit, and all remaining frustration was squeezed out with bone-crushing hugs from Keren and Bobby.  It was a good landing.


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Maiden Voyage Part 1: driving with dignity


It was a dark and stormy Christmas Eve.  Unseasonably warm rain misted us relentlessly, as it had for two straight weeks.  Thick fog crept up the riverbank to cover the road, as I lowered Matilda into gear.  Douglas was already deep in his headphones, so I had Fynn climb in front to relay shouted instructions from Bethany, standing guard at the rear of the trailer.  I was skeptical we'd escape without getting wedged in the trees, or going over the bank into the river, but we pulled out, smooth as you please, in one easy shot. 

Bethany climbed in, and we let out a collective cheer, which turned quickly from "Yay!" into "Car!"  Someone approached from behind, and we thought it best to let them pass before continuing.  The car pulled up alongside, and stopped, and we realized it was Mark, the neighbor who'd be keeping an eye on the house we were leaving.  We piled back out of the truck, excited that someone else could share in our first moment of triumph.  "Your tail lights are out!" Mark said.  "What?! No!" we said.  We went to the rear.  The lights were all on.  Our immediate decision was to ignore this hiccup, and continue. 

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