Friday, September 23, 2011

Michigan Fall Foliage Tour and Visit with Uncle Darrell

This trip is planned as an 1,888 mile combination foliage tour and family visit. We'll be headed northeast to Michigan, where we'll visit Susan's Uncle Darrell and family, but we hope to see lots of beautiful fall foliage and sites along the way.

We got off to a slow start on Friday. Leaving the house at 1:30 in the afternoon got us only to Carthage, Missouri, where we spent the night at Big Red Barn RV Park. We chose this park because of its remote location 3 miles north of I-44, and its advertised promise of "No planes, no trains, or freeway noise allowed." Well, guess what? We heard a plane, a train, and plenty of freeway noise. The park is nestled in the trees just off SH 71. It's well organized and clean, but we were disappointed that it didn't live up to its claim of being quiet. The traffic noise from the state highway was as annoying as I-44. But, we enjoyed a nice surprise while there; we ran into members of the Cedar Creek RV Owners’ Association of which we are former members and got acquainted with chapter president, Harold Dean.

The next morning, after a fine breakfast of waffles and bacon, we were back on the Interstate headed towards Illinois. Susan has traveled this way many times before, but it makes my first trip through the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. We caught a glimpse of the Great Mississippi and the St. Louis Arch as we skirted around St. Louis.

Missouri vegetation is lush and green, unlike Oklahoma’s, but has not yet began to change into fall colors. After crossing the Illinois state line, we contacted The Double J Campground & RV Park and made reservations for the night.

Although the park has only gravel sites, we found it to be one of the nicest parks we’ve visited. It’s situated in Chatham, Illinois, just south of Springfield and on Historic Route 66. It has plenty of large, mature trees and the staff is very friendly. In fact, we hope to return there on the way home and visit Abraham Lincoln’s residence and Presidential Library, which we learned was nearby from the park staff.

Driving through the state of Illinois reminded me of Kansas; it's one of those states you just have to drive through to reach your destination. Note: The following picture was taken by my lovely wife, Susan. She's becoming quite the photographer, don't you agree?

We did, however, see some interesting things at an Illinois rest area. A caravan of classic cars pulled in followed by a 2003 50th Anniversary Corvette. Susan and I bought a new Anniversary Edition Vette in August 2003, but later sold it because of the toll it was taking on our backs. Ours was a convertible with a six-speed stick, which kept me feeling youthful.

Back on the road and headed toward Indiana and into Michigan.

We drove only about 40 miles through Indiana before reaching Michigan. The landscape changed as soon as we reached the state line, and Michigan's vegitation reminds me of a combination of Missouri and Colorado - oaks intermeshed with pines and spruce.

Our destination is Spring Lake, Michigan (Uncle Darrell’s home), but we’ll stay in Muskegon, which is about 16 miles north of Spring Lake. We’ll travel State Highway 31 North, which follows the west side of the state along Lake Michigan. Seeing one of the Great Lakes is also a first for me. I should get out more!

We called ahead and made reservations at Duck Creek RV Resort. We regularly use RV Park Reviews, to locate a suitable location. The reviews in the Spring Lake area strongly discouraged us from staying there, so we opted to commute the 16 miles. The town of Spring Lake is actually part of a tri-city complex, which includes Grand Haven, Fruitport, and Spring Lake. The area is simply beautiful. It’s mostly a tourist community because of its proximity to the Lake Michigan shore, but it also host the Lake Michigan Coast Guard Port (Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan)

We were pleased upon arriving at Duck Creek RV Resort. This is not your typical RV park. It’s an upscale resort designed for luxury RV accommodations. Because the snow begins to fall in early November, the parks tend to close in mid to late October, and September is the beginning of the “off season” for RV travel in this area. With over 150 sites, only 10-15 rigs were present in the park. So, we had our choice of sites and plenty of room for Maynard to play.

The park is situated directly across from “Michigan’s Adventures,” a popular amusement park in the area.

The RV sites all have concrete pads with fire rings and driveways for your tow vehicle.

The grass is green and lush and the trees are slightly turning to their fall colors. We’re hoping to see more color in the foliage as we head further north up the Michigan Peninsula later in the week.

Once we unhooked the truck and began setting up the coach, we discovered the kitchen slide caught on one of the drawers. While driving through Indiana, a car entering onto the Interstate pulled out in front of us without yielding (this is one of my biggest complaints about other drivers - they fail to realize the danger of pulling out in front of a 27,500 lb. GCWR vehicle and its inability to quickly stop). When I applied the brakes to avoid a collision, everything in the coach must have shifted forward, including the kitchen drawer. When Susan opened the slide, she noticed it opening at an angle and called me. I realized the slide had pulled the drawer loose and bent the drawer slide. Fortunately, I was able to repair it on site. It seems we learn valuable lessons on every trip; check every angle around the slides before opening or closing!

On our first night in Michigan, Susan’s cousins, Dennis and family, prepared a wonderful dinner for us. Dennis is a dentist in Grand Haven and he and his family live in a lovely 7,000+ square foot home, which was built in 1924.

The next day we joined Uncle Darrell and his friend, Eunice, for lunch and a visit to the local VFW Post, where Darrell is the former commander. Darrell took us to the community park to see where the new Fallen Heroes Monument will soon be built. It will be a tribute to the our lost soldiers of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle Eastern Wars. The VFW is raising $130,000 to finance the monument. A monument dedicated to the fallen soldiers of WWI is situated at the opposite end of the park. We’re very proud of, and grateful to, Uncle Darrell, because he is a decorated veteran of three wars, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.

Later in the day, Susan and I made our way to Meijer’s (pronounced “Meyer’s, but aka “Mee-jer’s). Susan had told me about Meijer’s for the past 14 years. When her parents came to visit Uncle Darrell, who by the way is Susan’s mother’s brother, her father would make several shopping trips to Meijer’s. It’s similar to a WalMart Super Center, but appears to have a larger assortment of items ranging from clothing to RV supplies. Susan has often said that when we visit Michigan we’ll have to shop at “Meejer’s.”

We began our second full day in Michigan with a 100 mile trip north to Manistee. Now, why would we want to travel an additional 100 miles after coming so far? To gamble at the nearest casino; what else? Uncle Darrell and Eunice picked us up at the RV park on their way. This gave us a chance to view the foliage as we went further north up the peninsula. Michigan’s highways and rest areas are meticulously maintained to complement the beauty of the state. And yes, the color of the foliage did change as we traveled north. Well, Suz and I will still have to pay for the trip out of pocket. The Little River Casino didn’t pay off for either of us.

On the way back to Muskegon, we stopped off for lunch in Ludington, Michigan. Both Darrell and Eunice knew Leo Luciano, chef and owner of Luciano’s Restaurant. Excellent spaghetti and sauce!

After lunch, we visited Mears State Park, where we were able to get a closer look at the shore of Lake Michigan. We then returned to the coach for a quiet evening of television.

Our final day in and around Spring Lake and Grand Haven consisted of a nice visit with Uncle Darrell and a self-guided tour of the community.

Because we are RV enthusiasts, Susan and I are often drawn to the many makes and models of RVs we see on the road. But the one we spotted across from the park in Grand Haven has to be the most peculiar RV we've ever seen:

We ended with dinner at “Mia & Grace Bistro and Bakery.” Cousin Dennis and his wife, Pam, are part-owners of the business. Pam's son, Jeremy, and his wife, Jamie (below left), are the chefs and operators of the Bistro. The name of the Bistro is derived from the names of Jeremy and Jamie's daughter, Mia, and Uncle Darrell's late wife and Cousin Dennis' mother, Grace.

We’ve now been gone a full week and we’ll be leaving Michigan on the 8th day of our trip headed home. However, we’re going to stop in Springfield, Illinois and visit the home and presidential library and museum of Abraham Lincoln.

We found the library to be mostly a research facility. But the museum, which is located directly across the street, is a magnificent 40,000 square foot interactive experience that illustrates President Lincoln’s life from boyhood to his assassination.

Because we spent over 3 hours viewing the artifacts and holographic presentations on display, Susan and I didn’t have time to visit Lincoln’s private residence, his tomb, or his law office, nor did we get a chance to tour the Air Combat Museum. Hopefully, there will be opportunity for another trip to Springfield sometime in the future.

Tonight, we’ll dine at the “Hen House Family Restaurant & Gift Shop” in Springfield (6009 S. 6th Street). They have a “fried fish special,” featuring all you can eat walleye for $8.95. Excellent!

We’ll leave Springfield early Saturday morning and head for Branson, Missouri. We’re scheduled to stay the first night at America’s Best Campground (ABC). We’ve heard good reports on this facility and want to compare it to our usual campground, Branson KOA. It will be hard to beat the KOA because it has “luxury accommodations,” including concrete drives, patios, furniture, and chimineas. Additionally, the KOA serves a hot breakfast in the community building just walking distance from our coach.

While in Branson, we’ll take in a show and do some shopping. We have two substitute tickets for the show “Six.” Because of my unexpected illness last trip to Branson (kidney stones), we missed the show and the box office kindly replaced our tickets. We generally visit the Amish store and always buy a pair or two of New Balance shoes while shopping at Branson Landing.

The wet Michigan and Illinois highways dirtied the rig, so we stopped at an “Eighteen Wheeler” truck wash for a quick shampoo and rinse. We generally use “Blue Beacon,” but a search on the iPhone didn’t locate one nearby.

We finally arrived in Branson around 7 pm and checked into the ABC campground. Not what we expected! All gravel sites and congested. We were so tired and disappointed that we left the truck and trailer hitched for a quick getaway the next morning. But before leaving, we met several fellow Heartland RV owners at the campground. They were holding a Missouri owners’ rally. Suz and I are scheduled to attend the Texas Heartland rally next week. We learned from this group that the National Rally will be held in Gillette, Wyoming next year, and we hope to work it into our travel schedule.

Upon arriving at the Branson KOA, we were honored with a bottle of wine in recognition of our customer loyalty to the park. We felt a little guilty staying at ABC the night before, but we told the management “we’ll never do it again.” The Branson KOA will remain our “home away from home” when in Branson. We regularly reserve a “luxury site,” which includes a concrete patio and all accessories, including a fireplace. It may cost a little bit more, but we’ve found it to be well worth it.

The trees in Branson are beginning to change into their vibrant fall colors. The weather is beautiful with light winds, and high temperatures in the 70s and lows in the 40s. We’ve extended the awning and plan a fire on the patio for this evening.

I’ve been coming to Branson as an adult since 1976, and I remember nothing on Highway 76 but motels, restaurants, and country music shows. Now, the highway is lined with minature golf courses, crashed airplanes, and monkeys climbing tall buildings. Whatever happened to the Branson I used to know?

If you visit Branson, the best breakfast can be found at “Belgian Waffle and Pancake House.”

Not only is the food good, but the place is clean! I often gauge the “cleanliness” of a restaurant by the dust on the light fixtures – No dust here!

Only in Branson will you find both Mexican and Chinese food served in the same restaurant.

Susan and I had lunch at “McFarlands,” a popular restaurant with the older crowd. The picture below is the “trick table,” which slowly and unexpectedly rises as the patrons enjoy their meal.

No trip to Branson is complete without a visit to the “Amish Country Store.” They carry the best preserves around.

Susan and I dined the final night of our trip (also my birthday) at “Paradise Steakhouse & Grill.” The sign boasts: “Best Tasting Steaks.” We agree! After dinner, we took in a music show with the tickets we had from last spring’s trip. If you recall, we had tickets to see the show “SIX,” but I ended up in the emergency room with a kidney stone and had to skip the show. “SIX” stands for the 6 brothers who sing acapella without the aid of any instruments. They’re fantastic and a “must see” if you make it to Branson.

Finally, I thought I’d share the “before” and “after” pics of Maynard. This picture was taken early in the trip:

This picture was taken the day before we returned:

Obviously, Maynard is not quite the traveler he claims to be!

For those of you interested in statistics, our trip to Michigan to view the fall foliage and visit Uncle Darrell resulted in 2,346.90 actual miles driven. Our 2011 Chevrolet Silverado 3500HD Duramax consumed 227.00 gallons of diesel and averaged 10.30 gallons per mile. Our coach is a 2012 Landmark San Antonio, built by Heartland Recreational Vehicles, LLC, and measures 40'11" in length, 12'11" high, and at the time of departure, weighed 15,300 lbs.

Many have asked: “Why do the two of you travel so much?” And our response is: “Because we’re spending our kids’ inheritance just as fast as we can!” The following photo is the plate fastened to the front bumper of the Silverado:

Be sure to watch for the next segment of "The Adventure," as Susan and I depart for Canton, Texas and attend our first Heartland Owners' Rally. Maynard's eager to go!

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