Assateague National Seashore
In Maryland, which is roughly half of the peninsula between the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, we drive to its southern tip for an afternoon and night at the beach. The Assateague barrier island is designated a national seashore and thus managed by the NPS. It is a strip of dunes and marshes, and inhabited by plenty of wildlife including shore birds and its most famous mammals; the Assateague horses. As we settle into our campsite right behind the dune (gorgeous!) the boys need a split second to pull out their shovel and other tools to play in the sand, while Sven fixes the vent engine.
The sun is shining, but the wind is giving it a bit of a chill, so unfortunately we can not get into our shorts and lie in the sun, but the weather is perfect for playing and exploring. And apparently good enough for a few of the wild horses to come through the campsite and roam around – mostly looking for food left out by campers – and show off their beauty. As sand has crept in every corner of the boys’ clothes, they have earned a COLD shower to wash it all off, which they take with great spirits and a little bit of squealing 😊. We spend the evening with some JR work and a game of Skip Bo proudly won by Bo of course and look back on a great day in the dunes!
Slavery in the US; Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas
Driving out of Maryland towards Washington D.C., we cross through the marshes and farming lands that were once the backdrop of heavy slavery. A network to escape from this life called ‘the Underground Railroad’ (URR) had stations and people here to help those who were ready to risk their life and escape their owners to the state of Pennsylvania. Born into slavery and raised here, and a key player in the fight for equal (women, African-American, human) rights was Harriet Tubman, for whom an inspiring NHS is set up.
We have come into contact with the concept of the URR already on several destinations of our travel, and even had a separate JR book for the network itself, and so we now finally had the chance to hand that in for a beautiful patch. The site itself talks about Harriet’s life, how she escaped from slavery by herself when she ran the risk of being sold off (even though she was married to a free black man!) and then set her mind to rescue her loved ones, going back and forth between Maryland and Pennsylvania over a dozen times. She even joined the army during the Civil War (of course on the side of those to abolish slavery) and led a raid that would be of great help to the cause and which would free approximately 750 slaves at the same time.
With many a part of the network we aimed to visit another African American NHS, the home of Frederick Douglas. Unfortunately as we roll up to the parking lot in the late afternoon the entire site seems closed off… So we decide to drive on to the Potomac River in the middle of Washington DC to park in the park and watch the sunset from there. Incredibly, you can actually park your RV in the middle of the National Mall after 10pm and the whole of Sunday for free, so our arrival on Friday sets us up for a great weekend of sightseeing in the US capital!
Washington DC – White House & National Mall
As we have to leave our downtown parking spot at 7am, it is an early rise for us today. But with a full itinerary it is not a bad thing to start early in Washington DC! We park again in East Potomac park, this time at the golf course as the gates to the further road are still closed, and after breakfast we get on hour bikes to explore the capital of the US. First stop is of course the White House Visitor Center where we get an introduction of the house, its inhabitants and long history (over 200 years!). From the visitor center we walk around the block where the White House lies, to get a view from all angles and explore the parks surrounding it.
From here it is time to tackle the ‘National Mall’, and all of its memorials. This is quite a task, as with every memorial there is a JR exercise to be done, and new things to be learned. Most are for presidents, but the war memorials are also very impressive especially as war veterans visit them when we are there (including a WWII one!). Best thing is that the weather is absolutely gorgeous, having us put on our shorts again in the afternoon, and the crowds are very light so we can take our bikes almost everywhere.
Halfway through the afternoon we make the dash across the Potomac river, and on to the Arlington Cemetery with the Arlington House. As we get through security and make our way up the hill to the house, we take in the beautiful view across Washington DC, and dive into the story of slavery that has its roots here. Unfortunately the location closes earlier than we expected so it feels a bit rushed, but the bike ride out was absolutely worth it. As we ride back through the Theodore Roosevelt Island and along the Potomac river we take the city in once again. After a quick dinner we decide to take the RV for a nighttime spin to see the monuments lighted up after dark, which again gives a different impression.
DC Day 2: Highlights and a big low
With another good night, we are able to leave our RV in its spot as it is Sunday and parking across DC is free. We take our bikes again and leave early to get in line for tickets of the Washington Monument, which are going fast and leave us with a timed entry at 3:30. Plenty of other things to do, we ride our bikes to the Capitol, which is not open on Sunday but impressive to ride around nonetheless! From there we ride to the Eisenhower Memorial, the one big one we still had left on the list, and then along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Ford’s Theatre.
This is the site where Abraham Lincoln (the president during the Civil War) was murdered while visiting a play in the theatre. While the theatre is still in uses as such, the basement of the theatre is set up as a museum on the event of the murder and paints a good picture of what DC was like at the time of Abraham Lincoln. The boys need to figure out the murder complot through their JR work, and the last part of the visit is the actual presidential balcony from which the murderer jumped to get away (he was caught a few days later and executed on the spot). From here, we ride to the Post Office Tower for a view across DC (the 2nd tallest building), and then back to the RV for lunch.
For the afternoon we have a treat for the boys; The International SPY museum! The entire museum is built around espionage through the ages, teaches you skills to become a spy and gives you through an interactive card the opportunity to conclude a mission of your own while you visit the museum. Having only covered 2/3rd of the first floor it is time to pull out for our visit of the Washington Monument, but thankfully we can still come back after this. The Monument (the tallest structure in DC) is a really great experience as you get whisked up into an elevator – accompanied by a humorous video – and get rewarded with 360 views of all the places we have visited these days. On the way down the elevator slows down along some of the honorary stones on the inside of the monument, giving it a nice extra touch as you leave again.
Before going back to the museum we decide to quickly grab a snack from the RV, and as we open the door we realize… somebody has been in here! As we scan the RV we find out the passenger door lock has been tampered with, and they have stolen some electronics and a backpack we left on the bed… :-(. It must have been a quick sweep as fortunately many important things (passports, creditcards, laptop) were left alone, but still as we tally the cost it goes very fast… PLUS the cost of fixing the lock of course! Such a frustrating experience, and with one of the stolen items being Luc’s brand new tablet, the boys are also really sad.
We still decide to finish our visit of the museum – Sven stays with the RV – to get a bit of distraction from the whole ordeal and enjoy the fantastic museum. When we get back the couple that parked in front of us comes back to their van and we have a chat about the break in, before all deciding it is part of the risk we take, and thankfully we were not there to experience it. We of course make a dash for the countryside, and while it has left us a bit sour, DC was a great city to visit!
In desperate need of fresh air and a different scenery, we drive onto the Skyline drive of the Shenandoah National Park, a park that covers a part of the Blue Ridge Mountains alongside the Shenandoah river… Everybody sing in one, two, three; “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountain, Shenandoah riiiver” :-). We roll into a thick morning fog as we scout the visitor center for some stamps, JR books and a recommendation on a day hike in the park. As we drive along the skyline drive for an hour over the ridge of the mountain to the trailhead the fog clears however and the sun comes out to greet us.
The day hike the ranger suggested is an 8-mile hike down and then up the mountain, along 2 separate streams and a handful of waterfalls. With our packs full of food and water we start the descend through a gorgeous autumn valley along a rocky path. Then it is a short cut along the mountain before starting the steep climb up! Ouf, we are clearly a bit out of practice, but the hike gets our blood pumping and our lungs filled with fresh air, which does help in forgetting the car theft. We see 2 snakes, deer, squirrels, groundhogs and chipmunks along the way, and soak our feet in the stream when we make it to the top of the waterfall.
We realize we prefer the reverse; first the climb, then the descend, but for now we will have to power through or we will not make it back to the RV. Back in Jerry we roll into the visitor center for badges and stamps, and a movie about the park, before heading to the campsite for a dump of our tanks and a much needed shower. With a coin-operated shower we take the family shower and high speed our washing ritual (good practice for at home to save energy), and come out all refreshed and smelling good – ready for bed.
Harpers Ferry NHS
Of course we still have the case of the broken lock on our hands (although the lock does work), so we action the insurance – which does not cover the first 500 dollars in repairs.. – and ask a Ford dealer what the status is. Thankfully it is only the key cylinder they smashed, so now it is key – pun intended – to find the part and get somebody to fix it. A Ford dealer on our way has the part thankfully but no time to fix it, so we are halfway through our solution. We fill up our gas first before rolling out of the state of Virginia, and then drive north towards our NPS site of the day; Harpers Ferry.
The town of Harpers Ferry is basically an outdoor museum, with a small part of it restored and open to the public. It is know for several things: A symbol of industrialization (it is at the tip between two big rivers, providing enough hydro power to run mills and other machinery), a crossroads of the big travel west (with the Potomac river cutting through the Blue Ridge mountains the easiest spot to cross) and the site of the John Brown rebellion that sparked the debate around slavery that started the Civil War. Most Americans come here for the latter, but it is quite remarkable to hear the story before this of a town that was booming.
We visit the buildings, but the best part is a talk done by the Park Ranger about the town and that fateful day when John Brown decided to raid the armory (one of 2 armories in the country!) and start a rebellion of slaves to put an end to slavery. Long story short; he failed and the whole thing was over in 36 hours, but his trial became a nationally broadcasted affair that caused so much disturbance it ended up starting the Civil War. That war, and several floods brought the town back from 3,000 (more than San Francisco back then!) people to a few hundred, and the town never recovered. We thoroughly enjoyed the visit, and satisfied we go back to the visitor center with the provided shuttle. Next stop: The Ford dealer for the new key cylinder.
RV fix & Gettysburg NHS
Challenge of the day: Getting our lock fixed! When we arrive at the RV center where we have an appointment, it turns out they are not able to fix the chassis/Ford part of our car and thus not the lock in the door… We are redirected to the Ford dealer in Hagerstown, 10 miles south where of course their schedule is fully booked. We then head out to a car repair business that has no slot available neither, and sends us to a car repair in the neighborhood where we miraculously are immediately helped at an excellent rate! HURRAY!! This means we are fully ready to continue our journey with a fixed RV before noon…
The destination is thus Gettysburg NHS, the number 1 battlefield in the US where supposedly the battle was fought that turned around the civil war. To visit the site you are confronted with 2 parties; the NPS and the Gettysburg foundation. The first manages the site and gives free ranger talks on several topics throughout the park, while the Gettysburg Foundation runs the museum, movie and tour – at an extra fee. We opt for the free self-guided auto tour across the battlefield (which Sven of course rides on his bike again :-)), and take part in a ranger-led tour around the Culp Hill.
Thankfully the weather clears up and the afternoon is thus spent in soft autumn weather, with a walk, a drive and a fresh batch of NPS badges. We also learn that the Gettysburg battlefield attracts some real history buffs that have read up on the topic and are keen to figure out more while walking the grounds. While the guided walk helps us to make the site come alive, but we guess that historical significance is a little bit lost on us – guess we should have paid for the movie? We end the day however on a beautiful free camp spot on top of a hill in the state forest, where the boys play some more outside before calling it a day.
Disaster day: Flight 93 Memorial and Johnstown Floods
Today we drive through Pennsylvania on our way to the next state on our list: Ohio. On the way there are two NPS sites on the books, that coincidentally are both around the theme of disasters. One very recent; the crash site and memorial for Flight 93 of 9/11, and the other not so recent about the floods of Johnstown in 1889. To get there we chose to take the highways again instead of the interstates, which takes us through the hills of the state and some beautiful autumn scenery. As we arrive at the Flight 93 memorial, the sun is out, but the winds is icy and cuts through our sweaters like a knife; time to wear a jacket again!
The memorial is again a very impressive site where the visitor center has done a great job at telling the story without emphasizing the horrors too much. Combined with a Junior Ranger book, our boys can really get into the details and especially the elements of hope and heroism that are woven into it, without losing sight of the personal dramas that have happened on that dreadful morning. Combined with the 9/11 workshop museum in New York and driving past the Pentagon and Capitol , we get a really good idea of the magnitude of that day and what it has meant for the US and the world over.
At the Johnstown flood site, the disaster is of a different magnitude and certainly a different era. It tells the story of a dam breaking during a period of unrelenting rain, which causes an enormous flood through the valley that practically destroys the entire town of Johnstown and 2209 (estimated) of its inhabitants in one 10 minute swoop. The visitor center is set at the site of the dam, and has a very impressive (PG rated!) movie about the drama, which leaves the boys very impressed and a bit shaken. Thankfully we come from a country with great dam builders so we can easily take away any concern for their lives :-). We drive a bit longer into the night to not waste time the next day, and park the RV in a quiet fairground well after dark…
Next week: From Ohio to the South