The old Chevy ZR2 idles as we check tail lights, then brake lights on first the truck and then the little motorcycle pop-up camper. We’ll roll out of the driveway with windows down – an homage to years of top-down travelling on two lane roads in a Miata and later a Mustang GT convertible with a tent, a stove, and a couple of sleeping bags. Following six months of chasing minor electrical gremlins, upgrading lights, resurrecting a camper cover which came out of a farmer’s back yard complete with a rack system for $150, adding leather upholstery to an otherwise pristine interior, building out a small organization system for the truck bed, performing a major tune-up, installing new Dick Cepek Trail Country EXPs - replacing tires for the first time since a previous owner did so in 2011, servicing the transmission, differentials, and the transfer case, and chasing missing skid plates while slowly venturing further from home on a few trips to see just what the old girl brings to the party, we hope she’s ready.
A couple of business trips to Nashville, some trips up into the Cherokee National Forest in search of trout and forest service roads, and an annual rendezvous with dear friends down on Tybee Island – six hours from home – show us some her capabilities. Unlike today’s V-6s, the 262 cubic inch Chevy - really just a venerable small block V-8 with either the front or rear two cylinders chopped off, depending upon whom you’re talking with - neither swims nor flies. It’s got the power of a four cylinder and the gas mileage of a V-8. With 3.73 gearing, 70 mph is okay, but she’s really more comfortable between 55 and 65. It leaks a little. My mechanic reminded me, “welcome back to old Chevys”. But it’s not enough to be an issue and there’s no payments, for which there’s much to be said. Just a blue-highway truck for a blue highway kind of guy.
There’s a little Aspen pop-up camper, small and light enough to be pulled by those big Honda cruisers. We purchased it because we were tired of sleeping on the ground and our former travelling companion – that 300 hp Mustang GT – could not, I swear to you, pull more than 1000 pounds gross. There’s a Goal Zero Yeti 400 with the car charger for the CPAP machine, and a Fuji XT-1 with 16-55/2.8 zoom lens – the smaller, lighter, more capable version of the Nikon F3s of a former pro photographer’s younger days. A classic Coleman camp stove, a fancy new cooler, a couple of chairs, a couple of sleeping bags, a lightweight folding table, 5 gallons of water, a couple of toolboxes for both the truck and the trailer, and some supplies. It’s been whittled down quite a bit so we can see how everything behaves if we only have a couple of hundred pounds of stuff in the back of the truck and maybe another couple of hundred in the back of the little trailer. Because of a couple of years of health issues for both of us, the little trailer has not seen much use, just a few weekend trips with friends. We’re a bit weaker than when we bought it from a retired Fed Ex pilot who took it to California and back behind his Goldwing, so we need to see if the routine of setting it up and taking it down is more than we want to bargain for now. Hopefully it’s not. If it is, we’ll rethink our needs, not our desire to roam for increasingly longer trips with more time spent off-grid.
The route has been planned, consulting Google’s mighty glowing screen and transferring the information to folding paper maps. We’re old school that way. We’ll be working from paper maps for this trip as we try to assess some digital options on our smartphones before deciding whether to go with a new tablet or an all-out GPS. Or neither. We’ll keep a log in a well-worn 2010 US atlas just so we can remember where we’ve been – adding the trip to the others in our memory banks.
Other than hunting between overdrive, fourth, third, and occasionally second while climbing the Cumberland Plateau on cruise control, the truck drove unremarkably – as it should. Quickly learning that transmission shifting could be minimized on long uphill grades by using the right-foot cruise control, we found our comfort zone around 60 mph on the two-lane farm roads of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana. From Chattanooga across the verdant Cumberland Plateau to Cookeville on state road 111 then northward to Dale Hollow Lake and on through central Kentucky, skirting the west side of Louisville and crossing the Ohio River into Indiana at Paynesville, the old truck rumbled.
Already an overcast-to-flat partly cloudy early in the morning, the skies grew increasingly restless as we drove northwards, breaking occasionally and finally letting loose around 3 pm with the first of several thunderstorms we encountered. We had planned on setting up camp at McCormick’s Creek State Park but those late afternoon thunderstorms grew increasingly nasty, and the weather radio noted they included the threat of tornadoes, which caused us to rethink our plans. We ended up in an airbnb in Bloomington with lightening cracking around us. It should be one of our longer days at 360 miles, give or take.
Tomorrow, the farm roads of Indiana will lead north past the fields of emergent stalks of corn – a symbol of the state’s agricultural past and present as we amble up US 231, Indiana 43, and US 431 towards the Michigan border where we track the western coastline to some friends’ summer house in Pentwater.
Then a quiet couple of days catching up, getting some provisions, and maybe unlimbering a 7’ bamboo fly rod of my own making on the Manistee River. The trout have no worries, though.
From Pentwater, a couple of hours north to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore for one night and some exploration and landscape photography before wandering through Traverse City’s cherry heritage the next day on the way to the Upper Peninsula and Brimley for a couple of nights, allowing us to wander up to Whitefish Bay and say howdy to Sault St. Marie on the way in or out. Tracing the beginnings of Michigan’s eastern coast, we’ll set up camp in Cheboygan for another couple of nights with our oldest son-in-law’s parents joining us. We’ll be taking the ferry to Mackinac Island and hopefully we’ll also enjoy one of Michigan State Park’s Dark Sky programs. From there, we wander south along the eastern coast to Bay City where we’ll camp while checking out the German food and American kitsch of Frankenmuth before venturing further south and inland to Grand Ledge where our younger son-in-law’s mother lives. From Grand Ledge, it’s due south, criss-crossing the Ohio – Indiana border until crossing back into Kentucky for a couple or three distillery tours in Bardstown. We’ve been advised to save the distillery closest to My Old Kentucky Home State Park’s campground until last as the hospitality folks there tend towards heavy pours. My kind of day. Homeward next, past both Abe Lincoln’s birthplace and boyhood homes, back across the Cumberland to return to a doctor’s appointment and a meeting with someone who’s advising us on Medicare options before checking back in to work after July 4th.
Or not. The more we travel, the better retirement looks. At least that was what was on my mind as we pulled out of the driveway.