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Travels around the world (with Beth and Chris)

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The Lexington

It is August of 2020. Chris is getting restless. We are literally in the middle of a pandemic, which means, among other things, wearing masks, social distancing, and no international (or domestic) air travel. This is a problem. Enter…..The Lexington – our 25 foot 13 year old home on wheels. Late summer and early fall, we spend a bit of time lovingly making it ours. Chris outfits us with new batteries, solar panels, a cute little propane grill, plenty of charging cords, and of course a plethora of essential tools. I add the cat pillow, garlic press, wine glasses, a French press, Instant pot, thick towels, bamboo sheets, and the requisite Beth afghan. He seals up leaks and clears out old (and I’m praying inactive) mouse nests. I stock the pantry and light up the essential oils diffuser. After a couple of trial runs in the Adirondacks, in early December we load our ancient and trusty pets Izzy and Hazel into The Lexington and take off on (no, not a three hour tour), a six month journey across the country and back.

After getting our “RV legs” traveling down the east coast (via Virginia for a visit with my brother Eric and the Josie Smith family), and spending Christmas and New Year’s with Baba in Jupiter, Florida, we head out. 

We take our time getting through Florida. We head west toward the first of several Harvest Host experiences – The Bee Barn. Harvest Host is a “club” of small businesses that have a place (or places) for RVers to land for a night,  usually dry camping. 

As a guest, you patronize their business. It really is a win- win since we had experiences we would not have encountered otherwise – and often found a place to “park it” on a Saturday or Sunday when the state campgrounds were not always readily available. One such stop was Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tour near Lafayette, Louisiana. After backing The Lexington onto a grassy area alongside the water’s edge, we settled Izzy in, donned our masks and beat it over to the tour dock. We climbed into the long low boat socially distanced from a few other people and saw the first alligator (he was sunning himself on the grassy green fringe of vegetation just a few yards away). Our knowledgeable guide maneuvered amongst the knobby-kneed cypress trees and gave us a fascinating tour inside the Cajun swamp. He talked about the growth of the trees, migration of birds, and explained the difference between a swamp and bayou, but did not answer the question of whether he was Born on the Bayou or not.

We have another Saturday night with no available campsites to be found around Oklahoma City. We decide to call Michael, the Harvest Host of “Awesome Acres Pacas and Pyrs”. Yes, we can come park at his place and learn about his expressive fluffy alpacas and gigantic protective Great Pyrenees dogs (they are leaners!). The weather has been rainy, and his unpaved driveway is proof of that. We don our sturdy shoes for a tour of the farm.  Immediately we are greeted by Lola (and yes, Michael did sing a verse or two of the Kinks) the great white Pyrenees dog and she WANTS to be scratched so I oblige. Somehow, she understands that Izzy is not even a little bit of a threat to her charges, so all is good. Michael explains a bit about the personable alpacas, their fleece and how it is processed, and how he came to fall in love with these genial creatures with their buck teeth and their humming noises. We are rounding the corner into the pasture, and lo and behold, the gates separating the boys and girls are open. And you guessed it, we have an “unscheduled” mating going on. I start laughing and ask Michael if they are supposed to be doing that…..long pause…..”no.” (I suggested that if a baby alpaca resulted, maybe he could name it Lexington. I think he might consider it.). We observe the entertaining feeding frenzy of dinner, have our own dinner of the surprisingly delicious gas station pizzeria (ingredients made from scratch!) down the road. Price of admission here was an expensive pair of soft alpaca socks for me and a colorful soft beanie hat for Chris – well worth the visit!

I never understood the expression “big sky” as fully as when we were visiting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. Every day, out west, the cloudless sky was a phenomenal shade of brilliant blue, a backdrop for the Texan Guadalupe Mountains, the saguaro cacti silhouettes of Tucson, the red rocks ranging from the Mojave Desert to Sedona. At night the vastness of the open unpolluted pitch black sky was filled with a myriad of stars (Joshua Tree at night is a sight to see, for sure!). The lack of puffy white clouds, however, makes for super dry air. On the plus side, the single digit humidity levels and minimal water make for well preserved historic sites. Our skin and noses weren’t so happy.  One unusual day, the sky got quite grey. The wind picked up and Chris “argued” with the steering wheel of The Lexington. We were surrounded by the usual desert landscape and mountains in the distance. The impending rain was palpable. Eventually, the downpour came and with it, the most incredible fragrance. I was inhaling as deeply as I ever have trying to absorb the unique and extraordinary – and short-lived – musky aroma of this medicinal desert herb creosote (or gobernadora in Spanish meaning governess of the desert). The desert after a rain is an intense sensory experience for the eyes, ears, and especially the nose!

Coast of Southern California, from San Diego to Pismo Beach . There’s nothing like it. I could try to describe having a “front row seat” on the Pacific Ocean at South Carlsbad State Beach Campground for two nights where we absorbed the sunset, rocky cliffs, pounding waves, and a school of dolphins. I could explain the perfectly dotted anemones and pearly shells demonstrating a pure Fibonacci pattern – both found along the beach of Malibu. I could express the breezy freedom of riding our bikes on the hard packed sand of Pismo Beach, and the beautiful drive up the coast where we spotted an Osprey (vertical take-off military plane) flying over the Pacific These are the waypoints along the alluring coast of Southern California, where we moored The Lexington – please see photos for what words cannot describe these spots, and also the places in between.

Now for the Q and A section of the blog!

Q: Did you eat out a lot?

A: No, for lots of reasons. There was a pandemic, so we were limiting our time in public. Also, I had a perfectly good (although VERY small) kitchen available right in The Lexington. We ate homemade pizza, tacos, grilled chicken salad, Instant Pot lasagna, IP goulash, Morgan’s IP soy/ginger chicken recipe, chicken French (once using gigantic juicy fresh lemons bought from beautiful Hispanic Mary at a roadside stand in California), even occasionally popcorn for dinner. BUT if there is any interest in where the best BBQ EV-VER is located, it would be Black’s Barbeque in Austin Texas – drool, drool.

Q: What was your favorite part of the trip?

A: Impossible to answer….So many highlights. I would first answer: the coast of southern California, then I’d remember Sedona Red Rock State Park and the Petrified Forest where we spent many hours with our friends Chuck and Barb – laughing until we cried – who we intersected by chance in Sedona. The vibrant colors and textures of the southwest. But how can we leave out the many faces of Joshua Tree, or the medjool date shakes outside of Coachella? Then there were the Gila Cliff Dwellings in Gila National Forest. Who could forget  the mighty Grand Canyon? Finding the “hidden” cave we schooched into to see the ancient petroglyphs- and on and on and on!!!

Q: What is the most unusual campground name?

A: It’s a tie.

Hungry Mother State Park is a beautiful wooded area in Virginia where we had a creekside campsite. Apparently, some 200 or more years ago, a woman named Molly Marley and her small child were taken captive by Native Americans who had raided their settlement. Molly and her child escaped into the woods, eating berries to sustain themselves until Mary collapsed and died. The child eventually found the settlement, cried out, “Hungry mother!” and led the settlers to Molly’s body.

Tate’s Hell State Forest is a sprawling, desolate and lonely area south of Tallahassee, Florida. Think deliverance and banjo players. After stopping in Tallahassee for a very quick outside, masks-on, socially distanced visit with Chris’ cousin Susan and her husband Jim, we set the navigation for Womack Creek Campground in Tate’s Hell State Forest. We drove along the gulf coast and laughed about the Ho Hum RV Park – “thank God we aren’t staying there!” Eventually we ended up in someone’s sideyard, where the homeowners came out amused at The Lexington being where it was. “Your campground is about half a mile across the creek. Please tell SOMEONE to correct Google maps. Back past the Ho Hum, past the correctional facility and down a narrow dirt road with plenty of potholes. Chris said “I see tire tracks, this must be it!” I called the ranger who called another ranger who, as we were passing the shot out stop sign and a bee aviary told us we were almost there. An hour and a half trip turned into a three and a half hour trip. We found our site, the only campers in the place (guess we didn’t need those reservations) except for the camp host. As I said, the place was DESOLATE! I was able to get one bar of cell coverage, so I texted my sister-in-law, Sandra to give her our location – you know, just in case…The legend of the name goes like this. Years ago, a farmer named Cebe Tate went into the woods with his hunting dogs and a shotgun in search of a predatory panther that was killing his livestock. He got lost in the swampy forest, was bitten by a snake, and drank from the mucky swamp water. After about a week, the dehydrated  disoriented farmer stumbled out of the forest and exclaimed “My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell!”, collapsed and died. 

Q: Did you stay in Walmart parking lots?

A: Yes! But only once. We found Alex through HipCamp and we were his first visitors. There were two enormous dogs who were determined to keep us company which was fine until the door was blocked by the behemoth dogs. This massive 60 room adobe compound dates from 1810, is one of the oldest houses in the southwest and was a million acre ranch back in its heyday from 1880 to 1920. Alex suggested that we keep our eye on the weather since there was a cold, snowy, blowing forecast scheduled to arrive the last night we were there. We decided to cut the stay short by a night to avoid dangerous travel through the mountains. We arrived safely in the Arizona town of Safford but with no reservation on a Saturday night – Saturday, February 13. Walmart to the rescue! We pulled into the outskirts of the parking lots after doing a little shopping and settled into a night of Breaking Bad and something simple for dinner. The next morning, Chris crossed the parking lot at 6 am to get his honey the best bouquet of red Valentine’s Dayroses Walmart had to offer….so romantic ❤

Q: Did you exercise?

A; Well, we bought bikes from Walmart a couple weeks into our trip. I was not a fan of uphill bike riding after riding through the saguaro desert of Tucson to visit an outdoor museum that “someone” took a wrong turn for. I will admit, this was one of “those moments”. I was not happy with the bad navigator and threatened to ride myself into one of the stately and scarred saguaro after screaming “F$&K!!!!”(on a positive note, here is where we encountered a wary coyote who looked at us and then retreated back into the early morning desert). So there was that. Otherwise, a bit of walking. I practiced yoga in the woods, on the sand dunes, on a patio in Florida, in a canyon in Texas, basically whenever timing permitted and there was a breathe online class available. Admittedly, our lifestyle was fairly sedentary, so there are pounds to shed….

Q; It’s such a small space to live in. Did you get sick of each other?

A: NO! We did have a very few “moments”, but overall, we travel well together and respect each other’s space when needed. 

Q: Are you happy to be home?

A: YES!!!!!!

Q; Will you do it again?

A: Do not ask me that right now. (but most likely, yes)


Beautiful Souls of Kenya

There is a magnetism about Kenya. The achingly beautiful landscapes, the tremendous blue skies and dramatic weather, the astounding animals that allow us to observe, the ever distinctive acacia tree (it is possible to find a leopard literally hanging out in an acacia tree), the symbiosis of the natural Mara, the beautiful souls of the Kenya we have come to know; all of these urgently beckon us…

So we returned to Kenya, to the Mara. Our mission was, with the young, good-natured, easy going, civil engineer Bobby Reese, to build two more Bridging the Gap Africa bridges. Harmon has requested us because he knows that Chris is a stickler for details; he will build a bridge for Mara Plains Camp that is as perfect as humanly possible – in other words, “dead nuts”. Chris does not disappoint.

We came to Mara Plains for “round two” on a strict deadline; the camp has been closed since March because of damage due to massive flash flooding. There are many repairs, shoring up river edges via enormous rock gabions, polishing, and of course replacing two of the three bridges that have been destroyed in the flood (the third bridge that we completed just 4 months ago withstood the raging waters and was only slightly damaged when a large tree landed on it). The bridges are crucial for the camp. We witness Harmon reminding David Stogdale, the director of Great Plains, time and time again of this fact – as if we, and everyone else on the project, aren’t already fully aware; but such is the friendly bantering of the long time friendship between these two men.

During the six plus weeks we are here, we again experience the sights, sounds, smells of being in the Mara. The animals patterns are different because of the season, as well as the abundant rains which have caused the plains to be wet and green in the beginning of the project. There are large herds of elephants, females with their calves or sometimes the lone bull, looking for love – we see, and sometimes hear them close to the camp as well as each time we drive for supplies, on airstrip pickups, or on rescue missions (lorries that need to be pushed/pulled out of the mud). There are always many twitchy wide-eyed gazelles, Wildebeest are non-existent (they are still in Tanzania) until the end of the six weeks when we spot a small few, and zebras are not as close-by or plentiful. We are constantly aware of the lumbering, guffawing hippos in the river below us, and become keenly respectful of how quick (and “un-lumbering”) they really are after Chris gets charged by one who is cornered on the deck of one of the tents (Chris came sprinting up the path to our tent, dove in, and when he eventually caught his breath told me “I saw death!” – this all after I was warned not to come out of the tent…); that’s one scary-assed animal. We also encounter the beautiful and regal lions many times as they look and blink, sit with their front paws curled under, yawn, and scan the landscape around them as the cubs romp; there are also the lion noises we hear from our tent most nights that give away their proximity. There are short-legged hyenas, gawky giraffes, awkward ostriches, sly silvery monogamous jackals, cheeky vervet monkeys, an enormous troop of raucous baboons, the sleepy scaly crocodile. Rounding all of this out, we cannot forget to mention the blood-sucking mosquitoes, stinging tsetse flies, scampering bugs, and snakes (I may have seen a black mamba and a spitting cobra). To be honest, none of this will ever get stale for me (well, maybe I don’t need the bug and snake encounters…). The Kenyan bush is magnificent!


But back to the bridge, or as Harmon would say “get back to work, you’ve got bridges to build!”. And so we dig, pour, shovel, haul, nail, screw, weld, paint, inspect, and coordinate for just over six weeks. It is our Bridging the Gap Africa team (in no particular order) that we come to know and care for that makes this project happen, these Americans and Kenyans coming together to be a bridge to a better world.

Here is Bobby Reese. He is the civil engineer and designer of our 30 meter suspension bridges. Everyone loves Bobby. Nothing rattles this guy. He speaks Swahili, laughs easily, and has a big appetite for such a lean guy! It is a true pleasure to collaborate and create these bridges with Bobby!

This is Chris Leibfried or Baba Derek. He is all about the details – and being on time!! Chris has not yet mastered Swahili (with the exception of about 4 words), and is an excellent engineer through and through. He dives right in with hammer, level, tape measure in hand; he tries to teach the guys new, better, and more precise techniques. He has studied the prints so thoroughly that he has them memorized; he awakens before the sun rises, thinking about every bridge detail that will be part of that day’s process. Chris will not settle for anything half-assed; the guys come to appreciate his need for perfection in building this magnificent bridge we will be proud of because of it.


Freddy and Richard are the conjoined BtGA duo. They come as a pair. Freddy has a stern demeanor and barks orders at the Maasai guys, but I can usually get a smile out of him. Freddy translates English into Swahili for us when Bobby is away. He keeps the group together. Richard smiles easily – except when he is not working next to Freddy; he is cool in his yellow sunglasses, is good with a welder, and likes to climb.


Geoffrey and Gordon are also a BtGA twosome. Geoffrey is a master at stone work. He tells me one day, after we have tweaked the heavy rock work multiple times “it is good when you correct me!”. Geoffrey has a quiet and gentle disposition; he gets the widest grin when I tell him how much Harmon and the camp VIP’s especially appreciate his stone work. Gordon is an excellent carpenter and has also learned a lot about masonry from Geoffrey. Gordon is intelligent. We talk about his carpentry work (when he’s not on a bridge project), his family, and how he manages his “banking” with goats, as is the way in this culture.

This is Lepapa, our inventory control guy. He loves that he uses one of the walkie talkies to keep communication among the teams at both bridges; he takes his job very seriously and is, indeed, very good at it. He runs equipment back and forth and does manual labor. He is the liaison between the wzungu and the non-English speaking guys – letting me know when someone has a backache, wants to go into town for a haircut, or needs to see family. Lepapa reports to us when there is a family or individual crisis with one of the team (and there are several of these situations throughout the six weeks). Lepapa walks about 2 hours (one way) to go to his family and after one of these visits, brings Chris and me beaded bracelets his wife has made for us. He openly teaches me about Maasai customs and traditions. He loves his wife and is supporting her to finish one last exam (that she missed because of the birth of their second son) in order to become a nurse.

Alex Koshal worked with us on Tent 4 bridge a few months ago, and we have no hesitation about having him part of the main bridge team. When we need a person to fetch a piece of equipment, Koshal literally runs for it. We put him in charge of the painting projects, and his pride was apparent – you can see it his huge smile. Koshal loved to quiz me on Swahili words.

Mike Pesi is a character that the group ends up nurturing. He is quiet and speaks barely any English (I think I scare him – or at least the prospect of trying to understand me scares him – because I sometimes see him walk in the opposite direction when he spots me). Mike Pesi has a bit of bad luck –  needing a tetanus shot after stepping on a nail (after hours); later on a pre-dawn motorcycle ride back to camp after an overnight family visit, he crashes into a zebra and then gets kicked by that same zebra. When Mike Pesi returns to work, we assign him to light (albeit essential) work and everyone, especially Lepapa watches out for him.

These guys are Lenjir, Cliff, Josephat, Sananga, and Alex Kibet. They are work horses – so strong and willing to do any work we ask of them. They never complain.

We have our leader, the BtGA founder, and big cheese, Harmon Parker. He is all about the bridges, as you would expect….. Harmon brings an intense passion to the bridge site – Africa and bridges are his life. He will bark out orders in one minute, and then in the next will be laughing uncontrollably about a silly inside joke. He calls everyone a hotterite! His contrasts keep everyone hopping. We would not be here if it weren’t for Harmon.


And, here I am. I am known as Mama Derek, or sometimes just Mama. This is a sign of respect that the guys give to me. I learn each of their Christian names, and then their Maasai names. Sometimes I inspect the work, measure, and place boards. I do payroll – so they like me!! I also hand out orange tablets (ibuprofen), apply band aids and ointment when called for (Harmon keeps threatening to have me wear a nurse’s cap). I try to keep everyone organized and happy. I learn about their families. They teach me Swahili words. Chris says I’m the glue that holds us together. I get very choked up at the end of the project when I tell them (with Bobby translating) how much I appreciate their hard work, and that I will miss each and every one of them. It is not an exaggeration when I say that every single one of these guys has literally lent me his hand, at one time or another, on this project.


This has been a great team.

MPC Main Bridge - Campside



Bwindi Inpenetrable Forest

It is before sunrise as we set off from the scenic Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge for the hour drive to the Rushaga Gate of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Our goal is to find the critically endangered mountain gorillas. We are traveling on an unpaved and (according to Google Maps) an “unknown road”. This is not an uncommon occurrence for us; these are the roads where you see the real countryside – it is rough, it is raw, mountainous, and breathtakingly beautiful. Chris and I converse with the other woman in our trekking group, Kat, who is a chatty young Australian mother living in Kigale, Rwanda. The hour goes by quickly.

We meet the rest of our trekking group. Steven is the ranger who gives us a short briefing about the trek itself and the gorilla family we will be visiting – Mishaya Gorilla Group. He explains that  in order to safely allow human visitation, some of the fewer than 800 remaining gorillas in the world have been habituated – they have slowly been exposed to humans and have been deemed comfortable enough with our presence so as not to feel threatened and therefore become aggressive. Benson is our able porter who (thankfully) carries our backpack full of rain ponchos, bug spray, our lunch, and lots of water. Two trackers will precede us to locate our gorillas and communicate with Steven to guide us to the gorillas. Bringing up the rear is a UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force) soldier armed with an AK-47 in case we encounter poachers…err, I mean elephants (either one is dangerous and conceivably will be scared off by a shot into the air).

I look down at my watch. I have heard that it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 6 hours to reach the gorillas (and an encounter is not even guaranteed). About an hour and a half into the trek, conversation becomes non-existent as we head up a steep (it might have even been vertical!) incline. The “path” is thickly vegetated and slippery. At times, we are walking on a dense mat of vines and freshly macheted branches and leaves, several inches off the forest floor. I am hoisting myself up using vines and if I falter at all, Benson grabs me by the wrist to boost me the rest of the way. I use a bamboo walking stick to give myself traction on the downward portions of the trail. We use stepping stones to keep our feet relatively dry from the small streams along the way, but occasionally our feet get suctioned into the mud anyway. It is often difficult to see the person who is hiking just a few feet in front of you. My glasses are steamy and wet with humid condensation, sweat, and rain; my ponytail is dripping. I ask for rest stops as my heart is pounding from exertion and altitude. We are deep in the aptly named Impenetrable Forest; Chris and I realize that this may be the most physically challenging experience of our lives.

Eventually we stop so Steven can get an update from the trackers; “they have found the gorillas, but they are still moving. We will take a “shortcut” (those are MY air quotes!) to try and intercept them. We should be there within an hour”. After trekking a total of 3 ½ hours, Steven tells us to leave our walking sticks and backpacks with our porters. We have reached the gorillas!

I follow a tracker down over some vines, as he is making soft grunting noises, and then get a glimpse of silver. I feel myself breathing hard and feel so excited that I literally get tears in my eyes. The massive Silverback patriarch is right there. Chris and Kat are right behind me as we try to avoid the hill of stinging ants. We follow the 400 pound Silverback down the hill with a hint of trepidation and respectful distance until he stops in a brushy area to munch on some leaves. As we swat the few vicious ants that have made it up our pant legs, we spot a young gorilla climbing a thin branch; he twirls toward us as if if he’s momentarily pole dancing. The branch bends under his weight; he jumps down and scampers off. We freeze in place when we suddenly hear a loud scream as a medium sized female several feet up the hill from us stands up and bolts past us. Eventually we settle in with the Silverback about 7 or 8 feet from us as he snaps twigs, chews leaves and occasionally, and somewhat disinterestedly, looks our way; after he has had his fill, he rolls onto the ground, closes his eyes and has his post-meal nap (we can hear an occasional snore). As he rests, the baby and baby momma gorillas are close to him. The baby climbs aboard his Silverback daddy to play, eat, groom, and pound his young chest.

In a short hour, it is time to leave the gorillas; I want to savor one last moment with these beautiful creatures that have a human quality to their faces, so I linger and feel grateful. We trek an hour back to our car wet, muddy, satisfied. The incredible Ugandan mountain gorillas have shared part of their day in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest with these fortunate human beings.


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