Monthly Archives: March 2013

Camping for Free in Europe

It is definitely possible to camp for free Europe across Europe.  Free camping, dry camping, wild camping and boondocking (all of which have slightly different meanings) are terms used to describe camping somewhere other than a paid campground.  In most countries in Europe you can camp for free with a motorhome anywhere it is legal to park overnight.  Free camping is usually not allowed (or is much harder to do) if you are sleeping in a tent or a trailer (known in Europe as a caravan).

We choose to free camp because it allows us to stay in unique places where we couldn’t stay otherwise (e.g. in the wilderness, at the beach, close to cities or attractions, or at any desirable stopping point along our journey). In some cases there is no campground available or conveniently located, or they’re not open (which is often the case when traveling out of season).  We also choose to free camp to reduce costs.  Campgrounds in Europe typically charge $20 – $45 a night for two people.  On an extended journey, these costs really add up, so we try to spend multiple nights free camping for every night we spend in a campground.

In some places, free camping is illegal or discouraged.  It may be against the national law (like in Greece where this rule is commonly ignored), local bylaws, or the sensibilities of the local residents or police.  There may be signs restricting overnight parking or specifically RV parking.  There are often height barriers on parking lots to prevent RVs (and particularly gypsy caravans) from entering a parking area, in which case we are forced to take our free camping and our business elsewhere.

There are several common ways to free camp in Europe.

Aires

Aires de Service (service areas) are places designated for the parking and servicing of RVs.  They are very common in France and are available to a lesser extent in several other European countries (e.g. Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal)  Aires provide free or very cheap RV parking and often services like drinking water, grey and black water and garbage disposal, but rarely electricity.  No trailers or tents are allowed.  Items should not be set up outside one’s RV (e.g. no awnings, folding tables, chairs, or clothes lines.)  Aires are usually provided by cities, towns, or businesses to encourage visitors and patronage.  Provided a parking place for RVs also discourages visitors from parking overnight on the streets, and concentrates them in a particular area.

Sign saying 'Aire de Stationnement Reservee Aux Camping-Cars'  showing a picture of a car being towed awa

‘Parking Area Reserved for Motorhomes’

Aires are usually basic affairs — parking lots, paved or unsurfaced, with a service point where clean and dirty water can be on and off loaded.  The service points are often custom-built, just a fresh water tap and access to the sewer.  Sometimes the service points are commercially produced versions, which use money or tokens to gain access to the services.  Most Aires are unmanned and the service points are sometimes in disrepair, which is made worse if some people dump their waste anyhow.

A white metal box with buttons and hookups for water

A Nice Service Point

Aires rarely have the charm or the privacy of a national or state park campground.  European commercial campgrounds almost never provide privacy anyhow, so they aren’t much different in that regard.  Aires provide hassle-free parking that is often close to cities, attractions, or beaches, and a place to service one’s RV.

A white sign with blue border showing a black motorhome dumping water below

RV Service Point Sign

There are web sites and books that identify and describe the thousands of Aires available in Europe.  As a traveler, it’s useful to have all the information you can get when trying to find a place to stay.

Urban Camping

The main advantage of staying in an urban setting is proximity to attractions, restaurants, and nightlife.  It’s nice to be able to walk to the city center.  It’s great to be able to enjoy a night on the town without worrying about driving or transport back to a campground.

When staying somewhere other than an official overnight camping place, it is important to choose wisely.  In the city, it’s important to blend in, typically some place where other vehicles are parked like a truck stop, commercial parking lot, residential neighbourhood, etc.  Ideally it will be a place with good lighting and people nearby (for safety reasons) but no noisy or nosy neighbours, loud traffic or pedestrians, nor trucks running their refrigeration units all night.  In some countries like Germany, Austria, and France it is safe to sleep at the roadside rest stops, but in other countries like Spain and Portugal this is ill advised as robberies sometimes occur.

OUr white RV parked beside a canal with cars in front and back

Parking by the canal in Gouda (yes, where the cheese comes from) in Amsterdam

If you choose your parking place wisely, remain in the vehicle, and don’t disturb anyone, only rarely will you be chased away.  This has never happened to us.  I’m sure it will be very disconcerting when we eventually get a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  If this happens, it will hopefully be the police knocking.  Being forced to move along could be a real problem if we’ve had a drink, and are therefore not in a position to safely drive away.

OUr motorhome parked by the river in front of Rila Monastery

Camping in front of Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

In urban camping situations, especially in places where it is questionable to stay, we try to arrive at or after dark so as not to draw attention to ourselves.  We don’t exit the vehicle and camp in stealth mode with shades drawn and no external lights.  Cocooned in the S&M Motel, we can enjoy a lovely evening, with a fine meal, a good book, or a movie on the laptop.  In the morning the pressure is usually off as there are no issues with parking during the day.  In some iffy situations it is best to depart early in the morning.  Sometimes we’ll drive a short distance enjoying our coffee and tea before stopping somewhere nice for breakfast.

Wild Camping

Camping in the countryside or wilderness settings is a great way to get close to nature.  It allows us to stay close to parks, mountains, beaches or other places of natural beauty and outdoor recreation.

In addition to campgrounds and aires, it is sometimes possible to stay on private land (e.g. farms, wineries, churches, monasteries, restaurant parking lots, etc.)  In these cases permission should be obtained from the owner, which is sometimes difficult to do if they are not to be found or you don’t share a common language.

Our RV in a parking lot with snow and ski slopes in the background

Parking at a ski resort in Andorra

But wild camping is best done on public land away from civilization, in a quiet, remote place.  Ideally this is near a lake, river, ocean, mountains, or other beautiful vista.  There is nothing like free camping with the windows open, to wake with the sun rising over a beautiful landscape.  We experienced this on a beach near Tarifa in Southern Spain, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar.  By day we walked the long sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and at night we enjoyed the lights of Tangier across the water in Morocco (Africa).  We also stayed at the beach in several villages on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece.

Our RV with awning extended with dinner table and chairs set outside

Staying at the beach in Kala Nero, Greece

Our RV in a line with others in a sand parking lot on the beach

Camping ON the beach in Kastro, Greece

The biggest challenge with wild camp sites is how to find them.  If you’re staying closer to civilization, it is necessary to find an out-of-the-way place, preferably a spot on a quiet side road or dead-end street that is obscured from view.  In these conditions, you should try to keep a low profile by following the guidelines for urban camping above.  You should not stay on private land without permission or you risk facing the wrath of the owner.

Our RV in a parking lot overlooking the Tuscan countryside

Camping with an amazing Tuscan view in Cortona, Italy

Sometimes we learn of wild camping locations from other people.  They share this information in person or on the Internet.  A more challenging way to find pristine wild camping spots it to scout them out oneself.  A good approach is to seek out a body of water using maps or the GPS, then follow along it checking the side roads until you find a nice place.  This is a skill that our friends Sue and Martin have mastered, and that we are still developing.

Our white RV parked beside a Swiss lake

Staying beside the lake near Bonigen, Switzerland

We did a lot more free camping in Phase 2 of our European adventure.  The combination of more experience and warmer weather allowed us to stay in some amazing places and to lower our costs.  And when we do get that knock on the door in the middle of the night, there will probably be a blog story in it.

Diane at sunset with a long sandy beach and buildings below ni the distance

View from our campsite on a cliff in Nazare (Sitia), France

Note — this is one of a continuing series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels that didn’t quite get finished while we were on the road.

White Sands Missile Range

With almost no concern for residual radiation, we approached the checkpoint guarding the entrance to the White Sands Missile Range.  We were directed toward a woodland of lethal sentinels rising from the desert.

Located in southern New Mexico along the Jornada del Muerto (‘route of the dead man’) Desert Basin, at 3200 square miles (8300 sq. kms) White Sands is the largest military installation in the United States.  Chosen because of its deserted but accessible location, clear skies, warm temperatures, and low vegetation, it was a bombing and gunnery range during World War II.

Dry desert with dry plats and not trees extending back to a mountain range in the background

Named ‘Route of the Dead Man’ by the Spanish because it was so dry

On July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated here at the Trinity Site (hence my ‘radiation’ comment). After victory was achieved in Europe, 300 railroad cars of superior confiscated German V-2 rocket components were delivered here, and White Sands became the place where America raced to develop and prove a wide range of missiles for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  White Sands is also used to launch and test technology for NASA and in 1982 the Space Shuttle Columbia landed here.

Many missiles, most standing, displayed in the desert

White Sands Missile Park

The White Sands Museum and Missile Park displays the family tree of American missilery.  Here you can view most of the deadly weapons systems whose given names we vaguely recognize from news reports (e.g. Patriot, Pershing, Lance, and Sidewinder).  Does the word ‘park’ in the name seem somewhat inappropriate for an arsenal?

Many missiles including one pointing upward on an angle in the foregorund

More missiles

Do you remember the SCUD missiles launched by Iraq into Israel and Saudi Arabia at the opening of the Persian Gulf War?  One of the many weapons systems on display here is the PATRIOT (‘Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept On Target’), one of America’s commonly used Surface to Air (‘SAM’) missiles.

Beige vehicle with missile launcher raised from the rear and tip of missile showing

Patriot Missile Launcher

PATRIOT is a ballistic missile defense system, an unproven military concept until the Gulf War, and is now widely used by America and its allies to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles.

Side of beige Patrior missile launcher with blank painted slogans "Scud Buster", If it Flies It Dies", and "First to Fire"

Scud Buster

The White Sand Museum and Missile Park is located off Highway 70 about 25 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Admission is free but visitors must show identification to pass the military checkpoint.

Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument

The drive to this national monument in the Gila Wilderness Area is scenic, steep, narrow, twisting and beautiful.  Diane was stressed and her arm rest suffered.  The mountain highway approaching the monument has steep sections of 10-12% grade for several miles, and large drop-offs with no guard rails. A lower gear is necessary in sections to avoid burning out one’s brakes.  Larger vehicles, including bigger RVs, need to take an alternate route, which is still challenging.

At an elevation of 6,700 feet (2,040 meters), it was cool but sunny when we arrived in the late morning.  Snow was visible nearby, but had finally relinquished the trails a few days prior.  The cliff dwellings are accessible by a short but steep hike up Cliff Dweller Canyon, which was apparently a challenge for some prairie dwellers who were departing and complaining when we parked in the almost empty lot.  The south-facing cliffs, sun kissed even in winter, quickly became visible as we climbed among the ponderosa pines.

Large alcoves like caves in a brown cliff from a distance

Cliff Alcoves

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were built and occupied by the Mogollon people during a short 25 year period about 700 years ago (1275 – 1300 CE).  The Mogollon normally built pit houses or surface pueblos but, breaking with tradition, the Tularosa Mogollon built inside the 5 cave alcoves of this canyon.  It is not known why the dwellings were abandoned after such a short period.

Cave mouth closed mostly by white bricks whie tourists looking up

The Second of Five caves

Of the 46 total rooms, most of the walls are still standing.  There were believed to have been occupied by 10 to 15 families.

A large cave half filled with a hite brick wall

Cave Three

The dwellings were a practical place to live.  They were protected from the weather, and their exposure allowed the low sun of winter to enter while keeping out the higher, hotter sun of summer.

The interior of a large cave with brick walls and structure visible

Inside Cave 4 and 5

Cliff Dweller Creek, at the bottom of the canyon, provided a convenient source of water, and the nearby Gila River valley was a good place for hunting, gathering, and growing food.  Of the 32 species of plant remains found in the caves, 24 were native (e.g. grapes, berries, acorns, nuts) while the other 8 including corn, beans, and squash were cultivated.

Very small corn cobs in a basket

700 Year Old Corn Cobs!

Visitors are welcome to enter and explore the caves.

Diane's upper body wearning puple fleece visible over wall in a cave

Diane exploring

Patrick in red shirt and jeans standing on a walkway in Cave 4 & 5

Patrick in Cave 4 & 5

Ladders and walkways are provided to move about the caves.  Scrambling around the cliffs reminded me of our visit to Petra, though this was on a much smaller and more primitive scale.

Patrick seated on a large wooden ladder made of poles that is exiting from a cave

Patrick descending

The first European contact with the Gila Cliff Dwellings was by Henry B. Ailman who was living in Silver City at the time, about 45 miles away.  Legend has it that in the summer of 1878, Ailman and some friends were on a jury list. To avoid serving, they organized a prospecting trip to the Gila River where this site was discovered.

Diane in purple tshirt and beige pants with Gila Cave 4 & 5 in the background

Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument is an interesting place to visit.  The beautiful drive, the remote location, the natural splendour, and the hands-on exploring of a historical site made for an really enjoyable day.

City of Rocks

After a night camped beside the stables at the fairgrounds in Safford, Arizona we headed east into New Mexico.  We crossed a desert where yucca, straight out of Dr. Seuss, dot the roadside, and arrived at City of Rocks State Park in the afternoon.

Tall strange y-shaped plant with hairy body, green leafy top, and stalks sticking up into the air

Roadside Yucca

We really didn’t know what to expect, but were immediately impressed when we saw the rocks rising from the desert in the distance.

A desert with rocks in the distance

City of Rocks from a distance

The best thing about the park is that access to the rocks isn’t restricted in any way.

Diane posting on path with rocks rising behidn her

You can hike among them,

Car campers among the rocks

camp among them,

Patrick standing on high rock

and climb them.

The desert landscape is even more beautiful against a vertical backdrop.

Yucca plant on desert with rocks in the background

The rock that forms the City of Rocks was created 35 million years ago by the eruption of a nearby volcano.  Over the millennia erosion sculpted the rock into its present form.

City of Rocks is a small, unique state park, not more than a few square miles in size.  The dirt road around the rocks is a bit bumpy, but still accessible by motorhomes.  Most of the campsites are primitive, without any hookups, but there are some bathrooms.  Some of the spaces will accommodate even large motorhomes.

Large motorhome parked amonth the rocks with nearby bathrooms as viewed from across the desert

Large motohome among the rocks

We found a nice spot up against the rocks facing nothing but miles of open desert.

Our motorhome against a backdrop of rocks as viewed from acsross the desert

Our campsite

In the evening we attended a star party, where astronomers gave a guided talk about the crystal clear night sky of New Mexico.  They pointed out the visible planets, major stars, and constellations using a green laser, and we looked through 2 telescopes, including one which is permanently mounted in a small observatory in the park.

Like cloud gazing, looking at the rocks brings images to mind.  What do you see here?

A grey rock against a blue background that may resemble a face to some

What do you see here?

Cinque Terre

Flashback Friday — this is the first of a series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.

Our plans to visit Cinque Terre (‘Five Lands’) on the west coast of Italy in 2011 were thwarted by a killer storm on the night of October 25th.  We arrived in La Spezia during the early part of the tempest that did harm to the entire region, and catastrophic damage to 2 of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  In progress rescue work and the damage to the trail, the roads, and the rail line made doing the hike impossible at that time.  Not only could we not hike, but we were trapped in La Spezia for 3 days until the first road opened that would allow us to leave.

After this trying experience, we were glad to have the opportunity to revisit Cinque Terre in June, 2012.  We weren’t sure whether the famous Sentiero Azzurro (‘Azure Trail’) that connects the villages had been re-opened or what state it would be in, but we suspected that the people of the region would do everything possible to resurrect the primary source of their livelihoods as quickly as possible.

After our bad experience last visit in the only RV parking place in La Spezia, we decided to stay in a campground by a river in Ameglia, a few kilometers south of town.  The large, concrete bridge over this river that we had crossed during the storm had washed away later that evening, so on our return trip we had to detour upstream to another crossing and back down again to get to the campsite.  The receptionist said that the entire campground, including the buildings and the swimming pool, was flooded under 2 meters (6.5 feet) of water during the storm.  Thankfully everything was restored in time for the 2012 camping season and looked in fine shape to us.

We left our campground at 7:20 AM the next morning, drove to La Spezia to park, walked across town, and caught the 10:06 train to Corniglia, the 3rd of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  By doing so we avoided the crowds who walk only the easiest section of the trail between the 1st village (Riomaggiore) and the 2nd village (Manarola).  We would return to see these village and hike this section later in the day.  When we disembarked in Corniglia, while most others walked up the stairs, we hopped on board the free shuttle that runs up the steep hill (something the others may have been unaware of), bypassing the 368 steps and getting a head start.  Corniglia is a tiny village suspended on a rocky outcrop overlooking steep cliffs and the beautiful Mediterranean.  After a quick walk around (these villages are tiny, but we still managed to get lost in the labyrinth) we found the trail and started our hike.

Many coloured houses atop a green slope

Corniglia viewed from the trail

It took us about 1 hour to hike to Vernazza. Despite our proximity to the sea, it was very hot.  I was sweating like a tourist.  We found that lots of reconstruction had been completed (rock retaining walls, hand rails, trail work, etc.) and more was underway, but the trail was easily passable.

Diane standing on a yellow walkway that allows one to bypass trail construction work in progress

Trail construction under way

Vernazza also clings to the cliff along this glorious stretch of coastline.

Village with coloured houses on a cliff jutting out into the ocean

Approaching Vernazza

e ate the Italian salami sandwiches that we’d brought with us on the rocky point by the harbour while children were swimming around us.  Others were eating fresh pizza from the village, or sitting at the restaurant in the bay.  We continued hiking and soon were treated with a postcard view back on Vernazza.

Village of many small buildings surrounding a harbour

Vernazza

By mid-afternoon it was really hot and humid.

Patrick wearing maroon shirt and beige hat, sweating, with grees in background

Patrick Sweating

This last section of the trail was the most rugged and challenging.  We could see why most people skip it on the faces of those hiking towards us.

Steep cliffs covered in trees alongside the ocean

Rugged coastline between Vernazza and Monterosso

Despite this, It took us only 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach Monterosso al Mare.

A beach on the ocean with a small village and boardwalk behind and mountains in the distance

Rounding the point towards Monterosso

Hot and tired, we went for a swim here on the small section of beach which is open to the public.  It didn’t have the amenities of the private beach areas (umbrellas, change rooms, and lockers) but it did have a small fresh water shower to rinse off afterwards.

Looking along the beach with umbrellas and sunbathers and ocean to the right

The beach at Monterosso

I changed on the beach under Diane’s wrap and she changed in the train station bathroom across the street.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have another set of clothes, so we had to put our sweaty and smelly ones back on.  Afterwards we walked out to the point for yet another amazing view.

Small boats at anchor in the ocean with a beach and village in the background

Boats at anchor in Monterosso

We caught a mid-afternoon train back to Manarola (the 2nd village).

A narrow streat filled with people with balconies and awnings on both sides

Manarola’s main street

We watched the kids swimming and jumping from the rocks near the boat launch and then wandered out to the point for another tourist photo op.

Patrick in burgandy t-shirt and sunglasses with Manarola coloured houses and cliffs in the background

Patrick and Manarola

Leaving Manarola, we walked about 15 minutes on perhaps the best ‘trail’ I’ve ever been.  Hugging the cliff, it was more like a sidewalk and is wheelchair accessible.

Diane waving from the window of a section of the 'trail' enclosed into a rock tunnel with windows

Diane on a great ‘trail’

We arrived in Riomaggiore and decided to immediately catch the train back to La Spezia.  It had been a long, hot, and very memorable day.

Close up of Diane and Patrick seated on the train

Reminder – Help Name our RV Contest closes in just 3 days!

Thank-you to all of you who have contributed suggestions in our Help Name our RV Contest. Only 3 days remain to get your entries in, as the contest closes on Sunday, March 24th at 11 PM PST.

Please click this link for contest details. The suggestions that have been made so far are visible in the comments at the end of the post linked above, and may get your creative juices flowing. Among the good suggestions made so far, there seem to be a few themes emerging – dreams, our names, travel, and Germany. Can you come up with something new?

The winner, which could be you, will have the satisfaction of having the name they suggest used in perpetuity on this blog, and will be awarded a top-secret, fabulous prize. Have fun!

Less Personality and More Character

When I was a young, if you asked a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, they would almost certainly name a profession like doctor, teacher, or police officer.  Often the response would include a more glamorous profession of the day like cowboy, astronaut, or in Canada, ice hockey player.  If you ask this question of a child today, you’re likely to get the response “I want to be famous” or “I want to be rich”.  This is because many of the people kids idolize today are not famous for doing anything in particular.  Many celebrities are now famous simply for being famous.  Not because of their skills or contributions, but because of their personalities.

“It used to be about doing something.  Now it’s just about being something.”

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in the Iron Lady, 2011

As a society, we have become obsessed with celebrity and fame.  There are more celebrity magazines than news magazines.  More people vote in TV talent shows that national elections.  I am not immune to this.  After seeing Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek at a film premiere in Madrid, I felt it worthy enough to write about.  Why, after a brush with celebrity, do we feel good enough to tell others about it, like we have accomplished something worthwhile?

Celebrities are our modern day royalty.  Even the Windsors have trouble competing with them.  The human race has always worshiped heroes and idols, back to the earliest days of recorded history.  It is part of our nature to glorify and follow leaders, to gossip, to compare ourselves and to take great interest in the downfall of others.  This fascination is nothing new, but it has become more common and more intense, enabled by a steady diet of real-time, hyped-up, paparazzi-fed celebrity news.  We have witnessed the apotheosis of Britney, Kim, and Paris and now worship a new pantheon of gods.

I do not blame these individuals.  Their success is a result of our celebrity obsessed culture.    It is made possible by those who reward their actions by consuming reality, celebrity, and gossip TV, magazines, web sites, advertising, and product endorsements.  I too am one of these consumers.

I believe that fame and wealth should be a by-product of one’s actions, not objectives in and of themselves. They should be a consequence of making an outstanding contribution to the world.  In recent years, many of the top graduates in mathematics, physics, engineering, and computer science have been lured into a career of working with esoteric financial derivatives that are many degrees divorced from the real world.  I think it’s a shame that many of the world’s greatest minds are now working on Wall Street teaching computers to beat other computers, rather than solving the world’s problems.  No longer are the professions of doctor and lawyer the pinnacle of society.  We prioritize financial work more highly as evidenced by the fact that the rewards available here far outweigh those of almost all other professions.  Except for the non-profession of ‘celebrity’, which is prized the highest of all.

Celebrities enjoy disproportionate riches, power, and privilege.  As a result, many people are willing to do almost anything to get into the media’s spotlight.  Although I believe in the free markets, it seems to me that in many cases people are excessively rewarded for their appearance, bad behaviour, or other trivialities.  Because celebrities can become famous these days for the most inane, inconsequential, or outlandish things, many people have the notion that anyone can be a star regardless of their abilities or contribution.  Like winning the lottery, many people seem obsessed with this prospect, even though the odds of it happening are infinitesimally small.  Instead of working on developing their skills, they delude themselves into thinking that talent isn’t really required.  Have you seen the American Idol auditions?

The focus on personality continues in self-help books that promise a quick fix by changing our behaviour.  It is common to promote the idea that we can ‘fake-it-till-we-make-it’ through some sort of behaviour modification.  That if we somehow change how we look or act or talk that we can enjoy success.  These things do not work long-term.  But there is an alternative that does.

It is far more productive to focus on one’s character.  Time spent on self-awareness and self-improvement to become clear on our values, our beliefs, and what we stand for has long-lasting results.  It is far better to become clear on who I am and then to have my actions flow naturally from this.  Living a life that is congruent with my values is the only approach with lasting effect.  Trying to constantly control my actions and my image or to project a character that is not who I really am is a doomed exercise.  Trying to alter who I am by changing how I act won’t work.

“It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life, … If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.”

— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

I want to have the clearest possible vision of who I am.  I want to know myself, what I believe in, and what is really important to me to the degree that I will automatically act in accordance with it, and if not, the dissonance will be so apparent that I’ll quickly correct my course.  I believe that focusing on my character rather than my personality will pay the greatest dividends.

Do you know someone who worships at the altar of celebrity?  How does society’s focus on personality rather than character impact your life?

The Gun Show

In my continuing quest to learn about America, I went to a gun show in Phoenix.  For many U.S. citizens, especially those in the Southwest, guns are a key element of the American identify.  The right to own and bear arms is guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Many Americans have a strong and outspoken affection for their firearms, and gun culture remains a very visible and hotly debated aspect of American life.

Yellow billboard with black writing adversing the Gun Show

Gun Show Advertisement

In the wake of the latest school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, the U.S. Federal government and many state legislatures are debating gun laws (though not all of them are trying to restrict them).  I heard that potential changes to the gun laws were resulting in increased sales of firearms and ammunition, especially items that might be restricted like assault rifles and large ammunition magazines, so I wanted to see for myself.

The show had hundreds of vendor booths packing 3 large buildings plus an outdoor display area.  There were a lot more women and children in attendance than I would have guessed.  For many, it was a family outing.

White sign with black letters saying :No Loaded Guns in the Show"

Sign at the entrance to the show

I was surprised to see that you’re allowed to bring your own firearms into the show, the only safety requirement being that they be unloaded and a very thin zip tie be put around the trigger.  Many attendees were carrying firearms around and signs listing the guns in their backpacks that they had to sell.  Ammunition was sold in 2 areas separated by plastic flagging tape, a symbolic division at best.  There was no visible security, though I’ve never heard of anyone shooting up a gun show.  Does this add weight to the gun advocates case?

Handguns on a table

Handguns for sale

Note – Sorry for the poor image quality.  Photography was banned at the show so these pictures were taken surreptitiously.

Vendors were selling everything I could have imagined related to hunting and personal protection (e.g. rifles, shotguns, hand guns, targets, ammunition, knives, etc.) plus a lot of stuff that I didn’t expect to see for sale:

  • exploding targets
  • survival gear (for the prepared and the paranoid)
  • 3-D human shaped targets
  • concealed carry clothes and purses, each with one or more slots to conveniently carry your concealed hand gun(s)
  • brass knuckles, pepper spray, stun guns, and tasers
  • firearm themed jewellery, and
  • toy guns for the kids
A lont of long guns for sale, laying on a table

Yes, that’s a Thompson machine gun in the foreground

Although I’ve never been to a gun show before, it seemed like there was a general sense of paranoia about the place.  Training courses offered at the show with names like, “How to Survive when the Bad Guys Come” may contribute to this.  I had a helpful guy explain to me how to kill someone with a keychain. I understand hunters and target shooters, but why is everyone here so afraid?  Perhaps I can’t relate because I’ve never lived in a situation where I felt threatened.

There were a lot of T-shirts for sale with slogans like:

  • “It’s a right not a privilege”
  • “In God we trust, but carrying a gun doesn’t hurt”
  • “Armed Patriot”
  • “Power to the People”, and
  • “We don’t dial 911” (i.e. we shoot first and call the police later)

Large black rifle with legs sitting on a table

I was shocked to see the following for sale:

  • magazines that hold up to 100 rounds (there is no limit in Arizona)
  • Kevlar body armour
  • semi-automatic pistols that look like a sub-machine guns (they’re only called a ‘pistol’ because they don’t have an obvious front hand grip)
  • targets with zombie versions of Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Michael Moore, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden (note that only the last 2 are already dead), and
  • a lawyer offering his services (for after you shoot someone)
A large yellow sign with a skull and crossbones saying "Blackgunstuff.com, Your 1 Stop Assault Shop"

Tactical Weaponry Dealer

There was a heavy emphasis on tactical equipment from companies with names like “Death Dealer Tactical”.  Why do people need weaponry intended for soldiers and SWAT teams?

Assult rifles lying on a table

Assault Rifles for sale

They were selling military hardware and gun accessories like:

  • Pistol grip shotguns
  • Assault rifles, with or without LED lights
  • Bayonets (a bit old-fashioned in my book)
  • Drum magazines that hold up to 100 rounds
  • Military-grade body armour with heavy metal strike plates that can withstand fire from a .308 (I was told, “you’ll hardly feel it”)
Snipre rifle on tripod legs with a white background

50 Calibre Sniper Rifle

For me, the most astonishing items I found being sold were huge .50 calibre sniper rifles, each with a maximum killing range of over 1 mile (1500 – 2000 meters).  Yes, these things are legal in the United States!

6 rifle cartridges in front of a U.S. dollar bill to compare sizes

They fire the bullets on the left

I asked what would be required to purchase one, besides a lot of money.  “Only a 1 minute telephone background check”, I was told.  “You can buy it and be shooting in 15 minutes”.  Scary.

Held on the Arizona State Fairgrounds, this is one of 52 gun shows that Crossroads of the West holds each year in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona.  Children under 12 are free with an adult.

Our Unplanned Route

This trip has been an ambition of mine for a while.  Although not officially on my Dreams List, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for several years, and it will provide an opportunity to fulfill other dreams that are on my list.  Initially, I had only the vaguest of ideas.

Map of Canada and the United States with an red oval surrounding most states and provinces with the words "See This" in the center

Initial Concept

We left home with only the vaguest of routes in mind.  Head south to the warm weather as quickly as possible.  Turn left in Southern California.  Visit family and friends in Arizona.  Continue East until Florida.  Turn left again.  Drive North until we cross the Canadian border.  Turn left somewhere in the Maritimes.  Drive West until we return home.  Along the way, stop as appropriate.  That was it.

Map of Canada and the United States with lred lines around the perimiter of the Unisted States and going through the Canadian provinces

Version 1 of Route Plan

Our only constraints are:

  1. Canadians can stay for a maximum of 6 months less a day in the United States for immigration and taxation reasons
  2. we want to be home in British Columbia before the Canadian winter makes travel difficult.

The basic idea is to follow the sun while circling and seeing as much of Canada and the United States as possible.

Before leaving home, I made a list of the things that I wanted to see, those that I could think of off the top of my head.  I also searched the Internet for ideas of places to visit (e.g. “top travel destinations United States”).  I combined several of these Internet lists into a spreadsheet.  I also added in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites from both Canada (16) and the United States (21).  I sorted my list by state and province, and hoped that I might get to as many of these places as possible.

Now that we’ve been on the road for a while, we’ve had some time to think and some excellent advice that has allowed us to refine our route further.  The overall plan hasn’t changed, but now we have an expanded list of places to visit, attractions to see, and even some places to stay.  The details remain to be worked out.  We try to roughly plan a route as we enter each state, but not the day-by-day details.  We’d rather take it one day at a time.  And of course, everything is subject to change.

We have also gained a few contacts in various parts of North America, people who can give us their local suggestions.  We would really like your input also.  Please leave a comment with your North American travel recommendations — places to visit, routes to drive, ‘must-see’ attractions, favourite restaurants, places to stay, etc.   If you have a friend who can provide us with recommendations on any of these, please forward this post to him or her. We would be very grateful.  I look forward to blogging about some of your favourite places!