At the start of Year 3 of the ‘Rona Plague (COVID-19, COVID-20 (aka SARS-COV2-d) , COVID-21 (aka SARS-COV2-o), we began scrapping our plans for a grand tour to visit relatives we haven’t seen in two years, and especially events involving large groups of people who may or may not be vaccinated and who may or may not wear masks indoors and may or may not have variant π or ρ, or whatever the next wave of new highly infectious or highly virulent strain of SARS-COV2 pops up to ravage the unwary.
Viruses are like that, especially RNA viruses, which come in single strands of RNA, thus have no repair facility. RNA viruses therefore mutate rapidly under evolutionary pressure, rendering last week’s anti-viral treatment and last month’s vaccine useless, spreading even more easily to those it doesn’t kill outright. Avoidance of exposure and limiting the replication rate through vaccinations that bolster the immune system is the only way to slow the rate of change and rate of spread among the population.
Therefore, we mask, and we avoid, and we vaccinate. Our avoidance technique doesn’t involve isolating in our home or on a mountaintop, but simply not exposing ourselves to strangers as much as possible. We still can travel, but we camp and stay at our timeshare resorts, where we have our own kitchen. We stay out of restaurants and shop “in person” only when necessary.
So, Expedition 2022 is very much like Expedition 2021, with even greater precautions. We’ve increased the size of our refrigerator to reduce the need to shop for food so often, and added electrical capacity to our camping van to enable us to camp off-grid or at less-crowded camping facilities, including boondocking, moochdocking (parking in driveways of friends and family to avoid long indoor exposure), and overnighting in rest areas and parking lots of businesses and jurisdictions that permit such use. It’s not something we’re totally comfortable with, but the days of eating out and staying in motels is over, perhaps indefinitely, if not forever.
We’re also older, so we don’t travel as far every day while on “Expedition.” We need to keep lodging and meal costs to a minimum when it takes twice as long to get to some specific distant destination. Unfortunately, inflation and the fact that a huge number of other people have the same idea makes food, fuel, and campgrounds much more expensive. Campgrounds now cost as much or more than we used to pay for motels, take-out ready-to-eat meals are as expensive as fine dining used to be, and carrying our accommodation with us reduces our fuel efficiency from 40 miles per gallon to less than 20, and those gallons cost at least a dollar more each than they did a few years ago. As pensioners, our income is the same as it was in 2010, while everything as gone up at least 20% if not doubled since then.
Nevertheless, our “need to wander” found us on the road again in mid-January, headed south for milder weather and flat terrain where we can ride our bicycle and avoid other people. The big issue is finding inexpensive and legal places to park our van, which will determine how long we can afford to extend our travels.
To friends and family, we’re sorry: another year of minimal contact is before us. But, we hope to keep in touch and share our adventures through social media, videos, and blogs, and are eager to hear how others are coping with “The Way Things Are.”
Day 1: Eager to get on the road and have time to explore, we ducked out in the middle of one of our many virtual meetings on Zoom to head for the coast, crossing the Megler-Astoria Bridge across the Columbia River into Oregon, where we had time to refuel (Safeway Reward points go a long way with a big fuel tank) and select a campsite before dark. Being off on the spur-of-the-moment, more or less, we couldn’t make a reservation, but Fort Stevens has two loops set aside for no-reservation campers. We picked N-29, right next to N-31, where we stayed a bit over two years ago on a whim. We had time for a short hike around the loop and to the nearby Coffenbury Lake, one of the long, narrow lakes that form between the ranks of dunes along the northwest Pacific coast near the mouths of great rivers.
The clear night dropped the temperature to near freezing, so we didn’t linger in the morning and dropped our plan to ride our bicycle on the relatively flat peninsula. We elected instead to do some sight-seeing along the coast, rather than just drive through the two-lane, twisting, up-and-down US 101. Of course, being the first sunny Saturday in a long time, all of the coastal beach towns, beaches, and trailheads were parked up and overflowing as Portlanders rushed out of the city to the beach.
We had trouble finding places to pull over and eat out of our food stores in the van, and certainly no way to get to a beach. The highlight of the day was a brief excursion off the highway to revisit the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center outside of Tillamook, a favorite stop on the coast and a destination for some of our trips in the past century. We also found a spot to “eat lunch on the beach,” a muddy parking spot at a fishing access point far off the Three Capes Scenic Route. At that, we pulled into the last parking spot as someone was leaving and another was waiting as we pulled out.
We had made reservations at an RV campground near Waldport, which, when we arrived, was nearly deserted, but at least we had a packet waiting for us outside the closed office. We made a quick photo op dash across the Alsea Bay Bridge, a 1991 replacement for one of the iconic Art Deco and Gothic bridges that span the bays and rivers along US 101, dating from the 1930s when the highway was built. Although the day warmed up, sunset brought a chill, and we’re glad we installed a small electric heater.
We’ve discovered we forgot to pack a lot of things we normally bring with us, but are making do without. We both forgot the computer mice, but I keep two spares in my bag [having done this before], so we’re good. So far, we’ve managed to keep comfortable and fed, though with cold meals and boiling water for tea outside (I also forgot our small electric kettle we picked up a couple of years ago but rarely use). Our portable power unit AC inverter seems to have gone on strike, but so far we’ve had electrical hookups in camp, so not missing it—yet. The power failure is disappointing: it was an expensive addition, but with inadequate capacity and now malfunction. So it goes.
We continued down the Oregon coast, lingering a while on the town boardwalk and pier at Bandon, since it was a warm and sunny day. Crossing into California, we checked in at our RV campground, a few miles north of Crescent City, then drove downtown to ride our bicycle along the beach road between the lighthouse and St. George Point, grabbing some ready-to-eat from the local grocery before settling in for the night.
Forgetting that California has the highest fuel prices in the US, $5.00/gallon, rivaling those of Canada ($5.32USD/gallon), we consulted our pricing app, and gassed up at a tribal station a few miles south, with the lowest prices in the county. Even so, the pump shut off before the tank was full: there’s a $100 limit on debit/credit purchases. We topped off at Costco in Eureka, which was a few cents lower, for another $25, and picked up some supplies.
The rest of the day, we took the scenic drives through the redwood forests, both State and Federal, then down into increasingly urban Northern California, arriving on schedule at Windsor, where we would spend the next week exploring Sonoma County by van and bicycle.
We checked out Healdsburg, an old winery town to the north, getting our bearings on the surroundings. We confined our shopping to a few inexpensive tools at the kitchen shop in this touristic little town.
A bicycle day: we rode a loop route from the resort to Riverside Regional Park, a hilly excursion past many wineries and fields of grapes. At the park, we tackled the gravel trail through the park, though the complete loop around the lake was blocked off on one side for habitat restoration.
In the van again, we scouted out places to go to the south, getting lost in Santa Rosa and making our way in a circuit to check out the trails near Forestville and Sebastopol.
A bicycle day, riding the Joe Rodota Trail, an old rail line between downtown Sebastopol and downtown Santa Rosa: the last mile on the Prince Memorial Greenway, to the Luther Burbank House and Garden, where we enjoyed looking at plants blooming much earlier than at home. Within the city of Santa Rosa, many of the trail users were unhoused folk, much as we see on the urban trails in Olympia. But, the trail was a delight, pedaled with much less effort (max heart rate: 108) than the hilly rural loop through the wine country around Windsor (max heart rate 160).
Off to Guerneville, a village on the Russian River, in search of eclectic bargains, which we found, along with the ever-present array of homeless on the streets and in the parks.
Another van excursion, stopping first in Santa Rosa at Costco for $4.50 gas (which didn’t fill the tank: $100 limit) . We went west, to the village of Bodega, the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds,” where we also found an artist’s co-op and a coffee shop with great chai and yerba maté .
We continued on to Bodega Bay and up the switchbacks and dizzying views on CA 1 along the cliffs and canyons north to Fort Ross (Крѣпость Россъ), named for the Russian Empire. The fort was a Russian colony built in the early 19th century to supply Russian outposts in Alaska with food and furs. The fortification was necessary to keep the Spanish colonies in the San Francisco Bay area from encroaching on their territory.
The soil proved too barren to be profitable, and the land was sold in the early 1840s to American developers. But, the Russian influence on the Sonoma Coast continues to echo today. The fort was restored in the early 20th century as an historical park, and is maintained in “like new” condition. We traced our way back up the Russian River through Guerneville, following our previous bicycle route back to the resort. We spun our wheels briefly on the one short steep climb, so didn’t feel bad about having had to push our bike on that one.
After another “informational presentation” at the resort that devolved into the usual ruthless sales pitch, we stood firm against upgrading yet again, and were summarily shown the door, starting our journey back north with the usual foul mood that follows otherwise pleasant stays at these venues, when we’ve been trapped into the high-pressure sales tag-team sessions.
By now, we had decided that winter camping was expensive, so headed north instead of venturing inland or farther south. Not wanting to repeat the harrowing section of the coast highway between Jenner and Fort Ross again, we drove up US 101 to Cloverdale, and headed west. The first half of the mountain road had a few switchbacks, but was relatively tame. The GPS directed us to the southwest at Booneville, where we took a cookie break at the bakery. The rest of the route proved to be a narrow, winding rough path with many switchbacks and 16% grades, which triggered Judy’s innate fear of such roads.
When we finally arrived at the coast, the camp host presented her with a certificate of achievement for having endured the route. We took a short walk toward the beach in the chilly gale, but soon turned back and battened down for a cold and windy night.
Electing not to try to make coffee outside in the chilly morning, we continued north to Fort Bragg, the last and only reasonably-sized town on the north coast highway, stopping for coffee and to replenish our supplies before another hair-raising, frightful twisting and turning switchback-laden journey over the mountains back to US 101, where we picked up hot lunch at a grocery deli in Garberville and had a reprise of our trip through the Avenue of the Giants before camping near the Eel River just north of the state park. Electricity for our heater necessitates seeking out commercial RV parks with hookups. This one was reasonably priced, but no cell service for the second night in a row, and no WiFi, of course. The previous night, WiFi was available, but at about $1 per minute, speed limited. No thanks. At tonight’s camp, it was cold, but sheltered enough to brew up a moka pot of coffee before yet another cold meal.
The day dawned cold, but we managed to get coffee brewed and the condensation off the windshield, then off on US 101 north, into Oregon. After two days and nights with no phone service and no WiFi, we used the paper campground guide and set course for a mid-afternoon arrival at an RV park in a grove away from the coast and between two small towns: affordable and relatively deserted this time of year. Clouds dispelled the sunshine of the past week in California, and the campground showed signs of recent heavy rains. We were beginning to feel more like home. Unlike the last two nights, the restrooms were heated, very clean, and the showers were hot. We leveraged our grizzled looks to score the campsite closest to the restrooms, as we often do. We have WiFi, though severely throttled as is usual with RV campgrounds, and spotty phone service. We’re settling in to shorter days on the road.
We had to add a few gallons of fuel to get us over the border, then filled up in Oregon, though only $0.50 a gallon less than we paid in California. At least we got a full tank without hitting the $100 card limit, but just barely. So far, we’ve put over $400 in the tank, and camping has cost us nearly as much as we used to pay for motels in the Before Times. California was fastidious about COVID rules and masking: Oregon, not so much. We’re thinking spring and warmer temperatures may see us staying close to home and camping without electric hookups.
It occurred to me, as I arose in the chilly and damp morning, that the weather had turned back to normal winter on the coast, and that we could, if we headed inland to I-5, make it home before dark, so we packed up, headed to Bandon, 20 miles north, for breakfast in the truck on the boardwalk, drove in thick coastal fog north, stopped for coffee at Coos Bay, where the fog cleared, and turned inland at Reedsport, following the Umpqua River to Drain, then through a tunnel into the Willamette Valley and I-5, south of Cottage Grove. We stopped at the Winco in Salem for some ready-to-eat lunch: no non-meat hot lunch (disappointment!), so we got a couple of yogurt parfaits and a pumpkin pie, which turned out to be frozen solid. Nevertheless, we ate, got back on the road, joining the freeway melee through Portland and across the Columbia into Washington. We rolled into our usual Costco in Tumwater on fumes, refueled for just under $100, and got home in time to pick up our mail at the post office.
Cold house (we turned the thermostat down before we left). Cooked a hot meal, for a change, fell asleep in my chair next to the fireplace as we reheated the house, to bed early. [Afterword: Thankfully, we came home early, because the furnace went out two days later, on Sunday morning, filling the house with the odor of burning motor wiring and prompting an after-hours charge to have the blower fan replaced.]
We have a few more things we need to do to make the van a better travel and camping venue, like more battery or A/C lighting for the back of the van, and a better means of securing our new refrigerator for travel. We found we needed to empty and stow the dehumidifier when in motion, as it tipped over when nearly full when mounting a ramp into a parking lot. We’ll probably liberate a small electric vacuum to take care of the tracking in from campsites, and maybe an outdoor rug for longer camp stays.
The new battery worked great to keep things running without draining the power unit. But, sadly, the A/C inverter in the power unit failed to switch on, leaving us with only shore power or DC for the trip. It’s under warranty, but a nuisance to deal with failure less than a year into this new setup. We also have some DC plugs that don’t work for some reason.
We found that the little 375/750-watt heater we put on top of the cabinet worked better if we turned on the 12-volt fan also on top of the cabinet, to push more air to the back of the van. Since we aren’t using the small back-seat refrigerator anymore, I can re-purpose the thermostat from that and reprogram the computer to turn on the extra fan for heating or cooling to circulate more air in the van interior. We can also use that to control the ceiling vent when we get that installed after the rainy season is over.
Using the satellite radio with a FM transmitter to play on the van radio worked fine, but we probably need to find a more seldom-used frequency: we’ve passed a few stations on the same frequency that have swamped our little unlicensed signal in our travels across the country. We also need to remember to bring our portable radio so we can listen to radio in camp when the van radio isn’t on.
Because of the need to run supplemental electric heat in winter, we stayed at paid RV campgrounds and state parks that offered electric hookups instead of trying to find dry, “stealth,” or boondocking camping opportunities. The current high price of fuel and the increasing cost of campgrounds with amenities makes extensive travel cost-prohibitive, despite avoiding restaurants. Still, we have that wanderlust to satisfy… Stay tuned.