We had planned to work our way down the coast, then across southern California to hit a few national parks and visit relatives in Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas, then foray farther into Texas, exploring some of the national parks and maybe the seashore before swinging back through Death Valley and back north. But, as we often say, life is what happens when you are making other plans. Mother Nature took the first swing…
Our first plan involved heading down I-5 to Eugene and over to the Oregon coast, with some “stealth camping” in coastal cities, like Florence, OR, and Santa Cruz, CA. But first, US 101 south of Florence fell into the ocean, and Redwood trees fell across highways in northern California, so we planned to continue down I-5, since Siskiyou Pass and the pass at Mt Shasta seemed to be snow-free, and then swing over to the coast at Santa Cruz, which suddenly was a flood disaster, as were other cities inland on 101.
So, when departure day came, we headed straight down I-5 and picked up US 99 in Sacramento. Instead of the streets of Florence, we parked overnight in heavy rain in a casino parking lot along I-5 in Oregon, at the south end of the Willamette Valley. Violent gusts rocked the van in the night. Instead of sleeping under the redwoods in California as we planned, we stopped at another casino a few miles off I-5 north of Sacramento, where, for the first time, we got The Knock, that intrusion every stealth camper in the van life fears. A young security guard thought our stealth van didn’t look enough like an RV to be parking in the designated RV/18-wheeler overnight area, though we had gotten approval from the security staff inside the casino. We and his supervisor convinced him that such things (stealth RVs) were possible and we were OK, especially if told so by someone else.
Driving down US 99, we turned east at Bakersfield, thinking we would overnight at a farm stand/gas station east of town, but the parking lot wasn’t flat, fuel was more expensive than other places, and it was too early to stop, so we went on, another 40 km, to Tehachapi for fuel, thinking we would overnight at the truck stop. But, when we got there, it was snowing! We went on, to the next truck stop, arriving just as the sun was setting. It wasn’t snowing in the desert, but it got very cold overnight, and, with no supplemental heat, we had to run the van engine before retiring and when we awoke. We bought a shower in the morning, after most of the truckers had gone.
In accordance with good RV practice, we stayed free in parking lots where we had purchased fuel or food. Since we decided to not overextend ourselves, and our van has a range of about 600 km, plus a comfortable reserve, we planned accordingly, and always got permission from the business. On this day, we pushed on past our planned fuel stop, 620 km, so it was good to have had the reserve. And, starting out at first light, and planning to stop early, but continuing on because of weather, we covered 700 km and still avoided night driving on the short winter days.
Since we were ahead of schedule, it was bitterly cold everywhere, and we hadn’t gotten our oil heater installation finished yet, we decided we wouldn’t try to get a camping reservation at Joshua Tree National Park. Instead, we drove through, took a hike, drove to a viewpoint, and stopped at a popular roadside feature. It was a nice day in California, for a change, and the park became crowded as we passed through and headed east into Arizona on the I-10.
Having made short work of the national park and making good time on the freeway, we stopped on the outskirts of Phoenix, at another truck stop, setting up for the night after refueling and stepping next door to the food court and getting a Godfather’s Pizza, the first I’ve had in nearly 40 years, since we lived in Bremerton, Washington. Making plans for the next day, we discovered we were only 30 minutes away from our granddaughter’s place. We hadn’t planned to stop on the way east because she was going to be traveling to California, but we were early, so we dropped by in the morning and fixed her coffee.
Later that day, we took a driving tour and hike in the Tucson Mountain unit of the Saguaro National Park, ending the day at a motel, since we had enough loyalty points from our travels in the “Before Times” to get a free night. The next morning we took a drive and hike in the East unit of the Saguaro National Park, then a bicycle ride on the Chuck Huckelberry Loop Trail in Tucson before heading for New Mexico. We stopped for a late lunch in Benson, where we originally planned to overnight in one of our scenarios, and ended up at sunset in Lordsburg, New Mexico, where we spent a freezing night parked next to the truck stop building to block the wind.
Leaving early, we arrived midday at our daughter’s house, where we spent a week visiting. Judy went shopping with our daughter and I enlisted a grandson to help finish installation of the diesel-fuel heater, using his tools and his welding skills. We had the good fortune to weather the freezing nights in a casita our daughter had outfitted in one of the outbuildings on their property, so the visit was pleasant, especially so, as she stuffed us with incredible vegetarian dishes she usually has to eat all by herself, as neither our adult grandsons nor our son-in-law will touch them.
While in Las Cruces, we took a hike in a slot canyon with our son, a grandson, and their respective lady friends and children, and were joined at dinner by another grandson. However, we weren’t able to connect with the rest of the family in Las Cruces, due to illnesses and schedules (we were only there one weekend). We made plans to circle back through before heading north and west again, to catch other family members and to round out our national park visits.
Two weeks after we left home, we headed east again, circling around El Paso, headed for Big Bend National Park. We stopped for the night at Alpine, TX, after a drive-by and quick walk around Marfa, known for its art scene and as the setting for the 1950s blockbuster movie, “Giant.” We didn’t realize the iconic “Prada Marfa” art installation was so far west of Marfa: we blew by it at highway speed 45 minutes before reaching the city of Marfa, without even a moving photo out the window. That’s the “dirty little secret” of our volumes of photos of iconic tourist destinations and spectacular scenery: most of the pictures are shot through the van windows as we whiz by, not stopping, or stopping only briefly for “photo ops” and moving on.
That first day on the road with our diesel-fired heater fully configured and fueled, we noticed a strong diesel smell and found that the fuel tank cap wasn’t sealed down and the sloshing of the full tank on rough roads had spread diesel oil all over the heater, inside and out, as well as on the floor under the heater. After cleaning up the mess, we ran the heater for a while in camp even though we had electricity, just to make sure it was operating properly. Besides, it was cold. The next morning, we drove back into town and picked up a left-over plastic bin lid at Dollar General that fit underneath the stove, so, if it did leak again, it wouldn’t spread out on the van floor. It didn’t, but the oil had soaked into the frame and continued to smell faintly. And, since the air ducts and heater were new, they had a strong odor of hot plastic and whatever toxic protective coating gets put on Chinese products, which eventually dissipated with use over the next few weeks, but was a constant source of irritation for most of the trip, the few times we had to use it. After that first day, Judy was ready to give it away to anyone who would take it, but we were glad to have it later, though we had to use it sparingly to avoid being overwhelmed with outgassing fumes.
From Alpine, we drove to and through Big Bend National Park, for two nights at Cottonwood Campground, near the river on the west side of the park, where we relied on our solar panels and diesel heater in the primitive campground. The next day, we explored the west side of the park: Santa Elena Canyon, the ruins of some early settler’s adobe buildings, and the Burro Mesa Pour-Over. The second day dawned cold and rainy. We drove to the Chisos Basin, where the temperature climbed from freezing on the valley floor to 10 C in the Basin. We caught up on internet and phone at the visitor center, took a short hike in the rain, and, because it was early, drove down the east side of the park to Rio Grande Village and a few viewpoints nearby.
Leaving the park, we passed up our tentative overnight stop, deciding to press on in the deteriorating cold weather. We made after-hours phone reservations for the last electric hookup site at Seminole Canyon State Park, after rejecting a free parking lot camping area in a small town off the highway, which, fortunately, had good cell coverage, a rarity on this trip. The canyon was a real find: when we went to the park headquarters to pay on the way out, we were directed to the in-house museum covering the history of the canyon and the Pecos people, who left behind many paintings on the canyon walls.
The next day took us through Del Rio, where we picked up some groceries, and used the urban cell service to book a reservation at the Lake Casa Blanca State Park in Laredo, which, we found when we got there, was in the middle of major winter repairs and improvements, with a long walk to the restroom to avoid the thick sticky mud on the unofficial path through the trees from our campsite (don’t ask how we knew about the sticky mud). The parking lot at the restroom building was being resurfaced, so driving wasn’t an option, either. The restroom building was a huge, cavernous, unheated space, obviously doubling as a tornado/hurricane shelter. In the morning, we drove to another campground area that had “normal” facilities. For the most part, the Texas state park facilities were great, well-maintained, clean, with free showers, but we did encounter the storm shelter model in another campground.
We got a rock chip in the windshield in a construction area when coming into Laredo the night before. We thought we would be able to just call the insurance and get an appointment to have it repaired the next morning. But, the exchange quickly went off the rails in a four-way call between our agent and headquarters and an auto glass company national representative, with the conclusion, sight unseen, that the windshield would have to be replaced and the AI cameras that watched for dangers and rain would have to be recalibrated, all of which the auto glass company could do next Tuesday (this was Wednesday) at our location (which changed from day to day). The next morning, we talked to our agent and got permission to just have it repaired at our discretion, when and where we could, and text them a copy of our invoice for reimbursement. So we went on.
Nearing the coast, the cities got bigger and the opportunity for cheap or free and safe camping diminished. We decided to do a drive-by of the SpaceX Boca Chica Starbase and then head out in the countryside away from the cities. We made a reservation at a rural RV park nearly 150 km from the “beach.” It turned out to be just fine, with a big day room, showers, and a laundry. We booked two nights in one of the three “transient” sites in the residential/seasonal RV park.
The next day, we did a drive-by recon of South Padre Island, finding it to be a garish tourist trap with dangerous and dirty county park campgrounds (the one we would have stayed at had a large contingent of police there when we drove by and was surrounded by crime scene tape) and virtually no safe beach access for vehicles, because of loose and drifting sand. Altogether a bummer day, and a long drive back to the campground.
Leaving the RV Park, we made a grocery stop at the next town and then headed north on a highway unbroken by any towns (except for a “dispersed” town of an estimated 20 citizens, with a tiny and run-down post office beside the highway and no other buildings nearby–Armstrong, Texas). Grazing the outskirts of Corpus Christi, we found our way to Padre Island National Seashore, to a delightful (but dry, with no cell service) campground, Malaquite Campground. It was early, so we took advantage of the time to break out our tandem bicycle and ride to the end of the road, dipping our wheel in the Gulf of Mexico.
Because of the high tourist season, we shrewdly booked the next two nights at nearby state parks, scoring the last available campsite in both cases. Leaving the National Seashore, we drove into Corpus Christi and walked the waterfront park, as our check-in time wasn’t until 2:00 pm at the next park. But, when we put in the name of the park in the GPS, it took us seemingly in the opposite direction instead of back to where we saw the park sign when leaving the island. We drove across the freeway bridge headed north past the USS Lexington aircraft carrier and museum, over 30 km, then onto a ferry back to the north end of the island, directed to an urban commercial RV Park, which was definitely not the state park. We did plan to visit Port Aransas later, but not now. We headed south down the island for a long way, until we could see the bridge we crossed that morning, before arriving at the park exactly at 2:00 pm check-in time, having gone more than 50 km out of our way.
The beach was great, but the RV campground was basically a parking lot, units side-by-side, with picnic tables side-by-side between pairs of RVs, and an army of grackles, the Texas species of camp robber birds, entrenched around the picnic shelters. The bathroom was similar to the one at Laredo–basically a hurricane/tornado shelter with lots of space around a central core. The showers were placarded with “Temperature control problems? Keep pushing the button.” In both our cases, repeated button presses yielded 20 seconds of cool water. Showers were short and not so sweet.
Since we were not going far the next day, we decided it was time to get the rock chip fixed. We called a few auto-glass repair numbers (after seeking out a shop without calling first and ending up in a residential area in the canals before we realized that, since the pandemic, auto-glass repair is all mobile. The owner of that one was out of town for the day, another was busy, but referred us to a third mobile entrepreneur, who happened to be working a job on our route out of the city, so we met him there–in a parking lot in an industrial district–as he was finishing the previous job, and got back on the road within a few minutes. Nice job, too, and cheap. I think he gave us a discount for coming to him instead of him having to come to us, which wouldn’t have made sense because we were also mobile. [Edit: It took us several months to get our refund back; meanwhile, we had another, smaller rock chip, that we had repaired at an actual shop in Shelton, covered by insurance, so no out-of-pocket and wait for reimbursement. The clincher was, it was $15 cheaper.]
Our destination for the day was the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which was much more to our liking than the touristic villages and big cities. We wanted to take the full auto tour loop, but our van was too tall, so we tentatively planned to return the next day and ride the loop on our tandem, since it was already late afternoon. The weather was perfect, and we saw a lot of birds and a few deer, then hurried back 50 km to our camp at Goose Island State Park, where we had a site in the trees, a long way from the bathrooms, so we drove to get a shower and drove to the island part of the park, which was little more than a sandbar with campsites on it, where we also could get reliable phone connections.
Our plan for the next day changed when we awoke to gray skies with prospects of high winds and thunderstorms, so we revised our plan, abandoning our intended bicycle tour of Aransas NWR, to take in The Alamo in San Antonio and then camp at McKinney Falls S.P. in Austin. The trip to San Antonio was bumpy and blustery, with bad roads, rain, and gusty winds, but we did discover the reconstructed old Spanish mission at Goliad, founded in 1749, now a state park, and spent some time there, discovering that our camping receipt from the previous night was good for access to any state park, so we could camp at one park and tour another on the way to our next destination. We pulled over on the main street in Kenedy to grab a bite of lunch from our stash and pressed on. Arriving in San Antonio a bit later than we expected, and in the middle of a rain storm, we rushed through The Alamo, which was more crowded than we were comfortable with. The Alamo was free, but parking in a nearby commercial lot was $18 minimum for 3 hours, of which we used only one hour before joining the afternoon rush hour on I-35 to Austin, in the usual 0 to120 kph to 0 pattern of accelerate, stop, and repeat, creeping past intersections with other freeways, then blasting to the next congested area in the megacity. We arrived at camp just before 5:00 pm, in light rain, and settled in for the night.
It rained most of the night, and dawned cold and damp. We packed up, drove to the shower building in another part of the campground, then headed for the Falls. Oh, my! If you are ever in Austin, do check out McKinney Falls. Texas State Parks have a variable per-person day fee, or $70 annual car-load pass, but well worth it. We marveled at the upper falls, carved out of limestone, with pockets and pools full from the recent rains, but were bowled over by the lower falls, a huge expanse of rugged, pitted limestone with a shallow gorge cut through the rock and finally tumbling over an undercut ledge. neither cascade was very tall, but hiking over the tortured limestone shapes carved out by water over hundreds of meters of a mass of limestone was an otherworldly experience.
As we were leaving the park, the rains came back, but briefly. We refueled for the first time in several days, 95 liters: the Gas Buddy phone app led us to a nearby station with $0.778/liter versus $0.846 at most other stations, and much less than the $1.074/liter we paid in California. So far this trip, with many days of high winds and high speeds in Texas, our fuel burn rate averaged 13.7 liters per 100 km (17.13 mpg for U.S. readers) and, turning back west for the first time, had traveled 6850 km since leaving home, and burned nearly 940 liters of fuel. Since leaving Las Cruces two weeks before, we spent nearly $300 for 12 nights camping. Before Las Cruces, we spent $0 for five nights in parking lots and one night in a motel, using a free night on our loyalty points left over from the “before times.” And, seven nights in our daughter’s guest casita. In the expanse of west Texas on state highways, free camping was rare: reviews were conspicuously absent for likely spots in larger cities, while we had been spoiled by the abundance of rural truck stops and casinos in the western states along the freeways. But, the Texas state parks were abundant, relatively inexpensive, invariably had electric hookups, and abounded in historic and scenic attractions.
After refueling and turning west at last, we drove off through the rain onto the expressway downtown to Austin, where we drove around the Capitol before meandering west to pick up groceries for the week ahead and meet friends for lunch and a visit in a suburb in the hills. We ended the day with a short drive on a winding country road through the hill country to Pedernales Falls State Park, crossing the river over a culvert that would be a ford in high water, then climbing high above the river to enter the park, then down again into a juniper forest the locals call red cedar. Once again, cell coverage ranged from “No Service” to “Low Data,” with “No Service” the predominant condition that all state parks seem to share.
In the morning, we drove to the end of the park road and hiked to the falls, which were even more spectacular than McKinney Falls, a massive limestone escarpment that looked like a constructed dam, with water flowing through the sculpted channels below into a broad pool. Most of the flow was in a channel around the edge, rather than the main “spillway.”
It was a short drive from the park to Johnson City, where we checked in at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Park, a retrospective of the life and work of the 36th President, and a walking tour of the Johnson Settlement, where his ancestors settled the town, then past his boyhood home. A few miles drive west brought us to the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historical Site, comprising the LBJ Ranch, a driving tour through the working ranch.
As it was early afternoon, we skipped the walk-around of the Texas White House ranch house and headed north, to the Caprock Canyon State Park, which had been recommended to us by a park ranger at Goliad State Park. It was a bit farther than we should have gone, over 600 km from the Johnson Ranch, but the only camping in between was at Amarillo, and we had no interest in that area, so we pressed on against the strong winter wind, arriving at the park well after dark, with the temperature near freezing and the after-hours check-in station surrounded by the wild bison herd that dominates the park. Not finding the trick of getting a registration form (they were under the heavy lid of the post in which one deposits the registration fee, which we discovered the next morning), we grabbed a map and headed to our pre-registered campsite. The one restroom, located far from any of the campsites, had signs admonishing users to not let the snakes in. Oh, fine.
In the morning, in below-freezing weather, we fired up our diesel heater for the first time since our non-electric campsite in Big Bend. We stopped at the headquarters to get our official park pass and advice on where to explore. We chose to drive the road into the canyon for photos. The bison truly own the park, and were everywhere, taking over the buildings for shelter against the wind when humans weren’t present, and sauntering down the road, prompting caution and extreme courtesy on the part of drivers.
From Caprock Canyon, we skipped attempting to ride the Caprock Trailway, a 100-km gravel rail-trail nearby, proceeding on the snow-lined road lightly iced road an hour and a half north to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, called the Texas Grand Canyon. Our camping pass from the night before got us into the park without the $16 entry fee: most of the parks had a $4 or $5 per person entry fee (in addition to the camp fee), but this one was $8, so we got a break, for once. For the second time this day, we descended on steep roads into a canyon. This one, we would have liked to stay a day and hike and/or ride our bike on the relatively flat canyon floor, but we were anxious to move on in the bitter cold, so we booked a commercial RV campsite in Albuquerque and once more drove well into the dark, checking in after hours. Fortunately, the night security person led us to our campsite, as the map showed us entering the pull-through site the wrong direction.
Morning dawned well below freezing, more than our tiny electric heater could dispel, so we again fired up the diesel heater. We were hoping to get to visit family in Albuquerque, and made tentative arrangements, so we extended another night, but our granddaughter canceled when her youngest came down with a fever. But, we did get a well-deserved rest day, to catch up on laundry and internet with our first WiFi in more than 11 days, uploading a video we had shot more than a week ago. We also struck up a conversation with the camp manager and her husband, finding a lot in common in music tastes (Jazz), news (Democracy Now and foreign news services), art (he’s an abstract painter), and backgrounds in college radio. Fun times. They recommended a Vietnamese restaurant nearby where we could get vegetarian fare. We got spring rolls and a fantastic soup with tofu and rice noodles that came with the broth separate to assemble in the oriental style of arranging cooked and raw ingredients in a bowl and pouring the hot broth over. We took our take-out up to a trail head on the slopes overlooking the city and had a great lunch.
Sunday, which apparently was Super Bowl Sunday, we again turned south, to revisit Las Cruces (hence the subtitle, the Texas Two-Step). When we arrived at our daughter’s house, the El Paso contingent soon arrived for an brief encore visit. With uncertain weather ahead, we started making plans for the rest of the week to try to get family together, as we had been unsuccessful on the outbound leg of our trip due to illnesses and just plain inconvenient scheduling. We set up appointments, which became somewhat fluid, but workable, to see great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, though we again missed the older great-grandsons, one in Albuquerque, and two in Las Cruces. First, a rare (and scary, for us, since you can’t eat with your mask on) dinner out, hosted by our local granddaughter, with five of her six children and two of her grandchildren, so we got to meet our newest great-great-granddaughter for the first time. We met at their favorite restaurant, despite our policy of never eating “in.” But the few other patrons were well-spread-out and it turned out fine.
Earlier that afternoon, we braved the early arrival of the spring winds and rain to visit our oldest daughter (and great-grandmother to the youngest members of the family) at the assisted living facility where she has resided for the past year. She was glad to see us and in generally good spirits, but she would rather be a bit more independent, which we understand, and the facility is far from town and her friends, but she has made a few friends at the facility, though she complained that most of the residents can’t hear or can’t see, or both, so there isn’t much social life.
The winds came up during the night, but subsided during the day, so we got out to replenish our provisions for the next stage of our expedition, later in the week. We also bought a storage bin we planned to use as a rain/snow cover for our diesel heater, as it sits outside behind the van when we run it, and we could have used it a few nights when it did rain. Of course, we can’t use it when stealth camping or in parking lots, which is why we spent so many nights at state parks and RV campgrounds where we could get electricity for our tiny electric heater, and run the oil heater if necessary.
We had arranged to meet another great-grandaughter, and her four children (including two great-great granddaughters we haven’t met yet, having been born since The End Of The World As We Knew It), at a park, but the weather did not cooperate, with colder temperatures and high winds predicted. A meeting at her house did not work out either, as family members came down with strep infections at the last minute. So it went. At least we got to see part of the family, and spend a lot of time with my youngest daughter and her family, plus do some shopping for the continual modifications to our camping arrangements.
Finally, it was time to head west: our first stop was north and then west across the Plains of San Agustin, past the Very Large Array radio telescope, which was fully deployed, giving us an excellent photo op with several of the 27 25-meter dishes close to the highway. We met our middle daughter and her partner at the junction and followed them up a long snow-covered and muddy dirt road to their house on the mountain. We spun out on the steep drive and had to leave our van in the snow just off the road. We had a good lunch and visit, and then drove west to Pie Town, famous for its pie festival and, of course, the pies. And, for us bicycle enthusiasts, the tiny town on the continental divide is famous for being a stop on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a 2500-km route from Canmore, Alberta, Canada, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, on the Mexican border, that several of our Warm Showers bicycle tourist guests have ridden. We stopped at the Pie-O-Neer Cafe and bought a small pie, a perfect two-serving dessert, which ended up as the whole meal. Up another slippery, snowy street off the highway to the one RV park, we picked an icy and snowy empty site next to the restrooms. We had electricity, but our tiny electric heater wouldn’t be up to the sub-freezing temperatures at the 2500-meter elevation, so we rigged our oil burning heater, with the storage bin inverted on top. We ran it before bed, and again in the morning, to keep everything from freezing. The site was very unlevel, but we didn’t dare set the leveling ramps for fear they would freeze into the ice.
In the morning, it was well below freezing, so we packed quickly and headed west for the Arizona border. We didn’t encounter snow, but snow showers passed around us. The overcast ended at the Arizona border. We continued through the towns of Springerville and Eager, headed for a pueblo ruin. A few miles up the picturesque highway, we noticed a sign: “Four-wheel drive vehicles only”, but proceeded anyway, until we encountered blowing snow drifting across the road, and turned around, back to Springerville and the main highway to Show Low and Pinetop, where we had spent a snowy week many years ago.
From there, we reconnected with the snow-free end of the other highway and made our way to Fort Apache, where we self-registered for a tour of the ruins (the museum was only open Monday through Friday during the winter), drove around the fort, then west a few miles to the muddy dirt road leading 3 km to the Kinishba Ruins, which is only one of 20 pueblo ruins in the area, but the only one readily accessible, and that with some difficulty during winter. The nearly 1000-year-old ruin was once a massive complex with 600 rooms, mostly two or three stories, built of stones carefully fit together. Nearby was the ruin of a 1930s visitor center and museum, built in the pueblo style but with modern proportions. The current museum at Fort Apache is built in the Apache style, while the fort was a military post and Indian boarding school, and still houses an active school for the community. The Apache tribes moved into the region many centuries after the pueblo culture had disappeared.
The nearby Fort Apache was established in 1870 as an outpost in the Indian Wars manned by “Buffalo Soldiers,” as African-American soldiers were called, and made a permanent installation in the 1879, but converted to a boarding school in 1923, not for the local tribes, but for Navajo children, as part of the cultural suppression practices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at that time. The Theodore Roosevelt School is still in operation, but as part of the local White Mountain Apache reservation school district, and many of the permanent buildings from the 1880s and 1890s military fort remain as part of the historical museum.
After bagging our mud-clumped shoes and changing into clean ones, we drove on, through the Salt River Canyon, to the copper-mining town of Globe, where we spent the night at an unlevel site in the local RV park. Early in the morning, we drove through the spectacular Superstition Mountains and past many copper mines, finally descending into the populated area, where we were stalled in traffic between a Renaissance Fair and a running event, the latter closing one westbound lane and the former resulting in much cross-traffic at the many stoplights.
But, we arrived at our granddaughter’s apartment just after she arrived with her U-Haul van and just before her moving crew arrived. The rest of the day, we helped with moving the fragile items the movers wouldn’t handle, like electronics and her fish tank. For the second time in our expedition, we got a motel room, once again getting a free night with nearly the rest of our loyalty points from previous trips before the pandemic. We were disappointed to find the motel’s WiFi was down: they put us in a room near the nearby Starbucks, which had WiFi, but wouldn’t stay logged in long enough to do anything useful. We thought we would go to the Starbucks for morning coffee and get some work done, but the shops built during the pandemic don’t have dining rooms, only drive-up or walk-up windows. The Before Times ain’t comin’ back, folks.
In the morning, we met with our granddaughter for early lunch at a salad/rice-bowl cafe that served vegan dishes, then headed northwest to Kingman, Arizona, intending to continue on to camp at Death Valley. But, as we had seen on the weather reports on TV while at the motel, a new winter storm was on the way, and we needed to get over the mountains into California’s Central Valley before the storm, so we abandoned our Death Valley plans and booked a motel in Bakersfield for the next night after we arrived at our camp in Kingman, which did have WiFi, but our site was too far away to connect, so we connected in the cold from the patio near the office. So it goes: camping is, if nothing else, a respite from phones, TV, and the Internet, but requires a lot of pre-planning and ingenuity when you really need to rely on weather and travel information. By this time, we decided we were ready to be home, but it wouldn’t be an easy or fast trip, with the latest massive winter storm upon us.
We left Kingman at the crack of dawn, jumping off the I-40 onto US 68 to follow the Colorado River down to Needles, where we rejoined the freeway to Barstow, enjoying a clear and sunny day so far. Turning off on CA 58 to Bakersfield, the clouds moved in and the wind picked up, buffeting us across the Mojave Desert. We stopped for fuel where we had overnighted a month ago: a fill-up was “only” $104 with our discount card, the most we’d paid since leaving California on the way out. Fuel prices had suddenly gone up again. We made it into Bakersfield without too much wind trouble, well ahead of the storm that arrived to close the highway later that night. We arrived two hours too early to check in, but the hotel let us use the laundry, which would have been closed after check-in time, and not open until morning, when we planned an early departure to beat the weather.
Looking at the weather, we would have some windy days, rain, and cold mornings ahead, so we booked a room in Red Bluff that was cheaper than the KOA campground, and looked ahead to scope out possible affordable motels in Oregon, since we figured we likely wouldn’t be able to make it home before dark all the way from northern California, especially not knowing the conditions over the passes at Mt. Shasta and Siskiyou. As we settled in for the night in Bakersfield, the wind became stronger: we were glad we decided to skip Death Valley and “fold up the tent” for the rest of the trip, as winter had returned.
The wind died down overnight, but the parking lot was strewn with palm husks blown off the palm trees during the night. We packed up early, grabbed a venti coffee to share at Starbucks, and bought an indigent man a venti milk for his breakfast. Then, north on old Highway 99, without incident, despite warnings of gusty winds. In early afternoon, north of Sacramento, the sky turned dark and we drove through a rain squall before arriving at Red Bluff, our stop for the night, even though it was mid-afternoon. Driving in wind, rain, and California freeway traffic is exhausting. Plus, we wanted to catch the window between the storms to make a run for central Oregon before the next big storm Thursday night. We walked in the chilly wind a few blocks to a supermarket and stocked up for the rest of the trip.
Later that evening, we heard noises outside our room, and peeked out the window to discover an elderly person scrounging scraps from take-out boxes in the garbage can nearby. We were too shocked to remember that we did have enough food in our stores in the truck to have offered the person at least enough for a meal. We’ve heard of the indigent and elderly dumpster diving for food in America, but hadn’t seen it until now. Having encountered hunger on the streets twice in one day was a real reality check. We wish now we had handled it differently.
We packed up early in the morning, hit the local Starbucks before dawn for coffee and a hot breakfast, then headed north. The roads in California were dry: we hit a few flurries over the pass between Mt. Shasta City and Weed, and wet roads over Siskiyou Pass. We took the series of mountain passes between Grants Pass and Canyonville cautiously, stopping to refuel at the casino/truck stop where we had refueled and spent our first night out from home, nearly six weeks earlier, and then zoomed up the Willamette Valley.
By the time we reached Salem, the storm clouds and wind had moved in. Near Wilsonville, the traffic slowed to a crawl as the freeway was covered with packed ice, pounded into washboards by the traffic. Deciding not to continue on through downtown Portland on I-5, we turned off on the I-205 beltway, which was icy for a way, but then mostly dry, until we got to the signs that it would take 80 minutes to get to I-5 north of Vancouver, WA., due to a blockage at I-205 and I-84. We turned off at Glisan St. at the tail end of the stopped traffic, making our way slowly on hilly city streets covered in deep packed ice and snow, to Oregon 213, north 10 km to Sandy Blvd, past many stalled or crashed vehicles, rejoining the I-205 after the US 30-Business interchange, where we made our way through slush and ice to the state line at the center of the Columbia River, where Washington DOT had completely cleared the road.
It was dry the last 200 km home, arriving 40 days, 7 hours, since we left, and 12,324 km of driving. We turned up the thermostat, put new batteries in the fireplace remote sensor, and settled in, glad to be home.
After a restful sleep in our own bed, we awoke to a chilly house. A systems check showed the furnace fan was not coming on, prompting the flame to shut down. We called the furnace repair, and I started planning how to rig the diesel heater to heat the garage just to keep the pipes from freezing if we didn’t get it fixed. By the time I had figured out a scheme involving propping the garage door partially open with a curtain on top to stop the draft and a filler in the bottom with space for the heater exhaust, the technician had diagnosed the problem and had parts in his truck, so the furnace problem was quickly solved.
Had we continued our original plan to spend a couple of days in Death Valley, we would have been caught in the storms that continued to cripple travel in California and Oregon for the following weeks with waves of atmospheric rivers, and, if and when we got home, it would have been to certain water damage from frozen pipes. To cap our good luck, we got our larder and refrigerator resupplied the next day, and the following day woke to several inches of snow, and didn’t have to go out until the snow melted a few days later.
Stats on Expedition 2023:
2 nights at casino parking lots: $0
3 nights at truck stop parking lots: $0
3 nights at national park campgrounds: $23 (half-price senior pass)
7 nights at Texas State Park campgrounds: $210
8 nights at RV parks: $309.06
4 nights at motels: $128.18 (2 free, 1 discount, 1 full price)
13 nights at family guest quarters: Priceless
Total cost of lodging: $670.24 (ave: $24.82/ night, counting the free “lot-docking” but not counting mooch-docking with family, $16.75 average for the entire trip: paid camping averaged $30.47 per night)
Cost of fuel: $1488.88 for 1700 liters (450 gallons, ave. $3.305/gallon, $1.143/liter)
Fuel economy: ~17 mpg, 13.8 liters/100 km
Meals: we picked up fast-food and coffee takeout maybe 5 times, the rest was normal groceries for meals prepared on the road, 4 restaurant meals with family and friends, and home-cooked meals with family.
We hiked a number of trails and went on two bicycle rides during our travels. We visited 4 national parks (Joshua Tree, Saguaro, Big Bend, and Lyndon B. Johnson Historical Park), a national seashore, and a national wildlife refuge. We visited ten Texas State Parks, and a national heritage site managed by the White Mountain Apache Nation. We drove through the Very Large Array radio telescope site. We drove through the SpaceX Boca Chica Starbase, and saw several Heavy Boosters and Starships under construction and others staging for testing and launch. Traveling within 100 miles of the southern border, we went through a lot of Border Patrol Checkpoints, but weren’t asked for our papers or searched, this time–apparently, old white folks aren’t the droids the storm troopers are looking for. Racial profiling is alive and well in America.
We saw some of our far-flung and multi-generational family, but missed seeing many due to schedule conflicts and the usual winter colds, flu, and COVID among the school-age ones. And, we got to have extended time with other family members after too long since visiting last. We made new friends and renewed acquaintance with old ones. We took photos of awesome scenery and magnificent sunrises and sunsets, and dodged free-range bison at one campground and park. Mostly, we had a good time, as long as we kept our daily travels under 500 km, a goal to which we didn’t always adhere, and as long as our new diesel-fueled portable heater didn’t leak, which it did, on several occasions, and the noxious “new ductwork” odor from whatever toxic coating Chinese factories use on their stove parts.
Traveling in winter has good points and bad. There is less competition for tourist resources, but some aren’t available during the winter season, and others are full of “Snowbirds” and “Winter Texans.” It’s not blisteringly hot, but then, it is sometimes freezing, and snow and ice are dangerous. We kept a flexible schedule: we missed a few items on our planned itinerary and added a few as we went along, rerouted constantly for weather and opportunities, and finally cut our trip a few days short to thread our way between the latest round of late-winter storms that lay between us and home, ending with an 11-hour marathon dash over mountain passes, through snow squalls, and a detour around freeway blockages on ice-clogged streets in Portland, Oregon.
Would we do this again? Maybe, but not in winter. Maybe, but not with incomplete and untested equipment (e.g., the diesel heater). We concluded it is easier for our relatives to find us old retired folks than it is for us to try to track down young people with busy lives, and we’re so far removed from the fifth generation that we’re best remembered as a legend than as those strange old people that show up every few years for no good reason.
A note on “Van Life.” There are many kinds of travelers on the road. There are the true “Van Lifers,” who live in their vans as their only residences. We’re not them: their vans are usually custom built by them or a shop, with a permanent bed, kitchen, bathroom, and “garage” storage, and at least 400 watts of solar power on the roof, with 400 amp-hours of Lithium Ion batteries and a 3000-watt 120-volt inverter. They may “plug in” at a campground, but usually find free parking “off the grid,” in wilderness recreational areas or in urban parking lots that permit short-term parking, with sites limited from overnight to two weeks before they have to move on.
There’s also the ones with “off-the-shelf” conversions, which are essentially miniature motor homes, meant as a second or third vehicle strictly for vacation lodging with personal comforts: bedroom, kitchen, and bath, but mostly intended for RV park camping, with electrical, water, and sewer hookups. We’re definitely not them.
Then there are the vagabonds, like us, who have a low-budget conversion to provide a place to sleep and eat, relying on public campgrounds or truck stops for toilet and shower facilities, or a minimal emergency toilet setup and all their worldly possessions arrayed around them. We’re not them, either, despite the similarities, including the fact that it’s our only vehicle. We don’t live in our van, we travel in it for periods of a month or so, and for shorter outings near home. We have the capability of hooking up to electrical service, but not water or sewer, relying on portable water storage and emergency toilet. We do have minimal solar power, but portable, like hunters and casual campers use. We hang the panels on whichever side or end of the van the sun is on. This winter, we acquired a diesel-fuel heater, but, unlike the off-grid full-timers, we didn’t permanently install it, and can’t use it when “stealth” parking. Like the solar, it’s portable, and gets hooked up outside the van for use. We have a small electric heater for use in campgrounds that provide power, but it’s definitely a three-season unit. On our winter trip to higher elevations, we had to supplement the electric with the diesel-fuel heater, and had to revert to hotels when stopping in urban areas in cold weather, where RV parks were nearly as expensive as cheap hotels. The first week on our trip, parking lots got very cold, when we had no supplemental heat at all, having to rely on engine heat when necessary.
It’s a work in progress. The addition of the oil heater was part of an overall plan to keep taking advantage of the Washington State off-season Senior Camping pass, since many of our state parks don’t have full-hookup sites, and the ones that do, we still have to pay a nominal surcharge to use, and also to extend our camping season in national park and forest service camps, where we camp for half-price, and Washington State natural resources camps, which are free with the annual parks pass, and where there are no hook-up sites at either agency facilities. So, we’re not really Van Lifers, we’re just retirees looking for a cheap way to enjoy the outdoors: finding new places to ride our bicycle and interesting places to hike year around, in uncrowded places.