Category Archives: Travel

Expedition 2023, part 1: The Texas Two-Step

Riding the Pantano Wash section of the Chuck Huckelberry Trail, aka “The Loop” that circles the city of Tucson, Arizona.

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.

Joshua Tree National Park

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.

Saguaro National Park (West)

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.

Barrel cactus in bloom, Saguaro National Park (East)

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.

Unnamed slot canyon, near Radium Springs, NM.

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.

Sunrise, Las Cruces, New Mexico

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.

Diesel-fueled parking heater. We rigged it for external use, connecting to van 12-volt house power and ductwork installed up through the rear door frame, with the interior vent replacing a wiring access panel.

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.

Burro Mesa Pour-off, Big Bend National Park. Judy is standing at the base of a 100-foot-high waterfall that drains the mesa during rainstorms.

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.

Sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico, Mustang Island State Park, Texas.

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.

Lower McKinney Falls, on Onion Creek, Austin, Texas.

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.

Very Large Array: several of the 27 25-meter-diameter antennas, part of the 42-km diameter radiotelescope array west of Magdalena, New Mexico.

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.

Kinishba Ruins, a 1000-year-old pueblo near Fort Apache, Arizona.

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.

Road Trip 2019, Part 1, chapter 2

Day 9: Mitchell, SD to Spirit Lake, IA. Not a long drive, but the rain that has chased us all week comes and goes. We stop in Sioux Falls for fuel, our fifth fill-up since leaving home and our most expensive category so far. We decide to head south, taking Highway 18 this time: we’ve been across Iowa Highway 9 before. The rain catches us at when the route jogs north or south. We’ve traveled this area before, headed for the Starbucks kiosk in the Hy-Vee supermarket in Spencer, and restocking the groceries for our stay a short way north, on the west shore of Lake Okoboji, the gem of the Iowa Great Lakes.

I grew up just over the state line, in Minnesota. As a teenager, my buddy and I would drive down to Arnolds Park, an amusement park and namesake town on the south shore of Lake Okoboji, just to watch how people with money spent theirs. Of course, we did have to explain to our parents why we were two hours late coming home from Boy Scouts. I don’t think I spent a dime at Iowa’s playground then, and haven’t since we have passed through several times in this decade, including three years ago when we stopped by on a late Sunday afternoon with our 15-year-old grandson. He declared the wooden roller coaster a death trap. But, it’s been a popular tradition for generations of Iowans, since 1927.

Day 11: The rains came again, with a vengeance. Flooding is a big problem in the midwest. Although we think the bumps are hills, the region is relatively flat, the ground is saturated from the winter snowmelt, and the rains run off into the shallow river valleys, where the rivers spread out and up to make things miserable for residents and travelers.

Our resort only offers complimentary WiFi in the lobby, so we have made our daily pilgrimage to the main building to connect the computers to the Internet. We have our phones, but two weeks on the road have depleted our data plan for the month already. We have resigned ourselves to bumping up our plan, but still have three weeks before it rolls over, so prudence is still required.

Day 11: It is still cold in the Midwest, but the rain has subsided for now, so this is our big ride day. Two years ago, we camped in our van near the lake and rode our bicycle around, counter-clockwise on the Iowa Great Lakes Trail, missing a few kilometers due to a blown tire and a Good Samaritans’ lift to the bike shop in the town of Okoboji.  We set off around the lake, clockwise this time,  After it warmed up a bit, we headed north on the paved concrete bike trail, clockwise around the lake this time. The trail switches to the west side of IA-86, diving under through a tunnel which is, thankfully, dry. A few miles later, past farms and a golf course, it dives back under the highway to end in a residential area of RV parks and beach cottages. The route follows the roads around the north end of the lake, resuming as an off-road trail through the prairie and a nature preserve before crossing US 71 at a traffic light. So far, the trail has been rolling, but soon turns south onto a rail-trail that takes us into the town of Okoboji, swinging out to follow US 71 through town. The route signs take us through a beach condo parking lot and across the bridge between the east and west arms of the lake to the town of Arnolds Park. The trail turns left at the town cemetery to wind around Minnewashta Lake, crossing a bridge between Minnewashta and Lower Gar Lake. The trail soon dumps us back on a road, headed west. We climb a long hill, past—as we later discover—my cousin Jack’s house, cross US 71, and wind around the south end of Lake Okoboji through the West Okoboji beachfront, then out to follow Highway 86 north past where our 2017 ride ended in a tire blowout, then through the hills, prairie, farms, and fens on the west side of the lake.  No issues this time. We get in the full 33.4 km circumnavigation of the lake. It seemed a bit more hilly this early in the season, but we managed to make it up all the bumps on our wheels.

Day 12: Rain, lots of it, and door-hinge-busting wind. Our plan of the day takes us to Rabab’s for lunch, a  newly renamed (formerly Chick’s) bistro on US-71 on a spur of the bike trail just north of where we crossed yesterday. It’s a few weeks ahead of the tourist season in the Iowa Great Lakes, so many businesses aren’t open at all, and those that cater to the locals off-season are only open two or three days a week. The place is crowded, as the outside patio seating is rocking back and forth in the gusty deluge. Unlike the usual midwest fare that gives you a choice of one or all three main locally-grown food animals, liberally seasoned with bacon, the menu serves up big-city hipster dishes like avocado toast and “southwest” salads, topped with egg, of course. Someone has to eat all these farm products…

After lunch, we visit the nearby nature center, which we had ridden past the previous day. By some fortune, our visit is between hands-on sessions for toddlers and pre-schoolers, so we wade through the piles of confetti and wend our way around tiny tables covered with plates of prairie humus (aka plain old dirt) and wildflower seeds to look at the tanks of turtles, cases of small-animal skeletons, and lifelike examples of local fauna preserved with the taxidermist’s art. Hands-on children’s exhibits are fun for adults, too, as we stroke pelts of badger, fox, coyote, and other beasts we only see in fleeting moments on the bike trails.

Day 13: Another blustery day. Thanks to social media, we are informed that my cousin Jack Parkins—who I thought was in Arizona, having lost track of him 20 years ago—was living nearby, In fact, as noted, we had ridden past his Iowa house on Tuesday, where he and Sue spend summers, when not at their Arizona residence.  We meet them for lunch and a pleasant afternoon catching up on a lifetime. Jack, who is six years older, had taught at Mankato State College in Minnesota before becoming a snowbird and settling in a retirement home in the summer playground we all grew up in. As elderly folks do, we compared health and medications, finding—being close relatives—we have a lot in common. Reluctantly, we cut our visit all too short, as we had a dinner date across the border in Minnesota, with 98-year-old Aunt Jo, my mother’s sister-in-law, and cousin Cathy and her husband Bill. We hadn’t expected to see Bill this trip, but his planned activity of the day, relocating game bird stocks, was cancelled because of the bird-walking weather. Apparently, the wild game I remember as being so abundant in my youth now are reared in pens like fish and the fields stocked to satisfy the demands of 21st-century hunters and fishermen.

Pizza, BBQ, and “Coney” (hot dog slathered in BBQ) night at the veterans club, with the usual choice of Chicken, Pork, Beef, or all three, the quintessential Minnesota comfort food, presented its usual dilemma for the strict vegetarian, so dinner for me was a heavily salted soft pretzel dipped in chipotle seasoned liquid nacho cheese, which made a reasonable substitute for the yellow mustard I remember from my years in New Jersey, back in the 1970s. But, we had a good visit. It’s Aunt Jo’s weekly night out, and we had a good visit, holding our own against the boisterous crowd of younger folks (Jackson High School Class of ’65, still wild at 72) behind us, and the bar did have a few bottles of Guinness to satisfy us aged western hipsters who don’t drink “beer you can see through.”  But, it was great seeing everyone this trip.

Day  14 dawned cold, but clear.  After it warmed up a bit, we suited up and headed for a trailhead, Kiwanis Park in Spirit Lake, and headed north on the Iowa Great Lakes Trail, a rolling and sometimes winding trail that is partly on the road around the west side of Spirit Lake (the body of water).  Across from Minnewakan State Park at the north end of the lake, we cross into Minnesota on the Jackson County Trail, which follows the roads and then meanders along the creek between Loon Lake and Spirit Lake.  We stop at Loon Lake for a snack and to enjoy Loon and Pearl Lakes at Brown County Park.  When I was in Boy Scouts, 60-65 years ago, our troop spent at least a week each summer on the east shore of Loon Lake, where a farmer had graciously let use his lakefront.After our snack stop, Judy’s saddle fell off the bike, 16 km from the car.  Fortunately, all the parts were intact; one of the seat rail clamp screws had loosened and fell out while we were stopped on the paved trail.  Out came the tool kit and the repair was quick and successful.   The trip back was much more enjoyable than pushing a broken bike would have been. We chatted briefly with another grandfatherly cyclist we met at the top of the steepest hill while stopped for a scenery view.

Back at the condo, we started packing for the next stage of our road trip, destination Orillia, Ontario, beginning our third week on the road.

To be continued…

Road Trip 2018: Part 1 – Southwest

Hoping for some time to ride our bicycle this winter, we packed up our van “White Knight” for our annual circuit through the Southwest to visit relatives.  As usual, our schedule was full to the max: we left immediately after the Olympia Weavers Guild February meeting, arriving in Pendleton, Oregon well after dark.

Our rather unrealistic plan for this trip was to camp in parking lots and truck stops along the way to save a few dollars to offset the cost of gasoline for the truck.  However, we were somewhat disillusioned on arrival at the travel center outside Pendleton: it was cold and windy; the parking lot sloped a bit more than we would have liked, and the only seating area in the center was in the McDonalds restaurant.  Feeling a bit out of touch with the reality of 21st century truck stops and nostalgic for the 20th century when such places had full-service restaurants, we drove back into town and checked in at a renovated 60’s motel.  The building winter storm across the West changed our plans quickly to include nightly stops in a bit more comfort.  Fortunately, winter lodging prices promised to be less of a burden on our travel budget.


In the morning, we returned to the truck stop to refuel.  Oregon is one of two states (the other is New Jersey) which outlaws self-service fueling.  But, this year, the legislature exempted certain rural areas, which Pendleton is not, but the truck stop is on and operated by the Umatilla Nation, which has its own rules, so we finally got to pump fuel legally in Oregon.  A small satisfaction.

The climb over the Wallawa mountain range brought snow, lots of it, over Emigrant and Deadman passes, with occasional rain through the valley.  After lunch in Ontario and picking up a few groceries, we headed across Idaho.  The speed limit on I-84 is 130 km/hr, but we usually keep our speed under 105, to save wear and tear on the 22-year-old truck and get better fuel efficiency as well.  The trip settled into stopping every 600 km and taking on 90 liters of fuel.

Fortunately, fuel cost in the American West is kept reasonably low, averaging between $0.60US and $0.70US/liter in the Rocky Mountain region, varying between $0.55/liter (west Texas) and $0.88/liter (southern California).  Staying at older motels, and foraging in groceries keeps our out-of-pocket travel expenses under $125/day, despite the higher fuel consumption.  The only way to reduce this would be free camping in parking lots, which isn’t going to happen with the return of winter weather.  Using motel chain loyalty cards and making on-line reservations keeps our motel costs to sometimes less than camping in commercial RV parks, when you consider motels usually provide some sort of coffee-and-doughnut (or waffle) breakfast.

With the storm licking at our heels, we pressed on, crossing into Utah at sunset.  We had estimated we might reach Ogden this day, but the slow progress in snow and the prospect of driving late and tired in heavy traffic revised our estimate a bit.  Weary, we pulled off I-15 at Brigham City to Cheap Motel #2.  This one bore the name of a once-prestigious chain of motels and family restaurants that spread across America with the construction of the Interstate Highway system in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with many other lesser-known chains that also still exist.  Most of these are on near the center of cities, on the old highways that now serve as main streets of decaying cities.

Our room was small, with the usual sticky doors warped with age and abuse.  The standard motel air-conditioning system was defunct, so there was a small space heater supplied.  Like many of these refugees from the age of family car trips, the sheets were thin, the towels threadbare, but there were no funky odors or loud neighbors (the motel was nearly deserted, making one wonder what state the other rooms were in if ours had make-shift heating).  Breakfast was adequate–we ate alone in the tiny lobby: no pretense of a breakfast room here, and no TV blaring out CNN or the morning talk shows we only know of because we travel and they are on in hotel breakfast rooms.

After our usual stop at Starbucks for coffee (espresso is kinder to our constitutions than brewed coffee, so we almost never use the motel coffee service), we are on the road again.  Not so long ago, it was difficult to find a decent coffee shop between the Cascade Crest and the Mississippi River, or at all in the Beehive State, but Starbucks has rolled into Utah on the wave of all the other food chains and big-box outlets.  The most common place to find them is in supermarkets, and this was no exception.  But, we were surprised to find one in one of the largest purveyors of milk and honey in the heart of the Mormon empire, indeed within the shadow of the local Temple.

We got an early start to run ahead of the snowstorm forecast for later in the day. We turned off I-15 at Spanish Fork, headed up the canyon on Highway 6 toward a blue hole that promised better weather. We stopped for lunch at Moab, where the skies were clear, but the wind blowing stiffly. We ended the day at Cortez, Colorado, which we had bypassed before but not stopped.

The morning dawned cold and still windy, with snow forecast there, too. We stopped for fuel at the Ute Nation casino just north of the New Mexico border, turning east at Shiprock and southwest at Farmington, headed once again on a four-lane highway toward Albuquerque. The wind continued, pushing the morning’s rain squalls ahead of us. We caught up with the rain at Cuba, despite pulling off the road briefly for lunch from our on-board larder.

In Albuquerque, we bypassed the city on the Tramway loop, checking out the bike path that skirts the east side of the city, realizing that the path climbed more than 100 meters above where we would be staying. Our meeting with our granddaughter wasn’t for a couple of days, so we settled in to plan our stay. The next morning, there was a dusting of snow in the parking lot, so we explored Old Town, checked out the riverfront bike trail, had lunch back on the east side, visited a Nob Hill yarn shop.

The next morning, the weather looked a bit more promising, so we bicycled the north half of the Paseo del Bosque trail, meeting our granddaughter and her new daughter-in-law for lunch in nearby Old Town after, and visited the Aquarium and Biological Park next to the trail with our youngest great-grandson and his somewhat older new nephew. On the way back to our hotel, we had the oil changed in the truck, as it was due, and picked up some supplies for the continuation of our Southwest adventure.


The Parkins Report: Events of 2017

As we move into the beginning of our ninth year of “retirement,” we are finally learning to take life as it comes, with minimal rush.  This includes being involved in activities that satisfy us, rather than from some sense of obligation or need (although there is still plenty of that to go around).


This year was again a year of travel. In January, we headed south the day before Inauguration Day.  The drought had broken in California: we drove in slushy snow in the north and rain in the central and southern parts of the state. The first week, we took Judy’s brother-in-law Ben from Anaheim to San Diego to visit her cousin Margaret, then headed east to New Mexico and west Texas: Las Cruces, El Paso, and Albuquerque, to visit Larye’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchild.  Then, it was back to California, via Flagstaff and Bakersfield, then through rain again to San Francisco for a week exploring the city before driving home.

While at home, we worked on our van conversion project, building a folding sleeping platform with room beside it for the bicycle. In April, we made a test run to Idaho, camping overnight to and from McCall, where we spent a week with our friends Gary and Char at a timeshare, getting in a couple of short bike rides despite the snow and wet of central Idaho. We toured the Painted Hills of central Oregon on the way back. While training for the summer bicycling season, we had a frame failure on our Bike Friday, prompting a trip to the factory in Eugene to have it repaired. That trip showed us the old van was not ready for our ambitious touring schedule, so it was back to the shop for some major repairs on that, too.

While our bike was in the shop, we dusted off our 31-year-old Santana tandem for a scheduled charity ride and ended up taking it to Victoria, Canada when we attended the Association of Northwest Weavers Guilds conference over the Canada Day weekend. After the conference, we rode parts of the local trails we missed in the spring of 2010.

At the end of July, we set off on Road Trip 2017, starting with a detour to Eugene to pick up our Bike Friday, then off to northern Idaho for another week with Gary and Char at their vacation home. We soon discovered that our old van had no working air conditioning, so we spent the next six weeks of summer heat reliving the nostalgic days of yesteryear when turning on the “factory air” meant cranking the side windows down.

From Idaho, we headed east, spending a week in western Montana, visiting relatives, some also visiting from Florida and New York, visiting friends in the Bitterroot, and checking out the new Experimental Aircraft Assoc. chapter hangar at the Missoula airport. Heading southeast through Wyoming, we got in some trail riding in Nebraska and a weekend in Lincoln to be there for the total solar eclipse on Monday. After a brief stop in southern Minnesota to drop off a family heirloom with cousin Cathy, we worked our way through Iowa, riding around Lake Okoboji in the northwest, then the High Bridge Trail north of Des Moines. We drove down the Des Moines River, posing for Grant Woods’ American Gothic painting before turning north up the Mississippi River at Keokuk.

At the Quad Cities, we bicycled along the Great River Trail in Moline, Illinois and up Duck Creek in Bettendorf/Davenport, Iowa. We continued up the Iowa side of the Mississippi, then along the Wisconsin/Illinois border and up to Middleton, to visit son Matt and family over the Labor Day weekend, getting in one family bike ride in the process.

Crossing over the Mississippi back in to Minnesota, we stopped in Shakopee to visit a newly found cousin on Larye’s maternal grandfather’s side of the family. We bypassed the traffic around the west side of Minneapolis and checked into a campground on the south end of the Paul Bunyan Trail to ride up the trail to Baxter. The next day, we met with more of Larye’s cousins for a weekend reunion in Baxter and nearby Motley, near where the clan’s great grandparents had homesteaded.
Following the reunion, we rode some more of the Paul Bunyan Trail, starting north of Brainerd where we had turned around two years ago. The next morning, we headed to North Dakota to spend a couple of days with Judy’s cousin Fred and his wife, Ann. Smoke from the fires in Montana made visibility poor, so we pushed on west toward home, bypassing a return stop with the Montana folks to get home after a long trip, with the rain coming in and snow starting in the mountains.

The last weekend in October, we went to Astoria, Oregon to camp at and ride the trails at Fort Stevens State Park, in perfect weather. Our riding was cut short by the first flat on the front tire, which has lasted through two back tires, nearly 6000 km (3600 miles) in six years. The casing is a bit thin in the grooves, and a tiny puncture in the thickest tread: we “retired” it to secondary spare status.

By the end of November, our wanderlust struck again, and we retreated to Long Beach for a few days on the beach, on the edge of winter, one of our favorite times, since the crowds of summer are long gone.  In their place, however, is cold rain.  We also finally got talked into upgrading our vacation club membership, despite uncertain financial future of our status as elderly poor.

A return trip to Vancouver, BC in December capped the touring season, with Char joining us this time, Gary stayed home with a sick pet.

Travel Hosts

Between our own tours, we host international bicycle tourists through the Warm Showers network. We had 14 in April and May, then restricted visitors to “by invitation only” while we were preparing for our summer tours, picking up two more, a weaver from New Zealand we met on Facebook and a 69-year-old world traveler from Australia we met at the Olympic Bakery near Spencer Lake and invited to drop by on his way through Shelton.  On our return in the fall, we took in six more tourists before the rainy season and cold weather.


As the rainy and cooler weather arrived in mid-October, Delia, our feline companion for the past 17 years, lost her struggle with kidney disease, just short of her 21st birthday. She had come to us in Missoula in the spring of 2000, a 3-1/2-year old “pound kitty,” wary of people in general. Over the years, especially after the demise of our other pound kitty, Nicolaus, in February 2005, she warmed to us and spent many hours of lap time in front of the fire. She also came to enjoy the attention of the many bicycle tourists who passed our way. She saw us through four houses and spent a lot of time “vacationing” at Pampered Pets in Darby, Montana and Just Cats Hotel in Olympia, where she was a favorite guest over the last eight years. She had been in poor health for about a year, but rebounded in the spring and summer, her favorite times of the year.

We welcomed a new great-great-granddaughter, Bea, in August, who we have not yet met. Bea joins her brother, Hyperion, in our growing and dispersing family. Visiting family takes longer now that grandchildren and great-grandchildren are becoming adults with their own households and schedules. Judy made a trip back to her hometown, Sunnyside, Washington this fall, for a family gathering of cousins, many of whom she had not met or had not seen for many years: Larye had a weaving class scheduled, so did not attend.


For the first time in more than a dozen years, we have television, the result of upgrading our Internet service, which came bundled with a TV offer. The set is installed in Judy’s upstairs craft studio, which we furnished with a thrift shop small sofa. However, only a few available programs have piqued our interest so far, so the space has become just another reading room in the evenings. Public radio, both broadcast and satellite, remain our primary source of news and entertainment, along with selected video clips on the Internet.We continue to regularly practice yoga at the local senior center (when we are in residence), and attend the Ruby Street Art Quilters group in Tumwater. Judy completed a project for an exhibit at a brew pub in Olympia, and Larye finally finished a 2012 class project quilt as a baby quilt for Bea. We also joined the Friends of the Shelton Timberland Library this year and spend one afternoon a week sorting and pricing donated books and restocking the sale shelves, from which the proceeds support youth programs at the library.

We are still active in both the Olympia and Tacoma Weavers Guilds, and Larye manages the web sites for both. We both attended classes at the conference in Victoria this summer, and Larye attended a class in Olympia this fall, but not much progress on projects during this year. Between our travel schedules and taking care of our ailing cat, there simply hasn’t been a lot of time to actual work on the hobby projects for which we belong to the many organizations.

Find our videos on YouTube: Larye’s YouTube Channel, or view a summary of our bike touring season below:

and on Vimeo: Larye’s Vimeo Channel

Road Trip Summer 2017, interlude: Reflections on Journeys and Journals

U.S. Highway 10, central Minnesota. Highway 10 once stretched from Detroit to Seattle, now largely replaced by Interstate 94 and Interstate 90 from Fargo to Seattle.

As we prepared to leave the lands of our ancestors, we reflected on the journeys they and we have undertaken, and on the art of documenting, recording, and remembering those journeys. Just as our modern journeys take leaps and bounds by air or skim across the landscape at 125 km/hr in our automobiles, journals flow from our fingertips in a stream that can be cut up, deflected, and rearranged at will, making us much less cautious about collecting our thoughts before committing them to paper as with ink and pen.

My cousin Mary, a career journalist*, says I need an editor. It’s true. There is that fear of taking William Strunk’s dictum “Omit needless words” reductio ad absurdum, to just “Omit words:”  the needless words creep in and put down roots. The problem, then, is between recording moment-to-moment what we see and think, versus telling a story: giving focus to one thread of this experience that stands out and makes a statement about a key aspect of events, landscapes, or history that we witness.

Tl;dr, “Too long; didn’t read,” is the watchword of our modern society. When e-mail burst into the main stream 25 years ago, I noticed a trend: if you didn’t put the key point in the first sentence (and make the sentence shorter than two or three screen lines), the recipient didn’t read past that point, either getting a wrong impression of what you were trying to convey or missing the point entirely.

The “tl;dr” syndrome is a function of being bombarded with attention-getting distractions in a stream of letters scrolling up the screen of first, our desktop computers in office or den, then on laptops in the conference room, coffee shop, or airport waiting room, and now hand-held phones we carry everywhere. A poorly worded or rambling message can put us in physical danger, or cause us to miss a more-important and urgent message further down the stream, as the “You Have Mail” announcement becomes a stuttering, “YouYouYouYoYYYY”.

The old adage, “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” becomes even more true in this age of information overload. I’ve found that the best way to grab a moment’s attention is to post a photo with a message. In fact, the modern social media engines will dig down into a post and display any photos they find at the top of the post, becoming a de facto robot editor: newspapers have long put photos at the top of an article to grab attention. But, then, tl;dr  kicks in: the photo becomes the only part of the post the viewer sees. Even photo albums have given way to a photo montage: a half-dozen images tiled into one. Click. Next post, please.

A journey, by nature, consists of a stream of images and impressions, particularly if the journey is an exploration, traveling to somewhere new or to a familiar destination by a different route. Such was this journey. We visited places we hadn’t been, at least together, or places to which we hadn’t been in many decades. The input stream is a cacophony of places, people, and events. Sifting through the data to distill useful information from which to construct a kernel of knowledge is a foreboding task. For most of us, journaling consists of a phone full of snapshots, some shared on social media. “Here we are, having fun.” Our modern smart phone cameras record the city and date, and the social media records the specific place. We can see who we were with, and that’s enough for most of us. The old-fashioned written journal is becoming an artifact of the past, when travel was slow and journeys hard, with plenty of time to reflect on the day’s events, before putting pen to paper.

If we do journal today, we use a tablet or computer, words and thoughts flowing from our fingers in near-random fashion, knowing we can easily rearrange, delete, or insert material later to make a coherent and concise narrative. Which we seldom do, unless prodded by external forces, i.e., the Editor, who may have a different agenda, and whose purpose is to publish knowledge, rather than mere data and facts. Why are those people together? Why is this fun? Would they do it again? Why in this place? What is interesting about this, and how does it advance our cause (or make a profit for us and our advertisers)? The other point is: a journal is a personal reflection and memory. If we publish it, we intend a wider audience. Who is our audience, and what do they need to know? Whether we have an editor to decide this or we self-publish (as a blog or social media post), those questions need to be answered, and needless words omitted.

Part of my reason for blogging is to tell the story of growing old in the twenty-first century.  We don’t identify with the twentieth-century stereotype of befuddled oldsters out-of-touch with the pace of modern life and technology, or carefree well-to-do retirees off on guided tours or cruises, or the average elders spending their days playing cards or bingo at the senior citizens center.  We’re still active in creative arts, volunteer to keep work skills sharp, and seek out our own active adventures, with quilting, weaving, bicycling, and auto touring, as well as continuing to write computer code, primarily for web sites..

At some point, whether through conscious editing or delayed entries, the journal becomes a memoir, more of a statement of “how we got here,” rather than “here we are.” For us old folks–and we are, in our 70s–journaling keeps our own memories sharp. Our tales of adventure may also inspire others to venture forth in their “Golden Years.” As a message to our children and younger friends, it’s a reminder that fun and adventure is in our nature, and it doesn’t stop as long as you are able to pursue it. So, we keep on, recording our adventures in journals, photos, and videos, learning the crafts of writing, photography, and videography as we go, as well as keeping as physically and mentally fit as we can manage.

The journey continues…

*Read Mary’s excellent blog at