Going BIG in California

Yosemite has a grip on us.  It came on slowly as we made our way from the coast of Big Sur wondering what would top the mystique of that dramatic coastline…

Discovering Big Sur

The waves crashing over rugged rocks sending pools of deep blue swirling back to the sea.  We drive to one of several pull-offs, pop open our camp chairs and dig into a couple of fresh tamales that Colin picked up from a little road side market.   We are several stories above the Pacific, off the only road that winds through this part of the coast.   As we scan the ocean a spout of mist captures our attention and then another.  Three whales glide up from the surface and show off their smooth backs.  From binoculars we spot seals bobbing up and down along the waves.  They are hanging in groups and are playfully zipping around each other.   It looks like the sun is dipping directly into the ocean transforming the sky with this change in the day.  It is a powerful force that seems to pull everyone off the road to watch.  And we do, until the sun leaves the sky painted with a burst of brilliant colors.

Big Sur Coast

It’s not just the cliffs that drop into an everlasting ocean, or the sea life that glides just above the surface, or the gleaming sun that still shines in winter.  It’s not just the air that smells as if it can only come from something green and fresh, or the thick forest with redwood trees standing strong and towering over everything else.  It is each ingredient, stunning on its own, but blended perfectly together to create this place.

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It’s also the place we found the most expensive camping.  Over New Year’s weekend and we roll in a little late in the day.  Every camp spot in every campground (there are several) were full.  Until we pulled into a private camp that would gladly sell us one of the last three spots available for $70.00.  “Did you just say $70.00…with no hookups!?”  I ask the lady who just gave me the price and then confirmed the price.  “Yes, that’s correct,” she said with a little attitude to match mine own.  I didn’t mean to give her my “what the hell” face. But, what the hell.  It was my reaction of pure shock.  This isn’t the first time – it happens a lot at the veterinarian’s office.  Colin has to have a talk with me while we are in the car before the appointment.  He tells me to not make the what the hell face, that the cost will be more than I am ready to pay (always more) and then he will remind me to just smile, handle Sprite, go back to the car when it is all over and he will pay the bill.  I know I am not the only one out there who has this look of shock when a price is so much more than you could imagine paying.  It’s camping!  No hook-ups!  We ended up at a hotel in Monterey for less than $70.00 with electricity and indoor plumping.  The next morning we head back down the coast when everyone is back to work leaving the place almost empty.  At night we scheme and plot ways to acquire riches so that we can own a piece of Big Sur.   But we fall asleep before the perfect hustle comes to mind.

Pulling off to catch the view

Another shot of beautiful coast line

The Grip of Yosemite

It’s hard to peel ourselves away, but we have an appointment in Woodland to get more shocks added to our camper (making it much easier to pop-up).  We also had a custom fuel holder made by AT Overland Equipment, who so kindly got everything done over the phone and mailed it out to Woodland in just a few days after our initial conversation.  This place is worth mentioning.  The type of place that you look for reasons to go, to call them, to order something.  They are awesome!  Thank you so very much, Mario Donovan; http://adventuretrailers.com/

Thanks Mario and AT Overland Equipment…check out that fuel holder!

We are so close to Yosemite we feel giddy.   On our way there we stop to take a break and eat some lunch. We meet Clete who arrives in a Sprinter van, a bike strapped to the rear and has the same idea about lunch as us.  He is heading to Yosemite to check out two climbers who are trying to make history by free climbing the most difficult route on El Capitan.  Colin has been following them online and knows about the climb, but we both don’t realize how wide spread the news has traveled and how many fans these climbers have gained.

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Reflections in Yosemite

Climbing on Granite

“Do you see the split down the middle, and then the white crack just above?  They are directly under the crack,”  says the owner of binoculars that I am borrowing to see these climbers for the first time.  They have been working their way up for days and at this point the only way to see them is with a very strong zoom lens or binoculars.  El Capitan stands before us. Its grayish-white granite body rises up to 3,000 feet.  The climbers have a portaledge set up at the halfway mark secured by ropes.  Like a couple of hammocks flowing in the breeze…about a thousand feet up.   The longer we stay the more we learn about these two climbers and this feat.  Tommy and Kevin have been working towards completing this climb for more than 7 years.  They have a crew to help them haul supplies and set ropes.  They have fans huddled in small groups along the valley floor and closer to the base.  Every day we take the loop around El Capitan and stop to hear about the progress from a few people watching from the base and then we swing back to the valley floor and see what’s cooking there.  Everyone with interest has their necks cranned back and binoculars in place.  We hear cheering and then learn the climbers have reached another pitch – they must complete 32 to summit.   We are so fascinated with this climb that it’s an exciting part of our day to check in and hear about their progress.  Several people make a tight circle around Tom in a green puffy coat, who seems to know the most about the climb.  He stands behind a camera with a zoom lens that looks about the size of an orange construction cone, which is too big to hold and sits on a tripod.  A group of kids gathers around and he allows them to look through the lens while explaining the details of what they are seeing.  We are as curious as the kids and I work my way towards the lens.  It is the first time I can actually see them as people instead of two colorful bugs.  As I take a quick look others are lining up and asking Tom questions. Colin and I are looking at each other and wondering why no one has asked the one question we are dying to know, “Where are they going to the bathroom?”  We don’t ask now but find out later from a very reliable source.

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite unfolds its alluring spell the longer we stay.  Every morning we walk to the ranger station and say “one more night” and hand over $20 bucks.  The ranger smiles and says, “I knew you would be back,” and asks what our plan is for the day.  Cherry (the ranger) is very helpful and whips out a map before I can respond.  She uses a highlighter and circles a few of her favorite spots.  We venture towards several. Waterfalls crushing down in thin streams, lakes reflecting the landscape like mirrors, granite mountains with bold faces as if they have been carved in their spot forever.   We find ourselves back at El Capitan but this time we hike to the base.  It’s a short hike that works through the woods and leads us to boulders that we scramble over to reach the base of the mountain.  Without a second thought we both reach out and press our hands over the smooth surface and look up.  It’s a perfect vertical face so polished and slick we both can’t imagine actually climbing this, so we jokingly take turns trying. Our attempts end less than a foot off the ground.  How are they sticking to this surface?

Hiking Yosemite

The only logical explanation is that for a few days gravity was kind enough to grant these climbers a pass and it flipped its role to lifting up instead of pulling down.  We discuss this with Clete (who we met at the lunch spot on our way in) over cheese, crackers, Heineken and a little pickled Herrring in his Sprinter rig.  I dive right in but Colin’s stomach was feeling a little less adventurous after watching Clete give the jar a sniff and shrug his shoulders and say, “maybe its turned.”  Clete was nice enough to invite us over (including Sprite who sat under Clete’s chair and made herself right at home).  A retired principal from Minnesota, but since moved to Phoenix, Clete said Road trips are more of his thing than his wife’s so he set out alone…visiting old friends and making new ones along the way.

On our last day, we make our final loop around and hear news that Kevin and Tommy are going to summit. The smallish crowd has grown into media trucks, satellite dishes, cameras and lights – the circus has arrived.  Colin notices a truck hauling a four wheel camper (same as us) parked on the side of the road.   He mentions to me that they were camping in the loop next to us the night before and wants to go over and say hello.  About 45 minutes later, I can still see him chatting with a woman who owns the truck & camper.  He comes back to give me a quick update…the guys are not going to summit until later this afternoon.  He has also found out about the bathroom situation.  They are using wag-bags and send them down in tubes for a crew to pick up.  We both find this funny because we have wag-bags.  Very useful!  Although we don’t have a crew or tubes.  The woman Colin has been chatting with is actually Kevin’s step-mother.  She and Kevin’s dad have come to watch and cheer them on.  They discuss the training and the time commitment that these two have taken on to get to this point.  Meeting her was a facinating way to end our stay.  We leave Yosemite and I catch myself looking in the side view mirror secretly hoping we could just turn around.  I think a year is too short, you need a lifetime and then some.  There are so many beautiful places to explore.

The Giant Sequoia Trees…look at the size compared to the car & truck!

Bark of the redwoods

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Snow is gently falling in thick flakes.  We have our camp set up and I’m watching a family across the driveway celebrating this Christmas Eve.  They have thought of everything; a full spread takes up two picnic tables lit by candles, they brought lights and begin decorating one of trees, they are singing and bundled in heavy coats, big hats and scarfs wrapped so tight you can hardly see their faces.  We think about our families and Christmases passed.  It takes little effort to recall the reaction on my face as a little kid on Christmas morning – since my dad has this all on video.  The Christmas I was pleading to Santa Claus right before bed in a last ditch effort to remind him how desperately I wanted a kitten.  The next morning, with the video camera recording, I unwrapped a pair of blue plastic cross country skis and shout, “Skis! I got skiiiiiiis!”  Not a second thought about the kitten.  This year, Christmas feels very different.  We skimmed right over the hustle of the season and landed on the best part – the eve of the big day.  We’ve got snow. We’ve got a plate heaping with cheese, sliced veggies, pieces of fruit, crackers, smoked salmon and creamy dips.  We’ve got some good wine and one hell of a view.

Grand Canyon

Colin cannot remember the Grand Canyon.  His parent’s took the family when he was young, but he just can’t remember actually seeing the canyon.  It was an easy decision to make…if you don’t remember this view than you have to go back.  The north rim was closed so we ventured south.  We made this decision last minute, which means we broke a rule don’t try to find camp at night.  We have broken this rule a few times along with all the others we have set for ourselves (just to stay consistent).  So we arrive at the Grand Canyon in total darkness.  We drive through national forest and pass a sign that says, “First view of the Grand Canyon.”  It looks like a black sky speckled with flickering stars.  “Is it starting to look familiar?”  I ask Colin while pointing to the first view sign.  He pretends to not hear me.  (I can’t expect this guy to laugh at all my jokes…I look over at Sprite and swear I see a smile.)

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Carrie & Sprite at a view point | Grand Canyon

Another problem driving at night is that a each mile feels like ten.  And then there is the issue of road signs. Those brown park signs are hardly visible.  To see them, we have to quickly look for on-coming traffic, pull up in front of the sign, flash the off-road headlights (these things have come in handy so many times!) and hope the arrow is pointing us in the right direction.  After all this, we navigate our way to the campground and try our best to level the truck, set up camp and roll ourselves into bed.

The first signs of morning break and I am already awake.  Colin, without even opening his eyes, unzips his sleeping bag enough for Sprite to squeeze in and zips back up.  That’s a sure sign they are not ready to get up, so no need to ask.  Bundled up I head out.  The morning air is chilly but the sun is beautifully bright and I am ready to go explore.  Looking for the visitors center, I head across the main street and see a trail through the trees with a few folks that seem to have the same idea.  I can’t tell where it leads since I am cutting across a grassy median and through a thick line of pines.  As I step onto the trail and look up, I get my first full view of the canyon.  It takes me by surprise and stops me where I’m standing.  It feels like the earth has cracked open to its core and every layer from the surface down is visible.  Every line can be traced.  Every crack seems to go on further than my eyes can uncover, and in so many directions I have to just stand and stare until my mind can absorb it all.  I break from the trance and speed walk back to the camper.  Colin has got to wake up!   The day stays clear and the sun radiant.  We spend hours moving like an ocean tide trickling from one over-look to the next.  Every view point gives us a different angle, a different tint of color, a different slice through the millions of layers of rock that took about that long to create.  We notice visitors staring in silence, others are tapping their friends and pointing out towards something that strikes them, most are snapping pictures as fast as their fingers can press the shutter button, and a handful are stepping out on ledges that seem to be floating.   We deem these “ledge crawlers” crazy, and hope their friends and family can appreciate the risk they have taken to get the perfect selfie.

Snow on the Canyon

Back at camp we set up our Christmas Eve spread and I head to the bathroom.  Inside, there are 6 giggling girls pulling on layers of, what seems like, every piece of clothing they own.  One of the girls takes a break from shoving her foot into a winter boot and asks me if a tent can be set up on ice and snow.  They are from India and have never been camping.  I tell them it is going down to 7 degrees tonight and the one girl suggests they may need more layers.  I wish them luck and wonder if they will end up sleeping in the bathroom since it’s heated.   They continue to laugh as I leave…

Grand Canyon

Snow keeps falling on Christmas Day and the temp right along with it.  We decide to drive along an area of the park that is just out of walking distance from the campground.  We discover new view points and the canyon looks transformed from the day before.  Heavy clouds huddle right above the surface filtering the sun’s rays creating streaks on the canyon walls.  Hard pieces of snow swirl in the wind not certain of their direction.  My thoughts don’t wander to another place or try to recall what this resembles.  If you have seen it then you know.  If you haven’t then you should.


We found Gooseneck Creek just outside the Valley of the Gods; both in Utah.  Camped right at the edge of this beautiful spot.

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Gooseneck Creek, Utah

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Valley of the Gods

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Valley of the Gods

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Gooseneck Creek, Utah

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Valley of the Gods

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Valley of the Gods

 

 

Navajo Nation

People seem to glide in and out of our lives at different times and for several reasons.   Sometimes it’s co-workers who we build a bond with through business hours, cranky customers and deadlines.  An element of “we are in this together” grows as the days pass. Sometimes it’s childhood friends who live in the backdrop of our entire lives, calling during the holidays to pick right up where the conversation ended the year before – always sharing a common link of growing up together. Sometimes it’s the strangers who walk from their campsite to ours, introduce themselves and invite us over to share a fire and conversation. Over warm flames and dark nights strangers become friends.  We shake hands and wonder if our paths will ever again connect.  Sometimes it’s new neighbors who bring a sense of home when home feels lost and out of place.  Our last unexpected move brought such unexpected neighbors.

Between hustling from the car loaded with housewares to the empty apartment in Alexandria, I didn’t even take a second to look up from the boxes in my arms.  I was on a mission to get the van cleared out and try to make the most of this tiny condo that we rented for 6 months.  We weren’t worried that the kitchen cabinets were not hung straight or that the fridge has started to rust, this was a short stop on our way to other things.  With a list of essentials that needed to be purchased (that comes with every new move) I headed toward the store –  can’t take a shower without a shower curtain!  I fumbled with the keys trying to figure out which one went where when I heard a voice behind me.  It was the neighbor coming over to say hello.

Over the next two years those hellos would ignite longer conversations exposing the intimate layers of our lives.  Our four neighbors – Jan & Robert (across the hall) and Amy & Angela (upstairs)  –  were the kind of neighbors everyone wishes, and sometimes gets very lucky, to have.  The kind who invited us to dinner parties, dropped baked goods at the door, left holiday treats, hung wreaths in the hallway, called just to say hello, and kept an eye on things when we were away.  Turns out this layover in our journey was worth the stop!

During the days, as I was working from home and in need of a break, I would head outside to stretch my legs and could sometimes catch Jan doing the same.  We would catch up on the daily stuff and then wander to other topics.   Jan spoke about her big family, her crazy friends, and missing the place she grew up.  Her long dark brown hair hung straight past her shoulders with a laugh that was infectious.  It was the only sound Colin and I ever heard from the other side of the wall, Jan laughing.  Which meant that we would start laughing… and then wonder what she was laughing about.  Jan moved to Alexandria to marry Robert, while everyone else she knew and loved were out west.  When Jan spoke about home she would close her eyes and describe this place as if the words transformed her from the patio, where she sat, to the high desert of Red Valley.  A place about 30 miles south of Shiprock on the Navajo Reservation that sat right on the New Mexico & Arizona line.  She spoke about the markets and the food; the earthy smell of dried corn, kneel down bread, and the fry bread hot from an oily pan sweetened with honey and sugar.  She described the Navajo culture and what it was like for a few years living in a Hogan with its round walls and dirt floor.  In a place that was far from anywhere else, it was calling her back from the memories that flashed alive once she began to spill these stories.  Her feet were planted in Alexandria, but her dreams were in another place.  There was never any doubt that we would be stopping in for a visit on our way west.  “You just have to stay with my dad and his wife!”


It’s not a sign that greeted us to Shiprock, it was the rock itself.  A towering solid formation rising up from flat red dirt with sharp teeth.  As if at any moment a dragon would circle the top and cast its flames to protect the noble king living inside – it was the perfect set for a movie.  From the rock, the road curved around a few big bends, a few more miles, another bend turned to gravel, and then a long narrow driveway that ended at a gate.   This was our first lesson on driving in Navajo Nation – nothing is close so get gas when you can.

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Wild Horses & Shiprock

As we moved through the gate a large dog with a full winter coat barked once to announce our arrival. Karen was on the front porch waving us in and soon Timothy was by her side.  Jan’s dad, Timothy and his wife Karen, turned a two-room house built in the 60s into a very welcoming and cozy spot.  Over the years they added rooms, a second floor, an office, garden beds outside, “projects”  they would call them.  As we entered the front door the fireplace was crackling and its heat filling the room.  Two cats peered from behind a chair and that big fluffy dog was now inside and slowly stood up to check us out and approve of our presence.  The Christmas tree was glowing, the smell of roasted garlic was drifting from the kitchen and in the few seconds of taking in my surroundings I felt relaxed and comfortable.

After dinner we moved into their living room with the fire still glowing and listened to Timothy and Karen talk about their lives together and their own separate journeys.  Timothy spoke deep and slow in a tone that pulled you into his stories.  His dark hair was short and neat, he wore round glasses and on his finger a silver ring holding a round turquoise stone.  As he spoke he laughed and I instantly thought of Jan.  Timothy was born on the reservation but never knew his mother.  She, tragically, passed away after a horse riding accident when he was very young.  Timothy’s grandmother raised him from that time on.  He mentioned in one story that her words were like strong arms folding around him and pulling him in close. He felt loved and safe.

Never knowing much about his mother or his exact age sent him on a search to fill in these crucial details of his life.  This search lead to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.  There he poured through book after book studying page after page of records.  Days ended without a trace of his mother, which left him feeling disappointed.  Returning the last book and all hope of finding any answers fading, a page fell out and floated to the floor.  Timothy reached for the crinkled piece of paper and took a look.  Before his eyes on this missing page was the name of his mother.

The next morning we woke to the crackling fire and the beep of the coffee pot.  Timothy was parked on a small stool in front of the fireplace stoking the flames. I think that fire was going the entire time we were there!  We had breakfast and Karen drew us a map of the places we should try to visit.  Every landmark had a tale.  Every protruding rock formation was much more than evidence of the land taking shape, there was a story according to Navajo beliefs.  Once the story was told the rock was forever changed.

The day was bright but chilly.  Rocky buttes like walls traced our path, the rich red ground seemed endless meeting a blue sky at the horizon.  Wild horses cantered in groups and after just one day we knew why Jan missed this place so much.  The colors, the silence, the peace.

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Towards Red Valley – Navajo Nation

About 40 miles later we reached a rough road that led to Toadlena Trading Post.  A weaving shop and museum.  The museum was small but interesting, however, the real education came from the young gal who was working at the shop when we arrived.  She talked about the Navajo rugs, the weavers, the amount of time it takes to complete a rug…sometimes months, sometimes years.  As the weaver grows in experience the rug follows.  Patterns come from inspiration and stay locked in memory, not on paper.  She was also a weaver who learned from her mother, but started to carve out her own weaving path.  Our budget allows us to purchase a very tiny piece – a rug by a weaver who lives close by.  We are given a picture that shows the weaver holding the rug we just purchased.  She is smiling bright and proud at her finished piece

From Timothy and Karen’s driveway we can see the canyons of Red Valley and the sun slipping behind the clouds – its every shade of red & blue from a big box of crayons. { I imagine Crayola comes here to find inspiration for the names of these colors; Raw Umber, Magic Mint, Bittersweet, Burnt Sienna, Shocking Pink…all actual names of crayons.}   We fill them in with our finds and our day.  The rug we purchased looks like a coaster compared to the rugs hung on their walls that are museum pieces.  Over homemade vegetable soup and corn bread the subject of Tony Hillerman comes up (Colin loves these books, but I haven’t read a single one…add it to the list!).  Tony Hillerman is the author of several best selling detective novels all based on the Navajo Tribal police.  Timothy and Karen had a guest who was a huge fan of Hillerman and asked how actuate his books were.  Timothy mentioned that the books were pretty spot on except for a few points.  Those points went from Timothy’s mouth into a letter from the guest who sent it directly to the famous author.  Not long after the letter was sent, a returned response came from Tony Hillerman who got right to the point, “Timothy is Navajo. Timothy is right.”  Karen chuckles and shakes her head as she remembers that guest.  Originally from Michigan, Karen was making her way through school when she jumped at the opportunity to visit the Navajo Nation for her studies.  She fell in love with the people, the landscape and the culture.  Karen has learned a lot about the Navajo history and is immersed in the community.  She speaks a few words in Navajo and I wonder if she knows the language fluently.  I ask and she holds up her fingers to show me a “pinch.”  The language is extremely complex and hard to pronounce – every tone changes the meaning. Together they tell us about their involvement with the community. Timothy has been on the Navajo counsel and fought for health benefits for the uranium mine workers. Karen was a part of a committee to navigate road construction – where the roads can be built depends on sacred ground, getting permission and working with the land owners, and several other factors.  The Navajo Nation is a large place – about the size of West Virginia – and just in our few short days we know we need to come back.  The map Karen drew a few days before has landmarks and x’s on places we meant to go but ran out of time.  On our last night, Jan calls to say she has arranged a meet up with her brother and his wife, “You just have to meet Jerry and Jennifer!  You will love them! You can’t say no!”  We meet them on a Saturday morning at the market in Shiprock.  It’s everything Jan has described.

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Sunset Near Shiprock

Jerry and his wife, Jennifer, along with their son walk us through the market and point out what people are selling and some of things we should try.  Blue mush is being sold in small styrofoam cups for $2.00.  It’s like grits only blue.  “I always add a lot of sugar, ” says Jerry.  The fry bread bubbles in oil, turns toasty brown and served on a few layers of paper towels – two please.  It tastes really good with some honey and sugar.  We buy corn bread that’s dense but moist and sweetened with raisins and then spend the last of the cash we stuffed in our pockets on tamales from one of their friends.  As we stroll they introduce us to their family and friends as they pass.  The market is packed and Jerry confirms what I was thinking “people come here to eat but also to socialize and see friends.”  Everyone seems to know each other.  By the time we leave, we are hugging Jerry and Jennifer like our own family.  It feels that way.  They invite us to come back and it’s not just a nice thing to say – they mean it.  I call Jan as we part ways with her brother and she is almost in tears,  “I miss them sooooo much!”  I wish she was here with us, but I know that when she closes her eyes she comes right back.

Blue and white.  These are the only colors I see.  Mounds of chalky white sand under a blue sky with swirly clouds.  The wind blows constantly moving entire piles of sand and leaving traces of squiggly lines over each dune.  It’s an area of 275 square miles of bright white gypsum called White Sands National Monument and even some of the small creatures who have adapted to this environment are, you guessed it, white.

White Sands

We called the park to ask about planning a visit and find out they are closed for 3 hours due to missile testing.  Now I am more curious about the missiles than the sand.   We catch up with a ranger who is walking back and forth at one of the viewing areas to answer questions.  (Side note:  I have probably mentioned the rangers before and have to say it again. If you get the chance to travel to some of the amazing parks in this country, go chat with a ranger, or join one of their talks or tours.  You will be amazed at their wealth of information and how completely thrilled they are to be working there.)  I jump right in and ask about the missiles.  In 1942, a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government dedicated the area around White Sands as the missile range.  The first atomic bomb was tested not too far from this site.    The ranger said occasionally the missiles get off track and land in the park.  She said they have found pieces and parts around the park, “If you see something metallic lying in the sand don’t pick it up, report it immediately.”   If missiles are flying, I think it is a good thing they close the park during tests!

New Mexico, White Sands

We see people sledding down the dunes as if they were slopes of snow on round saucers.  Others have brought their horses to trot over the sand and pose for pictures.  We decide to drive and climb.  On the top of one dune we look in every direction and can only see white sand.

Turquoise Drive

Tucked in our map is a list of places that have been recommended by folks we have met along the way and it’s like a wild weed that will not stop growing.  One couple from Mobile, who we spoke with back in Natchez, said we absolutely had to see Chaco Canyon.  A gal we chatted with at the Santa Fe Brewing Company gave us a list so long we were fearful we might never leave New Mexico, including several other breweries along the way – so we might be walking rather than driving out of New Mexico.  Another must is the Turquoise Drive which starts in Albuquerque and winds up into Santa Fe and then connects with the High Road to Taos.  Scenic driving here we come.

Have I mentioned that we started this journey thinking we could out smart winter?  Yes, maybe we picked a bad time to begin a northern route, but we were heading south and southwest – to sunshine and warm weather!  We have seen more snow, ice and freezing temperatures than some of the colder northern states.  As winter gives us snow and laughs in our faces, we add more layers of clothes, turn on the heater and keep going.

It’s a clear day when we start the Turquoise Drive.  Sipping on strong hot coffee we are ready.  Only a few patches of snow remain on the side of the road when we begin an ascent through the Cibola National Forest to the Sandia Mountain point.  The snow builds from patches to mounds and then the road is covered completely until we reach the top where it’s gusting and blowing as if to say, “Did you think you were going to miss me? HA!”  We pull on our coats and head over to the very top of this mountain to see what lies below.  We walk right to edge and the view has opened up below us.  We step back on instinct to fight that feeling which is pulling us over and down.  We are birds floating above the world with a wide open view at 10,678 feet.   For a few minutes we can’t feel the cold, or the gusts, or that feeling of vertigo…and then we can, so we run back to the truck and crank up the heat.  I ask Colin if he is as cold as I am.  “You see this coat?” He says this while unzipping his coat and allowing me to notice.  “Rob Heaney gave me this coat,” and then he pauses and looks away from me as to talk directly to his friend and shouts, “Thank you Rob Heaney!”  “This coat is made with Gore-tex and…”  I interrupt him because I don’t know anything about Gore-tex and ask him what that has to do with it.  “Let me tell you this…when Rob bought this coat and questioned the price compared to the others on the rack, the saleswoman at REI gave him the short version, ‘Because it’s the shit’, she said.  And Rob bought the coat.”  The reason I am not as cold as you is because this thing is The Shit.    I don’t look at my coat the same after this.

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Sandia Mt. Point

It takes us twice as long to go down as up, but we enjoy the pace.   The road swings through towns that had a gentle pulse before and now almost ghost like.  They are towns that have seen Native Americans and Spanish settlers.  They went through boom times and dead times .  They are tucked between low mountains with tiny churches and adobe style homes.  Vacant store fronts show signs from the past.  We pull into Golden and find Henderson’s store.  The store has been in the family since 1917 and full of Native American arts.  Beautiful Navajo rugs hang on the walls, turquoise jewelry sits behind glass cases and pottery rests on the shelves.  The owner tells us about the town and his family store.  90% of the store’s collection walks right through the front door in the arms of artists who come from different parts of New Mexico to sell their work.  We buy two kachinas that are dressed in masks and in the middle of a dance.  Farther down the road is a booming touristy town with colorful signs leading the way.  Quirky stores with half their goods on the sidewalk advertising local art and other souvenirs.  As we near Santa Fe we are trying to figure out how to get to Hyde Park for camping and then we see a sign; Santa Fe Brewing – I’m sure they will know how to get there!  We get lots of advice, a list of places to add to our growing weed and the beer was worth the stop.  We especially loved the Black IPA and not too upset about the Happy Camper IPA and both were available in cans.   As we get ready to leave, the bartender who was also a part of our conversation about getting to Hyde park, gave us a smile and said,  “You guys are going to freeze your asses off tonight…have fun!”  She was right.

Snowman ready to launch when we arrive to camp

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Hyde Mt. Park, Sante Fe

We woke up to a hard snow fall, but something about it was beautiful – once our brains thawed out and the feeling in our toes and hands came back.  We found coffee in Sante Fe, where everything is brown and in adobe style – even the McDonalds and the Starbucks.  Coffee gives us exactly what we need. It warms the soul, shakes out the dull and sends a positive vibe to the day ahead.

Which we needed because today we were going to tackle the High Road to Taos.  The snow made it hard to see beyond the first set of hills so we slowed down to a crawl and found the town of Chimayo.  There is a weaving shop that has been in the Ortega family for 8 generations.  Inside it looks like there are 8 generations worth of rugs.  Neat piles are lined up along the window and master pieces hung on the walls.  They are colorful with the traditional styles with diamond patters and borders. We have read and heard about a church in Chimayo that has healing dirt.  Colin says he wants to go directly to the church and jump in the hole of dirt and splash around like a baby bird in a puddle.  He is going to get his chance because we are only a mile away.   A sign for El Santuario de Chimayó leads us in the right direction.  It’s tucked back behind a village square, a brown adobe church with two bell towers built around 1817.  We pass through an arch with a cross on top and notice the stucco gate has several religious paintings.  There are a few people checking things out, but it is so very quiet.  The only sound we hear are foot steps crunching in the snow .  We are not exactly sure what the rules are for seeing and touching the dirt so before going inside the church we head for the visitors center.  There are two ladies trying to figure out something on the computer when we enter the small office.   They explain that this is a very sacred place.  People come from all over, sometimes by foot, to pay respects and to ask for healing for themselves or for someone they know.   The ladies are curious about where we came from and why we are here…Virginia and just passing through.  They encourage us to go inside the church and have a look.  The church smells of old wood and burning candles.  We walk past the pews and enter a side room where a short archway leads to a tiny room with one window and a space dug out in the floor filled with dirt.  We notice one guy kneeling on the ground next to the hole while passing the dirt from one hand to the next.  His friend stands next to him and we back away to give them space.   No one speaks.  For a long time the guy continues to kneel and work his hands in the dirt below him.  We wonder in silence what he is asking for:  Is he sick? Is he here for his family?  How far did he travel?  When he slowly stands and moves out of the room we duck through the arch and squat around the dirt and look at each other like, you go first.  I lean over and whisper to Colin that it might not be appropriate to jump in and splash around.  He nods in agreement.  We pay respects and leave quietly.

El Santuario de Chimayó

The road doesn’t lie and leads us right to Taos.  A town that has a look of Santa Fe, but smaller.  A historic plaza built in the middle bordered with adobe stores and narrow side alleys lined with cafes and everything is full of the Christmas spirit.  Music plays from speakers set up in the town square and the trees are sparkling with lights.  Colin hears from a good friend, Dennis Carmody, that Eske’s is the place to get something to eat (we don’t think twice about taking his advice since he has always steered us in the right direction).  We end up behind a few store fronts and a large parking lot to find Eske’s Brew Pub; http://www.eskesbrewpub.com/  It is exactly the kind of place you want to land after a day of driving through snowy roads and forgot to eat lunch.  Eske’s is a small and cozy but not cramped.  Warm and friendly with some Grateful Dead tunes playing in the background and wait a minute, does that menu say they have a green chile beer??  New Mexico is the land of the green chile and we are learning fast that this is a very good thing.  Not too hot with the perfect amount of slowish-medium heat.  The kind that I can handle.  They have a green chile stew that I order and Colin gets a burrito with the green chile stew on top.  I try a tasting of the green chile beer and realize it’s better in the stew but Colin thinks it works.  We take in the warmth and fill our bellies with green chile.  It’s the kind of place you don’t want to leave. But we do and we leave happy.

Home Is…

Home is wherever I’m with you ~ Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

Home is Wherever I’m With You

They also sell door mats, which Colin purchased before our trip. I think its a nice touch!

We have called our little camper home for 5 weeks today. After driving 4,959 miles we have decided to take a day and get some housekeeping done; reorganizing the camper and truck, cleaning, catching up on the budget, and giving you a tour of our lovely home. All of this is happening from the backcountry in Death Valley N.P. in California. We’ve got clear blue skies and FULL SUN. Yes!

Our home consists of a 2002 Toyota Tundra and a 2008 Four Wheel Camper Eagle.

Chaco Canyon in N.M.

Back in Jasper Texas, our Fiamma Awning was a blessing during a day of on-again-off-again rain.

Jasper Texas

 

Full Kitchen

Moving on to the cozy inside…check out that full kitchen. Complete with a propane 2-burner stove, cabinets, a sink used only for storage (an option we could do without because it uses precious space), Engel 2-way refrigerator (a must!) and look at those cute little cactus salt & pepper shakers (thanks Jan & Robert).

Perfect for Two (& Sprite)

 

 

The roll-over couch has plenty of room for two and lifts up to reveal more storage underneath, all necessary wiring and dual auxiliary batteries that power our lights, refrigerator and heater (when it got to 7 degrees one night at the Grand Canyon, we clicked on the heater and were so happy to have this option). A solar panel up top provides a bump to those batteries allowing us to camp off the grid.

Lots of Head Room

When we pop the top the ceiling height is 6’4″. We chose the pop-up version instead of a hard side model because we like having a low profile for driving. The problem we are facing is the load, and trying not to bust our backs when lifting it up (we had the same problem with the Syncro).  Our wish list has “Gas Strut Roof List Assists” written in bold with stars.

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Upper Loft

 

 

The upper loft is one of my favorite rooms in the house. It has a full queen size bed which means room to roll around and kick my legs out (which I do several times in the night). We’ve added a foam pad for extra comfort.

Here is our fancy drawer system. Found for $25.00 at Target.  Please note in the picture, those gas cans are empty while we work on finding a swing-away carrier.

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Target Special…Just add stickers!

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Dinner for Two

Dinner for two, please. Check out my staging skills (I hope you noticed the same in the camper…what you don’t see in the interior shots is the large pile of gear stored on the floor while driving). The table and chairs were purchased from REI – we love them and use them every day. They fold up and out with no trouble. The rug from Madmats pulls the whole scene together quite nicely (made from 98% recycled plastic).

Speaking of staging…take special notice of our favorite beer koozies (used only occasionally). Shameless shout outs to the D.C. Firefighters Burn Foundation and One South Realty Group in Richmond, Va (Hi Guys!!).

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One South Realty Group & DC Burn Foundation

While in the Valley of the Gods (a blog post coming soon on this spot), I cracked a joke at Colin’s expense and shortly there after he seemed very eager to have a picture of the truck next to these massive buttes. He asked if I wouldn’t mind getting the shot. He starts to drive away and I’m thinking he wants to me take one of him going farther down the road.

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But then he keeps going….

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“Hey! Come back…I’m Sorry!!!!”

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For anyone considering a Four Wheel Camper this section is for you! We wanted to share a list of things we love about our camper and a few options we wish we had. Remember, you can start with a base model (or a shell) and make it your own by choosing from several options FWC offers (see website here).

The things we Love (in no particular order):
*Size – It is the perfect size for two people and a small dog.  Fits really well on our Toyota Tundra with little overhang in the rear and zero on the sides.
*Weight – As far as we know FWC makes the lightest slide-in truck camper. This is very important to us because of the gear we also pack and our truck carries the weight with ease.
*Solar – Our camper came with 85 watt panel which allows us to camp off the grid for days at a time.
*Dual Auxiliary Batteries (same as above)
*2 Way Engel Refrigerator – Love it. It’s quiet and seems to draw minimal power and a good size for us.
*Fiamma Awning – Since our inside living area is tight this adds to our comfort and outdoor space. Easy to deploy and roll back in.
*Side & Rear Exterior Lights – We find ourselves using the side lights often while cooking outside after dark. The rear lights are good for as Colin would say, “those little things that go bump in the night.” Would be nice if they could double as reverse lighting.
*Fan-Tastic Fan – Provides great ventilation for cooking inside, cooling and drying things out.
*Propane Heater – A lifesaver on those cold nights.
*Adequate Storage – Of course we would like to add more (we would consider taking out the sink and water tank & would love to have storage under the bed).
*Queen Size Bed – Perfect for us and room for the pup.
*Screen Door – Keeps it bug-less and breezy.
*Inverter – We added this but a great option that FWC offers.
*Thermal Package – Easy to install and helps to insulate camper.
*Level Indicators – Kinda nice when your not sure!

Options we wish we had and a few things we would change. All but the last 3 items on this list are available options from FWC (check their website for a complete list!).
*Roof Rack – Ours came with the boat rack but we would absolutely get the Yakima tracks
*Gas Strut Roof Lift Assists – A must for having several items on the roof. We have a solar shower, solar panel and a Yakima Box. This makes it very difficult to lift without the extra help. If you are going to add a roof rack, chances are you are going to load it with something…get extra stuts!
*Layout – We would like to see the stove top switch spots with the sink so that the bed can be out while using the stove. In our case, Colin wants to sleep while I am ready to start coffee.
*Hardware – The new models have much improved hardware and we wish we had it!
*Soft Sides – We think this should be a breathable material since we have noticed a lot of interior moister due to condensation.
*Trim Pieces – The trim pieces running along the inter ceiling are now warped due to the condensation. We would like to see a different material that is more durable.
*Insulation – More lightweight insulation all around.

One final thought:  If you can swing it, get a good swing-away carrier.  Aluminess makes a good product that is compatible with Four Wheel Campers.  Then maybe you won’t be stuck carrying fuel and water cans inside your truck.  Time & budget have prevented us from making this purchase.

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions about our rig and we will do our best to answer them or point you in the right direction.  So far.  So Good.  Many more miles to go (hopefully!).

Colin – stclair411@aol.com         Carrie – carriecstclair@yahoo.com

Land of Enchantment

A soft hint of light makes its way through the roof vent at the top of our camper. I take a deep breath, exhale and see my breath like smoke in the air. Checking my watch it’s about 6:30am and freezing cold. From my sleeping bag I lean over to the window and scan for early morning signs of life, but all is still and silent under a thin layer of frost. At just over 8,000 feet the world up here is crisp with rich green trees covering the mountain sides. It feels like I should be in Colorado or Wyoming, but this is New Mexico. Isn’t New Mexico just desert?  New Mexico is getting ready to teach us some big and very surprising lessons.

Sacramento Mts

Sacramento Mts

But First Back to Texas

We spend a few days at a park just outside Junction, about 30 minutes west of a town called Fredericksburg in the middle of Hill Country. We drove through this area a few years ago when it was just beginning to brand itself as a wine destination and now it is a wine mecca in Texas. We pass dozens of wineries, most look brand new. The town of Fredericksburg is crawling with activity as people make their way from trinket shops, to lunch spots and through art vendors. We add to the crowd and stroll through this old Texas town on this bright beautiful day of about 70 degrees. We spend one more night at South Llano River (in Junction) and see lots wildlife roaming through the campground: Road runners doing what they do best. Several armadillos digging under scrubby bushes and even though we shine our flashlights at them they don’t seem to care much. Mule deer greet us in the morning and the turkeys are here all winter to roost and we see them in huge groups.

We are torn, stay in South Llano another night or head north? So we go for the map. Several times a day we pull out the map. The Rand McNally, which we shorten to “The Rand” has been around and really starting to show its age. Some states have come completely loose from the spiral binding while others are holding on by a few counties. There are notes on almost every page, numbers scribbled at random, lines marking off roads for directions, circles around destinations, dirt stains and mystery stains make some states hard to navigate. The cover gave way the other day and now it’s scheduled for major tape surgery. Once it was just a fresh new map and now it’s our travel diary from trips over the last few years. It feels more like an old friend than a map. Retirement may come soon, but for now it is keeping us moving in the somewhat right direction.

Enjoying the Sunset

Enjoying the Sunset

The right direction is a relative term. After counting miles and figuring days we decide to aim north through Guadalupe Mts N.P., and into New Mexico. We get there late, the camping is not great (imagine an open parking lot with a few white lines separating one spot from the next) so we think of hitting some of the BLM spots that are highlighted at the visitor center and come back in the morning. We use the restroom and leave in search of better camping. Every spot greets us with dead ends or blocked roads so we continue on. As we drive in frustration, Colin lets me know about the bathroom art in men’s facilities. There was a poster framed on the wall in front of the urinal, whatever advertisement was there had been flipped over and someone took the time to sketch a picture. There is a desert scene: A station wagon jacked up on huge wheels and thick tires kicking up dust. There is a full moon and a few cactus in the background. The driver looks mean holding the wheel with two hands and nasty grin. A coyote sits on the top of the vehicle howling at the moon with a word bubble coming from his mouth, “Bienvenidos!” Sadly, that’s about all we can report from Guadeloupe…

The Road Through Carlsbad

The glow of street lights and gas station signs ahead gives us a clue we are coming into a town. The night air is misty and there is an odd smell we can’t place, it is coming from the outside of the vehicle and not the inside (just to be clear, there are several times the bad smell comes from inside the vehicle). We notice pick up trucks next to us and then all around us. The hotel parking lots are full of trucks. The bar lots have even more. Trucks are in almost every space including the truck wash. Someone must be giving these things away for free and people have come from all over to get one. I pull out The Rand (which lives in the space between my seat and the console) to see where we are; Carlsbad, New Mexico. The smell continues as we get north of town and find a state park off a county road. Almost every camp spot is occupied with RVs and more pick up trucks. It feels damp, it stinks and just as we zip into our sleeping bags the guy next to us (in a pick up) pulls up to his RV, opens the truck door and an avalanche of beer cans crash to the pavement. He swears at this, mumbles to himself, and then stumbles inside. In the morning I head to the shower and notice several announcements on the exterior wall of the restrooms. One cautions of high levels of DDT in the lake so “this is a catch-and-release lake ONLY.” The other sign asks to be aware of human trafficking “if you see anything suspicious…” There is another sign with a bright yellow banner warning of the green algae and then the last one tucked in the corner is another caution, “Be aware of rodents. They can carry HPS (Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome).” As I am taking in all the warnings, an older man walking out of the shower room looks over to his wife and says in an annoying tone that sums up our feelings exactly, “Are you about ready? Let’s get the hell out of here!”

Oliver Lee S.P.

Oliver Lee S.P.

New Mexico Changes

We follow the guys advice and get the hell out. And hit route 82 for White Sands. On the map route 82 looks like a line going in the direction of White Sands, nothing stands out and we don’t expect to see much more than a route to a national monument. We don’t expect the gray stinky mist to give way to blue clear skies about 10 miles outside of the state park. We don’t expect the desert floor to change from golden knee-high grasses sprinkled with pointy yuccas and then climb to rocky hills with deep narrow creeks and cows resting underneath wide branches and silvery leaves. And we certainly don’t expect to climb even higher to lush green mountains combed with creamy white aspen trees. We reach Cloudcroft at 8,600 feet and pull into this cozy mountain town with bakeries offering fresh bread and homemade pies, outdoor shops selling camp gear and warm clothes. We ask someone where we can find the US Forest Ranger station and it’s only a mile down the road. There I learn about Lincoln National Forest (the place we have just discovered) and the town we went through earlier of Carlsbad (they are going through an oil boom, which explains all the trucks and workers. Also the home of several mines including potash).

Dog Canyon Trail, Oliver Lee S.P.

Dog Canyon Trail, Oliver Lee S.P.

Oliver Lee SP

Oliver Lee SP

We are in the Sacramento Mountains of Lincoln NF. There are more elk than deer and they are in the middle elk hunting season now. Bear, turkeys, coyotes…it is a list that a few miles back would not exist. We find a deserted camp spot near Bruce Springs Trailhead that is marked by a waterfall tricking down to a narrow brook below. We gather firewood and notice piles of scat…everywhere. The sun goes down taking the temperature with it. We light the fire and watch the flames crackle and hiss. The sky is clear and packed full of stars which seem endless. For bed we wear hats and lots of layers and play a friendly game of “who gets sprite in their sleeping bag.” She may be small but when tucked in a sleeping bag she can put out a good amount of heat. I wake up to coyotes howling their song to each other and roll back over to sleep. I wake up and that’s where this blog posted started.

Dog Canyon Trail

Dog Canyon Trail

From Cloudcroft we head back for warmer weather and down the other side of the mountains. In 17 miles we descend from 8,600 feet to 4,000 feet and shoot through a tunnel. Before our eyes have time to adjust we are in a completely new landscape. The evergreen and aspen trees are gone and the mountains are now rocky cliffs. I keep looking back as if I don’t believe how fast this is changing. We land in Alamogordo thinking that we will go straight for White Sands but find Oliver Lee state park and spend 3 nights. We camp in the shadow of these cliff faced mountains and spend one day (all day) hiking. Instead of trees we are in a cactus garden. Prickly pear, strawberry hedgehog and a crooked plump cactus with yellow fruit called cane cholla. Instead of bears and elk we are looking for rattlesnakes and cougars. Colin tells me that at the visitor center there is a huge poster on cougars and what to do if faced with this fierce cat. He says we need a plan and gives me the run down. He suggests that I need to play dead and he will pick up Sprite and back away slowly. I’m not on board with his plan. The only wildlife we see are a few rabbits and a couple beetles. We meet other hikers on the trail and one guy who is clearing the path to make it wider (which we appreciate since at about mile 3.5 it is not wide enough for two people to pass, and a long way down). I point to a green speckled granite looking boulder and ask the maintenance guy what it is. “That there’s called Leeverite.” I repeat back to him what I think he said and he says it again correcting me. “It’s called Leave-‘er…leave ‘er right there.” We leave it and slowly make our way down. The sun is low and reflecting a pink tint on the mountain sides. We can’t get over the sunsets here, the diverse landscape, the people we meet are friendly and don’t seem at all surprised by our lack of New Mexico knowledge. We are learning. And still here. We are sitting in a hotel room in Taos and after 8 days we are still in New Mexico and I have so much more to write about this incredible place.

Cane Cholla

Cane Cholla

Dog Canyon

Dog Canyon

Even though Scarlette O’Hara was a Georgia girl, I keep waiting for her to come out on this veranda, over looking a now lost plantation, and tell me about her latest beau, how all the other girls are envious, and of course that awful Rhett Butler.  I’m waiting for her to say something about a duck on a June bug or getting knocked over with a feather.  It may not be Tara, but Longwood is something to admire and I’m lost in the pages of that classic book…

It is a perfect time to jump off the interstate after a rock flies off a semi truck landing in our windshield and we see an exit for the Natchez Trace Parkway.   The rock smash sounds worse than the quarter size bullseye that was left behind and we are glad to slow down and enjoy this parkway.  The Trace (as we’ve heard locals call it) runs from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi and since Natchez is our destination for the day we enjoy slowing down and looking for armadillos.  Colin informs me that he has only seen them on the side of the road and dead, but would really like to catch a glimpse of a live one – I couldn’t agree more. As we discuss the live vs the dead the first one is spotted.   We’ve got a live one and back up to see him just a digging away.  I jump out with my camera asking Colin if it will attack, “not that I know of…probably not.”  That’s good enough for me and I’m sneaking up one step at a time, snap a few shots and then get a little closer.  He is so busy digging for bugs I have to give a gentle whistle so he can look up and smile for the camera.  Cheese!  He looks surprised to see me and hops along into the woods.

Hello!

Hello!

We locate the state park about 10 miles from Natchez and have all day to see the sites.  This historic city sits above the mighty Mississippi River right across from Louisiana.  We take the self guided walking tour and read all about the pre-civil war history.  Tiny brightly painted homes sit along the side streets in the shadows of the more impressive mansions with tall columns and intricate gardens.  We find our way over to Longwood Plantation and that’s really when Scarlette starts talking to me.  As soon as we pull into the driveway it’s as if we have crossed a timeline.  Old oak trees line the road covered with Spanish moss hanging like tinsel at Christmas.  We pass a huge pond with reflections of trees and the clouds, more bends and turns and we still can’t see the house until…we see the towering dome that sits on top like a hershey kiss in a red wrapper.  Longwood is the biggest antebellum octagonal mansion in the country.  “Biggest” is not the correct word, it is 50,000 SF.  I take the tour while Colin decides to walk the grounds with Sprite. The tour starts in the basement and no pictures are allowed until we get to the main part of the house.  The tour guide assures us that this policy will all make sense when we go upstairs.  I’m thinking what you are thinking “what’s upstairs?”  Turns out that the family started building this massive estate right before the civil war.  They hired builders from Philadelphia who finished the basement (which is above ground), the entire exterior and supporting walls.  The family moved into the basement waiting for the rest of the home to be completed.  As the war rumors were heating up the builders got nervous and headed back north.  The war started.  The cotton was burned.  The owners went broke and then the husband died.  The house was never finished and remains that way to this day.  There are still moving crates sketched with the owners names that remain in the house.  The builder’s work benches and masonry tools are still where they left them.  It’s immaculate exposed brick work never touched by plaster.  It’s an art piece unfinished.  I loved it.

Longwood Plantation

Longwood Plantation

Looking up from the main floor at Longwood

Looking up from the main floor at Longwood

 

 

 

 

 

 

What we have heard about Natchez is mostly true; the quaint town, the history, the plantations and the biscuit capital of the world.  The visitor guide says, do not miss the biscuits while in the famous biscuit capital.  It’s the biscuits we couldn’t find.  And we looked.  We checked restaurants and the local hot spots.  We find the Uptown Grocery and ask the sweet lady working at the counter.  “I have never heard that we are the biscuit capital of the world…we don’t even have biscuits on our menu.”  Then she calls over to the owner who was born and raised in Natchez and he seems confused,  “hmmmm, never heard that before.” We order a pimento cheese sandwich with lettuce, tomato and mayo on their homemade sour dough bread and forget all about the biscuits.

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Longwood Plantation

I am writing this blog from a camp ground in Blanco, Texas, that feels more like an RV resort than a state park.  It’s too bad really because the showers are spotless (hardly any spiders) and the folks packed in this place seem nice.  We are in an area of Texas called Hill Country which is beautiful and vey unlike the Texas we tend to think of – dry and flat, but really Texas is so much more than that.  Just a few days ago we were in Pineywoods Country and constantly on the lookout for alligators.  There is a state park just outside Jasper, Texas, that is surrounded by swamp and cypress trees.  We set up camp just a few feet from the water.  It looked like a gator could walk right up and join us for dinner.  More like, take Sprite and head back towards the swamp.  Fog banked down in the morning showing just the trees alone like islands in the water to themselves.  It was a sprinkle, and then pour, and then stop, and then start kind of day.   During the break we threw on rain coats over backpacks and went on the nature (best chance to see gators) hike.   Sprite lead the way (better her than us).  We crossed low bridges, made our way through scrubby trees and a trail covered with leaves.  Every pool of water we scanned for movement.  A few times we jumped back to give space to the log that cruised just at the surface of the water.  We called these creatures log-gators. They will not harm you.

Pineywood Country - Jasper, TX

Pineywoods Country – Jasper, TX

The next day we are in Austin.  We can think of one word besides music – tacos.  Tacos and tacos and we eat a lot of tacos.  We met up with a local who was born and raised in Austin and Colin hasn’t seem him since they parted ways from the Marine Corps about 22 years ago.  He greets us with a big smile and has found a pet friendly place to eat tacos and drink beer called Red’s Porch.  Pet friendly which Sprite is only half – she is a pet but not friendly.  Sprite impresses us with only two outburst and the place is full of dogs.  We enjoy a night of great conversation and really good tacos.  We head back through town the next day to duck into Torchy’s Tacos.  It’s the place we are always looking for.  Neon sign with a chubby baby devil holding a pitch folk and a chalk board listing nothing but tacos and dipping sauces to go. We devour these on a side street in a residential neighborhood and then hit the road towards Blanco.

Camping outside Jasper, TX

Camping outside Jasper, TX

Today marks two weeks and it is going by fast.  We started the trip by heading north to West Chester, PA in order to get some parts added to our truck and camper.  We headed south through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and now heading west towards Guadalupe Mountains National Park and then who knows!

A Northern Place

Time to blow the dust off this rusty blog. We are still on hold but did manage to get a little adventure in…

My younger brother has been living in Alaska for just under two years. Not a long time, but enough time to experience the weather and the rain, the rush of tourist in the summer and the long periods of quiet isolation that comes with winter. Enough time to call me every few months and slip tiny images through the phone of wildlife creeping from the woods, or the rings of water as whales surface the channel, or the roar of a floatplane engine in the sky against enough vast space it feels quiet and alone and amazing. A person can only hear but so much…

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If I was lost in an airport and couldn’t manage to read the gate numbers or the screen that sits behind the ticket counter announcing the destination, I could find my flight to Alaska. You only need to see the group of people going to this northern place. Beards and boots, thick coats and flannel shirts, fishing poles in insulated sleeves, hard hats slung over backpacks. It’s workers going to the Northern Slope, and sportsman dreaming about the big catch, and wandering souls wondering if this escape is far enough from everything else. How far do you hope to go? How much space do you need? Alaska is the biggest of all 50 states. If the size of Texas, California and Montana is not big enough for you, well, you are in luck because Alaska is bigger than all three combined. With the total population in the entire state less than the city of Columbus, Ohio, I am pretty sure you can get lost and find yourself alone. But we were not looking to find ourselves alone.

We found rain. As the plane touched down in Anchorage the rain poured. It was about 2am our time and 10pm Anchorage time. We were tired and hungry and not that upset when we missed our next flight to Juneau. United Airlines payed for a hotel at the Puffin Inn with no frills but a clean room and warm bed. The next morning we would be fresh and ready for Juneau. The days following agreed with us and we hit a streak of sunny days, it didn’t rain again until our way out, so the weather was not the problem. The biggest problem we faced was narrowing down the things to do in only five days. We debated our plans from the confines of Kiona – my brother’s boat and as we soon learned, his project. “I really should have gotten this thing inspected,” he said while pointing to the two buckets collecting last nights rain. Although the boat was a good size and contained just about everything a person would need to live cozy and comfortable, it has some problems. The advice he received from a fellow boat owner down the dock weren’t exactly words of encouragement, “if I were you I would drill a hole from the bottom up…from THE BOTTOM UP!” For now the only holes were on the top and covered with a tarp. So back to our plans and our first flight to Angoon.

momma

Juneau sits within the Inside Passage in southeast Alaska made up of islands – thousands of them. Getting from one place to the next doesn’t consist of road time as much as air time. People living in Alaska depend on airplanes for mail, for food, and to get out of town and back. We jumped on with my brother who was delivering mail to a Native town of Angoon and picking up a resident who needed to get to Juneau for shopping. We took off in a Beaver, (a floatplane from Alaska Seaplane’s Fleet) from a man made water runway called the pond. Within seconds we are skimming from water into air and for the first time I can actually see where I am. 500 feet above land in a small metal body big enough for a pilot, three passengers and some mail, you can feel every bump, every dip and turn. I’m holding earplugs in my hand and with my eyes glued to the window, I don’t even notice the engine hollering because the view has me distracted. We glide over deep green forest that covers a landscape moving from flat to slopes then breaks. Perfectly placed pine trees huddled so tight I can’t see the floor until slices of river make their way through. Tiny tree islands break from the group surrounded by almost turquoise water. There is not a soul to be seen. Not a road or homes just absolute natural landscape gone untouched. The shores surrounded each island are dark gray rings made of rocks with gentle waves slapping the shore and bringing driftwood. In the far horizon I can see sharp peaks of the coastal mountains. The contrast of cold mountains, forest islands boarded by blue water, and wispy clouds hanging in the sky, this is a sight not possible to tire from. We find our way over Admiralty Island and at this point Kyle taps me on the shoulder to alert me that this is the spot to see Brown bear (the Grizzly). My eyes are now scanning the island below for movement. But I know my record for being the person to spot wildlife is not good. On several occasions I am the person almost in a panic because I can’t see the very thing everyone else has spotted…

”It’s right there…right in front of you,”

“I don’t see anything,” I respond my eyes darting in every possible direction.

“Do you see the big tree with branches?”

“Yes, I see lots of big trees with lots of branches.”

“It’s the biggest tree with the biggest branches and the deer/turtle/bird/bear/skunk is standing directly next to it…looking right at us!”

At this point I still do not see anything except lots of trees and depending on what the wildlife is I have a choice to make. If we are looking for a deer I usually lie and say, “oh yeah, there he is…I see him.” But if it happens to be something I really want to see then by the time the creature is running away from us is about the time I make direct contact…with the ass end of the animal. This is exactly what happened in Shenandoah NP when the black bear was finally sighted. I saw his rear end high tailing it away from us. I have higher hopes in Alaska. And within minutes from the first tap of the shoulder something is spotted in the water. Rings and bubbles are moving on the surface. Kyle yanks the yoke and the plane turns almost on its side making a circle around the ripples of water below. The closer we get I can see the spot, but not sure what I’m looking at. “Whales,” shouts Kyle and luckily my side of the plane is facing the water and now my face is flattened against the window. A dark shadow rises from the spray of water and the backs of three whales surface. Nearly two minutes later and another shout from the pilot, “brown bear!” Same position as before, face smashed to window and this time it takes little effort to see the brown body running through the creek below. He looks big from 400 ft away.

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Later that day we venture towards a scenic drive on a road going out of town and properly named, Out the Road. We cruise past Auke Bay and from paved to gravel roads deeper into woods and closer to dusk. We see a little movement from a little something on the side of the road. Slowing down to catch a glimpse, the little something turns toward us and huddles over a stash he does not want us to know about. He gives us this signal by raising a body full of quills and his statement is clear “my secret stash and I’m not going anywhere…move it along.” Just past 40 miles, like all the roads in Juneau, this one dead ends as well. There is a trail that connects the road to Echo Cove and we make our way in that direction. A few feet from the safety of the truck I start asking about bear spray. No one seems to have any. Kyle mentions that he has taken this road and hiked down this path and has yet to see a bear. Nature hears this conversation and gives us a little sign, bear scat. A nice fresh pile for us to clearly see (and almost step on) in the middle of the path. Now Colin sounds concerned and I’m moving my way back to the truck. As much as I love the good hunt and seeking wildlife, I don’t want that to be the last thing I ever see. We pile back in the truck and head towards town. About 5 miles in and I am the one who spots the big black bear. He stops and looks at us. I wonder what he’s thinking, “hmmm, I don’t see any guns. I can tell they don’t have bear spray…I’m moving along”. He takes his time slinking across the road, through some brush, and out of sight. About half way back we see the same porcupine in the same spot protecting his stash. We’re not sure what he has but it must be good. He agrees by flaring his quills…just in case we were thinking about it. We weren’t and drive on. Day one. Not bad.

We flew every day. Every chance we could get we jumped on and took off in a new direction, over different terrain and just as untouched and remote. A short stop in Pelican leads to an unexpected tour. Cheryl has called this tiny town on stilts, surrounded by water and mountains, home for over 30 years. We take the only path through town which is a boardwalk above marshy land below. She points to every home (some newer, some repaired and plenty others in desperate need of repairs) and describes who lives there, who once lived there and where they are now. Cheryl smiles as these stories unfold, which brings old characters back and memories of them come alive. There are no roads in Pelican, no driveways, no cars. You can only get here by floatplane or boat. Only 65 people make up this community with 90% working in the fishing industry, which is slowly shrinking. As we take off heading back towards Juneau Cheryl glances back at this remote town and a proud look beams from her face.

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We are running out of days and still have the town of Haines on our list. A 40-minute flight can get us there and a plane is leaving to deliver mail in the middle of the day. We pack the basics for one night stay and race to the airport to make this flight. We take the Piper and the pilot, Jered, asks us if we want to take the direct route over Lynn Canal or the Ice Fields. Is seems like either one should be good but we answer ice fields not really knowing what to expect. Not knowing that this field of ice would bring about an almost religious experience. I say almost because I am not a practicing religious person. I grew up Catholic and during the time I lived under my parent’s roof, which also meant under their rules, going to church was one of them. Catechism on Wednesday and church service every Sunday…sometimes kicking and screaming. What a happy moment in a young person’s life to turn 18 and earning the freedom to make these choices on our own. Although I left my parent’s house I still go back, I can’t say the same thing about church. But there are moments when you hear a story, witness a scene, or see a site that screams without words, “this is Bigger than you,” much, much, bigger. For 35 minutes during this 40-minute flight I felt smaller than the speck of dirt amongst the blue glaciers that carved their way through these mountains. The summits pushing through clouds and highways of ice driving their way through the middle. We flew between peaks and felt like bugs making our way around the edges and above absolute blue ice. We were ants hovering around giants. I shout to Jered, who is whistling the Marine Corps hymn and slides his head set off to hear me, “Do you ever get tired of this?” He looks at me with a serious expression and shakes his head no. As if there was any question. There were a few moments when we peeled our eyes from the plane windows to each other as if to say, are you seeing what I’m seeing? The only words we could think to say were, Oh My God.

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Haines is a special place (as if the journey there wasn’t enough); surrounded by mountains and glaciers, their reflections like a mirror on the water. Chilkoot River makes its way from town rushing around the foothills over smooth rocks and filling Chilkoot Lake. We have heard that the brown bear are out in force catching the salmon running up river to spawn. Taking a rental car, the drive tracing this river is already worth the effort. Every direction is outlined in snow-capped mountains. As the river narrows, we see people pulled on the shoulder of the road walking toward the riverbank. We do the same and join the small group. Colin is weaving his head around the folks in front to catch a view and I am trying to get the lens off my camera. In a whisper he says, “look.” A sow and her cub walk out directly in front of us – now that I see! Mamma is scanning the water for fish but takes time to check in on her cub, who is always a few steps behind. In a second she lunges toward the river slapping the water and the prize is flapping in her mouth. She finds a nice spot on the riverbank and sits to share the catch with her cub. A ranger standing a few steps from our huddle points across the river. Just through the trees two more brown bears sluggishly make their way to the water. One stretches out over the fast current and with a slap of the water the head goes under and back up with a fish. It looks too easy. Two Bald Eagles glide in circles crisscrossing each other and land on the rocks in the middle of the river. They to want these fish, which have worked so hard to swim against the current, pushing their way up stream to the place where they were born. I think about all the obstacles they must endure to make it home, only a few make the complete journey. We stand along this road and watch for hours. The sun dips behind the peaks and the light fades with it. We wait until we can hardly see, taking in every last second, but the time runs out and we make our way back to the car.

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In the morning we have most of the day to scout around town. We find museums that share Tlingit history, galleries, adventure tours and freshly roasted coffee at an organic market. We find Haines Brewing Company in an old movie set that was made for White Fang. And meet the brew master who shares with us the history of beer while sipping his latest IPA. Haines is full of surprises – home to the Bald Eagle Reserve that becomes home to over 3500 eagles in mid September. We were a little early for their arrival. Before we are ready to leave, we find the airport and head back from our quick 2-day trip. We hop back to Juneau on a Cessna Caravan that seats 8 and takes less than 40 minutes going directly over Lynn Canal. One last dinner out and 5 days has come and gone. As we board onto Alaska Airlines we dread the long trip back to Virginia. The plane lifts off and Juneau fades and soon I can’t place it. As we fly over the clouds my mind replays the last week and the people who make up this northern place. They are tough cookies with hearts full of life and greatness. They love this land and survive crazy weather because they just can’t get sick of the view. I can’t blame them. I think about our night in Skagway (not too far from Haines) and the enormous cruise ship that actually takes your eyes from the mountain view to the boat, because it is so huge and out of place. The massive crowds of cruise-ship tourists flood into town and buy cheap t-shirts and jewelry from stores that are owned by the cruise line. As night comes the crowds head back to the boat like a cattle call to dinner. The place is quiet and we get a chance to chat with the locals. They need the tourists and appreciate their business, but there is something missing. Maybe the way the outlet store is full while the town’s museum is empty. But the roads are paved and the locals get business and that is thanks to the cruise ships.

We didn’t meet a lot of people from (born and raised) in Alaska. Most are from every other part of the county; they came here, fell in love and learned to deal with the winters. They stay even when work is hard to find, groceries are costly and housing is at record highs. They stay because the search for being content stopped when they landed here, and sometimes that is enough. (See more pictures in the Photo Gallery)

It’s almost 8 pm on a Saturday night. Lying outside nestled next to Colin, the air is warm and the sky is clear. He leans over to whisper in my ear, “Can you hand me the torque wrench?” this is true romance. Underneath the van on a plastic tarp (grease from head to toe) we are trying to replace both rear cv joints and axles. Over the last few days a click from the rear wheels was getting too loud for us to ignore. A call to Lucas confirmed the problem, “Ready for a project?” Colin asks as he hangs up the phone (in a tone that sounds fun) like we are lucky to have this thrilling experience. I know better. Like the time he asked if I wanted to help him renovate the house. Three years later the miracle was we both survived; from each other and living in a construction zone.

A new plan forms. A list of tools to purchase, thank Lucas for sending us new parts, ask Colin’s parents if we can take over their driveway, spend a couple nights and oh by the way, what’s for dinner. Thank goodness for family and friends! Three days later, we hold our breath as the last screw is tightened and a test drive begins. Circling the block, I have my head hanging out of the window like a dog, trying to listen for anything that resembles that ugly clicking sound. But nothing clicks. Around the block again, nothing. Big exhale and we are back on the road!

A few years ago, while trying to get rid of some used Vanagon wheels, Colin met a guy from Pulaski, VA who was interested in picking them up. He pulled up to the house towing three Vanagons loaded on a trailer and now he has Colin’s full attention. His name is Kevin Lindamood, the owner of VuhVanagon, and these are not his only vans – he owns more than 300. Kevin invites us to come out to Pulaski if we are ever in the area or in need of a spare part (he has plenty). Over the past two years the list of spare parts we need for the van has steadily grown, so we decided it’s a good time to call Kevin and ask if his offer still stands. Pulaski sits just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and in the direction of Asheville, which means we can meander along the parkway, jump off to Pulaski and then continue to Asheville. As VuhVanagon comes into view my eyes widen. There are rows and rows of carefully placed vans–hundreds of them in all colors, sizes, models and in various conditions. The collection is as deverse as the places they came from. Kevin explains, “That one a guy brought over from the UK, really sad story. This one I got from a woman in Massachusetts, she didn’t tell me about all the rust.” He goes on, “Every van has a story. I’m not much for details, but I can tell you where I got each van and exactly what I paid for it. Weird gift I guess.” Kevin is not what I expected. I pictured an old man, a hoarder type, collecting more broken and busted vehicles than sense. Kevin is young, smart and speaks with an even tone peppered with sarcasm and I like him instantly. After spending some time in New York (using Vanagons for delivery vehicles) he found his collection beginning to grow and now hopes to convert the Vanagon into an environmentally friendly vehicle. After the full tour and with our pile of spare parts, we thank Kevin and continue onto Asheville. (See resources page for VuhVanagon’s website and news story.)

We need to be back in D.C. by the middle of October, which gives us a few weeks to head west (mid-west) to see my folks in Michigan. Of course we can never take the interstate, no fun in that, so we head out on route 50, which is slow going, however, the leaves are gradually changing to brilliant colors and the pace allows us to notice. After losing count of all the deer that have been hit (and now laying on the side of the road) we decide to call it a night. The final, “let’s get off now,” came just after we passed a car completely totaled, facing the wrong direction, glass shattered and a mangled- lifeless deer just a few feet away. We pull over to make sure there’s no one in the car (thankfully not) and then take the very next exit. We are now in West Virginia and as luck would have it, we stumble upon a state park a few miles from route 50. I’m not exactly sure how we manage to find so many legitimate camp spots when we need them. In approximately 11 weeks of travel, we have camped almost every night. There have been some exceptions; a few nights in hotels while we waited to get the van, spent a couple of nights with family and then there was that one memorable night we stayed in the parking lot of a Flying J. Now that’s really living! A little side story so I can explain: We were in Boulder, Colorado and find out we needed to be back to D.C. in four days (which is about 1,800 miles). It’s late when we get on the road and even later when our camp spot does not pan out. Colin suggest we drive until we can find a Flying J. Flying J’s were created with the truck driver in mind. A gas station with snacks, hot food, showers and an overnight parking lot (which is good when getting in a jam and need to sleep). The first Flying J we stopped in was full of activity. Trucks lined up around back with ladies walking from one to the next, a few rusted out RVs with camp set up as if they were long term visitors, and a rough looking group hanging around making frequent trips inside the store to refill their drinks. Over the loud speaker an attendant calls out, “Number 43 your shower is now ready. Number 43 your shower is now ready.” “This has a nice inviting feel,” I say to Colin who adds, “Maybe we should stick around and see what those girls are selling?” now the sarcasm is thick. He goes on to explain that if we are this desperate than we are driving a few more hours to a “nicer” Flying J. Around 1:30 in the morning, we make it to another Flying J located far away from the big city. We slide into a parking spot along a few semi-trucks and other than the gargle of diesel engines it’s quiet – no rough groups, no girls, no loud speakers and finally sleep.

We reach Michigan mid day and can’t believe the difference in the fall colors. Virginia was just beginning to change while Michigan is at peak. It feels good to be back. A hike up to my parent’s home in Unionville, a small town at the tip of the thumb (Michiganders always hold up their hand to symbolize the shape of Michigan and then point to the location of the city/town they are referring to. Imagine I am pointing toward the tip of my thumb, Unionville. No need for a map!). The next few days are filled with catching up and relaxing. We figure that a different route back makes perfect sense and that sends us through Canada. Growing up in Michigan I have been through Canada a bunch of times. Colin has yet to cross into this border and leans on me for advice, “Don’t worry about a thing,” I tell him with confidence. “We just need to have our story straight before the person at customs asks where we’re headed.” We agree on our story while in line at the border. We are headed toward Niagara Falls and will stay just one night after coming back from a visit with my family. The car ahead of us gets the “green light” and now it’s our turn. Colin offers a polite hello, but the cold stare in return has us a little nervous. Customs guy is wearing sunglasses with a serious tone and begins drilling us with more questions than we were expecting; Where are you going? Why? Where are you traveling from? Why? Any weapons or pepper spray? How long are you staying? Why? Colin doesn’t falter when responding and then Mr. Customs directs his attention toward me, “Ma’am, what do you do for a living?” I looked at him and my mind suddenly loses its ability to think. It was like the time I was in 5th grade and forced into the classroom spelling bee. The first problem is I am a terrible speller. Now mix that with being in front of a class of 5th graders who are hoping for a misspell, so the entire class can point and laugh (as if laughing isn’t humiliating enough, why the need to point?). I don’t remember the word, but I do remember asking for it in a sentence, twice (not like it mattered). The minute my name was called, I couldn’t remember my first name, or how to spell it. And now here I am staring blankly at Mr. Mean customs guy and all I can do is lie. I have nothing to hide but my nervous energy starts sending lies through my mouth. “I’m um..um…a…um in real estate.” “What does that mean you’re in real estate? Are you an agent?” his questions sound demanding, as if I just need to confirm. “Yes,” I mutter. “Could you be a little more specific?” and now he sounds irritated. “I am a…ah…real estate agent,” (good job Carrie, way to be specific). I notice Colin’s expression which says, “What is wrong with you!” so I smile. Now customs guy wants more information, “What kind of real estate?” “Oh, um, residential and commercial,” which is not the case. And for some reason he gives Colin back our passports and waves us on. I have lied to customs for no reason. I don’t currently have a job, haven’t sold real estate for over a year and when I did, it was not commercial. As we turn away from the border Colin looks at me and says, “You really need to work on your story.” Well, if I thought entering Canada would be no problem, I can’t wait to hear what comes out of my mouth in Mexico!

Beyond the Grand Tetons, over an impossibly steep pass, and nestled just a few feet within the Idaho boarder, lies Driggs. This town feels like a secret treasure. Ericka, the wife of Mark Goddard, (Pop Top Shock’s owner) informs me that they are recruiting new people to the area and it’s not a hard sell. They have created a unique life in Driggs one that many only hope to find in their lifetime. Close friends, a tight community, a couple acres of land, a beautiful home with a loft apartment and a “green house” filled with vegetables ready for picking. They ski in the winter, bike on paths that wind throughout town and connect the next town over, camp in the Teton canyon and hike the countless miles that trace the mountain chain.

They welcome us to Driggs with cocktails mixed with Huckleberries that Ericka picked and stored herself. As stories emerge and pieces of life are exchanged I forget that I’m not talking to an old friend. Mark was successful in getting our shocks in working order. Before we leave, they direct us to a spot in the Teton Canyon (about 10 minutes away) with plenty of disperse camping. Ericka reminds us to carry bear spray, “lots of bears around here.” Despite leaving their house at dark, the moon is bright and directions are easy. We find a spot and pop the top with almost no effort. We are snuggled in bed when a rustle in the trees alarms Colin, who then gives me a good poke in the arm. The rustle continues and it is close. In seconds we are curled next to the screen and waiting for whatever is behind those trees to step out. I know it’s a bear. I can sense it. I can feel my heart pick up pace and I can’t believe a bear is going to step out of the trees…the branches are breaking and we can hardly stand it. Just as I want to call it by name something appears and it is not a bear but a big black cow. Angus to be specific. We both sigh at the same time and can’t help but break out in laughter. I had forgotten the cattle guard we crossed right before turning into this spot. The next morning the entire herd greeted us. Walking Sprite means watching out for cow pies.

Late morning and it’s a good time for me to review our travel budget before taking a hike. Colin is in the back of the van repacking and I am going through receipts when I hear him yell out, “beaaaar!” I look up just in time to NOT see anything. Colin reports that a bear just ran behind our camp. I don’t believe him but as his voice turns to urgent I realize I don’t want to believe him. How did I miss this!? “Black bear,” he says, “and boy was he moving fast.” At this point we both have “bear” on the brain. Every dark stump, mossy rock, moving shadow is, in our minds, a bear. We see something black moving in front of us and instead of considering a dog, we think bear. The spray is unhooked and we stop cold. A black dog comes in full view along with a group of hikers and we reconsider. Clouds move in and rain follows. Pours actually and we are soaking wet. Picking up the pace until I hear Colin say, “stop.” Like he means it. We both glance in the woods and see a big brown body with little body and now it’s real…and coming toward us. We realize it’s a moose with baby and charging directly toward us. In a second Colin has the bear spray unhooked from his backpack and we both shout out, “holy shit!” That is enough to scare them into changing directions and thankfully heading away from us. When they are out of sight we turn to each other with eyes bugged out and I ask Colin if his heart is in his throat. A nod confirms we are on the same page and agree we have had enough nature for one day.

Today, October 3, marks 9 weeks of living out of our van. Colin mentioned feeling homeless the other day. My response came in the form of a question, “how can you feel homeless, when you are drinking the latest in trendy coffee?” True drip coffee is making a comeback. Not an electric coffee pot folks, that system pulls too many amps from our battery! As we were passing through the town of Lander, Wyoming (a few weeks back) in search of a cup of coffee we stumbled upon Old Town Coffee. Ordering just 2 large cups sent the process in motion, which took me completely by surprise. With a long line of glass carafes sitting on top of a thick wooden bar, covered with colorful plastic filters, the barista scooped fresh coffee into one filter and then poured hot water over the grounds in a careful rhythm, waiting a few moments and then another round of water. I sat back wondering what on earth do they do when it gets busy? When finally, the last drip dropped, the barista poured the dark brown liquid into 2 large cups leaving the perfect amount of room for cream and set them on the counter, like masterful pieces of art, just for me. Taking the first sip was slow; I felt how a food critic must feel observing the color, the smell, the temperature and finally the taste. It was very good, maybe the best I’d had in months. So, when our electric coffee pot was sadly moved to storage I was forced to adopt a new system. Not happy about the switch at first until I remembered Lander and the pour over process. This then led to a new teapot (bright orange, which adds a nice touch of color to the van) along with a stainless steel carafe with plastic filter. After the pot whistles, (remembering the baristas rhythm) I carefully pour the hot water over the coffee grounds resulting in not just a cup of coffee, but you can almost taste the love!

About three weeks ago we headed back to Virginia to process our travels to date, and reassess the next phase of our trip. We have a notebook with bullet points reminding us of stories, dates and interesting people we have met. Since traveling nearly 9,000 miles in the first 6 weeks, so much was happening with little time to write. Our journey will continue soon, with plans to travel to South America. Stay tuned for more from Wake the Dead Diaries!