We’ve spent our final prep day organizing, filling the fridge, freezer, and cooler, and making another last-minute trip to the store for incidentals. I should probably clean the house, too, but whatevs. Oh, and I also made sure the hermit crabs would be good for a week with food and water. (Kermit is up from his molt—yay!) Tomorrow is the full moon, so there could possibly be some mating going on while I’m gone. Won’t know until I get back if anyone got their crabby little freak on, but I am still hoping to get another shot at hatching babies this summer/fall.
Didn’t sleep particularly well last night—too many pre-trip info-dumps racing through my brain. Yesterday, I finished the meditation pack on “change” and started today on “happiness.” Seems appropriate. Although, I must say, having this trip in the works for more than fifteen months and now being only 15 hours away is causing mixed emotions:
“Yay, we’re leaving on an adventure!”
“Yikes, so many things could go wrong!”
“Yay, we’re going to be free from responsibilities!”
“Yikes, we’re going to have complete responsibility for water, food, vehicle, maps, etc.”
“Yay, we’ve got the coolest setup!”
“Yikes, what are we forgetting?“
You get the idea. Doesn’t make for the most relaxing night’s sleep. But that will perhaps work in our favor as once we hit the road, we will be experiencing much … shall we say … closer accommodations. Best to be completely exhausted like we always were when backpacking. When the sweaty, dirty smells didn’t register through the haze of exhaustion and relief. We shall see.
Anywho, we leave at 7am and hope to make it to Buck Creek State Park in Springfield, Ohio, where we may or may not fix dinner, depending on how long it takes to get there. If we’re behind schedule, we’ll eat along the way and save that time for figuring out where the heck we put everything and how to find what we need. I’m sure it will be a process. See you from the road in the virtual world!
We made it to Buck Creek State Park around 4pm. There’s a “Meet the Naturalist” event tomorrow and all of the electric campsites were full (guessing it’s not from that event, but who knows?). We don’t need to have electricity for our setup, but the feeling was sort of along the lines of “Why not stock up while we can?” Plus, the fridge seems to be using a lot more juice than we thought it would. We’ll definitely need to fiddle to get that sorted out for the extended backcountry trips.
We have one neighbor in an adjacent campsite, a family with two young children that are stubbornly and insistently fascinated by our setup and keep wandering over. One is a young boy in a diaper, maybe 15 months old, the other is his older sister, maybe three years old. The parents, beleaguered by everything, keep yelling obscenities and threats at their youngchildren. This hurts my heart, but there’s not much to be done in this situation. I do wonder what the lure of camping is if you’re just going to yell at your kids the whole time. Our window fan may come in handy tonight as white noise.
Lessons from Day One: Be prepared for the fact that new gear (even from a quality company like Rhino Rack) may be subject to issues right out of the box. This was our first time actually using the awning extension wall and one of the strap tabs pulled out, having not been fully caught in the fold during the sewing/manufacturing process. That’s not a big deal, but a bit annoying, and genius-me didn’t think to pack a sewing kit. “Doh!” I have the feeling that’s going to be the word-of-the-day for the next few weeks.
Note to Self: You remember, don’t you Mare, that the first night sleeping in any new place is always tough? (Backpacking, traveling, Dominica, moving?) In Dominica, it was roosters, feral cats, mosquitoes, and tree frogs. It’s always something, but it gets better. Wait for it. Also: pack more fresh fruits and remember to take your shower shoes to the the shower.
Random Gearhead Facts:
- The solar road shower is reading 93 degrees after sitting in the sun on the road all day.
- It’s 78 degrees (air temp) in the trailer at 8pm, with the sun angle pretty low in the sky.
- The tongue weight was a little uneven, so we moved two gallons of water and a heavy bag of snacks back to the galley to offset things a bit.
- The refrigerator is taking time to reach some sort of equilibrium. A freezer full of frozen solid items seems to influence it, but it isn’t quite clear if it makes it run warmer or cooler (mostly because I neglected to snap the lid completely closed this morning after I tried to add my kombucha, but spilled it because the lid wasn’t completely on and had to clean it up, virtually as Len was pulling out of the driveway).
- A sign that reads “Absolutely no bobtail parking” means that you can’t park the cab of a tractor trailer in that spot, but a teardrop trailer is AOK.
The rising sun and boisterous Ohio birds woke us up about 5:30 but we were eager to hit the road, so it wasn’t a problem. (We had already taken down the awning the night before, much to the dismay of the Dancing Baby one campsite over.) We showered at the campground showers and headed out at 6:30. Found a Dunkin Donuts in Springville and had coffee and a bite while Len uploaded a timesheet for work (he’s putting in some part-time hours to ease the transition for the new person). A rosy sunrise over the lake was our parting tableau.
By noon, we were hungry and had hummus and veggies (sweet pepper slices and long radishes from our wonderful, local, Root Down Farm), a cheese stick each, and some turkey pepperoni. All of which is incredibly boring to read about, I’m sure, but when you’re stuck in a vehicle all day, the big highlights are: thinking about what to eat, eating, then describing what you’ve eaten.
We hit lots of road construction outside of St. Louis which delayed us by about an hour—or forty-eight minutes, depending on which of the dueling GPSs in Command Central you choose to put your faith in.
We arrived at a VERY dusty Mark Twain National Forest at 5:15 local time. Had a bit of trouble finding the spot but got personally guided in by a Forrest Gumpish fellow who was super talkative and exacting in his details and directions. It seemed to disappoint him when we chose the “wrong” campsite according to his thoughts of what we needed, but he was cheerful enough about our flawed decision-making processes. He then chose his own site just through the woods and proceeded to erect what must have been a steel-frame, two-story cabin. Over the course of 45 minutes, many, many metal stakes were completely, thoroughly, and cheerfully pounded in.
Our actual campsite (#8) was a quiet spot (after Forrest was done), elevated from the gravel road and designed for horse trailers but worked great for our handy-dandy TC Teardrop. We backed in (and up) then cranked the car and trailer into a 90-degree angle which seemed like a good idea … except the fuel Rotopax then obstructed the Jeep hatchback, and we had our first minor bloodletting while attempting to maneuver a way to open the Jeep hatch. Lesson learned.
Dinner was a fresh salad (I packed lots of pre-washed greens and cut up accessories so the whole thing was pretty painless) with cheese and smoked turkey and that was enough for us both. Sitting all day, it turns out, does not burn many calories, especially when it’s 89 degrees out. I did some yoga on my new, cushy outdoor mat, much to the confusion of some good-old-boys en route to their campsite.
The evening’s entertainment was provided by a hyperactive Whip-poor-will and a sexed-up bullfrog who serenaded us into the wee hours. In other words, a delightful symphony by which to fall asleep. Thanks, Nature!
Notes to Self: My daily meditation suggested focusing on empathy as a way into happiness, but empathy is not usually a problem for me. If anything, I need to tone down my empathy so as to get through the day without feeling the suffering of every drowning bug, wilting plant, or overheated cow. I do find myself having some trouble with meditations that involve visualization, though, which seems odd for a fiction writer who has to visualize entire made-up worlds. But I think I’ve figured out that at least some of the issue is with what I’m being asked to visualize. An expanding circle of light isn’t “concrete” enough for my brain, but I’ve found that if I change that to a flickering violet flame, it works much better. Must be the wilderness backpacker/potter in me. Fire, I get.
Random Gearhead Stuff:
- TPMS (Tire pressure monitoring system) sensors on the Jeep are driving us batty. Pressure is fine, sensors keep going off. Grrr. Too much technology! Also, my iPhone decided to freak out and force me to do a cold reboot which has never happened before, so there’s that. I’m relying on it 100% for photos and uploading. Sure hope that was a one-time glitch.
- The solar panel on the toolbox has become my baby. Each time we stop for fuel or for the night I check to see if it needs cleaning. Can’t make solar energy through a layer of dirt.
- During the night, our fridge cut off because of “low-battery strength.” Quite alarming, that, since we have a ton of food in the freezer, but Len checked the fridge manual and it’s a safety setting designed to keep from completely draining your battery. You can choose the threshold (Low, Medium, High) for when it cuts off so he changed the tolerance setting from 12.2 to 11.2. (Lowest being 10.2)
- The trailer battery has fluctuated a ton, anywhere from 14.1 to 11.8 (Len says it hasn’t gotten that low, but I swear I thought I saw that reading.) It drops when the fridge cuts on then seems to recover a bit, but last night was a bit long without power or sunlight (it was a shady campsite). Still lots to figure out with this puppy.
- Our fuel efficiency (mostly highway miles) seems to hover in the range of 14.5mpg. We’re content with those numbers and aware that they will likely drop when we hit mountainous terrain.
(Destination: Lake Scott State Park, Kansas)
We left the Mark Twain National Forest/Forrest Gump campsite early and drove into town to wash the dust off of everything and add another bag of ice to the cooler. We found a Panera’s and had coffee and oatmeal with a side of WiFi then hit the road.
This was our last extra-long travel day and honestly it was pretty grueling. If we planned it again, I think we’d allow two days to cover 520 miles instead of one. We didn’t make the campsite until 9pm and my body does not care for long days of sitting. These Jeep seats start to lose their comfort factor after about six hours (like all seats, everywhere).
I’ve been thinking a lot (flat, straight Kansas roads are good for that) about what this route we are taking means in an historical sense. So much of America’s westward expansion took place in roughly the same corridor that we are passing through. The Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Bozeman Trail…and those are just the big ones. Lots of people died on these trails, searching for a better life, room to breathe, adventure, infamy, big money, or religious freedom. It’s a sobering thought.
I’ve also been thinking about how little “respect” these areas of the country get: the flyover states. Just a place to skip over or pass through, but less often a destination. And I know that rankles Midwesterners, but it seems like that has always been the fate of places like Kansas—even back in the 1800s. Explore, experience, pass through, but try not to settle down.
On a related note, I’ve been struck by the sheer number of “World’s Biggest” signs we’ve seen along the side of the road. The list of Kansas’s World’s Biggest attractions includes: the world’s biggest Czech egg, the world’s biggest ball of twine, world’s biggest rocking chair, wind chimes, easel, hand-dug well, prairie dog (??), and … wait for it … the world’s biggest hairball. (I don’t think I even want to know what that looks like. Except … given that I’m now coming up on three days without a decent shower and shampoo—hey, wait! It’s me, isn’t it? I’m the world’s biggest hairball! Dang it!)
So what is this small town fascination with bigness? Is it a desire to be “on the map?” For something? Anything? And how big is BIG? Can you see it from space? As humankind expands our frontiers, will we soon see stipulations of The Universe’s Biggest Hairball? (Still me, I’m pretty sure.) Is this longing for bigness part and parcel of Trump’s broad appeal in these areas? Trump: the biggest flyover hairball of all…
On Route 83, a beautiful male ring-necked pheasant ran across the road in front of us, looking for all the world like he was being chased by Wile E. Coyote. A few miles later, a tumbleweed tumbled into us and I’m here to tell you they are not the lightweight ephemeral things you think they are. (Clunk!)
As the day wore on, major fanny fatigue set in, along with an absurdly large number of semi-hysterical cow-themed jokes. I was dying to stretch my legs so we found a large Home Depot and went inside. I longed to speed walk the aisles for exercise, but people kept asking if they could help us find anything and Len was clearly embarrassed by his hairball wife striding up and down every single aisle, so we cut it short and got back on the road.
As the sun began to drop low in the sky, so did the quality of our cow jokes. We got so punchy toward the end of the day that the following conversation ensued:
Me: “Wow! Look at those cows over there. They’re completely white.”
Len: “Huh. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a completely white cow.”
Me (singing): “Who bleached the cows out? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?”
Len: (singing): “Moo! Moo! Moo! Moo! Moo!”
Me: [Laughing hysterically]
Len: “You leave those cows out all night, you know they get pasteurized, right?”
Me: “Please. Send. Help.”
Once we got to the long-anticipated campground, it was actually pretty unpleasant. Sites were super close and mostly filled with giant (and I mean GIANT) RV setups with generators and lights and AC and awnings and front porches and verandas and fences and dogs and…okay, maybe not verandas, but everything else. For the record, I don’t have anything against big RVs, per se, but when you are a tiny, eco-friendly, small-footprint teardrop amongst giants (one trailer was literally being pulled by a big white tractor-trailer cab—I kid you not!) it’s pretty easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume-whirring-blinking-blinding-hum of all that massive machinery. I feel the same way when we stop at rest areas and park among the idling 18-wheelers.
Also, despite having reserved and paid for a specific campsite online IN ADVANCE (through Reserve America), a large family was thoroughly and comfortably set up in our very spot (three vehicles, a trailer, a tent, and five kids). We would have had to be pretty big jerks to expect them to move all that, so we took a spot one site over. It appeared to be first-come-first-served regardless of reservations. As Len said, “It’s like the wild west out here!” It was beastly hot (93 was the high for the day and the wind was howling across the plains) and we still had to make dinner. We were sweaty and filthy and stiff so I quickly whipped up another salad and then we went to check out the showers, which at first were only open air, no curtain or door, and no light. After mildly panicking, we realized that was the bathhouse for the lake day-use folks. We then located the campground showers which were messy but considerably better in terms of privacy (I had a door). I was so looking forward to a cool shower to clean up and cool down, but the water was only one temperature—BLAZING hot. So I scalded my skin and scrubbed down and walked back among the humming giants, found our cozy nest and crashed.
Lessons learned from Day Three: 1) If you are the driver, put sunscreen on your left forearm, hand, and upper arm. You’ll be sorry if you don’t and it’s tricky to lather up while driving. 2) Designate a “special spot” for really important things like keys (and chapstick—yeah, yeah, I know, but trust me chapstick IS of utter importance when it’s 93 degrees and a hot wind is blowing 40 mph.) Or, better yet have three special spots like I do (pocket, dashboard, trailer shelf), so that if I have to search, it’s a relatively short search. You’d think that living in a small space would actually make it harder to misplace things, but you’d be wrong.
Len’s Notes to Self: Bring lots of quarters for the self-service car wash to remove the horse poo and dust that gets kicked up on remote trails. On a related note: If you see something brown and hard on your toolbox, don’t assume it’s mud and then proceed to scrape it off with your fingernail. Also Len: If you’re sitting in a coffee shop and you think something doesn’t smell quite right, it might be time to go ahead and move on to your next three-day outfit just a bit ahead of schedule.
Random Gearhead Stuff:
- About 520 miles traveled today. Passed the 1,000-mile point halfway through the day. The trailer is holding up GREAT. Finally starting to get over our PTSD from the first trip’s wobbling-wheel event. Every little sound is no longer something about to blow up or fall off.
- Also, a shout-out to the NFSAR folks: To date, we have NOT lost our bearings. We remain cautiously optimistic. (Ed, you’re on speed-dial, just in case.)
- For cheap gas, try central Missouri where it’s $1.93 per gallon.
- And just in time because we’re now averaging 13mpg thanks to moving through the Ozarks. (Make that 12.7 with a heavy crosswind.) (And now 12.3 in Kansas with a crazy headwind!)
- Cell phone signal booster (weboost) is helping a lot. It’s a must for Sprint customers, especially out west. Ours is a multi-user, 3G signal enhancer and it’s been great.
Looking ahead: Day Four we’re on to Colorado and our first mountain campsite outside of Idaho Springs.
First things first: Happy birthday, Mom! Hope it’s a good one. Last year at this time it surely was. 🙂
Yesterday we left the Lake Scott State Park campsite at about 6:30, happy to leave. Nothing really to recommend there unless you’re a fan of super close quarters with strangers, dust, and “amenities” that don’t amen. From there, we drove into Colby, Kansas and found a Starbucks where we could get some high-test covfefe and a bite to eat. Turns out that Wifi, whenever possible, is going to be essential as I am using up a ton of data already, in only four days. The posts without Wifi will need to have fewer pictures, I fear. Can’t afford a bazillion dollars in overage fees.
At Starbucks, we also reconnoitered and changed our plans for the next night’s stay. With the fridge/battery issues and our general road-weariness from an excess of miles covered, we decided to go online and reserve a spot at a KOA campsite in Central City, Colorado. From Colby, we drove another incredibly flat stretch for ages. When we hit Denver, Len wanted to drive through the city. He used to live in Colorado and was excited to see how it had changed. The area around Colfax Avenue, though, had changed quite a bit in 35 years (surprise!) and he was sad to see how rundown the area had become. We found a grocery store and picked up a few items then went on a search for red wine that proved fruitless.
The KOA, when we finally got there, was (just like the last campground) filled with giant RV’s, but this place was awesome. SO well kept, so organized, with amenities galore. Not a place we’d want to stay in for a week (just because we like wilderness and fewer neighbors) but for a night it was a perfect place to shower, wash clothes, cook an actual meal (salmon, couscous, and salad), and sit a bit and enjoy the scenery. The only campsite left to us was a “premium” campsite (high up on a hillside) that gave us water, electricity, a picnic table with umbrella, a stand-alone porch swing, a fire pit, and a heck of a view. It was very nice to relax and just wind down. (As into luxuriating as we were, we still couldn’t bring ourselves to soak in the clubhouse hot tub or order a fresh-made pizza that gets delivered by golf cart. Just, NO.)
Overheard from an older white guy in Starbucks opining to a table of his friends: “They used to tell you to get your head out of the clouds; now they want you to put stuff INTO the cloud!”
Note to self: Stop wondering what the hermit crabs are up to. They’re FINE and they surely don’t miss you. Well, maybe Kermit does … and Miriam, if she’s back up from molting. But the others are happy for the peace and quiet with no crazy woman staring at them while they eat, climb, bathe, and engage in antennae wrestling.
The only downside to this campsite had nothing to do with it and everything to do with two pernicious words: Altitude Sickness. Blech. We’re at about 8,000 feet and the ascent was too rapid for my body to acclimate. I’m drinking tons of water and taking it easy, popping Ibuprofen (some online sites said it might help), but still experiencing quite a headache. I slept fine and have no nausea, so I’m assuming it will be short-lived and I’ll acclimate soon enough, but for now the head is very unhappy and I’m moving a little more slowly through the world. (By the way, Len also has a headache, but his “can’t” be altitude sickness, because that would be unmanly. His is merely a sinus headache because, apparently, he’s immune to venom.)
Also, I think I may have figured out how to allow comments. I received one comment yesterday (Thanks, Randy!). If you can see a comment box, would you try to leave a comment? It will help me troubleshoot. Thank you!
June 13: Happy birthday to my big brother. 🙂
Altitude sickness symptoms persisted, but eased once we dropped about 1,000 feet later in the day. Len got up early, but I slept in until seven (we’d crossed another timeline and gained an hour so it was really eight), had granola, coffee (Len had it ready when I got back from showering), and grapefruit juice. We sat in the sun, put the umbrella up for shade, and then, because we had WiFi, spent some time online. While we were working, someone at the campground began to play Taps on a bugle, then Reveille, then The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B, then Reveille again. I found it rather entertaining—both the music and Len’s irritation with the music.
We checked out and cruised down into Central City, hit the Safeway for that sewing kit I’ve been wanting, as well as a few more incidentals—all entirely boring everyday stuff that most of us take for granted until we’re roughing it and suddenly soap becomes the most miraculous of luxuries.
After re-icing the cooler, we took a tour of the ARGO Mine and Mill, a fascinating historical site from the industrial revolution. Our guide (Wyatt) was a young guy, knowledgeable and personable, and he didn’t shy away from any of our questions—and we had a ton. Most of the mine was still intact (although some of the larger cast-iron machinery had been taken and repurposed for the war effort during WWII.) We were the only ones on the tour and he took us through everything, including into part of the mine, through every level of the five-story mill building, and at the bottom we panned for gold. I had four gold flakes and Len had five (but who’s counting?). I also had a tiny grain of bright red garnet (Tomato!). In the gift shop I bought an ammonite fossil, 390 million years old. I’m such a nut for fossils and the natural world as it existed in a geologic time—as far removed from us today as the surface of Jupiter. It’s like staring into space and trying to fathom what we’re seeing (including light from stars that may already have died). Mind blowing. (And no, I have not been sampling the legal weeds of Colorado, merely getting by on much less oxygen than usual.)
Don’t tell Len, but I had a man named Boyd Crowder on my mind all day. Given all the mining stuff we saw (drills, dynamite, shakers, slurry, smelting, sledgehammers), I suppose that’s Justified.
We had sandwiches on the road, Len went to a car wash after all the dusty switchback roads, and then we turned into Golden Gate Canyon State Park, only to find that they had just put down a heavy layer of black oil sludge on the road for “dust-reduction.” If you know Len, you can imagine how thrilled he was—in his newly washed white Jeep and white teardrop trailer.
Our campsite was lovely, 9,100 feet in elevation. Feeling pretty good, just a little tired, but that should pass. The wind was howling, though, so instead of the planned salad—we’d have been chasing it all over the picnic table—we had a Tex-Mex dish with ham and corn from the freezer, hot sauce and spices and chopped scallions from my garden back home.
Campsite reading: The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant. So good!! (Also, check out my old-faithful leather hiking boots in the picture—a pair that I’ve had and loved for years and worn for hundreds of miles of trails—they’re no longer any good for the sustained heavy weight of backpacking, but still great for daily wear, especially after Len oiled them and spiffed them up while I was in Florida.)
Random gearhead facts: If there’s ever a second Overland vehicle in our future it will have a gas tank larger than 13.6 gallons and definitely have more than four cylinders.
Lessons Learned: The Coleman stove we bought sucks. Let me count the ways: the push-button ignition is intermittent; the windscreens collapse in the slightest breeze; it has two burner levels (OFF, and FOREST FIRE); lots of heat is wasted and it takes forever even for water to boil; the burner controls don’t lock into the off position so it’s easy to turn on the propane and get a rush of gas before you’ve thought about turning the knob to light it. Yes, a higher quality camp stove is definitely in our future. We can keep this one for when the power goes out at home.
Next Up: Visiting friends in Lakewood on our way to Mueller State Park.
DAY SIX (An Aside)
Preemptive PSA: The following post is not the normal recap post—that one is still to come—and, fair warning, this post is going to be ALL ABOUT ME.
If you don’t like reading confessional posts about meltdowns, skip this one. You have been warned. And if you DO like reading confessional posts about meltdowns, what is WRONG with you?? Just kidding, make some popcorn and settle in.
The turn for the worse started at midnight when a certain effluent urgency began to assert itself. We’ve been “keeping hydrated,” so Len was feeling a similar urge. Being a man, he quickly addressed the matter and climbed back into the trailer. And I have to say, at times like this, I am hit hard by the great injustice that exists between male and female plumbing when it comes to evacuation in the woods. There, I’ve said it. Use the word “envy” if you must, I’ll own it. All the rest of the time, mind you, dangly plumbing just seems awfully inconvenient and slightly dangerous—but in the woods, I envy it in the worst way.
I should also say here that I consider myself somewhat of an expert at peeing in the woods. I’ve been doing it ever since I learned to walk, and probably even before that if I was ever carried into the woods, as a babe, which I surely was. (See what I did there?) But last night I just wasn’t feeling it. It was a wooded campground, but the moon was out and very bright and it was also quite cold and very late and the bathroom was 1/4 of a mile away. So I stepped out and Len assured me that I was nothing more than a dark smudge against the black trees. So I squatted and did what Nature would have me do—in a slightly more awkward and gymnastic position than is my usual, because I was trying to take full advantage of the tree’s shadow. Then I climbed back into the trailer … only to find that the left cuff of my flannel pajama pants was wet. Okay, soaked would be more accurate.
Somehow, this was the straw that broke this twitchy camel’s back. Long days, rough days, blazing hot days, cold nights, near-constant dusty winds, a new site every night, a hinky cookstove, and altitude sickness all combined to push me over the edge. But I was in a very small, very quiet trailer, very close to my dear husband who has looked forward to this trip for so long that I really didn’t want to cry. Except I DID want to cry—in the worst way. But I didn’t. I tossed my wet-cuffed sleep pants out the door onto the ground and I lay there, silently berating my poor aim, and determinedly not crying for hours.
(Also there’s this: I’m a super private crier. Lots of people want a shoulder. I don’t. I want a small room with a locked door, preferably soundproof walls, and lots of tissues. I want to emerge later, face washed and emotionally cleansed, ready to get back into the swing of the world. Crying, for me, is not so unlike that earlier midnight urge. It comes on, and I gotta find a way to make it happen—preferably in private.)
Morning finally came (43 degrees and windy), and if anything, I felt an even greater desire to have that good, cleansing cry, so I decided to brave the campground shower, which would at least have a door and a little bit of privacy and some sound-muffling water. I also knew (from checking the night before) that the shower would cost me 25 cents a minute. For two dollars, I figured I could get in an efficient 8-minute Wash-N-Cry.
So I did all the prep work one has to do in a public shower prior to turning on $.25/minute water. I stripped down, put on shower shoes, arranged towel and washcloth, shampoo and soap, a spot for dry clean clothes, a spot for dirty clothes (never the twain shall meet), jacket, hiking boots, and socks, all arranged just so, to avoid the spray from a cement-no-curtain cubicle shower. It’s trickier than you might imagine. Then I dropped in my eight quarters full of optimism and ready to shed some serious and speedy tears. Hello, catharsis.
The initial water was ice cold, of course. I get that it has to warm up, even if there is NOWHERE TO HIDE in a cold cement cubicle. Then, ah, some blissfully warm water, so I went ahead and wetted down everything in preparation for speed-lathering. For a good thirty seconds I actually had warm water—12 1/2 cents worth of warm water, to be exact. But at thirty-ONE seconds, a switch flipped somewhere, and instead of warm water, I was delivered Rocky Mountain snowmelt, direct from the distant peaks.
Now, I realize that a certain kind of person finds a cold shower exhilarating—perhaps even intoxicating—but I am decidedly NOT that person. This, following so closely on the heels of the midnight pee tragedy was almost more than I could take. I washed my hair—part only—as my scalp reduced in size by one-third, thanks to the great contracting powers of frigid water, then turned off the shower and listened (with no small amount of frustration) to the timer count off my remaining seven minutes (no refunds) as I redressed and held back what was now a Hoover Dam size amount of unshed tears.
Back at the campsite, shivering, I asked Len if he’d had hot water. “You didn’t?” he said, shocked, as he reached forward to offer me a hug and that was all it took to breach the dam. Not that I wanted him to have had a cold shower, mind you, but I really didn’t want to continue feeling cursed above all others in the universe (which is how self-pity feels, no matter the actual size or weight of the problem—I realize this was such a minor thing to lose my shit over, but I did). I climbed into the trailer to try to get warm, and cried buckets, giving new meaning to the term teardrop trailer. I’m sure the trailer was rocking from the force of my heaving bosom and poor Len was making coffee as fast as he could, hoping to both warm me up and calm me down. He was fixing it on the fender of the trailer, and when I saw his shadow take a sip from the cup, Poor Pitiful Me was certain he had made his own coffee first and here—here!—was further proof that I was unlovable after all. (My pity breaks are brief, but ridiculously intense—I’m just trying to bring you along for the ride.)
Anyway, it was all over quickly enough and I moved on, slightly sheepish, through the rest of the day, which was extraordinary and lovely in the way of the weird emotional-highs-and-lows-world we live in. I will recount THAT in another post, with pictures, thereby allowing the emotionally squeamish to still hear about our day without having to wade through my bucket of tears.
Those of you still here, thanks for going on the journey with me. I just felt it important to note that even the best of trips are not all sweetness and light. Stay tuned for the actual Day Six Recap.
We packed up and left the Golden Gate State Park site, which was a perfectly acceptable campground site despite my meltdown. It was windy the whole time and all of the pine trees were shedding pollen and dust was flying, so most of our clothes and belongings (including this laptop) are now adorned with a fine golden powder. The campground area was called Reverend’s Ridge, and we thought of you, Reverend Leonard. We hit a Panera’s to make yesterday’s post and check email, then hurried on to meet our friends Frank and Carol Keeney in Lakewood, where we were treated to a marvelous (FRESH) lunch and great conversation and catching up.
After lunch, we got gas, bought more ice, made some changes to our upcoming campsite plans and reservations, then drove to the new campground (Mueller State Park) which was so awesome. We were in the Revenuer’s Ridge campsite area, in site number 21,
which is right near the showers (but not too near) and water, and some areas with a view. Plus we have a recessed area with picnic table that is out of the wind and more private. We had to
level the trailer just a bit, but that’s more common than not.
Dinner ensued fairly quickly, a one-pot meal of ground beef, scallions, and instant mashed potatoes which we doused liberally with Wegman’s hot sauce. We’ve had Wifi here the whole time (with the help of our private hotspot) and so I was able to
upload a few more pictures and post to Instagram a few times.
I used my selfie stick twice in one day (Len tried it, too) and I’m starting to get the hang of it. The evening was wonderful and relaxing and we got a little bit caught up, although moving the campsite every day continues to be hectic and time-consuming. I’m looking forward to three days in The Valley of the Gods.
We were sad to leave Mueller State Park. The campsite was wonderful, the park was quiet and beautiful in high-alpine woods with 44(!) hiking trails and great privacy at each site. Most of the time it felt like no one else was around. I’m sure it gets busier on the weekends, but weekdays appear to be the perfect time to visit. The road splits in each camping area, which gives more space between campsites and makes turning trailers and campers around so much easier. The whole state park seemed to have a very careful design and thoughtful layout with the ease of campers in mind.
For breakfast we had yogurt and granola (and coffee) and hit the road for Great Sand Dunes National Park knowing it would be a long drive. We could see the sand dunes from at least fifty miles away—the highest dunes can reach 14,000 feet—such an amazing land feature. But it takes forever to drive there and the last twenty miles is basically nothing but state roads.
We passed through the San Isabel National Forest which was beautiful and stopped at an Ace Hardware to purchase a longer propane hose (so we can cook on the table and not just on the pull-out shelf), and a rubber mallet in preparation for staking the awnings in The Valley of the Gods. Then we drove into the Pike National Forest land for about 30 miles. The panoramic views and wide-open spaces, high plains, valleys, the photos we took just don’t do it justice. So we are trying hard to soak it all in and just enjoy it in the moment. And it is glorious.
About three miles before we hit Great Sand Dunes National park, we were approaching a cattle gate (for those who may not know, it’s the metal pipes in the road that freak out cows so badly they refuse to cross them). So we slow from 55mph down to 50mph, and at the same time a rickety 1980s RV hits the cattle gate from the other side. When the RV’s front driver-side wheel hits the cattle gate, the hubcap shoots off and heads straight for us. Now, I’m pretty sure he was also going at least 50mph, which gave the hubcap a combined impact speed of 100mph. With only seconds to react, I did my usual helpful thing (gasped and grabbed the dashboard) and Len managed to swerve just enough—but not too much, given that he’s towing a trailer and still has to get it and us between two fence posts and over a cattle gate.
There was a pretty loud clunk (almost as loud as my gasp) and we looked at each other as the color left our faces and images of destruction played through our brains. Len pulled over onto the shoulder and we both got out to see what had been damaged/lost. We checked the Jeep and trailer over like a cowboy checks the flanks of his horse, but we couldn’t find anything—not even a scratch or a nick! The best I can figure, Len must have hit the hub-missile with the side fender of the Jeep at just the right angle to deflect it and send it careening off in the opposite direction. Lucky, lucky us.
Great Sand Dunes National Park was amazing. Like most Grand things, the pictures don’t do it justice (Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Grand Ole Opry … okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea). Medano Creek flows (seasonally) below the dunes and it’s got a mysterious tidal action that they don’t quite understand (the creek water comes in waves and even ebbs). We took off our shoes and waded through it and walked toward the dunes in the distance. We got about three-quarters of the way there, but the sand was hard walking, the day was getting late, we still had at least a mile to get back to the vehicle, and we still had to drive to our campsite, set up, and eat dinner. So we headed back to the vehicle. The museum and gift shop was already closed, but fortunately we had bought a couple of postcards, a shirt, AND a sticker for the galley—our first! (We plan to put stickers all over the raised part of the galley marking the places we’ve seen and loved.)
The Alamosa campsite was nothing special, although we were camped next to some interesting Aussie dudes wearing bike shorts who (it turned out) are biking across the US. Don’t we feel like slackers, now! They were very interested in our trailer and Len gave their driver the tour.
The evening was so windy we each put a plate over our salad to keep it from blowing away between bites. I’m beginning to tire of the wind. We were supposed to have free WiFi at the campsite, but there was none, nada, zilch, so that’s why this post is coming at the end of the day. We’ve been on the road, in remote areas, and just couldn’t make it happen until now.
Things I learned today: Len isn’t planning to adjust his watch for the time difference, even though we’re going to be here for the next three weeks. He insists it’s easier to just look at the watch and subtract two hours. To which I say, “Sure it is … NOT.” (This is a man who adjusts his compass for declination, his radios for reception, his pillow for softness, but not his watch for accuracy. And this is a concrete example of the way different minds think. To me, it’s a basic concept: know what time zone you’re in, have your device correctly “calibrated,” and give your brain one LESS thing to have to think about in a string of days that involve SO much thinking, planning, and execution. But he says it takes more effort to change the watch (and I will admit that he has one of those super complex watches that talks to the International Space Station and requires an owner’s manual to set) than it does to just subtract two hours.
In an effort to prove my point, Mathematical Mary begins calculating. So. Say you check your watch a minimum of twelve times a day, seven days a week. That’s 84 time-checks a week. And your trip is four weeks. That’s a total of 336 watch checks. You with me still? Now say that it takes you five seconds (conservatively) to register that your watch isn’t correct, realize that you have to subtract two hours, mentally subtract them, and come up with the actual time. That comes out to 1,680 seconds and that’s 28 minutes, right?
… Okay, never mind. He’s right. It does save time—especially given that he didn’t pack the owner’s manual. But he DID pack two other watches. Three watches to go west and rough it. By way of contrast, I brought one pair of EARRINGS for four and a half weeks. Who’s the real fashionista in this marriage, hmm? (Although I did bring a bottle of aqua toenail polish. Will I ever find the time? Who knows. They’re starting to look pretty mangy, though, especially after the rough sand dunes.)
Random Gearhead Stuff: We’ve got a partial data-use solution. Len is now taking most of the pictures (especially the landscapes) with his Nikon (way better quality than my iPhone pictures—speaking of, is there a setting on iPhone for landscapes?). Then he gives me the SD card to download them onto my laptop. Much better than emailing them to myself from my phone and the uploading them again. Doh!
Tomorrow: On to Valley of the Gods.
The most astonishing thing happened in the Alamosa campsite bathroom: I encountered a completely naked woman standing in front of the mirrors brushing her hair. Okay, not completely naked—she had on shower shoes—but as I entered she turned my way and calmly said, “Good morning.” I responded in kind, as if it were an everyday occurrence for me to see a stark naked stranger on my way to the shower. But the most astonishing thing about this naked stranger was that she must have been seventy, at least—she was no spring chicken, in other words—and yet her body was the body of a twenty-five-year-old swimsuit model. I could have looked at it all day. I could have made a sculpture of it in marble. In fact, her skin was so smooth and milky white it looked like marble. But her face? Her face showed every one of her years—and they weren’t easy years—and her hair was coarse and bleached by sun, but that body!
As she kept brushing her hair, I unpacked my shower bag, determinedly not looking, even though I wanted to look because I couldn’t get over the strange wonderfulness of it all. Then I started to think that if I were 75 and had the body of a 25-year-old, I’d probably stand naked in the most (legally) public places I could find, too. I mean, why not? Use what you’ve got, right? Share your gifts. And the more I thought about this, the more I got inspired. Not inspired to stand naked in a public bathroom—that’s not really my thing—but inspired to be more confident in whatever my thing IS and wear it (or bare it) proudly. She of the fearless, shameless, clothesless body kind of made my day. So, thank you, Anonymous Naked Lady of Alamosa. You rock. And who knows, I just may carve you in marble one day.
We ate a quick breakfast at McDonald’s (pickings were slim, but the coffee wasn’t bad and I’m a sucker for anything on a biscuit). Len had to submit a time sheet, so I was writing in my notebook (about the Naked Lady of Alamosa) when a woman one table over asked me, “Are you a writer?” I considered showing her what I was writing and letting her decide, but the question caught me off guard, mostly because she seemed so sure I was a writer before I confirmed her suspicions. We talked a bit about writing. She said her father had been a writer and had written about his experience in Burma. I told her I had an uncle who had flown the hump and then told her about the non-fiction book I’d written about my co-author surviving banishment to Siberia. It was a quick but interesting encounter.
We got back in the Jeep to head to The Valley of the Gods (a six-hour drive) and crossed the Continental Divide which was pretty cool. On the way down, Len asked me if I’d ever seen a Runaway Truck Ramp before and I said, “Yes, we have them in Virginia on the steeper Interstate roads, but I’ve never seen one used. I’d kind of like to see what that looks like when it happens.” And about five minutes later, we came upon a truck that had just used the runaway truck ramp. He was up to his axles in sand, standing beside the truck, staring and scratching his head. I grabbed my camera as quickly as I could (apologizing to him from afar) and snapped a quick shot.
We passed through Rio Grande National Forest, and made a few stops for gas. We’re starting to realize we need to add time into our daily trips to account for all the people who ask about our teardrop trailer. We get stopped all the time. And it’s interesting how different the reactions are. The older women usually say something along the lines of, “It’s so cute!” The older men typically want to know what all the added gadgets are for. The younger dudes say anything from, “That’s a badass trailer” to “That’s a sweet ride,” but never to us—the dudes always tell it to a friend within our earshot. And one such dude, when we smiled at his comment said, “That’s your ride? Congratulations!” as if we’d won it in some great teardrop lottery.
In the city of Cortez, pulling into a gas station with our windows down, we realized the passenger-side wheel of the trailer was making an unpleasant squealing noise (I wanted to blame the hubcap-missile.) Since we were about to go into a very remote area, we decided to have it checked—sooner rather than later. So we called around and go
t the name of an RV repair place: Western Equipment, LLC. The guy was super nice on the phone, told us to come right in and they’d check it out. They took off both wheels and found a spot on one where it looked like a small stone had gotten into the hub between the brake pad and the drum. This may have been the source of the squealing as some obvious rubbing had occurred. On the other wheel, they found a loose axle nut creating a subtle wheel wobble that might haunt us in the future. They put things back together quickly, re-greased the bearings, and pronounced us good to go. They only charged us $65 bucks! The owner was super impressed with our setup and told us he’d happily take it off our hands if we didn’t want it any more. We left feeling relieved and fortunate.
At 4pm we hit the Utah border and the thermometer read 99 degrees. The Valley of the Gods has almost no trees and lots of wide open rocks, so we wimped out for the first night of our three-night stay and found a room in a sweet little motel in Bluff, Utah. The room had an “evaporative cooling” system (aka swamp air, but it’s wonderful) which pumps in cool, moist air. After the dry desert air, I have to say it was pretty heavenly. We bought Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and microwave dinners (Lean Cuisine—ha!) at a local grocery and settled in to catch up on our Internet stuff. We really do want to rough it, but 99-degree heat three for days in a row sounds more like a stint on Exile Island than a post-retirement vacation. We’ll head to The Valley of the Gods tomorrow and get set up in time for our guests to arrive and join us there for dinner on Saturday.
“The problem is not that there are problems, the problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”
We checked out of the lovely and gracious accommodations of Recapture Lodge at 10:30 am and headed into The Valley of the Gods—finally! This destination was one of the ones that we’ve been looking forward to ever since we started planning this trip 15 months ago. Unfortunately, Utah is having an unusually hot spell of weather and the upcoming days are all expected to be in the 100s. So, intrepid travelers that we are, we took a ton of water and bravely set out.
As soon as we entered the area controlled by the Bureau of Land Management we were awed. The setting is wild and beautiful and harsh and picturesque. Red sand hills, giant rocks perched precariously at great heights. It was majestic and moving and soul-expanding. It really does feel like a special, spiritual place. I’m probably going to have a lot more pictures than text for the next few days.
I will say that as beautiful as it was, it was beastly hot. I think we hit 98 air temp, which doesn’t take into account the radiant heat from hot rocks, the hot wind that never ceased (as long as the sun was up), or the greenhouse effect inside the trailer, and no shade unless we made it ourselves. There really was no place to escape it. We were drinking water constantly and yet the air was so dry we couldn’t even feel ourselves sweat.
We struggled to set up the awnings in the wind and ended up using lots of rocks around the base of the poles to help keep everything in place. It was a little hard to stake them, but we did that, too. The substrate was either rocks or sand and neither one is great for driving in or retaining stakes.
With the super high temperatures, we were also having trouble keeping the fridge/freezer going without draining the deep-cycle battery. Len kept moving the extra, portable solar panel to catch the best sun angle for maximum capture. We decided to remove the freezer compartment and just make the whole thing a fridge to keep from sucking so much energy. That also meant that our freezer stuff would start to thaw, so we
did a quick assessment about what we could stand to lose if they thawed and wouldn’t keep until we ate them. So we pulled out the four bacon-wrapped filets so they wouldn’t go bad. As the sun went down (yes, finally, thank the valley gods—site-appropriate term) we decided to put the awnings away so we wouldn’t have that to worry about while sleeping if the wind kept
howling. Fortunately, the wind died down, the air cooled, the crickets came out to serenade us, we pulled out the stove and cooked up our dinner: epic views, filet mignon, and red wine. Bummer, right?
“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” ~Oscar Wilde
Words seem inadequate in the face of Nature’s wild grandeur. I’ll let her do the talking today.
Our temporary traveling companions (Randy and Martha) arrived yesterday amidst the brutal heat, in the 100s, and the sun and wind continued to sap our already limited reserves. By the end of the day, we all kept saying, “I’m exhausted and I didn’t even do anything!”
Except we did. At 6am, Len was up helping the local tow-truck woman put our trailer onto a flatbed to have it serviced in Blanding on Monday. We’d heard some troubling squeals in The Valley of the Gods that a couple of motorcycle riders assured us was the sound of a bad bearing (our worry, too). So we limped out of the Valley of the Gods and back to Bluff (at 20mph) and called to arrange transport since the wheel was sizzling hot to the touch.
(Spoiler alert: As it turned out, it wasn’t a bearing but a brake adjustment/brake controller interface issue—somewhat better news, really, and now we knew what was causing the noise and heat. The combination of the brake controller—initially set high as we were having trouble getting it calibrated per the instructions—and the brake adjustment setting caused the brakes to intermittently be applied all the time, resulting in squealing and a very hot hub. As you will recall, our hometown experts didn’t find an issue, the experts in Cortez didn’t find one, and the Blanding mechanics (RV and 4wd experts) didn’t figure it out for a long time—Len had to keep explaining what we’d experienced as well as driving up and down route 191 to test different combinations and try and heat it up so they could troubleshoot.)
The good news in all of that was that once we uncoupled (not the Chris Martin uncoupling) we had the Jeep, unfettered, to explore the area with Randy and Martha, so we drove the whole loop of The Valley of the Gods and showed them our campsite from the night before. That tiny blue dot beneath the rock formation is Martha, by way of comparison.
After that, we drove up … and up … and up … wait for it … The Moki Dugway. If you don’t know what that is, google it … provided you have a strong stomach. The Moki Dugway is a narrow gravel road with sharp switchbacks and an 11% grade carved into the side of a 1,200 foot mesa. It is (apparently) one of the ten most dangerous roads in the US (we didn’t know this before we tackled it—or maybe Len did, but he wasn’t telling). There’s no guardrail, no side edge of any kind, really, and no runaway truck ramps, either. I made a short video (as much as I could stomach) at about 1,000 feet up. You can view it here.
It really was a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime driving/riding experience, but I don’t know that I’d want to repeat it. I’m not a big fan of heights and my palms were sweaty for about twenty minutes even after we’d reached Cedar Mesa at the top with a grand view of the Manti LaSalle Mountains and no indication of the horrors that lay behind us. As Randy said, “I wanted to look, but a couple times I just couldn’t, and since they say you tend to drive toward where you look, that’s probably a good thing.”
We passed Salvation Knoll at 7,110 feet, where Mormon explorers got their bearings in a snowstorm and were thereby saved from death. Since we had only recently been saved from Moki death, we decided to skip that stop. On State Route 95, The Trail of the Ancients, we stopped to study some Native ruins. Since Randy teaches Oneida Indian Nation history in schools (and is Oneida himself) and had just come from a Native language conference in Flagstaff, he was a great one to offer extra tidbits of knowledge about the Pueblo lifestyle. The Anasazi Ruins at Butler Wash were worth the short .5 mile hike (even in 100-degree heat).
After all that, we came home, showered off the dust, and met for dinner at Twin Rocks Cafe, located just beneath the bluffs of Bluff. Three of us had the Navajo Taco (and the smart one, the actual Native American, had a Greek salad). The Navajo taco was—not unlike the Moki Dugway—an experience I’m glad to have had, but not one I’m likely to repeat anytime soon. It was delicious: frybread topped with chili, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, black olives, onions, salsa, and sour cream. But later that night I was still so full I had a date with Senor Alka-Selzer and it took a while to get to sleep. I can’t say I hadn’t been warned–Randy made sure I knew what I was in for…and I dove in anyway, fork-first.
In other good news, without the trailer to pull, our gas mileage shot up to 17.8 mpg.
In other not-so-good news, my personal writing time is really suffering. (Sorry Zoe!) Must get back on track.
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” ~Dale Carnegie
Len and I were up at 6:30am in order to leave by 7:30 to be in Blanding by 8am to be there when the repair shop (Montella’s) opened. They had a backlog and said that it would be at least an hour before they could get to it so we went in search of coffee and breakfast and found the Center Street Cafe, a hometown breakfast-and-lunch only diner run by a family. The grandmother was the cranky-but-frank short-order cook, the daughter was the sympathetic waitress, with help from her son who looked to be 12 or 13. They knew everyone who came in—except us, of course. Len ordered a short stack that turned out to
be fairly tall and I ordered an egg over-easy with one biscuit and gravy—a weakness of mine ever since I worked the kitchen in the Skyline Manor Nursing Home (my first real job at 16) and Buela the cook got me hooked on biscuits with sausage gravy.
After breakfast, we went back to Montella’s and Len spent ages troubleshooting with the mechanics while I wrote out some postcards and made notes for the day’s blog post. Randy and Martha came into town and picked me up at the garage then we drove to The Dinosaur Museum, where I was in paleoheaven.
Remember the picture I posted of that small amonite that I bought at the Argo Mine? Well, the Dinosaur Museum had a six-foot diameter amonite just inside their front door! Woah. That’s one big stone cephalopod. I toured the museum and enjoyed learning about the tracks of dinosaurs, the change to many more of them believed to be feathered and some debate now as to whether or not birds are descended from dinosaurs or whether they developed on parallel tracks. Also, it turns out that every state has a state fossil? Do you know yours?
Aside from the museum, it was mostly another day of troubleshooting. Looking forward to that being behind us. Tomorrow, though, is a five-and-a-half hour drive day in order to get us back on track. Since we were waylaid by three days, we do have some cancellations. Gone from the schedule now are Moab and Dinosaur Butte.
Randy and Martha left Blanding to head to Phoenix to fly home and reported back that their flight may be cancelled because the temperature is so high the runway in Phoenix is melting. Just let that sink in for a minute. The RUNWAY is MELTING. End times.
Coming Up: Red Fleet State Park, Utah.
“Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
Last night, at about 1am or so, when we were both sound asleep in bed, Len let out a loud “Wooo!” that immediately woke me. It wasn’t clear if he was asleep, but it sounded like the kind of noise one might make upon winning the lottery, or perhaps when just starting down the big drop on a roller coaster. To my knowledge, though, Len has never made any sort of similar noise in the middle of the night, so just to be sure I asked, “You okay?”
He assured me that he was fine, and I rolled over intending to go back to sleep. But the more I lay there and thought about that “wooo!” the sillier I started to feel. This happens to me sometimes, especially when lying in bed—the defenses are down, things seem funnier than they might in the light of day—and I began to laugh, albeit as quietly as I could.
Unfortunately, once the bed began to shake Len picked up on my mirth, which led him to chuckle a bit, too, which then made me laugh even harder and the bed shake even more. Then the following conversation ensued in between laughter and gasping breaths:
“Um, so, what was that ‘woo’ about?”
“Quite possibly,” (said in the especially lucid tone Len uses when trying to not laugh) “it had something to do with a dream…?”
Which cracked me up even harder. “So you were sleep-wooing?”
“Actually, (pausing for a labored breath) I think I’d like to retract the woo.”
“Retract?? (Gasp. Breathe.) Fine. Let the record reflect, the woo has been stricken.”
“The jury will disregard the woo.”
By this time, tears were streaming down my face and we both got a good middle-of-the-night woo-ab workout. The only awkward part came when we tried to get back to sleep and kept getting hit with spontaneous after-giggles from hyped-up diaphragms that didn’t know when to quit.
(On waking, Len confessed that the “woo” in his dream had actually been more of a wave-your-hands-in-the-air “woogaboogabooga” and that he had been jumping out of hiding to surprise someone as a prank. Since we’d just spent two days with his college roommate and one of his very best historical-cut-up friends, I’m guessing it was Randy in the dream that he was surprising. Surprise, Randy!)
We woke early, repacked everything, then left Recapture Lodge (for the final-final, really-final) time at 7:30am. In between Moab and Monticello we hit a bunch of roadwork that left us at a dead stop for twenty minutes during which we considered getting out our little porta-potty, setting up the wee shelter on the side of the road, using it, then restowing—all before traffic resumed. We didn’t, though, and finally reached Moab (and a gas station) at about 10:30. After Moab I pulled out my laptop to work on the novel once the road got straight enough that I wouldn’t get Jeep-sick.
At a stop in Loma we met a father (in his sixties) and his two middle-aged sons (from NC) headed for Rangely, CO riding motocross bikes. The father saw me open the galley to make a couple sandwiches and said, “Hey, a chuckwagon!” We offered a quick tour and a TC Teardrop business card which we keep handy for such encounters. At the end, the son said, “That’s a really nifty setup.” (Thereby giving me another word to add to the list of adjectives that have been used to describe our trailer. So far, I think we’re up to seven: cute, charming, badass, tricked-out, sweet, clever, and now nifty.”
North of Grand Junction we drove up the Douglas Pass to 8,240 feet where we found beautiful views and braced ourselves for the soon-to-arrive opportunity to test the new brake settings on the way back down the other side. All seemed well and we even got to see an elk on one of our (several) stops to take the temperature of the wheel hubs.
We rolled into the Red Fleet Campground at about 4pm, only to find that our “campsite” was actually an asphalt parking spot tucked in tight in a row of six parking spots in a lot that people drove through on their way to other spots. No ground to set up awnings, no shade to cool us down, just hot asphalt and big RVs. I swear, you just never can tell what you’re going to get with a State Park. Thanks a lot, Utah.
But we made the most of it, of course. That’s what we do. There were lots of nice covered picnic tables with cast-iron barbecue grills and fire pits. Someone had left some very dry wood behind so Len splintered it up and we used it to start a fire in the grill and cooked bison burgers over that. We accompanied them with some raw carrots and had the last of the cherries for desert. We listened to a thunderstorm flirt around the surrounding mountains and hoped for a little rain to bring some much-needed moisture and coolness, but it never materialized and getting to sleep proved difficult. Since it was the longest day of the year, we’d already been making geeky jokes about it being “a short night,” but I promise you we had only intended to be funny. Be careful what you joke about in Vernal, Utah.
Next up: Dinosaur National Monument and Gallery.
Random Gearhead Facts: When traveling across the Continental Divide (or making other great leaps in altitude) the liquids in your care will tend to “burp” as the pressure changes. We’ve had bulging yogurt lids that sprayed when we opened them (helpful hint, point away from your newly laundered shirt), shampoo that has leaked into the toiletries bag (wrap it in a paper towel), and we’ve had to remember to deliberately “burp” the Rotopax water and fuel containers.
I used my mysterious bottle opener (that came in the mail two days before leaving, addressed to my long-dead father, so I packed it, figuring I was meant to bring it along) to open a bottle of Coors tonight, only to (lo and behold!) find a message inside the cap. I’m choosing to accept them as words of wisdom from my father, and to assume they are meant to guide and/or encourage me on this trip.
Satellite Radio is great for driving across country because you never lose the signal. In fact, I was so enamored with the selection we were listening to I started to write down the artists as they played: The Who, Styx, Pink Floyd, Crosby Stills and Nash, The Alan Parson’s Project, Culture Club, Seal, Whang Chung, Rhianna, 10,000 Maniacs, and The Police. By that point, I couldn’t believe they were playing so many bands that Len likes so I said, “This station was made for you. We should write down the number.” To which he replied, “Oh, that’s my USB stick playing. I put it in 50 miles back.”
We’ve seen the CruiseAmerica small self-contained campers driving everywhere. They seem to be especially popular in this part of the country.
Miles we’ve covered since leaving home: 2,726
“The real question is not whether life exists after death. The real question is whether you are alive before death.” ~Osho
Two weeks. Holy cow. We’re halfway done. How can that be?
Sleeping was tough last night. The storm never came through (skirted all around us) and the near-storm just left everything more still and hot than it had been before. Being on black asphalt didn’t help either, I’m sure.
We rolled through Dinosaur, Utah on our way to Dinosaur National Park and saw a couple of signs that tickled me, including one for the town burial plot, Dinosaur Cemetery, and a sign on a local church advertising Dinosaur Bible Study. There was also a Bedrock Depot in town, which I’m sure employed a Barney and a Fred. Lots of dinosaur statues in the town, including a giant, fiberglass pink one with long black eyelashes.
Dinosaur National Monument and the Quarry Exhibit Hall was amazing. It’s an especially rich vein of dino-bones from an ancient lake that (it’s believed) supported dinosaurs 149 million years ago, then dried up leaving the weakened ones vulnerable to carnivores. The rains returned, re-filled the lake, and the bones washed into a logjam that petrified over time. So there are lots of articulated skeleton sections, lots of variety, and lots of really big specimens.
They’ve hauled out major skeletons that have been sent all over the world, and the exhibit hall was built right onto the side of a rock wall of bones so you can see them as they were deposited and as they have been painstakingly excavated over the years. Lots of stegosaurus, including the smallest skeleton ever found, which did not have the bony back plates, leading paleontologists to believe that perhaps they grew over time and weren’t born with them. Have I mentioned that I love dinosaurs? I’m like a six-year-old boy, giddy in their presence.
We passed through Ashley National Forest (Altitude 8,204 feet) and the weather changed from 100 degrees to 60 degrees and rain. Our first real rain while driving. Hard to believe we’ve gone two weeks without hitting rain. Except my nose believes it. Another little-known fact about arid climates: they are HELL on the nasal passages of spoiled easterners with normal humidity.
I’ve taken to carefully snorting water just so I can get some moisture into my sinuses and get some action going. And yes, before you ask, I DID bring my neti pot, but I challenge you to try and find a spot in a public campsite/public restroom where you feel comfortable pouring warm water into one nostril and out the other using a very anatomically-shaped spout.
I received a hermit crab update from my (wonderful, kind, generous) crab sitter and all is well. She even sent a picture in which I could see that Miriam is up from her molt! She’s one of my favorites (she used to be Hiram—until I realized she had eggs last summer). She’s the one in the wheel in the green-and-white Mexican turbo shell. Miriam is very particular about her shells (has only changed twice in the past fifteen months) but she has great taste and I’ve gotten good at picking out ones that she’ll like. The shells she goes for usually involve some amount of green in their coloration.
We hit Wyoming at 3pm, then Uinta County at 3:30, visited Flaming Gorge Dam, found a grocery store and passed out two more TC Teardrop business cards in the parking lot, then came out to find another Teardrop parked right beside ours. Those owners asked to see our galley as we were stowing the groceries and then gave us a tour of theirs. They envied our fridge. I envied their countertop prep space.
We got to our Lyman, Colorado campsite (we edged along the Utah/Colorado border quite a bit) and it was so frustratingly windy there. We struggled to set up the side awning for shade, but had to take it down when the winds became unmanageable. I showered because the dusty winds get to you after a while, made salads in two plastic storage containers because they were actually blowing off the plates, then tried to do my daily update.
The (promised—nay, touted!) campsite Internet sucked royally and I couldn’t get any pictures to upload despite the fact that I had the whole Day 13 post already written. I sat there for almost three hours being so very patient while the arrow spun and the network crashed. And then I had another meltdown. (Hey, it’s been a whole seven days since the last one. That’s not bad, right?) In retrospect, instead of struggling with the connection and stubbornly keeping on trying and waiting, I should have closed the laptop, gone for a walk, done some yoga, and indulged in a bit of self-care after so many hours in the Jeep. (Note to self.)
At one of the rest areas we passed there was a sign showing before-and-after images of some nearby petroglyphs that had been defaced by someone in the modern world who also wanted to leave his-or-her mark. And it’s definitely a shame to have those modern marks existing right beside the ancient ones … and yet … I can’t help but think that 1,000 years ago those petroglyphs were an ancient human making a mark on the landscape … and 1,000 years from now, those defacing marks will also be ancient human markings. I find myself doing this a lot the older I get. It’s something akin to thinking in “earth terms” or thinking in “geologic time.” The ultimate long view. The age of the earth is so vast as to make our piddly human footprints laughable. And yet we think that the things that are happening in this moment are so important, when in earth-time, we are less than a blip.
And as humans, for the most part, we are too self-centered to think in earth-time. We fail to remember that we, too, are simply one minuscule part of the earth’s vast history and even in terms of human history everything done today will someday be studied as ancient history.
Anywho, these wide-open spaces, vast night skies, and dinosaur footprints push me toward such expansive thoughts which may ultimately be horse hooey, but I do enjoy the exercise of whole-earth thinking.
Mileage so far: 3,230.
“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” ~Khalil Gibran
I woke with a wicked migraine. Perhaps from my barely suppressed freakout of the night before, perhaps from not drinking enough to stay hydrated in this furnace-wind, perhaps from the cottonwood fluff blowing everywhere, perhaps the long hours in the vehicle without exercise or even stretching, perhaps just because it was time for another one. I never know what exactly brings them on, and they are few and far between enough to not want to seek treatment, which I know from true sufferers is often ineffectual anyway.
I took an over-the-counter remedy, drank some coffee, did a little public yoga (which if you know me, know I have to need it pretty bad to do it in a public place) broke camp, and hit the road. I slept as Len drove and I only awoke occasionally as he dodged the prairie dogs that kept popping up everywhere—crossing the road, standing on the side of the road, standing IN the road. It was like a game of whack-a-mole, except with prairie dogs … and a Jeep going 65mph … and you’re actually trying to avoid them, not hit them. Okay, not really like whack-a-mole at all except for the frequent heads popping up left and right.
By the time I had slept my way to Rawlins I was feeling better so we parked and poked around the town (I was dying to walk and stretch my legs). We checked out the Tourist Information Office which was up a narrow staircase accessed through a music store (with no clerk in sight) and the person manning the office was apparently out for lunch, so we grabbed some brochures and walked to the Historic Wyoming Frontier Prison which offered tours. Its history went back far enough that it had housed some honest-to-goodness Wild West rascals but it also went forward enough to have been in existence into the early 1980s.
Some pretty harsh penalties were enacted against prisoners and the gas chamber was a little more real-life grisly than I cared to photograph. (Apparently some people like to sit in the chair and get their photograph taken—the actual chair, mind you, that some eleven prisoners were gassed to death while sitting in. No thanks.) Still, I was glad to have seen it and been reminded that plenty of people are living their lives incarcerated—out of sight of “civilized” society, but very much there and very human.
We tried to eat at a small Thai restaurant in the town, but got there just after they had closed for two hours between lunch and dinner, so instead we ate a light lunch at the Huckleberry Cafe and then headed to Red Desert Rose Campsites outside of Rawlins. They placed us near the tent sites (which often happens when we make a reservation because we are sort of a hybrid trailer/tent/RV thingy). It’s nice when we’re put there because it usually means more grass, less traffic, and less giant RV noise. Also closer to the facilities since we don’t have a bathroom in our trailer. This campground was pretty close to I-80, though, so there was no shortage of road noise, but the wind kept playing a steady background score and that tempered it some.
I applied the two newest stickers to our galley lid (Dinosaur National Monument and Flaming Gorge Dam) and we ate a simple dinner of veggies, crackers, Swiss cheese, and grapes. It felt good to eat lighter. I tried again to upload Day 13—again with no success—despite claims of free WiFi, but this time I closed the laptop and didn’t freak out. (Lesson learned.) We crashed at 8:30 (even with all the sleeping I’d done in the car) and slept until almost 7am. Clearly the road is wearying.
I did wake twice during the night, though. Once when the unmistakable perfume of Pepe le Pew began to waft into the window and I nudged Len to close his side, saying, “Skunk! Close the window!” The other time I woke was to hit the facilities, and for the first time on this trip the late-night walk creeped me out. Not sure why. Perhaps it was the fact that this place (and none of the others) had a keypad entry code for access to the bathrooms, perhaps it was the lonely, flickering red Desert Rose sign (Bates Motel anyone?), or perhaps it was because I had spent the day staring at prison cells, gallows, and gas chambers. But once I got halfway to the bathrooms I felt really exposed and vulnerable in that deserted gravel parking lot with sleeping people all around in their little tin houses-on-wheels. I actually stayed in the bathroom an extra ten minutes or so thinking that any miscreant with ill intent wouldn’t be that patient. I returned to the trailer without incident, crawled back in beside Len and fell fast asleep.
Also, a few days back when I mentioned our stored liquids “burping?” Well, we had a stash of individual creamers in the Jeep, mixed in with a bag of protein bars and energy shots. And it turns out that at least one of those creamers “burped” in the bag and not only made a huge mess of the bag but then began to steadily sour in the 100-degree heat. I kept sniffing, saying, “Something smells bad,” but Len didn’t agree until he went to pull out a protein bar and stuck his hand right in the curdled mess. Blech! Talk about nasty. Fortunately the bag kept the mess contained, but we had a lot of protein bars to wash and now we have no more individual creamers. It’s big bottle only, baby.
Tomorrow: Hilton Garden Inn in Casper, Wyoming!
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ~Confucius
We Left the Red Desert Rose Campground at 8am and drove into Rawlins, back to the Huckleberry Café for breakfast where we each got a Cowboy Bowl (hash browns, sausage, egg, cheese, and gravy) and some coffee.
We took Route 220 towards Casper and saw TONS of pronghorn antelope in the vast grasslands that extend as far as the eye can see along Route 220.
At first, it was, “Wow! Look! A pronghorn!” But by the end of the drive we’d seen so many it was more like, “Oh. Huh. Another six pronghorn. (Yawn.)” How quickly we get used to glorious sights like the fine fellow Len captured posing in the grass, majestic mountains in the background.
We visited the Trail Museum in Casper which is wonderfully interactive (a great spot to bring kids). The displays explained in-depth about four of the major westward trails: The Oregon Trail, The Pony Express Trail, The California (Gold Rush) Trail, and the Mormon Trail. I hadn’t realized that so many Mormons made the trip to Salt Lake City pulling handcarts rather than in covered wagons relying on beasts of burden like oxen, horses, or mules. That seems crazy to consider, but there were “handcart companies” that touted it as freedom from the worries of tending livestock and as a faster way to get west. The companies supplied food and water and the individual families pulled only what belongings they wanted to bring.
Ironically, many ended up tossing the belongings that had seemed so essential and ended up pulling sick or dying loved ones in the carts instead (with so many people on the trail, dysentery was a big problem and could kill in as little as 24 hours). Two ill-fated handcart parties left Missouri late (in August) and encountered horrible snowstorms mid-October; many of their members froze to death. Brigham Young sent out a search party to help guide them in but they couldn’t offer assistance until the pioneers walked to Devil’s Pass where a supply wagon had extra food. In the history of the Latter Day Saints, these people who died were raised up as martyrs to the cause, instead of gullible pioneers (hoodwinked by profiteering guides) who foolishly left too late in the season, perhaps trusting that God would look after them on their journey. I’ve always had a problem with people of faith that give over entire control of every aspect, every decision. I understand there are times when that is the correct impulse—let go and let God—we can’t control everything, after all, but it also seems to me that God has enough to do. Why give Him more niggling things to worry about when you have a brain—a brain He gave you, yes? You know the way the world works—do your best to avoid ending up asking God for help because of a bad decision (or indecision) on your part. Turn to him if you must, but I’m more of a “The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves” kind of believer. Too practical to want to leave my entire fate, every second of the day, in the hands of a very busy benevolent being.
I remember once, visiting my father (an alcoholic, of the barely functioning variety), and he had joined a religious organization in Southwest Virginia that even at sixteen I was pretty certain had cult-ish tendencies. My father had been living with them, doing odd jobs, refurbishing an old hotel that somehow the group had come into possession of. He took me to the home of one of the leaders of this group (If I recall, they referred to their themselves as followers of TWIG, or The Way) for dinner and the thing I remember most about that whole dinner—of all the details I could have retained—not the food, not the home, not anything concrete—I remember the hostess describing with breathless wonder how she had gone into one shoe store in town that day, wanted to buy a pair of shoes there, but decided to wait, and then two stores down, found the exact same pair but for half the price! And wasn’t God great for guiding her to that other store instead? She was certain it was an everyday miracle, ecstatic to have been the recipient of such graciousness from a loving God. And as a skeptical sixteen-year-old, all I could think was, “Lady, you are loony. People are starving and suffering and dying and sinning and begging for redemption. God is busy. You think He cares about the cost of those shoes you were coveting??” I was on the cusp of adulthood, just becoming acutely aware of the strange hypocrisies of adults and I asked my dad about it later, prepared to lose all respect for him if he agreed with her, and to my great relief he said, “Yeah, sometimes they go a little overboard. But they’re good people.”
And this is one of the things I like about the place where I grew up (The Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia), a place my father’s family has lived for generations. There’s a certain tolerance there, a live-and-let live approach that feels different than in other parts of the South. People seem to hold back judgment or say, “Oh, that’s just Old Orin. He’s different like that. Don’t pay him no mind.” I sense the same sort of friendly acceptance of individualism in Wyoming. (Yes, I realize I’m generalizing.) In fact, I’ve felt really at home here in the Cowboy State. It speaks to me the same way my beloved Blue Ridge Mountains do. We ate dinner at The Fort Steak House and Saloon (bison sirloin and sweet potato fries!) and they played country and western music in the background, but also down-home bluegrass. Other similarities noted: people in both places value self-reliance but are always ready to help a stranger in need, they live close to the rhythms of the natural world, are comfortable with the firearm as a tool more than a weapon, live off the bounty of the land whenever possible, and appreciate strong women.
In other news, we haven’t seen The News in over two weeks now, and it’s been glorious. Len, in particular, is a news junky—as a former military intelligence officer, keeping up with the news was part of his job for years. But this break has been wonderful. I recommend it. I hope to carry some of this back with me into the real world because it turns out the world actually does go on if you take a break from the sturm and drang of it. And there’s nothing like ancient, ageless rocks to give one a sense of perspective about our current place in time.
Next up: Into The Bighorns!
“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Yvon Chouinard
I think I forgot to mention that last night was a hotel stay—with actual, real Internet. We got caught up on grooming, washed clothes, I finished several blog posts and scheduled them to publish since I knew we’d be back out of Internet range in the Bighorns for another couple days. The hotel was nice, but when I went out to the trailer to get something I’d forgotten I felt like I wanted to sleep there, instead. Very strange. Plus, it’s tough to break the rhythm of where you keep things and how you access them. You have to remember to grab everything you’ll need for the hotel from the trailer. I was also wishing I had brought in my pillow, but was too lazy at bedtime to go back out and get it. We left the hotel at 10am, after Len futzed with the trailer brakes more to address some additional squeaking. (It appears to have worked!) We stayed in Casper for breakfast, gas, groceries, ice, and a fishing license for Len.
The speed limit in most of Wyoming is 80mph. Len has gotten used to this new law, very quickly. When we hit an area that was 55mph, he said (in mock indignance), “Hey! What is this? A school zone??”
Out of Casper, we took Route 20/26 to Arminto Road, then Buffalo Creek Road—a gravel, rough, dusty, washboard byway. At one of the turns, we encountered a mom and three kids with a lemonade stand. I make it a policy to never pass a lemonade stand if I’m not in a hurry, so we stopped, drank, and tipped well. It was delicious. And this was also roughly when we realized we’d forgotten to fill the other Rotopax with fuel. Most ranchers have fuel on their property, but the actual gas stations are pretty few and far between out here. We did some quick calculations and decided we were probably good to get in and back out.
On the road, we met two nice Wyoming gentlemen (who apparently stop to chat whenever they meet another car on a lonely road). The first one said (by way of greeting), “You’re on an adventure!” and the second one (who stopped to wait for us a good quarter of a mile from where we were) asked, “Is this the road to Chicago?” Len answered, “Just about 3,000 miles that-a-way.” In other words, we fit right in. Have I mentioned just how much I love the Cowboy State? It’s wide, wild, and expansive. As Georgia O’Keefe said about New Mexico, “It’s a place I can breathe.” (Except for, you know, all the dust and pine pollen.)
The last stretch we traveled was Bighorn Mountain Road, a ragged gravel road (going about 10-15 miles per hour) that crossed four creeks and climbed several peaks as we ascended into the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains (altimeter said 8,227 feet).
We made camp (we’re getting good and fast now), set out the extra solar panel since we’re going to be off the grid for at least a week) took a hike to a lovely rock formation and climbed it, checked out a promising stream and saw a bunch of trout.
The only downside was The Loud Family who commandeered the campsite just before ours.
“WHO WANTS TO RIDE THE ATV??”
“ME! ME! I DO!!”
“HERE WE GO!”
[Ten minutes of blissful silence followed in which birds sang, crickets chirped, and breezes whispered through the treetops.]
“WE MISSED YOU!”
“YEAH!! IT WAS GREAT!!”
A short time later, there was a chainsaw used for fifteen minutes, a talk-radio station playing, and then at least one of them started up a sort of strange, periodic growling yowl that was emitted every five minutes or so with no context provided for the emission of said yowls.
“Sounds like they’re making human sacrifices over there,” I said.
“If only,” Len replied dryly, “it would reduce their numbers.”
For dinner, we made fish tacos. Len got the fire started and I heated the tortillas in aluminum foil, cooked the fish in foil (with my special fish-taco seasoning, lime, and salt) then chopped up the last of the scallions and half of the remaining garlic scapes, added cherry tomatoes, romaine lettuce, pepper Jack cheese, and a big dollop of sour cream. So good. It was a dinner I’ve been envisioning ever since we started planning the trip. Aldi’s fish works well as expedition food. It’s individually packaged and portioned and quick to thaw. We used the foil from the tortillas and didn’t even need to dirty a plate.
After dinner, Len stoked the fire and we sat and enjoyed its crackling while the sun sank behind a field of lupine in which four mule deer calmly grazed (two males in fine velvet), the temperatures dropped (34 degrees!), and the coyotes sang in the distance. Even the Loud Family eventually quieted down. And we both felt that THIS is exactly what we came west hoping to experience.
The whole place was so nice, in fact, we decided to stay another day and skip the trip to Doyle Creek Campground. (We’re getting tired of pulling up stakes every day.)
Next up: More of the same!
“I’m dirty, sunburned, dried out, smelly, sweaty, covered in pine tree pollen, and it’s better than I’ve felt in a long time.” ~Len, sitting by the fire at Grave Spring Campsite.
For breakfast we enjoyed a pour-over made with Arbuckle’s Ariosa Coffee, apparently a revival of the coffee brand that settled the west and a favorite of cowboys in the 1880s (or, you know, we bought into the tourist ruse that it was cowboy coffee and paid three dollars for a small packet—ka-ching!). The sample pack came from Lou Taubert’s Western Wear shop in Casper where Len also found a pair of jeans in a style that he’s been searching for for ages.
As I mentioned yesterday, this Grave Spring campsite proved so fine (and the drive in here so rough) we decided to stay another day rather than drive to Doyle Creek, another Bureau of Land Management (BLM*) site that had been on our schedule. This is the smart part of travel—when you can be flexible enough to stay at a primo spot (especially when they’re first-come-first-serve) and enjoy it to the fullest rather than just pick and move because you thought six months ago that would be the right decision. So we settled in for the day and planned a hike.
Much to our unbounded joy, the Loud Family began to pack up as if to leave, making our decision to stay another night even sweeter. Then they proceeded to take another loud ATV ride, shoot off a shotgun several times, run a chainsaw, and start up a very loud gas generator and run it for about 45 minutes.
Our joy diminished.
There are definitely two philosophies to camping (and any number of shades in between), but the extremes run something like this.
- The Loud Family Philosophy: Conquer the campsite! Make it as much like home as possible. Bring all the gadgets and amenities you can carry, including a TV and radio, a generator, a 22-gauge shotgun, and a chainsaw. Bring a fifty-gallon drum of water lashed to the back of your camper. Occupy every inch of space allotted to you. Erect structures and spread out to fill them. Bring multiple vehicles, if possible, especially an ATV so you can roar around the countryside many times a day. Burn everything in the fire pit, even things that do not burn like plastic bottles, tin cans, and a horrifying plastic stand-alone sticky fly-catcher thing.
- The Pratt-Akers Family Philosophy: Ease into your campsite quietly. Create as little impact as possible as you back in, unlock your doors, and raise the lid on the galley (setup complete!). Enjoy the views that surround you and the many subtle sounds of nature. If you want to go anywhere, use your own two feet to get there. If you need more water, filter it from the local stream. Minimize your trash output and deal with it responsibly. Keep the human-made noises to a low-decibel minimum. Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
After a breakfast of granola and yogurt (it’s been awesome having my homemade granola on the trail) we hiked the mountain behind our campsite. We found a ton of beautiful petrified wood fragments of many colors and also a very curious small skull that had a sloping forehead with sockets
at the rear of the skull for future horns and oddly undeveloped eye sockets. I’m pretty sure we’ve found a skull of the elusive jackelope (thinking of you, Nina!). There’s just no other animal it could be. We shot a couple pictures of it and kept hiking upward (only slightly altitude-winded now, thanks to the body’s magic ability to adjust), hoping we would eventually reach an open summit with a view. Alas, it was an amorphous summit and resolutely wooded. But we did find our way back to the campsite in time to see The Loud Family leaving along the distant road—yee-haw! (They left one camper behind. So weird. Reserving their spot, I guess.)
As quiet fell over the landscape (alone, at last!) I did some writing and Len went fishing. Very quickly he came back with two brook trout. He said he was three-for-three: three casts, three fish (pictures coming to your inbox soon, Dave), and he released the smaller one to swim another day. The other two were large enough to keep and he cleaned and prepared them for dinner. They came out of the nearby Buffalo Creek (North Fork), a tiny stream, but filled with brookies. In one tiny pool yesterday, we counted five, swimming in formation, waiting for a bounty of bugs to appear.
I made a salad and we cooked the trout over a fire along with two pieces of salmon from the freezer, in foil with olive oil, salt, and the last five garlic scapes. Len cut some flowers and put them in an empty bottle on the picnic table to complete the meal.
There are wildflowers everywhere here. Fields of them. So beautiful. There’s no signal (as I’m writing this), so I can’t look their names up online and I don’t have a guide with me, but from my limited knowledge I think we have huge fields of lupine (two varieties), yarrow, ground phlox, blue windflowers (or rock anemones), lots of daisies/asters of many varieties and colors, and a gorgeous delicate cyclamen that I found in a boggy, shaded area. So pretty.
My evening Coors Yeti-cap message was a repeat, but still a good one, so I took another picture to commemorate (with brookie bones, purple lupine, and petrified wood). Thanks, Yeti Dad!
Helpful hints from the wilds of Wyoming:
- If you are hiking through the woods in a remote area without a trail, look behind you occasionally as you walk, especially to note the larger landforms from that angle. When you are trying to find your way back, you will see the landforms from that angle, not from the one you had on your forward approach.
- If you are following someone else, make note of your hiking partner’s tendencies. It will be useful on the return. For instance, most of us, when hiking and approaching an obstacle, will favor a move to either the right or the left of the obstacle. Over time, this will throw your route substantially off track, especially if (for example) your partner goes to the left more while ascending and to the right more descending. This makes for a net double-direction shift off of your “straight” path.
- The low overnight in the foothills of the Bighorns in June can be below freezing.
- When cleaning solar panels, if you use Windex, dilute it by half with water. Solar panels are black and almospt always hot and the extra water helps keep the cleaner from evaporating on impact (and thereby being ineffectual).
Random Gearhead Facts: The road shower was 61 degrees at 8am and 95 degrees just before sunset.
Hard-boiled eggs do very weird things at altitude, especially when cooked at sea-level and transported to 10,000 feet.
*BLM campsites are just open all the time and can’t be reserved. You get what you get when you get there—sometimes they’re all taken. This Grave Springs site has only about ten sites (that we found) and three were filled, not counting us. They’re definitely No Frills spots. No water, no electricity (of course), a pit toilet and small trash bin. Each site has a picnic table, a fire pit, and many have amazing views.
“A poem of the right shape will hold a thousand truths. But it doesn’t say any of them.” ~Ursula K. Le Guin
(A quote in memory of my friend the exquisite poet Susan Laughter Meyers, who I just learned died suddenly last week.)
We took our time leaving Grave Spring. Made more cowboy coffee, had breakfast, took some pictures, checked the trailer brakes (and readjusted them) then headed out. We had seen The Loud Family leave by way of the route we planned and since they were pulling two huge trailers, we assumed that the road would be easier in that direction than it had been coming in. Boy, was that assumption ever wrong.
We had to go between 5 and 10 miles per hour because the dirt road out was uneven, rocky, washed out, and rutted. The trailer held up like a champ but it took three hours to go about 25 miles. At one point, I got out and walked beside the Jeep because it was so frustrating. (And in case you were wondering, my current meditation pack is on Restlessness, so yes, I am probably on the right pack. One of the ideas I keep returning to is that the spaciousness of the mind is so vast that we can’t comprehend it, so we need to let go the idea that a restless mind is something to fight. We all have restless minds. It’s the human condition. Learning to accept the restlessness and refocus when it interferes, that is the real goal.)
When we reached Ten Sleep, Wyoming—so named by the Native tribes that marked it as halfway (Ten Sleeps) between Casper and their summer hunting grounds—we got gas (Yes! We made it on the gas we had.) and there discovered that somewhere along the the 4-wheel-drive road, the electrical connector for the trailer had gotten ripped out and then caught on something else and ripped off the end and then when we reached hardtop, dragged along the highway. It looked like it had been through a shredder and we knew that needed addressing immediately, so instead of heading to Medicine Lodge as we had intended, we searched for a repair place and found The Tractor Guys in Worland, Wyoming. Like everyone else we have pulled in and begged to assess our issues, they were extremely willing, generous, and helpful. They let us leave the trailer and we went for lunch with just the Jeep. We found a Mexican restaurant that was neither very Mexican, nor much of a restaurant and ate, then returned to the shop. I sat in the car and tried for more than an hour to download my next meditation on Restlessness (how ironic), only to get dinged by Sprint for using all my roaming data, and still not getting the next day downloaded.
Exhausted by frustration, rough road, changed plans, and the heat, we looked for a campground in Worland, found a great one nestled in among some tall, beautiful trees, got a site, went back out to the car wash to get rid of the massive quantities of dust, pulled in, spent another hour cleaning dust from the inside of the toolbox and the doorwells, windows, and screens, and then crashed.
At roughly midnight, the noise of a heavy engine woke us up. We’d been warned that the town might spray for mosquitoes, so we closed all the windows and waited. The noise got louder and closer and bright lights filled our cabin, giant air brakes popped and hissed, and we soon realized that it was someone driving the most massive RV ever made (seriously, think Willie Nelson Tour Bus), as well as towing a Chevy Blazer behind it, attempting to edge past the nose of our Jeep while negotiating a tight turn unassisted. We were just thinking we should get up and supervise when we heard someone yell, “Whoah, whoah, whoah, stop!” Thankfully, it was the owner of the campsite who had also heard the noisy rig and come just in time to keep the driver from smashing into us. So we had to climb out in our PJs, get the keys, and back up the trailer so this yahoo could get his rig around the corner he had no business trying to navigate in the first place, while the owner apologized to us profusely. (The next morning he told us he’d paced it off and the rig was 49 feet long, plus about twelve feet of vehicle being towed behind it.)
It took a while to get to sleep after that fiasco, but we’ve had something come up unexpectedly almost every night of the trip, so we’re learning to just roll with it.
Random fact: The Bighorn River is expected to reach maximum snowmelt stage this weekend, and it is already ripping.
Tomorrow: Same campsite, more work on the trailer brakes and wiring.
“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” ~Henry Ford
We left the Worland RV Park (only for the day, trailer in-tow) to get back to the repair shop and let them fix a part of the wiring system that was isolated when the wires got ripped out. Len left me at the local McDonald’s which seemed to have the most reliable (free) WiFi in the area. I worked while surreptitiously watching the locals come in and razz one another and shoot the breeze. The woman behind the counter came out with a carafe of coffee and refilled their to-go cups—definitely not your usual McDonald’s atmosphere.
It was much more like a small-town café. For the next three hours I got caught up on blog posts, did some r.kv.r.y. work, putting up the July issue, and a bit of computer tidying up of the kind that becomes necessary when you’ve been offline for days and barely online for weeks. I’m still feeling really behind in terms of work responsibilities. Fortunately, I have very patient clients, patient literary journal contributors, a patient writing group, and a patient agent.
At about noon, Len returned and I went back with him to the repair shop but they were off for lunch, so we opened the galley (chuckwagon!) and I made sandwiches while we waited for them to return. The issue continued for three hours this time as now four—count ‘em—FOUR expert mechanic shops have tried to diagnose this brake issue to no avail. These guys even gave Len a thermometer gun to register the actual amount the brakes were overheating (a good thing, actually, proof that they were HOT). After a couple miles of driving, he clocked the left brake at 101 degrees and the right one at 200.
When you’re facing an unsolved/unresolved issue like this—especially one that involves safety—it runs constantly in the back of your brain, distracting you from the duties and pleasures of the moment. It’s like a computer that gets hung up on some process—CPU all being funneled to a program running in the background that may or may not be a destructive virus. We would like to do a reset, please. Ctrl Alt Delete.
At around 3pm, Wyoming showed us her WILD side. Hellacious winds kicked up so that we couldn’t even see the road in places for the storm of dust accompanied by lightning, thunder, hail, and finally buckets of rain. Through it all the wind howled, with (we later learned) gusts of up to 80mph. When it started, it was 83 degrees out. A half an hour later, is was 57 degrees.
We rode out most of the storm in the parking lot of the Washakie Museum & Cultural Center, then went inside and toured again. It was all about the history of the Big Horn Basin, including ancient history. Some great fossil exhibits, including some exciting mammoth skeletons, a Last West exhibit about settlers that came to the Basin after 1900, a ghost town exhibit, and lots of good Indian exhibits.
We left when they closed at 5pm and came back to our campsite only to discover that the extreme winds had brought down one of those giant trees right above our campsite. We were lucky we’d had to take the trailer out of that site today. The owners gave us a new campsite (an upgrade) but it was right in front of the office so when I cooked dinner I felt a little conspicuous. Right out in the open, stirring, mixing, cooking, and serving. Maye I should start my own cooking show—Chuckwagon Woman. I made something spicy that resembled chilaquiles without the eggs, using my pressure cooker as a saucepan.
I climbed into the trailer to stretch and do a meditation and promptly fell asleep. As wonderful as this all is, I am seriously starting to wear out. We’ll see if we go all the way to the end or pull up stakes sooner.
Tomorrow: Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracks and a night in Greybull, Wyoming.
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ~Stephen King
We left the Worland RV Park, gassed up, got some foam strip from a local hardware store to beef up the foam on the inside rim of the tool box to keep road dust out, dropped some postcards at the post office, and headed to Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracks outside of Greybull, Wyoming and on BLM land.
What a cool place! The tracks were discovered in 1997 by some hikers in the area. The first thing they noticed were the ripples of fossilized sand from an ancient beach. They notified someone at BLM and the paleontologists they called were thrilled—for lots of reasons. These tracks are in a wide area and tell them things about how dinosaurs move, their overall size and weight, that (these ones at least) likely traveled in social groups of different sizes, and more. They were also able to date them as being about 167 million years old (by the fossil layer above), which adds critical information to the dinosaur timeline in the US.
There are so few North American fossil remains of dinosaurs from the Middle Jurassic that they don’t even know for sure what dinosaur made these tracks. It was some sort of three-toed Theropod that walked on two legs and ate meat, and that’s about all they know. These guys’ hips are estimated to be about as high as my ribcage and their stride was just at the limit of my stride. They walked at roughly 4mph across this sandy stretch.
167 million years ago, the Sundance Sea (located in the Ancient Big Horn Basin, which was actually closer to the equator back then, before the continents shifted, about where Cancun, Mexico is now, so very warm) dried up enough to leave algal, sandy edges which the dinosaurs walked through. When the water level rose again, the tracks were covered by silt and eventually hardened, preserving both the tracks and the sandy ripples in this wide area of rock dubbed The Ballroom by scientists, thereby conjuring up (for me at least) a group of waltzing dinosaurs.
Walking in your footsteps
Then the best thing of all—a personal highlight, for sure—was locating one Theropod’s track and walking in its footsteps from edge to edge, my footprints in his (or hers), shoes off so as not to damage the impressions in any way, but also to be as close to the ancient reptile as possible, while in my head, the deliciously haunting song “Walking in Your Footsteps” (The Police) played on.
There were also a bunch of ancient oyster shells and (I think) an ammonite or two in the surrounding earth and hills. The sign said that it was fine to collect a few specimens of the common gastropods (and they were everywhere) for a personal collection (no sales allowed), so we selected a few small specimens to add to my growing fossil collection at home.
After that, we drove back through some amazing vistas, came to The Greybull Motel and checked in, very comfy, and connected with a friend of Len’s (Mike Bentley) who has a large cattle/horse/goat/sheep ranch in the area. We had a great time catching up over dinner at a Mexican restaurant (once again, I ate too much—and it was only half the plate!) and then came back to the room to rest and relax.
“Very little on a fire rolls uphill.” ~Larry Wright.
I’ve been spending so much time on the recaps, I think that was part of my exhaustion, so I took 24 hours to NOT do anything on the Internet. Plus, Sprint is being mean to me so Internet has been a trial. Tonight I paid $10 extra for high-speed WiFi Internet at the campsite, so hopefully it will be faster with less painful uploads and wait times. (Edited to add: It was worse, if that is possible.)
We left the Greybull Motel and drove to the Aerial Firefighting Museum (which confused me at first, because I thought it meant the Red Baron style of aerial firefighting, but soon figured out it meant fighting fires from the air). Len was giddy at the museum and I whispered, “This for you is like the dinosaurs for me.” He looked around at the old planes and the giant boneyard of aircraft in the back field and said, “These ARE dinosaurs.”
Among the planes, we found an old P-2, which I’m posting for my brother Tyler, predecessor to his Navy P-3 aircraft.
After the museum, we stopped at a small antique store on the way back to Greybull and bought a few small things. They had a fire hydrant from the Rensselaer Company out of Troy, NY. That one’s for my girls with their Troy connections. We stopped by a pizza place in downtown Greybull (Greybull has one stoplight, just like my hometown, so I felt right at home) and had a “Cowgirl” pizza which was pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, feta, and fresh mozzarella. So good.
After lunch, we checked in at the KOA in Greybull, disconnected from the trailer and drove around looking for trout streams to fish, then walked a mile or so on the berm that flanks the Bighorn River to keep excessive snowmelt from flooding the town. Then we drove more back roads and explored some non-touristy areas.
Out on an old haul road, we followed signs to Devil’s Kitchen which turned out to be one of those spectacular, crazy places that are off the beaten path and you wouldn’t even know were there. I’m not sure what created the Devil’s Kitchen, but it sure looked like the remains of an old volcano, so sulfuric, irony, goblin-hobbit looking. Which begs the question: “What is cooking in the Devil’s Kitchen?” Deviled eggs? Devil’s food cake? Souls of the damned?
It was also incredibly windy there. Scary-windy, since the edge was precipitous and crumbly. Len actually walked out on one of the knife edges and took a picture looking back at scaredy-cat-me who only made it partway out (holding my hat and leaning into the wind), with the Jeep even farther behind me on safe ground.
After the Devil’s Kitchen, we drove all over Hell’s Half-Acre exploring the countryside and doing Jeep-y things. Len kept driving off-road saying, “I’m filming a Jeep commercial!” Then we returned to the campsite hungry and finished off the leftovers from last night’s Mexican restaurant (NOT El Diablo’s Cocina) along with some other odds and ends. I didn’t open a Coors, but I did have some Yogi Tea which had a message for me: “Love is your greatest strength.”
It got extremely chilly once the sun went down, so we climbed into the cabin early and read/wrote in our cozy little space while a nearby railyard kept connecting rail cars all night long. Lord have mercy, that is an unnerving sound. Each connection created the sound of a horrifying crash that reverberated down the line of cars and you could feel it in your bones. Not sure I could get used to that sound as the background of my life.
Next up: Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site
“As long as you have certain desires about how it ought to be, you can’t see how it is.” ~Ram Dass
We left the trailer at the campsite and headed out to Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site. The day was gorgeous and warm but not too warm and the drive only took about an hour. Medicine Lodge had been on our list to camp, but we’d had to scrap it as an overnight spot when we had those brake issues. Fortunately, it worked out as a day trip and we viewed some incredible petroglyphs (some incised art carved into the wall of rock, and some “pecked” art—which is like 3-D pointillism that gives texture and shows the animal or human en toto). There were also pictographs (painted art, though very faded) on the rock walls of the canyon. It was awe inspiring to see such ancient art, the earliest of which dates to 2,500 years ago.
While Len did some fly fishing for trout up Medicine Lodge Creek (he was itching to fish), I studied the rock art and walked the nature trail and even headed out a lonely hunting trail for about ¾ of a mile before it dawned on me that I was all alone below huge rock ledges and formations that would be the perfect den and/or hiding place for a mountain lion, which I knew they had in the area. As an individual hiker, I realized I probably looked more tasty than threatening, so I turned around and walked back to the more populated areas.
Len had taken a radio and we’d agreed to check in at noon so I radioed him and he said he was having a great fishing day. I could hear the excitement in his voice (a beautiful sound) so we both agreed he should keep fishing and an hour later when we checked back, he was ready to come in so I met him walking back down Medicine Lodge Creek. He had caught a bunch of fish and kept two good-sized ones that measured just under the 16-inch upper size limit. We’ll cook them for tomorrow night’s dinner at our remote campsite on Prune Creek.
We enjoyed a very delicious dinner in an old Speakeasy in the basement of the historic Hotel Greybull where decorations were period specific. Len especially enjoyed the salt and pepper shakers (many mismatched) on all the tables. I think a little Marie Pratt was showing through.
And your random image of the day was taken from inside the visitor’s center, which was just an old log cabin with some info inside—arrowheads and grinding stones and the like—but no people, just this bored and lonely horse at the window, looking in.
Next up: Two days at Prune Creek with zero Internet.
“You have brains in your head, and feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” ~Dr. Seuss
For breakfast, I ate my leftovers from the Speakeasy and Len ate a banana and a lamb-jerky bar, part of a big box of retirement goodies from my sister (he loves them, Sarah). I finished up some online stuff, scheduled the next update to publish while out of range, and we headed into the Bighorn Mountains. It was a sixty-mile trip to the Prune Creek Wilderness Campground and we stopped at the Burgess Junction Visitor’s Center at the junction of 14 and 14-A. By now most of the educational things we’re reading are things we’ve seen in other museums along the way, but the refresher is always good. I’ve been so intrigued with the rocks of Wyoming. The chert is especially interesting and is what was used to make knapped arrowheads and spear points for thousands of years. The sedimentary rocks often have evidence of invertebrate fossils in them, and the granite is just gorgeous, often pink or red with veins of quartz or onyx running through them. I snagged a few for the crabitat, all the while secretly hoping that Wyoming has a goddess (like Pele) that will compel me to keep returning to her mountains.
Before leaving the visitor’s center we ate a quick lunch out of the chuckwagon (smoked turkey wrapped in a tortilla with provolone and Parmesan and a handful of grapes). At that point we didn’t realize how close we were to our destination and suddenly 2.1 miles later we were at Prune Creek. The Tongue River here is just gorgeous (it’s what Prune Creek feeds into). It’s still fairly high from snowmelt, but it’s got wide open banks and Len was able to fish from the sides and cast all the way to the far bank with no trouble. It’s at an altitude of about 8,000 feet and reminds us both of the Adirondacks. The woods are mostly pine and the river water is clear but stained brown with tannins from the pine duff.
The campsite was quite nice. The amenities included a pit toilet (for the whole campsite) and a centrally located pump-handle water spigot. At first I kept seeing clouds of dust and thought the nearby dirt road was going to be an issue, then I realized it was the pine trees surrounding our campsite that were joyfully pollinating one another at an astounding rate. I cleaned off the solar panels every few hours and the paper towels came back smeared with bright yellow. My black windbreaker showed a yellow haze when viewed at an angle. The Jeep developed bright yellow pinstripe detailing and yellow tinted windows.
I keep thinking of the Robert Frost poem A Peck of Gold that ends with the line, “We all must eat our peck of gold.” Except OUR gold dust is pollen and we have surely ingested more than a peck. It’s in the air, in our food, all over the picnic table, inside the cabin, no doubt in our hair and all over our pillows. Blow your nose and the tissue turns yellow. It’s really shocking the volume of pollen being cast upon our heads.
After we settled in, Len fished and I wrote out a group of postcards and a couple of birthday cards then meditated. My current Headspace pack is on Focus and it uses a combination of visualization and noting, which is working really well. The only problem is that I have no Internet and so have to do the same day over and over until I get back to downloading capability.
For dinner, we had saved the two brown trout from Medicine Lodge Creek, and just as I was preparing them for cooking (in an aluminum foil pouch resting on a couple of strips of bacon, topped with Kosher salt, olive oil, and lime slices), Len grabbed his fly rod and moved to the river. Not five minutes later he came back with a rainbow trout to add to the browns already in the pouch. As he was turning the sizzling pouch over the fire, he said, “I can’t wait to taste the rainbow.”
My campsite reading has been the memoir “The Same River Twice” by Chris Offutt and holy cow is it good. I’ve enjoyed it so much I’m sure I will finish it before we pull up stakes. I’m afraid I’ve used it pretty hard (Sorry Chris!), getting part of the cover wet, spilling some coffee on it, and smashing a blood-filled mosquito on the front edge. At first I felt bad about the condition of the book, but the more I read of it, the more I realized that if any author wouldn’t mind his book being read by a river in the Wyoming wilderness, being read hard and put up wet, it would probably be Chris Offutt. In fact, the cover (already perfectly suited to the subject matter) seemed to appreciate the rough handling.
The evening turned very cool (about 40 degrees) and breezy as the sun set. I bundled up and we sat by the fire for as long as we could keep our eyes open (Len won that contest) and turned in beneath a blanket of stars, wearing more sleep clothes than we had for most of the trip.
Tomorrow: More Prune Creek.
“If fishing is like religion, then fly-fishing is high church.” ~ Tom Brokaw
Another day spent on the banks of the Tongue River (north Fork) in the Prune Creek Wilderness Campground. We woke to a forty-degree morning and the sound of brown trout calling Len’s name. There was heavy condensation inside the trailer on the windows and doors. This happens when the temperature drops, much as it does in a tent with two people breathing all night. We just pull back the curtains and it evaporates quickly enough. Two nights feels right for a relaxed stay. Next trip we’ll make sure to book more double nights and make it the norm more than the exception.
We’ve had great neighbors here, quiet but friendly. Most of the conversations revolve around fishing, especially since Len walks around with a fly rod everywhere he goes, because you never know when the fish will be biting. And I hate to brag too much because he’s a modest man, but virtually everywhere people have told us, “the fish aren’t biting” he’s been pulling them out left and right (and releasing all but a few). Of course, there are lots of people here fishing for trout with spinners and worms (artificial and real) which seems weird but I guess some people do it that way.
The woman at Medicine Lodge Creek who ran park maintenance (and told him the fish weren’t biting there) asked Len what fly pattern he was fishing with and when he told her (Ausable Bomber—and how many fish he’d caught) she said her favorite lure for trout was a “Number Nine Pink Nightie” then waited expectantly. When Len asked what that looked like she laughed and said, “That’s gets the fly fishermen every time. It’s a number nine hook with a rubber pink nightcrawler stuck on it.” We laughed and she seemed pleased to have found another sucker to fall for the joke.
I’m now trying to use up fresh food in the fridge so I made our first hot breakfast of the trip: turkey sausage and western-style (but, of course!) scrambled eggs with garlic, red pepper, tomatoes, and cheddar cheese topped with hot sauce. And of course Len’s delicious coffee which I’m thinking he may need to start making every morning, given that he is retired now, after all. The trout kept singing their siren call and Len kept heeding it. We are right on the banks of the river and every time a fish jumped or the light on the water changed he’d go for his fly rod.
We snacked through lunch (while fishing and hiking) and cooked a big dinner on the Coleman stove (which I’m making peace with, by the way—either that or it figured out we wanted to send it to the scrap yard and decided to start working better). A mush of ground beef, garlic, cornmeal (or polenta, if you want to be fancy) and black beans. I added a little milk toward the end of cooking to give it some creaminess. When I asked Len if he wanted a second helping, he said, “No, thanks. I’ve had polenta.”
I opened a beer with dinner and my Yeti-Dad message was a winner. (For those who missed the story of the Yeti-Dad, two days before leaving on our journey, I received a very mysterious package addressed to Frank Tyler Akers but using my address in western New York. Now, Frank Tyler Akers was my father’s name, but he’s been dead for 27 years now and never lived in New York State. My brother is Frank Tyler Akers Jr, but he lives in Hawaii and when I asked Tyler about it he said he didn’t send it to me, nor has he ever ordered anything from Yeti that would have put his name in their database.
I stared at the mysterious package for a long time before opening it. Inside I found a very cool, very sturdy bottle opener that I decided to accept as a message of encouragement for my trip from my long-dead father and made sure to pack it in the trailer. When we got to Colorado, I bought a six-pack of Coors in the stubby bottle (because they would fit easily in the cooler). Lo and behold, the first night I opened a beer using my Yeti opener, there was a message in the bottle cap. The first one said, “What you’re made of matters.” Now that sounds exactly like something Frank Tyler Akers would have said, so I decided to take an artful picture of it. The next night the bottle cap said, “Get your hands dirty,” another perfect message from Dad, hereafter known as Yeti-Dad. And that brings us to tonight’s message, another really fine one for this trip and for life in general.)
After dinner we made a fire in the fire pit, watched deer cross the creek into greener pastures, and enjoyed the children from a large Mennonite family as they rode scooters and biked around the campground in overalls and black newsboy caps (for the boys) and aqua dresses and hair caps (for the girls). Our favorite was a little barefoot boy who couldn’t have been more than five. He circled the campground on his sister’s pink scooter at least ten times, very seriously. His focus and energy made me remember (fondly) the days of my kids circling the block in a troupe of neighborhood scooters—and it made me long to hop on a scooter and give it a spin.
Next up: A quick stop in Ucross and then on to Sheridan for our last two nights before heading home.
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
Aside from the massive blanket of pollen over everything we owned, we were sad to leave Prune Creek—especially knowing it would be our last wilderness camping spot on this trip. We’ve got two more days at a KOA in Sheridan and then we start the long trip home.
On our way to Sheridan, we had planned a stopped in Ucross so I could show Len the awesome space where I was awarded a writing residency last April. Just as we were at the crossroads before Ucross, a white Bronco pulled up alongside us. It had an Absaroka County Sheriff decal on the side and the license plate said WALT. The young guy driving it rolled down his window to talk to us at the stop sign (we’re learning this is a SUPER common occurrence in Wyoming—apparently the majority of conversations happen through vehicle driver-side windows). He pointed to the trailer and said, “Where’d you get that?? I want one!” So we pulled over and gave him a tour and a TC Teardrop card. He was totally into it. Then we told him we were big Longmire fans and asked about the Bronco he was driving. He said it was the author’s personal vehicle and he was busily helping him prepare for the coming weekend: Longmire Days in Buffalo, Wyoming. He told us to come to the shop in town the next day around noon and he’d show us around, so we set our watches.
At Ucross, we went to the gallery and saw an amazing show: The Universal language of Birds by Christina Baal, a young artist and avid birder who plans to depict all 10,000 species of the world’s birds as her artist’s mission. I was really, really into the artwork. So good. My favorites were the large paintings with gestural wings (including paint drips that rocked) and super detailed pen and ink heads. She’s really into the idea of the artist / citizen scientist being engaged and making a difference in conservation. Check out the website if you get a chance—or make your own art to add to it. I love her approach. It seems to be a very millennial way of effecting change in the world.
From there, we had cheese sticks at a picnic table on the grounds and went by the Ucross Schoolhouse to see a bit of the renovations there (mostly to the kitchen, which I’m sure will please Cindy, the fabulous gourmet chef who spends her days there). We had hoped to hook up with Ruth Salvatore, but she had some issues come up during the morning’s construction meeting and sadly couldn’t meet with us after all. So we drove around a bit and lingered at the Chapel and the surrounding gardens which were in full bloom.
From Ucross we drove into Sheridan, checked into the KOA Journey there and it was packed for the holiday weekend. We took a quick shower and washed off a peck of pollen each, then disconnected from the trailer and drove into Sheridan looking for a place to eat. We found a Mom and Pop spaghetti/pizza place: lasagna for me and a Reuben for Len. We went back to the campsite and fended off repeated mosquito sorties and attempted to connect to the Internet for the next few hours. Having learned my lesson at every other KOA, I closed my laptop much more quickly than Len and read, eschewing the complicated virtual world. He persisted, blood pressure rising with each “failed to connect” and “failed to send” and “server not found” message.
The sky was only just getting dark when we gave up, climbed in, and crashed. And just a word to the wise, the KOA Journey in Sheridan is not recommended by this camper. The bathrooms weren’t particularly clean and the showers sucked (temp fluctuated wildly every minute or so, plus the showerheads were mounted at an odd angle that shot water straight onto the main floor flooding it). The whole place felt disorganized and unattended and it lacked clear signage for important things (like trash and after-hour sign-ins). Plus the RV campsites were really tightly packed (we often get a little different spots—more like the tent spots—because we don’t need the whole megillah). We’ve got another night reserved here, but don’t plan to do much more than show up and sleep.
Next up: A day in Buffalo Wyoming.
“America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.” – Harry S. Truman
Happy Fourth of July! We rose early and took a quick tour of the Sheridan coffee shops looking (in vain) for Internet service so I could post (and schedule) my recent updates. It seemed the entire town was having connectivity issues so, once again, I calmly closed my laptop and looked forward to the day. I’ve had quite enough meltdowns already, thank you very much. (Wait. Does that many meltdowns make me a snowflake? Hmmm, I guess it does. But a reasonably badass snowflake, if I do say so myself. Plus, gather enough snowflakes in one place and you end up with … an avalanche.)
We toured Fort Phil Kearny (an old fort that only operated from 1866 to 1868) but was an important stop on the Bozeman Trail and housed not only soldiers but lots of civilian family
members, too. It was abandoned in 1868 after a decisive military defeat for the US (second only to Custer’s battle at Little Big Horn which would take place ten years later). It was also one of the few battles in which the Indian tribes came together (Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho warriors) and using the standard US response to an Indian attack to craft a plan and trick the US soldiers into an ambush. Crazy Horse and other warriors acted as decoys and taunted the soldiers into coming down over the ridgeline (an action the acting Captain had been expressly forbidden to take by his CO) where two thousand Indians waited in ambush. All eighty-one men were killed in thirty minutes and marked a decisive victory for the Plains Indians.
Then into Buffalo. Shopped a bit (needed to replace a favorite piece of clothing that has gone mysteriously missing—I will not meltdown, I will not meltdown). A few doors down we found the “campaign headquarters” for Walt Longmire, Absaroka County Sheriff. (Hint: there is no Absaroka County in Wyoming and the author of the Longmire series, Craig Johnson, actually lives in Ucross. I love it when fictional characters become so real that their lives start to bleed over into real life.) We lingered in the store and spent a fair amount of money. I bought a Red Pony T-shirt (with the words “continual soiree” on the sleeve and the first book in the series (signed). Len bought a LONGMIRE T-shirt and a few other must-haves.
We found a great pottery shop on Main Street and browsed for about 45 minutes. I found a simple stoneware bowl that I couldn’t live without. The interior of the bowl was a beautiful salt-fired carbon-trap glaze—one of my absolute favorite glaze combinations—and the drier orange-peel texture on the bottom was to die for.
Then we went across the street to the Occidental Hotel, an old historic hotel that served plenty of Old West characters in its day. (I had been there last year for their open-mic night, along with my fellow Fellows at Ucross, and I knew Len would love the place.) The walls were lined with mounted animal heads and full taxidermy figures. The wolf is a lot bigger animal than you think. BIG paws.
Len wanted a bison burger, and they had one on the menu so we both ordered it, along with a Rainier Beer (the only beer Walt Longmire drinks). (This one’s for you, Walt.)
We walked around the town a bit, stared at Clear Creek as it ran below the bridge in the center of town, noted the flood stage marker that went all the way to nine feet, with the mark above that being RUN. I love this western sense of humor. I get it, it gets me. There was a sign in the bathroom at one of the gas stations that warned tourists not to approach the wild bison with a list of 4 reasons why to not do that with the last two reasons were: 3) The bison may very likely kill you, and 4) It will hurt really bad the whole time you are dying.
We went to a grocery store, bought some cold drinks for the long trip home, filled the cooler with ice, and returned to our lackluster campsite which was made slightly better by a bunch of unauthorized fourth-of-July fireworks being set off in a neighborhood next to the campground.
Next up: Leaving Wyoming (sob!) and heading into The Badlands of South Dakota.
“I been a long time leavin’, but I’m going to be a long time gone.” ~Willie Nelson
We left Sheridan (and Buffalo, boo-hoo) early on the morning of the 5th with our compass (okay, GPS) set toward Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Our last sight of Buffalo and the Bighorns was from a scenic knoll on the Interstate with a meadowlark perched on a nearby fencepost, larking for all he was worth. Seemed fitting, being escorted out of the Bighorn Basin by the warbles and rolling trills of a yellow-throated songster. I stared into the distant snow-capped Bighorns and my throat swelled,too, already missing the friendly people, abundant wildlife, and epic scenery.
I almost never take photographs of informational signs. It seems silly—do people really go back and read those? Is the sign the important thing to capture? Or the sight that the sign is about? At Fort Kearny I watched a woman move from sign to sign taking pictures and never once moving the camera from her eye to actually take in what she was photographing. But on this day, on this departure, on this sign, I wanted to preserve every detail.
We planned to camp at the Sage Creek remote campground area in Badlands National Park. This is one of the National Park areas where you can camp for free but the sites are limited and there’s no way to reserve them ahead of time. We’d had good luck with the BLM sites that use the same model and the National Park website said the site was “rarely full” so we ventured forth with great hopes for a remote, scenic, and peaceful spot. The fact that it involved about 20 miles of dirt roads to get to the site seemed especially promising for weeding out the less serious campers and the big-rig folks.
En route, we stopped in Sturgis, South Dakota, the site of the huge motorcycle rally every summer and a gathering spot the rest of the year, as well. We wanted to take in some local flavor and walked around the town a bit (the temperature was right at 100 degrees, so we walked slowly) then got lunch at The Knuckle Saloon and headed out again.
When we rolled in to the Sage Creek area at 3pm, six of the ten sites were occupied and our best option appeared to be the area normally set aside for horse trailers. At that time of day, with 103-degree heat in the shade, it seemed a pretty good bet that there wouldn’t be many horse riders needing to use the area before nightfall so we pulled in and parked beside a guy who was towing a homemade teardrop and camping with his dog. He came over to check ours out (for, he said, improvements he might want to make—his was only just roughed out enough to be roadworthy, a plywood frame on a Tractor Supply trailer base) and said he had left DC in early June and was headed to California. He’d been camped at Sage Creek since Sunday, when. he said, there had been at least 200 people camped there with RVs parked three-deep in some places. Now, bear in mind that the area only included ten official sites and two pit toilets. We waited out a short squall of rain, deployed some awnings, wetted our clothes, made cold drinks, and prepared to wait out the sun, an exercise in supreme / extreme patience.
As we waited, the cars, trucks, campers, and RVs continued rolling in. Throughout the evening the telltale dust clouds approached, then turned to telltale headlight trails as each additional camping party searched for a spot to claim for the night. There were people setting up tents of every size, shape, and color, people setting out for hikes to nearby ridgelines, kids flying kites, dogs strolling around sniffing, a guy playing a guitar near us, and another sitting on the hood of his vehicle playing a pan flute by the pit toilet as the sun sank behind the hills. Len looked around, counted all the campers, and said, “It’s like Woodstock!” At first it was frustrating to have our claimed spot gradually encroached upon, but there was a really mellow vibe, everyone we encountered seemed super chill, and we relaxed into the beautiful sunset with coyotes singing backup and embraced the unique experience.
Next up: A night in Albert Lea-Austin, Minnesota.
“And you know, when the truth is told, that you can get what you want or you can just get old.” ~Billy Joel
July 6—Happy birthday, Rob!
We left Sage Creek Campground (aka Woodstock) and hit the road for Albert Lea, Minnesota. On the drive out of the park, we saw a TON of wild bison, including a huge male that suddenly appeared ten feet from my vehicle window as it crested a rise next to the road. That was a rush. After the early excitement, though, I slept for a lot of the day’s driving. The road often completely mesmerizes my brain: highway hypnosis. I have to fight it when driving, but when I’m a passenger it takes over and stupefies me.
I was sad watching the hills turn to flatlands: the day after Christmas, when all the presents are opened. In Minnesota, I thought about my grandmother Lavinia growing up in Lakefield. She got the nickname “Minnow” because she could swim in the coldest lakes for hours without getting chilled or tired. Her grandparents owned a dairy farm (she loved buttermilk all her life) and her parents owned the town pharmacy (her father was the pharmacist) which included a lunch counter/soda fountain (run by my great-grandmother who also taught piano lessons). She took great pride in the fact that her father got shunned by the local Episcopal church crowd when he applied for the first liquor license in the county. She also remembered a crowd hanging a stuffed strawman of Kaiser Wilhelm between the pharmacy and the shop next door and burning him in effigy at the start of WWI.
At 6pm (Day 29) we crossed the 5,000 mile mark—and Len has driven every single one of them, except for that fifty feet or so that I drove so he could listen to the bearing/brakes squeal in the Rawlins Tractor Guys parking lot. This 5,000-mile mark is also roughly when he began a slow tailspin of quiet rage (the male version of a meltdown). Suddenly everything became frustrating, difficult, awkward, painful, and rage-inducing. The trailer didn’t want to park correctly, his favorite flashlight went missing, he barked his shins on the hitch, and the road, in other words, just generally sucked. The fact that we are headed home, back to reality, was surely part of it, but there really is a point at which it gets OLD living like a refugee, carrying everything with you, picking up stakes and moving every day, trying to keep track of where you are, where you’re going, and what you need to do in order to get there. No matter how beautiful the scenery, no matter how interesting the history, no matter how fun the adventure, the pressure builds until…
Things I’ve learned (so far) about long trips in the trailer:
- We didn’t need nearly as much expedition-type food as I stocked. We’re actually going home with a lot of what we brought (some frozen, some dried). We only ate a PB&J once. It was just easier to grab a protein bar or cheese stick for lunch.
- The one-month Sirius Satellite radio subscription we forgot about and barely used.
- Cooking outside when it’s 90 degrees or above is like preparing food in the Devil’s Kitchen.
- Swamp cooling really does work and all it requires is a damp cloth and a breeze.
- I didn’t need anywhere near the amount of clothes I packed. We spent days in a row in variations of the same clothing when we were out in the wilderness and when we came back in to civilization we mostly just washed those dirty clothes and put them back on.
- Len only wore two of his three watches. I wore my one pair of earrings every single day.
- Being on the road gets easier … up to a point, and then it tips and suddenly everything seems hard again. 30 days on the road with 25 different sleep spots is definitely a more aggressive travel plan than we’ll want to execute in the future. As with most things, you plan them in the comfort of your home, sitting on your soft couch and dreaming of the road, assuming a much greater future energy store than reality bears out.
- Plan a little extra time for a minor meltdown every seven days or so. Be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t occur.
- Don’t overestimate the amount of writing work that can be accomplished on the road. In reality, it’s pretty small. But take good notes and store up experiences that will seep into future writing.
Next Up: Champaign, Illinois.