Late December the weather had turned bitterly cold in Aiken, SC so on January 2 I lit out towards Florida to see if I could find warmth and sun. I didn’t get south fast enough. My first night out, camping at General Coffee State Park in Georgia, the snow hit and I woke up on January 3rd to huge flakes dropping out of the sky at a good clip.
Roo and I hiked up to the ranger station to ask about road conditions and as I suspected, it was pretty treacherous. State patrol was asking to people to avoid driving. So Roo and I settled in for a snow day.
General Coffee State Park turned out to be a great place to get snowed in. There were a few other campers but Roo and I had all the trails to ourselves and the swamp and forest were absolutely beautiful in the snow.
The park had an old farmstead, complete with farm animals and they were all hunkered together in the log barn, trying to stay warm.
Fortunately I had finally figured out and resolved Greta’s furnace issues that plagued my camping efforts during the eastbound leg. The furnace was humming along and keeping Roo and I toasty and between hikes I had time for plenty of ukelele practice while Roo napped.
The morning of January 4th the temperature started creeping up above freezing and the snow and ice started melting. By late morning the roads had cleared enough that I felt safe getting out on the roads and continuing south into Florida.
While fueling up at a gas station at some podunk town in Georgia, I noticed an older gent in a pick up truck slowly sliding up, clearly interested in the van, and soon I found myself chatting with Mr. Bo (Beau?) Fender. In a lovely thick southern drawl he explained that he had owned a VW van back in the 60’s and had nothing but fond memories of his adventures in the van. He asked me about my travel plans and when I indicated that I was kind of winging it and preferred country to city touring, he jumped out of his pickup and started laying out a route for me along the northwestern coast of Florida. I figured what the heck and took his suggestions and decided to see where Mr. Fender’s travel tips took me.
I headed south, following a route on country roads through small towns, avoiding any main highways. I drove past recently harvested cotton fields. The white billowy remnants of the cotton harvest lined the country roads like snow banks. Peach, apricot, olive and blueberry farms popped up at regular intervals. Cattle ranches, tree farms and logging outfits took over as I ventured further into Florida.
I ended up rolling into the small town of Keaton Beach, FL, on the afternoon of January 4th and parked in the driveway of Mr. Fender’s vacation house, at his invitation of course. The house was locked and I couldn’t get in the house but Mr. Fender had encouraged me to enjoy the view from the decks and Roo and I did. It was freezing out, in the 30’s, and I was bundled up head to toe, but up on the Mr. Fender’s sunny decks I could lean up against the house in the sun and soak in the warmth from the wood siding and deck and enjoy the view.
After a beer and burger at Walter B’s at the local service station and quick drive thru town, I set up camp in Mr. Fender’s driveway and Roo and I enjoyed a quiet evening.
January 5th, I pushed off early. The northwestern coast of Florida is one of the least developed parts of the Florida coast, probably because there’s more marsh and tidal flats to be found than beach. Lack of beaches makes it less popular with the tourists. It was a little desolate, a little wild, a little run down. It didn’t feel overly developed or commercialized. Natural and wildlife management areas lined the coast and the variety and abundance of birds was astounding.
I found a quiet spot to run Roo just outside of Keaton Beach and then a little further on, a good little cafe for breakfast in the historic river town of Steinhatchee, FL. The waitress at the cafe wanted to know how the heck someone from Seattle, WA had found their way to their little cafe in Steinhatchee. Word of mouth, baby.
Popped into Manatee State Park along the drive. I did not know that Florida is speckled with springs. At this particular park, fresh water bubbles up out of the ground at the astounding rate of 100 millions of gallons daily. The water is a generally a nice temperate temperature, like 72 degrees, making these spring areas very attractive to wildlife, particularly manatees. Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular activities at many of the spring sights. (Which seems a little insane to me considering this is gator territory as well.)
I did see a manatee… sort of. It was a grey blobby thing floating below the surface and I could see flippers moving. I also saw my first green heron.
The Suwannee River lets out into the Gulf of Mexico in the area that I was travelling through and Roo and I stopped to do a short hike in the Suwanee Wildlife Refuge.
We encountered an armadillo during a hike. The little guy didn’t give a hoot about us and just went about his business, rooting around in the forest duff.
From the Suwannee River, I headed south to Cedar Key, a cluster of small islands off the west coast of Florida. Here I found a quaint and artsy community, with a good number of historic buildings and houses still in intact, not overly commercialized yet. I overheard someone say that they could still feel the ‘old’ Florida on the northwestern coast and I picked up on that vibe.
Cedar Key turns out to be a pretty dang good spot for sunsets.
After 2 days in Cedar Key of putzing around and recovering from a bout of food poisoning I decided to loop back up north along the coast and explore more of the gulf coast. It was a nice, mellow drive along the coast weaving in and out of small towns. No real big fancy resorts and hotels that I could see. Apalachicola, FL in particular took me by surprise as being just cute as a button. That’s a place I’d like to go back to and spend more time exploring.
I ended up at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park the afternoon of January 7th. The park is just this sliver of land that juts north into the Gulf of Mexico with miles and miles of pristine beach and it’s just mind numbingly beautiful.
As soon as we got settled into a campsite, I bundled up and headed out with Roo to walk and explore.
Roo wasn’t allowed on the beach but a few of trails in the park were dog friendly and offered incredible views. The birding was incredible. Pelicans flew in formation along the beach, skimming along the tops of waves and occasionally peeling off to dive for fish. Ospreys and eagles perched in the pines, scanning for prey. Long-legged shorebirds bobbed along the edge of the shore. A pair of great horned owls perched right in the middle campground and just hung out sleeping for a good portion of the afternoon.
Although the campgrounds were nearly full, the trails and beaches at the park were practically deserted. I think the cold weather had people hunkering down somewhere inside which worked well for me and Roo. It felt at times like we had the place to ourselves.
I don’t think I’ve ever been on beaches so clean and unspoiled. Shell collecting is popular here because of how many unbroken shells you can find washed up on the beach.
A fellow camper at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park recommended I check out St. George Island State Park, also along the gulf coast, not farm where I was. I thought, no way, can it be as nice as St. Joseph Peninsula State Park but I decided to go check it out anyway.
Man, was I wrong. St. George Island State Park was amazing. This beautiful park has an extensive dog friendly trail system and allows dogs on the bay side beaches. Roo and I hiked and hiked and hiked for 2 days and had epic games of kick and chase the pine cones. During those 2 days on the trails, we encountered people on the trail only twice.
St. George Island State Park. Beautiful, open pine forests with grasslands and marsh.
On January 10, I packed up camp and started making my way north via back country highways, towards Aiken, SC.
Stumbled upon Santa Claus, GA on the way home. Wasn’t looking too prosperous I’m afraid.
On my last day of driving, I experienced the first serious rain storm of my entire road trip so far and found that Greta’s windshield wipers were coming loose. Not a good thing when driving 55 mph in the pouring rain on a back country highway with no breakdown lane and and a soft, sandy shoulder.
I returned back to Aiken, SC on January 11th. The weather was still chilly. I had never found the warmth but I got sun, beach, snow, and amazing nature. Other than the windshield incident, Greta performed like a champ. Roo and I settled in to a studio apartment at my aunt and uncle’s horse barn and got ready to take on a dog and horse sitting gig. Roo was super psyched to be back at the farm. She was completely tuckered out from our jaunt to Florida and back as you can see.
More to come soon about our fun times on the farm. Stay tuned.
Friday, October 13th, I set off from my friends’ house in the mountains in Silverthorne, CO for the last 60 mile push to Denver. It was slow going. The Colorado mountain passes, generally ranging in elevation from 8,000 to 11,000 feet, were seriously challenging Greta. She could only sustain a max speed of 30 mph on the mountain pass inclines. I knew she’d be slow, but come on! I kept to the right hand lane, hazard lights blinking, hoping nobody smashed into me from behind. It was stressing me out a bit. I hoped nothing was seriously wrong with Greta.
Arriving at my sister’s house in Denver was a relief. I was looking forward to being in one general place for more than a day or two. I was ready for a break from the road churn.
I like visiting Denver. People are so nice and outgoing and ready for a good time. My visits always seem to include too much in the line of drink and food and this trip was no exception to this trend. Fun times as always!!
My time in Denver was interrupted by a short side trip to Fort Collins, CO on Monday and Tuesday, October 16th and 17th. Fort Collins is a little over an hour north of Denver and is home to Rocky Mountain Westy. a VW Vanagon mechanic and conversion specialist. I spent both days hanging around Fort Collins while they sorted out several issues with Greta. These guys were great! Can’t recommend them enough. They helped me understand that Greta’s sluggish performance on mountain passes was normal due to the effect of the high altitude on the engine’s performance and was not indicative of a serious issue. Whew!
The side trip to Fort Collins, CO, turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I really enjoyed poking around the town while Greta was in the shop and I added Fort Collins to my list of possible future landing places. The historic downtown is full of art galleries and restaurants and the town seems to have a vibrant art scene. A trail system runs through the city along the river and safe biking options seem available. People were super friendly and outgoing. Worth a second look in the future, I think.
From Fort Collins, I headed back to Denver and continued the fun and indulgent hiatus from road travel and enjoyed visiting old favorites (Denver Botanical Garden, walks in Wash Park, Sushi Den, The Dive In) while developing tastes for new Denver habits (Kaladi Coffee, Comida’s in the RINO district, The Englewood Grand Bar).
Catching up with family and old friends was grounding and a nice change from being around strangers all the time. Getting out to enjoy and indulge in Denver’s sights and sounds was rejuvenating and flat out fun. But after ten days in Denver, it was time to push on. Fortunately I had found a trucking service center in Denver to fix Greta’s furnace issue so I wasn’t hitting the road still with a broken furnace. Camping was back on the table.
Monday, October 23rd, my friend Alyssa flew in from Seattle. She was leaving her husband and dog behind in Seattle for 10 days to be my co-pilot on the Denver to Santa Fe stretch of the road trip.
From the Denver airport we headed out route 285, heading southwest. Our first stop was Salida, CO, a town specifically recommended to me by several people to check out as a potential future landing spot. LOVED IT! A beautifully preserved historic down town; right on a river; hiking/biking/skiing galore; a funky, artistic vibe; felt like tourism wasn’t the only gig in town. We had a great overnight at the Simple Lodge and Hostel and enjoyed good burgers and beer at Benson’s. (They had a kolsch style beer on tap! Made my day!) Salida is solidly on my list of potential future landing spots.
Tuesday, October 24th, we set out from Salida heading for Crested Butte, CO. We followed route 50 up to Monarch Pass at 11, 316 feet. Alyssa, Roo and I got out of the van at the pass and hiked up to the ridge to take in the incredible views.
From Monarch Pass, we continued along route 50, stopping at the ranger station in Gunnison to look for info on hikes that we could do on our way into Crested Butte. We decided on checking out the Taylor River and Reservoir, a slight diversion to the northeast on our approach in to Crested Butte.
The road wound picturesquely along the Taylor River canyon and we enjoyed the leisurely drive, taking in the fall color along the way. As we approached the reservoir, we came around a corner, a sheer rock wall to the right, guard rail and drop off to the left. I noticed what I thought was water dropping down the rock wall onto the road. It turned out to be black ice and I lost control of the van when we hit the patch, veering first at the rock wall face to the right and then veering back left towards the guard rail and drop off. Fortunately I didn’t oversteer or slam on the brakes. We ultimately ended up doing a 180, coming to a stop, facing back the way we had come. A little in shock and disbelief of what had just happened, I gently eased the van back down hill. Alyssa and I both agreed the wisest corse of action would be to skip seeing the reservoir. A few minutes back down the road, we stopped along the river for a snack and a Roo river romp and a breather while I recovered from the shock of losing control of the van. Still freaks me out to recall the incident. The road trip gods were truly looking out for Alyssa and I that day.
From the Taylor River area we headed into Crested Butte and landed at a friend of Alyssa’s. We treated ourselves and Ryan, our host, to pizza and beer that evening at The Secret Stash (order the Notorious F.I.G. if you ever make it there. Tasty pizza!), located in the ridiculously cute historic part of Crested Butte. After dinner we spent a cozy evening at Ryan’s sweet pad, hanging with his dog, Reba, and picking his brain on what to do and what not to do in our days on the road to come.
Wednesday, October 25th, rolled around and as usual Roo and I were the first ones up. I took her for a walk around Crested Butte South and hoped to hunt up a latte. I found excellent coffee and baked goods at Camp 4 Coffee. The day was off to a great start!
Roo and I were not the only person/dog combination out for their morning walk and coffee search but we were the only person/dog combination attached by leash and I’m sure we stuck out as the out-of-towners that were are. I often measure the value of a place based on how dog friendly it is and Colorado mountain towns stand out as dog friendly meccas. For example, there is a sign at the end of Ryan’s street that reads “FREE ROAMING DOGS WILL BE FINED”. Ryan told us that someone had come along and removed the ‘D’ so that the sign read “FREE ROAMING DOGS WILL BE FINE” for a period of time. Eventually the city caught on and added back in the missing ‘D’. We all agreed it was time for someone to remove the ‘D’ again.
By the time Roo and I returned from the coffee hunt, Ryan and Alyssa were starting to stir for the day. We packed up and said bon voyage to Ryan and Reba. Alyssa and I stopped again in historic Crested Butte to fuel ourselves up at the The Guild Cafe where we found finely crafted coffee and tasty breakfast options. We drove out of the northwest side of town and started making our way along the Kebler Pass Road, part of the West Elk Loop Scenic & Historic Byway.
Wow! This was an amazing drive. The road up and over Kebler Pass, peaking at 10,007 feet, starts from Crested Butte and runs generally west 30 miles until it intersects with Highway 133 near the town of Paonia. Most of the road is gravel and runs through the largest stretch of aspen forest that I have ever laid eyes on. The leaves on the aspen had already fallen, affording us views of the mountain vistas. We stopped for a quick hike in the Lake Irwin area near the pass and took in the views.
Alyssa and I were both trying to imagine what the drive up and over Kebler Pass must be like when the aspens are at the peak of their fall color. We had seen enough isolated aspens and cottonwoods in protected pockets still holding onto their leaves and knew how gloriously golden a single aspen or cottonwood could be. What would miles and miles of aspen forest be like?? If we hiked in it would we feel like we were bathed in gold? We have both vowed to return someday to find out.
After completing the Kebler Pass road, we stopped in Paonia, CO for lunch and a quick walk around the small, funky downtown area. Then we were off for our last driving stretch of the day, aiming for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. As we drove, the scenery transitioned from mountain forests to high desert plateaus.
We rolled into the park late in the afternoon. The entrance station was unmanned and the campground was practically deserted. I’ve never seen so few people at a national park before. After securing a campsite, we quickly set out to try to get a hike in before the sunset and got a little taste of how amazing the Black Canyon area is.
I’m a park ranger!
We spent that evening enjoying a camp fire and star gazing and then we settled in for our first night of camping in Greta. It was cold but the furnace was working again so we spent a comfortable evening.
Thursday, October 26th, we awoke to sunny skies and we set off to hit every overlook hike we could get to along the south rim of the park. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is difficult to describe. It’s a natural wonder of the world, a freak of nature, amazing and sort of terrifying. From some of the overlook trails it was possible to peer 2000 feet straight down. Similar to my experience when I visited the Grand Canyon, my brain was having problems making sense of the sheer quantity of space in front of me and it left me feeling weak in the knees. But the views were intoxicating and we just had to check out every last look out spot we could get to before we were ready to call it and hit the road.
Mid afternoon we left the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and started to make our way south along route 550, headed into the San Juan Mountains for a night in Ouray, CO.
We had heard that Ouray is a ridiculously picturesque town, known as the Switzerland of the US. We were not disappointed… see for yourself!
And bonus! Ouray is known for hot springs! We quickly dismissed any ideas of camping and agreed we should get a room at a place with hot spring pools.
After a soak in the hot springs at our hotel we set out for a night on the town. We hoped to start the evening at the distillery with a tasting of Colorado whiskeys but found they were closed for a few weeks, taking a break between seasons. We found several other places in town also closed for a short break before the winter season hit. Ahhh.. the schedule of a Colorado mountain town. Got to love it.
We hit the two brewpubs in town and then hit the hay early, wiped out after a couple of beers and whiskeys. As we were falling asleep, Alyssa and I were already strategizing on how best to fit in another hot spring soak in the morning before we checked out.
Friday, October 27th, we both rallied early to start our day with coffee and hot spring soaks. We checked out Cascade Falls on the edge of town for a quick morning walk before heading out of town, bound for Durango, CO.
Alyssa at base of falls.
Alyssa pretending to be a yeti in the opening to the right of falls.
Roo trying to figure out how to get to the Alyssa yeti.
The drive between Ouray and Durango is one of the prettiest drives I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. Signs like this one are typical:
We stopped in Silverton, CO, along the way to Durango and had a blast poking around this cute town. They have a park in downtown with a public art installation featuring xylophones, free to all to be played, and we gave them a whirl. We enjoyed listening to a terrific pianist, knocking out ragtime classics, while lunching at the newly remodeled Grand Imperial Hotel. After lunch we did a took a quick walk up to the Christ of the Mines Shrine and enjoyed the spectacular view of the town and surrounding valley.
From Silverton, we continued the drive to Durango and hit more stinking pretty. I was looking forward to checking out Durango. It was on the list of potential long term landing spots as I’d heard many positive things about the town.
We rolled into Durango mid afternoon, got settled into a motel on the edge of the historic downtown area and then headed out for dinner. We quickly formed less than favorable opinions of Durango as a good potential long term landing spot for me. Too much of a college town party scene and a few too many rough and crazy looking people roaming around on the streets for my tastes. Perhaps our Durango experience was somehow flavored by the fact that it was the weekend before Halloween and perhaps the party scene was on overdrive as a result. Either way, not exactly the town vibe I’m looking for in the next long term place but it made for a fun evening. When in Rome…
First stop was the Eno Wine bar for fancy cocktails and an appetizer. Then onto the Diamond Belle Saloon in the historic Strater Hotel, famous for period decor and costumes as well as gun fight reenactments. The saloon was packed and had a very festive, drunkey vibe. A talented female trio was belting out some good bluegrass tunes. While sitting at the bar Alyssa conceived of a game that we would continue to play for the remainder of the evening called “Halloween or Durango? You tell me.” Muy fun.
We sat at the bar, chatting to our barstool neighbors, and found ourselves in conversations that we hadn’t really expected to have in southwest Colorado. One with a cowboy-esque electrical engineer, referencing the work of geneticist Dr. Spencer Wells and arguing that the U.S. should adopt a more socialist model. The other with a friendly woman, long time resident of Durango and common frequenter of the saloon. She was nursing a red wine and some sort of cocktail simultaneously (impressive!) and proudly showing off pictures of her gay son and partner and their recently adopted children in their halloween costumes. Unexpected and an absolute hoot!
Based on a tip, we headed around the corner to the Wild Horse Saloon for some live music and dancing. We caught the tail end of the Cha Cha Dance contest, grand prize of $200, and then watched the live music and dancing.
I was in heaven! I love me some country music and dancing. The band was great! Eddie Rabbit’s “Driving My Life Away” was the hit of the night (for me anyway) and landed solidly on the Greta road trip sound track.
I was so entertained. I find it fascinating to watch a couple on the dance floor that really know what the heck their doing. None of that sway side to side shit but real dance moves that require two people to move as one. That’s some badass skill.
And it’s not just the good dancers I love. I love anyone brave enough to put themselves out on that floor. I love the whole scene, good and bad. The look of contentment on peoples’ faces as they glide and move effortlessly around a dance floor, or stumble their way in blissful clumsiness, either way… when I see that look I think, “I want some of that..we all NEED some of that.”
And then of course there are always the dance floor dumpster fires. Those couples where one or two of them are only out there because they’ve had way too much to drink and it’s probably not going to end pretty but it’s impossible to tear your eyes away.
Alyssa patiently sat by and indulged my dance floor voyeurism. We called it a night before it got too late and things got weird. The plan was to skedaddle out of Durango as early as possible the next day so we needed to hit the hay.
Saturday, October 28th, we hightailed it out of Durango, aiming to make it Tao, NM for the evening. About an hour outside of Durango we pulled into the town of Pagosa Springs for breakfast and a quick walk around. Man! Alyssa and I were both regretting that we hadn’t driven through Durango the day before and landed at Pagosa Springs instead for an evening. This town is the shiznits! Hot springs right on a beautiful river that flows through the middle of town Skiing, biking, hiking, rafting, climbing, riding, etc… you name a recreational option, this town has it. Alyssa was ready to plant herself in Pagosa Springs and move no further.
Hot springs along the river.
From Pagosa Springs we pushed on and drove through pretty country and up and over a couple of mountain passes. The landscape increasingly turned to high desert sage brush. As we approached Taos, we started to notice strange, whimsical structures and stopped to figure out what exactly we were seeing.
It was a housing community made up of Earthship Biotecture designed homes. What a wonderfully weird and rad and inspiring thing we had stumbled upon. The structures are designed to be totally autonomous, off the grid homes.
Construction supplies include recycled materials such as used automobile tires, glass bottles and tin cans. The use of recycled glass bottles lets light in, creates a beautiful stained glass effect from the inside, and makes use of a cheap and plentiful waste product.
After going gaga over the Earthship community, we got back on the road headed towards Taos. Alyssa and I were both taken by surprise when we hit the bridge that spanned the Rio Grande River gorge. Whoa! Big bridge! Big river gorge!
We pulled over to walk out on the bridge and take pics with the rest of the tourists. Well, I actually sprinted because I was so freaked out by the height that I wanted to get back to the van as fast as possible.
While I waited in the car in the van for Alyssa, I executed a google search on “Ojo Caliente”, a town name we had just recently seen called out on a road sign. It rang a bell to both Alyssa and me but we couldn’t remember exactly what it was.
The search results returned pictures of people sitting in hot spring pools with beautiful sand stone towers in the background. When Alyssa returned to the van, I showed Alyssa the pictures and said this is about 30 minutes away. She responded with “Why aren’t we driving there right now??”. So we said, SCREW TAOS! and changed our destination to the historic hot springs spa of Ojo Caliente.
We hightailed it to the resort and secured a spot in their campground and then took a quick hike around the grounds. Holy freaking friolejes we could tell this place was something else.
After the quick hike we headed over to the resort to soak in the pools. The resort is just beautiful , featuring historic buildings and a hot spring/spa with several hot spring pools, saunas, mud baths, etc.
The sun was setting as we hit the facilities. We watched the stars come out and the moon rise. I floated for many minutes on my back in the heated swimming pool staring up at the sky. It was magical and I experienced a deep sense of calmness while just floating there.
After turning ourselves into prunes, we went to the resort’s restaurant and had a very nice meal featuring vegetables from the resort’s garden. The amount of vegetables we were served was absurd. It being the end of the growing season, the chef saw no use in holding back and just prepared what was available and ripe and served what they had on hand. As a result, the salads coming out of the kitchen were seriously big enough to feed four people. We were in hog heaven. Stuffed and fully sated we staggered back to the campsite and cozied up in the van for the night.
Sunday, October 29th we woke up in a cold van. The furnace was out again in Greta, damn it! Roo and I got up and got going and repeated our hike from the day before but this time we had more company on the trail. Yikes!
After my morning walk with Roo, Alyssa and I sauntered over to the resort restaurant to find complimentary coffee and a wood fire to warm us up. This was true glamping!
A nice couple also camping at Ojo Caliente shared travel tips with us before we headed out. They had a sweet dog named Bode who patiently posed to show off his leaf hat as well as his self portrait in his fur along his side.
We packed up the van and started making our way to Santa Fe, via a scenic route through the area NE of Santa Fe. Our first stop along the scenic drive was for brunch at Sugar Nymphs in Penasco. Amazing scones and breakfast options.
Totally stuffed we continued the scenic drive, stopping in Las Truchas and Chimayo to check out historic churches and churchy stuff.
From Chimayo we headed to Santa Fe via road 503, a crazily curvy and narrow road at times. Picturesque as hell but at times, I honestly thought we were perhaps driving down someone’s driveway.
We landed at our lovely little casita airbnb in Santa Fe and headed out to check out Maria’s for dinner. Maria’s is famous for their extensive margarita menu and tequila tasting flights. We indulged in both margaritas and tequila tasting. I learned of the joy of a honey dipped sopaipilla for desert. After dinner we returned to our rental casita to watch the starry sky from the hot tub. Out first night in Santa Fe was pretty freaking awesome.
Monday, October 30th, we awoke to our first full day in Santa Fe. We decided to walk into the Plaza area and see if we could hunt up decent coffee. We walked along the Santa Fe River trail, grooving on the adobe architecture and public art along the way.
We fueled up on excellent coffee at Iconik Coffee Roasters and took in some of the sights in the Santa Fe Plaza area.
The more I walked around Santa Fe the more charmed I was with the town and architecture. It felt like being in a foreign country. The low adobe horses with courtyards and the narrow winding streets were not typical of my experience of U.S. towns. Art and religion were on display everywhere.
Monday afternoon we drove up road 475 into Carson National Forest and enjoyed a nice hike on the Black Canyon Trail. After the hike, we headed to a Japanese inspired spa bordering the national forest, Ten Thousand Waves , for an evening of soaking, massages and dinner at the Japanese style pub. Worth a visit!
Tuesday, October 31st, we spent most of the day poking around The Plaza and Canyon Road area, discovering the fine food at Pasquale’s and visiting the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.
Walking along the Santa Fe River
Seeing Georgia O’Keefe’s work was one of my primary reasons for visiting Santa Fe. I read about Georgia O’Keefe in my teens which started sort of an obsession (I named one of my first cats, Georgia, in her honor) so a trip to Santa Fe had to include my pilgrimage to her museum.
Unfortunately the museum was in the process of turning over the exhibit and just two small rooms of paintings and sketches were available for viewing but OH MY! Seeing the paint strokes, the smudges, the texture of the paper, the subtle third dimensional qualities of her pieces knocked my socks off. I was totally unprepared for my reaction to seeing her work up close.
The full exhibit was going to open that upcoming Saturday and I decided right then and there that I was NOT leaving northern New Mexico until I had seen the full exhibit and visited her studio up in Abiquiu, NM.
After museums and walking around town, we took an afternoon siesta at our casita and then made attempts at costumes (Alyssa as a cowgirl, me as Red Riding Hood) and headed to Meow Wolf, an art installation/live music venue, for Halloween. It was SO FUN and weird and whacky in the best way. We poked around the art installation space and then shaked our booties to first a brass/funk band and then to a hedonistic, afro-pop inspired act.
This piece should be entitled “Helllppp…. meeee…”:
Alyssa (in her cowgirl costume), exploring the space:
The opening act, the Partizani Brass Band:
Headliner, Golden Dawn Arkestra’s intro: (Unfortunately failed to get any music. Was too busy dancing!)
Wednesday, November 1st, came around and sadly Alyssa was to fly out that afternoon. We decided to fit in a trip to Bandelier National Monument before she had to be dropped at the airport. Just an hour outside of Santa Fe, this proved to be an incredibly scenic step back in time.
Looking for petroglyphs
Perhaps an early version of Mr. Hankey?
After Bandelier, I dropped Alyssa at the Santa Fe Airport, the smallest airport I’ve even seen. The difference between premier and general parking was whether or not you parked in the paved or gravel outdoor parking lots.
I spent that afternoon catching up on laundry and trying to get organized for being a solo traveler again. I hadn’t really thought or planned out too much past Alyssa’s departure date. I extended the reservations an extra night at our Santa Fe airbnb and spent the evening working on the plan to kill time in northern New Mexico while I waited for the full Georgia O’Keefe exhibit to reopen. But that’s for another road report.
In the meantime, poor Roo is sorely missing Alyssa and continues to look for her. Sorry, Roo…just you and me for now.
On Monday, 10/2, I reluctantly left Tumalo, OR and waved good bye to my friends. I had had such a good time and it was nice to be around people and in a comfort zone again. I felt myself feeling dragging a little as I pulled away from their house.
I headed SE on Highway 20. The drive was pretty and the vistas were incredible. I was heading into a very sparsely populated area, with few services, and I had to be careful to make sure I planned routes around fueling up.
This is big sky country where the highways run straight as an arrow for miles and the views and sky go on for miles. Driving was easy and I saw little traffic.
I stopped in Burns, OR for dinner. Burns is a potentially cute town with historic buildings but clearly not thriving. I walked by a real estate office and took a peak at real estate prices. Houses priced in the 150 – 50k range in general. CHEAP!! by my Seattle standards. But when I took Roo for a walk around the town, as soon as I got a couple of blocks off the main street, things started to look really rough.
This trip has been an opportunity to witness first hand how rural communities are struggling. The ones that appear to be healthy are few and far between. While in Tumalo, I attended a presentation at the High Desert Museum where Walter Robb (former co-CEO of Wholefoods) talked about the partnership between Wholefoods and Country Natural Beef. An audience member asked Mr. Robb if he saw evidence that rural communities were drying up. He felt that was true and he didn’t have anything really positive to say. That was disheartening. I hate to see these small town communities crumbling, especially those that have historic architecture.
It was dark when I finally made it to my intended camping spot at Crystal Crane Hot Springs and Roo and I immediately hunkered down for the eve. The temperatures were in the 20’s at night. Quite nippy! It was the first time I tried to figure out how to camp in the van without popping the pop up camper to conserve heat. With the pop top down and the furnace going, it was toasty!
The next day, 10/3, I woke early and started off the day by watching the sunrise while soaking in the hot springs pond. It was FREAKING MAGICAL! I couldn’t believe my day was starting off with a swim in a hot spring pond.
I pushed off for the day. First stop of the day was the Pete French Round State Heritage Site. So cool! Built in the 1880’s! Pete French sounds like he was bit of a bastard. He became a cattle barron by grabbing up land using dubious legal claims and intimidation tactics. His employees were apparently very loyal to him but get on his bad side, look out! He was eventually shot and the man who shot him was found innocent, public opinion having turned so far against the large cattle barons that apparently a person could shoot one and get away with it.
Pete French Historic Round Barn
I drove further along, passing through the Diamond Crater’s area, evidence of ancient lava flows all around.
This is cattle ranching country and I came around a corner to find some cowboys driving their cattle. I sat patiently while they passed. I was amazed at how quiet and peaceful it was as they passed. Just the clip clop of hooves and dust. The two cowboys tipped their hats as they passed but that was it. Man, having a work day where you spend the day out in the field, riding a horse, looked pretty good to me.
I drove on to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (You may recall that this was the site of a stand off with the US government in 2016.) I drove around on gravel roads all day through stunning scenery and saw maybe 10 people total. This is a big spot for migrating birds but I did not really see much of that activity. Roo and I didn’t really mind.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Overlook of Malheur
At the end of the day I fueled up in the TINY town of Frenchglen, OR. Cute with a historic hotel that is the only game in town. I was bummed to find no vacancy and no availability to get in on their dinner service.
I ended up camping at Paige Springs Campground. It is a well used campground. There were several campers and RV’s but it was pretty and the campsites were nice and spread out so it was very quiet. Roo and I took a stroll around the campsite and she completely spazzed out when a deer bolted. She ended up crashing into me and sending me to the ground. Ofcourse other campers witnessed this incident to my embarrassment. Now that I am east of the mountains and heading south east, I find myself increasingly in the land of poky and spiny things. I ended up with about 40 splinters in my hand and it took about 5 days to finally dig them all out.
From our campground, after a nice quiet night, Roo and I took a beautiful walk along the Blitzen River the next morning. OH MAN! What a nice start to a day!
After our quick stroll along the river, I took off from the campground and set off to drive the Steens Mountain Loop Road. Oh…my…god! This is probably one of the top 10 coolest things I’ve done in my life. I will let the pictures and video speak for themselves.
View from the Kiger Gorge Overlook:
Views from the East Rim Overlook: (The Alvord Desert can be seen in picture below on the right. More on that in a bit…)
View at the top of the road, looking across the plateau:
Views from the south side of the loop road:
After the Steen Mountain Loop, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do next. I had planned on camping at the South Steen Campground but when we drove past, I just wasn’t feeling it so I pushed on. I started heading towards Fields, OR. It was the next logical fueling up point and there’s a motel/restaurant there called Fields Station that I thought might be my next overnight spot. When I arrived, I discovered they were all booked up so on a whim I decided to try Alvord Hotsprings, another 30 min drive up the road.
Oh..my..god! This is probably one of the top 10 coolest places I’ve been in my life. (Yeah, I know I just said something like that about the Steen Mountains Loop, but this turned out to be an extra special day.)
The Alvord Hotsprings is this rustic family run hot springs that sits on the edge of the Alvord Desert. Paul, the owner was there, and checked me in. The hot springs is tiny and rustic and barebones. I loved it.
Paul is struggling with how recent exposure via social media has changed the nature of the place. On the one hand, income from the hot springs has been doubling year after year for the past few years. On the other hand, with the number of visitors doubling year after year, the quiet, unknown, secret treasure feeling is being compromised. And as the number of visitors grows it means more management and Paul is a rancher. He has 2500 head of cattle and would really rather be back at the ranch tending to ranch business than dealing with the hot springs. His hot spring care taker had just recently quit and he asked several times if I would stick around for a few days and run the place for him. I was tempted for about 10 seconds, but no, had to keep moving. People and places to see!
Paul was concerned that I wasn’t carrying a handgun on my trip and highly encouraged me to get a .38. He actually brought a loaded one back with him from the ranch and had me hold it to get a sense of the size and feel. Uf da! This is something I have really mixed feelings about. I don’t really want the responsibility of a loaded weapon. On the other hand, it’s going to suck if I find myself in a position thinking, dang I wish I had a gun right now.
After a soak in the hotspring, I drove Greta out onto the desert floor and played fetch with Roo while I enjoyed cocktails and I watched the sun go down over the desert and then the full moon rise over the mountains. It was just crazy beautiful and serene. I felt immensely grateful that the road trip gods or the universe or whatever had led me down this path. If there had been a room at the Fields motel I never would have ventured to Alvord and would have missed this surreal experience.
I was the only one that spent the night at the hot springs. My next day started off with watching the sunrise from the hot spring pools.
I decided I needed to spend another day. Alvord Desert was just too cool and I really wanted to take it all in and spend more time out on the desert floor.
Before heading out to the desert, on a tip from Paul, I ventured way back on some gravel roads to find Mickey Springs. These springs are too hot to soak in. People and pets have died here. The waters are boiling temperatures but totally cool to check out.
After Mickey Springs I decided to drive out on the desert again and just hang out there for the afternoon.
It was amazing. This is probably the closest I will get to being in a vacuum. It was SO SO still and quiet. Everything, even the clouds, seemed to have stopped and become suspended in time. It was a deeply moving experience. I stayed out there all afternoon just chilling out and enjoying the peace and stillness.
Initially the desert seemed completely devoid of life. It seemed completely barren. But then I noticed these little spiders living in the cracks. Amazing!
I spent my second night at the hot springs and my morning started off again with a nice hot soak. My moment of bliss:
Then Roo and I ventured just up the road to check out a trailhead I had spied on the way back from Mickey Springs. I wanted to try to fit in a quick hike before doing a bunch of driving. The road up to the trail head was WAY rougher than I was expecting and it was giving me an opportunity to test Greta’s mettle. As I was getting closer to the trailhead I could see several trucks up there and then I noticed a group of people watching me navigate the road. Oh boy, I had an audience. Great. Fortunately, Greta tackled the rough road like champ! When I finally got up there I was met by a nice bunch of guys who had been camping annually at this spot for the past 35 years. They had apparently spotted Greta several times over the past week, starting in Bend, and were excited to see me and get a closer look at the van.
After a nice chat with the guys, Roo and I hit the trail. It was AWESOME and Roo and I had nice hike to start the day. There was evidence along the trail of mining activity from back in the day.
Evidence of an old mine
After the hike it was time to start making our way southeast. I had a week to get to Denver and about 1000 miles to cover and I didn’t want to do a bunch of highway driving or spend too many hours in the car. 4 hour driving days are about the max I can handle.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I started heading to SE Oregon and it totally blew my mind! You won’t find much in terms of amenities and services so be prepared to be self sufficient. But you’ll find amazing nature and wilderness and wide open country and opportunities to really get away from it all. It’s SO SO quiet. I did feel truly removed from it all on this leg of the trip. Here’s a map that illustrates the ground I covered on this leg. Put SE Oregon on your bucket list, people!
I left SE Oregon, heading towards Winnemucca, NV and intending to take highway 50 towards Denver. This route was recommended by someone I met along the way and each time I’ve followed someone’s recommendation I have not been disappointed. This stretch of highway is known as the ‘loniest highway’ so I’m expecting long stretches without any amenities and little contact with other people. A bit apprehensive but we’ll see how it goes.
From 8/16 to 8/28 my mom joined me from South Carolina for a Vancouver Island exploration and I fell head over heels in love with the island. So beautiful and wild the people were wonderfully outgoing and friendly.
On 8/16 I picked up my mom from the Seattle airport. She had flown from South Carolina to join me for a trip to Vancouver Island.
We spent the first 2 nights up in Skagit Valley, at an airbnb on Samish Island. We poked around Edison, hit the Bow Farmers market, took Roo for a walk at Samish flats, checked out the Braezelle Center and their small aquarium.
Pigs at the farmers market
The Bow Farmers Market
Walking Roo at Samish Flats
Cocktails at Bayview State Park
On day 3 we caught the ferry from Anacortes to Sidney, BC. It’s a beautiful, scenic ride, winding through the San Juan Islands.
Greta on the ferry
Mom on the ferry. Olympic Mountains in the background.
Qualicum Beach, about 2 hours north of Victoria on the east coast was our first stop for 3 nights. The town was charming, small and quaint and quiet. A lovely walk on the water front was the perfect place to watch the sunset. We caught a sand sculpting competion in Parksville, ate a ton of cheese at BoMe Market and hiked to Illusion Lakes where Roo enjoyed some swimming time.
Old Man Canada
The sand sculpture competition.
Justin Beaver – ha ha!
While staying in Qualicum Beach, we day tripped to Tofino, a popular surf town on the West Coast of the island. To get there you take a windy, scenic highway up and over the mountains that bisect Vancouver Island, passing thru towering forests and by clear lakes and rivers. In Tofino we enjoyed lunch at the recommended Sea Monster noodle bar and then after poking around the town a bit we plopped ourselves down at Chesterman beach for a couple of hours of relaxing on the beach and surfer watching.
On the return drive, we stopped in Port Alberni where we saw our second bear of the day, and enjoyed good beer at the newly established Twin Cities Brewery.
Mom throwing back a pint at Twin Cities Brewery
On our last morning in the Qualicum Beach area, we started the day with a hike through Cathedral Grove and then watched the eclipse from the patio of the Old Country Market in Coombs, famous for their goats on the roof of the market. We then proceeded to make our way South to Sooke Harbor, stopping at wineries in the Cowichan Valley along the way.
We spent 2 nights in Sooke at Gordon’s Farm Bed and Breakfast which was a funky and fun BnB. 4 goats, 30+ chickens, Nelly the dog, a cat and our hosts, Diane and Mike, made up the farm. Jimmy the Nigerian dwarf goat (aka the free range goat) thoroughly entertained us as he proved to be quite the escape artist and kept wriggling his way out of goat pen to roam the property, and seemed especially interested in tagging along after the cat. The view from the BnB was spectacular, looking across the Straight of Juan de Fuca at the Olympic Peninsula.
View from Gordon’s Farm BnB
Walking Whiffin Spit in Sooke
For our last day in the Sooke area, we day tripped up to Port Renfrew and sampled some beers at their brew pub, stopping on the way to and from for more beach walks and romps with Roo.
From Sooke we headed to Victoria for 4 nights. Victoria was a pleasant surprise. I expected it to be very touristy but I found the city to be really charming.
Butchart Gardens was AMAZING. I went in with pretty low expectations. Someone had described it to me as the Disney Land of gardens so I was expecting a bunch of crappy topiaries and beds of petunias. I could not have been more surprised and delighted. I LOVE it when something exceeds expectations and Butchart Garden did 100 times over.
It was quite a treat to have my aunt, Barbara, join us in Victoria. The sisters ouldn’t help themselves and jumped on the carousel for a quick spin at the garden.
We enjoyed a formal tea service in the grand house at Butchart and all total spent more than 6 hours strolling around the grounds.
Abkhazia Gardens was another amazing garden treat that we enjoyed in Victoria. Large Garry Oaks, arborized Rhododendron that were 70+ years old anchored the garden. This garden was truly a gardener’s garden and labor of love.
We took one of Victoria’s adorable little water taxis to Point Ellice House, an amazingly well preserved step back in time to the step back in time to the late 1800’s, early 1900’s.
A walk around Beacon Hill Park, cocktails at the Empress Hotel, and a splurge dinner at Nourish Kitchen and Cafe rounded out our time in Victoria.
Our return ferry ride to the States was equally as beautiful as the first leg. We spent one last night in the Skagit Valley in the adorable town of La Connor and had a fabulous last dinner at the Chuckanut Manor. From our table we could see that we have our own version of the Lochness Monster in the waters just at the south end of Chuckanut Drive, called Sammy (a nod to Samish Island).
Mt Baker from the ferry
Sammy, patrolling the waters at the south end of Chuckanut Drive.
I dropped my mom at the Seattle airport on 8/28 and went immediately to the garage with Greta as she developed an enormous appetite for coolant during her Canada trip.
The trip just whetted my appetite for what the west cost of Canada has to offer and I cannot wait to get back to Vancouver Island for further exploring. On the list of 2018!
It’s 8/1 and I am finally getting around to my first blog post.
It’s been 62 days since my last day at work.
34 days since I sold and moved out of my house.
34 days of being a nomad and calling Greta my home.
Most of the time so far has been spent at friends’ houses, going through cycles of organize and purge, organize and purge, over and over, as the van and life on the road gets dialed in. The trip started off with WAY too much stuff and I quickly tired of constantly shuffling things around. There is no room for redunancy or duplicates or deep supply stashes. As the load has lightened, van life has become more comfortable.
In between organizing/purging cycles, I got a a couple of camping trips in. Headed to the Salmon La Sac area outside of Rosyln, WA and scored a a great spot at Lake Cle Elum.
Camped 3 nights on Cle Elum Lake in ‘Goldie’ while Greta was in the shop.
Each day started off with a quick drive into Roslyn to grab coffee and breakfast. (If you ever make it there be sure to track down some landjaeger at Carek’s Market.)
Roo and I spent the afternoons poking around along the river and lake and romping in the surrounding meadows.
Roo was wiped at the end of each day. She was so tired that when mice invaded the van on the second night to raid the lazily stored dry goods (lesson learned!) Roo was no help at all at keeping the invasion at bay.
Our time in the Roslyn area was not all peaches and cream, though, as Roo was attacked by two dogs in two separate incidents which was a little stressful to say the least. Fortunately no harm done. Another lesson learned – expect and be prepared to come into more dogs running loose in rural communities.
Returned to Seattle to pick Greta up from the shop and then spent several days in the Skagit Valley again, relaxing and exploring the area and continuing to get the van set up and dialed in.
Got out to the Olympic Peninsula for 4 nights. Camped at Crescent Lake at a super little off the grid campsite right on the lake.
Crescent Lake is when I started to suspect that the universe may be conspiring to humiliate me.
First, a man walking his two dogs was witness to my spastic freakout as a snake slithered under my camping chair. So embarrassing. Second, Crescent Lake was the first outing for my potty solution, a fold up camping toilet. My hard fast rule initially was no camping toilet inside the van. Gross, right? But I had yet to devise a privy for privacy solution. I figured no big deal. I’ll just wedge it between a rock and a bush which made it semi hidden and besides, nobody had come by in over an hour. Partial coverage should be fine. What’s the chances? Well, chances turned out be pretty good because I was caught in the act each time, by 2 cars and then by a kayaker at 6:45 am coming around the bend for a early am paddle. Dang it!
Met a fellow road tripper at Crescent Lake who gave me a tip on another off the grid campsite out on the coast. So I headed for that the following day after driving up past Neah Bay and hiking out to Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the contiguous US. Beautiful spot but it was overwhelmed with tourists that seemed more interested in getting their selfies posted to Facebook than actually appreciating the surrounding scenery. I didn’t stick around long and got back on the road quickly to hunt out my next camping spot.
The camp site tip panned out and I secured a spot which appeared to be an abandoned day use area that looked out over the ocean. Destruction Island and its lighthouse were visible in the distance (although not in the picture below). I suspect the day use area had been abandoned due to bluff erosion issues. I hopped over the fence with the ‘closed’ sign to go look at the view from the fence on the bluff and quickly backtracked when I realized I might actually be standing on a sand cornice. (Duh!)
I shared the space with a couple traveling in their large RV who had spotted this site as a potential off the grid site via Google maps satellite view. We enjoyed cocktails as the sun set and swapped travel tales. I was happy for the company as the abandoned day use area had a bit of a creepy feel to it after the sun went down.
After the humiliating camping toilet experiences at Crescent Lake, I decided to put up the tent room that extends off the side of the van to provide some privacy. However, the humiliation continued as I discovered a guy, bird watching or whale watching, standing not 20 feet from my set up in the early am. I cringe to think what sounds interrupted his morning communion with nature.
Spent day 3 and 4 of the Olympic Peninsula Tour at a friends house in Port Angeles. This was a very welcome respite from the road as it was becoming apparent that Roo wasn’t digging van travel. She seems to be a getting a bit car sick at times which could put a crimp in future travel plans. On recommendations from my friends, Roo and I explored the Elwha River (highly recommend it!), from the point where it lets out into the ocean to the point where the Glines Canyon dam was removed. We also spent some time poking around the towns of Port Angeles, Sequin and Port Townsend as potential future landing spots.
Back to Seattle for a few nights to visit with friends and to take Greta back to the shop for a day to continue the fine tuning.
A planned trip to the Methow Valley was delayed due to the smoke from the British Columbia fires and so I remained in the Skagit Valley area. Did some reconnaissance of the National Forest Service land around Baker Lake and plan to return at a later date to explore further. Looks pretty nifty up there. Also did some reconnaissance of the brewpubs in the area and highly recommend the Birdsview Brewing and The North Fork Brewery.
So far the the trip has been a lesson in patience and keeping faith that stuff will work out in the end. Few things have gone completely to plan or schedule and there have been many curve balls and unexpected diversions. But so far everything has panned out in the end. Even things that started off kind of horrible or stressful, ultimately turned out ok and sometimes even turned into wonderful surprises.
Hopefully Roo will get over the van sickness issues and will come to love life on the road.
Up next in August is the Oregon Coast and Vancouver Island.