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.
Well, I’m way behind on keeping up on blog posts. Turning out to be not so good at this blogging thing. Anyway…
My goal had been to at least make it to my parents’ house in Aiken, SC in time for Thanksgiving and I managed to do that, rolling into town on 11/20. December was spent hanging out with family, taking little side trips and taking a nice break from the road.
Aiken is a neat little town. Quaint, historic and with a rich tradition in horses.
Both Roo and I were VERY happy to be taking a break from van life and it was good to stay put and get into a regular daily routine again.
Early December, I went off to visit friends on Kiawah Island for a few days. Mornings started with a sunrise romp on the beach with Roo. Evenings ended with a sunset romp on the beach with Roo. During the days we tooled around the island or explored Charleston. Kicking it with friends was fantastic and Kiawah Island during off season was amazing. Felt like we had the place to ourselves at times.
After Kiawah Island I returned to Aiken for the remainder of the holidays. This was the first Christmas I’d spent with my parents since they’d retired to South Carolina.
It was great fun to see the vast Christmas decorations collection my parents have accumulated on display. It takes weeks to get them all up and then take them all down.
Poor Roo got caught up in holiday shenanigans.
As the holidays and year came to a close I was feeling a little antsy and on New Year’s Day I opened a card from my aunt and got a good reminder of what this whole road trip is about.
I packed up the van and set out on January 2nd, heading south towards Florida, hoping to find some warm, sunny weather. More on that soon.
Wednesday, November 8th I crossed the New Mexico/Texas border around lunch time and popped into El Paso, TX to try a burger chain I was unfamiliar with, ‘Whataburger’. Seemed very stereotypical Texas to order a small coke and get a 32 oz cup. WTF Whataburger??
Shortly outside of El Paso I hit a border patrol check along the highway that all eastbound traffic had to pass through. Answering “yes” to “Are you a US citizen?” was all it took to be waved through.
I was bound for Guadalupe National Park which contains the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak, at 8,748 feet and the drive east out of El Paso was beautiful. I drove across the plains with mountains of all shapes and sizes rimming the horizon. As I approached the park the road started to climb in elevation and soon the road plunged into a cloud bank and driving got scary. Visibility was poor and as the road twisted and turned up into the mountains I had that feeling of losing sense of what’s up and what’s down. I crept along with my hazards blinking, hoping not to go off the road, praying I wouldn’t get smashed into by some idiot driving way too fast. I was SO relieved when I arrived at the park and found my way the campground.
I chatted with a fellow camper and apparently the thick fog had rolled in the night before and had blanketed the park all day. Well, this wasn’t what I had expected. It was kind of cool to be inside of the clouds and to stroll through the roiling mist. It was quite moist, everything wet to the touch. The thick cloud cover gave the place a mysterious, otherworldly feel but I did hope that the morning would bring better weather so I could at least get a glimpse of the mountains before I pushed off. And I really didn’t want to drive in the thick stuff again.
Thursday, November 9th I woke to a beautifully clear day and to find the mountains right there outside of the van. WOW!
Roo and I did some hiking and I geeked out over the unfamiliar plant palette and scenery and checked out the ruins of an old stage coach stop that predated the Pony Express. Much of the mountain range is formed from an ancient coral reef that used to lie under a shallow sea that covered the area approximately 250 million years ago. How freaking cool is that!
From Guadalupe National Park I headed southeast bound for Marfa, TX. Along the way I stopped off at Davis Mountains State Park and Roo and I hiked around for a bit, enjoying the beautiful day and views.
After Davis Mountains State Park, I continued the drive south towards Marfa, but made a stop to poke around the Fort Davis National Historic Site, a frontier military post that operated from 1854 to 1891. They have many well preserved barracks and a collection of old artifacts like cavalry, military, hospital and kitchen equipment that provide a good glimpse back into life during that time.
From Fort Davis, I made my way to Marfa, TX and rolled into El Cosmico, a funky campground/RV park with refurbished vintage trailers, teepees, and safari tents to rent as well as sites to set up your tent and park your RV/camper. Unfortunately their RV/camper sites were essentially in the parking lot on the outside of the fence and it made me a feel bit isolated. But once I realized that El Cosmico is a magnet for wanna be hipsters I didn’t mind being slightly removed. It was like being at a zoo featuring free roaming, beard bearing, skinny jean wearing hipsters.
Friday, November 10th I spent poking around Marfa, sniffing around, trying to get a bead on the place. It’s a funky, sleepy little town, now known as an art hub. If you don’t know where to look or to go you could easily pass through the town without blinking an eye. A little patient poking around leads to fun discoveries and encounters.
I popped into Building 98 to see the wall murals that had been painted by German POW’s held in Marfa during World II.
The day ended at the beer garden at Planet Marfa, where I enjoyed good beer and nachos and a chat with one of the owners about the town. Like many places that start out as havens for artists (which generally means inexpensive cost of living) the town was becoming more popular and well known and as a result more expensive and less affordable for artists and locals.
Saturday, November 11th, I was making my way out of town in the morning, bound for a night of camping in Big Bend State Park, and I remembered I needed to buy more propane if I wanted a warm meal for dinner and, most importantly, coffee in the morning. I pulled over to check google maps for the closest hardware store. As I was about to pull away from the curb I looked over to see a man trotting towards the van waving his arms with a huge grin on his face. He was a VW collector and enthusiast and super excited about Greta. We chatted and I learned that he practices the craft of building with adobe, a dying trade and something that had greatly piqued my interest since encountering the beautiful adobe buildings of Santa Fe. He generously offered to show me an adobe structure project out in the desert later that afternoon. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. It meant I’d arrive at Big Bend State Park much later than I had originally planned but these kind of fortuitous meetings with people are the gems of road trips and I had to see where this would lead.
While I waited to meet up with my new VW friend later that day, he suggested I check out Fort Leaton State Historic Site, an excellent example of traditional adobe building.
While touring the fort, Roo and I stumbled upon a gigantic wagon and I had to ask a park ranger if it was true to size and how one of these devices had been used. He indicated in fact that they were often even larger, with 12′ foot tall sides and pulled by teams of oxen. Holy hell, that must have been quite a feat to navigate thru the scrubby desert plains.
Later that afternoon I met up with my VW friend and headed out to check out the adobe structure. The views across the plains to the mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico were spectacular!
Seeing an adobe structure up close with someone who practices the craft to explain the process was fantastic. The buildings are not in great shape as they have not been maintained properly over time but it did provide an opportunity to see the various layers of building materials used in the process.
I was reluctant to leave this magical setting but the sun was starting to sink in the sky and I had to push on if I was going to make it to my campsite in Big Bend State Park before I lost daylight.
The road into the park winds along the Rio Grande river and it was just kind of shocking to me that this narrow ribbon of swift moving water was all that separated me from the country of Mexico.
The road along the river was a roller coaster ride, up and down and around curves, and my stomach was doing somersaults as I cautiously glanced away from the road to try to take in views now and again. I made it to the campground just as the sun was setting and chatted up my neighbors to find they were from Woodinville, WA. Small world! They were just lovely people. We swapped travel tales over cocktails and they pointed out constellations as the stars came out.
Sunday, November 12th, I was up early and watched the shades of pinks and purples work their magic over the surrounding landscape as the sun rose.
I pushed on from the state park heading for Big Bend National Park. I stopped along the drive so that Roo and I could dip our feet in the Rio Grande.
I hit the National Park entrance and decided to check out the 30 mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive before hunting up a campsite for the eve. WOW! WOW! WOW! The views were amazing.
After the Ross Maxwell scenic drive I headed up another scenic drive into Chisos Basin, elevation 5400 feet, and secured a campsite.
I spent the evening sipping cocktails while watching the light and shadows play over the surrounding hills. Best TV ever!
Monday, November 13th I was up and on the road early. There was hardly any traffic as I sped across the high desert, glancing off at the cloud shrouded mountains in the distance.
I SO wanted to divert to go see what goodies these distant mountains contained but Thanksgiving was approaching and South Carolina was still quite far away. I had to get serious about covering distance and I left the side roads and hit the Texas interstate.
The interstate was not fun. I figured I’d be traveling long flat stretches of road but instead encountered rolling hills. It was drizzling rain and windy. The speed limit was 80 mph and truck traffic on the two lane highway was heavy. I couldn’t maintain a consistent speed on the highway with the headwind and hills. Tractor trailers sped by me on the uphill stretches, practically blowing me off the road and temporarily blinding me with the water they kicked up off the road. I was STRESSED and wanted this stretch of driving to come to and end as quickly as possible. Unfortunately I pushed Greta too hard by trying to keep her at 80 mph while fighting the headwind and I caused a major mechanical failure. So dumb!
I found myself stranded in Junction, TX in the late afternoon, trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do. Things looked pretty bleak but the road trip gods were on my side and the right people at the right time materialized to help me through this rough patch. Customer service at AAA, a kind mechanic and tow truck operator helped me work through the best options and I landed on a plan to overnight it at the Best Western Hotel in Junction, TX and then tow Greta to a VW dealer in San Antonio the following day. SO glad I signed up for the AAA Premier RV membership before hitting the road! It was coming in handy.
Tuesday, November 14th started off with breakfast at the hotel in Junction, TX with Texas shaped waffles. AWESOME!
Greta was towed 2.5 hours to San Antonio, TX for repairs. I chatted with the tow truck driver who had grown up in the Junction, TX area. His family had lived in the area for several generations and his grandfather had been a mohair goat rancher, an industry that had anchored the area at one time but died out suddenly. He had witnessed the slow decline of his home town. Drugs and poverty were now a big problem. On a positive note, the recent addition of a major truck stop hub just off the highway was providing a bit of a boost to the town and is probably why a Best Western hotel existed there at all.
While Greta was in the shop, I spent 3 days exploring San Antonio. San Antonio had not been on my planned route but in terms of places to get stuck for a few days, San Antonio is a great place to be stranded. I walked all over town the historic part of downtown checking out the colorful Market Square, the historic architecture and reacquainting myself with the history of the Alamo.
The historic riverwalk, a Texas version of Venice (sort of), in historic downtown San Antonio, was a pleasant surprise.
There was no shortage of public art to enjoy while wandering around downtown.
The number of butterflies in San Antonio was amazing. I’d never seen so many butterflies flitting around before and witnessed a feeding frenzy while touring the botanical garden.
San Antonio boasts a high number of restaurants per capita and I ate very very well while poking around town. I drank pretty well, too. An evening sampling bourbon concoctions at The Esquire Tavern, the oldest bar on the riverwalk and home of the longest bar in Texas, was a treat. The Friendly Spot, boasting 70+ taps and a dog friendly outdoor setting, was another favorite.
The best thing about San Antonio were the people. I found folks to be friendly, helpful and eager to strike up a conversation which I so appreciate as a solo traveler.
The only negative to San Antonio was mosquitoes. I had been relatively unbothered by bugs on the road trip so far but as I made my way farther east into Texas, the weather had become hotter and more humid. I learned the hard way that going outside without dousing yourself in bug spray first is a bad idea. By the time I was leaving town I was covered in mosquito bites, mostly on my ankles and feet. Torture!
Friday, November 17th, Greta was road ready once again and driving better than ever. The folks at North Park Volkswagen in San Antonio had been wonderful and their lead technician did a fantastic job repairing the van. I was so relieved and felt very fortunate to have connected with the right people at the right time once again and shouted thanks to the road trip gods as I drove out of town.
Because of the delay due to the breakdown I now had about 4 days to cover 1200 miles. Yikes! I tried to plot out the most direct route possible but a route that avoided major cities like Atlanta and New Orleans and that would be gentle on Greta.
I had hoped to spend Friday night on the Texas Gulf Coast at Sea Rim State Park but unfortunately I ran out of daylight and ended up spending the night in a smelly and dank hotel just off the highway in Winnie, TX. My ‘souvenir’ from Winnie was more mosquito bites.
Saturday, November 18th and I was on the road early. Buh bye, Winnie! I crossed into the state of Lousianna and popped into Lafayette, LA, which claimed to have the most restaurants per capita. (Hmmm…several cities along the way had made this claim.)
I found the cute, historic part of downtown and I enjoyed an AWESOME fried shrimp po’ boy at Pop’s, a damn good find! After lunch, I covered some ground on back roads, avoiding a nasty traffic backup on the highway around Baton Rouge, and I saw sugar cane fields for the first time on the trip.
I made a brief stop near Baton Rouge to snap a picture of the Mississippi River. Its nickname, the Big Muddy, is well earned.
From the Baton Route area, I skirted north of New Orleans along highway 10, crossed over the Louisiana/Mississippi state line and made my way to the Gulf Coast to overnight in Bay Saint Louis, MS.
My airbnb was a dump but the location was great, just one block from a beautiful, clean white sand beach in a quiet neighborhood of seaside cottages and old estates. Roo and I caught the sunset and I dipped my feet in the Gulf of Mexico, a first for me, before I headed into the adorable seaside business district part of town and treated myself to a fancy, expensive dinner to make up for the dumpy airbnb rental.
Sunday, November 19th, Roo and I were up early for a sunrise romp on the beach before hitting the road.
From Bay Saint Louis, MS I made my way northeast and crossed over into Alabama. It was a boring day of highway driving and when I finally couldn’t take the monotony of the highway, I decided to take a chance trying minor side roads. It was a relief to leave the highway and I found the side roads to be well maintained yet practically deserted with speed limits of 60. I could move out AND the scenery vastly improved as I drove rolling hills through small towns and past farms and fields.
Roo and I stopped at Chewacla State Park, not too far outside Auburn, AL and enjoyed a nice long hike.
I had hoped to camp at the park for the night but the campground didn’t look all that appealing and I was worried about mosquitoes. I decided to push on and crossed over into Georgia towards the end of the day and stopped in Columbus, GA for the evening. I was pleasantly surprised to find a cute little historic downtown area with good dining options and Too and I wandered around and I enjoyed a couple of beers before finding a hotel for the evening.
Monday, November 20th, I pushed off early for my last day of driving. Woo hoo! I stopped in Macon, GA for what I thought would just be a quick little stop. But I found the history and architecture of the town so intriguing and it was such a pleasant fall day that Roo and I ended up poking around town for close to two hours.
As I was driving out of Macon a sign for the Ocmulgee National Monument caught my eye and I went to check it out. It’s a park dedicated to the preservation of a prehistoric Indian site. They estimate people inhabited this site 17,000 years ago! It was a gorgeous fall day and Roo and I enjoyed walking the trails while checking out restored earth mounds, dating back 1,000 years.
From Ocmulgee National Monument I headed towards Aiken, SC, taking backroads. It was beautiful, easy driving and I passed cotton fields and, to my surprise, fields and fields full of solar panels. I did not expect to find solar farms in Georgia.
I arrived at my parents house in Aiken, SC that afternoon and felt a huge sense of relief and accomplishment. The first major leg of the road trip was complete and Roo and Greta and I had arrived in one piece without any major mishaps.
I looked forward to a break from the road as did Roo. Poor Roo… she still doesn’t like driving in the van although she’s ready for adventure as soon as we come to a stop. I was glad to know I wasn’t going to have to look at the sorry site of Roo looking up at me with her sad face from the passenger side floor, at least for a several weeks.
I intended to spend the holidays with my folks in South Carolina, plotting out a plan for 2018. Roo and Greta and I will hit the road again January 1st, 2018, weather permitting. Stay tuned!
Thursday, November 2nd, Roo and I took one last stroll around Santa Fe, NM, checking out Canyon Road in further detail. Dang it! Why hadn’t I spent more time perusing the galleries on Canyon Road?? The galleries looked really interesting but it was early morning and nothing was open so Roo and I just had to peak in windows and over walls to see what we were missing.
From Santa Fe, I headed northwest to Abiquiu where I had booked a tour of Georgia O’Keefe’s home and studio. What a fantastic experience! The house is still decorated as it was when she passed away in 1986. The simple austerity of her home was beautiful. There is little clutter and what is out on display are generally things found in nature. Apparently if coming to Ms. O’Keefe’s for a dinner party your best best was to bring an antler or bone or rock as a hostess gift rather than a bottle of wine.
The doorway that so intrigued Ms. O’Keefe when she first saw the property and compelled her to buy it.
The view from Georgia O’Keefe’s studio.
Simple, natural, beautiful
After the O’Keefe tour, I went to check out the Plaza Blanca, the White Place, a unique geological formation that became a subject of Ms. O’Keefe’s paintings. Scenes in the Star War movies were also supposedly shot here. Other worldly!
Plaza Blanca from afar.
Hiking into Plaza Blanca.
I returned to the Ojo Caliente Hot Springs Resort to spend the night, one of the few repeat visits so far on the trip and well worth it. I enjoyed another night of floating on my back in the pool, stargazing, and another wonderful meal at the restaurant. I started off the camping night with the furnace nicely humming and keeping the van warm.
Friday, November 3rd, I awoke to a chilly van and the furnace flashing a fault warning again. DAMN IT! Looked like I was in for chilly camping for awhile.
Roo and I packed up and headed from Ojo Caliente to Taos. We hit Taos, drove through town and found some excellent coffee and grub at The Coffee Apothecary. I swung back and headed back into Taos to park and poke around.
I visited the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House. I wasn’t there to see the art really… that was a bonus. I was there to see the house that had been bought and remodeled, blending Russian design motifs with the traditional adobe structure, by the artist Nicolai Fechin in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Fechin carved much of the exposed wood surfaces and furniture himself.
After checking out the museum, I started meandering north to check out some of the smaller towns around Taos. I sign for the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument caught my eye and I drove over to check it out. Whoa! Incredible views of where the Red River and Rio Grande River meet. Unfortunately this is one of many national monuments under threat of losing national monument status under the current administration. Disheartening for sure.
I drove around to the various viewpoints in the park, walked Roo around a bit and then we started making our way back to Taos to find our airbnb for the evening. It was a nice little casita tucked down a side street, with a fenced in backyard where Roo could sniff around. It was a very quiet and chill spot, the only disruption coming from the magpies flying through at sunset. What a ruckus!
Saturday, November 4th, I headed out early and found great coffee and breakfast at The Coffee Spot. Then I headed to the Taos Pueblo, an ancient Taos Indian pueblo that has been inhabited for over a 1000 years and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Currently about 150 people live there today in similar conditions as their ancestors. Access into the pueblo is restricted. You can’t just go walk around where ever the hell you feel like. This is where people live. It was really cool seeing the architecture and historic buildings and imaging life in a village like that but I didn’t linger long. I felt sort of like an intruder.
From the Pueblo I headed back into Taos to walk Roo while poking around the downtown plaza area. I found super cute winding, narrow alleys with cobble stone streets with art and crafts everywhere.
From Taos I started making my way back south via scenic backroads to Santa Fe to catch the full exhibit at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. I stopped again in Chimayo but this time for lunch at the Rancho De Chimayo Restaurant. It’s in a historic building and they serve up some excellent food. SO GOOD! Very much worth a stop.
Late afternoon I arrived in Santa Fe and went straight to the Georgia O’Keefe museum. It was SO worth it to have hung around northern New Mexico for a few extra days so that I could catch the full exhibit before moving on.
After the museum, I spent a quiet evening at a sweet little casita north of Santa Fe, out in the farm land on the edge of town.
Sunday, November 5th, I started heading south out of Santa Fe, choosing a scenic route along route 14. We drove through the adorably cute and artsy town of Madrid… must return to check that out further on the return trip. I stopped for a quick hike with Roo in the Cibola National Forest near Sandia Park, NM. And then back on the road and I took another quick diversion to check out Manzano State Park. The park was a waste of time and I didn’t linger but the drive was quite scenic.
Roo and I hiked all around the ruins at both locations, enjoying the gorgeous fall day.
I had kind of dilly dallied a bit at the ruins and the sun was starting to get low as I headed towards San Antonio, NM, my intended overnight stop.
I ended up rolling into San Antonio, NM after the sun had gone down for the day, hunting for our airbnb. We found the funky little trailer rental and settled in for the evening.
Monday, November 6th, I was up at the crack of dawn, awoken by a honking that seemed to be getting slowly closer and closer to the trailer. It turned out to be a peacock making it’s way down the street towards the trailer that was disrupting the morning peace.
I got the van packed up and headed out to check out the Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge. First, I geeked out over plants in the Desert Arboretum near the visitor center.
Then I headed over to the wildlife viewing area and I saw migrating snow geese and sandhill cranes (amongst other birds). Seeing the snow geese on their southern migration was a special treat as I had seen snow geese earlier in the year in the Skagit Farmland in northwest Washington as they migrated north.
The sandhill cranes were surprisingly large and made quite a racket with their chatter but they were shy and hard to get close enough to to get decent photos but the below video at least gives you a taste of the sound they make.
After bird watching, Roo and I did a great loop trail hike up through a slot canyon and to a ridge with a 360 degree of the refuge and surrounding mountains and plains.
Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge ended up being a great stop. I didn’t realize that a wildlife refuge might actually incorporate in agriculture activities in an attempt to provide habitat and food and it was a fascinating blend of farmland and wilderness.
From the Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge I continued making my south, headed for the town of Truth and Consequence, NM to grab a late lunch. The town has hot springs and on a whim I decided to see if I could get in a soak. I secured a private hot spring pool at Riverbend Hot Springs and it was pretty dang sweet! Well worth the stop.
From Truth or Consequences, NM I continued my drive down the highway as the sun was setting. I tried not to drive off the highway as I watched the sky and mountains turns shades of pinks and purples.
I rolled into Las Cruces, NM in the dark where I had secured an airbnb rental for two days. Time to get a load of laundry down and take a breather. The airbnb was awesome. It was a converted shipping container, something I had been wanting to see up close.
Tuesday, November 7th, I awoke to a lovely view of the sunrise over the distant mountains.
The airbnb rental was out on the edge of town and I could do morning hikes with Roo out into the desert straight from the rental. It was awesome! We poked around that day, I caught up on chores and did my best to stay in one place as much as possible.
Tuesday, November 7th, we started off the day with a visit from a cute little kitty checking out Greta. Turns out the damn cat actually broke that windshield wiper, which I wouldn’t realize until I hit rain a few days later. Doh!
I headed to Dripping Springs Natural Area just outside of Las Cruces for a hike, based on recommendations from the airbnb hosts and I was completely caught off by guard by the amazing scenery. Roo and I hiked up to check out the waterfall which was just a trickle at this time of year.
Wednesday, November 8th, we woke to find it rainy. What?! I hadn’t seen rain in days. It was kinda of neat to experience the desert after a rain. It’s so fragrant with the scent of juniper and sage.
I enjoyed a last hike in the desert, packed up the van and started to head south. I crossed over the New Mexico/Texas border and a roadside sign read “Thank you visiting New Mexico – the land of enchantment.” I hadn’t known that was the state motto but it was fitting. I had indeed found New Mexico enchanting and I’ll definitely be coming back for further exploration of New Mexico in 2018.
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.
I left SE Oregon on Friday 10/6. It was time to do laundry and get a real shower so I needed to find a town with some services where I could take care of business. I had done a little research online and thought Winnemucca, NV looked like a town worthy of exploring. Well, Winnemucca should be called Winne-YUCK-a. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. If you like casinos, you might like it but that’s not my scene.
On Saturday, 10/7, I said good-bye and good riddance to Winne-SUCK-a and headed southeast towards Austin, NV via route 305. It was pretty but barren country, nothing but wide open sage brush pasture land, hedged in on each side by barren looking mountains. Other cars and trucks on the road were few and far between.
As I approached Austin, NV to connect with Highway 50, I started to climb in elevation and trees started appearing back in the landscape. The smell of juniper and pine and sage filled the van.
Austin, NV sits at 6600 ft. I found a well preserved town with some cool old prospector style buildings. Better yet I found a place that served a decent burger.
After Austin, NV the road continued to climb up to Austin Pass at about 7500 ft. Views were spectacular but I felt very exposed. This section of Highway 50 is winding at times with no shoulder and no guard rail in places.
About 30 minutes outside of Austin, NV, I diverted off Highway 50 to find Spencer Hot Springs. It’s a well known and a well used hot spring. Camping is dispersed through the sage brush hills so it’s possible to find privacy despite the popularity of the hot springs. When I arrived I wasn’t initially clear where the hot springs were located exactly so I parked and jumped out and started walking around. I saw what appeared to be somebody’s campsite and didn’t want to encroach but it also felt like the way to the hot springs. Well, it WAS the hot springs and these jackasses had actually set up their campsite, car and tent and fire pit and all their stuff RIGHT NEXT TO THE HOTSPRING. Lame! Lame! Lame!
It turns out there are actually several hot spring pools at Spencer Hot Springs and I found a nice camping spot about a 100 yards away from another hot spring area where fellow campers were better versed in proper hot spring camping ettiquette.
I set up camp and enjoyed a couple of cocktails and watched the sun set over the plains and mountains. A group of wild burros picked their way down out of the hills to hang out with the campers and I could hear them braying, as well as coyotes yipping, as the evening light faded and the stars came out. Views went on for miles and I could see campfires flickering up and down the valley. The hotspring area cleared out relatively early and I enjoyed a nice quiet night.
The next morning, Roo and I had a nice walk around the sage brush hills as the sun was rising over the hills. Jack rabbits were all of the place and Roo gave chase. I know I should have tried to interrupt the hunt but I was mesmerized. It was just pure power and speed and animal instinct and it was marvelous to watch her tear after that hare through the sage brush. She came back, wild eyed and panting, looking like she had just had the time of her life. (No worries, no hares were harmed.)
On Sunday, 10/8, I packed up and took off from Spencer Hot Springs, continuing east along route 50. I stopped in Eureka, NV, for breakfast. The town had some very well preserved historic buildings, including an old opera house. Unfortunately about half were standing vacant and many were marked for sale. This must have been quite the town back in it’s heyday.
I kept driving east along route 50, stopping in Ely, NV to fuel up and to snap a picture of the Hotel Nevada and its fabulous signage.
Just outside Ely, NV a sign for Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park caught my eye and Roo and I made a quick diversion to check it out and get a quick hike in. The charcoal ovens, which are 27 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall, were built in the 1870’s and were used to produce charcoal to fuel the smelters in the area that were producing ore in support of the railroad and silver mining businesses. Filling each one of these ovens required 6 acres worth of trees. The ovens were run for 12 hours and resulted in about 50 bushels of charcoal. As the railroads completed their expansion west and the silver boom waned, the ovens fell out of use after only 3 years. In that short period of time the surrounding hills were stripped of all juniper and pinion pines for a radius of 35 miles. After the ovens fell out of use, they were used by stockmen and prospectors as shelters during harsh weather and legend has it they were used by stagecoach bandits as hideouts.
I pushed on and made it to Great Basin National Park as the sun was going down and grabbed a campsite in the park. The ranger at the Visitor Center warned me that it was supposed to get cold that evening, in the teens. Roo and I settled in for the evening and the furnace was cranking, keeping us toasty. I work up at 4am and thought, dang it’s cold. Then I glanced at the furnace control and saw that it was blinking indicating the system had faulted. Damn! The furnace was out! The blinking pattern indicated the issue had something to do with the fuel supply lines, something I was not prepared to repair on the road. With temperatures dipping down into the 20’s and below in the evening, that meant camping was out until that was fixed. I just didn’t have the proper bedding for those temperatures.
In the early morning chill, after rallying to make coffee and pack up camp, Roo and I drove up to the Wheeler Mountain Campground at 10,000 feet and walked around. The campground was closed for the season and deserted so it was the perfect place for a walk with Roo. A creek bubbled it’s way through the campground and we checked out the crazy ice formations that had formed over night.
After the romp with Roo around the campground area, I went to do a tour of Lehman Cave. Wow! The cave system and formations are millions of years old and largely unchanged. The cave was discovered in the late 1800’s and turned into a tourist attraction. Early visitors were allowed to break off pieces of stalactites and stalagmites and carve their initials or names into the ceiling/walls. This is sad but also kind of fascinating. We could see inscriptions dated in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The cave was used as a speakeasy at one point and dances were held in one of the larger rooms. Now it’s a federal offense to even touch anything. I had to keep my hands in my pockets. I kept wanting to reach out and touch the walls. The lint and dust that comes in on visitors during the cave tours does harm to the caves. Periodically they shut down sections and volunteers dust the formations.
After the cave tour, I pushed off from Great Basin National Park, and continued heading southeast along the Ely Highway. The drive was pretty but this is, so far, one of the most barren and quietest stretches of road that I’ve driven to date.
I stopped in Beaver, UT to overnight at a motel and then left Beaver on 10/10, intending to reach Capital Reef National Park that day. It was a pretty drive with lots to do along the way. First stop was at the Fremont Indian State Park off Highway 70 to do some hiking with Roo. I was pleasantly surprised to find petroglyphs.
From Fremont Indian State Park, I pushed on and the drive just kept getting prettier and prettier the closer we got to Capital Reef National Park.
I arrived at Capital Reef National Park mid afternoon on Tuesday, October 10th and I spent that afternoon driving around the park. Holy cow! My pictures do not do this place justice!
The park contains the historic settlement of Fruita, Utah. Originally settled by a group of Mormons in the 1880’s, a few well preserved historic buildings still remain as well as the orchards that the town was named for. Visitors are allowed to pick fruit from the trees if they’d like.
Petroglyphs attributed to the Fremont Indian culture, thought to be active in the area between 600-1300 AD, are visible not far from the visitor center.
On Wednesday, 10/13, I left Capital Reef National Park to continue making my way towards Denver. My intended overnight spot was Fruita, CO. I had no idea what the drive would be like. Wow. Wow! WOW! The landscape was otherworldly. I couldn’t help wonder what early explorers and pioneers must have made of this landscape. It’s beautiful but it seems so inhospitable and unsuitable for humans.
On the drive, a sign for ‘Valley of the Goblins State Park’ piqued my interest and I decided to go check it out. Whoa… this place is on my list of places to return to someday. Roo and I had limited time to poke around and we did a quick hike but I think we barely scratched the surface of the geological wonders of this area.
After poking around Valley of the Goblins State Park, we drove on and made it to Fruita, CO late afternoon and I grabbed a cheap motel room for the night. Fruita, CO is one of the few places on this road trip that’s a repeat visit. I’d been here several years ago on a previous road trip. This is a great small town, known for the mountain biking in the area. Good food, good beer, good coffee and outdoor fun is easy to find. If you ever get to Fruita, CO, make sure to stop at the The Hot Tomato for pizza and beer. They make a mean pizza and it’s a fun and friendly place.
Just outside of Fruita, CO is the Colorado National Monument. I hadn’t had a chance to check this out on my previous visit so I decided to drive the historic 23 mile long Rim Rock Drive on my way out of town on Thursday, 10/12. A must do for anyone that visits that area!
From Fruita, CO I drove along I-70 towards Denver. The scenery was good from the highway but I can’t say it was a pleasant drive. People drive like freaking maniacs along I-70 and the winds can be strong and gusty causing the tractor trailers to occasionally jump their lanes. I was stressed out because Greta was having trouble with the Colorado mountain passes. I was ending up in the right hand lane doing 30 mph with the gas pedal to the floor, hazards on, hoping no one was going to read end me, a white knuckle grip on the wheel.
I was so relieved when I pulled of I-70 for the day, stopping first in Frisco, CO to down some german beer and sausages to calm my nerves before driving a few more miles on to Silverthorne, CO where I would spend a nice quiet evening at a friend’s mountain house.
I took off from Silverthorne, CO on Friday, 10/13. Denver was so close… just 70 miles away. I had a few more Colorado mountain passes to get over and I prayed to the road trip gods as I drove to please, please, please, just let me make it to Denver in one piece. Greta limped her way up and over each pass and finally we dropped down into Denver and arrived at my sister’s house. WHEW! I was so relieved and ecstatic to make it. Arriving in Denver was a major milestone and I was looking forward to taking a break from road life for a few days.
The next big road trip push starts Monday, 10/23, when my friend, Alyssa, arrives from Seattle to join me on the road from Denver to Santa Few, NM. In the meantime, I’m taking care of Greta issues and enjoying the Denver scene.
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.
On 9/24, Roo and I pushed off from Joseph, OR. I decided to take the section of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway that extends from Joseph to Halfway, OR, which follows Forest Road 39. The road is winding and steep and narrow at times. It cuts through the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and provides access to some pretty wild and woolly country. I was hoping we’d find some quiet and secluded camping and I found just that at the Indian Crossing campground at the end of a forest service road along the Imnaha River.
We found a spot right along the river. I saw a handful of other campers and hikers. Most of the campers had horses at this campground and were using the campground as their launching off point for back country pack trips. It looked like a wonderful way to travel and experience the mountains. I was rather jealous.
We stayed at Indian Crossing campgrounds for two nights. Roo and I hiked up the Imnaha River the first afternoon after attempting to give a hand to a hunting party that was coming down out of the mountains after several days up at a hunting camp to find that both of their trucks would not start. They had packed in via horse 10 miles up in to the mountains and had seen wolf, coyote, bear and 4 herds of elk. News of wolves in an area always unnerves me. We were about 2 mins into our hike when I spotted something running around in the woods and I saw a pair of black canine ears poking out over the top of log. WOLF!!! I thought and I high tailed it down to the trail head and sat with Roo to see what materialized. Shortly a black border collie, followed by a brown border collie and then a couple of hikers and a cattle dog emerged. Ahhh… false alarm. So I took a deep breath and calmed down and again headed up the trail. Roo and I had a great afternoon hike and found some wonderful views of the river and surrounding mountains and Roo took a dip in the river.
Hiking along the Imnaha River.
The second day, after lollygagging around the campground all morning, I hiked up to Duck Lake. Roo and I saw no-one on the trail. We startled one mule deer along the way but besides that, it was pure solitude. I enjoyed being serenaded by nothing other than the sound of the wind in the trees.
It being late September, autumn was starting to color the landscape and I was thrilled to find the larches turning their brilliant shade of yellow.
After 2 nights of camping, on 9/26, we pushed off to proceed along Forest Service Rd 39. We stopped to take in the view from the Hells Canyon Overlook. Whoa!
As I wound down the steep and winding road, I came around a corner to see three cowboys and their horses on the side of the road, one guy with his thumb out appearing to be hitch hiking. I pulled over and he asked if I could give him a lift down to his truck. I was happy to oblige and he jumped in, chaps and spurs and hat and all, while I tried to make sure Roo didn’t try to take at a nip at him. I asked if they had been up camping but no, they were in the process of driving cattle down out of the hills to lower pastures for the winter. Ah ha… they were in the middle of their work day! The cows had gotten ahead of them and taken off down the road and he was hoping to get a ride to get ahead of the cows and cut them off before they got passed the point where their trucks and trailer were parked. So we took off down the road and shortly passed the cows trotting down the road. They gave us the hairy eyeball as we passed… I don’t think they knew what to make of Greta… and when we got to where the trucks and trailers were parked, he jumped out of the van with a ‘Thank you, maam.’ and tip of his hat.
Roo and I proceeded on, passing through the town of Halfway and Baker City. From Baker City, we hit Rte 7 and then Rte 26 and experienced easy driving with exceptional views. Signs for the John Day Fossil Beds and Painted Hills caught my eye and I diverted off to check them out and was not disappointed!
It was a long day of driving and it was getting dark by the time I found a camping spot in the Ochoco National Forest at the Ochoco Divide Campground.
I hit the road early the morning of 9/27. Roo and I were headed for Tumalo, OR, outside of Bend to spend a few days with friends and to have some issues with Greta worked out. On the way, I decided to check out something called ‘Steins Pillar’ that was called out in the Unique Natural Features section of my Oregon gazetteer. We were treated to a very scenic drive up a valley and then a wonderful hike through pine and juniper forests. Steins Pillar is a stone pillar that reaches 350 feet straight up, towering above the surrounding forest, a reminder of the volcanic activity that created this landscape. Along the hike, I got my first glimpses of the mountains to the west in the Cascade Range.
Steins Pillar from below.
Steins Pillar from above.
Come on, mom! Let’s go!
Cascade Range just peaking above the ridge line.
After the hike, Roo and I pushed on, making a stop in Prineville to have lunch and a brew at the Ochoco Brewing Company.
We arrived at my friend’s in Tumalo, OR that afternoon. Tumalo rocks! It’s an adorable small town, just outside of Bend, OR… country living with the convenience and amenities of Bend a quick drive away.
It was SO great to be with friends and I had a FUN few days. Good times, good conversations, good laughs, good food! And Roo was in heaven. She was a happy happy camper, collapsing in content exhaustion at the end of each day.
The recreational options in the Bend area of Oregon are outstanding. Days often started with a quick walk with the dogs on BLM land, through sage brush and gnarly old Junipers. One day I tagged along on a quick fly fishing outing and enjoyed an hour chilling out along the banks of the Crooked River.
On Sunday, 10/1, we headed up to the Mt. Bachelor area to do some mushroom hunting. The mushroom hunting was a bust but we had a lovely little hike to Fall River Falls and lunch along river where the water runs ‘clear as gin’. (I have to credit Corky for that great description. I love it.)
Now I’m off to explore the SE corner of Oregon and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and the Steen Mountains. Stay tuned!
I departed the Methow Valley on 9/20 and based on a tip from a friend, headed to check out the town of Tieton, WA. It’s become a hub of artistic activity and I was curious to check out the scene. But not much goes on in Tieton midweek apparently and I found a very tiny, quiet town. I pushed on and found camping off Route 12 outside of Naches, WA at Windy Point Campground and Roo and I passed an uneventful evening along the Naches River.
9/21 I pushed off to check out Fort Simcoe. I’m so glad I took the time. Amazing scenery and remarkably well preserved historic buildings with wild ponies and bears roaming the grounds.
From Fort Simcoe, I set off for Waitsburg, WA and another night of camping at the Lewis and Clark Trail State Park. Waitsburg was adorable but pretty quiet. I very nice German couple, Klaus and Helga, came over to complement Greta and when they found out I had spent some time in Germany, we spent about a 1/2 hour speaking in broken German swapping travel stories. They were SO excited about my road trip adventure. ‘Ganz Toll! Ganz Toll!’ (So cool! So cool!) exclaimed Klaus over and over.
After a beer and burger at the Laht Neppur Brewing Co., Roo and I found a nice little campsite at the state park and settled in and had a nice quiet evening. We hiked around a bit and played along the banks of the Touchet River and I marveled at the gigantic pines scattered throughout the campground.
9/22 Roo and I pushed off towards the Clarkston, WA/Lewiston, OR area. Along the way, I saw a sign for Palouse Falls and decided to follow my nose. So glad I did. The scenery was spectacular.
I passed through Clarkston and Lewiston and pushed onto Field Springs State Park, outside of Anatone, WA along Rte 129. It was SO quiet and Roo and I enjoyed a great hike that evening and had the trails all to ourselves. I was blown away by the vistas.
9/23 Roo and I headed towards Jospeh, OR. The stretch of Rte 129/Rte 3 that I drove that morning was AMAZING, windy with spectacular vistas. The road essentially follows a section of the historic New Perce Trail. Numerous historic markers along the route are reminders of the disgraceful treatment of Native Americans.
Rolled into Joseph, OR and I was smitten! Adorable hub of art and culture with Lake Wallowa and the Wallowa Mountains as its backdrop. My kind of town!
Roo and I camped at Lake Wallowa and hiked around during the day. We found Kokanee salmon spawning in the river. What a cool surprise!
Enjoyed a couple of yummy beers at Embers Brewhouse and ran into a fellow vanagon owner.
And now it’s the morning of 9/24 and Roo and I are headed out Rte 39 into the Eagle Cap Wilderness to see if we can find a campsite along the Imnaha River. More updates in a few days, once we’re back in internet and cell phone range.
I was toast after the Vancouver Island trip and when Greta went back into the shop to have her coolant issue worked on, I happily hunkered down for a few days in Seattle from 8/28 to 9/1 at a friend’s house and caught my breath. I was finding myself a bit burned out of the constant bouncing around, 2 nights here, 1 night there, 3 nights here, 2 nights there, etc, etc. It was great to sleep in the same bed for a few nights, enjoy great espresso within a 2 block radius, and have a hot shower every day. And I was able to get out with my friends for one of the last Duck Dodge sails on Lake Union of the season.
Once Greta was ready to roll, Roo and I headed north again. Our plan was to spend a final night or two with our good friends in Skagit Valley at the spot that had been our home base for the summer and then push off to the Methow Valley for a few days before we started to head south towards Oregon.
So we departed Seattle for the last time (I thought) on 9/1, the Friday before Labor Day weekend. We hadn’t been on I-5 North for more than 20 minutes when all gauges on the dashboard went out. No speedometer, tachometer, engine temperature, gas level, or oil pressure. I found myself driving on feel alone. Not an auspicious start to this leg. I called the garage, and unfortunately Kirk, the owner, was off for the long weekend taking a well needed break and the guys holding down the fort at the shop weren’t sure how to help over the phone. So I made a decision to push on and connect with Kirk after the long weekend.
Roo and I spent a couple of nice relaxing days in Skagit hanging with friends, visiting our favorite spots, and getting prepped to depart the PNW. Greta went in for a detailing and got her first wax job. She looked great and was ready to roll, or so I thought.
On Sunday, 9/3, we pushed out to head up Highway 20, over Washington Pass to the town of Winthrop, WA. I was excited to take Greta up and over Washington Pass. It’s a long, steady climb, windy at times, and it would be a good way to test Greta’s mettle.
I expected Greta to get poky on the steeper of the inclines. Kirk had told me to expect as much so I was not initially concerned when she was unable to do more than 55 mph on some of the steeper inclines. But she seemed a little more sluggish than I had anticipated. I hadn’t expected her to struggle to keep speed up quite so much. And I could feel the engine fan kicking on a lot. I suspected she was running hot and overheating but I couldn’t tell for sure since all gauges were out.
I saw some traffic coming up behind me fast so I pulled off into a pull out for a minute to let the line of cars backing up behind me pass.
That’s when things started going bad. As I sat there idling, waiting for traffic to pass, the engine quit. I tried to restart her and she wouldn’t turn over. I got out, circled the van a few times, smelling and looking for anything that seemed off. I waited 5 minutes and tried again. No luck on the first try but when I switched over to the auxiliary batteries she started. But I found when I switched off the auxiliary batteries, the engine struggled again and quit.
Shit! What to do? I was out of cell phone range. Do I try to push on and limp her up and over the pass? Do I put out an SOS sign up and try to get a passing vehicle stop and help me contact roadside assistance? I was just a few miles from cresting the pass and I decided to see if I could limp her up and over.
She made it over but barely. She quit a total of 3 times trying to make it over and when we hit the crest of the pass, she was chugging and struggling. I was praying like crazy to the auto gods to just please please let me make it. A long line of cars had stacked up behind me, and I’m sure their drivers were cursing me and my slow ass VW van.
As we started heading down hill, Greta mellowed out. I could tell she still wasn’t 100% percent but she didn’t seem in imminent danger of dying on me. We made it into Mazama and cell phone range. I turned Greta off to give her a break for a bit and waited for friends to show up. As I sat there, I was feeling pretty crappy and dismayed. Heck, how was I going to make it through a year long road trip if Greta couldn’t handle Washington Pass? It’s not that difficult of a mountain pass. If Washington Pass was an issue, how was she ever going to survive the Colorado Rockies?
My friends arrived and as I followed them from Mazama back to their house, she died for the fourth time on the side of the road in Winthrop after having just driven about 15 miles of easy highway. Something was way off. I figured out that if I kept the power turned completely to the auxiliary batteries, she seemed to be ok. So I turned the switch over the auxiliary batteries made it the last several miles to my friends place on auxiliary battery power.
It had been a long and stressful day. I felt completely deflated. I was supposed to be launching off, out of the Pacific Northwest and Greta hadn’t completed a 300 mile journey without major issues.
I felt even worse in the morning when I couldn’t get the van to start at ALL, regardless if I had power turned to the auxiliary batteries or not. She was dead.
Since it was Labor Day and businesses were closed there was really nothing I could do but wait. I was feeling really upset. I started to despair and feel like the unluckiest person and that everything was falling apart. But then I calmed down and started to take inventory. Ok, so I’m stuck in the Methow Valley. Is that so bad? No, not really… if I’m going to be stuck anywhere I can’t really think of a better place to be stuck. Do I really have anywhere I need to be within a particular time frame? No, not really. And in the grand scheme of things in the world, this is not the worst thing. The news was filled with reports of Hurricane Harvey, North Korea’s nuclear tests, and the forest fires raging through out the west. That put stuff in perspective and I spent the remainder of Labor Day weekend trying not to fret while hiking, playing with dogs and catching up with good friends.
On Tuesday, 9/5, I connected with Kirk at North-Westy who had done the build out of the van. As I hoped, Kirk did not let me down. Kirk said he would drive out in a couple of days to figure out what the issue was all about and get Greta back up and running.
For the next few days I couldn’t really do anything except take walks with the dogs and hang out with good friends. And in hindsight, this time was a gift. I was forced to stop and take inventory and just let go and be ok with where I was at at that point in time.
The fire activity in the Pacific Northwest was causing ash to fall from the sky and smoke to obscure views and I think I had to work a little bit harder to stay positive when everything around me looked sort of ominous and somber.
While I was hanging out, waiting for Kirk to arrive to save the day, my friend gave me ‘The Surrender Experiment: My Journey Into Life’s Perction” by Michael A. Singer to read. It couldn’t have been more timely. The book essentially is the story of how all of these wonderful things happened in Michael’s life when he stopped trying to control everything and embraced what the universe brought his way.
While sitting around waiting, I noodled on what the universe had brought my way and over the next couple of days I came around to feeling pretty lucky vs. unlucky. The Methow Valley is one of the most beautiful places I’ve travelled and a place I’ve dreamed of calling home many a times. What a great place to get ‘stuck’. And if these issues with Greta had happened during the Vancouver Island trip with my mom along for the ride that would have been so much worse. And my friends in the Methow are two of the most solid, grounded individuals I know and I couldn’t have had better sounding boards to turn towards during this moment of personal crisis. And my mechanic was making the drive out in a couple of days to right the ship. How fortunate to have a committed person in my corner.
Kirk came out on Friday, 9/8 and identified the root causes of the problem: a bad connection to the alternator and something drawing battery power that shouldn’t be, completely depleting the main battery.
The alternator connection could be fixed on site but what was drawing down the battery was unclear and Greta needed to go back to the shop for further troubleshooting. He replaced the dead main battery with a brand new battery and that got Greta steady enough for me to plan on driving her back to the garage in Renton the following Monday.
That gave me another 2 days to chill out in the Methow. Greta was running again and I spent the weekend driving around the Methow Valley, marveling at how freaking beautiful it is.
I also hit some of my favorite places, including Hank’s Grocery in Twisp that has the best freezer section ever! Where else can you contemplate what kind of frozen potatoes you’re in the mood for while a water buffalo hovers above your head? Or have a Hyena stand witness to your choice of hand pie flavor?
Hanks Grocery in Twisp, WA. The BEST freezer section EVER!
On Monday, 9/11, with much trepidation I headed out in Greta, bound for Seattle and the garage to hopefully have the electrical issue resolved for good. Greta charged up and over Blewett Pass and Snoqualmie Pass without issue and she got back to the shop just fine. I spent another few days hunkered down at a friends house in Seattle, catching up on laundry and squeezing in as many chiropractic appointments as was possible.
A few days later Greta was ready to roll. The electrical issue was resolved and the van had a thorough going over to make sure all was tight and right. On Friday, 9/15 we departed Seattle again and headed out Highway 2, over Stevens Pass, to the Lake Wenatchee area. Greta felt GREAT! She devoured Stevens Pass without any issues.
We landed at Glacier View Campground on the SE side of Lake Wenatchee. Hardly anyone around and we had a beautiful view from our lakeside campsite.
The next day we set off to explore the town of Plain, WA which ended up being even tinier than I had anticipated. Not really a town so much as a stretch of road with a cafe and grocery/coffee shop.
After breakfast at the only breakfast joint around, I headed out rte 207, along the north side of Lake Wenatchee, down a gravelly, dusty forest service road to White River Falls. Roo and I had a GREAT day and night, exploring along the river banks and enjoying the peaceful setting.
White River Falls
The following morning, Sunday, 9/17, I packed up camp and prepared to push on and return to the Methow Valley. But before hitting the road, on a tip from a passing traveler, I drove a little further up the road and checked out the upper falls and hiked a bit. I stumbled upon a gigantic Western Red Cedar that took my breath away. It had to be 20 ft across at the base and had clearly weathered many a storm.
White River Falls
Giant Western Red Cedar
Roo and I took our time making the drive from Lake Wenatchee to the Methow Valley and stopped along Rte 97, along the Columbia River, to romp on the river bank.
Our return to the Methow Valley went without a hitch. Roo and I spent 9/17 – 9/20 hiking and biking and driving around the valley and having a couple more days to visit with friends.
On 9/20 we pushed off from the Methow Valley, heading south towards Oregon without a very well planned route. More on that leg to come in a later road report post.