<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Postcards Library 45
Little Log


Stephanie is one of those persons who can fit a lot of words onto a standard size postcard -- usually by writing sideways, around corners, and even upside down if she can find some extra space. Most of these go to family and friends. But some of them -- those which document our RV adventures -- find their way onto this portion of our website.

Postcard: NK’MIP

June 15, 2008

While we were somewhat disappointed to learn of the cancellation of our June trip to the Discovery coast, after checking the weather forecasts for the area, we were glad to be able to postpone. We would have found nonstop rain for the trip from Port Hardy to Bella Coola, and snow once we climbed to the 5,000 foot summit of the “Hill”. Since BC ferries had cancelled our trip, we incurred no extra charges, and they asked us to choose another, later in the season. Hoping July’s weather will be warmer and sunnier than June’s, we’ve postponed a month.

But we were already packed for Canada. The camper was loaded with all those items forgotten on our shakedown cruise, and stocked with most of the staples we’d need for several weeks on the road. We had also stopped at the AAA offices in Bend to get a copy of the BC touring “bible”, the British Columbia Approved Accommodation Guide 2008. This book lists accommodations from luxury hotels to B&Bs, from hostels to houseboats, from RV resorts to small campgrounds. If it has been approved by Tourism British Columbia, it’s listed here. The book is divided into sections. On the first page of each section is a very complete map of that area. Because each map covers only a portion of the province, it provides far greater detail than would a more expansive, less detailed map. Not only the largest cities and highways, but also visitor centers and provisional and national park campgrounds. Small rivers, tiny lakes, grey line back roads and towns far too little to be found on a regular map will show up here. Just looking through the guide was enough to get us ready to leave.

But where to go? According to our weather guru, weather.com, the best weather would be found along highway 97 from central Washington State north to Kelowna, BC. It made sense; after all, that area is desert, and usually, at this time of year, uncomfortably warm.

Our first stop was Leavenworth, WA at Icicle River RV resort. This is always one of our favorite stopovers, a small park surrounded by the Cascade Mountains, and along the banks of the Icicle River. However, the many of the sites here are a bit short; if you have a 40 foot or longer motorhome, it would be wise to call first to check on site availability. It’s a great birding area; when we arrived we could hear the loud “clee-ip” of the migrating Evening Grosbeaks, and every feeder was crowded with these social birds.

The next morning, we traveled on up Highway 97, following first the Columbia and then the Okanagan River. We stopped in Omak and drove through the Stampede Grounds to see if the campground here had vacancies. The Omak Stampede rodeo is held the second weekend in August, and has traditionally hosted the Omak “Suicide Race”. This is a short but dangerous race, where horses are galloped down 210 feet of steep cliff, across the Okanagan River and into the arena. It is not unusual for horses to be hurt during this race, and there’s been an ongoing movement to halt it. I had thought the movement had been successful, but this year’s Stampede advertisements claim the race will be held as usual. While the campground did indeed have vacancies, we opted to travel on toward the Canadian border

Oroville, WA is a small town at the southern end of Lake Osoyoos, a large lake which straddles the US/Canada border. Our favorite campground here is Osoyoos Lake State Park. Like many other state parks, this has widely spaced sites, and while there are no hookups, you camp right on the shores of the lake. There’s an amusing story about how this lake was named. “Soyoos” means “the narrows” in the language of the Okanagan Indians, and this is where the lake narrows just before it becomes the Okanagan River. The story says that an Irishman by the name of O’Sullivan decided that any proper name should have an “O” before it!

If you’re a golfer, I definitely recommend the Oroville Golf Club. It’s only 9 holes, but one of these, a long par 5, is completely uphill from tee to green, and on another, you must hit out over the Similkameen River Canyon to a fairway which slopes sharply back toward that same canyon. Challenging, to say the least.

We usually try to find out of the way border crossing stations just to avoid crowds and long lines of traffic. However, the closest small crossing station, Nighthawk, is 13 miles to the west of Oroville, and a 26 mile loop was just too far. We’d hope that the more crowded Highway 97 crossing wouldn’t be too bad if we tackled it early in the morning. However, traffic came to a halt about a half mile before the border -- only one booth was open this early, and it took the better part of an hour to get into Canada. But then we were only about 5 miles from Osoyoos, British Columbia.

Before you reach town, you pass Haynes Point Provincial Park, a small (41 site) park on a spit which extends into the lake. But today was quite windy, and the park is fairly unprotected. We opted to go on.

Arriving at the city center, we disconnected the jeep, and went to look at the other RV parks. And discovered NK’MIP.

NK’MIP is a lot of different things. It’s a resort and spa. It’s a golf course and winery. It’s an RV park and campground, with some sites right on the lake. (Osoyoos city brags that this lake is the warmest in Canada). We found a full hookup site, well protected from the wind, and just across from the swimming pool/hot tub/laundry/restroom complex.

Whenever we check into a new park, I look to see where we might walk Barney. This park sits on 27 acres adjacent to “the last remaining 900 acres of the Canadian Sonora desert”, and there are trails virtually combing the property. One must be a bit cautious, however, because this area has rattlesnakes! Protected rattlesnakes, at that. There’s even a sign as you come into the park, warning you to slow down, snakes may be crossing.

Once settled in our site, we set out to explore the area. Osoyoos is located in Canada’s only arid desert environment, similar to that found in Mexico. This area is “home to over 100 rare plants and over 300 rare invertebrates”. Just north of town, the Desert Center has been established to protect the 40% which remains of this antelope brush desert. You can follow a series of boardwalks through the desert, or see some of the rare species in the Native Habitat Garden.

Less than 1/2 mile from our RV site, many of the buildings of the NK’MIP complex, the winery and the resort -- are still under construction. The Cultural Center is finished and open for business, contained in a low-lying building of desert hued pinks and reds. In front of the Center the statue of an Okanagan chief on horseback saluting the sun welcomes you. The Center is dedicated to the culture of the Osoyoos Indian band of the Okanagan people -- their legends and daily lives. Several displays, as well as one of the films shown in the theater, and several of the outside sculptures are devoted to Coyote. I was intrigued with the legend involving Coyote, Snake and Grandfather Rock, which recounted how Snake lost his arms and legs, but kept his rattle. We watched a film, “Coyote Spirit”, in the Center’s theater. Usually such films are only concerned with natural beauty of the area, and deal little with the people who live there. This film told the story of a young Indian teenager sent to spend a summer with her grandmother and grandfather on their ranch in the Okanagan desert. Unhappy at first, over the summer she came to understand and appreciate her heritage.

After examining the inside of the center, we walked through a back door into a reconstructed Osoyoos village. In one area, a live rattlesnake glared at me from his glass enclosure. Next to his cage a brochure explained how this snake would be banded before being re-released into the desert. Interesting job, banding rattlesnakes!

The Center closed at 4, and we didn’t have enough time to take the desert walk to the Chief’s Lookout. We’ll have to hike the grounds on our next visit. Before we left, however, I did learn how to pronounce NK’MIP. “Ink-a-meep” means bottomland and describes the flat area at the north end of the lake, where the Okanagan River comes in. Now I have two words of Okanagan in my vocabulary, one for each end of the Lake.

We spent another day in this area, courtesy the camper. The first morning, I woke to find that a leak under the kitchen sink had completely soaked the storage area and the step up to the bed. It just so happened, however, that we could get an appointment at the Okanagan RV Center, just down the street, the very next morning. The rig spent the day in service, and Tom & I drove east.

Many of the highways in British Columbia have fascinating names. Highway 16, the Yellowhead Highway (English), Tete Jaune Cache (French), crosses B.C. from the Alberta border west to Prince Rupert. Highway 1 is first called the Fraser River Canyon Highway and then its name changes to the Cariboo Highway as it travels north to Prince George. We followed Highway 3, the Crowsnest Highway, east toward Grand Forks.

Just out of Osoyoos, the road climbs from 910 meters to 4045 feet to Anarchist Mountain. There are a couple of pull out areas where you get a view of the whole lake, town, and parts of Washington State. The view is breathtaking, and the low clouds covering portions of the view this morning only made it more spectacular. My biggest problem was getting a shot of the entire panorama. Once over the top of the hill, we saw the beginnings of several housing developments. The road into each of these developments was named for the birds or animals you might find here. At the point where each joined the highway, a sculpture of its named animal or bird had been put up. We passed Bullmoose Road, Cougar Court, Eagle Point, and Grizzly Lane, each with statuary. Suddenly we saw a very unusual looking animal -- something big and hairy and standing on two legs. We’d found Sasquatch Street! However, the roads and sculptures are so far the only signs of development. We saw only one house on all these roads, and it was for sale.

About 30 miles east of Osoyoos, Highway 33 joins the Crowsnest. Just a short distance north on 33 is the Kettle River provincial park, nestled in the towering cottonwoods along the Kettle River. Again, there are no hookups, but wide sites with picnic tables and fire rings. You can fish the river, hike along the abandoned right of way of the Kettle Valley Railway, or, if you’re Barney, sniff out the hundreds of ground squirrels which live here.

Back to Osoyoos to pick up the camper, and we were delighted to find it fixed and ready to go. (How many times has one “simple” fix turned into something more complex and lengthy?). One more night at NK’MIP and we were off for Kettle River Provincial Park. Barney was virtually begging for another chance at those squirrels. Then where? Canada calls.

Postcard: Shakedown Cruise

May 31, 2008

Mistakes. Everybody makes them. Whether you’re a full timer or a weekend RVer, you probably have a book full of episodes you’re embarrassed to remember. We certainly do. I’ll never forget dropping a full container of olive oil which shattered all over the kitchen tiles and spattered the living area carpet. Just as indelibly set in my memory is the time we decided to move the 5th wheel -- just a few inches. Forgetting to close the latch on the hitch, we pulled forward. Wham, the front end smashed down on the rails of the truck. And there are others. If a mistake can be made, I’m sure we’ve made it.

Because we’ve had at least our share of such experiences, we’ve come to learn the advantages of a shakedown cruise. Before we embark on a trip of more than a few days, we’ve found it’s a good idea to take a practice trip, staying close to home. If anything goes wrong, or we find we’ve forgotten something essential, we can just drive home and get, or fix, it.
In early June, Tom and I were due to take off for the Discovery Coast . We had reservations on the first boat out of Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, across the Strait of Georgia, and on to Bella Coola on the British Columbia mainland. It’s a trip we’ve taken before, and enjoyed every minute, from the spectacular marine scenery of the Inland Passage to the 18% grades on the “Hill”. Some of the country can be pretty lonely, however, and it’s a good idea to come prepared.

We hadn't used the camper for a while, and had put away most of its necessary “stuff”. If ever a time was right for a shakedown, this was it. There’s a small county coastal park less than 3 miles away from our Florence house, perfect for the test. We loaded the camper and headed out, and found we’d forgotten more than we’d packed. The list went on and on. While most of the things we were missing could easily have been obtained from a grocery store here or in Canada, it was obvious I’d need more preparation for a “real” trip.

We brought the coffee pot, but had no cups. You simply cannot pour hot coffee into a waxed paper cup. I sleep very warm, so of course I forgot to bring an extra blanket. I was reminded of that as the temperature dropped. Barbeque tongs are nice to have when you’re using the barbeque grill. If you forgot to bring the bread, it doesn’t much matter if you also forgot the toaster. If you have no door mat when you’re camping, you will track the outdoors inside.

And these things, merely annoying, paled in comparison with what happened next. The camper itself decided to give us a shakedown.

Coffee-less, we prepared to head home first thing in the morning. Tom disconnected the water and electric hookups, I slid in both slides of our camper. Then we did our obligatory walk around to see what we’d forgotten. Aha! The TV dish atop the camper was still up. While it’s possible to wind it down without sliding out, we chose the easier route, and hit the button to extend the dining room slide. It started out, and then came the sound of grinding gears as the slide stuttered to a halt. Uh, oh!

Tom pushed once again and the slide retracted. At least it was stuck in, not out, and we have a very good repair facility both for cars and RVs here in Florence. Dropping me at home, Tom went off to explain our problem to Keith, the RV service manager (and master mechanic) at Dunham Motors. They set up a service appointment for the coming Friday -- a nice accommodation for us to ensure we’d be able to depart on time as scheduled that weekend.

On his return, we examined the problem a bit more carefully. As Tom pressed the slide button, I noticed that the slide was pressing against a window curtain. The fit was very tight; in fact the slide seemed to be getting caught in the top of the curtain. The grinding noise happened precisely as the slide got hung up. We removed the curtain, and the problem immediately became less. However, it seemed to me that there was still something slightly different, now just a couple of small “ticks” to the once smooth slide. The timing of our trip to Canada still seemed to depend on getting the slide problem fixed.

But we weren’t out of the woods yet. Next the BC ferries threw a monkey wrench into our carefully planned machinery.

We were expecting a return call from Keith, but this time an automated voice was on the line. “This is British Columbia ferries calling. You are receiving this call because you have reservations on the June 10th sailing for the Discovery Coast”, it announced. “This sailing has been cancelled for operational reasons. Please call this number for further information.”

The friendly woman at the Victoria office of BC ferries explained the cancellation. Our boat, the Queen of Chilliwack, spends the winter months on the Sunshine Coast, and the summer months shuttling between Port Hardy and Bella Coola. Between seasons, the boat goes into drydock for inspection. The Queen wouldn’t be ready for the summer season for the better part of another week.

Hmm... It seemed the gods of circumstance were conspiring against our once smooth trip. Now we were faced with further decisions. Whether to go, when to go, and which way to go -- northeast from Port Hardy, or southwest from Bella Coola?

The question of whether to go was easy to answer. Of course we’d go. The Queen of Chilliwack leaves Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from Port Hardy, with Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday departures from Bella Coola. As of that morning, all trips had vacancies. But we’d have to make up our minds which way we wanted to go, and then choose the appropriate sailing.

The most popular route is eastward from Port Hardy. Depending on your departure date, you might stop at as many as 5 different coastal towns. You could walk the boardwalk in the Indian town of Klemtu, or stroll the streets of the mill town, Ocean Falls. You could also visit Bella Bella, or the dock and tourist facilities which make up the tiny town of Shearwater. Perhaps you’d choose a trip with only one or two stops, or take the straight through boat.

The first time we visited the Discovery Coast, we made every stop. It was a great trip, including an hour paddle in an Indian canoe. It was also long enough that we found ourselves with two overnights. And there are no cabins on the Queen of Chilliwack. There are reclining lounge chairs, but they are quickly claimed. We’d factor that into our choice this time (though we know some “inside” tips for dealing with this challenge).

Our original plan called for a drive up through Washington, cross the border east of the Peace Arch, and continue north around Vancouver. Then a series of ferry rides would take us up the Sunshine Coast, then crossing to Vancouver Island at Powell River. From there, we’d drive north to Port Hardy. But we could reverse our trip. We could drive up Highway 97 to Williams Lake, BC, west on Highway 20 to Bella Coola to catch the boat, and south down Vancouver Island. As I write this, we’re still debating.

One good note in this comedy of errors. When we took the camper into Dunham Motors Friday morning, Keith decided that the only problem with our slide was that it had been getting caught in the curtain! He was able to explain the slight tick that remained to Tom’s satisfaction. Now we just need carefully to load the camper (no more forgetting the coffee cups) and make up our minds which way we’ll go. From the east or from the west, we’re off to British Columbia and the Discovery Coast.

Postcard: A Very Special Rally

May 14, 2008

Since we first signed up for the Northwest Alpine coach Association (“NoWACA”) rally several weeks ago, some serious misfortunes have befallen the manufacturer of the coach owners it r epresents, Western RV. Whether because of the economy, the cost of fuel, or one of the many other reasons that have emerged from the rumor mill, WRV has closed its doors. It seemed to happen suddenly. One day there was a factory taking appointments for repairs, or tours if you were interested in a new purchase; the next day the building was closed and shuttered. Alpine owners found themselves in the somewhat precarious position of being “orphans”.

But that didn’t stop this group. It didn’t take long to hear from NoWACA that the rally would proceed as scheduled, (except for the factory tour). Reading the Alpine owners web site, I learned that an online library of technical information is bering planned. In the future, this will be an indespensible resource. That’s esprit de corps! We could hardly wait to see what this branch of the Alpine family would dream up for the rally.

It’s been some time since we’ve been “on the road’, and I was looking forward to the drive to Washington. While we could have covered the distance of 370+/- miles in one long day we decided to take it easy -- to stretch our trip out over 4 days. This decision proved wise. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d be driving separately.

Usually we’ve towed our small jeep Wrangler, shared the Alpine driving chores, and headed off down the road -- together. However, this time we were faced with a dilemma. We hitched up the Wrangler, and found that no lights worked. No right turn, no left turn, no stop lights. We’d recently had the lighting adjusted to tow a little trailer, and somehow, the toad lights must have gotten disconnected. Lights-wise, the Wrangler could tow, but not be towed.

However, we did have an ace in the hole. If we had to drive separately, we could do it in style. We’d drive the FIT.

We had just purchased a new car, a Honda FIT. It’s a great little car, a hatchback, plenty of room for Barney, and with seats that fold every which way, creating a surprising amount of space for storing “stuff”. Of which we always seem to have a great amount. It also gets superior gas mileage. Even though it’s still very new, on its first few tanks of gasoline, we’re getting close to 40 mpg on the highway.

Our first destination was Richardson Park campground, just west of Eugene. With full hookups, large sites, and a great location right next to Fern Ridge Lake, it’s a perfect spot for a stay of one day or several. You’re close enough to Eugene to enjoy the city, and then *return to the country.

The next day, our “long” day, took us to the Portland-Fairview RV park. North on I-5, around Portland on I-205, east on I-84 to exit 14, right onto Sandy Blvd., and there you are. If you’re in the exploring mode, it’s only a short drive to Portland, or a slightly longer one southeast to Mt. Hood. Or use it as we did; one overnight and then off into Washington, and on to Maryhill State park.

Maryhill is a bit off the beaten track these days. Repair work on the Biggs Rapids bridge has kept highway 97 closed across the Columbia River most of the winter. And that’s the route of choice for travelers from eastern Oregon heading to eastern Washington. Now you must cross at The Dalles bridge, 20 miles west. This route misses the turn to the park by 3 miles, and only those who are heading to Maryhill will drive that last distance. It’s a popular enough campground, however, that the park was about half full even on a Tuesday evening.

The next morning, we followed 97 up over Satus Pass and down into the Yakima Valley. This valley stretches from Yakima on its western edge to Prosser at the east, and is dotted with small towns. The Alpine factory is located in Yakima, but our rally would be held in Toppenish, about 20 miles southeast. In Toppenish, we’d be “rallying” at the Yakama Nation resort RV park.

This is one park that’s hard to miss. Turn left at the large building with the red and yellow design ringing its top. That’s the Indian Cultural Center museum, one of the oldest Native American Museums in the United States. Inside there’s a large gift shop and an interesting museum with dioramas, paintings and photographs depicting the history of the Yakama people. 14 large teepees ring the western end of the RV area. Each is named for one of the different Indian bands which formed the Yakama nation at the time of the signing of the Treaty of 1855. (That treaty granted the Yakama nation 1.3 million acres out of a previously claimed 10.8 million acres). These teepees are available for nightly rental, and children always enjoy playing around and in them. On the eastern edge of the park, a further landmark, the Yakama Nation Legends Casino.

We drove into the RV park area and were greeted by our rally hosts, Larry and Barb Smith, and Jamie and Donna Jamieson. Not only did they give us directions to our site, and a list of events for the next few days, but everyone got a T-shirt. Originally, the shirts had been designed to read “Homecoming 2008”, but without a “home”, it’s hard to have a homecoming. But here fortune had stepped in. The very morning the shirts were to go to the printer, the Smiths and Jamisons learned that Western RV had closed its doors. It must have been a quick decision by the rally leaders, but the design was changed to put an elongated “x” through the word “homecoming”. Perhaps the Smiths and Jamiesons didn’t realize it, but that “x” makes these shirts a collector’s item.

The rally began Wednesday evening with hot dogs and s’mores over the campfire. Thursday’s activities included a driving school for the women, and a “gearhead”, (technical), session for the guys. For me, and for Tom, (although he didn’t know it at the time), there would be an additional activity. He was celebrating a special birthday on that day, and our children were planning to “kidnap” him. Since the driving school was in Yakima, and the “gearhead” session was in Toppenish, my role was to have Tom arrive at the driving area at the appropriate time without arousing his suspicions. With the help of fellow Alpiners Dale and Dixie Gerstel, Tom arrived at the fair grounds right on time, and was whisked away in a limo for an afternoon of wine tasting in the Yakima valley and dinner at our daughter’s home.

The school was held in the parking lot at the state fairgrounds -- a huge area of concrete nothingness. This pristine area had been “spoiled” however, by the placing of dozens of orange cones, around and through which we were supposed to drive!

We were divided into two groups, those who had no experience behind the wheel, and those who considered themselves somewhat proficient. The first group drove a 34’ Alpine, the latter one of two 40 footers. Other than rig size, and a slightly more narrow course, everyone had the same tests. We drove in groups of three with each taking a turn at being driver.

First we drove to the end of a row and turned right. Another row and another right and we came to our first test -- panic stops. Drive fast and hit the brakes, and everyone inside hold on! Then followed tight turns, backing straight, parking using the side mirrors and backup camera, and maneuvering through S-curves. Although I have a lot of driving experience, mine is usually the straight ahead variety down boring interstates, so this was a great behind-the-wheel refresher lesson.

Friday had been scheduled as the day at the factory -- but of course there was no factory to tour. Tom took the time to update RVersOnline, and I looked at the map. Where hadn’t we been in the area? We were driving a gas conserving Fit. Let’s go exploring. We headed out into the countryside, to Fort Simcoe State Park heritage site.

While wineries are becoming increasingly commonplace in the Valley, it’s still basically beer country. We passed hop field after hop field before the terrain finally gave way to sage covered hills. About 20 miles southwest of our RV park, we arrived at Fort Simcoe.

Fort Simcoe was built in the mid-1850s, when increasing Indian conflicts necessitated a fort further north than the one at The Dalles. The site was chosen in part because the water supply was dependable. Cold springs, (“mool-mool” to the Yakama) offered water when it might have been dangerous to venture out in search of it. Today only 5 original buildings remain, including a nicely refurnished Commanding Officer’s House. Four others have been reconstructed. The remainder are now marked only by foundations and signs describing what once stood there.

When its life as a Fort was finished, Fort Simcoe served as a school and Indian agency headquarters. It gets few visitors; today, Tom & I joined only a handful of others strolling the grounds and looking in the historic buildings. That evening, I talked with a fellow RVer who has lived all her life in Yakima, and told her about our day at the Fort. I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that she’d never been there.

A rally isn’t a rally without meals, and the Smiths and Jamisons certainly know how to feed RVers. After Friday’s flatiron steak and salmon, and Saturday’s Mexican fiesta, I determined to wait at least a couple of days before standing on my scales again. After dinner on Saturday evening, there was an auction to benefit the Wishing Star foundation. This foundation grants wishes to children between the ages of 3 and 21 who have life threatening illnesses. That evening, a couple of the kids who had benefitted from this foundation came to the dinner. Jamie put them to work helping him auction some of the items, and the kids took to it with gusto. They must have been at least partly responsible for the fact that this small gathering collected over $5,000 to donate to the Foundation.

Sunday morning we said good-bye to our fellow rally-goers, and headed to our daughter’s house once again. Here we left the rig and headed home in our FIT. The Alpine will stay in Yakima until the middle of June, when we will bring the camper back from a trip to the Discovery Coast of British Columbia. Then we’ll swap. The kids will use the camper for the summer, and we’ll bring the Alpine back to its Florence home. A bit complicated, but that often describes our life.

Only time will tell what happens to Western RV. Several of the people who previoiusly worked there came to the rally -- a makeshift tech support team -- that simply wanted to volunteer to help out. That was an impressive display of camaraderie and loyalty from some folks who had suddenly found themselves unemployed. They have a very positive attitude about their former company, and are hoping it will be purchased by another RV manufacturer or otherwise find a way to re-open. In the interim, when you can attend such an upbeat rally as the one put on by the Smiths and Jamisons, you don’t feel in the least like an “orphan”. We are getting to know some really outstanding people, and look forward to our next gathering.

Postcard: Winchester Bay Weekend

April 14, 2008

We’ve been home now since the first week of March, dividing our time between our Bend townhome and “Flo Digs”, Ms Garmin’s term for our Florence house. We’ve been trying to decide what part of our furniture belongs in which locale. We’ve carted couches, pictures, pots and pans west to Florence, often finding that part or all of what we hauled should have stayed where it was. And then back it goes.

The weather has been pretty good for this sort of activity. Florence has had little sun; I could not in good conscience rationalize ignoring chores and heading for the beach when the rain is pelting down. Bend has been cold enough that the snow has yet to melt from our golf course townhome. But this weekend was different. This weekend the sun came out in force, with temperatures 15 degrees above average. This weekend it was time to chuck responsibility, get the rig out of the garage, and head south to Winchester Bay RV resort.

Winchester Bay is a tiny town only about 30 miles south of Florence, an easy 45 minute drive. We’ve stayed here at least a dozen times, we knew it when it was called Salmon Marina RV park, and before it was as popular as it is now. This is one park where calling for a reservation is generally a good idea; Winchester Bay and nearby Reedsport host year round festivals and events and attract RVers by the hundreds. Clamming and crabbing are popular activities, and until this season, fishing was also a big draw. This year, the collapse of the Sacramento River chinook salmon run has caused the commercial, tribal and sports limits to be drastically curtailed. This, plus the price of diesel, just may mean fewer RVers next summer.

But while water sports are major attractions, they cannot compete with the Oregon Dunes National Recreation area. Families from all over the west come with ATVs, off road motorcycles and jeeps to drive this 40 mile long, 3 mile wide stretch of coastal sand. And this season, Tom & I are going to join them. We’ve ordered an ATV, and we should have it in a couple of weeks. We don’t intend to join the dune jumping crowd, ours is the “touring” variety, a comfortable(-ish), two person, 4 wheel Polaris. Now we need to discover some of the places ATVers frequent -- what sort of trailers they use, where they camp, where they find beach and dune access. We’ve explored the dunes and beaches around Florence, and this weather made a great excuse to visit the dunes around Reedsport and Winchester Bay.

After checking in at the resort, we retraced our steps to the Reedsport Visitor Center. The Center is centrally located in the middle of Reedsport, right on Highway 101, but, at this time of year, it’s closed on weekends! We were thinking of heading back to our rig when we noticed a small sign -- “Follow the arrows to the Umpqua Discovery Center. Look for the totem pole.” Since the Visitor Center was closed, why not try this?

What a good idea that turned out to be. The Discovery Center is located in “old-town” Reedsport, well off the beaten track that is Highway 101. It’s a multi-storied building with a bright blue roof on the banks of Umpqua River, with a tall totem pole in front. Once inside the building, you’re faced with two choices. Go straight ahead and sample the gift shop offerings. Better yet, buy a ticket ($7 for seniors), and steep yourself in Oregon Coast History. One wing of the center houses an exhibit of coastal natural history. The other offers a glimpse into the lives of those natives and pioneers who lived here in years past. Your ticket will be good for the entire day, and there’s so much to see that you can easily spend that long.

Tom decided against visiting the museum, and headed back to the rig and the lure of the Dunes. I paid my fee in the gift shop, turned right, and headed into Oregon natural history.

The call of a bull elk and the vision of a meadow in morning started me on my journey. I was following a “trail”, climbing up to the mountains overlooking the Umpqua River, then down through the forests to the ocean beaches. Each area had beautiful murals, and each area was complete with sound effects. The elk’s call, the twitterings of sparrows and the hoot of the Great Horned Owl. Also the heartbeat of a hibernating bear, and the growl of a cougar.

It would be easy to miss much of the information found on this walk. Be sure to look down; every few feet a glass covered “hole” shows what creatures might be found beneath the surface. Be sure to open the drawers found in the tree trunks, and learn more about each species.

The weather plays an important role in life on the Oregon coast, and at the top of the center is a room devoted entirely to climate. You can judge how hard the wind will blow, or guess which month is the rainiest on the Oregon Coast (it’s December, with an average of over 15 inches, but several others come close.) The coast gets between 60 and 100 inches of rain per year -- mostly in winter months. Forecast the weather by listening to folk tales. Not only “red in the morning sailors take warning”, but also “flies will swarm before a storm”. Frogs increase their croaking before a storm, but a flock of huddled seagulls means the weather is already bad. Perhaps this is not as scientific as today’s methods, but it may be almost as accurate.

Realizing I hadn’t yet explored the cultural history of the area, and with a deadline to meet Tom, this time I skipped the adult sized slide through a bear den. I did take time to stop at the simulated cave and watch a video on the Dunes -- their formation, shapes and future.

My trail ended back in the gift shop, and now I walked to the other end of the Center -- to the Cultural history portion, titled “Tidewaters and Time”. The first mural, painted on a wall inside a Kuuich plank house, portrayed a woman telling stories to a group of small children. By pressing a button, you could hear her story in either Kuuich or English!

As I walked on, I paused at another small cabin from which was coming an odd tapping noise. I looked in, and a man’s face looked back at me through a rear window. “Welcome”, he said. “I’m Bill. Let me introduce you to a friend of mine. He’ll tell you stories about logging in the early days”. Although I did realize I’d be speaking to an image, he was so friendly I felt like starting a conversation.

At the schoolhouse, I paused when the bell rang, and heard the laughter of children as they climbed the hill to their school. Their teacher, newly arrived from San Francisco, had just learned she was expected to teach agriculture and “she hadn’t read the book”! At the barbershop a small boy was getting his hair cut while his father was talking to the barber about the recent card game at “Al’s house”.

Realizing I’d probably missed a lot of both exhibits, I was tempted to walk through them again, but it was a beautiful afternoon and the dunes were calling. I’ll definitely return the next time we’re in Reedsport.

We spent the rest of the afternoon, exploring nearby portions of the dunes area. Winchester Bay RV resort does not allow ATV riding on premises, but right across the street are 2 full hookup county parks which do. One of these is reservable, the other first come first served. They are not as attractively set up as is Winchester Bay, and are not right on the water, but if your goal is dune riding, they’re perfect. It’s about a half mile ride on the road shoulder to get to the sand. Other options for camping are dry camp areas adjacent to the dunes themselves. The Forest Service operates several campgrounds which allow ATV use in camp. Reservations for these may be made between 10 and 120 days before your arrival.

Our children and grandkids are understandably delighted about our new purchase, with one reservation -- how old do you have to be to ride. (That from Calleigh, 8 and Ty, 12). Right now there’s no age limit, although helmets are mandatory, adult supervision is required, and there will be a phased in requirements for ATV fit -- so that small children don’t drive some of the behemoths now found on the dunes. I was delighted to note that all the kids we saw wore helmets, and the smallest children had found a flat track near a pond where they could practice their skills. Their parents were careful to supervise, and everyone was having a great time.

We’ll have to see how our ATV experiment works out. I admit to being a bit nervous -- I think I’m the sort of rider or driver who would be content to stay with the kids around that pond. But we won’t stay just on the dunes. Oregon is full of ATV trails, some stretching for hundreds of miles into the wilderness. Let’s go exploring!

Postcard: Gray Lines to Borrego

Feb. 29, 2008

Las Vegas is a perfect spot for a rally. No one ever complains of being bored -- there’s always something to do. If rally events aren’t enough, the Strip is close by, with restaurants, glitzy shows, and of course, non-stop gambling. But this Alpine get-together filled our days and evenings with so many activities we had little time to venture out.

We “camped” at Outdoor Resorts, where each site is privately owned and elaborately outfitted. Many sites feature elegant barbeque set-ups, with tiled counters, bar stools, outdoor kitchens, and elaborate landscaping. One neighbor with a corner lot had a small pool and never-ending waterfall. This pool had grass along one side, a large palm tree and small flowering plants. I remarked how attractive I thought it was and the owner said simply, “Thank you”. The next morning,I looked over at the lot. A small army of gardeners was busily tearing out the grass, and several trucks were delivering additional full grown palms. By the time the day had ended, the grass had been replaced with decorative rocks, all the original landscaping except the pool had vanished, the palms and smaller plants had been added. Was it something I said?

The first rally evening, beginning gamblers such as I got a lessons on “ when to hold-em” as well as when to "fold-em". We used real chips, but there any resemblance to regular poker games ended. We all looked at each others’ cards, and quickly could tell why someone had bid as he (or she) had. Those who were faster learners or braver gamblers than I signed up for the next night’s game, the kind of game that involves cards held tight to the chest, and a few dollars at stake.

Alpine rallies usually feature a pet parade -- one of Barney’s favorite activities. He enjoys meeting other dogs, and is not as intimidated by them when he’s on neutral ground. Every pet wins, and Barney received a both ribbon and a toy. It didn’t take long for Barney to bite a hole in his toy, but he loves it just the same, and races around, shaking it growling ferociously.

Activities weren’t limited just to Outdoor Resorts’ grounds. We enjoyed a dinner show at Excalibur, where King Arthur, Prince Christopher, the “evil” Mordred, and several miscellaneous Kings showed off their equestrian abilities. Merlin taught us how to toast, medieval style, and “Huzzahs” resounded during the last night of the rally.

Even though the weather was not particularly cooperative, 5 Wranglers and 5 Cherokees had signed up for a day’s off roading trip into the mountains west of town. We’d been told that the trip would consist of two trails. The first, Trout Canyon trail, would be relatively easy. The second, Lovell trail, would be more “technical”, and involve more boulder navigation and wash travel. What we didn’t then know was that we’d encounter enough snow to make the trip even more exciting.

We left the highway just west of Pahrump, and headed up Trout Canyon trail. About three miles up, the caravan came to a halt. Now our wagonmaster suggested we might like to let some of the air out of our tires, both to make the drive smoother, and assist with traction.

Off we went again. Now the trail became steeper, the drop-offs more precipitous, and the corners sharper. There snow was only a few inches deep, but with 10 jeeps packing it down, it became icier and icier. We were #9 in the line, and when the jeep in front of us came to an unexpected halt around a bend, we skidded sideways, barely stopping before bumping him. It got so slick that the jeep behind us had to try 3 times to get up one of the grades.

At the bottom of Trout trail, we all stopped to catch our collective breaths and determine what to do next. It was only a short distance to the main road -- all downhill, so returning on a paved route was suddenly a more attractive alternative. The Lovell trail was higher and certain to be snowier than this one. Those jeeps who would be continuing on were checking their tire pressures, and lowering it further. And unlike ours, most of these were all fully “tricked out” Wranglers that looked forward to such terrain.

All the Cherokees opted out. Tom and I joined them. At this time last year, we’d inadvertently gone 4 wheeling through the snows of the Oregon Cascades, and figured we’d already “enjoyed” one such experience. When we later talked with some of those who had gone on, we were told we’d made a wise choice. The one un-modified Jeep even had to be rescued from becoming high-centered on a large boulder!

The rally days sailed by, and Sunday morning we watched as the other Alpines left for the FMCA rally in Pomona, CA. We’d be headed south, too, back to Borrego Springs, but winds of 35mph, with gusts to 70, didn’t sound like the best driving weather -- particularly with the unusual route we had planned. We’d stay another day, explore the Vegas environs, and see what 24 hours would do. No downtown Las Vegas for us today, and we’d already tested the western mountains. We were headed east to the Valley of Fire.

The desert east of Las Vegas and west of Lake Mead is a spectacular mix of red/orange and black. At first glimpse, the surrounding hills seem dark and barren. However, underlying those hills lies an iron laden substance known to geologists as Aztec sandstone. When erosion exposes this sandstone, it “rusts”, producing these brilliant cliffs. Add sunshine, and the result is spectacular.

The Valley Visitor Center is a must stop -- if you can find it. It’s a low building, nestled against the cliffs, and practically the same color. Here you can get brochures on the various hikes, drives and ranger activities in the park.

There are two campgrounds in the Valley of Fire -- one situated among towering rocks, is for smaller rigs; the other, upgraded since our last visit, is suitable for rigs of any size. This last has water and electric, and there’s a dump station at the entrance. You won’t be quite as “nestled” here, but it’s still one of the most beautiful campgrounds I’ve seen.

Monday’s weather, no wind, clear and sunny, made us glad we’d waited a day to leave Las Vegas. Most travelers headed to Borrego Springs would have followed the Interstates, and Ms. Garmin wanted to go that way too. But I’d found a different route. My route only had 42 miles of Interstate. Leaving Las Vegas, we would follow I-15 south for 42 miles. Then we’d head east for three miles on highway 164. Next another turn south, straight through the Mojave National Preserve. We’d go under Interstate 40 and south again to Amboy and Twentynine Palms. Now up through Joshua Tree National Park, across Interstate 10, and on to the Coachella Valley town of Mecca. Spur 86, a 4 lane road from Mecca to the Borrego-Salton Seaway would be the closest thing to Interstate we’d have seen since leaving I-15. Sounded great. The only worry was the road conditions. We’d be driving the thin gray lines, only one notch above gravel.

When we first decided on this route, I’d called the visitor center in the Preserve to ask about the roads. They assured me our route was paved the whole way. And, I figured, there wouldn’t be much traffic -- so what if the road is narrow if you’re the only vehicle on it!

And that’s how it turned out. We turned off I-15 and the road abruptly narrowed, trending downhill for three miles. We needn’t have worried about missing our turn onto the Cima road -- a helpful graffiti artist had painted a large orange arrow on the sign. Three miles on the Ivanpah Road, then a turn onto Morning Star Mine Road. 15 miles to Cima.

Had we asked Ms Garmin to take us straight to Borrego Springs, she would never had directed us this way. However, by introducing our trip stage by stage, she was a great help. She’d actually heard of Cima. Too bad she couldn’t tell us that we’d pass through the single largest, densest forest of Joshua Trees in the world!

The road was in pretty good shape -- narrow, a bit rough, and missing some of its surfaces, but we only met three other cars in the 18 miles from the turnoff to Cima. From the vantage point of an RV, we could see the potholes coming up, and easily avoided them.

Cima is a tiny spot -- it seems to consist merely of a railway yard on one side of the road and a post office on the other. As we passed through “town”, we noticed the postmistress putting up the flag. We should have stopped to chat -- I’m certain she could have told us a lot about the area. We’ll be careful not to make that mistake next time. And there will be a next time. There’s far too much to see here not to return.

As we left Cima, Morning Star Mine road changed its name to the Kelso Cima road. Now it was improved for several miles -- a bit wider and not as rough. We were headed for the railroad town of Kelso.

In the early 1900s, the Union Pacific Railroad wanted a foothold in California, especially the areas around Los Angeles. To get there, it needed to cross the Mojave Desert. To that end, it purchased a half interest in a small railroad in the area. By 1905, it had reached Siding #16, now known as Kelso.

Kelso is located at the bottom of a steep (for trains) grade. The plan was to keep something called “helper” engines here. Kelso also had a reliable supply of water for the steam engines. At its height, 2,000 people lived here, but the advent of diesel, and the closing of a nearby mine brought Kelso’s boom time to a halt. Now all that’s left are a few homes and a beautiful old restored train station, home to the Visitor Center.

The train station was designed as competition to the Harvey Houses of the Santa Fe RR, and originally labeled the “Kelso Club House and Restaurant”. Upstairs, you can see typical boarding rooms of the period, down stairs is an old baggage area and the restaurant itself. A large, U-shaped lunch counter, varnished to perfection, takes up most of the main room. It seems to be waiting for its long lost customers. Behind a counter in one corner of the room is the visitor center.

We may have missed our opportunity to chat with the Cima postmistress; not so with the National Park Service men behind the desk. They told us about the two area campgrounds. Mid Hills has 26 sites, is located on an unpaved road and not recommended for motorhomes or trailers. The other, Hole-in-the-Wall, has 35 RV and tent sites It is best accessed from 1-40 at the Essex exit.

What to do in this country, described in the 1920s by the UP Chairman as “dreary”? If you’re camped, there’s an intriguing, 1 mile hike called the Rings Loop trail. It features a descent through “Banshee Canyon” with the help of metal rings mounted in rock. Go out to the Devil’s Playground and the Kelso Dunes. When you run down these dunes, you may hear an unusual humming noise, caused by the cascading sands. Hike through the Joshua Tree Forest. Look for one of the endangered Desert tortoises. When we return, I intend to try all of these things.

From the Depot, it’s only 22 miles to I-40. We crossed under that Interstate and found ourselves in familiar territory. Off to Amboy, Twentynine Palms, and into Joshua Tree National Park. Here we encountered a road that made the Preserve roads look like interstates. No shoulders, sharp turns, construction and traffic combined for slow going. It was hard to fault the traffic, however, this is prime wildflower season. The desert doesn’t look like a desert now -- it’s a wildflower wonderland.

Back in Borrego -- this time at Palm Canyon Campground. The usually stark mountains have a soft greenish cast, the sand verbena, dune primrose and lupine are out in force, and just about every camping space is occupied. We’ll be here for a few days enjoying the flowers, and the desert heat (80+ today), and then start heading north. [See Pictures for this Postcard]

Postcard: House Arrest

Feb. 12, 2008

Our mornings on the road follow a predictable pattern. We’re not the earliest of winter time risers -- in fact, we follow the sun’s example. In summer, we’re up early, in winter, our days start somewhat later. Tom makes the coffee, I make the bed, and we both take Barney for his morning walk.

Usually. It didn’t work out that way this morning. This morning we lazed around more than usual, getting a later start than usual to a travel day. Then, ready for our morning walk, we found we were under house arrest -- the front door was firmly jammed in the locked position.

We normally lock the deadbolt each evening, and it has always been a bit of a hassle to open. Should you forget it’s closed and attempt to open the door anyway, you’ll have to pull the door closed -- hard-- before you can snap the bolt into its open position. So this morning, when the door wouldn’t open, that’s what I did. No good. There was no satisfying loud sound of a bolt slamming open, there was no noise at all. Hmm... I’ve been accused of being a weakling before, maybe I wasn’t pulling hard enough, or twisting hard enough, or something. “Tom, you try”.

When he couldn't open the door either, we knew we were in trouble. Our first inclination was to remove the interior lock. The screwdriver was right where it was supposed to be, in one of the outside bins. Inside with us however, was the little Leatherman tool kit our daughter gave us for a long ago Christmas, and which has gotten us out of scrapes before. Using it, Tom removed the inside lock -- and presto, we found a another sheet of metal with a couple of holes in it, and a small, flat piece sticking out. All attempts to turn that failed.

About now, I suggested climbing out one of the emergency exits. It didn”t seem that far to the ground. We could have lowered a ladder down and made an escape even easier, but of course, we keep the ladder in one of the outside bins. I opened the window, shoved the screen away, and looked out. Whoa. It’s quite a way to the ground even from the lowest window. And how do you do this anyway? Head first didn’t seem a good plan; we were camped at Gil Ray, in the Tucson desert, and that stickery looking thing just below is a teddy bear cholla, one of the meanest plants out here. (These things are so ornery, they’ve gotten the reputation as a “jumping” cholla, one that throws its spiny parts at passers by.) So I sat in the window, twisted myself around and slowly lowered myself down all the way to the belt buckle, which hung up on the track.

I managed to free myself and, with minimal loss of skin, slid to the ground. Tom tossed me the keys, and I attempted to unlock the door from the outside. No luck. Next I removed the outer lock. Now there’s a small hole, through which I could see the locking mechanism. No way could I move it.

I got the ladder and brought it around to the window. We were well and truly stuck, and might as well be outside. At this point however, Tom decided to call the Good Sam Emergency Road Service. Before he did that however, he pulled a very reluctant Barney over to the window. “He needs to get out, think you can hold him?”

Hold a frightened, 40 pound Brittany on the top step of a ladder, even a fairly short one? I could just see us both crashing into that cholla. “I don’t think so. But I’ll try.”

Barney cooperated beautifully. He literally sat on the top of the ladder and was easy to get to the ground. He ran around to the front of the coach, and was back within seconds, whining pitifully, with a large chunk of cholla stuck to his side. Tom passed me a comb and I carefully scraped it off, then used the Leatherman pliers, (one handy implement), to pull the excess spines from his side and his mouth.

That was enough of the great outdoors for Barney. He raced around to the front step, put his paws on it, looked longingly at the locked door, and wagged his tail vigorously. “Sorry Barney, I can’t get in either.”

Meanwhile Tom had called Good Sam, and had been placed on hold. While he waited, I took Barney for his long overdue walk, and found the first piece of good luck we’d had that morning. I ran into Nancy Fields. Nancy and her husband Ken also have a 34’ Alpine. We’d been talking to them on a walk just the evening before. They are both retired law-enforcement officers, and probably wouldn’t have had experience with the type of problem we were encountering -- but I thought I’d try anyway. “Do either of you know anything about opening locked doors?”

Nancy went to find Ken, and I went back to the coach. Tom was no longer on hold, but he had run into an unexpected issue with Good Sam emergency road service. When he’d called in through the “automated” service, he’d first selected the voice menu for RV service, and then the voice menu item for “lockout" service. When he told the gal on the phone that he was locked in, not out, she was obviously dealing with a novel issue. She reported that surely this must be covered under the lockout service, but first she'd have to check with her supervisor.” Then came the verdict: “I’m sorry, sir”, she said when she came back, “we cannot cover that. You’re locked in, not out. Therefore you can drive your rig to a locksmith”. (This logic doesn’t hold up too well when you consider that the Wrangler was parked right in front of the Alpine, and if I hadn’t been able to get out, we’d have had to run over the jeep. Also parking the coach at a shop in downtown Tucson would have been difficult at best).

“You’re saying, then, that if I were locked OUT, you could help, but since I’m locked IN you cannot” Tom asked? “OK, what if I go out through an emergency exit? It may be a bit unsafe because jumping out of an RV can be a bit risky. But at that point I wouldn’t be able to get back in. So are you saying that if I call you from outside the coach, you can get me a locksmith?”

Her answer as always was polite, and she expressed some personal concern about the proposal for jumping out of the RV -- but she acknowledged that would likely be the case..

Tom called back, and Good Sam told him his situation was now covered by the ERS policy -- and that they’d call a locksmith. One we didn’t need, as it turned out, because Ken, the real Good Samaritan in this episode, showed up just then. Perhaps because of his law enforcement background, Ken Fields has some interesting tools. I would have sworn that those scissors were just large manicure scissors, and the tweezers were just that, tweezers, but with those two implements, Ken was able to push the offending deadbolt out of the way. The door was then easily opened and Tom was freed. Somehow, the guys immobilized the dead bolt so it can’t accidentally close, and the lock can be fixed on our next service appointment. Meantime we’ll just use the “regular” lock.

Ken had been worried about this lock problem on his own coach as well. Not being locked in, but locked out. Had Tom not been inside, and able to remove the inside workings of the lock, Ken wouldn’t have been able to see where the problem was -- and the dead bolt lock can only be removed from the inside.

The problem was at least temporarily fixed, and we could be on our way. The better part of an hour had elapsed, and it was a good thing we weren’t waiting for a locksmith, as no one had called us back. We called Good Sam and cancelled whatever arrangements had not yet been made. The persons on the phone had been extremely nice to talk to, but the system as a whole does seem to have a flaw or two.

We’re headed westward, to Ajo and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. A day trip south into Mexico and Puerto Penasco for shrimp sounds inviting. Then we’ll be off north to an Alpine rally in Las Vegas. We’ll just be sure not to touch that deadbolt!

Postcard: The Mardi Gras Tree
Feb. 3, 2008

We often laugh that we have no set agenda; that we don’t know where we’re going until we’re underway. Nothing demonstrates this better than our recent trip to Louisiana -- I didn’t even know Tom had been considering such a trip until he dropped a bombshell into a casual conversation.

It started at Usery Mountain regional park, when we were spending the afternoon with some good friends from Washington. We first met Rich and Barbara Stockwell years ago when they owned Fidalgo Bay RV Resort in Anacortes. At that time, Fidalgo Bay was one of our favorites, a place where there was always something going on. Crab feeds, musical get-togethers, potlucks, just read the “news”, which Barbara published on line, and make your reservation. Fidalgo Bay as we knew it is gone, but the Stockwells have moved on to greater things in the RV industry and remain extremely good friends.

That afternoon, Barbara asked me what our travel plans were for the rest of the winter. “I’m not sure”, I replied. “Probably we’ll get to the Texas gulf coast, but I doubt we’ll get as far east as Louisiana.”

“Oh, I don’t know” Tom interjected. “I’ve been researching some options on the internet, and found a convenient flight from Tucson to New Orleans. I’ve made standby reservations to return on Amtrak. Want to go?”

And that’s how, less than a week later, we’d put the dog “in jail”, stored the Alpine, packed our clothes, and boarded a flight for New Orleans. Tom emailed Betty Bernard, owner of Betty’s RV park in Abbeville, and she sent us a detailed list of Mardi Gras activities in the area.

We would have only a couple of days in Louisiana, and Betty’s list was so long we had to carefully choose events to fit into our schedule. You’d have to know Betty to fully understand this. She knows just about everyone between Lafayette and Lake Charles, and is definitely an insider when it comes to Mardi Gras activities . In addition to her list, Betty had also added a “kicker”. “I’m trying to get permission to take my guests (those RVers staying at her park) onto a nearby ranch where the courir will be stopping”, she wrote. “But that’ll happen on February 3rd. Too bad you won’t be here”.

I felt like extending our stay. The courir or “run” is a centuries old tradition, dating from Medieval times. The runners, fully costumed, masked and on horseback or in in decorated carts, go from house to house begging for the ingredients which will be used to make a community meal (gumbo). But the homes where they go are usually not visible from the road, and I would treasure an invitation to a close-up observation of the festivities.

The plane landed in New Orleans in the midst of a torrential Louisiana downpour. (It can rain so hard here you’d swear someone had turned on a hose. Not droplets, but sheet rain which can soak you within seconds.) Because the Mardi Gras celebration was beginning this weekend, hotels around the airport had been completely booked for weeks. Tom had managed to find us a room in Houma (Hoe-ma) 45 miles southwest.

Not only rain, but the blackness of a southern night made for an interesting drive. We followed Ms. Garmin’s instructions to the letter, and when she instructed us to exit the freeway, turn right or left at various intersections, we did as we were told. Finally came the long awaited statement: “Arriving at destination on right”. She’d directed us to a car dealership. Oops. You can only trust a GPS so far. We called the motel and we were only a half mile off. That night, we sampled the first of a series of delicious Cajun meals. Next morning, we headed north on highway 90 toward Abbeville, and a country Mardi Gras.

Once you leave highway 90 and get into the countryside, you notice small lakes on either side of the road. In many of these, you’ll see evidence of submerged traps. These are crayfish farms where they raise the delicious staple of the area. Go into just about any restaurant at this time of year, and crayfish tops the menu. Crayfish gumbo, bisque, fried or just plain boiled, served on a huge platter with potatoes and corn. Yum!

After checking in at our motel, we took off for Betty’s. As usual, her small park was full; in fact it was more than full. One of her guests had promised to leave mid week, and if he did not, she’d have to double park a couple of rigs due in at that date. But, knowing Betty, she’ll make everything work out, and the people coming in to the park will be first to sign up for next year.

From the long list Betty had provided us, we had decided on a Mardi Gras parade in Gueydan (“Gay-Dan”), about 25 miles west. That was one parade Betty had not attended, and we promised to send her a review. She also mentioned we might like to hear some “real” Cajun music, and recommended Calvin Touchet’s (“touch-chet”) establishment. She explained that the musicians would be local folk, artists who come early each weekend and sign up to play. They wouldn’t necessarily have performed as a group before, but each would have experienced playing in other area towns. Touchet’s would also provide a free meal to those attending. Betty didn’t know what the dinner would be, but assured us it would be delicious.

The Gueydan parade was a delight. We drove out of town just a few blocks, and watched the courir riders arrive, then drove downtown to watch the floats come by. The parade route came up one side of a divided roadway and down the other -- if you wanted more beads, all you had to do was walk across the street. That was exactly what one young boy did. When all the floats had passed us the first time, I snapped his picture, and complimented him on his bead collection. “Just wait”, he told me. “I’ll get more!”

We’d been told that Touchet’s bar was in Maurice, a town 8 miles north of Abbeville. However, we’d only gone half that distance, when Tom spotted a small building, its parking lot crowded with cars, and music we could hear from the road. We jammed ourselves inside for a real Cajun treat.

The musicians took up about a quarter of the interior, and the dance floor another quarter. The rest was tables crowded together and a large bar, where we found ourselves some elbow room. The “no-smoking” rule doesn’t apply here, but that just adds to the ambience.

There were ten musicians playing this evening. 2 regular guitars, 2 electric guitars, one fiddle, one accordion, one triangle and a complete set of drums. There were two instruments I didn’t recognize -- something that resembled a horizontal fiddle, and a wearable washboard. This last was an old fashioned washboard with metal hooks to hang over the musician’s shoulders. The gal playing this unusual instrument was wearing some sort of metal gloves, so when she stroked the washboard, it made a rhythmic, metallic sound.

The accordion player was also the lead singer. His song was a french song, but Cajun french is so different from what I learned in high school that I couldn’t understand a single word. It was a pretty tune, delivered just a decibel under a shout. The whole performance was loud, unintelligible and fabulous -- an absolutely incredible, delightful evening. Tom had to drag me away.

We only had one night in Abbeville. In order to get back to New Orleans for a Monday mid-day train, we’d have to spend the next night back in Houma. Jeanerette is located about half way back, and we treated ourselves to another Mardi Gras parade that afternoon. We had time for a quick tour of the Avery Island tabasco factory, and the opportunity once again, to get lost on Bayou Teche.

This happened to us once before in Louisiana. On our travels in there in 1999, we discovered that roads in this state are easy to find and follow if you’re a native. If you’re not, prepare to be lost. We were following a series of blue signs imprinted with a trailer, and signifying that somewhere, hopefully nearby, we’d find the campground. Following these signs led us further and further into the countryside, past small fishing cabins and along bayous and lakes. Finally, it became a choice between finding the campground and attending the parade in Jeanerette. We made a U-turn and headed back. The campground’s whereabouts remain unknown.

The Jeanerette parade was a larger version of the Gueydan one, with a high school band and cheerleaders. Most of the kids were black, and very much into rhythmic dancing, with even the smallest kids participating. And the floats were very generous with their beads. It was very much a “family” event.

When we started our trip, some 100 days ago, I brought with me some “decor”. I wanted to have a few things to decorate the coach for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I also brought some Mardi Gras beads. Talk about coals to Newcastle! We got so many beads from just those two parades that Tom gave a few strands away to a small girl in a stroller in Gueydan, and we started a Mardi Gras tree in Jeanerette.

We just happened to stand under one of the small trees which line the main street of Jeanerette. As the floats came by they tossed us beads, and after a while we were loaded down. Tom started throwing some of his beads up on the small tree. I liked the idea and tossed mine as well. Just across the street, a Korean couple, owners of the adjacent beauty shop, saw what we were doing, and started decorating their tree. Since they’re local, they will probably attend the parade next year. Perhaps they will toss beads on their tree again. A new tradition for the Jeanerette parade? We’d like to think so.

Tomorrow we board Amtrak for a 36 hour trip back to Arizona, the Alpine and Barney. We’d packed our trip with all the Mardi Gras we could fit into it. Laissez les bon temps roulez! [See Pictures for this Postcard...)

Postcard: Playing By the Rules

Jan. 26, 2008

Most of my postcards showcase the fun we’ve had while RVing. I love sharing the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met, and the amusing experiences we’ve had along the way. Very rarely do circumstances occur that irritate us, and even when these happen we can usually ignore them or laugh at ourselves for even being annoyed. I’ve always disliked the “don’t do this' and “don’t do thats” that every park must institute, even though I fully realize why the rules are there. If a park has a rule that states, “don’t wash your dog in the shower”, it’s because someone, sometime, tried it! But this year, when it appears there are fewer RVers on the road, campground rules regulating their activities seem to have compounded. Probably it’s just me -- as I get older, I’ve become “set in my ways”. If something worked last year, why change it?

We spent 6 weeks at The Springs at Borrego, and enjoyed every minute. We 4-wheeled in the desert, played several of the golf courses, and I certainly look forward to more aqua exercise classes upon our return. But when we decided to stay south over the Thanksgiving holiday, we were told we’d have to change sites for this period. That was understandable, perhaps someone had demanded a specific site. While it isn’t difficult to take everything down, disconnect, slide in and drive 500 feet or so to another site, and then put everything back the way it was, it’s a bit inconvenient. And if the whole time you are in this new site, no one occupies your old one, you notice.

From The Springs we headed east to Usery Mountain Regional Park, just north of Mesa. This park has long been one of our favorite spots, and we still love it here. The sites are huge, each with fire ring and picnic table, 30 & 50 amp service and water hookups. Birding is fantastic; finches and sparrows compete at the bird feeder; doves, quail and Brown Towhees pick up the seed on the ground. Occasionally, curious Curve bill thrashers, flickers or even Cactus wrens try to get into the act, and their antics as they dive at the feeder, miss it and wind up on the ground, are hilarious.

In years past, it was difficult to get into this park; you’d have to spend at least one night in the overflow section before a site would become vacant. That was not the case when we drove into Usery on the 15th of January (high season). The park was only 2/3 full.

Great. We’ve been here so many times we thought we knew the drill. We’d detach the Wrangler and drive around the park, choosing just the site we wanted. We’d also note which sites would be opening up the next day, something you can tell from the small card attached to a streetside post. I’d arrive at the office promptly at 9 the next morning, and if no one else had claimed the site, it would be ours.

Oops. First thing that went awry was our timing. One set of camp hosts was just going off shift, and wanted to finish up. “ Take site 75”, we were told. “If you don’t like it, come back to the office and someone will change it”. We signed up for 2 nights and took off to check out #75.

There are no “bad” sites at Usery; each is set well apart from the other, with Mother Nature as landscaper-in chief. Site 75 was a beautiful site, but perhaps a bit too close to the street. And we had our eyes on a few special favorites. Three of those were slated to be vacant in the morning.

Next morning precisely at 8:59, I arrived at the office. “Sorry,” I was told, “you must stay in your site until your two week occupancy is finished. We get too busy at this time of year to handle intra-park site shifts. Oh, you’re not staying two weeks? Then on your expiration date, just leave the park, turn around and come back in. That way you can get the site you want.” We’d have to wait until our permit expired before we had a chance to move. In the meantime, these three choice spots would certainly be assigned to someone else. Which is what happened.

It didn’t seem quite fair. We were there, the park was empty enough that the camp hosts had plenty of time on their hands, and we wanted to change sites. Even though one of the hosts called the office to explain our situation, how we were “old-timers” who had been told we could change sites, the office was adamant. The rules were the rules.

Well, we now have a rule of our own. From now on, when arriving at Usery we’ll be reluctant to sign up for more than one night unless we find exactly the spot we want vacant on entry. That way, each morning we can choose whether to stay where we are, or “leave”, and re-enter to the vacant site we’d like to have.

Just east and a bit north of Tucson, lies another perennial favorite, Gilbert Ray county campground. “Gil Ray” is ideally situated for exploring the east Tucson area -- it’s only 2 miles from the Arizona-Sonora desert museum, and the adjacent Saguaro National Park and is within walking distance the Old Tucson western theme park. Not only is there a lot to do, but desert beauty explodes around you. From most of the sites, you have a great view westward across the expanse of the Tohono O’Odham Indian reservation toward the Santa Rosa Mountains. Forget traffic noise; here the call of the Great Horned Owl or a sleepy mockingbird is all that will keep you awake.

Again, this is a place we’ve been coming for years, and know well enough to request a site in a specific section. This year, we were surprised to find our favorite areas closed. When I asked about this, the girl at the registration desk explained, “no campers”. And this at the start of high season! We also noticed several posters stating a new park rule, Don’t Feed the Birds! Oh dear. One of the most interesting facets of bird feeding is noting the differences in species that occur within short distances. You will see different birds here than you will at Usery, only 70 miles north.

This rule was explained thus: birds don’t eat all the seed, they leave the husks on the grounds. Pack rats come to eat the husks. Pack rats bring rattlesnakes, (which, I believe, like pack rat young). No matter this is January, and freezing temperatures send snakes into hibernation, rules are rules.

Voyagers RV Resort, just east of Tucson, is a far cry from the outdoor experiences of Usery Mountain or Gil Ray. This park is geared to “planned activities”, so many it requires a TV channel to list them all. Glass and wood working activities, shop, Spanish, pickle ball competitions, volley ball, or golf -- the list goes on seemingly without end.

When you check in, you receive a small plastic badge which proclaims you a “resident” (institutions anyone?), and commands that you wear your badge at all times while in the park. Those “residents” who come here to spend the entire season and take advantage of all the activities don’t appear to mind wearing their badges every waking moment. Between activities, they enjoy comparing the Arizona weather to the weather at home (usually east coast or upper midwest). Just listen to the chatter in the hot tub at the end of a busy day. However, the short-termer will find he won’t be able to take advantage of those activities (which contribute significantly to the daily tariff) as well as can those staying for a month or longer. And you’ll quickly notice the “downside” to staying here -- the RV sites.

Voyager’s sites are approximately 90’ long, more than long enough for the largest RV towing a trailer. However, they’re less than 18’ wide! You’ll find yourself in a virtual parking lot of RVs. When you open your door, you’ll be looking right into someone else’s tow vehicle.

There used to be a way around this situation. Once assigned a site, you’d meet your neighbor, and arrange to park your tow in his site. He would park in yours. That way, you’d be looking at your own tow, and it seemed much more like your own little patch of gravel or asphalt (very few trees in this area). But the rules have changed here as well.

We returned from a desert doggy hike to find a note from security. We’d parked the Wrangler in front of our Alpine, (when you’re only 35’ long, there’s a lot of space in Voyager’s sites). “I’m sorry,” the security guard said, “It’s my fault. I didn’t tell you you must park behind your rig.”

Tom explained why we’d parked as we had, and the guard agreed it was probably the better idea. However, his boss had insisted, and he, (the guard), had no choice in the matter. Our neighbors had a more difficult situation. Both of them work in the Tucson area, and have a small pickup in addition to their tow. They moved one car in behind the other, creating a train effect in their site. The next morning, as luck would have it, the first one off to work wanted to drive the car in the middle!

I fully understand the need for rules at RV parks, resorts and campgrounds, and don’t at all mean to denigrate any of them. But sometimes it does seem that there’s a lot of fixing going on, fixing of things that aren’t broken. Rules or no, Tom & I will certainly return to all these places, we enjoy them too much for a few rules to ruin our ongoing RVing experience. But it seems unfortunate when inflexible "house rules" take precedence over common sense.

Postcard: Stopping Over

Jan 13, 2008

We’re nearing the end of our time in Borrego Springs -- we leave for Arizona and points east this weekend. It’s been a fabulous 6 weeks, home based at the Springs at Borrego RV resort in Borrego Springs. When you “stop over”, as opposed to moving on every few days, you get to know your neighbors. It was a great opportunity to make some new friends we'll look forward to seeing again next season. You look forward to the weekly farmer’s market, with its fresh produce and desert fare. I try to run out of such items as lettuce and avocados on Thursday night; and Friday mornings I replenish the veggie bins and buy a fresh flower arrangement. Part of the market is set aside for local crafts, a great place for last minute Christmas gifts. When you “stop over”, you can better take advantage of the activities of the resort, including Monday golf lessons with Martha Mitchell, and thrice weekly aqua exercises with Nesya Tibbetts.

Before I met Nesya, if you’d asked me what aqua exercise was I’d have described a group of somewhat overweight women jumping around in a pool to directions emanating from a boom box. Not so this class. With Nesya, you exercise using leg weights, foam bar bells, and, for deep water work, a floatation belt. She even uses those foam “noodles” that you see people lazily floating on. It’s amazing how much strength it takes to maneuver one of those things around -- under water! Each exercise works a different set of muscles, and don’t be surprised to find yourself somewhat stiff at first. While I sometimes grumbled about having to go to class, each session was well worth the effort. I’m signing up again next year!

While we enjoyed our stopping over, we did punctuate our desert stay with Christmas in Maui, and, early in the New Year, Tom had a business meeting in Ventura. Two very different diversions; each memorable.

I’d not flown for several years, nor had I had much desire to board a plane. The stories of getting through the check-in process, limiting my “stuff” to 3 oz. containers, removing my shoes when going through the scanners, and remembering when an airline took away my tiny manicure scissors didn’t make me any more enthusiastic. However, when you’re going to Hawaii, there’s not much choice.

Hawaiian Airlines was just about as good as flights can be these days. Yes, I almost flunked the scanning process. I didn’t know a belt buckle would set off the scanner, or that if you set off the buzzer three times, you can’t try that option again. ( I don’t know what happens to you next). And yes, one of our pieces of luggage barely made it to Maui. It was nowhere to be found when we arrived, but after picking up our rental car we returned to the airport and there it was. Little irritations, all very worthwhile for a week in paradise.

We stayed at the Mahina Surf, a tiny slice of Hawai’i, “like it used to be”. Unlike the towering high rise apartment complexes that line the beaches at Waikiki or around Lahaina, these condominiums are only two stories high. The buildings form a horseshoe shape around a large pool. (Interestingly, the day we arrived, all our grandkids were in that pool. As the days passed, they used the pool less and less, opting for the far more interesting ocean.) The Pacific lapped at our feet, and we saw a couple of humpback whales and hundreds of sea turtles. Our condo was very well cared for, with Cuisanart pots and pans, nice silver and all the dishes I could have wanted (and Tom & I were in charge of Christmas dinner for 10!) dishes. Each time I opened the front door, I felt like I was coming home. The weather was a bit misty at times, but who cares when the temperatures are in the mid 80s and the showers are short lived. Our week flew by, filled with days of scuba and snorkeling, shopping and sightseeing. We spent one day exploring Lana’i, and another just driving along the coast. The trip home was just as uneventful as the trip out, and we were happy to get “home” to our RV. I guess I’m just a land rover at heart.

Enough of air travel. I was glad that our next foray would be travel by (Jeep) Wrangler. In early January, we took off to Ventura, to the annual meeting of the Good Sam Sambassadors. Each year these folks go to the Good Sam headquarters to learn what’s new, and Tom was to give a presentation concerning the RV Owners Advisory Council, which he chairs. (The RV Owners Advisory Council was formed in early 2007 to identify the major issues and concerns of RVers, and represent RVer interests to the industry as a whole.)

I’ve probably complained far too much about driving the Interstates of Southern California, but it can be a frightening experience for those of us from less populated areas. The locals are used to driving the interstates and do so at the highest speeds possible. They don’t acknowledge any rule about passing on the left, but cut in front of you from either side. Trucks (and RVs, or anyone towing), have a posted 55 mph speed limit, but it isn’t enforced, and they drive just as fast as anyone else. You can, and do, get somewhat used to it, but I feel a bit like a bug in our small Wrangler, and I was glad Tom was driving.

We put Barney in “jail” at the Ventura Highway Dog Boarding kennel. Its name doesn’t do it credit, it’s a very nice facility with grooming and doggy day care in addition to boarding. Barney had a great time romping with the other dogs. If we return to another meeting in Ventura, Barney will get to stay there again.

The Good Sam Sambassadors are a group of 10 individuals from all over the country. It is their “job” to attend rallies, samborees and other events, and to be good will ambassadors for the Good Sam Club. The Club, along with its parent (Affinity Group) is quite a complex organization, as Tom & I were about to learn. And I’m not sure I could learn what I’d need to know as a Sambassador in just one briefing. But most of these Sambassadors have done this for years, each year just adding to their already impressive bank of knowledge.

The first thing I noticed about the group was their incredible sense of friendship and camaraderie. Our motel served a continental breakfast each day, and the first morning, we were immediately greeted like long lost friends. Two of the group are single (widowed) women. One, Geri Howorth, still maintains a home in addition to her RV. She’s been a Sambassador for the last 10 years and while she thoroughly enjoys her trips, she’s always glad to return home. Rosemary Bates, on the other hand is a full timer. She regaled me with stories about her travels. She doesn’t need Google or a GPS (although she has them). If someone tells her of an interesting place to visit, something to see or where she should stay, she marks it on her (paper) map. And then she visits, sees or stays where the map takes her.

Tom spent one afternoon meeting with the Good Sam people reviewing his Council's agenda for the coming year, and we both attended the following full day’s Sambassador briefings. While we listened and took notes, representatives of various areas of the organization discussed the workings of their departments. I’ll mention just a few:

Scott Willey, Vice President in charge of customer relations, was the lead-off presenter. He described the fairly complex system which both responds to and routs the calls that come into Good Sam and the Affinity group as a whole. For example, if you are stuck on the highway, and call Good Sam for assistance, your call will be routed far differently than if you call to order a Trailer Life directory or ask about an insurance plan. What was most impressive were the recent year improvements in terms of response time for member phone inquiries. It seems the average wait time is now less than 20 seconds -- remarkable given the huge volume of calls they handle daily. It made us both wish Scott could impose the same sense of customer support to the many customer service phone banks we've had to wade through in recent years.

Scott was followed by Claudia Duvall, spokeswoman for the GS insurance, and then by Mike Schneider, CEO of the Affinity Group. Mike has a very casual but professional approach to management, and clearly has a vision for where the parent company is headed in the years ahead. It was obvious from meeting many of the Good Sam staffers during the course of our visit that this is an organization with a very positive corporate culture -- and a fun place to work. After Mike came a succession of other company representatives. My eyes were beginning to glaze, but the Sambassadors followed every word.

After lunch, we were treated to a demonstration of the new Good Sam web site. It’s not quite ready yet, but when it is it will be an excellent way to access all the myriad information of this huge organization. It will also provide a unique new online RVer community that is designed to enhance the RVing experience for many members.

It was a working day; we met at 8 and didn’t finish until 5. We were headed back to the desert the next day, but the Sambassadors would spend the next two days in meetings similar to today’s. They will be virtual encyclopedias of information as they take off to their various rallies, Samborees and other events in 2008. I hope our own travels will cause us to cross paths, because to a person they're really incredibly friendly and well-informed. Should you meet one or more of them in your travels, do yourself a favor and chat a while!

Back to the Springs for one last class with Nesya, then it will be time to pack-up the rig and head east. We’ll spend one night in the desert near Quartzsite (the desert will be fairly empty as the gem show and the thousands of RVs which follow it won’t arrive for a week). Next stop -- Usery Mountain Regional park just outside of Mesa. After that, we’re wanderers with no set itinerary -- just "on the road again".

Postcard: Don’t Trip Over the Tarantula!

December 2, 2007

The firestorms that ravaged Southern California made national news, and I have to admit I was curious to see for myself how serious they actually had been. En route to Chula Vista and the SoCal rally, we’d passed through small burned areas. I saw where the fires had jumped Interstate 15, and could imagine the traffic nightmares that must have occurred when it had to be closed. But these seemed small, isolated patches; nothing prepared me for viewing the devastation caused by the Witch fire.

Leaving the rally, we headed east to Borrego Springs, our home base for the next few weeks. Our route would take us directly through the city of Ramona. Ramona, a city of some 45,000 inhabitants, had been gravely threatened by the uncontrolled Witch fire as it approached the outskirts of town.

I didn’t notice anything on the western edge of Ramona. The city center seemed intact also. But as we drove east out of town, we entered the burn area, a nightmarish scene which extended seemingly forever. We drove 15 miles, almost to the next town, Santa Ysabel, before we left the fire area.

Like many fires, this one spared some homes and obliterated others. In some spots, all that was left of a “rancho” was a chimney and a burned out truck. In this ranching country, many homes had been surrounded by the grassy fields necessary for livestock. Now, most of those fields have been blackened, and I could see no grass at all -- only short black strands. All that was left of once tall trees were stumps, or blackened trunks with only a few withered leaves on top. Even the rocks were charred. Fence posts, burned from the ground up, hung helplessly from their barb-wire connections. Plastic fences had melted in the fire’s heat and their remnants curled like ribbons. But the spirit of these folks is strong, they are rebuilding, and everywhere you can see the small signs which fairly shout, “Thank you firefighters, for saving us”.

From Santa Ysabel (stop for a slice of the famous Julian pie, or take home a whole one), the road continues on 11 miles toward Warner Springs. Turn right and follow the signs to Borrego Springs. A mile or so past the tiny town of Ranchita, almost without warning, the road takes a sudden dive into the vast desert below. On most days the Salton Sea, some 50 miles east, is clearly visible. From the summit, above the 4,000 foot mark, the road winds and twists its way for the last 10 miles down an 8% grade. RVs routinely travel this route, but if you’re headed downhill you’ll be grateful for your exhaust or engine brakes.

The road winds down through mountain meadows dotted with oak and pinyon pines. About half way down, Borrego Springs becomes visible below. Just northeast of town rise the Santa Rosa mountains. It’s worth a stop in one of the numerous pull-out areas to admire the ever changing views.

Palm Canyon campground, a California state park, is one of our favorite stops. All the sites are pull through, with water and electricity (30 amps.). It’s a popular spot, and on holidays or in “high” season (mid January to mid March), it’s apt to be full, especially if it’s a good wildflower viewing year. Our favorite sites are on the east side of the park, under towering palms. These trees have not had their fronds clipped, and have become virtual apartments for ground squirrels, rabbits and birds.

After a couple of nights in Palm Canyon we headed to the RV resort, “The Springs at Borrego”. This park has 90 sites all surrounded by a well manicured and challenging 9 hole golf course. There’s a great place to walk Barney, one where he can occasionally run off-leash. A large clubhouse boasts two meeting rooms, a health club, large pool and 4 mineral water spas. The resort is located just behind the Roadrunner Club, an upscale mobile and manufactured home park with another golf course. Add to that two tennis courts, one at The Springs and one at Roadrunner, and the golf and tennis buffs should be satisfied. If not, there are two other golf courses in town, and the local tennis club has something called “drop-in” tennis. Three days a week, you can just show up, pay a small fee and play to your heart’s content.

Like to hike? Borrego is for you. From the easier trails in the state park to rock climbing expeditions, there’s something for everyone. It can be educational, also. Walk the Elephant trees nature trail to see these trees with their swollen, elephant-like trunks. Hike the short Morteros trail and see where the primitive Indians ground nuts for bread. Explore Yaquitepec, the home of Marshall South during his experiment in primitive living. Climb up on Alcoholic Pass and learn why it got its name. The book, “The Anza-Borrego Desert Region” by Lowell and Diana Lindsay, can lead you on some interesting adventures.

If you have a 4WD vehicle, and many who come here do, off roading is enormously popular. Right now, there’s a couple at the resort who give classes in off-roading, teaching how to do it safely -- for oneself and the fragile desert ecology.

We brought our Jeep Wrangler south with us this season. The larger Grand Cherokee is a more comfortable car, but the little Wrangler can go places the larger vehicle cannot. It will fit through narrow canyons, and climb steep hills. It is, however, a stock car -- we’ve never had it outfitted for serious four wheeling. It doesn’t have the clearance, suspension, and aftermarket gadgets that so many other, retrofitted jeeps do. That said, it can still go places we don’t want to take it, as we proved to ourselves on one recent outing.

It started as a combination desert drive and geocaching expedition. Tom had found three caches, quite close together, and not rated as too difficult, either in terrain or for discovery. (In geocaching, a rating of one star is easiest, 5 the most difficult. We prefer to avoid the high end of the scale).

We headed out to Ocotillo Wells, an area very popular with off roaders and those with ATVs. The ATVs are restricted to special areas, and most of the roads in the area are signed “street legal only”.

Well, to call what we followed a “road” was a bit of a stretch. This route wasn’t called Goat Trail for nothing. No road here, just narrow tracks scrambling through the desert, up steep hills and then down them. A broad and rocky pathway would be a better description. Though on occasion that surface would be replaced by deep sand.

About 3 miles along Goat Trail, we came to our connector road -- the one that would take us to the caches. Uh, oh. The road had been closed, closed with huge boulders and a steep hill. If we wanted to find those caches, we’d have to retrace our steps all the way back to Ocotillo Wells. It was getting late -- perhaps it would be better just to enjoy our Goat Trail experience. We bounced on, -- and came to Blow Sand Canyon.

Borrego Springs keeps track of its rainfall on a calendar year that starts on July 1. Thus far this year, they’ve received less than .2 inches, and last year they received only .79 -- all year. Anything that was sandy to begin with, has just become sandier, and the road into Blow Sand Canyon was a steep, winding, downhill run of soft sand a mile or so to connect with San Felipe Wash. We didn’t know the route. What could we expect in the Canyon? What would the terrain be like in the Wash? What if we had to come back up in all that soft sand? Smart money said we shouldn’t go down there with our trusty -- but “standard” -- Jeep.

Our options were a bit limited. We could turn around and go back to the main road, or we could continue on up Goat Trail. We had a good map of the area (from the Lindsay’s book), and could see that Goat Trail joined Buttes Pass road in a little more than a mile. We’d driven Buttes Pass before on multiple occasions, and it’s a piece of off-road cake. That’s the way we’d go.

Since we weren’t going down Blow Sand Canyon, we now had to climb a steep hill, cross a short saddle and then climb again. I walked up to see if there were any surprises waiting at the top (like an unexpected drop off) and Tom brought the Wrangler along.

I expected him to come all the way up to where I was waiting, so was surprised when, about half way along the saddle he stopped and waved frantically at me. I was puzzled, so puzzled that as I walked back to the Jeep, I looked only at him, not at the ground. About 10 feet from the car, Tom pointed down. “Don’t trip over the tarantula”, he grinned.

I managed something like, “UURRRGGGG” as I came to a skidding stop. About 3 feet from me a hairy spider easily as big as my fist was sauntering slowly along. I gave him a wide berth as I leaped for the car. They might be timid creatures, but so am I!

About a half mile further on, our adventure came to an end. The road ahead climbed a hill so steep and so rugged, we had to call a halt. Our Jeep probably could have made it up over the huge moguls and jeep swallowing ruts on this grade, but there was a good chance it might become high centered. There was no other way up. Going “around” these steep carvernous obstacles was not possible, as either side of the “road” there was loose shale -- which angled down at about 45 degrees. Time to turn around and head back the way we’d come.

Which was easier than it sounds. Shoulders were non-existent and the drop-off on either side of the Jeep was steep enough so we couldn’t drive off the road. We had to back down a couple of hundred yards where there was (barely) room to get the Jeep turned around. Then we headed back to the paved roadway, back to The Springs, back home.

Of course, I didn’t have a camera with me, so I didn’t get to take a picture of “my” tarantula. I’ve carried it, (the camera), with me ever since, but, so far, no other tarantula has come forward to get his picture taken.

We’ll be here for another two weeks or so, and then take off to spend Christmas with our kids. After the first of the year, and, allowing time for the New Year football games, we’ll head east. As usual, we have no set itinerary, but will stop wherever whim and the weather dictate.

Happy Holidays to everyone.

Postcard: Our SoCal Adventure

November 18, 2007

Tom started it. “Remember Chula Vista? The SoCal Alpine [Southern California Chapter of the Alpine Coach Assocition] group is holding a rally there. Want to go?” So started our SoCal adventure, three days of enjoying the beauties of San Diego. Three days of being wined and dined on land and on sea. Three days of meeting new friends. We had a wonderful time.

Like Emerald Desert, one of the near casualties of the real estate market was the Chula Vista RV resort. At one time it was rumored the property was to be sold, and a luxury hotel built on the site. And I can easily understand why a hotel would find this place attractive; the scenery is simply spectacular. The resort offers 237 well landscaped, level sites, a pool and spa. It’s surrounded on three sides by a large park which abuts directly on San Diego Bay. A large marina shares the resort’s facilities, and I always enjoy just looking at the beautiful yachts moored there. A very short walk will take you to two restaurants located just behind the marina, great for those times when you just don’t want to cook. Just a mile or so north -- an easy bike ride -- is the Chula Vista Nature conservancy, acres of marsh grass, sand and hiking trails. Birding is great -- I usually find at least one species to add to my list.

Our adventure continued when we left Emerald Desert on Friday morning and headed west on Interstate 10. We were following a new route to San Diego, one we’d been told would be quicker and more “truck free” than the one we would have followed. We’d take 10 for about 35 miles, up over Banning Pass, and head southwest on Highway 79. Next we’d drive something called the Ramona Parkway to Interstate 215. From there, we’d been promised an easy trip to Chula Vista.

However, our informants hadn’t factored in the wind. If it’s going to be windy anywhere in Southern California, it’s going to be windy on the El Cajon Pass, and today was no exception. The weather forecasts had predicted “breezy conditions” but the wind was blowing a good 30 MPH from a point just west of Palm Springs until we left the Interstate in Banning. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the wind ceased. Tom declared our rig easy to handle, but windy conditions are neither fun to drive through nor enjoyable to ride in, and we were pleased to leave the wind behind.

The Ramona parkway was as pastoral and gentle as predicted, and in no time we were headed south, traversing some of the areas hit by the recent fires. In a couple of places, I could see where fire had jumped the freeway, randomly burning a patch here, a patch there, but I saw no burned out homes, nor any real fire damage. Those views would come a few days later, when we headed east to Borrego Springs.

You’d not have known we were complete strangers to the SoCal Alpiners from the warmth of our reception. Bill Figge and Paul Sullivan greeted us, showed us to our site and volunteered to help us back in. That evening, we were invited to a wine and cheese reception.

This was unlike any such reception I’ve attended before. No boxes or two-buck Chuck for these folks; they had bottles of the best Napa Valley wines, and along with the cheese came platters of sliced gourmet rollups and fresh fruit. Dinner was classified as “on your own”, but after the reception, appetites were greatly diminished.

Saturday morning’s advertised "continental breakfast" was far more than just juice and rolls. The South Bay restaurant put on a full buffet breakfast with “all the trimmings”. There was a short business meeting, followed by a fire safety/ prevention demonstration. Fire in an RV is a particularly frightening proposition, and I attend every such seminar I can. I’ve watched Mac McCoy show films depicting the damage such a fire can do, and how or sometimes even if you should fight one. There are a couple of retired firefighters in this SoCal group, and their message was virtually the same -- the most important thing is the safety of the RV’s occupants, not the RV itself. But if you do fight the fire, do you know how to operate your extinguisher? (It’s surprising how many folks do not.)

Saturday afternoon, a group went into San Diego to tour the USS Midway, the carrier that served the US from its commissioning in 1945 through Desert Storm in 1991, and now is used as a naval history museum. Very fitting on this Veterans’ Day holiday.

Perhaps the piece de resistance on this fabulous weekend was the Sunday morning champagne brunch cruise. Since this was actually Veterans' Day, I assumed that was the sole reason why Paul Sullivan was wearing a red, white and blue shirt. I quickly learned differently. We were to meet at the San Diego cruise terminal, where passengers from one of the Princess cruise ships were just disembarking. There seemed thousands of them, milling about the terminal and mixing with the hundreds of others waiting for various Harbor cruises. How delightful to spot the man with the colorful shirt!

Our group was to sail on one of the Hornblower cruise ships. I’d not heard of this company before, but learned that they are active in many California ports, including San Francisco and Los Angeles and San Diego. Each ship is named Hornblower “something”, ours was the Hornblower Newport. Once aboard, we were given a glass of champagne, and told to sit at one of the tables marked by a red balloon. Before I sat down, however, I walked around the buffet tables. There were 4 of them, each heaped with different types of buffet foods. One table held eggs, bacon, sausage and potatoes. One, called the “bread station” held various rolls, croissants, doughnuts, and a chocolate bread pudding upon which you could, (and I did), top with strawberry sauce. Another, larger table held smoked salmon with cream cheese, large shrimp and various salads including crab and caesar. At the carving station, you could choose from eggs benedict, or smoked ham, turkey or beef sirloin -- or just take some of each! Add to this unlimited orange juice, champagne, and coffee.

While you could spend the entire cruise just eating, you’d miss a lot if you didn’t go out on deck to see the harbor. San Diego Bay was crammed with boats today. I saw everything from the ever-present jet skis to paddle-boat type kayaks and large yachts. Our Hornblower resembled a 1920s style yacht. Other bay-goers sailed by in boats long enough for the Trans-Pac. Traffic isn’t limited just to freeways in California!

Docked at its Coronado Island base was the nuclear powered supercarrier, USS Nimitz. On the San Diego side of the water at the maritime museum, a Russian sub was a black smudge next to the white vintage ferry, the Berkeley. Tied up next door was the Midway, looming high above our boat. We passed close enough to see the aircraft tied to her decks. The cruise took us under the Coronado Bridge, where tradition says you must kiss the passenger next to you (or at least shake his hand) for luck, then slowly headed back to the cruise terminal

San Diego has done a masterful job merging its city and its waterfront. We got close enough to shore to see the kites being flown in one park and the restaurants serving Veterans’ Day brunch to the on-shore passengers along the waterfront. Just behind them rise the office buildings of a very beautiful city.

One more party featuring margaritas and endless heavy hors d’oeuvres, and the rally was history. However, when it comes to rallies SoCal Alpiners are quite creative. Their next rally will be held at “Terrible’s” (yes there is one, I’m not making this up) in Pahrump. NV. While there, the group will tour a brothel (I’m not making that up either). It’s different, and definitely sounds like fun. Thanks, SoCal, for including us.