Sep 24, 2009

A Clip Job

Thursday, September 24, 2009
Vancouver, WA

Normally things like haircuts don't make it into the journal.


But the haircut I got yesterday, Wednesday, isn't normal. No, it's far from normal, at least for me. So I felt the need to document the whole hair affair in this journal entry.

For the past year or two, really since we began our fulltime wandering lifestyle, I've been toying with the idea of a really short haircut. It would certainly be easy to take care of... well, almost no care at all... a thing valued by explorers and those seeking a simpler lifestyle. No combs or brushes needed.

On the downside: what if my head is shaped like a pear or all lumpy or flat in some places? I'd have to go into hybernation for a few weeks and let it grow out. What if my ears stick out further than I already think they do? What if my white scalp burns in the sun? What if people laugh, babies cry, and small children run and hide at the sight of me? Hmmm? Despite the unknowns I've still been wanting to find out what's under that mane.

So yesterday, Wednesday, my daughter Andrea had the clippers out to give Dan, a friend of theirs, a clipping. Both Gage and Dan have had this very short style for some time and have loved it. Andrea has become the barber, not just doing the guys, but the kids as well. When she finished with her first victim she looked at me and motioned that I should sit in the now vacant chair on the deck. "How 'bout you, Dad?"

Now I'd already had a beer and probably wasn't thinking clearly when I took the bait and sat in the chair. I haven't been "buzzed" since I was probably 5 years old. What am I getting into? For a few seconds I thought about bolting... escaping... but then the sound of the hair-harvesting clippers digging into paydirt took those thoughts away and I began to think only of excuses that I could use when people asked about what happened to me. Why, I'm just back from special forces training... an Afghanistan mission you know... can't tell you any more... top secret... I'm in training for the ironman competition... you rube, this is the latest male hairstyle on the west coast...

The next 5 or so short minutes were a blur. Dar was taking photos. Gage and Dan were making comments and pained facial expressions. One minute they thought I was starting to look like Brett Farve... the next minute, Ghandi. And then the great unveiling of the melon was complete. There was this breeze, this cool breeze, that I hadn't felt before -- that was the first thing I sensed. Man-O-Man... what had I done? I said earlier that it was short, I even used the word "buzzed" at one point. But I can't report just how short it is as it's impossible to measure. The little marks on my measuring tape only go to 1/32nd of an inch... and it's much shorter than that.

My plan now is to try to get used to it as it grows out a bit more each day. I'm taking it a day at a time and will see what the future holds.

Because I've had requests for a photo, I'll tell you what I'm gonna do... I've hidden my photo among those of other famous people who've done the same thing I have. At this point I'm going to leave you guessing at which one is the real me.


Sep 23, 2009

Autumnal Equinox Outing

Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Vancouver, WA

Yesterday was the autumnal equinox -- the first day of fall. Since we had the day free we decided to head South and knock two explorations off our list... a hike through Silver Falls State Park and a visit to the Oregon State Capitol.

Situated along Silver Creek and it's tributaries in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains about 20 miles Southeast of Salem, Silver Falls State Park is 9,000 acres of a natural environment bursting with recreational opportunities for almost anyone. A four mile paved bike path, many more miles of mountain bike trails and horse trails, hiking, camping, picnicking, and a lodge and conference center are all available. Inside the park are areas of old-growth forest with some of the largest Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock you'll ever see. We've tried in the past, but haven't yet found a way through words or photography to really capture the essence of these giants... you've just got to find them and experience them for yourself... up-close and personal.

The Park is especially noted for it's Trail of Ten Falls, an 8.7 mile hiking path that goes to 10 waterfalls. The underlying geology of the Park is such that thick layers of very hard volcanic basalt are resting atop layers of softer older rock. The basalt resists weathering and erosion while the softer rock below erodes more quickly creating natural pathways behind some of the falls.

We chose a slightly shortened hike of 5.1 miles that took us to 7 of the falls. The path varied from level and firm to steep and rock-strewn, and Dar was glad she brought her walking stick. As it was a weekday there were very few people in the Park. Most of the time we were alone... alone with the path, the falls, the trees, and our thoughts. The typically dry late-summer and early fall in the Northwest reduced the amount of water flowing in the streams and over the falls. We've got to return some year in the spring or early summer when these things must be spectacular. As it was, we thought the hike and the ability to get behind the falls was just great... one of the best hikes we've done in recent months.

After a late picnic lunch, we headed back to Salem and found the State Capitol. As Capitols go, this one is the fourth youngest (Hawaii, New Mexico, and Florida are younger) -- having been completed in the 1930's. Compared to others we've explored, it's on the small side and feels utilitarian. There are two wings, hidden in the back and side, that were added in the 1970's to create more space for legislative offices and hearing rooms. The building is Art Deco in style and the only Capitol in the USA in that style.

There are artistic and symbolic elements that revere Oregon's history and portray a reverence for the people and the rule of law. Four large murals in the Rotunda illustrating key historic events... Captain Robert Gray at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, Lewis & Clark on their way to the Pacific in 1805, the first women to cross the continent being welcomed by Dr. John McLaughlin in 1836, and the first wagon train migration in 1843.

The Senate and House Chambers are likewise very nice but not as ornate or stately as others we've seen. During our tour we were able to ascend all 121 steps from the fourth floor to a wonderful outdoor viewing area atop the dome.

Like the Minnesota State Capitol, security is not overly apparent and access to the building is free and open to all, without the metal-detectors and checkpoints we've found elsewhere. They want to reinforce that this is truly the house of the people and don't want to limit or impede entry in any way. Personally, I find this refreshing and bold.

Oregon is one of only 6 states in which the Legislature does not meet every year. The Legislative session is officially a specific period during odd-numbered years and most Legislators have other normal jobs. Our guide said that extra sessions are called from time to time, and that ever more complicated issues and problems are creating a need for moving to annual sessions at some point in the future. Personally, I think that would be a mistake.

So that was our day. It felt good to be our exploring again.


Sep 14, 2009


Monday, September 14, 2009
Vancouver, WA

After just three days at the RV Park in Vancouver we joined a small Vancouver-family group for a camping weekend in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Unsure if we'd be able to get the too-big bus-house into a NF campground, I took a solo tour of the proposed camps on Wednesday the 9th to evaluate the situation. I drove a loop from (all in Washington) Vancouver to Woodland to Cougar to Carson (via Wind River Road) and back to Vancouver. I stopped at three NFGCs and eliminated two. The survivor, by default, happened to be one of Gage & Andrea's favorites, so plans were made to head on up the next day, Thursday.

Grandson Ryan joined Dar and me in the bus-house for the 65 mile drive to Paradise Creek CG. From Vancouver we took US-14 east to Carson. This is not an easy road to drive as it carries you deeper into the Columbia River Gorge... the road is often just a narrow flat-ish path carved from near-vertical cliffs in a number of places... 25mph curves, steep ups and downs... and it's used heavily by large trucks too. Ryan watched from the co-pilot's seat and Dar, holding her breath most of the way, took the jump seat. At Carson we head north and follow the Wind River up and out of the Gorge, into the high country of the National Forest, about 20 miles to the campground.

On a map, we'd be almost smack-dab between Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams in an area of old growth forest. Never having been logged off, there are many trees that were a hundred years or more old when Lewis & Clark floated down the Columbia 205 years ago. These grand old cedar and fir trees can be over 200 feet high and more than 20 feet in circumference at the base. They're just immense.

A mature forest like this is littered with trees that have toppled over by wind or just old age. The ground that hold their roots is rocky and shallow, and a tree sometimes grows too heavy for it's support system, at which point a wind storm or other falling trees take a toll. But a mature forest, left in a natural state, is a mixture of the old and the young. The holes created by fallen trees in the forest canopy allow sunlight to reach lower and strengthen struggling younger trees, which then grow to fill the hole. Downed trees rot and become a perfect growing medium for seeds and it's common to see examples of fairly large trees growing from the downed remains of big trees. Camping right next to giants like this can give one pause -- to think about what could happen if one of these old growth monsters decided to tip over hit the camper. But there are some things that you can't do anything about, and therefore, you shouldn't worry about. If your time is up, it's up.

National Forest Campgrounds are really not designed for too-big campers like the bus-house. Paradise Creek can accommodate big rigs on some sites but there are compromises. As we've found in other NFCG's it's common for branches and brush to encroach into the roadway from the sides and above. Light stuff isn't much of a problem, but we prefer to keep it to a minimum. Bigger limbs and branches have to be cleared. So after we selected the site we wanted, we used our telescoping tree trimmer to cut a high-clearance path to it. When we leave we'll simply reverse the route -- going against the one-way flow of traffic... wait a minute... there won't be any traffic on Monday when we leave. We'll probably be the only ones in the campground at that point.

Joining us at Paradise Creek CG was Gage & Andrea & Evan, and Gage's Mom & Dad, Shirleen & Duane. Friends of G&A's, Dan & Kris, replaced Shirleen and Duane on Saturday when they left to attend a wedding.

We had a big old campfire every night, and cooked on the fire when we could. During the day we'd hike, find firewood, relax, read, chat, or just soak in the surroundings. The kids had a ball in the forest and along the banks of the creek which bordered their campsite. The weather was perfect, warm really for this time of year. The only downside for me was that I came down with a cold on Friday and had to deal with it the rest of the weekend.

Earlier today, Monday, we returned and settled into our spot at the RV park for the next month. I think this was the first time we've camped in true old-growth forest. It was a very rewarding experience, enhanced by having family to enjoy it with. We both look forward to doing again.


Sep 9, 2009

Home Again

Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Vancouver, WA

Being with Family and especially Grandkids has a way of re-orienting priorities which is exactly what's happened since arriving in Vancouver, WA. this past Monday, Labor Day. Thus I once again have a bit of catch-up to do with my journal.

After our long Hells Canyon day on Saturday, we kept our heads low on Sunday. Sleeping in until a much later than normal hour, the rest of the day was spent on reading, writing, processing photos, and preparing for the drive to the Portland/Vancouver area the next day. We had an eye-opening stay in La Grande... tucked between mountains, nice people, small town, comfortable. As we explore the USA we're finding more places like this. Make note of another one.

Motivated by an early phone call from Grandson Ryan on Monday morning, we had the bus-house rolling before 9am. Even though I'd done the drive down I-84 many times years ago when we lived in Vancouver and I was traveling on business, I had forgotten the splendor of the Blue Mountains, which are traversed between La Grande and Pendleton. There's just something that happens to me when I'm around mountains. It feels right.

Once out of the mountains the terrain flattens as the road heads toward the Columbia River which is followed the rest of the way to Portland/Vancouver. On this segment, starting about Arlington, OR., the Columbia River has created another geological spectacle by cutting it's way through the rising Cascade Mountains on it's way to the ocean. The resulting Gorge is noted for it's dramatic vistas, waterfalls, and recreational activities. When we lived in the area many years ago we'd often just drive into the Gorge, find a trail to hike, and forget all those rat-race concerns -- at least for a few hours. It really did help.

Even though we tried to time our travel so we'd be ahead of the bubble of city-dwellers returning from their long weekend, traffic was getting heavy by 2PM and it took a bit longer than usual to top off the tank at the Flying J in Troutdale. Lines at the gas islands were three and four deep; the diesel islands less so. Have I mentioned lately how much I prefer being in the out-back?

After a quick set-up at our camp in Vancouver we shot over to Gage & Andrea's new house and spent the rest of the night with them and rough-housing with Ryan and Evan. We're home again.


Sep 5, 2009

The Wallowa Mtns. & Hells Canyon

Saturday, September 5, 2009
La Grande, OR.

Quick... what's the deepest gorge, or canyon, in North America? No, it's not the Columbia River Gorge... or Santa Elaina Canyon in Texas. And it's not even the famous Grand Canyon according to the good people in Oregon and Idaho. No Sir.

The deepest gorge is Hells Canyon at almost 8,000 feet deep. Hells Canyon was formed by the Snake River, the river that starts in Yellowstone National Park, forms part of the border between Idaho and Oregon, and eventually flows into the Columbia at Pasco, WA. We've been roughly following the Snake, as did the emigrants on the Oregon Trail, since Pocatello.

This morning, knowing it was going to be a long day of exploration, we got started a bit after 8am. Our intention was to drive the "Hells Canyon Scenic Byway", a more than 200 mile route that starts here in La Grande, follows OR-82 north and east around the base of the Wallowa Mountains through the towns of Wallowa, Enterprise, and Joseph. The road follows segments of the Grande Ronde River, the Minam River, and the Wallowa River. There's nothing like driving through winding valleys following a rapidly flowing river or stream on a nice day. There are plenty of pull-offs where you can stop, get out, and soak in the scenery, the scents, and the sounds.

We stopped in Joseph for an early lunch. The Embers Brewhouse Restaurant and Pub was the right place for us as we could sit outside on their deck in full view of the Wallowa Mountains looming high just to the southwest. Best of all, they say they have the widest selection of microbrew craft beer in all of Eastern Oregon. Hmmm, my kind of place.

With the reality of distance (to be traveled yet today) and time nudging us on, we drove east out of Joseph on the Imnaha Highway for a few miles until turning south on Wallowa Mountain Road, which becomes NF-39 as we entered the Wallowa - Whitman National Forest and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. This road is paved, barely, narrow and winding as it clings to the sides of slopes steep enough to make Dar edgy. The distance we traveled on this road was only 50 miles but because of the slow tight curves, steep up and down grades, and our easy pace it took about two hours to traverse this segment of the byway. Along here we made a 3 or 4 mile side trip to an overlook of Hells Canyon, where you can get an idea of the immensity of the Canyon. The natural beauty is simply startling. From this viewpoint it's impossible to see the river at the bottom, almost a mile below, but the view provides a sense of scale that prepares you for what can be seen later.

Eventually, after several thousand feet of downgrade, we reached OR-86 where we turned left, continued down, toward the Snake River and the towns of Oxbow and Copperfield. We crossed a bridge to the Idaho side and started north, hard along the river and just a few feet above it, deeper into the Canyon toward the Hells Canyon Dam. The sides of the Canyon are so steep here it took them two years to build this 23 mile long road to the dam site before any construction could begin in the early 1960's. This road provides access to the dam and is the furthest into the Canyon it's possible to drive at river level. The views from this road were certainly the "E" Ticket of the day. The mix of clouds and sun provided some awesome contrast as parts of the Canyon would alternately light up or darken. The photos we took should provide some idea of what it was like. This segment of the trip today, by itself, was among the most incredible spots on the earth I've ever visited. It'll blow you away.

With time waning, we hunkered down for the more than 120 miles back to camp. Most of that segment was on OR-86 which took us back to Baker City and then an easy 40 miles drive north on I-84 to La Grande and our camp. But even that drive kept us in awe as we encircled south side the Wallowa Mountains. The rolling steep foothills kept the road interesting and the low light and lengthening shadows from the waning day made the trip more enjoyable than it might otherwise have been.

The total distance traveled today was 320 miles. It was a long day but one of the most memorable of recent explorations. After a quick light dinner we both collapsed into bed shortly after arriving home.


Sep 4, 2009

Tour, Trail, and Toad

Friday, September 4, 2009
La Grande, OR

Up early... coffee... get ready for a day of exploring. The first order of business was to familiarize ourselves with La Grande. Since a little more coffee was in order, we found a Starbucks (inside a Safeway Store) and treated ourselves. After a short drive around town we headed out to the Northwood Manufacturing plant near the airport where we had an 11am tour lined up.

Northwood makes high quality campers that we may downsize to whenever we decide the time is right to establish a home base again. We both are perfectly happy with the bus-house and certainly aren't planning to stop fulltiming anytime soon. But we can see a day, well into the future, when we'll have a fixed home base again. At that point we still see ourselves exploring the USA, but in trips of a month or two or three and with a smaller rig that allows easier access to smaller, more remote, campgrounds.

The tour lasted an hour and we were the only ones on the camper plant tour. We both thought the design and quality of these units is impressive. They're tough, 4 season units that have a great reputation among users. I can see why.

After the plant visit, we drove south a bit to Union, OR., and had lunch at the historic Union Hotel, followed by a trek a bit further south to the National Oregon Trail Interpretive Center just outside Baker, OR. This is, arguably, the premier Oregon Trail museum in the nation. We spent the balance of the day there soaking up the exhibits, reading, learning, and hiking around the grounds. The historic trail passed right through the land surrounding the center and the wagon ruts can still be seen and walked in.

The car (aka: the toad) is finally getting a few miles on the road under it's own power. I commented to Dar the other day that we've had it for almost two months, it's come all the way from Wisconsin to Oregon, and we've only put two tanks of fuel in it since it was new. Now that's mileage. Today I put in the third tank and reset the MPG computer. We put on about 130 miles today, some in town but most highway, up and down mountain grades, and the car reported it got 41 MPG -- better than I'd hoped.

Tomorrow, Saturday, we're driving the Hells Canyon Loop -- a full day of exploring and seeing things we've never seen before. Dar says she'll make sure to take a bunch of photos.


Sep 3, 2009

Into Oregon

Thursday, September 3, 2009
La Grande, OR.

We're camped in La Grande, OR. tonight, under the biggest full moon I've seen in a while. The drive from Caldwell was just under 150 miles -- an easy day for us considering the mileage of the past few days. To recap, a week ago we were lolli-gagging at Fort Robinson in Western Nebraska. In that week, we're driven 1,043 miles in 5 legs. As Dar likes to say, "We've been bookin' it!"

Well, we're here at Eagles Hot Lake RV Park just south of La Grande. With the last big weekend of the summer upon us, we're going to hide out here until the smoke clears. Most fulltimers dread, to some extent, those big three day weekends of the summer -- campgrounds can be full to overflowing, kids and dogs running uncontrolled, every campsite seems to have a big smoky campfire. Don't get me wrong... these people deserve every moment of their long weekend in the woods. They probably work their butts off 50 weeks a year and they need to take advantage of those few, precious, long weekends. But we really prefer the quieter times and seek out places, like this, that won't attract the big celebratory weekend crowd.

The route for the drive today was simple, I-84 all the way. I'd driven this route many times when we lived in Vancouver 15 or 20 years ago, but I'd forgotten how much mountain driving was involved. Not huge mountains, but plenty of long climbs and descents, winding roads carved into very narrow valleys between hills, chain-up areas, and, winds. It was one of those drives that kept your attention. There was no tendency to "nod off" due to boredom.

As we descended into the La Grande area, the Navigator (that'd be Dar today), suggested taking an early exit from I-84 which, according to her map, would shave a few miles off our drive to the campground. We voted, it was a tie, so the Safety Director (that'd also be Dar) broke the tie in favor of taking the early exit. The good news was we did, in fact, save a few miles and probably some diesel fuel. The bad news was that this alternate route was a gravel road made from the dustiest gravel known to man. Man-O-Man! I drove as slow as I could but the toad wasn't even visible in the rear camera for all the dust. It was bad.

When we pulled into the RV Park, and the dust cloud behind us started to abate, people came from all around to look at the dustiest, dirtiest camper they've ever seen. Some were even a bit surprised when a car appeared, attached to the back of the bus-house, as the dust settled. Oh Man, we had a mess.

But Intrepid Explorers take things like this in stride. As soon as we parked in our campsite, Dar had the buckets out, I grabbed hoses, brushes, and soap, and we were on it like a pit bull on a T-bone steak. In the next few hours everything, and I do mean everything, got a wash job. The bus-house now looks squeaky-clean, as does the poor dragged around toad. Even the bikes got a good goin' over, and a lube job to boot.

We're tired but making plans for the next few days explorations. There's a lot to see and do in and around La Grande. And there's a great swimming pool here at the RV Park that we can use too. We're now within striking distance of our goal as Portland is a mere 250 miles down I-84. We have a reservation at our RV Park in Vancouver, WA for Monday, Labor Day, so we'll try to make the drive in early while all the weekenders are still taking those last laps around the lake on the jet-ski.

More tomorrow...


Sep 2, 2009

On The Oregon Trail

Wednesday, September 2, 2009
On the Oregon Trail between Pocatello and Twin Falls, ID

Dar's driving this morning and that gives me a chance to get the journal up to date. It's another bright morning with light winds. Morning driving when heading west is the best because the sun is on your back and the scenery ahead of you is lit up and bright.

We left Little America on Tuesday morning about 9am. I got a good nights sleep despite some idiot with a Dodge diesel pickup who insisted on idling the louder-than-stock machine all night long for who knows what reason. I'm sure he knew everything about diesels and had somehow rationalized in his pea-sized brain that wasting fuel for 8 hours was the right thing to do.

Little America is right on I-80, but just a couple miles west we turned north on US-30, which we stayed on much of the day. Near Sage the road makes an abrupt curve from west to north at the point where we picked up the path of the Oregon Trail. The Trail continues north and west, winding over hills and through valleys, following Bear River to Soda Springs and then north to the Snake River, just north of present day Pocatello. The California Trail followed this same route through here but eventually veered south, across Nevada and into Northern California.

We stopped at the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier and truly enjoyed the time we spent at this state of the art interpretive center. The exhibits are very well done. They have a series of re-created full-size "sets" complete with tour guides playing the roles of the trail boss, and a blacksmith and his wife. They walk you through the process settlers went through from preparation for the trip, the trip itself, and what they found and how they lived when they got to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

Typically, the trip from Kansas City to Oregon took about 160 days and cost about $500. The motivation? For some it was land... the promise of 320 acres of land for a single man, 640 acres for a couple. For others, it was gold... remember the California Gold Rush? Most of the travel occurred in the late 1840's and through the 1850's. These people said good-bye to family -- maybe never to see them again -- endured a treacherous trip, out in the elements, hunting for food, seeking fresh water, walking most of the way as the wagon was full of supplies and a few possessions. Oxen were preferred over horses or mules and they were easier to manage and able to endure difficult conditions better. The wagon of choice was a "prairie schooner", a lightened up version of the old Conestoga Wagon used extensively in the East but far too heavy for climbing steep mountain passes and fording deep streams.

Disease was common. Cholera took many lives and quickly too, as you could feel fine in the morning, become very sick in the afternoon, and be dead by nightfall. They didn't understand the disease and didn't know what to do to prevent it. Very scary, I'm sure.

They did travel in groups usually, as there was strength in numbers. Commonly, a blacksmith traveled with each group and was highly valued for wagon and wheel repair, and to make shoes for the animals -- a necessity when traveling over rough rocky terrain.

Streams, deserts, mountains, prairies... they all had to be crossed and endured. Many never made it... they died along the way. Why did they leave presumably more comfortable situations at their home in the east? The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill. The pull of a hope for a better life is strong. I'm still mystified as to the why.

There are not a lot of places for big ol' bus-house to camp through the tight valleys and hilly county around Soda Springs and Lava Hot Springs... and the pull of Grandkids keeps nudging us along. So we made it to Pocatello about 4pm. Our fall-back was to boondock at WalMart, but once we found it, the parking lot was so small, and so full, that there was literally no place to park. Hmmm.

We drove a bit further, actually right behind the WalMart, and found a new Lowes. A quick phone call to management said we were OK to use their big parking lot and we found an almost perfectly level spot to spend the night. Since we've been going easy on fees with all the free boondocking lately, and considering the late hour, and considering the hassle with whipping something up for dinner... we decided to walk across the parking lot to a new Texas Road House. The meal was very good and, because we were dining early... before 6pm, reasonably priced. Dar pointed out that dining out twice in two nights is becoming a pattern -- a pattern we can't afford. So I don't think this isn't going to become a habit.

The bus-house was rolling again by 9am this morning. Dar was driving and she drove most of the way today... almost to Oregon. Actually, 29 miles short. The route was all Interstate, I-86 to I-84. We're in Caldwell, ID. at "neat as a pin" Ambassador RV Resort just a mile or so from I-84. After 11 days without full hookups, it becomes a necessity to re-connect to the grid and get some laundry done, clean the place, and take long hot showers... all of which were accomplished within a few hours of landing here about 2pm.

Tomorrow, we're rolling again, but just a short trip into Easter Oregon to the town of La Grande. I want to visit Northwoods Manufacturing, the makers of some high quality smaller RV's that could become part of our life someday... after we settle into another home base and decide to downsize the camper. I found another RV park near La Grande that can take us for the Labor Day weekend, and if we like the place and find enough to do in the area, we may stay until Monday.


Beyond Branson; Pondering Future Travel

This past Tuesday, we moved from Branson to a very nice Corps of Engineer’s Park on Wappapello Lake.  We’re in the Redman Creek CG. This fac...