Nov 30, 2011

Nov 30 - On Coincidence

We've had a couple of weird coincidences occur around here recently. Going back a couple weeks...  Let me set the scene. We had just gotten settled at Camp Solitude in the desert near Quartzsite. Coincidentally, I had just finished reading Brian Gore's first novel "A Matter of Honor" on my Kindle. On the afternoon of the day in question I was on the internet... on Amazon, and was writing a short review of his book. While on the "write your review here" page, in the middle of composing the review, Dar spotted a truck and fifth wheel rolling into our corner of the desert and announced "incoming" (a habit we've gotten into, as watching people park big rigs is better entertainment than almost anything on commercial TV). So I glance out and see the rig slowly moving in... and said "Hey, I know that guy! That's Brian Gore... the guy who wrote the book I just finished... the review I'm writing right now!". Literally, as I'm writing about his book, he, the author, shows up and parks just a couple hundred yards away. How's that for a coincidence.

And then it happened again yesterday. Let me set the scene on this one. If you've read my recent posts you'll probably be aware that I suspected a couple of sensors on my PressurePro tire pressure monitoring system were causing a slow leak in the tires they were mated with. Because the problem seemed to be getting worse in recent weeks, I resolved to reach out to my PP dealer and see if they could remedy the situation once I got here to North Ranch... where we'd be for a week and I could actually get mail if they needed to send new sensors or parts or whatever.

So yesterday, our first full day here, I got on the computer and went to the website of my PP dealer... Pat and Mike McFall to get their phone number. (OK, pay attention, here's where the coincidence appears...) After punching the phone number into my phone, I happened to glance at their blog... and see that they live right here in North Ranch. During the winter this RV community is their home. They have a lot and house and a shop and their PP business, the whole shebang, right here just a few short blocks from where we're parked.

Call it Karma, or clean living, or luck, or whatever... it's wonderfully weird when things like this happen. The world, for a least a little while, seems smaller and more friendly.

So, the short version of the rest of the story is that Pat and Mike invited me over, solved my problem (those two sensors had slightly damaged rubber gaskets and the fix was to simply replace the gasket), and we visited for an hour or more. Two of the nicest people you'd want to have for your PP dealers... or even just as friends.

Despite my self-restriction on doing commercial endorsements for RV related products... let's just call this a little "plug". Comparing the almost 4 years we traveled without a tire pressure monitoring system, to the year or so we've traveled since... well, there's no comparison. There's a huge increase in peace of mind that comes from knowing what your tire pressures are while driving down the road. And that we'll be alerted to a low tire or a blow-out... especially on the car we're towing "four wheels down". I've personally talked with two people who have had a blow out with a tire on their towed car... didn't realize it... and kept driving. The result is generally thousands of dollars in damage to the car and a possible fire from continuing to drive at highways speeds with a flat tire. I consider a tire pressure monitoring system "peace of mind" insurance.

Nov 29, 2011

Nov 29 - Escapees North Ranch

Yesterday we made the 110 mile drive from our Plomosa Road camp near Quartzsite to the Escapees North Ranch park between Wickenburg and Congress AZ. The drive was a good one... no incidents and light traffic. When traveling east we generally prefer a late start (about 11am yesterday) to minimize the glare and squinting that accompanies driving into the sun. At the very least, it's a good excuse for sleeping in.

I topped off the two tires I wrote about in the last post and confirmed that the problem with the slow leak in the toad's tire was due to the Pressure Pro sensor. When I swapped the suspect sensor with one on another wheel, the new tire developed the slow leak. Hmmm. You know I'll be talking with my Pressure Pro supplier about this today. I now highly suspect the same issue with the front tire on the bus-house. I'm running without the sensor on that tire for a while to see if the leak stops.

North Ranch is an interesting community. There are about 100 rental RV sites and hundreds more deeded lots. The deeded lots range in size up to a quarter acre, on many of which the owners have built large permanent homes. Even the smaller lots are similar in size to the largest RV park lots we've seen, and can comfortably accommodate a large RV or park model home, a storage building, patio area, landscaped yard, and a parking area. Could North Ranch figure into our plans for a southern home base? Hmmm.

Nov 27, 2011

Nov 27 - Last Day at Camp Solitude

It's Sunday already, which means we've got to start packing up, stowing things, in preparation for moving tomorrow. Even if we wanted to stay longer (no argument from either of these two nomads), we're running a little low on some resources that require movement of the bus-house... things like fresh water and propane which are the two we'll run out of first. So since we've got to move anyway, and since we're still planning to be in Rockport by just after the first of the year, we're getting back on the road.

I've got two tires with slow leaks. The right rear tire on the toad has leaked since the day I had new tires put on last summer. It's very slow and it's been my denial of reality that's prevented me from having it fixed before this. But I added air just a couple weeks ago... even put in a little extra. But when I checked it yesterday, it was down to 26psi... a full 10 pounds from where it was. The other tire is the front right bus-house tire. Damage or a puncture isn't obvious, and I've examined it pretty closely. I'll get both pumped back to where I want them before we leave tomorrow. In the back of my mind I'm wondering if the pressure pro sensors have anything to do with this problem. They work by by-passing the dill valve that normally holds air in a tire, and have their own seal. If that seal isn't perfect I think it could account for what I'm experiencing. After getting the bus-house tire back to full pressure, I'm going to run without the sensor on that tire for a while and see if that makes a difference.

We ran into Q yesterday to restock on firewood. Our source (and new BFG - best firewood guy) is Alex, who runs a rock and mineral shop down close to the Post Office. We bought three big boxes for Thanksgiving Day, all of which was turned to ashes that day.  Another three boxes was procured for our last two nights fires.

Toward the end of last nights campfire, well after sunset, we were entertained with the awesome desert night sky show. A fingernail moon, in close proximity to Venus, was chasing the sun and setting in the west. Clouds of stars in the Milky Way appear to combine into a single band of glowing gas stretching overhead from both horizons. High in the eastern sky was Jupiter. With our little spotting scope we could easily see bands of color on it, the largest planet in our solar system, as well as all 4 of it's largest moons.

All is still quiet here at Camp Solitude.

Nov 25, 2011

Nov 25 - The Nellie E Saloon

Well here's hoping we didn't lose any readers during all the Black Friday consumerist shopping riots earlier today. I'm hearing about folks being pepper sprayed, shot, stabbed, and worse... by other "shoppers" who feel they need something bad enough to set aside normal civil behavior and bring out the heavy artillery to gain some kind of advantage. I mean, what are they thinking? Do they sit up the night before and plan this? Never having been to a shopping riot I guess I should give folks the benefit of the doubt... that perhaps the store is really at fault for whipping people into a frenzy and all. I don't remember Christmas shopping being at all like this when I was a kid.

For our excitement we headed out to the Nellie E Saloon for lunch. This isn't as easy as it sounds though. First you've got to drive north of Parker some 5 miles on the main highway, AZ-95, and try to find the intersection with the old rocky dirt road that leads to the bar, another 5 miles out in the desert. This being a holiday Friday and all, a lot of folks are off for a long weekend and were out in force with their 4-wheelers, ATV's, pickup trucks, and jeeps tearing up the desert and creating both a dust storm and a lot of traffic. It certainly wasn't a quiet lonely drive out into the desert.

The road is primitive and we were one of only a few out there with a car. There were a few places the road was probably more than the little Ford Focus was ever designed to be navigating, but after 20 or so minutes, we topped a hill and there, before our eyes, was what locals call The Desert Bar... the Nellie E Saloon.

You probably won't believe it when I claim there had to be six or eight hundred people gathered there, maybe more, enjoying the bright sunny afternoon, the eats and drinks, and a very good band -- The Happy Ending Band -- playing some of my favorite Rock and Roll music from the 60's and 70's. Finding a seat was tough, as you might imagine, but we scored two at one of the bars right after we ordered lunch.

There are no power lines running out to the bar. Instead, banks of solar panels on various roofs here and there provide the power to run the place, although I suspect that despite a strong Arizona sun there's not an abundance of power. Ice box refrigeration is dedicated to keeping beer cold, but there's no cheese for your burger... ever (a sign says). The menu is brief... hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, chili-burgers, or chili-dogs. Since they have so many people from California stopping in, they have added a veggie-burger... but my guess is it doesn't sell very well. Prices were reasonable: $3 for a burger, $3 for a diet beer, slightly more than $3 for some of the other concoctions.

There is a well on the property now. The owner, a fellow named Ken, used to have to haul water out from town in an old fire truck. But the truck is parked now and water isn't quite the precious resource it once was. I'm not sure what they do with waste water, but I'm hoping it gets hauled back to town and not dumped in the old mine.

Did I mention how good we thought the band was?

The saloon is built on various hills, piles of mining debris, and a deep scar (an old mining cut? a wash?) in the desert that combined give the place a multi-tiered, sculpted appearance. That lowest level, the scar (don't know what else to call it) is where the band was staged, as well as a good percentage of the customers. A long bridge soars overhead, connecting one parking area to the main upper bar area. All the structures, including two tall cooling towers, appear to be unplanned and built on a "seemed like a good idea at the time" basis. Perhaps best called "desert primitive"... it works... actually adds to the ambiance.

Given the choice between battling shoppers on Black Friday or scrambling over rocky roads, around swarms of ATVs, through clouds of dust, and a plugged air filter in the car, to find a happening place like the Nellie E Saloon... I'll opt for the saloon every time.

More photos from our afternoon can be seen at our online photo album.

Nov 24, 2011

Nov 24 - Thanksgiving Day Lunner

A small sliced ham, potato rolls, green bean casserole, cranberries, hobo veggies, and pun'kin pie... a small feast in the desert. We invited neighbor Brian Gore over for the mid-afternoon Thanksgiving Day "lunner" and then sat around the campfire telling stories and solving world problems.

Had a great time.

Nov 23, 2011

Nov 23 - New Desert Geoglyph

While chasing Patton's tanks the other day we got to talking about how slowly things change in the desert. Besides those 70 year old Sherman Tank tracks, there's the much older (500 years or more??) Bouse Fisherman Intaglio that we visited last year. And where do the US Air Force and the airlines of the world park their old, surplus, or unused planes? The desert of course. The dry arid environment minimizes the availability of water... one of the main elements of erosion, corrosion, population explosion, and the notion of distortion. And I can't emphasize enough the effect low population has on the enduring longevity of things out here.

I enjoy watching people riding by on their ATVs, 4-wheelers, or dirt bikes. At first, the silence of the desert is broken by the sound of a small engine, off in the distance,... then a bunch of small engines. Instinctively, I turn my head, home in on the sound, and see a rooster tail of dust... not unlike the Tasmanian Devil character in cartoons when I was a kid. But, alas, it's not a cartoon but a group of ATVers out enjoying the desert on an early winter afternoon. They're out to see the sights of the remote desert... which for all of them except the first guy, is a cloud of dust and dirt. After the first one drives past, the rest are usually caked with dirt and fitted with dust masks, respirators, and goggles. Boy, that looks like fun to me. I wonder how they decide who goes first. I mean, does the same "alpha" always lead the pack?  Do they take turns? Hmmm.

Hiking in the desert is a different story. It's, as I read in someones blog a while back, "seeing the land with your feet". (What a great definition of hiking). It allows the explorer to not only see the desert landscape, but to hear it, to feel it, to smell it - and it does smell better than the exhaust of a Honda four-stroke. Sure, it might be tough to hike more than a few miles in a day but if the goal is to really experience the desert, it can't be beat.

During one of our hikes the other day we decided to create our own desert intaglio (or perhaps more accurately termed a geoglyph?). In some people's mind it might be defacing the desert... but com'on. It's made entirely of the materials available at the sight... just arranged differently. There's no spray paint or human-generated garbage involved... it's completely natural. And is anybody ranting about the guy who did the Bouse Fisherman? No... he/she/they are celebrated... not indicted. We thought it'd be fun to return whenever we're in the area, to check on it's status, to see how nature and time (and vandals) have changed it, to see how long it lasts. If Patton's tank tracks survived 70 years and the Bouse Fisherman hundreds of years, we will probably never know.

TD could stand for Thanksgiving Day... or it could mean "torrid desert"... or possibly something else. 

If you visit, send us a photo.

Nov 22, 2011

Nov 22 - Chasing Patton's Tanks

I generally wake up thereabouts 4 or 5 in the morning... don't think I'll explain why... just happens when you're in your 50s or 60s.  When the sky is clear, as it's been almost every night we've been here at Camp Solitude, there, right there, through the window next to my head, is the constellation Orion, as bright and bold as I've ever seen him... his belt cinched tight, sword and shield ready for action, his companion Canis Major at his side, keeping a close watch on the not-to-be-trusted and altogether too close constellation Taurus (the bull). Occasionally, if you're very perceptive, and patient, Taurus starts moving furtively closer to our hero Orion... who, if you watch carefully, actually raises his sword and shield... urging the rogue bull back to it's place in the heavens.

Hey, it's better than counting sheep.

Yesterday, Tuesday (I think), Dar and I wandered off into the desert to the south, chasing General George Patton's tanks. We had known that Patton had a number of training bases all around this area back in 1942 and 1943... to prepare troops for the Africa Campaign during WWII. If you're going to fight in the desert, it'd probably make sense to train in a desert, right?.

So that was almost 70 years ago and it really never occurred to me that, aside from some camp ruins here and there, there'd be any visible evidence of all that activity. I mean... it was 70 years ago! But it turns out evidence does indeed remain... and it's all over the desert near our camp... as close as a mere hundred feet from our fire ring.

Last year, during our first visit to Camp Solitude, I saw and wondered about a set of tracks that angled past our camp. It wasn't that the tracks existed that got me curious... it was that they were a very consistent 9 feet wide... much wider than tracks made by jeeps or cars or pickup trucks, and wider than most of the largest trucks. Why were these tracks so wide? I wondered... and then we left on new explorations and I put the question aside.

But then this year, during my chat with author Brian Gore, he told me that those tracks were indeed made by Patton's tanks. He said that if you know what you're looking for, they're all over the desert around here. I also talked with a BLM ranger who confirmed what Brian said.

The desert is a place where things change very slowly. There are broad long areas of hard pan that appear almost like gravel parking areas, but they're totally natural and completely devoid of plants. What plant life that exists around here is confined closer to "washes" -- slightly lower areas that collect and channel water during the rains of the monsoon season. We're camped on one of those hard pan parking areas, and right next to a wash.

The surface of these hard pan areas is covered with very dark colored rocks... dark brown, bronze, almost black... some as big as your fist, but most smaller and embedded in the desert floor. Just below those dark rocks is a very light colored material... soil, sand, dust, whatever. Left undisturbed, nothing changes... for centuries. But have a bunch of young soldiers, high-spirited kids really, run a string of 30 ton tracked vehicles through it, compacting the desert floor, skidding as they turn, grinding away at the dark colored rocks on the surface and digging up the lighter colored soil beneath... well, now there's a track... and there's evidence that will last for many years. And that, apparently, is what we have running close to our fire pit, and what's threaded all throughout the surrounding desert.

Close examination of some tracks showed the telltale marks of steel against stone on the larger embedded rocks... the ones that were surely there then, and had been for probably thousands of years before that. The 70 years that have passed since those marks were made, those tracks laid down, those kids went off to war, is but a single breath in the geologic history of this rock we call earth.

Things change slowly here.

9 feet wide... what made this?

skidding turn of tracked vehicle

steel on stone

Nov 21, 2011

Nov 21 - Desert Mirages

I'm having a problem believing that it's been 3 days since my last update to the Journal. The past few days have been like this: sleep in, satiate hungers and needs for caffeine, look for firewood (can't burn anything found in desert; can't find anyone selling it in Q; Harrumph!), explore locally, visit (found our buddies Fred and Lynne not far away; also writer Brian Gore), work on projects, monitor the power plant on our roof (solar panels), pop corks, toast the setting sun, climb in bed... repeat the next day.

There's something that attracts me to this spot at this time of year. While Q can become a swarm of RVs, flea markets, traffic, and activity in January, during this time of the year it's positively boring. (As I mentioned above... can't even find a bundle of firewood. Apparently the firewood vendors haven't shown up yet.) But, in this case, boring, for me, is the attraction. The solitude recharges my onboard batteries just as the sun is doing the same for the bus-house's.

Locals are saying it seems quieter and slower this year. Usually by this time there are signs of the buildup to all the January madness. But not, apparently, this year... or so they think. I suppose they could be right... or, like many of us old timers, they recall the "good old days" and memories of those glory days become exaggerated, larger than reality, and impossible to recapture.

We're thinking we may stay here through the holiday... have our own "Thanksgiving meal for two" right out here in our solar-powered rustic desert campsite. There are only 4 other campers visible in any direction, and two of those could be desert mirages.

Nov 18, 2011

Nov 17 - Into Arizona

It took a little longer than usual to complete moving-morning chores... that, and perhaps sleeping in a little later than normal... but we finally got the bus-house rolling out of Black Rock Campground in Joshua Tree NP a little before 11am. Our objective today was Quartzsite, AZ, something less than 200 miles distant. At first I thought we'd circle around the top of the Park on the north and east sides (CA-62 to CA-177) and hit I-10 for the run into Arizona. But that changed to just running right down through the middle of the Park on Park Boulevard and Pinto Basin Road to the Cottonwood Spring area and out the south gate just a few miles from exit 168 on I-10. There are no size restrictions that I could find on that route and a ranger I asked didn't seem at all concerned.

While we did survive the drive just fine, thanks in part to the lack of other traffic, running down Pinto Basin Road was a challenge at times. The road is very narrow in places and the pavement had seen better days (like maybe in the 1960s), but we managed to get our eyes on the many square miles of back-country in this less-busy area of the NP. Back in September this part of the Park had 3 inches of rain in less than a day, a rare event apparently and the resulting crazy rush of flowing water washed out portions of the road and much of the Cottonwood Campground (which is still closed) near the south entrance. The Park Service scrambled to get the road operational again -- in some areas the repairs are only temporary. We were by far the biggest vehicle we saw all the way through the Park, an observation probably shared by most of those we passed along the way.

But once on I-10 (I know... "it's an Interstate... and you hate Interstates...") the rest of the day was smooth and uneventful. I was nursing our diesel supply... driving for maximum mpg... to avoid having to pay the penalty for buying fuel in the fine state of California. We coasted into Ehlenberg, AZ, right on the border, on fumes (never having run the beast totally dry, I don't know how low it can go before "sucking air") and put in 83 gallons (in a 100 gallon tank) at a net savings of about 35 cents per gallon... enough for 3 or 4 meals worth of groceries.

A half hour later we were at our favorite little spot in the desert just outside of Quartzsite... the same place we camped for a few days last fall. Quartzsite isn't everyone's "cup o'tea"... especially if they've been here during the big busy RV Show in January. But in November and December it's a different place in our experience. Our closest neighbor is maybe 500 yards away, and, as of tonight, we can see only three rigs total. We parked so our "picture window" windshield is pointing west... to savor those legendary desert sunsets. Today, Friday, afternoon temps were in the mid 70s after morning lows in the upper 40's. I think we can live with that for a few days.

Nov 16, 2011

Nov 15 - Joshua Tree National Park

First off, as a follow up to the "bridge" post from a couple days ago, I went back and found some online photos of the thing from different perspectives and added them to that post. It might help... especially the photo of the wooden braces that had been added to keep the rickety old thing up on it's pilings. I also found a newspaper article from the "Desert Dispatch" from earlier this year that highlights the problem... but, in all honesty, for me it prompts more questions than provides answers.

Yesterday, Tuesday, we explored Joshua Tree National Park. The Park's namesake, the Joshua Tree, is a unique plant that is actually a variation of the Yucca (Yucca brevifolia) and only grows in the southwestern United States. At home between about 1,500 and 6,000 feet of elevation, the presence of Joshua Trees is a good indicator that you're in the Mojave Desert. They grow quickly from seeds... perhaps 3 inches per year in their early years. Once established the growth rate slows to just an inch per year. The tallest Joshua Trees are about 40 feet. If conditions are optimal, Joshua Trees can survive for over a thousand years, although these days with climate change and pollution as factors, the average age is much less.

Driving through the forests of them makes me think they're a lot like fingerprints... no two are alike. The diversity of shapes, sizes, heights, and number of branches is dramatic. Their evergreen leaves are dagger shaped, stiff, with sharp serrated edges, and ending in a dagger-like point.  They flower in the Spring, but not every year... and they only branch where they produce flowers. They do not produce growth rings like trees, which makes assigning an age to an individual difficult.

The other unique feature of Joshua Tree National Park is the abundance of unique rock formations known as inselbergs or monadnocks. Formed a hundred million years ago, or thereabouts, by molten magma rising into the upper levels of the earth's crust... like blobs in a lava lamp... and then cooling and solidifying prior to reaching the surface. Over many more years these underground formations were fractured and eroded by immense quantities of groundwater flowing down and around them. Then, as the land holding these features was worn down by further erosion or uplifted by other plate forces, they were exposed and weathered further into the shapes we see today. Some, alone in the desolation of the desert, appear as huge piles of jumbled boulders. Others, grouped together, form ridges that extend for miles. Their vertical faces are a favorite of rock climbers, many of who were out yesterday during our tour. In fact dozens and dozens of them who, somehow, don't have to work to keep themselves entertained. Sort of like us... gotta love it.

We drove down to Keys View overlook, peering down almost 5,000 feet, at Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley far below. At least we were told Palm Springs was down there... couldn't see it or verify it as the smog, fog, haze, and air debris was too much to see through. It was possible to see the ridge that marks the San Andreas Fault... the source of most of the ground tremors and earthquakes in California, the probable cause of much of the weirdness, and the likely reason Joshua Tree National Park will be ocean-front property one of these days.

Today we took a day off. Spent some time working on photos, writing, and looking ahead. We leave here tomorrow, Thursday, and are still not totally sure where we'll end up.

And Dar has more photos from our day in Joshua Tree National Park if you follow this link to our online albums.

Nov 14, 2011

Nov 14 - Sixteen Tons... What Do You Get

This morning. Southbound on North 1st Ave in Barstow. We crossed the dry Mojave River and then started a twisting climb to a bridge that carries traffic over the very busy BNSF railroad tracks through the middle of town. That's when I saw the sign... a small one... but it got my attention:  Bridge Weight Limit  - two axle vehicles = 7 tons;  three axle vehicles = 11 tons; four axles or more = 15 tons. WHAT????

The bus-house is a two axle vehicle and it weights a bit less than 16 tons all by itself. The toad, considered a separate vehicle was well under the restriction... but the bus-house! Sheesh. And we're only a thousand or so feet from turning onto the sagging span, which I can now see is all shored up underneath with what looked like puny little 2x4s. OH MAN... gotta act now!

There was only one opportunity to turn before I was past the point of a no-hassle return. If I went past that final intersecting street, which was now only 30 feet away, there were only three possible outcomes... and all three of them would have been more exciting than an "E" ticket ride at Disney or base jumping from top of the Glacier Point in Yosemite. Outcome 1: stop in the only lane of traffic prior to getting on the bridge (there's no shoulder or emergency lane at this point), save the bridge and who knows how many lives, and create a major Barstow scene complete with angry police, live radio news crews, hovering helicopters, screaming and honking motorists now stopped and going absolutely berserk, not to mention nowhere, and an onboard navigatress/safety director/spouse who would have quickly joined the raging mob in fashioning a noose for my neck. (Hey sweetie... you're the navigator... didn't you see this coming? No? OK, you're's my fault... I should have done better... It'll never happen again... hey, why are you tying the end of that rope to the bridge beam?) If I had selected this outcome the result would have been fines, unhooking the toad and backing every car and the bus-house off the bridge approach, headlines, embarrassment, and likely divorce.

As bad as Outcome 1 would have been, Outcome 2 was far worse. In Outcome 2, I would have gritted my teeth, said a little prayer, and driven the 16 ton bus-house across the 7 ton bridge... and the whole shebang would have collapsed down onto the busy BNSF tracks below. With some luck, death would have been instantaneous. With less luck, I would have survived the crash but would have been hit seconds later by a screaming locomotive pulling the 9:20 high-ball to LA. With even less luck, I would have survived.

Outcome 3 is very close to Outcome 2, except that the bridge doesn't collapse and we make it safely to the other side with only my heart in my throat, sweat suddenly pouring off my face, and a brown mess in my shorts. There are all sorts of possible endings to this one that could still involve tickets, jail time, and, again, divorce.

You see, there was no good way out of this mess unless I take this one last turn, this final opportunity to prevent all the bad things mentioned above from becoming part of my lasting legacy. (I could hear it now: Did I ever tell you about old Grandpa Thom and the day he crushed the First Avenue Bridge in Barstow? Well, gather round kids... this is a good one...) It's amazing what can go through one's mind in just a few micro-moments at a critical time like this... similar to seeing your life pass completely before your eyes as you're dying. And, believe it or not, all these thoughts did actually go trough my mind in those few micro-seconds as we were approaching that last chance turn.

OK... we're now only 20 feet from the turn... and I make my decision.  I smoothly apply the brakes and simultaneously flip on the right turn signal. The bus-house responds. Remember, I really don't know where this road goes... and I really don't care. The prime directive at this point is to defuse the bomb that was about to bring down the old 1st Ave Bridge. And then we're on that little side road... and what do you know... just a block down that road is a large open parking lot where I could smartly and quickly execute a 180 degree turn and head back toward the intersection, where I turned left, away from the bridge, and away from certain doom. And just think how many lives I probably saved today.

It took a little longer to get to our destination today, but there was absolutely no complaining to be heard.

I think that's all I'll say about that.
(the attached photos were pulled from the internet. Neither of us were thinking about photos at the time.)

Tonight, we're safely dry-camped at the Black Rock Campground just inside the northwest corner of Joshua Tree National Park. A primitive campground by almost any standard, it was a two hour project to find a site for the big ol' bus-house... one with a little height clearance to keep the stiff and scratchy Joshua Trees from gouging our roof or sides... one that we could get half-way level on. It's times like this I REALLY crave a much smaller rig. After two hours of trying this and doing that, we're settled and happy again. As challenging as this dry-camping and boondocking thing gets sometimes we still prefer it to many of the RV parks out there. At least most of the time.

Nov 13, 2011

Nov 13 - Purple Haze to Barstow

This morning, after good-byes from old friends and new neighbors at the SKP Park of the Sierras, we hooked up the toad and were rolling down the road by 10:30am. It's good to be back in the hunt for new sights and adventure.

As we rolled south toward Fresno it became clear that the air was not... clear, that is. You see, Fresno and most of the San Joaquin Valley are often saddled with some of the worst air quality in the nation.

(Purple haze all in my brain ... Lately things just don't seem the same...)

Prevailing winds from the Pacific are trapped in the valley by the high surrounding mountains. All the "stuff"... the yuk... from the super-populated, hyper-industrialized, super-agriculturized economy in the valley -- dust, exhaust, chemicals, bad-breath, cow-farts, irrigated humidity, and more that I don't even want to know about -- combine to form a nearly constant haze that's optimistically called fog by locals. Others call it smog... still others "the gas". Sometimes like today it's just a general haze. You can see the sun... sort of... but the super-bright dispersed harsh lighting bores in from every side and makes for almost painful viewing. We were moving in a south and southeasterly direction, directly into the solar maximum, for much of the morning... and the dull brightness made for a, shall we say, less than agreeable time.

(Actin' funny, but I don't know why... 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky)

But once we cleared Bakersfield, made a turn to the east, and started climbing out of the valley, into the foothills, and into the Mojave Desert, things improved a lot. First, we were now heading east and the now-afternoon sun was behind us. Second, all that valley haze and smog was gone. The air cleared up and it was pleasant to see things more than a few blocks away.

The miles clicked off quickly as we passed the northern border of Edwards Air Force Base. And before long we were coming up on Barstow. Ah, Barstow... the point on old Route 66 where the road took a bend to the south, toward San Bernardino. Barstow...the place where we're "lot-docked" for the night, in a large parking lot belonging to the Idle Spurs Steak House -- where we also had a very tasty and enjoyable dinner tonight. We look at the deal like this: we traded a full hookup site at an RV park for a great steakhouse dinner. Who needs hookups?  Not these two intrepid explorers.

Tomorrow we set our course toward Joshua Tree National Park... which will be 5th new National Park in the past few weeks. Not sure where we're staying yet... but if there's a good steak house with a big parking lot nearby... hmmm.

(apologies to Jimi Hendrix)

Nov 11, 2011

Nov 11 - Precipitation Pre-emps Perfection

We've been back at the bus-house for two days now and we're slowly getting caught up with writing and the more than 500 photos taken during our trip to the two NPs (Kings Canyon and Sequoia) earlier this week. Dar has uploaded some photos of our trip into albums at our online photo collection and will have more up in the next day or so. I'm nearly up to date with journal posts but have one or two yet to complete. And in some cases, a post that was originally done without photos may have had a few photos added... so look back if you have the time.

Originally we had planned to leave SKP Park of the Sierras today, Friday. But we made the decision to delay that by a couple days for weather reasons. There's a storm system off the California coast that's bringing precipitation into this area and we'd really rather drag the toad around in dry weather to minimize the time I spend cleaning vehicles. Besides, what's the rush?  Where do we have to be so urgently?

Besides all that, we have no clear destination in mind at this point. Certainly South would be a good idea but I also want to stay as far away as possible from the LA Metroplex hell-hole. Enough said about that lest I start hyperventilating. I'm thinking it may be time to visit the desert again, maybe somewhere around Yuma or Quartzsite.

The only time-critical destination we do have is to be back in Rockport, TX by just after the first of the year. Dar's going to do some RN-ing again at a nearby hospital and I have a number of delayed bus-house maintenance chores to get started on... not to mention getting started on the Great American Novel.

Between raindrops this afternoon, we took a good vigorous walk around the RV Park... and here, with all the hills... vigorous is what you get whether you want it or not. I also made a big pot of bean soup, which Dar thought needed a dash more salt.

And finally, on this Veterans Day, we'd like to salute both of our Dads and a few other family members who served the USA in the armed forces. I hope we, as a nation, can find a way to keep this experiment in democracy alive... to find a way to work together, compromise, and keep the needs and dreams of every citizen... all of our children and grand-children and future generations in mind as we debate the issues... and give lasting meaning to the sacrifices you made for all of us.

Nov 9, 2011

Nov 9 - Walking Among Giants

Our last morning in the Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks. We thought we'd spend the morning walking among the giants... the Giant Sequoias in Grants Grove.

Click to enlarge
General Grant
First up was a visit to the General Grant tree... the undisputed second largest tree in the world.
As with General Sherman, the slightly larger first-place tree, General Grant is huge but hard to comprehend. Even comparing it to nearby mature and taller Sugar Pines -- themselves huge trees by any normal standard, the Grant Giant makes them appear as mere nursery stock and your mind tends to remove them from the scene.

Most of the trees in the Grove are not Sequoias, and only a very few are truly "giants". But as you walk the giants call out, grab your attention, their deep dark red bark illuminated like the only color object in a black and white photograph. They call out, you turn and look, and say "Wow" as your mind tries once again, unsuccessfully, to really comprehend the scale of size and age.

The Sounds of Silence
The morning was so clear and quiet, we decided to hike a few miles through the giants to experience the park from a different perspective... to experience Sequoias away from the touristy setting of the big signature trees and meet them in their undisturbed natural setting... more on their terms. The snow-covered trail was deserted... never saw another person during either of the two longer hikes today. There was virtually no breeze. The crunching of snow beneath our boots, the shooshing of fabric as legs and arms worked, the alternating in and out breathing... those were the only sounds from us. The forest had it's own set of sounds... snow captured on high evergreen bows melting and raining down... the occasional "snowball" thrown at us by one of the trees... a small snow-fed stream coursing over rocks in the ravine alongside the trail... the screech of a hawk off in the distance. We stop often, halting our own noise, and just listening to the sounds of the forest... and amazed at the natural ruckus that makes up all that silence.

Our first hike was to an overlook of Sequoia Lake. Along the path we visited the rare Dead Giant... the only standing dead Sequoia we saw during our three day visit. As I wrote yesterday, Sequoias are highly resistant to disease, insects, and fire -- the three things that often kill normal trees. Giant Sequoias die by falling over... having become too heavy for their shallow root system to support. So a standing dead Sequoia is very unusual. This one, the story goes, was vandalized many years ago... girdled... strangled for who knows what reason.

Big Stump Trail
The second hike of the morning was Big Stump Trail a mile or so south of Grant Grove Village. Here, we hiked a mile or so to a meadow, around which are the stump remains of a grove of Giant Sequoias that were chopped down in the late 1800's... like so many others. We circled the meadow and felt the presence to the big trees, more than 100 years gone, through the immense dark gray stumps that seemed to have gathered in groups. The wood of a Sequoia is stringy and brittle and not at all suitable for construction. They were cut down, some shattering into useless piles of scrap as they were crushed under their own weight when they hit the ground. The wood that was usable was commonly split into wooden shake shingles, or planters stakes, or match sticks, or even toothpicks.

from PBS... Mark Twain Tree on the way down in 1891
Just off the meadow was the stump of the Mark Twain Tree. The Mark Twain Tree was cut down in 1891 so that slabs of its 16-foot diameter trunk could be displayed in New York and London museums. A similar giant was felled so that a 30-foot tall section, hollowed out to create a two-story house, could be shown at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. There are some that believe the publicity from stunts like these actually helped the cause of saving the Giant Sequoias, as public sympathy became support for preservation.

Then, it was back to the bus-house and making preparations for leaving in the next few days.

The Mark Twain Stump

Nov 8, 2011

Nov 8 - Communing with General Sherman

With a hearty hot egg breakfast onboard, a bag of crunchy gorp, a cup of hot coffee, a new set of cable-chains for the toad, and an OK from the Park Service that the road from Grants Grove to Wuksachi Village and the Lodgepole Visitors Center in Sequoia National Park is finally open, we were off on the days adventure... to explore the big trees, the largest living things on the planet, known as Giant Sequoias.

Since the recent snowfall prior to our arrival on Monday and until this morning, the only road that connects to two National Parks, known as Generals Highway, has been closed while they clear it of 6 or 8 inches of snow and ice. Warmer temps during the past day or two were helpful and hope turned to reality... and the road is now open. We somehow timed our visit to coincide with a string of three days of great weather.

It's common up here to have fog/clouds alternating with clear blue skies throughout the day. And today was not uncommon. Generally the about 25 mile drive down to Lodgepole was bright and clear, while the return trip later in the day was mostly cloudy... actually in the clouds... perhaps more accurately called fog.

General Sherman
The largest known living single stem tree on earth is a Giant Sequoia known as the General Sherman Tree. At 275 feet tall... it's not the tallest tree; with a diameter of 25 feet at the base... it's not the widest tree; and at an age of about 2,500 years... it's not the oldest tree.  It's among the largest tree in every category, but with an internal volume of more than 52,000 cubic feet, it's claim to fame is that it's the tree with the greatest volume.

Giant Sequoias have at least one thing in common with people:  they quickly grow to their full height early in their lives, and then spend the rest of their lives putting on weight and getting fat. They're so big, it's hard to appreciate their size... to really get your arms around them (both literally and figuratively). And trying to photograph one is always a challenge with usually disappointing results.

Giant Sequoias only grow here, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in about 60 small groves that comprise only about 35,000 acres. At one time, in the late 1800s, they were being cut down and turned into shake shingles, match sticks, or toothpicks... as the wood of the Sequoia is fibrous and brittle and generally not suitable for construction. It could take a team of lumberjacks up to two weeks to cut one down. Before they were all cut down, a few key people, John Muir and others, began to take notice, helped others take notice and realize what was happening, and took steps that lead to the preservation of the remaining giants we see today.

John Muir noted that the Sequoia is as close to immortal as a living thing can get. They are highly resistant to disease, insects, and fire. Their soft bark can be up to three feet thick at the base. Growing fatter every year, the way they typically die is that they become too heavy to support themselves, and they topple over... they fall down. It's highly unusual to see a standing dead Sequoia. And once they fall, they're very slow to decay due to the high tannin content of the wood.

We love old trees. A couple years ago we hiked through deep snow to spend time with the Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin National Park. And now we've had time to commune with the Giant Sequoia. They have a way of putting things into perspective for us.

We made our traditional stop at the NP Lodge for a beer and it evolved into lunner. Wuksachi Lodge is a rather recent addition to Sequoia NP, replacing guest accommodations that had been centered about 5 miles south in the Giant Forest Lodge Historic District. But after many years of wrangling the Park Service decided in the 1990's that the whole lodge district had to go in order to save the natural elements of the Giant Forest.

Even though the road was open today, there were large icy patches that kept our speed down and nerves on edge... especially where just a few unguarded feet from the edge of the road is a sheer drop off of a thousand feet or more. On our return drive we came across a couple young women who had an accident that left their car in a ditch and against some rocks. After checking that they were OK, and checking cell phone service (there was none), we told them we'd proceed, alert the authorities as soon as we could, and get them some help.  And that's exactly what we did... our good deed for the day.

We then huddled in front of the fireplace again at John Muir Lodge... and pondered the mysteries of life and wine.

Nov 7, 2011

Nov 7 - Kings Canyon - Another View

With the bus-house safely parked at SKP Park of the Sierras, where we've been based for the past two weeks or so, we packed up the toad and headed toward Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. We planned to spend two nights in the John Muir Lodge in the Grants Grove area of Kings Canyon NP... our first foray away from the bus-house since our trip from Wisconsin to South Carolina this past April. We're beginning to realize that the expense and hassle associated with moving the bus-house is, at times, hard to justify, especially when the object of the exploration is remote and with few if any facilities for a huge camper. In this case, it wouldn't be possible for us to drive the bus-house through the Parks as a number of roads have 22 foot maximum length restrictions. Additionally, a recent snowfall has made tire chains mandatory on many of the roads throughout the Parks... and tire chains will never be put on this rig while we have it. It became clear that if we were going to add these two Parks to our list of visited National Parks, the only way to do it this year would be with the toad.

The drive was 90 miles, through Fresno on CA-41, then east on CA-180 to Grants Grove. From the 1800 foot elevation at Park of the Sierras we drop to just a couple hundred feet at Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley, and then climb back to 6600 feet at Grants Grove. There are no roads that go east/west through this region as the highest and most rugged portion of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, including Mt. Whitney (14,494'), the highest point in the lower 48, is along the eastern edge of the Parks.

We arrived at Grants Grove about noon, did our usual Visitor Center thing, including the orientation video, checked into a room at the John Muir Lodge (winter deal... only $79 per night... almost half of what they go for during high season), grabbed a quick lunch, and then headed out and down into Kings Canyon just to the north of Grants Grove.

Once described by John Muir as even more spectacular than Yosemite Valley, Kings Canyon is certainly someplace anyone in awe of nature must visit. The road from Grants Grove descends more than 3000 feet to the valley floor. Many "turn-outs" on the way down provided stunning views... on this day illuminated by a low afternoon sun and bright blue skies. Once on the valley floor and alongside the flowing South Fork of the Kings River, you're at first in a "V" shaped canyon -- the signature of a canyon cut by flowing water. But further up-canyon, as you get toward the end of the road (literally called the "Roads End" area) the canyon takes on a "U" shape, with a wider flatter floor -- the distinctive shape of a canyon cut by flowing ice... glaciers, perhaps thousands of feet thick. This is the same process that cut Yosemite Canyon, about 70 miles to the northwest. Recent snowfall was being melted by relatively warm temps while we were there, so the streams and waterfalls were flowing nicely.

The entire trip into the canyon was about 35 miles each way. As referred to above, it's a dead end so the return trip provides the opposite view of that seen on the way in. We pretty much killed the afternoon along this stretch of road... and more time would have been nice. But days are short this time of the year, and even shorter in a deep canyon. So we bowed to the inevitable and returned to the Lodge before night fully arrived.

The Fireplace in the Lodge
Both nights during our stay at John Muir Lodge we warmed ourselves in front of the fireplace in the lodge. We met some interesting people, some of whom we could even communicate with in our native language. (Had some trouble with a foursome from near Paris, France). But the crackling glowing fire did more than our warm toes... the scent of glowing oak embers, the flickering illumination from low flames, the sounds... the pops and crackles that only a real fire emits... it warmed our spirits, it made us feel that we were really home despite never having been here before.

Nov 7 - Quick Update from Kings Canyon

It's 7:30pm, and I'm sitting in a rocking chair close to a fireplace in the lobby of the John Muir Lodge at Grants Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. Glowing embers and dancing flames are providing the entertainment along with a good dose of radiant heat tonight. It's wonderful... magical. Imagine... having long conversations with people we hadn't met before tonight... a very nice couple from Denver... and a foursome from near Paris, France. One of the wonderful things about lodges in many, maybe most of the National Parks, is that there's no damn TV on the premises... not in your room, not in the lobby, not anywhere. And not just no signal, or no cable, or satellite... no sir, there's no dang TV set at all. No old fashioned fat TV set with the big curvy screen... No modern flat-screen hanging on the wall... Nothing. Just a flat credenza with a coffee pot, ice bucket, telephone, a place to plop your bag... and that's it. So rather than sit in your room and stare at the blank walls and the ice bucket, people gravitate down to the lobby and gather around the fireplace... and, imagine this... talk. Why can't more motel/hotels be like this?? I'll tell you why... because most of the population wouldn't patronize a place with no TV!  Arrgghh$@@%^I$$#@**^

Ok, settle down Thom... back to our day.

After knocking out a couple chores on the 90 mile way up here to Kings Canyon from Park Sierra, where we left the bus-house alone for the next two days... chores like procuring a set of cheap cable chains (tire chains) for the toad (to stay legal in the high Sierras in the Winter), we arrived at Grants Grove Village in Kings Canyon NP a little after noon. At 6600 feet, we're well above the snow-line here... there's about 6 inches on the ground. After getting our visitor center fix, checking in to our room at the lodge, and grabbing a quick bite to eat, we headed out (and down) on a 34 mile each way trip into the canyon.

John Muir once described Kings Canyon as even more spectacular than Yosemite. How can you not agree with a judgement like that from John Muir?? It was spectacular. Most of the afternoon we were just in dis-belief at our surroundings. Looking up, grinning, saying things like "Wow". Again, words fail and I'll just let the memories soak in.

Tomorrow, we're hoping the road from here to Sequoia National Park opens up. It's been closed for a few days due to snow... but they're working on it and we're hopeful. If it doesn't open tomorrow, we may have to take some of the trails around here and see what we can find to explore.

Up until about 3 weeks ago there was only weak and spotty cell phone coverage here. But then Verizon flipped the switch on a new cell tower just up the road and that's all changed. Strong voice, strong data, it's a wonderful thing. Unless you've got AT&T... then it's "no soup for you".

Took a bunch of photos today, but they're not ready yet and may not be until later in the week.

Nov 4, 2011

Nov 4 - Changing Weather

I've written before about how perfect the weather has been the past few weeks. Sun, blue skies, few clouds, highs in the 70s, lows in the 50s. But after turning on the TV for the first time in over two weeks a couple nights ago, it looked like our lucky-streak was coming to an end... or, at least, a break.

It's only rain at our temporary home at Camp Sierra near Coarsegold. But we've seen snow on cars coming down from higher elevations. And some of the higher hilltops have a white-ish cast.

This is what a view toward Half Dome from Sentinel Dome looked like the past few days.

And this is what the same view looks like this afternoon... courtesy of a webcam near the top of Sentinel Dome.

Think I'll throw another log on the fire.

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...