The Coolest Museum Nobody’s Heard Of

Sikorsky Helicopter Restoration

Hi, friends! I know, it’s been a while. Kinda time for me to figure out if I should start a new blog for my new adventure. I mean, GoGoTacoNegro is really for adventures in the truck. And while those aren’t over… they are on hold for the time being.

Michael and I have relocated to California’s Central Coast – San Luis Obispo, to be exact. I haven’t gotten a California driver’s license yet, or changed the plates on either vehicle. But I did get a library card. So there’s that.

Since I haven’t had too much luck finding a job yet, I poked around the internet looking for places to volunteer. And while a lot of standard things (humane society, etc) came up, one place definitely caught my eye:

The Estrella Warbirds Museum.

I guess a lot of people don’t know this, but I love things that fly. Military things in particular. Who knows where it came from? If I had to guess, I’d say the 1986 movie “Top Gun.” I was in high school when it came out, and the main reason I never became a pilot is because I couldn’t get in to the Naval Academy.

The first military museum I went to was actually in England. I was so excited to see the Royal Air Museum, I was practically running from plane to plane. It was the closest I’d ever been to an airplane. And it was amazing.

Since then, I’ve been to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola (twice), spent most of my time at the USS Midway in San Diego on the flight deck, and the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson (also twice).

So it’s safe to say I was pretty excited to see a military plane museum in Paso Robles, which is less than a hour away.

Then I saw that the museum was always looking for volunteers. And that one of the areas needing volunteers was the Restoration Shop.

Good thing they said “no experience necessary,” because I would have lied like a rug to get in there.

I went by the museum a couple of weeks ago and got a tour. It’s a really cool place! In addition to all the planes they also have an extensive car collection, munitions, and something called the Red Ball Express Motor Pool.

The Red Ball Express was a truck convoy system used for about three months in 1944, and I plan to write a longer post about it later – I’d never heard of this and I think it’s fascinating. Short version: this truck convoy system was used to get supplies (of all kinds) to the troops on the front lines. And the vast majority of drivers of the Red Ball Express were African-American.

I’m going to do some serious research on this – stay tuned.

Last Monday I went out for my first restoration shift. And I met all the guys. Yep, I’m the only woman. Anyway that first day I helped put painter’s tape on the rotors of a Sikorsky UH-34D Helicopter. (The rotors were going to be painted the next day.)

I wasn’t able to get back to the museum for 10 days. And when I walked in, I said hi to Ron, the shop manager, and re-introduced myself. He looked so relieved! Apparently, when I didn’t come back right away, they all thought they’d scared me off.

Ha!

This week I got right back to the painter’s tape. This time I helped block off sections of the helicopter itself.

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We used these giant pieces of blueprints to tape off the body, leaving open the stenciled areas.

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Officially, this helicopter is not the YK17. But it’s painted with the YK17’s markings as tribute to those soldiers who died when the YK17 was shot down in Viet Nam in 1969.

Big Tom did paint the stencils that day. I stood outside while the cloud of paint dissipated, then helped peel off all the paper and tape.

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I am SO hooked. There’s nothing like getting up close and personal to something as large as a Sikorsky helicopter. Even though all I really did was apply tape. And then take it back off. It didn’t matter – I was in awe. This helicopter is beyond cool.

I can’t wait to go back! Maybe next time I’ll bring my good camera and take even better pictures.

Oh, and the whole “nobody’s heard of” part? When I began telling my family and new friends about this place, nobody had heard of it. Even my sister-in-law, who’s from San Luis Obispo.  It might be my new mission to spread the word about this amazing museum.

Adjusting

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It’s been easy to adjust to sleeping indoors. The real bed is nice – although honestly, I do miss my sleeping bag – but really, it’s been most noticeable if I have to pee in the middle of the night. I never thought I’d so appreciate the ability to just walk, barefoot, the dozen or so steps over to the bathroom. No putting on a coat, no going down a ladder. No squatting. It’s lovely.

Having all that running water has been a bit of an adjustment, strange as it sounds. I feel wasteful if I leave the water on while I brush my teeth.

The biggest change for me is going back to driving my little white Honda. Sure, it’s 17 years old, but it’s a stick shift and so compared to Taco Negro, it’s like driving a sports car. Sort of.

The true downside to having a plain white Honda Accord is that this vehicle is impossible to find in a parking lot. I’m convinced it is the most vanilla car in existence.

I know what would help – a roof rack and a couple of kayaks or SUPs. But that’s not in the cards just yet. So for now I’m that person wandering the aisles of the parking lot, frowning, and trying to remember where the hell she parked the car.

California has been a bit of an adjustment weather-wise. The days are getting shorter but not colder. Hell, it was 75 degrees and sunny today. I find myself saying but it’s October! Yeah. October in California’s central coast.

It’s funny how Colorado is always with us, though. Some of you may not remember but during our time on the road we carried a few sets of solar-powered lights from a company called Revel Gear.

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We used these fabulous lights a lot.

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Revel Gear is based out of Boulder and owned by our friends Kody and Brian Plavnicky. When we were actually in Colorado we didn’t manage to get in touch with them. But not long after our arrival in California, Kody got in touch and asked if we were coming up to San Francisco for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which was happening October 6th-8th.

I have to tell you, I’d never heard of this festival. But I looked it up and thought it sounded awesome. Ninety acts across three days across seven stages. Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. First Aid Kit, a Sweedish bluegrass act. Sturgill Simpson. Henry Rollins.

We were totally interested. And when Kody and Brian said they had a place for us to crash and everything, we were sold.

We drove up to SF on Friday afternoon, and it seemed like everyone was heading out as we were heading in.  We all took a Lyft down to Golden Gate Park and managed to see the last few minutes of Brandi Carlile’s set. She sang the most wonderful version of Amazing Grace – it gave me goosebumps.

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Brian, Kody, Michael, and me. If you squint, you can make out Brandi Carlile on the stage back there.

As you might suspect, this was a pretty popular festival. This was from Saturday’s crowd:

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So many people! But everyone was nice and friendly and we had a great time. Hell, we had a great time in San Francisco. Michael and I rode the Muni over to Haight-Ashbury and walked around, taking in the sights and the sounds and the people. Also I feel a little more in the 21st century now, as a Lyft user and all. It was fun to hang out with Brian and Kody – they’re both fun and easygoing and like to talk to everyone. We met lots of interesting people that weekend.

Back in SLO we ventured further down the domesticity rabbit hole… by joining Costco.

I know, I sound like a rube. But I’m not some Costco newbie. We had a membership back in Colorado. But the nearest store was a 45-minute drive away, so we only went about once a month or so. It just wasn’t that useful. The SLO Costco is right in town. And right across the street from Target and Whole Foods. So it was pretty much a no-brainer.

Here’s the thing, though: after so many months of living tiny, walking in to Costco – where even the shopping carts are monstrous – was almost like culture shock.

Oddly, the worst part for me was the produce. Michael laughed at me for this one but when he held up the 10-lb bag of potatoes I freaked out just a little bit. I mean, for the past year we went to a grocery store roughly every 3-4 days, and we never picked up more than what we could cook in the next 3-4 days. Space was at a premium – space in the cooler, space in the pantry. We just didn’t buy all that much.

We sure as hell didn’t buy ten pounds of potatoes.

Michael carefully put the potatoes back. That was nice of him because we do have a kitchen now, with storage and everything. The whole thing kind of make me wonder, though, about my adjustment back into the world where bigger is better and where less isn’t more – more is more. This way of thinking seems kind of backwards to me now and I wonder if how I feel will change the more time I spend in places like Costco.

Living tiny (even for just a little while) seems to have had a pretty big effect on me.

The Long Drive

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We spent a total of 10 days in Colorado, and let me tell you, those days were a whirlwind. Michael and I joked that we were somehow more popular now then when we actually lived there.

We went to so many bluegrass picks – and I was happily surprised that I hadn’t lost all my dobro skills in our year-plus on the road. My friends and former bandmates, the Pattons, threw a pickin’ party in our honor and that was a blast. We took in two Oskar Blues jams (the Tuesday jam in Lyons and the Sunday jam in Longmont), as well as two Saturday picks at Paul’s Tea and Coffee in Louisville.

Have I mentioned our adventures with the storage unit yet? Because man,  if I could go back in time…

No, seriously. If I could go back in time I’d tell myself to just. get. rid. of. it.

All of it.

When we stood in front of our very full storage unit for the first time I suppressed the urge to take a step back. I wanted to just light a match. What was all this stuff?

Then I remembered that my clothes were in there.

Okay, so maybe not get rid of all of it. But damn, we kept waaay too much. All my power tools. The tool bench full of supplies (and more tools). The queen-sized bed frame. The lamps, which were cheap POSs from Target anyway.

What were we thinking?

I guess I figured that I’d want all that stuff when we got back. I loved that bedframe. And all my power tools. But here’s the reality of our lives: in our first few weeks on the road, we were jettisoning stuff left and right. We sent two boxes of stuff two our friends Dan and Lisa back in Colorado. And after that we continued to lighten the load – but we just gave stuff to goodwill. We adopted the “two week rule.” If we hadn’t used it in two weeks, we got rid of it. There were obvious exceptions to this rule (like the first aid kit, or the down jackets.)

In short, we learned to live a pared-down life. The truth is that you really don’t need that much stuff. You don’t.

Back to the storage unit: we got rid of a lot of it. Some of it (like the bedframe) was easy to let go. Some of it (like my power tools and tool bench) was painful. But we couldn’t fit the bedframe into the trailer we’d rented for the California move. And since we can’t afford to buy anything in Cali, I would have little to no use for my power tools – much less a place to use them in. Off they went. While we had to give away the bedframe, I’m happy to say Michael sold the tools to a friend who is also a new homeowner. So that one was a win on both sides.

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Before you say “that doesn’t look too bad,” keep in mind that this picture was taken after we got rid of the beframe and power tools.

Tuesday the 26th we picked up a 6’x12′ trailer from Uhaul and loaded it up. Our friend Cory helped, and we gave him even more stuff. Like those POS lamps.

Wednesday morning we left for California.

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If you thought Taco Negro got lousy gas mileage before…

I lost count of the number of times we stopped to fill up the truck. Michael said that on longer climbs (like over Vail Pass in Colorado) he could actually watch the gas gauge needle drop.

I thought the gas gauge on my little white Honda Accord was broken. When we stopped in Fruita (where the picture above was taken) I was still only halfway though my first tank, something that seemed impossible.

Other things of note for the long drive: I have to admit, I cried a little when I passed Copper Mountain. One more winter that I won’t get to snowboard. Never say never, I know, but there’s no snow in the central coast of California.

And I cried a whole lot more as we passed the turnoff for Moab, and as we passed through the edge of Utah’s canyon country. I never did get to see the San Rafael Swell. Or Bryce Canyon, or Zion National Park. But I did spend 5 weeks in Moab. I got to hike Little Wildhorse Canyon.

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Little Wildhorse Canyon

All I could think of was how much I love that red rock desert.

At a meal stop in Salina, Utah, Michael said he felt the same way. That made me so happy, even though I wasn’t sure what to do with that information. We were in the middle of moving to California! And besides, I’ve often said that I don’t know how I’d survive the summers in Moab, where the temperatures hit triple digits for three straight months.

I guess the takeaway is that someday we will get back to southern Utah.

We arrived in Las Vegas around 4pm, right about the time rush-hour traffic was heating up. I’d been to Vegas twice before but never by car, so it was kinda cool to see other parts of the city. We also have a friend in Vegas – Jon worked for Michael years ago, back when we lived in Denver. He told us to park downtown (it was less crowded than the strip, he said) and he’d meet up with us.

Jon walked us down Fremont Street to a place called the Smashed Pig. Now, the last time I walked around this area, back in the early 2000s, I felt safe enough, but someone did offer to sell me crack. (I’m still impressed with my response, which was a smile and “nah, man, I’m good.”)

Anyway. This time nobody offered me drugs. But a lot of people offered to have a picture taken with me.

No, I’m not famous. These were people in costumes, although I use that term loosely. Mostly women wearing bikini bottoms and pasties. There were some Chippendale’s dancers out too (they wore jeans and no shirts, which I found interesting. I mean, doesn’t that sound like a bit of a double standard?). Jon said they work for tips.

This is what people do for money here?

Then I remembered – ah, yes. Vegas has no soul. And if you can get over that part, then Vegas is a lot of fun.

Now, not all the costumed people were out there showing skin. I saw a guy dressed as Alan from The Hangover, complete with satchel (“Indiana Jones carried one!”) and baby. I found the whole kit online.

There was also a zipline running the length of the covered section of Fremont Street, and that looked awesome. It was also $40/person and the next opening was the next day, so we watched the zipliners somewhat enviously as we walked along.

Between the people, the lights, and the loud music…Talk about sensory overload. I was ready to go back to the nearest forest or canyon.

Eventually we made it to the Smashed Pig. This place would fit right in on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Their menu was fun and creative and the food delicious.

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This is the Smashed Pig’s “Butcher Block Special,” which was not served on a butcher block but was still wonderful. Basalmic glazed pork belly over cous cous, with sauteed vegetables, salad, and crusty bread.

This was a fun meal to share. Also, it was incredibly tasty.

It was getting dark when we said goodbye to Jon and resumed our drive, but we were okay with that. When you’re towing a 12 foot trailer your off-road options are limited. We needed something right off the highway so we chose a spot called the Rasor OHV area, west of Baker, California. For being within sight of Interstate 15 it was actually pretty quiet.

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I watched the sun come up the next morning and then made coffee. We packed up and were on the road by 9am. We didn’t make a fire or anything, but I still managed to drive the Honda right through that fire ring on our way out. Whoopsie.

It took one more long day on the road to reach San Luis Obispo. But we made it.

Now it’s time to start the next chapter. But there are more Taco Negro adventures to come, I’m sure of it – lots of places in California to explore this winter. I hope you’ll all stay tuned!

The Next Step

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I don’t want to say it’s over. The very notion reminds me of that scene in National Lampoon’s Animal House:

Bluto: Over? Did you say “over?” Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

Otter: Did he say Germans?

Boon: Forget it, he’s rolling.

Bluto: And it ain’t over now! ‘Cause when the going gets tough… [thinks hard] The tough get going! Who’s with me?

That being said… it’s time for a new chapter. A few posts back I mentioned Michael’s knee problems. He’s in so much pain that he can’t hike or trail run, and sometimes even walking too far will put the hurt on him. We didn’t quit our jobs and chuck it all just to go for a drive.

But as Bluto said, nothing is over until we decide it is.

After seeing an orthopedic specialist in Michigan, we made the decision to come back to Colorado for his MRI. I’m so glad we got to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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That beauty is what sustained us on the three day drive to Colorado.

Northern Wisconsin was pretty, and Iowa was okay, I guess. I mean, I got Michael to Whitey’s Ice Cream in Iowa City. Never heard of Whitey’s? Not too surprising – while there are 10 locations, all of them are in Iowa or Illinois.

The very first Whitey’s opened in 1933 in Moline, Illinois, and quickly became famous for its extra-thick shakes. Back in the late 1980s my sister went to college in nearby Rock Island, and that’s how I learned about the existence of Whitey’s.

What’s the big deal about this place?

You know those shakes you can get, the super thick ones with Oreos or Butterfingers added? They’re called a Blizzard at DQ and Concrete Mixer at Culver’s and a Spoon Bender at Good Times. It’s a candy bar shake.

Whitey’s invented the candy bar shake. (They were the first to add high-speed mixers to make their candy bar shakes extra thick, too.) And back when my sister was in college, Whitey’s was the only place you could get such a thing. Even better? Back then, you could bring in your own candy bar.  So if you wanted a Whatchamacallit shake but Whitey’s didn’t have that candy bar, you could hand one over when you ordered. They’d chop it up and throw it in there for you.

So even though I can’t do ice cream anymore, I wanted Michael to have the experience. He got himself a Kit Kat shake and said it was delicious.

As a side note, when we first arrived in Iowa City I used Google Maps to find this ice cream shop. I typed in “Whiteys” and hit go. Google Maps sent us to a trailer park.

Well played, Google. Well played.

Our campsite that night was a free spot outside of Wayland, Iowa. This was one strange little site. It was flat and all, and quiet. When we arrived we saw four trailers parked there… but no cars. The outhouse had two toilet seats. It was right on a river… the Skunk River, which lived up to its name. Or maybe that was the nearby chicken houses.

Anyway, it was a free site and nobody bothered us, so I can’t complain too much. We moved on the next day, camping at Twin Lake Wildlife Management Area, just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. This was a nice little site. A popular night fishing spot, so we got a lot of curious looks and waves from the locals. But we had a beautiful sunset and pleasant temperatures overnight.

I relished that sunset. Stretched out in the tent, enjoying the cool night air. Tried to memorize a few details as I made coffee the next morning. I knew this was the last night of our trip. The last night of our awesome setup, the one we spent so much time perfecting. And while it made me sad, I also experienced a lot of gratitude.

It’s been the most amazing 13 months. We’ve seen some incredible things. Done incredible things. I mean, we went swimming in Yellowstone National Park. We spent 5 weeks in Moab, Utah. I can still taste those delicious Palisade Peaches – there was a lady selling them on the side of the road on the way in to town, and we bought at least one 5-lb bag per week.

We spent part of the winter in Fayetteville, Arkansas, helping out Michael’s parents, but we also joined the awesome Crossfit Commence gym.

We made it to the Florida Keys, which is a little poignant now, after two hurricanes ripped that area apart.

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Sunset at Long Key State Park

We traveled west through Texas and into New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Sadly, we said goodbye to our faithful companion, Elvis, on May 19.

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He was a good dog. We had him cremated and still carry his ashes with us.

By the time we got to Oregon, a heat wave was gripping the west. When we visited the Hoh Rain Forest in August it was 90 degrees. And then there were the fires. Our visit to the Canadian Rockies was cut short because of the horrible visibility. I still got some stunning photographs, though.

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And now we’re on to the next adventure. We’re back in Colorado for a little while – Michael had his MRI and he definitely has a torn meniscus. But with our crappy health insurance, we need to wait for open enrollment to move forward on that front.

Our next step is to relocate to California. So really, the adventure continues. I’ll keep you all posted. Stay tuned!

Our Overlanding Kitchen

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We often get asked about our setup and how we cook on the road. Since Michael is a chef by trade, and I have been known to enjoy a good meal, there was no way we were going to live on energy bars or gas station food while traveling.

I’ll put up a post soon that shows our storage platform in more detail, as well as all of the things we keep back there. For now I’ll just focus on our kitchen.

Our setup has not changed much in our almost 14 months on the road…

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This is an under-the-bed storage bin. We chose it because it fits the dimensions of the storage platform we built for the back of the truck. The lid of our bin is hinged, so we end up with what we call the front half and the back half.

GoGoTacoNegroThe front half contains the things we tend to use on a daily basis, like the silverware packet, our pots and pans, plates and bowls, chef knife, and the coffee. Our other kitchen items – the cast iron dutch oven and the Camp Maid stuff – live in a compartment in the storage platform.

I can’t remember why we keep the coffee in the kitchen and not in the pantry with the rest of the dry goods. I do know it’s a lot simpler for me, the maker of coffee every morning.

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The back half contains the lesser-used items like tea, extra salt, the cutting board, aluminum foil, and towels. The tea saw a lot more use back before summer – and the heat wave we found ourselves in along the west coast.

 

GoGoTacoNegroThe silverware packet contains a few other items, like our only measuring cup (for oatmeal) as well as our spiralizer and that container of Nuun, which is an electrolyte drink tab that I put in a big cup of water first thing in the morning. I tend to wake up thirsty but plain water first thing can taste a little gross (I can’t be the only one who has this problem, right?). I picked the strawberry lemonade flavor because it’s pretty light and I don’t tend to burp it up later.

On to the things we cook with.

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Our 10″ chef knife (with cover) and steel.

 

 

 

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And our pot/pans.

 

 

 

Yep, that’s all of it. One pot, one cast iron skillet, and one non-stick skillet. (Along with the not-pictured and less-frequently used Dutch oven.) Because space is at a premium in the kitchen, these items nest together along with our two plates and two bowls. The coffee filters live underneath the GSI collapsible drip cones.

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With just these tools Michael has created some truly amazing meals.

When we pack up, the kitchen goes in first – meaning it’s all the way in the back. Vera, the world’s most irritable stove, goes in next, and then the container of dog food. I’m sure Bailey appreciates that his food always comes out first.

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Our table (shown above) goes on top of all those things – we flip it over and the leg, held in place with a piano hinge, folds up.

It’s a pretty good system, and we’ve had plenty of time to get it dialed in. I have generally found that organization is key – even more so when you live in a tiny space.

 

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

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First things first:

Unfortunately for us, Michael’s been having some trouble with his knee lately. Kind of since around May, actually. He’s been doing some trial and error stuff, taking ibuprofin when necessary. But while the pain might come and go, it never seemed to go away entirely.

He actually went to Urgent Care way back in Lake Tahoe, although the doctor there just gave him a referral for a specialist. Unfortunately the earliest available appointment for the Lake Tahoe specialist was 3 weeks out.

He soldiered on, but for the past three months Michael hasn’t been able to do as much as he liked. Remember when we hiked 6 miles in Mt Rainier National Park? Well, he walked in pain for almost a week afterward. Trial and error sucks.

So since we’ve been hanging out in northern Michigan, waiting for the rain to clear off, I asked my parents about their orthopedist. Which of course they have one – my mom just had her knee replaced a couple of months ago. My dad made a couple of calls and luckily their doctor had an opening.

Of course, the specialist took some x-rays but said he’d need an MRI to make a diagnosis. And their MRI facility, part of Munson Medical Center, said they could get Michael in two days later. At 5:45AM.

That sounded great – at first. Here’s where I need to add an important detail: our bare-bones health insurance doesn’t cover much more than doctor visits. So for this MRI we’re on our own.

Michael called Munson’s billing department and asked them what our cash price would be.

$2400.

You read that right. Over two thousand dollars for an MRI.

Michael decided to call around (the Traverse City area has three MRI facilities) to see if any of them could give us a better price. Best we found was $1100. Better, but it still sounded a little high.

On a whim, Michael looked up an MRI facility in Lakewood, Colorado, and called them up. Their price? $450.

Of course, making this happen is not as easy as it sounds. You can’t just call up an MRI facility and make your own appointment. A doctor has to do it for you. And when we asked our Michigan doctor’s office about it, the scheduler there said, “Ummmm…. I’m not sure I can do that.”

So we had the office fax everything over to Michael’s previous GP back in Longmont. And when they have all the information, we’ll ask them to call the Lakewood place and make an appointment.

But the rest of that is another story, for another post. For us, it was time to check out Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The weather cleared – finally! – and sunny skies were in the forecast.

Since we drove across the UP on our way to see my parents, we had a pretty good idea of where to go this time: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. There is a lot to do in this area, but with Michael’s knee acting up we tried to keep the hiking to a minimum.

Our first stop was an area called the Log Jam, which was actually a sandy cliff with a lot of poison ivy. Still, I got a nice picture of Lake Superior.

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Plus, we got to learn about logging in the UP, which went on year round. Yep, even in winter.

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The wheels were used in summertime, the sleds (on the left) in the winter, when loggers would put water down on the road at the end of the day. The water would then freeze overnight, making the heavy sleds easier to pull.

Our next stop was the Au Sable lighthouse. First constructed in 1874, this lighthouse helped illuminate one of the more dangerous stretches of Lake Superior.

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The shoreline along Pictured Rocks (about 42 miles) hold the remains of several shipwrecks – including three that have partial remains washed up on shore.

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I know, it’s almost disappointing. I was expecting more, too. But these were wooden ships that went down in the 1800s. I read that what’s left, what you’re seeing, is actually sections of the hull. This image might help:

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No? Well, it didn’t for me either. But I sure had fun photographing the wood and the giant nails.

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We had to hike out to the lighthouse – about 3 miles or so roundtrip, and on an access road. Still, at the end Michael’s knee was hurting so we didn’t hike to much else that day. When we reached the town of Munising, though, we did walk the 800 feet out to Munising Falls. There are 199 named waterfalls in the UP, so we figured we should go to at least one of them.

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While in Munising, we headed over to the office for Pictured Rocks Cruises. You can hike along the cliffs of PRNL, but the best way to see the rocks is from the water. And as luck would have it, there was still room on the 6:30 (sunset) cruise. It would mean getting back to our camp site well after dark, but Michael said it wouldn’t be a problem. So we went for it.

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The line for our boat (above) didn’t look that long but by the time we got on board, all the seats on the right side of the boat were taken. This was a problem for me. See, on the way out (when the light would be best), the shoreline would be on the right side of the boat. I didn’t want to have to fight for space to get my pictures.

Undeterred, I waited until we were underway, then stood at the back of the boat, on the bottom deck. I had to lean over the railing a bit but I took all the pictures I wanted with nobody else in the way. A few others people joined me but for the most part I had the deck to myself.

I took hundreds of photographs. This cruise was a photographer’s dream! Sorting and editing all the images took several days, though…

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This is Miner’s Rock, and it shows the caves and holes that form in the soft sandstone due to wind and water erosion. Yes, that’s a viewing platform on top. Pictured Rocks has miles of hiking trails and backpacking sites.

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The colors come from minerals found in the layers of rock.

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This is Lover’s Leap, one of the more famous formations at Pictured Rocks. I don’t know who’d be crazy enough to take that leap – it’s a 50 foot drop and the water underneath is only three feet deep.

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Another well-known image, Chapel Rock can be accessed by water or by the 2.5 mile Chapel Trail. This rock formation was once connected to the mainland by a rock bridge, but that bridge collapsed in the 1940’s. If you look closely you can see the roots of the tree atop Chapel Rock, connecting it to land.

The sun set on the way back, and only then did I rejoin Michael up on the top deck. I’m so lucky that I have such a patient husband, you know? The kind who doesn’t mind spending most of a sunset cruise by himself. He showed me that he got some great shots with his phone and everything.

Pictured Rocks was well worth the wait.

Northern Michigan Is Not On Fire

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We arrived in Elk Rapids, Michigan on Sunday, August 27th, after a long and rainy day in the truck. Okay, it didn’t rain all day, but close enough. Taco Negro arrived in Elk Rapids looking halfway clean.

My parents confirmed that the weather in northern Michigan (and the UP) would continue to be rainy for at least the next week. So we took the opportunity to check out the Elk Rapids area.

Where my parents live is actually a couple miles north of Elk Rapids. Their house is not on Lake Michigan but it’s pretty close – a five minute walk brings you to a one of the neighborhood’s private beaches.

A 10-15 minute walk in the opposite direction brings you to an even bigger neighborhood beach, although this one is open to the public.

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All the beaches in the area are sand beaches. That might sound like a strange observation, but in Colorado most of the “beaches” there are made up of rocks. This has been a lovely change. The water was not as cold as I expected. I haven’t been swimming yet, but barefoot walks on the beach quickly became routine.

Bailey has been loving his new access to water. We now take him to the close-by beach every day. Sometimes twice a day, if the first session didn’t wear him out enough.

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So while it has been raining here daily, as you can see from the photos, it hasn’t been raining all day every day. Pockets of sunshine made for great outings.

We drove up to nearby Charlevoix to see their little downtown, as well as pick up dinner (walleye) from John Cross Fishery. There is no website, but my mom said this guy is locally famous so I guess he doesn’t need one.

Charlevoix has a unique location – right in between Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix. There is a really pretty harbor right next to the main drag and boats can get from one lake to another by passing underneath this bridge.

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Looks a bit low for sailboats, right? As you might have guessed this one’s a drawbridge.

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I didn’t hang out long enough to figure out if the drawbridge operated on a schedule or not. My dad thought it was every half hour.

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Before the bridge went up, we did see boats lined up on the Lake Michigan side. A pretty spot to wait, if you ask me.

It took a couple more days for the weather to clear out. But September 1st looked like a sunny day with temperatures in the 60s, so we made the 2-hour drive up to Mackinaw City and took Bailey with us onto the Star Line ferry over to Mackinac Island.GoGoTacoNegro

Don’t ask me why the city and the island are spelled differently, I don’t know. I do know that it’s pronounced like the city.

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Mackinac Bridge. Also pronounced like the city.

Mackinac Island sits in between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, in between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (although it’s technically in Lake Huron), an area called the Straits of Mackinac. About 500 people live year-round on this island of less than 4 square miles.

The name can be traced back to Michilimackinac, which was how the French traders pronounced the Ojibwe name for this island. (It means “big turtle.”)

It’s long been a vacation spot, but Mackinac Island’s big claim to fame is that cars are banned here. People get around by foot, bicycle, or horse.

That’s right, there are a lot of horses on Mackinac Island. That’s how the heavy lifting gets done.

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The garbage “trucks” are big carts pulled by draft horses. Horse-drawn flatbed carts deliver supplies and luggage from the ferries. Horse-drawn carriages take people to hotels – some are taxis, but the bigger hotels have their own.

We had Bailey with us so we didn’t rent bikes. We were tempted though, when we saw that we could rent a Burley trailer for just $8/hour. But we weren’t sure if Bailey would like riding in a trailer, and at any rate we enjoyed walking. We went first over to a spot called the Ice House for lunch – they had outdoor seating and dogs were welcome. Bailey got lots of compliments on being so well-behaved.

After lunch we walked over to the gigantic green lawn in front of the Mission Point Resort. And it was a lawn – I didn’t see a single weed. There were lots of chairs, though.

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I saw lots of goose poop but no geese. Apparently they use a dog to chase the pesky birds off every morning.

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In case you’re wondering what the view from those chairs…

Yeah, we sat there for quite a while.

 

 

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And don’t worry, Bailey and I got some snuggle time too.

 

 

 

After our day on Mackinac Island the weather deteriorated, with spotty rain showers every day. But we dodged the showers to visit several local farmer’s markets – I’ve been eating the crap out of sweet corn, tomatoes, and a delicious local variety of apple called a SweeTango. My parents also took us down to Traverse City, about a 30 minute drive south from their house, to check out something called the The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Let me back up a step. Because first of all, I think Outside Magazine missed the mark when they chose Grand Rapids for one of their top 25 towns of 2017. Traverse City is an amazingly cool place. Lake Michigan is right on the town’s doorstep, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, all the beaches here are sand. Traverse City’s downtown area is full of coffee shops, bookstores, boutiques, and restaurants.

And then there’s the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The name is a mouthful, I know, but the history of this place is remarkable. It began in 1885 (after a three year construction period) as the North Michigan Asylum. At its peak, this huge, self-sufficient mental hospital was called the Traverse City State Hospital and housed 3,800 patients and 800 staff. (You can read more about their history here.)

The idea behind the grounds here was to give the patients something pretty to look at, referred to as the “beauty is therapy” theory, instead of being locked in little windowless rooms all day. Who’d a thunk it?

The hospital closed in 1989 and the property sat vacant until about 2000. Renovation on the property began in 2002, although some of the buildings deemed “non-historic” were demolished. The largest building (over 300,000 square feet), known as Building 50, has seen the most restoration and is now home to shopping, dining, and living spaces. There’s even an apartment complex for the 55-and-over crowd.

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This is one corner of Building 50. Believe it or not, the spires on top of this building were part of what was, in the late 1800’s, a state-of-the-art ventilation system. Large fans would force air through underground tunnels and up flues in various parts of the building, exiting at these spires.

We wandered around Building 50 for over an hour, poking through antique shops, jewelry stores, and a bookstore. We had lunch at The Underground Cheesecake Company, which was okay. It’s hard to say nice things about a place when the girl working the counter replied to my question about what was in the chicken pot pie soup with “I don’t know,” followed by silence.  I tried again, asking if there were dumplings or anything in it. “I don’t know,” she repeated. “I didn’t make it.”

Really? That’s it? Christ, I did customer service work for years and I’m telling you, it’s not that hard.

Anyway. After lunch we wandered around some more, stopping for coffee at Cuppa Joe Coffee. They knew their stuff and the coffee was excellent.

The grounds of the old asylum are open too, and there are more dining and shopping options outside.

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You can see from the above photo that in spite of the long name, The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is pretty popular. And since more buildings are being renovated, I expect that popularity to continue.

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The weather is supposed to clear up, though, and this weekend we’re going back…. to the UP.

Langford, SD to Elk Rapids, MI

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I’m still a little suspicious that our campsite at Tschida Lake was illegal, mostly because it was just so nice. So many birds, so much water. I kept asking myself if we were really in North Dakota.

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Still, I’ve heard for years that the Dakotas are some kind of barren wasteland so I had low expectations as we made our way towards eastern South Dakota.

Once again I was pleasantly surprised. Everything was so… green. And yellow. We drove past acres of corn, sure, but also acres of sunflowers.

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Is South Dakota the sunflower capital of the US or something?

We started our trek across the midwest with a stopover in mind: Langford, South Dakota. This tiny town is about 45 minutes or so from Aberdeen, South Dakota, and is currently home to one of Michael’s oldest friends, Rob, and Rob’s wife, Heather.

We spent just 2 days in the Langford area but it was a lovely break from all that driving. Rob and Heather brought us to a place in Aberdeen called the Briscoe Building and if there was ever a time I was sorry I didn’t bring my camera, this was it. The historic Briscoe Building went up in 1910 and spent its first three years as a clothing factory. When the clothing company moved its headquarters to Minnesota the Briscoe Building became home to a candy factory and bakery. Our tour of the building made me want to write a book about it.

A couple of cool details: All the doors that separated the candy factory from the bakery were blast doors. And all the doors on the bakery side were these funny looking barn doors. Well, the doors themselves were steel but they were on slider tracks. The slider was also on a pretty steep angle. (See, this is where I kicked myself for not bringing my camera.) Anyway, apparently these doors would have been tied open with a rope and in the event of a fire, the rope would burn through and the doors would automatically slam shut.

Am I the only one who finds this kind of thing so fascinating?

With a nice rest day under our belts, we pushed on. Our next campsite was Bruno City Park in Minnesota. This was a free site and the park was quite nice… although it was right across the street from some kind or train depot. A diesel locomotive idled all night. That low rumble did get drowned out a couple of times… by passing freight trains. Earplugs are helpful but they weren’t enough to drown out those deafening whistle blasts.

Still, it was a free site. The next day we found ourselves in Ashland, Wisconsin. Armed with maps we’d picked up at the nearby Lake Superior Visitor’s Center, we decided to camp in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest that night and headed north on highway 13 to check out the area, as well as pay a visit to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Along the way we passed a little joint that was advertising their fish fry. I looked at my watch. No way, I said to Michael. It’s Friday!

He looked a little confused.  But he’s a southerner, you see, and the Friday Night Fish Fry was a bit of a foreign concept to him. I explained that in the midwest this kind of event is legendary. Kind of like a Louisiana crawfish boil, but midwest style. I even tried to sing Sigmund Snopeck IIIs “The Friday Night Fish Fry Song” until he asked me to stop. Maybe that’s because I only know the chorus, and the chorus just repeats it’s the Friday Night Fish Fry over and over. (Trust me, I looked on YouTube for this little gem. I couldn’t find it but Sigmund Snopeck III is a real artist.)

It was too early for dinner so we continued on, stopping in the National Forest Ranger Station in Washburn. The people there were super helpful, giving us suggestions on where to camp, and the best place for a fish fry: Patsy’s Bar and Grill, right there in Washburn.

At this point it was 4pm. Patsy’s opened at 4, but who eats dinner at 4pm? The problem was, our campsite was pretty far from the town of Washburn and we knew we wouldn’t drive back, even for a fish fry.

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Who eats dinner at 4pm? Lots of people, apparently, because at 4:10 pm we took up the last available spot in Patsy’s parking lot. We also took the last available seats at the bar.

 

The most common fish fry fish is walleye, but Patsy’s used locally caught whitefish, and it was excellent. I paired mine with a Moscow Mule because I was in the mood for a drink and because Michael was driving. After dinner we continued our drive north, stopping at Myers Beach at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

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Too bad we don’t have boats, as this is a great spot for kayaking out to the sea caves.

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I guess it’s important to note the clear skies here in these photos. Because overnight it started to rain… and that rain didn’t let up until we reached Elk Rapids, 465 miles away. More on that in a bit.

Well, at least it wasn’t too cold. I had seen posters for a Pow Wow on the Bad River Reservation, home to the Lake Superior tribe of Chippewa Indians. The Pow Wow was outdoors but we hoped the rain would clear off.

No such luck. Still, the Grand Entrance was held, even in the rain. I loved the drums and all the colors and the dancing.

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The rain continued all day. We checked the weather forecast and saw that this lousy weather was supposed to continue for the next week. Decision time. See, we had wanted to stop at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along the way to Elk Rapids, but what fun would that be in the rain? In order to see the rocks, you actually need to be on the water.

We looked again at the map. Pictured Rocks is only about 4 hours away from Elk Rapids, so we figured we’d just go hang with my parents until better weather surfaced.

Time for one more long day in the truck.

Eastbound and Down

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It was hard to leave that little cabin on Flathead Lake. Partly because it’s on a lake – the views are pretty amazing. But I also loved the cabin because it was so tiny. It felt like the right size house for me and Michael.

But it was time to move on. In the general arc of things, we were now headed for Michigan. My parents live in the little town of Elk Rapids up in the northeast part of the state. We knew that getting there would involve a lot of driving – specifically, a lot of not-fun driving. There’s just not much going on in the middle part of North America. Changing the latitude doesn’t matter; it all sucks. We’ve gone across Texas and Kansas, so I know.

I suppose we could have gone the northern route across Canada, but I met a guy from Saskatchewan once and he said that part of the country is so flat, you can watch your dog run away for three days.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I did not have high hopes for eastern Montana or the Dakotas. Maybe that was the key? Because I was pleasantly surprised.

Our first stop was the VFW Campground at Tiber Reservoir in north-central Montana. Not much to write home about, but it was pretty clean and pretty quiet. (Also, that reservoir was pretty damn big.)

The next day we continued east, across rolling plains of wheat and hay. Pretty boring. We ended up at Fort Peck Lake, a pretty area just outside the little town of Glasgow. When we were in Glasgow we stopped for gas and a sheriff’s SUV pulled in behind us. I noticed it, was all.

We camped at a free area down by the boat dock. The sites were level and there was a dumpster. There was also a stinky pit toilet and several neighbors, one of whom was extra chatty. As we were cleaning up from dinner a Sheriff’s SUV came rolling by, and the deputy stopped to chat with folks at each campsite.

Turns out he was the same deputy who pulled in behind us at the gas station. He was curious about our setup and we talked shop for a while. In another “small world” moment, the guy was originally from Denver.

The next day was Monday, August 21st, the day of the big solar eclipse. We had a good signal so we streamed the eclipse from the phone as I drove. We were too far north to get a total eclipse, but the sky did get a lot darker. It was cool!

Remember how I said I did not have high hopes for this leg of the journey? Yet we kept camping by these pretty bodies of water. That night was no exception. We found our site at Heart Butte Reservoir (also known as Lake Tschida) in North Dakota on FreeCampsites.net. 

As we approached the site a golden eagle flew off from a nearby tree. The lake was teeming with ducks, geese, pelicans, and gulls. We were the only people around. I began to wonder if it was really okay to camp here – it just seemed so nice.

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Sunset at Tschida Lake

I mean, it was crazy beautiful. And I was shocked to see this much water in North Dakota. Wasn’t this place supposed to be a barren wasteland?

Even better, it was new moon and the skies were looking pretty clear. I got my camera ready, set up the tripod outside. When I went to bed I set my alarm for 1:30am. Then I got up to the most amazing clear sky.

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I think this is about as good as I can get with the lens that I have, which is the 18-105mm kit lens that came with the camera. It’s actually quite nice, and it’s my go-to lens. Largest aperture setting is f3.5, though, and for starry-night photos you generally want a fast, wide-angle lens with a max aperture of f2.8 (source: Light Stalking’s article, How to Photograph the Milky Way.)

Nikon lenses like that tend to be a bit spendy. (Here’s the proof!) If photography were my only interest, I’d go for it… assuming I had $1900 burning a hole in my pocket. But seriously, for that kind of money I could buy a single lens… or two kayaks. Or a kayak and a stand-up paddleboard. Or even a new road bike.

Also, $1900 for a lens is kinda crazy. Hell, the camera didn’t even cost that much!

But I digress. I’m actually quite happy with my camera and the lenses I have. And I was super happy with that campsite at Tschida Lake.

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I wish we could have stayed here another day. Those all-day drives get old after a day or two. But we were super close to our next stop, one that would give us a much-needed day off: Langford, South Dakota.

Friday Night at the Rodeo

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This one might be short on words… but long on photos. If you’re looking for an easy read than today’s your lucky day!

While we only spent two days at our friends’ cabin on Flathead Lake, Montana, we were there at the perfect time.

The Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo was going on that weekend.

I’m a little sorry we weren’t able to stay through Sunday, because the Demolition Derby was happening on Sunday night and neither one of us has ever been to a Demolition Derby.

But we were there on Friday night. And that meant we got to go to the rodeo.

Look, I’m not the hugest rodeo fan – I generally think of beer and not bull riding when I see the initials PBR.  I don’t know who any of the famous guys are. But I do know that small town rodeos are the best. I got to go to the Loveland, Colorado rodeo back when it was still a small-time affair, and I learned that at a smaller rodeo you can get closer to the action. (Unlike, say, the National Western Stockshow’s rodeo in Denver, where you pretty much needed binoculars to see anything.)

As close as we were, I still had to use my 55-200mm zoom lens, although I was cool with that because I have been dying to put that lens through some paces. What I quickly learned was a few deficiencies of my camera (a Nikon D90). It’s supposed to shoot in multiples at 3 frames per second. And it does… at first. I found that after about 5 seconds that rate slowed down quite a bit. Also, I had to shoot at a pretty high ISO due to the low light, and a lot of the images were grainy (the digital term is “noise”) when I enlarged them.

Minor complaints, really. It’s not like I’m going to run off and become a rodeo photographer. Besides, I did manage to get some pretty good images. Like this one:

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And this one, of rider Jesse Kruse:

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Not all of the bronco riders fared well, though.

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Of course, bronco busting was only the first event. There was also calf roping…

 

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and barrel racing, and steer wrestling…

And my personal favorite, the two-man calf roping. Here’s why it’s my favorite event: A long time ago, in college, I was on a trip with a bunch of other students. It was summertime and we were in a small Colorado town. I honestly don’t remember where. After dinner we walked back to where we were staying; I think it was part of the fairgrounds. It was right next to a rodeo ring. A group of local cowboys were practicing their two-man calf roping, and these guys were more than happy to explain how it works. To me, it sounded like the hardest event in rodeo. It requires some pretty serious skill.

The event begins with two riders, one on either side of the calf.

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The first rider ropes the calf by the horns (who wears special protective headgear), and in doing so turns the calf away from the second rider.

 

Now, throwing a rope at a moving target sounds hard enough, but I think the second rider has the toughest job. Because what he has to do is throw the rope so that it lands right before the calf’s feet do. Kind of like this:

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The second rider throws the rope, the calf steps into it, and the rider snaps up the rope, trapping the calf.

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This is one of those events that is so much harder than it looks. And it looks pretty hard.

There was an event at this rodeo that I’d never seen before, and that was the Indian Relay Race. I had no idea but this is a sport that goes back 400 years. And these days the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo is one of the few places to see one.

The Indian Relay Race is a bareback horse race. There are four teams and the goal is for a single rider (one from each team) to circle the track three times, using a different horse for each lap. The first man to cross the finish line after three laps is the winner.

Sounds simple, right? Let me tell you: It’s chaos.

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The start of the race

First of all, it’s a race – these guys are riding at a full gallop. And when they come into the “pit” they barely slow down at all. They launch off the back of one horse, run to the next horse, jump on, and take off. Bareback.

And all those people you see standing there? They’re handlers for the other horses. Somebody has to grab first horse as the rider dismounts (can you imagine that job? Trying to grab the reins of a 1,000 lb animal that coming at you full force?), and someone has to the hold the horse the rider is trying to jump onto – if a horse gets away, the rider can be disqualified.

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And believe me, those horses try to get away. In fact, it’s at this exchange of horses that the potential for carnage is greatest. Apparently collisions among riders and horses are quite common, as are downed riders and riderless horses.

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The crowd was thrilled when this horse reared up, and even more thrilled when the rider got the animal back under control and rode out to the track.

 

There actually was a collision on Friday night, between three horses, but everyone stayed on their horse and everyone finished. I have to tell you – the Indian Relay Race was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever watched.

Back to the USA

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I’m not going to lie: the decision to end the Canada portion of our journey was more than just disappointing. I was crushed. I’d waited years to come see the Canadian Rockies. And what I had seen so far was a strange combination of awe-inspiring and frustrating. I mean, I’ve now been all over the west in the lower 48. I have simply never seen mountains like this. But for the most part I felt like I was only getting glimpse because of all the smoke from nearby wildfires.

GoGoTacoNegroWe headed south along Highway 93 towards the actual town of Banff. We pulled off a few times to take roadside pictures as well as for bathroom breaks. Every pullout had some kind of trash receptacle, which was awesome. The edges of very pullout were also littered with toilet paper, which was gross.

We did stop at a place called Bow Point, and hiked the ten minutes or so up to the lookout for Bow Lake.

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Totally worth it. But can you imagine this place on a clear day?

Going to Banff itself was a little out of our way, but so close by that we couldn’t think of a reason not to check it out. It’s a mountain town, though, and in some ways they all look alike. This one reminded me of Telluride.

Our destination for that night was a free campsite outside the town of Radium Hot Springs. As we drove in to town we saw that Radium Hot Springs does, in fact, have a hot spring. Well, it’s part of Kootenay National Park. We pulled in, Michael made us a quick dinner of chicken tacos (it was Taco Tuesday, after all) and we went for a soak.

Radium Hot Springs was a little on the sparse side, although it’s inexpensive ($15 Canadian for both of us), their showers were clean, and the pool water was good and hot. There is a cool pool with diving boards and everything, but we stuck to the hot side.

The Hot Springs asks for patrons to not wear shoes near the pools – and that sign was posted outside the locker room. I found a nice, orderly row of shoes along the wall opposite the locker room entrance.

I love Canadians.

When we were all done soaking I waited in the lobby for Michael and I ended up watching this little film about wildlife overpasses. I’ve been reading articles about this for years and we got to see several of these overpasses along Highway 93.

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The Trans-Canada Highway pioneered the use of wildlife overpasses and tunnels. Over the past 15 years, studies of these overpasses and tunnels have shown that large ungulates (elk, deer, moose) and grizzly bears prefer the overpasses; mountain lions prefer the tunnels. Together, these mitigations have reduced wildlife collisions by a stunning 80% along the Trans-Canada Highway.

Way to go, Canada!

Our campsite that evening was unremarkable. Quiet, at least. And the next day, our last in Canada, we found yet another hot springs. Two for two? Why not?

Fairmont Hot Springs and Resort is a lot more developed than Radium Hot Springs. As in, there was a hotel attached to the springs. It was also a bit more expensive ($12 each) but there also a lot more: A hot pool, a cool pool, and a deep end with two diving boards; a big grassy area with loungers; and a little snack bar where Michael found the one thing he really wanted in Canada: poutine.

For those of you who have no idea what that is, poutine is a dish of french fries smothered in gravy and covered in cheese. Apparently it’s a Canadian thing. I thought it sounded kinda gross, and between the gravy and the cheese I couldn’t eat it anyway. Michael enjoyed every bite.

So now we were clean and refreshed, and ready to go back to the USA. It was my day to drive. But I was also driving when we went through Canadian customs. Michael said he wanted his turn. We stopped at the duty-free shop right on the border and switched seats.

Getting back into the US was a breeze. When our border agent asked us what part of Colorado we were from, Michael said well, you may not have heard of it, but we’re from Longmont.

This guy smiled and said that before he started working for US Customs, he was a cop for 20 years… in Loveland (the two towns are about a 20 minute drive apart). So, yeah, he’d heard of Longmont.

Small world!

Back in the States, we made contact with some old friends. See, we passed through Montana before. Almost a year ago, in fact. We spent the week leading up to Labor Day at a cabin on Flathead Lake. Michael got in touch and we got the green light.

Kyle was still there, living in his Airstream on the property. (He’s a web developer and has been living and traveling in that beautiful trailer for the last seven years.) We talked shop and compared camping notes. And Kyle did something amazing for me: he helped me fix the blog.

Now, the blog wasn’t exactly broken, but it wasn’t doing quite what I wanted. I wanted the blog page to have multiple entries, each with a thumbnail picture and a little excerpt of the post.

First, Kyle convinced me to update to the latest theme. Actually, he convinced me to update everything. The theme, all of my plugins and widgets. Once I was up to speed he helped me look up the code I’d need to make WordPress do what I wanted.

And it worked.

I never would have figured that out on my own, so I owe Kyle big time. So I’ll thank him the best way I can – by adding a link to his website, whereiskylenow.com. Because Kyle is also an amateur photographer and his blog is just one place where he showcases his awesome images. Enjoy!

Canada: On Fire

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I had such high hopes for our trip to Canada. I’ve wanted to see the Canadian Rockies for something close to forever. Kind of since I learned of their existence. And on that front, I can’t say I was entirely disappointed.

We drove from our campsite near Westwold, British Columbia and headed towards Banff, skipping western BC because of all the fires there. Then we headed north on Highway 97A so that we could get back onto the Trans-Canada Highway. Suddenly, there were dragons on the side of the road.

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What the what?

Michael pulled into this (fairly full) parking lot while I tried to figure out where the hell we were.

 

Turns out we were at the Log Barn.

Described as “the most expensive tourist trap in British Columbia” by someone on TripAdvisor, the Log Barn is an…um… eclectic mix of dragons, dinosaurs, goats, and food. Expensive food. Luckily we carry our own supplies so we had a nice tailgate lunch instead.

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This is a bad picture of the “goat walk,” which you have to drive under just to get into the Log Barn. (You can buy feed for the goats for a quarter.)

 

 

The goats have a regular pen and access the goat walk via this runway.

 

Moving on (and keeping our money in our wallets), we soon discovered that the Canadian fires were not restricted to western BC. The Canadian Rockies were on fire, too.

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We camped that night along the Kicking Horse River, just west of Golden, BC. This was a sweet little spot with a nice sunset view.

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It rained overnight. In the morning I was about halfway through making coffee when the skies opened up on me. I finished making coffee in the rain and then stood underneath the tent, drinking my well-earned java. Michael popped his head out of the tent.

You could bring that upstairs, he said, and have coffee in bed.

He was delighted to learn I’d made coffee for him, too.

After the weather cleared we moved on to Banff, and places I’d long wanted to photograph, like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. I’d hoped that the rain would help with the wildfires but the smoke was still pretty thick.

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Lake Louise

Also, did you know that there is a massive hotel on Lake Lousie? I mean, right on the shore. This area was about as jammed with people as Yellowstone. We checked into renting a canoe, since that looked like fun. It cost $105 (Canadian) per hour to rent a canoe.

Apparently the Log Barn isn’t the only tourist trap in Canada.

I tried to find other interesting images, since the “classic” view of the lake was a no-go.

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I also took a short hike along the shoreline. I found what I called the “Instagram Girls,” who were also trying to get pictures of Lake Louise, but with a hipster vibe. The photographer (on her phone, natch) kept directing the model to adjust her blanket, turn in profile, stand up straighter, etc.

By the time I headed back to the trail head, the smoke was so thick I could barely see the lake. So we moved on to Moraine Lake. This was the image I tend to associate with Banff, and the image I so badly wanted to take. This is what we got:

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Stupid wildfires.

We drove north, towards Jasper, along the Icefields Parkway. The haze continued and I could see just the edge of so much awesomeness. It was frustrating.

We spent the night at a unique spot called the Crossing. It’s a combination resort and rest stop, one of the few places to get gasoline along the Icefields Parkway. There is a big gravel area that’s reserved for the giant tour buses, but between the hours of 3pm and 9am it’s okay to camp there. Michael actually called them from Lake Louise to make sure our roof-top tent setup would be okay. (We’ve been turned down from other areas that allow RVs because apparently we’re considered a tent and not an RV.)

The Crossing gave us the green light.

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You can just see us nestled in there, second vehicle from the right.

I took the above picture at 7am. Mornings tended to be the least hazy. We decided to get (overpriced) coffee from the general store and have RX Bars for breakfast, but move on to a better location to make a real meal.

We parked at the Sunset Lookout trailhead. It was about 3km to the lookout, but there seemed to be some discrepancy about the actual elevation gain. Check out what Canadian graffiti looks like:

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It reads: “Inaccurate!! Elevation gain 550 meters 1920 feet”

Damn but Canadians are polite. I went for a short trail run, although not all the way to the lookout, and Michael did a crossfit-style workout in the parking lot. Actually my run was more of a power-hike on the way out, but I did run the downhill. It was a lovely trail, nice and technical, and it went by a beautiful waterfall. After our workouts were done we had what might have been the most picturesque tailgate in all of our travels.

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It was at this trailhead that we met a nice woman from Vail. (Small world!) She said that to get away from the smoke you needed to get off the Icefields Parkway, which is a valley. That meant north of Jasper, or east/west after reaching Jasper.

This revelation caused a bit of soul searching for us. I mean, we’d come all this way. But the views were awful because of all that smoke. Jasper was a long way from where we were. Hell, everything along the Icefields Parkway is a long way from everything else. Did I mention that gas was the equivalent of $4/gallon?

It sounded like a lot of driving, and maybe for nothing. I won’t lie – this was a hard decision. I was a little crushed as we turned around. But as we headed south we made a pact to come back to the Candian Rockies someday. And next time, not in August. The locals we met said the couple of weeks in September – after the tourists go home but before the snow really starts to fall – is the best. Duly noted!

More Sailing. Plus, Canada!

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After my disastrous effort at sailing in Puget Sound, you might think I was crazy to get back out on the water again. Maybe I am.

But when we rolled through Anacortes, Washington, stopping at Penguin Coffee to do some research, I found Anacortes Kayak Tours. We’d talked about doing something like this for our anniversary. And we were right on the edge of the San Juan Islands. But… on a scale of one to going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, how bad of an idea was this?

Instead of just booking online, we drove over to their office, although we stopped for a tailgate lunch at a place called Cap Sante Park.

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Then, on to the office. Because before I agreed to three more hours of potential torture, I had a few questions. What would the waves be like? The swell? Wind? I knew that nobody could tell me if I’d get sick or not, but people who kayak a lot can tell what’s easier from what’s harder. The tour we were looking at was in mostly in a bay – not the open ocean – so there would be minimal swell. Winds were supposed to be light, and it looked like it would be a calm day. Things were looking good.

One of the guides gave me a really great piece of advice: take that dramamine the night before. Then, stay hydrated. No guarantees, but the staff really thought it would be okay.

So we went for it. Signed up for the 10:30 tour the next day. I took my dramamine right before bed that night. And the next morning, I started with a pint of water at 7:30. Then another at 9am.

I had to pee before we even got to the Anacortes Kayak Tours office.

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Michael and I rode in a tandem kayak, and there were a total of 12 people on our tour. We got outfitted to stay pretty dry and then went down to the docks to get into our boats.

 

 

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As we headed out into the bay we picked up a hitchiker.

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This harbor seal pup actually tried to get on our boat, too. I think our guide’s boat sat a little lower in the water.

The tour was awesome. I had no motion sickness issues at all, although I did have to ask for a bathroom break about halfway through. Hydration has its consequences.

Leaving Anacortes, we moved up to Bellingham, Washington, and did a little more research on Canada. We weren’t sure how much internet coverage we’d have up there, so I plotted out our course from Sumas, Washington (where we’d cross the border) up to Banff National Park, and back down to Glacier National Park. Then we got ready for our border crossing.

Man, we were so ready. Ready for a fight, I guess. But the border agent we talked to was so… friendly. He asked about our trip, and when we told him the short version, he just said, “that sounds awesome.” He let us know a few of Canada’s rules that we were breaking (like bringing in American produce), although he said that he wasn’t going to go through our cooler for a plum and a bag of lettuce, which was nice. But he let us know that American customs were a little more picky. So before we come back we’ll clean out the cooler.

I’d say it took us about 15 minutes to get into Canada. Whee!

Our first stop was actually the Visitor’s Information Center. Armed with some free maps, we walked across the street to a bank to exchange some American dollars for Canadian dollars. Then we got on the road.

Along the way we passed several drive-thru corn stands. Like a fruit stand, but selling ears of GMO-free corn. I wish I’d taken a picture –  it looked about as strange as it sounds.

Leaving from Abbotsford, we took the Trans-Canada Highway to the town of Hope. When we turned north onto Highway 5, I couldn’t believe it: we were on the Coquihalla Highway.

If you have Netflix, you may have seen this little show called Highway Thru Hell. The show focuses on a company called Jamie Davis Towing, and follows the drama and difficulty of what’s called “heavy recovery,” or towing out big rigs, along the Coq (pronounced coke) in the winter.

Luckily the roads were dry when we passed through, although I lost count of the avalanche shelters we drove under. Let’s just say I don’t think I’d want to drive this road during a storm.

Our first campsite in Canada proved to be amazing. Hard to get to (we turned around a few times) but amazing.

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We were right on the shores of North Woods Lake. Bailey took full advantage of that water, and the breeze kept most of the bugs away.

 

 

I even set up the Revel Gear lights. Feels like it’s been a while!

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Actually, it had been a while. We forgot that moths love lights and left these beauties on while we were up in the tent, reading and writing. Michael went our for a bathroom break around 10:30… and let what felt like about 20 moths into the tent.

Ah, nature.

Hot and Humid Seattle

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We were driving through Hoquaim on our way to a coffee shop in Aberdeen when I saw it: a big sign with a giant “Y.”

Is that a YMCA? I asked.

Pull in, Michael said.

And it was! A really nice YMCA too, I might add. $15 got both of us day passes. And the pool was really nice, so after a shower we each swam a few laps.

Cleaned up, our next move was lunch. We were hungry from all that swimming. And we went… to Denny’s in Aberdeen. Yeah, laugh all you want. But our booth at Denny’s had a power outlet. And the restaurant had free WiFi.

Just down the street from Denny’s we found a laundromat. They had free WiFi, too. So now we were clean, our clothes were clean, and all the electronics were charged.

During our stay in town I learned that Aberdeen was Kurt Cobain’s hometown. I think Aberdeen’s probably made some strides since Cobain’s day, but I could totally see why he’d want to get the hell out of Aberdeen.

We ended up camping at (what I’m sure was an illegal) campsite north of Matlock, Washington. There weren’t any signs that said we couldn’t camp there. I’m just pretty sure we weren’t actually on National Forest land. But nobody bothered us. Still, Michael was pretty happy for us to leave the next day, purely because I never got tired of shouting “Maaaaaatlock!” like Grandpa Simpson. Yep, I found a clip on YouTube.

Sunday, August 6th marked our 12th wedding anniversary. Michael drove us to Seattle. As we passed through Olympia and got on Interstate 5, we saw something curious – three police cruisers blocking all three lanes of southbound I-5. Traffic was backed up for miles. I grabbed the phone. Washington State’s Department of Transportation has a website similar to Colorado’s, with traffic cameras and everything.

Here’s where it gets curiouser and curiouser. The camera at the area south of the police barricade was “unavailable at this time.” All the other ones were working just fine and no other information was available online. Weird…

Our first destination in Seattle? REI. How could we pass up the opportunity to visit the granddaddy of them all, the Seattle Flagship store? Let me tell you, this place was HUGE. Two floors of awesomeness. We were there for two hours.

Our next stop: Pike Place Market. Now, I don’t know if the market was always this busy (it was summer, after all) or if it was just because it was Sunday, but Pike Place Market was jam-packed with people. It was hard to walk, harder for a shorty like me to see. It was an interesting mix – florists, fishmongers, tourist crap, and local businesses like Indi Chocolate and DeLaurenti Food & Wine. The single-source chocolate was amazing, and as for DeLaurenti’s – how can you not love a place that stocks over 200 kinds of cheese?

That night we met up with our Seattle connection, Ivy.

Although she actually lived in Kirkland. But anyway. The fact that Ivy let us park in her driveway, and basically gave us full access to her house, is testament to two things. One is the power of CrossFit: Ivy is friends with Walker, who we used to work out with at CrossFit Commence in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The second is the power of Michael. He’s just that charismatic person that people gravitate towards. With me, it would have been all kinds of awkward, even though Ivy is about as cool a person as I’ve met.

And we met way back in Portland, when we had dinner with her and Walker and Michael’s friend Jon. So we already knew she was awesome. I tend to bow in respect to anyone that competes in Ironman Triathlons.

Ivy walked us down the hill from her apartment to the Hanuman Thai Cafe where we got take-out, and then walked over to a dog-friendly bar, the Flatstick Pub. They don’t have a kitchen there, so you can bring in your own food. Bailey was a big hit there. One guy thought his name was Bay Leaf, which we laughed about for a while.

The weather didn’t exactly cooperate, as Seattle was going through an uncharacteristic heat wave. Honestly, the heat and humidity reminded me of Chicago summers. If not for the haze in the air (from the fires up in Canada), it might have been even hotter.

The next day was the result of another crazy coincidence. I’d met Eric back in Fayetteville – we all played disc golf together at Lake Fayetteville – and he and Michael have been friends for a long time. Anyway, Michael saw on Facebook that Eric was in Seattle and reached out. And Eric invited us to go sailing with him and his friend James.

Eric lives in Tulsa but grew up sailing. He was renting a boat, he said. We thought that sounded great, but this was supposed to be an all-day thing. What about Bailey?

Apparently the owner of the boat said no dogs. But the harbormaster loved dogs, insisted it wouldn’t be a problem, and gave Eric a tip. Pick up the boat, motor down to a different dock (the one with a little store where you can buy ice), and pick up me and Michael and Bailey there.

Hey, it wasn’t our boat. We said sure.

I was less worried about Bailey than I was about myself. Bailey’s generally a calm dog and he’s never been sick in a car before. But boats and I are not exactly friends. I have a long history of motion sickness, although boats are not the only cause. I get nauseous on airplanes. I have to drive on most curvy roads. Candied ginger goes a long way, but the last time I was on a boat (a 3-hour snorkeling tour) I spent the better part of it heaving my guts out. That was in 1996 and I hadn’t been on a boat since.

I was armed with sparkling water and candied ginger. The winds were calm. And at first, it was fun. I helped with the rigging. We took pictures.

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It was fun… right up until the moment that it wasn’t. I honestly think the Cosco ship had something to do with it.

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We passed it pretty close and the waves that ship sent out made my stomach roll.

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I took the offered dramamine but it was already too late. The decision was made to get me off the boat. Sails were taken down and we motored in to Kingston Harbor, where we pulled in to an empty slot and went to visit the harbormaster. We paid $10 to park in the harbor and went off for a little lunch.

That might sound odd, but as soon as my feet were on solid ground I felt a lot better. Still, I played it safe for the return journey. I made my way to the Bainbridge Ferry terminal and took the car ferry over to Seattle. It was a much smoother ride. Michael and Bailey sailed back with Eric and James.

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Bailey was a great sailor, by the way.

Hell, he spent most of the trip asleep.

 

 

Once I landed back in Seattle I walked to Elliott Bay Books. It took me about 30 minutes and was almost completely up a steep hill, but after my time on the boat it felt really good to get my blood pumping. The bookstore seemed to be in a gentrified neighborhood – one block was homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, the next was hipster restaurants with outdoor seating. Also there were lots of hipsters.

Elliott Bay Books reminded me a lot of the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver – a huge bookstore with lots of space for wandering. I found a new journal from their pretty extensive collection.

After two big days in Seattle, it was time to move on. We thanked Ivy profusely for her hospitality. We loaded up at a store called Fred Meyer, which is part of the same conglomerate as King Soopers, Kroger, and City Market, but Fred Meyer is a horse of a different color. The store was a large complex – in addition to the grocery and pharmacy, there was a department store full of name-brand clothes, as well as a jewelery store. The jewelry store carried Tissot, Tag Hauer, and Rolex.

That’s the part I couldn’t wrap my head around. I was trying to think of the person who’d say Yeah, I’m just popping out to the store to get some milk. And a Rolex.

We started heading north out of Kirkland in I-405 north. Traffic was already backed up and we crept along at about 20 mph for what seemed like a very long time. When we finally got back to speed I realized that there was no accident, no looky-loos. It was 3pm on a Tuesday.

We’d just gone through a bit of Seattle’s legendary traffic.

Sorry, Seattle. You seem like a pretty cool place. But I never want to live here.

One last note: We talked to Ivy about that whole weird traffic camera thing. You know, how the police had the road shut down, and the traffic camera that would have showed us what was going on was mysteriously not working?

She suggested that there might have been a fatality. Which made a hell of a lot more sense than anything my conspiracy-theory mind had come up with, and also made me feel like a bit of an asshole. Although the best I could find was a blurb on Thurston County’s Facebook page for that day: “I-5 closed both directions for possible suicidal subject.”

Still. Better to look at the rational explanation, no?

Olympic National Park

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I had no idea there were so many National Parks in Washington State. We’d already hit Mount Saint Helens and Mount Rainier, and we weren’t done yet: It was time to see the rain forest. Olympic National Park was a bucket list item for me. I’ve always wanted to see the only rain forest in North America.

When we arrived in Port Angeles (gateway to Olympic National Park), it was hot, and hazy. Not cloudy – hazy. And the air smelled like smoke. We wondered what was up as we stocked up in the Port Angeles WalMart and moved on to the Visitor’s Center.

Normally people drive from that Visitor’s Center to the one up on Hurricane Ridge, as it’s a great way to view Mount Olympus. Olympic National Park has several webcams and in the Visitor’s Center we saw the Hurricane Ridge webcam up on a big screen TV.

The “view” was solid haze.

A Park ranger explained that there were fires burning in Canada, north of Vancouver. The smoke was drifting south and that’s what was causing the haze and the campfire smell.

So we passed on Hurricane Ridge. We drove on instead to Rialto Beach, which was also hazy, unfortunately, but still pretty amazing.

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It was also crowded, although we lucked into a good parking spot. We left Bailey in the truck and went for a walk along the beach. Rialto Beach is famous for a rock formation called “Hole in the Wall,” which is just what it sounds like. A big rock wall with a hole in the middle of it – big enough to walk through – that has been caused by waves. I didn’t get a decent picture of it, mostly because of all the people, and I also found the other rock formations (also caused by erosion and waves) to be a lot cooler.

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We also found… whatever this was. The ocean washes strange things ashore.

 

 

 

We camped for the night in a nondescript spot in Olympic National Forest. Honestly, we had a hard time finding a good site. The areas were pretty trashed, most of them having been used for shooting practice, as well as being covered in, well, trash. We finally settled on a gigantic pullout that at least was not littered with shell casings.

The next day we finally got to the rain forest. Hoh Rain Forest, to be exact. It was nice and humid, like I expected. It was also 90o, which I did not expect. We walked the Hall of Mosses trail, as well as the Spruce Trail. I got to learn!

First cool thing: moss grows on the trees here because everything mosses need come from the air. Seriously. It gets moisture and nutrients from the damp air. No need for soil. Neat!

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Second cool thing: I found out why the big trees all have roots that look like this.

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See, things break down rather slowly in a temperate rain forest. Fallen trees (which can take centuries to completely decompose) quickly become “nurse trees” for other organisms.

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Moss, lichen, grasses, flowers, even new trees.

 

 

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We both thought the rain forest was pretty damn cool. Even though it was actually really hot that day.

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We found a campsite right on the Hoh River that night, and it was fabulous. We had a scary incident along the way, though. I missed the turn to this camping area (it was not marked in any way, as sometimes happens), and so I found a pullout to turn around. There was traffic coming the other way, so when I pulled my U-turn I goosed it a little bit. I heard this weird thump. I checked my rear-view mirror to see how close that traffic was behind me.

And what I saw was Bailey, standing in the middle of the road.

I jammed on the brakes, shouted to Michael, and both of us jumped out of the truck. Luckily for us the vehicle behind us had stopped, and the four guys in it jumped out as well, trying to corral Bailey, who was kind of wandering around in confusion. We called to him and I swear I never saw that dog look more relieved. He came running to us. Somehow – miraculously – he seemed okay.

When we turned back to our truck I saw that the topper lid was open. My guess is that he fell into the lid when I hit the gas, and that’s what popped it open.

Needless to say, ever since I’ve been hitting the gas like an old lady.

On to more happy things, like our Hoh River Campsite:

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Bailey really didn’t seem any worse for wear, so we threw the tennis ball into the Hoh River for him that afternoon. Our site was breezy and almost completely bug free. Overnight we heard elk calling to each other. In the morning I was treated to a fly fishing session.

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I was reluctant to leave this campsite. But it was hot and the site actually had zero shade for most of the day. So move on we did, taking in Ruby Beach, which was was a lot cooler than the rain forest. I mean that literally – we wore jackets. Although we did warm up a bit hiking over this giant log jam just to get to the beach.

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Once we got there, though, the views were pretty stunning.

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There were driftwood “shelters” like this everywhere.

 

 

And there was some kind of film crew at Ruby Beach. The cameraman was wearing a wetsuit, and the actor (an older gentleman) was wearing some kind of military uniform.

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At some point they filmed this guy walking into the surf. I’m sure it was supposed to be stoic, this old guy committing suicide. Or it would have been, if the actor hadn’t lost his balance and fallen. Hit hat fell off and he spent five minutes trying to get it back so they could resume the shot.

 

We spent the night at Campbell Tree Grove campground, a free campground 20 miles from anywhere. It was in the rain forest, though, so it was lush and dark. I had to break out my headnet for a while there as the mosquitoes got a little fierce at sunset.

No, the real problem was the rodents. We heard them outside pretty much all night long. And at one point Michael swore he saw a mouse crawling on the mesh window on his side of the tent. How did it even get up there? Not that it mattered – he knew what it was after: the chocolate bar he’d brought in as a late-night snack. He had to get up and put the chocolate in the cab of the truck.

In the morning I didn’t find any evidence of rodents in the cab. Or in the back. Believe me, I checked. But those little jerks chewed a hole in the sandbag we’d used to tie down the tent.

Oh, the joys of nature. Our next destination was pretty much a 180 from the rain forest, though: Seattle.

Wonderful Washington State

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I started out our first full day in Washington State with a trail run. We were in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and I ran on the Lewis River Trail. Not very technical, but I enjoyed the rolling hills – as did Bailey. The views of the Lewis River were pretty sweet, too.

After breakfast we acted on some information we’d received the night before: Lower Falls.

A guy driving past our campsite last night stopped to chat, mostly about our rig. When he found out we were new to the area he said we just had to go to Lower Falls. It was a swimming hole, he said, and sometimes people jump off the cliffs into the water. When you leave, he told us, turn left onto FR90 and go about 10 miles. Can’t miss it.

We hadn’t been to a good swimming hole since Newberry National Volcanic Monument, so this was a no-brainer. Hell, I was prepared this time and wore my swimsuit. We arrived at the Lower Falls Recreation Area around 10:30 and the parking lot was pretty empty, so we scored a spot in the shade. We left Bailey in the truck while we scoped things out.

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At some point we noticed a few kayakers carrying their boats up the trail. Were they going to run the falls?

It sure looked like it. We watched on guy drag his boat out onto the rocks, then start scoping out the falls. Eventually his buddy came over and the two of them had a bit of a discussion.

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I thought things would move right along, but then then the kayaker backed off the edge. And started doing yoga.

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Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Maybe he was just stretching, getting ready for the falls. I thought that too. Right up to the moment the yoga guy ripped off his shirt and had his buddy take pictures of him striking poses.

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Somebody’s got a nice Instagram account.

I was so distracted by yoga guy that I wasn’t ready when the first kayak appeared at the top of the falls. I got the rest of them, though.

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Even yoga guy went. Eventually.

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After the kayaking excitement I put my camera away. We let Bailey out and hiked down to the water. This is National Forest land, so we didn’t have to keep him leashed up. Once we got to the river, we had to wade up to the swimming hole. The water was only ankle deep.

There were lots of people and lots of dogs. Bailey loved it. Once again, we had to stop throwing the ball once he started shivering. That water was cold.

Michael and I went swimming too. See, while the water was mostly shallow, there was something I’ll call a shelf in the water. You can see it in my earlier picture. The water went from ankle deep… to at least fifteen feet. It was hard to tell, even though the water was so clear, because it was so deep.

Some people were jumping from that shelf, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I just kind of fell into the deep water. And you know what? It was refreshing. It was. For about five seconds. Once my head went under, that water was so cold that it gave me a headache. I scrambled out as quickly as I could.

Around 4 pm the shadows had taken over our spot and it was getting a little cool to hang out in cold water. We headed back to the truck and along the way we saw a sign that said “Middle Falls 1.5.”

Middle Falls, huh? We put Bailey in the truck, I grabbed my camera, and we set out walking. There was a bit of a detour so the hike was more like 2 miles, but it was totally worth it.

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The next day we got a little closer to our goal of Mount Saint Helens. At least we were inside the National Monument border when we visited a place called Ape Cave.

This is a lava tube, similar to the one we visited in Newberry National Volcanic Monument outside of Bend. But there was no guidance at Ape Cave, no lectures from forest rangers. Just a couple of signs suggesting that you bring adequate lights. You were on your own.

There are two options at Ape Cave: the easier lower cave, and the more difficult upper cave. Armed with headlamps and flashlights, we chose the upper cave. We did the whole thing in about 90 minutes and loved it. (It helped that this time, in addition to a jacket, I wore pants, a hat, and my running gloves.) We crawled over multiple rockfalls. There were rope-assisted ascents. It was awesome.

One thing that was not awesome? All the poop.

I’m not kidding. We passed multiple piles of human waste while walking along the upper cave. Some of it was right out there in the open, so to speak. (It’s a cave and even though you’re only about 30 feet or so below ground it’s 100% dark in there.) I began to wonder if it was some kind of badge of honor, taking a dump in Ape Cave. And in case you’re not grossed out enough, consider this: Not everyone bothered with toilet paper.

One more reason I was really glad we each brought two sets of lights.

Moving on.

We camped that night just north of Mount Saint Helens, just off a super bumpy dirt road. It was a very established campsite. As in, there were nails in all the trees. Hell, some of those nails were actually tent stakes. And way off in the back, somebody left their 5-gallon shitter.

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I don’t know what says redneck louder than a pool noodle toilet seat.

I guess I should have titled this one “Poop in Washington” or something…

 

 

Mount Saint Helens National Monument and Mount Rainier National Park

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On July 28th we finally made it to Mount Saint Helens. Of course, that was after morning snuggles for Bailey…

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That dog can sleep anywhere.

After departing our campsite at 10am, we made a few stops in the towns of Longview and Kelso. Wal-Mart (paper towels and almonds), Winco (to fill the water containers) and Safeway (for gas). Too bad we couldn’t find those three things at the same store, but what can you do?

Along the way to the MSH Visitor’s Center, we stopped at a little roadside fruit stand and picked up Yakima peaches. This might sound a little odd but I hadn’t had a peach since October. That was waaay back in Moab, when we were buying a 5-lb bag of Palisade peaches at the same roadside stand once a week.

After that experience I said that I’d never eat any other kind of peach. Palisade peaches were the best.

Now, I’m not going to change my tune and say that Palisade peaches are not the best… But those Yakima peaches were damn tasty.

My point is that eventually we made it to the Visitor’s Center for Mount Saint Helens. We have a National Parks annual pass, and that gets us in to National Monuments as well. But the Visitor’s Center for MSH was also a learning center and they charged their own fee of $5/person to get in and learn. We paid it so we could watch the 13-minute video about the eruption of Mount Saint Helens on May 18, 1980. There were also lots of cool exhibits about the volcano and the aftermath of the explosion.

I didn’t realize that the area around the mountain had actually been evacuated 7 weeks before the big eruption. There were several scary signs (like bulges) and events (like small earthquakes) that led to the evacuation. However, during that 7 weeks only a few smaller eruptions and earthquakes were recorded. Nothing catastrophic and so people were getting antsy. For me, when I looked around the area and saw how isolated these towns are, their reaction made sense. Seven weeks is a long time to be out of your home, especially when the coast seems clear.

On May 17, a small group (50 carloads) was allowed back in to the area to check on their homes. That went well so another group was scheduled to go in at 10am the next day.

Mount Saint Helens erupted at 8:32am on May 18.

There is no video of the eruption but photographer Gary Rosenquist captured a series of images that were pieced together to show what happened. It was actually quite stunning to watch. (I found a link to his photographs here.)

Harder to think about: the 57 people who died. Only three of those were actually in the evacuated area. In spite of all the knowledge, nobody predicted that the mountain would blow out on its north side.

After watching the video, seeing the exhibits, and trying to imagine destruction on that scale (the eruption alone blew down 230 acres of forest), we finally came face to face with Mount Saint Helens.

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I found the crater that is now the top of the mountain to actually be a wee bit sinister. It looked like a gaping mouth, especially when you consider that from that gaping mouth came the largest landslide in US history, one that covered a total of 24 square miles and filled the Toutle River Valley with debris up to 600 feet deep. And even more especially when you consider that MSH is still active. New lava domes began forming inside the crater in 2004, although that activity was considered finished in 2008 and the mountain has been relatively quiet ever since. Sill. The closer we got, the more ominous that crater looked.

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On a lighter note, we found some local “wildlife.”

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What we did not find was a place camp. Our Gazetter showed a small strip of National Forest land just outside the National Monument boundary. But none of the local maps showed any such thing. And we couldn’t find any roads to turn off that were open. These were logging roads, and they were closed off by gates.

We had to drop back and punt. Michael found us a spot outside the town of Randle, Washington. I think the area was supposed to be a wildlife area? Generally camping isn’t allowed in places like that. But when we arrived there were at least 10 other cars in the parking lot. Tired, we set up shop and crawled up into the tent.

The next day (a Saturday) we drove to Mount Rainier National Park. We waited 30 minutes in line just to get in the Nisqually entrance on the west side, but it was totally worth it. I can’t believe we almost passed on the opportunity to come here – Rainier is astounding. The top of the mountain (an active volcano, it last erupted in 1894) is covered in glaciers.

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Traffic was surprisingly not that bad. Everyone flocked to an area called Paradise (with good reason, it looked gorgeous) and by the time we got there the parking lot was full. They still let cars drive through, through, so we joined that little shitshow for a while.

There were plenty of other places to take pictures. Like Narada Falls.

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And the wildflowers were in full bloom.

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This was the view from the Sunrise parking lot.

We easily found a campsite outside the Park boundary, and the next day we went back to Rainier for round 2. This time we arrived early (okay, well, early-ish) to snag a parking spot at Sunrise. While this parking lot offers some stunning views of Mt Rainier, there are also several hiking trails that start here.

We hiked a total of 6 miles in a loop, passing Frozen Lake along the way to trails called Burroughs 1 and Burroughs 2.

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That trail off in the distance? That’s Burroughs 2 and yeah, we hiked that.
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Notice how the fun meter is pegged…

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After a snack, taking in the views of Mt Rainier, we headed back via Shadow Lake. I never saw so much Lupine in my life.

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Super glad we decided to go visit Mt. Rainier National Park.

Escaping Portland

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I know, the title makes it seem like a bad thing. Hear me out. It’s not like Portland was a bad place to be imprisoned, mind you, but the clutches of the Portland area seemed to be pretty long indeed.

July 17th we headed out on a little day trip. I’d mentioned to our friend Jon that I’d always wanted to see Cannon Beach, and Haystack Rock. He said he went there all the time – it was only a couple of hours away.

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Off we set, taking in the little town of Astoria, and heading up to see the Astoria Column. Built in 1926, the Astoria Column overlooks the mouth of the Columbia river and has a 164-step spiral staircase that leads to an observation deck.

It cost $5 to park there… so we parked down the hill and walked up. Yes, folks, we really are that cheap. The views from the Column were nice though.

 

 

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From Astoria it was about another hour to Cannon Beach. I was happy to get to see Haystack Rock – it reminded me a lot of Morro Rock, in Morro Bay, California. And it was even more heavily developed. Condos and short-term rentals abounded, and the main drag was full of big box stores. I was a little disappointed, to be honest.

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But I took my pictures, and can say I’ve been there, since when the Cascadia Subduction Zone goes the whole area will be destroyed. What, you didn’t read that fabulous article in the New Yorker? If you haven’t, you totally should. It was one of the most fascinating disaster articles I’ve ever read.

After Cannon Beach We headed back towards Portland because Michael had a dentist appointment the next day. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he said it was either a filling that had fallen out, or something had gone off with a crown. This is one of those little-thought-about problems with traveling full time. Picking a doctor (or dentist) is hard enough. But when you live like we do, it’s hard to predict exactly where you’re going to be tomorrow, much less next week. And unless it’s an emergency, new patients rarely get in right away. I think Michael had made his appointment 10 days earlier.

So. Back to Portland. This time we were staying with a friend of mine, from back in my REI days. He sent me a message a week or so ago, letting me know that if we needed a place to stay and a shower, well, he had a yard and a house.

I’ll always remember this moment, when we pulled through the gate at his property to see that Brandon (and his girlfriend, Frances) did, in fact, have a yard. A gigantic one.

The one thing Brandon and Frances didn’t have was a kitchen. They were in the middle of a remodel. No problem! We have a mobile kitchen. So we happily shared coffee and breakfast the next morning, as well as dinner that night (more on that later).

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We made it to the dentist and it turns out that Michael’s crown was indeed cracked. They took a mold for his replacement crown and said it would be there on Friday… three days later.

No problem. We roll with the punches here, right? We decided to go check out Hood River for a couple of days. Then we scheduled me in for a cleaning while Michael was having his crown done. I hadn’t been to a dentist in a year!

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Dinner that night was sockeye salmon with farotto and veggies pulled from Brandon and Frances’ garden. So good!

 

 

 

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I can’t tell you the last time I had fresh English peas. They were delicious!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our hosts encouraged us to pick some blackberries the next morning, even pointing out which bushes had the most berries.

We put some on oatmeal, but these were so sweet that they were great all by themselves.

 

Upon our arrival at Hood River, the first thing we did was check out the waterfront.

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The wind is pretty constant here in the summer, and Hood River is an international destination for paddlers, windsurfers, and kite boarders. Watching made me totally want to try it. Most of the people there made it look easy. A few made me realize that windsurfing and kite boarding are actually really, really difficult.

There was a little beach and we saw other dogs off leash, so we let Bailey run and wear himself out in the water.

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We’re working on the whole not-barking thing. It’s cute, I guess, but that dog’s play bark is deafening. Especially when it’s right in your face.

We also saw a fly-by by a couple of F-15 Eagles. I never found out where they came from, and they were gone in a flash, but it was so cool to see them.

Next we needed a place to camp. And the best place for information on local camping tends to be from the locals. So we asked at the bike shop on Oak Street, and the guy there told us to check out Post Canyon. It’s a mountain bike area, he said, but there are pullouts for camping. Also, there’s a staging area for ATV’s, which is closed to ATV’s now because of fire restrictions.

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We had an excellent view of Mount Hood to the south, and even though we had wide-open skies, the trees to our west worked as an excellent shield from the wind. I also tried my hand at more starry-night pictures.

 

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Not as good as what I see on Instagram, but I think I’m getting better.

Anyway. Post Canyon looked like a super fun place to ride. Bailey and I went running there several times and thoroughly enjoyed each one.

We hung out in Hood River like this until Friday, when we returned to Portland for Michael’s crown and my cleaning. Aaaaahhhhh, clean teeth. A wonderful feeling. That was the good news. The bad news? Michael’s crown did not fit. They took another mold but the soonest they could get the new crown would be Monday.

So. Back to Hood River we went. I mean, at least we knew where to camp. Saturday was hot and we spent most of it hanging out under our cool awning. On Sunday, Michael met a guy named Kani on the trail. They got to talking, and Kani said he was going to play disc golf in the afternoon.

“We love disc golf!” Michael said. “But we don’t have our discs.”

That afternoon Kani met us in town and gave all of us (Bailey too!) a ride out to Stevenson, Washington, to play disc golf at the Cascade Locks course. He even lent us discs. Michael did pretty well, of course, even though we haven’t played disc golf since Fayetteville. I, however, super sucked. 18 holes and I did not par once. A bogey on 13 was the best I could do.

I still had a great time. After the 3rd hole we let Bailey off the leash. He was incredibly obedient. In fact, the only time he wandered off, it was over by the tennis courts. I had to call him three times. When he came back he had a tennis ball in his mouth.

Good dog, Bailey.

Plus, there were blackberries. Now, those bushes are mean and thorny but the berries were delicious. Michael filled his putter.

When Monday came around, we were not exactly in a big hurry to leave, as Michael’s appointment wasn’t until 4pm. I got up early and went for a run with Bailey. After a killer breakfast of scrambled eggs with bacon, veggies, and avocado, we packed up and said good-bye to our sweet little site. I should have known better.

We found Hood River’s laundromat and while our clothes were in the washer made a supply run to Wal-Mart, which was essentially next door. After laundry we went back to Portland. Our first stop was a food truck court called Tidbit. I had Hawaiian BBQ and Michael had ramen, and both were delicious. But it was there that the first ominous sign occurred, in the form of a phone call from Gentle Dental, pushing Michael’s appointment back from 4pm to 5pm. Well, there wasn’t much we could say, other than all right. See you at 5.

We headed over to Creston Park next. Partly to give Bailey a chance to run, but mostly because Creston Park has a water spigot. And Portland tap water tasted pretty good. We probably filled up there three times during our time in the city. Thanks, Portland!

After all that we finally headed over to Gentle Dental… although we stocked up at Safeway first. And while were were at Safeway the phone rang again. Oregon number. Uh-oh.

Of course it was Gentle Dental. Was 6pm okay, they asked?

Ah, shit. But what could we do? We both went to the coffee shop to charge all the electronics. At about 5:50 he headed next door. He took the phone so I kept a tab open to Facebook. That way we could communicate via FB messenger. He gave me updates… about how they were all waiting. Gentle Dental closed at 5pm. Turns out that the crowns were manufactured at a plant in nearby Beaverton and the company would just drive them over. The driver was supposed to have been there by 3:30. He was stuck in Portland traffic.

Luckily Michael’s crown fit perfectly. The dentist felt so badly – he knew our story, about how we were traveling – that he reached into his own wallet and gave Michael $60 cash. But by the time we were all said and done, it was 7:30pm. I actually texted my friend Brandon, hoping for one more night out by his house. No such luck.

We went back to Post Canyon Road. Hell, by this time I think the truck knew the way. We arrived at 9, just after sunset, and set up the tent just enough to sleep in it.

The next day we packed up and I did not say good-bye our site. We headed north to the Hood River Bridge and paid our $1 toll.

So we either paid $1 to get into Washington… or to get out of Oregon.

Seriously though, Oregon was awesome. But it was time to move on (isn’t it always time to move on?!?) to Washington.

Adventures in Portland

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As we came creeping up through Oregon, not one, but two different Portland friends got in touch via Facebook, offering a place to park the truck. And showers.

Our friend Jon used to work with Michael at Colterra, and he rents a place on the southeast side of Portland. He’s been there for about 2 years and was excited to show off the city to us.

The neighborhood he’s in – nearest to Cesar Chavez Blvd and Division St – is pretty cool. We arrived on a Friday so that night we all went for a walk down Division Street, past the bars and sweet shops, all the way to the corner of Division and 28th. That corner is reserved for a food truck court called Tidbit and you can find everything there from burgers to gyros, sushi to hawaiian bbq, ramen, waffle sandwiches, dessert, and even a beer truck.

The food truck scene in Colorado is a shame by comparison. Hell, this is the best food truck scene that we’ve come across, in all of our travels. Portland is a foodie town.

The next day John was happy to drive us down to the Saturday Market, right on the river.

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GoGoTacoNegroOccurring every Saturday and Sunday, the Portland Saturday Market is an open air arts and crafts market, although there were a spate of food trucks there too. I saw several people walking around with a large, very pink box in their hands. Jon said those were boxes from the legendary Voodoo Donut.

Donuts….. mmmmm…..

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We saw a ton of awesome things but we didn’t see the whole market. It’s huge! So much arts, crafts, food, and entertainment. No wonder it takes up both days of the weekend.

 

 

In the afternoon Jon had to work, so Michael and Bailey and I went for another walk, this time up to Hawthorne Street. It was a beautiful day, sunny but not too warm, and we had fun walking up there. We even stopped for a swing.

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The sign nailed to the tree says “Take A Ride!” How could we refuse?

Hawthorne Street was similar to Division Street, but it had a few more shops and a few less bars. We splurged at Blue Star for donuts. Even me! I have to say that my maple-bacon donut was totally worth it. Michael enjoyed his peanut butter & jelly donut.

Barber shops seem to be a thing here in Portland. The first one we saw had this fabulous sign out front:

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However, when we passed by Bishops Barbershops, we saw that they take nothing but walk-ins. Haircuts were $33 and beard trims (for Michael, of course) were $10. We went in to see how long the wait was (remember, it was a Saturday afternoon) and the guy at the counter said no more than 10 minutes.

It might have been an act of vanity, that I signed in. Everyone who worked there looked pretty young and hip and had good hair. I desperately needed a trim – my last cut was in November – and I figured a place like this would be capable of giving my a good cut, instead of something that might make me look like an old lady. It’s happened before. As for Michael, well, he recently broke his favorite clipper guard, and his beard had been getting to the “bushy” stage. He signed in for the beard trim.

I had barely gotten Bailey to lie down then they called my name. And by the time my cut was done, Michael had gotten his beard trimmed and was letting everyone in the waiting area pet Bailey. Success all around!

Everywhere we took him, Bailey was a big hit. I mean, two of the ladies at the hat shop gave him treats. He looked like he’d died and gone to heaven. He might not be the brightest bulb, but it’s kinda nice to have a dog who actually, you know, likes people.

Sunday afternoon, I checked yet another item off the bucket list: Oneonta Falls.

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We left Bailey in the truck for this one. The trail is only about a half mile, through a narrow canyon, and it involved some wading, all of which he certainly could have handled. Jon suggested not bringing him, though, because of the Log Jam.

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The hardest part of the log jam for us was avoiding all the other people (Oneonta Falls is pretty popular) but this could have been disastrous for Bailey, as strong as he is. It just wasn’t worth it. Bailey didn’t seem too disappointed. We’d parked in the shade so we left him a bowl of water and told him to guard the truck.

Luckily for us, after the Log Jam the crowds thinned out a little bit.

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At certain times of the year, the approach to these falls involves wading through chest-deep water, but it was high summer when we arrived, so there was only one spot where the water was about hip deep (on me).

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That’s Jon in front.

This was the kind of hike that I wished was longer. It was too much fun. It was a lot like that slot canyon hike we did back in Utah. I even was able to take a couple of pictures with no people in them.

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This hike was magical. The water was chilly though, and by the time we got back to a dry trail I couldn’t feel my toes. So we walked over to Horsetail Falls and Jon took our picture.

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Such a great time. But we weren’t done with Portland yet…

Beyond Bend

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During our stay in Bend, OR we had a lot of camping options, as Bend is pretty much surrounded by National Forest land.

Such is not necessarily the case throughout the rest of the state.

We left Bend on a Thursday and drove west to Eugene. Along the way we had a pleasant stop at Sahalie Falls in the Willamette National Forest.

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We hiked for a bit and even brought Bailey. No swimming this time, though. That water was moving waaay too fast.

Onward to Eugene, where we had two goals. The first was Falling Skye Brewing, where our latest shipment of Cholaca was waiting. We invited the staff for a tasting and they happily obliged. It’s good stuff – I sure didn’t mind a shot of pure liquid chocolate.

After picking up our Cholaca gold we hit our next goal in Eugene: REI. It’s not my goal to hit every REI in America or anything. No, really. But when we pass through a city that has one, we tend to stop in. Check out the sales, pick up some supplies. The Eugene REI was a cool little store. We hit up one of the green vests for info on where to camp that was close to town.

His first suggestion was the mall. No, really. We’d found that suggestion on FreeCampsites.net and were skeptical, so an REI employee vouchsafing for it made it seem like an option. One other suggestion was an overflow parking lot for something called the Ridgeline Trail, north of town.

We decided to check out the overflow lot first. Gravel is preferable to blacktop. The not-very-level parking lot was deserted when we got there, around 7pm. We made dinner and watched the traffic go by. There really wasn’t much traffic – a good sign – but there were some houses visible nearby. Michael decided he wanted to check out the mall.

Now, Eugene is not set up on a grid. I found navigation there to be difficult at best and it took us almost a half hour to reach the mall. I lost track of all the lefts and rights. But when we arrived we saw a few RV’s around the paring lot, and it looked pretty okay. We located mall security to check in and she said no problem, she’d meet us at our RV.

That should have registered. But it didn’t. When the mall security lady met us at the truck 10 minutes later, she said, “where’s your RV?”

This is it, we said. It’s a roof top tent.

“That’s a problem,” she said. “We don’t allow tents of any kind. RVs only, with a flushable toilet.”

Eugene must have a homeless problem. Why else would they need to make sure you weren’t pooping in the bushes? Well, at least the security lady was friendly. She gave us a free map of the area with a couple of campground suggestions.

We spent another 30 minutes getting back out to the Ridgeline Trail, because the other campground suggestions were all fee areas. By the time we got to the overflow parking lot it was 9:15 and the crazy thing? It was still light outside. At this point Michael was a little paranoid that maybe we really couldn’t camp there, so we didn’t pop the tent until 10pm. Even then it wasn’t exactly cover of darkness, but close enough. For me, anyway.

In the morning I took advantage of being 50 feet from a trailhead and went for a run. Well, it was mostly a walk on the way out – the first mile of the eastbound Ridgeline Trail was a steep uphill. But I had fun anyway. The trail was lush and green, and it was overcast out. This is more of what I pictured Oregon looking like.

After I got back to the truck Michael said he wanted to get a workout in too, but not in a gravel parking lot. A quick Google search brought us to Alton Baker Park. One of the bigger parks in Eugene, it was right on the Wilamette River and it also had a dog park. The dog park was not on the river, but it was huge and Bailey had a great time chasing the tennis ball there.

Once everyone had gotten their workout in, we set out for the Willamette Valley, which runs roughly between Eugene and Portland. The Willamette Valley is really known for their wines. Especially their pinot noirs.

The drive was beautiful. A lot like California’s San Joaquin Valley, but without the sweltering heat. And a lot more hops farms. Seriously, they were everywhere. Is it because everyone’s drinking IPAs these days?

GoGoTacoNegroAnyway. I knew I wouldn’t make it through more than one winery (I’m a bit of a lightweight) so we chose the Chehalem Winery in Newberg, OR. I sampled three pinots, but Michael did most of the talking. See, when he was a working chef, Michael used to host wine dinners at Colterra once a month. So he’s awfully knowledgeable. So he did the talking and I did the drinking. I actually had a full glass of their Wind Ridge Block Pinot that I enjoyed very much. (Not enough to buy the bottle though, which was $50.)

 

We struck out eastward from Newberg, looking for the Molalla Recreation Area, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. One of the things I love about the BLM is that, generally speaking, there are no rules. Sometimes anything goes. So we weren’t surprised when we didn’t see any designated campgrounds, just a couple of trailheads and several pullouts. Some of the pullouts had big signs nailed to the trees: DAY USE ONLY. But some of those pullouts didn’t have any signs at all. So we picked a big pullout that didn’t have a sign and set up shop.

While we were setting up a Sheriff’s Deputy drove by without even glancing in our general direction. Safe for another night, it would seem.

The Molalla RA was a pretty area, right on the Molalla River, with some really cool rock formations across the way.

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Crazy to think that we were only an hour south of Portland, home to 600,000 people.

Now, Portland was kind of on my bucket list, and kind of not, if that makes any sense. In our 11 months on the road, we’ve hit very few metropolitan areas. When we drove south through Florida, we went right by Miami, even though I would have loved to check out Little Havana.

There’s a couple of reasons we skip the cities. First, the stuff we love to do (bike, hike, paddle, trail run) is not generally found in a city. We spend most of our time in National Forests. That’s also where the free camping is. But the second reason is that we worry about our stuff getting stolen. We carry a lot of gear in the basket above the topper, and there’s no way to secure any of it. There’s more stuff (like the Yeti cooler) in the topper with Bailey (who, let’s face is, is not exactly a guard dog).

But we have friends in Portland, friends who reached out to us and offered us a place to park and a shower. Free showers are hard to turn down.

Besides, I wanted to see how accurate “Portlandia” really was.