Here it is! Overnights in red, significant stops in blue.
Distance traveled: 25,007 miles
Time on the road: 2 years, 15 days (minus 102 days in Winter ’17/’18, which we spent in our Maryland house prior to its sale).
States visited: 35. Missed N Dakota, Iowa, Indiana, W Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, all of New England, and Hawaii / Alaska. It was never our goal to hit all 50 (or 48), but we did regret missing the Northeast, as it was a casualty of our unexpectedly late start.
Time West of Rockies vs. Time East of Rockies: 89% / 11% Wow. I knew we had biased our travels to the West, but I didn’t realize it was so lopsided until working out this stat. A good bit of that had to do with opting for the second year and deliberately covering less ground. Much more of it, however, had to do with the expanded version of the feeling we got once we reached the mountains for the first time in August ’17. We’d been doing our best to give the rest of the country equal time in our where-do-we-settle mental space, yet somewhere in Wyoming or Montana or Colorado we looked at each other and said “what are we thinking??” We kept up the struggle to be unbiased, but at that point we “knew.”
National Parks Visited: 20 (of 61)
National Park Service Sites Visited: 60+. That’s a lot of Junior Ranger badges!
Rivers Floated / Rafted: 5. Snake, Meramec, Animas, Colorado (twice), Deschutes (twice). Wait, no. Make that 4. Didn’t quite do the Snake…
Oceans swum in: 3. Pacific, Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico. Stretching a bit… you have to count the Gulf as separate for this, and what we did in the Atlantic was more akin to wading.
KOAs : 5
Colorado River Crossings: 4
Mississippi River Crossings: 3
Car breakdowns requiring towing: 2
Motorhome breakdowns requiring towing: 1 (though consensus afterwards was that it didn’t really need to be towed)
Worst/most difficult driving weather: Strong, gusty crosswinds with rain on two occasions — in Texas and eastern Colorado. Crosswinds are brutal.
Coldest overnight temperature: 26 in Pinnacles National Park
Hottest temperature: Low 100s in Moab
Most difficult road: NF-23 between Randle and Trout River in Washington. See ‘Penultimate.’ This was just dumb.
Most difficult road, runners up: Highway 1 between Leggett and the Pacific Coast in CA, Highway 190 between Stovepipe Wells (Death Valley) and Panamint Springs in CA. The hot brake smell is unpleasant on multiple axes.
Highest elevation (in motorhome): 12,183’
Lowest elevation: -260’
Amusement parks visited: 4 (Cedar Point, Magic Mountain, Disneyland, Legoland)
Middle of the night vomit sessions: 3 tops. With three kids, that’s pretty extraordinary. And even more so, every time they managed to go outside first. More than I can say for adult party guests I hosted back in the squadron days.
Gallons of gas burned: I do not want to know
Fast food eaten: none, unless Chipotle and Panera count. Which they might. Tried to eat at In-N-Out once but the kids wouldn’t let us. True story.
If you’re really killing time, check out our Geographical / Chronological Archive above, or click here.
Obviously we get a lot of questions about what we did, and they tend to be variations on the same ones. In lieu of a summary, I thought I might try to tackle some answers to them officially, as well as throw out some lessons we learned in the process. Sorry, no pictures here. Actually, scratch that — here’s one of the kids on the day we left and one right near the end.
What was your favorite? By far this is the most commonly asked question, and I can’t answer it. I’m not sure any of us can. Firebolt tends to say Zion, but she’s the only one who commits. It’s sort of like asking what your favorite song or favorite movie is – it depends. I can say that I am hard-pressed to come up with any place I really didn’t like (I’ll hit on that next), and that almost everywhere had some aspect of it I really enjoyed. That sounds like a cop-out answer, but it’s as close to the truth as I can get – it’s difficult to explain.
When I look back, there are brief scenes that I pick out as highlights, and many of those are tied to seeing one or all of the kids having significant experiences. Here’s a few… ok maybe more than a few, that stand out:
Multiple visits with friends we hadn’t seen in years, and likely would’ve have otherwise
Firebolt and Woodsprite developing their improv routines
Comparing our beginning-of-the-journey kids to our end-of-the-journey kids
I petered out at the end there, but could’ve easily gone on – there were so many more.
What was your least favorite? Another tough one. If anything, it surprised me how much I enjoyed pretty much everywhere we went. While there are places to which we won’t return, I can’t think of anywhere we stopped where I thought “I don’t like this place at all.” The negative experiences, and they were few and far between, most often had to do with either the specific campground we chose or unrelated personal circumstances. If I were pressed to pick a few, though, I’d say:
Our overnight at a campground outside of Boise. Unpleasant setting / weird experience with some other campers
Mission Bay in San Diego. Found out what type of campground we don’t like
Houston didn’t do much for me. I’ve heard it’s great, I just didn’t see the great, or even the good (and to be fair, we stayed on the outskirts)
Lake Powell. Love Lake Powell, but our stay there just didn’t click
Stressing over the flashing check engine light, which was a factor to greater or lesser extents for just about our entire journey.
Selling homes. Tied us to internet / cell phone coverage, got way too personal, and stressed us out in general. I could never be a house flipper.
How did you handle food / eating? I think we did pretty well with this one. It would’ve been easy to fall into some unhealthy patterns, and we managed to avoid that pitfall. I’d say 45% of our cooking was done outside on the grill, 45% in the Instant Pot (which burst onto the scene just in time for us, incidentally), and just 10% inside. While the RV does have an oven, stove, and microwave, we discovered quickly that most indoor cooking was a non-starter due to there being no venting. Even lightly toasting a slice of bread on a skillet got us a smoke alarm pretty reliably. Prior planning was absolutely crucial due to minimal storage space, so we tended to do about a week of meal planning at a time. Fortunately in the late 2010s fresh anything is pretty easy to find, and I’m slightly ashamed (but only slightly) at how much we depended on staples at established grocery stores, Trader Joe’s in particular, rather than more local options.
We tried to limit eating out to no more than once a week or so, but did want to sample local cuisine as much as we could, so that made for a balance. Ultimately the local eating thing didn’t turn out to be nearly as much a factor as I imagined it would have. Sure, there was New Orleans Cajun and Texas BBQ and 5000 calorie bowls of soup in Charleston, but overall I was somewhat surprised to find food across the country to be less varied than I’d envisioned.
What did you bring that turned out to be crucial, and vice versa? Important question, as we learned early on that we weren’t as much space-limited as we were weight-limited. We rode the ragged edge of max gross vehicular weight (gas, water, and waste tank levels made a big difference here) the entire time, so thinking hard about what we wanted with us was imperative. I mentioned the grill and Instant Pot. Crucial. Along with the grill was the adapter I researched and found that allowed me to tap the grill into our large propane tank rather than use portable bottles, which it was designed for. This was key; I would not have liked the bottles. Our Vitamix only lasted us a couple months before we dumped it off at my parents’ house – too big and heavy, rarely used. Outdoor furniture, to include camp chairs, the outdoor mats, and the Clam (hexagonal tent/shelter) – crucial. Our mindset was that we were living outside, with the motorhome being our bedroom. That took the edge off of the close quarters. The full set of camping gear we brought? Meh. I think we set up a tent and pulled out the sleeping bags once. Just didn’t make sense to camp right next to your warm bed. The tools were a mixed bag. Har har. I brought a lot, and was glad we had them, even though the vast majority got no play at all. The cordless drill and screwdriver bit / drill bit set, however, was what I reached for just about every time something needed fixing, which was often. Hammocks – definitely. Slack line set – great in theory, but we never set it up. Soccer ball and frisbee – absolutely. Lacrosse stick and baseball bat – nope. Bikes and bike racks, yes! We biked a good bit (though it tailed off at the end) and I wish we had biked more. Books… this is a tough one. We were home-schooling, so having books (and books are heavy) was unavoidable. And we carried a lot of them. But at any given time we were using / referring to maybe 10-20% of our books. And it’s 2019 – any book can be read on a Kindle/iPad/phone/laptop. This would be the main area I would trim weight were we to do it again. Clothes we did ok with. There was very little we brought but didn’t wear (though getting the kids to wear their hiking boots, even for hikes, was something we eventually gave up on), and I took far more pleasure in having only a few shorts/shirt/pants combinations to choose from than I thought I would. Now that we’re back in a home with a full wardrobe (which itself isn’t that extensive – I’ve never been much of a clothes person), I want to throw 2/3 of it out.
How often did you boondock (i.e. camp outside of a campground), and how long could you do it at a time? Almost never, regrettably. Though opportunities for it were everywhere, particularly in the West, we found it tricky to just find a spot to pull over and set up. Towing a vehicle complicated the situation as well. Here’s how it would tend to work: I’d have an idea of an area where we wanted to boondock. We’d start driving down the small road in that area. I’d see multiple dirt roads which led to what are likely sweet camping opportunities. And then I’d think “hmm… if I turn down that road, will I be able to turn back around if there’s nothing there? Will I get stuck in the mud or sand? How far will I have to take it before I find a good place?” Aaaaand I’d keep driving and eventually we’d end up at an RV park.
Plus hookups, it turns out, are nice. Running the generator for electricity isn’t that big a deal, but just plugging in turns out to be really convenient. Same with water and sewer. I never used the shower in the RV, but the girls did many times, and being able to turn on the water without it drawing from your tank as well as knowing it’s draining right out the bottom and into the park’s sewer tank, not our tiny on-board grey water tank – that’s nicer than I thought it would’ve been. All that said, we found that about 5 days was our limit on camping without hookups, and the limiting factor tends to be the grey water tank, sometimes the black water tank. That certainly has to do with the size of our family and the ages of our kids, but even when being meticulous about it, we’d see the tank level creep up to full at just about the 5 day point. Two days if we weren’t paying attention.
How was it using the onboard toilet? I don’t know, I never did. No, seriously, I didn’t. I mean, sure, for the lesser business, but for the serious stuff I always used the campground toilets. Two years using public toilets and public showers is a long time, now that I think of it. In fact it kind of blows my mind to consider. Somehow it wasn’t a factor though.
What did you learn along
the way, and what would you have done differently? Big
one – I’ll break it down.
Planning took up much more of our time than I would’ve expected, but it was imperative. First of all, weekends are still weekends for the rest of the world, even if they were meaningless to us, so if we didn’t have a campsite nailed down at least a month ahead for Friday and Saturday nights (several months for the popular places), we could expect to stay someplace second-tier, at best. Extend this concept out and you get the picture. We managed never to stay in a Wal-Mart or Cracker Barrel parking lot even though we were assured by many that that was an option. Had it been just Tacco and I that might have been a more attractive backup plan, but in our situation we were happier with established, well-researched temporary homes.
Do not buy the extended warranty. This is basic stuff, but somehow I let us get talked into it – the increase in the monthly payments seemed small, we were pretty giddy, yadda yadda, Sales 101. Anyway, what happens is this – something needs fixed on the motorhome, you find a local dealer and tell them you’re under warranty, and they ask you if you bought the motorhome there. If you’re us, you answer no unless you happen to be in Cincinnati. They then tell you one of two things, either that they can’t help you at all or that they can get you in in early September maybe (and it’s May). Ouch. Basically we had no warranty work done because we couldn’t schedule it. It’s just about impossible unless you’re staying near where you bought the motorhome. Everyone is “backed up for months.” This is not as true of the chassis, i.e. the Ford part of the rig – the engine, drivetrain, etc — but even that is problematic as although there are Ford dealers everywhere, only a few are authorized to do warranty work and even fewer have the facilities to work on such a big vehicle. Which leads to the corollary…
Plan to do your own maintenance. If you’re not handy, become handy, and get comfortable with finding what you need to do on YouTube, watching it done in videos, and then getting to work yourself. Most of it is much easier than it seems once you get comfortable with taking things apart that you’re not used to messing with.
This lifestyle doesn’t cost nearly as much as you’d think it would. I suppose that depends on what your entering assumptions are, but one of our primary ones was that this would be our home, not a temporary mobile one while we owned a house elsewhere. More detail on that here and several other places in the blog, but in general during pre-gaming we estimated the costs to be such that there’s no way we could afford to pay a mortgage while we traveled. Unfortunately that precise scenario became our reality for the vast majority of the trip. But what we discovered, to our great surprise, was that we were spending less money total on the road, even with still owning our Maryland house, than we had been spending when we just lived in Maryland! We didn’t skimp, either. Very few of the decisions we made on the road had cost as a deciding factor. Meaning we could have been far more frugal had we opted to. Ultimately though, you’re looking at lodging (to include the RV payment and insurance), gas, food, and entertainment. That’s essentially it, and that last category tends to take care of itself without extra expense if you choose your campsites well. Food for thought for the “I’d LOVE to do that sort of thing, BUT…” crowd hopefully.
are great, but often not the best places to camp. At
least in an RV our size, they often make it tricky for you. And I get it, I do – they’re National Parks,
they’re trying to maintain a certain level of pristine. I actually appreciate it. But they rarely have hookups, they almost
always have size limits, the RV campgrounds tend to be cramped, and there are a
ton of regulations. This tends to lead to
a market-driven solution, i.e. several well-appointed private RV campgrounds
nearby, just outside the park. These are often not a bad option. Also, and I hesitate to say this, but
National Parks tend to be off the grid, i.e. no cell coverage. Which, yes, is of course one of the reasons
people go to them. And I’m all for
Off the Grid is tricky in 2019. This pains me to write, but cell signal became far more important to us than I had ever guessed it would. We got most of our internet from tethering off our phones. I say “most” because the majority of RV campgrounds offer wi-fi. On the other hand, the vast majority of that wi-fi sucks. It’s reliably unusable. So a good data plan with tethering was crucial, and we bumped up against its data limits every month. We technically had an unlimited data plan, but like many, it kept track of how much data (both how much total and how much used via tethering) and heavily throttled us above a certain amount. I struggle with this because in theory I’m “against” our general dependence on connectivity, and had grand notions of showing the kids the glories of life without it this trip. In practice… well, it was a major pain to be without cell coverage, and in fact caused no small amount of stress. We kept discovering reasons why we needed to be reachable, and to be able to look things up, make online reservations, etc. In fact at several points on the journey I arrived at a tentative conclusion that we could not have even attempted this sort of a trip without that sort of connectivity, particularly given my comings and goings for work. And so we eventually stopped fighting it. It’s saddening on some level that Woodsprite’s first question about a new campground became “will there be wi-fi there?” But it was. Submitted without further commentary.
Beware Google Maps / Waze. “The best route” is sometimes not really the best route when you’re lugging 50+ feet of high-inertia awkwardness. ‘nuff said.
Economic Prosperity (or Lack Thereof) in American Towns is Readily Apparent. We didn’t stay anywhere sketchy, for obvious reasons. But while places that are “doing well” seemed to be pretty similar to each other, all things considered, there are some shockingly run-down towns out there. On some level I knew this, as do most of us I think. But seeing some of them first hand, many in areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect, was eye-opening.
Connecting is worthwhile. One facet of the journey I had envisioned in the very early stages was a social aspect, in which we would meet several families doing the same thing we were, the kids would hit it off, and our paths would intersect at various points along the road. We’d end up with a new group of friends with similar interests from around the country. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, this did not happen at all. We met lots of retirees. Families though? No. There was one, and we met them just outside of Sequoia the day before we left. The girls got in an hour or so of play time with their girls while we swapped travel stories with the parents, and that’s about as far as it went. What I came to discover very late in the trip (but seems obvious now) is that there are several online means of facilitating exactly that. In other words, we would’ve needed to make some effort to set up such experiences, not just wait for them to fall into our laps. This strikes me as something that would’ve been useful. Our situation was different than most, to be sure, but getting online and throwing out a “hey, we’re arriving at xx tomorrow and staying for a week, anyone around?” if and when we felt like being more social would have paid huge dividends for us and for the kids.
If you’re not good at conflict resolution (or aren’t willing to become so), do not attempt. I’d like to think this is something at which we’re decent after seventeen years of marriage, but close quarters like these focused everything and forced us to up our game. We termed it “living in the Instant Pot” initially and after a while didn’t think about it much anymore, but there’s no denying the need to address and resolve conflicts quickly and efficiently was a constant. Passive aggression, hanging onto grievances, taking your mood out on others, all of those things you aren’t supposed to do but can sorta get away with normally – those things do not fly when you’re in such close quarters. It seems that not only did we get better at the “dealing with it” part, but we also got better at reading our own moods and recognizing when we needed an outlet, which the others learned not to question. When Tacco wanted to head out for a walk or I wanted to jump on my bike, we recognized that in the other as the “steam release” on the Instant Pot, or maybe more accurately, the thing that prevented the steam release from needing to happen, and we always encouraged it. Hopefully we were able to model constructive conflict resolution for the kids as well – I guess you never know until later… but we have both noticed that they seem to do it well with each other.
Bigger is not better. Our motorhome size was just about right. To an extent we got lucky with that, as we didn’t know much when we bought it. Due diligence, sure. But it was our first motorhome, and we managed to nail a size and format that was just big enough to keep us mostly out of each other’s way when necessary, but small enough to keep the expense down and get us into some of the places we wanted to see. Also, and related, try as we might we couldn’t figure out a way to do our journey without towing a car. We considered every other option we could imagine and ultimately rejected them. Looking back, we were correct – the car was mandatory, and we’re glad it was big enough to fit us comfortably. The only thing we would have done differently (see “Our Biggest Mistake”) would be to buy a newer, more reliable one.
Passivity Sucks. More of a vague thread running through everything than a “lesson learned,” but the gist is this: At various times I found myself easing off the throttle as it were, and expecting that positive lifestyle changes, extraordinary experiences — basically all the benefits that you would hope to glean from a journey like this — would fall into our laps by virtue of our just being there. Sometimes this worked. In general though, not the case. To be sure, nothing happens if you don’t show up, and our actual pulling of the trigger and getting underway was THE most important step. Yet inertia is relentless, and works both ways. Even in a lifestyle full of constant change and upheaval, it remained far too easy to fall into ruts. To sit and stare at a screen rather than go do something interesting, let alone something a little scary… I want to be clear, we did all right on this front. There’s a balance between go go push push go and slowing down to savor the moments, and I believe that we struck it somewhere in the healthy zone. But I noted, for me at least, that hope is indeed not a strategy and even living this far out of the box it remains important to make things happen rather than let them happen.
In summary, an extraordinary two years, and we were extremely fortunate. Not only to have the opportunity and means to do such a thing, but for what didn’t happen along the way. No one got hurt, no one was seriously sick, in fact other than a scant few stretches of the sniffles, there was hardly any illness at all. I was the only one who needed to see a medical professional (for my sciatica). No accidents, no equipment failures so serious they stopped us in any major way, and no unsavory interactions with strangers. Maybe most importantly, we all got along and manage to still really dig each other. In fact I’d say we’re much closer for it. That was a fervent hope, but never a given. Going forward, what I would be thrilled to discover is that we didn’t ruin the kids too badly for their return to conventional life and that they’re able to reap the fruits of the experience down the road.
A mercifully uneventful last
leg and another week in a Bend RV park led us to August 14, 2019, where we
pulled into our new driveway and officially ended our journey, 2 years, 15 days,
and 25,007 miles after it began.
That’s just over 100 miles
more than the circumference of the Earth.
Here’s our triumphant arrival, followed by multiple pauses in running-around-the-house to gawk at the view. We’re very happy.
At 14,411’, Mt. Rainier is the second highest mountain in the Continental US. Mt. Whitney in California is the highest, but it sits along the spine of the southern Sierra Nevada, and as such doesn’t really stand out among its peers. I can remember driving up highway 395 just to its east several times as a kid, looking up, and trying to pick it out. “Is that one it? Maybe that one?”
There is absolutely,
positively no mistaking Mt. Rainier. It
rises all the way from sea level just south of Seattle, is permanently
glaciated, and stands more or less alone.
There’s no doubt as to its volcanic status either – the only way it
could look more volcano-like would be if it had a smoking crater on top and
lava running down the sides. It’s
Tacco and I had done some
snowshoeing there many years ago, but other than that we didn’t spend nearly
the time there that we should’ve when we were Washington residents. With only time in our schedule for one more
National Park on the way from Anacortes to Bend, we had needed to choose
between Rainier and Olympic, and opted for the former.
Using lessons learned from two years of RV-in-National-Park experience, we decided to stay at nearby Crystal Mountain Resort rather than fight the crowds, tight roads, and lack of cell signal / electricity in the official NP campground. Great call, too; we basically had the place to ourselves.
Only down side was that we
couldn’t see The Mountain from where we were, but a quick and scenic chairlift
ride took care of that for us.
We only ended up with one full day in which to hike the park and bag the last set of Junior Ranger badges for the girls (they’re up to well over 50!), but it was a glorious one. The lake which we hiked up to wasn’t the sub-alpine jewel we were hoping for, in fact it was fenced off as it’s used as a water source for the ranger station below, but the trail itself more than made up for it.
Wildflowers everywhere, jaw-dropping mountain views, and we even caught sight of a black bear playing in a nearby (but not too nearby) stream. Take that Great Smoky Mountains!
The theme of the day was
mixed emotions I suppose. Bright sun,
crisp air, and some of the best views we’ve seen, yet overlaid with a touch of
melancholy knowing that this was our last real stop on our journey. On top of that, however, was the excitement,
palpable in the kids, of knowing that we were a short week or two from moving
into our new house.
In that mood, we made our second-to-last drive in Davista, from Mt. Rainier to Hood River, OR, where we’d opted to spend the night prior to pushing through to Bend. Here’s the route, which was the one presented to me when I typed the origin and destination into Google Maps on my phone.
Looks pretty straightforward,
right? Yeah, that was my thought too,
which in itself implies that I spent time thinking about it. Which I didn’t, really. I noted that it was through the Cascades, but
pictured a mostly empty, scenic two-lane road winding its way down to the
A quick internet search on the definition of “complacency” just now netted me “a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements.” Ok, I’ll buy that. It’s a dragon I thought we had slain back in Carpinteria when I crunched a hole in Davista’s roof with an unfriendly tree branch. And if not then, then certainly back in the Carolinas, when we drove several hours towing a car with an engaged parking brake, narrowly avoiding fiery disaster. Or any number of the times when I took an app-encouraged “shortcut” and found myself dragging the family into peril on residential roads not remotely designed for an RV, let alone one towing a car.
But no, there we were pulling out of Rainier on our second-to-last leg, check engine light flashing away, not even self-aware enough to smugly think “I’ve got this.” More like not thinking at all. Here’s one more look, close up.
I missed a turn (more like took the wrong branch of a ‘Y’) within the first ten minutes, and found myself guiding our rig toward Yakima instead of Hood River. Perfectly good road, but in the mountains, with no way to turn around. Having lived this story before and therefore knowing how long it can take to find a place to reverse course, we opted to cut our losses, pull over into a turnout, disconnect the Toad, make a semi-hazardous multi-point turn in Davista to reverse direction, re-connect the Toad, and move on. Pain in the butt, but ultimately only about 20 minutes lost.
I should’ve paid
attention. Maybe there was a reason I
felt compelled to veer off toward Yakima.
The road got narrower and more sparsely traveled the further south we pushed, and we lost cellular signal (and consequently Google Maps signal) pretty quickly. This made things somewhat alarming when we reached a completely unmarked fork in the road we weren’t expecting. Both roads looked equally plausible (and remote), and I uncomfortably stopped our beast in the middle of the road just before the ‘Y’ to evaluate.
Fortunately we had purchased a US Atlas way back at the beginning, specifically for this type of situation. UNfortunately, it didn’t show the fork.
Uh-oh. Come to think of it, it didn’t really show the road we had been on either. I mean, it sort of did, along with lots of very, very minor roads in this area, but nothing that looked like anything approaching a main thoroughfare. After several uncomfortable minutes sitting and thinking, a Jeep fortuitously ambled down the road in the other direction, its inhabitants regarding us quizzically as they passed. I waved my hands out the window as I watched them continue, and was relieved to see their brake lights and white back-up lights illuminate. We asked which way to Hood River and they told us which fork to take, but something in their tone and the way they paused and looked at each other when I asked didn’t give me a warm fuzzy. I thanked them, we pressed on, and I imagined the conversation they were having right about now.
Within a couple miles we were treated to the disturbing sight of a “one lane road ahead” sign. You’ve got to be kidding.
It wasn’t kidding.
Further we pressed, past another unmarked fork, which, without much choice, I navigated via a mental coin flip. And then the pavement ended. Yes, dirt road. Single lane dirt road. Could this possibly be right? At this point we were so deep in (and really couldn’t turn around anyway) that I reasoned we had no choice but to see this through. At least we were in a motorhome with water, food, a generator, etc. It could be worse.
It was – another fork. Resigned, I chose again. Tacco offered up that at least this dirt road wasn’t washboarded like the one in Montana that rattled the fillings out of our teeth. “No! Why did you say that – we’re hosed now.” I discovered I was correct as I began to see, more to the point feel, the washboard bumps in the road.
Soon we were on a
one-lane, unmarked, washboarded, dirt road in the mountains, unable to go more
than about 5 mph, with peekaboo views of an active volcano to our left. And a flashing check engine light. And Sasquatch – wasn’t this Bigfoot country?
Other than the incessant pounding and rattling, it got very quiet in Davista as we gutted onward, and in between frantic gaming out of how to handle the possibility of getting stuck or breaking down here in the middle of nowhere, so close to our destination, and avoiding the bigger holes in the road without pitching us over the edge, I considered how morbidly perfect it was to make it all this way before having our Big Crisis.
after about an hour or two we hit some pavement. Then more dirt, then pavement again, and
thank the Lord, a road sign. We were
going the right way!
At long last we cruised into White Salmon, WA, and across the narrow bridge over the Columbia to Hood River. Relief. And a well-deserved beer at the pFriem brewery in town after showers for everyone and a general calming of the nerves. It turns out complacency serves you no better on day seven-hundred-something than it does on day one or two or twenty. I fell asleep that night somewhat fitfully due to a combination of the parade of trains honking their way down the riverside tracks right behind our campsite and the understanding of the bullet we’d dodged today. One leg to go now, though, the ultimate.
It’s fitting that we opted to return to Anacortes for the last month of our travels. This is where it all began, after all. Our last visit in the Spring had been more focused on getting our house ready for sale, and somewhat rushed. Also, Spring is notoriously fickle in that area – you get teases of gorgeous weather and the long, lazy days that summer will bring, but then a grey blanket of temperatures in the 50s and sideways rain will descend for a few days to remind you that you’re in the far reaches of the Pacific Northwest, not Southern California. The standard jokes are that June there is actually called “Junuary” and that summer doesn’t really begin until July 5th. It’s funny cuz it’s true…
So we made the drive back up to Anacortes from Bend in time to catch the 4th of July celebrations. Anacortes does it right, with a morning town photo followed by a picture perfect small town parade with candy and beads tossed from the participants’ floats and the like, a lazy day of barbecues, concerts on the waterfront, and an entirely decent fireworks show over the marina after dark (which doesn’t come until about 10PM that close to the solstice).
Despite the July 5th joke, I’ve never known the weather on parade day to be inclement. This time it was a bit, and instead of watching the fly-by over Commercial Ave’s parade route by NAS Whidbey Island’s F-18s, P-3s, and now P-8s, we heard them pass overhead a few times, evidently searching for and not finding holes in the overcast that they could punch through.
The kids cleaned up on the
candy front though.
And after doing the concert
thing, socializing with some old friends, and getting a few faces painted, we
settled in from our waterfront motorhome site to watch the firework show.
The Saturday Farmers’ Market
is another must-hit, and the marina where we were camped happens to sit right
across the street from it. It’s also
peak berry season, so we behaved accordingly.
Slightly disappointingly, our renters had removed most of the raspberry plants I had planted at our house. Keeper had remembered from living there that each day in late June and early July would net us a very large bowl of ripe raspberries in multiple varieties (not to mention some gooseberries and currants) and had gotten his sisters excited about that prospect, but alas, only a few plants remained. The Asian pear trees, on the other hand, had flourished – whoever buys our house is going to get a treat this Fall.
There was a good bit of interest in our house once it went on the market a few weeks back. The first offer came in within 24 hours, but turned out not to be a serious one as the buyers turned tail at our first counter-offer, claiming that the timing wasn’t right. (Timing. Soooo, why did you put in the offer? Never mind.) Still, we’re optimistic. Taking advantage of it still being ours for what we hope is just a few more weeks, we made several visits back to the deck and hot tub for some chillout time, and before departing, took a couple last pictures and updated our signatures on one of the semi-hidden studs (this has become a tradition of ours).
We also prioritized the three houses we had narrowed down to in Bend, and put an offer on the first. It was accepted, but as there was already a contingent offer in place that we were attempting to bump, we didn’t get our hopes too high. For good reason it turns out, as the original buyers were able to remove the contingency at no-kidding the last minute. No problem, they were there first. So we proceeded onto the second one, which is a stunner, perched over the north side of the town, with 200 degrees of city, river, and mountain views, multiple floors, a pool table, a theater room, and a fire pole (!). It was the kids’ favorite and would’ve been ours if it were a bit more practical – it’s quirky, which will affect its eventual resale we think, and being on a hill makes it less bikeable and there seem to be fewer kids in the neighborhood. It’s awesome though, and fits our collective personality, and our offer was eventually accepted. Looks like we’re doing this!
The last couple weeks in the
area we spent bouncing between our beloved Cliffside RV park, back at Whidbey
Island, and the marina, getting last visits in with friends in the area and
doing some summer playing.
Tacco and I had enjoyed kayaking together when we lived there, and though we never got as seriously into it as we would’ve had we stayed, we wanted to make sure we gave the kiddos a taste of it, and so rented a couple kayaks to supplement the inflatable one we had kept with us & explored the island a bit.
Below you see the free and natural version of a hot stone massage, in which Woodsprite partook prior to paddling.
One interesting side-note: it was difficult not to notice that this summer wasn’t as summery as we were expecting. In fact, we almost felt cheated out of it — it’s one of the few things about which I’m completely fine with having a sense of entitlement. By July, every Anacortes resident is owed a summer. Both of us remember, correctly I think, that once summer does kick in, it’s pretty much guaranteed beautiful weather every single day. With the exception of fires that occasionally darken the skies with smoke (like they had done in 2018), it’s clear and in the mid to high 70s as a rule, with occasional forays into the lower and upper 80s. This summer, not so much. The overcast that had somewhat dampened our 4th of July celebration kept poking its unwelcome head into the July and early August mix. Not every day, but enough that we commented about how it was pushing us toward confirmation of our decision. Not that we needed it.
For our final hurrah in the area, we managed to put together a repeat of the previous year’s visit to our close friends who live on Lake Washington near Seattle for SeaFair and the Blue Angels airshow. The timing was both tricky and perfect, as he had very recently been informed of an opportunity to transfer to Tokyo for work, and they were the chaotic process of getting affairs in order so that they could depart in a week or so.
Once again we shoehorned
ourselves into their driveway and spent a few days cooking, eating, drinking,
boating, tubing, and watching the Blues do their thing.
That never gets old, nor does time with them; I was thrilled that we were able to make it work and that the kids were given an opportunity to reconnect, however briefly. We even bought their car from them, with an arrangement for them to leave it in Seattle when they flew to Japan and for me to pick it up at the airport after a work trip and drive it to Bend — win/win!
One bittersweet moment took place out on the boat after a solid tubing session. Their kids were going through an even more concentrated period of upheaval than ours with the impending move, and an air of poignancy hung over all of their interactions. At one point their younger son, who is extremely wise for his age and was wringing every last moment out of a visit with one of his local friends while we were there, observed to Keeper “So wait… basically your only ‘friends’ for the last two years have been just the kids of your parents’ friends?”
Oof. I let that one hit me in the gut from my perch at the back of the boat. Keeper answered in a tentative affirmative; he has done an outstanding job of keeping close online touch with his Maryland friends over the past two years and will continue to do so. But… that’s not the same. As much as we imagined that our kids would be close with their kids if we were to live nearby in Seattle (and they likely would), I was faced with the realization that a couple quick visits, even when they get along well, does not necessarily equal the seeds of a lifelong friendship. Also, that when Keeper and the girls have lamented at times that they’re not getting time to spend with kids their age, that’s not an idle observation. We’ve kept them somewhat isolated, and it really will be important to do all we can to get them dialed into our new community. And in a larger sense, though this has been an incalculably rich experience for all of us and overwhelmingly positive in the aggregate, there have been trade-offs.
Our journey’s last leg will
take us to Mt. Rainier National Park, and then two driving legs to Bend (we’re
breaking it up by stopping in Hood River, OR for a day). And then we stop! We’ll camp in Bend until we’re able to close
on the house, which will hopefully be no more than a week. AND THEN WE STOP. I had to write that again because I’m not
quite processing it.
What happened is this; we just could not find a Park City house. And we found quite a few in Bend. As our self-imposed deadline to make forward progress rapidly approached, Tacco and I both flew solo out to Utah to look at every house we could. Near the end we found one that we thought was going to be “it.” It looked gorgeous from the pictures, it has a large yard bordering on open space, and as a bonus sits right across the street from the elementary school. It was pricey, very much so, but we figured there was some wiggle room there, and managed to justify to ourselves how we could make the finances work. I was first to fly out, and it was the last house I saw that day. What’s more, the sellers coincidentally put in a significant price reduction that morning. It was a sign – it had to be.
And then I checked it out…
I REALLY wanted to love it. I did. But that entryway and living room – why so oddly laid out? And the kitchen – completely jammed in between the stairway and back wall, with no way to expand it. That’ll bug me. Dining room in what looks more like a hallway. And the back yard – whew, not nearly in the state of repair that the photos showed, and what on Earth is that big trellis thing doing on what appeared to have been a basketball court? And all those dark downstairs rooms – no light down there at all… will they work as bedrooms? Plus it’s big. Possibly too big. The garage isn’t though. Shoot. Can we do this??
I’m going into too much
detail, but with some hindsight it struck me that the story of this house was a
microcosm of our Park City house hunting story in general, and it sealed our
I tried not to poison the pot too much with Tacco because she still had to fly out and take a look herself. I wanted her unvarnished opinion. In addition to the one I referenced above, she looked at 8-10 houses on her visit, and came back with a similar impression to mine: “We cannot buy that house for anything even near that price.” There you go.
And so we did what we often do when we’ve agonized over the facts, data, and details of a decision for long enough; we went out to dinner, popped some wine, and talked about what our guts were telling us. Our guts said Bend. We had known this on some level for quite a while, but finally gave ourselves permission to overlook the impracticalities and go for it. The relief was almost overwhelming.
Here then, is the final phase of Plan Moon: Drive Davista back up to the Bay Area to stay one more quick stretch with my parents and give the mechanics another shot at the flashing Check Engine Light of Death. OK, maybe not that, maybe just the flashing Check Engine Light of Severe Annoyance. Continue north into Oregon, and camp out in Bend for a month or so while we finalize our home search and put in an offer. Head into Washington thereafter, and spend prime summer time up in Anacortes, dealing with any last details on our home there, which would hopefully be under contract by then. And finally, turn back south and ride triumphantly into our new home and lives.
We’ve done the first three, up to and including Bend. The Ford service coordinator in the Bay Area that we had liked so much before turned out not to be quite as accommodating as we had originally thought. He made it pretty clear that he wasn’t especially happy to see us again, and after sending us off with replaced coils and an assurance that this was what it needed all along, he opted not to take our calls when the problem, predictably, came back once we got on the road again. Ah well.
Tacco also managed to pick up
her Doctorate somewhere in there. I had
mentioned her online studies previously, well, she kept at them diligently and
despite often difficult circumstances, and was able to walk for her degree on
May 10th in San Diego, with her proud family beaming at her from the
audience. Dr. Tacco!! She rocks.
We also squeezed in a stop in Eugene, where we have a family of cousins we hadn’t seen for several years. They’ve got quite the setup there, to include several acres and lots of toys. We hiked, we biked along the Willamette, and we slaughtered and ate their rooster – a first for all of us involving YouTube and no small amount of dark hilarity in the “ok, so how exactly do we do this?” vein.
It is very much uncool to talk this way about an animal you slaughter and eat, but just to give an example of how it went: Often chickens headed for the dinner table are put headfirst into a cone, which holds them still and upside down while their carotid is sliced and they quickly bleed out, with minimal suffering. Thinking that was a solid approach, we grabbed one of my orange road cones from Davista’s bowels and I set to work at cutting the end hole to size with my utility knife. After far too much time spent and several bright orange rings of plastic littering the area, I thought we had what we needed and put the rooster carefully inside. Instead of a docile, restrained rooster hanging there with his head outside of the cone and a neatly exposed neck, we ended up with an inverted cone with two chicken feet sticking out the top, the head nowhere to be found on the other end. His body was far too wide for the cone’s shape to allow his upper reaches to emerge. When I looked through the other end I was treated to the sight of his rooster face about 2 inches from the end, his eyes regarding me quizzically, judgmentally. “Dude. What are you doing.” Eventually we succeeded! I thank him sincerely for his sacrifice. But I can’t say he was tasty.
Over the Cascade range we drove the following morning, and made our jubilant entry into Bend. It became obvious pretty quickly that this was our place, if it hadn’t been obvious already. Check it out.
We hiked a lot.
We biked a lot.
Twenty minutes of driving and
you’re deep in the mountains.
We ate really well, often outside in the sun. Sparrow Bakery and their luscious Ocean Rolls. The food carts everywhere. And the beer – hoo boy the beer. I knew it was good, but what I hadn’t yet grasped was not only how insanely good, but how pervasive it is. I went to get my hair cut – “want a beer? Keg’s over there. Boneyard RPM IPA.” Have you tried this stuff? Anything else by Boneyard? Probably not, because they don’t bottle it; you can only get it locally. And it’s spectacular, like all the local beers. I went to the bike shop, and of course there’s a small bar with a half dozen local taps right there in the middle of the bikes and equipment. Free, as far as I could tell. I went to the gas station. THE GAS STATION. And while they happily pumped my gas for me (because you’re not allowed to do it yourself in Oregon), I wandered into the Circle K to grab some tissues for Keeper, who had a stuffy nose. Went to check out, looked up, and saw about three dozen taps on the wall – growler fill station, of course. “You’ll have to go over to that register to buy the Kleenex. In the meantime, do you want to sample a few beers?” Well… sure I do, but I’m not going to, as it’s 11AM and the family is out in the car at the pump and we’re going about our day…. Whew, what a town!
We’ve found our place. No looking back, either. I wondered whether either of us would second
guess our decision once we had made it, and we’re not, not even a little
bit. I received further confirmation
when Keeper came up to me and asked “Dad, do you mind if I ride my bike down to
the river and explore a little bit?” “NO!!” I could hardly contain myself. “No! No, I don’t
mind at all – go, GO! Have fun.” It may be the first time the mode of entertainment
that first leapt to his mind didn’t involve a screen. He went, and then he went again the next day,
and then he asked if he could take his sister along with him and went
It’s the right place, and we’ve
narrowed down our search to three houses.
Any of them we’d be thrilled to live in.
I think we’re going to make this work.
The transition from the traveling lifestyle to an “almost there” feeling in which we’re technically still rootless but in reality almost entirely focused on the next phase was at first quite subtle. The subtlety is gone.
We need to make a decision about both a place to settle and a house in which to do so; putting it off in hopes of further inspiration or “ah ha” moments is no longer feasible. The list of travel destinations we still intend to visit has dwindled to a scant few to our north and west. We need to get our newly vacated house in Anacortes on the market. And the kids, it’s safe to say, are “done” with motorhome living. They’re not complaining, in fact they’re doing perfectly fine, but it’s crystal clear where their hearts and minds are.
We’ve hit the whole family version of the “where do we settle?” discussion from several different angles, and every time have come up with a similar answer from the kids, which is that they understand the up and down sides of all of our options, they really do, but are ultimately happy with anything we decide. They just want to settle. Really guys, can we settle please? Please?
So it’s up to Tacco and me,
and the stark reality that we Just Need To Make A Call.
She and I weave around each other in our meandering and interminable “what if” discussions, alternately preferring one destination over the other. Through all the reversals, though, what it has come down to is that we could very easily make either Park City or Bend home. And while Bend seems to be the unicorn of the two, it comes at the price of significant professional difficulty for both of us – the long, difficult commute to work for me and the relative isolation and lack of acupuncture opportunities for her. That is an oversimplification, but captures the gist. So we’ve opted for practicality and decided on Park City. Park City!
BUT! (there’s always a but)
We can’t find a house. That’s a bit of a complication. I’ve already touched on this, but Park City’s housing market has recently become, if not exactly on fire turnover-wise, a beast that would require scraping at the extreme reaches of our home buying budget to settle there. In fact it would likely require exceeding it and hoping for the best. We have a fantastic realtor there and he has patiently taken us through dozens of houses on multiple occasions – in fact we get an alert any time ANYTHING happens in the market within our range, and we’ve looked at every single house that we think could possibly work. And we can’t quite get there. Not yet at least. They’re nice houses (well, most of them are. Some seem to think they’re in Palo Alto and can get away with location-based extortion. And maybe they can, but not with us), they’re just not nice enough for us to stretch that much financially. We know we’re not going to find the perfect house; this is wise counsel we’ve received time and time again and fully agree with, yet it goes beyond that. We just can’t spend that much on a place that we find “just ok.” So we continue to search and hope. Our realtor informed us, quite reasonably, that he’s certain the right house for us will pop there, and we had to reply that while he’s undoubtedly correct, if it doesn’t pop very soon that fact doesn’t really help us.
Back to California (and then back to Washington). We had a few days back on Camp Pendleton’s beachfront before flying up to Anacortes to do the throw-money-at-the-house dance to get it prepared for the market. A Costco run upon our arrival in the Pacific Northwest netted us a couple nice air mattresses and some cozy blankets – camping in the house is both cheaper and more fun than staying in a hotel or AirBnB. Plus we got to use the hot tub.
Watching the kids react to our old house was fascinating. They were all born there, but only the older two remember it, Firebolt faintly so. It stirred up quite a few memories in Keeper, both melancholy and joyful, and it wasn’t long before he offered up a “so why can’t we just live here?” The girls enthusiastically followed suit. They loved the raspberry plants and fruit trees, the hot tub, the view of the islands and sunsets, and opined that our assurances that it was too small rang hollow. Fair enough, living in 300-odd square feet for two years will make anything seem spacious. We chalked it up to a combination of the beautiful scenery and a temporary relief from cabin fever. But there are other reasons for Tacco and my reluctance to consider it further – some are pragmatic in nature, but more than anything it comes down to the fact that as much as we love Anacortes, we emphatically no longer feel its pull as a place to raise our kids. That’s a tricky one to explain, so we had to default to variations on “trust us” when the myriad versions of Keeper’s question kept coming back to us.
Interspersed among the house
work and organization of the larger items of house work, we took a few more
hikes and soaked up the scenery.
I also was fortunate to be able to attend the retirement ceremony and party of three of my dearest friends from my old Navy Reserve squadron back at Whidbey Island. One had shared a brain with me for a while as we co-led a Combat Aircrew for some three years while squadronmates. She’s one of the best people I know, and being present for her transition to 100% civilian life was an incredibly poignant reminder of the camaraderie and deep friendships squadron life brings. Adding to the poignancy was the stark realization that the squadron is no longer mine, and in fact I’ve been away from it for far longer than it seems. I only recognized about half the faces, and I felt a distinct sense of being separate from it all.
The required work completed
and/or scheduled, we headed back to SeaTac airport for the flight back to
Southern California. But as April is
tulip time in the Skagit Valley just east of Anacortes, we stopped for some
flower gazing and photos.
Skagit Valley’s tulip festival is second in size only to Holland’s near Keukenhof (which I was also fortunate to live near and see when I was a semi-Dutchman), and we’ve made a point to visit on a non-crazy weekday morning every year we could. It was a fitting end to this visit, though we intend to return to the area once more this summer, no matter where we opt to settle.
We relocated to a smaller
campground at the northern end of Camp Pendleton upon our return. It abuts San Onofre State Beach, and sits
near an old nuclear power plant which is in the process of being
Where the other Pendleton campground (and its BEACH Services!) was vast and well-appointed, this one is quaint, narrow, and solidly surfing oriented. In fact one of Southern California’s most famous breaks, Trestles, sits within walking distance to the northwest. Two slightly less famous breaks, Churches and Old Man’s, bracket the campground and could be seen from out our windshield. Evidently there’s an agreement between the base and the local surfers which allows them to access the breaks despite their being on military property, as long as they walk along the beach from one to the other and don’t attempt to stray into base territory. As the distances to anything important on base are long and a barefoot guy in a wetsuit walking past Marine Corps barracks would likely raise suspicion, the setup seems to work well.
There was a steady stream of
surfers parading past us each morning, and we were treated to the view of
dozens of them, if not hundreds, riding the perfectly peeling breaks.
I loved it. The family… well… they liked it. Honestly, I think that not only are they about done with the motorhome thing, but they’re beached out. I could sit with my toes in the sand pretty much all day any day, and in fact it’s where I chose to drink my morning coffee, as well as tool around on my computer when I needed to. But I was generally alone in doing so,
Keeper and I did head out for a few boogie boarding sessions, and I cherished them as I was acutely aware of their being the last in what could become a very, very long time. Ultimately this was a beach far more suited to surfing though, and I never managed to arouse the interest in him that I’d hoped I could. And to be fair, I didn’t get out there on a surfboard either, and really have no good excuse for that. The office just up the bluff from us had both rental surfboards and wetsuits (though my shorty would’ve sufficed just fine). So why didn’t I? Learning to surf had been one of my goals since our departure, and we had had a successful lesson back in San Elijo last year… now here we were with these amazing breaks in our front yard, and I kept finding reasons not to get out there and have a glorious time making a fool of myself.
I think it circles back to everything feeling different. We’re near the end and oriented almost entirely toward the next few months’ challenges rather than the here and now. Fulfilling travel goals is no longer a priority. That’s a weak excuse and bit of a bummer, but I’m oddly ok with it. I’m realizing I don’t want a fanfare and abruptness at the end of our journey – it strikes me as too much. Too much emotion, too much upheaval, too much disorientation. Easing gradually out of this lifestyle and into the next seems a better way for us. I don’t know, that’s probably a massive stretch to peg my failure to get out and surf on the desire to land smoothly; the truth is probably closer to the fact that I succumbed to inertia. But as I said… I’m all right with less ambition presently. I think we all are actually.
As this part of the country has been gushed over by
thousands more eloquent than I, I’ll defer here to pictures, with a just a smattering
I will say that this was our first somewhat extended experience with convoying, which is a bit surprising. We loved it. Primarily due to the company of course (Tacco’s sister’s family), but much like eating a great meal or seeing an amazing concert is better when you have people to share the experience with, coordinated RV travel compounds the fun while only marginally increasing the complexity. I wish we had known this sooner – we may have made a more concerted effort to reach out a bit more.
We departed Southern California over Cajon Pass and through the desert to Valley of Fire state park, just past Las Vegas. We’d spent an afternoon hiking there the year prior, but this time we were able to snag a double large campsite and spend the night.
First though, a hike (of course). The cousins were thrilled to see each other
again, and immediately charged up a rock, like you do.
Below was my attempt to set up an “our album’s about to drop” pic, but couldn’t manage to pull it off. I like the first one, but far too smily for an album cover, and the second found Firebolt taking things a few steps over the line and into Spinal Tap territory.
We headed up to Zion next, and found to our surprise that Zion in the Spring bears only a passing resemblance to Zion in the mid-late Fall. Now, Zion is Zion, and will always be breathtaking. But we learned how good we had it when we essentially had the park to ourselves, with a clear Virgin River, Fall colors, and no traffic on Angel’s Landing.
Again though, Zion is a gem – easily one of our best
National Parks by any standard, no matter when you’re there. Other than playing around in the campground
(which we had to book outside the park, as the ones inside were full), hiking
was again the activity of choice.
We heard about some damage on the Emerald Pools trail which would prevent us from getting to the upper Emerald Pool, but took the hike anyway, figuring we might be able to scramble up over the “damage.”
Nope, this was MAJOR damage. Like you’re going to have to build a completely new trail around that rockfall damage. So we stayed at the lower Pool and enjoyed the views from behind the waterfall.
Angels Landing take 2 was sporty, and not at all a given that we would attempt it. If you remember from last year’s visit, we hiked up to the spot where the knife edge ridge begins, with the bolted-in chains, and stopped there. That’s a spectacular hike in itself, and try as I might, I couldn’t talk my way into ignoring all the warnings about this not being a suitable kids’ hike and taking one or several of my own higher up the trail.
This time we discussed the merits of going up again with the entire group, and decided it wasn’t something we could miss. The question of course was what we would do once he hit the plateau where we had stopped last year.
The sisters chatted along the way up and stopped to look
gorgeous framed against the scenery.
Firebolt stopped to bemoan her fate at the base of “Walter’s Wiggles,” an infamous set of steep switchbacks which leads to the plateau.
And then we made the plateau.
To my surprise, both Firebolt and ex-acrophobic Keeper
expressed a desire to keep climbing, as did their oldest cousin. A group re-jiggering ensued, we left
Woodsprite with her younger cousin and aunt to amuse themselves at the plateau,
and we hit the chains.
I tried to capture the absolute craziness of this hike in pictures, and found it utterly impossible. Thousand foot drops on either side, and this tiny, steep scramble up the sandstone, aided by the chain that they’d bolted into the rock, but thwarted by the mass of people you’re hiking with, going both directions on a very much one lane road. Quite a bit of waiting on people to traverse especially dicey sections, peppered by nervous chatter and too-loud laughs of false confidence. At one point we even watched a woman faint and collapse. The people next to her on the trail immediately grabbed her as she fell, preventing her from slumping over the edge and down the cliff, but she did hit her head in the process and begin to bleed. Fortunately there was a nurse on the trail just up from us. I presume she made it down ok.
Keeper proclaimed a relapse of his acrophobia about a third
of the way up, and opted to hang out there with Tacco while the other four of
us pressed on.
We finally made it to the top, and I can’t tell you how proud of Firebolt I am. Not once did she freak out or even doubt herself, at least not openly. And if there’s one thing you can count on with Firebolt, it’s that she’s telling you exactly what she thinks. Never have I met someone more of an open book, more endearingly sincere than Firebolt. And now evidently she’s a badass too.
Our next stop was in Page, Arizona. I had heard about Antelope Canyon, which is a
small slot canyon which branches off of Lake Powell near its southwest end, and
is viewable via guided tour. What I
hadn’t known was that EVERYONE has now heard about Antelope Canyon. This is apparently a recent thing. For good reason though, it’s otherworldly.
As it sits on reservation land, access to it is highly
regulated – guided tours only. We made
our reservations and showed up at the canyon with about a thousand of our
closest friends and several large buses.
Tour groups organize and make the walk to the canyon entrance every 10
or 15 minutes; there are an awful lot of people in that canyon at any given
time. This sounds highly unpleasant, and
when we started the tour, filed onto the stairway with the others, and entered
the first tiny segment of canyon with about 50 other people holding their
phones in the air to take pictures, it appeared to be trending that way.
Thankfully, however, everything changed as we began our
stroll up the canyon floor and the group thinned itself out. It’s only wide enough to fit two or three
people in most places, if that.
Consequently it became easy to feel like you had the canyon to
yourself. And the photo opportunities
Every twist revealed another impossibly carved formation.
The guides are experts in phone photography as well. Not only did they tell us precisely which
photo settings to use, they pointed out exactly where to aim and meter each
shot and even borrowed our phones to snap a few themselves.
An image from a story I read about an American landmark
famous for being the “most photographed xxx in the country” stuck in my
head. What exactly the landmark was
escapes me, but in the story, two of the characters are watching people
photograph the landmark and one remarks to the other than no one actually sees
I wanted to make sure I saw the canyon. So I got plenty of photos, but then I stopped
At the end of the canyon we emerged into the daylight
again. Here’s how it looks from the
surface. Seeing that, it’s nearly impossible
to imagine what’s below.
Antelope Canyon went from a off-the-cuff target of
opportunity to a potentially disagreeable tour experience, to a highlight of
our trip, at least as far as natural beauty.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
I’ve since learned that there are dozens, if not hundreds of
similar slot canyons in that area.
Access would be far more difficult, as you’d have to first find one, and
then get into it without the help of stairways and ladders. Then once in, you wouldn’t know what lies
ahead, nor would you necessarily know whether there happened to be a
thunderstorm far upstream that could flood it at any moment. But finding one on your own and exploring it
now strikes me as a worthwhile adventure goal.
We departed Page in the early afternoon, following our tour,
and headed south toward the Grand Canyon.
It’s yet another stunner of a drive across northern Arizona’s high
plateau. I found the knowledge that this
almost unfathomably massive canyon which I couldn’t yet see sat just north of
me to provide an interesting form of anticipatory excitement. You enter the park having only seen trees and
terrain, and suddenly a few miles in you look through that section of trees to
your right and BOOM, they just stop and you get glimpses of a view that just
doesn’t seem right in its enormity. You
stop at the first overlook, and just try to process it. It takes time, and you look around and see
others staring, quietly slack-jawed like you are.
The campground is well appointed, with various trails
leading to the viewpoints and points of interest. What I hadn’t quite anticipated was how
chilly it would be. It sits at about
7000’ elevation, and dropped below freezing each night we were there. There were still patches of snow in spots.
Keeper and I took a ride on our bikes to the edge. I could’ve spent a day doing only that.
We returned though, and gathered up the others for a group
visit to the edge at sunset.
The following day we opted for another hike, the first one
we’ve done (with the exception of Carlsbad Cavern) that started steeply
downhill to our destination before climbing back up, rather than the other way
Signs warning of the hazards of attempting a hike to the
bottom of the canyon unprepared abound.
It makes sense, too – the temperature can increase by 30 or more degrees
as you descend, and gravity’s assistance could easily lull you into a false
sense of being prepared for the several thousand foot climb back up. There’s no drinking water around either, and
the sun is merciless. The signs pull no
punches, showing crude drawings of people throwing up and passing out on the
We went about a third of the way down, which was more than
enough. After stopping for lunch, we
scrambled around on the rocks a bit, and made the climb back to the rim.
Back at the campground we grilled burgers and toasted a wildly successful joint family trip, and said our goodbyes in the morning. The cousins/aunt/uncle/brother/sister made their way back to Vegas to catch their flight to Chicago and we set off back to southern California’s beaches, with an overnight in lovely Daggett after an aborted attempt to boondock in the middle of the desert. It’s harder to find a place to pull 50’ of motorhome and car off of the road to sleep than you might think. It’s harder than I thought it would be at least. And ok, I admit it, we wanted to have a cellphone signal too, so that limited how far from the highway we could venture in our search. So Daggett it was. And yes, I was being a little sarcastic about the “lovely” part, but in truth the RV park in which we stayed was entirely decent.
And now we return to Camp Pendleton to round out our Southern California time and hopefully decide on a place to live once and for all. Park City and Bend are close to neck and neck, but Park City has taken the edge due to practicality. Though Bend holds the top spot when it comes to lifestyle and vibe, professionally both Tacco and I will have a much easier time with work in Park City. And that’s important. Plus those Epic Passes!… The problem is, we need to find a house. Those are in short supply and very expensive in Park City. Pressing on!
What’s the old saying about guests and fish? That they start to stink after three months,
right? Something like that. I may be mixing up time units – not
sure. Regardless, we cleaned up our mess
and departed my parents’ driveway for points south on the last day of
February. As much as we enjoyed our
quality time with them, it was time to set out on our own once again.
“Dawn Patrol” has become a kid favorite mode of departure. I’m a fan, too, frankly. We get everything ready to go, including disconnecting from any hookups and pulling in Davista’s large slideout, at bedtime. Keeper sleeps on the couch since his bed drops down over the driver’s seat. And I set an alarm for oh dark thirty. Upon awakening to the first few lines of Everything in its Right Place (my current alarm tone of choice, which, I literally just now realized, may not be setting the proper tone for my days), I hook up the Toad if necessary, make a quick cup of coffee, and off we go, ideally with everyone else still asleep. The kids like it because it effectively shortens the travel time – nothing like waking up to find yourself halfway to your destination already. And I like it because of the quiet, inside and outside. Though guiding the Davista-Toad complex safely down the road takes nothing near the intense concentration it did when we first started, it’s still taxing, with the attention required and fatigue induced almost directly proportional to the traffic on the road. So an empty freeway is nice.
Like the kids, I also enjoy having made a large dent in our
travel day by the time the sun rises, and this particular leg was a long
one. Not wanting to navigate LA’s
spaghetti bowl of freeways again during high traffic time (i.e. anytime other
than midnight to 4 AM), I had worked with Tacco to devise a route that bypassed
it entirely and netted us another National Historical Site along the way. This one was dedicated to Cesar Chavez, and
sits in the Tehachapi hills at the south end of California’s Central Valley, on
the way to the desert that surrounds LA.
It was a relaxing and educational stop; I lived a large part of my life
in California and never knew it was there.
I also learned that the LA basin’s traffic is a vastly more formidable force than I had given it credit for. Though we may have avoided about an hour of start/stop and multiple forced lane changes on “the 5,” we traded it for about two extra hours of driving due to the circuitous route, and a good forty-five minutes of start/stop on a few other numbered SoCal freeways preceded by the definite article, which I’d previously considered remote enough to be non-busy. I’d tell you my whole route, but I don’t want to sound too much like The Californians on Saturday Night Live.
Oh, and the flashing check engine light? Not fixed. Again. Yeah, that didn’t take long to discover once we actually started moving in earnest. I’m now learning far more than I ever wanted to know about misfires, what can cause them, how they’re sensed, what damage having them can do to your engine components, and on and on and on. I still don’t know if we’re actually misfiring or just incorrectly sensing that we are. Evidently no one does. All I know is that something is wrong and I’m drifting toward investigation into what recourse we have if our under-warranty power train simply can’t be fixed. That’s a path I hope to avoid.
We arrived back at Camp Pendleton’s beach in the afternoon
and set up on the sand once again. This
time we actually managed to snag a front row site, with nothing between us and
the waves but an expanse of sand. Such a
setup is very hard to beat.
One gene I don’t have is the one that tells me it’s imperative, wherever I go, to ensure everyone in my vicinity knows my interests and loyalties before we meet. Our neighbor apparently does. He didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea I guess. Unfortunately we never actually did meet, but I’d like to believe we would’ve gotten along just fine regardless of our differences, genetic or otherwise.
We settled back into pure RV life (from the hybrid that our stay at my parents’ house had been) quickly, and the beach was relaxed and pleasant. It’s not particularly warm in Southern California in the Winter / early Spring, but neither is it particularly chilly. Beach play in fleece and hoodies was just about as much fun as is summer beach play, and the water temperature was entirely tolerable in our wetsuits.
I am sensing a distinct difference in general family vibe, though. The push for a smooth landing and the proximity of our travels’ end has worn down some of the edges. Where the kids harbored a good bit of excitement for what was to come at the end of last year, they seem now to be thinking much more about settling. There’s more of a focus on routine and speculation about what life will be like in a few short months when we stop moving. Keeper has gotten his Invisaligns and is wearing them diligently in an attempt to have his teeth fixed prior to starting school in the Fall. Firebolt is digging deep into an online class about World War 2 historical fiction (and loving it). And Woodsprite talks often and longingly about the day we have a house of our own. Actually all three do that.
The frenetic activity and motion have all but ceased, and
Tacco and I spend much of our conversational time combing through the
intricacies of how and where we intend to drop our anchor. It’s a transition phase – we’re still
traveling, but in many ways it doesn’t feel like it.
Our planning calendar is something we adopted a few months into our travels when we did an evaluation and realized that we had been doing a poor job keeping the kids abreast of where we were and what was upcoming. We update it every three weeks or so, as well as a list in the side column of things to look forward to. There’s much less on it now that our pace has slowed.
We do have another large trip, or more accurately
trip-within-a-trip, planned for Spring Break.
Tacco’s sister’s family is flying out from the Chicago area to Las
Vegas, where they’ll rent an RV and we’ll join them. The plan we crafted has us doing a
semi-whirlwind tour of the Southwest, hitting Zion, Antelope Canyon near Lake
Powell, and Grand Canyon before returning to Vegas. The go-go-go thing we’re looking forward to,
if a bit more warily this time, and the time with cousins / aunts / uncles even
more so. And surprisingly this will be
the first time we’ve made it to the Grand Canyon.
More than anything, though, it’s become about striving for
balance between savoring our last few months living this extraordinary
experience, and diligently working out and executing a plan to return to
“normalcy.” It’s a challenge to keep the
potential (and actual) stress of the latter from bleeding into the former. We don’t want to miss anything.
Despite our decision to move to and raise our kids in a ski town, our being a ski family was never a sure thing. The causal arrows flow the opposite way than you might think, which is to say that we didn’t start with the pre-condition that we would settle in a ski town and then work back from there, rather we found that the vast majority of the places we really liked happened to be ski towns as well. And that’s not 100% true, either… I was heavily biased toward ski towns from the start. It’s just that I was the only one of the five of us who put “proximity to slopes” up there at the peak of my priority list.
Regardless of how that
calculus worked, however, we did decide that discovering whether skiing was or
could one day be a “thing” for us would be important, and before we started our
RV adventure, Keeper had skied exactly twice, separated by three years, and the
girls had skied two fewer times than that.
Our Winter ’18 visit to Bend gave us the first opportunity to get the kids on skis, and that ugly, misty day on Mt. Bachelor became a narrowly averted disaster which threatened to end our kids’ (and quite possibly, by extension, our…) skiing careers within a few hours. Miraculously, they loved their experience in spite of everything working against them, and then, of course, we got the opportunity to spend this Winter attempting to lock in their enthusiasm.
Quick recap on the military Epic pass: Special deal for this year only extended to military members, dependents, and reservists — $99 gets you a season long unlimited lift pass at most Vail-owned ski resorts. Even before we knew we would have another traveling / road-schooling Winter, we would’ve been insane to pass that up. [Update, they’re doing it for 2019-2020 too, but raised the price. To $129 (!)]
Our season had started well with the Vail trip in which everything fell our way. It turned into something truly glorious as our free time managed to coincide with some of the best snowfall the West has seen in years, if not decades.
During Keeper’s semi-private Kirkwood ski lesson a few days prior (which he wasn’t a fan of), he had a lift-ride conversation with the instructor, likely sensing his frustration, that went something like this:
“So, will you and your family
be doing any more skiing this Winter, do you think?”
“Oh yes, definitely. We already have a couple trips planned.”
Where to. Here in Tahoe?”
“No, we’re going to Vail next
“AHHH OK, well I think you’re
going to like Vail a lot. There’s quite
a bit more to it than there is here.
“And then for my birthday
we’re going to Whistler for a week…”
“OK WOW, you’re REALLY going
to like Whistler. I envy you!”
Not only did that succeed in taking the edge off of Keeper’s exasperation at the time, but he was absolutely correct.
First though, Tahoe. Tahoe being relatively close to my parents’ house / our temporary home, we figured that we would aim to squeeze in a few trips up there as targets of opportunity, and the first one of the new year was to Northstar. What Northstar lacks in impressive terrain (even the summit is treed, which is an anomaly in the Sierras and Rockies), it makes up for in creature comforts. It’s not quite Vail-level upscale, but it trends that way, and is a fun place to ski, particularly if glades are your thing.
We rented a condo slopeside,
above the village, which gave us the opportunity to ski-in-ski-out – always a
Upon arrival, Keeper stepped out of the car, which happened to be my parents’, and asked what that hissing noise was. Uh oh.
Can’t say I’ve ever seen a
puncture quite like this. Best I could
tell, it was a link of chain that had broken and opened itself up, and we
managed to ride directly over the pointy part of it. I yanked and yanked to try to remove it, but
thought better of it when I realized there was still air in the tire that could
push it out forcefully once any restrictions were freed, not to mention another
set of sharp edges. So we turned it into
a lesson on tire changing and dealt with it back at home after driving back on
The winter’s heavy snowfall
really hadn’t kicked in in earnest yet, but the conditions weren’t bad. Woodsprite had the most challenging time. She learned how to snowplow pretty quickly
(“pizza”). She does it well. What she does less well is let her snowplow
relax (“Come out of pizza! More French
fries!”). While I’d far prefer her to
ski in control than allow herself to tear wildly down the mountain, it tires
her out very quickly. And I’m not
surprised – I can’t imagine fully engaging my quads continuously for more than
a few seconds, let alone minutes. I did
develop a way (as have countless parents and ski instructors I’m certain) to
get myself into a reverse snowplow, put my poles horizontally in front of me to
give her something to grab onto, and then ski down backwards with her inside of
my snowplow in order to get her down some of the steeper sections. It’s not ideal, but it keeps her in the game.
Whistler came next, and as
requested, fell over Keeper’s birthday in February. Tacco and I were thrilled that he had
requested to turn 13 in Whistler, both for his ambition (he hadn’t yet skied
much when he requested it) and for the fact that we have many great memories
Whistler / Blackcomb is
Canada’s premier ski resort, and is not only massive, but sports the most
vertical feet in North America. It spans
two large mountains, which relatively recently were connected by a mid-mountain
gondola. It sits about an hour and a half
north of Vancouver, and is reached by a spectacular drive up a fjord, of all
things. There’s pretty much every type
of terrain to be found there, with much of it above the treeline. And last but not least, it’s anchored by what
has to be one of the best ski villages in the world at its base.
As Whistler is the closest
major ski resort to our old home in Anacortes, we spent several long winter
weekends up there, particularly during our squadron days. Consequently it inhabits a somewhat exalted perch
in our memories.
If Whistler has a down side, it’s likely weather. Despite the 5000’+ of vertical, its base sits at a relatively low elevation. Combine that with its Pacific Northwest location, and rain at the base isn’t uncommon, nor are clouds. I distinctly remember several days above the treeline there in which visibility was only a hair’s width better than zero, and the only way to stay on the trails was to pick out the fluorescent circular signs that marked their edges from out of the pea-soup mist.
As has been the case for just
about everything else this season, the weather wasn’t typical. Rather than mild and cloudy, we arrived to
find bright sun and bitter cold, which lasted our entire stay.
Not especially problematic,
as it’s generally not difficult to bundle up against pretty much any chill,
given the right clothing and gear. But
this was cold enough for the hearty Canadians to issue warnings on the radio –
“Be careful, it is COLD up there eh?”
They were correct, too. On several occasions during our ski days they shut down the top of the mountain due to dangerous winds / wind-chill. Keeper and I headed up to the summit at one point just prior to one of the closures, and YOW! I’ve never felt anything like that. It turned immediately into “let’s get somewhere lower on the mountain and sheltered from this wind RIGHT NOW!” – more an escape than skiing a few runs. I looked up the wind chill up there later in the day and I want to say it was roundabout -50. Legit.
Whistler didn’t disappoint
though. There’s just so much terrain
there. I took Keeper and Firebolt across
the gondola and up to the top of Blackcomb on one day, as Firebolt had been
skiing especially well and wanted a bit more challenge.
The views across British Columbia
were breathtaking. Those mountains are
largely untracked / unpopulated, glaciated, and extend for hundreds and hundreds
of miles. No wonder heli-skiing is so
popular up there.
One of Keeper’s goals/wishes
had been to ski a black diamond run on his 13th birthday. He had been gravitating throughout the season
toward steep groomers rather than mogul runs, so the two of us found a good
line to take on the big day and went for it.
He killed it – skied it fast and in control all the way down, and wanted
more. I’m proud of him and can’t wait
for the day when his skills exceed mine.
Woodsprite is still having a
difficult time releasing from her snowplow, but she’ll get there.
Our last family ski trip of
the season was in Park City, our old home and possible future one.
We haven’t updated our progress
on the home search front in a while, but essentially we’re down to wavering
between Park City and Bend, and are hawking the housing markets in both. I get an email notification any time a house
fitting our criteria comes onto the market in either place, and we maintain a
list of potential future residences. Our
plan for this visit was to spend a week, get four or five days of skiing in,
soak up the vibe with the family to see how it suited us, and tour a few houses
The home search didn’t net
much, unfortunately, as the housing market there has gone a little nuts, particularly
in the last year or two. Tacco lived
there from 2000 to 2003, when she was instructing (via the Navy) and getting
her Masters (plus a second Bachelors) at the University of Utah. She tends to stay busy, if that hasn’t become
obvious… I joined her after I returned from The Netherlands at the end of my Active
Duty time, and had one glorious winter of ski-bumming.
One of the things that had always surprised us about Park City was that it wasn’t priced like a ski town. Even after the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, the expected housing market bump never materialized, in fact we were surprised to see her condo depreciate in value. Convinced there was opportunity there, I jabbered in the cockpit to anyone who would listen about how it would be a great place to buy a house or land, as it seemingly hadn’t been fully discovered yet.
Why I didn’t take my own advice, I have no idea. That’s another story, and possibly a recurring theme. But fast forward to 2019, and it has undoubtedly been fully discovered. We sold our condo several years ago for a very modest gain after using it, somewhat frustratingly, as a short term rental property. Since then, VRBO and AirBnB came into their own (which would’ve made renting both easy and lucrative), Park City was purchased by Vail resorts and merged with The Canyons, making it the largest ski area in the US, and the market went berserk. Even our realtor hadn’t noticed how nutty prices had become until we pointed out to him that houses we were looking at just a short year ago were now going for $100-$200K more. “That can’t be right” turned to “wow, I hadn’t realized just how steeply things are appreciating” the next day after he had done a little research.
Great for them, not so good
for us – the mental image I couldn’t shake was of giddy sellers laughing uncontrollably
as they tossed out increasingly ludicrous asking prices, just to see what might
Anyway, we skied and we
looked at houses, and the former went significantly better than the latter.
The kids have come into their own as skiers, with the possible exception of Woodsprite, who informs us with great sincerity that “skiing isn’t really my thing, you know…” I’ve suggested to her each time that it’s possible that, at age 7, she doesn’t have a complete grasp of what “her thing” is just yet and that she should be patient and open-minded. We’ll see how that develops once we live in a ski town. And honestly, she’s doing fine skill-wise. All she needs is a friend to ski with instead of her always-ahead-of-her siblings and parents, and it’ll click.
Regardless, she had a great
time, as did all of us. As a bonus, our
cousins from Texas were doing some Park City skiing that week, too, and we were
able to meet up with them and grab several runs. Their son is just about Keeper’s age, and
tears down pretty much any slope he wants, pole-less and at breakneck
speed. It was good for Keeper to get
pushed a little bit.
Firebolt had a bit of a situation on one of the days in which she had come up higher on the mountain with Keeper and me. It’s always a bit tricky to keep track of more than one kid on the slopes, particularly when they ski at different speeds and levels. I was doing that dance just after getting off one of the lifts and watching Keeper bolt down the cat track toward an intersection which could take him to several possible chairs. After quickly telling Firebolt to just stay on this cat track and that we’d meet at the bottom of it, I attempted to beeline toward Keeper. I couldn’t catch him, but did find him stopped near the bottom of the cat track prior to the intersections, so I stopped next to him to look up the mountain and wait for Firebolt to round the curve just above us, past which we couldn’t see. And we waited. And waited. Shoot. It became abundantly clear that even at the slowest possible skiing speed she’d have reached us well before now. So I took off my skis and started trudging up the hill. Still unable to see her, I asked a few passers-by if they’d seen a young girl in pink ski pants… “yes! She’s walking up the hill carrying her skis.” CRAP. Ok. Dilemma. I couldn’t just leave Keeper there (and he couldn’t see me anymore), so opted to ski down the hill and go back up the lift to find her at the top rather than continuing my hike up. I was sweating profusely by this time, as well, which aided in that decision. While attempting to run through all the potentialities in this scenario, I spied a ski patroller and let her in on our plight. “No problem! I’ll just call up to my colleague on the radio.” Fortunately he (the colleague) found her almost immediately – she was making her way back to the top of the chair, which was a VERY long slog incidentally, and had just started to quietly weep. She’s a tough one. I can imagine that at age ten I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to do much other than sit down in the snow and wait for someone to come help me. Instead the ski-patroller said hello, let her know that her dad and brother were just down the hill waiting for her, and skied with her back to us, by which time she was completely recovered. Like I said, she’s a tough one, and I swelled with pride a bit. Evidently while skiing she had looked up to find us out of sight, and had become convinced that she had taken a wrong turn. Had she skied another 100 yards down the hill she’d have seen us waiting around the bend, but trooper that she is, she decided hiking up the mountain was the only sensible way out of her predicament. The tears, she informed us, were more from frustration than anything, and she kept them to herself. “I was fine, Dad, just tired and a little concerned.” Awesome. But I’ll keep her closer to me when skiing next time.
On the last day, Keeper and I
went up just the two of us, and had the best day yet. The Epic app tracks you on the hill and gives
you a running total of your vertical feet skied, and we blew away all our records. Not only that, but it snowed most of the
day. The good kind of snowing, where you
can’t really call it stormy, but the powder gets continually refreshed throughout
the day, and everything’s light and forgiving.
It’s easy to forget that
there are a very countable number of these incredible one-on-one days with my
kids in the future. This was
unquestionably one of them and I fervently hope not only for many more, but for
the wisdom to recognize and savor them when they do come.
That ended the ski season for the family – already one for the record books and wildly successful on any axis, but I was able to extend mine out for one more trip, as I’d planned a long weekend in Vail with old friends for the end of my 50th birthday celebration. It’s something we’ve done on and off for about 15 years now (though always in Park City previously), with groups of various sizes, most from Navy flight school days. As several of us were hitting the half-century mark and we hadn’t gotten together in a few years, we brought it back to life.
And it was spectacular. Truly. Biggest turnout we’ve ever had, great cabin, even better company, and two bluebird days in Beaver Creek and Vail. To top it all off, I had a watershed skiing moment brought on by a tip from a friend – just a small thing he noticed about how I was making my turns in moguls, but it changed just about everything. I had come into this season with the idea that my skiing / snowboarding career had peaked quite some time ago, and that I was perfectly content spending the rest of my ski days on relaxed groomers. No longer. I’m skiing better than I ever have and can’t wait to get back on the slopes next year. And the year after that. And…