This Place

My first day on Whidbey Island is a distinct memory.  It was June, 1995, and I had just spent the few years since college graduation in training mode for the Navy.  Learning to fly in Pensacola and Corpus Christi, learning to operate the P-3C in Jacksonville, and learning to what to do if I were ever to be captured in combat in San Diego.  San Diego was the training site, not the theoretical location of combat, if that wasn’t clear.  There were also several boondoggles, mostly of my own making, thrown into that mix, made possible by the temporary glut of newly minted Naval Aviators at the time – I spent a few months hanging out in southern Spain with a C-130 squadron, and another few in Cambridge, England as part of a small permanent detachment flying King Airs.  But all of it was preparation for this, my check-in at my first fleet squadron, VP-40 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.  Two of my flight school friends who had checked into a sister squadron a few weeks earlier met me upon my arrival to show me around.  We had decided to share a rental house in nearby Anacortes, and they had set everything up and were eager to see what I thought of the house.  I drove onto the base via the back gate, and basically what I saw was this.

Had they plopped a Naval Air Station into the middle of a National Park by accident?  From the end of the runway and along the entire west side of the base you look out the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the mid-line of which serves as the border between the US and Canada.  To the south, the Olympic peninsula with its year-round snow-capped mountains rises jaggedly out of the water, and to the north the hundreds of San Juan Islands dot the calm ocean.  And everything’s green.  Except the water, of course, which is a deep blue that would make you want to jump into it if its temperature ever exceeded 50 degrees or so.  I was overwhelmed; I could not imagine that this was to be my workplace and home for the next three years. 

Check out the geographical setup above. Whidbey is the long island in the middle shaped like an old school telephone receiver, and the Naval Air Station is the somewhat lighter blotch just above the town of Oak Harbor. The nearest sizeable city as the crow flies is Victoria, BC, a few miles to the west.

Impossibly, the scenery got even prettier as we made the short drive up to Anacortes, first crossing the iconic Deception Pass bridge, under which several times per day the water roils itself into standing waves and whirlpools due to the rapid tidal currents. 

We pulled up to the house they had rented and I think my first words were “you can’t be serious.”  The entire front consisted of an A-shaped wall of windows that looked out upon the water, islands, and mountains.  This was to be my view, every day. 

Now, to be fair, I need to concede that I was extremely fortunate to be able to have formed my first impressions at the end of June.  Whidbey Island is a very different place from October to May.  This is not to say it is ever less than stunning, but the grey days, the misty rain, and the temperatures hovering mostly between 40 and 50 well into June at times can be oppressive.  But I didn’t know any of that then.  And it was never enough to keep this Southern California born and raised kid from loving the area for the three years I was there, enough so that Tacco and I moved back for another ten. 

It would have easily and happily been the place we raised our kids and likely retired had the opportunity for Tacco to teach back in Annapolis not arisen.  And at the beginning of our current traveling adventure, it held the front-runner spot by far in the where-do-we-settle competition. 

But the past is prologue, and here we were driving our flight of five in our moving home back onto the base to spend a week soaking up more of the Pacific Northwest summer vibe.  Tacco and I were curious how it would strike us, not to mention the kids, only one of whom had any real meaningful memories of living here. 

And of course this is what we saw. 

Cliffside Park, Whidbey’s RV campground, has got to be one of the nicest, if not the nicest in the military system.  It was given a major overhaul a few years back, and on top of the stunning natural waterfront setting, the trail system, the cheap (often free, depending who’s on duty) rental bikes, and the easy access to civilization, the gentleman who took the permanent camp host job happens to be a master gardener.  So you get this.

The playing comes naturally, and play we did. 

First a bit of work for me though, as I flew up to Anchorage to meet a plane which I then piloted back down to Portland.  It was the only leg I was required to fly on this particular trip, and was the result of another boondoggle for me, the type that rarely falls into an airline pilot’s lap but is hugely welcome when it does.  Here’s what happened… Essentially a flight had gotten “stuck” in Anchorage, presumably because the pilot who had been scheduled to fly it out the following day got sick.  Not having any reserve pilots available on the West Coast able to get to Alaska in time, they began calling “local” pilots to see if any were able to operate the flight, and since I had recently changed my “home city” of record to Portland (seemed as good as anywhere to list, given our lifestyle), I got the call from our scheduling folks just before our family’s departure from Seattle.  If this doesn’t yet seem like a boondoggle, it’s because I haven’t yet described how such a trip pays out.  Essentially what I would need to do is get myself up to Anchorage (easy to do from Seattle) and fly to Portland.  That’s it.  BUT… as I am technically still based in Boston for my airline, they’re required to pay me for the trip from Boston to Anchorage, as well as the return leg from Portland to Boston.  AND… it’s paid at a higher rate due to its being an emergency assignment – almost double.  And as if that weren’t enough, they “bought” my next trip, which I would now not be legal to fly due to my flying this one – i.e. they paid me for it without my flying it.  Basically that’s about as good as it gets airline trip-wise.  And lest you think that description of the ins and outs of how airline flying can sometimes break insanely favorable was excessive, there was a point to it, which will come into play in a future post.

At any rate, I returned to the family happily settled into Whidbey’s rhythms.  The tidal swing there is high, about 15 feet from the highest high to the lowest low, and that makes for fruitful exploring at low tide.  As Cliffside’s beach is quite shallow, that much tidal swing makes for several hundred yards of extra beach when the tide is out, much of which is teeming with semi-trapped sea life that isn’t used to being sought out by curious kiddos.

The crabs were not as easy to see as we imagined they would be, given the fact that they tend to dig mostly into the sand when the water recedes.  But once we knew what to look for (and not to step on, oops…) we were able to spot several Red Rock crab and a few baby Dungeness, whose parents were presumably out foraging in deeper water.

The clams were somewhat trickier to capture, as they tended to be visible only via a jet of water they would shoot from their foot, only the top of which was exposed.  What’s more, they’re skilled diggers, and can immediately sense probing hands.  Keeper was pretty proud of himself for managing to unearth this one (which he shortly thereafter returned to the wet sand). 

And then there was this guy.  A baby flounder maybe?  Not entirely up on my flatfish, but we spotted him hiding from us in at the bottom of a large, shallow pool that had been open water a half hour before.  Keeper chased him a bit, and to both of our surprises managed to grab him once before he skittled away.  Not enough for dinner, or even a snack, but good to know my son can catch fish with his bare hands if it ever comes to that.

In keeping with our National Park site theme, we visited nearby Fort Casey, which I had flown over at low altitude hundreds of times, but never spent the time to visit during my time as a local.  Puget Sound’s relatively narrow and deep waterways make for easily defendable chokepoints, overlooking which sit several gun embankments.  I had ridden by a few of them while mountain biking or unsuccessfully fishing for salmon, but never took the time to learn much about them. The girls did so while earning their Junior Ranger badges, and filled me in.

The rest of the time we spent beachcombing, wandering, and playing in the campground for the most part.  And it was soul-soothing. 

Whidbey is such a relaxing place; it’s difficult to convey how calming looking out at this water is on a perfect 75-degree day, so I’ll just post the pictures.

After this we drive the few miles north to Anacortes, where we’ll camp at a few of our favorite places and attempt to pay attention to what our guts tell us about its prospects as our future home.  It has dropped in the rankings throughout our travels during our time on the road, but that’s possibly just a factor of our prolonged absence rather than anything rational or even emotional.  I’m curious to see where this goes.  In a week we return to Annapolis to close on the house (again), which I’m certain will spool us back up.  But right now, savoring the serenity is the order of the day. 

Sea/Sun/Sky-attle

Still discombobulated from the previous week’s flurry of activity, we flew back to the Pacific Northwest eager to join our friends in Seattle.  Twice before we had made plans to spend time with them at their gorgeous house on Lake Washington, and both plans had been thwarted at the last minute by illness.  Fortunately no wayward bugs this time around, and we lumbered our beastly rig up into their golf course neighborhood on a stunning Friday afternoon.  The only uncertainty that remained at this point was whether we would actually be able to maneuver into their driveway.  My friend had made rough measurements which indicated that we’d make it, but you never know about the angles, the slope, or the vertical obstacles, all of which had bitten us in the past.  His measurements were good though, and I squeaked Davista down and into place in front of their garage.  Let the recreation begin!

Here’s the setting.  Imagine waking up to this view every morning.  “But wait, isn’t it always raining in Seattle?” you say.  Yes, absolutely.  Especially in the summer.  Every day.  Whatever you do, don’t move there. 

Our arrival was a bit late in the day for watersports, but we knew there was plenty of that on tap for the weekend, so dug into the first of several tasty outdoors meals instead while the kids got reacquainted.  Their two sons are the same age as Keeper and Firebolt.  In fact, we took a trip to Tuscany with them back when Keeper and their oldest were just over two months old (they were born two weeks apart).

Summer days are long, but summer days in Washington are even longer, and the wine and conversation stretched well into the evening as the sun didn’t set until well after 9PM.

The following day was Seafair day, Seafair being an annual August festival that centers on Lake Washington and peaks with boat races and an airshow.  It’s quite the floating party, with the best airshow viewing location by far being Lake Washington’s center, where a giant, morphing raft of loosely connected boats bob and drift and their occupants jump in and out of the water.  Water fights tend to spring up frequently as well, and our kids spent some time building up their arsenal. 

First, though, some pre-airshow tubing.  The girls were less interested in getting bounced around on the water, so we took the boys out early.  Probably safe to say they enjoyed themselves.  “Flossing” is even trickier when you’re doing it on a speeding tube, “dabbing” less so.

After returning to the dock and packing up our gear we headed to Seafair central, where a couple more families (friends of our friends) were already anchored and in full celebration mode.  After a few unsuccessful attempts to set our own anchor in the deep water, we tied up to their boat instead, unrolled the floating “party island” and got busy enjoying the day.

Quick Seattle geography digression.  Everyone knows that Seattle is on the water, but some likely don’t appreciate the full diversity of its waterfronts and waterways. 

Essentially it sits on a strip of land between Puget Sound and Lake Washington.  Puget Sound is a large inlet of the Pacific Ocean carved out by glaciers, which left it with countless islands, canals, and passageways.  On the western side of Puget Sound lie several islands and the Kitsap Peninsula, and beyond that, the Olympic Peninsula, with its year-round snow-capped peaks.  To the east, the equally jagged and glacier-dotted Cascades run the length of the state from north to south.  When you see the area from the air, it essentially looks like a maze of waterways sandwiched between the two snowy mountain ranges.  It’s easy to think that they’re all saltwater since they’re all connected.  But Lake Washington is entirely freshwater, fed by the Cascades’ snowmelt.  Lake Washington feeds into Lake Union, which is right in the center of Seattle, and then to the Sound via a series of locks which bring the water down to sea level, as well as regulating the level of the lakes. 

Here’s the point of all that, or at least a point – the perception of Seattle is that the water is too cold to swim in, and that’s true of the Sound.  The lakes, however, are pristine, fresh, and warm up nicely in the summer.  Perfect for swimming and playing.  Best of all worlds.

This being the third time we had seen a Blue Angel show, the novelty had largely worn off, and it was tough to get the kids too enthused about it.  But the water fights and general good cheer more than overcame any airshow ambivalence they were fostering. 

It was more or less a perfect day, capped off by another lakeside dinner and some sunset waterplay. 

Though we opted to depart Sunday afternoon due to our friends having commitments the following morning, we managed to get another tubing run in that morning, with my getting talked into joining my friend and his younger son on the tube.  My initial hesitation sprung from my not finding tubing especially exciting, but evidently that is entirely driver-dependent, as I would soon discover.  We got flipped around like rag dolls back there.  I didn’t know my face could do that.

The ride culminated in this spectacular spill.  Evidently I was in the “lucky” seat.

No one hurt, but we did decide to cut our losses while we were still laughing and get back into the boat.

I think my favorite part of a weekend that was one long highlight was watching the kids play together.  It’s been awhile, but I know that I’ve mentioned one of my overarching concerns about this trip was the lack of “play with other kids” time that we’ve been able to provide for ours.  Their kids are not only close in age to ours, but also close in temperament.  I have the feeling that if they lived near to each other they would become lifelong friends.

That would seem to lead to an argument for considering Seattle, more specifically their area of Seattle (which is actually Kenmore) as an ultimate destination.  Schools are good, we know we love Seattle, there’s an airport nearby and good recreation around…. But of course it’s never that simple.  Seattle of late has gone through a real estate boom that is comparable to the one in California’s Bay Area.  Houses get snapped off the market within days, at prices higher than the asking price.  Which means that we can’t afford it. 

This is not to say that we would live in Seattle if it weren’t for the cost.  We’ve considered it during our brainstorming sessions several times, and it always comes in high on our list.  But the final analysis we’re drawn to smaller towns – traffic drives Tacco batty, and to an extent I agree.  We both want fewer people around.

It’s not ruled out of course… nothing is really.  But we left in a melancholy mood after enjoying ourselves so thoroughly.  The kids connected deeply within 2 days, and we’re pulling them back onto the road and pushing their rediscovered friends back to “hey let’s play Fortnite together sometime” status.  

We did have a little fun with photography before departing.  There are a couple classic pictures of the two oldest kids (and some of the adults) from our Tuscany trip 12 years ago, so we decided to re-create them.  Did a decent job, too, though we couldn’t quite get them into Baby Bjorns.

Ultimately, yet another highlight, leaving us with much more to reflect upon as we head north back to Anacortes, where it all began.

Diversion / Resolution

In aviation-speak, a diversion is the term for when unusual circumstances dictate that you change your destination and land somewhere you hadn’t planned to.

So there we were.  Shocked into silence in the kitchen, haven’t slept, home deal almost certainly about to implode (spoiler: it did), motorhome back in Portland not fixed, pool about to be opened with an expensive new liner that we don’t particularly like in a house in which we no longer live, packing everything out but suddenly realizing that we would have to instead get the house back to “show ready”  in the next couple days.

While I realize that having a home sale deal fall through barely even registers on the “unusual events” seismograph (we had already had that happen once after all, though much earlier in the process), there were so many second and third-order effects tied to this particular event for us, that it was too much to process. We had to just stop, pop a bottle of wine, and detach.

My first thought was “Trip’s over!  We’re pulling the house off the market and moving back to Maryland.”  In all the disorientation, it was difficult to see another viable option.  Not how we wanted to end this.

Fortunately we were able to detach enough to recognize that we were in no condition to make any decisions, and we slept on it. 

It was not a fun week.  But it resolved.  And everything’s fine. Rather than drag you through the chaos of the rest of our time in Annapolis, I’ll tell you how it ended:

  • We committed to Plan Moon.  Plan Moon, if you read our earlier post, was one of two “big picture” scenarios we were weighing, and entailed NOT settling as originally planned, but instead staying on the road, continuing our travels (though scaled down somewhat), and home/road-schooling the kids for another year.  The prospect had been slightly terrifying to me when first proposed, but I had warmed to it in the interim, and these recent developments made it the only logical choice.  It felt both right and good to make that call.  A relief.
  • They finally fixed Davista.  Well, maybe.  They “fixed” her.  At some point the technicians back in Portland threw up their hands and opened an assist case with the Ford mothership.  After a string of troubleshooting steps, they landed on the serpentine belt tensioner, which apparently was at least marginally defective on our model of engine.  “Huh??” you say?  Me too.  It took some mental gymnastics to connect a potentially loose belt to random misfires of multiple cylinders, but I pushed the “I believe” button after accepting the Portland folks’ assurances and reading through the self-styled internet experts’ descriptions of how a fluttering belt could case tiny rpm fluctuations, which could be interpreted as misfires, and and and… ok, sure, fine, enough. 
  • Three days after the home deal’s implosion, that word somehow got out, and we got two more potential offers.  Evidently the new sense of urgency spurred them into action. One offer was contingent on at least one home sale and gave us headaches, but the other looked promising, and they wanted a short closing time.  We haggled the price a bit and accepted.  Closing at the end of August.

We flew back to Portland, re-packed ourselves into Davista and hooked up our Toad, and set off for Seattle, where we had arranged to visit some dear friends for the long weekend.  They live right on Lake Washington, with a boat and many toys, they’re some of our favorite people, they like good food and drink as much as we do, their kids are our two older kids’ age, and on top of all that, it was Seafair weekend in Seattle, the pinnacle of which is the Blue Angels airshow over the Lake.  We would be watching from the water, and there is nowhere in the world better to be in August than the Pacific Northwest. 

So ready for this.

Go Around! Go Around!

More aviation geekery.  I’ll let you look that one up yourself.

Go-mode ensued immediately upon our arrival back in the Annapolis area.  It was the proverbial “twenty pounds of stuff jammed into a ten pound sack” scenario, as not only did we have a ton to do in order to clean out the house entirely for closing, but we been out of it since March, with lawn-mowing being the only maintenance that had been performed.  Things were a little rough around the edges, and I started immediately on a new punch list and the attendant prioritization.  Dumpster ordered, storage “Pod” ordered, moving boxes bought, dentist appointments made, trampoline dismantled, unwanted gear onto Cragislist, man that fence looks bad, better pressure wash and paint it, clean the siding, go go go…

We had just shy of two weeks until closing, and it was tough to visualize getting “there” from “here,” particularly with the inevitable onion-peeling that reveals sub-task after sub-task once you start tackling such a big job.  It had been blissfully easy to forget about the state in which we had left the house while on the road.  While it was certainly show-ready, the corners we had cut in order to pack into the motorhome and depart on semi-short notice made themselves painfully apparent; we still had tons (literally) of our “stuff,” mostly in the garage and basement, through which we still had to sort and pack/sell/discard.

And the pool.  I hadn’t been able to come up with a good solution for that.  In normal circumstances we would have “opened” it in the Spring, a process which, after the initial actions by a pool service, can take up to a week of close attention, cleaning, and chemical balancing.  So, even without considering the cost and liability issues involved with maintaining an open pool at an empty house, that was off the table – can’t clean your Maryland pool from the Rockies and Pacific Northwest.  The problem with leaving it closed and covered, however, is that the longer it stays that way in warm weather, the more it resembles a swamp, and therefore the longer it takes to bring it back to swimmable status.  It’s also not an especially appealing way to for a potential buyer to see it.

With our buyers, we had, after quite a bit of back and forth, resolved the issue by agreeing to drain the pool and have the long-in-the-tooth vinyl lining completely replaced, then have the pool filled and open for them at closing.  Reasoning that it was going to be their pool, we even had them choose the lining.  It was a good solution, but added significantly to the effort and expense jammed into our short Annapolis stay.

On top of all that, we wanted to see friends and family while back in Maryland, as did the kids.  So we plowed through the packed days and relatively sleepless nights, propelled by caffeine (me, Tacco doesn’t tolerate it well) and the inertia of our frenetic activity.

Meanwhile in Portland… Davista wasn’t playing nice.  After not hearing from the maintenance folks for several days, I called for a status update, only to hear that they had been unable to duplicate the problem.  Good God.  “Have you driven it?”  “Well, yes.  Some.  It’s tricky to just drive around town you know.”  “Yes, believe me, I know.”  A couple days after that I got a call with “Great news!” Evidently they had gotten the check engine light to flash.  But only at 12.5 miles per hour.  “Consistently??  Because if you remember, we were getting it at any speed and any driving condition, and I couldn’t correlate it to anything th–” “Yes well, it’s 12.5 mph and hem haw hem haw assure you yadda yadda best mechanics don’t you worry…”

Yeah.

I figured they had at least 10 more days to work it out, and besides, we didn’t have time to worry about such things – we still had a house to close on.  Back to the grind.This was the state in which we finally met our new buyers, or at least one of them.  Due in no small part to the rapport we had sensed, given that they were very much in the situation we ourselves had been in when had bought the house five years earlier, we opted to contact them directly during the pool negotiations, as going through the real estate agents was proving cumbersome.  It was a good call, in that we were able not only to communicate and negotiate much more effectively, but to ease some of the tension and uncertainty involved in dealing with a nameless/faceless entity.  So we had exchanged several text messages and emails, as well as a phone call or two.  Since we had been back in Annapolis, the communications had ceased, but we chalked that up to their being just as busy as we were.  They had completed the home inspection just prior to our arrival back in town, and I had remarked to Tacco, after seeing the somewhat alarming sight of the pool drained and green with moss and algae, the old vinyl now hanging limply from the sides, that I bet seeing that freaked them out a little.  Even with pool experience I had found it difficult to visualize that eyesore becoming a functioning pool within a week or two.  We laughed it off though – the pool folks knew what they were doing and we didn’t have the time to sit and worry.  The buyers had one final inspection to perform, this one on the fireplace and chimney, and he (the buyer) was tagging along.  We met in the kitchen, all of us sleep-deprived and harried, shook hands and exchanged brief pleasantries.  His eye contact was tentative though.  Why?  Nah, never mind.  The stress, I’m sure.  The inspection went well, with the chimney inspector finding a few small things, but making a point to turn to the buyer and ensure him that this was a great house, and had clearly been well taken care of.  “Mm hm, yeah, thanks,” he responded curtly while turning for the door.  Stress.  Gotta be.  We felt it too.

“Very nice to meet you – we’ll see you soon!” we offered as he headed for the door.  “Yes.. well… I need to tell you that we’re significantly less enthusiastic now than we were a couple weeks ago.  Uhhh.. we’ll let you know.”  And he left.

Um… what? 

Wait, what??  WHAT?!!  We did not just hear that.  We could not have just heard that.  The real estate agent looked at us, eyebrows raised.  Clearly this was news to her too.  I wish I had a picture here, but I don’t.  This is the best I can do.

Now what?

Fixing Our House

So about that flashing Check Engine light…

I previously wrote about the diagnosing and repair of its cause leading to, among other things, “the worst sort of bloviating.”  This is probably overstated, and more a more a function of dealing with repair experts in general, particularly self-styled ones on the internet, many of whom I spent a good bit of time engaging in this case.

The issue was this – is Davista now safe to drive in this condition?  And secondarily, if she’s technically safe to drive but it’s not recommended to do so, will driving a significant distance (i.e. Bend to Portland) affect the warranty?

To get answers to these questions, I talked to many, many Ford mechanics at many, many Ford dealers in an expanding circle centered on Bend and eventually reaching Portland.  I also registered on an RV enthusiast website and tossed my question, along with all the pertinent data, into the appropriate forum.

In an ideal world, there would be a simple answer.  What I got instead was a spectrum of info that varied from thoughtful, well-meaning advice to finger-wagging lectures about what was almost certainly wrong with my vehicle and what I Needed To Be Doing, almost all of them to some degree contradictory, and zero consensus.  Which is fun way to spend the better part of a day. 

The “bloviating” came primarily from the internet, and I should have expected that. It comes with the territory, and teasing out the thoughtful (and freely given!) nuggets of actual wisdom from within the sea of anonymous “I have an opinion and an audience now, look out!” noise is pretty much what we do in 2018. The mechanics, at least the majority of them, did their best to help, and I appreciated their time.

But still… nothing approaching consensus, even among the actual experts. Amusing to have two people with “years and years of experience” assure me with total certainty both that I would absolutely be able to detect actual misfires, and that I almost certainly wouldn’t feel a thing in a single cylinder misfire situation. “Trust me.”

I also discovered that, though there are several Ford dealerships in and near Bend, the closest one both certified to and capable of handling a vehicle this size is in Portland.  After aggregating everything and taking what I thought was the best advice I had been given, I called Ford themselves (rather than a specific dealer) and put it into their hands.  After some wrangling and convincing them that no, none of those dozen closer Ford dealers can handle us, they decided that driving was unwise and arranged a tow to Portland.

So we broke camp, put what we needed into our car, and watched as the huge tow truck arrived (three hours late), lifted Davista’s front end, disconnected her real axle, and towed her away.  Disconcerting.

We met her in Portland after checking in at our hotel near the airport, and told our long story to the service coordinator.  To my substantial dismay, he didn’t appear to be interested in any of the data I had collected on the problem or the troubleshooting I had already done.

“Check engine.  Got it.” 

“No… again, it’s a flashing check engine, and it’s throwing these codes, and it’s been happening when we..”

“Yup, flashing check engine, that’s right.  Don’t you worry about a thing.”

“OK, don’t you want to hear about the conditions in which is comes on, for how long, etc?”

“Uhhh… ok, yeah, sure.” [eyes glazing over as I tell him, with his pencil hovering over the page but writing absolutely nothing down]

“OK, so you’ve got all that?  You’ll tell the mechanic?”

“Yup, of course.”

“And you’ll call me if you need any further detail, as well as any time you find out anything?”

“Absolutely”

“Because this is our house.  We can leave it with you for a while now since we’re leaving town for a week or two, but it’s important we get it fixed asap.”

“Oh, I assure you I understand.  Don’t you worry.”

*sigh* “ok.”

And with that we jumped on a plane back to Maryland to throw more money at put the final touches on our actual house and get it completely packed out prior to closing.

Short Final on the Deschutes

“Short Final” is aviation-speak for the very last phase of a flight, by the way. I probably didn’t need to say that, but have never been one to under-explain.

Back to Bend, and it feels like home.  I keep waiting for the bomb to drop, where we discover some seedy underside to the picture perfect downtown or the dirty secret that its ostensibly happy residents have been coerced to hide.  But no, our fourth visit in the third season (we’ve yet to get there in Spring) was, if it’s possible, even more pleasant than the other three.  If Bend has a dirty secret, it’s its not-secret-at-all isolation.  It’s a tough place to get to, and there’s really no getting around that.  I suppose the presence of active volcanoes just upwind of town might qualify as well, but that’s a dice roll it shares with most of the Pacific Northwest, so I’m willing to live with that.  Most places are a massive natural disaster away from total ruin when you look hard enough.

The aforementioned Check Engine light intermittently flashed itself all the way into town, but after Davista got us to Bend safely we opted to forget about it while we played.  Not only did we have a river to float and some hiking and biking to do, but we had rented a house for a few days and invited my parents up (unbeknownst to the kids) to celebrate Firebolt’s 9th birthday with us.

Opting not to break with tradition, we headed out on night one to Crux Fermentation Project’s al fresco playing field / dining area.  Despite some parking issues they’re battling through and what appears to be a significant renovation / expansion in progress, the place was packed as usual, and we set up our picnic blanket, ordered some beer and food, and dug in. 

As Keeper joined in to the impromptu soccer game that some of the kids had gotten going and the girls bobbed and weaved around the field like they tend to do, Tacco and I once again looked at each other and agreed that this does not suck, not one bit.

I managed my first flying commute out of the local airport (Redmond) to Boston in order to fly a two-day trip, and though it took quite some time, it wasn’t bad at all.  The Redmond airport is tiny and impossibly easy and relaxed, at least in good weather.  I connected to Boston via Denver on the way out and Seattle on the way back.  Took the majority of the day both directions, but no hitches.  Noted.  Though my intention, should we live there, would be to fly trips out of Los Angeles / Long Beach rather than the East Coast, it’s helpful to know that a commute across the country is at least doable, if not preferable.

Upon my return, my parents and I converged on Tacco and the kids playing at one of the riverfront parks just about simultaneously, and Firebolt’s expression once she realized that her birthday celebration just got larger and more joyful was priceless.

As the weather was perfect and most of us had been cooped up and sitting for most of the day, we took a short hike along the river, letting the kids show their Grammy and Papa what cool things they’d discovered about our possible soon-to-be hometown, including the white water park, the riverfront “casting course,” and the panoply of river floaters on tubes, paddle boards, and inflatable flamingos, meandering through the scenic Old Mill district.

Resolving to float the river ourselves the next day, we headed back to our rental house to settle in.   Ideal, as expected.  Quiet neighborhood near the river, criss-crossed by walking and biking paths, and infused with the scent of the plentiful ponderosa pines.  A few deer strolled by as if on cue, and at one point we spotted a large owl silently eyeing us from just under the roof on the next house over.

Though we had floated the Deschutes last Fall, that was several miles upstream, in Sunriver, and a much more serene undertaking given the location and time of year.  In downtown Bend during the Summer, it’s pretty much a party on the water every day.  There’s a shuttle that runs floaters and their tubes / inflatables between the put-in and the take-out, and we took advantage of it, as well as the tube rental company that operates at the shuttle stop.

Most of the float is gentle, and people tend to attach tubes into mini flotillas as they meander through town.  There’s lots of jumping into the clear water and swimming from tube raft to tube raft as well.

The whitewater park sits at about the midway point through town, and is a relatively new feature, replacing a semi-inconvenient portage under a bridge.  The river is divided into three sections there – a “natural” section down which floating is prohibited, a “serious” rapid section on which there are four sizable standing waves on which kayakers (and even surfers, I noted) can play & practice moves, and then the main tubing section, on which they’ve made about 10 smaller drops over which everyone can float.

The smaller rapids are fairly gentle, but they’re still rapids, as the tube rental folks were careful to emphasize.  They suggested beginners might benefit from taking out at the portage and watching how folks on tubes navigated them prior to doing it ourselves.  Sound advice, which we promptly ignored.  For my part, I was surprised to discover how easy it is to flip over in a tube.  The natural tendency, when seeing a breaking wave looming in front of you, is to lean back, bringing the front of your tube up a bit to meet the wave and hopefully get over it.  This is actually the exact opposite of what you should do, which is to lean forward into the wave to keep your momentum moving with the current and prevent sliding back into the trough of the wave, where the current wants to push your low/back side down and forward, and the breaking wave wants to push your front/high side up and back. 

I traversed the section the first time connected to Woodsprite and her tube, completely unaware that flipping would be a possibility, and full of assurances to her that while we would most certainly get wet (welcome in the 90 degree sun), her nervousness about flipping over was completely unfounded.

Well.  Very fortunately for me, my credibility with her wasn’t destroyed for life, as we did emerge unscathed and laughing.  But I’m glad she didn’t look over at me while cresting the last wave, on which I went wide-eyed when we came a hair’s width from going inverted. 

Firebolt, on the other hand, was another matter.  Though her horizons have expanded immeasurably on this trip, she still possesses an innate skittishness beyond that of her siblings.  Certain things frighten her, and when she gets it into her head that she doesn’t want to do something, she doesn’t budge.  The rapids were borderline for her, and required some cajoling.  Her initial plan was to take her tube out and walk through the portage while we had our fun.  We were, however, able to talk her into navigating them attached to one of the adults, which she did, and enjoyed immensely.  Victory!  Until the next float.  We actually floated the river one more time after the grandparents had left, having enjoyed it so much the first time, and Firebolt, flush with confidence, opted to hit the rapids solo.  On the last rapid, the one that almost claimed my credibility with Woodsprite, she initially got stuck in the wave.  I happened to be standing nearby, having just gone through with Woodsprite again, and could see the panic beginning to register in her eyes as I waded toward her.  What happened next was a bit unclear, and transpired very quickly.  A tuber behind her either tried to help by nudging the back of her tube with his foot, or simply collided into her due to the current, and the contact was all the tube needed to flip her over backwards and put her underwater in the wave with the tube on top of her. 

I pulled her up almost immediately, but between the confusion, the rushing water, and the fact that she had hit her head on the rocky bottom when flipped, she was terrified and inconsolable.  Poor girl.  It was all we could do to get her back on her tube to complete the float, even though the rest of it was flat water.  She informed us that she would never tube or kayak on a rapid again, and I almost believe her – of the three kids she tends to be the most serious and resolute about this type of pronouncement.  But still, I think she’ll come around.

Mishaps notwithstanding, floating the Deschutes was a huge success, and planted even more let’s-live-here seeds in all of us, as if we needed them.

One of Firebolt’s birthday requests was a hike (!), so we of course obliged her with another walk to Benham Falls, this time with my parents along.  It’s so easy and appealing to imagine doing this on a whim in the future, particularly when confronted by a casual “I’m bored” from one of the kids.

After my parents left and the celebrating ended, we relocated to the RV park in Sunriver where we had stayed the previous year.  We found it to be much busier and more “resort-y” in the summer, but also discovered that we definitely prefer Bend to Sunriver.  Nice to know it’s nearby, but there will be no temptation to look at Sunriver houses during the home shopping phase, should it come to that.

Overall, Bend hit it out of the park once again.  We spent a decent amount of time exploring neighborhoods when we could, and again managed to have our expectations exceeded.  Everything looks well-planned and thoughtfully appointed there; there were no ugly neighborhoods, only pleasant and frequent surprises.  “Look at that, another insanely well-appointed local market!  A cidery!  A charging station in the middle of the park!  Sculptures in the middle of the traffic circles!  More bike paths!”  and on and on…  We didn’t have a chance to look at any houses, but do feel like we’re homing in on a few neighborhoods on which to focus, should we move.  And the kids are even more enthusiastic about it than they were after our Winter visit. 

We’re still not 100% there, and of course we technically still haven’t sold our house, though our intention is to fly back to Annapolis in a few days in order to complete our pack out / storage and finish whatever else needs done (which is quite a bit, it turns out) prior to the closing. 

It’s a strange feeling, to have everything seeming to come together, yet still feel a universe away from settling down, despite its being our goal.  We’ve drifted in and out of a similar phenomenon over the past year, where whatever groove we’re in begins to feel familiar and “normal” and then we’re abruptly jolted back out of our comfort zone when confronted with some combination of the reality of what we’re doing and a change in our situation.  It’s difficult to describe, though I would imagine similar to what one would think (and what we thought) when considering the idea of doing what we’re doing now.  It seemed utterly overwhelming.  Extremely cool, but ultimately impossible.   Well, stopping what we’re doing and actually living somewhere now seems the same way.  It’s like we’re completely aware that it’s possible and could tell you how to do it, but the actual getting from here to there seems insurmountable and on some level terrifying.

And on that note, we leave Bend again.   

Gremlins in the Hinterland


This thing.

Argh!

I’ll say it, Check Engine lights suck.  They do.  Your brakes go, you replace your brakes. Cracked windshield? Repair it. But Check Engine? Vague cause, even vaguer potential fix, and can lead to the worst sort of bloviating when seeking opinions on them. 

Once again I’m getting ahead of myself though, let me back up.

We drove down the mountain out of Park City and into western Utah’s desert, which is as desolate and unappealing as the eastern half of the state is spectacular.  The last stretch of I-80’s traversal of the state, just before reaching the border town of Wendover, takes you across the Bonneville Salt Flats, of land speed record fame.  The name says it all – miles and miles of flat salt. 

I don’t want to strike the wrong tone here, though – it’s an interesting drive in its own way, through a unique part of the country. Unavoidably, though, if you start in Utah and head toward points west / northwest, you are going to find yourself in wide open, empty territory for at least a day, no matter which route you choose.  Here’s the one we chose.

Most folks, I would suspect, opt to put the pedal down and make this drive “the long one” in order to blow through Nevada, but we’re mostly over long drives.  If there’s nothing compelling us to hurry, then six hours or so is about as much as we try to do.  So we chose Winnemucca as our midpoint overnight stop.

Winnemucca was ok.  Here’s a pic, which about covers it. 

The exceedingly friendly and aggressively sunburnt campground host informed us that we had just missed his famous tri-tip, of which he had grilled several pounds for the campground’s residents on the 4th.  I was actually bummed we missed that; it sounded tasty. 

There was also a dirt racetrack at the adjacent Humboldt County Fairgrounds, at which some event was sharing its noise and bright floodlights with us.  But it wasn’t enough to keep us awake.  We crashed early and left in the morning.

One thing that was surprising about the drive was the extent to which Nevada, at least along I-80, was greener and more populated than expected, and eastern Oregon was more empty than expected.  To an extent I knew this from driving Bend-to-Boise last Fall, but this particular quadrant of Oregon I had never seen, and it is easily the most wild and empty region we’ve yet traversed.  Tacco remarked that we could be in the Scottish highlands.  Probably a bit less green and craggy though.  Regardless, it was worth seeing.

But that Check Engine light.

So if you’ve been with us here since the beginning, you may remember that this is not the first time it has reared its yellow head.  It illuminated in August 2017 while crossing Reservation land in Montana, and caused enough concern for me to pull over and do a little quick research.  After determining that it was almost certainly nothing of concern, we pressed on, only to have it extinguish a few days later. 

One of the problems with a Check Engine light is that even if the underlying condition clears, the light will stay illuminated for three “drive cycles,” which are essentially complete drives of reasonable length.  Normally, in a car, you can easily do three drive cycles in a day.  For us, we tend to drive for 4-6 hours at a time and then stop, sometimes for days.  So one Check Engine light that’s telling us about something that the computer sensed for a second, could theoretically stay on for a couple weeks. 

It becomes hard to take seriously.  Being in aviation, I’ve become hard-wired not to ignore warning lights, so this was especially difficult for me.  It would illuminate, stay on for a while, and then at some point at a gas stop or getting underway I would start up Davista and note that the light was out again.  This cycle played itself out no fewer than a dozen times over the past year, and what’s more, we’ve had three routine maintenance visits since then, and told the mechanic about it each time, but were assured that it’s nothing.  “Probably just a loose gas cap.” 

Well.  Somewhere between Wendover and Winnemucca it started flashing for about 30 seconds, which is where stuff got real.  Having never seen it flash before, I pulled over to investigate, and discovered that a flashing Check Engine light, unlike a steady one, means one thing only, and that’s an “active misfire” situation.  In other words, one or several cylinders are misfiring, right now.  The operating manual’s guidance in such a situation is to take it in ASAP for service, but if that’s not possible, to “drive moderately” until it is possible.  And to look out for excessive temperatures under the floorboards, as the catalytic converter, among other things, may dangerously overheat.  Not what you want to hear in the middle of Nevada.

Here’s what was strange though, it didn’t feel like it was missing.  I’d like to think I know what a missing engine feels / sounds like, and I noticed nothing.  Hm.

The next time it started flashing, I looked down at it and got distracted enough between looking at the light and feeling/listening for misfires, that I remained in the right lane and blew by one of Nevada’s finest as he was finishing up writing someone a ticket on the shoulder.  Seeing his angry / flabbergasted hands-thrown-up-in-the-air gesture in my rear view mirror made my heart sink, and his rush to his patrol car and quick sprint to my tail with lights ablaze to pull me over confirmed my feeling.  First ticket in Davista.  Actually it’s my first moving violation in as long as I can remember – at least 20 years.  Good times.

The Check Engine light continued to flash intermittently, without apparent rhyme or reason and for durations varying from 5 seconds to about a minute, for the rest of the drive to Bend.  It was extremely disconcerting. 

At some point post-Winnemucca I decided that it was time to buy an OBD2 Scanner so that I could plug into Davista’s computer brain and see for myself what was going on with the light. We stopped at the next population center to do so.  If you’re thinking that this is something I should’ve bought prior to the trip, then I wholeheartedly agree.  But sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.

The scanner informed me that our engine’s #2, 4, 6, and 8 cylinders were misfiring.  Frequently.  Well, shoot.

The troubleshooting side of me that had spent hours, by necessity, attempting to solve airborne maintenance puzzles in the 1960s-vintage P-3 back in my Navy days kicked into high gear and immediately told me that something wasn’t right – that four separate cylinders don’t fail randomly and simultaneously, and that this data coupled with my not feeling anything resembling a misfire pretty much screamed that we had a sensing problem, not a misfiring problem.  But the pragmatic side of me kicked in, too, and told me that not only do I not know squat about truck engines, but that this particular truck engine was under warranty, and therefore the fix was essentially out of my hands. 

We pulled into Bend with the check engine light still on, having flashed dozens of times between Winnemucca and our destination.  Each time I wondered whether this was the time that would culminate in a loud bang and thick black smoke pouring out of our dead engine. 

Fortunately it never came to that, but I was a frazzled upon our arrival.  The plan is to forget about it for now, and enjoy Bend, yet again, while celebrating Firebolt’s 9th birthday.  We’ve rented a house for her birthday weekend and have a surprise visit from my parents on tap.  Gremlins can wait.

Progress!

We have an offer on the house.

We have an offer on the house!!  

This has been such a torturous road.  Not the one we just drove back to Park City from Moab, that one was nice in a rocky desert sort of way.  The home selling road I mean.  I could not flip houses for a living or a hobby.  Perhaps repetition and lack of attachment would make the process more palatable, but still…no.  I don’t stress out easily, but something about the combination of dealing with such a high-priced asset, having its valuation seem so arbitrary, getting occasionally harsh feedback on it from potential buyers (and real estate agents), and on top of all that having such a personal connection to the thing you’re selling…  Like most people, I’ve heard both the aphorism “it’s just business” and the less common but to me more resonant “it’s never ‘just business.’”  Try as I might, I’ve not been able to detach from the process and accept that housing markets, like most markets, are both efficient and impersonal.  So this past 15 months have taken a toll.

For some time now, to anyone who would listen, I’ve launched into multiple extended rants about the “comps” in our mini-subdivision, the frustration of being on what feels like an ice-cold islet surrounded by a sea of supposedly red hot housing market, and various other things that are equally beyond my control.  Through her frustration, Tacco has heard me out patiently and lovingly each time, even when the rants weren’t directed her way.   So I’ll refrain from launching another into the ether here.  Instead I’ll just say that it’s a massive relief to have an offer that looks legitimate and promising, even if not lucrative.  No endless chains of contingencies, no ongoing criminal record for the potential buyer – in fact they (the buyers) look a lot like we did a few years ago, in that they’re a Navy couple moving to the area with young kids, about to start a stint teaching at the Naval Academy.  Not breathing easy just yet, but this looks promising!

Park City, though… we’re back to Park City.  Though a stroke of luck (and possibly a computer glitch) I was able to reserve a full hookup campsite for ten nights at Jordanelle State Park, including the 4th of July.  As we learned after receiving an automated vacancy notification from the website and quickly making the reservation, this particular campsite is normally blocked off for campground volunteer workers.  Not sure why it popped temporarily onto the open market, but after calling and asking about it, the State Park informed me that it was indeed a mistake, but they would honor it.  Sweet!

Despite our strong draw toward Bend, Park City is still very much on the final list of potential future homesteads, and like Bend, it’s a fantastic place to spend the 4th of July.  Along with the continued town auditioning, our plan was to relax for a while after the frenetic activity in Moab, visit some friends and family, check out the parade down Main Street on the 4th, and watch fireworks from the dry slopes near the resort’s base.  

I also had a five-day work trip to fly, and had set up an appointment with a local “back guy” (sports chiropractor, in this case, but with a unique treatment modality that a local friend of mine swears by).  Though my sciatica has finally shown signs of easing, likely spurred by Tacco and her friend’s aggressive acupuncture treatment in Albuquerque, it’s far from gone, and I really need to stop hurting.  I’m hopeful.

Jordanelle is just a bit outside of town, as I’ve previously described, but it sports a large reservoir on which there’s tubing/skiing/wakeboarding, as well as decent fishing.  There’s also a view of Deer Valley’s ski slopes, whose widespread groves of aspens turn vibrantly yellow and red in the Fall.  Relaxing comes easy there, and the cool evenings brought on by the 7,000’ elevation were a welcome change from Moab’s heat.

Before leaving on my trip, I was able to link up for a bike ride with an old friend who lives in town.  I say “bike ride,” but that definitely undersells it – his wife (another old friend) drove us and the bikes up to 9717’ Guardsman Pass, where we joined the Wasatch Crest Trail and rode the 13 miles to his house via the ski resort’s relatively jagged ridge.   Whoa. 

He had advised me to “bring some film along” as the views were non-stop and spectacular, and he was correct. 

Fortunately for me, the ride was net downhill by about 1500’, but that didn’t stop us from having to tackle several climbs, one of which, he informed me just before downshifting and grinding away, is called “Puke Hill.”  For the obvious reason.  

We finished up with some cold drinks and long-overdue catching up in he and his wife’s backyard, through which, true story, wayward moose often wander and pause to be photographed.  I was very curious to get their take on living and raising kids in Park City, and was able to get what felt like a pretty solid picture of it.  Positives: climate, recreational activities, ski slopes in your lap, athletic/outdoor orientation (I believe Park City counts more Olympians as residents than any town in the US), and well-appointed schools, due to all of the property taxes collected.  Others: Expensive housing, potential lack of water, traffic in town, and the money thing – i.e. there’s a lot of it around, and though most of the owners of the truly ludicrous 8-figure ski cabins are part time residents at best, it’s still quite a “rich” town, which can be a mixed blessing.  More on that later.

I returned to Davista exhausted in the best possible way, and couldn’t help remarking to Tacco how extraordinary it was that I had ridden Slickrock with Keeper two days ago and the Wasatch Crest with my friend today – the abundance of it was nearly overwhelming, and I tried to make a mental note to remember this feeling when discussing future lifestyle and residence choices with Tacco.

After a pleasantly uneventful work trip, I returned to the family and the next morning visited the chiropractor down in Salt Lake.  He asked an extensive set of questions and put me through various contortions in an effort to determine the source of my pain, and seemed to come to a highly confident conclusion that the source of my sciatica was muscular (glutes) rather than spinal.  This was good news, and jibed with Tacco and her friend’s sense of my issue’s source as well.  It’s no less painful, but far easier to treat.  His actual treatment is difficult to describe, but involved more (and more precise) contortions combined with sustained pressure on very specific points.  Just as he had warned me it would be, it was quite painful.  But it seemed like a good pain – a productive pain.  I left his office feeling somewhat better than when I came in, and more importantly, optimistic that I’ve turned a corner.

Our plan for the 4th was to drive into town to see the parade, then to meet up with the friends with whom we had hung out on our last visit (and in Montana), as they were throwing a mini party in a condo overlooking Main Street.  Then we would make our way to the base of Park City Mountain Resort for a bit of play time (live bands, etc) while we waited for night time and the firework show. 

Traffic, as it turns out, really is a factor in Park City.  While it’s unfair to judge it by what is arguably the busiest day of the year, the fact remains that due to geographic constraints, there are only two roads into town, one from the east and one from the north.  They gum up quickly.  Our intention was to do the smart/responsible thing and park on the outskirts of town, taking the free shuttle bus into the center.  It didn’t take long to discover that we were at least an hour too late for that to be a workable plan – given the number of people waiting for the busses, the speed at which the busses were able to get into town given the traffic, and the number of busses running, the parade would be long over before we even left the parking lot.  So back in the car we went and braved the gridlock.  Frankly we’d have been far better off riding our bikes from well outside of town, and we filed that away.  

We managed to find parking near and soon enough to enable us to reach and then briskly walk the parade route in the opposite direction of parade flow in order to see the entire parade, more or less.  It wasn’t optimal, but it was somewhat festive, and we were able to find our friends and join them for the party.  

The festival at the base of the resort was more spread out and less frenetic.  The kids were able to do some rock wall and ropes course climbing, as well as get their faces painted and meet some other kids with whom they ran around the hillside, always a welcome activity.  

Snow!

We laid out blankets on what would, in a few months, become the ski area’s shallow-sloped beginners’ area and watched as the fireworks were shot more or less right over our heads.  If there’s one thing I appreciate on the 4th, it’s a firework show that I’m right underneath.  I’ve been known to say that I want my eyeballs compressing with the explosions – watching a faraway burst followed a few seconds later by a weak “pfoof” disappoints me.  Park City’s show emphatically did not disappoint.  The kids, fortunately, shared my enthusiasm and we oohed and aahed and clapped un-selfconsciously while bundled up against the mountain air’s chill.

So how did Park City do audition-wise?  Tough to say.  There was a vibe there that was noticeably different than Bend’s, and as previously hinted at, it seemed to center on money in a vague way.  One of the things we would like our kids not to dwell on while growing up is socio-economic status.  To an extent this may be both unavoidable and representative of naivete on our part, not to mention a form of sheltering.  Still though, one thing about Bend that stood out to us, whether projected or authentic, was an emphasis on good living, by which I mean the outdoors, clean air, clean water, good food, physical exertion, natural beauty, etc etc.  Shared passion for all of the above and no pretense.  Someone later asked me about the general political bent there and my answer was that I didn’t know, but that more than anything it seemed completely beside the point in that sort of place.  Park City is similar, but seems less so due the veneer of glitz, or at least the high-elevation version thereof. 

This characterization may be completely off the mark, but Tacco and I got there independently, so I want to be careful not to ignore these impressions.  We still love it — the slopes are world class and the climate is ideal.  We have friends and family nearby, and the convenience of the nearby major airport may tip us back over the edge.

In the meantime, we’ve reached an interesting stage in our travels.  We’re almost at the one year mark, which as initially planned, was the end.  With the offer on the house, Plan Sun has gotten a huge boost, and if we do go that route, then we head to the Pacific Northwest now and we stay there.  It’s hard to imagine that.  We have become so accustomed to this life that it’s nearly as difficult to imagine stopping as it was to imagine going in the first place.  A lack of a defined end (both destination and date) contributes to the general ambiguity as well.  I’m starting to realize that planning and executing our re-entry into “normal life” will require almost as much effort as getting on the road did.

Baby steps, though.  What made doing this manageable was breaking the whole into measurable subtasks, and what we need to start thinking about now, particularly if we’re not 100% ready to choose a stopping point / home base and act accordingly, is getting back to Maryland to vacate our house for good – no small task, that.

Canyons and Icons — Rounding out Moab

Our cousins’ departure for Salt Lake left us with a couple more play days in Moab.  As we hadn’t yet seen Canyonlands (National Park), we figured we’d make that drive and hopefully get in a short hike or two. 

Canyonlands’ geography and topography are interesting – the Colorado and Green Rivers flow in from the northeast and northwest, respectively, and meet in the middle of the park, dividing it into three separate areas (four if you count the rivers themselves), none of which you can reach from the others. The Island in the Sky district is the northern third, and is the one reachable from Moab via the main road. From it you can see the other two areas, Needles in the southeast and The Maze to the southwest.  The Maze is especially remote and almost completely comprised of labyrinthine slot canyons.  To reach it, you need to first find, and then take about a 50 mile dirt road which itself can only be accessed from a remote two lane road.  Needless to say, it wasn’t on our agenda, but how cool is that?

 From what I can tell, the prime activity in Canyonlands is off-roading. There is one road that hugs one of the lower shelves of the main canyon all the way around the Island in the Sky. I had driven at least part of it once before in my ill-fated red Jeep, but had forgotten how spectacular that drive was in the interim.  Here’s a stretch of it, to give a sense of the grandeur, as well as the pucker factor.

Though our Toad is all-wheel drive, she’s also pushing 160K miles, is limping to an extent, and needs to last us as long as possible, given all the aftermarket modifications we poured into her in order to make her towable. Consequently I opted not even to broach the idea of doing any off-roading there.  Tacco’s vertigo may have played into that call as well. Maybe. 

After a brief stop at the ranger station and a short walk to the rim of the canyon, we drove south toward the Confluence, where the Colorado and Green meet to become the Colorado alone.  The kids, and Woodsprite in particular, were a bit hiked out by this point, particularly given the sustained heat, so we gave them a break and promised just a short walk or two – just enough to qualify them for their Junior Ranger badges. 

Both girls, but Firebolt especially, have consistently impressed us with their retention of the knowledge gained in the completion of their Junior Ranger booklets.  One of the tasks in Canyonlands’ version involved flora identification, and Firebolt pranced from tree to shrub to cactus, pointing out to us things like the distinctive cones on the pinyon tree (whose version of pine nuts were eaten by the area’s early residents).  She has become a treasure trove of both biome-specific factoids and parkland conservation best practices, having on multiple occasions scolded various family members (*cough* me *cough*) for minor infractions, like picking up rocks… “Imagine if every visitor did that, Dad!”  At the beginning of our trip we weren’t sure how well the Junior Ranger programs would supplement their educations, but I now think it’s been valuable, and that much of it will stick.

After making it almost as far south as we could and checking out views of the Needles district from various vantage points, we turned around and headed for the Mesa Arch trailhead.

Mesa Arch is one of Canyonlands’ most iconic views, and is unique in the fact that you hike to the top of it rather than the bottom.  When you reach it, it looks relatively small, but then you realize that you’re at the cliff’s edge (a very common occurrence in Canyonlands) and are looking through essentially just the top tenth of the arch, which is anchored several hundred feet below you.  You’re not allowed to climb onto the arch itself, and for good reason, but you can get right up to the edge.

Our Canyonlands visit complete, there was really only one other can’t miss activity in Moab.  I’ve mentioned in previous posts my desire to transfer some of my love for mountain biking onto the kids, and particularly Keeper at the moment, now that he’s old enough to start getting onto some serious trails.  While I have certainly had some success therein, up to now we really hadn’t had access, or at least easy access, to any world class trails.  Moab, however, is flush with them.  They’re far from easy, though, and it became clear to me after riding Keeper’s (my old) bike that putting him on Moab trails on that bike would turn him off to biking at best and get him seriously hurt at worst.  So I hatched a plan to rent a serious bike for him and set about attempting to get him psyched up for a ride with me. 

The logistics proved more tricky than I had anticipated due to the opening hours of the bike shops and all of our commitments while in Moab, but I had let Tacco know of my intentions before we arrived, and with her help was able to carve out time on the last morning to go ride, on a bike which we had rented the evening before.  My plan was to ride the Slickrock trail, which is one of the most iconic trails in mountain biking.  It’s a loop trail east of town, and is unique in that it’s almost entirely ridden on slickrock itself, via a path that’s designated by white arrows painted onto the rock. 

The one other time I had visited Moab, I didn’t make the opportunity to bike at all, let alone Slickrock, which, to be honest, intimidated me a bit at the time. It’s billed as an advanced trail, and at the time I had only a couple years of mountain biking under my belt, none of it especially technical.  Which brings me to the question of the wisdom of subjecting Keeper to it, on a rental bike no less.  Frankly I wasn’t sure.  He just hasn’t biked that much.  But I wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass,and told him as much.  I think my exact words to him were “I’ve been waiting over twenty years to ride this trail – I can’t tell you how excited I am to be doing it with you.”

We got his bike the night prior to the ride at the Poison Spider bike shop, which was beyond awesome.  One of their employees had helped me a few days earlier with a tire issue I was having, and spent at least a half hour fixing the problem, and then when ringing me up shocked me with a grand total of $5.  These are clearly people who are all about love of the sport and want nothing more than to get people (and themselves) onto the trails.  The rental itself wasn’t cheap, but Keeper had a high end bike – they didn’t offer anything that wasn’t –and it was worth it.  Having never ridden a full suspension bike with disc brakes, we decided that we’d be best served by doing a short practice ride up the river at sunset.  Stunning, as expected.

We awoke early the next morning to head up to the trail before the heat settled in, and were surprised to find the parking lot empty.  My initial thought was “oh jeez – it’s closed! I picked the one day where they closed the Slickrock Trail!”  But we quickly discovered the improbable fact that we were just early, and had the entire place to ourselves.  Wow. Wow! 

 Through the gate and onto the sandstone we rode, and Keeper killed it. Just killed it.  I was so thrilled to watch him make his way through the rakishly angled paths up and over and down and across the rocks, that I almost forgot how thrilled I was to be doing it myself.  Slickrock!  With my son! Just the two of us, tearing up one of the most famous trails in the world!

It was a spectacular morning.

What’s more, and better, he seemed to catch the bug.  I suspect my enthusiasm was a bit infectious and he got caught up in it, but he told me afterwards that this was a definite highlight of our flush-with-highlights trip. 

I could’ve ridden all day,but of course we had places to be, and the heat set in, and the crowds began to filter in as well.  Better to seal the experience into memory and head back, with a few more pics to make my mountain biking friends jealous. 

We returned to the RV park still breathless and exhilarated, and tried to explain to the girls how much fun we’d had.  Someday I hope to do it again with them.

For now, though, goodbye to Moab and eastern Utah adventures, and off to Park City, where we plan to take another look at Bend’s most formidable competitor, spend the 4th of July, and fly a work trip (that part’s just me).

 Everyone seems to be in a groove.  No talk in quite some time of “missing” anything or wanting anything we don’t have, and still the majority of a summer ahead of us.  It’s a great place to be.  We do still have a huge decision to make,with Plans Sun and Moon looming and scads of uncertainty staring us in the face, but for now… we’re good!      

Take Me to the River

I’ve said this before, but I’m a huge fan of rivers.  How they look, how they sound, what they do… pretty much everything.  I didn’t grow up around them (San Gabriel River — sorry, nope.  Maybe long, long ago…), nor have I ever really lived near one, but I could sit beside one or walk along one for hours and I could float on one for days.

One of the things we tried to encourage in the kids prior to the trip was to set a few life skill goals for our Wanderyear.  I declared mine early on to be surfing and river kayaking, hoping that one or both of those might sound intriguing enough to make someone else’s list.  The kids are young enough not to know what they don’t know, however, so we didn’t really get anything too concrete out of them.  Skiing became a priority after our winter Bend visit, and Boogie Boarding seems to have emerged as an undercurrent during our West Coast beach adventures last Fall and our Gulf Coast stops this Spring.  But the river “thing” appears to be mine, into which I’m attempting to drag my family.  Not kicking and screaming, mind you… they appear to have enjoyed all of our river adventures up to now, and what’s more, seem to be fully invested in the idea of moving to a town in which the central recreational activities involve the river which bisects it.  And Keeper has mused on multiple occasions that his ideal house would be on a river or lake.

Unfortunately, the type of kayaking I had been envisioning, the type involving short, hard-hulled kayaks in which you shoot rapids, crest falls, play in standing waves, right yourself once you’re inverted, etc, hasn’t materialized.  That’s OK though, as I feel pretty confident that this type of activity will be easy to engage in once if we reside in Bend.  What we’ve been able to do in its place is a series of family floats (Deschutes, Meramec, Animas…), either in our inflatable kayaks or on guided river rafting tours.

They were all leading up to this one.  Quick background: Tacco has a slew of semi-distant cousins in Utah.  And by “distant” I don’t mean with respect to relationships – we’ve spent quite a bit of time with them, particularly when we lived in Utah, and we’re quite close with some of them.  What I mean is that they’re a large group, none closer in blood relation than second cousin, and at various levels of “removed.”  But we visit with them every time we’re nearby.  Several months ago we agreed to converge on Moab in June for a big rafting trip on the Colorado.  This is something they’ve done many times before, and we were thrilled to be included in it.  The plan was to do two half-day floats and to hang out in the evenings at the condos that they had rented.

I have to admit, I wasn’t initially sure what to expect.  I knew that there were rafting companies that guide trips out of Moab, but when I looked at the satellite pics on Google Maps I didn’t see much of anything that resembled rapids.  I was concerned that the river rafting trips would be lazy floats and that our cousins were overstating things.

Nope.

I should’ve known.  If there’s one thing Utah folk do extremely well, it’s outdoor recreation.  Much like their Colorado kin, they have our country’s natural playgrounds in their backyards, and they grow up learning how to play hard and play well.

They converged, about twenty of them, ages from 6-ish to 70-ish, on two Moab condos with which they were familiar, having stayed there before.   I missed the first night’s gathering due to sciatica and a bit of fatigue, but heard from the others that it was similar to the joyful, barely contained chaos that we had seen many times at their Sunday night family dinners, with the added bonus of people crashing out on whatever horizontal surfaces they could find.

We all met the following morning at their condos, and after the normal waves of group inertia had cleared, we set out to the put-in point a few miles up the Colorado.  We were joined by these folks (loitering at the put-in, not floating with us, just to be clear), who I was assured by my cousins weren’t polygamists, despite appearances.

IMG_0191 Not sure how they knew (assuming they did), but the sum total of my expertise on such things is having watched all of Big Love.  I’m clearly not the guy to ask.

Our flotilla was impressive, consisting of two full-sized rafts, a couple duckies, and two of our three inflatable kayaks, one of which (the single) I commandeered.

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Our cousins had theirs outfitted with waterproof Bluetooth speakers which blared upbeat classics from the last few decades.  It was actually a pretty solid playlist, which tended a bit toward hard rock and away from bubblegum pop, but with a few show tunes thrown in for good measure.  Lots of sing-a-longs and dancing on the bow (which inevitably led to falling off the bow).

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Our girls found that they preferred being hood ornaments to paddling, which was probably better for everyone.

IMG_0211 Woodsprite even swam over to my kayak and assumed the position there.  Though it’s technically a single, it can support 300 lbs or so and she’s no more than 50 soaking wet.  I was thrilled to have her there, and we even braved a few rapids that way.

At one point while sitting there she put me on the spot with: “Dad, tell me one of your stories.”  Which I loved, and obliged her with, but initially struggled.  I’m the guy who has heard thousands of jokes but if asked to tell on one demand, can’t remember any of them.  I need to up my game.

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The scenery was stunning as usual, and frequent dips in the water kept us all at the perfect temperature.  The supercharged water guns helped as well.  Lots of squirting.

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There may be better ways to spend a day, but at the moment, none are coming to mind.

Though the rapids weren’t especially tricky, they were enough to require a little bit of skill and to generate some hoots and hollers out of the crowd.  Once or twice when I decided to eddy out of a rapid in order to get back upstream and play a bit, I came about as close to capsizing as you can without doing so… unexpected at the time, but in hindsight exactly what I was going for.

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At about the 2/3 point we pulled off to a sheer rock face where they traditionally stop to do some cliff jumping.  There’s a low ledge (about 10 feet) and a much higher one (about 30).  I was wondering whether my kids would take part.  They’re clearly beginning to flex their adventure muscles and banish some of the skittishness with which they all started this trip, but it’s difficult to know where their lines are and to what extent they’re becoming willing to push them.  Though peer pressure helps…

Imagine my surprise, then, when little Woodsprite scrambled without hesitation up onto the rocks and launched herself off and into the water.  Yes!

IMG_0198Then Keeper uppped the ante with a forward flip off the 10’ spot that made everyone gasp.  Gasp?  Why?  As I was among the gaspers, I can explain.  He didn’t jump outwards at all.  He basically tucked his head and rolled into the water, in the process clearing the rocks by inches.  He had no idea how hard-core his maneuver was.

And then!  I really need to give a shout out to my son here because he truly slayed a dragon.  Keeper has been an avowed agoraphobic for quite a while now.  If you happened to read about Zion and/or Sequoia you’ll remember how difficult some of our hikes had been for him.  Well, check this out.

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He climbed up to the 30’-ish top of the cliff, and having just done that jump myself, I can attest that it was sporty.  It took him quite some time and a good bit of both encouragement from below (though frankly he was probably so far into his head that he ignored us), as well as internal mojo-summoning, but he finally took the leap.  And I think it’s safe to say that we can put his agoraphobia to bed.  He’s been working on this for a while, and boom!  He grabbed his fear by the nape of the neck, smacked it around a few times, and tossed it into the abyss.  I’m really proud of him.  Can you tell?

We had pre-positioned food at our take-out, and enjoyed a great late lunch / early dinner – not great because of what we ate, but great owing to our state of mind after being on the river all day and loving the camaraderie.  Costco cold cuts taste so much better after you’ve worked for them, and everything’s better next to a river.

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And then… we did it again. (!!)

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It seemed like such a production the first day, but this was a rafting Trip, not a rafting Day, so we did the entire float again the next day, and day two was just as spectacular as day one.

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There was one difference, and I think/fear I may have had something to do with the changing of plans.  I had mentioned that there seemed to be several rapids further downstream that we had missed, and something to the effect of “man it would be fun…” to extend the day a bit and do those as well.  My cousin to whom I mentioned this let me know that they had indeed done that stretch of river before, and that yes, there were some significant rapids, but there were also some long, slow stretches in the interim.

After a bit of discussion, the group consensus, though that’s a tricky way to describe it, as by necessity you need a few people to just take control and handle things in a group of that size, was to take out at the previous day’s spot, but then anyone who wanted to continue would keep going while the rest returned to the condos.

I was of course among the group that opted to keep going, as was Tacco.  The kiddos headed back.  It was an interesting stretch – much more extreme on both ends.  By that I mean that the rapids were far more challenging, and a thrill in the kayak.  The scenery was better as well, as the canyon deepened in that stretch of river and the moon rose above the canyon walls while the sun headed steadily in the other direction.

But those “long, slow stretches…”  They were indeed long and slow, and an upstream wind complicated things.  The wind blew hard enough, in fact, that we could hardly get downstream – problematic when you’re doing slow-motion battle against waning daylight.  In fact, without steady paddling we floated the wrong way.  Upstream, in other words.  Alone in my kayak I had less difficulty, but still needed to paddle vigorously and steadily for a solid half-hour at a time in order to make progress.  The raft, however, had more exposure to the wind.  I had noted that they were falling farther and farther behind me as I gutted my way down toward the take-out.  What I hadn’t noticed was that they had taken Tacco and her cousin/kayak-mate into the bigger raft and tied the kayak to the raft in order to increase the number of paddles in the water, and that the mood on the raft had transitioned from sing-along show tunes and dance on the rails to Song of the Volga Boatmen, row row row.

We made it of course, but thoroughly exhausted, and just as the last light left the canyon.  As we drove back into town and re-entered cell coverage we were greeted by several concerned texts from the kids.  Fair enough, it was pushing 9PM by this time.

Me, though?  I loved it.  All of it.  We re-joined the group back at the condos for a late dinner and some sharing of war stories and bonding.  Though we joyfully hung out late into the night, Firebolt summed up how we felt like this.

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This is the type of family get-together I want to do… well, pretty much for the rest of my life.