Inflections

No one would call a coastal California winter harsh.  Yet the weather does change come November, particularly up in Northern Cal, and even though some warm days sneak into the mix, chilly and rainy becomes the norm.  Not that there’s anything wrong with chilly and rainy per se – in fact just about any time we ask one of our underdressed-for-the-weather kids whether they’re not far too cold in that t-shirt, they like to remind us that they were born in Washington.  Fair enough.  But I’d like to point out that Tacco and I were still sleeping in Davista, and weren’t heating it at night (or at all).  It does have a heater that runs off the propane tank, but we’ve found it to be a very inefficient way to use our limited fuel.  Plus it only manages to take the edge off the chill rather than making it cozy.  We opted to bundle up in blankets instead.  Nighttime temps began to dip into the 40s and below pretty quickly, though.  That’s brisk.  Yet fun, in a back-handed way.

With the rains come a greening up of the generally brown golden California hills, which is something I remember distinctly from college – going home to LA for Winter Break and coming back to find everything green.  Though California has suffered through several years of drought, the rains seemed to start off strong this year.  Several days we spent holed up in my parents’ house after homeschooling was complete, rather than hiking the hills or biking the trails like I had hoped.  That’s not very Pacific Northwest of me, I know.  Up there we like to say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.  Evidently we’ve softened a bit.

One particularly large offshore storm brought a massive swell to the coast.  Having spent the late summer and early Fall on the beach, I still had waves on the brain, and my thoughts bee-lined to Mavericks, the infamous big-wave break just north of Half Moon Bay.  The family and I had just watched (and enjoyed) the movie Chasing Mavericks, and though I’d been in that area several times, I had never seen it actually breaking.  It takes a pretty sizable swell to break at all.  A quick search online informed me that not only would it be breaking during this storm, but the sets would be peaking at 40-50’, with a few 60-footers thrown in for good measure.  Yow!  This I wanted to see, and I enlisted my brother-in-law to make the drive to the coast with me. 

We weren’t the only ones to have this idea, it turned out, and both parking and finding a spot from which to observe was a bit nightmarish.  We also discovered that the break is even further out than I had imagined it was.  You can see it from the shore if you’re up on the cliffs above, but it’s impossible to get a good sense of the scale.  That said, it was still pretty spectacular.  Having been pummeled by my share of medium-at-very-best waves, it’s hard to even conceive of what getting sucked into and under one of those monsters would be like, to say nothing of actually harnessing one.

The rain continued, with only a few breaks, right up to Thanksgiving, which we were fortunate to get to spend with extended family at my sister’s in-laws’ (that’s awkward, but I can’t seem to describe the relationship better — how about my brother-in-law’s parents’) house up in Grass Valley.  Grass Valley sits on the Gold Country Highway in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and we had been able to make it up there to a proper Thanksgiving with extended family for the past two years. 

There’s shooting and hot-tubbing and rope-swinging and chasing wild turkeys involved, along with the normal feasting and football watching.  Perfect.

Along with the rain came snow in the Sierra Nevada, and our first opportunity to flex our new Epic Passes.  My hope upon purchasing them was to get on the slopes for the first time in mid-December or so, but Mother Nature appeared to be working with us this year – a few of the local resorts opened in late November, and Vail came out with an early season lodging special that we would’ve been crazy to pass up.  So we booked it.  The Vail trip would be during the first week in December, and we headed up to Kirkwood, just south of Lake Tahoe, at the end of November for a let’s-get-the-kids-back-on-skis day.

Kirkwood was ok.  Not the most auspicious start to the season.  The snow wasn’t bad, particularly for its being so early.  But we put all three kids into a lesson, and it didn’t quite take as well as we’d hoped, particularly in Keeper’s case.  He was DONE by the time we met the kids post-lesson, and proclaimed that his instructor had “squeezed every last bit of fun out of skiing.”  Ouch!  His lesson, though technically a group lesson, was essentially private as no one else was there, and I guess he wasn’t quite ready to have his technique so thoroughly combed through and picked apart.  Hm.  Not what we were hoping for rolling into this Vail trip.  But we remained hopeful that his reaction to skiing skill improvement was more anomalous blip than trend.

The snow really began to dump during the night after our ski day (we stayed at the Lodge there rather than making the drive back), and by the time we attempted to get on the road, it was essentially white-out conditions.  Complicating things, we discovered that our road down the mountain had just been closed, giving us only two options – wait it out for an indefinite period or turn around and head up the mountain toward Lake Tahoe instead, so that we could take a different (open) route down.  We opted for the latter, and I found myself in the toughest snow conditions I had ever driven in, by a good margin.  I’d forgotten how impressive Sierra snowstorms can be and how unsuited for driving in them many of the roads are.

Despite the mayhem, we rolled safely back into my parents’ driveway several hours later, ready to unpack and repack for Vail.  We were looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

What it’s about is a truly spectacular ski resort, we soon learned.  I’ve already written about Vail in the summer, and how the compact village is tucked away into a steep valley that hides its expansiveness.  What we found in the winter was a wonderland. 

Now, a few oh-by-the-ways and caveats.  Firstly, I have friends who Can. Not. Stand. Vail.  And I see where that springs from – it is a money place, plain and simple.  If there was once an undercurrent of granola, that’s long gone.  Everything is exorbitant, very little appears to be “old school,” and it is a place where they’ve gone to great lengths to take anything that could be inconvenient or uncomfortable about skiing and remove it from the picture.  If you’re a pure skier and even things like chairlifts smack of selling out, then Vail would be the prime example of everything that’s wrong.  As for me, I harbor no such sentiments and am happy to dish my skis off to a slopeside valet or stroll on a heated sidewalk prior to helping myself to the complimentary s’more accoutrements set up beside the lodge’s roasty outdoor fire ring.  Generally I can’t afford these things, and they are certainly not what I would expect, but I won’t turn them down either. 

Secondly, we got a great deal.  It was the very beginning of December, which is very early in the season and a time when there’s generally neither much skiing going on nor much snow to be had, so we were able to book two adjoining rooms in the lodge for next to nothing.  And then it started to snow.  And snow.  We arrived at a mountain 100% open, blanketed in fresh powder, and nearly empty of visitors.  Yikes.

And I mentioned the adjoining rooms I had booked.  Well, I learned upon check-in that The Lodge has no such animal (by which I mean “adjoining rooms”), and they weren’t sure how I had managed to book them.  After a quick behind-the-scenes huddle, the supervisor emerged and handed me a key with a wink and an “I’m sure you’ll be happy with this.”  I was.  We were. Oh man were we.  Rather than adjoining hotel rooms, they gave us one of their 2 bedroom plus loft condos whose balcony looked out onto the base of the gondola below. !!  So it was a great, great start.

It only got better from there.  The kids absolutely loved it.  LOVED it.  And by “kids” I mean Tacco and I.  Our children were even more thrilled, and tore all over the mountain in the soft, forgiving powder.  We found a “kids’ adventure zone” with twisty, narrow paths that wind through the forest and various obstacles to ski around, over, and under, and we had the whole thing to ourselves. 

We had to remind them repeatedly that this was not something that they should get used to with respect to skiing, but it was probably tough to take us too seriously through our giddiness. 

They skied well, too.  Woodsprite tackled some easy blues and Firebolt became completely confident on them, even going so far as to develop a habit of throwing down some in-motion disco moves during straight stretches in order to calm nerves that had been frayed by preceding steep sections.  Keeper progressed quickly into the blue zone and began to work on parallel turns rather than snowplows.  I took him, probably a little prematurely, down into the back bowls.  I couldn’t resist – they were wide open and reasonably untracked. 

He didn’t dig it much. 

But he did manage to make his way down, and it didn’t kill his mojo for the rest of the day/trip; he continued to improve.

Overall it was a raging success, though once again we had to make clear to the kids that this was not a standard we were setting, in fact we may never have a ski trip this cool again.  They took that in stride.

Quick “flashing check engine light” update. With all this time in my parents’ driveway we were able to get Davista back into the shop to see if they couldn’t beat it into submission once and for all. We chose a Ford dealership in somewhat-nearby Fairfield, and I liked the service coordinator there. He inspired confidence and listened intently, or at least appeared to do so, when I gave him my data dump on what I’d seen and the drama that had come before. After about a week, they came to the conclusion that it was a software issue in the onboard diagnostic computer, and that makes sense to me. They flashed the new software onto the computer, reset the light, and cut us loose. Though I’m far from an expert on engines, trucks, or the particulars of internal combustion, I can’t get my head around the idea that multiple cylinders, yet not all of them, would misfire randomly and intermittently. That I’m not feeling anything abnormal when it happens backs up my going theory. So a sensing problem rather than an actual misfiring problem seems right. So far the light is out and hasn’t come back. On the other hand, Davista is just sitting in the driveway, so who knows… Hard to misfire when your engine isn’t running.

We rounded out 2018 with a family Christmas celebration at my parents’ house, followed by my flying down to Orlando to accomplish my yearly required airline training. 

Generally that week would be considered holiday time that we would try to keep somewhat free from work commitments, but the truth is that it’s basically been a holiday year.  It’s difficult to even know where to file a year like 2018 for our family, with its beginnings back in Maryland, the slow march back across the country, the scads of national parks and months on the beach, and the final cutting of ties with our previous home.  This has become our new normal, and how extraordinary it has all been is difficult to evaluate from the inside. 

Yet there’s a distinct turning toward the next phase.  For New Year’s Eve Tacco set up a “wish board” where we all wrote on stickies what we hoped for in 2019, and then pasted them to a large surface.  The kids each mentioned a few things related at least tangentially to getting off the road and back into a house, school, and I guess “normalcy.”  For me, my focus is turning definitively toward making “a smooth landing.”  On multiple occasions I’ve talked about how getting back off the road seems in many ways as daunting as getting on it was, and I’ve realized that it would be a grave mistake not to commit the same mental and physical resources to doing so.  There are enormous decisions to be made, and we want to be deliberate and diligent.  To be sure, there’s more to see and certainly some more skiing to do.  But we’re winding down.  That feels different.

Here’s to 2019!

Our Biggest Mistake

I’m lookin’ at you, Toad!

While it’s almost certainly a luxury to be able to point to our choice of towed vehicle as the singular thing we messed up most on this trip, it’s hard when saying that not to imagine a future scenario wherein we look back at this post and laugh/cry at our naïveté.  “Remember when we thought the CAR was our biggest blunder??”

Lacking that scenario, however, I’ll push forward with this, as it’s has instructive value for me and anyone who may be looking to do this sort of trip in the future.

To be clear, the issue, to my knowledge, is not with the make and model of car.  I have nothing against Subaru Outbacks.  It’s ours in particular.

Backing up slightly — if you’re going to tow a car behind a motorhome, there are several ways to do it.  You can put it on a trailer, thereby towing any car you’d like and needing no special equipment to be installed on the car itself.  But then you have a large and heavy trailer that you need to store somewhere every time you park.  And they’re not cheap.  You can tow a car “four down,” i.e. with all four wheels touching the road and spinning.  No additional major gear required, but only very few cars are able to be towed four down without ruining their differential due to lack of lubrication.  And you need to install lights that illuminate along with the motorhome’s turn signals and brake lights, as well as a supplemental braking system and hardware that allows the tow bars to attach to the car.  Plus you need the tow bars.  That’s about $3000 worth of equipment.  You can also sort of split the difference and buy a dolly, which is more or less a half trailer – one set of wheels are put up on the dolly and the other set spins on the road.  You still have a dolly to store though.

The vast majority of the motorhome-towing-vehicle setups that I’ve seen since we started have been of the “four down” variety, so I’m confident that the decision we ultimately made was a good one. 

Here’s what we didn’t think about though, and this is extremely important: once you commit to a Toad, you’re all in.  And by that I mean that when you make $3000 and many many hours of modifications to a car, you are committed to keeping that car running for as long as you’re towing a car.  So it’s important to get a good one.

We got an old one.  Of all the cars that could be towed four down, we decided that an Outback suited us best, but rather than spending the money on a somewhat used / few years old model, we “saved money” by getting one at a good price.  I reasoned that the 150,000 miles on it didn’t really matter since we’d be towing it most of the time anyway, and Subarus seem to be pretty easy to keep up and running. 

We also got it from a disreputable dealer, as I would find out later.  I’ll spare you that story, as it’s more than a little unpleasant and doesn’t provide any constructive information.  Suffice it to say that I was shocked to learn how blatantly unprofessional, and actually flat out mean, a salesman could be, even in the age of online reviews.

The first thing we discovered after driving our new car the hour and a half back to Maryland from its Virginia dealership (and leaving my trusty Audi A4 behind as a trade-in) was that the front differential had a slight leak, or at least it was “slight” when the differential had almost no oil in it.  Once I serviced it with oil, it dumped all of it back out onto my driveway overnight.  We needed two new axles.  And a new driveway surface… differential oil is thick, stinky, and not what you want on your driveway when you’re trying to sell your house.

A few months after we replaced the two front axles, we were told later that we needed another front axle replacement, which we did, and then a few months later, two more, which we didn’t. 

The clutch, as we would discover a week into our trip, was about to go, too.  We had that replaced in Michigan, and ever since we did, the new one (which I have to assume was a bottom-of-the-barrel clutch) stinks any time it’s put under a load.  Backing up a hill positively reeks. 

Upon taking it for (mostly) routine service in California (it needed a new rack and pinion, no small repair, but we asked them to give the whole thing a once-over too), a year into the trip, they came back with a truly alarming laundry list of “required” repair items, to the tune of several thousand dollars.

Now, of course, with just about any older car that isn’t a collector’s item, you reach a point where it makes zero sense to put more money into it.  Not so with Toad.  We really have no choice but to keep this car going. 

So we’ve limped it along.  I’m pretty certain we’ve spent a good deal more money on it than we would’ve spent initially on a newer car with 1/3 the miles.  And at the end of the day we have a car that creaks and makes odd ratcheting noises, leaks various fluids, has a hard time getting up hills, and often stinks of burning oil and/or burning clutch.  It seems like at any point she could roll out her tongue and die for good. All that said, she’s still getting us from point A to point B, and we don’t need her to do so for much longer.  So I shouldn’t be too harsh.  But… lesson learned: pay the money for a decent car up front.

Run to the Hills

The drive to Asheville was tricky.

You’ve probably already read about how we burnt our Toad’s brakes to a crisp, or at least the metallic equivalent thereof.  That was dumb.  I don’t really have anything to add to Tacco’s narrative, other than to say that she was absolutely correct to call for a Safety Standdown.  I progressed rapidly through the stages of grief upon opening the car door in Asheville and seeing an engaged parking brake staring at me.  First couldn’t believe I could have possibly done that, then got pissed at nothing in particular, then resignedly realized that no matter how many times we do this, there are STILL a ton of moving parts in this rig, and that there is zero room for complacency, as the stakes are far too high.  All within about five minutes.

It was tricky in other ways, too, though.  I once again allowed myself to be victimized by my phone’s mapping app, which analyzed the weekday late-afternoon traffic and found me a “better way” to our lakeside campground up in the hills to the south of town.   It wasn’t better at all.  It was residential, narrow, tortuously winding, and hilly.  What’s more, the threatening clouds we had seen in the distance as we climbed out of South Carolina were now overhead and unleashing sheets of rain and wind.  Tacco did not like it one bit.  I didn’t either, but found it less disconcerting than I had found St. Augustine’s traffic-clogged narrow streets from a few days back.  At least here I didn’t have to worry about merging, pedestrians, intersections, and dead ends.  Insisting on telling her this while we were in the thick of it wasn’t an especially good strategy, however, and bordered on immature.  It was in this state of quiet tension that we pulled at last into our wooded campsite and discovered that we had killed our Toad’s brakes.

Though we don’t enjoy them at the time, it has been good for us to manage these reckonings, these moments where some sort of conflict, generally exacerbated by external factors, builds to the point where we’re forced by our situation and unavoidable proximity to resolve it.  Basically to practice being adults, spouses, and teammates.  We vented our frustrations, and then, unburdened, calmly talked about the way forward.  In this case it was a renewed attention to detail in our stopping / going procedures, and a heightened respect for any discomfort the other feels with our current underway situation.  As with flying, the “hair rising on the back of the neck” feeling, no matter who experiences it, is often the first indication of an impending chain of negative events, and should always lead to increased focus and awareness.

So… Asheville.  I love Asheville.  I’ll say it right up front.  It reminds me of a smaller and more laid back Portland, but up in the hills, with a tubing-friendly river running right through town.  [Bonus:  the river is called the French Broad]

There seems to be a great blend of Southern sensibility, outdoorsy mountain adventurousness, and granola in Asheville.  If it were closer to a commutable airport I would have seriously considered putting it on the short list of living destinations.  One of the prime heat-of-the-summer activities seems to be group floats of the French Broad, peppered by stops at one or several of the various breweries along the water with convenient tube and kayak docking.  And there’s excellent mountain biking.  So far so good!

It gets better though.  As any respectable beer geek can tell you, Asheville is one of the Meccas, and there’s a food scene to match.  Not only are there at least a dozen and a half local breweries, most of them focusing on farmhouse style / wild ales, which happen to be my favorites, but both Calfornia’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado’s New Belgium have opened up shop in or near Asheville as well.  I say “shop,” but in reality these are megaplexes.  Sierra Nevada’s in particular reminds me of another Asheville highlight, the Biltmore estate.  The property sprawls over at least a hundred acres, and you enter via a gilded gate and along a hilly, winding road that’s lavishly landscaped.  When you reach the building itself, it looks like you’re pulling up to a resort.  And indeed, after passing through the large restaurant area (with the several times as large brewery section on your right), you emerge onto a multi-tiered patio and acres of grass and walk-through garden, peppered with tables, fire pits, chairs, benches, a stage for live music, a kids’ playground, bocce courts, and cornhole setups.  It’s the type of place you could easily spend all afternoon and well into the night, and to top it off, the food happens to be outstanding.

As I previously mentioned, Asheville was our first Davista destination after we picked her up in Cincinnati, and the highlights of our visit were a trip to Sliding Rock, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and the Sierra Nevada brewery thereafter.  That day was such a hit, in fact, that we unanimously decided to re-create it this go-around.

Our accommodations this time were different, however, in that we opted to stay at a semi-remote campground near a lake outside of town rather than the in-town (but nice!) RV park in which we had camped previously.  We actually never saw downtown Asheville this time.  And that was actually just fine.  Tacco touched on how she reached (and exceeded) peak granola last time.  As much as I would’ve enjoyed watching her free-spirited self struggle to keep from yelling “get a job, hippie!!” again, we didn’t have much time, and wanted to explore more of the natural side of the city in the outskirts.

I did have to pop into town to get the fried brakes replaced of course, but fortunately that was only minimally inconvenient, and I was able to combine picking up the car with a quick stop at a local bottle shop in order to stock our fridge and cupboard with some can’t-find-elsewhere hoppy / funky goodness.

Here’s Sliding Rock.

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We drove over a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway to get there, which is always stunning.  The only stretch of it I had driven previously was up in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, several (16ish?) years back when I was beginning my drive across country from DC.  I knew there was virtually no chance this drive would exceed that one on any axis (it was in October, at the peak of Fall color, and I had the top down in my newly purchased Porsche Boxster), but still it’s difficult not to find the Blue Ridge breathtaking under any circumstance.  I remembered from our last visit that the mountains in this area were flush with rhododendrons and had hoped that our coming a few weeks later this time would put them solidly in bloom.  Not so, unfortunately – evidently the weather had only very recently turned warm, making them a bit late to show their color.

The kids had been pre-gaming their Sliding Rock exploits for quite some time, which made me happy.  Last year only Keeper had actually slid down the rock solo, though Firebolt had come close and Woodsprite made one run on my lap, which she immediately regretted.  This time, though, all three promised to slide in earnest.  And I have to hand it to them, it was a gutsy move.  Though a few weeks later in the year than the last visit, we were still significantly pre-season for such activities and that water was COLD, with no way to avoid a complete and mostly out-of-control immersion at the end of the slide.

I won’t say they all loved it and did it repeatedly (only Keeper and I did that, with his runs exceeding mine by about a factor of four), but they were all thrilled to have done it afterwards.

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Sierra Nevada was almost as amazing as we remembered it, though there’s something to be said for the first time you drive onto the manicured property and say “wait… this is a brewery??”  The desserts had been an unexpected high point last time as well, and this time they were quite good, but maybe not quite mind-blowing.  On the other hand, we arrived earlier in the day and with warmer weather, which meant more time to enjoy the sprawling grounds.  IMG_1228After “corn in the hole” (thanks for that, Woodsprite!) and dinner, Keeper and Firebolt gravitated to the bocce courts while Woodsprite headed for the sand pit and playground.  IMG_1230

Tacco and I opted for some trip strategizing in two large, comfy chairs next to a fire pit.  We hung out there until after sunset and headed back to our campsite by the lake.  A solid day, by any measure.

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The next morning I was able to take a little hike to the lake with Firebolt, where we taunted some geese in hopes of getting some YouTube worthy footage (no dice, these geese were pretty chill).  It’s been somewhat of a challenge to carve out one-on-one time with the kids, so it always feels valuable when we do.

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It’s nice to be back into some terrain again, too.  Though the Low Country was gorgeous, we’ll always be mountain people, and even the relatively low, rolling Appalachians scratch that itch.  Next up will be Great Smoky Mountain National Park, about which I’ve heard lots of superlatives.  Fresh air and clean streams sound fantastic to me right about now.

Lookin’ California

This week was both a transition week and a birthday week.  Transition because we’re ending the “beach phase” of our journey, or at least the West Coast beach phase, and birthday because we have 60% of our family celebrating them.  Tacco, then I, then Woodsprite get officially older within a five day stretch, and Halloween hits two days thereafter, so we wanted to find some place where we could do birthday stuff and possibly trick-or-treat without too much effort.

The Naval Weapons Station at Seal Beach got the nod for several reasons, not the least of which was RV site availability – it was a weekend after all.  Potential activities and proximity to people helped too.  Having grown up in that area, I still have several close, lifelong friends who live there.  Generally I attempt to let my birthday disappear into the valley between my wife’s & daughter’s birthday, but this time, with my parents still with us and with the opportunity to celebrate not only with family but with some friends I don’t often see, I opted for a Me day.

Seal Beach is a somewhat sleepy little beach town due to its size (small) and location; the Naval Weapons Station there is equally sleepy, though not at all small.  In fact it’s quite sprawling and sports a grid of weapons storage bunkers that you can see from the road.  I remember wondering what they were as a kid, and assuming it had something to do with nukes and the Soviets.  But the base isn’t busy at all, and only a few military folks actually work there.  The RV park, though well-appointed and clean, seems to have vacancies most of the year.  There wasn’t much of anything to do on the base other than ride bikes around the empty roads, but it was nice to have clean showers and free (two in a row!) laundry.

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We had given Woodsprite a few options for a birthday celebration, particularly since her first choice (party with her friends in Maryland) wasn’t on the table.  I previously mentioned a 3-day park-hopping military deal available for Disneyland, and she jumped at the chance to do that when she heard she could.  They deck the park out in Halloween / Fall garb as well as modifying a few of the rides to fit that theme, so we figured it was a good time to visit regardless.

Our plan was to hit Disneyland on Woodsprite’s birthday, and then the adjacent Disney California Adventure park the next day.  We reasoned that while it might be a little bit crowded on Sunday, we could alleviate that by arriving right at park opening, and regardless we’d have the whole place to ourselves on Monday.  Is anyone laughing?

On my b-day, we (plus my parents and friends) met up at our lifelong family friends’ house in the waterfront Naples section of Long Beach and spent the day watching football, stand-up paddleboarding, and cruising around the canals in their Duffy Boat.  Oh and eating and drinking.  Our hostess kept pulling out these insanely good bottles of wine from their cellar, as well as a steady stream of snacks.  Hard to beat a day like that.

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And then Sunday at Disney.  About the laughing?  Yeah, it is NEVER uncrowded at Disneyland.  Somehow I’d forgotten that little tidbit.  Unlike Disney World (which is also crowded), Disneyland is surrounded by a metro area of 18-pushing-19 million people, a very large percentage of whom are Disney fans.  It is not a stretch to imagine that many thousands of them might find heading down there on a beautiful Sunday, particularly when the park is decked out for Halloween, a decent idea.  And that doesn’t count the tourists.  [Side note: I looked up Disney’s attendance figures, which they don’t publish, but it’s estimated that on average 44,000 people a day walk through the front gates, and their capacity is about 75,000.  That translates to a lot of waiting before you get to float by Jack Sparrow as he hobnobs with the 50-years-his-elder pirates.]

So our arrival at park opening did nothing to alleviate line wait times, but it did give us a bit more time in the park.  Our previous couple Disney park visits came with a meltdown timer – the trick was always to figure out how much time you had left on it and to leave just before it ticked to zero.  This time, however, it was reasonably possible that our time in the park would be limited by our exhaustion level instead.  Woodsprite may have a meltdown or two left in her, but at 6 she’s pretty level-headed, and would probably fall asleep in a line for a ride or on my shoulders before she’d come unhinged.  The park does stay open until midnight, though, so it was a very good bet that we would shut down before it did.

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Woodsprite’s 6th ended up being an entirely fitting celebration for her.  She rode all the of the thrill rides she was tall enough to ride, which included Halloween-themed Space Mountain.  They project a bunch of freaky demon-ish images on the walls of the normally pitch dark ride through “space,” and frankly I wasn’t sure how she’d do.  A few years earlier we’d subjected Keeper to it, immediately after which he calmly informed us that he hadn’t enjoyed it one bit, and that “no kid should ever have to see that.”  So of course we put his sisters on it this time.  Seriously though, it’s not terribly freaky, just loud and dark, and both girls enjoyed themselves this go around.  Woodsprite couldn’t be bothered to chat up any of the characters that roam the park, or to wait in line to see any of the Disney princesses (yes!), but wore a smile pretty much the entire day.

IMG_9758IMG_9769We quickly learned the Fast Pass system, which allows you to schedule a time to ride the most popular rides and skip the majority of the waiting.  It certainly didn’t cut waits out altogether, but we did get to see a decent chunk of the park.

Kids’ verdicts on the various classic rides:

Space Mountain – yes!

Matterhorn – thumbs down… too rough, not very fast, and don’t like that yeti one bit

Pirates of the Caribbean – double yes!

Haunted Mansion – meh. (they turn it into a Nightmare Before Christmas / Jack Skellington ride in Oct-Dec and I had to agree with their assessment)

Teacups – always! (I didn’t join them, and won’t ever)

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – um, what was the point exactly?  And did we really just end up in hell?  Weird story line.

Big Thunder Mountain – approaching best ever!

Splash Mountain – actually see the below picture, which about captures it.  Firebolt is the one completely enclosed in fleece.  I think she sat that way the entire ride.  I was trying to make a face for the camera, but blinked.  Tacco / Keeper – yes!!  Woodsprite – hmm… For whatever reason, this was the only ride that exceeded her thrill threshold.  Grossly.  It’s blurry, but she’s in full caterwaul there, which continued all the way up to disembarkation.  She did recover quickly afterwards though.

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The following day we spent largely at California Adventure, as planned.  Still crowded, despite its being a Monday, but at least we were ready for it.  Interestingly all three kids proclaimed afterwards that they like it better than the original Disneyland park, and I have to agree that it’s extremely well executed.  It’s subdivided into several “lands,” like Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, etc, but all of them (ok most of them) are based on different aspects of California’s landscape, history, and culture.  I mused to Tacco in all seriousness that it takes a pretty extraordinary (and extraordinarily diverse) state to be able to pull off theming an entire Disney park on it.  Which led to silly riffs on Disney Florida Adventure (Beachland and Swampland), Disney Maryland Adventure (Crabland and Old Bay-land), and Disney Texas Adventure (Brisketland, Severe Weather-land, and Everything’s Really Big-land).  I keed, I keed…

It was another fantastic day, a highlight of which was Firebolt conquering her roller coaster fear once and for all on “California Screamin’” But we’re amusement parked out.

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One huge plus to our neighborhood near Annapolis is how well it does Halloween.  Just about every house participates and attempts to outdo each other, the parents are out in the street, there’s a party atmosphere, and all the kids are able to run around and collect candy safely.  The Long Beach neighborhood in which we were able to let the kids trick-or-treat courtesy of friends of ours gave our Maryland neighborhood a run for its money.  The residents had closed a few blocks to cars, rented a bouncy house, and even hired a band to play cover tunes into the evening.  Tacco and I loved it, as did the girls.  Keeper, though he certainly appreciated it, was left bittersweet as the whole scene reminded him too much of home and what he would’ve been doing with his friends that night had he been in Maryland.  Understandable.

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I left for another trip the following day and returned for the final stretch of our SoCal stay, during which our only plans were to hang out with friends.

How much time we opt to spend visiting friends and family versus having our own family time is both an as-yet-unresolved question and an interesting little dance.  Having lived on both coasts and elsewhere, as well as having been in Navy squadrons which bring together people from pretty much everywhere, Tacco and my group of friends is large and widely dispersed.  In an ideal world, of course, we would visit everyone we could, everywhere we went.  The RV Around the Country world, however, is neither ideal nor immune to the myriad time constraints that limit our real world experiences.  So how on Earth do you pick and choose?

What I personally am finding is that, like most things, there’s a sweet spot.  While not once have we visited anyone and thought “I wish we hadn’t done that,” we have gone for stretches of hopping from event to event that put a bit too much stress on us and the kids, and required “down time.”  Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that this trip isn’t vacation, it’s our lives.  I’m also finding that it’s almost never a matter of picking and choosing who we see, rather it tends to come down to identifying opportunities and then attempting to take advantage of them with whomever might be available at the time.  Unfortunately we’ve already had to miss out on a few visits with people we would very much like to have seen simply because we only have 24 hours in our days and can’t create new ones.  I could spend several months in the LA area doing nothing but hanging out with people I’d like to see, but it would defeat our purpose.  On the other hand, part of our purpose IS to see people we don’t normally get to see.  So yes — a dance.

That said, we were very happy to be able to carve out time to spend with our friends in Long Beach.  He and I have been very close since High School and they were able to come spend a little time with us in Annapolis / DC this Spring, so the kids were looking forward to seeing them again too.  More importantly, though, they are a family we look up to.  They married shortly after college and just sent their youngest son away to UCLA, so they’re pathfinders for us in some sense.  But it goes much deeper than that – I’m sure we all have people in our lives to whom we look for wisdom… or at least we recognize the wisdom in much of what they do and say, even if we don’t overtly seek it out.  This couple is like that for us.

He, Keeper and I went to a shooting range in the afternoon, as Keeper had expressed great interest in doing so and I can think of no better person to introduce him (well, continue to… he’s already been introduced) to safe and responsible use of firearms.  Despite maintaining my qualifications while I was in the Navy, I’ve never owned a gun and at this point probably won’t; there are far better people than I to teach Keeper these particular ropes.  He wrote about his experience here; I think it was eye-opening for him.

We joined the rest of the gang at their house for dinner and managed to rope them into participating in our where-do-we-settle deliberations over some wine, in the hopes that some pearls of wisdom would emerge.  And emerge they did.  I suspect Tacco will go into greater detail on this at some point as the concept really stuck with her, but they encouraged us to ensure that wherever we ended up was someplace we, and by “we” I mean Tacco and I, truly wanted to be — that was best for us.  While that sounds obvious on the surface, the idea they were getting at is more subtle, and involves giving the kids less say in the process, reasoning that, though we’re all capable of making the best out of any situation, dissatisfaction Tacco and I have with where we live will trickle down to the kids.  Conversely, so will overt enthusiasm, lack of stress, and productive use of our free time.  Deep down I think we knew this already, but hearing it said out loud from someone you respect, without prompting, is always helpful.   It doesn’t quite give us the “A-HA!” that we’d love to have (and won’t get), but it does bring us closer to our goal.

I almost forgot the fishing!  Can’t believe I almost forgot the fishing.  One thing I discovered when bicycling around the Navy base was a guy with his two kids fishing from one of the short concrete piers near where they pull the ships in to load the weapons.  That area of the base is strictly no-go and heavily guarded when it’s being used, but is as ghost-townish as the rest of the base when it isn’t.  The guy was pulling mackerel out of the water one after the other, and I stopped to chat with him, figuring that it was long past time that I took the kids fishing somewhere where they might actually catch something.  Some of the advice he gave me was good (use squid for bait), the rest less so (don’t worry about asking for permission from the Operations Office, even though the sheet you sign upon check-in tells you specifically that you have to, or about getting a fishing license, either, as no one around here cares), but of course I didn’t know which was which yet.  The next morning I brought the kids out to the same spot and watched as they had similar luck fishing – mackerel fight pretty hard, even the small ones!  We did do catch-and-release as the guy from the day before had suggested the water was polluted enough that the fish wouldn’t be good to eat.  We never got to test whether that advice fell into the “good” or “other” category though, as up drove a police car with what appeared to be both a normal policeman and his military counterpart.  Oops.  I was able to intercept them near their car rather than having the conversation in front of the kids, but it started fairly confrontational, with them quizzing me aggressively and a bit condescendingly on “the rules,” but fortunately once they realized I truly had no clue (ok, I had a little bit of a clue, but didn’t see the point in making that apparent) and was just an RVer visiting the area and trying to show his kids some fun, they softened.  Not soft enough to let us keep fishing, though, so we packed up.  Keeper had already returned to the car after learning that we wouldn’t be eating the fish he and his sisters were catching – I later learned that his enthusiasm about fishing was predicated on their being a food source.  He’s nothing if not practical.

OK, that about wraps up our coast time.  Time to head to the desert!

TACCO’s take on Pismo Beach…

I had never even heard of Pismo Beach, aside from a brief informational exchange with my friend whom we saw in Spearfish, ND, on our mad dash to catch the eclipse. She had previously RV’d about the country when she retired from active duty and mentioned how much she enjoyed Pismo Beach, especially the sand dollars, which (she made it seem) littered the beach. “Awesome,” I said and wondered to myself, “But would there be any sea glass…”

When Flight first suggested we go to Pismo Beach, I immediately piped up, “Ooooh, so we can collect sand dollars and sea glass?” Apparently my own musings had been transformed to fact in my mental files. He seemed a little surprised that I knew about this little beachfront camping getaway (I haven’t seen much of California) and asked where I’d heard about Pismo. I professed I had only two tidbits of information entering into our stay here: my friend told me about the sand dollars and I reminded Flight he had previously shared with me that he camped on the beach here occasionally as a kid. He went on to fill in some of the gaps and described the beach camping as being, no kidding, drive right up on the beach and pitch your tent in front of your impromptu bonfire site. Other than that, I had no idea what to expect. However, based on the data I had collected from these two savvy sources, I hadn’t expected this for our journey’s first “beach front” experience:

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Aside from the impressive congregation of pelicans (never have I seen so many in one location!), my initial survey of “the beach” yielded a noncommittal, “hmmmm….” (I learned that from WoodSprite). On our return to Davista, my estimation dropped a few notches every time I paused to remove a spikey native burr from the bottom of a foot, mine or the girls’. We immediately proclaimed this a “shoes required” beach, at least until we embarked on Flight’s kayak ferry service to go across the sketchy water (aka “Pismo Creek”) to get to the real oceanfront beach. Fortunately, that was a headache to medicate when we later returned with swimsuits and beach gear and I happily banished all thoughts related. Keeper, however, was compelled to swim for it and vowed to set out across “Pismo Creek” when we returned. 11-year old boys, and ours in particular (at least at this location), seem entirely unflappable by questionable water quality (unless he’s drinking it straight up, then it’s filtered all the way).

When we returned, appropriately garbed and with appointed beach toys, Flight brought along the kayak shuttle service gear and Keeper made good on his threat to swim across the Creek.

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I happily awaited the final ferry run and disembarked to find the kids already chasing down seagulls and playing in the sand.

After getting set up we took a stroll to investigate the shoreline, which yielded little bounty (a few clams and some sand dollars, but zero sea glass), and Keeper then requested that his sisters bury him in the sand, and they happily obliged. No, thank you, it makes my skin itch just thinking about it.

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Our departure from Grammy and Papa’s house that morning hadn’t been remotely tearful, mostly because they departed earlier that we, even before we awoke – and we’d see them later in the day. Their dawn patrol took them all the way to Pepperdine to see one of our nephew’s water polo games, after which they were planning to drive back up and meet us at Pismo Beach. Papa was at least as excited as Flight to get out on the beach and recreate some memories from decades ago.

After our afternoon at the beach, we came back to Davista to set up for dinner, Grammy and Papa’s arrival, and the Utah football game. Sorry, Flight, I meant the Stanford game. Usually, I will wholeheartedly cheer on my husband’s alma mater, that is unless they happened to be playing one of mine, then all bets are off.

Flight’s folks rolled in just before kickoff with their own bed on wheels. God bless them, they planned to sleep in the back of their 4Runner even after we offered our additional foldout beds in Davista. That evening we became those people I had previously made fun of – I mean who goes “camping” only to sit outside gathered around an outdoor cable-fed TV to watch whatever they could see at home. Strangely, I felt compelled to justify our doing so to whoever might be similarly  judging us, as right now this technically IS our home. Interesting observation, one I fleetingly thought I should sit with before the following rationalization quickly drowned it out “Well, maybe any (fictitious) judgers will see our Maryland plates and draw the appropriate conclusion.” Fortunately, I went no further down the justification rabbit hole (never a good place to explore) as I, too, became caught up in the football game. And my ongoing knitting project.

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Having completed the entrelac band (the centerpiece around which I am building my next uniform sweater) while at Flight’s folks’ house, I cast on more yarn for the bottom portion of the sweater and began to knit the ribbing (hem comprised of repeated knit two, purl two) in the dark. Aside from a few visual inspections by the light of my iPhone necessitated when distracted by a great play (Hurray – I’m for the other team!) and lost track of the repetitive pattern (had to undo a few stitches), the sweater steadily progressed. Sadly, Utah did not have as strong a showing as Stanford (boo!). Even though it was an exciting game, I managed to finish about half of the sweater’s ribbed hem (again, hurray!) and I was pleased that I had something to show for our hours of being “those people.” We retreated to our respective bunks to crew rest for some foolhardiness in the sand that was scheduled for the following morning.

Before I can delve into how the events of the next morning went down from my perspective, I need to give some background to my mindset. I first learned about Operational Risk Management (ORM) back in my flying days. As the name might indicate, ORM is all about assessing any risks associated with an activity and mindfully identifying and implementing specific controls into a system or process to minimize the likelihood of those risks manifesting.   Because aviation is inherently dangerous and the associated risks have potentially tragic outcomes, ORM becomes second nature to all aviators and will often (or should) creep into how they execute events on the ground as well.

Unfortunately, even if proper ORM protocols are observed, something can go horribly wrong and, in the wake of most aviation mishaps, a “chain of events” leading to said catastrophe can usually be readily identified. Furthermore, aviators tend to pick apart any such mishaps and their harbingering chains, mostly to see if any one of the contributing events could have been disrupted, thereby avoiding the calamity altogether. Sometimes there is no way an accident might have been prevented. However, in many cases something as easy as requesting a change in altitude or mentoring a crewmember to voice a growing concern might have been enough to shift the outcome. This is an exercise clearly much more easily performed from the position of the armchair quarterback, but a critical one nonetheless as it is far preferable to learn from others’ experiences to inform one’s own future operations. Failure to conduct an ORM assessment is often identified as the link initiating such a chain.

Back to the current endeavor… I have no pictures of this crazy evolution. While I’d like to think it was because I wanted no evidence of the chain of events leading to our Subaru being washed out to sea after we were forced to execute emergency egress procedures upon being stranded in the cushy sand by the approaching high tide, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Instead I was caught up in Flight’s (and Papa’s) enthusiasm for the adventure at hand and had devoted no mental energy to preparing for any what ifs. Neither did Flight. Although I did bring the “Go Bag” as one of our standard precautions, I realized that wouldn’t help much if it too was floating out to sea. Only Grammy, probably in concert with Papa’s “Oh no, Flight, don’t stop here” narrative, had the wherewithal to snap some pictures as our chain of events unfurled (you can see them in Flight’s post here).

Fortuitously the only danger awaiting us was being judged and heckled by the local peanut gallery who regularly congregates at high tide and pop beers as they witness other such chuckleheads ignorant of the ocean’s role in constantly resurfacing the beach. We weren’t that interesting because 1) we didn’t get stuck (Papa and Grammy pushed us out of our predicament well out of the gallery’s view) and b) we weren’t in Davista. Ignoring how close we had just come to similarly requiring a tow, we joined the gallery and offered our own observations (amongst ourselves, of course, for we weren’t locals) as we watched RV after RV lose traction, stall, and then get pulled to safety by a behemoth tow truck for whom high tide must be extremely profitable.

While so spectating over lunch, Flight and I vowed never to drive Davista onto the beach. In addition to observing the human driven beach traffic, I took note of the seagulls that were everywhere. Especially right overhead. The sleeve of my Stanford shirt (I wore it in honor of their win last night) took a hit on one of their bombing runs, which curbed my interest in lunch considerably. That one, I thought, must be visiting from Utah…

Worn out by the intensity of the morning (and a less than restful night in the back of the 4Runner), Papa and Grammy jumped back in their car and headed back to Alamo. We spent our afternoon properly relaxing on the beach as the morning had been anything but. It was more brisk this afternoon than yesterday, so we mostly stayed out of the water (even Keeper used Flight’s ferry service).

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Instead, we brought kites and the sand toys to enjoy…

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Keeper wanted to be buried yet again and his sisters obliged yet again before he took matters into his own hands. Showers for all my friends before we head to Carpenteria in the morning!

As we were gearing up for departure, I let Flight know I needed some alone time and set out for a walk. My path took me to the Pismo State Park where we’d witnessed (and maybe been) clowns driving on the beach yesterday. This particular park also houses a Butterfly Grove, where monarch butterflies stop on their annual migration south. While we were a few weeks early, I got to see about two dozen of these ethereal creatures resting up before they continue on to Mexico to overwinter.

As I was walking through the Butterfly Grove I tried to imagine what it would look like covered with monarchs, as the word on the street is that’s how it looks. My mind couldn’t flex to see the vision and I was surprised by what images I found on-line.

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Too bad we were a few weeks early…  At any rate, I finished up my walk with a clear head and blood pumping, eagerly rejoining our flight as we continued our own migration south.

That’s a Pretty Large Teton

Seriously, it is.  They all are.  Just sayin’…

IMG_9081This is a place I could really get into.  There’s a big “but” once again though, and it’s similar to Yellowstone’s big “but.”  It’s not an RV place.  Which, OK, I suppose it’s no surprise, if I really think about it, that the places I really resonate with aren’t particularly RV-friendly.  Living in an RV now, though, it affects us.  Of course.

So we drove down from Yellowstone to Flagg Ranch, where we’d reserved a spot for the next few days.  Flagg Ranch / Headwaters RV park actually isn’t in Grand Teton NP proper.  There’s a chunk of land in between Yellowstone and Grand Teton that isn’t National Park per se, but is administered by the National Park Service, and that’s where we ended up.  First impressions were mixed.  It’s in an area that has had several forest fires in recent years, so the scenery isn’t especially stellar for the area.  And one of the hallmarks of Grand Teton National Park, I think, is the view of the Tetons you get from pretty much anywhere, which is uniformly breathtaking.  We didn’t have that view.

Still though, it wasn’t a bad campground, with the Snake River easily accessible and a decent amount of space, particularly compared to our Yellowstone campground.  We went a little large with the setup, and not only hung both of our hammocks for the first time, but put up the LED lighting in the Clam as well, for after dark card-playing (disco lighting optional, but encouraged).

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One again neither internet nor cell phone coverage, so a bit tricky for us and trickier for Keeper.  We even received an offer on our house (deliberations thereover covered well and thoroughly by Tacco in her post), so that dominated both our thoughts and our immediate location planning, bars of even 4G signal being difficult to come by.

As all of Grand Teton’s destinations involved a 20-30 minute drive to the south, we jumped in the car after setting up and headed toward Colter Bay, the park’s main center of activity.  What we found there set up a major semi-internal conflict for me.  Tacco has previously referenced my need desire to always be set up in the best campsite available at any given place, which I inherited from my father.  Proudly, I might add.  Well, there were better campsites in Colter Bay.  They were first come first served, so I hadn’t been able to browse or set us up in them prior to arrival, but they were well wooded, near the lake, and even had a bar or two of cell coverage if you contorted your body and the wind was right.  They didn’t, however, have electricity or water, so we’d need to run our generator if we wanted power.  I recruited Keeper to beat to death the pros and cons of transplanting with me; fortunately he was game, so I didn’t have to deliberate in silence.  Ultimately we decided that the slight satisfaction we’d gain by being in the best campsite wasn’t worth the time and effort involved in uprooting from our current spot at Flagg Ranch.  This was progress for me.  In the past either I would’ve subjected the family to a move or brooded about the fact that we hadn’t moved for at least another day.

Junior Ranger duties and short hike complete, we returned to Flagg Ranch for the evening.

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We (especially I) had been very much looking forward to getting the inflatable kayaks out of their storage bags and putting them to use.  They were one of our bigger purchases prior to the trip, with the thought behind them being that we’d often be near water and they would become our primary mode of recreation, along with the bikes.  Unfortunately they hadn’t gotten as much play as I’d envisioned, as the effort involved in removing, packing, inflating, deflating, etc proved just daunting enough to keep them in their Davista storage compartments.  But in Grand Teton I was determined to change that.  Not only was there the Snake River to float, but the mountain lakes there are legendary.  If we weren’t going to use them here, we probably never would.

We opted to drive to String Lake the following day, between Jenny Lake and Leigh Lake.  We had hoped to float them down to Jenny Lake and back (or maybe carry them back?), but a quick Google Maps view, which I couldn’t do due to lack of internet, would’ve told me that the two lakes are not only farther apart than I had envisioned, but separated by several log dams and some serious rapids.  So we stayed in String.  And it was glorious.  Clear, not-too-cold water, scenery forever, wildlife all around.

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It was a bit of a learning curve getting our flotilla out of the RV, into the car, out of the car, to the lake, and inflated, and as Tacco mentioned, we had some puncture mishaps.  But it was so worth it.

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While my appetite was whetted for much more Teton scenery, much of it is unfortunately (sort of) only accessible via hike, so we’ll be experiencing it from a distance.  Tomorrow we float the Snake!

Winter is Coming…

Mon (14 Aug) –

Check it –

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That’s right, I did it. Sorry, Keeper, we… I hooked these two beasties up, under Keeper’s watchful eye (he had the checklist), dumped the bilges and got ready to go to Minneapolis. Last night we put away the Clam, packed up the bikes, bled off the propane to secure the outdoor kitchen, just in case I made good on my threat to drive all the way to Minneapolis. Mid-morning we stopped in the Van Riper SP office on the way out to let them know we’d be vacating our spot a day early. And we were given a refund. Michigan is all right.

Wisconsin too. Until I had to get gas. Duluth was a heavy contender for Flight’s commute because, in his words, “Well, that way you won’t have to get gas.” I asked, “Is that tricky?” Flight said something to the effect of, “Well, it’s easy to get in a bad situation at a gas station, meaning you may get pinned in and have to disconnect the Toad, and you’ll be around stuff that can blow up if you hit it, so yeah, it can be.” Well, crappity crap crap crap. His parting advice, “Just go to a truck stop so you’ll have plenty of room to maneuver.”

I watched the fuel level sink below ¼ tank and started my search in earnest for said truck stop, despite not being signed off on my underway replenishment operations. I read “CENEX family stop (maybe?), Truckers Welcome.” Sweet! I made my move to get off the highway and didn’t immediately find said CENEX. It took 1.2 miles down the road through small-town America to get to a small Mom and Pop gas station. Pretty sure truckers don’t come to this place, as they all know better. I pulled a fancy u-turn of sorts to land our traveling circus at both gas pumps and blindly guessed the location of the fuel tank. Nailed it.

Inserted my card. Nothing. Wouldn’t take my card. Wouldn’t take any card. Not even the fellow ‘s across the pump from me. The manager came out to say their credit card system at the pumps had gone down just as I drove up. I was not entirely surprised – Flight does refer to me as “The Walking Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)” as I do tend to leave fried electronics in my wake. Also not surprisingly (I was clearly buying A LOT of gas), the manager was very apologetic and told me the credit card system was fine inside and I could just start the fueling process. It was and I filled up the tank and departed without hitting a single thing.

I got back on the road and my phone told me I would be getting to our new campsite just outside Minneapolis at 4:10 pm. And then it was 4:40. And then it became 5:30. Shoot. I had Keeper text Flight. He had landed at 2 something in Minneapolis and was Ubering to Baker Campground. Through Keeper, I learned of Flight’s promise to pick the best campsite. We rolled into Minneapolis just prior to 5 p.m. in the thick of rush hour traffic. After a day on the road I felt well versed in operating Davista by now, but I was not prepared for what happened next.

I learned that in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (Utah says this too…), there are only two seasons: winter and construction. Winter is coming, but it’s not here yet and road construction is in full swing. The 94 tunnel going through town is partially closed and not allowing any vehicles over 9000 pounds. I saw a small sign indicating so and began to panic as we’re more than twice that limit. Before we left, my college roommate told me she looked for the “Nervous Mother Driving” window sticker from the Partridge Family Bus, but couldn’t find it. Too bad, it would have been the perfect warning sign to stay out of my way.

Now following little truck detour signs in an unfamiliar city in may not be challenging in and of itself, however doing so in rush hour traffic surrounded by people who have never driven such a long-legged beastie was extremely so. Every time I left enough room to merge, with my turn signal clearly indicating my intentions well ahead of time, pint-sized little cars kept popping into the space. I was left with no other option, I donned Maryland habits (that’s where our plates are from) and merged as necessary, which had the same effect as Fezzik yelling, “Everybody MOVE!”

After being diverted not just once but twice from 94, we found our way through the city to Baker Campground, pulling in to see a very relieved Flight lounging with his luggage.

Our stay in Minneapolis was unfortunately short, as there’s so much the Twin Cities have to offer. We didn’t even get to see nearby Minnehaha Falls, which was recommended by a good friend who’s a Twin City native. Since tide, time, formation, and solar eclipses wait for no one and we had a long way to travel in a short amount of time, we were only in the area for one day and that was consumed by mundane errands. :/ Most critical of these was getting new glasses for both Firebolt (“Mom, I don’t really need them,” while screwing up her face to squint…) and Keeper (“Mom, I was heating and bending my earpiece to make it fit better and it broke. But it’s okay, I used duct tape to fix it.” Hmmmm…) so both could actually see the eclipse. A close second was going to Trader Joe’s as we were next traversing the Frontier, so we had to stock up.   Not falling in the mundane errand category was a fantastic visit with one of Flight’s Stanford friends and his oldest son who was also home (the rest of the family was still in Hong Kong).

Now to decide: do we go the shorter northern route (through ND, MT, and ID) or the southern route (through SD, WY, MT, and ID) with potentially more interesting stops…

Da U.P.!

We took our time leaving the Traverse City KOA to head north. We’d hoped to meet up with some friends TACCO had met while teaching at USNA (they were doing our route through Michigan in reverse), but the maintenance delays in our schedule made that impossible. Bummer.  The silver lining was that WoodSprite was able to practice her newly acquired biking skills and I had time to do all that it takes to get Davista rolling and try my hand at driving her.

As Flight was talking me through the departure process, I took copious notes so I could build a Getting Underway Checklist for any time we pull chocks. Aviators love checklists, they make life so much easier.   “What does such a checklist look like?” you might ask. There are appropriate steps to prepare everything for departure and it is best done in a natural flow. Some steps aren’t all that straight forward and improper procedures can end up ranging from embarrassing (driving away still plugged into the electrical site) or really gross (forgetting to close the grey water tank line (sink drainage) prior to dumping the black water (sewage) tank so the latter ends up in your kitchen sink) to deadly (anything with the toad hookup). A checklist is a very good thing, especially if I ever need to get underway while Flight’s on the road.

After we put away the outdoor cooking station (after burning off all the propane in the lines prior to disconnecting), hefted and secured all five bikes and helmets (girls’ bikes on a rack above our tow bar, Keeper’s and mine atop and Flight’s riding in the toad), and secured the inside for movement (Keeper stows his drop-down bunk and retracts the awning, the girls tidy up their spaces, Firebolt puts away all missile hazards (anything that might take flight en route) in the bathroom, and WoodSprite checks to make sure all the outdoor compartments are shut and locked), we’re ready to pull in the slide, come off the jacks (used for leveling), do one last walk-around before we pull out of our spot and lumber on to the next one.

Because we were shoehorned into our Traverse City KOA spot, Flight drove us out and gave me a few hours stay of execution on my getting behind Davista’s wheel. We drove along the western coastline and up to the Mackinac Bridge, which is the 5th largest suspension bridge in the country and allows one to go from the “Land of the Trolls” (according to da Yoopers) to paradise itself.

About an hour or so from our new campsite (for future reference, it’s tricky to find last minute spots in paradise over the summer – that took hours of combing websites), Flight pulled over and offered me the wheel. Because he is a pilot, he gave me his recommendations on how to stay in the lane in terms of “sight picture” (how the picture out the windshield is referenced to landmarks in the flight station – if you keep them consistent, so will your course be). Not being a pilot, I found it easier to visually reference the lines in the road similar to the way I use landmarks on a sewing machine and fabric while running a line of stitching. Whatever works, I suppose…

Although initially daunting, it took about fifteen minutes to forget I was driving 50’+ and almost 22,000 lbs of gear, that is until it was time to brake. That was another of Flight’s points of information – you have to be thinking way ahead of where you are (aviators refer to this mindset as increased “Situational Awareness”) because everything you do takes much much longer. I made it into the campsite without incident, disconnected the car, and backed it into the site. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment, I felt as though I (and everyone in Davista) had narrowly escaped unimaginable harm and eagerly hung up the keys with a great sigh of relief.

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Our campsite could not have been better. We were steps away from Lake Superior and were given a beautiful sunset to celebrate living through my driving the bus. The kids eagerly raced from Davista as soon as the jacks were down and the door opened, looking for playgrounds, beach time, and new friends.

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The evening ended perfectly with s’mores.  Exactly what we’ve been seeking – awesome.

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Update…  So, I melded two travel days together with my initial summary of this part of our trek.  I’m going to claim being overwhelmed by driving Davista and will move the appropriate pictures and commentary to the next post….  Oops.

Pushing North — Traverse City

OK, now it’s getting good.

I’ll say it right up front — Traverse City is awesome.  I’ll expand upon that momentarily.  First of all, our drive.

Easy, uneventful trip getting up here, and we’re staying at the Traverse City KOA, which is really nice.  Not saying that the Sandusky one wasn’t… ok, maybe I am a little bit… but this one is outstanding.  Wooded, clean, decent amount of space, trails, grass, happy kids playing, thumbs up all around.

Immediately after setting up, we drove up to the Jolly Pumpkin Brewery pub/restaurant.  I mentioned the craft beer scene in Michigan earlier, and evidently TC is one of the epicenters within Michigan.  Jolly Pumpkin’s brewery is actually down near Ann Arbor, but they run this really cool set of two restaurants and a tasting room in this beautiful old inn on the lake north of town here in TC.  Supposedly it’s haunted, which ups the cool factor.  The pics at top were taken while we were waiting for our table.  Solid dinner, decent beer, amazing venue.

One of the things that took us, or at least me, by surprise, was how “beachy” Lake Michigan is in this area.  The water is quite clear and not particularly cold this time of year, the sand is fine and soft, and if you were standing there looking at the color of the water and not the evergreens and grass you could almost, almost think you were in the Caribbean.

Then Tacco started browsing Zillow, like we’re wont to do these days, and our collective jaw dropped when we saw what our typical price range would get us in Traverse City.  “But the winter!” you say.  Sure.  Bitter cold, lake effect snow, all that.  While I’ve never spent a winter (or any time at all outside of the last week) in Michigan, I’m reasonably certain that’s all true.  But man, it looks fun.  Along with the normal road signs are signs telling you what to do when you’re on your snowmobile.  There are nordic skiing trails everywhere.  Ice fishing.  One of the houses we saw on Zillow boasted a skating rink in the back yard.  Keeper: “I don’t get it.  Wouldn’t that just mean pouring a bunch of water into your back yard with a hose?”  Decent point.  Still though, all of that sounds really cool to me.

And then, on day 2 here, we drove up to visit friends of Tacco’s from Evanston (who now live in TC) and went out on their boat on Lake Leelanau.  Cruised, did some tubing, anchored at a sand bar for a bit and had a water fight.  The second “map” pic above shows that, as do the pics below.

See what I mean?  Plus the quaint-yet-hip downtown with the lakeside park and the canal on which kayakers and SUPers were tooling around in between stops for beer, good food, maybe a gelato.  Sleeping Bear Dunes a half hour to the west, the wilds of the UP an easy couple of hours north, fudge on Mackinac Island, cherries everywhere in June / July, what’s the down side exactly?

This was the conversational road we were beginning to travel until we paused, looked at each other, and laughed as we shook ourselves back into reality.  I won’t be spending half of my life commuting to work and back from Traverse City airport via Detroit or Chicago any time soon, no thanks.  An aspect of my job that I love is the fact that I can technically commute to my domicile airport from anywhere.  But it’s almost too much freedom. (almost)  There’s a perennial debate among airline pilots about living in the ideal place versus living near work. Most pilots I know say that once you experience the convenience,  increase in free time, and decrease in stress associated with not having to commute (via plane), you’ll never go back and wonder how you ever did it before.  A few, though, say that even if that’s true, living someplace you truly love transcends it entirely.  I find the former argument compelling and logical, but the latter resonates with me deeply.  Clearly I haven’t resolved this yet.  At any rate, we got a kick out of the fact that we allowed ourselves to wander so far afield before snapping out of our meanderings.  These are actually important conversations for us to have even when they’re theoretical, given that one of our goals is to figure out where we intend to settle after we’re done RVing.

Returning from my tangent, we had a few watershed moments in the Traverse City KOA.  One was Woodsprite’s learning to ride a bike.  Yes!  She was distressed upon our departure from Maryland when told that the training wheels wouldn’t be joining us.  “No problem, just teach her to ride,” you might think.  Woodsprite is a tricky one, though, in that not only is she more resistant than most to getting out of her comfort zone, but she is adamant about how to learn things.  Taking instruction has no place in her world.  Never mind that both of her siblings and both of her parents have been riding bikes and helping others to do the same for quite some time, she thoroughly wore each of us down in turn by asking for help, which we enthusiastically agreed to, and then doggedly ignoring every technique we presented to her and everything we said with “NO I’VE GOT IT!!”  It fell somewhere between comical and pencil-in-the-eye painful to watch her make literally hundreds of attempts to start pedaling from a dead stop and making maybe 6 inches and a half pedal throw of progress before putting her feet back down.  She did this for two evenings straight, only stopping the first night when we called her in because it was too dark to see.  Like it often does, though, her persistence paid off, and she nailed it!  Now riding her bike is pretty much all she wants to do.

The other item we put into the Things We Learned folder here is that going with the flow only takes you so far when you’re traveling in an RV in high season.  By that I mean that if you don’t want to end up in a Wal-Mart parking lot, (if you buy an RV, be prepared to be asked multiple times whether you knew that you can park in any Wal-Mart parking lot for the night.  Everyone seems to know this.) finding a place to park 32 feet of RV on a weekend is no easy task.  Finding a place you actually want to be is even more challenging.  Prior planning goes a long way.  We’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time over the last week searching for our next campsite, and at the moment we’re finding that people have probably been planning their August weekend camping trip to the UP for months.  Us, not so much.  We also have not been thinking at all in terms of weekend vs weekday.  We need to.  Complicating things further for the upcoming week is the fact that I have a six day trip for work coming up, and need to leave Tacco and the kids somewhere reasonable (and at least somewhat near an airport) for that entire time.  There are very few vacancies.  It’s a challenge that I think we’re converging on a solution to, but it’s still taking shape, and not without compromise, effort, and a bit of stress.  Effort and stress being part of what we took this trip to minimize, we probably need to start looking a bit further ahead.