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Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas

Dec 25, 2010

As 2010 closes it is time to point the van south and look for some sun. Unfortunately, North America, make that the world, is awash in water. Horrendous rain storms batter the Pacific Northwest as we leave Vancouver.

The first night on the road was easy – we bunked in at Hog Heaven, our favourite Seattle–area B&B. But before you go looking for it online, Hog Heaven is the home of our great friends/cousins. While their hospitality is first class they have no intention of taking it commercial! They gotta love you to let you stay ?

The night, rain battering the windshield as we struggled to see through the night, was more dramatic. The first and second RV parks we located were closed and dark. We did find a Wal-Mart and sat there in the dark for a while pondering our situation. We could “camp” in the Wal-Mart parking lot but there was no electricity and we’d decided, when lightening the load for this trip, to leave the propane heater at home. After all, we were heading for the sun, right? Who’d need heat?

I noticed the GPS sitting on the dash. We bought this little unit for geocaching, but it is good for more than that. I plugged “lodging Salem, OR” in and voila, she found us another RV park. This one welcomed us with open doors, friendly faces, electrical connections and hot showers. We gratefully settled in for the night, our little space heI5 heading into Californiaater stubbornly spreading the warmth.

The next morning we discovered that the lock on the Stowaway was broken. This is the “wheel-less trailer” that fits into the hitch at the back and carries all our outdoor gear, barbeque, chairs, extra gas can and so on. It’s a real target for thieves so we hit the Home Depot next to the RV Park for a solution.

Great fellow there borrowed Steve a drill to install an external latch lock and we were good to go again. I have discovered there is no such thing as an RV trip without problems to solve. An RV, even a small van like ours is always in motion, often over very bumpy roads so things shake, rattle, and break loose. Something is always in need of repair. I like to think we are long past being frustrated by these episodes, just take them in our stride and figure out a solution. Steve packs a great took kit but you cannot bring everything with you, thus the loan of the drill from Home Depot.

Carrying on, we approached the California border via the I5. Initially the roads were still showing the evidence of a recent snowfall but a few miles further on the sky clears and we are enjoying the foothills that are so reminiscent of Switzerland. Picturesque, green, little cottages tucked into the folds of the hills, tons of sheep, literally thousands; sometimes cows and occasionally llamas.

Driving along we plug in the first of eight “Learn to Speak Spanish” CDs. We took several sets of night school classes before our last trip to Mexico 3 years ago. The CDs are to help get us back up to stuttering level.

Somewhere between Phoenix and Talent, Oregon we stop for lunch/breakfast at a little country café called the Ranch Café. I have to mention it because it was an amazing breakfast for $4.25 and the coffee is $1 and bottomless. Very friendly waitress and WIFI that works too.

Continuing south into California we follow Lake Shasta for about an hour. It is HUGE.Lake Shasta The banks are very “cultured” looking so I am assuming it is a dammed lake. By 5 pm it is already dark so this time I don’t fool around and plug right into the GPS to find Redding RV Park. Sparkling washrooms with generous hot showers and decent WIFI for $28. We are content.

San Francisco, California
Dec 28, 2010

Went for a good walk when I woke up this morning. Good thing because by the time we left an hour later is was pouring again. It was hard driving as we continued on to San Francisco. Beautiful landscapes though, no wonder half the world wants to live in California.

San Francisco has a lot of history with us. We honeymooned here 35 years ago, returned 8 months pregnant for a last fling before parenthood, brought the kids on summer holidays, and celebrated a successful ankle fusion by returning a few years ago to ace the all-day walking tour!

Today we arrived early enough in the day to park the van on the Embarcadero and spend the day on Fisherman’s Wharf. A bit miserable weather-wise but it was nice to discover my new rain/wind jacket is indeed rain/windproof. Found something new to enjoy too – a “museum” of antique arcade games. When they were made a penny would set the fiddler to playing, the painted ladies to dancing or the gypsies to telling fortunes. Today it takes a quarter – still a steal of a deal!

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. When we parked the van a foreigner rushed over to ask our help. When he’d arrived at the lot in his rental car a fellow had directed him into a spot, demanded $20 and handed him what turned out to be a useless old ticket stub. When the foreigner returned to his car, he had a ticket for $55 with a warning to pay up immediately or see the fine quadrupled. Between us we have smatterings of Spanish, German, French and Italian but never could figure out what the man was speaking. Nonetheless Steve struggled to explain to the man how he had been conned. Sad job that.

A few minutes later a fast talking shoe shiner tried to con Steve out of a few bucks by engaging in an inexplicable rap that seemed to have something to do with a bet on the origin of Steve’s shoes. As he bent to squirt some noxious substance on the toes of Steve’s Gore-Tex hikers, then rub it off he crowed, “a sucker born every minute!”

Right you are,” Steve replied and kept walking. We wondered if he had some buddies around the corner to extract his “bet” but apparently not. And people are worried about us getting robbed in Mexico? Actually, our favourite con happened right here in San Francisco a few years ago. A fellow approached us on the street, “Do you have a quarter for two dimes and a nickel?”

Steve dug in his pocket and produced the quarter. Whereupon the man said “Thanks,” as he snapped up the quarter and kept walking. We stood there with our mouths open, then burst into laughter. Well done.

By the time we left the Embarcadero area it was dark and pouring with rain again. Three grim hours in gridlocked traffic later we arrived at the RV Park we’d planned on staying in. It was closed and dark. An after-hours sign informed us we could park in the dark without hook-ups or washroom access – for $64!

Giselle our GPS lady led us to Pacific Inn, a great little motel with a kitchenette, king-sized bed, heat and ensuite. All this for $55! And the next morning, a complimentary all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet of eggs, bacon, sausages, waffles and so on. And free Spanish lessons from the breakfast lady too.

Big Sur, Pacific Hwy, California
Dec 29, 2010

Leafing through one of those discount coupon books you get at Visitor Centers, I could not help noticing that there are lots of motels in California cities for around $50 a night. Considering that they want that and more for parking spaces in RV parks I think the strategy in urban centers may be too book into these modest motels. We can still make a snack or cook a meal in the van, but the parking space and ensuite cannot be beat for the price. Lots warmer and more room to spread out for our epic card games too.

CaliforniaLeaving Redwood City (a suburb of San Francisco) via Hwy 280 this morning we cut off at Moody Road. This charming goat track crosses the San Francisco peninsula due west up and over the very steep spine of the Los Altos Hills. The foliage was jungle-like in its density with leafy eucalyptus-type trees, second-growth redwoods and everything draped in masses of moss. I’d been reading that the storms racing through this area in recent weeks had carried winds in excess of 100 m/ph and the damage was obvious with the foliage debris still scattered over the road sides.

This charming route crossroads with Hwy 35 then connects with Hwy 9 near Castle Rock State Park. This is another gorgeous winding road through classical rain forests, massive redwoods and coniferous evergreens dominating the landscapes here. As if it could not get any better, we emerged from the rainforest canopy onto Hwy 1, the Pacific Coast Hwy, near Santa Cruz.

Winding down the Pacific Hwy all the way to San Luis Osbispo took all day. The oceanBig Sur, California views are spectacular and there are tons of pull-out view points. This is the area that for the most part is known as Big Sur. It played a huge role in the mythology of the 60s with hippies and folksters alike flocking to Big Sur to find themselves. New-age gurus set up shop here to bring enlightenment through meditation and general awakening of the subconscious through fulfillment of the senses. It was the 60s, what more can I say. If you lived them, you remember, or don’t.

Today, we find galleries and sWalrus?hops and entrepreneurial activities in the spa/enlightenment/find-yourself vein. Every 20-30 miles there is another settlement of sorts with dozens of cars pulled up for souvenirs or food or enlightenment.

A few miles north of the town of Cayucoos we came on a beach with dozens and dozens of huge sea lions wallowing about on the beach. Another mile up the beach we came on what I think was a walrus. Definitely the biggest ocean mammal of that sort I have ever seen in the wild.

Early evening found us at El Chorro County Park and campground. This is a public campground with lovely, forested spots and even better, electrical hook ups so we had heat. There is a toilet block with showers as well, but it is not heated and the wind is furiously cold here today. We’ll see how it looks in the morning but while I can handle cold showers in a hot climate and hot showers in a cold room, I cannot do cold Mushrooms at El Chorro showers in a cold facility.

Dec 30, 2010

Underway the next morning we stop into Costco to fill up on gas. Giselle the GPS is sure earning her way this trip. When the gas tanks is ½ empty I just plug in “Costco” under shopping and see where the next store is located. There is usually one somewhere down the road and the gas is always about 10 cents a gallon cheaper than elsewhere. This will work only as long as we are on interstates near big cities.

This morning we headed across the Sierra Madre Mountains. When we looked at the map we saw that we could do this on an interstate highway or we could do it on a twisty turny little track that summitted at 5000 feet. We didn’t think there would actually be snow and ice up there but there was! A minivan had actually slid into the ditch and was being helped out by other travellers. At the summit it was blooming cold, well below freezing. But in 30 minutes we were back down and lunching in the pretty little town of Ojai. I’m a fan of the TV series “Brothers and Sisters” so finding myself in Ojai was an interesting surprise. At 50+degrees F it is all about citrus Ojai, CAorchards, palm trees, cacti and colourful bougainvillea.

Gila Bend, Arizona
Dec 31, 2010

My first trip through the Los Angeles area was in 1976. The smog was so distressingly thick in those years you could not see and did not even realize it is a city ringed by beautiful mountains. Today I was blown away by the spectacle of those same mountains, the Sierra Madre and beyond them, as we travelled past San Bernardino, the Sierra Nevada’s. Amazing, crystal clear views of the snow-packed peaks, powder visibly blowing off the summits even a hundred miles away. It gives you hope, that even as distressingly profit and self-interest driven our political systems seem to be, sometimes good work does get done. The legislated emission control standards for automobiles that were Sierra Nevada Mountainsspearheaded all those years ago by California have paid off in the improved air quality and subsequent stunning views I was enjoying today. The drive down Hwy 10 towards the Arizona border was spectacular.

By the evening of New Year’s Eve we were in Gila Bend, Arizona. It was very very cold so we decided that being New Year’s Eve we would book into the best hotel in town. This happened to be the Space Lodge Best Western. It was a very nice clean facility and for $98 included a big breakfast in the morning. The whole “space lodge” theme was a bit reminiscent of a creepy experience we once had on the Stuart Hwy in Australia. There was this UFO themed RV park which would have been fine, but a very strange man was staffing the desk and he took great offense when I offered what I thought was a humorous take on the décor. Not funny to him.

There was a very tall fence around the facility. We were the only campers. All night long the aboriginals stoked a big fire on the other side of the fence, drinking and partying in a style that was more than a little intimidating. Not connected to these partiers, but later we learned that the British tourist who’d been kidnapped from his campervan and never seen again …disappeared about ten miles from the UFO park. Glad I did not learn about that till much later.

So the Space Lodge Best Western was not creepy like that, but you’ll understand if Saguaro CactusI am not enthusiastic about motels with space ships on their roof.

Arizona
Jan 1 – New Year’s Day

Today we enjoyed our great breakfast (included) then took off towards New Mexico. Our objective was the Saguaro National Park near Tucson. It features the largest saguaro cacti in the world and the literature promised a museum, a ghost town, an easy hike through a world-renowned cacti garden and so on.

The problem was that Steve took over the wheel and I, the navigator fell asleep. He did not want to wake me so he managed to drive us 40 miles into the wilderness before I woke up. To his credit, he’d already figured out that he’d missed a turn somewhere. Back we went. I was so happy with how Giselle the GPS had been working out that I plugged the park info in and let her have her way with us.

She did get us to a pPicture Rocks Roadlace called Picture Rocks Road and it took us through a cacti field for a few miles but we never did find the visitors center or museum or garden walk. Then all of a sudden we were in the middle of a gated community with a big sign threatening prosecution for trespassing!

At that juncture I referred to the paper map to get us back onto Hwy 10 and pointed east.

By 5 pm we’d landed at the Willcox Fort RV Park in Arizona. Good enough. There was a beautiful sunset over a genuinely golden desert landscape. Unfortunately we are parked at 6000+ feet so by 10 pm it is 25 deg F and dropping quickly. Our stubborn little space heater is plugging away bravely and Steve has not even breathed a word about turning it off for the night. He is always concerned that it will catch on fire or something.

Jan 2, 2011

By midnight the temperature is 14 deg F, that is BELOW the 32 deg F freezing point those us of us from centigrade land know of as 0. Blooming cold in any language. Come morning we have no water. The hoses to the RV park water are frozen, of course. Never thought of that. And the water pump that delivers water from our own tanks is kaput. We think we have another “issue” on our hands to solve in the next big city but by noon it has unfrozen and is working again.

We like lunching in local cafes. Apart from being more fun that making a sandwich in the van, I enjoy the interactions with locals. So this being Sunday we stop into a New Mexico beef’n barbeque joint. It was obviously a Sunday lunch kind of places with a big salad buffet and lots of families packed around the extended tables.

A couple of ladies in the booth next to us struck up a conversation with me. They live in a small town, “no more than a spit on the road” about 30 miles away. They come into Denning for dinner twice a month. It is their “outing”. They each had a “lunch special platter” in front of them but were also loading plate after plate from the buffet, surrounding themselves with these heaping platters of salads, cornbread muffins, fruit, pudding, cookies. They were both tiny so I was wondering…. Next thing I know the waitress bustles up with a bunch of foam take out trays and the ladies transfer everything to the trays. The waitress bags up about 4 boxes each. As the younger one comes back from paying, she throws handfuls of mints, candy canes and suckers on the table. “We are just a couple of kids when it comes to our sugar, “she purrs.

Interesting. The older lady went on and on to me about how much she loved living out here in Arizona. “I can breeeeeeeathhhhhe out here,” she declared with a flourish.” I’ll be out of here as soon as I get myself a real life, but till then we are bonnnnnnnded,” she grinned at her older friend.

I found it a very barren looking place. Breathe yes, but what do you do after you finish taking a breath?

We see these “RV resorts” everywhere at the side of the road. Big gravel parking lots with row upon row of humongous 5th Wheels usually. I can see the attraction, climate wise for anyone from the Midwest or the Canadian prairies or east coast.
Even though it gets very cold at night, the skies are bright blue all day and temps range from 47 to 70 yesterday. So it can be very pleasant. A big change from places like the coast where it rains continuously or the Midwest with its horrific snow storms. But what do you do?

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Jan 3 & 4, 2011

January 3rd was spent driving to El Paso, Texas. Situated just across the Rio Grande from the notorious Ciudad Juarez, the baddest city in Mexico, this industrial looking town is our destination because it has the only AAA office in southern Texas that sells vehicle insurance for Mexico. I know we can get it any kiosk on the border, but AAA standing behind it means something to us.

The insurance purchase was accomplished without too much drama but next we figured we’d pick up some pesos so we’d have some in our pockets when we cross over. We were told to go to a Cambo – which we thought meant money exchange. No. Cambos are places where people send money back to Mexico.We tried a bank but they will not deal with us unless we have an account. But they did set us in the direction of Meleks which is a place that seems to do a lot of things like money exchange, cheque cashing, income tax prep, searching titles etc.

We were able to get a good rate there and changed over $550. The rate is currently 12.34 peso per US $ and the Cdn $ is over par at the moment so that is all good.

We carried on, spending a good part of the afternoon driving through the Guadelupe Guadelupe MountainsMountains. We finally and arrived in Whites City, New Mexico about 5 pm. It's a VERY small town, but the last place to stay outside the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

 

We are meeting up with a family here that we’ll be convoying into Mexico with – met via the Lonely Planet website. Wondered how we’d meet up but no problem. They’d described their vehicle – a brand new red Dodge 4x4 truck and we’d described ours – a white E250 Ford Van with red and orange kayaks on the roof. How could we miss? And we could not. They drove right into the RV park behind us.

Almost simultaneously, we encountered our first wildlife find of the trip – a collared Javelinaspeccary. Also known as a Mexican hog or javelina, they look like a little wild boar but surprisingly, they are not genetically linked to pigs.. Cute to watch but we were warned that they have nasty tusks if frightened and can emasculate a man with a leap at the crotch he’ll never see coming. I guess Steve figured he’s already contributed enough to the human gene pool because during the three days we were in this RV Park he stalked these little fellows for the perfect photo.

The purpose of being in Whites City is to see the Carlsbad Caverns.

Carlsbad CavernsTo see them there are several options. The first is in regard to entering the cave. You can spend 1.5 hours walking a steep decline into the cave. Or you can take an elevator down the 750 metres. We chose to take the elevator – although Steve did return later in the afternoon to do the walk. On that walk he was able to see a big black hole from which the 100s of thousands of bats emerge at dusk during the summer season when they are raising their young in the cave.

That phenomenon is the reason the first person to explore the cave, Jim White, was attracted to it. He had known of the entrance for some time, apparently everyone who lived in the area did. But there the curiosity ended. On this occasion Jim looked up from his fencing to see black “smoke” billowing out of the cave entrance. When he Carlsbad Cavernsinvestigated further he discovered that “millions” of bats were billowing out of the cave. He reasoned, correctly, that for so many bats to come out, this must be one massive cave. He set about exploring the cave and spreading the word about it. It was 1898 when he made that first exploration at age 16, and it took till 1923 before the govt recognized what it had and declared it a national monument. Today it is also a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

So we took the elevator down and entered the rest area where you can wait for tours to begin and/or have a light refreshment and/or use the restrooms.

There are several guided tours you can sign up for, we chose the 1.5 hour tour that would take us into the King’s Palace, the Queen’s Palace, the Papoose Room and the Green Lake. It was looking really good, with only 6 of us on that tour, then just before the ranger was to set out, her phone rang and we had to wait. A tour bus had just arrived with 25 chattering foreign tourists to join our happy group.

The caves are magnificent, spectacular, fascinating …there can be no overstatement of that. They are huge. The largest, so far not open to the public because they have not even found the end of it, has been explored to 112 miles.

After lunch in the upstairs cafeteria Steve decided he needed to do that descent the hard way, then we did the self-guided Big Room tour. While the guided tour had been very informative, this time in the Big Room was the best because, being a very slow time in the tourist season, there was scarcely a soul in this 600,000 sq ft room but us. A 1.5 mile trail loops through it, winding around the speleothems and crystal pools. These are the stalagmites, stalactites, draperies and helectites. It is dark, except for the brilliantly designed lighting. It is quiet, except for the drip drip of the water as it continues to build the décor of the room.


The paths are smooth and have handrails over most of their length. Significant sections are wheelchair accessible and there are short cuts so that people with mobility issues can enjoy shorter sections without tiring.

Do not miss it if you are ever within spitting distance.

Big Bend Ranch State Park
Jan 5, 2011
Bend

Today we left White City at 8 am and headed down to Big Bend National Park We got as far as Terlingua where we settled in for the night at Big Bend RV Park.

Along the way we saw an amazing group of horses pounding over the prairie, then coming to a halt in front of us. We drove directly under a “drug interdiction” dirigible floating high in the sky over the Texas/Mexico border. pear cactus

We saw amazing cacti including pear cacti in colours from lime green to coral to pink to red to purple. We travelled along the Rio Grande, now reduced to but a trickle of its former self by the diversion of its water flow for industrial, residential and agricultural uses. This is the same river that figures so largely in the immigrant struggle between Mexico and US. We saw many border patrol vehicles and personnel. At one point I was sure there was a dirigible in the sky ahead of us. Turned out there was!Drug Interdiction Dirigible

Big Bend is actually two parks: Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park. So far we have only seen the first but it is spectacular mix of Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Moab. Just amazing geological formations, mountains, colourful striations in the sedimentation, gorgeous cacti, and of course the Rio Grande cutting through it all.

Tomorrow we’ll see the second “half” of this area, the Big Bend National Park.

Big Bend National Park, Texas
Jan 6, 2011

Woke up in Terlingua this morning to our first breakfast in the sun. Literally. We ate breakfast outdoors. About time.

Terlingua is the jumping off point for a lot of the commercial adventure-based activities you can do in Big Bend National Park. There are outfitters with zodiacs and kayaks and canoes. There are places to rent bicycles and dirt bCampground at Chisos Basinikes and 4x4s. There are guides and shops full of equipment and maps and trail guides.

We started by driving to Chisos Basin where we booked into the campground. It’s a dry campground, beautifully sited in amongst the mountains at 5400 feet. There is a whole complex of facilities here: mountain lodge with rooms and cottages, a store, restaurant and bar, rangers station with info for back country excursions.

The senior rate for our gorgeous campsite is $7 per night and that includes a spotless restroom (no showers), water, free dump station and storage lockers at each campsite. The storage lockers are to keep bears and mountain lions out of the food.

There is a stable population of about 2 dozen mountain lions in the park as well as 15-20 bears. That is kind of interesting actually. By the 1940s the bear population had totally disappear. Then in the 1980s bears started returning to the park, via Mexico. There are also beavers here, living in burrows they make in the banks of the Rio Grande River.Rio Grande

For 118 miles the Rio Grande is the boundary between Texas and Mexico. Down at the Santa Elena Canyon, we walked part way across the river at a place where the south wall of the canyon is in Mexico and the north wall is in the United States. You used to be able to cross freely back and forth but since 2002 the US has cracked down on this. It is now illegal although other visitors showed us some souvenirs they had purchased from Mexicans passing them across the border, so to speak.

The park is some 800,000 acres and an absolute paradise for those who like to ride Big Bend National Parkaround in 4WDs, dirt bikes, mountain bikes and such. There are thousands of miles of trails to hike or ride. You could spend years exploring it all. We had a day so we took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. It’s about 50 miles each way. You can do a loop but completing the loop takes you over a rough gravel road and through the desert. Seen enough of both of those. The route took us through amazing geological formations with lots of places to pull over for photos or to take short hikes out to see abandoned ranches and buildings. Big Bend National Park

At the end of the route we came to the river access at Santa Elena Canyon. Eating our picnic lunch, we watched rafters pulling out of the river. Three young fellows were particularly bedraggled because they’d taken a canoe through the rapids without a guide. They’d tipped out and had quite a struggle getting it together again. I mentioned that I’d always found canoes a tad on the tippy side for my taste. “Yeah, we know that now too.”

Enjoyed talking too with the foreman of a work crew that were building more facilities at the river access. As we talked, he chopped veggies to throw in the big cast iron pot of stew he was stirring over a propane burner for the crew’s dinner.

We saw some really cute little white-tailed deer bounding across the road and through the cacti. I don’t know how they do it because every time Steve or I walk anywhere near the damn things we end up with horrible spines in us. He had to dig two out of my thumb last night with a needle and the wound still hurts. What seems to happen is that if you walk within feet of some of these cacti the spines leap out and attach themselves to your clothes. Then when you brush your hand over your leg they stick you.

Tomorrow we are getting up early for a long day’s drive to Eagle Pass. That’s where we’ll cross the border into Mexico. Stayed tuned.

Carolyn Usher