Grace Lake

So we were walking along, climbing a hill, on our way to a trail that would lead us to a place called Grace Lake, which I wanted to go to purely because it was going to amuse me to write about visiting Grace Lake instead of writing Grace. I was planning the blog post in my head, about how even though I’m being a terrible writer, I’m having lots of fun experiences.

We’d just seen the eclipse and even though we weren’t in totality, it was pretty damn cool. It hadn’t gotten dark, but the light had definitely changed and there’d been a noticeable drop in temperature. But it was warming up already and the sun was beautifully golden. Nothing like an eclipse for making one appreciate sunshine. There was no real path to where we were going, so we were making our way along rocky ground, through scrubby bushes.

Blueberry bushes, in fact.

I’d gotten out in front with the dogs (three of them, all off-leash), probably because they didn’t care about blueberries and I, having spent hours already this summer picking blueberries, wasn’t all that excited about discovering the random leftover ripe berry on bushes that were mostly over for the season.

I turned and looked back. It was so incredibly beautiful — the mountains, the clear sky, the pine trees — that I pulled out my phone and took the above picture.

And then Reino (in the red shirt in said photo) straightened up. In an absolutely casual voice, he said, “Bear.”

I waited for him to continue the sentence. Bare what?

And then I followed his gaze, out across the hill in the other direction.

Oh. Right. Bear.

No, no, I mean, BEAR!

I did not take a picture. It didn’t even occur to me until later, actually.

Instead, I dropped to a crouch and put a hand on Zelda’s collar. She, of course, was right next to me. I held out a hand for Bartleby, who, upon the indication that a treat might be in store, promptly joined me. He wasn’t overly put-out by the fact that instead of giving him a treat, I grabbed his collar, too.

And then I realized that I didn’t have their leashes. I’d been carrying B up the hill before I set him down to take a picture, so P had my bag with their leashes inside.

So I waited. It felt like a very long time before P made it up the hill to me, but I’m sure it was about a minute. I think we were all torn between wanting to watch the bear and wanting to get the hell out of its way. If it had been going in another direction, we probably would have stood there and admired it, just like we’d been admiring the eclipse. An incredible feat of nature, right? But since it was trundling toward us, or rather toward the blueberry bushes that we were standing among, getting out of its way seemed like a very good idea.

It wasn’t until we were moving away that I realized I was maybe a little scared. I didn’t feel scared, but I know you’re supposed to make noise when you’re around a bear — they don’t want to run into us anymore than we want to run into them. And with three people and three dogs, there was no way a bear would approach us if it realized we were there. All we needed to do was make sure it was as aware of us as we were of it and our encounter would get no closer.

In other words, we needed to sing.

But I could not think of a single song lyric. Seriously, not a one. No Christmas melodies, no hymns, no pop ear worms, nothing. I had nothing. Total adrenaline brain fog.

Fortunately, my singing was not required. But we never did make it to Grace Lake.

Other things I want to remember:

Last Saturday, I met up with some internet friends and played games. (Betrayal At House On The Hill and Fluxx, specifically). It was very fun. I had the occasional moment of thinking that I really didn’t know the people I was with, but actually it felt like I’d known them forever, that I was a casual friend who lived around the corner and dropped in for games all the time, instead of being a real-life stranger.

On Sunday, we drove up to Stevens Pass. P is volunteering at Stevens Lodge this week, basically a hostel-like place for Pacific Crest Trail hikers to stay. It’s the first time it’s been open in the summer — usually it’s a ski lodge — so she didn’t really expect anyone to show up. Reino and I came up to keep her company and watch the eclipse. But some hikers did show up, so we got to meet some people hiking the trail, which was cool. I don’t really understand the desire, personally. But it’s always fun to talk to people who are in the midst of an adventure.

Before the hikers showed up, I was wondering if I could make eggs Benedict in the hostel-style kitchen. Many, many years ago, it was the thing that I wanted to make — the reason I wanted to learn to cook. I spent several months trying, with some moderate successes, but eventually decided it was just too much of a pain. Hollandaise sauce is hard to get right, and poaching eggs is a pain, and the timing of getting a warm toasted English muffin, plus the sauce, plus Canadian bacon, plus the egg, all right at the same time — it was just too challenging. But I’d brought some gluten-free English muffins at a store in Seattle and I was… well, just wondering whether I could get it right now.

Answer: eh, not exactly. My Hollandaise was a little thick, because I didn’t have enough butter, and my eggs kept rolling off the muffins, which I think means they were not quite done enough. And I didn’t have Canadian bacon, so I used prosciutto. Also the gluten-free English muffins were terrible, so bad that I threw away the leftovers. And I dropped one egg on the floor (literally) and destroyed another one, so that it was more like an egg drop soup egg instead of a poached egg.

But! If you want an appreciative audience for non-successful cooking experiments, you should definitely find some PCT hikers. One was a vegetarian so he got spinach with his muffin and egg and hollandaise, and another was gluten-free and very tolerant about the horribleness of the English muffins. Both were perfectly happy with my rather messy Eggs Benedict.

And it was close enough to good that I’m definitely going to keep trying. The Hollandaise is a bit of a problem — how often do I really want to make something that requires an entire stick of butter? It’s not like I want to use eight tablespoons of sauce. But maybe I can figure out how to make it and freeze it.

And this has turned into a very random blog post, downright disjointed, but I am posting it anyway and then getting on with my day. I feel like I have much to do and not nearly enough hours in the day. Today’s plan includes another sous vide experiment, some room organizing, an attempt at a new screen door — possibly very simplified, because my complicated screen door plans have not been working at all, and yes, some time on Grace. Oh, and also publishing a short story. I made a cover for it yesterday and I’m posting it to Amazon today. Hmm, that’s what they call burying the lede. But yeah, I’ll write more about that when it’s actually available. 🙂

How did it get to be Wednesday already?

Seattle Update

People keep making suggestions about other jobs for me to be doing. The Best Brother Ever thinks I should become a personal chef for someone who has a lot of food restrictions and can’t handle the challenge of eating within them. My friend E thinks I should be packaging my granola and selling it for ridiculous prices. (Someday I am going to do a cost analysis on my granola — I suspect it’s not any cheaper than the ones that companies do sell for ridiculous prices, because I put a lot of good ingredients in it. But it is tasty.)

And my friend P now says I should become a home organizer, traveling around and helping people de-clutter their houses. That’s because I spent the last three days working on her kitchen. I wish I had taken before photos, so that a before-and-after would make sense, but when I first got here, she had no available counter space on which to work. I don’t think I complained too loudly, but I muttered, and eventually I did wistfully say, “I wish I could organize your kitchen.”

To which she replied, “Knock yourself out.”

In my defense, I then asked several times if she was serious. Did she really want someone else going through her stuff? Deciding on the right places for useful things? Pushing her to get rid of the stuff she never used?

Patiently, she answered, “Yes, yes, yes.”

So I did. Her dishes are now stored above her dish rack, so that you can put them away without taking a single step. Her pantry items (formerly stored on a bookcase outside the kitchen) are now in what used to be the dish cupboard; snacks on the bottom shelf, soups and pasta on the next, rices and grains on the third. Her spices (formerly stored in a drawer in living room) are now alphabetized and in an angled double row on an open shelf next to the stove. The tea cups she uses are on the bottom shelf on the sink side, also an open shelf; the cups her guests most often use are stored within reach on the third shelf. The teas are in order — chai, ginger and herb, black — on the second shelf.

Eventually I stopped asking as I moved items to the “to be donated” pile in the living room. We all have those things: the inefficient jars for storing baking staples; the cute plastic dishes for little kids; the hand-me-down second or third crockpot; the fondue pots. She had three of the latter — she’s keeping the mid-size one, letting the other two go.

Or the chipped dishes that have been around forever, the glass jars that might come in handy someday, the abundance of plastic leftover dishes that somehow seem to multiply in the drawers. She still has an abundance of plastic dishes, but only enough to fit neatly into two drawers and she’s going to have to start her glass jar collection anew. The chipped dishes will happen on their own, of course.

I’m not entirely done. I left a pile of stuff on a small table needing to be sorted and one counter was still topped with many glass bottles needing to be recycled last night. But I’m pretty close. And P, whose kitchen was cluttered and overflowing with stuff, now has several entirely empty cupboards that she can start filling.

P tells me I could make a lot of money at it, but I don’t think I actually want to start cleaning out people’s houses for money. Maybe this is just the Floridian in me, but I suspect the jobs would mostly be getting rid of stuff after someone had died and that would be seriously depressing as a way of life. But it was highly satisfying few days.

And it gave me a new piece of my travel plans — I’m not sure what the next week or so will bring, whether I’m going to drive south into the path of the total eclipse coverage, whether I’m finally going to connect with my other WA friends — but at some point after the 28th, I’ll be back here in Seattle. I’m going to tackle P’s teenage daughter’s bedroom once she gets home from her summer vacation with her dad, and I am quite looking forward to it.

In other news, I’m getting a little obsessed with insta-pot soups. The combination of an insta-pot and an immersion blender make vegetable soups trivially easy. Last night I was feeling awful — either a gluten reaction, a mold reaction, or the beginning of a cold — but I threw some onion, carrots, curry spices and chicken broth into the insta-pot and hit the soup button, then when it beeped, added some coconut milk and blended. I wish I’d had some leftover rice, but since I didn’t, I topped some gluten-free bread with butter, a little minced garlic, parmesan cheese, and cilantro, toasted it, cut it into crouton-ish sized pieces and dropped it into the soup. It was delicious. Oh, I added some salt at the end, too.

Given that I felt terrible (and still do, alas), it was a lovely, low-effort meal. I will be eating leftovers for lunch. Maybe with some left-over quinoa instead of toast. If I’d remembered the quinoa yesterday, I would have used it then. Carrot, curry and quinoa soup — doesn’t that sound fancy? It was really just the only non-nightshade vegetable available to me, and I felt too lousy to go to the store.

And that’s a terrible note to end on, but I do have to get to the store today and I can tell already that it’s going to be a very low-energy day. Simple goals: a shower, the store, some more time spent staring at Grace, wondering what Noah’s motivations are. And the dogs, of course, will want to be walked. Huh, I’m feeling tired already. Maybe I’ll start with a little more coffee.

Oh, but since I have no photos — how about a link to an incredibly adorable set of baby photos? Kyla, who comments here sometimes, had her baby last week, and he is gorgeous. If you get a chance, stop by, say “aw,” and wish her well!

Seattle

If I was going to post a picture of the past several days (which I am not), it would be of the little park on the corner of the street. Preferably with a lot of dogs in it. Over the past few days, I’ve spent enough time there that I’m starting to actually get to know some of the neighborhood dogs. Not quite by name yet, but maybe soon.

I’m also developing familiarity with the neighborhood Pokemon players. There’s a yellow team that I’m starting to feel a deep envy for — at least four players, who play together. Every morning or so, I take over the park’s gym, turning it blue, and before too long — sometimes within the hour — they’ve taken it back. It’s fun, but Team Blue could use a little more support. Also there are a ton of Pokemon raids available in Seattle and I’m not good enough, as a solo player, to win any except the easiest. But a team of four probably wins them all. I wish my brother and nephew were here or some of my friends from Florida — we’d be collecting legendary Pokemon right and left. But I don’t think I’m going to manage to convince my friend P or any of her housemates to start playing anytime soon. Maybe I should start working on the teenage boy who lives in the front apartment.

So, yeah, I’ve been parked in my friend P’s driveway for the past several days. They have been lovely days. R and I squeezed in a trip to Value Village, our favorite Seattle thrift shop, and a showing of Spiderman on his last day in the city, before I dropped him off at the train station and waved goodbye. I’m always sad to say good-bye to him. I love how independent and mature he is — it’s fantastic to have an almost entirely self-sufficient 21-year-old — but I do miss him. And saying good-bye with no idea of when I’ll see him again is always hard.

But I got over the pain pretty quick. The next day I did useful stuff, lots of it. Email and writing and laundry and cleaning and working on plans for a new screen door. Zelda walked through the old one, breaking the strings that created the tension that kept it up. I miss it already and I’m pretty sure that no substitute I come up with is going to work nearly as well, but it was pretty fragile for life with two dogs. B used to walk right under it. I’m not surprised that it broke, really, just hoping that I can create something that will let me get airflow through that door without being too inconvenient to live with.

Anyway, after my useful stuff, I went kayaking on Lake Washington with P and J. We saw a beaver! It was much smaller than I would have expected it to be, but the tail was unmistakeable. If my phone hadn’t been buried in a dry bag, I would have tried to take a picture, but we didn’t get close enough that it would have been more than a brown and black blur in the water on a phone photo, anyway. It was sort of thrilling, though, to see an animal that I’d never seen before in the midst of such an urban setting.

That evening, there were five of us for dinner. I’ve been cooking a fair amount, but nothing too exciting. We had summer quinoa bowls one night (greens, quinoa, corn, avocado, salmon, cilantro, with a dressing of sour cream, lime, and garlic) and autumn quinoa bowls another (greens, quinoa, roasted broccoli, baked sweet potato chunks with cinnamon and ginger, spicy roasted chick peas, chicken, with a dressing of thinned hummus with extra garlic). That night, though, we had tacos: I made spicy shredded chicken in the instant pot, which basically involved dumping a couple tablespoons of chili garlic sauce and some water on top of two chicken breasts, and pressure-cooking for 15 minutes on high. Yum. On my first couple bites, I thought it was too spicy, but it was great with avocado and mango salsa, and made for excellent leftovers. If there was any left, I’d be putting it in an omelette this morning.

My big accomplishment yesterday was putting curtains up in Serenity to separate the cab from the rest of the van. I’ve been thinking about doing it for months and my one regret — as it always seems to be with things like this! — is that I didn’t do it eons ago. I bought a Maytex Smart Curtains Ultimate Light Blocker Sheridan Window Panelin white at Fred Meyer and hung it sideways, so the 50″ side goes top to bottom. That way the dogs can still easily go under it to get to the seats and their bed under the seats. Also, I can push it to the front of the seats, so my back-of-the-seat storage doesn’t get impeded by the curtain when it’s closed. But wow, sleeping last night was so cozy. I’d sort of been vaguely aware of how much light coming in through the spaces around the front window covering kept me restless, but last night I slept like a rock. I think it’s going to be helpful with the heat, too, but the weather has changed today and it’s currently gray and chilly outside, so I’ll have to wait and see on that aspect of it.

Hmm, I think I meant to write about something else, too, but I am being summoned for breakfast, so maybe next time for whatever that was. May all your Saturdays be pleasing!

Bear Creek & Lake Ozette

I feel like a lazy blogger — it’s been over a week since I posted! But I’ve only been a little bit lazy. Mostly I’ve been busy — lots of driving, lots of cooking, lots of socializing. And definitely some playing games and reading when I could have been writing, but the aforementioned driving and socializing left me tired in my quieter hours.

So last Wednesday, R and I left Whidbey Island and drove into Seattle. After a few moments of nervousness headed into the city, I actually felt pretty good about how comfortable it was to drive Serenity on crowded streets. I definitely had a few moments in roundabouts where I flinched, waiting to hear a crunch, but no crunches ever ensued. I think I drove over a curb once, but that was my only driving fail. Yay!

In Seattle, we met up with my friend P, who promptly took me off to the grocery store to buy picnic food and then to a concert: Violent Femmes and Echo and the Bunnymen, outside on the lawn at the zoo. It was perfect weather, warm but not hot, as the day moved into evening. The music was fun, but the people-watching was great. Lots of playful kids, lots of happy adults. My favorite was a woman dressed as if she’d come straight from her corporate job, who knew every word and sang along, with hand gestures where appropriate. Even a week later, thinking about her enthusiasm makes me smile. Contagious joy is the best.

The next day we set off “early” to go to the Olympic Peninsula. I defined early as 8:30 or so, not wishing to be too challenging to R and P, and only later did P say that early was usually more like 5 when she headed to the peninsula. Our day might have been easier if we’d left around then, but so it goes. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful place for a drive.

And more drive. And more drive. Still beautiful, though. Unfortunately, one campground after another was full. We finally found a spot at a Department of Natural Resources place called Bear Creek Campground, mostly because of the luck of our timing. The spot was a disabled access spot, only available to non-disabled campers at 6PM. We drove by it at 6:20 PM, read the sign, and sighed with relief as we pulled in. Fortunately, P had a Washington State Park Discover pass that allowed us to camp there, because it wasn’t the kind of place with a ranger station — only 16 sites and no amenities. But river access, trees, a picnic table, and most importantly, room! It was enough for us.

The next day we left bright and early — not pre-coffee, but pretty close — and headed back to the first campground that we’d checked out, Lake Ozette. We’d checked departure dates the previous day so knew some people were leaving. By getting there at 8, we managed to snag one of their sites. We probably would have been fine if we’d gotten there by 10, too, but I really didn’t want another day of hours of driving. The Olympic Peninsula is undeniably beautiful, but I was starting to feel much too familiar with some of its roads.

At Lake Ozette, we camped. We hiked. We had campfires. We toasted marshmallows. We grilled portobello mushrooms and chicken. We saw deer and snakes and bats. P got stung by something — a bee or a wasp, and was so prepared that she had sting-ease in her backpack! R slept in a hammock, slung between two trees, and I shared Serenity for four nights in a row without feeling cramped. We had no internet or cell service and nobody missed it. Well, okay, that’s not true — I’m pretty sure R was going through withdrawal. But I didn’t miss it.

hike at Lake Ozette

Hiking at Lake Ozette

On Sunday, we went back to Whidbey Island for a night. That was a combination of factors — mostly, I think, R was ready to have a real bed again and we were worried about traffic heading into the city. But we had a lovely peaceful night there and a terrific breakfast the next morning, and then headed back into Seattle.

Yesterday was one last tourist day — we went out for pho, visited REI’s flagship store where I bought my own Discover pass and a national parks pass, too, and traipsed through a greenhouse. We were going to go to the movies (Spiderman) but I got anxious about the heat and the dogs, so instead we came back to P’s house, and I made quinoa bowls for dinner. Today, R leaves for Florida. He’ll be back at school within the week.

It’s been an incredible summer — since the Best Vacation Ever in May, I feel like I’ve been on a whirlwind of travel and visits, seeing people and doing things, and this past Washington week has been a wonderful way to cap it off. But as R goes back to school, it’s also time for me to get back to my writing. Grace has been on absolute hold for the past three weeks: I’ve opened the file once or twice, but haven’t written a word. I’m hoping the time off will prove to have been inspirational. Whether it was or wasn’t, thought, settling back into the discipline of writing every day will feel good.

Best of July 2017

At the moment, I’m on Whidbey Island, sitting in Serenity. Both dogs are curled up next to my leg, enjoying the dappled sunlight falling through the evergreens. There’s a morning chill in the air, enough so that I’m wearing a sweatshirt and socks while I wait for R to come wandering by so we can talk about plans for the day, which I hope include washing the van. I finished off the last of my Pennsylvania blueberries this morning, with some absolutely phenomenal Greek yogurt and pretty darn good granola. (I think I overdid it on the sunflower seeds in that batch.)

Yesterday, we went to the beach and it was brilliantly clear and sunny, hot enough to feel the burn on the back of my neck, while the water was so cold that it bit. We could see snow-capped Mount Whitney in the distance. A bald eagle flew by overhead, close enough to see its white head and tail. Zelda slept in the sand, as thoroughly asleep as if she were safe at home, tired out from multiple long walks through the woods.

blue sky, ocean, mountain in the distance

Mount Whitney in the distance

Last night, we ate sous vide steak, mashed potatoes, and sautéed zucchini for dinner, finishing it off with a strawberry-nectarine crisp topped with vanilla ice cream. Such a summer meal, such a summer place. Lying in bed in Serenity, I could see the moon and the stars and hear owls hooting. It was the closing moment of July and I was perfectly content.

On the other hand, before I declare that the best moment of the month, July also included lunch with my dad in North Carolina. Walking along the beach with my niece. Picking blueberries with my brother. Ice cream with my aunt. Being mystified by my insta-pot with E in Ohio, and then eating spicy sweet potato hash when I was really hungry. (I think the hunger made the hash more delicious.) Admiring the Badlands & Mount Rushmore. Seeing a moose in Montana. Cooking salmon at the scenic overlook.

In terms of places, I’ve been in three driveways, two houses, and three state parks (two in PA, one in Ohio). Also three independent campgrounds — the KOA in PA, and the two in Montana. And a lot of parking lots, so many that I think I’ve lost count. Five or six, though. Walmart, Cabela’s, Flying J ‘s. Omitting the driveways, if I was going to pick a place to go back to, it would be Spring Creek in Big Timber, Montana, definitely. If I was going to pick a driveway? All of them, I like them all. But I very much like this one, both because it’s a lovely place and because right now I get to go spend time with R.

If I was going to paint July of 2017, it would include much gold and green and brilliant blue. It was a beautiful month!

Gem Mountain, Phillipsburg, Montana

I had such a nice morning on Friday. You saw the pictures on the last post — the sunrise that looked celestial, the granola and blueberries on the bench in the early morning sun. It felt so peaceful and pleasant, but I knew I needed to keep going.

Driving long distances is not my idea of fun. I don’t think I would make a good trucker. But there’s a point where you get into the zone and it gets easier and easier to just keep going. Suddenly two hours starts passing without notice and driving into the night is almost easier than stopping. Unfortunately, my break in Billings definitely broke me out of the zone. When I got back on the road on Thursday, I lasted barely an hour before I was thinking about stopping. And I wasn’t exactly eager to start again on Friday.

But I had a plan. Ever since Crater of Diamonds in Arkansas, I’d intended to go sapphire mining in Montana. When I googled, one of the mines was reasonably close to Highway 90. It would add maybe an hour of extra driving along a scenic highway, plus an hour at the mine, but it would be a nice break in the middle of the day and something to look forward to, helping to keep me motivated on the road. I thought I’d get there about 2, be back on the road by 3 or maybe 3:30, and then maybe make it to the Montana border before stopping for the night.

It was so nice at Spring Creek, though, that I started late. And then I took a break at a rest stop to try to get online, as well as write about the campground and answer some texts. And then there was a tiny little wrong turn that put me on the highway headed in the wrong direction… Suddenly it was 3:30 and I was pulling into Phillipsburg and realizing that I’d screwed up. My Google directions hadn’t taken me to a mine, they’d taken me to a store. A nice store, where people could rinse of jugs of gravel and hunt for sapphires, but it wasn’t what I’d been looking for. The store, however, had a sign that said, “Free camping.”

I like signs like that.

It turned out that the mine was about half an hour away, in the direction from which I’d come. Bummer. But behind the mine were campsites, first come, first served, and if there was still room, I could spend the night there. And if I got started quickly, I’d still have an hour to play at the mine.

Done.

The mine was, in fact, not much like Crater of Diamonds. Instead of sitting in the dirt and digging, you buy a bucket of gravel for $25. They give you a mesh grate, some big tweezers, and a thing like a test tube with a plastic top with a hole in it. You put some dirt in the grate, rinse it in a wooden trough of water, then dump it out on a table. Carefully, because if you’ve rinsed it right, the sapphires are sitting on top of the pile. They’re the heaviest of the rocks, so as you bounce and rock the grate in the water, they should be sinking to the bottom. One of the guys working there gave me a demo to get started and when he dumped the grate, there was a blue stone sitting right on top of the pile, exactly as advertised. It was both delightful and also sort of like winning the slot machine on your very first quarter. I did wonder whether I was going to spend the next hour feeling like a failure when I didn’t find any more.

Nope.

By the time I finished, I’d found 41 tiny sapphires. I did not once dump the dirt without finding a sapphire in it. One time I picked one out of the dirt without even rinsing it and another time I picked one out of the dirt as I was rinsing it. I’m not even sure I found all of them, because I was one of the last people there, so I was trying to hurry by the end of my bucket. Results aren’t guaranteed, of course, but they do say every bucket has some sapphires in it. Most of them aren’t worth processing (heat-treating and faceting), but people do sometimes find larger sapphires, 3 carats or more, that after processing can be worth hundreds of dollars. So there is still that element of playing the lottery, but one where you’re guaranteed to win something.

Plus, free camping!

Gem Mountain camping

Gem Mountain camping

Unfortunately, my anxiety level on Friday evening was limiting-ly high. I wanted to take a long walk with Zelda — we haven’t been getting nearly enough exercise — and I just couldn’t. Bears, rattlesnakes, strangers… I was totally scolding myself, but I was also not leaving the van. Just not.

The best I could do was about five minutes where I took the above picture. It was a beautiful moonrise, an incredible setting, and I took a minute to enjoy the crystal clear and cold air — and then the smoke from my neighbor’s campfire started me worrying about forest fires. Despite being seriously annoyed with myself, I couldn’t sleep until I had the van entirely packed up and ready to go, in case we needed to run away from fire in the middle of the night.

Sometimes I hate my brain.

On Saturday morning, though, I forced myself to walk Zelda down the road toward the mine. I wasn’t going to try to do anything challenging — no wandering into the forest or off on any trails — but I thought I’d walk along the road out to the main road and maybe along it for a while. I’d started to relax and enjoy the beautifully chilly morning when we rounded a curve in the road and a big brown thing lifted its head and looked at us.

Total jump.

A moose

Not a bear.

And then a relieved laugh.

I’ve always wondered what Zelda would do if faced with a bear and I think the moose gave me my answer: she would take her cue from me and back cautiously away. She definitely saw it and she was definitely interested, head tilted, ears up, but when she saw that I wasn’t going any closer, she followed me away from it without any protest.

I also saw a green hummingbird, a chipmunk, and a pretty little dark brown squirrel. No bears and no rattlesnakes, much to my relief.

I didn’t linger, though. By about 8:30, I was on the road, not exactly making up for lost time, but definitely making progress toward my goal. It was a long day of driving, through smoky hills in Montana, into and beyond Idaho. I stopped at a scenic overlook in Washington, admired the Columbia River, and enjoyed one of my favorite parts of #vanlife — I cooked and ate sockeye salmon with basil and garlic over brown rice, with a side salad of mixed greens, radishes and avocado, with balsamic vinegar. Road food is really different when your kitchen travels with you.

I then spent the night at a Flying J, and now I’m sitting in a Safeway parking lot, drinking my morning coffee, and getting ready to get on the road. A few more hours of driving and I’ll be saying hi to R!

Spring Creek Campground, Big Timber, Montana

I’m not sure what impulse drove me to stop on Thursday. I needed to get gas, that was definitely part of it. And I really wanted a shower. Mostly, though, I think I just saw the signs for Spring Creek Campground at exactly the right moments.

Whatever drove the impulse, it was a great one. Although I don’t think I’d like the campground as much when it’s crowded — the sites are really close together — it wasn’t crowded, so it was perfect. I could hear the river from inside the camper, and it was so still and peaceful at night that I didn’t bother closing the blinds or putting up the window covers. I just appreciated the darkness and the sounds of nature.

I feel like there’s so much more I want to say about it, but all my words feel like babble. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what are several pictures worth?

fire pit and bench,

The front of the campsite. I was parked facing the water, which was the Boulder River.

camper at sunrise

The campsite viewed from a distance. A pond on one side, a river on the other. So peaceful!

celestial sunrise

Sunrise while I was walking Zelda.

Breakfast at sunrise

Breakfast on the bench.

I Heart Montana

I wish I knew how to do an emoji in a post, because I’d make that word in the title an emoji if I could.

First Montana rest stop

First Montana rest stop

When I decided to do my epic cross-country run to play with people in Seattle, I planned a couple days in South Dakota — the halfway point of the long drive — but anticipated the rest of the trip going by in a blur of highways. No real stops in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin or Minnesota (although I did spend the night in Indiana and Minnesota), and no real stops on the other side of South Dakota, either — Wyoming, Montana, Washington. I was just going to drive until I got to my destination. I knew I’d need to overnight on the road, but I figured I’d make it most of the way through Montana first, probably stopping in Missoula, and then reach Seattle the next day.

The temperatures in South Dakota changed the first half of that plan and the plumbing problems changed the second half. I wound up spending Wednesday night in Billings. On Thursday, I was waiting to see if Merta RV could squeeze me in. It was the fourth place I’d called. The first, Pierce RV, wanted a $150 priority charge — money for nothing except moving me to the front of their queue — plus $175 an hour after that. The second wouldn’t have been able to take a look until August 1. The third could see me on August 9th, but gave me some other names to call. Marta said that they were really busy but would see what they could do and call me back, and when they called back, said I could come by at 3 on Thursday and they’d try to squeeze me in.

So there I was in Billings, waiting for a 3PM appointment. What to do? On the spur of the moment, I decided to try to take care of the other things Serenity needed or would need in the near future: an oil change, her tires rotated, her 20K mile inspection. I stopped by the Dodge dealer to see if they could fit me in. They could, they did. They let me bring the dogs inside and every single person I spoke to was so nice and so friendly. I probably chatted to five people along the way and everyone was welcoming and cheerful.

They were finished by 11:30 or so. On my way out, I spotted CostCo. Living without water makes washing dishes difficult and I’d been wanting more road-friendly snack food. My preference is definitely to cook delicious meals, but not when I don’t have electricity, or water to wash dishes with. So I swung into CostCo and bought some snack-type foods, plus bear spray. Yep, I’m finally ready to go hiking in the western woods. The bear spray seemed expensive (and I really hope that I don’t wind up spraying myself with it someday) but I looked it up on Amazon and it was actually a good deal, $40 for two cans. While I was standing in line, the guy behind told me it was both a good deal and even better, a long expiration date. Apparently he has a closet full of expired bear spray at home.

Done at CostCo, I decided I might as well go wait in the parking lot at Merta and do some email, maybe even write. The writing didn’t happen, because I’d barely been there twenty minutes when the service guy came and took the van away. He very nicely let the dogs stay in the van. I closed the bathroom doors so he could work on the bathroom while they stayed in the interior, but it felt like such a luxury to be able to leave them in a safe place. And in no time, he was back, handing me the keys and telling me I was done. Again, everyone I spoke with — probably six or seven people along the way — was friendly, cheerful, warm and helpful.

By 2PM I was on the road, debating what came next. Four nights in parking lots (the Billings parking lot was at a Cabela’s and lovely), plus some stress, had left me pretty tired. Did I want to push into the driving zone, knock another five hours off the trip? Maybe more? Or did I want to find a place to relax, maybe take a shower, eat a good dinner?

And I am out of time. Must get moving! So… to be continued.

Year Two Begins With a Splash

Yesterday, July 25th, was the one-year anniversary of the day I said good-bye to my house and hello to life on the road. It started auspiciously enough in a Walmart parking lot in Minnesota.

Yep, my first Walmart parking lot. It was fine. Better than fine, really. The night before I’d spent in a Flying J parking lot in Indiana, and although I hadn’t slept as horribly as on my very first parking lot night, it wasn’t exactly relaxing, either. At the Walmart, I was out of the way, in a quiet corner, facing a field. I put the window covers up and slept as well as I ever do. Maybe it was Minnesota, too. While I’m sure Minnesota has its problems, the Walmart was the kind of place that had a trash can at every single cart rack and no trash visible outside the cans. Go, Minnesota.

Although I’d decided I was going to try to get to Mount Rushmore, when I looked at the map I realized that if I did, I’d miss the Badlands entirely. My plan had been to dry camp, aka boondock, in a primitive campground in the Badlands for a couple of days but I hadn’t realized how far west Mount Rushmore was. But, I figured, no problem — Mount Rushmore had been waiting for a year, it could wait a couple of days more.

I started off on a relaxed drive out of Minnesota and across South Dakota. I had plenty of time, so I took it slow, pausing at rest stops, reading, writing, checking email. Unfortunately, it just kept getting hotter and hotter and hotter. At one point, my outside temperature gauge read 103, and even with the air-conditioning running full blast, my temperature monitor was sending me alerts that it was over 80 in the van. Both dogs huddled under the AC vents.

When we got to the Badlands, I paid the $20 to enter — my first national park, yay! — and drove slowly through. I’d given up on the idea of boondocking at the cool primitive (i.e., no electricity) campground. Space was probably available, but we would have been miserable. And when I drove past the campground with electricity, I gave up on it, too. It was reasonably crowded so there might not have been space, but even if there was, it was in unrelenting sun.

But it wasn’t just the sun — it was windy, with that kind of dry wind that pounds at your ears and makes you immediately want to lick your lips again and again and again. If I had been a pioneer woman in South Dakota, I would have been one of the ones driven crazy by the isolation and the wind. I would have been hallucinating monsters and terrified to leave the house in no time.

So I kept driving. I’d been reading signs for Wall Drugs all the way across South Dakota — either billboards are cheap in SD or Wall Drugs has a lot of money to spend on them. Maybe both. Anyway, it sounded fun in a seriously kitschy kind of way so instead of the Badlands, I figured I’d find a place to stay in Wall and explore the town. Except when we got there, late afternoon, it was still so hot that I would never have been willing to leave the dogs alone in the van.

New plan: back to the old plan.

Mount Rushmore!

I checked online and Mount Rushmore is open until 11, so I headed that way. Between stops to feed and walk the dogs and dinner for me, it was after 8 when I got there. It was… interesting. Smaller than I thought it would be, but also more impressive in a way. From a distance, the faces are very high up on the mountain.

Mount Rushmore through a car window

Look close. The gray hills in the distance have the faces of the presidents on them.

I thought it would be good to see it in the evening, less populated, and that it would make me feel patriotic on some level. Instead it felt a lot like I had secretly drifted into a universe where Disney had taken over America. There’s a ton of stuff around Mount Rushmore, all aimed at tourists. I could see having fun there, if I had lots of money to spend on silly things, a kid to enjoy looking at random stuff with, and didn’t have to worry about dogs/heat. As it was, though, I decided against spending $10 to park, and did a literal drive-by.

I then went back the way I came, driving about another 45 minutes, until I reached the highway and a Flying J truck-stop that I’d passed earlier. My third night in a row in a parking lot! But it was by far the worst — busy, crowded, with a casino nearby and a ton of trucks. People wandered by the van until late at night, and I was awake until after midnight, then up at 5:30.

When I woke up, I just got behind the wheel and started driving, thinking that we’d do the morning routine — clean clothes, coffee, dog walks, food — at the first rest stop. Reasonable plan, except somehow — sleepiness, I assume — I missed the first rest stop and it wasn’t until after 8 that we finally reached one. Poor Z had been staring at me earnestly, the way she tells me that it’s time to go for a walk, for about forty minutes by then.

And the bathroom floor was sopping wet. I had a fleeting second of wondering if a dog had given up on me but it was clean water. Clean water, unfortunately, coming from behind the toilet. Yeah, a pipe broke. I then spent all day — the first day of Year Two — trying to deal with it.

If it wasn’t so damn hot and if I hadn’t been driving all day and into the night for the past couple of days and if I hadn’t slept in parking lots for three nights in a row, I think I’d be dealing with it a lot worse than I am. I think I’d have the energy to be really pissed off about how many things have gone wrong with this tiny house on wheels and how Winnebago’s approved repair place wants $150 just for agreeing to see it, plus $175/hour to work on it. I feel like fury and frustration are reasonable responses, but I’m just not feeling them. It’s tedious, but it is what it is.

On the other hand, if I weren’t so tired, maybe I’d be making better choices for how to deal with it, too. But it definitely feels like Year Two has started with a whimper, not a bang. Or maybe that should be a splash and a sinking feeling? At any rate, before I discovered the water, I drove out of South Dakota, through a tiny (beautiful!) corner of Wyoming, and into Montana, so I am now hanging out in yet another parking lot, this one in Billings, Montana, hoping to fix some broken plumbing before moving on, and wishing T-Mobile had coverage in Montana, which apparently it does not.

Updated: no internet, so couldn’t post, and it is now Thursday morning. I’m still feeling fine about the plumbing problem, maybe better than fine. It’s annoying, but it is what it is. I found a place in Billings able to take a look at it this afternoon, so it might be resolved soon, and if not, I’ll use bottled water. The lovely Facebook Travato Owners group has given me lots of advice and help about trying to fix it myself, but it feels ambitious to try to remove the toilet on my own. In 90+ degree heat. In a random parking lot. Yeah, not optimistic about that. But hey, at least the leak sprays water into a room with a drain in the floor. And a plastic floor, too. It could be worse!

Caesar Creek State Park, Wilmington, OH

I have so very many things I want to blog about. So very many!

Random thoughts:

Highway rest stops must be like art galleries for dogs: so many interesting smells, such fascinating traces of other dogs and people, so rich with the canine version of color. And possibly over-stimulating? B has to stop every two inches for the first ten feet and then he’s all, “No more, no more, I must take a nap. Immediately.” And Z wants to smell ALL the smells, every last inch of grass. It does not make for fun walks.

Illinois has a seriously annoying toll system. Every ten miles or so, you have to pay another $1.50 or $2 or even $3. I’m sure it’s fine for the people who live there and whizz through on their e-passes, but at 5AM, only one cash booth was open at every stop and it always had a line of five or six cars in it. It was actually sort of stressful to be hunting for money in that line, knowing that the people behind me just wanted to get going.

Wisconsin has gorgeous wildflowers happening right now. Lovely and colorful, deep yellows, light blues, waves of lavender. Not literal lavender, I don’t think, but that color of light purple. I, of course, can’t tell you what any of them are, but I think some of the deep yellows were brown-eyed Susans.

Ending the random thoughts:

I spent the weekend at Caesar Creek State Park in Wilmington, OH. It is not a park that I will be returning to. It contains the dubious distinction of having the worst showers of any that I actually used within my first year of van life. Apart from that, I think it’s probably a really nice place to stay if you have big water toys to play with — motor boats, wave runners, that kind of thing. For me, it was just a vaguely pleasant, grassy parking lot near a place where my friend E was visiting for work. But the trails were too muddy to appreciate; the weather was either sweltering hot or raining; and the sites didn’t have water hook-ups, which was inconvenient — especially because the showers were not cool. Literally, in the case of one of them, which was jammed on a temp of “fill the entire bathroom with steam.”

Due to circumstances beyond our control, our time together was cut a little short and E was without a car, so instead of most of a weekend with easy and flexible transportation, we had 24 hours in Serenity. It was much fun nonetheless, but mostly revolved around food. And washing dishes. And then more food. And more washing dishes. The effort of washing dishes is much more noticeable when you’re carrying the water from a faucet several campsites away.

Anyway, Saturday night was grilled asparagus with lime, and sous vide steak, followed by spice cake with pecans. Sunday: blueberries, bananas, and chocolate granola; spicy sweet potato hash with poached eggs; arugula and mixed greens salad with cold shrimp, pea pods, radishes, cucumbers, avocado, and a spicy chili-garlic salad dressing.

The sous vide steak was good, but maybe not as good as I expected it to be — perhaps a fault of the cook, I will definitely try again. The asparagus was great; the hash was yum; and the spicy salad dressing was delicious. I’m going to make an appetizer of a radish slice, topped with a thin slice of avocado, a cold shrimp, and a drizzle of chili garlic sauce, because those bites of salad were so very, very good. And I do wonder why the world doesn’t contain more spicy salad dressings? It really worked so well with all the cold crunchy things, i.e. the pea pods and radishes and shrimp.

Anyway, due to said circumstances, I wound up giving E a ride to her hotel around 6 Sunday evening. Of course, moving Serenity means packing up and because the rain had been on and off, but it was temporarily dry, I decided to pack everything up rather than risk it getting wet again. But then on the drive I realized that I was headed 35 minutes west of the campground. Did it really make sense to go east again, to spend the night at Caesar Creek? My plan had been to leave early this morning, starting at 8 or so, and drive as long as I could last. Destination, the Badlands of South Dakota, 18 hours away.

I worried at the thought for most of the drive, then while E went into Target to pick up some stuff she needed, I consulted my map. And after I dropped her off at her hotel, I started driving.

Last night — the second-to-last night of Year One in Serenity, I slept at a Flying J gas station in Indiana, adding one more state to my total — 19 states, 74 places, and 3 parking lots.

Tonight — the very last night of Year One in Serenity, I will either be sleeping in Minnesota or South Dakota, adding another state to the total. I suspect it’s going to be in Minnesota, because instead of driving, I’m sitting in a highway rest stop on the Wisconsin – Minnesota border, writing a blog post. It would take me 4.5 hours or so to get across Minnesota, I think, and given that I started driving at 5, I think I’m probably not going to make it that far. My goal, though, is to get the total driving time to Mount Rushmore to be under 6 hours. And I’m not quite sure, but I think it might be perfectly do-able. Which would mean tomorrow, on the actual anniversary of the day I closed on my house and started driving north, I’ll finally be at one of the destinations I was aiming for. And it only took a year!

The Mississippi River, as seen from Minnesota