Succor Creek was a beautiful place to wake up. I took a walk with Zelda on Saturday morning, down this road, and the scenery on all sides was incredibly beautiful. Even the herds of small children roaming the hills couldn’t make the campground feel crowded. But we had miles to go and prepaid reservations at our next campground, so we packed up and headed out.
Ironically — or, as my son might remind me, in just a not-very-funny coincidence — after all my worries about driving on the dirt roads, I managed to crunch poor Serenity after we got back on the road. At a gas station, alas. And I managed to break the kind of streak that everyone should wish for: thirty-five years of never having to call an insurance company because of something I’d done. Dang.
But it was what it was. The van was still drivable and no one was hurt so after spending some time chatting with my truly delightful Progressive customer service person (sympathetic! helpful! organized!), we got back on the road.
Fortunately, our destination was exactly the kind of place you want to end up at when you’re feeling stressed and frustrated with yourself: Crystal Crane Hot Springs Campground. The campground itself was not beautiful: dry grass, rocky gravel sites, no trees or separation between sites, port-a-potty type toilets right across from our own site…
But do you see that hint of water behind Serenity in the above picture? The hot springs was basically a pond, and the water was amazing. S and I swam once in the afternoon, then as soon as it started to get dark we went back again.
Drifting in the hot water in the cool night air while the stars came out was… spectacular. It was a moment where I was intensely glad to be where I was, to be alive, to be experiencing life. Bats swooped overhead, which doesn’t sound like it should be cool, but really was, and planes left contrails in the sky until it got so dark that you couldn’t see them. It was surreally beautiful.
Unlike Succor Creek, though, which felt like a place where it would have been nice to stay forever, I was definitely ready to move on Sunday morning. The springs were great, but the campground was hot and dry and sort of bleak and there’s only so much soaking in hot water one can do. Plus, we were headed back to Bend and both S and I were looking forward to all the fun we were going to have there. Well, the fun and the good things to eat!
As we drove away from Celebration Park on Friday morning, S said to me, “I don’t know about you, but that was the best parking lot I ever camped in.” I laughed, as expected, because it was also the first parking lot S had ever camped in.
But then I considered the idea, thinking about all the parking lots I’ve stayed in, from the very first terrifying night in a West Virginia arts center, to Walmarts and Flying Js, a rest stop in Oregon, Cabela in Montana, a Cracker Barrel in Alabama, even the miserable night sitting outside the emergency vet longing for good news about Bartleby. And I had to agree, Celebration Park was the nicest parking lot I’ve camped in.
But one night in a parking lot was plenty and then it was time to head back into Oregon. S had purchased a book on Oregon’s geology at the fossil beds and was excited to go thunder egg hunting. Thunder eggs, (basically rounded rocks with crystals inside), are the state rock of Oregon. She picked Succor Creek State Natural Area Campground as the place to go to find some. Sounded fine to me.
But I should have made her drive there.
Well, or maybe not. It might have made me incredibly nervous to have my home in someone else’s hands as we made our way down bumpy dirt roads for what felt like hours. Even more incredibly nervous than I was with my home in my own hands! The three hours that I drove on Friday morning were exhausting. At one point, we hit a deep spot in the road, filled with water, ridged on either side, with deep tracks from other vehicles, and if it hadn’t meant I’d have to drive ten miles back over the same roads, I might have just said no. Instead, we kept going.
It was totally worth it.
At the end of 15 miles of dirt road (predicted by Siri to take an hour of driving time), we reached an almost empty campground. We found a great spot, backing on a beautiful creek, and spent the afternoon there, enjoying the sunshine, warmth, and feeling of spring in the air, as the campground slowly filled up with people.
The slowly filling up with people part was a little surprising — this campground was remote! — but it was a beautiful Friday in spring, so it probably shouldn’t have been. I was glad we’d gotten there early, though, because we’d gotten a nice spot with enough room for S to comfortably set up her tent and we also had the fun of having the area to ourselves for a while.
We walked the dogs and then S climbed the hills and hunted for rocks. I started up the hill, but as I clambered over the rocks, I couldn’t help thinking that the rocks were a perfect place for rattlesnakes. And that if I was a rattlesnake on a sunny warm day in spring, with temperatures reaching the 80s, I would probably be out sunning myself on the rocks. And that as a human being, I could keep a careful eye out for snakes, but that the darling dog trailing along with me would probably not understand that a snake was dangerous. And that if I was bitten by a snake, approximately ninety minutes away from any medical care, I’d have a chance of surviving, but that a 16-pound dog would probably not last long enough to get to the emergency vet.
As a result, instead of searching the hills for interesting rocks, Z and I retreated to the comfort of the grassy creekside and I read a book. Honestly, it was really lovely and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, so maybe I let anxiety win, but on the other hand, maybe I kept my dog safe and happy and didn’t miss anything much. It wasn’t like I’d be willing to load up Serenity with rocks, even if I found the coolest rocks ever.
That night, we finally did something I’d been yearning to do ever since I got the idea: we built a fire and barbecued Easter peeps. They were as delicious as I’d imagined they would be — crispy carmelized sugar on the outside, melty marshmallow on the inside. If you ever try it, be aware that the sugar gets really, really hot — much hotter than the marshmallow. S got to discover the effectiveness of lavender essential oil for burns but her burn was still bad enough to blister. But I think she’d agree that it was worth it!
After our relaxed departure from Bully Creek, we headed into Idaho. Woo-hoo, Idaho! Not quite a new state for me — I’d driven through it once before on my way from Montana to Washington — but the first time I was planning to do more than wave as I went by.
Idaho — at least southern Idaho — is very dry. Even in spring, it was immediately clear that we were in a different climate. Part of that was nice — I appreciated the warmth of the sun — but my lips were chapped within what felt like seconds.
We were headed to Boise for our first stop, so we were also no longer on cute, winding mountain roads but on a major highway: flat, lots of trucks, traffic speeding along. And the billboards — for Panera, Taco Bell, etc. — made it pretty clear that we were entering Generic American City. No insult intended to Boise, of course, because every mid-size American city seems to have the same stores, but we spent a couple hours there and then decided to keep going.
It wasn’t just that the city felt generic. We knew we would have fun if we explored, looked for a good restaurant, found its unique spots… but being a tourist in a city when accompanied by three dogs is a challenge. It’s fun to have the dogs on a camping vacation, but less fun to leave them in the van when the sun is beating down on them. At any rate, we’d planned to spend some time in Boise, but by mutual agreement, we cut that time short and headed back to nature.
Our next stop was Bruneau Dunes State Park. As you may recall, I found an article about the 50 best state parks (Bruneau was Idaho’s) and decided to go to all of them. I have now changed my mind. I’m sure they’re all great parks, but “great park to visit” does not necessarily equal “great park to camp.” There are two campgrounds at Bruneau and one of them (Eagle Cove) is a parking lot: pull-through sites in parallel lines, no real space between sites. The other one (Broken Wheel) is better, more spacious and with a good view of the hills but compared to our Bully Creek county park… well, it’s always hard when you leave a really nice campground/site to go to an average campground.
There were some nice trails, though. I have to admit that I didn’t try them out — Z and I limited our walk to half way around the campground, because I was tired out from all the driving. But S and Riley took the walk to the observatory and approved. And we did visit the lake, which — well, was really buggy. But pretty!
It was also nice to be able to plug in to electricity, because it meant that I could use the InstantPot to make risotto. For dinner, we had chicken-apple sausage with carmelized onions; salad with mixed greens, blackberries, goat cheese and fig vinaigrette; and asparagus risotto. Just your average camping meal, right?
And the night sky was lovely, I’m currently listening to many birds chattering away, and the dunes themselves really are rather spectacular.
Our Painted Hills campsite was lovely, but we were definitely still in road trip mode: by 9AM, we were packed up and on the move. We went straight to the Visitor Center at the John Day Fossil Beds, where we watched their movie and learned about the fossils and geology and wandered through their very nice museum of fossils. Then we drove to one of the trail heads and took a short hike through some really incredible terrain.
A lot of the time, when I’m visiting somewhere new, I connect it to someplace I’ve seen before — oh, this is like Washington State only with shorter trees, or this reminds me of Louisiana or whatever. Even the Badlands, which is pretty unique terrain, made me think about B movies from the 1950s. This terrain, though, reminded me of absolutely nothing: I had never seen anything like it.
By the time we finished our walk, it was close enough to lunchtime to justify eating, so I made us salads with mixed greens, cold salmon, and a fig vinaigrette. We ate at a parking lot picnic table — using cloth napkins, real silverware and my grandmother’s china, and drinking San Pellegrino sparkling water. It was delicious and also amusing to me: as I said to S, my idea of a picnic is on the pretentious side, I guess.
After lunch, we started driving. We’d had no internet for extended periods, which meant our ideas of on-the-fly planning were turning into winging-it and hoping-for-the-best. When we reached the town of John Day, we paused, looked for a place to camp, and decided on Unity Lake State Park. That lasted until we got to Unity Lake, where it was cold and bleak and windy. Onward!
Our revised plan took us to Bully Creek Park Campground, a county park near Vale, Oregon. The reviews of the park weren’t terrific, but that mostly appeared to be because there’s so much arsenic in the water that the campground hosts have to warn you about it. Or — my personal speculation — locals are writing mean reviews in order to keep campers from visiting, because it was lovely. The host gave us a site on the water with a perfect view of the sunset, and an even better morning view of the many, many birds. It was our slowest morning to date, because we sat and bird-watched, then ate a second breakfast/brunch, and didn’t get on the road until after 11.
On Sunday, S and I took off on our first mini-road trip. We drove south to Fort Bragg to visit a beach of sea glass. Apparently, at some point in time, Fort Bragg threw their trash in the ocean and as a result, they have a beach that has lots and lots of smoothed glass. (I’d look up the exact details, but in the interest of actually writing a book someday, I’ve locked myself out of the internet for the working hours of the day, so if you’re interested in the specifics, I leave the googling to you. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, I’m sure you’ll find it.)
Our plan included a late lunch at a restaurant we’d read about and then camping at Jefferson State Forest, but after a relatively quick visit to the beach at high tide, I got nervous about our timing. We’d gotten off to a late start and I didn’t want to wind up reaching the campground after dark, only to find it full. It was a ridiculous worry, because it was a Sunday night in the middle of March, and the campground was not going to be full. Still, I suggested we skip the restaurant until the next day and head to the campground.
The campground was not full.
It was closed.
But there weren’t any signs saying “no overnight parking,” so… we camped there anyway. I stayed in the day use parking lot and S and her two dogs trekked a short distance up the road to a campsite where she set up her tent for the night.
I’d left my phone in the van, but as we got settled, I wandered around thinking about all the great pictures I’d take on Monday morning. The majestic redwoods, the lush ferns, the incredible green of the spring grass, the light through the branches. Ha. In the night, it started to rain. And it rained, and it rained, and it rained. I lived in California for over ten years — admittedly, farther south — and I think it’s rained more in my month in northern CA than it did in the entire decade that I lived in the state. I, of course, didn’t mind the rain. I was snug in Serenity, cuddled up with my dog. But S got to discover that her tent has started to leak. Ah, the delights of camping.
On Monday morning, we went back to the glass beach, at low tide, and had a very fun, only mildly damp, ramble. My favorite moment of the entire trip was when Z ran away on the beach. Riley, the youngest of the dogs, had headed off on an ambitious excursion and S and Buddy were following him. They’d crossed a fast-flowing stream of water into the ocean onto a rocky area and I wouldn’t let Z go that way. I wasn’t sure how strong the current would be and I didn’t want her to get swept away. So she turned around and ran back the way we came, up a steep slope, trying to catch up with Riley that way. I chased after her, but she was fast! At the top of the hill, she gave me such a great doggie smile. Good rainy beach day with a happy dog is a delight.
After the beach, we went to the restaurant, a place called Mayan Fusion. It was incredibly good. I had kebabs with chimichurri and a Mayan salad with jicama and pumpkin seeds and grapefruit, followed by fish tacos (which also became my dinner) and S had sweet corn and a pork dish (which also became her dinner). It was so delicious that S is already planning our next trip to Fort Bragg (a three hour drive away) to eat there again.
We wandered around Fort Bragg a little, not exactly being good tourists but glancing at the train depot and the last building from the old Fort Bragg, and then headed north. I wanted to stay at Humboldt Redwoods State Park for the night. After two and a half years of traveling, I’ve finally decided that my travel goal is to go to every state park on this list of the best state parks. I’d been thinking I’d try to camp at a state park in every state, but the so-called “best” state parks of every state will be even more fun. And conveniently, Humboldt was nicely close.
We got a nice little campsite right next to a redwood so huge you could walk inside it, built a fire, enjoyed the fresh air, and ate our leftovers for dinner. And when it started to get dark, S tried out #vanlife and slept in the other twin bed. She’s not giving up her tent anytime soon, but she is now at least a little bit of a convert to the convenience of a real roof.
I have spent so long struggling to post my time-lapse sunrise that even though the quality loses everything I wanted to share, I’m still posting it. If you watch it very closely, in the bottom right corner, you might get a chance to see the sun sparkling on the water drops that covered the tree. In the moment, it was crazily magically beautiful. On the time-lapse… well, you can’t really see it. Maybe if you watch it in a very dark room, you might get a glimpse. Mostly, though, you’ll have to use your imagination and trust me that it really was gorgeous!
So! Moving on… I left Half Moon Bay on Friday morning and literally prayed on the drive into the city to find a parking place. Literally. Out loud. I apologized to the universe for asking for favors — I have a pretty strict policy of only praying in gratitude and appreciation and to ask for blessings for other people — but I was envisioning driving around and around in Serenity, finding only parking spots that would require parallel parking in tiny spaces. Instead, there was an open parking space — not parallel! — directly in front of my favorite dim sum bakery from decades ago. Yes, it felt like a miracle. A really nice minor miracle. I envisioned my guardian angel patting themself on the back in that pleasure and delight that you get when you find someone the perfect gift.
I parked… and then I did not go in for dim sum. I watched people going in and out, most of them taking packages of deliciousness to go… and I thought about how miserably sick gluten makes me. And then I thought about how much I love shrimp dumplings and pork siu mai. And then I thought about the sore throat and the aches and pains and the feeling of having so little energy that even standing up is an effort… And eventually my friend S arrived and we went down the street to Burma Superstar, currently the #8 restaurant in San Francisco according to Trip Advisor, and ate delicious gluten-free tea leaf salad and braised pork with coconut rice. I’m pretty sure that means I am never going to willingly eat gluten again. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that San Francisco dim sum would be the place/food that I would pay the price for, but apparently it’s not. Fortunately, lunch was delicious.
While we were eating, it hailed! I took a video but I’m not even going to make an attempt to post it, but here’s a picture from the window, including a little girl picking up pieces. Hail must be pretty amazing if you’re a San Francisco kid.
After lunch, S and I went to Golden Gate Park and took Zelda for a good walk, and then I dropped S off sorta close to the de Young Museum and headed north across the Golden Gate Bridge. I did debate going to the Museum myself, but I wanted to get to my campground before dark and I didn’t want to get caught in traffic.
That was a really good call. The campground would have freaked me out after dark. It was remarkably isolated, considering it was in Sonoma. No cell service, no electricity, and a steep and winding road in lousy condition to narrow, hilly campsites. Also mostly deserted. On Friday afternoon, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay.
But it was gorgeous.
Zelda had no such doubts. She was bouncy and excited, loving the weather — cold and sunny — and the smells. So we stayed through Sunday morning, with a mostly very quiet Saturday. I could have run the generator to give myself some electricity (I did manage to get it working again) if I’d wanted to use my computer or cook anything complicated, but instead I read books and ate leftovers. I wasn’t as tired as I’d been on my quiet day in Half Moon Bay, but it was nice to have a day where I didn’t have driving goals.
On Sunday, I headed off reasonably early, and finally finished my long drive. I arrived in Arcata around 3, pulled into S’s driveway and got comfortable. My journey lasted seventeen days, and over 3000 miles. Some parking lots, some driveways, some campgrounds — and I ought to count them up, but I spent a long time trying to get that video to work and I’m ready to move on to other things! But it was a good trip. I’ve driven across the country four times now, with timetables ranging from four days (not solo) to about eight weeks. Seventeen days was probably a little too fast — I’m really ready to not drive again and I was pretty tired by the end — but I think I managed a good balance of driving days and restful days.
Still, I’m glad to be here. Yesterday S didn’t have work, because of the holiday, so we did laundry, ate a big breakfast of bacon and eggs, went to the beach with the dogs (briefly, because it was cold!), and had pumpkin soup and salad for dinner. It was a lovely beginning to my lengthy visit. Today, I’m hoping to put on my yoga clothes and wander down the street to the nearest yoga studio — a five minute walk away — and go to my first yoga practice in over a year. But first, breakfast.
It’s very hard to take a picture of a mud puddle. At least one that demonstrates its depth and size without just looking like a dirty spot in the ground.
Also, I am so tired that it took me three tries to spell the word “puddle.” I nearly went into that space where it stopped feeling like a real word. Puddle? Pubble? Pebble? What’s that thing called again?
Yeah, I’m guessing this is not going to be the most coherent blog post ever. But I’m currently at Half Moon Bay State Beach, which is a lovely — also, currently, extremely muddy — campground just south of San Francisco.
By about 2PM on Tuesday, Serenity’s tires were back in place and I was back on the road. I managed to get to Tehachapi in time to meet Carol (hi, Carol!) for dinner at Blue Ginger Pho, just one day late. Pho was just what I needed, because I was thoroughly cold-ish by then, tissues constantly in hand. I spent the night parked on Carol’s street and headed out early the next morning.
Wednesday was a grueling day. I had campground reservations that I’d paid for, so for the first time my schedule wasn’t flexible: I needed to reach Half Moon Bay by 5PM. I also needed to refill the propane. I’d filled it just a few days earlier, in Albuquerque, but it takes a fair amount of propane to keep a metal box warm when it’s 2 degrees outside and I didn’t want to chance needing it. And I needed to get the tires rechecked, to make sure the lug nuts weren’t working their way loose again. I also wanted to go to the grocery store. I managed all of it, except for the grocery store.
But when I woke up this morning, I proved completely unable to talk myself into doing anything else. Instead of going to the grocery store, I ate oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and maybe for dinner, too. (I’ve got other options, but I’ve also got more oatmeal, and I haven’t had dinner yet.) Half Moon Bay is a charming town, lots of cute shops, just five minutes away. I did not explore it. My favorite sushi restaurant in the entire world is an hour down the coast, a beautiful drive. I did not go there. Instead, I hung out in the van, admired the sea gulls, and tried to keep Zelda out of the mud puddles on our brief walks.
Tomorrow, I’m going to briefly go into San Francisco. When I started planning this journey, I wanted to take a couple days and play in the city. But the closer I got, the more I stumbled over the reality of traveling with a large van and a small dog. Like every city, San Francisco has terrible parking. Once, when I was pregnant, I drove around my apartment for an hour trying to park and then gave up and drove to my brother’s house and spent the night there, because he had a driveway. So the sensible thing to do would be to leave the van outside the city and travel into the city on public transit. Except what would I do with Zelda? I’m not going to leave her alone in the van for that long. So I’m going to give San Francisco a try, but I’m not going to stress myself out dealing with city hassles.
Then one more weekend on the road, but by Monday — I hope! — I will be settling down in Arcata, ready to get back to writing the sequel to A Lonely Magic again. I tried today, even managed to pull off a few words, but I currently can’t spell puddle, so it’s not exactly gone well. But a previously written snippet made me laugh…
Fen sighed. “I wish I could turn into a bird.”
An owl would be perfect. Silent flight, good night vision. She could glide away on spooky owl wings. No one would hear her or see her. She’d just be gone.
“Why would you wish to do that?” Elfie asked, sounding puzzled. “Transformation is always fatal. The magic cannot sustain cellular life through the process of re-shaping and re-forming. If you became a bird, you would be a dead bird. This seems ill-advised.”
The van started making a weird noise while I was driving yesterday, so I did what all grown-ups do when their vehicles start making weird noises: I called my dad.
He said, “That sounds like a tire problem, probably a loose lug nut. Get off the highway.”
At various points in the last few days of driving, I have been very much in the middle of big deserts and extended mountain ranges: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally into California, and so my protest was automatic. “But I’m in the middle of nowhere.”
Even as we spoke, though, I saw the signs for an exit up ahead. Said exit wasn’t just an exit, it had an AutoZone immediately off the ramp. Yay! A place to buy a tool to tighten the loose lug nut. I drove into the parking lot, got out and looked at my wheel.
Hmm. “Loose” applied but only to the lug nuts that were left. Two of them were missing.
Inside the store, I chatted with the nice guy, who came out and took a look at the van and said, “You’ve been driving on that? Don’t do that anymore.”
He went back inside, talked to his manager, and sent me across the street to the Shell station. The nice guy at the Shell station said, “Whoa. That’s not good. You might have a real problem.” He jacked the van up, took the tire off, looked at the remaining lug nuts and said, “You were about five miles from disaster. And I mean a real disaster.”
Fortunately, the nice thing about being five miles from disaster is that you’re still pretty far away from actual disaster. As a result, though, I am now hanging out in an RV park in Needles, California, waiting to find out how much new wheel studs are going to cost me and when they’ll be able to get here.*
I don’t mind too much. I’m a little disappointed that I’m not on my way to Tehachapi, where I was going to introduce Carol to Vietnamese food (one of my personal favorites) tonight, but the park I’m staying at (Needles Marina RV Park) is the kind of resort park that I don’t usually stay at, with full hook-ups, laundry facilities, even a swimming pool. I will probably not be swimming, given that it was 41 degrees outside this morning, but I am going to take the chance to do some laundry and clean out the tanks.
I also will probably spend at least a little time trying to get the generator working. I haven’t been able to turn it on since Texas. I blamed both the elevation and the cold initially, but yesterday morning, neither of those things applied, and I still couldn’t get it working. I’m hoping that the problem then was that the battery was charging and pulling too much energy from the generator. (You usually want to let the generator run for a couple of minutes before letting things start drawing power from it.)
So, yeah, the technical difficulties of van life definitely reared their heads this weekend. So it goes. It’s impossible to feel anything other than really lucky, though, when I consider how much worse my yesterday might have been. There are youtube videos of people driving on the highway when their tires fly off — I’m guessing most of them don’t end well.
I also appear to have a cold: I thought it was allergies in Texas, was sure it was allergies in Albuquerque, but now… well, yeah, it’s a cold. Interestingly, a cold is so much less sick than a gluten-reaction that I’ve had trouble deciding that I was really sick. Congested, yes. Sore throat, yes. But until I added a cough this morning, I just wasn’t feeling the level of misery that would have deserved to be called “sick.” Even now, I’m not miserable. I just don’t feel well. I’m just as glad not to be driving, though.
Before I move on to the more useful parts of my day, however — a quick summary of the past few. I left Texas on Thursday and spent a long day on the road, winding up at Kyla’s house in the mountains that night. There was snow! Zelda liked it, I think. But there were probably also a lot of great smells around, because she was busy, busy, busy — heading off in all sorts of random directions. I was freezing, but she would have happily stayed outside for hours.
On Friday, Kyla and I enjoyed an art project. We took three of my photographs, and printed them out on canvas, then stapled them to pieces of wood. They’re hanging in the van now, and I love them. (Picture posted on instagram, so in the sidebar of the blog, if you want to see.)
Instead of returning to Kyla’s place in the mountains that night, though, I headed farther west, trying to get another hour or two of driving in. I spent the night in a Walmart parking lot outside of Gallup. Not my favorite ever parking lot, but it was cold and that was when I discovered that the generator wasn’t working. Friday was another long driving day. I’d intended to stay near Flagstaff, but when I got there, comfortably early, it was freezing cold and gray, with mounds of snow piled high on the corners of parking lots. I was so unenthusiastic. I might go back someday — it looks like an interesting place — but not in February.
So I kept driving, planning on continuing until I hit 50 degree weather. Fortunately, that happened sooner rather than later, and I spent Friday night and most of Saturday morning at Cerbat Foothills Recreation Area, my first (I think) Bureau of Land Management site. I was a little mystified when I got there — I’d pictured a road into the desert with visible spots where people would/could camp on the sides of the road. Instead, it was basically an unpaved parking lot with a low fence around it. I didn’t know whether to take a parking spot or to drive off the road into the scrub, but since I was only planning on spending the one night there, I just parked.
The sunrise was amazing. Walking the dog was terrific. It felt like I was out in nature, having an adventure, venturing into the unknown. I took dozens of photographs, and if I had more time, I would be sorting through them right now to find the best one. But I’d rather do laundry.
Funny unrelated note: on Saturday night, I was tired after a long, largely uncomfortable day. I’d had a couple of restless nights, including one that was very much sweaty and miserable, between congestion and trying to keep comfortable in ever-changing temperatures. I looked at my bed and thought how much I wished I had clean sheets. And then I looked at the other bed and thought, um, self? It felt so lovely to crawl into the driver’s side bed with its clean sheets that night, and so absurd that I’d never really maximized my clean sheet potential before by using both beds. For the last two nights, I’ve slept in the driver’s side bed, which I’ve only ever done when I’ve had a tall guest in the van. Turns out, it’s perfectly nice. And the clean sheets felt like a luxury!
*I got new tires right before I left Florida. Apparently, you should check the tightness of the lug nuts after driving 1000 miles, which I never knew. I think I’m going to have to get myself the right kind of wrench for the job, though, because it would certainly have been useful to have about a thousand miles ago, well worth the space it would take up in the van.
I am sitting at the bottom of a canyon in Texas and it is cold. For the first time, the van really couldn’t keep up with the chill during the night. That was mostly my fault — there are a bunch of heat conservation tips to living in a van that boil down “cover windows” and “block off unused areas.” Basically, the van stays warmer when I curtain off the cab, close the bathroom doors, and put the shades down and the window covers up. Not complicated. I didn’t do it, though, because hello, canyon. Beautiful isolated rocky cliffs, incredible dark starry night, and the only light that which came from all the myriad ridiculous little lights that shine in the van all night long. Well, and off in the distance, lights to the bathroom.
From the van, I can see one lone tent camper, and I would feel sorry for them, except my friend P goes camping in snow, and at least there’s no snow here. I’m assuming those campers were prepared for the weather.
Speaking of weather, that’s why I’m in a canyon in Texas. (Did you know there were canyons in Texas? Total surprise to me. Not as implausible as discovering, say, a waterfall in Texas, but surprising nonetheless.) I was headed toward New Mexico and making great time, when I checked in with Kyla, who I’m hoping to visit. She mentioned the dreaded word, “snow.”
I am not doing snow. When I first moved into Serenity, I thought it might be fun to experience snow again, but it’s not. I don’t like snow. In fact, if you’ve read all my books, you probably know that because I’ve mentioned it more than once. My characters seldom like snow either! So I’m not going to places where the snow is or is likely to be, and for a couple days that included Kyla’s part of New Mexico. I could have gone on to Albuquerque and met up with her there, but it was raining in Albuquerque and I am not in such a hurry that I need to drive in the rain.
So I took a snow day and paused in Palo Duro Canyon, south of Amarillo, for a couple of nights. (The actual town name is Canyon, Texas, which I like, because it’s so very descriptive. Yep, that’s where we are. In a canyon.) On the first night, I was in the Hackberry Campground. I think the ranger gave me the site because it was reasonably close to the entrance of the park, within very easy walking distance to the bathrooms. Efficient, in other words. And it was certainly nice, with lots of short trees, which in the summer, when its hot, would probably be lovely, and a fun winding path up to the outside theater.
But on my snow day, I went exploring. I drove miles into the canyon, down to the river (lots of flash flood warning signs at the bridges), and took a look at a the campground at the very end of the road. And then I went all the way back up to the front and asked if I could switch sites. Then I came back to my new site and took a hundred photographs, none of which turned out particularly interesting. I think the light was too bright, actually — everything from the camera looks flat and bland. But here’s the view from the van window, taken with the iPhone.
And here’s my favorite photo from the last few days, also taken with the iPhone. It was at a rest stop on the highway, headed west.
I had grand plans for Sunday: I was going to get ALL the things done. Writing and email and updating files, cleaning the van, cooking for the whole week ahead.
Funny thing, spending two solid days driving does not motivate one to get ALL the things done. It motivates one to pick things up and then set them down again, that sort of helplessly fluttery, “can’t keep track of what I was doing for more than ten seconds” mode.
I was helped in my useless state by having it be a grey day in a mostly deserted national forest. All around me were barren trees and dead leaves. Beautiful nature, but beautiful in a bleak way. Beautiful in a “nice day for warm beverages and soup” sort of way.
But let me backtrack. I left Florida on Friday morning, not crazily early but reasonably early. I intended a long driving day, but I’d had a mostly sleepless night of anticipation. I have no idea why I was so wound up about leaving, but I was. When I was trying to fall asleep, it was as if I needed to wake up early to catch the last helicopter out of the city before the invading army arrived. Win one for the anxious brain.
But the mindful brain got the last laugh: instead of stressing the next day, I forced myself to relax. I took my time, ate a good lunch, let Zelda enjoy the rest stops to her heart’s content. Well, almost. I’m pretty sure Z would spend forever in a rest stop if I let her. It’s got to be like an art museum for dogs. Or maybe a theme park. So many interesting smells! So much to sniff! I did eventually make her get back in the van, but first I let her check out far more of the trees than I usually do.
Eventually, we wound up at a Cracker Barrel outside of Mobile, Alabama. I’d hoped to make it into Mississippi — Hattiesburg at the very least — but it was not to be. Still, it was the nicest parking lot I’ve ever stayed in. Quiet, dark, peaceful.
But I noticed before I closed the blinds that the camper next to me — an old one, from 1982, as I learned the next day — had its parking lights on. I wondered whether they were leaving, then thought nothing more about it.
Until the next morning, when George and I puzzled out how to jumpstart his camper together. We were on the verge of giving up when I pulled up a youtube video on my phone and we learned that we had it right, we just needed to be patient. I ate my breakfast sitting in Serenity’s driver’s seat with the engine on, and George’s camper finally rumbled back to life.
I think George and I were almost equally satisfied when his camper was finally running: him, because hey, he was no longer stuck in a parking lot, and me because it is so very satisfying to be able to be helpful. Well, and also a little bit because he wasn’t a serial killer, lying about his dead battery in order to hit me over the head and murder me horribly. I never really thought he was, but… well, yeah. Anxious brain did not get the win on that one.
So my Saturday started off well and it continued well. The driving was… driving. Not much to say about it. Sometimes I admired the scenery; sometimes I developed complicated speeches to convince people of the rightness of my political philosophies; sometimes I contemplated systems to quickly determine whether a number is prime or not; sometimes I worked on stories (although never the one I meant to be working on); sometimes I got in the zone and just drove. Around 3 or so, I started considering whether I should pay for a campground for the night or whether I should just push on for another few hours, find a parking lot, and look for a campground for the next day. As is probably obvious from the title of this post, I went for the former.
Something about knowing I’m going to be driving 3100 miles in the next two weeks, though, makes me very reluctant to take lengthy detours. I’d been looking at an Army Corps of Engineers campground, because I like the ACOE campgrounds usually, but when it came down to it, I didn’t want to drive as far away from the highway as it would have required. Round trip, I believe it would have added 52 miles to my journey. Not a huge number, but approximately 1.67% added to my drive. (Along with the political arguments, I spent an inordinate amount of time on my drive calculating gas costs, mileage, and whether cruise control was economically prohibitive. Answer: Yes, although not if my entire drive was taking place in Mississippi and Alabama where gas prices are crazily low.)
Anyway, all that to explain why I wound up in this national forest. I would have liked to go to the Turtle Slide Campground, because what a great name, but it was tents only, and hike-in, so I’m at the campground with electricity instead. The price is right, though — $15 for a site with water and electricity. I think it was $10 for the tent sites. I haven’t seen much of the campground — combination of a gray day and Zelda being very disinclined to go for a walk this morning — but the sites are nice and spacious, with fire pits and picnic tables. Mine has a bit of a water view.
And at night, there are no lights at all. The darkness is impressively dark. I could wish for clearer skies, because the stars might be amazing, but the darkness is kind of amazing on its own. Most campgrounds are actually not that dark, because of all the ambient people light — lights on campers, lights on bathrooms, sometimes even streetlights in the campground. Not this one. Across the water, one lone light is shining, but it doesn’t even make a dent in the blackness. It makes me look forward to getting out west and camping in the desert, so I can see the serious nighttime sky.
And it’s good that I’m looking forward to it, because off I go. Tonight, Texas and a stop at HEB to buy some spice gum drops!