Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Grand Canyon

Let's be perfectly clear: there is nothing I can say, no bucket of superlatives I can string together, that will in any way approximate the extraordinary scale, beauty, and pure grandeur of the Grand Canyon. So, here, in a feeble attempt to illustrate, are a few pictures from Grand Canyon National Park.

We parked our rig at an RV park in Williams, Arizona and made our way up Highway 64 to the park. At that same moment, 10,000 of our closest friends did exactly the same thing. I'm ok with that. I realize that this is one of the wonders of the world, and that people from every country in that world make their way here to see this, wave their selfie sticks in the air and then move on, to eventually make their way to Vegas.

Seriously, if you don't like crowds, wait for a rainy day to visit the Canyon. Even then you will be shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists from all over. This is a travelling photo-scrum. It becomes an assembly line - queue, shoot, move - lather, rinse, repeat. Everyone is jockeying for position. Exit through the gift shop.

Most people are pretty nice, most are patient enough, and for the most part, pretty civil.

The truth is, I'm not much for crowds. We drive a large truck out of necessity, and navigating packed parking lots isn't all that much fun. Once my level of personal-space weirdness starts to subside, the quality of people-watching is fantastic, second only to the early-bird buffet at a casino.

We took the free shuttles all along the South Rim, and found the service friendly, convenient and much preferable to driving and parking. The next time we visit the Grand Canyon, we would also opt for taking the train from Williams, and leave the fat-ass truck behind.

If you've never been to the Grand canyon, you really should get there, and if you're young and supple, take the Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Canyon. Failing that, there are mules that will gladly suffer your weight and take you to the river a mile below the rim.

Be patient, enjoy the fresh Arizon air and vast expanses of scenery, and notch the Grand Canyon into your memory book. 

Williams, Arizona 
Williams, Arizona
There's more to come. Our next jump is a shorter one. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

After three and a half months at Mancos State Park, we finally had to maneuver the rig out of our comfy, tree-shaded spot and head south. Maneuver isn't the right word. Trailer tango works better. First, trim off a couple of low-hanging snags from the Ponderosa pines next to the trailer. Second, hook up the trailer, and pull it forward and slightly to the right about eight feet. Third, drop the jacks and unhook the rig. Then drive around to the other side and reconnect the trailer at a hard right angle. Then, ease it out, give it the gas, check the lights and brakes, and make for the border.

We certainly had mixed feeling about leaving Mancos, but snow isn't one of our favorite flavors, and I can't wear white after Labor Day, so travel we must.

Our destination, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Our goals were to capture some of the iconic desert scenery, see how well we do at boondocking (no hookups for our rig) and patronize the businesses of the Navajo Nation.

I could write pages and pages on the hardscrabble ways of the tribes of the Southwest, how hard it is to make a living in the desert, and how easy it is to ignore the plight of the Navajos and other tribes, but suffice it to say that this isn't an easy place to live. Creature comforts are hard to come by, water is a commodity that has to be hauled in on a daily basis, and those roadside stands where locals sell silver jewelry and fry bread represent the fine line between groceries, shelter, heat, and poverty.

We could have parked the rig at Goosenecks State Park, Utah and driven through the valley, but after being parked for a few months, we preferred a bit more company. Goosenecks is remote and beautiful, situated atop the bluffs that overlook the San Juan River meanders, but it is remote enough that leaving our rig there all day unattended is a calculated risk. See also Moki Dugway and Muley Point Overlook. The solution seemed to be Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Getting there is a pretty easy haul from the La Platas, though the roads are a bit dicey in places. Your family sedan will not have issues, but our 25,000-pound truck and trailer can be heard complaining as we negotiate the bumps and uneven highways.

Entering the park costs $20 for up to four adults, above and beyond the fees to park your rig. That entry is good for four days, and I was able to come and go as needed to refuel and grab supplies. We pulled in and picked our parking spot, and eventually got levelled up. The sites are not all that flat, and we had to take a couple stabs at it to get situated. Cycling the hydraulics this way chewed up precious battery capacity. We got everything stabilized, and headed over to the hotel and restaurant complex for dinner.

Large portions and pretty good service, exit through the gift shop for guitar-case stickers, and back home for a good night's sleep. The park is quiet at night, and the Milky Way is close enough to touch.

The next morning looks like this:

This is why we came. There are amazing views from our front door, the back window and all around. We ran our generator for a couple of hours to put a top charge on the battery, and then took off for the three-hour tour of the Valley Road. We passed the Mittens, the buttes, and countless rock formations, named and unnamed. The road is primitive, and the ruts and grooves are filling-jarring, at least with our heavy truck. A smaller, more lightly-sprung vehicle would be an advantage here, but we meandered and gaped at the sheer scale of the rock formations. Photographs don't do these places justice,  because without something to add a sense of scale, the house-sized rocks and the massive buttes and mesas are just too difficult to describe.

Not a real dog.

Remember when Benjamin got his cocktail party advice in The Graduate? "Plastics!" If I could go back in time and give myself advice, it would be "Rental RVs!" There is a rolling army of rentals roaming the Southwest. When I got up Thursday morning, twenty-four of the thirty-four RV spaces were taken up with rentals.

Considering that most of these rigs rent for upwards of $150 a day with limited mileage, there is a boatload of accumulated cost sitting here. 

Then again, look at the view behind the rental RVs sitting on their unlevel spaces.

Right across highway 163 from the tribal park is Goulding's RV resort, a full-service complex with groceries, fuel and another hotel. Another tank of diesel, an



View from Artist's Point, Valley Loop Road

Next stop, the Grand Canyon. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mancos State Park For The Summer

Let's get something straight right from the start, it's Man-cuss, emphasis first syllable, not Man-cose. I know what it looks like, and it doesn't matter. Mancos. Gateway to Mesa Verde, halfway to Durango, and pretty easy to miss if you're not paying attention.

We had been through the area twice before, in 2005 and 2007, and in both cases, we were headed somewhere else, probably Durango to ride the train, smell the coal smoke and coffee, and start our way back to Kansas City.

This year was different in so many ways. Mancos was our destination, at the invitation of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, as we have put Kansas City well behind us. There is no home in Kansas City to return to.

Our time here is to be as Campground Hosts, volunteers in service to the park. Our function here is largely janitorial, cleaning restrooms and getting just-vacated campsites prepped for their next occupants.

Mancos State Park sits astride Jackson Reservoir, with campgrounds on both sides, and the La Plata mountains as the backdrop to the east. The campgrounds are nestled in among tall Ponderosa Pines, accented with low scrub oaks and the occasional cottonwood and aspen tree. Mancos State Park is high on a ridge overlooking the Mancos Valley and Mesa Verde National Park. The added elevation, coupled with the dense forest setting means that the park, in the dead of summer, is ten to fifteen degrees cooler than the Four Corners region. The net result is a constant parade of Arizona and New Mexico license plates into the park, some on vehicles bearing campers, some with anglers looking for trout in the lake.

The park is a jewel, operated to the highest standards by a small but dedicated team of rangers, staff and volunteers. If we had doubts about other parks in Colorado, this place put them all to rest. There are few things here that eat you - no ticks or chiggers, a few mosquitoes that don't seem to care for human blood, and non-aggressive black bears.

The quiet here is palpable, to the point of distraction. The skies are dark at night, probably a  couple of orders of magnitude this side of the darkest skies in North America.

Then again, there's the dust. Many of the streets in the Town of Mancos are not paved, the same with the road into the park, the park roads and the county road across the dam. The locals defend against the brown patina by buying white trucks. I am not a local. I have a black truck. It hasn't been clean since we got here. A small price to pay, I think.

The area is as varied as it is beautiful, from desert landscapes in the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona all meet, to the winding mountain roads of the backcountry in the National Forest and the stunning Million Dollar Highway between Durango and Montrose. All-terrain vehicles are as common as bicycles here, and much more practical for backcountry outings than your basic mini-van.

If your camping style runs to aluminum slums with huge rigs all plugged in, this isn't your park. Except for two high-country-style yurts, the thirty-two campsites are without hookups of any kind, and the west side doesn't even have water spigots. Tents, small trailers, and a few self-contained rigs are the order of the day here.

Camping here is a mere eighteen dollars a day, plus the standard seven dollar Colorado day pass.

We said at the beginning of this adventure that some place might speak to us, might encourage us to again put down roots. This place has already made our short list of candidate destinations. You should come see it. If you come next summer, we'll be here again.

Here are a few visual highlights of the park and the area around the Four Corners:

Our time here is almost up. We leave soon for The Monument Valley, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas for the winter. We have friends to see in Galveston, then we'll backtrack to a park near Austin for November and December. There are bathrooms that need cleaning, and we know just the people for the job.

Stay tuned.

Finally, A Road Report

Note: This is way overdue, and as we're getting ready to move yet again, this report is rushed and truncated. If you have questions about anyplace we stayed along the way, or questions of any kind, for that matter, leave them in the comments.

Our cross-country jump is complete. Here are the places we stayed in Kansas and Colorado on our way to the Mancos Valley in Colorado and the Four Corners area.

Cross Timbers is in Woodson County, Kansas; smack between Yates Center and Eureka. The area where we stayed had full hook-up pull-through sites, and the campground was nearly full, even in the middle of the week. Granted, several of the sites were occupied by members of the same family group, each with their own large trailers and a number of boats.

It is a nicely maintained park, with camping options ranging from primitive tent sites - some with stunning lake views - to full services sites like our own. Our camp hosts have been in place at Cross Timbers for sixteen years, and treat the park like it was their own. Good people.

Boats. Lots of boats of all shapes and sizes - pontoons, speedboats, bass boats. These boats are almost always on the move through the campgrounds because there's no place to dock overnight. Put the boat in, do your boating thing as long as you want, take the boat out, drag it back to your site. It's like a parade of floating floats floating by. I'll get back to you on that analogy.

The towns of Yates Center and Eureka can supply most of what you'll need here, though the grocery prices are a little steep compared to chain stores elsewhere.

Kanopolis State Park, Kansas

June 5, 2016 - After we left Cross Timbers, we made our way to Kanopolis State Park. It was about 170 miles, not including a short grocery run in McPherson, Kansas. This is a bit shorter than some of our hops, but that's okay. We like to keep our trips under 250 miles, so we can do grocery and other stops alongthe way and still keep our total road time under six hours. Pulling a trailer the size of Highlander isn't necessarily difficult, but it requires more mental energy and long trips cease to be enjoyable.

At any rate, Kanopolis seemed a bit shabby. The campsite was okay, but the surroundings - grass areas, parking and other parts of the park - just seemed a bit neglected. Our campground wasn't at all crowded on the warm June Sunday when we arrived. The host was friendly and engaging, and we settled in for a two day layover.

We took a closer look at a couple of interpretive trails at the park, and again, were disappointed by the park's level of neglect and the lack of attention to what could have been a nice nature trail. All it was was hot, and tick-infested.

Nearby is the town of Lindsborg, Kansas. Lindsborg is thriving, partly due to its healthy arts and gallery scene and its celebration of its Swedish roots.

Kathi is not Swedish.
National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson and his wife Kathy (IbisWoman) operate Small World Gallery in Lindsborg. Jim's photographs and Kathy's jewelry are worth the trip to Lindsborg. Nice people.

Cedar Bluff State Park, Kansas

June 7, 2016 - Cedar Bluff State Park is near Wakeeny, Kansas. We had been close to Cedar Bluff State Park before. Some years back we attended Th' Gatherin' Festival O' Beltane, a May Day festival combined with an informal highland games, a dinner, and music. The park that we saw at that time was just a corner of Cedar Bluff that adjoined a farm field where the event was held.

At the edge of the Flint Hills
The park is large and well-maintained. Our large, pull-through site was near the turn for the boat ramp, and there was a steady parade of boats headed for the lake. It was never an issue regarding the peace and quiet of the campsite, and we had a relaxing couple of days at the park. The park is well-staffed, and the hosts, while quite new at their jobs, were friendly and eager to accommodate. The park office was able to switch our reservation when we realized that the pull-through site we had reserved was simply too small for our white whale.

Cedar Bluff Reservoir at sunset.
One interesting thing - the sites up near the lake have gravel drives. Not your garden-variety driveway gravel, but huge baseball-size chunks of granite. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but tough to walk on, if you're so inclined.

We took walks down the lakefront, and the bike rides and walks stretched out into the other campgrounds and all the way around the access road.

Cedar Bluff State Park
John Martin Reservoir State Park, Colorado

June 9, 2016 - This was our day to cross the state line into Colorful Colorado. This was to be a bit longer slog - 220+ miles, but our options weren't that plentiful west of Cedar Bluff. The thing I've known after all these years of driving back and forth across Kansas is that eastern Colorado looks just like western Kansas. Same held true for John Martin Reservoir.

An operational note - when we were laying out our itinerary, we relied heavily upon Google Maps, Google Earth and Street View to help us locate parks, roads and even campsites. This isn't always enough information.

Here is what our campground looked like from Google Earth:

This is where we were situated on the left loop:

John Martin Dam
San Luis State Park, Colorado

San Luis State Park is situated about fifteen miles west of Great Sand Dunes National Park. It would seem that this is the main function of the park. While there is a lake at the park, it would appear to be seasonal in nature. The boat ramps were closed while we were there, and it didn't seem to be a fishing destination.

The roads heading into San Luis State Park were rough, to say the least. Road signs warned of rough conditions, and roadside stakes and flags marked out hazards along the way.

There are three camping loops in the Mosca Campground. We stayed in the top loop, Loop C, and were rewarded with an unimpeded view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the vast expanse of the sand dunes in the distance.

The Campgrounds at San Luis State Park.
All the time we were there, we never saw a ranger or camp host, and while the restrooms weren't too bad, the showers and other facilities could have used some TLC. The showers, like John Martin, were coin-op, and allowed plenty of time for the money.

Our view from Loop C at Mosca Campground. The Sand Dunes are at the bottom.
Close proximity to the Sand Dunes is enough reason to stay at San Luis. If you've never visited, we highly recommend spending the day there. Wade through the cool waters of Medano Creek, and climb the seemingly endless dunes. The dunes are hard to describe, but this is always a high point for us of any trip through southern Colorado. 

With any luck at all, we'll recap our stay here at Mancos State Park before we head out, but time is tight, and there's a lot to say about this amazing part of the state. We'll get caught up soon, I promise. Then we have another fifteen stops before we roll into Galveston next month.

There's lots more to come. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

On the Move

Yesterday was moving day. After all the fragile items - and Moxie - were packed away we broke camp and set out from Bennett Spring State Park to begin to make our way to The Rockies.

We had a plan. Had.

Our original intent was to stop near Springfield, Missouri to have better tires installed on our rig. Arrangements were made, appointments were set and met. If all went to plan, we'd be able to make camp by late afternoon, early evening at worst.

Cross Timbers State Park - Toronto, Kansas

We estimated two hours for the tire installation, so we rolled into a truck stop and got a sandwich, and went back to the dealer, parked the truck and took a short nap.

Two hours became three, and then we were informed that we were ready to go, and could come settle up and be on our way. The timing was still good, so we plunked down a stack of dead presidents, and got ready to roll.

Nope. The tires, which were high-pressure monsters, had been installed with rubber valve stems instead of the metal stems that were required and that we had specified. Roll the trailer back into the shop. Much hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing later, we were informed that the metal stems were not to be had that day, and we could stay in their lot overnight.

Really? That's just great.

Service guy went away and said he'd be right back with us. Subordinate service guy came back and said that we were all set and ready to go. Communication is apparently the first victim of commerce.

What should have been 3:00 is now 5:30 and we have 200 miles to go. Allowing for a couple of leg stretches and a fuel stop, we'll be setting up after dark. Again. This is starting to be a thing with us.

Please keep in mind that Princess Moxie has been in her carrier all this time, and only starting to bark at us when we turned the corner onto Highway 54 at Collins Missouri. We got her a sandbox break at our Casey's fuel stop and she was fine all the way to Toronto, Kansas.

It was pitch black when we arrived, and once again, a helpful neighbor with a bright light helped us get settled. We have often relied on the kindness of strangers. Those of you that have homes without wheels should be reminded that a new location for us requires a certain amount of infrastructure maintenance when we arrive. Electric connections, water hoses, sewer connections, leveling and expanding the white whale all take time.

By the time we were all set up, it was 10:30. A quick bite and the lights went out.

We have a few days at Cross Timbers State Park to relax and explore the area and then we'll weigh anchor again and head west. News as it happens.

Monday, May 30, 2016

What We've Learned So Far

The first phase of our new way of life is about to close. Our tenure at Bennett Spring State park ends this week, and we'll pull up stakes and make our way across the Great Plains to our next project. More on that later, but for now, our teachable moments, in no particular order:
  • Home is a concept, not a place. We sold our house of thirty years and now find ourselves in much smaller quarters. Later this week, we will wake up in a new place, but in familiar surroundings. It's a bit like air travel - get in the tube in one place, sit a while, and get out of the tube somewhere else. Home is where Kath is and Moxie is and I am. This is home, whether it's in Missouri, Colorado, Texas, or someplace else. We are home.
  • You can get by with a lot less stuff. The two hundred pounds of dishes and barware we gave away are not missed at all. The closets full of clothes are redundant. The garage full of underutilized tools is easy to do without. It's a mind change. You can do it.
  • You can get by with a lot less space. We went from 2,000 square feet of house to a bit over 400 square feet, including the space occupied by furniture. We don't feel cramped, but we're still working out the "kitchen dance".
  • You can get by with a lot less luxe. We turned off the cable TV connection months before we left, and while over-the-air broadcast isn't always the greatest programming to be had, it covers the necessities - news, weather, Jeopardy. We'll get by with 4GLTE internet connections when we can, less when we have to. Priorities have to be adjusted. My cloud backups need to be redefined and a new workflow adopted.
All of these things are pretty basic mental adjustments that come with the idea of giving up a house without wheels in favor of a movable feast. The conceptual mountains to climb are more subtle:
  • You have to leave things behind. You may have once cherished that one souvenir, or held tightly to something that once signified a life change, but honestly, these things are anchors. Every pound has a cost when you're on the road. Your capacity to carry things is finite. You have a very real weight limit. More importantly, these things not only weigh you down physically, but they create a mental bridge to the past. That may not necessarily be a bad thing for some people, but in my case, I would far prefer to redefine our lives in a new way. Already, the house we lived in for thirty years has faded into the the gray past. Mind you, I'm not immune to nostalgia, but I have a limited amount of time left to explore the world, and too much baggage just weighs me down. I shredded trash bags full of film, contact sheets, old cards, letters and pitched as much as could. I have a couple of regrets regarding photo equipment, but the decision was the right one at the time. The first dumpster load is painful. It gets steadily easier with each attempt, and eventually becomes cathartic, even enjoyable. I've always had issues with my weight. Losing tonnage this way is fun and easy.
  • We decided to go full-time RV. Others buy new houses, cars, bling, or shoes. The truth is, regardless of how you choose to pull your life into focus, nothing really changes unless you do. You are still the same people that first turned the key. If you had unresolved issues before you rolled out of the driveway, you probably still do. Ruts are portable; they travel with you, habits die hard, and only then if you repeatedly and consciously try to kill them off.
  • Once you've shed the mantle of stuff you don't need, you have to learn think small and light. The manufacturer of your RV knows this. Your bathroom lavatory sink is made of plastic, not porcelain. Your walls are hollow and your house flexes. There are places where your size 13 shoes can't navigate. The ceiling in your bedroom is just high enough to walk through, but not high enough to allow you to put on your shirt in the morning without banging your knuckles on the air vent. This is life in the white whale. I have bumped my head on every prominence and fixture in the house, including the front door. It's four inches shorter than I am. I will learn to duck.
  • Finding the time to work is difficult, but not nearly as difficult as finding the space. Time has been meted out in inconvenient chunks over the last three months, and shifting into writing mode has been problematic. Truth is, the space is only part of the issue. I am easily distracted, and close quarters make it difficult for me to concentrate on image editing, writing, or just catching up on the news. Sometimes just anticipating distractions makes working difficult. We don't have a dedicated work space - our dining table is our computer desk - and I am not effective working on a laptop. Years of multiple--display-array large studio monitors have spoiled me to desktop computing. I am still working on solutions. Hide the remote. Maybe headphones and blinders. Single malt sedatives. Maybe I just have to learn to be more flexible. We'll get there eventually.
We still have far to go and much to learn, but we're off to a wonderful start. Coming up next, news from the road.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Notes From Basecamp

Our stay at Bennett Spring State Park is nearing its end. We rolled in here at the end of February, and quite frankly, we didn't know what to expect from the park, its management, or our new venture as full-time RVers.

We had left the house in the hands of our realtor and just ran like hell. Long story short, that has turned out as well as could be hoped for. The house was under contract within a week, and the sale closed a few weeks later. We're free.

We've seen several seasons here - winter still had a firm grip on the area when we arrived. Winter gave way, reluctantly, to a struggling spring, and from time to time, summer has elbowed its way in as a kind of preview of things to come.

We've been in two campsites. The campsite in Campground 4 was almost perfect, but we were bumped for camp hosts with more volunteer seniority, as it were. We rolled down to Campground 3, several weeks before it was open to the public - our own private campground. We've watched herds of deer wandering lazily though the park, unconcerned by our presence and our binocular eavesdropping. We've been witness to the annual unveiling of the flowering dogwood, clouds of white bracts floating in the dense oak and hickory forest. Not long after they had peaked and started to leaf out, the remaining trees and shrubs, began to fill out in a deep emerald green that I hadn't seen since Scotland. We've gone from a barren stick-season park in the Missouri Ozarks to a lush midland forest park.

The main draw for many that come to Bennett Spring is fishing. The area has been a destination for trout anglers since the park opened in 1924, and every day finds anglers in waders up to their chests in the cool rushing waters of the spring branch. The hatchery in the park stocks the spring and the nearby river, and few come away without their limit, or at least enough trout for dinner.

We've met great people here, both from our volunteer time at the Nature Center and throughout the area. The park has hundreds of campsites, ranging from basic tent sites to full-hookup RV pull-throughs. There is good wifi in all the campgrounds - though it has an aggravating time-limiting feature. Understandable, but annoying. There are showers and laundry facilities for campers, and when warm weather really hits later this month, a large swimming pool. All in all, and wonderful family destination. Our 2016 host merit badges in our pockets, we have already applied to return next year in preparation for our trek east, through the Smokies and up the east coast.

We'll soon weigh anchor and begin our trip across Kansas and Colorado, hopscotching our way to Dinosaur National Monument. We'll set up on the banks of the Green River, and help campers there get the most of their experience in the high desert of Utah.

In my opinion, Missouri has some of the best state parks anywhere, and their web site is certainly among the best and most user-friendly. Our experiences in the Missouri Parks have been first-rate, and we can highly recommend the parks and historic sites all over Missouri.

Until next time, here are a few images of our time in Bennett Spring State Park.

More later when we hit the road again. Follow along if you like. Thanks for stopping by.