Trip Report: Redwoods State and National Parks


June 24 – July 3, 2017

“Ten more nights in the forest?” Wendy lamented as she looked at the white binder that holds our itinerary. We were sitting at the kitchen table toward the end of our stay at Manzanita Lake, a heavily wooded campground in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

“You getting tired of the forest?” I asked her.

“Little bit,” she answered, fully aware how lucky we are to have that particular problem.

“I think the redwoods are it for a while,” I responded, and the conversation redirected toward selecting the best route toward our first stop.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
June 24 – 28, 2017
Elk Prairie Campground, Site #12

We were back to real dry camping here, using our six-gallon jug to dispense water and doing dishes at a nearby water spigot. Our site was also very shaded, so we didn’t turn on any of the lights in the pod. Instead, we opted for an REI headlamp and battery-powered lantern.

At the start of our trip, Wendy and I had wondered if the 120W solar panels we purchased would be worth the $650 we’d spent. I had thought they’d power everything in our trailer, including the air conditioner, outlets, and microwave. When we learned that actually they only power the absolute necessities in addition to a few LED lights, we were disappointed. What’s the point, we wondered. But the point, as we’ve learned, is we’re dry camping enough that we need the panels to ensure those basics keep humming—that the refrigerator doesn’t turn off and the battery doesn’t drain beyond repair. We drag those panels from the Thule every time we camp somewhere without electricity, and are very happy to have them.

So our basic water and energy needs were met at this campground, and—as with all dry camping—we took a basic approach to our hygiene as well. I’d rather raid the kids’ baby wipes than step foot in a campground shower, so that’s what I usually do. My nails are consistently dirty, even though I routinely clean them with a nail brush, and my hair changes each day, styled by humidity, wind, and my pillow. But this was the first time I couldn’t remember when I last showered. Wendy and I thought back—yep, back before Lassen Volcanic National Park—back to Rancheria RV Park—more than a week ago. We resolved to shower the next time we had access to a dump station, regardless of how inconvenient it may be.

It was in this semi-squalid, unshaven state that we landed in one of the most social campgrounds we’ve encountered thus far. While walking Odie, we met Alyson and Jackie—a couple from San Francisco who camp at Elk Prairie each year. We talked about their lives and our plans, they wished us luck on our adventure, and we exchanged e-mail addresses. We also met Karen, an elderly woman with a golden retriever named Mike (who CeCe despised). The first time she tried to talk to me, I was watching both kids and realized I’d momentarily lost track of Darwin.

“I’m sorry,” I told Karen to explain my inability to converse. “I’m not sure where my toddler is.”

When she continued talking anyway, I literally turned and ran away from her, disappearing behind our trailer, where I found Darwin banging on a tent peg with a rubber mallet. Karen tried to connect several other times but Mike was usually with her and I couldn’t hear her over CeCe’s barking.

Our last evening at Elk Prairie, I was playing with Darwin and Emerson when a couple and their 13-year-old daughter commented on what a beautiful family we have. We chatted for a while and that night while we hosted them around a BYOC campfire, Susan and Cynthias told us about their food forest in Eugene, Oregon and their experience fostering more than 100 children. We exchanged contact information with them as well.

Despite all of these social interactions, we actually didn’t spent that much time at camp. We drove along an eight-mile unpaved road (with all the dogs in tow because Odie’d had the shits again), then took turns exploring Fern Canyon, a half-mile trail replete with streams and lush vegetation, culminating in a canyon whose walls are—you guessed it—lined with ferns. This was a really cool trail and would’ve been great to do with Wendy. But since someone had to stay in the car with the dogs, I did it first, happily balancing on logs to traverse little streams, then raved about it upon my return to the car. Wendy went next and raved about it as well, though her experience had been different from mine. She wasn’t sure where the trail ended, so had continued farther than I had, eventually “Ninja Warrioring” over a pile of logs taller than herself, aided by a family ensuring no one in its party fell in the water. It wasn’t until Wendy reached a point when she’d need the family to come back with her that she decided she’d gone far enough.

The next day, we drove to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, where we again took turns sitting in the parking lot. Odie has a tendency to eat things he shouldn’t and his stomach can’t handle it; he also has Addison’s, so can get anxious sometimes. So we have a routine: If Odie does #3, we switch his diet to white rice and never leave him alone until he does a normal poo. After the initial mishap, it can take him a couple of days to poo at all while his system returns to normal, so we end up going everywhere together until we’re provided with evidence that he’s back to normal. That’s why Wendy walked through the dense one-mile trail by herself, then I set off on my own after she returned.

We also took Odie to Trinidad, a cool little town with a pier. We sat out there for a few hours while I christened the crab pot we’ve been lugging along on this journey. I bought some frozen sardines from a nearby bait shop and did my best not to touch them as I loaded the pot and lowered it into the water. I continued my streak of not catching anything, but we still have fond memories of Trinidad, Alaska—as Wendy called it—where we sat bundled on the pier, eating battered fries and cod, before finally calling it a day.

Whenever we returned to camp, we scoured the prairie for elk. We saw them every day—usually females fairly far away from the road. But one day, after walking to the Visitor’s Center to buy a postcard for a friend, Wendy scampered under the R-dome and exclaimed “The boy elk are out! You have to go see them!” I grabbed my phone, hopped in the car, and within two minutes I was standing fewer than three yards away from a whole herd of male elk, their fuzzy horns scraping the high grass as they grazed. It was awesome.

Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
June 28 – July 3, 2017
Mill Creek Campground, Site #124

While we had driven more than 200 miles to get to Elk Prairie Campground, the trip up to Del Norte was a mere 21 miles. But road construction along US-101 and a 2.5-mile steep descent into the campground made it about a 90-minute trip. We didn’t care though. Mill Creek has a dump station and that meant SHOWERS!

We passed through the campground to identify the location of our site, drove to the dump station, filled our fresh water tank, pulled into our site, then proceeded to use that tank of water solely for getting our family good and clean. It took a couple of hours, but we all smelled fresh, I literally felt lighter, and we practically sparkled in our completely clean outfits. Then we pulled out of our spot, drove to the dump station, got rid of all that dirty water, filled up with fresh water again, and then returned to our site and set up camp. As a side note, I backed in like a boss; that’s happened twice in a row now and I’m hoping it means I finally have the hang of this.

We like our Del Norte spot, though it’s even more shaded than the last and I had to connect the trailer to the car for the first time and let the engine idle for about 10 minutes to ensure our trailer battery wouldn’t die. In good news, Odie’s bum is all better, so we’ve done lots of things here as a family.

The first day, we headed into Crescent City, where my saint-of-a-wife took the kids to the local laundromat while I tried my luck at crabbing again. It was there that I met Paulette and Lee, a couple from Jacksonville, Florida who are traveling in a fifth wheel and are scheduled to volunteer for the next five weeks at the nearby lighthouse, which is only accessible during low tide. Lee is retired from the Air Force and Paulette used to work at the daycare on base. When I mentioned my wife, Paulette asked in a deep southern drawl “So ya’ll lesbians then?” I answered affirmatively, and she responded “My granddaughter’s a lesbian.” She went on to explain how she tells everyone people are born that way—not that there’s anything wrong with it—and that she had stopped going to church for a while because of what the minister was preaching. I asked her if it was hard, to stand up and say those things in the south, in her community, and she responded easily, with a wave of her hand, “Nah, I always say what I think. I don’t have a problem with that.”

I had a good time chatting with Paulette. When I mentioned that it was chilly out, she headed to her car and returned with a blanket and McCafe she’d purchased for a woman she’d met the day before who didn’t show up again. It was still warm and I drank it happily. She also tied a piece of fish to the bottom of my crab pot after I’d pulled it up empty a couple of times. “People were out here yesterday crabbing with chicken and they didn’t get anything,” she told me. “But we got these carcasses for free from the fish cleaning station over there.” When Wendy arrived, continuing her saintliness by bringing me a hot Dutch Bros coffee and sweet treat, Paulette told her exactly where to get the free fish, if we were so inclined.

We bid adieu to Paulette and Lee, and brought a little Maryland to the California coast when I steamed our two freshly-caught Dungeness crabs in Old Bay seasoning that night. Wendy had never picked crab before and I’m a lousy guide, having only done it a couple of times myself. When I opened the shell, it just looked like a gooey mess to me, so we “feasted” on the meat from the legs, supplemented by a grass-fed steak we’d purchased earlier in the day. Followed by some cereal a couple hours later because we were both starving. “The crab was delicious,” Wendy said, “but a lot of work for what you get.” Agreed.

I tried crabbing again yesterday, heeding Paulette’s advice and grabbing a couple of free fish carcasses. I was even lucky enough to meet a guy from Portland who didn’t mind tying them to my pot. I lowered it into the water and returned to the car for an afternoon of family time. We headed to Ocean World, which is essentially a dank little aquarium with a few things for the kids to touch and a five-minute sea lion show. But it only cost us $23 total, which was worth it to witness the kids’ amazement as a sea lion balanced a ball on her nose, sang, and flipped in mid-air. Then we indulged in fish ’n chips at a nearby restaurant before buying butter and cheese from a local dairy, stocking up on grocery staples at Safeway, then returning to the dock to retrieve my empty crab pot.

While the majority of our activity during this leg of the trip occurred in Crescent City, we did take one family hike. We drove along a scenic, narrow dirt road rife with whimsically-scattered potholes of varying depth through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park to visit Stout Grove. While we weren’t fans of the access road, the grove itself was beautiful. We walked with the kids along a half-mile trail amid old-growth redwoods, many of which had fallen and created excellent opportunities for the children to climb and jump. We’ve seen so many fallen redwoods and sequoias on this trip that when Darwin sees a tree—any tree—she often says “Oh no! Tree… fall. Tree… fall.” Sometimes she’s pointing at a tree that actually fell. Usually though, she’s merely offering us insight into the connections of her toddler brain, which has decided that all trees fall, someday.

But Darwin need not concern herself with that, and Wendy can celebrate, because tomorrow we’ll be leaving the forest and heading a couple hundred miles north to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

Total miles on our Pod: 2,580

Trip Report: Lassen Volcanic National Park


June 20 – 24, 2017
Site #C41

“Let’s do it,” I told Wendy.

It was Darwin’s second birthday and we wanted to do something special. Walking through a lava tube seemed to fit the bill. We had just left the “Devastated Area,” one of the few sites open at Lassen Volcanic National Park. The main road—the only way to access most of the attractions—is still being plowed, so we had to settle for what was available.

I popped the kids in the stroller and walked the paved, half-mile interpretive loop. Pretty, yes. Devastated? No. A more accurate description, though less catchy, is “Previously Devastated Area.” A volcanic eruption spewed rocks all over this area in 1915, but trees and vegetation have since made a comeback and now it’s just lovely. So the kids and I enjoyed the stroll among the trees, flowers, chipmunks, and lizards, while Wendy waited in the car with the dogs since we were dry camping and it was too hot to leave the dogs in the trailer.

We had passed a sign for Subway Cave earlier in the week during our stay at Rancheria RV Park. I was curious about it then, but without cell service or wifi, I couldn’t research it and we decided to just let it go. But a kid in the campsite next to us said his family went and it was cool, so we decided to give it a go. Darwin deserved a better birthday activity than strolling around Previously Devastated Area.

The sign outside of Subway Cave said headlamps were needed. We didn’t have any but figured my iPhone would suffice. Wendy leashed all three dogs, doing her best Cesar Millan impression, and I held the hands of my little charges. We had hoped to use the stroller, but Wendy had scouted ahead and let me know the 20-or-so steps required to access the cave were prohibitive. So off we went—seven souls in a lava tube.

The floor was slick and bumpy, but there were so many other people we didn’t even have to use the iPhone. As we traveled farther into the quarter-mile-long cave though, the tourists dispersed, the footing became more precarious, and anxiety crept in. The dogs were unsettled. The kids weren’t happy about being in the dark, much less walking on unsure footing farther into blackness. They began crying. I carried Darwin but Emerson had to walk because he was willing to, and I was afraid to fall while holding a child in each arm. I had no way to hold the phone, so Wendy did her best to light our way, but it wasn’t enough. We crept farther and farther into the darkness, following in the no-longer-lit footsteps of people who had actually planned their trip to this toddler torture chamber. Happy birthday, Darwin!

Finally there was, as the saying goes, light at the end of the tunnel. I carried Darwin up another set of 20-or-so steps while Emerson held my hand and worked his little fear-shaken legs a little while longer. We noticed that most people chose to simply walk back through the lava tube to return to the parking lot, because no one joined us at the sunlit trailhead. But there was no way in Hell we were going back in there, so we followed the narrow, scrub-embanked dirt trail away from the tube, presumably back to the parking lot.

We followed it and followed it. Odie was hot and decided on several occasions that life just wasn’t worth living if he had to continue walking. The kids were more motivated than I’d ever seen them—focused on forward movement, turning around only to request my help to scramble over an obstacle. Scout Wendy ran ahead, to the extent Private Odie would permit, in an attempt to determine if we were indeed heading toward the parking lot. None of us wanted to turn back and fortunately our tenacity was rewarded. One more set of 20-something-steps and we were safely back in the car, returning to the campground.

Wendy and I were both a little hesitant to dry camp after our three weeks of glamping with full hookups. We had lucked into a heatwave and we found the prospect of no A/C daunting. As soon as we arrived, I re-screened the window CeCe had “improved” because I wanted to make sure we could have both windows open. But the weather was actually prettty mild, and we both settled back into dry camping pretty easily. The beauty of Manzanita Lake Campground didn’t hurt; we both commented how the KOAs and RV parks we stayed at just can’t compare. The campground itself is forested and the lake is beautiful. There’s a trail around it about a mile-and-a-half long that’s stroller-friendly if you’re up for a workout. Despite its mild current, Manzanita rivals Yosemite’s Mirror Lake in its ability to reflect the surrounding tress and snow-capped mountains. We spent about 90 minutes walking the perimeter and even though CeCe had “improved” another window when we returned, the experience was worth having to fix another screen.

I really wish we could’ve driven through Lassen; it would’ve been beautiful. As it stands though,  only two sections of the road were open—one at each end. So we went as far as we could at the end nearest to us when we visited the Devastated Area. On another day, we left the park and drove a couple of hours to the other park entrance to visit Sulphur Works, billed as an opportunity to see steam vents, mudpots, and boiling springs. We were really excited for that since neither of us had seen any of those things.

Turns out we don’t actually find those things very exciting. Once again, the dogs tagged along and our resident Cesar Millan took CeCe and Odie while I walked with the kids and Clark. The “mudpot” was really just that—a small pool of bubbling mud whose warm wisps of eggy steam discouraged loitering. I believe the scientific term Wendy used for it was “dizguzting.” And there was some steam coming from the ground in various places. Whoopty-freaking-do. I felt like the tourists we saw stopped at the side of the road photographing one of the small waterfalls on the way to Yosemite. “Don’t bother stopping here!” I’d yelled to them from the car. “It gets so much better!”

I think it would’ve gotten so much better if we’d been able to travel farther into Lassen, but instead we ended up focusing on the stuff people usually see on their way to something better. That said, the kids did enjoy shouting “River! River!” and playing in the snowbank adjacent to the Sulpher Works parking lot. Sometimes I need to take my cues from them and focus on the fun that’s right in front of me, even if it isn’t what I’d planned.

Total miles on our Pod: 2,332

Trip Report: Vineyard RV Park


June 3 – 8, 2017
Site #58

We’re getting spoiled. We haven’t dragged the solar panels from the Thule in a couple of weeks, our electronic devices are fully charged, we’re washing our dishes in the sink, and we’re clean. We’re also three miles from a Target. Hello civilization!

We booked five nights at this park because there are three farms nearby that use sustainable practices and offer tours: Feenagh (where agriculture co-exists with nature), Royal Fibers (which focuses on biodiversity and wildlife habitat), and Soul Food Farm (which offers organic pasture-raised chickens and eggs). I sent a note to all three but only Soul Food Farm responded; unfortunately they were too busy for a tour. The owner referred me to a farm down the road with similar practices, but they focused more on farm events than informative tours.

So we’re just chilling here instead. There’s a laundry room and yesterday I took a real shower for the first time in a month. My iPhone has been acting weird—“ghost typing”—so I suggested to Wendy that we head over to the local Target to pick up a new screen protector, in case trapped debris was causing apps to open and e-mails to send prematurely.

“I’m not sure about leaving Odie alone,” she told me. He had gone “number three” earlier in the day.

“What are the chances he’s gonna have diarrhea in the one hour we’re gone?” I replied rhetorically.

One hundred percent, as it turns out.

Opening the trailer door upon our return, I was greeted with that pungent smell every dog owner recognizes. Clark and CeCe couldn’t wait to get out of there, and as they took their familiar places around the base of the picnic table, Clark inhaled deeply, nose buried in the grass. You think it smells bad to you, I imagined him saying, think about what that was like for us.

Miraculously, Odie had managed to contain his entire accident on CeCe’s side of the bed, as if someone had neatly poured half a bucket of mud onto the middle of the mattress. I imagined CeCe shaking her head, saying “Odie! Really?! Shit on your own side!”

Wendy made quick work of the mess, scooping up the sheets, grateful for our waterproof mattress protector. There’s an “outdoor shower” attached to the Pod designed to let you do things like squirt sand off of your feet; turns out it works well for squirting other stuff off of other stuff, too. Odie is still under the weather, so we’re making sure someone is always with him and he dined on white rice with a little diced ham this morning.

As Wendy delved into Operation Diarrhea, I attempted to fix my phone. I removed the protector, cleaned the screen, and applied the new protector. Completely incorrectly. I tried again. Ultimately I messed it up so badly I had to throw it away. As a bonus, my now-unprotected phone continued ghost typing, so the trip to Target and subsequent superfund site were completely unnecessary.

We’re driving to Petaluma next, where we’ll get the car serviced—including a brake check—before heading into the mountains again. We have several farm tours lined up, mostly to talk to farmers about raising animals on rotational pasture while employing permaculture practices. I’ve read a lot about it, but expect I’ll learn a lot more from talking to people who are actively engaged in what we’d like to do. I’m also looking forward to seeing how they’ve designed their farms; they’ve undoubtedly already dealt with issues we’re likely to encounter and I think it’ll be invaluable to learn how they’ve addressed problems and what they would’ve done differently if they could start over.

I actually applied for a job with the USDA in Petaluma a couple of years ago, but after a long, awkward telephone interview, I wasn’t selected. I was disappointed but Wendy has since pointed out that if I’d gotten that job, we wouldn’t have our kids since we adopted them through the County of Los Angeles. I’m really looking forward to seeing where we may have lived if I’d interviewed better, and I expect it’ll sting if it seems like the perfect place. But I’m not concerned; Darwin and Emerson are the perfect salve to soothe any thoughts of what might have been.

Total miles on our pod: 2,000

Trip Report: San Andreas and Folsom Lake


May 26 – June 3, 2017

May 26th: Gold Strike

We realized early on that nine days at Yosemite would suffice and it wasn’t worth changing campgrounds again just to eke out one extra night. So we spent May 26th at Gold Strike RV Park in San Andreas, where we had access to full hookups, a laundry room, and a mid-sized grocery store, which felt utterly decadent after our Yosemite trip.

That’s probably why the kids and I returned from “Treats” market with a liter of vodka, jar of olives, and bottle of vermouth—civilization requires martinis, right? We had given our Pack-n-Play to one of the park rangers at Hogdon Meadow after realizing we were never going to use it, so technically I could’ve purchased about 20 pounds of alcohol without overloading the pod.

Besides, we had listened to the Garmin, which I’m pretty sure was drunk, because it turned a 73-mile trip into a four-hour test of patience. In good news, while crawling in first gear for 12 miles along a narrow, badly patched “two” lane road, we had an opportunity to see three different farm entrance gates decorated with creepy cherubs, their dirty, tarnished faces daring us to trespass. Don’t worry about it. May not look like it, but we’re literally getting out of here as fast as we can.

I wouldn’t say Gold Strike was particularly nice, but its residents were. It’s a combo park that includes campers and mobile homes. While in the office paying for our site, I chatted it up with a man who was fired after Miracle-Gro bought out his company. “They offered me the District Manager position,” he recounted, “but I told them I didn’t want to work with poison.” He’s a natural gardener whose Airstream is nestled among a variety of five-gallon buckets that house the majority of his food. He told me about a cool, somewhat sexist event—the Men’s Competition—where each entrant is judged on a set of five items: some type of pepper, two other vegetables, jerky, and a craft beer. Then he drew me a map for getting to the grocery store and I tried to follow it but holy hell, I hope he’s better at gardening.

Wendy did four loads of laundry and we tortured the children with showers. They’re both scared of the shower in the Pod. And the toilet. If we ask if they want to take a shower, Darwin says “No,” and Emerson says “No, no.” There’s no mistaking their position on it. But we subject them to it anyway, even though we know they’ll be filthy less than 12 hours later.

May 27th – 28th: Placerville KOA

We arrived at Beals Point Campground at around 11:30, ready to camp in site #73 for two nights before switching to our full hookup site for the next five nights. It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, so we were just happy to have reservations somewhere.

After waiting behind several cars, we reached the kiosk. “We’re checking in,” I told the attendant.

“Hmm, I don’t have anything here….” he answered.

I whipped out the handy three-ring binder designed for just such occasions and relayed our reservation number, pointing to it on the page as if that gave it more credibility.

“I don’t know who put that together for you,” he said. “But that campsite is about an hour away—at least an hour away—at the Peninsula Campground.” He handed us a small piece of paper with the phone number and directions for that campground. I called and confirmed that yes, that’s where we were booked.

Emeffer.

I didn’t like the idea of driving at least another hour, especially along a peninsula whose campground had a one-star review on Yelp. So we pulled to the side and while I fed the kids lunch, Wendy found us a new campground about 20 minutes away: a KOA in Placerville. I felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, so the $70/night price tag surprised me. But the lure of highway driving and hookups was just too strong, and we decided to stay there until our real reservation at Beals Point kicked in and we could camp near Folsom Lake.

“This is a real highway,” Wendy commented as we merged onto the 50. “When’s the last time we were on one of those?” We’d been on several roads that referred to themselves as a highway, but this was the real deal and it brought me joy. I’m not even being facetious—it was actual joy.

We cruised along the broad, smooth pavement until we saw the signs for the KOA, situated at the end of a bumpy road just past a rusty “Camp Mining Winery” sign. A bit skeptical—particularly considering our last KOA stay—Wendy and I rounded a corner and saw a couple of horses, two goats, and a cool log cabin that turned out to be the KOA office. When I registered, I realized why it’s so pricey.

This place has a pool, a nice playground, a single-species-not-sure-how-I-feel-about-it petting zoo, a little store, and a fishing pond with geese (including goslings). It was packed for Memorial Day Weekend and sites were really close together—something that would normally make us both cranky—but there was a good vibe. Our neighbors were playing redneck golf when we arrived and gave us a warm welcome even though we’d cut their playing field in half. There were lots of people hanging out, talking at tables they’d set up, sitting under awnings with patio lights. It was just… nice. And we had electricity and water, a cell signal, and okay wifi.

There were also free cookies at the desk and a sign that read:

PLEASE WATCH FOR PINE CONES!
THEY MAY FALL ON YOUR CAR
AND THERE’S NOTHING WE CAN DO ABOUT IT

Now there’s a sign born of necessity, I thought. When I asked the receptionist, she confirmed that yes—they had to create it because people kept complaining about pine cones falling on their cars. “There’s nothing we can do about it!” she said, “but they complain to us anyway!” I think I know who made the sign.

The kids got to see a horse, geese, and goats for the first time in their lives. Darwin has started to ask if she can pet things, and unfortunately the answer was no in each case here, but the kids did get to feed the friendliest goat, which made them happy. We also took another crack at swimming. Darwin had a good time in the water and Emerson was content to sit with me on the edge. “Do you want to go in the water,” I’d ask. “No, no,” he’d say. One “no” is never enough with him. Come to think of it, the same applies whether he’s the one saying it or we are….

When we got back from the pool, I saw a text from my mom asking me to call her. When I did, I was reminded how quickly pain can travel in the silence before words begin: “I have some bad news.”

I won’t go into detail because my mom comes from a huge family with nine siblings and I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy. But it feels disrespectful not to acknowledge my uncle’s death—as though somehow it’s not worth mentioning. So I’ll simply say that I’ll miss his quick wit, sly smile, and booming laughter that made me want to laugh, even if I hadn’t heard the joke. I always knew he loved me, and I will always love him. Rest in peace, Uncle Bob.

May 29th – June 3rd: Folsom Lake State Recreation Area

They’re sticklers for their 2pm check-in here at Beals Point. We had to leave the KOA by 11am and tried to kill time by stopping at a Walmart super center. But even then, we reached the campground kiosk at 12:30pm.

“Check-in isn’t until 2:00,” he told us. “But you can use the day-use area until then.” He gave me a pink slip of paper with tape for the windshield.

“So park in the day-use area and then come back here at 2:00 to check-in?” I asked.

“Yep,” he answered, as though it was perfectly normal.

Checkout is at noon. There are no rooms to clean. Why hold so fast to that two-hour vacant period? I might think it was normal if we hadn’t just come from national park campgrounds, where check-in and check-out are both at noon.

So we continued to the day-use parking lot and found a nice pull-through spot. Then we walked around for the next 90 minutes with the dogs and kids. We checked out our campsite, just waiting there, empty. We watched throngs of people hanging out by the lake—cooking delicious-smelling meats, laying out in the sun, playing in the water. We walked really slowly. Then we looked at my phone and saw that 45 minutes had passed.

We’re stuck near Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on,
I wish the staff knew better, then we could move along….

We took shelter in the shade of a restroom hut by the kiosk and killed time listening to park employees admonishing would-be campers from parking in the turn-around. They were all waiting for that magical 2pm check-time. “Ford Ranger,” an employee yelled through the speaker, “MOVE!”

“If you didn’t force everyone to wait until two, this wouldn’t be happening,” I found myself saying aloud to the imaginary staff member eagerly seeking my advice. “They’re doubling their workload,” I complained to Wendy, “telling everyone who comes a little early to wait until two, then talking to them again after two.” We just shook our heads, hot and tired and wishing I’d spent more time in Walmart. “What time is it now?”

We managed to buck the system and check in precisely one minute before two. I think we got the worst site, with a radio tower behind us and a dumpster in front, but the sites here are huge and there’s lots of privacy. There are also full hookups and our pad is level, so no real complaints.

Besides, this stop is more about the lake than the campground. This is the first place I’ve been able to fish regularly and there’s lots of shopping nearby. We spent six hours yesterday buying supplies from Target, Bass Pro Shop, a local pet store, and Sprint. Earlier this week I met Huntley—a fisherman sporting flip-flops and light blue board shorts, his can of Bud Light in a shady spot on the picnic table and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “Any luck?” he asked, as he approached.

“No,” I answered. “But I’ve never caught anything.”

“Want some help?” he asked.

“Sure.”

He gave me a few tips for casting, like lining up a certain part of the reel each time to prevent it from tangling, and he demonstrated a cool lasso-type technique that takes advantage of centrifugal force to cast farther while stressing the fishing rod less. He suggested pointing the rod downward rather than holding it up while reeling in because if you get a bite, the rod automatically does the work of keeping the fish on the line.

“The thing about the set-up you have here,” he said, “is the fish can see this braided line coming a mile away. Want me to make you a leader line?”

“Sure,” I answered. “If you don’t mind.”

“It’s no problem. I have to go to my truck though. I’ll be right back.”

He returned with nine spools organized around 10-gauge wire bent into a circle. Then he cut a piece of clear line and showed me how to make the “improved clinch knot,” which I had accomplished once before using a YouTube video. He faltered for a moment and said “Sorry, I’ve been drinkin’ and I’m not used to talking while I do this.” I couldn’t help but smile.

“Why not just use a regular knot,” I asked. The good ol’ double knot had become my go-to because it didn’t require learning anything new. Huntley explained that if a fish pulls on the line, a regular knot will break. So it doesn’t matter how much weight your line can take if the knot is weak. Figuring out how to tie that fancy knot finally seemed worth the trouble. So I practiced with Huntley until I finally got it.

“The other thing about that braided line,” he continued, “is that it doesn’t have much flex. So it gets stuck on things easier.” My tendency to lose lures seemed less like my fault, and I decided I liked talking to Huntley. “Also, if you get a fish, it’s easier to reel it in, but it’s a lot harder to actually hook the fish.” I explained that I had bought the braided line because I was looking for a one-size-fits-all solution for our trip and didn’t want to have to change out the spool because it took Wendy and me and hour to do it the first time.

“I can swap it out for you, if you want,” he offered.

“That’s alright,” I told him, “I don’t want to take all your stuff.” But I did want to take his stuff. Maybe I would actually catch a fish if I had better-suited line.

“It’s alright,” he answered, “I get my stuff for free. I’ll show you how to do it.” Turns out Bass Pro Shop provides Huntley with a monthly stipend and free swag in exchange for the advice he provides its customers during free seminars. And I see why—he was so good at explaining how and why to do things.

Even though my fishing record stands at zero, I learned a lot on this leg of the trip. I’ll probably still have to refer to YouTube if I need to add more line, but now I know how to tie the magical knot that will help retain whatever fish finally takes pity on me. I practiced my new skill several times this morning before Wendy brought the kids to meet me, then we all went to the other side of the lake to play in the water.

Now the kids are napping, the dogs are sleeping, Wendy’s cross-stitching, an old episode of Law and Order is playing, and the air conditioner is blowing. Life is good.

Total miles on our pod: 1,947

Trip Report: Yosemite National Park


May 17 – 26, 2017

What do you get when you cross three hours of frustrating phone calls with five hours of tedious internet searches?

Nine days at Yosemite.

Reservation Frustrations

When creating our itinerary, I set aside 10 days to explore Yosemite. Although I really wanted to stay in the park, I couldn’t find any sites with availability for more than two days even though I’d begun my online search six months in advance. I kept checking back routinely but the recreation.gov site was swimming in a sea of Rs. Literally every single site was reserved. So we settled for boondocking in the woods outside the park for the first four nights, and I was able to snag reservations at a campground just outside the park (Summerdale) for the last six. But a few days before we were set to leave for Yosemite, our Summerdale reservation fell through. That’s all I’ll say since I already talked about it in the last post. But what I didn’t mention last time is how much time Wendy and I spent trying to find somewhere to camp.

While still in Sequoia, we managed to book the first couple of nights at Yosemite while perched atop a turnout on Generals Highway where a cell signal suddenly appeared. The next day, we drove about 10 miles (20 minutes) from our campsite to the library so we could use wifi to check the recreation.gov site. But the library was closed. I spent the next two hours—mostly on hold—with various customer service representatives, explaining we’d take anything in the park, even if it meant we had to move campgrounds every night.

“Due to high call volume,” it took about 20 minutes for someone to answer the phone. The representative listened to what I needed, asked me to hold for a minute, and then…

“Thank you for calling recreation.gov.” I had been kicked back to the beginning of the line, where I waited for another 20 minutes before the next representative answered. Her name was Hope, and when I explained what had just happened, she said I had probably scared the other person off. So I re-explained our situation and Hope felt pretty certain she could work it out. But then, “Everything is reserved. There’s not a single A [available]. But I’ll tell you what. You’re so nice and accommodating—there’s got to be something we can do. I’m gonna call the host over at Upper Pines—they’re nice there—and see if anyone is on the ‘pending cancellation’ list.”

Great! I thought. And then I heard it—the dreaded dead space and then a dial tone.

Dammit!

I called back again. “Thank you for calling recreation.gov. Due to high call volume.…” Thirty minutes passed before someone answered—Serena. I explained that I had just gotten cut off accidentally and asked if I could speak with Hope.

“Umm, I’m not sure who you think you called but this is the recreation.gov sales line.”

“Yes,” I explained. “I’m aware who I called.” I re-explained, using slight different phrasing, that I had already been through this with Hope and would like to speak with her.

“Well, I’m on the line now,” she said, “and I can help you.”

“Are you telling me that this is a big call center and you don’t know the people who work here, so you can’t connect me with Hope?”

“Yes,” she answered. After a deep, internal sigh, I explained our situation for the third time. “Can I put you on hold for a minute?” she asked.

This time I didn’t get kicked back to the beginning of the queue. Instead, Serena came on the line again and said “I’ve confirmed that you were speaking with Hope in Customer Service. I’ll transfer you now.”

Great! 

“Thank you for calling recreation.gov. Due to high call volume….”

Goddamit!

I let the timer reach 30 minutes before I finally hung up, seething, the antithesis of a happy camper.

The next day, I drove to the library when it was open, laptop in hand, determined to do my own damn internet searches. I had a bad association with that building now, but the friendly librarian turned it all around. Without my even having to ask, she gave me their wifi password and showed me where to find a comfy chair and an outlet. I settled in, went to the recreation.gov website, set up a search for any campground in Yosemite, and just kept hitting the refresh button. For four hours.

As a result, we snagged a few more reservations. One night here, a couple of nights there. After we left Sequoia—on our way to Yosemite, Wendy used the mobile site while in the car when we had a cell signal.

Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. “Oh! You’ll never believe what I just got!” It was like playing the slots.

In the end, we managed to finagle a pretty nice itinerary—two nights at Hogdon Meadow, one night at Upper Pines, two nights at North Pines, then four nights at Hogdon Meadow. Although we had to keep switching campgrounds, we never had to move to a different campsite while in a campground.

Hogdon Meadow
May 17 – 18
Site #6

We arrived a little before noon to our very pretty but very uneven site. Fortunately we had stopped by Camping World on the way and picked up a pack of 10 leveling blocks, just in case we needed them. We used all 10 and got to see, for the first time, just how high our stabilizing jacks will go.

When purchasing items for the trailer, I stayed away from leveling blocks because I didn’t think I’d be able to back the trailer onto them. I figured just trying to get the thing into a space would be hard enough. But as it turns out, these are really easy to use! If we’d had them at Joshua Tree, food wouldn’t have been falling out of the refrigerator. And had we had them at Sequoia, where we were tilted the other way, we wouldn’t have had to worry about the glass stove cover crashing down.

Here, for the first time, in our by-the-seat-of-our-pants site, we successfully made ourselves level. Then Wendy filled up our six-gallon water jug because the nearest dump station is more than 20 miles away in Yosemite Valley, which is about a two-hour mountainous drive with the trailer.

The day after we arrived, we got our passbooks stamped at the Visitor’s Center across the road and asked whether there was anywhere to fish nearby. Hogdon Meadow is less than a mile inside the Big Flat Oak entrance to the park, and the ranger explained there’s decent fishing a couple of miles outside the park on the way to Hetch Hetchy. So we drove there and I broke out my fishing rod for the first time. The Merced River has quite a current and is very clear. I could literally see there were no fish, but since I’ve never actually caught a fish, that wasn’t much of a deterrent. I spent about 20 minutes poking around before we returned to the campground.

Hogdon Meadow, though very pretty, is far from the main tourist attractions in Yosemite Valley. So we hung out in camp for the rest of the day. This presented Darwin with an opportunity to meet her first fuzzy caterpillar. She immediately claimed it as a pet, letting it crawl on her hand and arm, and she needed some comforting when we released it back into the forest.

Upper Pines
May 19
Site #174

Ahh, Upper Pines. In the heart of Yosemite Valley and where we may have been able to stay longer had Hope been more adept at putting people on hold.

In addition to being close to everything, this campground has a dump/fill station. And it’s beautiful—set against a backdrop of mountains and pine trees, with the Merced River rushing by. I’ll venture to say you’d have a hard time finding a prettier place to dump your poo.

So, three cheers for Upper Pines… right?

As soon as we entered the campground we were struck by how cramped and crowded it was. Our site was level though, and we were able to remain hitched to the car for a quick exit since the space was long enough and our planned activities were within walking distance. We also had a creek running through the back of our site and the mountain views were amazing.

Everyone thought so—the kids who played right behind us in the creek as we ate dinner at the picnic table, the adults who kept traipsing by as I played with the kids. No privacy, no respect for campsite boundaries. There seem to be a lot of rules in camping and I’ve never seen a sign posted directing people to stay out of other people’s sites. So maybe I’m being too possessive of the little patch I rented. But to me it seems like common decency to respect other people’s boundaries.

So those were my big frustrations with Upper Pines: Loud. Busy. Impolite.

The plusses? Prettiest dump/fill station award. Non-people-related scenery. Cool creek to play in. And walking distance to Half Dome Village, Yosemite Village, the Vernal Falls Trail, and the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail.

After settling into our space, we popped the kids in their stroller and explored Half Dome Village—a bustling activity center that felt more like a college campus than a national park. There was a mountaineering school, mini mart/gift shop, Peet’s Coffee, pizzeria, and bar. The village itself had more than 1,000 housing units, most of which looked like white MASH tents. We spent as little time as possible here and didn’t like the vibe, but did appreciate the opportunity to stock up on a few groceries.

We got up early on our first and only morning at Upper Pines, loaded the kids in their backpacks, and hiked up to Vernal Falls. If you ever read that it’s an easy hike, don’t believe it. I—and the hundred-or-so other people huffing and puffing, hiking poles in hand—will attest to its difficulty. The substrate is easy (pavement) but the steep, consistent incline makes it a real workout.

When we returned to camp, I let the kids get filthy playing in a creek for the first time in their lives, and we all took showers and put on clean clothes. We returned to the dump/fill station on our way out then drove less than a mile to our next campground.

North Pines
May 20 – 21
Site #503

We overestimated how long it would take us to get to our site, so for the first time we arrived before the previous tenant had left. Wendy approached the camper to see if he was planning to leave, because it was half an hour until check-out time and his stuff was still strewn about; we wanted to make sure there wasn’t a mix-up. He took offense, feeling as though we were trying to rush him out before his time had expired. And we suspected that he may now feel required to eke out every last minute due to the nerve of those people.

We pulled past his site but didn’t have anywhere to park our car/trailer combo, so just waited, blocking the one-way campground road and hoping no one would come by. We sat there for about 20 minutes before he finally left—still before he was required to do so, so I can’t knock him for it.

Oh, site #503.

I tried to back into this site for an hour, foiled by the acute angle around a tree without the ability to pull forward due to concrete curbs lining the one-way road. To envision the difficulty of this space, hold your left hand up like an L, palm facing outward. Then move your pointer finger to the right to close the gap halfway. Then imagine trying to back a trailer around your pointer finger into the space between your finger and thumb. It was ri-dic-u-lous.

“I can’t do this one,” I huffed to Wendy. “I think we have to leave.”

“Where will we go?” she asked. “The campground is full.”

“I know,” I said. “But I can’t get in here.” I pictured us reverting to our original plan—driving for two hours to boondock in the woods outside the Big Oak Flat entrance for a couple of nights.

By this time, my failed attempts had garnered quite a bit of attention. Empathetic folks had been offering advice for the past half hour. A fellow camper, trying to return to his site, had been stuck behind us for quite some time. When Wendy went to apologize to him, he said it was no biggie and took our problem on as his own.

And he was a genius.

“Have you considered trying to pull through?” he asked. The space at the back of our site between a big tree and curb appeared to be juuuuuust about the width of our trailer. “You might have to jump the curb a bit, but I think you could do it with those big tires.”

Had this suggestion arisen 20 minutes before, I probably would’ve brushed it off as too risky. But at this point, it sounded like the only way we’d be able to do this. So I drove around the whole campground for the fifth time, determined to finally solve this problem. As I approached our site, I did my best to angle the trailer to clear both obstacles. But I could see as I progressed that we were about six inches wider than the available space. The left trailer tire scraped the base of the tree as the right approached the curb, and I knew there was no choice—up we go! So I went as slowly as I could, while still going fast enough to ensure we’d clear it.

Up, bounce, down, done.

Mission accomplished, we ate cheese sandwiches then headed out to explore Yosemite Village and the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. This trip was only supposed to be a few miles total, but ended up doubling due to road construction. Yes, here in Yosemite, even pedestrians are significantly impacted by road work!

Wendy summed it up pretty well: Yosemite is the Disneyland of national parks. This is by far the most naturally beautiful park we’ve visited so far: waterfalls everywhere, unique rock formations, abundant forests, stunning valleys, a bright blue sky. But it’s the least peaceful because there are just so – many – people. We’re trying not to let that get to us, though. We really enjoyed our walk, along with at least a hundred other people, to Lower Yosemite Falls. Hearing the kids laugh as the crashing water sprayed them was priceless; Emerson even developed a “waterfall wiggle” he broke into each time we passed the spray.

The following day, we set off with the kids in the stroller again to our last destination while here at North Pines—Mirror Lake. This was an easy, paved, two-mile there-and-back visit. As we approached the lake, we were both struck by how green and stagnant it appeared. Mirror Swamp, I thought. And so many mosquitos. But we stayed a while and kept looking, and it was worth it. Sure, it isn’t a lake I’d like to dip my toe in. But its stillness is what makes it so cool. It really did clearly reflect the mountains and trees surrounding it. Wendy and I took a bunch of pictures, unable to tell if they were any good at the time on account of the glare. But back at home, in the low light of the trailer, we were reminded what a cool lake it really is and how lucky we are to have seen it.

The next morning, we realized we’d had one more occupant in our trailer overnight—a mosquito. Darwin is apparently the most tasty tot, as she had seven bites on her face. Her right cheek looked like Orion’s Belt. Wendy, the next-tastiest prey, had a few bites, and Emerson and I each walked away virtually unscathed, with just one bite each.

That wasn’t all nature had in store for us, though. When Wendy returned from walking the dogs around the campground (as she does each morning, at each campground), she reported several path closures due to flooding. The Merced River had risen overnight and it turns out that even if our reservation hadn’t ended, we would’ve had to leave anyway. The rangers were clearing our loop and many other sites near the river due to the threat of flooding. We immediately felt bad for anyone whose reservations had just been canceled at the last minute, leaving them nowhere to camp, struggling against a current of Rs, at the mercy of recreation.gov customer service.

Hogdon Meadow
May 22 – 26
Site #89

We’re ending our trip where it began: in Hogdon Meadow. This place doesn’t feel like Yosemite to me—it just feels like we’re in a forest. It could be any forest. So in a way I feel like our Yosemite trip ended when we fled North Pines. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad we were able to book here. We may be at least 90 minutes from anything we want to see, but that’s closer than we would’ve been if we’d stayed outside the park.

Our site is also nicer this time—still super uneven, but big enough to erect the R-Dome and it’s right by the bathroom. Normally I wouldn’t like that, but since there’s no dump station and nowhere to wash dishes, it’s actually pretty handy to have the bathroom so close.

There’s also a really good stump surrounded by sawdust that the kids love to play with. Darwin, fascinated by her first encounter with the soft, flakey substance, routinely carries a handful to the picnic table, drops it on the bench, then wipes it off. Return to the stump and repeat. Once she decided to drop it directly on top of her head, where the sawdust quickly nestled into its new home.

We spent our last couple of days doing that kind of stuff—just hanging out, getting dirty and staying that way. But we did venture to Glacier Point, which was stunning. I’m sure the 300 other people who were there would agree! It was completely worth the two-hour drive along winding roads, a fair portion of which was really, really crappy with deep potholes. This is the first attraction where we experienced a parking shortage so severe it forced a line of cars to idle along the mountain for a good half hour, pointing downward, overlooking the parking lot we all aspired to enter.

We dealt with it though and tried to look at it as an opportunity to charge our devices. When dry camping, driving isn’t just a way to get somewhere—it’s an opportunity. Traffic? That’s alright. My phone/clock/camera is only at 80%.

That pretty much sums up our whole trip to Yosemite: kind of a pain but worth it. I’m not interested in coming here again—not because of the park but because of all the people. I realize we’re part of the problem; we crammed ourselves into recently-vacated campsites and stayed in the park for nine days. For me to consider this a nice place to stay, I’d want to cut the number of people by at least two-thirds. But if those limits were in place, we wouldn’t have been able to come here at all. So the question becomes Would I rather this be a peaceful place I’d never seen? 

No. I’m glad we had an opportunity to experience Yosemite, crowds and all.

Total miles on our pod: 1,827

Trip Report: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks


May 12 – 17, 2017

These parks are beautiful. We stayed at Potwisha—a small, overgrown campground just inside the entrance to Sequoia National Park. There’s a dump/fill station across the street where Wendy and I spent about a half hour in cold drizzle filling our Pod with drinking water for the next few days. Then we headed into the campground, where we saw our very pretty but very small site (#35) sandwiched between rocks and beneath a tree just barely taller than our trailer. For the next 20 minutes, we engaged in the familiar choreography of backing up, pulling forward, backing up, talking about what needs to happen next, pulling forward, backing up, pulling forward, etc. I almost always get irritated before it’s over, but I’m working on it.

 

This is the first time we’ve camped in “bear country,” and the prominence of signs telling us so made it seem like we should see one lumbering by at least once a day. Emerson learned to say “bear box,” which is the large metal container on our site where the signs urged us to store all food, cosmetics, and car seats. But we have so much stuff for our seven months on the road that not all of it would fit in the bear box. We locked away the orange-lidded spin bucket holding 25 pounds of dog food; the white-lidded spin bucket holding 30 pounds of dried goods (like beans and pasta); a faded blue tupperware stocked with cereal, oatmeal, and some canned goods; and the seats from the kids’ double stroller since they’ve endured various spills and may smell good to bears. But the car seats stayed in the car.

Wendy slept horribly the first night, convinced on several occasions that the low grumble rising from the foggy silence was a bear nearby.

The next morning at breakfast, Wendy heard the noise again.

“What is that?” I asked. It was the first time I’d heard it. I went outside to look and as best we can tell, it was wind causing leaves from low-hanging branches to scrape against our trailer and R-dome.

Mystery solved and with bellies full of scrambled eggs, we drove an hour along Generals Highway farther into the park. When we reached about 5,000 feet elevation, a mist settled among the forest and the slow, winding drive became even more beautiful. We secured our stamps at the Giant Forest Museum then walked the Big Tree Trail—a mile-long paved path that meanders through sequoias, coastal redwoods, and a lush meadow. While it had been in the low 60s at Potwisha, it was in the low 40s here so we dug out hats and jackets from the Thule.

The next day, we ventured all the way to Kings Canyon National Park, about two hours from Potwisha, farther along the same road we had traversed the day before. This time though, the trip felt a little different because the sky and forest were totally clear.

While we did enjoy the view the second time around, we were primarily focused on finding gas and a cell signal/wifi so we could wish our moms a happy Mother’s Day. Stoney Creek Village said it had wifi but it was crap—couldn’t send a single text after sitting there for half an hour—so we resigned ourselves to finding a payphone in the park. But all the sudden, while wending our way northward, Wendy shouted “Signal! We have a signal!” So I pulled over at the first turnout and we sat there for the next half hour taking care of 21st century business.

We both texted our moms. I learned I had a voicemail from Summerdale Campground, which we’d booked for six nights of our upcoming Yosemite stay. “I have you coming in the 21st and leaving the 27th in site 29 with a trailer,” the woman said. “Umm,” she continued, “there’s going to be issues with that.”

When I called her back—perched above the sequoias, pointing downhill with my emergency brake on—she explained that although recreation.gov describes the site as having a “slight slope,” it in fact has a significant slope that a trailer shouldn’t back into. “I can try to get you into another site, but I dunno, with Memorial Day weekend….” Awesome. We couldn’t find anything in Yosemite and now our Plan B—a campground with nothing except vault toilets but busy because it’s less than two miles from the park—had fallen through. And it all could’ve been avoided if the site description had simply been accurate.

Annoyed and flustered, I dialed the number for recreation.gov. Our itinerary had us spending 10 nights near Yosemite: the first 4 boondocking on Hardin Flat Road and the next 6 at Summerdale. I didn’t want to boondock at all but couldn’t find anything nearby, so figured we’d go with it. But during this call to recreation.gov—where I basically asked someone else to search the internet for me—the representative said there was a spot at Hogdon Meadows in Yosemite available for the first two nights of our trip. So we grabbed it and now at least knew we had somewhere to stay for the first two nights after leaving Potwisha.

We continued north into Kings Canyon National Park, where we got more stamps, walked to General Grant (the second largest tree in the world), and then donned our backpacks and hiked the Big Stump Trail. I had noted that it was “an easy 1-mi loop trail” but this was not true. A more accurate description would’ve been “walk downhill for a mile then back uphill for a mile.” I found it difficult, but worthwhile. There are lots of big stumps along the way, but the big stump really is something to see.

The next day we traveled that same winding road an hour north into Sequoia National Park, still pretty but no longer spectacular as it started feeling like a commute. But then Wendy noticed something odd.

“I think I just saw snow on that car,” she said.

“Nah, snow?” In May?

“Maybe not, but it looked like snow,” she answered.

We looked at the next car—no snow. But the next car? Clearly snow. And the next one too.

WTF….

This is the day we had set aside to hike Moro Rock with the kids (something Wendy really wanted to do because her mom had done it) and visit General Sherman—the biggest tree in the world. What was going on up there? Would we have to ditch our plans and return to camp?

As we continued north, we were once again awed by the view. In the past three days we’d seen these trees encircled by fog, contrasted against clear blue sky, and now dusted with snow—which was falling steadily now. Pleased with the beauty but concerned for our steeply-graded descent, we stopped at the Giant Forest Museum to ask a ranger about the weather. Without cell service or internet, we had no idea what to expect. She assured us that as of a few hours ago, this snow wasn’t supposed to stick because it should stay above freezing as long as we’re out by nightfall.

 

So we decided to stay until early afternoon. The temperature hovered around 33 F and we got to hike with the kids in the snow. They had never even seen snow, so we let them play in it after we saw the General Sherman Tree. Darwin loved it and Emerson did not, but I think it was less about the snow and more about his inability to pick up sticks while wearing oversized gloves.

I enjoyed our walk to the biggest tree in the world. But I did not enjoy our walk back. Whoever arranged this park had a penchant for leading people merrily down paths with no regard for what happens after they’ve seen the thing they came to see. I noticed a sign on our way back up that read “You’re at 7,000 feet. Slow down and enjoy your walk.” Eff off. I’m walking steadily uphill with 40 pounds on my back that keeps shifting left and right in an effort to swipe a stick from the forest.

“I’m glad we did that,” I told Wendy. “But I’m not walking the 350 steps up Moro Rock. I’ll stay in the car and feed the kids lunch while you go.”

“Do you think they’re still letting people do it in the snow?” she asked.

“I don’t think this place tries very hard to keep you from killing yourself,” I told her. “I think they’ll let you do whatever you think you can do.”

So the kids and I said goodbye to Wendy at the base of Moro Rock, where she donned her jacket, hat, and gloves and disappeared up the steps into steady snowfall. An hour and a ziplock bag of last night’s box-of-penne-pasta-mixed-with-a-can-of-chicken-noodle-soup later, Wendy returned to the van pale but happy.

“Oh my god that was crazy,” she said. “I’m glad I did that but I’m never doing it again. I cheated on you. I totally had a relationship with that rock.” She went on to explain how one stumble could send a person right off the cliff face, and how she’d clung to the rock the entire time rather than venturing close to the rickety railing separating tourists from certain death. “There was even a sign,” she said, “telling you that people have died here before. But I did it. And I’m glad I did it. But man.

Later back at camp, Wendy showed me the selfie she’d taken at the top. I can tell she was scared, and I can also see that she’s proud—of herself for doing it, of her mom for having done it. I hope when we’re older, we’ll hold onto this—that we’ll be proud of what we did on this trip, and that our kids will be proud of us for having done it.

Total miles on our pod: 1,578

Trip Report: KOA Lake Isabella/Kern River


May 10 – 12, 2017

We scheduled this as a two-night stopover between Death Valley National Park and Sequoia National Park. With full hookups, on-site laundry, and a pool, we envisioned this KOA as a place to rest and recharge while accomplishing a few chores. Instead, we’re sitting at our dinette this morning in Sequoia National Park, water boiling for tea, on our way to recovering from that damn KOA.

Looking back we can’t find anything horrible about the place. Were we just in negative moods, or was it really that bad? We bickered, the kids cried, the dogs barked. It was, as Darwin says, “Not nice.”

I’m not sure why. Groceries were about 10 miles away and very reasonably priced. The pool was clean, there was a splash pad for the kids, the KOA had a really cool little playground, and the dual-hatted office manager/saloon tender was quite pleasant upon our arrival.

But what do we remember most? Our site had a tangle of wires cluttering the ground—the remnants of former cable service—and a little platform Emerson really liked climbing on that was rife with loose boards and erect nails. We were right by Highway 178, and though the kids enjoyed yelling “car!” frequently, the road noise was intrusive. The splash pad was a bust, littered with windswept flower buds and shunned by our children. Emerson cried in the pool and then hit his forehead on the concrete patio, the dryers didn’t dry, and when we sat down for a “nice” dinner our last night at camp, the strong wind gusts were insufficient to keep the flies from landing on our chewy slabs of lamb shoulder.

There was a lot of whining and crying for reasons we couldn’t determine. I even cried a little the night before we left. Perhaps it was the stress of the past couple of days, or the buildup of the sweeping changes we’ve brought upon ourselves over the past couple of months. I don’t regret any of it; I don’t want to go back or undo anything. I understand that just because I’m happy with the path we’ve chosen, doesn’t mean I’m going to be happy with every moment of it.

As for the kids? Our running theory is that they’re still adjusting to this yet-to-end errand. From their perspective, we put them in the car and just never returned home. Plus they’re accustomed to getting 12 – 14 hours of sleep each day; now they’re going to sleep later and waking up when the sun rises, and their solid two-hour afternoon nap is gone. So we’ve decided to make more of an effort to adhere to a schedule that helps ensure they get enough sleep. For example, we’re back to morning naps. In fact, both kids are sleeping right now 🙂

It’s almost like the KOA immersed us all in a depressive whirlwind and now that we’ve left that fly-ridden dust bowl, our spirits have lifted. Yesterday, after arriving at Potwisha Campground here at Sequoia National Park, as Wendy and I stood at the dump/fill station in our desert-friendly shorts trying to get 36 gallons of water into our trailer using a spurting water thief and leaking filter, chilled to the bone as the sky spit on our efforts, we laughed. This was so much worse than anything we’d experienced at the KOA, but we laughed—at the situation, at each other, with each other. And when we returned to the car, wet through from wrangling our drinking water, we felt like ourselves again.

Miles on our pod: 1,378

Trip Report: Death Valley National Park


Furnace Creek Campground
May 6 – 10, 2017

I’ll start with this: Death Valley is beautiful. It’s like being on another planet with only a handful of people. When we arrived around 1pm on May 6th, which was a Saturday, we were afraid all of the “good” spots would be taken since no reservations are accepted at Furnace Creek Campground this time of year. But there were lots spots. We drove around the campground three times to decide which we liked best. We settled on #47, which has full hookups and a clear view of the sunrise for $36/night. (By about 5pm, all the sites were taken, so we’d lucked out in our timing.)

After our hot, dry camping stint at Joshua Tree, we really appreciated the ability to take a shower and turn on the air conditioning. Showers felt amazing and air conditioning meant we could try leaving the dogs in the trailer for a longer stint and see how it went. This was great because we all had to stay inside most of the time. It was too windy to put our R-Dome up and I suspect the ground was too hard to peg it in anyway, and the shade was too insufficient to sit outside without a tent. So the kids and I played outside at various times of day, but the dogs spent most of our four-night stint at the park inside the trailer in the cool of the A/C.

The good news is our air conditioning blares like a jet engine. So the first time we left the dogs alone in the trailer for an extended period, we felt confident the A/C would drown out many of the noises that may cause them to bark. When we returned several hours later, we turned into the campground with our windows down, listening for the triple bark of misbehaved dogs wondering why the hell they’re stuck in a trailer in the desert instead of lounging in dog beds in West LA. But all was quiet. We continued listening, ears glued to the dusty air, as we neared our trailer. Still nothing until we actually approached the door, when the familiar cacophony began.

We considered that a success and built off of it for the rest of our time at the park. We went to the laundromat, explored Furnace Creek Resort, drove to the Devil’s Golf Course, walked out onto the Salt Flats at Badwater Basin, explored Artists Drive, walked up to Zabriskie Point, drove to Dante’s View, hiked Ubehebe Crater, toured Borax Works, and hiked Natural Bridge. Wendy also walked 20 Mule Canyon with CeCe and Clark while I drove the 2.7 mile crazy-ass road with the kids and Odie, meeting her at the exit.

The kids got more scuffs on their legs and heard ad nauseum “Stay where I can see you” and “boundaries!” If I were a parrot, my owners would be real happy with my ability to repeat “Emerson, that’s too far, come back. Emerson, too far. EMERSON!” We’re still lugging the Pack and Play around but haven’t used it yet. I’m hoping the kids will catch on to camp etiquette and grasp the concept of playing nearby. We’ll see.

We rolled out of Furnace Creek at 9am this morning with a plan to drive 182 miles to KOA Lake Isabella/Kern River. Since Google Maps said it would take three hours, we figured on five. It took us six and four of them were harrowing.

There’ve been a lot of firsts so far on this advenutre: first dry camp, first time leaving the dogs alone in the trailer, first time with full hookups. But today’s first-times made us both need a drink: first time ascending to 5,000 feet, first time smelling our brakes overheating on a steeply-graded descent, first time trying to execute a three-point turn to rectify a U-turn gone wrong, and first time traversing narrow winding mountain roads devoid of guard rails.

Let’s start with the ascent. We chose to leave Death Valley National Park via 190 West. The sign we passed that said “Turn air conditioning off for next 20 miles” should have been a clue. We did turn it off and ascended almost 5,000 feet in fourth gear, slowly but surely, never overheating but keeping consistent watch on our temperature gauge and taking a break once to prevent overheating.

Next: the descent. “Caution: 15% grade.” Yep. Followed by a 9% grade. For-effin-ever. Everything seemed to be going well. I had read how to safely drive a trailer down steep roads: low gear, apply the brakes when you’re within five miles of your target speed, then let the low gear do the work until it’s time to apply the brakes again. I thought all was going well but left the windows down just in case so we could keep a nostril out for trouble. And eventually we smelled it. “Is that us?” I asked Wendy. “I don’t know,” she answered. I decided to use a turnout just in case and as I came to a stop there, I felt the car and trailer roll a little bit farther after my foot had completely depressed the brake pedal. That scared me and we waited there for 10 minutes—a full 5 minutes after the smell had dissipated. Then we continued in first and second gear and all was well. Take-home lesson? Use more pullouts next time. There are many mountains in our future.

Next up on our “Time to shit your pants” day: Deciding whether to turn left onto the road I’d outlined in our itinerary (Panamint Valley) or continue straight on 190 so we could visit Father Crowley Vista Point. Still reeling from our overheated brakes, envisioning my entire family tumbling off the side of a mountain because I couldn’t drive properly, I just wanted to do whatever didn’t involve a mountain.

“Which route looks like it doesn’t take us down a mountain?” I asked Wendy.

“I can’t tell,” she answered. “There’s no elevation on this map. Take whichever one you’re most comfortable with.”

So I eyeballed it. I saw mountains ahead and the road on the left seemed to avoid them. “Panamint it is then,” I said as I turned left onto what turned out to be an old bumpy road with a mule crossing sign.

“How long are we supposed to be on this one?” I asked Wendy.

“Umm, 14 miles and then 28 miles,” she answered.

Nope. Now I was worried about our tires. And there was no guarantee this wouldn’t have mountains too. So we decided to do a U-turn. But halfway through it was clear we wouldn’t make it. Jack-knifed and blocking both lanes, Wendy sprung out of the van to remove the sway bar from our hitch. Wanting to act fast but concerned about the fact that the front tires of our van were now in sand, I took a breath and said to myself “You need the trailer to go right, so move your hand to the right.” I put my foot on the gas and immediately the van lunged farther into the sand. Dammit! I was so frazzled I’d forgotten to put it in reverse. So I moved it to reverse, heart pounding from envisioning us stuck in the sand, blocking both lanes of traffic, unable to call for roadside assistance. You need the trailer to go right, so move your hand to the right,” I repeated. Foot on the gas, gently, and we backed up a bit. Moving the van back into drive, I straightened us out a little, then reversed again, pulled forward again, and voila! We were back in our own lane, pointing the correct way.

And off we went.

Toward the mountains.

The Father Crowley Vista Point route took us back up to 4,000 feet, slow and winding, narrow, and beautiful. We spent the next three hours somewhere between first and fourth gear to avoid overheating and over-braking. And the vista point? Not that great really. But it did give us a chance to feed the kids lunch and give the van a break.

In other “what a day” news, shortly before arriving at the Lake Isabella KOA, we stopped at a Mobil station outside Olancha, CA along “highway” 178, uncertain when we may see gas again. We pulled up behind a red hatchback and realized, after it was too late to easily pick another lane, that the man standing by the gas pump was writing with a black marker on white poster board “Need gas $$, Puppies for sale.”

“He’s selling puppies,” Wendy said horrified. Just then he scooped a tiny pup in his palm and gave it a kiss. We can’t have five dogs in this trailer, I thought to myself. Avoiding eye contact, I started the gas pump and walked into the mini mart for a soda and pork rinds. It was like a scene from The Hills Have Eyes. The entire mini mart was dark—even the refrigerated section. Hard rock music was blaring, and behind the register stood an elderly man in a red and black plaid shirt, hunched over with gray stubble and one hand so afflicted with arthritis that it served only as a pincer.

My affinity for gas station snacks is too strong to be discouraged by such a scene, but I did complete my purchase as quickly as possible, then return to the van to back the trailer out of our spot since the red car was clearly not going anywhere even though the man kept checking to see if the gas he hadn’t paid for may indeed fill his tank, periodically removing and reinserting the nozzle, flustered that nothing had changed.

Wendy and I are now settled in at the KOA with full hookups again and wifi. The kids are sleeping, the radio is playing, we’re a bottle of wine down, and all is right with the world.

Total miles on our Pod: 1196

Trip Report: Joshua Tree National Park


Black Rock Canyon Campground
May 2 – 6, 2017

We hit this camping thing hard right out of the gate. We left Los Angeles around 1:30pm on Tuesday, after spending the first half of the day clearing out and cleaning our house before closing the front door for the last time. Exhausted, we loaded the dogs in the back of the van (because we can’t open it anymore after it’s hitched), attached the trailer to the van, secured the kids in their car seats, and set off on our adventure.

First we drove to the World’s Largest Paper Cup in Riverside, CA, then on to the World’s Largest Dinosaur(s) in Cabazon, CA, where we stopped for gas and grabbed a delicious gas station hot dog (a delicacy that had escaped Wendy until I convinced her of its merits).

The kids did great on the trip despite having been in their high chairs most of the day while Wendy and I moved furniture out to the curb, cleaned cupboards, and packed the car. The dogs did really well too, particularly considering that we hadn’t taken them on any long trips in preparation for this drive.

Though the journey was only 118 miles, it took us a few hours to get to Black Rock Canyon Campground—our new home for the next four nights. According to the itinerary I created, this campground was supposed to have water at the entrance to fill up our trailer. But when we arrived, there was nothing at the entrance except a sign for the campground. We drove for a bit and came upon the Ranger Station, but it was closed. So we drove around looking for our site, on roads that seemed narrow, impossibly windy, and in disrepair. Eventually Wendy just got out and looked for our site to prevent us from getting stuck down a dead-end road.

We pulled into our campsite (#45) around 6pm, unhitched, and let the dogs out to pee and get some water. The kids stayed in their car seats with the doors open so they could watch us. For the next two hours we worked to set up camp. Our site wasn’t level, so we used our BAL Leveler for the first time. It’s supposed to go around the bottom of one tire then lift it up so you can easily level the trailer. This didn’t go according to plan, as I didn’t like the way it was sitting on the tire. So I tried several times and finally positioned it in a way I feel okay with, but not good. We’re still sloped because I’m just not comfortable cranking it any higher. Wendy’s really awesome about it though. This morning she commented “If we need to be lopsided again, let’s try to do it the other way so stuff doesn’t keep falling out of the refrigerator.” Noted, love.

While I was working with the leveler, Wendy pretty much did everything else, like laying our little rug in front of the trailer and setting up the R-Dome (the tent that attaches to the trailer to extend our living space). Since we couldn’t fill the trailer with water, we dug out the six-gallon emergency water container I’d bought and Wendy filled it using a nearby communal hand pump. I checked our battery and it was at about 70%, so I hoped that was enough to keep our refrigerator running throughout the night.

It was about 9pm by the time we’d walked and fed the dogs and gotten them acclimated to “their spots” in the trailer. Afterward we fed the kids dinner (muffins and cheese), read them a story, and put them to bed. Using a flashlight to conserve battery, we opened a jar of salsa and a can of refried beans and dipped tortilla chips into them, then settled in for a bad night’s sleep.

All is Better in the Light of Day

We woke up around 5am the next morning and the kids weren’t far behind. Although we were still tired, in the light of day, the campground layout made more sense and my crankiness from the night before dissipated. We were now prepared to view this adventure as a challenge rather than a chore.

Our battery did keep the refrigerator running through the night, so our food didn’t spoil. I dragged the solar panels out of the Thule in the morning and set them up to see if they worked (since we had never tested them) and how well they worked. The battery was fully charged again in no time! The direct sunlight in this campground has its drawbacks, but the energy it’s providing us is much appreciated.

And it really is beautiful here, and quiet. Right now all three dogs are resting in the shade and I can hear three different kinds of birds singing. We’re all pretty dirty since there are no showers or laundry here, and the only running water is in the bathroom (which has no soap). But the kids don’t seem to mind and we’re adjusting. Baby wipes and wash cloths are close companions this week and I introduced the kids to a nail scrubber yesterday (sloshing it around in a dog bowl with some soap and water to rinse it clean). All four of us are fully embracing the Camp Hair Don’t Care mentality, and Wendy has become friends with the bees that frequent the watering hole where she fills our water jug and does our dishes.

We’re also finding ways to charge our electronic devices. Yesterday we explored Joshua Tree National Park in our van and charged my phone, Wendy’s camera, and CeCe’s Dogtra collar during the trip. I’ve mentioned before that our dogs aren’t the best behaved and we’re worried about barking—at people, animals, cars, wind—pretty much anything. So we’re using this time as a reset of sorts—new environment, new rules. It seems to be working alright so far, so keeping the e-collar charged is a priority. We’re hoping if we use it consistently enough at the beginning of the trip, we won’t need it in a few weeks.

I had listed several hikes on our itinerary for this park, but it’s our last day here and we’ve only done one of them—the dog and stroller-friendly Oasis of Mara trail at the Joshua Tree Visitor’s Center. And honestly it was so hot that we didn’t appreciate it very much. We didn’t stop to read any of the sign posts—just took a 20-minute stroll then hopped in the car to explore the park from our vehicle. To do anything else would require leaving the dogs in the trailer and it’s just too hot. Without electricity, our only way to cool our trailer is via open windows and a bathroom fan. Fortunately the solar panels allow us to keep the fan running during the day, but yesterday afternoon I found myself telling Wendy it was “only 93 degrees inside.” (Much better than 98 degrees on our first full day of camping.) So we’re all living outside as much as possible—no naps inside for the kids, no solo time inside for the dogs.

All seven of us are learning how this works. The dogs had never been camping before now—they’re learning what to do during the day, how to behave, where to eat and sleep. The kids have camped a couple of times but never in this heat and never without water or electricity. They’re having a blast playing in the dirt, getting their little legs scuffed, and seeing animals from stories come to life. (There are quails and jack rabbits here.) They’re learning about washcloth wipe downs; wetting their hair to keep cool; a regimen of sunscreen, argan oil up their nose and chapstick on their lips; drinking water often; standing in shaded areas rather than burning their feet on hot sand; and sitting—just sitting.

Wendy and I are learning how to care for ourselves and five other beings in a way that enriches all of our lives—safely and cost effectively. What should we make for meals? How do we keep everybody clean? Is everybody drinking enough? How do we keep the kids on their schedule? How long can we leave the dogs? When and where should we buy groceries, diapers, and dog food?

We don’t have all the answers yet but we’ll stumble toward more answers tomorrow when we arrive in Death Valley.

Total miles on our Pod: 754

Trip Report: Lake Cachuma Recreation Area


Santa Barbara, CA

lake-cachuma-signWe arrived around 3:30pm on February 20th to find our site (#125) had become bog-like due to the recent rainfall. Uncertain about the wisdom of backing our trailer down a slight hill into mud, I called the ranger station and asked if we could switch to a pull-through site a couple of spots up. He was friendly and understanding, and within two minutes our three-night stay had been switched to site #128.

It was drizzling–then raining–as we set up camp, getting our new jack pads muddy for the first time. While the site was essentially exposed in an open stretch of field, there was enough space between neighbors to feel comfortable. Our site was level, had room for the R-dome, included a fire pit and picnic table, and had water/electric hookups.

lake-cachuma-site-128
lake-cachuma-cabinsWe chose Lake Cachuma because it has cabins where my parents could stay. So we spent a few days traipsing back and forth between our Pod and Falcon cabin: breakfast and lunch at the cabin, kids’ nap time in the Pod, dinner at the cabin, bedtime in the Pod. Have you ever entrusted a 19-month-old with your only flashlight while walking home in the dark? I highly recommend it.

hiking-sweet-waterLake Cachuma has a beautiful campground that’s pleasant to walk around. I had hoped to fish, but the low water level didn’t make it easy and our neighbors said it was too murky to catch anything. We hiked the Sweet Water Trail with my parents one morning; it was pretty easy to reach from our site. It was also a bit disappointing though, because the end of the trail is marked by two signs: one that says “Sweet Water” and another that says “Vista Point 1.5 miles.” The subtext is “You just walked 2.5 miles to see a wooden sign. You’ll have to walk another mile-and-a-half if you want to see something worthwhile.”

sweet-water-trail-end

The Cachuma General Store is a cute place to pay way too much for beer ($12 for a 6-pack of Corona), and much to my mom’s chagrin, it did not sell pretzels of any kind. But we were able to fill up our gas tank when leaving on the 23rd and propane is available as well. Also, no one batted an eye when we drove around a mostly-empty parking lot for an hour after checking out to practice backing up with the trailer.

If you’re looking for a low-key environment with lots of amenities and empty campsites, you’ll like Lake Cachuma in February.

Total miles on our Pod: 636

lake-cachuma-sunset