Trip Report: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


October 9 – 14, 2017
South Rim Campground, Site #B5

Odie has a breathy, staccato, high-pitched, ear-piercing bark that sounds even more urgent at 3:30 in the morning. “Quiet, Odie!” Wendy reprimanded in a whisper, trying not to wake up the kids. But Odie persisted. “Maybe he just needs a drink,” Wendy said, trying to convince us both.

Barking for a drink may not make sense to most dog owners, but Odie’s no ordinary dog. He sleeps on the bottom bunk in the trailer and is afraid of our shoes. So we try to make sure there’s a clear path from his bed to the water bowl. But unfortunately, he’s also afraid of drinking inside. Yes, he’s literally scared to drink from the bowl when it’s inside the trailer. So sometimes when he barks, we accompany him down the stairs, set his bowl on the ground… and he drinks half of it in one long draw as though we’d withheld it from him for days.

While neither of us wants to get fully dressed and step out into the dark at 3:30 just so our dog can drink—when the bowl is one foot away from him inside—it’s better than the alternative: that he’s barking because he has the shits again.

So Wendy got up and tried to encourage Odie to drink, but he wasn’t having it. Our alarm was set for 6:00am and we knew we wouldn’t go back to sleep again after taking him out, so we decided to consider Odie our alarm and get an early start on our trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Wendy’s usually the one who deals with pre-dawn dog crises, but I’m usually the one who walks the dogs during morning departures. So I donned my hooded sweatshirt, shoved a few poo bags in my pocket, strapped on the headlamp, and stepped outside. I expected to maneuver in pitch black, but the full moon hanging above the Great Sand Dunes shone so brightly I didn’t even need the headlamp. I felt privileged to witness this beauty and smiled as I scraped Odie’s loose stool from the gravel.

We rolled out at 5:30am, before the wind gusts and snowfall were scheduled to arrive. I felt good about leaving Great Sand Dunes National Park due to the impending weather, but wasn’t certain what we’d find at Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Light snow was forecasted for our travel day, but we weren’t too concerned since it was supposed to be warm and sunny afterward. Of greater concern was whether there’d be a spot available at the campground and if the water would be shut off yet.

I try to keep the combined weight of our van and trailer as low as possible, especially while traversing mountainous terrain. But I figured being without water was a greater risk to our family, so I put about 10 gallons in our fresh water tank before we left and also filled all three portable water containers for an additional 16 gallons. I made myself feel better about the extra 200 lbs of weight by acknowledging we could dump it out if it gave us any trouble along the way.

But everything felt fine and I was actually thankful for the extra weight whenever the wind picked up. It was a beautiful drive. We traveled through the tiny town of Saquache then took the 14, which presented amazing views while winding through canyon country. It was also cattle country and the kids squealed and commentated as we spent about 10 minutes in the midst of a cattle drive. “Cows! Cows!” they shouted. “Cows on the road!” These exclamations were punctuated by booming laughter and followed by an unexpected line of culinary commentary that started with “Bison burger!” and ended with “pie!”

When the snow flurries came, we took them in stride. They were expected. Our comfort waned as visibility decreased and the real snow came. We still had two hours left in our journey; I was concerned that we may have to find somewhere closer to camp if the snow began sticking to the road. With about 90 minutes left, it began sticking to the road. To the chagrin of the cars behind me, I slowed to 35 as we trekked through the nascent slush, eyes peeled for black ice.

And we periodically pulled over so Odie could take a shit. Fortunately, he whines and then barks so we know he needs to go. Unfortunately, he’s desperate by the time he tells us, so we have to act quickly. The roads we’re traveling—especially the mountain ones—don’t always have a good place to pull over. So usually when Odie whines, Wendy and I both think Aw, crap and picture explosive diarrhea covering the back of the van. I start looking for a place to pull over and Wendy tries to calm Odie and convince his poo to wait.

After Odie’s two poos—one of which was very well-timed to coincide with a huge turnout at a scenic viewpoint—the snow slowed and we were able to relax a bit. It was still cold though, so I continued driving slowly in case we were to encounter icy patches on the wet road. It was stressful as we ascended some fairly-steep hills en route to the park. I kept myself calm and my mind occupied by mentally practicing how to react if we began sliding backward down the winding hill.

But alas, we arrived safely at South Rim Campground, past the unmanned entrance booth to the park, and had our choice of sites. The water is turned off here and only vault toilets are available, but there’s electricity and we arrived with 26 gallons of our own water. This was the first time we’d set up in the snow, our scissor jacks lightly frozen, icicles hanging from the front of the R-Pod.

We only expected to stay two nights before heading to a state park, but we really like it here! Turns out we’ve learned a lot on this trip and are getting along just fine with the water we brought. Electricity helps a lot and even though it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, there are a lot of radio stations and we even get several TV channels… all for $14/night.

This place is a bargain—a beautiful, peaceful bargain with really nice fellow campers. We hiked with the kids along the Rim Rock Nature Trail, which has steep drop-offs and views of the canyon. I’m sure it’s pretty any time of year, but the yellow, orange, and red leaves of fall enhanced the beauty and there was a light blanket of snow on the ground the morning we went. We also drove East Portal Road to the bottom of the canyon, a stunning drive with a 16% grade that’s totally worth the effort. And our campsite is tucked into the woods, with a lot of room for the kids to play.

We feel pretty alone here, but clearly we aren’t. Wendy came back from walking the dogs one evening holding a note in her hand. “This was on the car,” she told me. “I thought maybe someone was going to complain about the dogs.” But no. Instead, the handwritten note said the following:

Having been the mother of 2 toddlers (0 dogs) a long time ago, I can only say—I have nothing but awe for your spirit and optimism. Good luck in all your travels.

“People don’t just carry paper like that with them,” Wendy said. “Someone had to go back to their trailer or tent, write that note and get tape, then come back here.” We were in awe that someone was kind and motivated enough to leave such a nice note.

And yesterday, while taking a family walk with both kids and all three dogs, we encountered Sylvia—a woman with zero pretense who was tent-camping by herself and is considering creating a self-sustaining community on her family’s ranch. As we chatted, she casually mentioned that she was keeping her distance because she’d been wearing the same clothes for a while. “I’ve been wearing this shirt for six days,” I told her, “so same deal here.” No water means no laundry. I wouldn’t want to do this all the time; I’m a one-shirt-a-day woman. But beauty takes sacrifice—just not the kind our culture is most accustomed to.

Besides, we have the luxury of knowing our squalor is temporary. We’ll have access to laundry and showers tomorrow, when we arrive at Mesa Verde National Park.

Trip Report: Canada


 

August 9 – September 4, 2017

Today is Emerson’s second birthday. Darwin is convinced it’s hers, but we keep reminding her that happened back in June. Maybe she just wants a do-over, since we accidentally scared the hell out of them both in the Subway Cave Lava Tube.

We’re definitely doing better this time. We arrived at Park Lake Provincial Park in Alberta yesterday and will be leaving the park (and Canada) in a couple of days. We were hesitant when we heard the weather forecast: Widespread smoke in Lethbridge, with a high of 33 C (91 F) and high winds. But our campsite is lovely—we’re about 20 yards from the lake, which is providing a strong breeze, and we’re also in partial shade. So for us, the weather is in the low 80s and the wildfire smoke is barely noticeable.

We took the kids to the playground this morning and will let them play at the lake this afternoon. Then, just as Darwin did back in June, Emerson will unwrap his one small, not-too-heavy birthday present from a reusable shopping bag. Hopefully he’ll still be surprised even though he has seen the box for the tractor we’re giving him in the back of the car for the past two months. Every once in a while he’ll see it and yell “Tractor!” and I’ll say “Yep, that’s a tractor,” and close the door. Nothing to see here, move on.

Canada has been great. This is our fourth park and fifth campsite. First we spent a couple of nights at Waterton Lakes National Park, which is the Canadian side of Glacier National Park in Montana. Our campground (Townsite) was basically a big grassy field with a bunch of tents and trailers in it, as though we had all come for a concert. But it was remarkably clean, at the base of beautiful mountains, and adjacent to a large lake and cute little town. In fact it was so pretty and laid back here, I barely got angry when I hurried home with the kids in the stroller from the playground, cutting through fields as sprinkles turned to steady rain, only to find the car was gone and we were locked out of the trailer. The Dome wasn’t up, so I just stood there in the rain with the kids, waiting for Wendy. I figured there had either been an emergency with the dogs, or she’d decided to come get us when it started raining.

“I couldn’t find you!” Wendy offered as she pulled up. “I must have just missed you!” I was only a little mad about being wet. Mainly I was upset that I’d bothered running when it didn’t do any good. If I’d exerted less effort—pushed the stroller on the street rather than attempting to bound over grassy hills—we all would’ve been home sooner.

We didn’t go on any hikes at Waterton. We had planned to do one on our only full day at the park, but on our way to the trailhead, we saw two bears. One was a spazzy baby black bear running along the road batting signs. It crossed in front of us and as we slowed down, we saw another, bigger bear, on a hillside. As mothers of toddlers, we immediately decided it was imploring the spazzy bear to “Come on! We have things to do!”

After seeing how quickly little Yogi ran, Wendy and I kept envisioning meeting a bear on a trail. There’d be no getting away. Sure, I “ran” back to the trailer when it rained, but that term is indicative more of the effort I’m putting forth than the actual speed I’m going. The baby bear, on the other hand, was objectively, joyously running. Besides, there are lots of instructions regarding when to deploy bear spray. But then what? Are you supposed to back away slowly or run? I don’t want to needlessly engage the predator/prey instinct, but by doing the equivalent of kicking a bear in the nuts, have you then pissed it off enough that you’d better run while it’s incapacitated or it’ll bat you around twice as much?

On the drive home from what turned out to be a car-only site-seeing tour, we saw the baby bear again (still running) and a third bear. That cinched it for us.

Our bear awareness continued when we left Waterton and drove to Banff. First we stayed at the southern end of the park (in Tunnel Mountain Village II), which seemed more like a bustling town than a national park. Here we engaged in our first really touristy activity: a cable car ride.  Darwin had recently become afraid of the wind—literally—especially when it blew the R-Dome; she’d run to us, her brow furrowed, and exclaim “Wind blow tent! Wind blow tent!” She knew what it was, but it scared her anyway. So we thought a cable car ride hundreds of yards above a mountain might frighten her. But nope, both kids loved it. In fact, Emerson cried when we reached the top and had to exit the car.

It dropped us off at the top of Sulfur Mountain, where we strapped the kids into their backpacks and traversed the 200-step wooden boardwalk to a “cosmic station.” Since neither Wendy nor I tend to read information placards, we don’t really know what that is. But the views were great and chipmunks abounded (or perhaps they were a small rodent called “Clark’s Nuts” — it’s a real thing).

The southern part of Banff holds good memories because of this, and because of our hike along Stewart Trail with CeCe. (Dogs are allowed on most trails in Canadian parks.) It also holds good memories because it’s the first place I ever tried poutine—a delicious combination of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds. But it’s also the place where a nearby train woke us up every night, and where I lost the outer shell of my triclimate jacket.

The day we set aside to explore the town called for the use of our jackets—sometimes just the warm lining and, when it intermittently poured, the outer shell. We kept the coats in the bottom of the stroller and donned different components at the appropriate time. I was wearing the outer shell of the Patagonia coat when we arrived at the car and began packing it up to go home. I took the coat off… and that was the last time I ever saw it.

When we got back to camp and began placing the coats into the bag where we keep them, they were all there except my outer shell. My parents bought me that coat for Christmas and I’d planned to take it to France—a little piece of my Maryland home with me on our new farm. And now it was gone. We drove back to the parking garage, hoping it had fallen out of the car and we’d find it on the ground, maybe in a corner. But it was nowhere to be found.

Aside from the sentimental value, that jacket was really useful! Here we were, headed farther north into Canada, where the weather had already proven unpredictable, and I’d lost the ability to protect myself from rain and wind.

When we left the southern part of Banff and arrived in Lake Louise, Wendy bought me another outer shell as a birthday present. I guess if I’m going to lose something that means a lot to me, doing so around a holiday is good timing. So now I’m properly outfitted again, and already had occasion to use the shell on one of our hikes.

Lake Louise is a more national parky side of Banff. It has a very small shopping area and is much less crowded. We spent seven nights here in the Lake Louise Hard-sided Campground. The “hard-sided trailers only” requirement was not lost on Wendy. She waited until there was sufficient light and activity in the morning before walking the dogs, watched for bears whenever the kids played outside, and only took the dogs out at night before it got dark.

We know we’re supposed to back away slowly so as not to agitate them, but our dogs don’t. We fully expect CeCe, Odie, and Clark would bark their faces off if they so much as got a whiff of a bear. “I’d just have to let CeCe go,” I told Wendy on one of our evening walks along the campground perimeter, which abutted a forest and river. “She’s the only one who could actually fight a bear.”

“CeCe? Nah,” she replied. “I’d let Clark go. He’d distract the bear but then the bear wouldn’t be able to catch him.” She had a point. Though I suspect Clark may just run to us, and possibly around us in circles, wanting to be close but also unable to calm himself. “I’ve rounded them up for you,” he’d be telling the bear, “This big dog that looks like a cow is easy pickins.”

Lake Louise also had train tracks nearby. Perhaps some tourists appreciate this, but we didn’t find it enchanting. “Shut up train! Everybody hates you!” Wendy retorted one night in response to its intrusive whistle. That summed it up well. I wore earplugs and still woke up to it a couple of times each night. The kids picked up on our distaste for it, merging their excitement with our disdain. They’d yell “Train!” when they heard the whistle, immediately followed by “Loud!”

While our in-camp experience may not have been stellar, our other activities were. We went on a glacier tour, where the kids got to ride in a bus for the first time. The bus drove us to the place where the ice explorer tractor/buses hang out, then we boarded one (with Emerson yelling both “tractor!” and “bus!” alternately) and drove onto Athabasca Glacier. Then we got out for half an hour, took pictures, drank some of the water, and finally licked a glacier. I don’t know how that last item arrived on Wendy’s and my to-do list, but it held a prominent place and finally we’re able to cross it off.

Also, when we got home, Clark was still alive. We had expected he would be, but a niggling concern remained in my gut since he’d snuck the “butter ball” off the table that we’d made for CeCe that morning: two Benadryl tablets surround by butter. She weighs 60 lbs and he only weighs 15. At the very least, I’d expected him to be asleep when we got home. But as soon as we pulled up I heard him barking. It was like nothing had ever happened.

We went on a couple of really cool hikes in Lake Louise. One was recommended by a lady from North Carolina who camped next to us at Mt. Rainier. She’d been to Banff and said the Lake Agnes Tea House hike was a must-do. We read that it was 3.4 km each way (about 2 miles) with significant elevation, but decided that it sounded worth it.

I was cursing North Carolina halfway through the hike. It was just up and up followed by more up. Plus the view of Lake Louise disappeared early on in favor of forest, so watching Wendy try to prevent CeCe from eating horse poop was my only real entertainment.

I’m not a hiker. I just like to see beautiful things, and I’m willing to work for it. I realize lots of people derive pleasure from the hike itself—especially if they have to exert a lot of effort—but if I could see all these beautiful things without breathing hard and getting jelly legs, I’d gladly do so. We hiked two-and-a-half hours uphill to spend 20 minutes at a small lake next to a crowded tea house. To put it in perspective, the Cleetwood Cove Trail at Crater Lake had an elevation gain of 700 feet over the course of a mile; the Agnes Tea House lake had an elevation gain of 1,300 feet over the course of two miles. Wendy was glad we did it. But me? No. Not even if Emerson had been walking rather than riding on my back.

The other hike we went on was totally worth it: Johnston Canyon. It was quite different from anything else we’ve experienced so far. We walked in a canyon, the jagged rock towering above us on each side. A concrete pathway with a sturdy guard rail was attached to the side of one of the walls and a glacial river roared below.

We left the Lake Louise portion of Banff in need of groceries and with a big pile of laundry in tow. This trip has activated interesting parts of our brains since everyday administrative chores sometimes require extensive planning to achieve. For example, Wendy purchased pre-made polenta then dreamt that I’d carelessly eaten it as a snack; she was furious with me. And in our waking hours, we’ve accused each other of crimes such as the “frivolous use” of clean clothing, lights, or water.

Jasper though, had everything. The town isn’t very big, but it’s very practical, with a decent-sized grocery store, three liquor stores, several gas stations, and two laundromats. Curiously, each laundromat also doubles as something else; one is also a coffee shop and the other one doubles as a stationary shop. The latter is called “Three Sheets to the Wind” and quickly garnered our business. Other practical benefits to Jasper? No train and most activities were in close proximity to our campground (Whistlers). Oddly though, for such a seemingly-well-planned town, there were no diaper-changing stations and lots of stairs without ramps. There was no way for someone in a wheelchair to enter the Visitor’s Center, either laundromat, or several shops.

We went on a couple of hikes while in Jasper and the best by far was the Cavell Meadows trail. I waited in line at the Visitor’s Center two days ahead of time to secure a free permit to drive along Cavell Road so we could travel to Edith Cavell and hike 7 km (about 4 miles) next to Angel Glacier into a meadow carpeted with wildflowers. It was quite difficult, with the same elevation gain as the Agnes Tea House hike (1,300 feet), but it was—without question—totally worth it. I think it may be my favorite so far, with our hike along Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park a close second.

The kids also got to ride in a boat for the first time. We had planned to rent a canoe while at Lake Louise but scratched the idea when we learned it cost $100/hour. I felt bad because I’d asked the kids if they wanted to go in a boat and they shouted “Yeah!” even though they didn’t really know what that meant.

It only costs $40 to rent a rowboat at Pyramid Lake in Jasper, so we went for it. I’d never rowed a boat and turns out it’s actually more tiring than paddleboarding or kayaking. Our hour-long rental turned into a 30-minute rental where Wendy says we travelled maybe five feet. The kids loved being on the water though, clad in little life vests, taking a turn with the oars.

After rowing, we drove to the part of the lake with a beach and had a picnic lunch. There they were, let loose at a sandy beach at the base of a mountain, crystal clear water gently lapping at their legs… and they found a big mud pool someone had dug into the sand. They just couldn’t resist the brown, murky goodness it contained and proceeded to play there—literally one foot away from the clean water—for an hour. They couldn’t travel in their sandy, mud-laden state, so Wendy and I washed them in the lake before returning to the car. “Playing in mud is fine,” I told Emerson as I rinsed away the grit with ice-cold glacial water, “but this is what happens afterward. Keep that in mind next time.”

As a testament to the boundless energy of two-year olds, we drove to a third part of the lake with a footbridge to a small island. We walked around the perimeter with the kids, then drove home and went to the playground. When bedtime rolled around, they still weren’t ready to sleep even though Wendy and I were beat.

After Jasper we travelled to Red Lodge Provincial Park, which was just a place to stop for a couple of nights to break up the drive as we leave Canada. The provincial park we’re in now—Park Lake—has been a great way to end this portion of our trip. Canada has been awesome. While many of the highways we travelled had some degree of disrepair (especially the Icefields Parkway), they also had large turnouts with trashcans—a convenience I’d like to see in the States. I love that dogs are allowed on national park trails; we didn’t suffer any damage to the trailer while here. Truth told we’re a little sad to leave Canada, but we’re looking forward to our next big stop: Yellowstone National Park!

Total miles on our Pod: 6,026

Trip Report: Glacier National Park


August 5 – 9, 2017
Fish Creek Campground (site #79)

Glacier is neck-and-neck with Mt. Rainier for the most beautiful national park we’ve visited so far. Our trip was cut a day short due to Odie’s vet stay last week, so we had three days to spend at the park. We kept it low-key and took all three dogs along for each activity.

We’re staying at Fish Creek Campground, which is within walking distance to McDonald Lake. So we all hoofed it to the lakeside Sunday morning. I thought we’d look at it for a while—take in the beauty—then head back to camp. But the water was so clear and inviting that we decided to strip the kids down to their diapers and let them splash around. They had a blast!

About an hour later, we headed home—me pushing an empty stroller with Clark and Odie on either side, Wendy walking CeCe, and the kids following along in their shirts, shoes, and soggy diapers.

We got them into dry clothes, loaded everyone into the car, and headed to nearby Apgar Village to explore and eat lunch. It was really crowded, but the view of the lake was amazing. We managed to find an empty bench in the shade, and shared a delicious pulled pork sandwich and salad with the kids, followed by a couple of small cups of over-priced, crystalized ice cream. Before we left, Wendy and I took turns going into stores, then I took the kids to the Ranger Station, which had a bunch of pelts and bones on display—specifically so people could touch them. It’s a little creepy but the kids really like feeling the different textures.

The next day we loaded our family of seven into the van to travel the Going-to-the-Sun road. We weren’t sure what to expect since Wendy had seen a t-shirt for sale at the Apgar Village declaring “I survived Going-to-the-Sun road,” and when we entered the national park on Saturday afternoon, the attendant said “Do you know you can’t take trailers on Going-to-the-Sun road?” My itinerary had a note that we should leave early because it gets crowded, so we headed out by 8:30.

We should’ve left earlier. The 50-mile road has a lot of overlooks and exhibits, but we didn’t get to see them all because there was nowhere to park. When we reached Logan’s Pass (a continental divide), the Visitor’s Center parking lot was completely full. We just drove through then kept on driving. It could’ve been frustrating but it wasn’t. The scenery was stunning and we were able to stop at pullouts now and then to take it in. Besides, stopping also gave Wendy a chance to catch her breath from all the gasping. I think the survival t-shirt is for people in the passenger seat, closest to the edge.

After reaching the end of the iconic road, we headed to Many Glacier for a picnic. It wasn’t far away—another 20 miles or so. But a couple stretches of rough road prolonged the journey, so we didn’t arrive until about 11:30. It was beautiful! There’s a lodge next to a lake and I pictured my parents staying there. It’s visible from the main road and we decided to drive down there to look for a picnic spot, but it was too crowded. We drove to the end of the main road, which dead-ended at an inn with a bustling parking lot and no picnic spots. We drove back the way we’d come and decided to pull into the campground for our picnic; we were immediately greeted by a sign that read “No picnicking in campground.” So we continued to the Ranger Station, where I talked to a ranger and was told “There are picnic tables about 200 yards down the road, but parking is a problem right now.” No shit. We wormed our way through the parking lot surrounding several picnic tables—some of which were available. But it was such a blah place to hang out; it was literally like picnicking in a parking lot.

So we continued back the way we had come, back out of Many Glacier, back to Going-to-the-Sun road. It was now 1pm and we were starving. “By hook or by crook, we will picnic in the park today,” Wendy declared.

We saw a sign for Rising Sun and Wendy said “Turn here.” I asked if they have picnic tables. “I don’t know,” she said. “Yes, they do,” she added. “We’re going to picnic there, dammit.”

And they did. And we did. There were about seven tables scattered in a large open field. Five were taken and two tables in full sun remained. We tied the dogs to a tree then pushed a table about 30 yards to the edge of the field, into the shade. A ranger approached. “We’re gonna get in trouble,” Wendy said, uncomfortable with my method of flipping the heavy table over and pushing it through the grass. But instead he said hello and offered to take our picture. CeCe rewarded his kindness by barking at him as he walked away.

We settled at the table, unpacked our cheese and crackers, and then it happened, like something out of The Walking Dead. Hoards of asians descended on the field and began walking past us, brushing by the table, within inches of the dogs, silent, except for some uncomfortable laughter by a man who got too close to CeCe.

For the few minutes this scene persisted, I just stood there, watching. It reminded me of something I’d heard or read (can’t remember which) about different cultures having different senses of personal space and how Americans tend to require a really large sphere to remain comfortable. I understood that in theory but had never had it play out on such a large scale. It made me laugh. I took a picture of Wendy and the kids sitting at the table with their backs to about 30 on-comers scattered across the field like dispersed molecules.

After the tourists had moved on and we were about halfway through lunch, CeCe jumped up and barked toward the woods. I decided to get up and take a look, just in case. I walked a few feet to the edge of the woods and rounded a corner toward the beginning of a trail. I didn’t see anything except a sign with two interesting pieces of paper tacked to it. One was titled “Entering Grizzly Country” and had a picture of bear spray on it. The other was bright orange with “DANGER” in red letters above a notice declaring “All Area Beyond This Sign is Closed Because Of Bear Danger.”

We will picnic today. We will picnic today. Even if we do it quickly. 

Glacier’s newsletter provides in-depth bear advice. If you see a bear that doesn’t seem agitated, you’re supposed to speak nicely to it and back away. If it seems agitated, you’re not supposed to run—you’re supposed to “prepare to deploy your bear spray” and try not to shit your pants. (The latter is inferred.) If you don’t have bear spray, you’re supposed to fall to the ground on your stomach and clasp your hands around your head. If the attack was “purely defensive,” the bear will bat you around a bit then leave. But if the attack persists, the newsletter warns in bold: “Fight back!

“Yes, I’m going to fight back against a 600-lb bear,” Wendy said when she read it. “We’ll see how that goes.”

The advice Wendy and I discussed most though, when I told her about the DANGER sign I’d just seen, is Glacier’s insistence that if you have food on a table and a bear approaches, “Don’t let the bear get the food!” I understand the concept behind the “a fed bear is a dead bear” tagline. I get it—if a bear eats people food and keeps coming around, they’ll have to kill it. I don’t want that to happen. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to discipline a bear who’s wandering toward my picnic table. If a bear had suddenly emerged from the woods a few feet away from us, I’m not even sure I’d have the presence of mind to unhook the dogs’ leashes from around the picnic table before scooping up the kids and backing away while peeing my pants. “I hope you like cheese!” I’d say nicely. “There’s tomato and salt, too.”

Total miles on our Pod: 4,526

Trip Report: Olympic National Park


Sol Duc Hot Springs RV Resort (Site #3)
July 19 – 24, 2017

“Nolan!” The man’s voice carried throughout the campground, desperate and ardent. Wendy and I stopped to listen. “NOLAN! Has anyone seen a little boy?!”

It was about 8:45pm but still light out. We had eaten dinner, the kids were in bed, and we were in our PJs. I envisioned a man pacing the campground, hands cupped on either side of his mouth, screaming his son’s name, hoping for the best, expecting the worst.

Wendy started getting dressed. “Take the headlamp,” I told her. She left.

I expected a full-on search to ensue. Wendy expected to leash CeCe and begin searching the woods for the boy. But instead, she returned to the trailer in less than two minutes.

“It was a joke,” she said. “Some kids playing a joke.

“But it sounded like a man,” I said, confused.

“I dunno,” Wendy explained, “but the guy next to us said it was some kids and he was considering telling their parents.”

Thus began our first night at Sol Duc Hot Springs RV Resort, 12 miles off the 101, in Olympic National Park.

“Is this it?” I had asked Wendy as we pulled in. It seemed like the parking lot for a place, not an actual place. But yeah—it was our campground, alright: A dusty gravel pad with some freshly-mown vegetation in the back. The brush had grown to about two feet—evident from a small patch that remained in the front of our site beneath a face-high tree branch. “I’m not ducking under to get that,” I envisioned the employee on the riding lawn mower saying. “I don’t even like this job.” Another thing the mystery employee said to himself? “Why bother picking up all this trash when I can just run over it?”

So yeah, our campground sucks. I wouldn’t recommend this place. But at least it has water and electricity hookups, and that makes us like it a little more. It’s also pretty well located for the things we wanted to do here at Olympic. There’s no road through this park, so it takes a really long time to get anywhere—at least an hour; it’s 20 minutes just to climb out of our campground. But it’s totally worth it.

On our first full day at the park, we drove about 90 minutes to explore Olympic’s beaches. We didn’t leave until after 10am because it was our first time enacting a new plan to address CeCe’s separation anxiety:

  1. Feed her in the trailer instead of outside;
  2. Barricade the emergency window at least half an hour before we leave;
  3. Take her for a long walk and slip her two Benadryl encased in butter;
  4. Leave her in the trailer while we eat breakfast with the kids outside, and let her watch us through the screen door;
  5. Turn the radio on; and
  6. When we’re ready to leave, turn on her e-collar and set up the GoPro like a nannycam.

The GoPro creates its own wireless connection to my iPhone, so we were able to sit in the car and watch CeCe in the pod before we left. Shortly after I closed the trailer door, she jumped on the dinette bench then nosed the back window curtain off of the rail. I gave her a quick zap. She jumped down, paced the floor for a moment, then laid down by the door. We waited, watching. After she’d stayed that way for a couple of minutes, we decided to leave and hope for the best.

We arrived at First Beach in La Push—a town made famous by the Twilight series—around noon. It isn’t the nicest beach we’ve been to, but it was decent and had tons of driftwood. We used a piece as a bench for our picnic lunch of apples, nuts, cheese, and crackers. Other visitors had created elaborate structures with campfire rings, wind breaks, and plentiful seating.

After lunch we continued to the creatively-named Second Beach, which was much nicer but made us work for it. We parked at the trailhead, placed the kids in backpacks, and set off to walk the 3/4-mile trail through the rain forest down to the beach. The trail had no name and there was no information sign-posted regarding elevation or difficulty. Whatever, I thought. It’s less than a mile.

About 10 minutes into the walk, we passed a couple on their way back from the beach. “Good luck,” the guy said as his girlfriend puffed a cigarette.

“What do you mean?” Wendy asked.

“It’s just that there are like, a thousand stairs down to the beach,” he explained.

“Is the view good from the top?”

“No,” he said, as his girlfriend simultaneously replied “Yes.”

We laughed and decided we’d decide when we got there.

But when we reached the stairs, the beach wasn’t visible from the top. Either we took the stairs or we never saw the beach. So down we went. Down and down, until the trail opened into a beautiful beach with spires and arches in the distance.

Worth it.

We took turns scaling the large graying trees that had drifted ashore over time, interlocking to form a mostly-stationary latticework about 10 feet across. By now it was after 2pm, so we headed back up the 125 steps, which was difficult but nothing compared to the Cleetwood Cove Trail back at Crater Lake.

As a final nod to Twilight, we went home via Forks, drove by some of the sight-seeing must-do’s, and snapped a photo with Wendy at Bella’s truck. As we approached the campground, Wendy and I both wondered what we’d find. What would CeCe have chewed? How bad would it be?

I opened the trailer door and saw that the back window curtain was displaced. But that was it. Nothing was destroyed.

The next day, we followed the same morning routine. This time CeCe laid down right away, which just seemed too easy. We waited and waited, but she didn’t move. So we left, this time to visit the Hoh Rainforest within the park, about two hours away.

It was really cool. We started with the Spruce Trail, which is a mostly-flat loop a little more than a mile long that took us through the rain forest and next to the Hoh River. We let the kids walk this one, and they had a good time. They both like to step on tree roots and to my dismay, I saw one squish beneath Darwin’s sneaker. I realized too late to prevent her from stomping on the five-inch slug, thinking it was a protruding root. Tiny bubbles extruded and I feared she had killed it. So I did what any veterinarian would do, and poked it with a stick. It moved. Phew.

We checked out the Visitor’s Center, had a picnic lunch, then took the kids in the stroller through the Hall of Mosses. “You’re gonna have trouble with that,” a woman warned us a few minutes into the mile-long trail. Trouble? Psshh. She doesn’t know where this thing has been. We did have some trouble, but the trail was do-able with teamwork, and worth seeing.

We returned home around 5pm, wondering what we may find. But once again, no damage. Even the back window curtain was intact.

On our third day at the park, we followed the same pattern. This time CeCe took some time to settle. She laid down for a while then paced and appeared to howl, then laid back down again. We waited. She stood up again, walked toward the dinette bench, then turned around, appeared to howl, and laid down again. Again, we waited. A couple of minutes later, she got up, jumped on the dinette bench, and nosed the back window. I gave a quick zap; she jumped down, then laid down by the door. We waited and nothing happened. We drove away, hoping for the best.

After some debate, we decided to visit Hurricane Ridge instead of Dungeness Spit—the “longest spit in the United States.” I’d never had any interest in visiting a spit, but once I learned it was the biggest one I kind of wanted to go. Besides, Hurricane Ridge was alpine forest and we had just come from that kind of habitat at Mt. Rainier.

A ranger changed my mind. When Wendy, somewhat to my embarrassment, told him we’d just arrived at the park, hadn’t researched anything, and were wondering what stroller/kid-hike friendly activities he would recommend as must-sees. I did a lot of research for this trip, but I barely know anything about the parks when we get here. I jotted down some hikes that sounded good or were recommended by Fodor’s and that’s the extent of it. No poring over a park’s particulars—it was bada bing bada boom, is there space in any of the campgrounds there? Book it!

The ranger recommended several activities, including a few we had already planned, but he didn’t even mention the Spit. He did, however, emphasize that we had to do Hurricane Ridge. So we decided we’d rather drive 90 minutes to a sure-thing than two-and-a-half hours to what Wendy described as a really long stretch of sand.

It was amazing! Definitely one of my favorite hikes so far. We were literally walking along a mountain ridge for 3.2 miles, flanked by stunning drop-offs, heavily-forested valleys, vibrant wildflowers, and abundant wildlife. The trailhead started at around 5,400 feet then climbed 700 more feet over the course of 1.6 miles to the top of Hurricane Ridge, with views of Mt. Olympus and parts of Canada. On the way down, we even got to walk into and through a cloud, feeling the cold wind and light rain on our faces. Deer grazed in close proximity several times throughout the hike; a rabbit darted across our path; chipmunks scurried; and we saw a marmot hanging out next to a sign lamenting the disappearance of marmots, as if to say “Those park rangers are such worry warts.”

We stopped at a Walmart Super Center on our way home, which meant we arrived quite late—close to 6:30pm. I was shocked as I opened the door to the trailer: Not a thing out of place. Not a single thing. I was simply greeted by three happy dogs with wagging tails in a completely intact trailer.

We reserved our final day at Olympic for taking care of chores and relaxing a little. I’ve been driving a lot each day and tomorrow is our longest stint yet—313 miles to North Cascades National Park. The kids had a crappy day because there’s nowhere to play in this campsite; the “parking lot” is too dangerous due to traffic and our back lot has too many mosquitos. So they ended up being bored—and subsequently quite naughty—all day. But Wendy successfully stowed the R-Dome; re-anchored a light the kids have been pulling away from the wall in their crib; re-affixed a piece of wood to the inside of a kitchen drawer so it’ll no longer open way farther than it’s supposed to (compliments of Emerson); and cleaned/re-waterproofed our boots. I drove to a pullout with Verizon LTE and used my phone as a hotspot to publish blog posts dating back to June 6th (just figured out how to do that); patched the TV cord CeCe had bitten through, so the TV works again; and superglued a piece of plastic back onto the refrigerator so it’ll close properly again.

Now the kids are sleeping and we’re sitting at the kitchen table drinking Legacy scotch from styrofoam cups. Nine-and-a-half hours from now our alarm will sound, and we’ll be on the move again.

Total miles on our Pod: 3,602

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: 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

 

Trip Report: White Tank Mountain Regional Park


Waddell, AZ

white-tank-sign.jpg

We arrived early on January 5th and left the morning of January 7th. This was our first-ever camping trip and our goals were to test out our trailer and learn how to use it.

We chose White Tank Mountain Regional Park because it’s only 30 minutes away from where we picked up our travel trailer, and it has electric and water hookups. Our primary goal was to test each appliance and try putting up the R-dome, which is a tent that attaches to the side of the trailer to provide more living space.

But it turns out this park is a great place to camp! We did end up focusing mostly on our trailer, but would come back here to visit because the environment is so nice. We never felt uncomfortable (as two married women with two toddlers) and everyone was friendly, from staff to fellow campers. It was very quiet and watching the sun rise in the morning over the desert was really peaceful.

fullsizeoutput_3bcf

We stayed in site #9, which was very level, had room for our R-dome, and included a fire pit, grill, and picnic table.

We squeezed in one short hike with the kids along the Ironwood Trail, using part of the Ford Canyon Trail to loop back to camp rather than doubling back on ourselves. Everything was really well-marked and maintained.

white-tank-ironwood-trail.JPG

If you’re looking for a friendly but peaceful place to camp that has hookups and a few trails, this is a good spot. It cost us $30/night plus an $8 reservation fee. I recommend reserving a space for weekends because the camp was fully booked when we left Saturday morning.

Total miles on our pod: 402

Picking Up Our Pod


After months of research, Wendy and I settled on purchasing an R-Pod 172 travel trailer as a way to spend six months exploring national parks en route to my parents’ house in Maryland—our final stop before moving to France in the Fall of 2017.

Our biggest challenge was to find something to accommodate us all while still being affordable and light enough for our minivan to tow. The R-pod fit the bill, with its 2,600-lb tow weight, bunk beds, and dinette/queen(ish) bed.

After hunting for the best price, we pulled the trigger in September of last year by putting a downpayment on a 172 with Tom’s Camperland in Surprise, AZ (only 5 1/2 hours away according to Google Maps). The dealer explained that due to a production backlog, our pod probably wouldn’t arrive until January or February. But we got a call shortly before Christmas letting us know our new trailer was ready for pick-up!

Since we already had plans to visit my family in Maryland for Christmas, we decided to pick up the trailer on January 4th—the first day Tom’s opened after the new year. The plan? Do the walk-through with the dealer, then camp for two nights at the nearby White Tank Mountain Regional Park.

The reality? We left Los Angeles at 6:45 on Wednesday morning, expecting to arrive at Tom’s around 1pm. But the GPS kept estimating a 3pm arrival. What does it know, I thought. Sure, I was going 55 because for some reason I thought that was the fastest we were supposed to go with a Thule box on the roof. But the idea of getting there that late made me uncomfortable. What time do they close? Will I have to drive the trailer in the dark? Will we have to set up camp in the dark?

IMG_0488.JPGInstead of letting that get to me, I decided to focus on how much I love road trips. My wife is fun to travel with and our toddlers were doing a good job being trapped in their car seats. Everything’s gonna be fine. But let’s kick it up to 60mph just in case.

Then, three hours into the trip, I realized I’d forgotten our checkbook. We’d spent so much time planning what to pack for our first camping trip that I forgot we needed to finish paying for the trailer first! We use an online-only bank; same-day cashiers checks and wire transfers are off the table. After several phone calls, we finally got approval to increase the debit card point-of-sale limit for this one purchase. However, unsure whether to believe the service rep, we devised a back-up plan: we happened to have three different debit cards on us and could hopefully pool them to pay off the trailer without tripping any “You’re a terrorist or fraudster” switches. (Ultimately, we did have to use our back-up plan because our point-of-sale transaction was denied.)

Now the GPS had us arriving at 3:30pm. You little bastard!  Wendy looked at her phone. The time showed an hour later than the clock in our car. Dammit! Arizona was an hour ahead! “You know, I don’t know where I read we can only go 55mph with the Thule. I think we can go faster. It’ll be fine,” I told Wendy. Fifty-five, seventy-nine—potayto, potawto. Off we went, finally passing the tractor trailers who had blown past us earlier in the day.

toms camperland sign.jpgWe finally arrived at Tom’s at 3pm. We only had two hours of daylight left and I had SO MANY QUESTIONS, all of which boiled down to 1) How the heck do we use this and 2) How can I be sure not to kill my family while towing? I had also scoured the maintenance section of an R-pod owners’ forum several weeks prior, looking for problems other people wished they’d checked before leaving the dealer. I made a list and brought it with us, determined to check those things before taking ownership of the pod. They were important things, like “Make sure there aren’t any screws missing from the brackets that hold the waste tanks in place under the trailer,” and I didn’t want to end up dismissing those inspection points because it was getting late, or I felt I’d taken up too much of the dealer’s time.

Turns out the dealership could not have been nicer. We worked with Dave, who explained how everything works and answered all of our questions thoroughly. He was so friendly that I decided to ask if he’d mind installing two things we’d brought with us—a propane gauge and battery cut-off switch. “Oh that’s easy,” he said, looking at the propane gauge. In less than a minute he had screwed it onto the bottle. Yep, that was easy. “But your battery cut-off switch,” he continued, “isn’t the right kind. You want a waterproof seal and it’s hard to get one with that.” Damn you R-pod owners shopping list on Amazon. 

“Want it?” I asked Dave.

“No, that probably cost you a lot,” he said.

“Eight bucks. You can have it, in case you can use it for anything around here.”

“Hmm,” he said, moving it around in his hand. “Let me see if one of the guys can put it on for you.” And they did, free of charge.

We completed our trailer primer around 5pm. As a final step, Dave asked me to get in our van so he could show me how the brake controller works. He moved the switch to the left and the numbers went up. “Like this?” I asked, moving it all the way to the left. Rather than showing a number, the display said “s.h.”

Shit. “Did I break it?” I asked.

“Hmm, it has a short,” he answered.

So no, I didn’t break it. But it was broken.

img_0522As Dave and his co-workers troubleshot the problem, the sun began retreating and my anxiety about night-towing returned. Six o’clock came and went, and the troubleshooting continued. Had Camping World installed the brake controller wrong? Was there a problem with the wiring on our new trailer? Was there a problem with our van? Maybe our van just can’t tow, and that’s it. We bought this and now we can’t do anything with it.

Seven-thirty rolled around and the problem hadn’t been solved. It was dark. The campground closed at eight. The children had been trapped in some sort of seat for more than 11 hours. Defeated, I left a message for the campground notifying them we couldn’t make it that night, but would like to keep our reservation for tomorrow. We unpacked our food from the van and put it in the trailer’s refrigerator/freezer. (With the exception of our water bottle filled with brandy, which we retained.) We schlepped to Subway and then the Days Inn. This sucks, I thought, then smiled at Wendy and said as convincingly as I could muster, “Camping’s supposed to be an adventure, right?” Cue the brandy.

Day Two

We headed back to Tom’s in the morning and within an hour, Dave had solved the problem. Camping World had used a white wire with green rather than a green wire with white. Simple as that. So he fixed it, showed me how to work the controller, and off we went to White Tank.

I had been afraid to tow the R-pod, but turns out it pretty much does what our van does. Takes a little longer to get going but it stops really well and I don’t even have to adjust my turning radius. I can even see with my regular mirrors. That’s not to say it’s easy to back up. When we arrived at the campsite, I wasn’t doing so hot trying to back it into our spot. After a couple of tries, where I’d so far been unsuccessful getting it into the driveway, I heard a woman nearby ask if we’d like some help. Hell yes. 

fullsizeoutput_3bd0“My husband will be right over,” she said. And just like that, within five minutes, he had helped me better understand how to maneuver the trailer. And more importantly, he pointed out that I had to do better than just getting in the driveway—I had to pull up next to the water and electricity. Should’ve been obvious but it hadn’t even occurred to me.

Within an hour of our arrival, Wendy and I were connected, level, and unpacked. While I realize we were working with a best-case-scenario campsite (completely level with hookups), it was comforting to have this accomplishment under our belts. We had envisioned this day—pulling a trailer into a park and camping—and we were finally living it.

Want to see our pod? We made a quick video tour and posted it to our YouTube channel.

2/5/17 UPDATE: I sent a letter to Camping World asking for reimbursement of about $180 for the hotel, meal, extra night of dog sitting, and labor cost for incorrect installation. They came through and offered to refund us more than $300 for our troubles. Good customer service – we’ll be back.