Trip Report: Texas to Maryland


November 22 –  December ?

Well, this is it. We leave Pigeon Forge tomorrow en route to Staunton, Virginia—our last stop before rolling up to my parents’ house. We’ve spent more than seven months on the road and in many ways we’re ready for it to be over. We’re ready to sleep in a comfortable bed; to shower without either wearing flip flops or turning the water off to lather, on to rinse; to cook in a real kitchen; and to move without coordinating each step. (It’s literally three steps from one end of our trailer to the other, with a width of about two-and-a-half feet.) We’re also ready to visit with family and give the kids a chance to enjoy Christmas with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

But we’ll miss this once-in-a-lifetime version of our lives: the adventure, the beauty, the rare opportunity to focus wholly on each other.

For the past several years we’d spent Thanksgiving with friends in Los Angeles and we missed that tradition this year. Yes, it was unique and entertaining to experience a just-add-water, ready-in-30-minutes meal of thick-sliced turkey lunchmeat, Oceanspray cranberry sauce, instant mashed potatoes, Stovetop stuffing, and a store-bought lemon merengue pie while residing at a state park in Lake Colorado City, Texas. But at the same time, we missed the tradition of cooking all day on Wednesday in preparation (including the Myers Family must-have of pumpkin pecan pie) then celebrating on Thursday with friends. I certainly wouldn’t erase the memory of dining in a burr-ridden campsite adjacent to a toxic lake surrounded by cacti. I’m glad we did that, and I’m glad we won’t be doing it next year.

Since we didn’t care for our Texas State Parks campground, we decided to cancel our remaining reservations at two additional parks. We had planned to spend six more days crossing Texas but instead opted to do it in one 12-hour day, leaving early in the morning and arriving after dark at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. Reservations aren’t permitted at the park’s only campground, so we were pleasantly surprised to find an empty slot that revealed itself the next morning as one of the best sites!

Gulpha Gorge Campground, as its called, was beautiful. We realized spending a month in the desert was bringing us down, and we were really happy to be back in the beauty of the forest in fall, next to a river. The park itself was kind of weird—more town than nature—but we had a good time exploring it anyway.

It was here, reinvigorated by camping on a carpet of fallen leaves, that we decided to up the ante for our adventure by driving through the night. So we left Gulpha Gorge at 1:30pm en route to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We estimated it would take us about 12 hours to get there, but we couldn’t check in until 8am. So we decided a leisurely drive was in order.

That’s how we found ourselves walking around the huge, pyramid-shaped Bass Pro Shop in Memphis. “I wonder what it’s like in there,” I said to Wendy as we passed the neon-lit pyramid on the highway. She asked me if I wanted to stop and I said no. But then she Googled it and relayed the fact that it had a huge fish tank and alligators. This newfound knowledge necessitated navigating rush-hour traffic in the dark to re-route ourselves back to the shop, where we spent about half an hour taking the kids from one exhibit to the next.

Yes, there were alligators and a river of sorts running through the store with catfish and some monstrosity bigger than the kids. But the highlight was the aquarium, which elicited jumps and squeals of “So much fun! So much fun!” from Darwin.

We fed the kids PBJ pitas in the Bass Pro parking lot then continued on our way. At 4:30am we rolled up to our campground for the night: a Walmart parking lot. This is also something we’d wanted to try but were hesitant due to safety concerns. But Wendy had researched this one on the RV Parky app, where it had gotten great reviews. And it went great! We fell asleep around 5am, rolled out again at 9am, and pulled into the Pigeon Forge KOA at 10am.

We’ve had a really good time here. We drove through Great Smoky Mountains National Park yesterday, stopping to walk some of the Appalachian trail and to visit various log cabins. We also took the kids to Dollywood. This was their first time riding any sort of ride and they had a blast! I rode the first couple with them—squished into the back seat of a pig and bee respectively—but they conquered a duck on their own. We also rode the ferris wheel as a family and the kids are still talking about it. Our big kid—Wendy— got to ride a bunch of roller coasters and the theme park had a kennel so we didn’t have to worry about CeCe.

I can’t ride most rides and don’t like to anyway, so for me the highlight was the racetrack—a ride I used to love as a kid where you get to “drive” a car along a single track, so your steering matters. Each of the kids had a chance to drive and did so quite differently. Emerson jerked the steering wheel from side to side, laughing all the way. Darwin steered a little, honked the horn, and batted at the dice on the dash, also laughing heartily. It was awesome.

Although the kids have proven themselves to be quite capable motorists, tomorrow I’ll drive us about 300 miles, mostly highway, to camp near Polyface—the iconic farm of Joel Salatin, who’s considered an expert in sustainable agriculture. Then we’ll drive a few hours to my parents’ house in Maryland, where our trip will end but our adventure will continue.

Trip Report: Arizona


November 10 – 17, 2017

“Where is this place?” I asked Wendy.

“I don’t know,” she answered, “but supposedly it’s three miles away.”

In theory, we were approaching Lyman Lake State Park for a two-night stopover before heading into New Mexico. But the terrain gave no indication that any kind of civilization was nearby, much less a lake. Within a few minutes though, a road sign directed us to the left. We drove along a winding lane, past an entrance booth with a bug-smattered 8×10 sheet of paper taped to the window, informing us to check in at the General Store.

“This place looks deserted,” Wendy said. “Think anyone’s actually in the General Store?”

Turns out yes—one person in ranger garb. When I told him I was there to check in, he didn’t ask to see ID. He didn’t even ask my name. “You’re the only check-in we’ve had today,” he said. “Hope you weren’t looking for a crowd.”

“I’m never looking for a crowd,” I told him.

“Good, he responded. ‘Cause it’s just you and the camp host. Everybody else left today.” Having just spent five nights at the Grand Canyon’s Trailer Village Campground, the notion of being away from everyone else made my heart smile. That smile grew when the ranger added that he’d be around for a few hours tomorrow if we needed anything, and that Carl would be on the tractor and we could always flag him down.

Polar opposite of our Grand Canyon experience.

The canyon itself? Spectacular. We’ve seen so many great canyons on this trip I was afraid of being underwhelmed by the one I’d wanted to visit for the past 20 years. It didn’t disappoint and I have no regrets about going.

But the park? The first descriptors that come to mind are unhappy, rude, and ugly college campus. It started when we checked into the campground and were “greeted” by employees discussing how much longer they had to stay at work. Then we pulled into our parking-lot site, with a sliver of gravel separating us from our neighbors and a black trash bag duct taped to a tree limb, presumably to discourage whatever left that platter-sized poo smatter from perching near our picnic table.

Our campground was also adjacent to housing for park employees who disregarded the speed limit and one-way signs. Rather than have the dogs pee in others’ campsites, we walked them along the campground perimeter: beneath power lines, next to enormous industrial tanks secured behind a chainlink fence topped with barbed wire, and past a utility building straight out of Lost with a red light next to a sign that read CHLORINE GAS ALARM.

On the flip side, we had full hookups, Food Network, a decent grocery store, and really nice neighbors with three adopted kids—one of whom played with Darwin and Emerson for hours.

So I’m glad we visited the Grand Canyon, but I was ready to leave when we headed out yesterday morning. We routed ourselves through Petrified Forest National Park, where we took a couple of scenic drives, swung by a few overlooks, and stopped at the Crystal Forest to eat lunch and walk the 3/4-mile loop that winds along fallen trees that are more than 200 million years old, the wood replaced by colorful silica crystals.

Anyone who’s ever seen us eating lunch at a turnout or in a parking lot knows we’re kind of a hot mess. We let the dogs out to drink and pee. We give the kids a chance to run around while periodically taking a bite of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was no different yesterday, as the trunk was open so CeCe could hang out while clipped to the van, Wendy was holding Odie and Clark, and I was sitting on the curb reminding Darwin and Emerson to take bites of their sandwich as they focused on picking up rocks and shouting “deer poo!”

It was at this very moment that a woman rounded the corner of our van asking if we had jumper cables. She barely heard me answer yes amid the fits of furious barking that ensued, and I could tell she hadn’t realized what she was getting into by asking this ragtag band of travelers for assistance. But what was done was done, so I dug the cables out of our roadside emergency bag. Twenty minutes later, after which any casual bystander would swear that jumping a vehicle is a particularly difficult task, the formerly disabled car was able to carry its passengers to the next viewpoint.

Then the seven of us set off to explore the Crystal Forest. Wendy walked with CeCe while I led Odie and Clark along the path. Emerson ran ahead while Darwin lagged behind, stopping frequently to inspect the ground and ensure she was still holding the best pebble before moving forward. While I like exploring national parks with my family, moments like this are stressful and I have to remind myself that these are good times. Like any good wife, Wendy assisted with this task by snapping a photo of me holding Darwin as she cried, Odie peed, and Clark took a shit. It’s a hilarious picture and reinforces that while certain moments are difficult, this life we’re living is filled with joy.

And of course that joy is easier to feel now that we’ve spent the day lounging at Lyman Lake. Darwin is napping, Wendy is knitting, and Emerson is removing toys from a Ziploc bag and putting them back in again, whispering “helicopter… car….”

Tomorrow we’re heading to Valley of the Fires State Park in New Mexico, where we’ll stay for a couple of nights before visiting Carlsbad Caverns.

Trip Report: Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks


October 30 – November 10, 2017

Sometimes people ask what possessed us to set off on this journey. Most love the idea of seeing the country and many have daydreamed about spending some time going park-to-park in an RV. But as the details of our trip are revealed, the “I want to do what you’re doing” sentiment evolves into “no way in hell.” Seven months? Sounds great. Eighteen-foot trailer? Small, but it’d be alright. Three dogs? Mmmm, I dunno. Two toddlers? You’re crazy.

Maybe we are, in some ways—particularly the one where insane people often think their behavior is perfectly rational. We discussed what we’d consider an ideal life, worked out how to try to make it happen, and we’re going for it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll know we tried, and that’s preferable to taking the more traditional, secure route, with its omnipresent undercurrent of what if.

Our undertaking can basically be divided into three parts: The cross-country trip, spending time with our parents (first in Maryland, then in Spain), then buying a property in France. We have about five weeks left on the first leg of our journey and are starting to experience the emotions that accompany transitions.

We’ve been “seven souls in a closet” for six months, working through the challenges of mobile tiny-home living while embracing the adventure of exploring North America’s national parks. It’s awesome, and it’s difficult, and we love it. I’ll be ready for it to end, but I’ll also miss it. I can feel the relief mixed with a little sadness already, creeping in bit by bit as we work our way down the last page of our itinerary.

We spent Halloween in Bryce Canyon National Park—carved a pumpkin and went trick-or-treating at the Visitors’ Center. Well, Wendy gave candy to the ranger and asked her to give it to the kids when they said “trick or treat.” Not exactly traditional, but our little Christmas tree and elf had a good time and elicited a lot of smiles.

We also went on a striking hike along the Navajo Loop Trail. Even though it was kind of a hard, I didn’t mind because the beauty distracted from its difficulty: Amazing views while walking down into the canyon, then through a surprising stretch of forest, and along “Wall Street,” a small hiker blob at the base of towering walls, traversing switchback after switchback before crouching through an arch and emerging into the sunlight above the top of hoodoos that had loomed above half an hour earlier.

Then we traveled to Zion, where we are now. My parents flew out to visit for a couple of days and left this morning. I think their presence and departure contributed to the overall sense of love and loss that we’re both feeling. We had an amazing time with them—the kids played, we all laughed, and after months of being the primary caretakers for five other beings, Wendy and I were cared for the way only parents can do, with their comforting, supportive, loving presence. A hotel room with a real shower, glass mugs filled with freshly-brewed coffee, and comfortable furniture didn’t hurt either.

We miss them already, and knowing we’ll see them in a few weeks makes us feel better. But it also punctuates the fact that our trip—our amazing, once-in-a-lifetime trip—is almost over.

Not yet though: first we need to see the Grand Canyon.

Trip Report: Mesa Verde, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef National Parks


October 14 – 30, 2017

We’ve been losing things. First it was Emerson’s sweatshirt. Then a utility knife and the pair of pliers I use to force open the lid to the Superglue. Then… the laptop charger. This last one hurt because it’s expensive to replace and mind-blowing that we could somehow lose such a bulky, indoor-only item in the 150-square feet of space we call home.

“Where the hell could it have gone?” Wendy asked. All the scenarios we came up with were simply implausible.

“Maybe we knocked it out of its pocket (hanging by the door) and it fell on the floor,” I said.

“Then what,” Wendy responded. “We didn’t see it? We kicked it outside without noticing and then we still didn’t see it? Maybe we somehow scooped it up with the trash.”

“But how?” I asked. “Why would it have been near the trash in the first place and how would we not have noticed?”

Wendy rifled through every bin, drawer, and storage nook in the van and trailer, all to no avail.

While it was inconvenient to drive 30 miles outside of Canyonlands so we could park on the side of the road to get an internet signal to buy a new laptop charger and find a post office to mail it to, we were most disturbed by the fact that we lost it and couldn’t even pinpoint which park we’d been in at the time.

In good news, the new charger is now in our possession and the laptop is fully charged. In bad news, how and where we lost it remain a mystery. We make ourselves feel better by chalking it up to the fact that we’re both getting dumber on this trip. We expect it will be reversible, but one thing we’re losing and know exactly where and why—is sleep. This trip is awesome but we haven’t had a decent night’s rest in 5 1/2 months, and the effects are apparent.

We’re a bit irritable, and a bit stupid. But we’re okay with that because we know a comfortable bed is awaiting us at the end of this journey and in the meantime, the tradeoff is totally worth it.

Mesa Verde National Park
Morefield Campground, Site #49

Mesa Verde was different from any other park we’ve visited so far, and surprisingly popular. I’d never heard of it until planning this trip and from what I’d read, it didn’t seem like many people would want to go—much less stay—there. But our campground was full and the park’s attractions were quite busy. Another thing that surprised me is the park fee doesn’t let visitors see everything. Ancient cliff dwellings are the focus of this park and some are only available via a tour at the cost of $5/person—regardless of age.

Wendy decided to take one for the team, so stayed in the car with the kids while I toured Balcony House—a cliff dwelling built about 1,000 years ago. I got to climb a couple of ladders at a cliff’s edge, shimmy through narrow passages, tour an ancient house, and crawl through an 18-inch tunnel. I had a blast!

Afterward, we drove to Step House—the only fee-free dwelling available—so Wendy and the kids could check it out, but we arrived too late. The park brochure said it closed at 4pm; we arrived at 3:32 and learned the rangers cut off access at 3:30 to ensure everyone is out by 4. We had driven 12 miles along a winding road to get there; as we returned to camp, we tried to focus on the beauty of the drive rather than our annoyance at the poor communication. The drive was like no other we’d experienced: in some places, the road was perched atop a ridge with drop-offs on both sides.

Canyonlands National Park
Squaw Flat Campground, Site #3

Talk about a cool campground. We stayed in the Needles District, which is far from most of the park’s attractions but provides a beautiful view of needle-like spires. The campsites are also huge and spaced far apart. Our site was a mixture of trees, sand, and rock, while others were mostly rock—including site #5, where a massive overhang provided its campers with a cave-like structure.

It was here in the Needles District that we found our favorite toddler hike of the trip: the Cave Spring Trail. In less than a mile, the kids got to climb two ladders, scramble over rocks, and walk under a bunch of overhangs that made them feel like they were in a tunnel. They loved it!

We also explored Island in the Sky. To get there, we had to leave the park, drive past Arches, then re-enter the park—a journey that took about three hours. We loaded all of the dogs in the van and decided not to worry about what time we got home (which ended up being 9:30).

The views were amazing and made me wonder if my reaction to the Grand Canyon will be “eh.” First of all: Mesa Arch. A half-mile there-and-back trail leads to a natural stone arch with jaw-dropping views of the La Sal Mountains and Buck Canyon. It’s also a fun trail with some rock scrambling and a little elevation gain.

Another really cool overlook is Grand View, where you can stand between two massive canyons—one carved by the Green River and the other by the Colorado River. There’s a mile-long trail along the side of the canyon that we would’ve loved to have taken, but logistically we couldn’t swing it. So we settled for the spectacular view, which isn’t really settling at all.

Arches National Park
Moab Valley RV Resort, Site #5

Arches didn’t start off all that well. There was no camping available in the park, so we reserved a site at a nearby RV park that turned out to really pack ‘em in. The gravel pad for our trailer was literally three feet away from the gravel site for the adjacent RV with shared water, electric, and sewer pipes. The grassy spot on the other side of our trailer was also a shared space, with two picnic tables in parallel. We always try to make sure our kids adhere to their boundaries but here it was hard to delineate—if they stayed on our half of the patch, they could only access one half of each picnic table. If we let them play with an entire picnic table, they could only play on half the yard, which would put them right next to the adjacent trailer. There were also a bunch of campers with ATVs, which made the sites seem even more crowded, and the company aerated and spread fertilizer on each grassy patch while we were there.

Fortunately, our positive experience with Arches eclipses the negative. We got off to a slow start, trying to identify the rock sculptures mentioned in the brochure. “Do you see a sheep anywhere?” Wendy asked. “Sheep Rock is supposed to be around here somewhere.” We kept looking but neither of us could find it. “How about the Tower of Babel? Could be any of these—I don’t even know what that’s supposed to look like,” Wendy said as we drove.

For the first few miles, lots of rocks had names. But either the park lost its proactive intern or the rangers’ creativity waned because eventually they just went with the “Great Wall” (a long stretch of rock) and then had quite practical names for the arches, like Delicate, North Window, South Window, and Double.

Our first stop was Delicate Arch, which I expected to really be something because it was on a patch in the Visitor’s Center. But it was so far away from the viewpoint that I didn’t even take a picture of it. Next, we drove to Sand Dune Arch, aptly named because we trekked through sand to reach it. This is what I’m talking about, I thought to myself. The trail was short but pretty—canyon walls rose high above a sandy bottom, through a narrow passage, before revealing a large arch nestled in an alcove.

The last arches we saw also hit the mark. By walking a couple of miles, we were able to see the Windows arches and Double Arch. We went fairly early in the morning—around 9:30—and missed the crowds. The kids even got to play beneath the Double Arch for a while, laughing as their voices echoed against the rock.

Capitol Reef National Park
Fruita Campground, Site #30

We left the RV park around 6:30am in an effort to secure a spot at Fruita—the most sought-after (and un-reservable) campground at Capitol Reef. Aunt Mildred spoke of the orchards here, where she had the best peach of her life straight off the tree. A fellow camper raved about the pies sold at the general store, steps away from their campsite.

We arrived at 10:30am and lucked into an awesome site right at the corner of the orchard, where yellow-leaved trees provide shade for wild turkeys and mule deer. It’s our fourth and last night here at Fruita, and it’s one of our favorite campgrounds.

I can’t recommend the pies, though. The absence of fruit on the trees made us wonder how the shop is still selling pies. Turns out they’re from a nearby town called Torrey, which uses local fruit unless it runs out, in which case it uses frozen fruit. But never do the pies contain fruit from the orchards at Fruita. Perhaps they are great pies, even though they’re very small and cost $6, but we didn’t buy one. It felt like a scam to sell pies in an orchard that don’t contain fruit from the orchard—like selling store-bought ice cream by the scoop at a dairy.

On our first day here, we walked the two-mile Capitol Gorge trail with the kids, which was very pretty. It’s along a dry riverbed at the base of towering canyon walls, and has a 0.2-mile rocky climb at the end to reach naturally-occurring water tanks that collect and hold rainwater. Wendy went first while I stayed at the bottom with the kids. When she returned, she said “0.2 miles my arse,” and we decided it wasn’t worth my making the trip because I’d probably get lost. There are cairns (little piles of rock) that mark the trail, but rocks are strewn about the whole canyon and I’m horrible at navigating. So instead we returned home.

Yesterday, we drove 80 miles to explore Goblin Valley State Park. Wendy didn’t really want to do it, but I did, so she acquiesced. I hoped that when we got there we’d all have such a great time she’d be glad we went.

Unfortunately, our visit coincided with the Goblin Valley Ultra—a race that included loudspeakers, a pavilion, hectic parking, and lots of people. There also weren’t any defined trails—just a three-mile-square area of short, goblinesque hoodoos.

“Okay, I’m sorry this sucks,” I told Wendy as we stood among the runners, overlooking Goblin Valley. “I thought it’d be better.”

“It doesn’t suck,” she said, rallying and trying to make me feel better. “You would’ve always wondered what it was like if we hadn’t come here.” By now it was 11:30 and we’d brought a packed lunch. We decided to walk aimlessly among the hoodoos and try to enjoy ourselves.

And we did. The kids had a blast. CeCe enjoyed exploring. I thought it was cool to be among the “goblins” and Wendy had a good time watching the kids have a good time. Darwin climbed more than I’d ever seen—up and down the “mountains” leading to the hoodoos, and Emerson joined her. Then we ate lunch in the shade of a goblin castle, on a really uncomfortable but private slope. “I can’t cut tomato like this,” Wendy said, holding CeCe’s leash in one hand and lunch items in the other. So we dined on dry crackers, Pepper Jack cheese, wasabi almonds, and prunes. Then we climbed out of the valley and made the 90-minute journey home.

We’ll hitch up tonight and head out early tomorrow morning for Bryce Canyon.

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: Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes National Parks


October 4 – 9, 2017
Elk Creek Campground, Site #50
Great Sand Dunes Oasis, Site #17

Well, this portion of the trip hasn’t exactly worked out as planned. When we left Badlands National Park, we made a quick overnight stop in Nebraska then headed to Rocky Mountain National Park in the morning. The wind was the worst we’ve ever experienced and we came within two gallons of running out of gas. After nine hours of driving, we finally arrived at Timber Creek Campground about 30 minutes before sunset.

Timber Creek doesn’t accept reservations, so we were just happy there was a spot when we arrived. But our relief was short-lived. There was no water available; it had been turned off two days prior due to a snowstorm and was now gone for the season. So as darkness encroached, we drove back the way we had come, looking for a campground. Relief returned when we found Elk Creek—a nearby campground with full hookups.

Since the office was closed, we couldn’t speak to anyone about staying the night. So we drove around, pulled into a site that looked good, and hoped no one had reserved it. As we began setting up, our relief washed away again when I turned the water spigot and nothing came out.

“Wendy, there’s no water,” I said, as though she’d know why or what to do. Fortunately a friendly neighbor had begun chatting with her, so she was able to easily punt the question. He let us know that water was still available at the office and even offered to let us borrow his water hose. We have one though, so we thanked him then undid what we’d started and towed the trailer back down to the office. Then realized our water hose was too short to reach the spigot.

So Wendy dragged out our six-gallon water container, filled it, hefted the 48-pound jug up to the side of the trailer, and poured the water in. Then she did it again. And again. Then two more times. As darkness fell, we backed into our chosen site again and set up camp for the night. We were tired, but at least we had water.

The rest of our Rocky Mountain experience continued in a similar vein. The main road through the park wasn’t open, but at least we could drive 16 miles of it. We couldn’t reach any of the hikes we wanted to do, but at least we could walk a mile-or-so with the kids to Adams Falls. The nearest town (Grand Lake) was overpriced and underpopulated, but the next town over (Granby) was cool and super-friendly. We didn’t get to do what we wanted, but it was still a beautiful place to live for two days.

In a bout of comedic timing, we hitched up during a snowstorm that lasted about 10 minutes. It was still cold afterward, but the sky was clear and by the time we left in the morning only a hint of snowfall remained.

We left for Great Sand Dunes National Park at 9:30am and arrived around 4pm. Pinon Flats is the only campground at the park. We didn’t have reservations but figured there’d be space since it’s October.

Wrong.

For the first time during our trip, the CAMPGROUND FULL sign applied to us. As we rolled up to the entrance booth, we asked the attendant if she had any ideas for other places to stay. She was very helpful and directed us a few miles back the way we’d come, out of the park at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis.

And that’s where we are now, with full hookups and a great view of the dunes. We had a unique morning—one I doubt I’ll ever repeat. We waded through a shallow river with the kids and CeCe, schlepped a quarter mile through the sand, climbed a dune, then went sand sledding for the next two hours. It was awesome!

Now we’re back in the trailer. The kids are napping, Wendy’s watching a movie on the iPad, it’s a very pleasant 69 F, and the wind is gusting at 20 mph. In the morning, we’ll roll out to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We don’t have a reservation, the water may be turned off, and there’s currently a 70% chance of snow.

We’re filling up all of our water jugs this time.

Trip Report: Badlands National Park


September 28 – October 3, 2017
Cedar Pass Campground, Site #70

What do you get when more than 20 years of friendship descend on a national park? A trip to Wall Drug to mount a Jackalope, ride a bronco, and sit on the tail of a Brontosaurus. Forty-five minutes of sheer glee feeding unsalted peanuts to prairie dogs. Dressing our kids in overalls and a frock, and donning similar gear for ourselves while touring an old homestead. Several hikes—two of which Wendy and I couldn’t have done otherwise. Chicken gizzards. And a toddler seated in a South Dakota bar, so tired from the morning’s activities that he kept trying to dip a french fry in a french fry.

We started the first day at Wall Drug, which survived the Great Depression due to its great marketing and free ice water, and is now a tourist attraction with juuuuust enough kitsch to keep it entertaining. In addition to souvenir shops, there’s a giant Jackalope and bucking bronco with stairs on the side so they’re easy to sit on, a little covered wagon you can climb in, and a mechanical T-Rex that threatens to eat people every 12 minutes. We stood near it for a while so the kids could get the full effect; bad idea. They both cried, and even more so as our friend Deanne got really close to it in an effort to relay it was just a big toy.

On the way back from Wall Drug, we visited an old missile silo, then stopped at the “Ranch Store,” where pudgy little prairie dogs roam and are so accustomed to people they’ll take food right from your hand. I think Deanne may want to move there when she retires; she enjoyed it at least as much as the kids did, and they loved it. Deanne bought them peanuts and they each managed to settle themselves enough to crouch and hold the nut at arm’s length, where they were rewarded by a prairie dog gently taking it from their hand. But it was fun for them even when the prairie dogs ran away and hid in their little tunnels. Even though a couple of days have passed, Darwin’s obviously still thinking about it. She occasionally exclaims, out of the blue, “Back in hole!”

Less than half a mile down the road from the Ranch Store is a place called the Sod House. For me, it was the House of Pure Joy. So many things I like in one place: an old homestead, chickens, goats, and pioneer clothing. After paying for the self-guided tour, it was a pioneer-clothing-optional affair. But for us there was no question: it was on.

Wendy, Deanne, and our friend Michelle all adorned skirts and frocks. I chose a pair of overalls for myself and Emerson, and Darwin wore a dress that was way too long for her. Then we headed out to the homestead, periodically doubling over with laughter at the sight of ourselves. Darwin had to hold her dress up when she walked and Wendy’s get-up made her want to dance to the narration piping through the dirt-floored house we temporarily took on as our own. The place was a ghost town so we were able to take our time and a lot of pictures. My favorite is a shot of all six of us with our “it’s been a hard winter” expressions. That was the intent, anyway. As Michelle aptly pointed out, we look like serial killers.

That night at the cabin, we took hot showers, sat on comfy beds, and laughed as we played with the kids and talked about the day.

Our last couple of days with Michelle and Deanne were focused on exploring the park. We checked out several short boardwalk views and did what I would consider three hikes: the Notch, Door, and Saddle Pass trails.

We tackled the Notch and Door trails on our second day. The Notch Trail was by far my favorite, in part because we had to climb a steep ladder comprising braided cable and wooden rungs. The hike itself is only a little more than a mile long, and the terrain is unlike anything we’d seen. Walking amid the Badlands, knowing it used to be covered by water, is something I’ll never forget. After carrying the kids in our backpacks on the Notch Trail, we let them walk the mile-long Door Trail themselves. With Deanne and Michelle’s help, it was pretty easy to do. The kids stayed motivated and Emerson loved scrambling up and down the rocks.

Tired and hungry, we drove a couple of miles to the town of Interior, South Dakota and ate lunch at the Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill. This is where I couldn’t resist ordering “the local favorite.” The wiser people in our party chose more predictable cuisine and weren’t disappointed. While I tried to power through the chewy, gristled deep-fried chicken gizzards, Emerson sat across the table, his eyes drifting closed as he dipped a fry in ketchup and placed it in his mouth, then repeated the process, speechless, expressionless, like a pint-sized stoner. Like any good parents, we took a video as he continued eating in this fashion, eventually choosing to dip each french fry in a fry that had fallen on the table.

Darwin has a different reaction to being tired—being wired. She interacted with everyone as she sat at the table and didn’t miss a beat. When Deanne conspicuously announced her intention to eat the last cheese ball, Darwin quickly plucked it from the greasy red-and-white paper tray with her thumb and forefinger, tilted her head back while looking Deanne in the eye, placed it in her mouth, and began chewing, slowly, eyeballing Deanne the whole time.

The next day we went on our last big hike—Saddle Pass Trail. We started off with the kids walking but soon learned that wouldn’t work. Since CeCe was in the car and the day was warming up, Wendy went ahead of us to finish the trail faster so she could get back to the car. As I was ushering Darwin up the steep trail, telling her she wasn’t tired (as if that would make it true); and Michelle and Deanne were each holding one of Emerson’s hands, hoisting him up the loose gravel since he couldn’t get his footing; Wendy returned and said she thought maybe this wasn’t actually a trail. There were no markers and she’d reached a place that was too treacherous for the kids to traverse, even if this was a trail.

After doing some research and scouting, we decided I’d take the kids back down to the car, and Wendy, Deanne, and Michelle would complete the hike. After scooting the kids back down the way we’d come, I let them play outside for a while. But the strong wind kept sweeping dust and rock bits in their faces, so we ended up hanging out in the back of the van with the hatch open. They actually had a really good time playing back there though and the time passed quickly. When everyone returned, Wendy told me how cool the hike had been and Michelle offered to do it again with me. So I had a chance to scramble up into the Badlands, slipping on the path, grabbing rocks to steady myself and climb. It was so – much – fun.

That’s really the best word to describe what Deanne and Michelle brought to this leg of our journey: Fun. Sure, there was comfort—the warmth close friends bring when they visit. There was support—figuratively and literally; Wendy and I wouldn’t have climbed the ladder at the Notch Trail if Michelle and Deanne hadn’t been there to spot us, and we probably would’ve turned back shortly after starting the Saddle Pass Trail because it would’ve been too much with the kids. There was love—I love those two women like family. There was hilarity—side-splitting laughter from unpredictable things, like a huge bee’s pursuit of Michelle along the Notch Trail, and suddenly finding ourselves exploring a homestead in frocks and overalls.

Taking this journey with my family is already better than I’d imagined. Wendy and I have grown even closer and I feel really fortunate to spend so much concentrated time with our kids. Each park has its own highlight. I’ll likely forget the details over time, but I expect I’ll always remember what a good time we had here in the Badlands.

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: Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area and the Missoula KOA


July 29 – August 5, 2017

There’s a quote attributed to Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoist philosophy, that goes “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Did Wendy and I ever live the way during this leg of our trip.

The plan: knock out some chores during our three-night stay at Lake Roosevelt National Park, like big box store shopping, laundry, and toddler-proofing a light. Maybe fish or swim in the lake. Then head to a U.S. Forest Service site for three nights before driving to Glacier National Park.

What actually happened?

As we approached Fort Spokane Campground we realized I’d selected a far-flung temporary residence around the lake, nowhere near a large retailer. The only store within 20 miles didn’t even bother having a name. It didn’t need one. It was the store/restaurant/propane seller/fishing license purveyor.

The temperature had crept into the high 90s and none of the sites at the campground had electricity. On the bright side, someone else’s stuff—including an empty boat trailer—was strewn about the site we’d reserved; a site in full sun even at 4pm. The audacity was irritating, but allowed us to select a site with partial shade. We’re near a lake, I thought, it’ll be fine.

It wasn’t fine. We had to put the kids “to bed” in their stroller outside because it was too hot in the trailer; we moved them inside around 9:30pm, after they’d fallen asleep. The next day, the trailer’s thermostat held steady at 99 F, the lake’s beach was in full sun, we were sweaty and filthy from our dusty campsite, the dogs were listless and panting, and we put the kids to bed in their stroller again before moving them inside, where it was still 88 F at 11pm.

Although we were supposed to stay another night, I took advantage of a nearby casino’s cell service to find a KOA en route so we could all have some air conditioning over the next few days. We lucked out and found one in Missoula with space for four nights. So we left early in the morning, ditched our plans for the U.S. Forest Service site, and headed giddily to the promise of air conditioning and big box stores.

Giddily into the epicenter of seven wildfires.

We pulled into a truck stop to focus on finding another place to stay. But everywhere we tried was booked. We’d changed time zones and now it was 5:00 instead of 4:00. Offices were closing. We decided to stay the night in Missoula and then figure out what to do for the remaining three nights.

Blanket of smoke aside, the KOA is nice and very convenient. The local news is covering the fires ad nauseum, and we realized the situation isn’t that bad. Air quality is deemed “moderate” and we’ll get plenty of warning if an evacuation becomes necessary. So we decided to stay all four nights.

Plus one more night.

Odie has spent the past two days at a local vet’s office on an IV drip. Our first morning at the KOA, Odie did #3 so we gave him some rice for dinner. That night, Wendy “shot the shit” with him hourly. We withheld food all the next day to give his body a chance to work things out; it kept trying, and added vomiting to boot. That night, Odie threw up at least 10 more times. Wendy took him to the vet the next morning, where he spent the day on anti-nausea medicine and an IV to rehydrate. Wendy took Darwin to the vet’s last night so she could pet Odie and tell him night-night. Today he’s doing better and we’re supposed to pick him up at 4:30.

The vet thinks it was just a normal bout of stomach upset that had devolved into the beginning stage of dehydration. When we leave the KOA tomorrow, we’ll be armed with anti-nausea medicine, an anti-diarrheal, and newfound knowledge that we can give him Pepto tablets later on in our trip if he needs it.

We’ve missed Odie. CeCe has missed Odie—she has barely eaten since he left. But this evening we’ll be whole again and the freshly-washed blanket on the bottom bunk will be covered in a thick coat of dog hair, like it’s supposed to be.

Total miles on our Pod: 4,387