Notes from the mid-west

After writing the previous blog extolling the virtues of slower travel through the Plains states, I felt obliged to get off I-70 as soon as feasible and explore other routes through Kansas.  We dropped south to parallel routes and spent our evening in Great Bend, KS, a small town that we chose only because it was about the time of day that we wanted to stop traveling.

When you are moving around the way we are, it’s hard to be fussy about where you stay.  We are always prepared to boondock a night or two in a parking lot or driveway, and it’s actually a good way to cut down the cost of travel. Long-time blog readers know we rarely make reservations, and this is part of the reason why: we often don’t know exactly where we are going to be tomorrow. In this case the decision to stop in Great Bend was made about an hour before actually getting there.

I use an app called “Allstays Camp & RV” to look ahead for possible campsites each day. (Apps like this are basically the modern equivalent of the old Woodall’s and Trailer Life paper directories—but far more useful.) In this case we could see that Great Bend had a few small campgrounds that were all exceptionally cheap, running about $10-15 for a full hookup.  At that price you have to expect that the campground will be basically a parking lot with no amenities at all, and that’s fine with us.  For an overnight stop, we don’t need a shower house (we have our own) and certainly not a trout pond.

Thus, we have gone from Grand Bend, ON to Great Bend, KS, in a little over a week.  This reminded me of June, when I went from Perce Rock on the north Atlantic coast off Gaspé, to Morro Rock on the Pacific coast off California. This has been a summer of almost too much travel. I’ve really enjoyed it.

tweet

Yesterday I tweeted a photo of our unimpressive campsite on a mud & gravel parking lot. I forgot that these days there’s always someone monitoring … and so I heard back from fellow tweeter @GreatBendKS with a comment that next time we should get in touch and they’ll direct us to a nice place at a similar price.  This sort of thing has happened before, both on positive and negative comments I’ve made about campgrounds. In one case an armed ranger came to our campsite to say “Thanks for the nice review,” and in another case a campground owner threatened to sue me.  Luckily, people in Kansas are friendly.

I thought our visit at Ft Larned National Historic Site would be quick but it turned into a multi-hour saga. Emma got another Junior Ranger badge (I think she’s earned over 70 of them at this point) and we had lunch. It was tortuously hot, running 103-105 degrees, which made a mockery of my earlier decision to skip I-44 down to Oklahoma in favor of “cooler weather” heading toward Colorado. But Ft Larned was interesting and well worth the stop.

With the last few days running progressively hotter, we’ve spent every night in a state park or commercial campground just for the electric hookup to run the air conditioer. I don’t mind that because the state parks have all been great. Last night’s stop was perhaps the best of a great bunch: John Martin Reservoir State Park in the town of Hasty, CO. It has both sunny sites by the dam and shady sites beneath mature trees, and at least during this week it is mostly empty, which I love. Now that we are slowly climbing the plateau, we’re up to about 3,300 ft elevation and the nights are running cooler even if the days are still pretty hot.

A note about maintenance:  I’m reminded once again that this sort of rapid travel across the country does come with a price.  We have logged nearly 8,000 miles so far this summer (since leaving Arizona in May), which is about average for us.  In the past two weeks we’ve done routine and minor maintenance such as greasing the Hensley hitch, adding DEF to the car (a diesel thing), and disassembling the bathroom sink plumbing to clear a clog. But when we get home we’ll need to tackle the “bug list” that has been accumulating on the white board.

The GL320 is due for some love.  The car is now at 97,000 miles and due for an oil change, transmission fluid change (we do it about every 30k miles), and a new set of tires fairly soon. I don’t mind because the GL has been pretty good to us and looks good to go for many more miles. And I still get the question almost every week we travel: “Does that little car pull that trailer OK?” Watching people gape at our 30-foot trailer and “little” SUV can be pretty entertaining, especially at the fuel pump.

The Airstream also needs a few tweaks.  The rainstorms we’ve been driving through have revealed two leaks. The MaxxFan in the front bedroom seems to have a small, wind-driven rain leak.  That’s probably just a matter of re-caulking a spot, so I can do that easily once I get a chance to get on the roof.

The bigger problem is the front storage compartment, which has always leaked but really flooded in the last storm. We’ve had it “repaired” twice and nobody has ever been able to really get it to be totally waterproof. It is also difficult to open and close when the Airstream is hitched up, because the body of an Airstream is flexible, and the flexing causes the door to jam.  I have concluded after years of hassling with it that the only solution is to replace the compartment door with the updated design, which has rounded corners instead of square. This job will be major surgery that gets a little beyond my personal comfort zone, so I may recruit the help of one of my more experienced Airstream friends this winter.

In the meantime, since we may encounter rainstorms again today, we’ll seal the compartment with packing tape, as we used to do years ago when we were full-timing.  It’s a kludgy solution but it will do until we get home.  We’re only a little over 800 miles away from wrapping up this trip.

Salinas Pueblos National Monument

A few days ago when Eleanor and I were talking about our options for travel west of Kansas, we got a bit stuck.  So we did what we often do: we opened up the map and just looked around for things that were unfamiliar and interesting. I regard that exercise as a real privilege, because it means we’ve got time to explore whatever we like, and that doesn’t happen as often as it used to.

After a few minutes of map searching I noticed a tiny green speck in northern New Mexico indicating a national monument we’d never heard of: Salinas Pueblos. We immediately got on the NPS.GOV website and discovered that it comprises three separate units: Abo, Quarai and Gran Quivira, each containing the ruins of pueblos that had been occupied for hundreds of years, but not much since 1667.  We were already sold on going there, but it was even more interesting to see that the pueblos were in an area of New Mexico that we’ve never seen (or even heard of).  So Salinas Pueblos became the centerpiece of our route home, and we made our other routing choices (like Capulin Volcano) around it.

We wanted to stay at Manzano Mountains State Park, but found (upon arrival) that it was closed. The official reasoning is severe fire danger, but locals told us it hasn’t been open for three seasons because of budgetary issues.  So we ended up at the only other spot within 50 miles: an RV park in Mountainair, NM.  And it was across the street from a very busy freight rail line.  Oh well.  At least we had a full hookup.

I hadn’t expected cell phone service in this part of the country so I wasn’t disappointed.  Cellular voice service was hopeless, but Skype on the iPhone running over the campground wifi allowed me to make a few calls anyway.  Interestingly, the new rooftop antenna and amplifier I installed last spring for Internet service worked amazingly well.  (I was able to get online with the router reporting a virtually non-existent signal strength of -101 dBm, but used the RV park wifi most of the time.)

Salinas Pueblo-1

The fine weather continued for the most part, which made touring the ruins a picturesque experience.  They are all around 6,700 feet elevation, surrounded by grassy plains and ringed by mountains in the distance. Puffy cumulus popped up each afternoon to dot the sky.  Eleanor likes taking pictures of clouds, sunsets, and wildlife more than photos of ruined stone foundations, so she was practically wearing out her camera while I judiciously composed shots of the landscape.  When we compared notes later it seemed she shot about three for every one of mine. But we both got great pictures. It’s hard not to, in such a majestic and historic place.

Salinas Pueblo-3

Salinas Pueblo-6

There is a very sad tale that surrounds these pueblos, which is well documented at all three sites.  Since our recorded history basically begins when the Spanish attempted to colonize New Mexico, there’s not much known about the pueblo Indians life in the 800 years or so prior to the Spanish arrival.  But we know all too well what happened when the first Spanish friars showed up, and it’s a classic story of outside influence destroying a culture.

Salinas Pueblo-2The natives were forced to adopt Christianity and abandon their traditional beliefs, work as virtual slaves for the Spanish crown, change farming methods, and abandon trading with other tribes.  It wasn’t long before these settlements that had survived for centuries were suffering from starvation, unrest, violent raids, and ultimately complete failure.

Salinas Pueblo-5

By 1677, the pueblos were abandoned: the natives migrated elsewhere, the Spanish decided New Mexico would never be profitable, and everyone lost.  Other than a brief occupation by Hispanics in the 19th century, nobody has ever lived at these sites since. What we know of them today comes from records by the Spanish and archaeological study. There’s a lot more to the story, but you’ll need to visit Salinas Pueblos yourself to learn it.

Salinas Pueblo-4

Salinas Pueblo-8

Emma helped us out by doing the Junior Ranger program at all three sites.  You get a pin plus a ribbon for each site, and she collected all of them over the course of a day and a half.

Salinas Pueblo-9

If you come here I recommend two nights minimum to be able to explore all three sites, if you can stand the train noise at the RV park. (My solution was to get very poor sleep one night, and sleep like a log the second.  Huge thunderstorms on the first night helped with this.)

I know Montana owns the slogan, but this is really “big sky country.”  On a clear night the stars and moon are worth a look, and it seems like the land goes on forever without a city in any direction.  (Albuquerque is on the other side of a mountain range, effectively invisible from here.)  There’s not much here beyond the salt lakes and the ancient pueblos, so it’s no surprise that tourism is minimal (cattle ranching seems to be the big business), but it’s a beautiful spot nonetheless.

Salinas Pueblo-7

Our trip “plan” at this point called for us to head to Silver City and then up to Gila Cliff Dwellings, but the recent rains in New Mexico caused the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument to close.

It’s open again as of today, but with the warning that the trails may close in the afternoons as thunderstorms build up.  Given that, we’ve decided to head over to Valley of Fires State Recreation Area in Carrizozo NM for a night and then figure out the rest of the trip from there.  We’ve still got five days to play with before we have to be at home base, and we want to make the most of every day we have.

Capulin Volcano National Monument, NM

We lucked out.  Not only did we manage to miss the rain that has plagued the western states, but we hit this part of northern New Mexico in time for some flawless late summer weather.  That made our visit to Capulin Volcano a huge success.

We have moved up in the world, literally, climbing to a base elevation of about 6,800 feet here at the RV park, and that means a big change in climate.  Days are sunny and in the 70s, but come sunset the temperatures plummet and anyone outside is quickly reaching for a warm layer to wear.  Those humid days in Jackson Center only a few days ago seem far off now.  We’ve gone from air conditioning to furnace in no time at all.

The town of Capulin is quiet and tiny, just a few houses and one small store, an RV park, and not much else.  There is no grocery store, no night life, no downtown.  Our host at the RV park is also the rural mail carrier.  Up the road is the equally tiny Folsom, made famous for the “Folsom man” discovery which proved that humans lived in north America at least 10,000 years ago.  Otherwise, this area is all wide open landscapes and grassy cattle ranches punctuated by volcanic remains like cinder cones and lava fields.  It’s stunningly beautiful on a clear day.

Capulin NM E E rim trailFrom the summit of Capulin volcano it’s a million-dollar view in all directions, and the best way to get it is to drive to the top and hike the one mile Crater Rim Trail, which of course we did.  Here’s a hint: it’s a lot easier if you go counter-clockwise.

We also hiked into the shallow crater on the Crater Vent Trail, and along the Boca Trail (2.0 miles), for a total of about 3.5 miles of hiking.  Not having done much hiking lately, and also acclimating to high altitude again (about 7,800 feet at the rim), we all felt like total couch potatoes, but we plowed ahead anyway.  We all need the exercise. Being winded is just part of the experience.

Capulin NM ladybugs

One feature of the volcano that we did not expect was ladybugs.  Apparently they are quite prolific, for reasons we did not learn today.  If you look closely at the bush in the picture, you may be able to see that the red dots are ladybugs, not berries. Eleanor purchased a souvenir pin for the park, which features a ladybug, and now we understand why it’s there.

I mentioned that this is cattle country.  The RV park sells “premium beef” from one of the local cattlemen, which is all organic, grass-fed, beef with a long list of perceived benefits.  The brochure even mentions that they “use animals of a gentle disposition, and always handle gently and quietly.”  It’s expensive stuff but we couldn’t resist three steaks from their freezer, so now they are in our freezer. Our best souvenirs are always the edible ones.

Since we slowed down, life in the Airstream feels exactly like it did when we were full-timing—except that our daughter, who was once so portable, now requires a chunk of the dinette table for her ever-present laptop computer.  But otherwise it’s very familiar, comforting, and just feels right to be out here. I would be happy to extend this trip for a few weeks if we didn’t have obligations back at home base.

Capulin NM E E hikeEmma has of course done the Junior Ranger program, so we’ll turn in the completed booklet and get her badge tomorrow.  I could easily see spending a few more days here, touring the backcountry outside the National Monument, but that would have us in the car even more and that’s not terribly appealing after 30+ hours of driving in the past week. We have decided to move tomorrow to see some native American ruins further south in New Mexico, and camp in the Cibola National Forest for a couple of days.  We’ll probably lose Internet connectivity for that period so I’ll update the blog when we emerge.

 

Waterfalls, inside and out

Since we are settled into the campground, there is time to take care of little things. As when we were full-timing, we have to do various jobs as we travel because it doesn’t pay to let them accumulate until the end of the trip. Eleanor has been re-packing some of the provisions that she didn’t have time to deal with before we left Tucson, which means the big pile of stuff in the bedroom is slowly disappearing into the cabinets (or being consumed).

We discovered on Tuesday that our shower is leaking at the corner where the wall meets the shower pan, just below the faucet. This is a routine job. It needs fresh caulk. I had done the other major leak point over the winter, but didn’t think this spot needed service yet.

Digging around my bin of repair supplies in the back, I found a tube of white silicone caulk that I keep specifically for this job. Unfortunately, it was a previously opened tube that (despite careful re-sealing) had fully cured in the tube since the last time I used it, probably a year or two ago. We’ll have to come up with a temporary seal (likely a strip of tape) for the shower, and buy some fresh caulk at a hardware store on the way to Ohio.

This may not sound much like a camping trip, with re-packing and re-caulking, but that’s life on the road. We do a little of the obligatory stuff each day and spend the rest of the time having fun, so I don’t want to make it seem like we are primarily focused on household duties. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will still get our attention

Today’s plan was to seek out some of the many waterfalls in the park. This is a huge park, so we focused on those along the northern edge of the park by the Little River. A couple can be seen from the road with no hiking. We picked out two roadside falls and two that required 2.5 mile hikes (roundtrip).

I can’t say enough about the scenic beauty of this place, but it is sadly complemented by massive crowds almost everywhere. The parking lots were overflowing at every trailhead we visited, despite being mid-week and theoretically not yet in the peak season. We abandoned plans to hike one trail after seeing the hordes at the parking lot, and tried it again at 5:30 pm when things had quieted down. Even a mile into the woods on a muddy trail there was nothing approaching solitude. Normally I find hiking in the woods to be relaxing but this felt more like we had gotten off the tour bus.

This led to a new Eleanor-ism. Speaking of one of the more crowded trails, she said, “Well, that seems worth not doing.” We spent the rest of the afternoon’s hiking trying to identify other things that seemed worth not doing. (And for those of you who are long-time blog readers, yes, Reagan is still dead.)

20130524-134259.jpg

Getting to two of the waterfalls on our list required us to break my earlier commitment not to leave the park, because it’s necessary to exit through downtown Gatlinburg to reach the “Motor Trail.” This is a horrifying shock if you have been camped in the forest of a few days. In seconds you go from dense green forest to a crowded and visually noxious tourist center, filled with every food chain imaginable, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, ersatz fashion outlets, and (oddly enough) multiple pancake restaurants, all stacked up against each other in a mish-mash example of urban planning gone amok. Eight stoplights of this before you can make a right turn and escape back into the woods.

So that’s where all the day-trippers are coming from. I had no idea, but now that I do I feel like retreating further into the woods.

Despite the crowds, we did manage to finally complete our four waterfalls, hiking a total of about 5.5 miles for the day and amazingly not encountering any thunderstorms. The day’s drive totaled 73 miles, more than I would have preferred but every inch of it scenic and astonishing (even Gatlinburg, in its own way).

We returned to the Airstream around 7 p.m.to find that I had missed the fact that the center roof vent was open. A splatter pattern on the new vinyl floor showed that a rainshower had come through while we were gone; fortunately, not a flood and no damage done. The good news here was that the rain had kept the camp “fires” at bay, so the smoke level was low for a chance and we could open up the windows to let in some cool air. It is nice to smell the sweetness of the pines and the delicate odor of moss, if only for a moment.

And finally, because the Gatlinburg restaurants had planted a seed in our brains, we made pancakes on the stove with blackberries and maple syrup, and wrapped up the evening with a couple of games on the iPad.

Great Smoky Mtns National Park

As expected, traveling into the Great Smoky Mtns National Park meant total isolation from wireless communications. Once in a while that’s a good thing, because for about 360 days a year I’m tied into email and phone. It’s nice to be unreachable for a while. For those who can’t bear the thought, I will only hint that if you electronically sniff around certain buildings you will find open wifi. For the record, I am not admitting that I checked my email at any point during this trip.

We set the Airstream down in the Cades Cove campground, which is sheltered by a mountain ridge so that outside influences are beyond view or detection by our technology. There are no buildings, antennas, city lights, or clearings to be seen from the campground; we are in a bowl of greenery which is only reached by occasional thunderstorms and light breezes.

It was a tight fit into the campsite, even though the ReserveAmerica site touted it as being suitable for 35-foot RVs. If you actually put a 35-foot anything in the site, you’d have no place for a vehicle. Our 30-foot Airstream fills the space to the extent that the Mercedes must be parked sideways.

20130524-132058.jpg

But the real trick was backing into the site. The recently-repaved campground roads are single-lane width, and turning radii are challenging to put it mildly. It took us three or four separate maneuvers to get the Airstream into the space, working around trees, stones, and other obstacles, and we’re not exactly beginners at this sort of thing. I may have to make a couple of passes to get the Airstream back out, later.

This park is one of the big ones, and reputedly the most visited national park in the US park system. I can believe that. While it’s not peak season now, there are a lot of day visitors milling around everywhere and occasionally the roads feel like they are overcrowded. This feeling is exacerbated by the narrowness of the roads, typically lacking shoulders and sometimes one-way. The park service seems to have striven to keep some of the feeling of old times, by avoiding the temptation to turn all the roads into 4 lane highways. Between the campground and the roads, everything feels a bit tight. I’m not complaining, just observing.

So far there have been no surprises, good or bad. We had expected a deeply forested, quiet, and pleasant campground in Cades Cove, and we have that. We expected daily thunderstorms, dense humidity, historic buildings, and lots of wildlife, and we have all of those. The campfires smouldering at every third or fourth site are pretty much as expected, too, alas.

Yesterday when we arrived the Airstream had gotten pretty warm in the sun, so we opened the windows and ran all the fans to try to cool it. We were not making much progress on cooling it, but we were filling it with smoke pretty well, until a massive thunderstorm barreled through. Soon the outside temperature was 64 degrees, hail the size of cherrystones was bouncing off the roof, and all the fires were neatly quenched, which gave us a chance to air out the trailer with cool evening air before the fires started up again.

This was our battle again today, but the thunderstorms have been on our side, so we have a reasonable compromise between those who must have smoke filling the campground and those of us who would like fresh air. I know we can’t win this battle, because some of the nearby campers came armed with (I am not exaggerating here) half a cord of wood and/or several four-foot logs. Plus, the park service allows people to collect deadwood from the forest floor and burn that, too. (That’s a mystery, since collecting deadwood is a big no-no in most national parks.)

The sun is another outside influence that barely reaches us. The tree cover is nearly 100%, so our solar gain each day has been negligible. No problem, we expected this and there’s really no need to use much power anyway, since we have no Internet, and no need for furnace this time of year. Our first night we splurged by watching a DVD on one of the laptops (plugged into the inverter, which means it was running off the house battery) and it cost us about 12% of our total power reserve. We won’t be doing that again on this trip.

For blogging purposes, I am testing the iPad with a keyboard. This is working well. It’s not as convenient in some ways as the laptop, but the iPad has the enormous advantage of using hardly any power, and being easily recharged from a 12-volt socket. I definitely recommend it as a boondocking-friendly appliance, along with the optional digital camera adapter sold by Apple, and a commonplace 12 volt USB plug.

Having just driven 1,800 miles in five days, we really wanted to do just about anything today other than sit in the car. Alas, most of the attractions of this park do require some driving, but we kept it down to less than 12 miles all day by doing the Cades Cove scenic loop and browsing various historic buildings from the settlement days.

20130524-132145.jpg

Although the buildings (churches, cabins, a mill, etc) get a lot of attention, it was interesting to note all the wildlife. We spotted a black bear, two deer, wild turkey, a large salamander, a snake, and many butterflies. All of the mammals were seemingly unafraid of the gaggles of humans hanging around and taking pictures, which is something we’ve noticed before in national parks where generations of animals have been completely protected from human molestation.

20130524-132233.jpg

Otherwise, we have done very little. A game of Monopoly on the iPad in the evening, a walk around the campground, reading—all camping-type things. Nothing “exciting.” We haven’t bought any t-shirts or ridden the rides at Dollywood down in Pigeon Forge. In fact, we have no plans to depart the park until we leave for good on Friday.