Visiting America’s National Parks—lecture and book

I’m putting distance between myself and Jackson Center now, heading toward new and exciting adventures. At the moment the Airstream is parked near Cleveland at the home of the same dear friends who have offered post-palooza decompression services for ten years. Eleanor will be flying back to Tucson tomorrow and that will end our time in the Airstream together. I’m continuing on to upstate New York and Vermont for a few weeks.

I was able to obtain video of the talk I gave during Alumapalooza on “America’s National Parks.” The talk is nearly an hour long even though I was talking quickly. If you have the time to kill you can find it on YouTube here.

APZ10 Rich National Parks talk

Upon reviewing the video I was mortified to see how difficult conditions are for presenters at Alumapalooza. We are on the grounds of a working factory, so the audio is occasionally marred by the sounds of trucks going past the tent and beeping sounds from the factory. Dogs are always in the tent and often they will bark their opinions, and this time somebody brought a bird to the presentation which you can hear squawking a few times. At one point somebody cut through the tent and walked right in front of the camera. When it rains hard the noise on the tent can be deafening.

In addition to all the audio challenges, the slides tend to be washed out by the bright light (we can’t get the tent dark enough without also trapping in heat and humidity). Alumapalooza is a tough venue. I should have a talk with the bums who organized this.

And in this presentation I was talking way too fast for anyone not born in the northeast USA to understand, and saying “ummm” far too much. So fair warning: it’s amateur hour in this video. I’m going to have to up my game if I want to get tapped for a TED Talk …  (just kidding)

If my lecture didn’t put you to sleep and you want more inspiration for travels to national parks, check out my new book “EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks With Your RV” on the Airstream Life Store (free shipping) and on Amazon.com. Do me a favor and post a review if you have a copy. Thanks!

Exploring America’s National Parks

Before I continue with the next post on our trip through Utah, I have to announce something I’m pretty excited about. My next book will be coming out soon—and it’s a topic that is particularly special to me: exploring America’s National Parks.

This book is the culmination of 14 years of working with Bert Gildart, who has been contributing to Airstream Life magazine continuously since 2004. Bert is known for his romantic and inspirational articles about national parks and other American destinations, and for his incredible photography (especially wildlife photography). He also happens to be the only person to contribute to every issue since the magazine began in 2004, other than me.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that my family has visited a lot of national parks over the years. Last time I counted we’d been to over 140 of them, so I’ve got a lot of advice to share. Visiting the parks has been an obsession that started even before we had an Airstream, and over 20 years later we’re still actively seeking out more every time we get in the Airstream. (Flaming Gorge Nat’l Rec Area, in recent posts, is an example.)

National_Parks_book_front_cover For a long time Bert and I have talked about writing a book together, but it was only a couple of years ago that we got serious about it. We decided to write from two perspectives: Bert’s warm & fuzzy style of travel essays about a few selected national parks, and my practical style of “here’s how you do it.” Because we are very different writers, we hoped the contrast would give you a better understanding than any single writer could.

The book is called EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks From Your RV.  We used the term “RV” instead of Airstream because the book can be useful to any RV traveler, but just between you and me, you’ll find photos of Airstreams almost exclusively on the pages.

This is book I’ve wanted to write for many years. I used to do a slide show about visiting America’s National Parks at rallies, and every time I did it the room was always packed full, and people asked lots of good questions. It seems that lots of Airstreamers have figured out that the best of America is tucked away in the national park system—and they want to share in the joy of exploring it.

The book is in layout right now, so I don’t have a final page count but I think it will run about 150-180 pages. [UPDATE: final page count is 184 pages!] We’re going nuts with photos, so it’s extensively illustrated. I’ve put some thumbnails of the first few pages below, just to give you the idea.

Like my other books, I’m going to offer Airstreamers an advance purchase deal.  The book will be shipping in late December 2018 for $29.95,  but if you reserve a copy before December 15 you’ll save $11.95 per copy.  Click here for more info on that.

Like I said, I’m super excited about this. I hope a lot of you will benefit from this book and get going on your own national park adventures. They’re the greatest bargain in America and, in my opinion, the ultimate “bucket list”.

EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks With Your RV, by Bert Gildart and Rich Luhr, 184 pages, softcover, 10 3/4″ x 10 3/4″ Collectors book format. Available in the Airstream Life Store and Amazon.com in December 2018.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

humboldt-redwoods-eleanor-emmaIt’s hard to drive through the northwest corner of California and not stop to see the Pacific Coast Redwood trees.  I mean, it’s possible to avoid them by sticking resolutely to Interstate 5, or perhaps driving Route 101 with blinders on, but for us the temptation to take a detour to Avenue Of The Giants is overwhelming.

So we don’t fight the call of the majestic trees. We exit the 101 and meander down the winding road that brings us eventually to Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and we camp for a couple of days.  It’s rejuvenating to unhitch and explore one of the redwood groves on foot.  There’s a certain peacefulness that comes from being among the great old trees and the mossy ground, deep in the shaded glens.

We’ve seen the Pacific Coast Redwoods (and their relatives, the Giant Sequoias) before but they never fail to impress. Each time we visit the forest we learn something small that makes the experience unique, so it’s not the “same old trees” every time.  Wandering a grove without any goal in mind, just letting inspiration flow, is the key.

Since on this trip we were heading toward Alumafandango, I suppose it was also inevitable that a phone call come in to interrupt our moment.  In this case it was an anxious tour leader wanting to get reassurance from Eleanor.

Wisely, she decided to complete the call before we started our walk, so that she’d be clear of business things while in the redwood grove. That’s a lesson I had to learn early on in our travels as well.  Mental compartmentalization is crucial if you want to work and play on the road. You don’t ever want to embark on a hike or any relaxation until you’ve cleared your head of the cares of the working day, otherwise they will haunt your experience and taint the happy memories you’re working to build.

humboldt-redwoods-eleanor-phone

These were our last two nights before landing in Jackson CA for pre-event prep, so I particularly valued them.  Once we hit the event site, it’s always go-go-go, and we’ll have 12 nights sitting in the same spot. The redwoods were an ideal spot to mentally escape the concerns ahead, and get ourselves psyched to work hard for an extended period.

North Cascades National Park, WA

You can thank the Mercedes GL for this blog because it has had a hiccup that forced us to pause our travel.  We’re currently in Creswell OR, near Eugene, awaiting a part that was ordered yesterday.  I’ll talk about that in a future blog.

First, let me fulfill the promise I made a while back, to talk about our trip to North Cascades National Park.  That lovely visit to Lake Chelan boosted our interest in going further up into North Cascades.  (Technically the town of Chelan is outside the park, but taking the ferry up the lake to Stehekin put us into North Cascades for a day.)

north-cascades-driving-map

If you could fly over the North Cascades with your Airstream from Chelan WA to Newhalem (near the center of the park) the trip would be fairly short, perhaps 70-80 miles.  But since the roads skirt the eastern edge of the mountain range, it’s a 134 mile trip that took us over four hours with a couple of stops.

The reason for the stops should be obvious from the photo below: it’s just gorgeous up there.

north-cascades-airstream-overlook

[Just an aside: virtually every time I pull into a large fuel station someone stares at the Airstream and asks me “does that Mercedes pull that big trailer OK?”  But when I’m at elevation in the mountains at a place like this, nobody asks.]

north-cascades-diablo-lake-overlook

The really prime viewpoint is the Diablo Lake overlook (above).  Diablo is one of three lakes created by hydroelectric dams along the Skagit River that provide power to Seattle.  The amazing color of the water is the result of “glacial flour”, which is basically ground-up dust from the ancient bedrock.  You see the same thing in the rivers and lakes in Alberta.  As stunning as it is in a photo, it’s even nicer in person.

north-cascades-gorge-high-damAlthough we ended up spending four days in the national park, the best way to appreciate this area is to explore the backcountry.  That means dedicating some time to hiking, tenting, fishing, etc.  We didn’t have time for that on this visit, but I made a note to return for a longer visit–and bring my tent and hiking boots.  This is a beautiful, wild, and vast national park and I want to see more of it.

Since we had squeezed North Cascades into our trip itinerary at the last moment, we were obliged to keep the visit short and get on toward Seattle. Eleanor needed to fly back to Tucson for an appointment, and I had at least six or seven days worth of work to catch up on.

So we parked the Airstream at Washington Land Yacht Harbor in Lacey, for an affordable full hookup, and that’s how this trip across the United States ended.

I’ve never bothered to count how many times we have crossed the country, but the number of one-way trips certainly is more than 25 at this point.  It’s not really a point of pride, as I believe that the key to enjoyable Airstreaming is the amount of time you stop rather than the amount of miles you drive.

If I could go back and change the past I would be glad to have spent twice as much time at many places. When you travel slowly it’s amazing how often you trip over some place that’s truly fantastic, while on the way to somewhere else.

Our next trip leg takes us south into California for Alumafandango, but before we get there we’ve got a little time to explore Oregon and northern California. I’ll get into that in the next blog.

Chillin’ in Chelan

You know, America is a big country full of amazing things.  Just when I think I’ve seen it all, we go around a corner and there’s something that adds a new dimension.  This week it was North Cascades National Park in north-central Washington state.

While we were absorbing the sad fact that our Montana trip was going to be considerably abbreviated (mostly due to crowding around the Glacier area) I noticed North Cascades National Park in our road atlas. It’s not one of the “big name” western parks and I never hear anyone talk about it, so I assumed at first it was one of those obscure units of the National Park Service that’s comprised of a lot of forest and few visitor-friendly amenities.

But it was a “National Park”, meaning that it took an act of Congress to gain its status, and that is a rare thing indeed.  Of over 400 units of the National Park Service, only 58 are designated “National Park”. The rest are National Monuments, Historical Sites, Lakeshores, Battlefields, Recreation Areas, etc.  Even some western major sites like Devils Tower, Dinosaur, Organ Pipe Cactus, and Natural Bridges are designated National Monuments, not Parks.  So there had to be something more there than I had suspected.

The atlas showed a long, narrow lake winding its way into North Cascades, called Lake Chelan (pronounced “shell-ANN”) and a ferry service the entire length called “Lady Of The Lake”.  This ferry is one of three ways to reach the town of Stehekin (“stuh-HEE-kin”) at the extreme northern end of the lake. The other ways are on foot through the mountains, and seaplane. This seemed like something worth checking out, so we decided to cut down to I-90 in Montana and zip straight to Washington so we’d have a few days to spend up in the Cascades.

I should mention that the drive over was uneventful by my standards, but then I sometimes forget that I’m used to dealing with a lot of hairy situations while towing. If nothing blows up or fails spectacularly during a tow, I generally write it off as “uneventful.” But Eleanor does some of the driving now, and she caught what I call “a learning opportunity” in the last few miles of our trip.

Washington dust 12 gradeWe were navigating mostly by GPS during this leg and so didn’t notice that there was a 12% downgrade to Chelan Falls.  This by itself would be intimidating enough for a towing-trainee but it was compounded by a strong wind and blowing dust.  When Eleanor spotted this sign she knew she was in for some excitement.

Going down is always harder than going up, at least psychologically.  The sensation of a trailer pushing causes many people to ride the brakes down the hill, which is of course a mistake because on a long grade you’ll have overheated brakes or perhaps no brakes at all.

So I took the opportunity to teach Eleanor the right way to get down a steep hill without melting the brake discs.  She got a little sweaty but she managed and it was—I hope—a confidence-building experience.

In any case, a nice public park awaited us at the bottom of the hill, at Beebe Bridge Park, along a river.  While setting up we found two empty metal cannabis tubes abandoned next to our site.  Hadn’t seen that before.  (It’s legal here.) I don’t care if people want to smoke the stuff, but sheesh, at least throw away your trash!

Beebe Bridge Chelan Falls Airstream

We set the Airstream up a few miles away from the ferry dock and caught the Lady Express at 8:30 am the next morning.  The Lady Express is the “quick” boat, an all-aluminum ferry with twin turbodiesel engines and forty-inch propellers that push it up the lake at 24 MPH.  It’s a fun ride on a sunny day.

Chelan WA Lady of the Lake and Lady Express

The Lady of the Lake is on the left in the photo above. It is larger and slower (about 14 MPH), taking 4 hours to travel the length of Lake Chelan.  The Lady Express is at right.  Because of the way the schedules work, the ideal play for daytrippers (in the summer) is to take the Lady Express north in the morning to arrive at Stehekin by 11:00, then pick up the Lady Of The Lake at 2:00 for the return trip.  That gives you the maximum time in Stehekin.

Lake Chelan jetskiiers

The ferry attracts jetskiiers along the southern portion of the lake, where the vacationer are clustered.  This part of the lake relatively calm (especially compared to the “narrows” section further north) so sometimes the only waves the jetskiiers can find to play on are those created by the ferry boats.  It’s a lot like watching dolphins bow-riding waves in front of ships.

Chelan WA vineyards

The area around Chelan reminded us of Lake Como in Italy, a little.  Add in a few old stone estates, olive trees, and walking trails up into the hills and it would be a lot closer.

Lake Chelan Airstream

Of course, in Italy you probably wouldn’t find an Airstream parked on the hillside …

Stehekin is an unusual outpost.  One person described arriving as being “like summer camp.” The moment you land there are people waiting to greet you, direct you to the Rainbow Falls tour or the NPS Visitor Center or the Lodge, and dusty red buses to haul you around.  There are only a few things to do there, and since the local economy is entirely built on tourism, they want to make sure you have a chance to enjoy everything.

Stehehkin welcome home

Stehehkin Rainbow FallsIt’s a bit funny when you see all the cars parked in Stehekin and reconcile that with the facts: there are only 80 year-round residents, there is only one road, and it’s just 13 miles long.  Of course, the population is quite a bit bigger in summer with tourists in town, including dozens of hikers.

Three hours in a tiny village might seem like a long time but it flew by for us.  We checked out Rainbow Falls, ate lunch at the famous local bakery, walked two miles back to town, and then hit the Visitor Center.  There’s so much to see, photograph, taste … and no distractions. Zero cell service, a feature I’m coming to appreciate because it is so rare.  Most of the time I need to be connected, but when I am taking a day off it’s nice to see the phone enforce it with a “No Service” indicator.

There are other ways to get here.  Next time I want to hike in, taking a couple of days to explore some of the Cascades trails.  You can use the Lady Of The Lake to help with that, either getting dropped off or picked up at a few “flag stops” along the lakeshore.  In places where there is no dock the steel-hulled boat just runs aground lightly, then extends a gangplank to pick up hikers.

We picked up a hiker at one such flag stop on the way back.  He confessed to having missed the boat the night before (thinking it was a smaller boat and not the ferry), so he had to tent-camp an additional night.  That sounded a lot like a fortuitous moment to me. It was a beautiful place to spend a night all alone. Lucky bastard.

Stehehkin Lake Chelan view

Seven hours of cruising on the lake and three hours roaming Stehekin was just about the best use of a sunny day in the summer I could think of.  I highly recommend the trip.

Our next stop was further north in the Cascades, but I’ll talk about that in a future post.