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June 23, 2018 / annakpf11

Roads Not Taken

“The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.” —Confucius

DAYS TEN & ELEVEN: June 13 & 14: North Rim to Tehachapi to Richmond

I wake at 4:30 AM, as the sky begins to lighten and the birds begin to stir. Today we must vacate our campsite, but we have not decided on our next destination. My phone shows a tiny bar of cellular signal, and so I check for news of the wildfires in Colorado.

“Dave, are you awake?”

A muffled reply, “Now I am.”

“Another forest fire started in Colorado, and more roads have closed.”

Dave sits up in bed and pulls the duvet around his shoulders. “Given the information we have, there’s no clear answer.” He pauses. “We have to go with our gut, and make a choice.” Another pause. “If we drive to Barstow today, we could be home tomorrow afternoon.”

So be it. At first, we both feel deflated, but then, like a sailboat responding to a shift in the wind, we adjust our sails and set a new course. In the cool of early morning, we make our way through the gracious meadowland leading out of the park.


A herd of buffalo moves across open ground beside us, including several nut-brown calves, one so young—or so thirsty—that it continually stops to nurse. The lead bison pauses for mother and child to catch up, and then they all plod on.

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When we turn onto Interstate 15, the busy, wind-wracked highway that will lead us through Nevada, Dave grips the wheel, and his shoulder muscles tense. Guiding Suzy in and out of turbulence on the crowded two-lane road is like steering a sailboat with a heavy weather helm.

As soon as my phone shows a strong enough signal, I take a deep breath and begin making calls to cancel reservations and plans we’d made for the next two weeks. Cutting our month-long trip short and missing out on visits with friends feels anti-climactic, and I have to remind myself that it’s no use dwelling on the road not taken.

At noon, we pass through Las Vegas, and Suzy’s outside temperature gauge reads 108 degrees. An hour later, when we stop for gas in Baker, I step out of the car and feel the soles of my shoes melt and my skin shrink closer to the bone. “Hell on earth,” says Dave. It is a frighteningly hot 113 degrees.

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The good news is that traveling in Suzy, we can cover a lot of ground. No need to stop for food, drink or restrooms; everything is on board within easy reach. We average 18 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, and our solar panels supply all our electrical needs except for microwave (so far only used as a breadbox) and air conditioning. If we need to operate the AC without electricity, we can run our built-in, propane-powered generator. If cloudy weather prevents our solar panels from storing enough energy, the generator will fill in any gaps. In short, we feel quite self-sufficient.

Winnebago ERA 70A floorplan

After nine hours and 500 miles of sunbaked highway, we reach the oak and pine-covered slopes of Tehachapi Mountain. A steep cul-de-sac leads to a scattering of day-use picnic areas and primitive campsites, many of them closed or inaccessible. The place is deserted except for two lethargic young women sprawled at a day-use picnic table and a group of six men and women who have pitched tents and seem to be playing a rowdy game of Beer Pong. The sloping “park” has the seedy, slightly eerie feeling of a place that has fallen into disrepair and disuse, but it seems quiet (aside from the Pong Party), and all we care about is a good night’s sleep and an early start in the morning. So we settle Suzy into a shaded site, walk a half-mile down the road to the self-registration kiosk, seal an $18 camping fee into an envelope, drop it in a metal slot and then hike back up the hill, breathing heavily in the heat.


Back at Suzy, I pour water over my head and tie a wet bandana (purchased in Bryce for just this purpose) around my neck. Instant relief. Sipping an ice-cold beer helps too. For dinner, we cobble together a picnic of canned tuna, potato salad, a packet of Madras lentils, and reconstituted dehydrated broccoli. Camping rations, and they taste just fine. While we are washing the dishes, I smell smoke, and see that the Pong People have ignited a roaring campfire. Surely they saw the CAMPFIRES STRICTLY FORBIDDEN and HIGH FIRE DANGER signs posted at the park entrance? Dave and I gaze at the crackling flames and exchange a worried look.

Adding to our discomfort, a creeping parade of vehicles has begun cruising up and down the dead-end road. Windows down, music thumping, each vehicle slows as it passes and the occupants eye our rig. Perhaps they are simply admiring Suzy, but there’s a vague sense of menace in the fixed gaze. I go outside, alone, to empty a pan of water, and a dark gray sedan pulls off the road and stops next to our campsite. My scalp prickles. I call to Dave, who quickly appears, and the car accelerates up the hill. Even if all this activity is perfectly innocent, we won’t get a good night’s rest. Within five minutes, lawn chairs and bikes are back on the rig, dinner dishes put away, and we’re heading down the mountain. If you need to leave somewhere in a hurry, Suzy is your gal.


We escape to the Valley Airport and RV Park on the outskirts of Tehachapi, a mom-and-pop campground that is far more beautiful and infinitely more peaceful than the name implies.


The next day, a five-hour drive lands us on our doorstep with a renewed appreciation for the temperate climate where we live, and the natural wonders in our own backyard. We have learned that we love traveling together with Suzy; she is the right rig for us. Our next adventure beckons, but for now we’re content where we are, in this thin slice of the world.




June 22, 2018 / annakpf11

At Nature’s Mercy

 “Adopt the pace of Nature: her secret is patience.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

DAYS EIGHT & NINE: June 11 & 12: Grand Canyon

Being on the road again after two nights at Bryce Canyon feels right and good, like a pair of shoes that have molded to fit our feet.


At lunchtime, we park at a scenic spot, avail ourselves of our in-house kitchen, and then resume our drive through a surprising and ever-changing landscape. A cliff face dripping with brick-red streaks looks as if Jackson Pollack has spilled gallons of rust-colored paint. Pink swirls of color embedded in the rounded contours of white stone bring a strawberry parfait to mind.

In the town of Kanab (or Kebab, as Dave likes to call it), we stock up on groceries at Honey’s Market, and then begin the 40-mile approach to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The road leading to the national park entrance rolls like a long green hallway through a seemingly endless series of broad meadows bordered by pine and aspen trees. At the park gate, we wait in a brief queue and then show our pass to the ranger, who waves us through. The valley narrows and the trees march closer to the road, as if escorting us the final ten miles.


Eager for our first sight of one of the seven wonders, we bypass the campground and drive all the way to the lodge, perched, it seems, at the very edge of the world.


A small lobby leads to an observation lounge, and then, beneath and beyond us, we see the patient handiwork of the Colorado River.

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A mind-boggling array of layered cliffs created by hard and soft substances eroding at different rates.

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This place is like a staircase through time, a testament to the transformative power of incremental change.

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After gazing our fill (for now), we make our way to our campsite, a gently sloping piece of ground shaded by slender aspen trees. Not a breath of wind ruffles their heart-shaped leaves, and the temperature pushes towards 90 degrees.


Dave positions our folding chairs in the shade, and we relax with a cold beer. I try to check the weather forecast on my mobile phone, but the signal is too weak. We know the occasional data blackout is to be expected—even relished; we are camping, after all—and so without the ability to check local weather, research the area, stay in touch with loved ones or keep abreast of current events, we do our best to surrender to the mercy of what we don’t know.

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For dinner, Dave hooks up our portable propane barbecue in preparation for grilling steaks. He opens a bottle of Côtes du Rhone and pours us each a glass. I stand at Suzy’s two-burner stove, gratefully basking in the steam from simmering zucchini and farro. The high desert climate has left my skin feeling as withered as shed snakeskin, and as rough to the touch.


There are no bears here, and we are able to sleep with Suzy’s back doors wide-open, cool breeze on our pillows. Stars as bright as spotlights shine through gaps in the trees. I think of the long river of geologic time, the brief span of our mortal lives, and how glad I am to be here now.

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The next morning, before the sun becomes uncomfortably hot, Dave rides his bike to the lodge for lunch, a little over a mile away. I elect to walk (better for building bone density), and prepare for the trek by dousing my long-sleeved cotton shirt with water. For about five minutes, I feel blissfully cool and damp.

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After an hour, I return to our campsite covered with a thin veneer of trail dust, every cell in my body sucked dry. I pack a bike pannier with the requisite washing supplies and bicycle to the shower hut, only to realize I have forgotten the most vital ingredient: cash. Six quarters for six minutes. I cycle back to Suzy, grab my wallet, ride to the campground store, procure change for two dollars, and finally pedal back (uphill) to the shower house. Out of four stalls, one is occupied and two display hand-written signs declaring “OUT OF ORDER”. I scurry into the available cubicle, lock the door, and dutifully insert quarters into the coin tray. A short pause, and then the blessed sound of splashing water. The faucet is turned all the way to HOT, but the water temperature never gets past warm. Never mind. At least it’s wet. I quickly shampoo, condition and rinse my hair, finishing just as the water goes cold, and well before six minutes are up. The automatic shower keeps running, an unfortunate waste of resources, but there’s no way to shut it off.


Late in the afternoon, a text from a friend somehow crosses the data blackout zone. There are wildfires, she writes, road closures and poor air quality in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. This is where we are heading tomorrow. She includes a link to a news article that I cannot access with the minimal phone signal at our campsite. Seeking enlightenment, Dave and I hike to the campground store and join other tourists with heads bent to their phones, patiently attempting to use a public wifi signal about as speedy as the forces that shaped the Grand Canyon. Eventually we manage to find out some bad news about the fires. We also learn that temperatures in Denver and the Moab area are predicted to soar into the upper 90’s and 100’s. On a more inspiring note, we make the acquaintance of a seasoned canine traveler.


Back at Suzy, we weigh our options. We consider changing our route, but we’d have to go to Alaska or South America to find cooler temperatures. Or San Francisco, but the idea of cutting our trip short feels like giving up. Besides, we’re looking forward to pre-arranged meet-ups with friends in Moab and Denver. “We’re in the middle of HOT,” Dave says, punctuating his statement with a sip of chilled Chablis.


Both of us are enjoying the rhythm of the road, and yet if we carry on, we fear we will spend most of the next two weeks avoiding toxic smoke and punishing heat. For now, we defer making any decisions. It is our last night in the Grand Canyon, and in this moment all is well, and we have everything we need.



June 19, 2018 / annakpf11


“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”—John Muir

 DAYS SIX & SEVEN:  June 9 & 10: Bryce Canyon

One side effect of crowded campgrounds is the opportunity to meet one’s neighbors. At Zion, we park next to a friendly retired couple and their dog, and they recommend a scenic route to reach Bryce Canyon, our next destination.


We follow their directions to the vibrant town of Cedar Creek, and then turn onto Highway 14, where we happily trade desert mesa landscape for the alpine scenery of Dixie National Forest. Temperatures cool as we climb to a summit over 9,600 feet, and we drink in the sight of evergreen and aspen trees marching up and down slopes of coral colored earth.


During the drive, Dave’s skill and experience behind the wheel saves us from mishap more than once: when a trucker swerves into our lane on a multi-lane highway, and later, when an oncoming SUV decides that a blind curve is a good place pull into our lane and pass a cyclist. Just before arriving at Bryce Canyon, we somehow manage to avoid colliding with a Northern Flicker, a large spotted woodpecker who flies at our windshield. I glimpse the flash of variegated feathers and cover my eyes, unwilling to watch the impact. But it never happens. “It veered away at the last minute,” Dave assures me.


Once we enter the National Park, we make a beeline for the lodge, where Dave has reserved us a room for two nights. It’s too early to check in, so we take a moment to admire the historic structure, especially the whimsically flowing pattern of roof shingles, before walking the short distance to the canyon rim.


Nothing has prepared us for what awaits: a natural amphitheater of time-sculpted rock formations that look like the dribble sand castles we made as children, only these fanciful creations glow with peach and salmon hues.


Also, there is no railing. Pale-breasted swallows glide past us and dip into the void. For any creature without wings, one false step guarantees a long slide to death or assorted bodily mayhem.


We inch closer to the brink, bewitched by the fantastical shapes and colors of the weird sandstone fins and spires called “hoodoos”, a term borrowed from folk-magic. We snap photos as long as we dare, until increasing ripples of vertigo compel us to back away.


After our initial flirtation with the abyss, we stick to the safety of prescribed paths.


Late afternoon heat eventually drives us into the hotel lobby, where the desk clerk, a fresh-faced schoolgirl, hands us the keys to our “room”, which turns out to be a storybook cabin.


Built in the 1920’s of rough-hewn logs, our cabin has a shady front porch, a high peaked ceiling and exposed log beams, and is equipped with two queen beds, good reading lights, a tiny refrigerator (perfect for chilling beer and wine), a table and chairs, a full bath, a separate dressing room with sink and vanity, and even a fireplace.


We have time before dinner for a bike ride, showers, and even a glass of wine on the front porch. A short walk leads to the lodge dining room, where we enjoy an expertly prepared meal of trout, roasted vegetables and herbed wild rice. Afterwards, we return to the canyon overlook, and in the gathering dusk, the columns of weathered stone glimmer like candles.

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Early the next morning, I embark on a hike into the canyon, armed against heat and sunlight with a full water bottle, long-sleeved shirt, sunscreen, and hat.


Strictly speaking, Bryce is not a “real” canyon, because it is not carved by flowing water, but by a process known as “frost-wedging”. Temperatures fluctuate above and below freezing every day for almost seven months of the year, enabling melt water to seep into fractures during the day, only to freeze and expand at night. The ice exerts a tremendous force, and over time it shatters and pries rock apart. Rain, which is naturally acidic, plays a role too, slowly dissolving the limestone, rounding off edges and washing away debris.


The view from below the chiseled rock forms is just as magical as the view from above. As I follow the trail’s winding course, I pass loads of enthusiastic tourists, some wandering closer to the sheer drop offs than I care to, and most speaking to each other in languages other than English. I hear Mandarin, French, Italian, German, Japanese and many more that I can’t readily identify. I stop to chat with a French woman from Montpellier, and she informs me that she and her husband find Bryce so inspiring, they return year after year.


On the steep ascent back up to the rim, I pass tourists coming down wearing street shoes—even heels—as they navigate the gritty path. Some hug the side of the trail furthest from the void, but many walk right up to the precipice and pose for selfies. Just watching them makes me feel queasy.


In fact, a mildly vertiginous feeling in the pit of my stomach never entirely abates during our two days here. I’m not so much worried for myself as for the heedless child who scampers too close to the edge, or the brash tourist who loses his footing while focusing his camera. But surely my worries are unfounded?


At the top of the climb, I happen to pass a suntanned, gray-bearded gentleman wearing the uniform of a Search and Rescue volunteer. “Doesn’t it drive you crazy when people stand near the edge?” I ask. “Sure does,” he nods and smiles. “But only about three people fall every year. Out of three million visitors. Not bad odds, really.”

Suffice to say, I highly recommend a visit to the fairyland that is Bryce. But please take care. And no matter how much you want that special photo, stay away from the edge.

June 16, 2018 / annakpf11

Riparian Refuge

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”—John Muir

DAYS FOUR & FIVE: June 7 & 8: Zion

It is not yet 6:30 AM when we pull into a parking space in the empty parking lot at the entrance to Zion national park. We were told to get here early, before the lot filled up, but perhaps we overdid it.


With Suzy’s spot secured, we focus on breakfast, conveniently at hand about an arm’s length away. Meanwhile, as if a faucet has been turned on, pedestrians, cyclists, cars and RV’s begin pouring into the park. Perhaps we didn’t arrive too early after all. We finish our meal, leave the unwashed dishes in the sink, fill a daypack with water bottles, cameras, snacks and sunscreen, and set off on foot to the shuttle bus stop. Where we join an already lengthy queue.


Following advice gleaned from fellow campers, we board the shuttle and ride all the way to the end of the line. From here, it’s possible to wade upstream to the Narrows, where the canyon’s red rock walls taper to only twenty feet apart, and soar a thousand feet overhead.

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We opt to walk the path along the Virgin River, and gaze in wonder at impossibly sheer rock walls the color of persimmons and rubies. We did not expect to find such grandeur here.


“This place is like Yosemite,” observes Dave, “only smaller, with red rock instead of granite, and without the falls.”

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For generations, this stunning gorge was a seasonal camping ground for the Paiute Indians. They called it Mukuntuweap, which translates as straight canyon, or straight arrow.

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When Mormon settlers took over the area in the 1850s, they gave it a biblical name, Zion, denoting sanctuary, or place of refuge.

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We find the place uplifting, in the same way a visit to Yosemite National Park elevates our spirits. I spot a red-breasted nuthatch, creeping up the bark of a pine tree, and glimpse countless birds flitting through the landscape. Do they migrate here every year, I wonder? Or do some species live year ’round in this magical canyon? Some enchanted lifetime that would be.

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Hours later, an unforgettable walk in the canyon ends at the Zion Lodge, where we refill our water bottles and relax into rocking chairs, temptingly placed on the hotel’s shady veranda. Soon it will be too hot to remain outdoors. But now we are content to sit awhile, savoring a last view of Zion, and contemplating our plans for the afternoon.


We decide to ride a shuttle down the mountain, drive to the RV park, plug into shore power and turn on the AC. It is the only livable option.

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By late afternoon, stepping outside is like walking into a pizza oven. I am tempted to cool off in the swimming pool, until I see it is a mosh pit of bobbing heads and thrashing limbs. Never mind. Suzy is our sanctuary.

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Note to selves (and any potential visitors to Zion who might be reading this): Our campground for two nights, the Zion River Resort RV Park and Campground, is probably a great place for families, but it provides far more amenities than we need or use.


If we return to Zion, we’ll come in April or October, and we’ll stay in the town of Springdale, at the Zion Canyon Campground and RV Park, offering the necessities without the frills, and within walking distance to the entrance of Zion National Park.



June 15, 2018 / annakpf11

Desert Crossing

“Look deep into Nature, and then you will understand everything better.”—Albert Einstein

DAY THREE: June 6: Lone Pine to Las Vegas

Today we will gain and lose thousands of feet in just over 100 miles, a long drawn out roller coaster ride through some of the most dramatic and inhospitable terrain on the planet: Death Valley.

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It’s our third day out, and I feel we’ve begun to hit our stride. We know where things are cached in Suzy’s cupboards and crannies, we have a better understanding of how her systems work, and we bump into each other less often in her limited interior space.


“We have half a tank of gas,” Dave says, as we motor past the handful of shops and restaurants in Lone Pine. “We could make it.”

“Let’s fill her up,” I suggest. “Just to be safe.” I know what’s ahead, and prefer to err on the side of prudence. No argument from Dave, and we stop for fuel. The outside temperature has already inched above 80 degrees.


At first glance, Death Valley looks just as we expected: a vast, untamed environment of dry basins and barren, rocky slopes. We can’t help but feel rather dwarfed and insignificant—in a good way—like when you look at a night sky full of stars and feel the immensity of the universe.

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We also feel a sense of urgency to get through the desert as expeditiously as possible. Place names like Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek, and Badwater Basin do not exactly inspire confidence. We obey the signs at the base of each climb that warn us to turn off our air conditioning to prevent our engine from over-heating, and with our windows rolled down, gusts of hot wind whip our hair and skin.


We pass through a rocky corridor whose walls glow with diagonal stripes of magenta, rust, slate and chocolate, and then come upon an impressive expanse of sand dunes. A pale gray lizard the size of a squirrel scuttles in front of us, stubby legs churning across the tarmac. Out loud, I admire the unexpected variety of textures, shapes and life forms found in the desert, on both grand and minute scales.

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“Like fractals,” Dave rejoins, dredging up the definition from his storehouse of mathematical knowledge, “constantly replicating patterns whether viewed microscopically or as mountains.” Amazingly simple, yet infinitely complex, Nature’s exquisite structures hide in plain sight all around us.

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The temperature fluctuates with our altitude, and we wait until we’ve reached the last of four summits before we pull over for lunch. While I prepare a kale and pistachio salad, Dave steps outside to photograph the canyon. He is standing at the edge of a cliff when the thrum of the wind is overpowered by the intensifying roar of a high-speed, low-flying aircraft. Chance favors the prepared photographer. Dave zeroes in with his camera and captures an image of a fighter jet as it streaks past below.

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Suzy glides down a slow, straight, steady descent, and we watch her outside temperature gauge escalate from 95 to a mouth-parching 105 degrees.


Cooler temperatures are in store for us, we hope, at our destination for tonight, Fletcher View Campground, 2,000 feet above Las Vegas. Keen to avoid the heat in “Sin City”, Dave reserved a campsite weeks ago. “Supposedly,” he says, “we’ll be camping in the pines.” Auspiciously, we find the entrance in a grove of Ponderosa pines, and despite a sign announcing “DAY OFF”, the camp host descends from his fifth wheel to greet us. A smiling retiree wearing an Australian outback hat, dusty white singlet and denim shorts, he launches into a long explanation of the finer points of the tiny campground. “I’m Bob,” he finally concludes, gesturing at his trailer (presumably his wife is inside), “and my wife is Liz. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”


It is late afternoon, and quite warm, even at 7,000 feet, but as advertised, our campsite is shaded by pine trees, and the temperature is quite pleasant. We level our rig and unfurl the awning, only to retract it a few minutes later due to sporadic gusts of wind. Dave enjoys a beer and a cigar, then brings out his guitar. I take a walk in the shady canyon, and then roll out my yoga mat on a patch of flat ground.


For dinner we heat up chili—another made-ahead-and-frozen-meal—and serve it with steamed broccoli and sliced avocado.

Later, after an evening stroll around the campground, we retire to Suzy and watch Albert Brooks’ classic comedy film, “Lost in America”, about a couple who decide to quit the rat race, buy a Winnebago and drop out of society to “find themselves”, only to have their plans go awry when the wife gambles away their nest egg in Las Vegas. A fable about delusion and fantasy, it is one of the funniest films of the 1980’s, and although some of the humor arises from how much societal customs and perceptions have changed since the movie was made, mostly we  laugh out loud at the timeless foibles of human nature. We fall asleep still smiling, and plan to steer our Winnebago well clear of the casinos.

June 11, 2018 / annakpf11

Sierra Time

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” —John Muir

DAY TWO: Silver Lake to Lone Pine

We wake before seven and prepare our respective breakfasts: muesli and banana for Dave; miso soup, seaweed, hard-boiled egg and tempeh for me (don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it). Then, in no time at all (unlike the machinations necessary when towing the Airstream), we are underway.


Our first stop of the day is for a short visit to our family cabin. The unpaved driveway is steep, and obscured by low-hanging branches, so we park Suzy on the side of the highway and complete the pilgrimage on foot.


Mountains are a place where we go to refresh the spirit, a place we feel at home. And this particular place in the mountains is full of meaning and memories. We spent our honeymoon here, and long before that, spent days hiking, canoeing, cooking on the woodstove and bathing in the lake. Evenings sitting by the fire playing charades or monopoly or attempting to read by dim propane lamplight. Nights sleeping outside on the porch, lying on our backs gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars. “Glorified camping”, is how Grandma Suzy used to describe summers at the cabin. Her ashes are resting here now, along with Carl’s, beside the path to the lake, marked by a smooth granite stone.


Dave and I pause for a moment and breathe in the memory-laden scents of this singular site on earth. The peace of the place surrounds us. Thus grounded and fortified, we hike back up to the road and carry on over Carson Pass, through Hope Valley, and along the East Carson River to Monitor Pass.


Suzy makes easy work of the 5.5 mile, 2,628 foot climb to the top, a wide open meadow bordered by Aspen trees just coming into leaf.

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Once upon a time, (28 years ago to be exact), I rode a bicycle up this pass, down the other side and then turned around and pedaled back up and down again. Today I’m quite happy to travel in our sprinter van, with Dave at the wheel.


The descent snakes down 3,238 feet in 9 miles, a bit like a slow motion giant slalom course. By bike, car or campervan, Monitor Pass is a breath-taking ride.

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Our route now heads south on Highway 395, the backbone of California, a north-south conduit than runs 557 miles from the Oregon border to the Mojave desert.

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We’ve been looking forward to driving this section of the road, known for dramatic vistas of the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

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After only 15 miles, we round a bend and see that traffic has slowed and stopped. And then we see why. A semi-truck is sprawled across the highway, completely blocking both directions. Paramedics and highway patrolmen are on the scene, and bystanders are out of their cars, standing in the road and gazing at the crumpled giant, lying on its side.

A lean, middle-aged man approaches our window from the direction of the wreck and informs us that it could be at least three hours before the road is re-opened. While we consider whether to wait it out or seek out an alternate route, we step into the galley and make lunch. I do love traveling with a kitchen.

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Dave finishes his turkey sandwich, executes a three-point turn and heads Suzy back the way we came, past a steadily growing queue of cars, trucks and motorhomes. He has found a work-around.

We expect our unplanned detour to pass through a flat, arid landscape, but instead we discover herds of Black Angus cattle grazing in spring-fed meadows against a backdrop of snow-painted peaks. I wish I could capture the sight in a photo, but there’s no place to pull off the road. I will remember. A black cow and her white-faced calf, standing chest high in a field of green grass and wild iris.


Eventually, we rejoin highway 395, and for the next several hours we drive through towns we’ve heard of but never visited: Bridgeport, Bishop, and Big Pine (not to be confused with Lone Pine, tonight’s destination and, to Dave’s dismay, another hour further down the road).


We have a reservation at Lone Pine Campground, in the shadow of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Rising 14,505 feet above sea level, it is higher than Colorado’s tallest mountain by 66 feet.

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By the time turn onto the narrow track that supposedly leads to our campground, we have been on the road for 8 hours. Suzy bumps through the sage-covered landscape, and we wonder where our campground could be. All we see is sand and scrub–brush and the steep upsurge of snaggle-toothed peaks.

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Until the ground opens beneath us to reveal a dusty road descending into a shallow, hidden canyon (hopefully not a flood zone) and the Lone Pine Campground. Never mind that there is not a pine tree in sight, or, for that matter, much indication that anyone else is camping here.

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A hand-written sign pasted near the camp host’s trailer announces DAY OFF.  Another sign warns, “Entering Active Bear Area”. The dry, rocky landscape does not seem like prime bear habitat, but we resolve not to take any chances.


Our pre-reserved campsite offers a lumpy, half-paved strip of sand that makes it impossible to level our rig. Fortunately, there are other empty sites available. We inspect our options and swap our site for a creek-side corner ringed by granite boulders and sparse wildflowers. The only sounds we hear are the breeze in the cottonwoods and the soft rush of water. And our shared sigh of relief.


The weather is too warm for a campfire, and besides, it’s getting late. We heat up one of the two made-ahead-and-frozen-meals we have brought from home, Ropa Vieja (a sort of Latin goulash), and serve it with sauerkraut, potatoes and a glass of Mourvedre.

In hope of dissuading hungry bears, after dinner I wrap and stow all foodstuffs and dispose of our rubbish in a bear-proof bin. Dave somehow finds the energy to play guitar, but not for long. He soon follows me to bed and we sleep with our windows open to the sound of the creek. No bears disturb our dreams.

June 8, 2018 / annakpf11

Vibrant Emptiness

The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly.”

In our quixotic quest for the “perfect recipe”, Dave and I sold our cute-as-a-button-but-less-than-nimble Airstream trailer and transferred our affections to an all-in-one Winnebago sprinter van. What can we say? We were seduced by her streamlined efficiency and easy mobility.


Our new rig has a name—“Suzy”—in memory of my grandmother, a backroads explorer, wildflower photographer, bird watcher, trout fisherwoman and maker of quite possibly the best homemade pickles ever. Dave and I will count ourselves lucky if we explore a fraction of the number of back country miles that she and my grandfather, Carl, logged in their lifetime.

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We have mapped out a month-long journey to Denver and back, attempting to craft a timetable that leaves room for ease and spaciousness, what grandma Suzy would call “wiggle room”, and what the Japanese call “ma”: the pure, expectant emptiness that is present in the negative space in a painting, in the space between notes in music, and in the tacit understanding between close friends.


DAY ONE: Point Richmond to Silver Lake

Accordingly, when departure day arrives, we have no campground reservation for the night. Dave puts Suzy in gear and I verify our route with a quick search on my iPhone. We had thought to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the Sonora Pass, a road neither of us has ever traveled before, but as we roll away from our house, I discover that the Sonora Pass is considered too treacherous for RV’s (that would be us). Let the improvisation begin.

Instead of risking our rig (and possibly our lives) the first day on the road, we set out for highway 88, a familiar and beloved path that leads to the forest service cabin purchased by Carl and Suzy in 1958 and now shared by succeeding generations of children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren.

By late afternoon we are ready to stop for the night, and we take a chance on the Silver Lake East Campground, a small, relatively primitive high altitude campground where campsites are offered on a “first come, first serve” basis.


On this Monday afternoon in early June, we practically have our pick of sites. After a brief reconnaissance, we settle into a secluded nook near a rushing stream.

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Dave takes a walk and explores the nearby lakefront while I unroll my yoga mat on a piece of flat ground probably meant for pitching a tent, but ideal for practicing yoga, too.


Later, we carry our folding chairs to the granite slab beach and enjoy a glass of wine before dinner.


Dave sighs. “I’m so happy!” he smiles. “I love being near a river.”

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We stay for a good long while, mesmerized by the flowing water.

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Eventually, we adjourn to the campfire for a one-pan-supper of sautéed new potatoes, weisswurst, and fresh asparagus.


And then to bed, lulled by the sound of the river.


On the first day of our trip, a lack of plan has turned out to be a very good plan indeed.


February 7, 2018 / annakpf11

Be Where You Are

Heading west from Phoenix on Interstate 10, we backtrack across the Sonora Desert through Basin and Range country, a honeycomb of broad, low-elevation valleys rimmed by parallel mountain ranges. Dave gazes out the windshield and I read aloud from the internet about the cataclysmic combination of geologic events that brought this landscape into being.


Once an extensive upland devoid of mountains, the terrain we see today began to form about 40 to 20 million years ago when volcanoes exploded with tremendous force, leaving behind extensive lava flows, ejecting ash-flow materials from long, thin fissure vents, and sometimes collapsing into large circular basins called calderas.


Meanwhile, below the earth’s surface, intense heat radiated upward, hot enough to melt and soften portions of the lower continental crust to the consistency of molasses stored in the fridge. Then—and here’s a unique and amazing bit—the west coast of what is now North America became attached to the edge of the Pacific Ocean tectonic plate and began to move northwest relative to the main continent, applying a stretching force that the viscous Basin and Range crust could not resist and so began to stretch apart in a giant geo-taffy pull! Think of what happens as you bite into a caramel candy coated with hard chocolate—the fluid caramel stretches while the brittle coating shatters—and you will get the idea. (And perhaps a craving for chocolate-coated caramel.)


Thus over millions of years, the entire substrata from northern Mexico across much of Arizona, California, Utah, and Nevada stretched 30 to 80 percent more than its original width, while the brittle crust above shattered into hundreds of long, thin segments. Narrower alternating segments tended to sink into the taffy, while alternating wider slices maintained more of their old heights. Virtually all mountains of the region were born in this way; this also explains the semi-parallel trend of the region’s mountains and valleys; they run perpendicular to the direction of stretching.


With all this geologic drama in mind, the scenery around us becomes even more compelling, and compared to the vast sweep of geologic time, the drive to Quartzsite passes in less than the blink of an eye.


A crossroads settlement in the middle of the desert, Quartzsite is a winter mecca for retirees, rock collectors, migratory sun-seekers and vehicular nomads of all ages. The modest summer population of 3,000 swells to 1,000,000 or more at peak periods of pilgrimage (such as the Snowbird Jamboree, Senior Citizen Pow-Wow, Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, and especially, the annual Gem and Mineral Show), when thousands of motorhomes carpet the surrounding desert floor. Luckily, we have timed our arrival to NOT coincide with any crowd-attracting events, and easily find an overnight parking place at the friendly and spacious Quail Run RV Park.


While Dave naps, I venture out for a walk around the neighborhood. As usual, we are the smallest house-on-wheels around. Most of the other occupants have arrived in bus-sized dwellings, many towing a passenger car, and they seem to have settled in for the season, embellishing their “patios” with potted cactus, outdoor carpet, lounge chairs, bikes and barbeques. One woman has festooned her awning with colored crystals that twirl and sparkle in the sunlight.

At the far back corner of the fenced-in RV park, I find an unlocked gate and slip out into the desert. A jackrabbit freezes in place. Still as a stone, it blends into the chalky gray of the desert floor.

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Low sun casts the mountains in shadow. I feel thirsty, but didn’t bring any water. A quartet of quail race across a patch of open ground, their feather topknots bobbing in time with their quick-footed gait. I pick my way down into the sandy channel of a wide, dry wash. Standing here, my boots sinking into generations of pebbles and silt deposited by flash flood runoff, it’s easy to understand the two main reasons people die in the desert. Dehydration, of course, and drowning.


Behind me, I hear the high-pitched drone of an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) engine, and soon a grizzled man wearing sunglasses and a tattered army flak jacket motors past, his dog sitting upright beside him.


I return to the trailer just before the sun goes down and the temperature plummets. Dave and I don coats and headlamps and set out on foot along the dark highway to the nearby Grubsteak restaurant. Three waitresses sit smoking cigarettes at a table near the entrance, and as we approach, one of them rushes toward us.  “Sorry,” she says, exhaling a puff of smoke. “We’re sold out. No more food left.” It is barely six pm. Never mind. We have a “Plan B”. We retrace our steps, detach tow vehicle from trailer and drive to Silly Al’s, a pizza joint that was probably Dave’s secret “Plan A” all along. A local’s hangout, Silly Al’s is large and low ceilinged with a long bar, a billiards corner in the back, and dining tables clustered around a DJ booth and central dance floor. The place is packed, mostly with men between the ages of 65 and 95 who adhere to a strictly casual uniform of golf shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts.

Our waitress fits both the demographic and the dress code, wearing shorts and flip-flops and a voluminous flowered blouse. She frowns when we order two pints of IPA. “Nobody likes that beer,” she warns us. “It’s bitter.” Just the way we like it.


Tonight is Karaoke Night, and first up is a stocky, gray-haired man wearing the requisite shorts and T-shirt, plus a blue baseball cap emblazoned with five red letters: TRUMP.  Background violin music swells, and with practiced, honey-toned-tremolo, he croons the country hit recorded in 1964 by Jim Reeves: Welcome to my world; won’t you come on in; miracles, I guess; still happen now and then… We don’t agree with his politics, but there’s no denying the guy can sing.

Several less memorable performances follow, and Dave and I are about to call it a night when a baby-faced, bearded fellow shuffles up to the microphone. He wears green khaki trousers and a long-sleeved plaid shirt, and looks more like a geologist than a pensioner. He nods at the DJ, and the unmistakable organ riff of “Like a Rolling Stone” fills the room. Applause breaks out, and he launches into a spot-on cover of the Dylan song, getting the cynical timbre of the chorus just right: “How does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home…like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone…” A more apt hymn to Quartzsite, I cannot imagine.


The next morning we pull up stakes and head for Joshua Tree. As we traverse the Mohave Desert, I keep reminding myself to drink water, even if I don’t feel thirsty, and even though the liquid in my water bottle (re-filled in Quartzsite) has a flat, alkaline quality that hits the tongue like chalk.


Joshua Tree RV Park is just as we hoped it would be, a rustic trailer park located far from the main road. Our campsite is secluded from other campers by Oleander bushes and offers a view of rocky hillside (a.k.a ancient lava flow). Best of all, it’s QUIET here. Except for the occasional birdcall.


We cook dinner in the trailer (bratwurst, red rice and kale salad) and then watch a movie, “The Big Sick”, on Dave’s laptop. The film, a happy-sad true story of love and culture clash, is told with understated humor and full of heart. Two thumbs up.


The next morning we pack a picnic lunch and drive to Joshua Tree National Park. At our first sight of an actual Joshua Tree, we screech to a stop and jump out of the car to take photos of the spiky specimen. Only to realize a bit further on that the park contains veritable forests of these mildly sinister evergreen trees, the largest member of the Yucca species.


The park also boasts weirdly dramatic piles of gold-toned granite rock formations. It’s easy to see why climbers flock here to practice their technique on the thousands of routes and countless boulder problems.


Well-worth a visit, this impressive corner of the planet comprises 1,235 square miles, and we spend the day exploring on foot and by car.


For dinner, we consult Trip Advisor reviews and dine at the incongruously named Sam’s Indian Food, Pizza, Subs and Burger. On a scale of 1 to 10, we give it a solid 4.5. Perhaps its favorable rating was relative to the other options here in Joshua Tree. Either way, we resolve to cook “in” more often.


The long days of driving are getting to us, but luckily we are only two hours from the suburbs of Palm Springs, our next destination.


Our first impression of the area around Palm Springs is abundant palm trees, green lawns and lush landscaping, even along the roadways. A man-made oasis tucked into the foot of steep mountains, it is undeniably scenic, but also seems a bit unnatural, if not irresponsible, given California’s perpetual drought.


Other impressions include fast food, fast cars, and repeating themes of shopping plazas and single-story homes. Except in Palm Springs proper, where we spend an interesting afternoon following a self-guided tour of mid-century modern and contemporary architecture.


Our next stop is Borrego Springs, directly east of San Diego. To get there, Dave and I consider driving though some of the settlements around the Salton Sea, a vast lake created by accident in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through an irrigation canal and flooded the area. At first, the newly formed inland sea attracted birdlife and commercial fishery, and then, in the 1950’s and 60’s, boating and sport fishing flourished, resort towns sprang up and land prices skyrocketed. But in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, agricultural pollutants, algae blooms and increasing salinity (currently 25% saltier than the ocean), began killing the lake. Dead fish washed up in mass quantities on the beaches, and the stench of decaying fish combined with the smell of the lake turned tourists and investors away. Today, most of the settlements are largely abandoned, and the sea itself is drying up. Winds kick up toxic dust from the receding shoreline, and the few people who still live here, mostly poor and Latino, suffer some of the highest asthma rates in all of California. A visit here would feel like rubber-necking at the scene of ruined dreams, and so we choose a different route through the Coachella valley. Instead dead fish and ghost towns, we pass miles of green, irrigated fields, orange groves, and palm tree plantations.


Rising out of the valley, we climb through desert hills that look like giant dried mounds of the mud that used to cake the soles of my Wellington boots after a walk through wet English fields.

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In the distance, the long blue line of the Salton Sea is still visible, 236 feet below sea level.


Maybe we’ve been on the dusty trail for too long, but when we land in Borrego Springs, it feels like paradise.


For one thing, this is an RV RESORT, not to be confused with an RV PARK. (If we didn’t know about the distinction before, it now becomes clear.) Golf course, tennis courts, heated saltwater pool, mineral baths, fitness room, library, laundry room, and about fifteen squeaky-clean bathrooms and showers.


Unexpected bonus: At check-in we are told not to leave any outdoor lights burning at night, because Borrego Springs is a “dark sky” community, a place where residents and businesses do their utmost to limit light pollution. Stargazing in the desert has been one of my goals for this trip, but so far either ambient light or scattered high clouds have thwarted my plans.

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The next two days, we golf, swim and explore the surrounding area to our heart’s content. At night we marvel at a multitude of stars. We even socialize with our neighbors—a rare occurrence for introverts like us—and meet new companions who feel like old friends. When we pack up to depart we almost wish we were staying a day or two longer.


Dave puts the Cayenne in gear and cruises away from our parking spot while I walk alongside, double-checking the connection of trailer to hitch. Immediately, a metallic scraping noise erupts from the trailer’s left wheel. We thought we fixed it in Barstow, but it’s back, louder than ever, and now it is accompanied by a rhythmic clanking.

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Four hours and three mechanics later, we are parked in a sun-baked field in the desert, waiting for a diagnosis from Tito, a taciturn mechanic who is missing his left thumb and bears a striking resemblance to Fidel Castro.


Dave disappears, and I glimpse him standing near a pile of old tires, hands clenched at his sides. Later he tells me what he was doing. “I was telling myself to ENJOY the moment, even though it isn’t what I want. Enjoy what is; not what isn’t.” I smile and agree.


The verdict is in: the brake adjuster has sheared in two, and has been rolling around in the brake drum since Barstow. (Tito says this is unrelated to the loose shock absorber nuts. Unless the same factory mechanic neglected both items. We can’t help but wonder if anything else was overlooked.) It will take another day to get a replacement part, and the delay will cause us to cancel two days’ worth of plans, but if we had to break down somewhere, Borrego beats Barstow.

IMG_0201We check back into the RV resort and kick back to enjoy more time in the desert. Whether it be misfortune or serendipity, or the underlying force of synchronicity, we do as Buddha says, “be where you are, otherwise you miss your life.”

Or as they say in the RV world, “home is where you park it.”


January 19, 2018 / annakpf11

The Minimal and the Liminal

There’s something liberating about the constraints of a small trailer. About letting go a perceived sense of  need (or deprivation), mapping out what is essential, and packing the absolute minimum. Or so I tell myself, as I agonize over what to take, and what to leave behind.

And then it’s time to depart.  We head south on Interstate 5, that long thread of four-lane highway linking the west coast of the continental United States from Canada to Mexico. We have allocated three days to get to Phoenix, where Dave is booked to play a gig. Fog shrouds the scenery (what little there is, in this rather bleak corridor of the central valley), offering only blurred glimpses of winter-brown hillocks and winter-bare trees. Further south, green groves of orange trees emerge from the mist, laden with bright fruit. Then the landscape reverts to type, a faded winter palette of brown and gray. Time passes; two hours, three hours, four. Road-weariness sets in. We pull into a rest stop and eat our packed lunches, our ‘rig’ overshadowed by a row of hulking giants. This trip will prompt us to think about scale. About how small we are, relative to the vastness around us.


About fifteen minutes shy of Bakersfield RV Park, we experience a minor hiccup. More precisely, a loud metallic scraping noise accompanies each tire revolution. We pull over onto the gravel shoulder and have a look-see. But nothing seems awry. Dave climbs back into the car, drives forward and backward a few times, and the noise stops. Maybe a sagebrush branch got stuck in the undercarriage and then fell away. What else could it be? We drive on.

Daylight fades as we check in at the RV office and find our designated slot wedged into a concrete-striped expanse of jumbo motorhomes and five-wheeled trailers.


Unremitting tule fog dampens and cools the air, and we reach for hats and jackets before unhitching and unpacking.


After we’re settled, connected to shore power and city water, we head out for The Crystal Palace, a bar, restaurant and western music hall built by country songwriter and musician Buck Owens.


Our waitress knows more about rodeo than restaurants, but never mind, perhaps that is as it should be in a wild west town. The food is better than we anticipate (BBQ ribs, cole slaw, mashed potatoes and gravy for Dave; plank-grilled salmon, ‘zesty cooked green beans’ and baked potato for Anna), as is the Sterling Vineyards sauvignon blanc. We are revived.

The band appears on stage wearing black Stetsons, and Dave gets a hankering for “one of them cowboy hats”. Country music is King here, and as soon as the band begins to play the audience swarms the dance floor, forming a line and moving in unison through a series of prescribed steps. I sway to the beat, tempted to join in, but know my technique would be conspicuously lacking, so for the good of everyone, I refrain.

Sated and ready for bed, we return to our slab of cement and lawn in the over-sized parking lot. The persistent fog lends a chill to the air even inside the Airstream, so we blast the heat a few minutes before settling down to sleep. It has been a good first day. We have traded the comforts of home for the uncertainty of adventure, and all is well.

Day two: we wake to another dim, foggy morning. We hook trailer to truck and make our way into downtown Bakersfield on a quest for gas, groceries, and a black cowboy hat. Empty streets and boarded up storefronts give the impression of a place on the down and out. At a stoplight, a lean man with a bedroll slung over his shoulder plods across the street. His weather-beaten face and grimy clothes make we wonder where he came from, and how he ended up here, sleeping rough in Bakersfield? He pauses on the opposite curb, peers into a rubbish bin, fishes out a cigarette butt and secrets it in a breast pocket. As he does this, he almost smiles.


We accomplish our first two errands, and then park our rig at the Emporium Western Store. In-store expert Rhonda assists Dave in trying on at least seven different brands and sizes before finding a hat that looks as if it was tailor-made for him.


“Now we need to find one for Anna,” Dave tells Rhonda, “which hat would a lady wear?” I protest, not sure I need a cowgirl hat, but Rhonda produces a likely prospect, and so I try it on.

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Like a glove, it fits, and like the perfect pair of spectacles, it is the puzzle piece that completes the picture. Thus Dave and I both come away with big smiles and iconic headgear. One word says it all: Stetson.

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Pleased with our morning so far, we climb back into the saddle (er…tow vehicle) and motor through fog-flattened landscape to the Tehachapi pass. At 3,000 feet, the mist seeps away, and it is a relief to see an expanse blue sky. Sunlight illuminates an assortment of scrappy pines and leafless oaks scattered over camel-colored hills, that soon give way to high desert plain.


We stop for lunch in Tehachapi, a name known to us from the trucker’s anthem, “Willin’”, written by Lowell George of Little Feat. (This song will remain stuck in my brain for our entire trip.) If you ever find yourself hungry in Tehachapi, check out the Adobada tacos and chicken enchiladas at Taco Samich, 211 East Tehachapi Road.

DSC_0041Around 2 pm, with three hours of driving still ahead of us to reach our campsite at Joshua Tree, we stop in Barstow for a coffee.


As we leave town, we hear the same loud screeching noise as we heard the day before. Dave pulls over and I dismount to walk alongside the trailer. The sound is definitely emanating from one of the back wheels. Metal on metal, and instead of going away, it’s getting worse. We find a place to park the rig, scramble onto the dirt and peer under the trailer. The axel and wheels look intact—but wait—the nut attaching one of the shock absorber arms is missing. It must’ve worked its way loose and flown off, presumably at the last intersection. We dare not drive any further for fear of harming something vital.


Broke down in Barstow, we consider our options. Dave taps into the twin miracles of internet and cellular signal, does some quick research and manages to contact Antonio, a local mobile mechanic. We relay our location at the corner of Barstow Road and Juniper Street (this causes visions of an ice-cold martini to flash in Dave’s brain, temporarily distracting him from the issue at hand), and wait for our savior to appear. It takes awhile. Eventually he shows up, a brawny, brown-skinned man with inscrutable tattoos on his arms and neck. He assesses the situation and then drives off in search of replacement parts. We sit tight, reminding ourselves that the unexpected makes travel even more memorable; it’s all part of the adventure. Besides, there are so many ways this could have been so much worse. At least we aren’t stuck on a forsaken stretch of road 150 miles from the nearest auto supply store.

DSC_0045By now it is too late in the day to continue our journey as planned, and we’re not even sure the trailer will be safe to drive, so while we’re waiting for Antonio to return, we phone and cancel our reservation at Joshua Tree RV Park.

The sun disappears below the horizon by the time Antonio reappears and installs new bolts on both shock absorber arms (the other bolt was loose too). We scrape together enough cash to pay for half the bill (having left home yesterday without stopping at an ATM—lesson learned) and he agrees to accept a check for the rest. We thank him profusely, wave good-bye and then make our way to a place we never would’ve found if it hadn’t been for our mechanical failure: Shady Lane RV Camp, just outside of Barstow. This modest, mom-and-pop trailer park caters to live aboards and single-axel campers rather than giant motorhomes, and we feel at ease. And grateful.

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We need to get an early start in the morning to make up for lost time today, and so we keep the trailer hooked to tow vehicle, ready to roll at first light. I heat up chili and rice for dinner, fortuitously on board as our one prepared-ahead-meal. Afterwards, we venture outside to stargaze, but high overcast obscures all but a few faint points of light. No matter, we are safe and happy where we are, and that is no small thing.

Day three begins with coffee-to-go at Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner, and then we settle into the seven-hour drive to Phoenix.


Our journey follows a ribbon of desert highway, sometimes narrowing to two-lane blacktop, bordered by miles of alkaline desert. A jigsaw of sharp-edged ridges, ancient lava flows and volcanic cones marks the horizon.

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The climate and landscape might be harsh and forbidding, but there is also a sense of majesty and timelessness beneath this overarching sky.


We pass signs directing us to places called Ragtown, Caliente and Weedpatch, and also more surprising names such as Glasgow, Ludlow, Siberia, and Cadiz. Every settlement seems half abandoned, mere clusters of box-like dwellings, many with boarded up windows and surrounded by broken down trucks and trailers. “I don’t think people are meant to live out here,” comments Dave.

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After three hours of driving, a swathe of green appears in the otherwise dun-colored vale. It is the Colorado River, and the dividing line between California and Arizona. We cross over the border, turn south and pass through a landscape of jagged rock formations rising like dark islands from a sea of sand and scrub. We have entered the Sonoran desert, where the elevation is lower and the average temperature higher than in the Mohave, and the only place on earth where giant Saguaro cacti grow. The classic silhouettes appear alongside the road and in the distance, towering like sporadic sentinels over acres of sand and salt bush. Some exist as lone spires, others stand with arms upraised as if to say “Hello there!” Or “Watch Out!” The largest and oldest cactus in the USA, Saguaro can grow up to 50 feet tall and live for 150 years or more.

A roadsign warns us that it is 58 miles to the next gas station. Our gauge reads 1/3 tank. We make some quick calculations and decide to take the risk.

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It turns out fine. We arrive at the oasis, and Dave crawls under the trailer to check the shock nuts. They are still there. We fuel up and carry on, briefly traveling a section of what was once Route 66, the two-lane artery immortalized as “The Mother Road” by John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, as the place to “get your kicks” by the 1946 rhythm and blues standard, and by the writings of beat generation nomads such as Jack Kerouac.


We arrive in Phoenix just in time for cocktails with the band, five musicians (and friends) who have been playing music together for no less than 30 years.

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We swap stories, sip drinks and admire the lush surroundings of the Arizona Biltmore, an architectural gem designed by Albert Chase MacArthur, a Harvard graduate who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. Dubbed “the Jewel of the Desert” when it opened in 1929, the hotel has been an Arizona landmark ever since.


Our Airstream occupies the bus parking lot during our two-night stay at the Biltmore, and each day I find reasons to visit our trailer.  Longing for the familiarity of home, I suppose, away from home.


There’s more adventure ahead. Meanwhile, we rest in the liminal, between what was and what will be.



August 18, 2017 / annakpf11


DSC_0270“…perfectly beautiful are these blessed evergreen islands, so numerous that they seem to have been sown broadcast…” —John Muir, Travels to Alaska

Our seaplane pilot, a slender, clean-shaven and short-haired young chap of few words, looks us over with a careful and—I hope—experienced eye. He assigns each of his five passengers a specific seat for optimal weight distribution fore and aft and side to side. The other female passenger and I are sent to the rear of the plane, in sling-back seats formed by the heavy canvas curtaining off the luggage. I clamber in and fasten my seat belt. Dave is assigned the place in front of me, a burly native man settles next to him, and the fifth passenger, another local man, slides into the co-pilot’s chair. The plane is so small that if I wanted to, I could reach past Dave and tap the pilot on the shoulder.


The engine ignites, earplugs are handed around to dull the buzz and drone, and before I know it, we are gliding down the liquid runway and rising into the sky. I don’t learn until later that our plane dates from 1957. Just as well.


Blue and green vistas open beneath us.


A slight yaw, as the plane gains altitude and passes over a mountainous island. I take a deep breath and focus on the beauty of the scenery, rather than how high up we are, or how likely we are to crash. I think of our stunt pilot friend in Sydenham, and his tales of flying small planes as a young man in South Africa, navigating by rivers and landscape.


A half hour later, the plane banks around a corner of Chichagof Island and cruises up the inlet to our destination of Tenakee Springs, population approximately 100. (Though in winter, this number shrinks to around 60 hardy souls.) Our journey, by car and three plane flights, has taken ten hours.


Gordon and Anne wait for us on the dock, silhouetted by evening sunlight. Dave and I have known them independently and together for almost 50 years, connected by an interlocking net of shared experiences and relationships that make them feel like family.


Arriving here feels like a small miracle, a happy convergence of people, time and place. New strands will be added to the web that connects us, including Anne’s sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Jim, who arrived here yesterday. We will meet them shortly. But first, we are escorted to our rental cabin.


We drop our luggage and walk to Gordon and Anne’s place, just a few minutes down the road. Mary and Anne have prepared a dinner of salmon, rockfish and crab (fresh caught by Gordon and Jim), accompanied by salad, squash, and ears of sweet corn Dave and I have brought from California.


Over dinner, we renew old friendships and make new acquaintances. We transition to “Tenakee Time”. Days are long in summer here, short in winter, at a latitude roughly the same as northern Scotland. We walk back to our rental cabin holding hands, in honeysuckle-scented twilight. Tenakee is known for its natural hot springs, and as we pass the bathhouse, echoed conversation drifts out the lantern shaped skylight. Since there is no shower or tub in our cabin, I predict we’ll try these hot springs sooner rather than later.


In the morning, Dave leaves early for a rendezvous with Gordon and Jim. They will take Gordon’s boat across the inlet and check a fishing line set yesterday. I take my camera for a walk along the beaten earth track that is the town’s only thoroughfare.


A weathered, haphazard collection of dwellings grouped along a lane, Tenakee Springs is inaccessible by road, and most residents prefer it that way.


People go about their daily business on foot, by bicycle, ATV, or boat.


The track I walk continues beyond town in both directions for several miles but eventually yields to the forest.


Access to the outside world is via seaplane or boat, weather permitting. A passenger ferry calls in twice a week, and the voyage to Juneau can take 4 hours or 14, depending on ports of call and weather. Most supplies arrive by boat or barge. Some would call it isolated; others call it peaceful.


From one side of the road, views of water and mountains across the inlet, from the other, glimpses into the Tongass National Forest.


A dense array of undergrowth borders both sides of the street, bright green berry bushes punctuated by fuchsia spears of fireweed.


I snack on thimbleberries, tart and sweet, so soft they must be eaten directly from their stalk, and firm, round salmon berries, so named, I imagine, for their resemblance to red salmon roe.


I walk for an hour, passing houses ranging from seemingly uninhabitable shacks to stylish vacation homes, and everything in between.




Now I am hungry. The Mercantile doesn’t open until noon, so I head for the bakery, where I enjoy spinach and mushroom quiche and hash brown potatoes to rival any in the lower 48.


All interested parties please take note: the bakery building and business are for sale, including all kitchen equipment, the well-appointed two-bedroom upstairs apartment, and fabulous views across the inlet. Only $380,000 (owner financing available) will buy you this piece of paradise and a thriving business opportunity. More details available at, or 907.736.2262. If I were 35 years younger, I would be tempted.


In the afternoon, we hike through the forest to a salmon stream frequented by bears. Gordon leads the way, a canister of bear spray affixed to his belt.


Ancient mulch underfoot softens the impact of each step. Ferns border our path. Cedar, hemlock and pine trees tower overhead.


We stick together, looking right and left, front and behind, eyes peeled for bears. When we near the stream, tall trees give way to berry bushes, and dark splodges of bear scat litter the trail. “That looks fresh,” remarks Gordon. Anne and I start up a dialogue of nervous chat, adhering to the cardinal rule: “Never startle a bear.” Five minutes later we step unscathed onto a bridge spanning a small expanse of shallow water. “Usually you can see salmon all over the place here,” says Gordon. “But not today. We might not get to see any bears.”


But Mary is watching the opposite shore with an intent look in her eye. “Bear!” She points to a bulky dark shape, rubbing its back against a tree. The bear gives itself a thorough scratch, then drops to all fours and looks straight at us, light brown snout, dark eyes, and round pricked ears clearly visible. Then it lumbers into the stream, where it glances about as if looking for salmon. A young sow, we decide, as she pauses and tilts her head up to sniff the air. We admire her classic Ursidae silhouette.


She crosses the creek and heads in our direction. Has she caught our scent? We are downwind, but a bear’s sense of smell is believed to be the best of any animal on earth; nine times better than a bloodhound’s, and 2,100 times better than a human’s. She has probably spotted us as well; it is a myth that bears have poor eyesight; evidence shows they see as well as humans in daylight, and their night vision far surpasses ours. Presumably she can hear us too; we are speaking at normal volume (on purpose), and a bear’s sense of hearing is at least twice as acute as ours.


The bear continues to approach along the water’s edge until without warning, she veers into the bushes. This is worrying, for now we are not sure where she is, and if she decides to linger and forage for berries, she will effectively cut off the path by which we came. I notice a chill lump in the pit of my stomach, and remind myself to breathe. A few tense moments pass. Then, movement in the bushes, and the bear reappears beside the creek, closer now, and still moving toward us. From this distance, I can easily make out her thick, curved claws as she steps almost daintily between stones. Gordon unclips his bear spray, and we all draw together in the middle of the bridge. The bear splashes through the water underneath us, and then, when she is quite close, turns and gives us a long, beady-eyed stare.


Then she turns away and ambles across the rocky stream. Her brown pelt ripples and shines as she picks her way over wet stones, moving upstream, away from us, and in the opposite direction of our route home. For this, and for the heart-stopping privilege of witnessing her wild being-ness, we are glad.

In the evening, we dine on fresh fish tacos made with halibut found this morning on Gordon and Jim’s long line. (They caught two, one weighing 50 pounds.)


After dinner and dishes are done, Gordon and Dave retreat upstairs to band practice, while the rest of us share thoughts and stories on the deck.


Just before bedtime, I grab soap and a towel and walk to the bathhouse for my first soak. Dave visited earlier this afternoon, and has instructed me in the simple protocol: leave your clothes and towel hanging on hooks in the spacious, wood-panelled changing area before walking through the door posted Nude Bathing Only. Inside the tub room, a cavernous, concrete structure built over a fissure in the earth, descend a few cement stairs to a six by nine foot concrete-ringed pool set into the floor. Inhale the mild scent of sulphur and shampoo, soap up, and rinse by scooping water from the pool into a plastic jug and pouring it over yourself. Sit on the wide concrete rim of the bath and slide into the water, heated to 106F. I sit on one side of the pool and stretch my legs across to the opposite side, immersed up to my chin. Small bubbles rise from the depths, evidence of the constant flow—7 gallons per minute—of piping hot mineral water rising from steep rock cleft. The tub room’s high ceiling and concrete construction create an echo chamber of sorts, and sound reverberates to such an extent that it is difficult to carry on a comprehensible conversation. Just as well, for after a few moments in the hot water, body and mind melt into profound relaxation.


Friday night, the whole of Tenakee Springs, plus out-of-town guests, gather to celebrate Ben’s birthday. A local resident, he has been dead several years. But that’s no reason to stop throwing the party.


A potluck supper precedes live music, and in the afternoon I prepare my contribution: a three-bean salad accompanied by fresh lettuce and garnished with nasturtiums. Olive oil, fresh lemons, and canned beans purchased from the Mercantile; fresh lettuce, basil and nasturtiums all harvested from our front porch garden.


Rain sets in as soon as the supper begins, and guests cluster under makeshift awnings. Dave and I fill our plates and find a place to sit with Anne, Mary, Gordon and Jim. Moisture pours off the tarp suspended above our picnic table, punctuating our dinner conversation with periodic waterfalls. We don’t mind; after all, this part of Alaska is a coastal rainforest.


Soon the music starts up, and people begin to dance. It’s important to note that Dave and Gordon played rock n’ roll music together in a band when they were in high school. To be reunited 45 years later, in this amazing and remote place, well, words fail me, but I think they both feel the significance of the moment. I certainly do.


“The power is in the juice,” chants the crowd. A bearded man hands me a jumbo-sized plastic jar full of vodka, lemons, sugar and water. Anne has forewarned me about this. I give the container a vigorous shake and then take a tentative sip. Very sweet indeed.


Darkness settles in around 10 pm, but the band plays on until midnight. (I learn this later, for I depart a few songs shy of the last number.)


Cloudy skies allow neither moon nor starlight, and I have no flashlight, so I walk by braille, feeling the pebbles and uneven ground with the soles of my feet. Occasionally, I depress my camera shutter halfway to activate the pre-flash, thus illuminating a few feet of path ahead. A bit like driving on a dark road at night; you can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. I keep up a constant patter, telling myself the bears are surely asleep. (And if they’re not, they’ll hear me coming.) Moving in 3D darkness feels good, like a return to the senses, until I am suddenly startled by a near head-on collision with an anonymous cyclist. After that I activate the pre-flash more often. Eventually I reach the main part of town, lit by sparse streetlights, and from there it’s an easy stroll home.


Before coming here, both Dave and I felt somewhat daunted at the prospect of adventure in this out-of-the-way place. But it hasn’t taken long for us to become captivated by this rustic paradise with its natural hot springs and mild climate (for Alaska); its relaxed, quiet, crime-free and diverse community; its evergreen forests, abundance of fishing and hunting, spectacular vistas across water to distant mountains, and its relatively low cost of living. (There is no property tax, no state income tax, no sales tax besides a 2% tax local to Tenakee, and arguably little to spend money on.)


Time takes on an elastic quality. We make a daily pilgrimage to the bathhouse—separately—according to the different posted hours for men and women. We walk or bike everywhere, and nowhere we need to go is particularly far away. It feels good and smells good to be outdoors, even when it’s raining. I love this. It reminds me of village life in Sydenham.


We flirt with the idea of living here, though I’m not sure we are quite rough and ready enough for this frontier town.


Year-round would be a challenge, but perhaps a seasonal escape from San Francisco’s summer wind and fog? But Alaskan summers can be grey too, and August is the second rainiest month of the year. We shelve the idea. For now.


On our last day, Gordon takes us to his workplace, accessible only by water. Spray flashes off the bow of his fishing boat as we cross the wide elbow of the inlet. “This is my commute,” he shouts over the noise of wind and motor. Several years ago, Gordon and his son, Sterling, negotiated permission with the US Forest Service to establish a sustainable timber company, selectively harvesting old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest. Gordon and Sterling choose their trees carefully, and mill the wood themselves, in a structure they built on a small parcel of forest rented from the government. They sell the fine-grain, high-quality yellow cedar to boat builders and artisans. To do this work, Gordon has invested in a fleet of vehicles: log pullers, earth movers, hauling trucks, and the like. He and Sterling keep the old logging roads they use in good repair, and sustain five employees, including themselves. It is a small operation, but it is the largest business in Tenakee Springs. And it is important work. Tongass National Forest is the world’s largest remaining old-growth coastal temperate rainforest, and clearcut logging puts it at risk. Razed forest grows back slowly into dense thickets of young trees that are nearly impenetrable to wildlife, and abandoned logging roads fill salmon streams with erosion and block the way for fish. There is a better way to sustain both the land and the economy here, and that is Gordon and Sterling’s aim.


We round a small point, enter a cove and glide up to a floating dock. Tree-clad peaks rise steeply from the deep, glaciated valley, slopes scarred by clearcut logging. In the distance, a bear moves on the beach. We tie off the boat and walk up the ramp to where about twenty pickup trucks seem to be rusting in place.


“This is the LTF,” says Gordon with a wry smile. “That’s a government acronym for Logging Transfer Facility. I’m the only one who has a permit to park here,” he says, “the rest are renegades.”


Gordon has brought his rifle, and Dave takes practice aim. The gun is our insurance policy. If our truck breaks down and we have to walk out of the forest, we might meet a bear or two.


For the next two hours, we tour the Tenakee Logging Company’s domain. The intention, the perseverance, and the sheer hard work involved in this operation impress me greatly. So does the landscape they are trying to protect. Some of these trees have been here since the Middle Ages. When Samuel Pepys wrote his diary, and plague and fire raged in London, the old trees had already been growing for 500 years.


On the morning of our departure, I wake to the thrum and drip of rain and the whirr of a hummingbird outside the window. If the weather permits, we will soon board our seaplane and begin our journey back to the little town in the vast metropolis where we live now. I wouldn’t mind if we were delayed.


The rain softens to a drizzle, and a patch of blue sky appears overhead. We fly to Juneau as scheduled, and I come away with deep admiration for Gordon and Anne and their family, for what they’ve done, and how they are living here.


In Juneau, before we board our flight to Seattle, we have time to see the Mendenhall glacier. In 1934, you could walk up and touch the glacier from where we now gaze at it across a body of water. So much of the stuff I worry about seems unimportant when faced with the immensity of glaciers, and the pace of climate change.


As we say good-bye in the airport, I try to express to Gordon how I feel about our visit, but I can’t find the words. This wild place, and our experience here, inspires awe as it defies description.