Off-roading on the hurricane coast of Mexico

There are two main roads that head south on Baja – the Mex. 1 highway that winds down the Pacific and crosses over to the southern tip and the much shorter Mex. 5 that runs from the U.S. border town of Mexicali south of San Felipe along the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. We decided to take that route because we had heard big chunks of Mex. 1 south of Ensenada were at a standstill due to construction (not true, according to fellow travellers). There is always road construction in Baja, but none of the forums warned us about the severity of Mex. 5 (described as being “rough in sections”) and had we known conditions were this bad, we would have avoided that area entirely.

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We were off to a great start with our drive to San Felipe, a small fishing village easily reached by a very good road which ominously, had no-one on it. The first signs of life we encountered were just north of town –  a collection of homes and stores that cater to the expat population.

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When we were there, there was a fiesta celebrating some ATV racers event; swarming with racers, plenty of beer from the San Felipe Brewing Company and a band with the requisite 60-something rockers struggling through Margaritaville.  Several big racing events are held in Baja each year, notably the Baja 1000. This countryside is just begging for speed – there are miles and miles of sandy paths winding through the desert.

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We arrived at our campground in San Felipe and stayed for five nights – long enough to get off the road, do laundry, wash our truck and trailer, meet some lovely people next door to us, and just…relax and enjoy this view.

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In Mexico, you will be hard-pressed to find a way to wash your own clothes or clean your own car. And that’s a good thing, because when you hand your car over to a Mexican, it will sparkle.  There are many car washes, but there are also the guys on the street with buckets of water and rags. We grabbed this man to wash our car – he asked for 50 pesos (about $3.50). We paid him double and it was a deal at twice the price.

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Laundry is another Mexican delight. You take in a bag of scrunched-up dirty clothes and later that same day, you pick them up – T-shirts with sleeves tucked in and undies folded in thirds. We dropped off clothing, sheets, towels, tea-towels, washcloths and two hours and $11 later – we were all set. This is the lavanderia in San Felipe – typical in most of Mexico and a beacon for travellers.

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We were not in San Felipe in high season – apparently this is more of a Mexican destination and really takes off in the summer. We were among the very few gringo tourists wandering the waterfront and we disappointed the good-natured vendors who could not convince us to buy knock-off sunglasses or “almost-free” straw hats.

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San Felipe has an international airport, a glorious waterfront and easy access to the U.S. border, and yet it has missed that magic tourist bullet. The influx of foreign investment, snazzy shops and great little restaurants hasn’t happened. The south end of San Felipe is lined with a string of condo and resort investments that people have walked away from – the business just never materialized.

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And yet…we met Gabriella and Christian, a young couple (Mexican and French-Canadian) who met in Canada and who have committed to building a business in San Felipe. Their shop, C and G Cava, where they sell home-baked goods, coffee and cheese is open Monday to Friday, and they lead tours to the countryside on the weekend. Their energy was infectious.

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One of the nearby attractions is the Valle de los Gigantes, a region of the Giant Cardon, or Saguaro cactus. Much of the area is only accessible to 4×4 vehicles, but we were able to park a couple of kilometres from the gate and hike in from there.

The Saguaro reach heights of 50 or 60 feet, and some of the more majestic ones are over 2000 years old. Here I am, feeling positively petite and youthful beside a typical cactus.

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We were told that in the desert, flowers can spring up within hours after a rain. There had been rain the area the night before, and the valley was filled with these luscious purple flowers. We also loved the “bearded” cactus.

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A parting shot – the saguaro bracketed by ocotillo – an octopus-armed cacti which pops bright red flowers on the stems.

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And then…it was time to move on, and although we had been warned by our fellow campers in San Felipe about the “goat path” that lay ahead, nothing could have prepared us for the non-road we were about to travel on.

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This stretch of highway between San Felipe and the intersection with Highway 1 has been plagued with many years of hurricane damage and washouts. Repeated attempts have been made to repair and replace, and each year nature wreaks its havoc.

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For the first 20 kilometres outside of San Felipe, we drove through garden variety potholes and patched roads. Then…the construction began. At the same time that repairs are being made to hurricane damage, there is ongoing construction to build a new road.

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A double whammy – slowdowns through construction sites combined with at least a dozen areas where roads and bridges had been washed out from the latest hurricanes that passed through this fall. These areas were served with bypass roads – goat paths of the first order – clay, sand, sharp rock – that were, to put it mildly, “creatively engineered.” With nowhere to go but forward, we climbed down, up and over these roads, our little truck gamely pushing forward and our trailer following behind. At times we struggled, but always made it.

By the time we saw this sign, all we could do was laugh.

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Kilometre after kilometre we crawled at 20 kph, driving over sharp rocks, praying our tires would not puncture and then, as we were inching down a slippery hill, we met up with a tractor trailer that had jack-knifed and obstructed most of the road.

Imagine this: We are just up the road from the tractor-trailer. Stephen stops our truck and I run down to see if there is a way out.  There is – just barely – to the left of the truck. With about two feet to spare, we decide to go for it. We spoke to the truck driver – he agreed we could make it – and then Stephen began. You can’t see it from this angle, but there is about a 30-foot drop off the side. Stephen inched forward, sliding but keeping control, watching the truck driver who gestured encouragingly, (and not me, who was frantically waving and grimacing), until he made it to safety on the other side.

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We found out later that we made it through just in time.  On another bypass road, a truck dropped a load of scrap metal. An hour or two later, traffic backed up with no way out and was stopped for the night. The only vehicles getting through were motorcycles.

Our destination for the night was Gonzaga Bay – an idyllic swath of beach we had almost to ourselves. First we stopped for water – delivered to us with an inimitable Mexican work-around – a hose inserted into a sawed-off plastic bottle.

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Our respite from the road.

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And next morning – back at ‘er – the last stretch of the Road From Hell – it took us two and a half hours to travel 60 kilometres  from Gonzaga Bay to the shimmering mirage of Highway 1. This was a mild version of the road that included rockfall, confusing signage, multiple roads to choose from and almost no-one on the road.

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Today was a very slightly less terrifying than the day before, but with the added bonus of a most enigmatic diversion – Coco’s Corner.

We don’t know the story of Coco – a Mexican man who speaks English quite well, is a double amputee who lives alone, and sells beer and water to passers-by. We had heard about him, so stopped by for a welcome break from the road.

This is his home and small store – the only sign of life anywhere on this stretch of road.

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We were greeted by a young woman from Ottawa who, with her boyfriend, had stayed the night on his property. They found themselves at Coco’s Corner late in the day, and decided it was too risky to carry on in the dark, and were invited to park for the night. We spoke to them for a bit, bought a couple of beers from Coco, and pondered the room full of autographed undies. There are questions you just don’t ask someone you don’t know, but boy, I would love to know Coco’s story.

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And voila – just like that – it was over. The horrible road, the uncertainty of what lay ahead, the worry about puncturing a tire (or two) – we turned left onto Highway 1 and headed south. Over two days, it had taken us twelve hours to drive 400 kilometres. Our advice if you are wanting to visit this area? Consider yourself warned.

We are in Guerrero Negro for the night – the first town south of the Baja Norte border. This is one of the prime sites of the grey whales as they come to give birth. Since the season is not quite underway, we will stop here again in a month or so on our way north.

Baja’s wine region busts out

With recent headlines about threats of violence against the busloads of migrants approaching Tijuana, along with border shut-down uncertainties, we headed to Mexico with a good measure of unease.  We had made the decision long ago to avoid Tijuana (world’s busiest border crossing), and go through at Tecate, about two hours east. Now we figured this normally placid crossing might become swamped to avoid the mess at Tijuana, so when we arrived to find just one car in front of us, we wondered if we were at the right place. The kind customs official politely asked to inspect our trailer and the back of our truck and after about five minutes, he waved us through. We’ve felt far greater scrutiny (and far less warmth and welcome) crossing into the U.S. We found out later that the Baja/United States border crossings are fluid; many people work and live in either Tijuana or San Diego and cross effortlessly back and forth.

And so…our adventure in Baja begins. We will be here for at least two months and have begun our travels in a most delightful way – touring Mexico’s wine country. The Valle de Guadalupe (or Ruta del Vino) stretches from south of Tecate to the coast at Ensenada, and is now on the tourist radar.  Luckily for us, early December is not peak season and we had our campground to ourselves.

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Our only experience with Mexican wine in the past was nasty – warmish red liquid that burned the throat and rivalled cheap tequila for a hangover. Grapes have been grown in northern Baja since the 16th century, but it is just in the past 15-20 years that the “industry” has exploded; attracting winemakers from all over the world. There are between 100 and 150 small wineries, with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Grenache being the predominant red varietals. Interestingly, each small area with its rolling hills and protected acreages has its own microclimate. One winery produces superb Cabernet grapes and has ample access to water. Just two kilometres away at another winery, those same grapes would struggle to produce the same high quality – that ground is better suited to Syrah.

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Many of the wineries plant olives and grapes side by side, as is the case with the gigantic L.A. Cetto; one of Mexico’s oldest and largest wineries. We stopped by for a wine tasting, and found the wines to be unexceptional. The smaller wineries do not hold Cetto in high regard; one young man smiled tightly at our mention of Cetto and referred to them as “commercial.”

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Stephen and I are barely wine-literate; just skip through the photos if you are looking for keen insight and/or reliable information. But as the saying goes, we know what we like.

Our three days here were spent in a happy haze of driving through glorious countryside, chatting with passionate and informative people, admiring fabulous architecture and gardens, sipping glasses of very good wine, and eating very good food. Naturally, where there is wine, there is food and this burgeoning scene has also produced some astounding eateries – everything from food trucks to a restaurant run by a Michelin-starred chef.

Our first food experience was at Cocina de Dona Esthela; endorsed by Anthony Bourdain and described by FoodieHub as being “The Tastiest Breakfast in the World.

Dona Esthela’s story is a big part of the visit. She was cleaning houses and doing laundry and cooking for the local workers when her reputation as a great cook began to circulate.  Today, she still serves food from her property, but her takeout window has turned into a large dining room.  Cars begin rolling in at 8:00 am and by 10:00 am there is a non-stop lineup until she closes at 5:00 pm.

What did we do before the Internet? We would have walked by this unassuming little place without a second glance.

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Dona Esthela, still making tortillas and with a big smile for everyone.

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I could not resist the corn pancakes and fresh fruit. That little dish with white cubes is queso fresco – slightly salty cheese made fresh each day – heavenly.

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We also ordered two house specialities. Machaca, which is dehydrated beef mixed with eggs, vegetables, chilies and garlic, and served with a warm basket of tortillas, wrapped in an embroidered doily.

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Stephen ordered the Borrego au jus – we’ll pass on the photo because it is simply a brown bowl filled with brown meat and brown liquid, but, to borrow a teenage expression, OMG. Lamb, seasoned and slowly cooked in an underground pit – the meat is so tender, so full of intoxicating flavours that any lamb you have eaten in the past simply pales by comparison.

All of this is washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and cafe de olla, dark coffee made with cinnamon. If this was not the very best breakfast we have ever had, it came close. We didn’t even think about food again until dinner.

We visited 11 wineries in three days, and after just one tasting of four wines at Cetto, we opted to choose a glass instead and sit and relax and enjoy the properties and the views. We didn’t sample wine at every winery, but in all cases, there was plenty to appreciate.

The architecture and design in Mexico is exquisite. Mexican craftspeople have such a sophisticated eye for detail and their work is impeccable.

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Even the rustic design is striking – wire structures filled with decorative rock.

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A side wall of one of the wineries – built to resemble a Spanish hacienda.

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At first glance, this winery, Finca la Carrodilla, appeared quite nondescript…

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…until we climbed the stairs to the rooftop tasting room. Stunning plantings of succulents and cactus, far-reaching views and communal seating have transformed this space.

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Las Nubes (Spanish for clouds)  was another favourite. Simple, clean, spare – we sipped on a full-bodied blend called Cumulus and watched three stylish young women trim the room for Christmas.
This young man spoke perfect English. We noticed that a lot – there appears to be a comfortable foot in both worlds for many young Mexicans in this region, both staff and visitors.

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Adobe Guadalupe –  another photogenic winery.

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We had a fabulous lunch here – fresh shrimp stuffed into soft floury buns and served with a little salad. Add a glass of red wine, a sunny table, some canine companions and a beautiful view – there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

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The owners also run a boutique hotel and raise Azteca horses, the sturdy breed favoured by Mexican horsemen.
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While this region is small and compact, most of the roads leading to the wineries are packed dirt, in varying degrees of repair. You will lead from this lovely paved road:

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…to this. You don’t need a 4×4 to navigate, just patience and a keen eye to avoid potholes and rocks. This is an example of a typical winery road.

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Vena Cava, billed as “the hippest winery in Mexico” is only reached after a bone-rattling, torturous 20-minute drive on a twisting, rutted, washboard road that had us questioning our sanity to even attempt it. Finally, we arrived to this sight:

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The winery design is fashioned from discarded boats, and is unquestionably hip – they even have a DJ. We were the youngest ones there by at least 30 years, and whether we were just annoyed by the drive, or annoyed by the fact that we are not hip, we felt put off and did not stay long enough for a glass of wine.

Still – Vena Cava is doing all the right things to add to the scene and to catch the attention of travel writers. They feature prominently in “Best-ofs” and “Must-see” lists, and  for that reason alone are worth a visit.

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We were fascinated to learn about the Russians who began growing grapes in this area over 100 years ago.  This winery, Bibayoff  has a small museum attached.

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A photo of the original Bibayoffs. This small area still has a number of Russian descendants.

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We spoke to David Bibayoff, the grandson of the founder and a most charming man who speaks English and Spanish fluently, but “very little Russian.” He talked to us about the area and how it has attracted so many interesting people from all over the world to move there, including a Canadian couple who were drawn to the beauty of the valley.

David and his son and grandson.

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What would Mexico be without Frida? Casa Frida’s homage to the artist begins with the bright blue wall at the entrance  to the design of the wine labels:

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To the tasting room:

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To the outdoor kitchen:

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To the seating around the bar and pond. We ordered two glasses of Syrah and sat down to people-watch and enjoy the late afternoon sun. This was the last winery on our tour, and a memorable one.

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Touring wine regions can almost be too much of a good thing. The wineries are only open for a few hours each day, and covering a lot of ground is a slow process.  We may pop by again on our way out of Mexico.

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Anza Borrego: bring a jeep

We had never spent much time in deserts before – just drove through and gazed out the car window at scrubland and tawny hillsides without understanding what we were looking at. After Death Valley, with its negligible vegetation, and Joshua Tree, a little lusher and now Anza Borrego, lusher and more varied still, we’re beginning to get a picture of how different deserts can be. This desert may be our favourite.

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But, and this is a big but – you cannot see this park fully without a 4×4 vehicle. Many of the roads are dirt and many of them have spots of deep sand, so we were limited to just a handful of trails. We did have the chance to play at being off-roaders a bit, but it was disappointing to know we were leaving some fabulous trails and scenery behind. The hiking trails are very well marked for vehicle access, so there is little chance of getting stuck.

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Anza Borrego is California’s southernmost park – we are just two hours to the Mexican border. It is also the largest state park outside Alaska – at 500,000 acres. It draws people for many reasons – as we were entering the outskirts of the park, we came upon dozens and dozens of ATVs bouncing over the terrain – we could easily imagine our own sons tearing around that landscape.

Once in the park, the main activities are hiking and cycling as the terrain and animals are protected, so off-roading is prohibited. The town of Borrego Springs was an unexpected little jewel, with a lush green roundabout whimsically called the Christmas Circle.

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There are a number of restaurants in town, but this one caught our eye because of the sign. You know a place has been around for a while when they are still offering “char-broiled steaks.”

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We really enjoyed this place – The Red Ocotillo. Food was fantastic, decor very southwestern, and service saucy (remember Carla from Cheers? That was our server.)

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We stopped by the Borrego Art Institute – a gorgeous building with artful landscaping and plans for a garden out back to service the adjoining restaurant. They offer art classes, talks, and shows with local artists.

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The town is about two weeks away from the grand opening of their new library.  There has been some controversy over this building apparently. One of the locals confided that the new library was “towering” over the rest of the town, and built high on stilts, which was sure to attract nesting animals and possibly trap children. We were expecting a skyscraper. It is amusing to see how every community has its intrigues!

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I am writing this outside the old library (which does not open until noon), so I’ve joined the ranks of the wifi-deprived, all of us lined up outside with our devices. We have really come to depend upon libraries as we travel and appreciate all they offer – great wifi, clean washrooms, the chance to sit for a few hours without feeling guilty and also the chance to get a feel for the locals. We overhear some fascinating conversations. It is a tremendously reassuring place to be in and feel part of the community, even for a short while.

While I write this blog, Stephen is doing laundry at this picturesque laundromat.

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Our campground – set into the hills – quiet and magical.

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The sun woke us up every morning around 6:00 am.

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And gave us a show each night. Our other show was the night sky – Anza Borrego is a designated Dark Sky area and particularly a draw in June when the Milky Way is visible. We were happy to sit out bundled up, with our necks craned, just enjoying the view and the quiet.

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One of our favourite hikes was the three-mile Palm Canyon hike – back into the mountains, leading to a palm oasis.

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These are California fan palms – the only palm trees native to the region, and where they grow in clusters means they are growing along a fault line, where there is water.

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We met up with a father and son from Saskatchewan, also finding refuge in the oasis. We  noted the protective fronds on the trees, evolved to capture and hold moisture.

We also commented on the numerous droppings on the ground, filled with seeds and canine-like in shape. Soon, our perpetrator presented himself – a charcoal-coloured little  fox with red tip on tail and face. He peered at us from his perch and then took off again, but I’m sure he was watching, waiting for us to leave his home.

This is a fuzzy shot, but if you look closely, you will see the little fox  at the base of the  tree on the right.

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We were really hoping to see Bighorn sheep – the endangered animal after whom the park is named. Borrego is Spanish for sheep. This park is their territory, but at midday, they were nowhere to be found.  On our way back down, a local woman told us to go to the golf course the next morning – we would be guaranteed to see them as they make their way down the mountain to feed and drink on the corner of the golf course.

Sure enough:

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After watching them for a while, we headed back to our truck and that is when the show began. At least another couple of dozen sheep were descending down the mountain and we hid out behind our truck, so we wouldn’t alarm them.

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This sheep was one of a few we saw who were collared and tagged, and since the herd now numbers 600, they are obviously monitoring to make sure they stay healthy and grow in numbers.

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Stephen took a short video:

The golf course…

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…and some of the beautiful homes and gardens around the course.

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We had never heard of a slot canyon before, so decided to give it a try.  This one began easily enough.

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Then started to narrow a bit, with rather menacing rock overhangs (one good tremor…)

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And then things got interesting:

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This is not a canyon that is for everyone. If you suffer from claustrophobia, you will have a couple of queasy moments (just look up to see the sky). Not to put too fine point upon it, but this canyon is not suitable for all body types.  We met up with another couple and walked through with them. None of us are large people, but at one point, we all had to turn sideways and squeeze through.

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Back to the parking lot, looking out over  the badlands. They give no clue as to what lies below, which is such a big attraction to the desert – so much of its charm is hidden in plan view.

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And finally, is this what you would expect to find in the middle of the desert?

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Or this?

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What is this creature?

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And back to the beginning – come to Anza Borrego and bring a jeep.

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This work is the brainchild of metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda, and thanks to the vision of town benefactor Dennis Avery, they can be found all over Avery’s private land, known as Galleta Meadows. It is an extraordinary sight to drive along and see dozens upon dozens of these giant sculptures – camels, birds, tortoises, prehistoric creatures. Somehow they blend right into the landscape.

The other must-see of Anza Borrego are the spring wildflowers. Two years ago they had a “Super-bloom”, an infrequent occurrence that produces flowers of vivid colour and waist-high abundance. We were told there were over 300,000 visitors here to see the spectacle.

We leave this glorious place reluctantly, but will be back again in the spring.
Tomorrow… crossing the border into Baja. We will be crossing at Tecate, not Tijuana, so hopefully our passage will be smooth.

Hasta pronto!

 

Visiting Joshua Tree National Park on Black Friday

I think the memo went out years ago: travelling around the U.S. during American Thanksgiving week is not for the faint of heart. However, if you’re on the road you are going to land somewhere, and Joshua Tree was it.

We figured the park would be busy, but we tried to convince ourselves that everyone would be either at home fighting with their relatives, or stuck in the malls, trying to remember where they parked their cars. So, with hope in our hearts, we left Las Vegas and headed  west.

The sky was gorgeous – big storm clouds moving toward Las Vegas, as we moved away.

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Our route to Joshua Tree took us right through the Mojave Desert; at times we were the only car on the road.  At one point we found ourselves on a stretch of America’s famous Route 66, and stopped for gas at Roy’s, our last chance before Joshua Tree.  At $5.00 a gallon, the price was almost two dollars higher than we would pay anywhere else, but we decided that there were two things we did not want to run out of in the desert: gas or water.

Roy’s – the place that time forgot – gas pumps, a small motel and a “cafe.” That vacancy sign looks permanent.

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When Stephen asked the laconic owner if he was Roy, He replied, “Nope, Roy’s been gone  a long time.” We’re thinking  Roy took the restroom cleaner with him.

We carried on and about an hour outside the park, we drove past a compound surrounded by chain-link fence, with a number of scruffy low buildings, old trucks and a prominent TRUMP/PENCE sign on the hill in front. No surprise there, but what gave us a knot in our stomachs was a huge Stars and Stripes flying on the flagpole, with a slightly smaller Confederate flag just below.

It would appear that most Joshua Tree residents do not share those politics. The town supports a good mix of shops selling crystals, pottery and boots made from recycled plastic. This sign appeared in one of the windows.

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This mural is an accurate depiction of the town and park – pretty trippy.

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We had lunch at the Crossroads Cafe, staffed by a reassuring battalion of young people with the requisite hipster beards, flowered dresses with military boots and imaginative tattoos.  We ate the very best burgers we’ve had in a long time, served medium-rare.

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When we pulled into the Visitor Centre, first we got the bad news: Every single campsite in Joshua Tree had been booked for months. We were hoping to snag a first-come-first-served site, but even those had been “reserved” with an advance payment. Anyone close enough to the park to drop by with the fee in advance gets a spot. This is the situation in most state and national parks during peak times, weekends and holidays. We were directed to Joshua Tree Lake Campground, just outside the park, and it worked out perfectly.

Our campsite:
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The campground is situated at the end of a road, with mountains on one side. They have music festivals in the spring and fall and the rest of the year, they operate a quiet, clean site with a book exchange, a small store and a lake stocked with fish (to throw back).

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Over the next two days we put many miles on our hiking boots; Joshua Tree National Park is crisscrossed with a number of trails that range from a half-mile to a multi-day hike. We kept our hikes to under five miles, especially since many of them involved altitude. Our first hike, Ryan’s Mountain, had us climbing 1000 feet and it offered up an ideal combination of the flora the park is known for and the giant boulders, that formed from magma eons ago and were tossed around like so many building blocks.

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This is a Joshua Tree, which is not really a tree, but a tree-sized yucca.

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Although there are untold numbers of Joshua trees in the park (as well as other desert  areas), there is also an abundance of cacti, creosote bush, fan palm trees, cottonwood, scrub oak, juniper and Parry’s nolina – all plants that have adapted to the desert conditions.

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Joshua Tree is a prime climbing destination – we saw a number of people bouldering (climbing without ropes) as well as a few rappelling down cliffs. Stephen did attempt one climb, but only got about a quarter of the way up – enough to give you a perspective.

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Mainly we stuck to the trails:

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A few shots of the park:

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IMG_0056Barker Dam. At one point the annual rainfall was twice what it is today, and there was cattle ranching in the area. Ranchers built a dam to provide enough water for their cattle, and the small lake still remains.

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All the photos I’ve shown so far would indicate we had the park to ourselves. In fact, it was so busy it became a little comical. A solid line of cars snaked into the park; making their slow procession to the entrance gate. From that point on, every single parking lot was jammed, with cars circling and idling; just waiting to pounce on the very next available spot.

This is the lineup, waiting for a parking spot at Keys View.  It was madness; although once you were on the trail, the crowds thinned out somewhat.

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This was a popular hike – just a quarter of a mile walk on a paved road, overlooking the San Andreas Fault and a number of mountain ranges. Apparently on a clear day you can see to Mexico.

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Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails, for a variety of reasons – wildlife, ecologically sensitive plants, undesirable conditions for pets (heat, dehydration, altitude, unsure footing on narrow trails, etc.). We saw just one foolish owner who disregarded the rules; we encountered him and his Golden retriever (off-leash) about halfway up a very steep 2-hour trail. This is a difficult park to bring animals if they cannot be on trails and they cannot be left alone in hot vehicles. The rules did not apply to this little walk (out in the open and paved), and we saw a number of happy owners and dogs.

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We had a wonderful time in Joshua Tree – we could have stayed another day or two. Perhaps we’ll be back in the spring on our way home to see the desert flowers.

We’re seeing a lot of interesting, unique old campers, truck campers and trailers. I’ll post photos from time to time – this one had driven here from New Hampshire.

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Tomorrow we head to Anza-Borrego, a state park just north of Mexico. See you again in a few days.

Waking up in Vegas

I came to Las Vegas with more than a little trepidation. Stephen has been here three times on field schools with students, and was keen for me to see it as well. “You’ve gotta go at least once,” was his sales pitch and when our friends Lorne and Anne decided to meet up with us, it was a done deal. They would fly in from Toronto; we would park our trailer in the hotel’s back lot, and we’d hit the town together for three nights and two days.

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They did not dream up the old marketing tagline “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” with us in mind. We stayed up each night a couple of hours past our usual bedtimes and that is about as nasty as we got. Even our gambling was lame. Stephen popped a dollar bill in a slot machine and when he was up ($3.60), I made him cash his voucher in. Judging by the cashier’s expression, this was a Vegas first. A few more dollars swallowed up in the slot machines proved the old maxim, “The house never loses, ” but it was cheap entertainment and good fun.

We booked at Tuscany Suites, which proved to be an ideal choice – a 27-acre oasis with two pools, a number of stucco and tile low-rise buildings, beautiful 650 m. suites and a 15-minute walk to the Strip.

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We’ve all seen enough images of the Vegas Strip to know what it looks like, but it was surprisingly nicer than I had imagined. The Vegas that most tourists see is divided into two distinct areas – the new Strip, built since the 70’s, all glossy theme mega-hotels and casinos, and the original Las Vegas (Bugsy Siegel, Sinatra and the Golden Nugget), located in the city’s downtown. Over the years, that area had become quite seedy and rundown, but in the early 2000’s, it was revitalized as the Fremont Experience and Fremont East. It now draws tourists by the thousands in search of the city’s history and old-school neon. We began with the Strip. It is possible to ride the four-mile Strip by bus, but we wanted to see as much as possible on foot.

Every hotel has a casino attached. Most hotels have exclusive shops – Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci. The Fashion Show Mall is another draw – with 250 stores, including Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. Shopping is as big a draw as gambling and drinking.

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New York, New York. Outside – the facades of many famous New York landmarks. Inside – tenement street scenes, pizza parlours, wrought iron fire escapes.

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The Venetian Hotel. The gondoliers  glide along the canal into the hotel, which resembles a street in Venice.

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The exterior facade of the Venetian Hotel.

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The magnificent 5-star Wynn Hotel

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We took a break from the street to stop at the Wynn for a drink in their lakeside lounge. Lorne and Anne basking in the sun.

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Caesar’s Palace – 4000 rooms

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Las Vegas is going through an unprecedented building boom. Currently there are 151,000 hotel rooms with a 95-100% occupancy rate and there are no end of new hotel projects in sight. Demand is huge; fuelled in large part by the 50+ traveller seeking sun, sights and a palatable comfort level of “sin”.  Bugsy would be mortified.

Not for one minute to suggest the seedy side of life isn’t here. This mobile billboard was one of many – Vegas’ own particular brand of room service.

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If you prefer to shell out a few bucks for a souvenir photo with showgirls, that’s another option.

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The Chippendales were out in force as well; seeking photo ops with bills tucked suggestively into their low-slung, well-endowed pants. Anne and I did not partake.

Of course, Vegas at night is the big draw – the shows, the bling, the outrageous street scene. We didn’t take in any shows, other than listening to an excellent singer and band at our hotel the first night. The action on the street, the people-watching and the bright lights were entertainment enough.

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The Flamingo Hotel neon, with the age-defying Osmond siblings still performing after all these years.

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Harrahs Hotel

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Bellagio, with its famous fountain. Every 15 minutes or so, the fountain rises up in a symphony of song.

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Food and drink are a big attraction in Vegas. There are a number of very exclusive, celebrity chef establishments; as well as the gamut of bistro/pub/American/pizza/sushi joints – a dazzling selection for every taste and pocketbook.

If your tastes run to excess, The Heart Attack Grill is right up your alley. We stumbled upon it by accident – Elvis was standing outside, smoking and checking his phone.

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Coincidently, he had positioned himself under the sign that entices,” Anyone over 350 pounds eats for free.

Food porn takes on a whole new meaning here. Heart Attack Grill customers are required to don a hospital gown and be administered to by scantily-clad “nurses” as they make their way through 6-patty burgers. Peering in through the windows is akin to slowing by a car wreck. Pill bottles and cigarettes are part of the jaunty decor.

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Even pizza is all dolled-up, for Pete’s sake. “Pin-up pizza”, when Domino’s just won’t do, although it’s unlikely your delivery person will bear any resemblance to this creature.

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In the mood for sugar? The Sugar Factory (maker of Sugar Pops, endorsed by Rihanna and the Kardashian/Jenner tribe) also makes these sugar goblets. I asked this young man if I could take a photo – his sister and mother are out of range, but it would appear that they will be sharing six goblets and three rubber duckie siphons.

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Okay – now we are going to the dark side – Fremont Street, the original Las Vegas. We took a 40-minute bus ride out, and we dropped right into “The Fremont Experience”, much of it under a covered pedestrian-only walkway.

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The Golden Nugget, in operation since 1946, is still around.

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The Fremont Experience is a cross-section of nostalgia, cheap food, souvenirs, hustlers, scam artists, pickpockets, and hookers. Music blasts from all corners, zipline adventurers fly overhead, and buskers of dubious levels of talent compete for tourists. It is utterly overwhelming.

From the hopeful: Michael Jackson moves

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To the discipline of the “policewomen”

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To the decent sax player:

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There is one in every crowd.  At some point the beer takes over and not even the hula hooper on stage can distract this man from his groove.

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We also saw bored table dancers, shifty young men moving through the crowds, and seriously disadvantaged people panhandling. Overall, we found Fremont to be a distressing and upsetting place – the underbelly is very close to the surface.

Forty million visitors arrive in Vegas each year, and many millions of dollars are left in the casinos. But the money doesn’t trickle down very evenly; many, many people in Las Vegas are not okay.

Tourists don’t come to Vegas to do socio-economic and/or environmental assessments; this is a three-to-four day escape from winter, responsibilities, kids; and fair enough.

I’m glad I saw Vegas – I doubt I will be back. It hurts my heart to see young women being exploited. This is not the land of “university student paying her way through med school” or “welder by day, dancer at night.”

We softened the impact of Vegas by heading a half-hour out of town to Sloan Conservation for a hike in the canyon to see the petroglyphs. It was a bit more strenuous of a hike than we had planned on, but a perfect antidote.

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On reflection, we had a wonderful time hanging out together, and had fun with the craziness of it all. We came to the same conclusion. You have to take Vegas for exactly what it is, and not fuss about what it’s not. It’s not a judgement about people’s needs and tastes.  If there wasn’t a market of all of this, Vegas wouldn’t exist.

Our friends left this morning, and we’ve spent the day getting organized for the next leg of our trip – a few days in Joshua Tree National Park.

Death Valley: more than meets the eye

Apparently Death Valley gets 2.36 inches of rainfall annually, which if you do the math, leaves many hours of unblinking sun to cope with. Even in November daytime highs climbed up to a toasty 78 degrees – which doesn’t touch the July 10, 1913 record high of 134, but gave us a small hint of what it might possibly be like to visit this desert in the summer months. (If it feels this hot now…)
As we hiked under an intense sun, for some reason an image kept popping into my head – us lost in the desert, crawling on hands and knees, sunburnt and delirious with thirst. Death Valley feels unforgiving.

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Hottest place on earth! Driest place in North America! Lowest elevation in North America! Superlatives abound for a place that is like no other. Those crazy extremes of weather and landscape were exactly what attracted us to this park in the first place. Death Valley makes you work to discover its charms – it is way more than the first pile of rocks you first drive by.

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To really understand what Death Valley is all about, you need to lace up your hiking boots, carry plenty of water and go deep into the canyons. We were there for just two and a half days, and explored four canyons and a salt flat, but missed the sand dunes and a number of other excellent hikes that are spread out over a 50-100 mile radius. Many times we were all by ourselves, which added to the eerie quiet of the place. Although Death Valley is home to coyotes, packrats, kit foxes, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, and even non-native burros, we did not see one sign of life.

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Death Valley is the largest National Park in the U.S., outside of Alaska, but just a tiny portion has been developed for tourists. Two small settlements – Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek – offer up food, lodging, campgrounds, gas and water. After a quick stop at the visitor centre in Furnace Creek, we headed for one of the first-come-first-served campgrounds nearby.  Our campground offered good-sized lots with views onto the mountains and while there are no trees to speak of in Death Valley, there were wispy mesquite trees and scrubby creosote bushes to add a bit of life.

You can see our truck and trailer in the foreground – we woke up each morning at 6:30  to the sunrise glowing over the hills and went to sleep each night under a sky filled with stars.  This bald lot turns into a cozy community at night, with the sounds of quiet voices and the pitch black broken up by flickering campfires and campers wandering with headlamps. We loved the evenings there – bundled up against the chill, enjoying casual chats with other campers and watching the night sky.

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Nearby Furnace Creek’s lodging “The Ranch”  is an oasis – lined with palm trees, a golf course and a pool. Since we had no wifi and cell service at the campground, we took an afternoon break to sit under the shade of a massive mesquite tree and catch up on emails.

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If you’ve ever heard of Borax and the Twenty Mule teams, their origins began in Harmony, Death Valley. These “big teams” of mules pulled massive wagons filled with borax a grueling 165 miles to the railhead near Mohave, and although these teams only ran for six years, their romantic image lives on.  We visited the remains of the Borax mines, which included an original wagon.

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Another notable mineral deposit  is the salt flat at Badwater, the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. It is possible to walk far out onto the flats.

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Parts of the flat are smooth and resemble a giant skating rink. Other parts are puckered and squared off; it is possible to see the salt crystals.

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The main attraction for us was the hiking. While it was possible to take on strenuous hikes of up to 14 miles, we stuck to the trails that were between 5 and 8 miles. Armed with our maps, plenty of water, apples and Clif bars, each day we set out to experience entirely different landscapes. We would park our truck, follow the signposts and enter a hidden world.

Sometimes we were climbing over rocks, other times we were walking along wider valleys.

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This hill had me whining like a baby – huffing and puffing and sweating and swearing. It doesn’t look that bad from this perspective, but we were almost at the top and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.

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And then, the reward:

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We’d walk along for a while and the wide open spaces would close right in. We’d be back in a skinny canyon again.

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These were my favourite parts of the hikes  – touching rocks that are 1700 million years old. I have no idea what I just wrote – that number makes no sense to me.

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There are a number of stunning drives within the park – the Artist’s Drive is one. It is a 9-mile one-way drive with an exciting blacktop ribbon of a road that dips and loops beside multicoloured hillsides.
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Our camp host Jackie (an American who has lived in Squamish, B.C. for many years) LOVES Death Valley. As a dual citizen, she is able to volunteer from November through until March, and still finds something new here to enjoy each year. She told us we would likely hear coyotes howling each night and early morning – sadly we never did – I love that sound. A meteor shower happened on our last night in Death Valley, but as Jackie told us, the moon would be too bright to see it. She was right. We love the camp hosts, map operators and park rangers – their enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for the outdoors is such a big part of the experience.

We’re on our way now – we had a rough start, followed by two weeks of feeling hugely out of our comfort zone, and now the switch has happened. Our trailer is our home – so comforting to stop and make a sandwich or a cup of tea and then carry on. It is comfortable, well-designed and does exactly what we want it to. We’re not afraid of it anymore.

We’ve learned how to drive differently. In the old road trip days we would pack up our car and drive like mad fools – pushing our days to 8 hours, 9 hours – neither safe nor fun.

Now, we take it one day at a time. We drive no more than 200 – 250 miles a day, no longer than five hours. If our map tells us the distance take four hours, we plan on five. We don’t rush, don’t stress, and plan ahead.

And now – a four-day break from the road – in Las Vegas. We just arrived at the Tuscany Suites – have our trailer safely stowed in the back parking lot and are languishing in a 650-sq.ft. suite, with a sofa, TV, small kitchenette, king-size bed, and both a shower and bathtub. The property is on 27 landscaped acres, with two pools and a casino. We could park four of our trailers in this space.

We’re meeting our friends Lorne and Anne here in a couple of hours and the fun will begin. I can’t even begin to imagine Vegas – we’ll be back again in a few days to tell you all about it.

 

 

 

 

Big Sur and Beyond

Everyone has heard of Big Sur – it was the requisite hippie stop for all California road trips in the 60’s. It’s still pretty groovy, and still feels like a bit of a time warp. Very little has changed – certainly not the scenery – and with the exception of a few motels, campgrounds and cafes along the way, it is all about the natural environment. People are here to camp, hike, listen to the surf, and possibly reminisce about the good old days. To that end, there are no shortage of VW camper vans.

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We were excited to have the chance to drive down this iconic stretch of Hwy. 1 – it had been closed south of Big Sur for 14 months after a devastating landslide. It reopened again just a couple of months ago, and the damage from the slide is still evident in spots.

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Highway 1, south of Big Sur, is the stuff of motorcycle dreams and convertible ads. Ocean on the right, mountains on the left and a twisting, rollicking road in the middle. There were no dreaded switchbacks, but the road is so curvy and winding it took three hours to drive just over 50 miles.

The beauty of this road is that there are innumerable pullouts, and we took full advantage of them to admire the view, take photos and let cars pass us. As soon as we had more than two cars, we’d pull over, and we were almost always rewarded with a wave or a honk. We’re trying very hard not to be annoying and oblivious RV people.

So back to Hwy. 1 – these are the reasons you want to drive this road.

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We saw surfers. It is hardly noteworthy see surfers in California, but I liked this shot.

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We drove over many bridges just like this one.

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The highway climbs up, up, up and then descends back down to the beach, and then does it all over again.

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All too soon, our delicious ride was over. Actually, I am speaking for myself. Stephen did all the driving on that stretch and had to pay keen attention to navigate truck and trailer safely on all the curves. I got to sit in the passenger seat and admire the view. Slowly, that is changing as we both gain confidence in my trailer-hauling abilities.

We arrived in Morro Bay for the night, and backed in like pros to our campsite. This was our view:

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Morro Bay is a charming small city with lovely curved streets lined with typical California bungalows, unusual shops and restaurants and a waterfront filled with the usual fish and chip shops and many purveyors of salt water taffy. I’ve always wondered why one feels compelled to buy salt water taffy every time one is within spitting distance of an ocean and yet live happily without it everywhere else.

I also often wonder why people think their dogs are human and/or have no impact on others. I’m a dog-lover, and don’t want to be cranky but no, I don’t want your boxer’s backside on my lunch table.

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Morro Bay is dominated by this very large rock.

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It is possible to drive out along a causeway, and then walk or cycle all around the rock. Morro Bay struck us as being a happy place for locals – prosperous without being exclusive and full of important amenities – walking and cycling places, boating and kayaking, a great library,  a beautiful natural setting and a wonderful temperate climate.

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As we left the coast to head inland toward Death Valley, we drove through many different landscapes.

Massive oilfields:

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Lush wine country

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Pretty leafy roads

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And agriculture – avocados, nuts, olives, nuts – agribusinesses that ran for miles in broad, flat valleys and small market gardens. This is part of the country that helps to feed  Canada and the U.S.  and the scale is hard to imagine.

I don’t have a photo that does this area justice, but I do have a story. I bought cherry tomatoes and once we got them home, I discovered much to my surprise that they were grown in Mexico, shipped and packaged in Ontario and then shipped back to California. The 2000-mile diet.

Enroute to Death Valley, we had to stop overnight at an RV park in Lake Isabella, in order to break up a 9-hour drive. This was a disturbing glimpse into a side of California that does not show up in the brochures.

Lake Isabella is not on anyone’s flight path, and I doubt they often get travellers. The RV park was run-down and filled with mainly old, moldy-looking trailers decorated with  American flags and pots of artificial flowers. We spoke to one lady who is so spooked by the fires she is moving back to Ohio as soon as she sells her trailer and finds a way to move her 19 cats.

The next morning, we made our way east to Death Valley National Park, and the landscape became more barren as we drove along.

This shot was taken about an hour outside the Park:

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Now we’re in Death Valley – so much to discover here. See you again in a few days.

Heading toward summer

We left Prairie Creek State Park (our second campground in Redwoods National Park) and headed south with great anticipation of finding warmer temperatures. Our destination for the night was The Golden Rule Campground in the small town of Willits, which was a most unique stop. The campground is run by Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule and lived up to its name by offering us a most hospitable and enjoyable stay, without any religious intervention. We did have an interesting chat with a man who wondered about our viewpoint on same-sex marriage, and quickly told us he couldn’t understand “that stuff.” Stephen told him he just hadn’t met the right man yet!

The campground is situated on the sprawling property of Ridgeville Ranch, which was horse-racing icon Seabiscuit’s final home and resting place.  It is still a working ranch, has a charter school and offers tours.

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Not to make light of the horrendous wildfires that have been burning in the area, but our approach to the campground was a little biblical. We had no idea what we were driving into; we thought we were heading toward a storm. We found out later the town of Paradise, 160 miles east, had just burned to the ground. This is what many Californians live with – out-of-control fires that spring up with little or no warning. After the damp, moist cool climate of the Redwoods, everything in central and southern California is tinder dry.

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Our original plan was to hit the coast highway and stop at Mendocino, Fort Bragg and Bodega Bay, but after reading that the road to the coast was filled with switchbacks and the coastal road itself required “nerves of steel”, we shifted course and headed to Monterey and Carmel. We’re still driving with caution and not yet comfortable with navigating tight switchbacks with our trailer in tow.

Monterey was a terrific “Plan B.” We discovered another unique campground, right in the city. It is situated in Veteran’s Memorial Park at the top of a hill, about a mile walk down to the historic waterfront. It’s been in operation since 1926, and had everything we needed – hot showers, water, and a dumping station. We’re getting the hang of “dry camping” – switching over to propane and our solar panel.

Monterey and Carmel are an interesting study in contrasts. Monterey is a working town with its roots in fishing and sardine canneries. Cannery Row, which Steinbeck so famously depicted in his novel of the same name – depicts the challenges of that stinky, tedious work. Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have become the centrepieces of the waterfront.

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Monterey’s downtown and waterfront have been meticulously restored. The one-mile walk from downtown to Cannery Row was filled with cyclists and pedestrians enjoying the bright sunny weather.

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The big drawback to the Monterey waterfront, for us at least, is the proliferation of tacky tourist traps, same-same souvenir shops and questionable-looking chowder houses. The area is stunning, the history is fascinating and the architecture is exquisite. Why add a wax  museum? This is a shot of Fisherman’s Wharf:

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The promenade is filled with murals, such as this one that show the cannery workers having a break – “the dripping, smelly, tired Wops and Chinamen and Polacks” (Cannery Row.)

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Three of the original, tiny shacks that housed some of the workers.

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The city of Monterey rises up from the bay and climbs around several hills, creating gorgeous sightlines and strenuous workouts. The historic part of the city is clustered around the waterfront; its streets filled with unique, iconoclastic architecture and interesting little shops and restaurants. Since many structures are made of adobe, we were intrigued by these signs that we saw on a number of buildings.

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This home looks as though it could withstand a few tremors. It is built of Carmel stone.

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Even in November, the gardens in Monterey are still lush, and the area trees are simply formidable. If anyone can identify this species, please let me know.

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A peaceful scene in a pocket park, by the Monterey Museum of Art.

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Carmel-by-the-Sea, just a few miles south, could not be more different. It is manicured, pedicured, blow-dried and primped. The actual village of Carmel encompasses about one square mile of pristine laneways; one distinctive home outdoing the next. Homes in this rarified zip code have no numbers. They are identified by their names – Seventh Heaven, Dreams Come True, and the enigmatic I’m Done.

A sampling of what life in Carmel is like for the lucky few.
An English cottage:

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A Spanish colonial:

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Hansel and Gretel:

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A typical back laneway:

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The shopping streets of Carmel are carefully curated and no less charming. There are an astonishing number of art galleries in town; not surprising since Carmel began as a bohemian artist colony. It is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for painters and writers.

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There are rules to be followed, however. Women are not allowed to wear high heels in Carmel: a rule that came about to avoid lawsuits in case a nasty fall occurred on the uneven streets.
Another rule revolves around not offending the established aesthetic. No nasty neon or garish plastic in Carmel – even the gas pump has to comply with a tasteful sign.

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As you might expect, Carmel’s fire station is photogenic.

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In case this all sounds a bit cloying and precious – it really isn’t. Carmel simply has very exacting standards and it sticks to them. Build it and the tourists will come –  it is the swarms of people like us that help to make it feel a bit contrived.

The beach keeps it real, though. Carmel is blessed with an absolutely gorgeous white-sand crescent beach – we spent a good hour walking along the shore.

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And the dogs! We had heard that Carmel was well-known for its love affair with all things canine, but boy – they may outnumber humans two to one.

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We spent our final day hiking the oceanside trails in Point Lobos Park, just south of Carmel. This was a taste of what was to come driving down Hwy. 1.

Many of the trails were filled with trees typical to the area – Monterey pine, Monterey cypress and live oak.

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A typical sea view as the trail dipped in and out of the forest.

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After worrying about whether we could manage the switchbacks of Highway 1 to Mendocino, we bit the bullet and drove that iconic road south through Big Sur to Morro Bay, where we are now camping. The highway had been closed for 14 months, due to a landslide, and only opened again a few months ago. We’ll see you again in a few days with photos and stories from that drive.

Camping with the Giants

The Oregon Coast is one of our favourite drives, and even though we knew late October weather would likely be drizzly and foggy, we opted to turn left off the freeway and follow along the ocean. It rained, it misted, it was grey and monochromatic; we drove down through patches of thick fog and swooped back up into clear skies. We took two days to drive down through Oregon and every corner brought its own different kind of beauty.

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Our first night we stayed around Lincoln City and Stephen backed in to our site, in the pouring rain.

The next day, we stopped at a campground in southern Oregon, near Bandon. WE decided to stay for two nights, to give ourselves a chance to relax and enjoy the beach.

We went for a stroll to the ocean, and Stephen could not resist dipping his toes in the Pacific. Yes, it was as cold as it looks.

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There is nothing pacific about the ocean along the Oregon coast. It’s a beast. We stopped at a lookout, observing large signs for “ROGUE WAVES”, “DANGER” as we made our way down. Water pushed through this little channel to create a blowhole, but we couldn’t safely get past to watch it – every minute or so we would hear a thunderous roar.

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This is one of many stone bridges that carries traffic along the coast – a thing of beauty and an architectural marvel.

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Our third day we were blessed with clearing skies and a bit of sun. This is a quintessential Oregon and northern California seascape – giant boulders flung out from shore.

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One of the things we have discovered as we travel is that each experience is a stand-alone one and often cannot be repeated. They are meant to be enjoyed at that moment and then stored as a memory.  Ten years ago, as we drove down the Oregon coast, we stopped by a nondescript roadside shack and had one of the best crab sandwiches we had ever eaten. There was a big pot outside boiling up Dungeness crab caught offshore and the sandwiches (about four inches of fresh crab stuffed into a potato bun) were served on red plastic trays with red-and-white checked waxed paper and crinkle fries. That  unassuming food memory ranked right up there as one of the best ever.

This time around, we stopped by the shack with great anticipation. It looked exactly as we remembered.

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We ordered just one sandwich, at twice the price and half the crab. It was good, but not memorable – definitely a time and a place. The other thing that caught our eye was this display:

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In the time we’ve been away, there have been two horrific mass shootings – the Pittsburgh synagogue, and the Florida yoga studio. Seeing this defiant display made my skin crawl, but there was no point in discussing the 2nd Amendment with the folks at the crab shack about the connection of guns and those tragedies – their position is clear. As so many people keep asking, “What will it take?”

One of our last memories of Oregon was a coffee stop at the small town of Bandon – a pretty seaside town close to our campground. This sculpture caught our eye – made entirely of plastic objects washed ashore from the ocean.  We have seen many volunteers picking up garbage along the roadsides and the beaches – a strong indication of civic pride and concern for the environment.

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And now – we are camping in the northern end of the California Redwoods – the United States’ only park that is designated as being both National and State. We are camping in Jedediah Smith National Park – right in amongst these staggering giant trees. Luckily for us, the campgrounds are half-full this time of year, and our experience has been incredible.

We had a bit of a rocky start though – we got an “F” on backing up. Back and forth, front and back we went, the trailer going every way but the way we wanted it to, and our frustrating levels rising to an unhealthy level. No kind soul to bail us out, so we just kept trying and trying, and finally, the rear end of the trailer began to ease into our site. Stephen was backing up and I was directing and although we seemed a bit close to a tree, I did not want to discourage our progress – I figured we would straighten out and all would be fine. Oh boy – I got us into an unbelievable jam  – we were far too close to the tree and then we tried to back up a bit to get out and although our trailer was clear, the box at the front was wedged in tight- we couldn’t go forward or backward.  I  honestly thought our only way out was to cut down the tree, but assumed since this was a protected forest, that would be frowned upon.

I ran to fetch a ranger, and by the time we got back with reinforcements, Stephen had figured out a plan. We would unhitch, then reattach at a different angle – exactly the plan the ranger came up with. No trees were harmed.  This is how our trailer is currently situated in our site. As someone wisely noted, “you’ll never do that again.”
We’re getting there – we can learn this.

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The California Redwoods defy description and our photos won’t begin to capture them. They would have been entirely logged by now, but for the conservation efforts that begin in 1915 and ramped up again in the 60’s. The result is that many protected first-growth redwood forests are available for the public to enjoy.

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Most of these trees are 500 to 600 years old; some are 2,000 years old. They grow up to 350′ tall, and incredibly their root system is only five to six feet deep, so although their roots are heavily interconnected, they can topple in heavy winds. As we walked through a trail, we came upon one of the fallen giants,  a nurse tree that supports a small forest on top of it.

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One of the many root ends we walked by:

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This tree was showcased with a nice wooden boardwalk around it, but there were no signs to indicate why it was considered special.

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These massive fungi grow on a number of trees, and they in turn support more plants.

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Within this park, there are very few trails that can be accessed from the campground – you have to drive to them. One of the highlights is the 10-mile narrow gravel road that goes right through the park, with parking spaces and pull-offs along the way.
This will give you an idea of the width of the road – drivers took turns pulling to one side to allow others to pass.

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Yesterday we had a very illuminating political conversation with one of the park rangers, a young woman originally from northern Minnesota, with French-Canadian roots. She told us she cried when she voted in the 2016 election as she felt neither candidate was palatable. She is devastated by what the last two years have done to America,”everyone is fighting with each other”.

Prior to 2016, the National and State parks were being gutted, with no new hires and not enough money for proper maintenance and educational programs.  Since 2016, there has been a lot of new ranger jobs, and more resources flowing into the system. While those initiatives may not have come directly from Trump, and she is by no means a fan of his,  she wants that momentum to continue.

An interesting insight to ponder – what do you do when you have no clear choices in front of you?

As for us – our choice is to leave tomorrow and head  two hours down the coast to another section of the Redwoods.

Making our Escape

We used to regard RVs and their snowbird drivers as a blight – traffic-obstructing, view-obscuring behemoths that clogged up highways and hogged parking spaces. We would drive by a 40-foot coach hauling a small car, and smugly comment, “their gas bill must be a killer.”  Then, our reality struck. After a cross-country trip last summer, we put our tent to the test, and it failed time and again. Gale force winds in the grasslands, rain-outs in Newfoundland, obnoxious music in places too numerous to count and an air mattress that refused to stay inflated were all annoyances that piled on and had us questioning our resolve to “keep it simple.” Long-term tenting was no longer simple and no longer fun.

It was when we started to plan our North American travels that we began to rethink our options. Alaska, the Yukon, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, the Everglades – over the next few years we hope to visit as many national, state and provincial parks as possible.  After a bit of research, we discovered a common denominator. Cabins and motels in more remote areas are limited, mediocre, over-priced or all three. To be able to truly experience parks and wilderness meant we would have to bring our accommodation with us.

And the search began. Since we have no home (with driveway), it ruled out a motorhome of any size. Our truck goes where we go, and since it is too small to support a truck camper, we began looking at small travel trailers.  A tent trailer? An A-frame? No, on both counts – a bathroom, or at least, a toilet was a must-have. We roamed the RV lots and became more and more discouraged. Most RVs are made in Indiana, and there has been such an explosion of sales in recent years that quality is hit-and-miss. Searching online reviews was illuminating. One very popular brand even has a Facebook site devoted to “haters” – a litany of complaints about shoddy workmanship, poor warranties, leaks, mold, etc.

We almost gave up, and then we discovered Escape Trailers – lightweight fibreglass trailers made right here in British Columbia – in Chilliwack, about an hour east of Vancouver. Their business plan is simple – they build on demand, and potential buyers are able to inspect models from a list of Escape owners in their area. We saw two models on Vancouver Island – one in Qualicum Beach and one in Nanaimo, and both owners were effusive in their praise for everything about their units. The resale value on the Escape Trailers is close to full price and the demand is high. We were sold.

This is the unit we chose – the Escape 21-foot trailer.

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Our trailer has a double bed, 3-piece bathroom, U-shaped dinette, 2-burner stove, and tons of storage. As our trailer was being built, we received weekly updates and photos, making us feel like expectant parents receiving ultrasounds. These are two of the final photos before we took possession.

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We didn’t think hauling a trailer would be necessarily easy, but we were up for the challenge. We read the manual in advance, watched the video and arrived for our three-hour orientation feeling pretty chuffed about it all. That soon disappeared as the mountain of information began. “Drain black water first, then grey water.”  “Top up battery with distilled water.”  “Check surge protector monitor.”

Good grief. We had booked three nights at a nearby campground to practice driving,  hitching, unhitching and the dreaded backing up. Were we ready to bring this baby home and look after it properly? I have distinct memories of bringing our first son, Alex home from the hospital, and not having the foggiest idea of what to do with him. Was he bored just lying there looking at us? Was I allowed to leave the room?  Alex took care of that foolishness by doing what babies do and we followed his lead. Somehow our trailer experience was taking on that same sense of ineptitude.

Our campground hideaway gave us the time we needed to calm down and educate ourselves.  Many people walked by and stopped to talk – admiring the trailer, giving us advice, encouraging us to be patient with ourselves. These kind people did wonders for our state of mind and busted my snobbish notions about trailer parks.

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And finally, we were ready to leave – heading down the highway to the U.S. border crossing just 20 minutes away. The trailer just followed along behind us, and as we discovered we could drive at full speed and even change lanes we began to gain confidence.

Our border crossing was a breeze – no questions about our marijuana use or political affiliations, in fact not even a query about fruit and vegetables (I left two offending oranges behind on our picnic table).

We sailed down some backroads that we had nearly to ourselves and stopped to take photos. We were doing this! Our trip had begun!

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The bucolic autumn countryside disappeared once we hit Seattle on the I-5 and then crawled, crawled, crawled through that city’s perpetually nasty traffic. Our first stop for the night was Olympia, and we were just five minutes from our campsite when we stopped at a Fred Meyers (large American store), to pick up some groceries for dinner.

The parking lot was jammed with people and surprisingly small for such a large store. Too small, as it turned out, for our trailer. This was the very upsetting result – a broad scratch across the middle of our trailer, with our door jammed and  a chunk out of the fibreglass finish.

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Needless to say, we were in a state, but since the damage was limited to the body and did not affect drivability, we made our way over to a motel, and began to figure out our next plan of attack. Dinner. A bottle of wine. An uneasy sleep, and then up at 4:00 a.m. to begin the 6-hour drive back to Canada and back to the Escape factory.

They couldn’t have been more considerate – they assessed the damage, told us to return later that afternoon to pick up our partially-fixed trailer (new door), and we headed back to our campground to wait out the weekend. As I write this in the Chilliwack library, they are repairing the fibreglass damage, and by mid-afternoon we will have our trailer back, almost as good as new.

Tomorrow morning we head south again, and our adventure will truly begin. We’ll be gone until early May – with stops in California on the way down (including a few days in Las Vegas to meet up with friends), two months in Baja, and a slow drive back, from Texas to New Mexico to Utah to Arizona to California. We’ll visit as many parks as weather permits,  and we’re sure there’ll be a story or two along the way.

Thanks for continuing to follow us!