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.