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!