Day Forty: Fire on the Mountain, Run Boy Run: California (Yosemite National Park)

(Events of Friday, April 24th, blogged Tuesday April 28th)

The rain had stopped by the time we woke up, but it was still a bit gray and damp. The campground here crowds everyone in a bit closer than the ones in other National Parks, and I’m parked next to some clueless older men who have no concept of personal space, and even tried to tell me Annie was a bulldog (?!), but to the right I have only lovely views of pines and dogwoods in bloom.

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In trying to find a route to drive to a different area of the park, I stumbled upon the stables, and, since I enjoyed my ride into Bryce Canyon so much, thought it might be fun to repeat the experience here. Once again, the system needs some help. On the phone I needed to give my exact age and exact weight. Now I understand I likely need to be over 18 and under a certain poundage, but beyond that why the specifics of things many folks are uncomfortable providing? I’m not, but it still took me aback. Then I had to arrive an HOUR before the ride (in Bryce it was 15 minutes). They claimed it was for “orientation”, when in reality I spent 45 minutes of the time: waiting while they answered phone calls, waiting for the computer that processed credit cards to come back up, waiting for other people to fill out forms because you can’t fill them out while you’re waiting your turn, and actually having to get on a scale to confirm my weight. Then I spent 5 minutes watching a “safety” video that had the sound down to an almost unhearable level and basically said “You must wear the helmet that we require you to wear, and you might get hurt so don’t sue us, but you almost definitely won’t, so enjoy!” When I asked about the need for weight precision, I was told it was because the mules are so finely calibrated they are designed to carry a specific weight. Ten minutes later I was told to just go bond with the mules and just pick whichever one I wanted. Then, after I picked one and took selfies with it and everything, I was told there was a change and they needed that mule for someone else so I had to pick a new one. In the end, my original mule didn’t even have an assigned rider. All that aside, meet Samson!

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Oh, and I had said my one requirement was an easy mule that didn’t need a firm hand. Samson needed a firm hand. Samson likes to stop a lot and eat, and needed to be pulled firmly away. It was basically like having an Annie I could sit on.

But the ride itself was great and we passed through some tall pines and lovely scenery…

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Including bear dens! (Bears in absentia)

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We passed some nice viewpoints of Half Dome and Quarter Dome, but it was really too foggy to see them well.

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And then, the highlight of the excursion. This was a ride to the acclaimed Mirror Lake, featured on many of the postcards in the Visitor’s Center and otherwise unreachable except by steep uphill hike or shuttle. And here she is… MIRROR LAKE!

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Whiiiiichhh is now pretty much a meadow. When I questioned the guide about this I was told it was a “seasonal” lake. So I asked what season was the prime one to see it, knowing the answer would likely be spring, which indeed it was. So then we are finally told that really, due to drought, and the fact that it was manipulated somewhat in the years leading up to the conservation movement, it’s actually now becoming a permanent meadow. Which, yay nature and all of that, but I kind of felt mislead if the whole route of the trail was to lead us to this WOW moment that doesn’t exist any more. *grumble grumble*

But there was some beautiful scenery otherwise, and I don’t regret the ride, I just think they should maybe play down the Mirror Lake aspect a bit or give a disclaimer.

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Anyhoo, as the weather was still decent, I decided to drive up to Glacier Point, which is supposed to have the best view of the entire valley. Along the way I passed some deer.

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And I got to the top, and while the temps were significantly cooler, and the clouds hung low, it was truly a majestic view.

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These are some views down into the Valley where I was staying, I could even spot my campground!

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OK, so see the photo on  the left? And how those two rock outcroppings on the right kinda sorta look like boobs? Well this asshole in the green jacket in the other pic THINKS THATS HILARIOUS! I passed him at one overlook making those jokes, rolled my eyes and moved on. Then I drove to the next overlook, and there he was again, making the SAME jokes, in the face of stunning natural beauty which ne was totally ignoring. Ten minutes later I encounter him again, and he is doing the pose below where it looks like he is grabbing the rock boobs and making his friends take pictures. ENOUGH! Later, as I was leaving, he was once again in my path miming holding up his shirt and rubbing his nipples. I really wanted to push him off the edge.

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And speaking of pushing things over the edge. So, Glacier Point is basically the highest point in the park. And below it is an area of basically fancy tents on platforms called Camp Curry. And I had seen a couple of signs referencing a FIREFALL there with a picture that basically looked like a volcano erupting. So while I was at the gift shop up on the point I decided to ask the cashier what the heck that was. Well apparently, for like 100 years, they had this daily ritual where every night at 9PM, a park ranger would dump BURNING HOT COALS over the side of Glacier Point, and they would resemble a waterfall made of fire as they fell, and all the residents of Camp Curry (and loads of others) would gather in a meadow across the street to watch. What could go wrong?! It happened that there was another guy in the souvenir shop who had been there and seen it and said it really was as awesome as it sounded. I am flabbergasted that as highly regulated as the National Parks are today that this was an officially sanctioned activity. And I would give almost anything to have seen it. Apparently it was stopped in the late 1960s as the parks moved away from anything not strictly a “natural” phenomena. We make do with this dramatic recreation.


Only YOU can prevent forest fires (BY NOT DUMPING FIRE OFF THE SIDE OF A MOUNTAIN!)

And I make do with my properly controlled fire pit fire as the night grows colder and a change seems to be in the air…

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Day Thirty Nine: I’ll Buy You Tall Tall Trees and All The Waters in the Seas: California (Nelder Grove, Yosemite)

(Events of Thursday, April 23rd, blogged Monday April 27th)

The sun rises over a lonely campervannie deep in the woods…

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And life bursts out!! WE’RE ALIVE!! WE’RE ALIVE!!! We were troubled nowt by marauding axe murderers and their trained bears (subtle John Irving shout out). Oh, and I totally made Annie lick up the spilled chowder as punishment/breakfast. She does a much more thorough cleaning job than I do!

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Given this fortuitous turn of events, although I was still more than a little uneasy (and increasingly filthy, this was now Day Two without a shower), I decided to take a hike through the aptly named Grove of Giants-where all the best Giant Sequoias can be found (and one of the few trails not located down an untraversable road). It was gorgeous and serene and felt like we were in some ancient lost world.

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Of course Annie preferred the  insides of the trees to the outsides . . .

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As you can see, I am NOT kidding when I say these trees were REALLY REALLY big!! The Giant Sequoias are literally the largest living things on earth-the ones in this grove were approximately 270 feet tall and have a circumference of roughly 70 feet. I don’t know if you can spot Annie in the foreground of that middle photo, but she is dwarfed by the blackened, twisted, lightning scarred trunk. The sequoias are mere babies though compared to that Bristlecone Pine I told you about back in Bryce Canyon. While the oldest of the trees in this grove is probably only 2,000 years old, the Bristlecones are closer to 4,500. Insanity!

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We spent a good hour or so frolicking through the forest and never saw hide nor hair of predators of any sort. Perhaps we got lucky and the bear ate the axe murderer. It’s been known to happen.

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Not wanting to push our luck any further, we headed a few short miles down the road to the much more well known (and relatively densely populated) Yosemite National Park. Full disclosure: Despite hearing rumors of its grandiosity, I hadn’t been super stoked for Yosemite. I had even considered scratching it from the list to stay a little longer on the coast. BIG MISTAKE!! Yosemite literally takes your breath away.

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Every corner you turn provides some incomprehensibly grand new vista-like this dude here- El Capitan!  Now THAT is one badass dude.

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And then there are the waterfalls (at least at this time of year). This one, which was a bit too crowded to get a really good photo of, is Bridalveil Fall. The native Ahwahneechee tribe that originally populated this area believed Bridaveil was home to a vengeful spirit named Pohono who guarded the entrance to the valley, and that those departing it dare not look directly into the waters lest they risk being cursed. Intriguingly, they also believed that if you closed your eyes and inhaled the mist, you would increase your chances for marriage. Somebody’s been inhaling some SERIOUS mist if they believe that.

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Later we wandered past placid streams, and towering pines, and yet more sheer granite rock faces. All while soaking in a glorious sunshiney blue sky day!

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As a bonus, despite what I had read, there were a lot more (short) trails I could take Annie on than in many of the previous parks we had visited.

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Another of the big name rock formations here in Yosemite is Half Dome. After I took this picture, I realized Ol Halffy has basically the same profile Annie does shen she is doing BARKBARK. Scary!

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Yet to be seen: a rock replica of Annie in her default position of bottom in the air and head in a hole sniffing out critters.(While destroying more federally protected land.)

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Probably my favorite area was Upper and Lower Falls. This spot right here is where John Muir, who was the first white man to really promote this area and advocate for its conservation, lived in a little sugar pine cabin for three years. I can’t even describe to you how intoxicating it was and how clean and fresh the air smelled, and how it’s probably the only non-coastal spot I would want to have lived. There is a quote from Muir on the plaque below which reads: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees, the winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” Which pretty much sums up my experiences on this journey..

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A short walk through some tall pines led us to the base of the Lower Falls. Together with Upper Falls, they comprise North America’s tallest waterfall. These rushing waters were dubbed Cholock by the native Ahwahneechee and the plunge pool at the bottom was rumored to be inhabited by devious witches called the Poloti!

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The eagle eyed may notice ominous dark clouds starting to roll in. While we were at the Upper Falls, admiring the view, there came a crashingly loud rumble, and the heavens opened up, and we were soaked before we made it back to the car.

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This seemed like a perfect time to take a much needed shower and catch up on some laundry. So let me just say that while I found the natural beauty of Yosemite among my top experiences this trip, the infrastructure of the park was definitely on the low end. It’s the only National Park I’ve visited that charges for WiFi and the spots that have it are very limited and can only be accessed on foot. Also, the shower was FIVE DOLLARS (when the going rate elsewhere is $2) which the teenage boy running the joint tried to justify to me by saying they give you (crappy) towels and shampoo and soap. Well A.) I have all that already, and B.) Grand Canyon gives you that as well. I guess the other “upside” is that there was no time limit on the shower (although I was surprised to find that I never had a problem with the 8-10 minute cut off at other places), but it took so long for the water to be even marginally warm I honestly thought it was broken and was going to get dressed and move to another stall. The rest of the time it alternated between scalding and freezing, and the shower head was fixed in place so you couldn’t move out of the stream. And also… ONE sink in a bathroom with three toilets and eight shower stalls?? Hello!! Every time someone came in to pee I had to stop brushing my teeth so they could wash their hands. Even a mirror and shelf off to the side would have helped. Very disappointing.

Happy to be clean, and glad to be out of the Witches Curse Shower, we headed back to the campsite (photo taken in dryer times) where we huddled inside Marigold snacking on leftover quinoa.

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Day Thirty Eight: Watchin the Sun Set in Monterey, Girl I Swear Just the Other Day : California (Monterey, Nelder Grove)

(Events of Wednesday, April 22nd, blogged Sunday, April 26th)

The day broke gray and foggy and a tiny bit drizzly. The perfect weather for hanging out in a seaside town, wandering the wharves and warming up with a steaming bowl of clam chowder. So Annie and I broke camp and headed over to check out Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. It was early, so it was fairly deserted, which added to the desolate (but in a good way!) feel of the morning.

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Annie was in heaven with all the fishy smells, and even contemplated a life on the sea. (Nah-too much work.)

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I was casually leaning on a railing, staring out at the boats that likely wouldn’t be going out on sightseeing tours anytime soon, and wondering where to head next, when what to my wondering eyes should appears, but an adorable otter with cute little ears!

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He was all the way on the other side of a channel from me, floating all by his lonesome, and then suddenly, he started heading my way, spinning and diving and rubbing his belly and scratching his ears all the while. It was amazing and beyond adorable, and I was mesmerized. He swam up really close and then slipped under the dock I was standing on and out of my life forever. Trip. Made.

After wandering to the very end of the wharf, I spotted this line of rocks off in the distance with what appeared to be seals lounging about on them. I asked in a gift shop, and was told it “couldn’t be accessed”. I followed up by enquiring the best spot to see otters. “Oh you probably won’t have any luck there, they’re pretty hard to come by.”

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So seeing as I was already ahead of the curve, Annie and I set off on a handy bike/pedestrian path that hugged the shoreline and led us to…

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Looks promising already! While we technically “couldn’t access” the rocks that did indeed boast a bevy of sea lions and a clamor of cormorants, we could get pretty darn close, and along the way saw plenty of Sea Lions (these guys are brown and do BARKBARK and have ear flaps (the better to hear you with), and big flippers ( the better to walk on land with).

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I was also excited to see Harbor seals, which have tiny little flippers so they have to wriggle around on their bellies a lot, and no ears with which to hear my squees!

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Eventually we had to stop being seally and get on with the business at hand. Which for now, meant taking a short drive to check out Cannery Row, immortalized by John Steinbeck in the novel of the same name.

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Alas, what I thought might be a gritty historical district has since been bastardized with 1001 souvenir shops, boutiques, chain stores, chi chi restaurants, and a whole bunch of boring. One of the biggest disappointments of the trip (luckily it hadn’t been a huge point of interest for me). These were about the only photos I could get that had any sort of character to them. On the up side, I did get an incredibly tasty large bowl of clam chowder that I ate half of while exploring the area, and planned to save the rest for dinner that evening, until Annie did a sneak attack on it WHILE I WAS IN A PET STORE BUYING DOG FOOD and ate some and spilled the rest all over the passenger door.

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As has happened to me frequently on this trip, I ended up parking WAY further away than I needed to and paying more than I could have for the privilege. But I eventually made my way back to Marigold, and was looking for something else to erase the bad taste from Cannery Row. I had read of a street linking Monterey, Pebble Beach, and Carmel called Seventeen Mile Drive (for obvious reasons), which is supposed to be one of the most scenic drives in America. So even though it was going to cost me ten dollars for the privilege, I decided to check it out. OK, so, I get to the booth where you have to pay the entry fee, and it’s in a really fancy shmancy neighborhood, and the toll dude has a fancy uniform with like a HAT and everything, and then he tells me I have to pay cash for the fee, which I was out of at the moment because all the ATMS around here charge insane surcharges, and then I remembered I had my back up money in my lock box which was chained under the passenger seat of Marigold (lock box courtesy of Allyson). So, (and keep in mind I’ve not showered today AND I’m driving a crazy hippie van) I say to they guy (I have some money in a secret stash, can I pull over to try and dig it out?) He gives me a funny look, but waves me to the curb. So, I’m trying to fish out the box, unlock the cord, and get it open. Now I’ve also got some other things in there, and one of them is a REALLY LOUD panic alarm thingamabob (I have two and the other one is on my key ring). so OF COURSE I set it off and it’s all BAAANNHHH BAAAAANNHH BANNNHHHH, and this one works differently than the one on my key ring in that it is activated by pulling a pin out (like a grenade) and you have to reinsert the pin to hush it up. The one on my keychain works via buttons, so I’m looking for buttons and not finding them, and then I remember it’s the pin but there are multiple holes, and OF COURSE all this commotion sets off BARKBARKBARKBARKBARK  and it’s a giant fustercluck which I feel is just screaming to the world “THIS WOMAN IS UP TO NO GOOD AND SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED NEAR YOUR VALUABLES!”  But finally it all works out and they let me in. And thank goodness, because this drive is worth every penny and then some. Amazing amazing views.

We started out at a windswept beach that smelled so good I spent whole minutes with my eyes shut just breathing it in.

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And it had a nice little boardwalk we could stroll along and meet some of the locals. Annie and the gull had quite a stare down.

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And then there were rocks that caused the waves to CRASH BANG BOOM in every direction!

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And rocks that had more cool critters on them.

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And some spots that were just so BEYOND I got my pirate face on.

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Not to mention ridiculous mansions, pristine golf courses, and then, the piece de la resistance, The LONE CYPRESS! This bad boy is none other than the official symbol for the Pebble Beach, and is shown on TV pretty much anytime a golf match from here is broadcast, it is possibly the most photographed tree in North America (this is a fact, not just my usual hyperbole). The city even claims it has trademarked the tree’s image. It’s about 250 years old, but is so important it’s been propped up by cables for the last 65.

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But, like all good things, our seventeen miles in heaven had to come to an end, and with it we had to say a tearful farewell to the coast (for now) and start heading eastward into the mountains.

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Observation from the road: if there is any bit of random open space anywhere in this country, someone is going to put a cow on it.

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Observation from the road number two: At some point Annie decided she could see better from my lap.

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Observation from the road number three: I pledge allegiance, to Donut Nation… and to the delectables, served round the clock…

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Observation from the road number four: some of these trees look ready to do the dance of the seven veils.

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So here’s where things get a bit hairy. When planning the trip initially, I had discovered this amazing looking spot called Nelder Grove where you could see Giant Sequoias and hike around them with your dog and even camp with “none of the crowds of Yellowstone.” So this was my destination for the evening. And it involved a really windy narrow road going up up up a mountain. And then the last mile was a windy windy rocky bumpy dirt road. And that’s just to get to the entrance. You go another mile down it to get to a fork with a sign for the campground. Only it’s a little ambiguous which way the campground is, so I pick the left fork, and about 100 yards down there’s a locked gate across the road. So I (stupidly) think “the campground must be to the right.” And I go 100 yards down that way only for the dirt road to become completely impassable with really deep ruts. And then I do a Google and realize the campground doesn’t open for another few weeks and I am THE ONLY PERSON FOR MILES AND MILES.

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And it’s beautiful and I should be thrilled, but my mind starts racing with thoughts of axe murderers and hungry bears, and it’s getting late, and the thought of driving back down the challenging road in the dark seems equally dangerous and I’m not sure where I would go anyway, so I do a quick SheWee, lock all the doors and windows, assemble my pocket knife, panic alarm, and wasp spray by my pillow and proceed to lie awake thinking of the clam chowder leaking out of the side door and sending a signal to every bear in a ten mile radius. And whatever you do, DONT google “how to fend off a bear who attacks your car,” because all you will get is SIXTEEN YOUTUBE VIDOES OF BEARS ATTACKING CARS! (Which they do to get at food you have stored in there-I don’t BLAME the bears, I just don’t want to deal with one.) It was a very long, very tense night… (to be continued)


Interlude: You’ve Got Questions? I’ve Got Answers

I am currently in San Francisco and too exhausted to deal with downloading the photos to blog about Monterey, so I thought now was as good a time as any to tackle some of the excellent questions I received.

1.) Allyson and Louise both asked about my SheWee. At least one of them was serious. So the SheWee isn’t so much something one pees in TO, but rather something one pees THROUGH. It’s sort of like having a… an .. appendage. So it can handle as much output as I need. And it is AWESOME! Very easy to use and has come in handy: on the side of the road miles and miles from a rest stop, outside the campervannie when it’s been to cold to want to venture further, and when there were no bathrooms in the closed campground and I just needed to pee quick before I got eaten by a bear. It’s compact and portable and I don’t know how I ever lived without one before.


2.) Susan and both asked about the selfie stick. It is a little bit awkward using it in public, but honestly I feel almost as goofy taking “normal” selfies, I can just execute them a little more quickly. The one I have is operated via Bluetooth which is activated by a little button I have attached to my keyring. Juggling the stick and the keys and often Annie  and trying to line up a good picture angle can be a challenge. I’ve seen others that you plug in to a USB port to charge which eliminates the little button, that might be easier. I have heard a few comments (“Mom-that lady had a selfie stick!”) and gotten a few stares, and the only other people I really see using them are Japanese tourists. But I also see them for sale in a lot of the souvenir stores, so maybe they are catching on? Bottom line: I feel a little self conscious, but I’m pleased with the results, and while I probably wouldn’t use it in the middle of a city, at a tourist attraction where everyone is doing goofy stuff and no one is really paying attention, I think it’s a nifty tool, especially for the solo traveler. The one other issue I have is it takes a bit of set up and doesn’t fit easily in a pocket like my phone, so I don’t always reach for it if it’s a quick in and out photo op.

3.) On a related note, both Mia and Andrew have asked what I am using to take my pictures. Just my iPhone 6. Most of them I hit with the magic wand in the edit function, a few I have brightened up, and the Antelope Canyon ones were on the Chrome setting, but other than that no fancy manipulation. Just a great camera in the phone and the natural beauty of the country.

4.) Susan also asked what audio books I’ve listened to. I will start by saying-surprisingly fewer than I expected. Much of the time when driving I’m just taking it all in, observing all the different landscapes and architecture, and ways of life. Orr making voice notes on my phone for the blog. Or figuring out where to go next and what to do and maybe where to stay. Honestly, my brain is so overloaded most of the time I can’t handle any additional stimuli. That being said, I have listened to: Closing Time by Joe Queenan- a bitingly funny and no punches pulled memoir about growing up with an alcoholic and abusive father (not as depressing as that makes it sound-he’s a very gifted writer.) One Plus One by Jo Myers-a cute comic love story about two people from vastly different worlds who are stuck in a car together for 5 days-set in England. And I’ve just started The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern- it’s about mysterious rival magicians in Victorian London. These are all CDs I checked out of the library. I tried listening to some on my phone, but for some reason the GPS lady is at an entirely different volume, and she was always interrupting to say TURN LEFT IN 1000 FEET! at crucial moments.

5.) Various questions regarding life in Marigold: Can I sleep comfortably in her? Yes, but then I’ve always been able to sleep anywhere. But I snuggle in to my sleeping bag cocoon, Annie curls up beside me, I brought my pillow from home, and I’m quite comfy. Did I expect it to be that cold at night? I was ready for cold, but not freezing temperatures, so while I have been OK if I wear a hat and lots of layers, it’s not ideal. No, it does not appear the fridge will ever work. And yes, I do plan to ask for compensation for the food I had to throw out and all the ice I’m buying for my cooler, and then inconvenience. As far as repairs and maintenance: they told me I didn’t need to worry about routine maintenance, but I’ve had the oil checked and topped off once just to be safe. They gave me an 800 number to call for roadside assistance, and my understanding is that as long as it’s not something that was my fault (like leaving the lights on so the battery dies), they will pay for it.

6.) Food questions: I believe I have had two Chipotle burrito bowls and roughly 4-5 separate taco related meals. I probably only eat at restaurants about 25% of the time, it’s just more interesting to blog about than making myself a sandwich. When I’ve been in the parks I’m almost exclusively eating from the “fridge”. I don’t think I’ve ever paid for breakfast-it’s either been free at a hotel or homemade.  And Mia, thank you for saying I look to be losing weight. If it’s true, I think it’s A.) I’m getting more exercise, B.) I’m not actually eating as many big meals as it appears, and C.) 587 selfies later I’ve learned the most flattering angles to use 😉

7.) Both Marek and Claire (and Trish on FB) wanted to get Annie’s take on this whole madcap adventure. I think overall she is enjoying it. She never complains when we have the long driving days, she is always eager to get out and explore and LOVES the new smells and longer hikes, and she curls up close to me and sleeps peacefully through the night wherever we are. She does BARKBARK every time I leave her alone be it in Marigold or a hotel room, but this stops after about 30-40 seconds and then she just goes back to sleep. I don’t know if it’s from anxiety that I’ll leave her or FOMO (fear of missing out). One of my biggest disappointments is that she doesn’t seem to be able to relax when we’re just hanging out in the campground. I may get 10-15 minutes of quiet, but then the barking starts and I have to devote most of my energy to keeping her quiet. She also doesn’t like fire, so if I’m trying to start one, or even just lighting the campo stove, that sets her off.

8.) Yes, I miss everyone, even Norma, and yes, I will (most likely) be coming home 🙂

9.) Sarah asked if I initially had any hesitations about taking a two month break from the world, and if I now wish I could extend my trip. I remember thinking initially that two months was not nearly enough time to see everything I wanted to see, but a REALLY long time to be living out of a van. I wondered if I would get sick of the driving in a week or two, or lonely, or overwhelmed. Most of my concerns were more about handling this new lifestyle than what I was leaving behind though. And yes, now that I am, maybe 2/3 through I feel the end creeping up and it makes me sad and I daydream about stretching to three months or more. This has sort of become the new normal for me…

10.) Which ties into a question from Susan about making up time I’ve lost and staying out longer. Alas, I have Allyson’s island wedding to be a bridesmaid in at the end of May, so no chance of staying out any longer even if the rental place would let me. I’ve already skipped a few planned stops on my route: mainly the Petrified Forest and Great Sand Dunes National Park. I’m also going to have to cut the three nights I planned to spend in and around Vancouver. In hindsight, while I just barely planned enough time to see and do the things I wanted I should have added more time to just rest, or handle things like tracking down blown fuses, etc… I probably needed another ten days or so.

11.) Jen asked what the best and worst things about traveling aloneish are and if I ever feel like Cheryl Strayed. In my mind I am Cheryl Strayed, and she is definitely a huge inspiration for this trip and life in general (everyone here should read Wild, even if you saw the movie, and also Tiny Beautiful Things, and follow her on FaceBook). In reality, I am to her as a sidewalk crack is to the Grand Canyon. What she did was infinitely harder physically, mentally, and emotionally. But this is a start in that direction. I also don’t have as much time or mental energy for soul searching as she did and as I thought I would. The best thing about traveling alone is getting to make all the decisions. Where we go, when we go, for how long we go, when we stop, when and what we eat. Obviously I have to take Annie into consideration, but overall it’s awesome to have that freedom. The worst thing about traveling alone is that I have to do all the work. I can’t say “you do the laundry while I clean out the van,” or “you walk the dog while I make dinner.” Driving, navigating, dog wrangling, cooking, cleaning, decision making, blogging, bill paying, correspondence… it’s all me. Never a break. And, as much as I love having Annie with me, I have to think about her CONSTANTLY.

12.) Marek asked what I am most looking forward to on my way back to Virginia. If you mean as far as locales to see: Mount Rushmore, the badlands of South Dakota, and DeSMet South Dakota where Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up. Susan queried what comforts from home I miss the most. Being able to go to the bathroom first thing in the morning without it being a huge ordeal of getting dressed, putting on shoes and a coat, leashing Annie, finding a poop bag (not for me), walking somewhere, tying Annie to the purse hanger….Also ice in my soda, occasionally being a passenger, and just chilling on my couch.

13.) Lowlight: Believe it or not, that night in Texas when I couldn’t find a place to stay. It was so early on in the trip, my first real “crisis,” and I wasn’t as confident as I am now. I was really scared. You may be surprised I didn’t say Annie’s Great Escape. I’ll let you in on a little secret- the prospect of losing Annie, in any sense of the word, is so beyond my ability to deal with it that my brain won’t go there. Yes, I panicked and worried, but it was more in the vein of “How long will it be before I get her back, and I hope she doesn’t get hurt in the meantime.” Highlights are very difficult to choose, but include: watching a show at Gruene Hall in Texas, horse riding into Bryce Canyon, watching the sunset at my campground in Big Sur.

14.) Chimp wondered if the prospect of returning to real life seemed dull. Not yet. Perhaps because what that will be is undefined right now. First I have a week on a tropical island, and then I need to figure out what my next job will be and find it. So lots to keep me on my toes there. But I would like to find a way to incorporate more long journeys like this into my reality. Speaking of boredom, Susan wondered if I get bored on the trip. Hardly ever. I think because my brain is always going and I have SO much new information coming in constantly and it’s sensory overload 24/7 and every place I go is different and new that there’s no room for boredom. Sometimes, on long stretches of highway that don’t change for hours and hours I do a bit-and then I pop in an audio book.

15.) Andrea asked what was most and least as I was expecting. Tough one! I will say the Peabody Ducks were just as cool and just as big a production as I had hoped, and the Pacific Coast is as beautiful and breathtaking as I had hoped. Memphis was a lot more run down and deserted than I had expected, and it pains me to admit, but I wasn’t really expecting much from Yosemite because we have forests and rivers and stuff at home, but it BLEW ME AWAY! I had NO idea it was going to be that amazingly gorgeous. And that was before the snow! It’s also been overall chillier than I was expecting on the southern route.

16.) Mia wonders where I can most envision myself living. Where I would most want to live would be Big Sur/Monterey, but, aside from being way too far from friends and family, it’s so different from what I’m used to, I don’t know if I could adapt.

17. ) And Lisa comes up with the real tough ones-what have I learned about myself and what has surprised me. What has surprised me is my (increasing) ability to deal with change/uncertainty/plans being altered. I knew going into the journey that I probably would end up having to make alterations to my schedule, either due to time restrictions or unexpected detours. And I was really worried about how I would deal with having to let some things go. And every day brings new uncertainties as to where we will stay and what we will be able to do, and for the most part I am rolling with it. I’ve learned that I’m braver and more capable than I thought I was, confirmed that I prefer to be out in nature than in big cities, and realized that I am even more independent than I thought I was.

This has all been very stream of consciousness, so hopefully I didn’t miss anything and the answers made a reasonable amount of sense. This was fun-more questions always welcome!

Day Thirty Seven: A Series of Interesting Events : California (Big Sur, Carmel)

(Events of Tuesday, April 21st, blogged Friday, April 24th)

The morning was foggy and gray, but that seemed to fit rather perfectly with the crashing surf and craggy rocks. So Annie and I made one last tour around the campsite beach, had a hot breakfast, and got an early start on our explorings, which was perfect as we basically has the highway and the overlooks to ourselves. Heaven.

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We drove over the iconic Bixby Bridge, one of the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world, and kind of a symbol of the Big Sur coastal highway.

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A little further on we pulled in to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This is where I had originally intended to camp the night before. Lucky thing I didn’t press on with those plans, as all the camping signs had big red X marks on them. OK, so. The park had a sign that there was a $10 entry fee for day use. Now all I planned to do was take a quick, 45 minute hike down one trail with Annie. That hardly seemed worth ten smackers. And there wasn’t a ranger on duty, it was self-pay. So I decided to be a little bad ass (or criminal, take your pick) and ignore the fee station.

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And then, when I started toward the trails with Annie, I saw that they were all marked “No Dogs”. And I remembered the woman at the campsite last night telling me that it was a California State Park rule not to allow dogs on trails. Which I found ridiculous as every other state park I have been in welcomed dogs. And the reasons listed were “dog waste unpleasant for other visitors” (MAKE PEOPLE PICK IT UP!) and “dog smells will drive away wildlife” (which, I get, but I’m pretty sure all the people on the trail do the same thing. Plus I can have Annie stinking up the parking lot a few feet away. Plus I’m basically covered in her odor most of the time.) So, seeing as I already knew the ranger wasn’t around, we decide to take this outlaw thing a bit further. Now this next bit may be TMI, but Annie usually only poops twice a day, first thing in the morning and in the evening. Maybe an hour and a half ago this task had been executed and in no small manner. So I didn’t think I needed to scrounge up a poop bag. You can guess what happens next. Fifteen minutes into the walk, not far from the parking lot and ranger station, Annie heeds the call of nature. Perhaps making a statement to the California State Park System. Luckily it was in some tall grass, so we move on. We go a bit further, and come to a T intersection. With multiple, large, hard to deny seeing NO DOGS signs. At that point my courage runs out and I take her back to the car. And not much further than that intersection, come across perhaps the most beautiful views I’ve seen yet. (Can you see the waterfall?)

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Cool fact: that sandy beach was not originally there, it was the result of a landslide maybe 60 years ago. This area is McWay Cove, and at the top of a cove was once a house built by a New York City heiress, Helen Brown. When her husband passed away, she deeded the property to the state and asked them to name it after her bestie Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a woman who had grown up on the property. For some reason, the state couldn’t adhere to the terms of her will because the couldn’t find a public use for the house, so they tore it down. Below is the foundation which remains and the view from what was the bedroom.

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A little past eleven, we decided to stop for lunch at the Cafe Kevah at Nepenthe- an oceanside restaurant recommended to us by Annie’s dear friend Olive, a black lab who lives in England. As you do. The outdoor patio had a gorgeous view of the mountains and the ocean even if it was a bit foggy and consequently a bit nippy. Shockingly, and rather perplexingly, they don’t allow dogs. At an outdoor restaurant. Ten miles away from the most dog friendly city in America. Okay then.

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So I had perhaps the best Chai tea of my life, a delectable sliver of blueberry cake and a grilled cheese sandwich. There was this cool blue bird who kept flying around and perching on chairs and staring at me. Now sometimes, when I see a solo bird like this, and it seems to be acknowledging me, I think of it as sort of being my mom communicating with me or checking in. Silly, I know. But this bird was NOT shy!

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A few minutes later, he got even bolder, and came over and started eating my cake crumbs. (Now I KNEW it was Mom!) All while giving me the eye. And kind of a stern eye. Moments after this picture was snapped, while I was fiddling with my phone, he stalked over and took a bit of my sandwich! WHICH WAS RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME AND I WAS STILL EATING! So apparently, it was channeling Annie as well!

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Despite the lack of dog service, the restaurant was great and it had a cool little shop downstairs as well. So it was back on the road, and before too long we were pulling in to Carmel, the aforementioned most dog-friendly town in America. I knew this because I had studied up before my visit, but I also learned it from Jules. Who’s Jules? Jules is the old guy who stopped me moments after I got out of my car, asked me where I was from, when I said Virginia, muttered “Richmond, Virginia Beach, no you can’t be from the south.” When I confirmed I was from the Northern end of the state he then called out: “AREA CODE 703!” Um… yes? He then asked me to name any town in the country and he would tell me the area code. This went on for some time. Jules used to (still may?) sell balloons to McDonalds franchises and so knows the area code to almost everywhere. Jules also has a plan to cure cancer AND save the economy all using balloons that he calls “A Balloon-A-Thon is a Love-A-Thon for a Job-A-Thon.” And “It has to make S-E-N-S-E before it can make C-E-N-T-S.” Jules, who had a cute little Pomeranian named Pom Pom that he adopted on Psalm Sunday also had LOADS of tips on where to take Annie. And gave me a mini shoulder massage (NO TONI I DON’T KNOW IF HE’S SINGLE BUT HE LIVES IN PEBBLE BEACH SO I SUSPECT HE’S RICH! ALSO NUTTY AS A FRUITCAKE!) Finally we were able to extricate ourselves from Jules and tour the town.

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We saw the Fountain of Woof in Carmel Plaza.

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We took a mile and a half stroll along Scenic Road, which reminded me a lot of Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach as that’s where all the ritzy houses are and great views of the ocean. I don’t have any ritzy house photos, but below is a cypress tree which is sort of the official tree of Carmel.

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By five we were getting a little rumbly in our tumblies, so I let Annie pick the dinner venue as she got shut out at lunch.


She chose Forge in the Forest, and I can’t say as I blame her. Cozy outdoor fireplace, her own menu… (she got the Quarter Hounder)…

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They even rolled out the red towel for her! Yes, this will do just fine.

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Sated and exhausted we drove five miles down the road to Monterey where the have a cool park, Veteran’s Memorial Park, right in the heart of the town, that allows camping. And we parked right next to another “campervannie”!

Keep those Qs coming folks- As to arrive shortly!

Day Thirty Six: Out On The Old Coast Highway: California (Solvang, Morro Bay, Big Sur)

(Events of Monday August 20th, posted Thursday August 23rd)

Sooo, the room I got at the Wine Valley Inn was not so hot. It was right on the parking lot and underneath the outdoor stairwell that accessed the parking lot. So, pretty noisy and had tom keep the blinds down all the time. And the maids came into my room five minutes before check out while I was indisposed. Awkward.

So after a little rhetorical “Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Awesomest of Them All,” we were ready to head out.


I decided to take another quick stroll around Solvang and pick up some pastry goodies from the oldest bakery in town. I also stopped in to possibly the only dog store that had NOTHING of interest for me.

And then it was time to be on the road again-for s stretch of driving I was really looking forward to-Route One, the Pacific Coast Highway, and one of the most breathtaking stretches of highway in the country.

Things got off to an interesting start when I spotted a dude hang gliding directly across the highway. If that was a lady, she is for sure the BAWOTD!

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And pretty soon the views turned into things like this…

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After a bit, we pulled in to Morro Bay a sort of run down little seaside town full of thrift shops and cheap souvenir stores.

The focal point of Morro Bay is the aptly named Morro Bay Rock, which is A) really cool looking, and B) a nesting place for lots of birds, including peregrine falcons. A lovely birder gentleman let me peek through his scope which was trained on a handsome male (falcon).

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One question: How big of an asshole do you have to be to vandalize a cactus?

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Annie and I strolled the neighboring beach for a bit, but it was gray and quiet and we were growing hungry, so I stopped in to a little French eatery for a soup and salad, and was delighted to see these fanciful bread creations adorning the walls.

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We drive a bit longer, and then, out of the blue, with no warning of the Awesome Bomb that’s about to be dropped in my lap, I see a sign for “Elephant Seal Viewing Point”. Ok, now I have my hopes waaay down, and I am fully prepared for this to be another bust like the “Bighorn Sheep Viewing Station” in Colorado, but what to my wondering eyes do appear???

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ELEPHANT SEALS!! Scads of them! Big ones! Little Ones! Fat Ones! Tiny Ones! They frolic in the surf, they BARKBARK at each other, they flip sand, they snuggle, THEY ARE ADORABLE!!

I finally manage to pull myself away from the insane amount of cuteness (mainly because it was chilly and windy) and we continue our drive through paradise…

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And finally we hit the big time…

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I decide to look for a camp a little earlier than usual as I’m concerned about availability, and I’m also hoping to have a little down time to actually enjoy it. I had a campsite in mind for the evening, but it’s another 30 miles down the road, and I don’t want to have to double back if it’s full. So Annie and I pull into the tiny but perfect LimeKiln State Park and I rustle up some healthy grub.

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The campsite is a little rough around the edges, but it does have its own private beach where I find the perfect size rock to prop against and settle in to watch the sun go down.

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I had a few more photos of Solvang and Morro Bay, but they don’t seem to want to load and I’m too far behind to waste anymore time on them.

Day Thirty Five: Driving Down the 101 California Here We Come : California (Santa Barbara, Solvang)

(Events of Sunday, April 19th blogged Wednesday, April 22nd)

Did I forget to mention that the whole time I was sitting on the beach reading and waiting for Mary (and later hanging out with her) I neglected to put even a drop of sunscreen on? Well, it’s true. I’m terrible with sunscreen, and I think I thought because I’ve gotten a nice base layer from not wearing it in the cold desert then I’d be fine. I go through this every summer, I’m 45 and I still just refuse to learn. Anyhoodle-what this means is my knees and calves were pretty fried (and I was also exhausted by the end of the day yesterday), so I was moving slowly and creakily, and the prospect of any significant exercise was out.

I would also like to point out, that when I went to walk my dog around this fine quality lodging establishment Mary had secured for us, I MAY have inadvertently stumbled upon a drug deal in progress. What I thought were the housekeeping folks preparing to enter a room (at 7:30AM??) looked a lot more dubious when the plumber’s crack of one drew my eye to an array of pills spread out on the sidewalk.

Luckily, the one place I wanted to check out only involved an easy drive to access… up a really steep, really narrow road with no room for passing, and only the tiniest sliver of space to “park” your car once you’d reached it. But these were Mary’s problems. I was cool as a cucumber in the passenger seat for a change.

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I had read about this cave on one of my dog-friendly sites, and although it was blink and you’d miss it super tiny, and you have to peer in at them through a gate, the paintings that are there are brilliantly colored and fascinatingly bizarre. They are believed to have been painted by priests attempting to influence supernatural beings to assist them and were created in different time periods, with new designs overlapping previous depictions. Scientists have used pigment analysis to date some of the images to the 1600s.

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The area around the cave had some fun nooks and crannies and steep rocky trails perfect for the more able-bodied of our party to explore.

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And, much to my delight, there was even a guest book to sign!

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After that excitement, and once we’d survived the harrowing turn around and drive back down Death Road, we decided to go in search of a light hiking spot I’d heard of called Knapp’s Castle Trail. So, OK, this trail is all but impossible to locate, it’s not marked at all, and in attempting to find it we nearly wandered out onto a shooting range and a spot where some folks were having archery practice! We did see some magnificent views though. The pictures don’t capture it, but we were literally above the clouds.

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And FINALLY, after Mary took the drastic step of talking to some other people, FINALLY we found it!

It’s about a half-mile walk to the ruins of an old mansion built by George Knapp, the founder of Union Carbide in 1916. The property was sold in 1940, and a world-famous opera singer moved in. Only five weeks later the whole thing was destroyed by a forest fire and never rebuilt. Now it’s just some cool old stone structures with lots of fun spots to play around in.

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There was also a cool amphitheater type thing, but according to Wikipedia that was built by the current owner around 2011 before he was forced to stop for lack of proper permits.

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By this point, we were famished. A little internet sleuthing turned up the Summerland Beach Cafe, which seemed like it catered to our sort of clientele.

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Indeed, everyone was pleased with their service.

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Then it was time to bid an all too soon farewell to Mary, how I wish she could have come with us through the rest of California. Still moving a little slowly, Annie and I decided to take a tip from Seth and head just a little bit north to the Danish town of Solvang.

Solvang was founded by Dutch immigrants, but looked just like every other California Cowboy town until the 1950s-after a magazine article came out trumpeting it as THE place to go to experience Old World Culture, the local tourism department decided they better overhaul the whole architectural feel from Spanish conquistador and California Craftsman to more of a Hans Christian Anderson vibe, with full on windmills and everything.

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Speaking of Hans, The Little Mermaid is the town logo, and appears on everything, right down to the fire engines. Fun HCA fact: He also wrote The Snow Queen, which later evolved into Frozen, and if you say the names of some of the main characters really quick: Hans, Kristoff, Anna, Sven-it sounds like his name! I learned this bit of trivia on the Horse Drawn Streetcar Ride that Annie and I took… as the only passengers. Which sounded great at first, until I realized the tour ladies ENTIRE shpiel would be narrated directly to us and I would have to react to EVERYTHING rather than just staring out the window and taking it in. And that I would have to endure all of her awkward laughter and nervous mannerisms with no buffer. I couldn’t get off of there fast enough.

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Afterwards we strolled around the town a bit on our own, and Annie was welcomed kindly at several of the stores. I wouldn’t let her go in the tiara shop though…

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There were lots of cool Danish touches all around, especially if you looked up. Many of the rooftops have wooden storks nesting on them-said to bring good luck and protection to the household.

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The cross-hatching on this thatched roof is supposed to ward off evil spirits

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And this is a replica of a tower in Copenhagen – the four intertwining dragons at the base represent the unity of the four Scandinavian countries.

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Speaking of dragons, it is (was) Sunday night, which means I’m springing for a hotel room so we can unwind with Game of Thrones and pizza!

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OH! And before I forget (again)-these are photos of the lovely sunset that caused Mary and I to hang around Eli’s hood all evening yesterday. Some random lovebirds, and me with my best girl.

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ALSO! It had been suggested that a Q&A session on the blog may be of interest, and I think that’s a great idea. So consider this your chance to ask me anything you’ve ever wanted to know (that contains some minimal bit of tangential connection to this trip). All questions should be posted in the comments section of THIS blog post only; not on FB or by text, or on another post (although if you have previously asked a question on a previous post, and I never responded, feel free to repost here.) You can ask anything, no question too big or too small. Pop it in the comments here, and I will be happy to respond.

Day Thirty Four: I’ve Got Friends in Low (Elevation) Places: California (Santa Barbara)

(Events of Saturday April 18th, blogged Wednesday April 22nd)

The morning dawned sunny and blissful. From my first whiff of the ocean air last night I wondered why I had bothered with anywhere else. The whole time I’ve been traveling, I’ve seen many gorgeous and interesting and inviting locales, but nowhere I really felt like I could call home. And the sight of the sea was a light bulb flash in my brain-I need to be near the water. I love the smells and the sights and the feel of the breeze and just everything about it. So this campground at Carpeneteria Beach may have been the second least rustic I’ve visited (behind that KOA), and Marigold may have been crammed cheek to jowl with dozens of giant hulking RVs (one of which even had a flat screen TV built into the OUTSIDE), but there was a view of the waves, and a short walk to dip my toes in the water, and it was heaven.

And then. I was propped awkwardly in the front seat working on a blog (the glare was too strong to do it outside), when a woman knocked on my window. I rolled it down, and she smiled and handed me this…

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A total stranger, with whom I had not previously so much as made eye contact, painted me a rock with a Marigold flower on it! I was (and am) speechless. Blown away. I had noticed her earlier with her head bent over some paints, and thought that was a pleasant way to pass the time on a pretty morning. Pam explained that they came to the beach a lot, so to pass the time she started painting rocks. And eventually she had more than she could ever want, so she started giving them away. And that my crazy campervannie had inspired her. And now I have only the most perfect souvenir ever. It’s a portable decorative reminder of Marigold and the beach and all the amazing people I’ve met or learned of. Plus, every time I show it to someone, I can say “That trip ROCKED!”

And in a blink she was gone, and Annie and I pulled up stakes (wheels?) and drove a bit north to  the dog friendly Arroyo Burro Beach. Where we enbcountered a huge line of cars snaking through the parking lot, and I realized how foolish I was to attempt parking at a beach on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. And then fate smiled for like the 500th time, and just as all the cars in front of me drove past like the best non handicapped space in the lot, a man pulled out of it and in we zipped!

Now while this may have been a dog friendly beach, I don’t exactly have a beach friendly dog. Annie resisted dipping her paws in the Pacific as strongly as she does the Atlantic.

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But she did enjoy sniffing odd things…

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Sand woogling…

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And hiding under my chair while I read in the sun…

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But wait.. what’s that-do you see someone heading toward us Annie?

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Mary lives outside of San Diego now, so we don’t get to see each other that often, but she is one of the greatest women I know, and our friendship always picks up right where it left off-she is my role model!

So-we take a little walk along the beach, and I try to demonstrate Annie’s aversion to the waves, but in true Annie fashion she makes me look foolish by walking right in…

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And then, Mary decides to put her purse in my van. And as we walk over, this guy stops and says to Mary “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” (oldest line in the book) They chat a bit, turns out he’s a waiter at the restaurant on the dog friendly beach which… doesn’t allow dogs (???) , and Mary asks him to take this picture of us…

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Which is the first time in five minutes he’s even remotely acknowledged there was another human being in the vicinity. He gives me a passing grunt and then carries on with “Do you go out socially?” “How long are you in the area?” “What are your plans while you’re here?” I mean he is GAGA and Mary is CLUELESS and I could have immolated on the spot and he’d not have noticed.

So we finally manage to shake him, and spend an hour or so chatting and laughing and being silly and strolling the beach and watching all of the other dogs frolic happily. And then we get a bit peckish, and it’s growing late and we decide we’d really like to see the sunset, so it really makes sense to have dinner here at the beach restaurant. Where Eli works.

And of COURSE he’s our waiter, and of COURSE we (or one of us at least) gets the most attentive service ever. And he gushes about what a great evening this is and how glad he is to be a part of it and how thrilled he is that we came in. And the food and drinks really are exceptional. Shout out for pork belly and scallops which I never would have thought to combine.

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By the end of the meal I need to use the ladies room. Which has a line. Which allows me a perfect vantage point to see Eli SWOOP in and start chatting animatedly with Mary. Before too long I see him scribble something on a piece of paper and hand it to her (as I had long ago predicted would happen, despite Mary’s strong denials.) I pop into the loo, come out, begin to head back to our table when I see him return. I immediately hop back to the front of the bathroom line without thinking. Then the guy, who had been behind me in the coed line earlier jokes “You’re BACK in the bathroom line… and you’re CUTTING??” So I explain about Eli and Mary and how he has been all over her and hasn’t so much as glanced at me all night.  And then the woman who had entered the ladies room after me comes out and says “You’re in the bathroom line AGAIN?!” And by now everyone thinks I have digestive issues or poor bladder control, but it is SO worth it, because Eli goes in for a HUG!

I finally go back and Mary is FURIOUS (not really) that I’ve left her alone to Eli’s advances, bur sacrifices need to be made for the cause of a good blog post. So yes, he asked for her number, and instead of saying she was involved with someone, she asked for his, and then he just said “I’m going to hug you.” and DID it! And did I mention Eli is a good ten years younger than us, and the beach was overflowing with twenty somethings in micro bikinis? But Eli knows quality when he sees it. And despite the best efforts of Allyson and Toni and others, everyone on this trip is getting action but me.

And then as we are crossing the parking lot and headed to Marigold, someone taps me on the shoulder and calls “Hey cutie!” and Mary is all excited until I explain it’s just the (probably gay) guy from the bathroom line being silly. (And quite clever.)

So we head off to the Motel 6, where my ultimate bed mate is waiting.

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Day Thirty Three: Surf City Here We Come : California (Death Valley, Santa Barbara)

(Events of Friday April 17th blogged from an overlook on Highway 1 overlooking waves crashing on to rocks on Tuesday April 21st)

So my plan had been to spend another day in the desert just kind of chilling. But you can’t exactly “chill” in the desert.  Which became apparent not long after we woke up. Today was going to be hot. In fact, it’s kind of a fluke that we’d had warm but not oppressive weather thus far in Death Valley. The temps had been much higher last week, but remember that dust storm I got caught in? Those winds brought the levels down to perfect (and also killed a dude on a motorcycle). Unlike most of the National Parks and tourist spots I’ve visited thus far, which are just beginning their popular seasons, Death Valley’s is winding down. When I rented Marigold I had to agree not to take her into  Death Valley between May and September as it’s so rough. SO we spent the first part of the morning doing a lot of this…

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And a bit of this…

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And even a touch of this…

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And as the morning wore on it became clear that it wasn’t going to be fun to spend the day here. There’s no shade anywhere, we’d seen all the main vistas on our agenda, I couldn’t go inside anywhere without leaving Annie to fry, and the lovely evening and majestic stars wouldn’t return for hours. If I was going to fall another day behind, why wasn’t I doing it at the beach?

So we gave a quick glance around the campsite to make sure we were all packed up…

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Popped an audio book into Marigold’s yapper, and settled in for a few solid hours of this…


Almost immediately, the audio book and I were at odds. I literally almost tossed the CDs into the sagebrush when the beloved family dog was abruptly struck by a car while trying to save a little girl. I did shout at it quite profanely, giving Annie a startle. It took 20 minutes for them to confirm he would live (sans an eye). After awhile I started getting hungry. And the craving for Chipotle I’d had since back in New Mexico (where it’s not sold in the entire state!) started gnawing away at my brain. As luck would have it, my handy dandy iExit app indicated there was one just off the interstate! And there was. And it had a tiny crowded parking lot, zero shade for the blistering sun, a ginormous line at 2 in the afternoon, filthy restrooms, and possibly the most mediocre steak burrito bowl I’d ever had. I was sitting in the car, eating this disappointing repast, when something caught my eye…

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Which seemed to look an awful lot like the weird Ford pickup I’d seen in Bryce about a five days prior…

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And it was!! And out popped Nicholas and Hansel, two super cool fellas from Atlanta and Korea respectively who are road tripping to LA in Big Bessy. We swapped stories of life on the road, the crazy dust storm, and the challenges of maintaining any sort of blog or social media in the National Parks. It was great to touch base with folks going through something similar, and if you want to learn more about their journey, they are on Instagram, at BigBessy or you can friend Nicholas Michael Buck on FaceBook where he has a GoFundMe account for their trip which gives his whole fascinating back story. He is going to LA to follow his dream of being a filmmaker. And Hansel came over from Korea just to take part in this wild adventure.

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I can’t believe the randomness of us both stopping at this particular restaurant in the same 15 minute window. Once again, fate had smiled on me, and handed me a crappy burrito for a reason. My good mood restored, and the remainder of the burrito bowl chucked, it was off in search of a place that had been intriguing me for months… Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch…

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It’s basically just what it sounds like, a small patch of land in the middle of the desert where someone, I presume Elmer, has erected dozens of metal poles and decorated them with hundreds of colored glass bottles, and placed them to somewhat resemble a forest.

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Apparently Elmer hangs out there sometimes, but when we stopped by the place was deserted. It had an almost spiritual quality as the different colors and lights and all the random other bits of flotsam and jetsam fought for the eye’s attention. It reminded me a bit of a play I saw a few years ago with my friend Jen, The Road to Mecca, in which a woman in South Africa fills her home and garden with sculptures she creates out of ground glass, and mirrors and lanterns, totally creating her own unique haven, even as most of her neighbors turned against her. I love glass, and I love personal artistic statements like this, so the Bottle Ranch gets Two Tongues Out from Annie and me.

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Of course, a place as cool as this was located on part of the original Route 66 which I had meant to include more of along my route (and had in the initial version), but parts got cut out when I was trying to make up for my Texas layover and still make my Grand Canyon reservations.

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I did take a quick minute to stop off at one little antique/junk store (where I found an amateur painting that I identified as the church as Taos Pueblo for the bargain price of $15) and chatted with the proprietress who had just returned from her OWN whirlwind road trip that was like 10 states in nine days or something insane.

Speaking of insanity. Insanity is me thinking for even a minute that I would be able to outwit my dog. So, it had been a long, hot day. We were headed for the ocean and we still had about 100 miles to go. So I stopped to top off the tank. And while I was doing that, I thought I’d take another futile stab at trying to squeegee the dead bug carcasses off my windshield. In my bare feet. And since Annie was snoozing soundly in the back of Marigold, I didn’t think anything of leaving the driver’s side door open.

Until I turned around to put the squeegee back and there was a little black dog darting across the pavement. I pursued her as far as I could in bare feet (not very), and then had to frantically dash back to the van for my shoes, and to stop the pump, and oh god where is the leash, or never mind I have to goooo! By now I’ve lost sight of her, and did I mention there is a very busy four lane highway immediately adjacent to the station. Well there was. And she very well could be on it. I saw a woman running across the highway towards me lugging a propane tank (?) and asked if she had seen the fugitive. She pointed down a nearby driveway. I ran and called and ran and called and nothing. Behind the houses was a large scrubby field in which I finally spotted that sweet little face. Just standing there, not a care in the world. Until I approached, whereupon off she dashed again, this time towards a lane of houses. I spotted some people outside and started flailing and shrieking STOP THAT DOG!!! in all my haven’t showered for two days, panicked out of my gourd, glory. And this wonderful man disappears around a corner, and comes back with a captive! As I sink to the ground in relief and thank him profusely he holds aloft his half eaten snack and declares: “I think she smelled my tamale.”

Yet again, I am overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of strangers. He even gave me an old red leash of his to walk her back with. As much as I was warned against and worried about crazies and weirdos and nogoodniks on this trip (and I know they are out there also) it is the warmth and openness and helpfulness of folks that is surrounding me every day, in ways small and large, that is really defining this trip for me.

Once my heart rate returned to semi-normal, we put the pedal to the metal and made it to the coast just as the sun was dropping out of the sky. The stars aligned for me once again and I snagged the very last spot in the campground which just happened to be right on ocean.


So one of us dipped our toes in the Pacific and enjoyed the sunset, while the other…

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was confined to quarters.

Day Thirty Two: And I Wanna Sleep With You in the Desert Tonight With a Billion Stars All Around: California (Death Valley)

(Events of Thursday April 16th, blogged on Monday April 20th)

The morning rose gorgeous and I wasn’t freezing when I took Annie for her AM constitutional for a change. Heaven. I had a leisurely (healthy) breakfast, chatted with the folks in the RV next door who were traveling with an adorable Mini Australian Shepard named Chaco after a nearby park, and even rearranged my “pantry” area. Word on the street was that the shower facilities were FIVE dollars and a big pain in the butt to access, so I decided to hold off on any grooming rituals for the time being. This would turn out to be a regrettable decision.

Annie and Marigold and I set off exploring, and the first thing we discovered is that everything in Death Valley is an exceedingly long ass ways away from everything else. Like, you think you have a handle on how far it is, but then double that.

Our first stop was the Harmony Borax Works. Borax, as you may or may not know, is a mineral found in dry salt lake beds and used in detergents and in fiberglass, and in making things fire-retardant, and a whole host of other stuff. It was discovered here in 1881 and the resultant efforts to mine and process it is sort of what put Death Valley on the map, and brought in the first non Native settlers.

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Getting it out of the desert was a pain and a half (I’ve mentioned the long-ass distances, yes?) and was best done using a Twenty Mule Team Wagon (which would be more accurately called a Twentyish Mule Team Wagon due to fuzzy math, and was really more like plus or minus 5 from that number, and even if the number did land at twenty, that figure included two horses as well). The wagon wheels were seven feet high, they cold carry up to ten tons, and they traveled 165 miles across the baking desert (temperatures at Death Valley can reach 139 F or 59C in the summers). Good times.

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The labor was primarily performed by Chinese immigrants and local Native Americans who lived in tents or basic structures here. They made like $1.60 a day and had to pay for room and board out of that. Good times.

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My next stop (35 miles down the road) was Scotty’s Castle. I don’t even know where to begin with this one. So Scotty was actually William Scott, a dude who used to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and a bonafide original flim flam man. He got ahold of some gold nuggets from a mine in Colorado, and high tailed it off to New York City where he started telling investors he had struck gold in a new mine in Death Valley and just needed some grubstaking to get it out. He suckered many a wealthy man with this line, one of whom was named Albert Johnson. At one point, Albert came to California from his home in Chicago to see the operation for himself. Now Albert had previously broken his back in three different places after he was one of only two survivors of a gruesome trainwreck. So Scotty (as he was known) told Albert the mine was a 60 mile mule ride away. Albert was game. Scotty then arranged for some “bandits” to attack them en route but his brother ended up getting shot instead. Albert finally learned that the whole thing was a massive con, but was so enchanted with Scotty and his wild adventures that the two became best buds. He ended up building a Two Million Dollar (In 1930s money) castle in the middle of godforsaken nowhere which he lived in for exactly one month of the year, and let Scotty pass off as his own the rest of the time.

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So I learned most of this fascinating history from my time period appropriate tour guide/ranger, Keith. Keith hails from a little town I like to call… ROUND FRICKING HILL VIRGINIA!! Yeah, he grew up about a mile from my house. Keith was an amazingly knowledgeable guide and funny and entertaining, and before Toni gets any ideas he called me Ma’am pretty much incessantly, so I think that’s a no go.

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The castle is a marvel, from the intricately carved redwood beams in the celling to the Spanish tiles hand laid in the kitchen.

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The legend over Scotty’s personal nook in the dining room (and by the way, the custom plates had both SCotty and Albert’s initials) reads ‘Oh what a story!”

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Even the weathervane has an image of Scotty and his mining mule on it!

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The music room had this ENORMOUS organ speaker thing (that whole wall on the right photo is the speakers) which sent anything that was played resounding through the desert.

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Albert’s 1914 Packard survived the scarp metal drives of both world wars, and is one of only four left in the world!

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I could go on about Scotty and Albert all day, but there’s a lot more to get to!

After stropping by the Ubehebe Volcanic Crater (which the local Shoshone believed was Coyote’s Basket from which all the people of the world emerged)…

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we drove and drove and drove through the sands…

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… until we got to Twenty Mule Canyon Road, where Annie and I enjoyed a three mile hike at the hottest time of day!

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We took plenty of rest breaks… and then walked some more…

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The last mile was along the highway which was less fun, and it took forever to see Marigold in the distance.

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After some recovery time, we drove (and drove and drove) to Zabriskie Point which is a great lookout spot… if you don’t go late in the afternioon when the sun is low in the sky…

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And along Artist’s Drive which is known for it’s gorgeous rock colors… which do not photograph well at all late in the afternoon…

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Next on the Must Visit list was Badwater Basin- at 282 feet BELOW Sea Level the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. The area is named for a small pool of salty water, that an early settler, upon noticing that his mule refused to drink from it, deemed “bad water” in his journal. The pool is surrounded by glowing white salt flats that you can walk along, and yes, lick if ye be so bold. (This was another “No Dogs” area, but sometimes you just gotta say what the “heck”.

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If you can enlarge this picture, about halfway up the cliff is a little sign marking sea level.

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The place was gorgeous in the evening light, and I would have loved to linger, but I was already exhausted from overdoing it and still had one more item to check off the to do list.

Having been so enthralled by the stars the previous night, I had seen a Star Walk on the salt flats (not these, no, on some about 50 miles away from these) led by a ranger which I thought would allow me to see even more. And it did. Except that approximately 857 children showed up for this walk, and they enjoyed waving their flashlights around to screw up everyone’s night vision and constantly interrupting the ranger and talking over him. I don’t know how he kept his patience. But Ranger Jonathan was an earnest young man, not a tired and cranky old woman. He was the kind of lad who once drove all the way from Auburn Alabama to Jacksonville Florida because it was the closest place he could get a Slurpee. The stars were brilliant and I did learn some stuff, but it was a long 20 mile slog back to a collapse in the campground.