Time Out In Marfa, Texas

Published January 2017 with http://www.fempotential.com/marfa-texas/

Here is a copy of the text for you.

January was a good time to take a road trip, the holidays are over and nothing’s going on. Although, I’ll be honest, having been land-locked in Madrid NM for four months with only a couple of weekends away, town was feeling claustrophobic. It was driving me crazy. Winter so far in New Mexico has been pretty gentle with little snow and mild temperatures, nothing to challenge or keep me engaged. My home was finally finished enough to stay warm and comfortable, and with that in mind, I rented it for a week onAirbnb, packed the camper van, and took off south. I needed a break. I needed a plan of action. What next? How can I make a living as a travel writer? Or as a traveling writer? What’s the big deal about Marfa? Why go there?

Marfa, TX is a small town of 2,000 in far western Texas near the Davis Mountains. Big Bend National Park is 135 miles due south.  Would I head that far south? Who knew.

The night before I left town, it snowed. A good few inches covered the roads and Ortiz Mountains and in a 2wd van, the worries got to me and I didn’t sleep so well. Should I take the interstate instead of a country highway? Which would be safer? Highway 285 was shorter but would there be enough traffic to be safe? Ah, to hell with it, I needed an adventure. Highway 285 from Santa Fe was mostly clear but for some slush and a few snow banks, the traffic was light, and my pets cranky. Rosie, a lab mix, couldn’t settle down. She’d sit in the passenger seat, bounce down, push Harold off the bed in the back. Repeat. For nine hours. Stevie, the cat, hid under the bed, sulking. Poor Harold, a big baby of an Akita mix, shrugged at Rosie’s pacing energy. I drank cold coffee and kept on driving. I needed a time-out. Just like Rosie.

So, yes, why did I head to Marfa? Probably because the forecast was for it to be warm enough for tee shirts in the afternoons, plus some good friends of mine love the place. Suzie is an artist and she’d told me some of the history of Marfa. In the 1970’s, a famous New York artist, Donald Judd moved out to Marfa and created an outdoor sculpture garden of his works in concrete. The Chinati Foundation has become one of the major draws to the town, with celebrities, artists of all mediums, and tourists who all flock to the compound on the edge of town. There is also her favorite place, the Hotel Paisano, where James Dean last acted in a movie before his death. Marfa is now known for its history, the Hotel Paisano, the art galleries, the Public Radio station, and even the Marfa Music Festival in March. It has a lot to live up to.

We arrived late that weekend night and set up camp at Tumble In RV campground on the eastern side of town. I’d picked it deliberately for the proximity to town, its claim to having a walkable path into the downtown district (it didn’t), and a space for tents and campers not just RVs. Late at night, a sub-freezing night, after nine hours driving through snow half of that time, I was depleted and yes, as cranky as my critters. Tumble In was not as I’d hoped. The tent camping area is a bare patch of cut tumbleweeds with strips of gravel to show where to park. No shelter, no picnic tables, no grills or firepits. It was basically a parking lot. I hated it. So did the dogs and Little Stevie, my cat. Too many burrs, no shade, nowhere to walk as we were fenced in by barbwire and three-foot tall weeds. The shower in the morning made up for it. That and a cup of coffee.  Then once refreshed and in a better mood, I looked for a camp host but no, there wasn’t one, just a self-check in booth within a vintage travel trailer. Walking the pups around the RV park, I noticed the overflow area to the rear of the land, closer to the railway but away from the highway and parking lot. With no one to tell me otherwise, I set up camp back there and with Stevie locked in the camper, the dogs and I walked along the path to town. We had to scramble quite a bit so don’t expect a clear pathway to follow, we crossed an arroyo and down a sandy bank to get to a paved street.

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It was a Sunday morning, the church bells were ringing, and having drunk a good cup of coffee at the van, my mood improved with the sunshine and clear skies. The railway was surprisingly busy with three trains shipping containers and vehicles eastward all morning, yet I was still able to let the dogs run free along the track for a while. Until the rabbits tempted them onto the highway to the south of us and my tensions grew again. Damn it. I came here to relax, right? Putting them on leashes is never an easy accomplishment –  they’re country dogs and I’m lazy. Oh well. You do what you have to.

Judd’s minimalist aesthetic really has taken a hold of town; it was a quirky mix of old adobe structures, with rusted iron window frames and clean lines of new concrete. I liked the juxtaposition of old and new but how was it for the long-term residents to see their homes and town be so gentrified? The streets were empty though, that sleepy Sunday feeling perhaps? No, the rest of the week there, it was rare to see anyone walking around. There were few options for hanging out or talking to locals. There were few options for distractions from other people at all. I was alone with my thoughts as usual.

Walking down Austin Street, I came across a laundromat with a handful of folks sitting outside sipping coffees. Frama café didn’t exactly advertise itself but word of mouth and being the only café to be found, it stayed busy enough I guess. I got to chat a little to the others sitting outside, one fella brought Harold and Rosie a bowl of water, and we talked art, travels, and Texas. Most of them were new to town with a newcomer’s energy for the place. I still hoped to find a local who’d grown up in Marfa but never did. The latte was great though but a bagel or something to eat would have helped. Ice cream was the only option, and although it was tempting I didn’t get any. Another time perhaps? Nope, I stuck to coffee there for the next few days. It became our routine to walk to town mid-morning, exploring the four corners of town, and finishing up at Frama. Where was the breakfast place? I lived off the odds and ends in the cooler at the van instead. Oh well. My expectations were nicely lowered after a few days and I began to enjoy town for what it offered. Even the Tumble In campground grew on me for being bare bones, with hot water, little interaction and no one watching over my critters running free.

With a full moon, the Marfa Lights were not to be seen. Have you heard of them? First noticed in the 1880s by a cowboy, there is still no solid explanation for these colored lights that dance in the dark nights outside on Highway 90. My timing once again was against me; it was too bright for me to see anything. Next time? I’d better do some research before I head on another trip as this one to Marfa was the most disorganized possible. My timing sucked constantly. The best part for me in Marfa was that we walked everywhere for a week. The rest of my days I filled my notebook with web addresses and contact info for freelance writers. Researching different tangential ideas kept me busy and the sketch book let me switch off the word-brain in the evenings. As there were few businesses open at the start of the week, and little to see with high-end stores offering treats for the wealthy, but still I got to relax. I enjoyed wandering the wide empty western streets. Trucks slowed down for the pups and I, waved at us, and carried on slowly out of town. Wherever I wandered, I’d see the Presidio Courthouse. It’s an incredibly beautiful old three-story building that fills the town plaza with all roads bringing you back to the spires. It dates back to 1886 and I walked inside one afternoon, curious to see if I could climb the tower to look out the windows facing each direction. It was closed for cleaning but still worth climbing the wooden stairs that opened onto lawyer’s offices on each level based around a central rotunda. I was alone and the peace of the extensive views impressed me deeply, a sense of history and wonder.

 

Hotel Paisano was just around the corner and it quickly became my afternoon choice. The Trost building dates to 1929, and opened only just before the Great Depression. It became a place for ranchers and tourists to stay as they crossed Texas. In 1955 Warner Bros came to town to film Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. Jett’s Bar is named after Dean’s character and the walls are covered with old photographs from that era. I sat at the bar one day, eating a salad from their limited menu, and chatted to Herb who was visiting. He came from Las Cruces, NM, and was a pilot for a wealthy family who’d come to Marfa for hunting but he didn’t specify what or where.  With a beer in hand, I then sat outside and that’s where I recommend fully. The building is Spanish style with a main courtyard with a fountain and tables in sun and shade. Perfect. I sat and read and listened into the conversations around me. I came back two other afternoons. Now that made me feel like I was truly on holiday. Finally.

The small-town logistics could be challenging for some city folk but since I live in Madrid, NM with a population of 350, this wasn’t a big impact on me. There were limited options for eating out, I didn’t find a decent grocery store, nor ATMs but then again, I’d come with a wallet of cash and a cooler of food in the camper van. I have a feeling my timing really was off, and that in spring and summer, town wakes back up. I’m okay with that though. I like low-key artsy towns. With no traffic lights, Marfa lulled me into a slower pace of life. It worked its magic on me. Afternoons, I’d sit outside the van in the sun and draw out quirky characters or I’d brainstorm on how to keep traveling and writing for a living. I came up with some ideas but it’s hard to make it freelance. I figured out that it’s worth me faking it until I make it. That’s the best I can do for myself.

The Chinati Foundation finally drew me in on the last day in the area. I put down my notebook and we drove over there early one morning. I’d not been too keen to be honest, as a field of concrete sculptures didn’t appeal. It was free so why not, right? I’m glad I went though. With the critters set up in the camper parked in the shade of a huge Cottonwood, I wandered into the main building and asked for the self-guided tour of the gardens. The young woman behind the counter waved me over to the path and asked me not to climb the structures. Nothing more than that, no stories, no information, just “Stay off”.

Okay, okay, so walking down past the other buildings, I strode down the slight hill to the open land with a stripe of fifteen groups of concrete slabs. From north to south, there are Judd’s famous works in concrete, a very minimalistic contemporary feel that reminds me of inner cities in the seventies. Unprepared for the magical energy, I stood and stared at the first group. Three structures made of upright walls of concrete with another identically sized slab across the top. An open-ended room in a sense. Walking to the next group, it occurred to me that I was alone on this kilometer-long pathway. In the field nearby, a small herd of Pronghorn antelope watched me nervously.

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Slowly as I wandered around these works, a peace settled on me, reminiscent of living at a Buddhist retreat in the UK years ago. A calmness came from the simplicity of how Judd played with one size of solid cleanly poured concrete slabs, putting them together in different figurations. There was nothing to explain why it appealed to me so much but an hour later, I walked out of Chinati with a relaxed smile and feeling expansive. Yep, I’d go back. First though, it was time to head north to Madrid, NM, to set up my home for another vacation rental. Yes, Marfa. I get it now. And I had a plan.

Travel can help people in so many ways. One woman took a time out type of trip to Marfa, Texas, and was inspired with a plan for her future as a travel writer.

5 Travel Tips to stay sane on the road.

It’s that time of year when it’s cold enough to make us research next year’s vacation. Or it is for me. Winter, I like it, I like the cold weather and toasty woodstoves, but dreams come thick and fast. The internet catches me for hours as I research new ideas and new destinations. Talking around the fire with friends over Christmas inspired me even more to plan the next big travels. With that in mind, here are five travel tips for the year ahead, I hope it helps.

  1. DO THE RESEARCH:  with notebooks, the web, and a basic outline, I strongly recommend doing some research. Go beyond Google’s first page and look deeper, follow the tangents, discover blogs and forums. Last winter the Expedition Portal caught my attention. The depth and breadth of posts was initially overwhelming but I discovered that although the regional sub forums were the busiest, their focus was more on short day trips and four-wheeling. Go instead to the trip reports and the in progress travelogues for true inspiration. Travelers like myself post photos, routes and even favorite campgrounds along the backroads. Ultimate Public Campgrounds is my favorite app with all the links, directions, photos, websites and even directions for all the public camping areas in both Canada and the US. Great stuff. Benchmark Maps is the other main resource I take with me because of the detailed notes on each kind of road, campgrounds, and historical notations.
  2. DON’T OVER PLAN! No, I’m not contradicting myself, honestly. However, so many people on the road get caught in the trap of keeping to schedules and timelines. For me, an outline, a body of research for options, and then the ability to see a signpost for a lake and follow that side road makes for the strongest memories. My weakness is for a hidden lake in a mountain valley so that’s what tempts me most. What’s yours? Keep your eyes open and itinerary flexible.
  3. STAY ENGAGED: With the road endlessly stretching ahead of you, it’s easy to lose track of why you’re driving. It’s not just get to the next destination, is it? Curiosity drives me, keeps me engaged and when I’ve cut myself off from the environment and focused on reaching the next pit stop, my travels become meaningless, or at least forgettable. With a handful of local newspapers, some novels written set in that area, or taking time to visit historic markers while chatting to residents at the diner, that’s how you’ll feel much more connected to each place and its people.
  4. EAT WELL: In the van the box under the bed is full of the staples that keep me sane or at least full for those days each week when I just don’t want to drive to another grocery store because I like where we are. After months on the road last summer, it became a weekly habit to restock with fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese and even creamer for the morning coffee. I’d eat salads for a few days, then move onto the eggs and veggie omlettes, and towards the end of the week, back to the canned soups, nuts, beans and chiles. When shopping, I planned for a week at a time, knowing that I’d need to eat the fresher foods for a few days, a mix of shelf-stable items, and then left-overs. If you have a fridge, it’s different of course but this mindset will help the backroad campers like us.
  5. BE PREPARED FOR THE UNEXPECTED: Yes, we all know that shit happens but are we ready for the van to breakdown? Will you still have food and water? What happens if the front wheel wants to fall off on Independence Day like mine did? Phone calls to mechanics unable to help, driving around terrified we’d get stuck in Bellingham on the side of a main highway, I drove us to Anacortes, WA, and camped on the marina’s parking lot with their permission. I waited it out, had food, and with the security guard keeping an eye out on us, felt safe to wait out the holiday weekend. And if the pets got sick suddenly? Those two dogs and a cat that I travel with? The smartphone gives me access to finding a vet, and the first aid kit under the bed can take care of more injuries than I’d hope to experience. It’s okay though, this happens, dogs spike themselves, bleed profusely, and still live on. It happens at home and on the road. I sit back, bandage Rosie up, and make a cup of tea. It’s a fact of life, right? Yep.

Now, go out and buy some maps, sit back and plan another trip okay? Then tell me about it!

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How to build a dog ramp

How to build a ramp for your dog: Have you looked at prices of dog ramps? Crazy, eh? My vet told me that Harold needed a ramp for the truck to prevent more jarring and wear on his knees. Poor lad, we’ve been playing too hard. Looking online, it was clear that we wouldn’t be getting one soon, but then I looked at what others had done. Inspired by what I read, it was time to improvise given what was lying around the homestead. That was the goal then, to build a ramp for my dogs.  A few websites had instructions but looking around my yard, I didn’t have the right materials to follow their directions. Time to improvise then. I hope this helps you too.11136274_10204888873794756_3704977024337816675_o

  • Plywood: check. Yep. Cut two lengths measuring 18″ by 36″. Sand edges smooth.
  • Hinges: Yep. Piano hinges in the shed will be just fine as they’re 12″ length.
  • Lay the two pieces of plywood level and screw in hinges. Make sure that the screws don’t poke through the other side. Check it opens and closes.
  • Cross members next were 1x2s. Cut them to fit width of plywood. I did them at 12″ even though the width is 18″ as I had enough for four cross members. Screw in at 12″ spacing lengthwise starting at the centre so that they are evenly spread out.

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  • Next up, I needed supports to stop the two pieces of plywood folding in at the hinge. I used 2x2s cut to 12″. Setting them on the top surface of the ramp, I screwed them both in on the upper half. This way the ramp is still foldable yet the ends sticking out across the lower half are acting as a brace. It worked.

  • Adding a lip to the end that rests on the truck bed. Again I used 1×2 cut to 18″ and screwed in to the underside.

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  • Next: Check it folds, lays flat on the truck bed, and has no sharp edges. Ready? Paint the topside for easy identification.

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  • If you have any scrap carpet, glue it onto the areas between the cross members for more traction.
  • Test run.
  • Hmm… Rosie was unimpressed. Harold sat in the front seat and pretended he didn’t hear me. Throwing treats on the cross members got them over it though.

The plan is to now leave it lying around the home so it begins to smell like us, and for them to get used to walking on and over it.

If you have any suggestions or questions, let me know. Good luck!

Photo Essays: In Calendar Form

What with all the time spent taking photos this summer,it’s time to get serious again about photography. As a twenty-something, a project of mine got me into an 18 month course at Pimlico Media Centre in London, the stories and images of the squatters in East London caught their attention and with a full scholarship, I studied SLR manual cameras, documentary photography, portraits and working in the darkroom.

Now then, after quite a while without consciously thinking about the skills and cameras I’ve had, it’s time to focus on the imagery of our trips. Three months in the van with Harold, Rosie, and Stevie kept the camera in hand. Now what to do with the results?

First, edit! Edit out the fuzzies and wobblies.
Second, edit! Find the best striking compositions. Those that catch my eyes even after all the times I’ve seen them. The challenge is to not be caught by the memories of each one but to pick pictures that capture the essence of specific places or experiences, ones that translate to viewers.

And third? Publish. After meeting Carlan Tapp this weekend, a local prolific and professional photographer, at his gallery in Madrid, NM, I’m inspired. Sharing stories with him, talking of our road trips, and our cameras and ideas, I’m inspired. I’ve focused on writing and wandering, taking photos it’s true, but it’s time to share those as much as I do the photos.
With that in mind, a photo essay book is in the work. And in the meantime, a few calendars are now available on Lulu.com. I’d like to also find a way to sell via Amazon as they’ve been so good to me as a writer. For now, I’m happy with the quality and flexibility of Lulu.com and the calendars on there.

Little Stevie’s Big Adventures, a road-tripping cat in the Northwest.

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Land Rovers of New Mexico, or rather the adventures of a 1959 Series II and a 1972 Series III.

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New Mexico Skies: a collection of the night skies around Madrid, NM.

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Hot Springs Landing, NM

Elephant Butte State Park, NM is only three and half hours from home, in theory. It took us most of the day. I took the long route once again. Poor critters in the back of the van, they simply dozed until the engine stopped and doors were opened.

“Where are we now?” Stevie jumped out and froze on the beach of the reservoir. He huddled under the van and stared around as Harold and Rosie ran flat out across sandy beaches. November in New Mexico was still warm enough for this last minute camping trip. I’d needed a break. I spend my days on the computer, fixing up the house, and walking the dogs. I needed variety. The road called, and the question was where we’d end up.

Elephant Butte Reservoir had not inspired me in the past. Was that because I’d been in summer? No shade, crowded beaches and low water? Perhaps…

This time was a short two night getaway, time to test out the new desk inside, and to unwind on a beach, not that I’d swim but Rosie did. And Harold ran hard, so much so that he limped the rest of the day. Oops.

We did nothing but walk, make campfires, eat and drink. Stevie wasn’t relaxed though and he mostly slept inside the van even though I’d camped under a tree just for him to climb.
Tuesday and Wednesday are good days to camp here, we saw only a couple of others and they were so far away. I drove nowhere, just stayed for three days and then headed home. I’d recommend it for a peace and quiet destination. Yes, you could go to town, find hot springs, diners and cafes, but we didn’t. Not this time. Maybe in January when I get restless again? I’ll let you know what we find. Or have you been there? Any recommendations?

Writer’s Life: a morning on the road

Pagosa Springs, my home away from home, thank you for being there when needed.

Mary suggested I post my home on Airbnb since the bus was already bringing in an income. Why not? she said. Okay, so I did just that. I added the homestead, and forgot about it. My smartphone beeped at me. A notification from Airbnb. I accepted without even really reading the information. The next morning, another beep confirmed the booking of my home. My home. Oh shit, I have to clean.

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Two days later, the floors were swept, bedding changed, fridge and oven scrubbed, and new towels laid out. The critters followed me nervously, unsure as to what all this meant. On opening the van and throwing in the cooler and extra blankets, Harold, the Collie/ Akita mix claimed the bed. Rosie, the Lab/ Akita mix took the front seat, passenger as she knows better than to try driving. Little Stevie, a fluffy white cat, popped up onto the top shelf, purring away in time to the engine.

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Pagosa Springs then, you saw this coming, didn’t you? Yes, an easy drive for three hours to town, stopping only one on the way for the emptying of bladders big and small. With a sandwich in hand, I nervously watched the cat follow the dogs into the trees. Trust. You have to trust him, I muttered and then stalked them all.

October in Pagosa is cold. Much colder than I’d thought, not that I’d really thought about it, I’d just loaded us up and left the home in pretty good condition. At Williams Creek Reservoir, the parking area had few vehicles, picnics and fishing rods at hand.

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“The campgrounds closed on the 26th. Three days ago,” says the Texan couple in their thick winter jackets. “You can’t camp here.” She stared at me and the critters who roamed and peed freely.

“Okay.”

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The sunrise that next morning over the lake was incredible. Just us. I bundled up and made coffee outside. Little Stevie was in heaven with trees, grass, and water, and no others to scare the bugger, he wandered around, meowed when he lost sight of me, and ran back under the van when I called, anyone hungry?

How can I just up and go like this? I blame my parents for taking us everywhere in the old Rover and Volvos. I blame my friend Shaun  for reminding me of the restlessness inside me. Casey sat me down at the computer one day and we played online, her showing me how to make an income from writing, editing, talking about what I do and love. It’s like Netflix, people are willing to pay to be entertained and inspired. And yes, I blame Mary for putting my home on Airbnb.

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It’s been a year of making changes, of understanding how to bring in the money to pay for a lifestyle I crave. My books, yes, I have five books out and they sell slowly but surely. Four novels, two of which have won Best Fiction in the NM/ AZ Book Awards, another was a finalist. The travel essays came out this year and took me up and across the NW, selling them as I drove around.
Editing, proof-reading, helping new writers publish online, writing press releases, writing blogs like this, reviewing books, and working on another book of my own. I stay busy.

I admit though, that I get nervous at times. Nothing lined up, just winging it as they say, but I’m more alive now than I have been for the last four years at the job in town. I’m officially self-employed these days. I love it. Mostly.

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After lounging around, making breakfast next to the lake, I wait until Stevie is tired and has gone back to bed inside Van Dreamy. I close the door and whistle for the pups. Time for a hike around the lake. It’s a blustery day, cool, and the trees are turning, leaves fluttering onto the path. I skip though the woods and cross the dam. Yes, it’s October. Winter is coming. I can’t wait.

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The dogs watch me eat. Begging? Us, no, never, oh look at that squirrel! They look away.

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Stevie wanders around, watching the fish flash by in the river.

We walk in the morning frost. I warm up by a campfire and cook again. I settle down for another nap. Life is good. Fear slips in, a moment here, a thought that questions my sanity, and then a golden leaf falls onto the laptop and the spell is broken. The spell is remade. I’m happy.

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In town, I soak at the free hot springs under the bridge. Since August, someone’s built up the rocks, making a twelve foot pond, and my muscles relax into the heat. I chat to a few other van dwellers but happily leave them to it so to walk the dogs around town before hitting the grocery store. The cottonwood leaves are like the colors of pears, mangos, and apples.

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This week away from home is the first since leaving Trader Joes. The first time in four years that I can be spontaneous, hit the road, and know I’m still working in a sense. Back at camp in the mornings, I pull out the table, the laptop, write up notes for Betsy about her children’s book. I check the photographs. I research nonfiction essays, reading from other’s recommendations of past and present authors. I make notes for myself. Then it’s time for another mug of coffee, a walk down the river, another log on the fire, and a braod grin. I’m a writer. This is my life now. Camping, driving, writing. I can do it after all…

Why did it take me so long though? Fear. Laziness. A resigned focus on home and job. It wore me down. This though, the quiet nights either at home or in the van, the reading, the writing, and sending out proposals and ideas, this life wakes me up. The writer’s life is one for me.

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Pagosa Springs, once again, had been a welcome home for the week, but then it was time to head back and see what the renters had done to my place. The money paid for this trip but I worried about the consequences. Rightly so as it happens: I wish I’d known to lock up my papers, my cupboards, but naively I left them to it. Another lesson learned. I’ll tell you later, when I talk about the fears, we can mix and match stories for once…

Anacortes, WA and beyond

Dirt pile. Tall and wide. Thick forests. Cranky cat. Tired driver. Dogs restless. I pull over and let everyone out. We’re hidden behind this huge dirt pile, nose of van poking out, me squatting like Rosie. Finally a moment to stretch our legs after a long and wonderful day. But long. I’d been driving for too long.

We’d left Anacortes earlier that day, not a great place for Stevie, but the marina was good for me. Watching all the sailboats on the water, hearing the chatter from the sails flapping, the chance to do laundry, walk the dogs on a beach, sit at an outdoor bar, yes it was worth $20 a night.

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Taking the ferry across from Couperville to Port Townsend on the July 4th weekend, we were lucky to get tickets on their busiest weekend. Not being sure how the critters would fare on the ferry, I’d stopped earlier on an empty beach for us all to wander round until they chose to get back inside. Perfect. On the ferry, because of the size of the van, I got to park up front, facing out on that grey morning. I tied Stevie down, gave everyone a treat, closed up the windows and left them too it as I explored. Love ferries.

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On the Olympic peninsula my day went downhill. The noise in the van was back, sometimes. The critters were tired of being inside. And I had no idea where we’d camp. That’s what it often boils down to. If I don’t have a plan, I’m stressed, needing a focus point. Which brings me back to that gravel pile on the side of a small road heading west from Clallam Bay across to Ozette, it was the last chance at a campground, all the others had been fully booked and the forest roads were neither obvious nor easy for a van like mine.

A volvo pulled up. Fuck. Really? I wave frantically at the car, asking it to slow down, give me time to grab the cat who is standing in the open. Stevie in hand, I walk back to the van, muttering evil thoughts to myself. Why here? Why not park somewhere else?

“Harold!” A voice calls out behind me. Stevie tucked in the van, I turn to see Dawn climb out of the Volvo, another woman with her. My brain can’t compute. Huh.

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“Dawn? Is this Annie? Dawn? How the hell?”

Dawn’s laughing, Harold is barking, Rosie is running around like a dervish, and Annie says “hello Sleam, I’ve heard about you! Dawn recognised Harold and the van. You’re not camping here are you?”

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Lake Ozette, a little used national park campground, rustic, bathrooms but nothing else, pack-it-in and pack-it-out. I follow the volvo as we drive through the campground once. It’s full. There is nowhere else. Damn. I’m tired and hungry but no longer worried. My closest friend is here, Dawn! She lives in Seattle, we’d met in Madison twenty plus years ago, and she’d even joined me just a week ago camping near Arlington. I’d not expected to see her again for a few years…

“IS that a campsite?” Annie asks as we walk around, stretching our legs. “It is! Quick, claim it, stay here, I’ll go get the car.”

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Dawn and I hang out in the small clearing, and catch up on the last week’s adventures, laughing at the chances of running into each other here, in the middle of nowhere. Annie pulls up, opens up the Volvo, and the dogs find her cooler.

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La Push, and Mora National Park campground is the next day’s goal. Independence Day, and we are lucky to find a secluded site in the trees, with a sense of privacy unexpected in a place with over 90 sites. Stevie gets to run around too, always the hope. The ravens hated him though, would dive at him, crow at him, harrass him, until he froze in the trees and I’d fetch him back to the motel van. Poor bugger. The eagles hovered over the beaches. Washington coast was not a kitty friendly place, just so you know.

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The next couple of days were perfect. Dawn, Annie, and I made great meals, campfires, sat and chatted until tired, and then since Dawn knew the area, we went to her favourite beaches and walked in the rainy afternoons. Yep, I liked it. Rialto Beach is worth visiting. Even on a busy weekend like July 4th, we had the space to run and hang out and not feel the pressure of containing my pups too much.

Dawn and Annie left me there, duty called back in the city. For me, the sea called. The dogs and I walked as often as we could, and in the mornings it was quiet enough to let Stevie wander on the sand with us.
And that my friends is all I experienced of the Olympic Peninsula. Oh, apart from all the signs for that bigotted presidential candidate that made my stomach turn and the van keep driving. Southwards…

Travel by numbers

“How much did you spend on gas? How many miles did you drive? What did the campgrounds cost? Did you need mechanical work? How much did the van cost?”

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We’re a practical bunch. We want facts and figures. None of this anecdotal crap. Just the facts. Well, some of my friends are scientists, statisticians, more focused on the details than the stories. Me, I’m more of an impressionist than realist, but this is for the rest of you. And no, I didn’t total and summarize any of it. That’s your job. I was too busy dipping fingers and toes in mountain lakes and paddling on ocean beaches.

Numbers of

  • $ spent on mechanics: 716
  • times I thought I’d lost the cat: 8
  • scars on my left hand from grabbing cat and throwing him back in the van: 5
  • times Harold had diarrhea in the van: 2
  • miles driven on Interstates: 346
  • times I spilt coffee in the van: 2
  • weeks on the road: 10
  • motel cost: 76
  • campground fees: 236
  • times I stepped in diarrhea in the van: 2
  • cold plunges in alpine lakes: 6
  • nights spent in a motel: 1
  • books read: 47
  • $ spent on laundry: 54
  • walks per day with dogs and cat: 3
  • walks per day with just the dogs: 3
  • times I bought gas: 26
  • miles driven: 7843
  • times I was scared: 1
  • $ spent on firewood: 15
  • $ in the weekly envelope (budget): 150
  • times I overspent my budget: 6
  • weeks spent on the Oregon Coast: 3
  • nights slept on the beach: 5
  • times Rosie puked in the van: 2
  • Gallons of gas used: 409
  • $ spent on beer: too much
  • $ spent on the road trip: enough

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I’d do it again.

 

 

Good days and bad days

We woke up as the sun came over the snow capped mountains. I opened the doors and Harold and Rosie ran outside to sniff and pee next to Elk River, full of snowmelt and tree trunks flashing past our campsite. The sun warms me as I set up the coffee and light a fire. The dogs run free. Stevie sits in the doorway, stretching and relaxed. He pops down and follows Harold into the little clump of five-foot ponderosas. Then he catches up with Rosie in the tall grass and sage bushes that cover the open range to the north of the van. The coffee brews as I get dressed and the fire catches light and gives off a warmth that I crave. I hunker down next to it, sipping and watching the critters play together.

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Good days. Yep, we have good days. Like today, we have the safety and space to stretch our legs in peace and quiet. The river’s waves are the soundtrack. The sun marks the time of day. The routines are established. Coffee. Fire. Small walk with Stevie included. Put him back inside the van and close the doors as I feed him. Big two mile walks with dogs. Back for their breakfast, releasing the cat, and second cup of coffee for me. The fire needs tending and I sit next to it as I drink and feed it with down and dead wood found near by. I fill the bucket with ice-cold water and wash myself. I stretch for half an hour but Rosie likes to step under my version of downward dog so that’s not as easy as it could be. The sun is up fully and warm so it’s time for shorts and a tee shirt. The critters find their spots and lie down for another nap. Stevie is most comfortable on his shelf with my clothes, peering down up on us. I wash my smalls (socks and the such) in the bucket and hang them out to dry. Breakfast for me next, chopped veggies, left over chili, and an egg for this morning. I read as the fire dies down, finish the chapter, and wash the dishes.
Not a bad start to the day here in the valley north of Steamboat Springs. It’s taken us five days to cover about 600 miles. This might take a few months to get to Oregon…

 

Bad days. Yep, we have bad days. Two days of them, in a row, and I was exhausted, figuring out if I should head home and leave Stevie with friends. Or would he be happier staying even if fighting us constantly?

Fifty miles or so north of Salida, Colorado, we’re driving up another mountain pass on hwy 24 when the family has a melt down, all but Rosie.

Me: too much coffee and not enough to eat.

Harold: bum tum, needs to get out fast.

Stevie: “Let me out! Let me out! I can’t stand this! It’s too much. I hate you all. I hate you all. I’ll rip you to shreds if you don’t let me out. NOW!”

 

I pull over at the peak of the pass in a layby and let the dogs out. I grab Stevie and attach a leash and a rope to that. I open the door and he makes a run for it, through the trees, heading away from the family and the van that he hates so much. He’s all over the place, panting and wheezing and having a panic attack. I hold the rope and follow him around, hoping he’ll wear himself out. Finally he pees under a pinion and wheezes as he walks slowly back to the van and jumps in and finds his water bowl. I unloop the rope but attach his leash to the crate inside so that he can’t make a jump out of a window or door if he has another panic attack.
I eat some sandwiches, and Harold hides behind the trees making funny noises. Rosie just sniffs and wanders round before begging for the crust. I’m exhausted. How do I do this when Stevie hates it so much? Was it wrong of me to bring him along? I don’t know but that morning was the hardest this week. His anguish tore me up.

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Later that day, we arrived at Crosho Lake, a small 30-acre lake in the Flat Tops outside of Yampa, Colorado. It’s a glorious little deep blue pond surrounded by snow covered mountains and untouched ponderosas and aspens. Local fishers park just past this free National Forest campground and for some reason I’m uneasy. The dogs jump out and explore as I set up camp. Stevie is inside the van still. Harold and Rosie chase something up through the trees behind me and Harold comes back with ears down, looking uneasy. The trucks come and go, loud voices and louder music. I’m uneasy. I’d hoped to stay here a couple of nights but we don’t. I keep Stevie on a rope at all times, even though it means that his morning walk is a scramble through the woods with me trying gamely to keep up. It works though, he’s worn out by the time we get back to the van and he simply jumps up to his happy place, the clothes shelf. His leash is then tied to the crate again. This valley, as beautiful as it is, is not safe for us. I pack up, douse the fire, and we head for Steamboat Springs north of here by only 80 miles. We drive up and down huge mountain passes in the Rockies; the Continental Divide is my constant companion on this trip it seems. The van, known as Vera Danell VanDreamy McLeamy, climbs and descends these mountains without a hiccup. From 6800 feet to 13,541 and back to 7900 feet in half an hour. No worries, mate.

 

In Steamboat, I find a pet store and explain the stress on my poor kitty. Susan finds me some calming treats, but they’re for dogs so she calls the manufacturer and asks about giving them to a cat. No worries we’re told. I also get some Rescue remedy for us all. Susan chatted to me a while, easing my tension with simple conversation. Oh, and next door was a liquor store so I got a six-pack for my own mental health. Rescue remedy in the water bowls for the critters and direct into mouth for me. I take the dogs for a walk downtown and along the river, it’s great, I like the style and the feel of the place. I’ve left Stevie with the special dog treat and laced water, hoping for a mellower cat.

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Susan, from the pet store, recommended Elk River Road, which was on my research list as a place of camping in the forests and it’s good that a local tells me the same. We find the turn off and pull off on the NF 400 dirt road until I see some dispersed campsites by the river. A few others are camped here and I find a space with fire pit and obvious parking spot a short distance away. I step out alone and take a breath. It feels safe. I have no strange fears or creeping nerves. I open the doors and let the critters out. We walk, all of us, Stevie unleashed and free, and he does his happy skip and follows Harold. It’s a good day. Finally.

 

Good days and bad days. I have to listen to my instincts. I can’t keep to a rigid plan if the campsite isn’t good for all of us. When it’s a short term, one night, we have to stop kind of a place; I’m okay with keeping everyone on leashes and ropes. It’s temporary. They all walk pretty well on leash, the dogs follow my lead, and at other times, I have to follow Stevie’s. At night, I research other options, the next places along the route I’ve roughly planned for us. I consider distances and keep our driving days to 150 miles maximum. The mornings are spent with walks, campfires, and breakfast. If we’re staying and it’s therefore safe for us all, the doors are open and we laze around, in and out of the van, napping for the critters, and fiddling around for me. I check out the next destination for reviews online (when I have the Verizon connection) and descriptions, looking for small lightly used NF and BLM campgrounds that are free, or close to. Places that aren’t too closed in but where the dogs and hopefully Stevie can walk safely with no surprises. It’s a process, working out what we need now that Stevie is with us. Shade for the van in the daytime. Little traffic. Quiet and calm. That’s the goal.

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Today though is a good day. Rosie has been amusing herself playing in the dirt. Harold naps on my (our) bed. Stevie naps on his shelf. I did the laundry, read, cooked, and cleaned up before reading some more. The afternoon will be much of the same.

 

 

WYOMING

 

Finally, we made it out of Colorado. It took me a week to drive 700 miles, a roundabout kind of a route through the Rockies and up into southern Wyoming. I’d heard of a small rustic campground in the Dinosaur National Monument but on further research found that the road was severely rutted after winter and hadn’t been fixed yet. My attitude to Vera the Van is slightly more timid and cautious than with Faith the 4Runner. This is my home now, I need to take no extra risks than are necessary. With map and smartphone in hand, the back up plan was to shange directions and head towards Willard, Colorado and then north towards Saratoga, WY. That’s where we are, but again, not as originally planned.
The BLM campground (the turn off is at mile marker 17 on Hwy 130) was so flooded there was no road, no tent sites, and no river as such. It looked like swamp lands of Alabama. I parked near by, took my shoes off, and we splashed our way around, taking photos, and watching Rosie dive in and out of the puddles and running river. Then the mosquitos found me.

Back at the van, Stevie was unimpressed and sat inside. I made a cup of tea, slathered DEET all over me and sat down to work out what next. This is the good side of driving slowly and not very far every few days, I’m not tired or stressed. Hundred and fifty miles at most every other day, this will take months to get to Oregon! The animals are more relaxed and at ease with this pace too, even the cat. When plans change, I have the time to sit and find another place for the night. This time it was to head back into Saratoga to the city owned fee campground on their wildlife reservoir. It’s empty, spacious, and full of birds, including a whole flock of cranes, magestically swooping overhead to land in the water and float by. Over and over again. Peacefull. The slight storm last night kept the sky colorful and the rain soft against the roof. It was a great way to fall asleep.
The doors are open, and all four of us went for a walk this morning along the lake. The mosquitos are the only downside but more goop and they leave me alone. Rosie is sleeping under the table in the shade, Stevie and Harold are in the van on the bed. Coffee, walk, breakfast, cleaning up, and stretching, that’s how I start my days.

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This afternoon, we’re heading into Saratogo itself. There is a library so I can get internet and send off my articels, check emails, and research Lander Wyoming. The other charming thing about this town of 1450 is the hobo hot springs downtown, with showers and a park. That will be my reward for doing my homework, oh there’s a brewery within a block. Yep. A good day.

 

 

 

 

Making screens for a camper van

The motivation: Stevie (the cat) and the two dogs need to be contained inside the van at times, and the mosquitoes need to stay outside.

The research: I looked online and didn’t come up with many ideas but one caught. I can’t remember who did it but the basic idea was to use snaps as the way to connect the screens to the van itself. Andrea recommended getting screens from a fabric store, as it’s softer, more flexible than those for doors and windows at a DIY store. Made sense to me. I put the word out before heading to town though and ended up with three kinds of material to use. All are softer, and I can see through them, which I like.

The method: Since I didn’t have any belting to sew onto the edges of the material to stop it from ripping, I found some lightweight canvas. I measured the side door first. Thinking I’m likely to have one of the side doors open and that I’d climb in and out at times, I halved that width. I did add a couple of inches for an overlap.

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First off, I sewed an edge of canvas along the top to the soon-to-be-screen door. It’s not pretty; I’m more of an impressionist than perfectionist…it works though.
I had bought some supposedly heavy-duty snaps from Lowes last week, just in case. They’re small but seem tough and well made. We’ll see how they hold up though. It says 15 pieces on the container but in all only makes six snaps. I’ll have to get more, even for this one small side door.

Using a knife to cut a hole in the material where I wanted the first snap, it fixed in solidly to the canvas edge I’d made. I then held it up to the body of the van, marked the spot, and screwed in the base as directed on the box. I didn’t pre-measure anything but simply held the screen across the top edge, marked the ideal spot on both the van and the screen and went one by one. It works for me. Not the most detailed of workers, the snaps ended up holding the material tightly across both top and bottom.

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I’ll have to pick up more snaps for the sides. I’d like to know that I can fall asleep with the door open and that Stevie, the little bugger, won’t decide to crawl out for another adventure. We’ll see.

Now I’ve sorted out a method, I’ll go ahead and do the other half of the side doors and hopefully I have enough material for the back doors too. For a first attempt, I’m pretty chuffed. It works! Just need a bunch more snaps to play with…

Part two: I have more snaps, but only six of them unfortunately. I did get Velcro though. The plan is to screen off the small windows in the doors themselves, they open outwards a couple of inches, more than enough for a wriggly cat, and enough for a thousand mozzies. Not good either scenario.

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I measured, well, I held the material against the window and cut it a couple of inches wider on all sides. I then cut the heavy duty Velcro both sides of it and lay strips across the top and bottom of each window. Tearing off the protective plastic off the sticky side of the Velcro, I held the screen material across the top and pulled it tight before attaching it to the bottom line. The sides were loose though so I added a couple of shorter pieces of Velcro and stuck it all together, pushing it firmly to stick in place. I left it alone all afternoon and went to the pub.
Stacy mentioned how the Velcro didn’t stick well to the vinyl when she tried to do the same in her own van and that’s exactly what happened when I got home. The whole tape just pulled up and away. But! Now I had more snaps. So adding just one on each corner at the bottom means that I can pull up the screen and the Velcro does its job just fine, with a little help of the snaps that is. Yep, that works. I now have working screens on two back windows and a large one across one of the side panel doors. Not bad for a Sunday.

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Heavy duty Velcro. ($8 for 4’ by 2”)

Heavy duty snaps. (6 for $7.50)

Scissors.

Measuring tape for the more detailed approach.

Screen material from your friends.