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.

Year End Lists

It’s the end of the year, a time for us to look back at what we did or didn’t do. Those lists and resolutions from last winter haunt us. I’m a wanderer who settled for the last eight years to build a home for myself, a home-base that is. My goals had included writing and traveling again. Goals met. I’m going to list mine in the hope that it’ll inspire you to look at your year behind and the one ahead. It helps me to see things written down by making my ideas more tangible somehow, more solid.

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Articles published in MAQ, Classic Land Rover Magazine, LRO Magazine, the Examiner, and on a couple of online small forums. Not bad, but I want to publish more, focus more on sending out and finding outlets for my storytelling.  I sent out two more travel articles this week. It’s a start. One step at a time, day by day, I aim to keep going.

Books published include two travelogues Bring a Chainsaw and Van Life.  There are also three photo books, photo essays if you like, taken from our travels around the States. Van Life and Dirt Roads And Dogs, the last one calledLittle Stevie’s Travels is in review. Oh, and one of my novels won Best LGBT Fiction in the 2016 NM/AZ Book Awards.

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It doesn’t feel like it, but we drove around a lot this last year. Here’s a list of the States we got to visit while looking for campgrounds, lakes, books and breweries. Passing through some of them a few times, we took backroads, found rivers to paddle in, and set up camp for three months over summer. Some of these places are one’s I kept returning to while based in New Mexico such as the Jemez Mountains in NM, Pagosa Springs in CO and down through Tijeras, NM on the way to other places!

  • Colorado
  • Arizona
  • Wyoming
  • Montana
  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Idaho
  • New Mexico

Now though, it’s time for me to look ahead even as I write up my notes from the last year. If you  have any specific questions for me, let me know. I can give routes, campgrounds, and local information for many wonderful off-beat rural towns.

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The next post will be a few of my top ten picks. Top Ten Destinations. Top Ten Campgrounds. If you have any suggestions, again, let me know. Take care and Happy New Year!

 

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?

Van Life: Exploring the Northwest with two dogs, a cat and a van

It’s true. A new book of my travel stories just came out. It’s a work in progress so forgive the mistakes, I’m working on it! This travelogue follows our adventures in the Northwest, the details about the small places we found along the way, the people we met, and the critter’s advice when I was having a hard time. Lighthearted and engaging.

Thanks!

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…

What’s in your van?

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The table I moved last Thursday, the bed is now oriented widthways, and the computer sits next to the front seat. A fold-away table now lives under the bed by the back door. Is your van like this? Are you constantly changing it? I shouldn’t be surprised. My home is the same, a constant shuffling and reordering of belongings to suit my current needs. The van though, for some reason, I didn’t expect to change it around as much as I am.
If I didn’t have three animals in there with me, it’d be easy, that’s what I tell myself. However, there is a large plastci container of dry dog kibble, one for cat kibble, a stack of wet cat food cans, a litter box and scooper, foldable cat carrier, hard sided cat carrier, a bag of dog treats, two harnesses, three leashes, and a couple of ten foot ropes. A leash for Stevie the cat hangs by the side door. Oh, and then we have a small 18 by 18 by 24 inch set of plastic drawers full of kitchen supplies. Under the bed, more stuff of course, boots and the such.

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Whenever I see another living out of their camper van, I have to ask for a tour although Van Lifers are a weird bunch. Their eyes are a little too bright, the smiles too friendly. Too bloody happy if you ask me. Then I wonder at myself. Do I come across as holier than thou, now? Are my blue eyes clearer than usual? Is my hair a little wilder and clothes scruffier? Yes, the answer is yes.

Soaking in the hot springs in Pagosa Colorado yesterday, a young man, early twenties is my guess, came in, smiling and happy to be there on that sunny Saturday. We started chatting. Mark is taller than me at 6 foot, skinny and tanned in his cut-off denim shorts. He tells me of his brown van, didn’t tell my what kind, and I thought it was women who only notice color not engine size? Anyway, Mark had bought the brown van in New Jersey a couple of months ago and has been slowly wandering westward. A happy fella but he started to avoid my eyes, slow down the questions, that is until a couple in their sixties joined us. They’re in a Sprinter (white) that’s fully decked out with wood paneling and working kitchen units. Mark relaxed and chatted up a storm. Am I that strange middle-aged woman now? Yes, the answer is yes. Sadly, yes.

My van, a nameless or rather constantly renamed van, is simple inside. I think of all that I could do, given my carpentry skills, plumbing, and electric etc., but I like it as it is. I’d make a desk as bloody writers need a desk. I’ll get to it sometime this winter perhaps? Motel Vera/ Danelle the Vanelle/ Reggie the Regency Dodger, came home with me in May, only a week before taking off for Arizona and beyond. I had little time to modify. The backbench seats were folded down, a sleeping bag and a few blankets thrown on top, and all the stuff of camping life, pet life, went under the bed. I’d kept the captains chair behind the driver for one of the dogs, Rosie. Harold likes the bed in back.

It worked as it was for three months. Now though, I’ve changed it up again. The extra chair is out. The folded cat crate (three foot by three foot) is set up permanently with the door rolled up for access. The small cat carrier is inside with a litter box within, and the cooler to the side. I wanted to use the floor space and still have a place to settle Stevie for those days at the mechanic or in cities. I’ll pull out the cooler, put in his blanket and zip down the door and he’s safe and contained for a while.
On the top of this soft crate is a metal tabletop from a workstation at home. Laid across, it becomes a place to set up the Coleman stove for making coffee inside on a rainy day. The kitchen drawers are to the right and I can pull out the cooler as a bench while cooking. It works. Colorado this week has been sunny all day long until four or five then the rains come down hard. We hunker down inside and enjoy the sound on the roof. Rosie likes to cuddle next to me, so she and I are in the back, Stevie is on his shelf above my head, and Harold claims the driver’s seat. All is good. I wonder how others would set up a small van like this for one human and three owners? I wander in and out of thrift stores looking for a small cabinet or desk to modify but not seen the one I want. It’s in my head, I picture it but drawing is not a skill of mine so I wait and see.
What will I do next week? Where will we be? The deep frost yesterday morning was an intense reminder that winter is coming fast. October, camping in October is doable in the van but still it’s daunting. Back to my cabin in New Mexico until the next visitor rents my place through Airbnb, and then south perhaps? The Gila National Forest? Or Alabama? I’ve not been to Alabama yet and that’s as good a reason as any in my book.

The Mixed Bag Of Washington

 

Washington State, a place of such mixed experiences that I lost the desire to write, worried that I’d offend someone by the over all relief to arrive in Oregon. I look though at my notes and it wasn’t all claustrophobic. Only the Olympic Peninsula, the rain forest, the coastline, those choice places I’d heard so much about left me cold, left me with a bitter taste of claustrophobia.

Spokane surprisingly enough was energizing for me. A busy city environment, traffic filling the roads, construction creating detours, and people everywhere. I liked it. I liked the business and chaos. I day dreamed of moving there and even mentioned that to the cashier at Trader Joes. Meredith laughed and asked where I was from. Santa Fe, I told her. “That’s where I got married!”

Trader Joes, the first I’d visited since leaving work on May 15th at TJs in Santa Fe, was a familiar comfortable place to restock. Dog food that the pets like and treats for Stevie cat and me. Known staples for my kitchen. Yep, I was glad to be there, talking to Nate the Mate who sent his hello to my own manager in NM. It’s a small world at Trader Joes.

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Coffeepot Lake, WA, caught my attention and we headed there for a few nights of BLM free camping next to water. It really was in the middle of nowhere, long open range farmland, few homes, and little traffic. I drove down the slippery gravel and dirt road and turned to corner to see a nice sized reservoir with eight huge cottonwood trees and camping spots between and under each tree. Perfect. The campground is about an hour and a half from Spokane, down Hwy 2, and then south on WA-28 near Harrington. Pulling up into the shaded site, it was time to release the Hounds, and cat. It was safe enough for all to run free. Finally I wore shorts and a tee shirt.

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There was a path leading away from the boat ramp, and with Stevie tucked up in the van, the dogs and I explored the lake in the afternoon sunshine and solitude. A few boats of fishermen dawdled in the warmth. Our walking under his tree irritates a hawk but I keep my head down and follow the pups over a ridge and down the other side. An empty beach tempts me. I strip off and swim near the mallards.

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Washington, yes, the east side I liked more than the western coast which was unexpected. Disappointing really. I’d been playing with the idea of moving to Washington, a place highly recommended by friends and co-workers who know me fairly well. They talked of the mountains, the ocean, the forests, and the places to visit. They didn’t warn me of the political signs, the overwhelming presence of the racist misogynistic presidential candidate. They didn’t warn me of the huge number of churches of all denomination that outnumbered any other type of community meeting places like libraries, cafes, or pubs. Nope. The culture I found on those back roads as I crossed the state was not one I could relax within. I kept my mouth shut, head down, and hid at the North West Overland Rally near Leavenworth.

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It’s been hard to stop still on this trip so far. I’ve racked up so many miles, taking local county roads through small villages and avoiding the cities and interstates, always looking for rivers and lakes but even when I found them, I didn’t relax for more than a couple of nights at a time. Curious. Restless. Call it what you will, but I keep on going…

The NWOR will need a blog of its own; I’ll get back to that. With this travel report from Washington I’d hoped to beat down my reluctance to write about the state and to get through my writer’s block. It’s working.

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Open rangeland, farmland, high desert, huge lakes, and ocean beaches, these are the places that relax me. My eyes widen and yet also half close as the sense of distance, emptiness, and space reminds me of how lucky I am to exist, and how life carries on whether I do or don’t. My insignificance is reassuring.

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I didn’t write much as I crossed from Leavenworth towards Bellingham and Arlington. M notes are incomplete, rough, images and reminders but little worth for anyone else.

Cascades NP

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Methow River valley.

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BLM dirt tracks over mountains with little shade but empty of others. Perfect after the business of a week at the rally.

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Twisp, an amazingly good selection of food at the local supermarket. Great cheddar, organic veggies, and the freshest of peaches and nectarines.

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Winthrop – a cute tourist town on the river that was busy for a Monday morning. I didn’t stop except to grab a coffee.

Gorge Lake campground in the Cascades National Park was free and therefore busy. I found one of the last sites that lunchtime and glad to be able to park in the shade, I set up for one night. Critters out, then cat back inside, as this was bear country, active bear country. I shared my campsite with three others who’d arrived late and tired. I moved the van forward and they put up tents and offered me a beer and conversation.

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Washington was the state where I had van troubles, ongoing noises that worried the hell out of me but no one else neither heard them nor believed how bad it sounded. Typically I’d be alone taking a left hand corner, slowing down, a tight turn and then crunching, clacking, grinding sounds from the front wheel would stop me cold. The wheel’s falling off! Time to stop and smell the rivers.

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Washington was a place of five mechanics, all with different ideas as to what was going on. Each time, something would be fixed, replaced, and then within half an hour or even half a block, I’d hear the wheel complaining loudly. Finally, after a day in Seaview WA at a higly recommended mechanic shop, they’d fixed one thing, sent me off, and yep, by the time I reached the beach five blocks away, that noise returned. I drove back, pulled up, grabbed the mechanic, and took him with us. Clunk. Scrape. Crunch.

“That’s the wheel bearing!” he’s as excited as a kid with a new toy. “I can do that easily. Let’s see what’s going on down there.” He fixed it in half an hour and for less than $150. The noise hasn’t returned.

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Five mechanics. Five bills paid by credit card. Total spent. $786.

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.

 

 

Montana on my mind

IMG_20160613_154940214_HDRHebgen Lake is just ten miles outside of West Yellowstone in the Gallatin National Forest and covers 12,350 acres. It’s full of heron, cranes, ducks and fishermen on lightweight inflatable pontoons. Highway 20 heads west and just before you hit the KOA campground you need to watch out for the local Fire Dept. on the right and turn up that dirt road. There is no sign or street number but it will lead you to two campgrounds about another ten miles in. The first campground costs and has a host, oh, and water. The second campground is slightly further in to the forest and is free, primitive, and on a first come basis. I was the second there. It’s beautiful. I can breathe again after the claustrophobic Yellowstone National Park.

 

The campground offers six sites, all with table, fire pit and a level place to call home. The vault toilets are at the turn around and really clean. It was perfect there, the water right outside the van just beyond the tree line. The wildlife floated by. The critters ran free and safe. That first night was cold and wet though, we stayed inside the van and once again I was incredibly happy that I bought Vera for this trip. She’s made life easy on us all.

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Back into town, a wondrously tourist focused town outside the park, with everything (almost) named after either moose or grizzlies. Yep, that kind of town. The people in the stores and bakery were super friendly and I spent some time chatting to Mary in the market about the lake and working in town. Short, stocky, and with an open soft face, she grew up there and loved meeting all the visitors. Good for her, it helps when traveling to feel welcome, that’s for sure. Ernie’s bakery up the road had freshly made croissants, and Ernie originally came from France, so yes, the croissant were the best they could be, so that’s where I went in the mornings. Free Internet to send out the articles, reply to email and post a video slideshow. Pretty good starts to my days on the lake.

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We had a social night at Cherry Creek campground. One night was just myself and the mystery tenter who didn’t appear till after I’d gone to bed. The next night the place was packed. All sites taken and more people driving in and back out again. Next to me were two young women from New Hampshire. Elizabeth was a thirty-year-old red head with high energy who invited herself to sit at my campfire.
“I’ve talked to no one by Victoria for a week!” and she stood there sipping a can of PBR, restless and moving constantly, she found more wood for the fire.
Victoria joined us, a wholesome blond, clean and conservative who described herself as high maintenance. Her first camping trip apparently and she’d come along because they’d both quit working for an oil company and needed an adventure. She talked of God, of Heaven, and the “super conservative Christian school”, and then offered me a hit of weed.

A.J, the tenter, was about 5’8, thick of body, an outdoorsman with thick red beard and in his early thirties. “Maybe it’s because I’m a dude” was his phrase often used. A couple in a 1980s motorhome and Butter, their corgi, also joined us. (Stevie was hidden in the van during social hour.) More couples chatted briefly, coming and going. Easy company for the most part and I realized I’d been alone for much of the last two weeks but hadn’t noticed!

 

On Hwy 287 North towards Helena, MT, and along the Madison River the weather dropped back to cold, damp, and with snow in the mountains just above us. The trees dripped and the windshield wipers worked luckily, I’d not tested them beforehand. Over the pass and alongside Quake Lake into a wide lush green valley, and we stop at the riverside for a snack and walk. The rain though sends us all back into the van shortly.

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Past Helena, I find the turn off for NF 695, looking for the next free campground in the Beaverhead Deerlodge Forest. Construction stops us, and Janet, the flagger explains that they’ve widened, repacked, and are grading the road for the next six miles into the forest. Finally I’m allowed to go and following the lead truck, I drive slowly uphill. The truck pulls over and waves me on. I’ve not been paying attention to distances but when the road steepens incredibly and winds up into a wet narrow gorge, I figure I’ve missed the campground. I find a turn out and slowly do a three point turn and then pull off to the side and stop. Doors open, critters out, time for a snack and cuppa tea. There are no views; it’s too narrow and thick with pine and ponderosas. After half an hour of relaxing, stretching out the kinks, and watching the pets explore, we head back down to construction zone and sure enough the campground is in the middle of it. Nope, we’re not staying there. So what’s next? Looking at the map, it’s only another 100 miles to Seeley Lake, one of the places recommended to me. Okay, so back to Highways 141 through the Avon Valley, a quick trip along Hwy 200, and finally north on 83 at Clearwater Junction and the Blackfoot River.

 

LAKE INEZ

 

No signs from the Lolo National Forest show me the way, but I’d watched the odometer and noticed when we were at about the right distance from Seeley lake town. The dirt road to the left took us down along the lakeside and I pulled over, not sure what to expect. I left Stevie inside and took the dogs further down the road for a scout out. We found a perfect dispersed campsite just half a mile down so we claimed it with the van as soon as I could. Good timing as another van trundled past just as we set up camp!

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The rain lingered but it was still beautiful. The table made a good kitchen with a view and the short path to the lake brought us out on a smaller lake with snow-capped mountains towering above us. The clouds descended and the rain came back. The van called and I took my mug of wine inside, following the dogs and Stevie to the bed.

 

FLATHEAD LAKE

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Am I in Wales? The wind whips around me, and I zip up the rain jacket, standing next to this incredibly huge grey lake, the waves slapping against the beach and scaring poor sensitive Harold. Rosie takes it in stride and wants to swim as usual. We walk along the waters edge here in Bigfork and take it all in. Stevie is leashed in the van so he can’t jump out when we get back. He’s so comfortable traveling now that whenever he sees me grab the dog leashes, he jumps down from his shelf, wanting to come with us. There is a brewery looking over the lake and since it’s noon, I figure why not! Yep, dogs in van, smartphone in hand, I have a couple of lagers and watch the storm outside.

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HUNGRY HORSE RESERVOIR

 

The road in is well marked, leading us to the dam and the lake’s 50 plus mile length. The road is NF 895, and well maintained, so much so that motorhomes and trailers head in the same direction. I know that beyond the first four campgrounds that are in the first ten miles, I’ll find a primitive campground perfect some 24 miles in. Only four sites, no water, and limited access. Perfect. The weather is still stormy but after a couple of beers, I’m okay with that. The trees drip moss, and the undergrowth is thick and healthy.
Then we turn south and suddenly the lake opens up before me. Stunning. Deep, wide, a dark grey, and high barren alpine mountains covered in snow, yep, that’s where we spending the night.

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Our campsite faces the Flathead Range and the Great Bear Wilderness area with Elk Mtn at 7389 ft., Mt Cameahwait at 7879, and Felix Peak at 7996, all snow packed.

 

I pull out the union suit and put on the Sorrel boots for warmth as we all explore. It feels safe so I let Stevie walk with us. He’s pretty focused on us these days and follows along with the dogs, going where they go, trying to keep up. Then if he loses sight of me, he meows until I whistle and then he pops back into range. Good fella. I sit by the lake with a mug of wine and suck it all in. Beautiful. There is so much out there that I feel pressed to keep moving, I’m having a hard time sitting still in any one place. This then is a trial run, a testing ground, and yes, I’ll have to come back with more time and no deadlines.

I had a rough night, couldn’t sleep, restless legs, twitching, and then the hail and snow started. All four of us on the bed cuddled for warmth. I had a moments panic at the thought of driving out of here on snowy roads but then let it go, there was nothing to be done. The snow didn’t stick anyway. It is June, and here I am in long johns and layers…I like it.

 

 

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK

 

Now this is my kind of park, laid back, little used, not the crowded claustrophobia of Yellowstone. The entrance to the North Fork area is a small welcoming log home down a two-lane dirt road. The ranger is friendly and even gives the pups a treat each. Nothing for Stevie, she wasn’t expecting that. We chat for a moment about the roads in to this side of the park and she tells me that they’re both fine, either the 6 miles to Bowman Lake or the 15 miles to Kintla Lake. She recommends Bowman though. “The ranger there likes dogs, the other one is more protective of his station. I’d take them to Bowman, it’ll be easier on you all.”

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Past Pinebridge, a small town of thirty people with an incredible bakery, the road narrows to one lane, winding back and forth up into dense forests, in and out of trees with hints of the Glacier Mountains ahead. The road is better than mine at home which is funny as all the write ups about this lake and area had bitched about the horrible rough road, to the point where I’d almost not come thinking I needed the 4Runner or something. Nope, any old car can do it, just drive slowly around the potholes and up the switchbacks. No biggy.

 

BOWMAN LAKE

 

A high glacier fed lake, almost ten miles long and yet narrow, is so clear and pristine, it took away my need to do, to move, to photograph or to write. I just sat on the water’s edge with two dogs on leashes and stared. For a long time, we just sat there. The lakes, the campgrounds, the hiking trails all were in a hushed awe of this lake. Phenomenal.

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I took photos, I can’t describe it, the peaceful beauty, and knowing that one day it will dry up and be gone. I’m lucky to see this. To share this. Of 150 glaciers noted in 1916 when the park system came about, there are now only twenty-five glaciers left, and those are shrinking. The mountains to the north of us were all ranged from Square Peak at 8777 ft. to Rainbow Peak at 9891 and had snowcaps but not nearly as much as I’d expected.

 

Young elk wander through the campgrounds and stop at my table as I read some ten feet away. We look each other, the soft fur on the antlers impresses me, they aren’t and move along to the next visitors. Dogs and cat luckily are inside the van with doors shut. You see, I’m made the mistake of letting the dogs off leash while I opened up the van to put them back inside and Rosie ran. Into the road, caught a squirrel, killed it with one quick bite, and left the proof of hunting nature in the middle of that damn road! I threw the dogs inside, grabbed the shovel and picked up the body and hid it in the trees… It’s not a good place for my critters, all on leashes, especially Stevie as the signs warn of mountain lions lurking in the area, being “active”.

“You might lose a pet if unattended or leashed out of your sight.”

Oh shit, that’s about as real a threat as I can deal with. All three pets are on lock down. I won’t stay here long, just enough to stare at the lake and absorb as much of this peace and beauty as possible.

 

We head back down to Pinebridge the next day and buy a pastry, a Brie and turkey fresh from the oven pastry. Delicious. Driving down the North Fork road towards Columbia Falls takes us an hour and a half, what with slow going rough roads, elk and deer sightings, checking out the Flathead River, more stops to pee and stretch, and to unleash the hounds. So many places to camp in the Flathead Forest, if (when) I come back to Glacier National Park, we’ll set up camp out here and drive it to sight see. The road widens and speeds up as we get closer to town and then hitting the main highway west, we aim for Libby, Montana, our last night in the state.

 

LIBBY

 

I miss the turn off; I’d been looking at the sign for a local brewery, tempted but not enough to detour. It’s been a long day and I want to stop and settle for the night. Driving up a narrow canyon on an empty highway towards Canada, I pull over at the Ranger’s station. Yep, wrong way. I’m on Hwy 37 and not 567. Tough, I’m not going back. We pull off at the first national forest road, drop down another dirt road and end up on the riverside in an obviously used dispersed campsite. That’s good enough for me. I step out and take a breath, look around, yep, feels safe. Unleash the hounds.

 

The Kootenai River flows shallow and clear. The railway tracks are surprisingly busy with freight trains heading to Canada. I wave to the drivers and one blows the horn back. I salute with my mug of tea. The critters play and explore. I make dinner as the clouds build and rain drizzles once again. Montana has been damp and beautiful.

 

Leaving in the morning is a relaxed affair, but for Stevie running into the trees when a train came by and he wasn’t near the van. I lost sight of him for a while but when I walked into the trees calling him, he called back. We found each other, little bugger.

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I drove out of the campsite, relaxed and ready for another good day. I drove and drove, finding us up high on a dirt gravel single lane road heading east. The wrong way in other words. I kept going and we came out on Hwy 2 about thirty miles east of Libby, and it had taken us an hour to get there. My day was not starting out so smoothly after all. It went downhill from there. Three campgrounds later, some found, some not, we settled in at Garfield Bay in Idaho. Tired now. But we’re in Idaho! Time to put the kettle on. Oh, and find Stevie again…