Bits and pieces

IMG_2776Labor Day is approaching.  In Anchorage it made me melancholy.  It signaled the end of an all-too-short—and therefore exceedingly precious—Anchorage summer.   And it meant that the long, gray (exceedingly gray) Anchorage winter was not far behind.  A winter that eventually turned me into a rabid sun worshiper.  This year is different.  Summer may be winding down, but we have an East Coast fall to enjoy and will be moving to warmer weather for the winter.

And, for the first time in decades, we are not workers this Labor Day.  I am savoring the sweet existence of retirement and the ability to do pretty much whatever the hell I want.  So, on Labor Day, I will lift a glass to all the workers who went before and made it possible for us to retire before we became broken down old drones.  And another glass to all who continue to work, wishing them luck in navigating the maze of labor and workplace issues today, with the shell of a labor movement limping, or in some cases, waddling, its way through the confusion.

On a purely selfish level, Labor Day allows us to breathe a sigh of relief because it means that the summer RV/campground season is coming to an end.  Having been insulated by the scarcity of people and immensity of land in Alaska, we did not really comprehend just how crowded campgrounds would be in the Lower 48.  We started this trip before the summer season hit and struggled to find campgrounds that were open.  But that early start gave us the luxury of staying in some amazing, nearly empty campgrounds while school was still in session.  As soon as school let out, we have had to vigilantly plan ahead to make sure that we have reservations some place—any place—every single weekend.

We went from this:

Just us--nobody else-at this amazing campground on the Cassiar Highway.

Just us–nobody else–at this amazing campground on the Cassiar Highway. 

To this:

Just us--and about a thousand other people--at this campground in Massachusetts

Just us–and at least a thousand other people–at this campground in Massachusetts.

Which brings me to the next bit of this post—campgrounds.  We have been relatively promiscuous when it comes to campgrounds.  We have stayed at wide variety, from bare-bone gravel lots to “resorts.” We try to keep an open mind, mix it up a bit, and enjoy what each has to offer.   Last week, in a few hours we moved from the pastoral and ocean serenity of Recompence Shore in Maine to the bustling, efficient Massachusetts family resort, Normandy Farms.

From a working farm,

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Sheep in the pasture at Recompence

to a trailer farm.

Trailers in the pasture.

Trailers at Normandy Farms with no farm in sight.

It was a culture shock.  My first reaction was horror at the sheer number of people in the campground (400 plus sites, so well over a thousand people).   But once I left my “what are these people thinking?” attitude behind, I started to understand the place.  It was a bit surreal and Disneylike–huge, meticulously groomed, highly organized, and over 100 cheerful, employees.  But it worked.  The place was enormous, with ball fields, basketball courts, fishing lake, bike park, fitness center, massage, sauna, four pools,  snack bar, bocce ball, Frisbee golf course, children’s ceramics classes, state-of-the-art horseshoe pit . . . you get the idea.  The place does what it does very well, with creativity and zeal—and it’s not cheap.

Normandy Farms streetscape

Normandy Farms streetscape

The recreation hall with its tangle of bikes

The recreation hall 

It was not our style, but we enjoyed seeing families spending time together—and seemingly having a lot of fun.  Kids were riding bikes all over the park, without parental hovering, to a variety of kid-geared activities, while their parents relaxed and socialized. Our neighbors, like many there, were enjoying some three-generational bonding, with a full outdoor set-up of a movie-style popcorn popper, a stack of short 2X4’s labelled “Adult Jenga,” booze, and an elaborate corn-hole game.

 

Even the dog park was adorable

Even the dog park was adorable,.

and amazing, with a washing area and kennel

and amazing, with a washing area and kennel.

Which brings me to the final piece of this post—the reason we were there in the first place was that we had to make an 8 am Monday appointment for our refrigerator repair and this was the nearest campground to the RV place.  We hitched up the night before so that we could creep out early during the official “quiet time.”  After two days in the shop, our refrigerator is working.   Labor Day and cold food—good to go.

Cold temps to warm our hearts

Cold temps to warm our hearts

We now are happily parked in our kindhearted relatives’ (thank you) driveway enjoying time with them and exploring and revisiting the South Shore below Boston, where George grew up.  We are going to spend some time in Boston and Cape Cod in the next few weeks and then head south.  Zoe may not want to leave because she is in love with everyone here—human and dog-wise.

Path to the dog beach in Plymouth

Path to the dog beach in Plymouth 

Lots of birders in the marshes heading to the dog beach

Lots of birders in the marshes by the dog beach

Dog beach in Plymouth

The beach itself

One happy dog

One happy dog 

With her gorgeous cousin, Smokey

With her gorgeous cousin, Smokey

Enjoy Labor Day.

The Boston skyline from Hough's (or Houghs) Neck in Quincy

The Boston skyline from Hough’s (or Houghs) Neck in Quincy.

Hough's Neck

Hough’s Neck

George's home at Hough's Neck when he was in late elementary school

George’s home at Hough’s Neck when he was in late elementary school

Looking forward to some Boston time

Looking forward to some Boston time

 

Devil’s Dream

IMG_1848I popped into the IGA in Buffalo, Wyoming for a few groceries.  I paused in the produce section to let an elderly man pass with his cart.  He gently laid his hand on my arm and looked at me.  “Isn’t the weather beautiful today? So nice after all that rain, but you know it slowed the lilacs, they are just blooming and usually they are way past their prime by now.”

When I checked out, a talkative, middle-aged cashier asked, “Do you like country music?”  She tucked two copies of her band’s CDs in my grocery bag, “I play the fiddle and share lead vocals, hope you enjoy, they’re free.”  What wonders lurk in the IGA.  I will remember those encounters.

Buffalo was full of friendly people.  And, like Dubois and so many other western towns, it has a beautiful setting.  Flanked by the Bighorn Mountains on one side, it rolls into grasslands on the other, and the downtown is full of historic buildings and classic bungalow-lined streets.  We stayed at Deer Park, a sweet little oasis of an RV park, staffed by funny, charming people. There must be some real jerks in Buffalo, but we didn’t meet any.

After a nice interlude in Buffalo, we continued on to the Devil’s Tower, the unreal-looking monolith featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It's not all gorgeous mountains.  Flatlands on the way to Devil's Tower.

It’s not all gorgeous mountains. Flat land on the way to Devil’s Tower.

The entrance to the Devil’s Tower Monument was filled with the usual stores and crowded private campgrounds that proliferate near national parks and monuments.   We bypassed them and stayed at an amazing public campground, Belle Fourche, within the park.  It did not have hookups, which isn’t a problem for us because, with a little sunshine, our solar panels provide enough electricity for days.  At $12 a night, we had an almost unbelievable campsite, with a private lawn looking out on a stream, mountain meadow, red cliffs, and the Devil’s Tower looming as a dramatic backdrop.

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Zoe always finds a stick to play with at every new campsite.  She went nuts at this one.

Zoe always finds a stick at every new campsite. She went nuts at this one.

There are a wide variety of campground types, each with their own distinct flavor.  Campgrounds without hookups tend to attract people with tents, pop-ups, or small trailers, rather than those with behemoth RVs. As a result, the crowd is generally a bit more quirky and interesting and this place was no different.  There were people from several different countries, climbers, and young (very polite) families.  It reminded us of a backpacking crowd—independent and diverse.

The serene campground was a nice escape from the crowds at the Tower parking lot–it was a madhouse.  I can’t imagine what it is like on weekends in full summer. But it was worth enduring the crowds for the up-close view because the rock formation is so striking and unusual.

View from the visitor's parking lot.

View from the visitors’ parking lot.

Looking at the backside.

From the backside

The tower looked like a tree trunk to me.

The tower looked like a tree trunk to me.  View from the campground.  It looks photoshopped.

We had a warm, sunny afternoon, a period of thunderstorms—which we miss in Alaska—followed by rainbows, and an almost full moon that night.  I am running out of superlatives, but it was quite a show.

Our campsite during the rainstorm. Our fire went out.

Our campsite when the sun came out during the thunderstorm.

 

After the storm.  Amazing light.

After the storm–amazing light.

Rainbows.

Rainbows.

Sunset.

Sunset.

Route 97

We have become Route 97 fans, following it from Canada through Eastern Washington to Bend, Oregon.  Its landscapes change abruptly.  Turn a corner, go over a hill, and you are in a different world.  And it runs through country we haven’t explored before.

After leaving Oroville, Washington on Monday, we continued on through the Okanagan Valley orchards and vineyards and then emerged into the really arid hills around Lake Chelan and the upper Columbia River area.

Zoe smells a marmot.

Zoe smells a marmot.

We spent Monday night near Wenatchee at Lincoln Rock State Park, which I will forever remember for the marmot infestation. The park has three different grassy and treed loops for camping, which wind around a very dry hillside covered with sagebrush and rocks.  As we drove around looking for a campsite, clusters of marmots were scavenging at recently vacated campsites (it was the end of the long weekend) and would waddle off to the safety of the hillside only to reemerge after our car passed.  They were hardly recognizable as the wild marmots we see on our Alaskan hikes.  They were fat, slow, and kind of like big old rats, only they flattened out when you approached.  I bit nightmarish, really.

Fortunately, we found a nice spot by the water that seemed marmot-free (who knows what they did when the lights were out). It was still busy in the park into late Monday evening, with lots of families swimming, soccer games, and teenagers cruising around.  We were definitely back in civilization.  What a lovely view, though.

Morning view at our campsite at Lincoln Rock

Morning at our campsite at Lincoln Rock

On Tuesday we headed down through the apple growing region around Wenatchee and into the pine hills near Cashmere–a really pretty area as you begin to leave the valley.  The road passes into woodsy mountain terrain and then descends into the Yakima area.  We did not spend much time in Yakima (bank and grocery store time), but I kind of liked it.  It’s a huge, wide valley of farmland with Mediterranean-like hillsides planted with fruit trees and some grapes.

The road changes again as it climbs into another set of hills on the Yakama Reservation, where the smell of pine resin was intoxicating. The trees thinned out again as we descended to the big Columbia River on the Washington/Oregon border.

The hills before the final descent to the river gorge were covered with windmills.  They may be an eyesore to some, but I loved them.  They looked like moving sculptures on the hill tops and sides, moving in unison—or not.  Either way, it was like a dance.  We met our first real wind that afternoon, with lots of swirling gusts coming through the gullies and over the hillsides.  Windmill watching for me and concentrated driving for George, as we were hit from every direction by gusts.

Descent to the river by Maryhill S.P.

Descent to the river by Maryhill S.P.

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We camped at Maryhill State Park that night, right on the banks of the Columbia.  It was absolutely beautiful, with the cut banks of the river, a field of grass behind our campsite, and mature sweet gums, maples, birches, and other ornamentals planted throughout the park. There must not be any concern about drought in Eastern Washington, because sprinklers were going in every park we visiting as if there was water to spare—and then some.

Maryhill State Park

Maryhill State Park

The Columbia from Maryhill

The Columbia from Maryhill

We woke to increased winds in the morning and huge whitecaps on the river. The bridge to Oregon is a fairly high one and I was picturing a gust blowing the trailer right off the bridge (one of my only irrational fears).  The winds were forecast to get worse, so off we went.  The bridge was fine—a stupid fear overcome–and we followed Route 97 into Oregon.

Route 97 near Moro, Oregon

Route 97 near Moro, Oregon

Sundogs

We have gone solar.  Finding the parts in Anchorage was a challenge, but the installation went without a hitch and the system appears to be working beautifully.  We haven’t seen any solar panels on Alaskan RVs and debated waiting until we got Outside for the install. But we decided to see if we could get it done in Anchorage and are glad we did. Everyone involved was enthusiastic and helpful and the work was completed faster than we expected.  How sweet is that?

We have three panels running down one side of the trailer roof.  The roof is rounded, giving the panels a slight natural tilt.  We did not want to have to manually tilt the panels (the less chores the better), but the permanent tilt means that we will have to keep the sun direction in mind when picking campsites.  We originally sized the system for two panels but decided to add a third so we could avoid the hassle of climbing a ladder to adjust the panel angles

panels

The wiring from the panels runs into the interior through the refrigerator vent and then along the underside to the MPPT charge controller.  The charge controller is neatly tucked into a panel under a closet on one side of our bed.  It regulates the voltage to keep the batteries from overcharging and lets us know the amount of power produced by the panels and the state of battery charge. On a sunny day it provides up to 15 amps for several hours, which is more than enough to charge the batteries.

controller

controller

A 600 watt pure sine wave inverter is installed in the matching panel on the other side of our bed. It takes 12 volt DC from the batteries and converts it to 120 volt AC, allowing us to keep our electronics charged and to power the TV while dry camping during football season.

inverter

inverter

Finally, we upgraded the batteries to two 6 volt AGMs wired in series, which are mounted on the same battery mounts as the previous ones, with an added custom cover to keep water from pooling.

George did a tremendous amount of research to see what would work best for our needs without breaking the bank.  It looks like the research paid off.  So far, we are impressed with how fast the panels charge the batteries, even without full sun.  Of course, it is way too early to tell how everything will work in the long run.  But, for now, I’m tickled with the idea that we can get our electric needs from the sun.  We are already plotting a home solar system for when we come in off the road.

 

Unleashed and unmuzzled

George and I have incurable wanderlust. We have kept it under wraps during our incarnation as career-folks, but have always dreamed of taking a really long road trip. Last fall we bought a 22-foot travel trailer and, after a couple of in-state shakedown cruises, put it to bed for the long Anchorage winter.

Spring (aka break-up) is approaching and we are plowing out the trailer. We retired from our jobs and are about to embark on a year-long (more or less) road trip through the Lower-48.  Because our lives have been constrained by schedules and deadlines for so many years, we want to keep this trip as flexible as possible.  Aside from my desire to sample all the best local potato chips in the country, we have no agenda and our itinerary is fluid.

Are we living in this thing?

Are we living in this thing?

Zoe is concerned about the packing, but will follow us anywhere.

We are waiting for the snow to melt so that we can get solar panels installed on our trailer.  After that, it’s final packing up and we should be leaving in early May.

We are almost unleashed and unmuzzled, but not there yet.