10,550 Miles Later….

Home! We’ve been home for a week and a half now, and it seems like forever already. Life has been a flurry of catching up with family and friends, and trying to whip our neglected homestead into some kind of reasonable shape. (Note to self….make some real plans for the spring yard work to get done next year!) The grass in our back yard was nearly two feet tall in places – in ten days, I’ve mowed four times already. BUT, the herb garden is planted, and I’m already dreaming of the sweet tomatoes that we’ll be harvesting later.

Before I relate stories from our last week of camping, I have to share a remarkable photo from our last stop at the Ocoee River, and the National Whitewater Center there. Here’s a photo of the whitewater section when the upstream dam is open, and the water is pouring over the rocks. A friendly raft guide told me that section is a “solid Class IV whitewater”. 20170513_112715On Sunday, the dam is closed again. This is what that same section of the river looks like.20170515_093922-3 Amazing, isn’t it? We could hardly believe our eyes.

Our last week on the road in eastern Tennessee delivered some of the most beastly camping weather we have ever encountered. Temperatures soared into the mid 90s every day. Zero wind or breeze, and humidity around 80+ percent. While we were camped in Cades Cove Campground in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we were lucky to have a mostly shaded site. T@DA friends Gail and Sid from Virginia were camped nearby, so we had someone to share complaints with. It was truly miserable. John and I decided to do a ten-mile hike one day, intending to get an early morning start to beat the heat. Ha! We didn’t get going until 10:45am, so we hiked through the worst of the heat all day. When we neared the end, we had a cool stream to cross, and the first thing we did was soak our hats in the cool water and slip them back on our heads. We did the same thing at the next two crossings, and it saved us. Truly miserable conditions for a hike. I didn’t even take any photos!

The Cades Cove area of GSMNP has a twelve mile scenic loop, with old homesteads, churches, and other historic and scenic sights. Best of all, it’s closed to automobile traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10am. So, of course we hauled out bikes out and did a fast spin Wednesday morning. What a pleasure to roll through the blue-green road, with no cars to dodge. The big disappointment for us was that once again, we saw no bears. We’ve been to GSMNP five times now and spent a total of at least 15 days there, and have yet to see a bear. Along the route, I stopped to take just one photo. 20170516_152137-1 (My intention was to add a link to an earlier post with photos from Cades Cove, but I couldn’t find it. My tags in earlier blogs were not very complete – I understand that now.) We were in a hurry to move on to our next spot – the long-awaited Blue Ridge Rally. Camping with about 60 of our best T@B and T@DA friends.

As you probably know, private campgrounds are not our favorite spots to stay, but Big Meadow in Townsend, TN is pretty nice. Sadly, they have a problem with some type of blight which is killing off their large shade trees. Bad news when its 95 degrees out. We had a nice view, but we baked in the heat!20170518_064754In a moment of foolishness, we had decided (weeks ago) to enter a bicycle ride called the Tour de Blount (we were in Blount County). Riders could select one of four distances – 78, 54, 42, or 25 miles. John and I decided that 42 rolling miles would be plenty for us, since we were on our mountain bikes, instead of lighter, faster road bikes. In fact, we were the only people on mountain bikes that I saw. What beautiful countryside for a bike ride! I sacrificed any thought of speed, and stopped frequently for photo ops.20170520_07185020170521_21322620170521_213144 20170519_11511520170520_080853It was still super-hot that day, and although we hit the road at 7:30am, the temperature climbed quickly. As long as we kept rolling, it was fine, but stopping was torture. Post-ride, we enjoyed beer and BBQ with the 350 other riders. I had the misfortune to miss a turn, so I tacked on about 5 ‘bonus’ miles to the 42 I had planned. Note to self:  Pay Attention!!

For four days we swapped camping stories with like-minded folks, shared meals, beers, coffee, and laughs. Some of our best camping tips have come from these groups, and getting together to hang out for a few days is always a blast.

But, we were SO ready to hit the road and get home. On Sunday May 21, we rolled out and pointed the Campsh@ck (our new name for the Fireball) directly north. Four hundred and twenty miles or so later, we rolled into Grand Lake St Marys State Park in Ohio for the night. 20170521_195933This gorgeous campground was pretty quiet on a May Sunday night, but it’s easy to imagine it being jam-packed all summer long.

Monday morning, we hit the road early and gave a little cheer when we hit the Michigan border. It wouldn’t be a complete trip without stopping at Dark Horse Brewery in Marshall MI for a pint and a sandwich before rolling into our driveway around 3pm.

148 days away from home. It feels good to be back.

Petrified

To a Midwesterner, the big skies and huge vistas of the Southwest have always captured my imagination. What must it have been like to be traveling across the land for months, and stumble across the Grand Canyon (for me, one of the most incredible of all the huge monuments out here)? But, last week, we rolled into the Petrified Forest, and it opened up a huge new world of wonder. This really stretches my imagination.

First, we had to deal with a few logistical items. There’s no camping in this National Park. There are two gift shops on the southern end which offer free camping (dirt parking lot on a highway), but we were happy to have a spot.wp-1492387376719.jpg There really isn’t anything else within 20 miles. So, here was our home for two nights. We opted to have an electric site for $10, so that we would be able to run our air conditioning for Jezzy, while we were gone for a whole day. Bathrooms are available from 11am-6pm. No water is available (“Don’t drink the water. It will make you sick.”) For two days, that wasn’t a hardship, although it would be tough if you weren’t prepared for it.

Since we only had a few hours to explore the first day, we decided to bicycle in, and check out the Visitor Center at the southern end of the Park. It sits in the middle of an astonishing forest of petrified wood. wp-1492387239774.jpgHere’s Petrified Wood 101: Two hundred million years ago, Arizona was at about the same latitude at Costa Rica – about 10 degrees north of the equator. It was loaded with conifer forests. Trees fell, sank into the mud, and were covered with mineral deposits, turning the wood into stone of the most incredible colors. wp-1492387254731.jpgThe color of the stone depends on the mineral in which the tree was buried. It really is indescribable – so different than the petrified wood we saw last year in North Dakota, which was essentially gray, with a woodlike appearance. I couldn’t resist, and purchased about a 50lb boulder at the gift shop. You can see it in my back yard if you stop by.

These mammoth rocks have knots and swirls like live trees. Many have fallen over, and have remained essentially whole and unbroken. The circled rock is a great example of that – the deposits above it have eroded away. Eventually, the deposits below will blow or wash away, and it will fall. You can see the floor below is littered with petrified boulders.wp-1492387568828.jpg Others are segmented, some by natural forces, but others cut by opportunists searching for valuable crystals before the forests were protected. Whether whole or broken, they challenged my imagination.

“Would you walk across this log on a horse for $.25?” 20170413_091138That was the question a Park worker asked John as we viewed the Agate Bridge, a complete petrified tree that had fallen, been buried, and millions of years later, re-emerged from its mineral mountain. Apparently, in the early tourist days, a local gent did just that – collected quarters from tourists, and rode his horse across this narrow bridge above an abyss. The rock has since been reinforced with concrete beneath, but the thought of riding or walking across is harrowing. It’s admittedly difficult to see in this photo.

We drove the length of the Park Drive, from the Petrified Forest on the south to the Painted Desert National Park Visitor Center at the north, which is a totally different change of pace.wp-1492387273437.jpgwp-1492387592159.jpgwp-1492387552889.jpgwp-1492387512441.jpgwp-1492387415831.jpg We pulled in at every turnout, and hiked every little hike. It’s mind boggling.

John has always been interested in astronomy, which led us to our next stop at Datil Wells Campground, just outside the town of Datil, NM. This immaculate BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campground cost us just $2.50/night with our Sr. Pass.wp-1492466772645.jpg Our campsite was enormous! There aren’t enough kind words to say about these camp hosts, their friendliness, and their dedication to making this a spectacular spot to camp. We hiked with Jezzy one day, and enjoyed spectacular overlooks from our 8000′ vantage point.wp-1492467053818.jpg

20170415_122546But, our real quest was the Very Large Array, a farm of 27 huge radio telescopes which scan the skies 24/7 for faint natural radio waves from distant galaxies, black holes, and baby stars.wp-1492467244891.jpg wp-1492467305594.jpgThese 82′ dishes can be arranged are mounted on a series of railroad tracks, which enables them to be moved into four different configurations – from 1/2 mile to 13 miles from end to end. Every six hours, the dishes repoint in unison to a new position. Every four months, the entire array is repositoned, using a giant forklift-type of device which lifts, then rolls each telescope to a new position on the grid.wp-1492467321715.jpg It’s amazing. At one point, John thought he was receiving signals from outer space, but it turned out just to be that damned New Mexico wind roaring through the vents in his bike helmet.

A big part of this adventure though, was our bike ride to get there. Google Maps is both our friend and foe. When it’s spot on, there’s no better tool. But, woe be to the cyclist who gets ‘googled’ with faulty directions. In our case, Google suggested that we cycle Highway 60 for a short distance, then turn right on County Road 152. After another short distance we would arrive at “Old Highway 60”, which would take us right to the VLA. What could be more simple?

What we didn’t know was that Old Highway 60 probably hasn’t seen any car traffic since I was a baby. It consists of an occasional splotch of pavement surrounded by huge clumps of weeds. You can just barely see John in the center of the photo.20170416_105802For a while, it was fun riding.20170416_110601 A pack of Pronghorn Antelopes (fastest animal in North America) ran alongside us, as if issuing a challenge. It didn’t take them long to decide we weren’t worthy of a race. We let ourselves through two wire gates, into increasingly barren partures. At one point, three gigantic horses seemed to take exception to John’s advance (I, of course, stayed back in my role as official photographer). The lead horse was very aggressively advancing toward John, leaping and pawing the ground, when he wisely decided to turn around. wp-1492467155251.jpgAfter that, we had to drag ourselves and our bikes under a barbed-wire fence to get to a gravel road, where we eventually got back to the ‘real’ Highway 60. From there, we still had about 8 miles to get to the VLA.

But, what’s life without a little adventure?

We’re now at Bottomless Lakes State Park in Roswell, NM. Tomorrow we venture into Roswell to explore the International UFO Museum, and perhaps to meet a few extraterrestrials. Rest assured, we won’t be cycling in.

Still More Arizona

It’s’ been a low-key week for us. The best news is that we finally got Jezzy’s stitches removed by a Vet Tech at the Humane Society in Payson, AZ.wp-1491944559513.jpg She’s free of that annoying inflatable collar, and her face seems to be healing pretty well. I hope you don’t hear any more from me on this subject (other than when we find out what the disposition of our case with the Las Vegas Animal Control people comes out). We are moving on….

It was fun to camp in two new (to us) National Forest Campgrounds this week. First was Clear Creek Campground in the Coconino NF. wp-1491944098838.jpgThis small campground was rather non-descript, but had the wonderful composting toilets that are such a treat to run across in a rustic campground (those of you who camp know what I’m talkin’ about!). There are lots of trails around here, which made for a great bike ride, but I was rewarded with a couple of flat tires. Damn thorns.wp-1491944032952.jpgIt was just a pleasant bike ride down to Fort Verde State Historic Park.  This restored Fort was active for 20 years from 1871-1891. Luckily for us, it was the weekend of the History of the Soldier, so they had re-enactors representing all armed conflicts of the US – from the Revolutionary War to today.

It was sad that the majority of people there were volunteers or the participants themselves – there were hardly a large handful of others there. We feasted on Dutch Oven chili and peach cobbler made on site.wp-1491944155909.jpg One presentation on the Navaho Code Talkers was very interesting – we learned how the codes were set up, and the presenter (Navaho himself) actually read some transcripts in Navaho. The Arizona State Historian, who is kind of a cowboy singer-storyteller also gave a presentation. John really enjoyed this, but it was excruciatingly long. Yawn….

The big excitement of that portion of our stay there happened that night in camp. Apparently, the two guys next to us were doing some very heavy drugs, and OD’d. Every ambulance and cop in the county came rushing in. Both were taken to the hospital and one was arrested as well. We had wondered what was going on over there…..

Houston Mesa Campground in the Tonto NF (Payson, AZ) is our current home. This is one of the most gorgeous National Forest campgrounds we have ever stayed in. We’re at about 6000′ elevation, primarily in a pine forest. Campsites are huge, and quiet. Unfortunately, we’re pretty close to the road, so we do get lots of traffic noise until about 9pm. But, what a gorgeous spot. I have yet to get a decent photo, but will try again later.

One of the main attractions here is the Tonto Natural Arch. After setting up camp, we wandered back to check this out, and were rewarded with great view of this spectacular sight. wp-1491944421248.jpgIt was hard to get a decent vantage point for photos, and the light for shooting them was horrible.wp-1491944497897.jpgwp-1491944474399.jpg So, check these out and magnify them 100x in your mind to capture the real images. It really is a wonderful spot to visit, complete with a hair-raising twisty drive.

We’ve both been stricken with very low energy levels. Seems like we just want to kick back, read a bit, and hang out where we can have Jezzy with us. That included a stroll along the nature trail here in the Campground, where the terrain varied from open slickrock to deep Pondersa forest. wp-1491944613159.jpgwp-1491944648677.jpgA perfect hike for three slackers (I’m including Jezzy in the slacker designation). Our next destination is the Petrified Forest/Four Corners area, and we’ve got some more aggressive hiking targeted. Time to get our camping/hiking/cycling groove back.

Just to make everything just a bit more interesting, I got what is probably the worst haircut of my life today. John’s comment? “Well, probably the worst of it will grow out in a couple of weeks, and we’ll mostly be in Texas until then. Nobody will notice.” So, if you see me, you might not recognize me. I’ll be incognito – wearing a hat.

 

Onward

It’s been a week. That’s putting it mildly.

Most importantly, Jezzy is doing well. Before we left Las Vegas, we returned to the Vet, and he removed the drain from her eye socket, which must have been extremely uncomfortable for her. We also ditched the rigid plastic Cone in favor of a Boo-Balloon, which is an inflatable collar.wp-1491537425604.jpg It keeps her from digging at her face with her feet, but lets her navigate a bit better, because she can actually see where she’s going. It also enabled us to hit the road in the Fireball. She would not have been able to turn around wearing the Cone, as the diameter was at least as wide as the available floor space. Anyway, it’s going well. Her stitches come out Monday (writing this Thursday). Sister Gail has a friend in Payson who is a steadfast volunteer with the Humane Society. She’s arranged for a Vet Tech to remove Jezzy’s stitches. I love this option, since Jezzy came to me via the Humane Society in Michigan. Wonderful folks. Great organization. We are anxious to try to put this horrible incident behind us. She felt well enough the last night to help John with his NY Times crossword puzzle. That’s got to be a good sign.wp-1491536344772.jpgOur usual leisurely travel schedule was tossed aside, since we had only two days to make a reservation that we had planned for a five day trip. So, we relaxed for one night at Burro Creek Campground, a gorgeous pull-off spot near Wikieup, AZ. wp-1491536696137.jpgThis beautiful quiet canyon was the perfect spot for our first night back on the road.

Yavapai Campground in Prescott, AZ is one of our very favorite spots to camp. We’ve been there four times in the five years we’ve had the Fireball. Sadly, our four night stay was condensed into one night, and what a night it was! We went from warm sunshine to clouds, wind, sleet, snow, then back to rain. All in about an hour, and all during the time John was outside trying to grill dinner. It was wild! We had enough time in the morning for a quick hike with Jezzy before heading to Cottonwood, AZ and a three night stay at Dead Horse Ranch State Park.

This park has a crazy variety of sites. Our loop had a few stunted trees and small sites, but was more expensive than the larger, unprotected sites up on the hill. wp-1491536574188.jpgI guess that’s because this IS Arizona, after all, and summer must be beastly here. The Park is immaculate, and has hiking, biking, horse trails everywhere. It’s a place we certainly will revisit. One benfit to having a tree onsite is that it gives us a spot to hang a cooking light. (It was grilled pizza night!)wp-1491535722709.jpgOur first day, we cycled around a bit, and visited the Tuzigoot National Monument, a pueblo built by the people of the Sinagua culture between 1000 and 1400. wp-1491536506592.jpgwp-1491536438946.jpgwp-1491536373197.jpgLike many of the other Arizona pueblo societies, it seems to have dissapated around 1300, due perhaps to climate change, which made farming unsustainable. The Visitor Center was well done, and featured some huge pottery vessels.wp-1491536470019.jpg The site was excavated by unemployed miners under the supervision of college archeology students in the 1930s. That remarkable achievement alone makes it worthy of a visit.

On Day 2, we hopped back in the truck and went back to explore the old mining/new hippie community of Jerome. During peak copper mining years, Jerome sported a population of about 15,000, which dwindled to about 1000 in the 1950s, and then finally down to about 50 inhabitants when it was declared a Ghost Town. That’s when the hippies discovered it, rehabbed many of the buildings, and set about making it a vibrant tourist spot. It’s a quirky place – old mining culture meets wine tastings.

We enjoyed wandering around for several hours. Jerome looks like it’s about to tumble off the mountainside at any moment, and a few churches (and the jail) have indeed been relocated by landslides.wp-1491536136999.jpgwp-1491536101472.jpgwp-1491507902281.jpgwp-1491507858594.jpgwp-1491507709606.jpg wp-1491536282397.jpgMy mediocre photos aren’t really representative of all the unusual sights here. The sun was high and hot. Too bright to get any kind of decent shot. But, there’s lots to see here, and plenty of places to poke around and spend money (we refrained). The Historical Society Museum is well worth a visit – it’s full of tidbits about prostitution, medical care, education, and the like. It’s the best $1 we spent all day.

Tomorrow (Friday) morning, we leave our civilized campsite at the State Park, and head back off into the Coconino National Forest for several days of camping. We are hoping to regain some of our happy camping vibe, and are optimistic that Jezzy will perk up after Monday, once she no longer has to drag her inflatable collar along. We need our happy girl back, and are pretty sure we can coax Jezzy into being our laid-back camping buddy again.

Thank you for reading, and for all the kind thoughts you’ve passed along during this very stressful time. John and I really appreciate your comments.

Hottest. Lowest. Driest

Gee, can they make Death Valley sound any more attractive (in addition to such an enticing name?) What a great slogan. It owns the hottest recorded temperature in the world (132 degrees Fahrenheit, I think. Back in 1913). It’s the lowest spot in the world at Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level). But, I’m willing to argue about it being the driest. We’ve camped there three years – one in early January, once early March, and this time in late March. Each time, we have endured substantial rainfall. Fun-killing, stormy rainfall. So, the feeble claim of “less than 2 inches of rainfall per year” isn’t really sounding too factual to us. But, what an amazing place to explore and camp.

For the first time, we spent three nights in the northernmost campground called Mesquite Spring, and it’s now our first choice of campgrounds.wp-1490669090641.jpg It’s about 35 large sites, tucked in along the Death Valley Wash. We had the perfect campsite – our door faced east, so our awning offered abundant afternoon shade, which was the envy of every camper there.

The Ubehebe Crater there is probably my favorite place in the entire Park. This huge crater is over a half-mile in diameter.wp-1490669158422.jpg Black cinder sides (up to 150 feet thick in spots) make an easy walk down to the botton 600 feet below, and a heart-pumping hike back to the rim. It’s gorgeous, and the walk around the rim’s circumference is not to be missed.wp-1490669171036.jpg For the first time, we cycled to the Crater – not a great distance, but with some long steep grades punctuated with strong swirling winds. It was a great day.

We decided to hike the next day at Fall Canyon, which we had never yet visited. wp-1490669048443.jpgTowering colorful walls line the canyon, which narrows to about 15′ wide at points. wp-1490998951249.jpgThe hike deadends at a dry waterfall about 3-1/2 miles from the parking lot. Although this doesn’t sounds tough, it’s a steady uphill trek through a gravelly, sandy wash to get there. It was a big relief to get to the end, and find a shady spot to site along the wall while we ate lunch.

After three nights, we were ready to move on to the southern end of the Park. The temperature difference was astonishing – Mesquite Falls is about 1800′, and Furnace Creek (appropriately named) is about -200′. There was about a 15 degree difference in the temperature. When we tow, we keep our window shades up, to prevent them from accidentally snapping up and breaking. Unfortunately, that also lets the sun beat in. By the time we secured a site at Furnace Creek and set up camp, it was probably well over 100 degrees in the Fireball. Of course, it was absolutely dead still, without a whisper of air to help push out some of the heat.20170327_194152.jpg Our puny ceiling fan really couldn’t help much. So, we parked our camp chairs in the shade of some large nearby shrubby trees, and waited for the sun to go down, and for things to cool off. It remained uncomfortably hot inside the whole night. It felt like this.20170327_194112.jpgOur campsite was only available for one night, so in the morning, we quickly cycled to Zabriskie Point to enjoy the color explosion there.wp-1490668553298.jpgwp-1490668567860.jpg We decamped for Las Vegas, taking the long route out, stopping at all the points of interest in the south end of the Park, and had a thoroughly enjoyable day on the road. Devil’s Golf Course was our first stop. These salt-encrusted mounds are stiff and prickly. You wouldn’t want to have a misstep and fall – it would be pretty painful.wp-1490668451319.jpgNo trip to Death Valley would be complete without a stroll at Badwater, the lowest spot in the world. A thick, dusty salt plain stretches as far as you can see. In the bright sunlight, it’s blindingly white. It’s a crazy experience.20170327_193158.jpgwp-1490668287193.jpgwp-1490668254541.jpg At the very southermost edge, we encountered a strange plant called Dodder, or witches’ hair, for the very first time. This wiry orange tangle of springy vine attaches itself to a host plant. It’s very odd to see, and even more unusual to touch, having kind of a dry, yet spongy feel.20170327_192532.jpgOn to Las Vegas, where we are visiting my sister Gail and Dan. We’re overdue for a few repairs (including the installation of a new converter), and a much needed total cleanup. Everything in and about the Fireball is looking pretty raggedy, and we were almost looking forward to the job of a good cleaning overhaul. A bit of quality family time, and some quality grilled goods (Dan’s fantastic outdoor kitchen + John’s great grilling skills) were all on the agenda.

Sadly, every good thing about being here has been overshadowed by the fact that Jezzy was attacked by a stray pit bull, while she and I were walking Thursday morning. It jumped her from behind, and had her down before I ever even saw him. You’d be surprised at how loudly I can yell, while kicking that beast as hard as I could. Two guys who were painting the house across the street ran over and were banging on the pit with an aluminum ladder, while I continued to kick and snap him with my leash. All this was to no affect whatever. John finally heard my screams and came charging out into the street. He grabbed the pit by the neck from behind, and dragged him off Jezzy. I was so relieved to see her spring up and run toward the house.

Long story short, we took her to my sister’s vet, where she had surgery that afternoon to close up her eye socket, which had been torn to the bone. She’s got a bunch of stitches under the eye, and a drain to help with the blood/fluid in the deep pocket that has resulted. Fortunately, her other injuries were superficial. The vet at Cheyenne Tonopah Animal Clinic was fantastic, and there staff provided comfort to the three of us, who were badly shaken. Here are pre- and post-surgery photos of Jezzy.wp-1491000060535.jpgwp-1490999047380.jpgShe may have some permanent nerve damage (can’t blink fully), but we won’t know that for months. Las Vegas Animal Control was also wonderful. The officer who picked the dog up was kind and sympathetic. Actually, the dog was very docile once removed from Jezzy, and was wagging his tail happily as he was loaded into the Animal Control truck. We’ve filled out all the forms, the owner has been identified. We’re not sure what may happen next. We may get restitution for medical costs, but that’s not a major issue for us. We want Jezzy well, want to get rid of the Cone (my brother-in-law Dan calls Jezzy “Motorola”), and try to put this behind us. For sure it will take me a while. I’m on the verge of tears every minute. It’s painful to see Jezzy colliding with walls and chairs, trying to navigate around the house, but she’s doing pretty well. We’re keeping the pain meds poured on, as often as prescribed, so we hope she’s not too uncomfortable, even though she seems pretty confused.wp-1490993109530.jpg It’s going to be even more difficult in the Fireball, as the Cone is as wide as our floorspace, meaning that she won’t be able to turn around. Somehow, we’ll make this all work. We’ve extended our stay here in order to take Jezzy back to the Vet for removal of the drain, but hope to be moving on again Sunday.

Yeah, onward.