Settling In

As much as we love the camping life, I can’t tell you how good it feels to sprawl (and I do mean sprawl) out in our rented mountain cabin. It’s fabulous.

We’re tucked into the side of Madera Canyon at about 5200′. Although it’s about 10:15am, the sun is just peeking over the mountains, and hitting our desk.wp-1486302085679.jpgThere’s a big fight right now at the thistle feeder – about 15 finches vying for breakfast, while a Downy woodpecker works over the suet. For the moment, nobody is sitting in the sunflower seed feeder, which had been emptied out a day ago by a meandering coatimundi. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo, but this is what it looks like (Google image).coatimundi-imagesWe can’t get over our good fortune in finding this spot. It’s hard to get great photos, as the house is built on a narrow ridge, at the site of the old Susie Lode Mine. In fact, the house actually adjoins the mine – must have been quite a job to site survey and prep.wp-1486302251142.jpgThere are old mining implements scattered around the property.wp-1486302273080.jpgwp-1486302262246.jpgAfter the first hair-raising incident getting down the short (200 yard) extremely bumpy road, our concrete driveway rises straight up into the air. Now that we’ve been up and down a few times, it’s (hardly) scary anymore.wp-1486302367144.jpgOur neighbor down the street obviously has a wry sense of humor.wp-1486301400346.jpgOne of my favorite things (other than that fabulous deck) is our ourdoor kitchen. There’s a huge gas ring and a big ol’ smoker out there that John is fixin’ to use. For now, we’ve installed our own grill out there.wp-1486302396138.jpgInside, it’s all luxury to us. The king-size bed is the side of an aircraft carrier deck to us, since we are so accustomed to curling up (with Jezzy, of course) on our 50×70 mattress in the Fireball. Omg, I’ve got a dishwasher in the big kitchen. There’s a loft with its own separate full bathroom, and a cozy deck.20170205_064516.jpgCustom woodwork is everywhere – I love the lines of the staircase that goes from the loft to the upper deck. OK, you get the idea – we’ve got it made here. Yesterday we took a long hike around the end of the canyon, and across the side directly from the house. You can’t really see the house, but it’s circled in the photo.20170205_063755.jpgFor a couple who have been pretty sedentary the last few weeks, the hike was a sufferfest. Part of the trail was snow-covered, and there were some tricky icy spots to navigate.wp-1486301699819.jpgwp-1486301930363.jpgUneven footing had my feet and knees screaming after five hours.wp-1486301602283.jpg But, there are so many fabulous views up here. The highest spot we got was Bear Mountain at about 7400′.wp-1486302030394.jpg20170205_063934.jpgGreat views were everywhere. wp-1486301745335.jpgSeeing the memorial at Josephine Saddle for the three Boy Scouts who perished in a freak snowstorm in 1958 is a sobering reminder at just how badly things can go wrong on the trail. It’s not an environment to take too casually.20170205_063359.jpgIt was a great day to be on the Trail. We left Jezzy at home for this hike – now that she’s 11 years old, its tougher for her to hike and scramble for long distances with us anymore. She wants to go, but we just don’t want to take any chances of injury. Fortunately, we are close to the Madera Canyon Nature Trail, which is about a 3 mile round trip from the house. Perfect for the Jezzmeister.20170205_062905.jpgSo, that’s the report for Week 1. We are living large.

Spring in the Smokies

It’s the home stretch, baby. Just two more nights in North Carolina, two furious days on the road, and we’ll be back home. My bet is that I’ll be wishing we were back on the road again in about a week. The glow of being home sometimes wears off quickly.

Leaving Evansville, we headed to Big South Fork NRA in Tennessee. This turned out to be a fabulous spot to camp – quiet, great bathrooms/showers, and well-spaced campsites in the trees. I’d go back in a heartbeat.20160514_133149This area is loaded with hiking trails, so we opted for a 6.5 mile jaunt to one of the original homesteads in the area.20160514_12214620160514_12052720160514_12194020160514_120941


Magnolia trees with gigantic leaves are scattered along the Trail – they were gorgeous to see, and would be truly spectacular when they bloom.20160514_105548Perhaps best of all, this was a walk on which we could take Jezzy. I totally understand the ban of dogs on trails in the National Parks and many State Parks, but we jump at the chance to include her on our hikes where we can.

Moving on, we decided to revisit Smokemont Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This was our third trip to GSMNP, and our second to this campground – in fact, we had the same campsite as our first visit. There were few campers in the Park, although the road in was jammed with cars near any trailhead or attraction when we arrived on Sunday. I really thought that we would be able to see blooms on the thousands of rhododendrons in the Park. Nope! We were STILL too early in the season – a huge disappointment. We saw a few meager blossoms.20160514_104449Our seven mile hike took us along a trail dense with rhododendrons on each side, limiting our views out into the Smokies. So, I had to concentrate my camera on some of the small sights instead of the big scenes. Macro photography is not my specialty, but I did spy a few things I wanted to share. Check out this pink moth. The flowers on the Salomon’s Seal were nearly ready to open.

Most of my flower shots were stupid-looking, so I’m not even going to bother to post them. BUT, the real show came as we trudged back to the campground. As we passed the RV dump station, we noticed dzens of yellow swallowtail butterflies clumped together in pools of liquid on the ground. Whether this was fresh water from the spigots or a bit of drizzle from some RV’s gray or blackwater tanks, I don’t know. But the butterflies were everywhere.20160516_132106Nearby was an even more curious sight. At the base of a tree near our site were other clumps of swallowtails, but I’m not sure what was happening here. But it was butterfly carnage – torn wings and pieces and parts of butterflies were everywhere amid the clumps of fluttering wings. Were they mating, and then the females eat the males? I have no idea. It might be hard to see in the photos, because the ground cover masks the pieces of wings, but look closely and you’ll see what I mean. I’m anxious to get to a spot where I can have enough Wifi to do a bit of research on this – it was crazy to see.20160516_16070320160516_160753We checked out the Visitor Center and wandered through the reconstructed settlement there. Original buildings from various areas of the Park have been moved here, and restored. It’s gorgeous, and the perfect, picturesque setting.20160517_121553.jpg20160517_121636.jpgAnd, how could you NOT want to just settle in and hang out on the veranda of the Visitor Center for a spell?20160517_123858.jpgNow, we’re in Maggie Valley, NC for a ‘rally’ with our T@B and T@DA pals. There are probably 50 campers here, from as far away as New England and Seattle. It’s great to connect with old friends and greet new ones.

I  think my phone is trashed – I inadvertently left it on a chair under our awning last night. It rained, and some of the rain funneled directly into the chair where it pooled around the phone. Damn! I’ve dried it out as best as I can, but nothing seems to be happening. It was due for replacement when we get back home, but I’m sad that it may have bitten the dust a bit prematurely. I’m definitely not relishing the learning curve of a new phone.


Big Brutus. Big Barges. Big Storms. Big Fun. We’ve had it all this week – perhaps a case of trying to cram everything in the remaining days of this trip.

Big Brutus may have been a new high or maybe a new low in our camping experience. It certainly is among the oddest experiences. I’ve never really associated Kansas with coal mining – probably not many people do. But in the 1960s and 70s, coal was surface mined here, near West Mineral. Big Brutus was the shovel which scraped the top layers of dirt and rock which covered the coal seams 25-30 feet below the surface.20160506_135347When it was built in 1962, it was the second-largest electric shovel in the world – truly deserving of the name ‘Big’ moniker. Brutus could scoop up 90 yards of earth, swing around to dump it in a designated spot, and be ready to reload the bucket in a minute. It was assembled on site, then worked its way backwards across the top of the coal seam until it was retired in April 1974. It’s huge in every dimension – 16 stories tall,  11 million pounds, ballast tanks which held 1.7 millions pounds of water to keep the shovel from tipping. Check it out against an older steam shovel which is also on display.20160506_14363020160506_14424120160506_144241The pit now is a recreational area for fisherman, although it’s illegal to swim there – subject to an $80 ticket. 20160506_145404We camped on site (the only ones there), and it was an unusual experience, for sure. See us in the distance?20160506_145159 We could shower in the adjoining Mining Museum bathroom, as long as we were done by 4:30 when it closed. We set up camp, grilled dinner, and watched the sun set on Big Brutus. Big Brutus and the land on which it sits were donated by the P & M Coal Mining Company in 1984, and the Mining Museum opened in July 1985.

It was tough to find an act to follow Big Brutus, but we managed. How about camping right on the confluence of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi Rivers, watching the river traffic pass by all day long? Our campsite at the Kaskaskia River Project provided just that. We were just 200 yards from the Kaskaskia River locks, and 1000 yards from the Mississippi River.20160508_132813 We watched this tug maneuver 35 barges along the bend. It’s hard to see, but the tug is on the far left, and the front of the barges on the right.  Five barges across, seven deep!20160508_140040The Locks were fairly quiet when we were there for 1-1/2 days, but we did get to see traffic heading up the river (empty), and out to the Mississippi (loaded with coal). Interesting – my photos are not great – it was gray and gloomy on the full day were spent there.20160509_080951And boy – did it ever rain! For five or six hours at night it was like living under a waterfall. The rain just thundered down. After a brief respite in the morning, it picked right back up where it left off. I don’t think we have ever camped in such hard rain. We kept a nervous eye on our broken window, but the many layers of duct tape we’ve plied on in the past four months kept the water out. Whew!

The Big Fun part of this week is our current lodging at John’s brother’s house in Evansville. What a great spot to hang out for a few days – Evansville is a BIG small town – smaller in population than Grand Rapids, but twice the size in so many ways.20160511_101654This is the stopover with the 1500 count sheets, and towels so thick and heavy that it’s a workout to take a shower. More big storms are ripping through this area in the last two days – huge thunderstorms with a tornado or two thrown in for excitement. Poor Jezzy – she’s practically worn her Thundershirt out.

So, tomorrow (Friday) we head out for our last 10 days of camping. Hard to believe it’s that time already. Homeward bound.

Bryce is Best

The first Canyon views bring a gasp of amazement. Can this be real? Is is some kind of lighting trick?20160424_102544.jpg20160423_140750.jpg20160422_113539 Reality set in, and my head swiveled from side to side to take in the extraordinaryness that is Bryce Canyon. My second thought? I don’t have the camera or skills to capture this. I wish I had a stereo, or 3D camera.

imageOur three-night stay in the North Campground turned into four, as we swiftly figured out that we couldn’t possibly drink in all the sights in such a short time. I don’t know how much time would be enough, but we didn’t reach that limit. At Bryce, the attraction is the hoodos, those tall skinny spires of rock that reach up from the Canyon bottom and are wind and weather eroded into spectacular formations. 20160423_124638.jpg20160422_10350720160424_124336.jpg20160424_124716.jpg20160422_11290320160422_102850Some have names, such as Tower Bridge.20160424_120753Others set your imagination reeling with images from your own knowledge. Some days, we shuttled to trailheads on the amazing bus system, and bicycled back and forth other days when it suited us. It was always cold in the morning, warming up into the mid 60’s – 70’s during the day. Spectacular winds blow through the Canyon, swirling dust devils through the air. Parents clutched their kids, and everyone hung on to their hats. John convinced me to step out to precipice for a photo op. I had to brace myself from being blown off the edge, and hang on to my favorite hat at the same time.imageWe hiked the northernmost trail (Fairyland Canyon) and the southernmost trail (Bristlecone), and several inbetween those two. The details of each day have already blurred, so I’ll just share a few of my favorite photos.20160423_124959.jpg20160423_130219.jpg20160424_110209.jpg20160424_102731.jpg20160423_131258.jpg20160423_130219.jpg20160424_110209.jpg20160424_115055.jpg20160424_124336.jpg20160424_124716.jpgEven if you never hike, amazing views can be had from the Rim Trail which travels along the 18 mile length of the Canyon. Take the shuttle, jump off and on and you please.image20160423_132918.jpg20160423_140750.jpg20160423_141607.jpg20160423_141757.jpgEven the jet contrails above Bryce resemble hoodoos. I was sorely tempted to turn this photo upside down to make my point, but you’ll get it anyway.20160422_120634My quest for the Bristlecone Pine, the oldest living trees on earth was answered, but not in the manner that I had hoped. This is what I had hoped to see, but the Bristlecones we saw were far less spectacular.20160423_134804.jpg20160422_103817But we did observe many in varying stages of life, and felt privileged to do so. We saw some variety of spruce that was forming cones, and the branch tips were bright pink. Perhaps it was new branch growth, but it appeared to me to be cone formation with the striking color. A visit like this will remind you of all you do not know, and probably will never really understand.20160424_104123.jpgNow we have seen the oldest (Bristlecone), tallest (Coastal Redwood), and largest (Giant Sequoia) trees in the world. My heart still belongs to the Sequoias, but it quiets me to be in the presence of any of these giant trees.

I have so many more photos that I perhaps will share on a separate photo-only post, if I find a place with some good WiFi. A post like this gobbles up an amazing amount of our monthly data plan. ;-)

Our post-Bryce plan was to camp on BLM land in nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But, we awoke to snow and freezing rain. We packed up our stiff and frozen awning,  and rolled as quickly as possible to a lower elevation. As we dropped down (over 3000′ for the day), the snow turned to sleet, then to sunny breezy 50 degree temps, then back to rainstorms as we reached Kanab, UT. The knowledgeable Ranger at the Visitor Center there advised us not to venture onto any of the backcountry roads, as the storm threat and past rainy weather had made the roads unpassable for two-wheelers such as us. She showed us where we could find a great camping site just off a paved road, which we checked out. It was raining by the time we got there, and the deep ruts in the clay site were enough to scare us off camping there for the night. There are signs everywhere warning of impassable roads under rainy conditions. We headed back to an RV park in Kanab. It’s probably a good thing, since it’s been raining steadily for six hours since. One bad experience with a tow truck has made us wary of volunteering for another

Tomorrow, we plan to venture back up into Grand Staircase to see if it’s possible to actually stay and explore for a night or two. But, having had one bad towing experience, we’re not about to expose ourselves (willingly) to another. We may roll eastward. Destination unknown.








It’s been called the Loneliest Highway in America, and whoever coined that phrase sure knew what she was talking about. That’s US 50, running west to east across northern Nevada. In two days, we probably didn’t see 75 cars on the road over about 400 miles. That’s lonely.

My expectations for US 50 were low. Scrubby desert, beige, barren and trashy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was more like driving through Death Valley – an amazing array of colors and textures, punctuated by historical landmarks. US 50 is the Lincoln Highway, after all….

We stopped to see landmarks for the Pony Express, which ran along this route.20160417_134755 Hard to imagine the hard lives of the riders, and also of the men who manned the stations, maintaining fresh horses and supplies.

There was also the occasional huge sand dune, totally out of place against the desert landscape. One huge dune begged for a photo, but I was so disappointed in the result that I’m not posting it. Without anything nearby for scale, the photo has no impact.

Another interesting portion of the Highway, stretching for about 6-10 miles had low sandy banks on each side. People had left messages with black stones – mostly about who loves whom, but some about world peace, high school graduations, and whatnot. It was charming.

We stopped at Grimes Point to view petroglyphs that are nearly 1000 years old. In this small area, nearly a thousand of these ancient etchings existed.20160417_12381620160417_12373220160417_124026 But, some of the rocks have been defaced, and appear to have markings indicating that the petroglyphs  had been chiseled off.

John located a spectacular (free!) campground for us for the evening called Hickison Petroglyphs. In this 16 site campground, we were the only campers. See us in the center of the photo? Do we look lonely?20160417_170138 We picked a site with a great view, and had our own sheltered picnic table and vault toilets. Bad point? The trash. All the bins were overflowing, and previous campers had left their trash on the ground, bagged up for the critters to get into. Idiots and jerks. It was the only low point of this great site. We hiked the interpretative trail, and totally enjoyed this unique BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campground.

The next lonely day took us to Great Basin National Park, located in northeastern Nevada. Once again, we found ourselves nearly the only campers in a pristine campground.20160418_150029 I can’t say enough positive things about camping here. It is spectacular. The Great Basin actually covers most of northern Nevada, although the National Park is just a small piece of it. The Great Basin is this huge area where the only water is what falls here, as a result of rain or snow. No rivers flow into or out or it. We’re camped at Baker Creek Campground, high desert at about 7500+ feet. We hear the creek roaring from snow melt from nearby Wheeler Mountain and other peaks, and the wind whistles through the spruce trees, which are everywhere. That’s the only sound. No cars, no generators, no voices. Lots of turkeys, although we never actually saw any of them.

We hiked twice, taking the Scenic Drive as far as we could until it was blocked off. John, Jezzy, and I then hoofed it up the road about 2-1/4 miles to Mather Lookout (about 9200′) where we were treated to spectacular views of Wheeler.We passed a few altitute markers.20160419_11183920160419_122419 Some of the spruce trees here are bursting with pinecones. Many of them had thousands of budding cones – a sight I’ve never seen before.20160419_113137Again, we were the only ones here – how many people get to experience their own private National Park?

This park is home to the Bristlecone Pine, an ancient tree which grows at high altitudes for thousands of years. After it dies, some of the trunks remain for another two thousand years or so, before the wind and elements wear them down. There’s a young (probably transplanted) specimen near the Visitor Center, and it’s the most amazing tree. 20160419_145833 The needles are short and thick with an extra resinous coating to reduce moisture loss. They are incredibly dense. Although I scoured the campground for more Bristlecones, I wasn’t able to find any. In the Park, they are all above the 10,000′ mark, which was inaccessible to us on foot. Photos of the ancient Bristlecones show windblown, hardy trees. It was so sad not to be able to see them, since this seems to be our Trip of Trees.

Today we hiked up Baker Creek, and the South Fork from about 7500′ to just over 9000′ feet. We were thwarted in our original plan, as the Trail forked, and both directions were deeply snow covered, unlike this photo, which is just slightly snow-covered.20160420_112152 Without any other footprints to keep us from wandering off the trail into the wilderness, we felt we had to turn back.We passed this grove of birch trees, which all had a sensuous bend near the ground. Tough to get a good photo, but I hope you get the idea.20160420_122117 So, it was three miles up, three miles back. We passed through alpine meadows and followed the rushing creek, so it was a pleasurable hike in any case.

There are many other amazing sights in this remote National Park. As we drove in, we thought there was a deer on this small bank. 20160419_144914It actually was a stone statue of a giraffe, although one of its horns was busted. Giraffe? Nevada? In the Visitor Center, there’s a 132 year old Winchester Rifle which was found leaning against a tree in a remote area in 2014. Imagining the story behind this sets my imagination racing. The rifle has been restored, and sits in a protective glass case.20160419_102300

I have to be honest and admit that the very first part of our drive leaving Carson City was not so lonely. We decided to detour to Virginia City, an old-timey Western mining town. Part of the silver rush in the late 1850s and 60s, it was a bustling mining town. A devastating fire demolished most of the town in the early 1870s, but it was quickly rebuilt, and it has remained in that state since.20160417_10133420160417_101002 The old buildings, which have been updated somewhat to accommodate electricity and modern plumbing look like another fire waiting to happen.20160417_100849 There are huge timbered facades and wooden sidewalks. Miners, cowboys, and saloon girls in period clothing wandering around. 20160417_102202It was quiet when we wandered through on Sunday morning, but this is certainly a spot which would deserve a second visit.

We head out tomorrow for Bryce Canyon. Our campground will be at 9200′, so we are keeping our fingers crossed for continued great weather. Don’t want to have to winterize on the fly, but we will if we have to!