Summer 2016 Road Trip, Day 7: Hozomeen to Copper Creek

A few short hikes and a sweet creekside campsite.

I slept with the camper’s door open (and screen door closed, of course) for the first time. Unlike my other overnight stops, I suspected it would stay warm enough overnight and it did.

I slept really well until around midnight when I woke up with a weird allergy attack. I read until the faucet in my nose turned itself off. Even then, it wasn’t easy to get back to sleep. The frogs were really croaking! I didn’t mind being kept up for that, though. It’s desertlike where I live and there aren’t any frogs.

It was getting light when I woke up. I worked on a blog post, getting it ready to publish, while I had my coffee with some cereal and the last of the blueberries I’d picked a full week before. (It’s amazing how long they stay fresh when you pick them yourself.) By the time I was ready to emerge from the Turtleback for the day, the lake was glassy smooth. I grabbed my camera and shot a few photos of the reflections with the morning sun shining on the opposite shore.

Hozomeen Dock at Ross Lake
One of the boat docks at Winebago Flats. Ross Lake was glassy smooth in the morning.

Meanwhile, the folks who had held my campsite for me were packing up to leave. I thought that odd — they had a canoe on the roof of their car. Surely they didn’t drive all the way down to Hozomeen to just to camp for one night. I said goodbye and thanked them again as they climbed into their car. They turned right instead of left when they left — maybe they were going to put that canoe in the water after all.

I’d already packed up my campsite the night before — it’s important to keep a clean campsite when there are bears in the area — so there wasn’t anything else to do before leaving.

Except take a hike, of course.

The Lakeside Trail

Penny and I set off on the same trail we’d taken to the campground the afternoon before, this time heading downlake. It was wonderfully cool — even the shoreline was in the shade — and quiet. I walked at a good pace, stopping every now and then to look around me and maybe take a photo. I admit that I spent more than my fair share of time wondering if the local bear would put in an appearance; I did see some relatively fresh bear scat along the lake.

Ross Lake near Hozomeen
Along the trail from Winnebago Flats to the Hozomeen Campground boat ramp.

Fork in the Trail
A fork in the lakeside trail at Hozomeen.

I could hear the rushing of Hozomeen Creek long before I got to where the trail split. I knew from the previous day’s hike that the left fork would take us up to the road near Ranger Housing. Where would the right fork take us? To the lake, I assumed. But would there be a bridge across the creek?

Log Bridge
The shorter of two split log bridges across Hozomeen Creek near Ross Lake.

The answer was yes. There were actually two bridges, each of which were created by splitting a log so it had a flat walking surface and then attaching a handrail to it. I was impressed by the first one, but the second one, which had to be close to 100 feet long, blew me away. Had the logs fallen there naturally and then been turned into bridges? Or did someone actually put them in place? I couldn’t imagine getting any heavy equipment in there.

After the bridges, the trail wound down to the boat ramp. And that’s where I saw my two camping neighbors. They were at the ramp with their canoe upside down. The woman was fanning the bottom of the canoe with a foam pad while the man stood by, waiting. Their gear, in dry bags, was neatly organized nearby.

We got to talking (of course). It seems that when they launched the canoe, it began taking on water. They were repairing the bottom with duct tape. Neither of these things surprised me. The canoe looked old and very well used. It had other signs of patches in its fiberglas bottom. And duct tape — well, you use what you’ve got. They were cleaning and drying each area before applying the tape and putting multiple layers on. They seemed pretty confident that their repairs would hold. Then they’d be out for an overnight camping trip along the lake.

We chatted while the woman made the repairs. We talked about the north and south ends of the lake and how Americans had to come all the way up to Canada to launch a boat. We talked about hiking trails in the North Cascades National Park and how US parks had better trails than Canadian parks (their opinion; I didn’t have enough data to come to any conclusion). The conversation inevitably turned to politics. Seriously: Canadians are very worried about Donald Trump becoming president. Even when I tried to steer the conversation somewhere else, it led back. I learned a little more about Canadian politics, too.

Finally, their boat was patched sufficiently and we were all ready to move on. We said our goodbyes and I continued hiking, now up the road to the boat ramp. The previous day, I’d noticed a trail that continued down toward the lake. Maps showed that it went down to a point of land — you can see it in the photo above. So Penny and I plunged back into the forest, in the strip of land between the campground we’d first parked in and the lake.

Pissed Off Squirrel
This was one very pissed off squirrel.

At one point, Penny saw a squirrel and chased it up a tree. It ran up 20 or more feet, then turned and started making really weird little noises at us. I had to record a video. (I just played it and Penny went nuts.)

I’ve never heard a sound like this out of an animal.

We went off the trail briefly to walk down to the lake’s edge. The water was deep right off the shore there with a series of rock shelves that would make a great point for getting in and out of the water. A perfect swimming hole on a hot day.

In the distance, I could see my canoeing friends paddling toward us on the glassy smooth water. I envied them, in a way. It was an absolutely perfect day for paddling and I wished I could be out there, too. I expected them to continue right past me with a wave and final goodbye, but they paddled right up to where I was standing. Then they proceeded to tell me about other places along my route of travel that might interest me: the Othello Tunnels, the wildflower meadow at Manning Park, and the mine tour at Hedley. I committed all of this to memory (somehow), including driving directions and other tips.

Canoeing on Ross Lake
Nice day for a paddle, eh?

At one point, the woman reached down into the water and exclaimed “It’s so warm! Like bathwater! Feel it!” I had my doubts — after all, this was a mountain lake on the Canadian border — but I did as she asked and dipped a hand in. She was right: it was very warm. Seeing people in the water at Winnebago Flats the previous afternoon no longer surprised me.

We chatted a while longer, then all got on our way.

The trail ended at a bench overlooking the lake. Well, kind of overlooking the lake — there were enough trees in front of the bench that sitting at it wouldn’t give you much of a view. I got a last look at my canoeing friends far down the lake, paddling a few hundred feet out from the shoreline.

Penny and I turned around and headed back the way we’d come. Total distance hiked was 2.8 miles. Not bad for an easy morning hike. Interested in a track log with photos? Here you go: Hozomeen Lakeside.

The Othello Tunnels

The Border
The border between the US and Canada is easily visible as a clearing between the two countries. It’s all ready for Donald Trump’s northern wall. Or, more likely, the wall the Canadians would put up to keep out Americans if Trump were elected.

Since we were already all packed up, all I had to do was visit my tiny bathroom — the pit toilets at Winnebago Flats were not something I was willing to face — and close up the Turtleback’s slide. Then we were back in the truck and heading north. I made one stop at the border and that was to take two photos. One was the border sign I showed in the previous day’s blog post. The other was of the actual border, which you can see as a clearing that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction.

The road north started out smooth and became progressively rougher as I continued north. The more use it got for Canadian parks along its length, the rougher it became. I was glad to reach that sorry excuse for pavement and even gladder to reach the main road in Hope an hour after leaving the park.

I stopped alongside the road and uploaded two blog posts and a handful of track logs. I didn’t bother checking email — nothing of interest had arrived the last time I’d checked. Besides, I was rather enjoying the illusion of being off-the-grid even when I technically wasn’t. Like most connected people, I spend far too much time looking at a computer.

I eventually got on the main road and found my way to Route 3. Then I took the exit for Route 5, looking for the Othello Tunnels. It wasn’t far off my route. I steered my way along a side road and into a very tight parking lot. I was immediately glad again that I’d shed my Mobile Mansion for the Turtleback — I could park in a regular spot. There’s no way I could have parked anywhere nearby towing a virtual house behind me.

The place was crowded with families and people walking dogs — it was a Saturday, after all. It was after noon and I was hungry and not at all in a hurry so Penny and I climbed into the Turtleback and I made myself a nice lunch: sardines I’d bought at Trader Joe’s the previous week with some diced onion on some of that multigrain bread I’d bought my first day in Canada. (It never seemed to go stale.) Then I gathered together my camera and a water bottle and climbed back down into the parking lot with Penny on a leash and headed for the trailhead.

Othello Tunnels Map
Here’s a map of the trail. It actually extended quite a bit past Tunnel 5. You can download the entire map from the park website.

The Othello Tunnels are a series of five old railroad tunnels built into the side of Coquihalla Canyon, a 300-foot deep channel cut in solid granite by the Coquihalla River. They were (and are) an engineering marvel that combined tunnels and bridges, making it possible for the railroad to get through a difficult area instead of having to go around it.

First Othello Tunnel
Penny looked eager to go into the first of the five tunnels.

Although there were a lot of people on the trail, it was plenty wide. It descended at a gentle grade — after all, it had been a train route once — through the woods with plenty of places to look down at the roaring river beside it. The first tunnel began not long after the river entered the gorge it had created. The longest of the tunnels, it got very dark in the middle. A few hikers had flashlights. Penny walked along with me, a tiny shadow at the end of her leash.

On the other end, it was bright and sunny and the river roared through the gorge beside us. The next tunnel started almost immediately. It was a lot shorter and never got very dark. Then there was a bridge and tunnels 3 and 4, which really didn’t have any space between them. Another bridge over the river and then the final tunnel, which had a bend to it.

We walked along at a good pace, stopping between tunnels to look out over the river and gorge. It was a really beautiful place and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be on a train going along this route. Terrifying, likely, to a passenger.

Between the Tunnels A look into the Gorge
I stopped to take photos between the tunnels — it made no sense to take photos inside them. The gorge was actually quite beautiful. The water gets its color from glacial “flour” — silt in melting glaciers.

Railroad Trail
The trail beyond the last tunnel is mostly in a cut in the granite walls.

We kept walking past the last tunnel. The trail continues on, mostly in a cut that’s canopied, in some places, by fallen, moss-covered trees. Fewer people were on this part of the trail; most seemed to walk through the tunnels and back. We walked as far as another gate, which was also open, and then turned back. The tunnels were darker on the way back because of the direction of the sun, especially that long first tunnel.

Want a track log for this little hike? My GPS said we did more than 3 miles, but I’m not sure how accurate that is since it likely lost contact with satellites inside the tunnels and there are some odd-looking elevation spikes in the track log graph. But here’s what I uploaded, with photos: Othello Tunnels.

In Manning Park

Back in the truck, I headed out, taking a few minutes to chat with my sister (via the trucks’s bluetooth audio) along the way. I like to check in periodically to make sure I’m not missing anything important. I wasn’t.

I lost the cell connection as I headed eastbound on Route 3, the so-called Crowsnest Highway. This road runs a zigzag course through the south end of British Columbia, winding around heavily trees mountains and through valleys. It wasn’t long before the road passed into EC Manning Provincial Park, which must be one of the larger parks in British Columbia. It has lots of trails and campgrounds, and points of interest. It even has a ski resort.

I saw the sign for the Wildflower Meadow and turned left. The narrow road immediately began climbing steeply up the side of a mountain. It went on for a few miles before there was a view point. I was one of about five vehicles that turned in. I let Penny out, leashless, and she immediately began chasing chipmunks that hid in the drainage openings of the curb. It was pretty entertaining for onlookers. The view from up there, at least 2,000 feet above the valley floor, was amazing. A sign pointed out the names of various peaks, including Hozomeen Mountain (which looked very close) and Mount Winthrop, both of which are in the US. Far below us, I could see the resort area for the park, with its restaurant, lodging, and other amenities.

From Manning Park
The view from the overlook on the road to the Wildflower Meadow at Manning Park.

Penny and I continued the climb. There was a trailhead parking area and we kept going. Then the road ended at another trailhead. Parking was tough, but I found a spot alongside the road. I put Penny on a leash and we set out to explore the Paintbrush Trail.

Wildflower Meadow Sans Wildflowers
There weren’t many wildflowers at Wildflower Meadow, but there was a massive antenna installation and an even better view. This is looking southeast.

The trail likely gets its name from the only flower still blooming: Indian Paintbrush. But even those had already faded. Between the cold nights at that elevation — over 6,000 feet — and the lack of rainfall, the flowers were already gone. I imagine it must be something in spring or early summer, but at the end of the first week in August, it’s a bust. (My canoeing friends warned me that it might be too late in the season for flowers.) We did a short hike anyway — maybe a mile — and admired both the view and the massive antenna array that guaranteed me a cell signal. Then we went back to the truck and retraced our route down the mountain.

Copper Creek

By this time, it was after 5 PM and I was starting to think about a place to spend the night. My trip planning had pretty much ended the day before and now I was making up everything as I went along. So I started by driving into the resort area, following a sign to Lightning Lake campground. That was full, but there was a ranger at the booth and I asked her about camping possibilities. She told me that camping in the park is only allowed in designated sites and that there might be a few available in other campgrounds. She gave me a map and circled three of them, two of which were on my route east. I thanked her, turned around, and headed back out to Route 3.

I skipped the first campground, mostly because it was right on the main road, and pulled into the second one, which was about 10 kilometers from the resort turn. This one was almost full. There were two sites that weren’t reserved or taken and both were on the main road. The idea of paying $25 to camp in such a full campground so close to a highway really bugged me. So I left and we continued on our way.

We passed out of the park. I looked for camping possibilities. I suspected I’d have to go off on a side road, but I had no idea where to try. A bunch of signs warned about road work and flagmen up ahead so I slowed down. I got to a bend in the road where a woman was turning around a truck at an intersection where a gravel road went off to the right. There were lots of road work signs. I stopped beside her and rolled down my window. “Are you a pilot car?” I asked.

She looked surprised. “No,” she replied.

I pointed down the road beside us. “Where does that go?”

She gave me a huge shrug. “I don’t know, but Copper Creek is down there.”

“Any camping?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

I thanked her and let her pull away. Then I turned right down the road toward Copper Creek.

The road was obviously a logging road — signs at the beginning provided information about radio calls and warned, “No seatbelt, no job.” I proceeded cautiously. I didn’t have far to go. About a quarter mile down the road was a bridge over a creek. And right before the bridge was a clearing with a picnic table and fire pit. No, two picnic tables with firepits. I slowed to a stop and looked at the sign: Copper Creek Recreation Area. I turned in.

It was a tiny campground with 5 sites, three of which were right on the creek, and a pit toilet. No one else was there. The $12 fee would be collected by “an attendant.”

At Copper Creek
My campsite at Copper Creek. The creek is right beyond the trees to the right of the Turtleback.

After scouting the area — including some minor road damage from erosion — I chose a campsite and backed into it. I had trouble getting the Turtleback level and wound up backing up almost all the way to the picnic table. When I was satisfied with what the level said, I put the truck in park and shut it off. (Unfortunately, I misread the level and we were camped on a bit of an angle for the night. I have since ordered leveling blocks.) I let Penny out and went about setting up my grill to make dinner: sausages with salad and garden tomatoes.

The site, which was about 10 feet from the creek, was extremely pleasant with the sound of flowing water. If the road was for logging, either the loggers were done for the day or had the weekend off. No other campers showed up. No attendant showed up, either. I had dinner outside at the picnic table, and then, when the sun dipped below the trees, I went in for the evening.

I didn’t realize it then, but it would be my last night on vacation.

Summer 2016 Road Trip, Day 6: Chilliwack Lake to Hozomeen Campground

Back over the border to the U.S.

It was just getting light when I woke up. The forest canopy over my campsite was too dense for me to get an idea of the weather, but it wasn’t raining.

I made coffee and settled down at the table to finish up the two previous day’s blog posts. I needed to add the photos. That’s the most time-consuming part because it requires me to choose the photos I want to illustrate what I’ve written open them in an image editing app, crop them, and then save them as JPEGs. Then I have to import them into just the right place in my blog post and write captions. (I’ve got a blogging app I’ve been using for years — it’s called ecto and is no longer supported by its author — and I’ve got it all tricked out with macros that make blogging quick and easy for me. When ecto stops working, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ve tried other tools that just don’t seem to do the job I need them to.)

I finished up that Trader Joe’s almond danish, too. Had to do it. Didn’t want it getting stale.

Chilliwack Lake Hike

I was done by the time the sun started shining on the trees around me. Time for a walk. I still hadn’t really seen the lake. According to the map I had, the trail I could pick up out behind my campsite would take me right to it. So I finished getting dressed, put Penny on her leash, and set off with my camera.

The trail was wide and carpeted with evergreen needles. The trees formed a canopy over us. Each campsite had a small trail running from it to the larger trail, but when we’d passed the last campsite, that stopped. We headed deeper and deeper into the woods, without any sound from the campground.

I met up with a woman walking two border collie mix dogs. We stopped to chat while Penny and the dogs did their dog greeting things.

Further along the trail, we met up with a woman who seemed absolutely terrified of Penny to the point that she walked off the trail as we approached. I kept Penny’s leash short until we’d passed. That was weird. Penny barely noticed her.

Lakeside Trail at Chilliwack Lake
One of many narrow trails that wound through the woods near Chilliwack Lake.

The trail took me down to the a footbridge where the Chilliwack Lake dumps into the Chilliwack River. The water rushed by as Penny and I crossed the bridge. The trail continued up to Radium Lake, which I was not interested in visiting, so we doubled back across the bridge and found another trail that paralleled the northern shoreline of the lake, taking us back toward the campground and boat launch. Soon we were among tents and RVs, not far from the site I’d almost stayed in the previous day.

Bridge across Chilliwack River Trailside Sign
Left: The bridge across the Chilliwack River at the outlet of the lake was rustic but sturdy. Right: A typical trail sign in a Brtitish Columbia park is full of useful information about distances, trail conditions, and even exact location.

Early Morning at Chilliwack Lake
Early morning at Chilliwack Lake.

I found another trail down to the beach and followed that. Boats were tied up along the shoreline there, waiting for another day of fishing or water sports. The lake’s water was clean and clear; the mountains around the lake were majestic, robed in thick green forests. It looked just like you’d expect a Pacific Northwest lake to look. Picture postcard stuff. Was I starting to get numb to all the magnificent scenery around me?

We walked back up to the campground and headed back to our site. I chose one of the other trails that cut through the woods in the approximate direction I wanted to go. I realized that the whole park was criss-crossed with a network of unmarked trails. Once you were 50 feet or so down a trail, you were in woods so dense that you couldn’t see any signs of campgrounds or people. It was kind of pleasant, but I expect it would unnerve people without a good sense of direction or situational awareness.

Chores before Departure

Back at the campsite, I did the dishes and packed up. On the way out of the campground, I made one stop: at the dump station. I didn’t need to dump my tanks — I’d done that two days before on the way to Mount Baker. But I did want to top off the water tank. My fresh water system seemed to be having a pressure issue and the pump would go on when I wasn’t using the water. I suspected it was because the water level was low. One way to test that theory was to top off the water level and see if the problem persisted.

There was a man with a motorhome filling his water tank when I arrived. He was a little older than me and wore a knit cap and small-lensed sunglasses. We chatted for a while — hell, I’ll chat with nearly anyone. We talked about our rigs and their pros and cons and traveling to Arizona and all kinds of things. The water spigot did not fill very quickly so we had at least 15 minutes to talk. I realized that I’d have to either pull out a hose to reach my fresh water fill port or turn my truck around. So when he was done and we said our goodbyes, I followed him out, turned around, and pulled in going the wrong way. As my tank filled, I told the folks behind me (or in front of me, I guess) what I was up to so they didn’t have to wonder. It seemed to take forever for my tank to fill; I guess it was emptier than I thought.

I toyed with the idea of taking the road all the way down to the south end of the lake, but decided against it. Instead, I headed out the way I’d come in. Without a cell signal, I wasn’t sure about how to get to my next destination, but I figured I’d pick up the highway — and a cell signal — in Chilliwack. (Note to self: Get paper maps of all destinations prior to trip departure.)

On the Road Again

I paid closer attention to the road that I’d taken down to the lake the day before. I realized that my blog description wasn’t quite as clear as it could have been. I saw that it was mostly straight through a heavily forested area. It was the kind of area where they clear cut trees in big areas but leave the trees close to the road intact, to hide the cutting. But you can easily see the bright patches through the trees along the road, making it clear that there are no trees 50 or 100 feet in. You can also tell the area is heavily forested by simply looking up a the hillsides where there have been clearcuts in the past. I’ve seen this all over the northwest, particularly in Oregon and Washington. When you’re in a helicopter, these areas are hard to miss.

The road came close to Chilliwack River in several places. In one area not far from the city of Chilliwack there are rapids where kayakers practice. I’d noticed it on my way in and decided to stop. I got out of the truck with my camera, leaving Penny behind. And who do you think I ran into right near the river bank? The same guy I’d chatted with at the campground dump station.

We must have talked for another 30 of 45 minutes. Travel, politics, relationships, trucks. He told me how worried Canadians are about our elections. About how a Donald Trump presidency would make us the laughing stock of the world. I told him that Canada is going to need a wall if he gets elected.

I managed to get some photos of kayakers coming through the rapids as we chatted. Unfortunately, they’re all on my Nikon so I can’t add any to this blog post until I get home.

Although I think we could have talked all day, I reminded him that I was facing a two-hour drive to my next destination and was hoping to get a hike in there before dinner. So we went our separate ways and I got back on the road.

There was traffic in Chilliwack. I debated stopping and using my cell phone connection to publish the two blog posts I’d finished but decided to wait until I got to Hope, where my next exit was. By this time, my Internet connection was working fine in the car and Google was providing driving instructions. I got on the highway and headed east again.

I drove at the speed limit — after using my glasses to figure out what 110 kph was in mph (almost 70). The road was just curvy enough that I didn’t feel comfortable going any faster with the Turtleback on top. I’m starting to think that’s how they establish speed limits: put a camper on the back of a pickup and drive as fast as they can. When the load starts feeling a little unstable, that’s the speed limit.

There was nothing remarkable about the drive. There seldom is on a freeway. That’s why I tend to avoid freeway driving on a road trip. If I wanted to move quickly between two distant points, I’d fly. Driving is to be enjoyed, whenever possible. Back roads offer an insight into the way people in an area live. They give drivers a chance to see the world around them when they’re not doing 70 mph.

One thing I did notice, though: Canada has the same familiar brands we have in the U.S. The first thing I noticed after crossing the border was a Costco, followed immediately by Lowes. There are all the same fast food places, there are Starbucks everywhere. Banks and supermarkets had different names. Of course, I wasn’t on the freeway when I noted all this. Can’t notice much at 70 mph.

The Road to Hozomeen

Google alerted me to my exit up ahead, one of the first in Hope. From there, it had me turn south on a relatively narrow road with neglected pavement. I drove past a row of small, condemned houses alongside a creek and then a residential area. And then I was heading south toward another provincial park and the border. I’d gone at least 10 miles before I remembered my planned stop at Hope to publish those blog posts. Oh, well. It could wait another day.

The road was in sorry shape. This was not a surprise. All the reviews I’d read about Hozomeen mentioned the road. It was 38 miles from Hope to the campground and although I’m not sure what the speed limit was, I was able to keep my speed at about 30 to 40 miles per hour. The road was actually worse on the north end because it also led to handful of lakeside and riverside provincial parks that, according to the ranger I met later at Hozomeen, were pretty popular with the locals. At a certain point, the road gave up any pretense of being paved and continued with a hard-packed gravel surface that had potholes but very little washboarding.

Although I’d lost my cell phone signal not far from the beginning of the road, GoogleMaps still showed my route with an estimate how how much time/distance I had left. I realized after a while that it was counting down the minutes faster than real time — I suspect I was going faster than Google thought I would.

Cars, some pulling trailers or boats, passed me in the opposite direction. Maybe ten of them total. There was no one in front of me and no one behind me.

I reached the turn for Ross Lake Campground in Skagit Valley Provincial Park and turned in. This would be plan B for the night. The campground was remarkably similar to the one I’d spent the previous night in: wooded, decent sized sites with trees or brush for some privacy. The sites along the lake — I’d reached the north end of Ross Lake at this point — were either taken or reserved. But there were plenty of empty sites, many of which would meet my needs. So if Hozomeen didn’t pan out, this would work.

Boundary Sign
This is the US sign looking toward Canada. The Canadian sign is on the flip side. This sign post can’t be more than 3 feet tall.

I left the campground and continued south. There was a turn for a day use area on the lake. And then a nondescript sign that said International Boundary. I kept driving, slowly now, looking for the border station where I’d need to stop and show ID.

There wasn’t any.

Instead, the speed limit signs went from kph to mph. I was in the United States.

And this is what really makes me laugh. Politicians talk about putting up walls and fences to keep out illegal immigrants and terrorists. If they only had a glimpse of reality! This isn’t the first time I’d crossed an International border that wasn’t protected by anything more than a sign. The borders between the United States and its neighbors to the north and south are thousands of miles long. It is impossible to protect every inch of them. Anyone who tells you different is either lying or completely ignorant. Hell, I blogged about this way back in 2010 when John McCain was going on and on about a fence along the U.S./Mexico border. Same tune, same completely idiotic plan.

Ranger Station at Hozomeen
The ranger station at Hozomeen is a cute little a-frame that looks as if it’s been there for 50 years or more.

A little bit farther down the road was a cute little A-frame building that was clearly the ranger station. The flagpole was bare. The door was wide open. I parked and got out to see whether I had to check in or show ID or pay a fee. There was no one in the building, although it had clearly been set up for ranger business. The placed smelled old and musty, like my godfather Jackie’s basement antique shop. There were flyers — including one titled “Insects: Masters of Survival,” which I took, hoping I wouldn’t need to consult it — but no area maps. A sign outside was titled “How to Find a Ranger” and provided a list of places to look if you needed a ranger. Talk about loosey goosey.

Ranger Station Door Open Inside the Hozomeen Ranger Station
Left: The door to the ranger station stood wide open. Note sign titled “How to Find a Ranger.” Right: Inside the Hozomeen ranger station.

But let’s face it: we were in the middle of nowhere and the only road led north, back into Canada. It wasn’t as if this was a waypoint along a heavily trafficked route into Seattle. We were at the end of the road and beyond it were only bear-filled mountains. The only people coming to this place were people who wanted to be in this place — not somewhere beyond it. It wasn’t the kind of place you’d stumble into. The rangers likely realized that people who came here had done some sort of homework and likely wouldn’t need their help. Why sit in an office to greet the handful of people who might show up each day?

So I got back in the truck and continued down the road, trying to get a feel for the place and an idea of where I could camp for the night.

Three Sites at Hozomeen

Hozomeen lies at the far north end of Ross Lake, a 25-mile long, manmade lake along the Skagit River in the North Cascades. A mentioned above, it’s only accessible by car through Canada. It’s also the only place on the lake where where there are boat launches. So if you want to put a decent sized boat on the lake, you have to go to Canada to do it — even though less than 3 miles of the lake are within Canadian borders. There’s supposed to be good trout fishing in the lake, although limits are determined by whether you caught the fish in the U.S. or Canada.

Other than boating and fishing, there’s hiking. Hozomeen Campground was named for Hozomeen Mountain just to the east. A trail winds up from one of the camping areas to Hozomeen Lake. It was that trail that I was hoping to hike when I got here. But by the time I arrived in early afternoon, after being bumped around for an hour on the road from Hope, I wasn’t in the mood for a 7-mile round trip hike, the first mile or so of which was a steep climb. But I’m getting ahead of myself now.

A few hundred feet farther down the road was the first campground, Winnebago Flats. I’m thinking that’s more of a nickname than anything else. It was a mostly open area right on the water and was nearly full of RVers and tent campers baking in the sun. There were boats tied up at the docks and boat trailers parked here, there, and everywhere. Some kids and dogs, a generator running — definitely not the kind of quiet place I wanted to stay. I kept driving.

The road climbed a bit above the lake and entered the same dense woods I’d come to expect. Off to the right was the ranger housing — one of the places you might find a ranger — and beyond that, to the left, was a road marked Hozomeen Trailhead that climbed into the hillside. And beyond that, a campground loop. This one was just about deserted, with only three campers in 30+ sites. As I drove through, I liked what I saw. I picked a site on a hillside with views of the lake through the trees, backed my rig in, and got out to set up camp.

By “set up camp,” I really mean make lunch. I had the same thing I’d made the day before: grilled eggplant and goat brie on the bread I’d bought two days before. I finished up the brie but had no shortage of eggplant or bread. Penny sat in high alert while I made and ate my meal. I suspect she smelled the bears that were supposed to be in the area and was waiting for one to come bounding out of the woods.

After lunch, we followed the signs to the boat launch just down the road. I’d seen a ranger SUV head down there and figured I’d ask a few questions about the area. The road was longer than I expected and we reached the ranger boat dock first. That’s where the two rangers were. One was fiddling with the motor on a 20+ foot aluminum-hulled boat while the other sat on the dock waiting. Both wore uniforms and inflatable collar life jackets, like the ones I’d bought for overwater operations in my helicopter years ago.

I called out and the waiting ranger walked over. I asked him if there was a fee and whether I needed a backcountry permit. (No and no.) We talked about the bear situation (there was a resident bear), leaving fires unattended (a definite no-no), and leaving food out overnight (another no-no). He reminded me that Penny needed to be leashed at all times. We talked about the other campground and he mentioned that there were fewer bugs there because of the breezes — which is one reason it was so popular. The mosquitoes weren’t bad — yet — he assured me. (I’d already noticed them.) Then we talked about the condition of the road and the fact that bad weather in July had kept park attendance low, which kept the road from getting washboarded. We also talked about living and working in such a remote place and agreed that there were a lot worse places a ranger could be stationed.

By then, the other ranger had the engine running. I volunteered our services to help out on the boat if needed and we both laughed. Then we parted ways. As I headed back up the road, the boat roared out over the lake towards the opposite shore.

There’s a lot to be said about a career as a U.S. Park Ranger.

Back at the campsite, I took a nap. It seemed like something that had to be done.

Customs Cabin
I read in one of the guide books that this was originally a customs cabin.

I woke up around four and felt that I really needed to do something. So Penny and I got into the truck and drove up to the Hozomeen Trailhead. It was a lot closer than I remembered it being — we could have walked. I parked by the old Customs Cabin there and got out to look around. The cabin was neat and clean inside, with two beds and a kitchen area. The padlock on the door wasn’t clasped shut, but I didn’t go in. I didn’t want to intrude on what might be someone’s living space. A creek roared by past the back of the cabin and there was a tall water tank nearby — likely the source of all the water in the park.

There were campsites nearby, too. One very close to the trailhead was large with what looked like a level place to park. There was a restroom nearby. No other campers. I peeked into the restroom and it was immaculately clean and odor-free — as if it were brand new.

Campsite Two
My second campsite for the day.

I got to thinking that this might be a better campsite. Clean restrooms, water right across the road, ranger housing just down the hill. I didn’t need any of these things, but they somehow figured into my calculations. Penny and I got back into the truck, drove it down to our first campsite, gathered together the few things I’d left out, and drove back to the new site on the hill. I backed in, maneuvering to get the Turtleback as level as possible, and parked. Then I unpacked those outdoor items and left them at the table.

I tried to sit for a while, but the mosquitoes were bugging me — literally, I guess. I put on some of the “all natural,” Deet-free bug repellant I’d bought in the Mazama Store a few days before. I didn’t have high hopes of it working — I’d read a review of bug repellants online recently and it rated the ones with Deet a lot higher than the others. But this one seemed to work. The mosquitoes stayed clear. And it didn’t smell bad, either.

There was a trail down to the road and feeling the need to take some kind of hike, I leashed up Penny and followed it. From there, we walked a short distance down the road before another trail led to the lake. That eventually put us right on the shore. It was after 5 PM at this point and still bright and sunny on the east shoreline. I quickly worked up a sweat and began wondering how that bug repellant would handle it.

Ross Lake Trail
The trail through the woods eventually led to one right alongside the lake. You can see the campers at Winnebago Flats in the near distance.

The sunny campground was 3/4 of a mile from where I’d parked. As I walked through, I realized that the campers on the south end were the noisy groups while those on the north end were more laid back. I stopped and took photos from a few of the docks and chatted with a woman floating in an inner tube beside a boat with two barking dogs in it. (I’d left Penny on shore; she didn’t want to walk on the dock surface.) When I noticed the top of Hozomeen Peak to the east — which is impossible to see from the shore — she told me that in late afternoon as the sun was going down, it glowed.

That’s probably the seed that got me thinking about moving my campsite again. There was a campsite at the north end right beside a trailer parking spot. The lake would be right out my back door. It wasn’t a tough decision. When I told the folks two sites down that I was thinking of moving there, they offered to hold it for me while I fetched my rig. Thirty minutes later, I was backing into my third (and last) campsite for the day.

Campsite 3
My third (and last) campsite for the day was small and not very private, but had nice views of the lake out the back windows.

Funny, but usually the problem is there not being enough good campsites to choose from. In this campground, there are too many.

Penny and I relaxed out behind the camper for a while. I sat in my new chair with my feet up on the picnic table bench. It was a quieter than I expected it to be. I’d made a good decision.

A ranger came by and invited me to attend a ranger program at the International Border Amphitheater at 8 PM. She wasn’t clear about how far away it was. I thought about walking over after dinner.

Later, I took out the grill again and cooked up a chicken thigh and some zucchini. We ate out at the picnic table, overlooking the lake. 8 PM came and went. My neighbors walked up to the presentation. I stayed at my site.

Stand Up Paddleboarders with Dogs
As I ate dinner, a pair of standup paddle boarders paddled down from Canada with their dogs. I shot this photo when they were on their way back after sunset.

When it got too chilly to sit outside, I went in and got to work on this blog post. I’m rather proud of the way I’ve been keeping up on this trip. It’s got me thinking that it is possible for me to get real writing work done when I travel.

My neighbors got home and started a campfire. But I was in bed asleep before they put it out.

Summer 2016 Road Trip, Day 2: Mazama to Colonial Creek

Day 2 is full of hiking, amazing mountain vistas, and the sound of running water.

I woke as the sky was getting lighter — just like I usually do at home. The difference is, because I was in deep valley, that didn’t happen until after 5 AM. By 5:30, I was done sleeping.

It was pleasantly cool. Cool enough to close the few windows I’d left open overnight.

I made a pancake and coffee for breakfast and settled down to write yesterday’s blog post. I didn’t really feel like writing — I’ve been like that a lot lately and it has me bothered. I’m working on a book — or trying to — and can’t seem to get and stay motivated. I was hoping that blogging each day of this trip would get me back in the mood, but yesterday morning, as I drank my coffee and our campsite brightened around me, I just couldn’t. It got worse when the first rays of the sun touched the tops of the hills nearby. It gave me a sense of urgency to start my day. Still, I forced myself to finish the task and then posted the result.

Penny and I took a short walk to that most excellent pit toilet building. Yes, the Turtleback does have a toilet in its microscopic bathroom. (Seriously: bathrooms are bigger on airliners.) But I didn’t see any reason to fill my blackwater tank. Besides, I was “practicing” for long term living in the Turtleback this coming winter. I hoped to park it out on the Colorado River again with friends and dumping wasn’t an option. The goal, then, was to use public facilities when needed if they were available. This was, as I mentioned yesterday, a very clean facility.

Then I broke camp. That was as easy as packing my portable grill back into its carrying case, stowing it in the truck, and turning the key that closed the Turtleback’s single slide. We were back on the road within 10 minutes.

On the Road

I stopped at the Mazama Store, which was on the way back to Route 20. I wanted to pick up a bottle of wine, some onions (I’d forgotten to pack the ones in my fridge at home), some seasonings, and some bug repellant (which I didn’t need yet but who knew when I would?). While I was in there, I looked at the selection of extremely overpriced, high quality clothing and household items they had for sale. No, I wasn’t going to spend $40 on an 600+ piece jigsaw puzzle or $60 on a sweatshirt that had Mazama written across its front. They do have the largest selection of Lodge cast iron cookware, including dutch ovens, that I’ve ever seen in one place. But I don’t even use the pieces I have. (I plan on changing that next time I head south for the winter.)

I also topped off the truck with diesel. I had a half tank, but I didn’t want to have to worry about it as I traveled.

As I drove out of town, I looked around at the big open field where I skied every winter. It looked completely different without the snow and snow banks. And, surprisingly, it was a lot less busy on that beautiful summer day than it is every Christmas Day. Go figure.

I hadn’t gone more than 5 miles when I started seeing National Forest campgrounds that I could have stayed in. I pulled into two of them to check them out. They were nice, with some level of privacy and enough space to be comfortable. But as I drove around mentally critiquing the sites, I began to realize that I didn’t really like camping in campgrounds anymore. It was like living in a subdivision. Why would I want to live somewhere with less peace and privacy than my own home? Sure, the first night’s site wasn’t anything special, but I was the only one there. It was dead quiet all night and completely private. The only thing that could have made it better was a stunning view or a lake or river out my door. Like the first campsite I’d taken the Turtleback to back in May.

But I do have this to say about National Forest campgrounds: they’re clean, they have good basic facilities, and they’re cheap. I’d rather pay $8 to $16 for a fire ring, picnic table, and nearby restroom facilities in the woods with some trees between me and my neighbors than pay a KOA $35-$55 for the basics plus a full hookup in something similar to a parking lot. When did “camping” turn into a parking lot activity?

I stopped at the Washington Pass Overlook, parked in the RV parking area, locked up, and walked with Penny up the path to the overlook area. There were only a few people there. The air was clear, the sky was cloudless, the low sun was illuminating the granite peaks around us. The view was spectacular — almost surreal — of forest crowned with pointy, snow-studded rocky outcroppings. The only sound was that of cars and trucks and motorcycles rushing by on the road far below.

The View from Washington Pass
The view from Washington Pass overlook, looking southwest.

First Hike: Maple Pass Trail

Back in the truck, I consulted my Methow Valley trail map. We were already almost off it. I wanted to do a morning hike. Rainy Lake was up ahead — it was an easy one-mile hike to a lake that no one other than me ever seemed interested in. The same trailhead had the much more popular Maple Pass loop trail with its side trail to Ann Lake. The Ann Lake hike looked doable — maybe a mile and a half each way. Worth a try.

I was pulling into the trailhead parking lot — which is almost exactly halfway between Winthrop and Newhalem — a short while later. It was already nearly full. On a Monday morning. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who thought a vacation in the North Cascades was a good idea for the first week in August.

Again, I parked in the RV parking area. I should mention that although my truck with the Turtleback on it will fit (snugly) in a standard parking space, it’s a bit wide and a bit long. Backing up out of a space in a crowded parking lot is often a problem. (Heck, it’s often a problem even without the Turtleback on; my truck is big.) It’s a lot easier to pull through a spot, so I park with the motorhomes when I can. I hung my Forest Pass from the rear view mirror, put Penny on her leash, and stepped down into the parking lot with her. After a bit of organizing to get my waist pack filled with water bottles, jerky, binoculars, and other necessities, I grabbed my camera bag and camera, locked everything up, and headed to the start of the trail.

Maple Pass Trail
Along the trail to Maple Pass and Ann Lake.

The Maple Pass trail starts climbing immediately. It isn’t a steep climb, but it does begin with some switchbacks. I took my time — as I always do when climbing hills. I can hike all day at a good pace on level terrain or downhill, but put me at the bottom of a hill and you’ll need to be patient while I climb it.

Penny was freed from her leash when we reached the first fallen tree. She wanted to go under it and I couldn’t. So the leash came off and she hurried off up the trail, coming back when I called her and generally entertaining everyone who passed us. (That “he looks like Toto” thing is really getting old.) And lots of people did pass us, which was okay with me. I was in hill climb mode and not in a hurry.

I stopped to take a lot of photos, mostly of wildflowers. The light and shadows made lots of opportunities for me to capture a bloom in the sun against a darker, out-of-focus background. This was a lot easier with my Nikon than with the camera on my iPhone, so I have few photos to share here. (I can’t get my Nikon photos onto my laptop without an SD card reader, which I neglected to bring along; maybe I’ll pick one up on the west side of the mountains, later this week.) The trail was mostly very shaded, but every once in a while it would open up to a hillside with spectacular mountain views. That’s also when it would get very hot — at least 20° hotter in the sun than the shade — and I regretted bringing along my sweatshirt.

The heat combined with the relentless hill climb was starting to get to me after an hour or so of hiking. At 10:30, I decided I’d hike until 11 AM and then turn back. But a short while later, when we emerged from the woods again, I saw a crowd of at least 50 hikers up on the trail ahead of me. I immediately assumed they were part of a tour group — they were dressed in brightly colored clothes with small day packs on their backs and seemed to be split into large groups led by a person with what looked, from a distance, like a map. I imagined some sort of nature outing of city folk from Seattle closely examining the plants and rocks as they walked. They hadn’t passed me, which meant they were hiking slower than I was. Which meant I’d be passing them. And, at my current rate of speed, I’d likely be among them for at least 20 minutes. Clearly, it was time to turn back.

Open Trail
Here’s where I spotted that group of hikers. Can you see them? Only about 1/3 of them are in this shot; the rest had already entered the woods beyond them.

For the return hike, I activated the Gaia GPS app on my phone, mostly to get track stats. It already had the detailed maps loaded up; I’d done that last year. (Must remember to load maps for the rest of my trip when I’m back on the grid.) I snapped a few photos to include with the track and, with luck, will remember to upload it to the GaiaGPS site when I publish this later today. When I got back to the trailhead, I saw that I’d hiked just under a mile one way. That was just two miles total. Pitiful, even by my standards.

Colonial Creek Campground

After a pit stop in the Turtleback’s tiny bathroom — the toilets at the trailhead were too stinky — Penny and I continued in the truck on our way west. My plan was to camp one or two nights at the Colonial Creek Campground, where I’d stayed last year.

The road winds through the forest at a good clip and I did the best I could to stick to the speed limit so as not to slow up people behind me. The Turtleback raises the truck’s center of gravity considerably and, although it’s not in the least bit unstable, it feels very different when it’s so top-heavy. The drive was very pleasant, with views of at least a dozen small waterfalls along the way. I decided that, weather permitting, I’d take my motorcycle for the ride when I returned later that month for the photography class I’d booked at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake. The road seemed made for motorcycling.

Diablo Lake from the Overlook
Diablo Lake, from the overlook on Route 20.

We passed the Ross Lake overlook without stopping, but stopped at the overlook for Diablo Lake. The incredible blue-green color of this lake’s water never ceases to amaze me. We took a nice walk along the rail on the edge of the drop-off and I shot photos with my phone’s camera along the way. Then it was back in the truck to finish the drive to Colonial Creek Campground.

I knew from last year that there were some sites right along Diablo Lake and I was hoping I could find one for the Turtleback. But as I drove through the campground, I also remembered that most of those sites — one of which we’d gotten the year before — were tent sites that you had to walk in to. A vehicle would be parked along the road, nowhere near the water. Great for tent campers but not great for RVers. I finished the loop, seeing one or two suitable sites on the west side that weren’t anywhere near the water but did have the privacy I prefer in campsites. Then I remembered the other part of the campground on the north side of Route 20. Colonial Creek ran along one edge. Maybe I could find a site along the creek?

Colonial Creek Campsite
My campsite at Colonial Creek Campground was right on the creek.

I drove in and found what I was looking for almost immediately: a creekside site I could back the truck into. Although the front end of the truck was within 5 feet of the road, the back end — with the Turtleback’s door — faced the campsite and creek. I maneuvered the truck so that a large flat stone set like a curb to prevent vehicles from driving any farther into the site was right beneath the Turtleback’s step, making it easy to climb up and down. Although I couldn’t see the creek from the Turtleback, I could certainly hear it rushing by beyond some fallen logs. And a trail led right from the site to the creek. With trees on both sides, I had plenty of privacy from the occupied sites on either side of me.

By this time, it was well after noon and I was starving. I had a fridge full of vegetables and ground beef I had to cook. I sautéed the beef with onion, peppers, eggplant, green beans, and tomatoes. I would have added zucchini and yellow squash, but the pan was already too full. A touch of Spike seasoning and some pepper and I had a nice hot lunch. Even Penny had some.

While I ate, I studied the North Cascades National Park Map I had. Although I’d tentatively planned my trip for two days at Colonial Creek, without my kayak along I wasn’t sure what I’d do the next day. Maybe I could move along and explore another location? Maybe the Mount Baker area? There were some campgrounds that seemed accessible from what might be paved roads — not that lack of pavement ever stopped me. If I wasn’t going to do any paddling on this trip, I’d do more hiking and photography. So far, I’d been in places I’d been before; it was time to strike out and explore something new.

So when I walked with Penny and my checkbook to the pay station to pay for the site, I filled out the form and wrote the check for just one night: $16. I also chatted with a uniformed volunteer about fire regulations. Campfires were still allowed in the fiercest provided for that purpose. I had a bunch of cedar trimmings from a windowsill project at home as well as some fruit wood I could burn. Maybe we’d have a campfire later that evening.

Dog on a Log
I took a picture of Penny on a stump in the lake. Why not?

We walked along the lake on the way back. I let Penny off her leash again. I stopped to chat with a man coming off the lake in a kayak. It looked sleek and light and a lot smaller than mine. He said it weighed 30 pounds but was 12 feet long. 12 feet! Mine was just under 10 and had to weigh at least 50 pounds. He’d bought it at REI. I figured I’d check them out if there was an REI near where I emerged from the Cascades on the west side later that week.

Back at the campsite, I spent a while starting this blog post. I had my phone plugged into the stereo system and was listening to old time vocals: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole. Later, I climbed into bed for a nap with Penny stretched out napping nearby. It was a nice, relaxing afternoon, with no Internet distractions or phone calls or pressing tasks.

Vacation. Gotta love it.

Thunder Knob

I woke at about 4 PM. The campsite was in the shadows; although sunset was still more than 4 hours off, the campground is in a valley and the sun had already dipped behind the trees around us.

Bridge over Colonial Creek
Here’s Penny on one of the bridges over Colonial Creek.

I put on my hiking shoes, grabbed my waist pack with a bottle of water and ice and my camera, and headed out with Penny. The Thunder Knob trailhead was just down the road two campsites away. It was a 1.7 mile hike that I’d done the previous year with my camping companion. I remembered it being a bit of a climb on the way out but all downhill on the way back. After my dismal performance that morning on the aborted hike to Ann Lake, I felt a real need to redeem myself with a good hike.

Mountain View
I’m not sure, but I think this is Colonial Peak.

It was pretty much as I remembered it: cross Colonial Creek on some wooden bridges, walk through the cool woods, and then start a climb, mostly on switchbacks, up a hillside laid bare in places by high winds or past fires. Once the climb began, it was remarkably dry and even got hot in places. There were no wildflowers — just scattered fir trees and lower vegetation. Occasionally, there would be a view of Colonial Peak or Diablo Lake or some other snow-studded mountain or glacier off in the distance.

As I hiked, I kept pace with a couple around my age that were stopping for rests almost as much as I was. They offered to let me pass and I declined, the first time, telling them they’d just pass me on a steep portion of the hill. But the second time they offered, I did pass. I felt amazingly energized after my lunch and nap — much better than I had that morning on the first hike. They kept pace with me for a while, but when I announced (after consulting Gaia GPS) that we were half way there, one of them said, “Half way? Have fun!” They stopped for a break and I kept going. I never saw them again.

View from Thunder Knob
The view northeast from Thunder Knob.

The hike was worth it, though. The views of the lake from the top of Thunder Knob are nothing short of spectacular. It was cool and breezy up there and I could hear the wind in the trees and see the small whitecaps on the lake far below us. There were also very few people up there: just two couples. I think it was because it was the kind of hike that’s too long or strenuous for a casual hiker (like the folks I’d passed) and too short for a serious hiker. I’m apparently casually serious about hiking. When they left, Penny and I had the place to ourselves.

View from Thunder Knob
The view northwest from Thunder Knob.

It had taken us a little over an hour to get up there, but only forty five minutes to get back. I’m a gravity-assist hiker and get good speed when gravity is pulling me the same direction I want to go. The walk was, for the most part, in the shade or shadows and relatively cool. But humidity — especially near the bottom — got me working up a sweat anyway. By the time we got back to camp, I was hot and exhausted.

But I’d also broken my previous record for steps taken in a day: 18,095.

And yes, I have a trackless with photos from Gaia GPS. With luck, I’ll remember to upload it and link to it here.

Ending the Day

I opened the bottle of wine I’d bought in Mazama and poured a glass. Even though it was probably the worst Malbec to come out of Argentina, it still tasted good enough for a camping trip.

Although I felt as if I lacked the energy to take a shower, it definitely had to be done. It was my first shower in the Turtleback’s microscopic bathroom and it went surprisingly well. The water gets very hot and there was enough pressure to get the job done efficiently. Afterwards, I let the shower curtain hang open and draped the towel over the bathroom door to dry. It felt great to get into clean clothes, even though they were a night shirt and lounge pants.

I made a salad and gave Penny some leftovers from lunch. I did the dishes and briefly considered a campfire. But smelling smoke from the campfire next door reminded me that a campfire would just leave me smelling like smoke — a smell I didn’t want to take to bed. So I settled down at the dining table to read for a while, leaving the door open to let in the glorious sound of the rushing creek just 50 feet away.

When it started getting chilly, I closed up the door and whatever windows were still open and climbed up into bed. I managed to stay awake for about 30 minutes. I was dead asleep by 9.

Snowbirding 2016: Introduction

I officially become a snowbird.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
The Colorado River Backwaters
Back to the Backwaters
Return to Wickenburg
Valley of Fire
Death Valley
– Back to Work

If you’re not familiar with the term snowbird, it refers to a person, normally retired, who migrates seasonally to more appealing weather. Usually, the person lives in a northern climate and migrates south for the winter, like a bird might. Occasionally, the person lives in a warm climate and migrates north for the summer. I have friends in Arizona who do that. And then there’s a whole separate class of snowbirds who live full-time in RVs and travel around the country for the best weather and activities and places they like.

When I lived in Arizona — which has brutally hot summers — I was fortunate to have summer work that took me north to cooler climates. Now that I live in Washington, I’m fortunate to have free time and late winter work that makes it possible to go south to warmer climates.

I’m not retired — not yet, anyway. I feel semi-retired and often tell people I am. Most snowbirds are retired because usually you need to be retired from a job to have the freedom to travel seasonally. When I wrote books for a living, I could have had the same lifestyle, but I chose to stick with the man I thought was my life partner; unfortunately, he valued a steady paycheck over a flexible lifestyle. Fortunately, I don’t have him holding me back anymore.

I did some traveling to Arizona last year. I house/dog-sat for some friends in Wickenburg while they were away and turned my visit into an extended stay. It was nice getting back into the sun and seeing old friends. But I had a lot of work ahead of me at home — I’d started construction work on my living space that winter and was eager to finish up and move in. So my visit was short — about two weeks? — and I didn’t really get the snowbird experience.

This year is different. When I’d had enough of this winter’s extraordinarily generous snowfall and began really craving sunshine, I consulted a mostly empty calendar and started thinking of the invitations that were trickling in from points south. I had at least three potential destinations:

  • Some very good friends in Wickenburg (northwest of Phoenix, where I used to live) told me that I was welcome to stay in their guest house “as long as I liked.” While I didn’t think they meant the two months that I was interested in, I knew I’d be able to stay there at least a week. I looked forward to seeing them and visiting with other friends in town.
  • Some other friends were staying in their RV in the Quartzite area. My friend is an artist and shows her work there. But before the show, they camp out in the Colorado River backwaters south of Ehrenberg, AZ where they relax and fish and have campfires at night. This year, they’d have three horses with them.
  • For the fourth year in a row, I got a frost control contract in California’s central valley. The contract normally runs from the end of February to the end of April. Although I’m not required to stay with the helicopter at my base there — they pay a generous call-out fee that covers the cost of me flying down from Washington when needed — I really like the area. I also get a great deal on an RV parking spot at the airport where the helicopter is based. I have friends there and even learned to fly a gyro with one of them back in 2014. It’s a great third destination.

I had other invitations to visit friends down south, too. A friend of mine in Salt Lake City invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with her and her son. Other friends with a new home south of Phoenix had a guest house bedroom waiting for me. I even had an invitation to spend some time with a friend in Tucson, if I decided to go that far.

What made traveling south for the winter a lot easier was having a place to live when I wasn’t a guest at a friend’s home: my unsold Mobile Mansion.

The Long Drive
The long drive. I had overnight stops in Pasco, WA; La Grande, OR; Boise, ID; and Las Vegas, NV.

So on December 29, I got the Mobile Mansion off the sale lot in East Wenatchee where it was waiting for a buyer, hooked it up to my truck, and headed south, leaving my home, chickens, and barn cat(s), in the capable hands of my house-sitter and her doberman.

Along the way, I got delayed due to truck mechanical problems that eventually killed my truck, bought a new used truck that puts all my past trucks to shame, and kept on going. I missed out on the New Year’s Eve celebration in Salt Lake, drove through an area of severe cold (like -19°F) that turned the wine and champagne stored aboard the Mobile Mansion to slush, spent my first night in the Mobile Mansion at an RV park in Las Vegas (of all places), and rolled into my friend’s Colorado River campsite in time for lunch on January 2.

Sam's Town
I bet you didn’t know they had RV parks in Las Vegas.

And I’ve been having a ball ever since.

I’m going to do my best to blog about each of the stages of my snowbirding experience. I don’t expect it to be what anyone might consider typical.

Some Thoughts on Travel

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous

Perhaps my wanderlust was fed by this 1976 trip to Germany with my grandparents. Or perhaps it’s in my DNA, planted by my maternal grandfather, who used to follow us on vacation when I was a kid.

I need to start off by saying that I love to travel. I love getting into a car or plane or train with luggage and going someplace and staying for a while. I love learning about new places, meeting new people, and seeing new things.

Travel for Work

In the past, I was fortunate to have had a series of jobs that sent me all around the country. My job as an internal auditor for ADP (based in New Jersey) sent me to Chicago, Kansas, Los Angeles, Orlando, New Orleans, Denver, and Washington DC, as well as a few places closer to home. Trips ranged from one to three weeks in length. The job was 40-50% travel and I was told I’d get tired of it. But I never did.

When I started out as a freelancer, I worked as a hands-on computer trainer for Data Tech Institute. They sent me on numerous trips all over the eastern half of the country, from Milwaukee to Cape Cod to Atlanta. The trips were three days each: a travel day followed by two work days with travel at the end of the second day. I remember one particularly busy month when I visited eight different cities with 20 airplane legs and a round trip train ride. While I was exhausted at the end of that month, I was also ready for more.

Later, my writing work took me to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, Santa Barbara, and Boulder to speak at conferences, meet with editors, and record video courses. I looked forward to every single trip.

Even my flying work got me traveling. Short trips to tourist destinations like the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Monument Valley, and Las Vegas. Overnight trips for survey and photo flights in northern Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Nevada. Training flights to the Los Angeles area. Long-term trips to Washington (where I later moved) for cherry drying and to California’s Central Valley for frost control. I loved those trips most — probably because someone was paying me to fly my helicopter there.

I simply loved to travel.

Don’t get me wrong — It isn’t because I didn’t like it at home — I did. (Well, I did until my marriage started falling apart.) I just liked to get out and get a new perspective of the world. And to me, that’s what traveling is all about.

The Stay-At-Home Rut

My future wasband and I traveled quite a bit during the first 20 or so years of our relationship. We had some amazing trips: Seattle to San Francisco by car; Shenandoah Parkway, Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Outer Banks by motorcycle; and a handful of islands in the Caribbean by cruise ship are among the top 10. He even accompanied me on quite a few of my business trips — several times to California and once to Hawaii on my frequent flyer miles — and I went with him on a few of his.

Havasu Falls
I went to Havasu Falls for the first time in 2004 on an Arizona Highways photo excursion. Alone, of course.

But that ended in the mid 2000s when he started a series of dead-end jobs with limited vacation time. Suddenly, long trips were difficult to arrange and weekends were the only time he could get away. (Unless, of course, he needed to visit his mother; he could always make time for her.) I tried to get him to commit to one three-day weekend trip every month. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it apparently was.

I fell into in a stay-at-home rut. I wanted to travel — and I did actually make a few trips on my own — but unless it had some connection to my work, it wasn’t easy to do without having to deal with the resultant guilt trip my wasband put me on. You see, it wasn’t fair to leave him behind. Why should I have fun when he couldn’t? So I stayed at home, waiting, eventually looking forward to spring when I could go back to Washington, get a change of scenery, and spend time with friends. By that time, didn’t want to be at home.

Things are different now, of course. I don’t have a ball and chain holding me back. All I have is a 10-12 week period every summer when I’m stuck in the Wenatchee area for cherry drying work and another 8 weeks in early spring when I need to be within a few hours commercial flight time of Sacramento for frost work. I’m pretty much free to travel the rest of the year. Best of all, I don’t have to wait for a weekend to do it.

I got a chance to really stretch my legs in the autumn of 2012 and spring of 2013 with multiple trips from Arizona to California, Las Vegas, Washington, and Florida. I can’t tell you how good it felt to finally be able to go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted.

The Benefit of Traveling Alone

Beatty NV
My self-labeled “midlife crisis road trip” in the summer of 2005 lasted 19 days and covered 10 states. I saw a lot of off-the-beaten-path places, like this ghost town in Nevada.

Although I do prefer traveling with a good travel companion, I’ve only managed to find one — and she lives in Colorado with her own set of responsibilities. I thought I’d found another this past summer, but we apparently had different ideas of what “sharing the cost” meant. If I’m going to pay for more than half a trip, I’ll take it by myself so I don’t have to compromise with a “frugal” — his word, not mine — travel companion.

Compromise is only part of the problem when traveling with a companion. The other is spontaneity — the ability to make last minute plans and see them through. When there are two or more people traveling, planning a spur-of-the-moment trip is nearly impossible. Even making changes to travel plans once you’re on a trip is difficult. But when you’re running the show and you don’t have to worry about making someone else happy, you can do whatever you like, whenever you like.

And that’s where I am today. Loving it.

Recent Trips, Upcoming Plans

Since cherry season ended in late July, I’ve gone on several trips:

All that in three and a half months! It’s amazing I get anything done around here.

And that doesn’t include day trips to Seattle (for shopping), Woodinville (for wine-tasting), or local hiking trails and mushroom-gathering locations.

Right now, I’m thinking about other trips. I’ve already got an overnight trip to Spokane (yeah, big deal) with a friend planned. If I don’t spend the winter in Arizona, I’ll likely go on my annual cross-country skiing trip to Winthrop. One way or another, I’m sure Arizona will be a January destination — I’m thinking of driving down with my boat and stopping at various lakes along the way. Looks like I’ll spend part of the late winter in the Sacramento area again for frost; if that doesn’t pan out, I’ve got a job offer in Ohio that I’ll try to grab. (Yes, I do work for a living.) I’ll be back in Idaho with my boat to visit friends with a new home on the Spokane River and would love another trip to Alaska in May.

What about big trips, like the one I’d hoped to take with my wasband in late 2012 to Australia? Well, those are on the back burner right now while I finish my home and get my helicopter ready for its overhaul next winter. Once that’s all done and the dust has settled, I’ll be thinking about going way south for the winter of 2017/2018.

A travel companion would be nice, although not required. I’m looking for just the right person to join me.

Mushrooms in the North Cascades, Day 1: Getting Started

A great drive up, despite the rain, and an introduction to the Learning Center, course, and fellow students.

The weekend-long course started on Friday, October 9. I got an early start, planning to make a leisurely drive on the scenic route and do some hiking along the way.

The Drive Up

Although I’d originally considered making the 170-mile trip to Diablo Lake by motorcycle, reality struck in the form of autumn weather at higher elevations. I was always a fair-weather motorcyclist and don’t like riding when temperatures dip below 50. Add rain in the forecast and it made a lot more sense to take a car.

So I took my Honda S2000. After packing a bag, loading up the car, and dropping off Penny at boarding for a week — I had two back-to-back trips and Penny would miss both of them — I fueled up and got the car washed. Then I headed north on the east side of the Columbia River with the top up so it could dry after the drip through the car wash.

It was a pretty day with filtered sunlight and calm winds. The leaves were just beginning to turn in the Wenatchee area and the reflections of trees on the glassy surface of the river were gorgeous. I looked half-heartedly for a place to stop for a photo, but didn’t find any. In hindsight, I think Lincoln Rock State Park would have been perfect.

I crossed the river at Beebe bridge near Chelan and continued up the west side. The water was no longer glassy; it had become choppy in a light breeze. The clouds were building, too. I made the turn at Pateros to begin my drive up the Methow River Valley. There were more trees turning color here; autumn was in full swing.

I stopped at Twisp for lunch at about 11:30. I almost always stop at Twisp when I’m in the area. This time, I went to the Glover Street Market, sat at the counter, and had the Forbidden Rice Bowl with chicken and tofu. Very tasty. Afterwards, I stopped in at the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery for some baked goods to munch on during the weekend.

And for those of you who are wondering, downtown Twisp is fine after the wildfires. Apparently most of the fire damage is up in the hills outside of town.

I put the top down, covered my head with a scarf in an attempt to keep my long hair under control in the wind, and continued on my way. Route 20 continues north past Winthrop and Mazama — where I usually spend Christmas cross-country skiing these days — and then begins winding into the North Cascades mountains. The weather worsened, the clouds dropped lower. Rain was imminent.

By the time I reached the turn off for the Washington Pass Overlook, it was raining. I pulled in, parked, and put the top up. I debated with myself about hiking up to the overlook and decided not to. I wanted to hike at Rainy Lake and couldn’t see getting wet twice. So I pulled out and continued on my way.

The Rainy Lake trailhead wasn’t far, but it was still raining when I got there. I got the feeling that it would be raining a lot that weekend. (It’s a funny thing about rain: I love it when I’m home — where it seldom rains — but don’t like it when I’m traveling.) If I wasn’t willing to hike in the rain, I suspected I wouldn’t get much hiking in that weekend. So I parked, put on my rain jacket, and headed down the trail.

Creek Near Rainy Lake
One of the two creeks I crossed on a bridge on the way to Rainy Lake. This creek does not feed the lake.

There was some fall color along the way, but not much.

I photographed a lot of mushrooms along the trail. I’ll say what you’re thinking: this looks like a pile of poop.

This was my second hike at Rainy Lake. The first was on the way home from my camping trip in August. It’s an extremely easy one-mile trail — paved, for Pete’s sake! — and it winds through the woods, over a few bridges with bubbling creeks beneath them, ending up at an overlook for a small lake fed by glacial runoff that cascades down the cliffs in waterfalls. My goal that rainy afternoon was to get photographs of the fall colors reflecting in the lake’s glassy surface. But I made several stops along the way to photography the many kinds of mushrooms I spotted — after all, I was going to a mushroom class and thought I’d start observing before I arrived — as well as the creeks and fall color.

At the lake, low clouds, raindrops, and scant fall color made the scene a bit disappointing. But I took a few shots anyway, including a panorama. I also began creating what I call “video notes” — using my phone’s video feature to record video images, sound, and my voice narrating what I see, hear, and smell. These are not for publication — they’re personal memory aids. I plan to collect them and refer to them when writing about places in the future. I shot one at the lake and along the trail on the way back.

Rainy Lake Panorama
Rainy Lake on a rainy day. The scene was a bit disappointing.

Two women with a big dog joined me a while later. We chatted for a while and I took a photo of them with their camera. Then I headed back down the trail to my car, taking more photos of mushrooms along the way. You can see the photos and a summary of the hike on the Gaia GPS website; I uploaded it the next day when I got a access to the Internet.

Back at the car, I stripped off my wet rain jacket and got in. I continued west on the North Cascades Highway toward my destination. Little by little, I began to see more autumn color. I don’t think it had much to do with climate — I think it was related to the type of vegetation. I don’t know much about the local trees, but apparently yellow is the predominant autumn color. Back east, we had a lot more red and orange. I did stop at one bunch of trees to get a photo of my little red car in front of them. I really like the contrast here.

Honda S2000
My 2003 Honda S2000, which I’ve owned since new. It only has 60,000 miles on it and is my favorite car. It’s a sweet little ride.

Boardwalk Trail
Boardwalk trail at Happy Creek.

It wasn’t long until I got to Ross Lake. There are lots of hiking trails around there, but I wanted one that was quick and easy. It was that kind of day. I wound up at the Happy Creek Forest Walk and Falls Trail, which is another very easy trail. This one had a lot of boardwalk through the forest with more interpretive signs and benches. I like the fact that the park services create trails like this to make nature accessible not only to handicapped folks but to families with small kids.

What interested me the most about this trail was the 1.2 mile hike to the falls beyond the easy part. I started along the trail, not even minding the rain coming down on me, eager to see Happy Creek Falls. But when the trail wound close to the road and paralleled it, it lost its charm. Rainy Lake’s trail is within hearing distance of the road for about 2/3 of its length and I was tired of listening to cars and trucks roll by. On a nicer day, I might have stuck with it, but in the rain I simply wasn’t interested. So I turned back and returned to the car, snapping photos along the way.

Happy Creek
Happy Creek.

At that point, I was pretty much tired of hiking in the rain. So I headed to my destination with only a few stops along the way:

  • Diablo Lake with Clouds
    Diablo Lake on a cloudy, rainy day. Compare it to this shot of nearly the same view, taken in August.

    Diablo Lake overlook, where I shot a few images of the lake with the low clouds.

  • Colonial Creek Campground, where I’d camped in August. I wanted to see how the reflections were in the lake there and was very surprised to see that the lake level had come down so far that there was no lake at the campground.
  • Newhalem General Store, where I wanted to pick up a book about the Skagit River dam projects. That’s also where I checked voicemail, returned a call from a friend, and sent a few last-minute texts. I knew my phone wouldn’t work at the Learning Center.

Orientation and Introductions

It was about four when I crossed the Diablo Dam and drove up to the Learning Center. I checked in and brought my scant luggage — just two small bags — up to my room. I was in the Fir Lodge, which is where all the Mushroom Course attendees would be staying, in a room that overlooked the whole Learning Center. I’d booked a single room but the rooms are all the same: they accommodate up to four people in two bunk beds. I’d have the room all to myself for the weekend. The lodge was set up like a dorm, with separate mens and ladies bathrooms down the hall. The bedroom doors did not lock — which I admit was kind of weird at first — but there were lockable cupboards in the closets for people who worried about valuables. I didn’t worry.

My Dorm Room
I had this dorm-style room all to myself.

North Cascades Learning Center Classroom
Our classroom at the North Cascades Learning Center.

After taking my car down to the lakeside parking lot — there’s no parking up at the Learning Center — and hiking back, I took it easy for a while, snacking on one of the treats I’d bought at the bakery in Twisp. Then I joined my fellow classmates for an orientation meeting in the classroom we’d be using. It was in a nearby building and featured a long table with chairs on both sides. We were introduced to Lee, who’d lead the course, and several employees of NCI (North Cascades Institute). And we introduced ourselves. There were three women attendees, including me, all from the east side of the cascades, and two men, both from the west side. It soon became apparent that I had the least mushroom knowledge — the others already had experience gathering mushrooms for culinary and/or medicinal use. Lee started us off with an introduction to mushrooms, including a good explanation of what they are: the fruit of a fungus. (Sounds tasty, no?) And it should probably come as no surprise that most mushrooms are not edible — some are downright poisonous and can kill you.

Dinner was in the Dining Hall. The Learning Center prides itself on healthy meals using local sources whenever possible. I honestly can’t remember what we had. (Maybe I was tired.) I do remember it being good and having plenty of it. There was a berry cobbler for desert with fresh whipped cream. (Figures I’d remember that.) The Dining Hall was full; not only was our course being held that weekend, but there was also a watercolor painting course and what’s referred to as “Base Camp” — a sort of free-form educational experience that includes overnight stays and meals.

A nice place to relax in the evening, sheltered from the rain. I was too tired.

Then it was back to the classroom for a mushroom slide show. Lee used photos she’d taken over the years to illustrate different mushroom features that are used to identify them: gills, caps, rings, etc. I didn’t realize how many different kinds of mushrooms there are — although I’d begun getting an idea after all the photos I took that afternoon on my rainy hikes. I admit that I was nodding off in the darkened classroom. I think Lee saw that. When she brought the lights up, she let us go for the night. It was 9:30 PM, very dark, and still raining.

Scouting for a Custom Tiny Home in Idaho

I go to Idaho in search of a tiny home solution to winter travel needs.

Tiny houses are big these days. People seem unusually attracted to the idea of living in a very small, very simple space. Tiny home communities are popping up all over the west — such as the one in Portland. There are tiny home books and websites and forums. I’ve been told that there’s even a tiny home television show, although since never bothered to get connected with cable or satellite television, I’ve never seen it. (A quick search on Google for a link shows me at least three of them: Tiny House Builders, Tiny House Nation, and Tiny House Hunters. Seriously?)

While I agree that tiny houses are cute, they’re really not much different from living in an RV — which I did for two years and more summers than I care to remember. It’s nice having less space to heat, cool, clean, and furnish. But it’s not nice to live in cramped quarters with barely enough space to store the things you need to live and work. So while I have no problem with short-term life in a small space, I think people — especially families of two or more people — who turn to tiny homes for their primary living space are, well, nuts.

That said, I’m currently considering a tiny house as a replacement for my mobile mansion, which is now for sale.

The Misunderstandings

When I mentioned this on Facebook, I got a few sarcastic comments from friends of friends who (1) didn’t understand that I was considering this for part-time living and (2) apparently know nothing about tiny houses.

One person said, “I don’t like the idea of my toilet being in the same room as my kitchen sink.” Well, neither do I. And I have to say that I’ve never seen a tiny house design with the toilet in the kitchen. So I don’t know what the hell this clown is talking about.

Another person said, “Why would you want to live in a closet?” I wouldn’t. I don’t know anyone who would. But unless you have a 200+ square foot closet, most tiny houses are considerably bigger that your closets. They even have rooms and windows. Can you imagine?

Seriously: what’s with people on the Internet? Why do they find it necessary to shoot out their opinions in such a nasty, narrow-minded way, especially when they obviously don’t know what the hell they’re talking about?

‘Nuff said.

Tiny House RV

My idea is to have a custom tiny house built as a fully-functional off-the-grid RV. What gave me that idea? The Tiny Portable Cedar Cabins website. Dave, who designs and builds these cabins, constructs them on trailer frames using dimensions that keep them road-worthy without special permits. That means they’re no wider than 8’6″ and no taller than 13’6″.

Just like any RV on the road.

Because they’re built like this, they can be licensed as an RV and they follow all the rules governing how RVs are used and transported. That means I can hook it up to the back of my pickup and take it anywhere I can take an RV.

Of course, Dave doesn’t outfit them as RVs. He outfits them as homes, assuming the owner is going to park the unit and plug it into permanent power, water, and sewer line sources. He does offer off-the grid options like a composting toilet and propane appliances. But he doesn’t normally include the features a true off-the-grid RV needs, such as fresh water storage tanks and holding tanks for gray and black water. To me, that’s what distinguishes his “tiny portable cabins” from a true recreational camping vehicle.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t make one with the things I need in a real RV.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Tiny Home in Marlin, WA

Dave works with Janet, who apparently manages his website and blog and helps him sell the his houses. Janet has one of his tiny house models, a custom “Caretaker” unit. She’s parked it on her property in Marlin, WA where it’s currently sitting, waiting for a tenant to arrive.

I drove out there about two weeks ago. Anyone who says that I live in a remote area really needs to go to Marlin (AKA, Krupp) to put things into perspective. The town has about 300 people and sits at the bottom of valley with the tiny Crab Creek running through it. The closest grocery store is 18 miles away; the closest supermarket is 34 miles away. It took me nearly two hours to drive there and once I was there, there was nothing much there. But there was Janet’s tiny house, sitting inside a fenced in area with a lush green lawn.

Tiny House
How fitting that I drove my tiny car to Janet’s tiny house.

We chatted for a while and then went in to take a look. The house was set up with a generously sized kitchen, tiny — and I do mean tiny — bedroom, and decent sized bathroom that even had a washer and dryer. It had a lot of nice touches, including pocket doors and a stained glass window. It also had two storage lofts that weren’t very tall. The exterior siding was cedar; the interior finish was a natural wood that I really like.

She showed me the composting toilet. Because the house was set in a spot without access to a sewer, she’d chosen this option. As she explained, the “liquids” go through some small holes on the front of the bowl where they collect underneath. If you plan to deposit some “solids,” you prep the bowl by laying in what looks like a giant coffee filter. When you’re finished, you “flush,” which opens the bottom of the bowl and drops the filter and its contents into another container. Somewhere along the line, you sprinkle something on the waste which gets the compost action going. Janet claims that it never stinks, but I find that very hard to believe. And, of course, you eventually have to empty the waste into a compost bin. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather live in a closet than have to deal with a toilet like that on a daily basis.

I asked her about RV-related options and she really didn’t have the information I needed. For that, I’d need to talk to Dave. And since I’m better talking in person to someone than on the phone, it meant making a road trip to Idaho.

Idaho Road Trip

Spirit Lake, where Dave builds his tiny homes, is about 40 minutes north of Coeur d’Alene, where a pilot friend of mine, Jim, lives with his wife Teresa. I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone by visiting them and Dave on the same trip.

I set off last Wednesday morning with Penny in my distance car: my 2003 Honda S2000. Bought new in 2003, it had just under 60,000 miles on it — indeed, it would roll over to 60,000 on my way home. I’d prepped it earlier in the week with an oil change and a check of tire pressures and fluids. (I’d also had the leather armrest repaired; the leather had been shrinking for years and made the car’s interior look shabby. Fixed!) I put the top down, secured a scarf over my head to prevent my hair from flying around and getting all tangled up, and took off.

We took Badger Mountain Road up toward Waterville. It was the first time I’d taken that road in that direction at that time of day and it was the highlight of the drive — the Wenatchee Valley looks amazing from a viewpoint along the way in early morning light.

From Badger Mountain
Wenatchee from Badger Mountain.

I eventually hooked up with Route 2 near Douglas. From there, it was mostly straight roads over the Waterville Plateau, past rolling hills of harvested wheat fields and through small farm towns with tall silos. The road dipped down to cross Moses Coulee, then climbed again for more wheat fields and towns on the other side. I crossed the lower end of Banks Lake on the earthen dam in Coulee City and continued east on Route 2, through even more farm towns. I stopped in a small town along the way — Hartline? Almira? Wilbur? Creston? Davenport? Readan? — for bathroom break, buying an egg sandwich to go and then getting right back in the car.

Although I was enjoying the drive — I really do like a good road trip — I wasn’t disappointed when I arrived on the outskirts of Spokane. Route 2 dumped me on I-90 — which I could have taken from George if I wanted a faster route — and that took me through Spokane and info Idaho. Then Google Maps’ navigation feature directed me to exit onto Route 41. I took that north, passing a homemade billboard that said “Pray the Rosary, Vote for Trump,” and after a few miles and a few turns ended up at Dave’s construction lot outside the town of Spirit Lake.

Dave’s Tiny House Construction Yard

Janet had told me that Dave was working on about 20 houses and she wasn’t kidding. There were tiny houses in various stages of construction all over the yard. All different models, from a 22-foot Caretakers Cabin to much larger and longer models. Dave wasn’t doing any of the actual construction work himself — at least not when I drove up. Instead, he had at least a dozen guys working for him, each busy with a specific task on a specific building. Looks like he’s built himself a nice little business that employs quite a few people.

I told him what I was looking for and he led me over to one of the Caretakers cabins. It had exactly the bathroom and kitchen layout I’d envisioned. We discussed weight and tanks and all the other things I needed. I think he was surprised that I was so well-versed in not only construction but the kinds of features I needed and how they might be implemented in his buildings. For example, we discussed the placement of fresh water tanks up in the loft area and how they could be filled using a standard water connection with a value that switched the water flow to the tanks. I asked if having the tanks high would provide enough water pressure for sink and shower usage and he said it would, but not enough pressure for the instant hot water systems he used; a DC pump like the ones found in most RVs would be required.

We also talked about ways to make the building lighter. In the size unit I wanted — 24 feet max including a 4-foot porch — he estimated the total weight to be around 12,000 pounds. While my one-ton diesel pickup could easily pull that — after all, it pulls my 15,000 pound mobile mansion like its nothing — I was really hoping to replace the truck with a smaller, newer, gasoline model. That wouldn’t be advisable if I had to tow around a 12,000 pound RV. I asked if he could do 2×4 construction rather than 2×6 construction. He said that would allow for less insulation, which I was okay with. We also talked about using metal on the exterior, with the idea of it matching my building at home. That could drop the weight by another 500 or so pounds.

Tiny Home Example
I absolutely love the upper floor windows in this little house.

After checking out how the stairs were constructed in one of the other units, we stopped to look at an unusual model that was taller and wider than the others with a “shed style” roof. It was a custom unit for a family of three in Sacramento that would become their primary residents. (Remember what I said about that idea earlier in this blog post?) It had an upstairs bedroom and a very small downstairs bedroom, a decent sized bathroom and a great room with a kitchen. The main features I liked were the huge windows; the home would be very bright indeed. I wondered whether I could design a unit with the same style roof and still get the sleeping loft I needed in a space only 8-1/2 feet wide.

And that’s where we left it. I told Dave I liked that style and would rework my design with that in mind. I said I’d send him my floorplan with a list of required features. He could then work up a price and try to estimate weight.

I was supposed to do that last weekend, but didn’t. I’d better work on it soon, though. If I decide to go forward, I’m looking at an 18-week wait.

As for pricing — well, one of the reasons I was attracted to Dave’s work is that the prices are within reason. I’d seen 400 square foot tiny homes like the one pictured here selling online for over $80,000. That was absurd. Dave’s prices were much more down to earth and easier to swallow.

Still, there was no doubt that this custom tiny home RV would cost about twice as much as a 20-foot RV — which I’d also been considering.

A Visit with Jim & Teresa

From Dave’s lot, I drove down to Coeur d’Alene. I texted back and forth with Jim and discovered that he was working on a project at his new homesite. I stopped for lunch in town, then drove out to meet him.

Jim and Teresa are building a big, beautiful home on a small lot on the Spokane River just east of the Lake Coeur d’Alene. Their property includes a two slip dock that they share with their next door neighbor. The place is walking distance from one of those Main Street style malls — you know, the ones with shops and restaurants and apartments over the businesses. Odd that we abandon our downtown areas, yet build replicas of those towns to live in.

Teresa and their dog Zeus showed up as Jim was giving me the tour. I saw the whole place and complemented them on the innovative design and unusual features — including L-shaped windows and angular walls. Afterwards, we drove over to the shopping center and had margaritas and nachos while catching up. I hadn’t seen them in two years. Jim, who had been a cherry drying pilot in the Wenatchee area for about 15 years, had sold his helicopter and given up flying.

We walked back to the house from there, letting the dogs run and play off-leash along the way. The we walked along the boardwalk between the homes and the river. The sun had set and nighttime came on. We got back to Jim’s truck, which we’d left at the house, and rode in it back to the restaurant parking lot to fetch Teresa’s truck and my car. Then we rode back, convoy style, to the house they were still living in.

I got the guest room in the basement, which had been their son’s bedroom. It was nice and dark and quiet down there. I slept well.

In the morning, we had breakfast at a restaurant not far from town. I think it was the same business they’d taken my wasband and I years ago, when we’d passed through with my old RV on a sort of road trip vacation. Now it was in a new building. Great breakfast, more great conversation. Teresa recommended that I stop at Blue Dog RV in Post Falls to see what they had in the way of RVs. Since I wasn’t in any hurry to get home, I figured I may as well take a look. After all, there aren’t any RV dealers near where I live.

We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. It was about 10 AM.

RV Shopping

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s RV shopping. I’d gone through this too many times to like it.

When I bought the mobile mansion back in 2010, I honestly thought it was the last RV I’d ever need. I bought it to fit a specific need: a seasonal home for two grown people and a mid-sized dog. I figured my now wasband and I would live in it every summer for 4 to 6 months, then go home to Arizona for the rest of the year. That’s why it’s so damn big. I wanted it to be comfortable for two people for months at a time. And I fully expected to use it for many years to come, as semi-retired snowbirds.

Unfortunately, plans change. My wasband is now nothing more to me than a sad, bitter memory. I live in my own home in Washington state where I make most of my living in the summer months as a cherry drying pilot. I keep busy enough in the spring and fall to stay home. But I want to travel in the winter and spend some time in California in the early spring, where my helicopter is parked on frost control duty. I figure that I’ll only be on the road 2 to 4 months out of the year and, during that time, I won’t be parked in one place. Since it’s just me and Penny the Tiny Dog, I don’t need a lot of space. And I definitely don’t want a big rig. I want something easy to tow and easy to park. While towing the mobile mansion isn’t difficult with my big truck, parking it is a pain in the ass. And because of it’s size, I’m automatically closed out of more than a few park campgrounds.

So here I am, looking for a new solution to meet a new need.

One thing I learned the last time around is that it’s all about floor plans and features. I want the length under 20 feet, but I want the bigger refrigerator and I want the stove with the oven. That cuts out about 3/4 of the shorter models. I don’t want slides (or pop-outs) — they add weight and maintenance concerns. I want plenty of windows, a power-controlled awning, stereo sound system with DVD player, and television.

Big Window RV
I am a sucker for big windows in an RV. This Hideout was a bit longer than I wanted but the big window in the back made it nearly irresistible.

So that’s what I proposed to the very patient salesperson, Lydia, at Blue Dog in Post Falls, ID. After reviewing a few models online, she loaded me into her golf cart and drove me out onto the huge lot. We looked at about a half dozen models. We even drove back to their other lot in Coeur d’Alene to look at models there. Just when I started to glaze over, she focused me back on what we’d seen. She priced up a new and a used Keystone Hideout, each in a different style. The prices were workable, but the deal wasn’t good enough for me buy that day. I wanted to sell the mobile mansion — which was worth far more than these smaller rigs, making a trade-in impractical — before I bought a replacement.

And I was still thinking about the tiny house idea.

Spokane’s Falls

It was nearly 2 pm when Penny and I drove away. By this time, I was very hungry. But I also felt that I needed to see more of the area before I went home. I’d heard of Spokane Falls and decided to check that out. Google guided me.

I knew nothing about the area, but when I drove over a bridge and saw an aerial tram, I decided I needed to get on it. I navigated back to a shopping mall called River Park Square and got a parking space across the street in the shade. I cracked the car’s windows, leaving Penny inside, fed the meter with my credit card, and went inside.

Conveyor Belt Sushi
Conveyor belt sushi, Spokane style.

Back in the 1980s, I worked in New York City for New York City. My partner, a Chinese woman from Hong Kong, occasionally took me for lunch at a restaurant near the Empire State Building that served up dim sum and sushi on a conveyor belt that wound past all the seats. Since then, I’d seen conveyor belt sushi only one other time — in San Francisco. Believe it or not, they have it in Spokane at the mall I found myself in that afternoon.

Needless to say, that’s where I ate.

And maybe it won’t surprise you when I tell you it wasn’t that good.

Sky Ride
On the Spokane Falls Sky Ride.

Afterwards, I made my way out to the ticket booth for the Spokane Falls Sky Ride. It was pretty much deserted on that Thursday afternoon, so I didn’t have to wait. I paid $6.50 (with a AAA discount) and was loaded aboard my own car.

I’ve seen reviews of this ride and some of them pretty much bash it. But I thought it was kind of fun. I even did a live broadcast on Periscope which had quite a few viewers. And the view of the falls is great!

The Trip Home

By that time, my two hours of meter time was nearly up. I went back to the car, leashed Penny, and took her for a walk around the block. We got back into the car and headed toward the freeway. I’d already decided to pass on the long ride through the wheat fields. I got on I-90 and headed west.

The drive was long and dull, made only marginally more interesting by the string of podcasts I listened to along the way. I exited at George and followed familiar roads all the way home. It was probably around 8 when I pulled into my driveway.

Was my trip a success? I think so. I got a chance to see Dave’s tiny homes first hand and learn that what I wanted was definitely possible. I also got to see some friends I’d missed — and get an invitation to return in the spring with my boat when their house is done. And although it had taken longer than I wanted to price up a few RVs, it was good to see what was available.

Now I’ve got work to do: sketch out a floor plan for a tiny home and see if Dave can make it happen. I’d love to hit the road with something different next winter.