The Long Road Home

I make my way home from my winter travels, slowly but surely.

I’m writing this in my RV at a campsite in Maryhill State Park in Washington State. As I so often do when traveling through the area, I arrived late enough in the afternoon to stop for the night. Yes, home is only a 3-hour drive from here, but I don’t like driving at night. I have come to use Maryhill as a sort of post-trip celebration spot, a place I wind down from a long trip and start getting myself mentally prepared for my return to home.

As usual, the campground is nearly empty and I got a nice pull-through spot along the river. There’s electricity and a sewer dump at my site, but the water is still turned off for the winter. That’s okay; I filled up my fresh water tank in Las Vegas before I left and have plenty of water left.

Away from the Camper

Las Vegas is where I went after my helicopter mishap on February 24. My truck, camper, and boat were waiting there for me in a “storage” site at the Sam’s Town KOA. Although I generally avoid KOA camping, I really do like the one in Vegas for what it is: city camping. With my small rig, I can take one of the double-width sites along the edge of the campground property and not be right on top of my neighbor. I’d parked the boat beside the truck and camper before coming home in mid February to fetch the helicopter and take it down to California for a frost contract. I was able to plug in to power, which saved a ton of propane for the fridge, and the KOA folks charged only $15/day while I was gone. It was good to leave my stuff in a place I knew it would be safe.

The original idea was to go right back to Vegas after tucking the helicopter into a hangar at Yolo County Airport, but the weather in the Sacramento area turned cold and I wound up in a Woodland motel for a week in case I had to fly for frost control.

I spent my days goofing off, going as far as Calistoga for a mud bath and facial one day. (I am a sucker a good facial.) I managed to visit two wineries for tastings before heading back.

When I finally got to fly, the flight was very short with a bad end.

After being discharged from the hospital’s emergency room, my friend Sean took me to see the wreckage and we pulled out the last few personal possessions I had in there. (Sean had already collected quite a few things.) We stowed them in the hangar. Then I drove my rental car to Sacramento Airport, dropped it off, and waited in the terminal for a Southwest flight back to Vegas. With no helicopter or frost contract, there was no reason to stay in Woodland.

In Las Vegas

I was back in my RV by 6 PM. As you might imagine, I had a little trouble getting to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I’d see those damn trees in front of me. But putting the TV on seemed to help. And I eventually got a decent night sleep.

I took a full inventory of my bruises the next morning in the shower. That day — Sunday — is when the soreness really kicked in. I later learned that the helicopter impacted the ground at least twice before coming to rest against a small berm in the field where I crashed. I must have been like a rag doll in there with my muscles all tensed up from the adrenaline rush. (I don’t remember any of it, but without a head injury, I don’t think I passed out. It’s just blank.) Once my muscles relaxed a little, every single one of them got sore. The ibuprofen I was taking took the edge off.

I started the active part of my day by repositioning my truck, camper, and boat to a site on the south side of the RV park. It was a nice site with grass behind it — which is good since the camper’s door is in back. I hooked everything up — electricity, water, and sewer — since I’d be staying for the week.

I went to the convention center to meet up with my friend Zac from HAI (Helicopter Association International). The show wasn’t open yet, but he was in charge of guiding the helicopters in to land in the Convention Center parking lot. From there, they were wheeled into the building to be put on display. He got me an exhibitor pass so I could come in for a behind the scenes look at the show getting set up. Later, I joined him outside to watch (and broadcast on Periscope) a few of the helicopters that came in. It was fascinating and a lot of fun, but the walking really took a toll on me. By 5 PM, I was spent.

Show Girl
Eve didn’t like the location of the booth so she hired a model to attract attention to it during the show.

On Monday, I helped my friend’s Jim and Eve, who own Rotorcraft Enterprises, set up their booth at the show. Jim invented Start Pac, a battery device for helping to start turbine engines. He has since branched off into a bunch of other related products, including an APU for jets, a Start Pac for locomotive engines, and small battery devices to provide power when testing avionics on an aircraft. Jim’s a great guy — a former airline pilot who started flying helicopters in retirement. Like me, he lived in Wickenburg and left. I’m sure I’ve written about him elsewhere in this blog.

By the time we’d finished setting up, I was spent (again), but I went with them to lunch at a German restaurant near their office. Eating a good meal really picked me up. But I still went right back to the RV to relax. I slept a lot better that night.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were spent at Heli Expo. I chatted with Pat Cox and Tim Tucker at Robinson to tell them about the crash and show pictures. They were very interested and even dragged Kurt Robinson over to see them. They were certain that the helicopter’s bladder tanks, which I’d whined about installing, had saved my life. I talked to the folks at Hillsboro Aviation, which had sold me my R44 back in 2004, about a new helicopter; I’m still waiting for a price quote but seriously doubt I’ll replace it with a new one. (They’re a lot more expensive now!) I walked the entire show floor and found a neat video solution for tours and YouTube videos; I might take the plunge and get a setup this summer. I met up with numerous friends, including one of the few people who had flown my helicopter without me on board and my first flight instructor, who now works for the FAA. I also walked the show floor early one morning, before it was open to the public, to get some really great photos of some of the helicopters there without people hanging all over them. I posted them all to Twitter.

The MD Booth
There’s nothing quite like walking a trade show floor before the public is let in. This is a panorama of the MD Helicopter’s booth on Thursday morning.

I treated myself to dinner at the MGM grand on Wednesday evening before heading back to my camper. And I took a break from the show at midday on Thursday to treat myself to a cocktail and lunch at the Wynn resort. So much of my traveling this winter has been low budget, so it was nice to get a few doses of luxury.

A Parisol Down
I sat along the pond at the Wynn’s Parasol Down cocktail lounge. It was a nice, peaceful escape from the Heli Expo show.

On Thursday afternoon, the show closed promptly at 4 PM. By 4:15, they were wheeling helicopters out the door. I joined my friend Zac again with Jim and another Start Pac employee tagging along to watch the departures. I broadcast on Persicope and they featured the video so I soon had hundreds of viewers. I think a total of 10 helicopters left. The rest would leave the following day. Zac invited me back but I’d had enough.

Leaving Las Vegas

The next morning I had breakfast at nearby Sam’s Town Casino, then packed up leisurely and was on the road by 10 AM. It was wicked windy out as I headed down I-15 toward Los Angeles.

Camping at Lake Isabella
My campsite on the shore of Lake Isabella.

Although I usually drive through Death Valley on my way to Sacramento with my rig, I decided to take a more southern route this time, hoping to avoid snow in the mountain passes near Lake Tahoe. I was aiming for Lake Isabella, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. I arrived about a hour before sunset and got a nice campsite right on the lake.

Lake Isabella at Dawn
I shot this from my camper’s back door at dawn at Lake Isabella. It was an amazingly beautiful morning.

The following morning, I was back on the road. I think it was then that I realized how much I just wanted to be done traveling. So I made my way out of the mountains and joined route 99 north. I took that all the way to Sacramento, then hopped on I-80 to Davis.

In California Again

I stopped at the same hospital I’d been in the week before and checked myself into the ER. A number of friends had suggested that blood clots could be an issue. The bruises on my lower legs were horrendous with a few painful spots. Although I no longer needed ibuprofen for pain, I was starting to wonder whether I had a bigger problem than just bruises.

I stayed for about two hours. They did blood work and used ultrasound to scan my legs for clots. I got a clean bill of health but the doctor suggested that I get it checked again in a week.

I spent the night camped out at the hangar at Yolo County Airport. I parked right next to it. Around 2 AM, Sean arrived and sat in his car, waiting for a call to fly. I didn’t realize he was there until I woke at 4 AM. It was foggy out and the ASOS (Automated Surface Observation System) was reporting freezing fog. Even if he got a call, he couldn’t fly.

The fog was still thick when the sun rose. I got dressed for the day and went into the hangar to organize my personal possessions from the helicopter. I packed them in my truck for the ride home and said goodbye to Sean. I would not be back next year for a frost contract, but there’s a chance he’ll join me in Washington for cherry season this year.

The fog was localized; there was none north of Woodland.

I tried to retrieve my cockpit cover from the salvage guy, but it was Sunday and his place was closed.

I drove up to Williams to have lunch with another pilot fired of mine who was on a frost contract up there. I tolerated his mansplaining about how he finds his orchards in the dark. I deserved the lecture. But, at the same time, it didn’t really matter. I changed the subject.

I thought I might need to meet with the insurance adjuster and Sacramento FAA guy, but they didn’t need to meet with me. That meant I had no reason to stay in the area. So I left. I hopped on I-5, set the cruise control for 62, and headed north.

In Oregon

I tried hard to get to the Seven Feathers Casino in Oregon. Casinos make excellent overnight spots for RVers. They have big parking lots and good security. And being able to go in for dinner or breakfast the next morning is a real plus. But as the sun was getting close to setting, Seven Feathers was still about a hundred miles away and, like I said, I don’t like driving at night. (Besides, I suspect the boat trailer’s running lights aren’t working, although I know the turn signals and brake lights are.) So I wound up in a Walmart parking lot in Medford with about a dozen other RVers.

I walked over to the Outback Steakhouse and treated myself to a blooming onion, which I used to really like. They’re a lot greasier than I remember; I only ate about 1/3 of it.

The next morning, I was back on the road as soon as the sun was up and the overnight frost started to melt. Someone on Twitter had mentioned that the I-5 corridor was IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and he wasn’t kidding. I drove for two hours through big patches of fog.

My first destination was McMinville Airport where a 2005 R44 was for sale. I had an appointment to meet with the owner at 11 AM. It was a 4-hour drive from Medford and I was a little late because I had to stop for fuel. I saw the helicopter, which is only a few months newer than mine was and it looked fine — but not like mine inside. I still haven’t decided if I’ll put an offer in on it.

From there, I drove another hour north to an Apple Store in Tigard. I had a heck of a time finding parking — the store was in one of those modern outdoor malls designed to look like a downtown area. Nice place and I would have loved to spend the day shopping there, but I had a mission. I needed to buy a new iMac. The one I have at home, which is now 7-1/2 years old, refuses to start. It had been on the fritz for about a year, but it’s now dead. I think it’s a logic board or possible a video card problem. It doesn’t matter. I’m replacing it.

I wound up with a 27-inch iMac. I had to wait while they expanded the RAM from 8 GB to 16 GB. I had lunch at PF Changs while I waited. I ate too much. There was a bit of a challenge getting the computer out to my truck, but the Apple Store folks were helpful. Then I was on my way again.

I hit some early rush hour traffic in Portland — by this time, it was about 3:45 — before getting on I-84 eastbound. This is a really pretty drive along the Columbia River in Oregon, past numerous waterfalls in the Gorge area. I tried two state park campgrounds along the way but both were “closed for winter.” I knew Maryhill would be open. I stopped for fuel one last time in Biggs, OR, then crossed the river and pulled into the site I am in now.

I fed Penny but skipped dinner; I was still full from lunch.

Today’s Drive

The sun is now up, illuminating the basalt cliffs west of the park. The wind turbines up there are glowing bright white but are motionless in the still air. The frost on the ground is just starting to melt. My camper is warm; the small electric heater I brought along has been running all night. My next door neighbors pulled out a few minutes ago; we’ll leave in less than an hour.

Campground View
The view out my back door this morning. Note the frost on my boat cover and grass.

It’s an easy drive up route 97 to I-90 near Ellensburg. From there, I’ll head east to Vantage, cross the river, and come up back roads from George through Quincy to Wenatchee. I might stop at Fred Meyer for groceries to save myself a trip later on.

My house sitter left last night so I’ll have my home to myself. The cats will come out to greet us. I’ll collect this morning’s eggs.

And then I’ll go inside and run the water for a nice, hot bath.

There’s no place like home.

The Eclipse Trip Day 4: The Travel and Wine Tasting Day

I visit Walla Walla, get a good, hot shower, and have a great dinner.

I slept until nearly six — which is late for me — and woke up feeling refreshed. The first thing I did was look out my side window to see if my neighbors were up and about; that would determine how loud I could be. But they were gone.

All traces of them were gone.

Somehow, they’d managed to pack up three tents and a bunch of other gear into their cars and drive off while I was sleeping less than 100 feet away. How was that possible?

My sleeping pattern is regular. I sleep like the dead for the first three to four hours every night. You could set a bomb off next to me and I’m unlikely to wake. For the rest of the night, however, I’m a very light sleeper. So unless they packed up and left without sleeping there, they somehow managed to pack up and leave so quietly that I didn’t hear them. If that’s the case, thank you mystery campers.

The site on the other side of me just had a pickup truck parked in it. There hadn’t been a sign of people since I arrived. I had begun to think that the truck’s owner had parked there and then just wandered off into the woods to camp. Beyond them was a camping van with a tall, skinny tent — the kind often used for a bathroom or shower. Those people were gone, too. The guy at the far end was still there with no sign of life in his campsite.

So I opened the door and let Penny out to do her business. And then I got to work making coffee. She was back before the water had boiled.

I spent the next two hours working on my Day 3 blog post. There was no signal at all in my campsite, so posting it was not an option. When I was finished with that, I made a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Then I spent some time planning my day.

I knew I wanted to end up in Walla Walla for some wine tasting. If you’re not familiar with it, Walla Walla is one of the AVAs (basically, wine production regions) in Washington. It has dozens of wineries. (Too many, if you ask me.) I could just continue up 395 to Pendleton and follow Route 11 north from there. But I wanted to do some exploring along the way and tracing my path back to Pendleton would not accomplish that. I saw a place called Lehman Hot Springs on a side road that went east to La Grande and thought that might make an interesting stop along the way. From La Grande, I’d head north and then come down the Blue Mountains southeast of Walla Walla.

My campsite in the tiny 5-site campground. I think that pile of wood used to be a picnic table.

Plan made, I cleaned up my breakfast mess, got dressed, and stowed my loose belongings. By this time everyone else in the campground had gone. Even the pickup truck; apparently two people had been sleeping in it. (Compared to everyone else there, I was sleeping in the Ritz.)

It was about nine when I headed out. That’s when I discovered that the creek that went past the campground was actually the North Fork of the John Day River.

The Drive

On Route 395, I passed the parking area I’d spent my first night on the road in. Three miles later, I reached the campground that had been full; I pulled in to take a look around. It was a nice place with a creek running through it and still half full. It’s in the Ukiah-Dale Forest State Scenic Corridor, in case you want to look it up.

I turned right on Route 244 and, a few miles later, passed through the sad little town of Ukiah, OR. (Sorry folks, but I just report it as I see it.) Not much going on there, but there were about 20 motorcycles. Big cruisers, mostly. I kept going. The road continued into rolling hills with patches of forest. It was a very pleasant drive. For most of the way, I saw traces of an old railroad bed that predated the road. I have an eye for these things — old railroad or road right-of-ways — and it always gets me wondering where the train (in this case) went and why they removed its tracks.

I climbed up into the forest. There were now national forest roads going off into the woods on either side of me. Plenty of camping opportunities if I was looking for them. It was after I crossed the county line that I consulted the map again. Thats when I realized that I’d passed the Hot Springs. There hadn’t even been a sign. Just another point on a map that barely existed.

I kept going.

A while later, Route 244 dumped me onto I-84, where I definitely did not want to be. There wasn’t much of a choice, though. I followed it east and after a quick side trip to see a historic bridge, got off at the first exit in La Grande.

Perry Arch Bridge
The Perry Arch Bridge near La Grande.

I had decided about 40 miles earlier that what I really wanted was ice cream. So imagine my joy when the first business I encountered on my way into town was an old-style ice cream/hamburger joint. I slid into a parking space out front, cracked the windows, and went inside. I arrived after two big parties and waited while the woman at the counter took their orders. For a while, I considered having a burger, too, but by the time it was my turn to order, I’d settled on a rocky road waffle cone for me and a vanilla pup cup for Penny. $4 later, I was on my way back out to the truck. I didn’t realize until much later that it was the first money I’d spent on food during my entire trip so far.

I’d been noticing a sort of haziness in the air for most of the day and it wasn’t any better in La Grande. I followed the road through town, passing the Ford dealer where I’d bought my truck less than two years before, then turned left onto Route 82 heading northeast. I had to trick Google Maps into finding me the route I wanted by telling it I planned to stop in Elgin on the way. Otherwise, it tried to route me along I-84 through Pendleton. The road was fast and there wasn’t much traffic on it. The valley I was in was big and broad but the haziness really made it feel sort of closed in.

I turned left onto 204 at Elgin and headed northwest, back into the mountains. The road twisted and turned and I passed more than a few SUVs towing very small pull trailers. R-Pods seem to be pretty popular, although I don’t understand why. One of the models I passed had a narrow body with its wheels extending on either side of it. If the designers had built the body out over the wheels like most pull trailers, they could have added a foot of space on either side. For a 14-foot trailer, that’s 140 square feet of additional space. Go figure, huh?

I reached the community of Tollgate, which looked like a mountain retreat with homes on a small lake. There was a ski resort up there and lots of turnoffs into the forest for Sno-Parks. Not many people, though. No reason to stop, so I kept going.

A little while later, though, I passed a sign for a farm stand that had a magic word on it: Pies. I pulled into a parking lot in front of a tiny building called The Outpost. There were fresh vegetables outside — the absolute last thing I needed. Inside was a young woman at a little counter with pies behind her and handmade fragrant soaps on the other side of the room. The room smelled wonderful.

The Outpost
The Blue Mountain Outpost has fresh eggs, produce, and pies, as well as handmade soaps that smell really nice.

We chatted for a while as I smelled the soaps. I had to buy one, of course. I asked her which one she liked and she picked one up. I sniffed it and it smelled good. Then I asked about the pies. Peach, huckleberry, and peach-huckleberry. I picked the peach-huckleberry and paid for my purchases. When I picked it up, it was still warm from the oven.

Back on the road, I continued down the mountainside. After a few Google-directed turns, I found myself driving through Milton-Freewater.

I remembered the town mostly because back when I first drove through — on my midlife crisis road trip back in 2005 — there had been a lot of frog related stuff. I wondered how that was playing these days with the famous Pepe being taken as a symbol of the Alt-Right. But that day, when I drove through, I only saw a frog in two places: on a very old sign near the outskirts of town and in a statue in town. They had obviously moved on from frogs in town and I thought that was a good thing.

I continued north on Route 12 toward Walla Walla. For a while, my rig was one of three Lance truck campers heading that way. We were all bunched up at traffic lights more than once. Onlookers probably thought we were all together. But when we got to Walla Walla, I turned off into town and they kept going.

I stopped at the Chamber of Commerce. I wanted to ask about parking for the night. I had stayed at two different campgrounds in town in the past and had no idea whether they still existed. I also wanted to ask about wine tasting. But the only guy in the Chamber of Commerce was clueless about both things. Apparently, he was new to town. I knew more about the town than he did — and I hadn’t been there for four years.

I left with a wine tourist magazine that listed all the local wineries — did I mention there were a lot of them? — and a brochure for Palouse Falls, where I hoped to spend the night. I’d also left a message at the RV park closest to town and had called the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel about getting a room. I decided that $200 including tax and a $30 pet fee was more than I wanted to spend. (I’m certain I’d stayed there with Penny and a friend a few years back and did not spend that much.)

I drove the few blocks into town and parked on a side street. (I really do love the parking flexibility T2 offers.) That’s when I realized that there could be more hotels within walking distance of downtown. I wound up finding a room at the Red Lion Inn only two blocks away for a much more reasonable $70/night. I drove right over and checked in.

By this time, it was 3 PM. I figured that there was a chance that a lot of the downtown shops and wineries would close at 5 or 6. So rather than go up to our room, Penny and I took a walk up and down Main Street.

Wine and Dinner in Walla Walla

Walla Walla is a really nice town. It’s a lot like Wenatchee, but it has a lot more going for it in terms of wine tasting rooms, restaurants, and shops. The downtown is vibrant and was relatively busy, even on that Tuesday afternoon. I was sad to see that the shop with the walk-in, glass-sided cheese closet had closed down, but glad to see T. Macarrone’s, a favorite restaurant of mine, was still open. I wasn’t in the mood to shop or taste wine, though. I think it was the weather; the heat, light humidity, and thickness in the air from smoke was taking its toll on me.

Still, I did manage to squeeze in a tasting on my way back to the hotel. It was the brand new tasting room for Bledsoe. It was a really nice space, tastefully designed with big windows looking out onto the street from its corner. Although the tasting room was not normally open on Tuesdays, the girl in there was pouring for another customer and didn’t mind pouring for me.

To say I was not impressed was an understatement. The four wines — which started at $40/bottle — had definitely been released too early. I tried not to be critical — after all, it could be my palate that was mistaken. The wines all tasted different but all had that bite that’s common with wines that haven’t been aged enough.

While I was tasting, the girl at the counter gave me some background information about the winery. It had “split off” from another winery called Doubleback that was also in the area. Both wineries were run by the same people but they had two lines of wine and two tasting rooms. I tried to figure out why someone would do that and finally realized that it was a marketing scheme. Hell, it was from the Marketing 101 class I’d taken in college. To maximize exposure of your products, make as many versions of it as the market will support. In this case, they’d taken one winery and instead of selling six or ten different wines under that name, they were selling eight or twelve wines under two different names. Two tasting rooms. Twice the exposure. Of course, this is just a theory. The way Google works these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone from Bledsoe or Doubleback found this blog post and set me straight.

I did buy a bottle of wine, though. The tasting rooms in Walla Walla all have a tasting fee that can be applied to a purchase. I wasn’t interested in spending $10 for four tastes of disappointing wine. Instead, I’d spend $40 and take home a bottle I thought was least offensive. I figured I’d share it with people knowledgeable about wine to see what they thought. Maybe they’d educate me.

From there, I went right back to the hotel. I fetched some clothes and toiletries and Penny supplies out of the truck and camper, locked everything up, and went up to my room. This part of the hotel was in an obviously old motel building that had been nicely refinished. The walls were painted cinderblock and because they’d been painted in bright colors — yellow and purple (really!) — the place looked kind of hip. There were two queen beds with their blankets wrapped in sheets. (I really like when they do that.) The pillows were big and fluffy. There was a table and chairs, a fridge in the cabinet, and even a balcony overlooking the pool.

I made reservations for 6 at T Macarrone’s, then set Penny up with food and water, showered, and got ready to go. I left a little after 5, walking back into town alone.

Feeling more refreshed, I stopped for another tasting, this time at Henry Earl. What a difference! These wines were quite good — at least more to my taste — and I wound up buying three bottles. An interesting thing about this winery: the grapes come from the Red Mountain and Wahluke Slope areas of Washington state, making me wonder why they had a tasting room in Walla Walla.

Again, it’s all marketing. First there was Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California, producing wine, offering tastings at the wineries, and getting an audience for what they made. I was in Napa back in the 1980s and it was a great place to explore wines. At each stop, you’d get an opportunity to not only taste wine, but have a production or history tour of the winery. There was no tasting fee. It was a service they offered to attract new customers. At the tasting bar, you could chat with someone knowledgable about the wine — maybe even the winemaker. Fast-forward to 2013, when I returned with some friends. Now tasting was a business, with tasting fees ranging from $10 to $20 per person and advance tickets needed for the few wineries that offered tours. The tasting bar was staffed by sales people who often only knew what they’d been told about the wine. And there were dozens and dozens of wineries, many of which had absolutely no participation in the growing of grapes.

In Washington state, it’s the same thing, but more insidious. Yes, there are some great wineries, including estate wineries, throughout the Columbia Valley, Walla Walla, Chelan, and the Red Mountain area. But since tourists are apparently too lazy to drive out to the wineries these days, winery owners have opened tasting rooms in centralized areas. Downtown Walla Walla is one of those areas. So is Woodinville — conveniently placed near Seattle to make it easier for city folks to go wine tasting without actually visiting a winery. They don’t grow many (or any?) grapes or make much (or any?) wine in Woodinville, yet people think of that as “wine country.” It’s a real shame. There’s nothing quite like visiting an actual winery and chatting with a winemaker, especially when you’re part of a group of people who truly understand and appreciate wine and want to learn all they can.

That said, I should have made more of an effort to get out to the actual wineries the Walla Walla area. But I think I’ll try again another time, hopefully with a wine tasting buddy.

Tuna Crudo
Corn Soup
Seared Duck Breast
My dinner, in three courses.

At T Macarrone’s, I sat at the bar. I’d been told their cocktails were good and the bartender helped me pair two different cocktails to my first two courses of dinner. The first one was a somewhat spicy Thai concoction that I liked a lot. It went well with the Tuna Crudo appetizer. The second one was some sort of margarita that I liked a little less; I had that with a creamy Sweet Corn Soup. I had the Seared Duck Breast (which I had them cook more than just seared) for dinner with a glass of wine that I was unable to finish. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it — I did! — it was just that I worried about being able to walk the four blocks back to my hotel if I kept drinking. I skipped dessert because I was absolutely stuffed.

Back at the hotel, I made some finishing touches on my Day 3 blog post and got it online. I spent some time taking care of email and responding to text messages that had come in while I was off the grid.

When I took Penny out for her last walk of the evening, we went to the truck to fetch a few things I’d forgotten, along with that pie. I had a nice slice before going to bed — it was delicious! — and put the rest of it in my hotel room fridge with my truck keys so I wouldn’t forget it.

The Eclipse Trip, Day 3: The Eclipse and More

I get to see my first (and likely only) total eclipse of the sun. And do some other stuff.

I slept until 5:30, which is really unusual for me. It was quite light out, so I missed my chance for nighttime photography. At least there.

Prepping for the Eclipse

I made coffee and spent some time preparing my cameras for shooting the eclipse. I had my Nikon D7000 with me, along with a 70-300mm Nikkor lens and a solar filter I’d bought to fit it. I’d already experimented with the filter and was satisfied that it enabled me to shoot pictures of the sun without worries of damaging the camera’s sensor. That camera would go on my heavy duty Manfroto tripod, forming my main photographic platform.

I also had a GoPro with me. I thought I’d try using that for a time-lapse. I took a spare pair of eclipse glasses and cut the plastic lens from the cardboard frame, then taped it over the GoPro lens. I had to do this on the outside of the lens case; I couldn’t get it inside. I then set it up where I could get a time-lapse of the sky. I had serious doubts I’d get anything worth keeping.

I also had my iPhone and I made a lens filter for that. Again, I wasn’t happy with the images I got, but it was worth a try.

I did some research with the Observatory app I have on my iPad to get an idea of when all this would begin. I then looked up exact numbers for my location using the PhotoPills app I just got. That said the eclipse would start at 9:09 AM. Less than three hours away.

I spent the next half hour cutting up veggies and browning meat to start a beef stew. I figured that since I had to hang around all morning, I’d put that time to good use. The stew had stew meat from the 1/4 cow I bought last year, onions, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, and tomatoes. These last three came from my garden. Once everything was browned, I added salt and pepper (the only appropriate seasonings on hand) and a pint of beef broth that I’d made last autumn and froze. (Honestly, I’m doing everything possible to clear out my freezer.) I put the cover on and let it simmer.

By this time, it was after 7 AM and most of my eclipse “family” (as Jay called us) was up and about. The three guys who had come up from the San Francisco Bay area the day before were already cleaning out their tent. Jay and his brother, the birthday boys, were having coffee. I walked over to wish them a happy birthday. Only the motorhome people were still locked up in their metal box — all five of them.

Sun Through Trees
I took this sample photo early in them morning with the sun through the trees. I guess I was just testing for exposure.

I set up my cameras outside. I took a sample photo of the sun shining through the tall firs on the edge of our camping area. I sacrificed another spare pair of my eclipse glasses for the three guys in the tent to make solar filters for their smartphones.

I should mention here that it was an absolutely perfect day for eclipse viewing. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. The air was clear — not the least bit hazy or smokey. There was virtually no wind and the temperature by 8 AM was in the high 60s/low 70s. We were right on the line for maximum totality. There was nothing that could be changed to make the weather or our position any better for eclipse viewing. Nothing.

I flew the drone for a while, taking it down the road for a view of all the Four Corners campers. There were a lot more than there had been the previous afternoon. I flew it over by Jay’s camp where Jay, not knowing I was flying it, flipped the finger at it. Oops. I landed it and put it away.

And then I waited with the others.

The Eclipse

Before I go any further, I need to apologize for not being able to adequately describe the experience of seeing a total solar eclipse with my own eyes. Simply said, it’s awe-inspiring and probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed. When totality was all over, I was left feeling stunned by the magnificence of what I’d just seen and very sorry for the people who had passed up the opportunity to see it for themselves.

That said, I’ll do my best to describe it.

I do need to point out that even though the photos that follow show a black sky, the sky was bright blue until totality. The photos where the sun looks orange were shot through a solar filter, which basically makes everything except the sun black. Keep that in mind as you view my contribution to the photo library of eclipse photos.

First Bite
One of my companions referred to this as “first bite.” Can you see the shadow of the moon in the upper right corner?

I was watching the sun, though my eclipse glasses, when 9:09 AM rolled along. For some reason, I thought the moon would approach on the lower left of the sun. (In hindsight, that makes no sense. My Observatory app had told me that the moon rose a few minutes before the sun that morning and the sun’s motion through the sky is slightly faster than the moon’s. That meant the sun would catch up to the moon and pass behind it relative to our point of view on earth.) So when I thought I saw a tiny change in the upper right side of the sun, I had to confirm with a look through my filtered camera lens.

“It’s starting!” I called out.

Motorhome Gang
The motorhome gang and their tent-lodging friends, looking up at the eclipse with their eclipse glasses on. (And yes, they did pose for this.)

One by one, my companions put on their eclipse glasses and looked up at the sun. There was some debate and then someone confirmed it. That’s when I mentioned that they could see it better through my camera which was, in essence, acting like a low-powered telescope. That’s probably when my camera became the central viewing area for me, the motorhome people, and their three tent-camping friends. There was barely a minute for the next hour or so that someone wasn’t looking through the viewfinder.

Meanwhile, across the little road that separated us from Jay’s group, Jay had set up a pinhole viewer with a mirror that projected onto the front of his pop-up truck camper. That’s how he was watching the eclipse progress. He’d read somewhere that even looking through eclipse glasses could be harmful to your eyes if you do it too long. So he wasn’t doing it much at all. I think he was there for totality, the two minutes and twenty seconds when you could look at the eclipse without eclipse glasses on.

Projector Projected Image
Jay, a retired teacher, created an eclipse projector and displayed it on the front of his camper.

Half Covered Sun
I figure the sun was about a third covered in this shot. Without eclipse glasses on, it was still bright sunlight all around us.

I snapped a photos with the camera periodically as the moon’s shadow progressed across the face of the sun. The sun looked like an orange disc with a black disc held against it. I had to reposition the camera on the tripod every 5-10 minutes because the sun and moon kept moving up and to the right in the sky.

I tried shooting images with my iPhone but they looked like crap. Behind us, my GoPro had been snapping away since before 9 AM, taking one shot every 20 seconds. I had no idea what I’d wind up with.

Then I had the idea of using my binoculars in conjunction with the eclipse glasses. I had to hold the glasses over the side of the binoculars facing the sun. Then I’d raise them to my eyes and pivot my head toward the sun. The tricky part was finding the sun — eclipse glasses make everything except the sun completely black. You can’t peek while you’re doing this. You have to point your body towards the sun’s warmth until the sun pops into view. It was worth the effort. I was able to get an even better view of the sun and even saw a series of three sun spots in a line, like Orion’s Belt on the sun. These spots don’t show in any of my Nikon photos, but I think it’s the exposure that hid them.

This part of the eclipse took a long time. In the movies, it seems like it all happens really quickly, but it doesn’t. It took more than a hour from the start at 9:09 to totality at around 10:20. For the first half of this time, there was basically no change in the sun’s light. It was still a bright, warm sunny day. With the glasses off, not looking at the sun (of course) you wouldn’t even know an eclipse was happening unless you were paying really close attention to your surroundings.

Crescent Shadows
Shadows cast by the trees near Jay’s camp appeared as scallops in the road.

The first hint that something was amiss was the way the shadows changed. The area we were in was surrounded by tall fir trees. As the moon hid at least 50% of the sun, the shadows took on a crescent shape, like scallops. This was particularly noticeable near Jay’s camp and we all went over for a look. I recalled seeing shadows like this one day when I lived in New Jersey back in the 1990s. There had been a partial solar eclipse where I lived and I didn’t even know about it until I saw the shadows change. Not having any way to safely view the sun, I never saw the eclipse itself or learned how much of the sun was obscured. (Note to self: Google this.)

Amir of the motorhome was the first to notice the temperature change. I had a crappy weather station thermometer with me, but being crappy, it couldn’t keep up with the change and provide accurate readings. He claimed to be very sensitive to temperature changes. Wearing shorts and a tee shirt, he and his wife donned sweatshirts before totality.

The atmosphere in the camp was festive. We didn’t spend the whole time staring at the sun. It really did happen slowly. I just took periodic photos and kept my camera pointed the right direction so others could look. One person claimed to see the jagged edges of the moon’s surface against the sun. Only a few of us saw the sun spots, which were best visible through the binoculars.

Crescent Sun
At about 90-95% eclipsed, the sun looked like a crescent through the eclipse glasses, but it was still very bright all around us.

Excitement in the camp grew as the moon covered 90% of the sun’s disc. This is what I would have experienced if I’d stayed home. It was still very bright outside, but the light had taken on a weird characteristic that I can’t really explain. Was the color different? Maybe a little blue? Or flatter? I can’t explain it. It was just weird. And the temperature change started to become obvious.

I was watching with my eclipse glasses when the sun slipped completely behind the moon. Everything went black as the people around me started hooting with glee. I pulled off the glasses and looked up. And there, in the sky, was a total eclipse of the sun.

Total Eclipse of the Sun
A total eclipse of the sun, as documented by my Nikon camera with 300mm lens and no solar filter. The sky was this dark. Can you see the star in the lower left corner of the photo? Venus, which was in the upper-right outside the camera’s field of view, was much brighter.

It was amazing. How can I explain it other than to say that it looks exactly like the photos? There’s what looks like a perfectly round black void in the sky with a halo of white light radiating from it. It’s completely surreal.

But what’s really amazing is how quickly the light around us is snuffed out in the final 60 seconds or so before totality. One minute, it’s daytime with a weird blue-gray light and a blue sky. The next minute, it’s as dark as a night with a full moon and the sky is black. (I can easily imagine how it must have terrified ancient people who didn’t see it coming.) And yes, I saw stars. Venus was a bright light up ahead of the sun’s path in the sky.

In the two minutes and twenty seconds of totality, it was hard to make all the observations I’d heard suggested. I couldn’t tell if the wildlife was quiet, mostly because all of us were talking about what we were seeing. I didn’t dwell on how dark it was or how the temperature changed because I was too focused on that haloed void in the sky. I barely had the presence of mind to take a few photos. (And yes, I know I can see eclipse photos anywhere, but it’s different when it’s from my own camera — documentation of something I personally witnessed.)

Diamond Ring
I was pleasantly surprised to see that my camera had captured the “diamond ring” effect in the very last shot before I put the solar filter back on.

Crescent after Eclipse
Here’s one of the photos I took after totality. I have a bunch of others, too. I’ll likely fiddle with them in Photoshop when I get home to make some sort of sequence.

Across the little road, Jay was calling out the time. He wanted to make sure we all had our glasses on before totality ended. I think we all stared until the sun told us because all of a sudden it was bright again and we had to look away. Glasses on, I looked back. The sun had continued moving beyond the moon. Totality was over.

As quickly as the sunlight had disappeared, it was back. Within minutes, I could feel the sun warming the air around me. Fifteen minutes later, only the weird shadows remained to indicate that there was anything amiss with the sun. Over the next hour or so, I shot a few more photos. But as we all went about our business, we lost interest in the final moments of the eclipse. Even I missed the moment when the moon’s shadow left the sun behind.

Post Eclipse

What was weird to me was that within minutes of totality ending, people around Four Corners Camp started to leave. It was like being at a ballgame at the bottom of the ninth inning when the home team isn’t likely to catch up with the visitor’s lead. Hurry up, get out, beat the traffic. Very strange.

After watching the waning eclipse on and off for a while, I went into my camper and dished out some of the stew I’d started that morning. It was excellent; the meat was very tender and the veggies tasty. It was around 11 AM and it was the first thing I’d eaten all day.

Amir began fiddling with the bladder tanks he’d installed on his motorhome to increase the amount of fresh and gray water he could carry. He came over to explain what he was up to and why. He’d had the motorhome for about a year and had made some modifications so it would be better suited to off-the-grid use. A engineer who had recently sold his business, he had the knowledge and time to fiddle around and make improvements. We talked for a while about how RVs were so outdated and how much technology could improve them. It was refreshing to talk to someone with good ideas who could think outside the box and was willing to implement them.

While we chatted, his wife came over with a plate for me. “I made you a breakfast burrito,” she said before I could turn it down. “Come inside and eat with us.”

So Penny and I went into the motorhome and took a seat at the table with the rest of the gang. The breakfast burrito was eggs with chopped up leftover hamburger wrapped in a flour tortilla with guacamole and salsa. Tasty. One of their sons fed Penny about half a leftover hamburger while we talked about their travel plans. I told them about Quartzsite. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I see them there next January.

By the time I got back outside, the eclipse was long over and about half the area campers were gone. The three tent guys had left before breakfast; they were aiming for Reno, where they’d spend the night before driving back to the Bay area. Tents that had been set up in the field and RVs that had been parked along the road were gone. The population of Four Corners Camp had been cut in half in less than two hours.

I turned off the GoPro and removed it from where it had been mounted. I shifted my solar panel to point more directly at the sun. Then I brought my camera inside and spent some time cleaning up and doing the dishes.

It wasn’t until much later that I’d look at the GoPro photos. As I expected, they were pretty bad and not worth sharing. Oh, well.

Amir and his family left a while later. They were also headed to Reno but would spend the night at John Day, taking care of some motorhome issues. Apparently, the water heater wasn’t working and Amir’s wife was eager to take a shower.

I visited with Jay and his friends. We chatted for a while. I asked him if it was everything he’d expected — after all, he’d told me that he’d planned the trip eight years before. He said that it was. But, at the same time, he seemed sad — maybe because this long-planned event was behind him? I asked how long he was staying at the camp and he replied that no one had told him when it was time to leave. We agreed that it was nice to live life without someone else telling us what to do. He was new to retirement and apparently liking it a lot.

Back at my RV, I put the finishing touches on my Day 1 blog post. Through many tries with a patchy connection, I managed to get it posted on my blog. Between upload attempts, I wrote up Day 2 and then managed to get that online. By then, it was after 3 PM.

I took out the map and tried to make a plan for the next 12 hours. I really wanted to hike around Magone Lake and I thought a late afternoon hike would be a good idea. There was a slight possibility that some campsites there may have opened up for the night. But I didn’t really want to stay in the area. Instead, I wanted to be on my way. I thought that it might be neat to camp out near the fire tower at Ritter Butte and I remembered the big parking area full of campers that I’d passed the morning before. That might be a good destination for the evening.

Plan made, I started to put it in motion. I broke camp by putting away the solar panels and my grill and cleaning up the inside of the camper. By 4 PM, I was ready to go. I walked over to say goodbye to Jay and his friends and to thank him again for allowing me to be part of his eclipse family. Then Penny and I went back to the truck and drove off.

Very few campers remained at Four Corners Camp.

Magone Lake

Magone Lake was eight miles from Four Corners. It took about 20 minutes to get there on the gravel and then narrow paved road. I parked at the boat launch parking area, which was surprisingly active for a Monday afternoon. It seemed that a lot of people had decided to come for more than just the eclipse. It was great to see so many people in the water swimming and paddling around in kayaks — especially families.

One of the great things about the area is that with no cell service, people can’t spend all their time focused on a phone screen.

Magone Lake
One of the photos I shot during our hike. I am such a sucker for reflections.

I put Penny on a leash, set up GaiaGPS on my iPhone to record a track — even though I had no map of the area — and set out on the trail that looked like it went around the lake. We went clockwise, walking in on the shady west side of the lake past the picnic area and campground first. There were other hikers, some with dogs, who we passed along the way. The trail was narrow but well-worn and became paved for handicap and stroller access at the picnic area. Past the campground, where it crossed dry feed stream, the pavement ended again. I let Penny off her leash to run ahead of me as she usually does. I kept a brisk pace, stopping once in a while to take a photo. The lake was pretty the way so many mountain lakes are, but my camera couldn’t seem to capture that beauty.

I worked up a bit of a sweat on the sunny side of the lake, which was good for me. I haven’t been nearly as active in the past year or so as I should be. I need a good workout once in a while. Within 45 minutes, we were back at the parking area. GaiaGPS told me we’d hiked 1-3/4 miles. (you can check out our track here.) Not bad, but certainly nothing to brag about.

I consulted the Oregon map I had with me, trying to determine how many miles we were from Ritter Butte. I wavered on spending the night at the lake. I really did want to start driving north, though. My rough plans included a day of wine tasting in Walla Walla and some night photography at Palouse Falls. I had to be home by Friday evening for a charter flight on Saturday. Spending the night at Magone Lake meant a longer drive the next day to Walla Walla. I was hoping to make it a scenic drive and didn’t want to arrive in town too late to stop at a winery or two. That meant putting some miles behind me before nightfall.

So we left the park, tracing our route back on the narrow paved and then gravel road northwest to Long Creek. Just about all the campers I’d seen the day before were gone. We emerged from the forest and drove the last few miles to Long Creek, where we turned north on route 395. Eight or nine miles later, we were at the turn for Ritter Butte.

All of the campers who had been set up there the day before were gone. I turned left, noticing the preponderance of “No Trespassing” signs that looked brand new. I was very disappointed to see one at the turn for the road that went up to the fire tower.

With a 5-bar LTE signal, I used my iPad to look up the Ritter Butte Fire Lookout. Every reference I saw said it was open to the public. Yet here were the signs saying it wasn’t. What was I to believe? I chose the signs. I turned around.

The parking area that had resembled a cosy camp the day before looked more like a gravel parking lot in the late afternoon light. I imagined camping out while cars and trucks zipped by throughout the night. I turned north on Route 395 and kept going.

I figured I’d camp out at the campground that had been full on Saturday night. Surely there would be space on a Monday night. But I didn’t get that far. After driving at least 20 miles, I reached the turnoff for Olive Lake, where I’d been told there were place to camp. That was still 20 miles south of the campground I was shooting for. With sunset on it’s way, I made the turn. Five minutes later, I was pulling into a creekside campground with only five sites, one of which was empty. I backed in for the night.

To give you an idea of how small this campground is, the canopy of trees over the entrance was so low that I know my camper pushed them aside as we rolled in. I also know that there’s no way in hell I could have made the entrance turn, let alone the turnaround at the end, with my old fifth wheel. My truck camper was the only RV in the place — everyone else was camping in a tent. My next door neighbors had two cars and three tents, including a shade tent, crammed into their site. The best site, which was a big one at the far end, was occupied by a young guy in a compact car with a small dome tent.

I settled in, made some dinner, ate, and then walked back out to the entrance to pay the $8 fee. My next door neighbors were eating something that smelled really good. We exchanged a few words before I went back into my camper to start this blog post.

It was getting dark by 8:30 and I moved up to lounge in my bed, where I spent some time reading my eclipse book. Soon I was falling asleep. I killed the light and was sound asleep in minutes.