Tag Archives: #vanlife

The Oregon Coast – through pandemic and smoke

It’s been a long, difficult and challenging year, but we finally got around to dusting off the trailer for a trip to the Oregon coast. Our spring term at the university was all online during the pandemic, teaching large lecture classes and thesis studios (with up to 30 hours per week on Zoom).  After we revived from our post-spring term collapse, a lot of time this summer was taken up enabling summer living here – this was  our first summer in Eugene in 15 years, after selling the house we built on Whidbey Island last summer.  We built large cedar-framed screened panels and doors, outdoor furniture, caught up on a backlog of yard work, and established a plot at a community garden that fed us all summer.  The outdoor living allowed us to resume some socializing, with our ATTV (all-terrain television) supporting socially-distanced movie nights with friends.But as summer began to wane, we realized it was our first summer ever without being by the ocean.  The reported day-tripping crowds to the Oregon coast had kept us home during the pandemic, but as the forecast for the week after Labor Day was for temperatures reaching 100º for the third time this summer, we made some reservations at Oregon state parks, and took off.  Oregonians are not notably gregarious, and we figured we could stay in our own bubble if we were camping.

We plotted our route north from Eugene on Territorial and other minor roads, tight up against the Coastal Range on the west side of the Willamette Valley.  It was a beautiful drive on a sunny Labor Day, through farmland and small towns until Dallas, where we turned onto Route 22 through the mountains to the coast. Our destination was Cape Lookout, one of a series of rocky capes that project out into the Pacific – this one about 2 miles.  We stayed in a wonderful campground in the trees just behind the dunes, with a beautiful beach right there for walks along the Netarts Spit..This might be a good point to explain the repetitive elements and nomenclature of the Oregon Coast to those who haven’t been there.  There are a few basic classes of things:  cities & towns, rivers, capes, bays, beaches, spits, and rocks.  Each of these is named independently, usually without any reference to adjacent things in other classes, and in keeping with the general Oregon practice of having three different names for any given place, just to confuse things.  For example, if you are going to a popular destination north of Florence, you might say you were going to Heceta Head (cape, lighthouse and scenic viewpoint), or Cape Creek (river, bridge and cove), which constitute the substance of Devil’s Elbow State Park.  No matter what you called it, you would be at exactly the same place.  (And I honestly don’t know what the big rocks just offshore are named.)  To be fair, the bays and spits at the ends of rivers usually have the same name as the rivers, but it is never the same as the city that is situated at the mouth.  A state park in the same locale might allude to any one of these reference points, or something totally different.

What the Oregon Coast might lack in clarity, it makes up for in beauty and access.  Governor Oswald West got the legislature to declare the whole length of state beaches a public highway in 1913, and challenges to this were clarified by Tom McCall and the legislature in the Oregon Beach Bill of 1967, which established the state’s claim to all wet sand within 16 vertical feet of the low water line.  So while you may head to specific, named destinations, you can also just pull off the road wherever you want and walk on the beach.

While sitting outside that night, we suddenly felt a gust of hot wind, something we’d never before experienced on the Oregon coast.  We thought the first was a fluke, but then it was followed by another and another.  The wind picked up dramatically, with gusts up to 57 mph until 10:26, when the power went out and anemometer died.  We lay in the trailer listening to branches and debris bouncing off the roof, once again glad we weren’t in a tent.  In the morning I started Greta off on a solo hike from the beach to the beginning of the Cape Lookout trail, planning to drive to that trailhead and join her if I could (while favoring a bad knee and a sprained ankle).  She had a nice hike for a while through the woods,
with intermittent views back towards the Netarts Spitbut then she ran into so many downed tress that the path was obliterated.  We waited for her at the trailhead (annoying the rangers who had closed the whole area due to the windstorm), and eventually we drove back down the road, finding her hiking up, after bushwhacking off the trail.

Since hiking in the woods was off the agenda, we went back to the beach, where we saw what was following the wind:  a huge cloud of smoke moving in from the east.We knew there had been some fires east of Salem in the Cascades, but being out of cell and radio range, we had no idea that all of these fires had been supercharged by the unusual winds from across the Cascades the night before.  We enjoyed the blue sky, not knowing that it was the last one we would see for weeks.

We turned north to Tillamook, home of the famous dairy whose cheddar cheese we calculated we had eaten at least a half-ton of in the past 20 years.  Outside of the town is the Tillamook Air Museum, housed in the largest wooden building in the world, a former blimp hangar from WWII.The building is spectacular – an arched vault made up of wooden trusses, with a scale comparable to sports arenas.This building had a twin, but it burnt down in 1992;  they were using it to store hay.  But now they are probably more careful, and it contains a variety of military and civilian aircraft.
It’s a pretty eclectic collection, probably largely based on gifts.  What we really enjoyed beyond the aircraft was the random assortment of other items – tractors, cars, train engines, stored RVs, etc.  It reminded me of the Large Object Collection in Liverpool;  Liverpool had saved all this cool stuff, but at some point realized that they were never going to have the money to build a new museum, whereas they had lots of abandoned warehouses.  So they simply put everything in a series of buildings, with minimal attention paid to display and design – just let the objects speak for the themselves.  Tillamook does the same admirably.We emerged into air whose quality had degraded rapidly, and drove south on 101.  Familiar views took on a surreal quality. At Lincoln City the traffic was strangely bad, with the right lane often blocked as cars lined up at gas stations.  We later learned that a fire had ignited outside of town, and people were getting ready to evacuate if necessary.  But we continued on our oblivious way to the Beverly Beach campground, where they were clearing away the downed trees from the night before, and the sky took on what was to become a familiar, apocalyptic glow. The next day dawned even darker, and all the prominent viewpoints were blank.  We spent our time at the points that offered smaller scale, closer-up experiences, such as Otter Rock (also know as Devil’s Punchbowl.  Devil’s ____ is a favored naming convention on the coast). It was surreal, like being trapped in a photo album of 19th century tourist sepias.  Between the demands of social distancing, and the general eeriness of the day, we avoided the inhabited areas as much as possible, sticking to beaches and campgrounds.  Yaquina Head was devoid of other tourists, and we had it all to ourselves (along with the flies).On Wednesday afternoon we first heard of the Holiday Farm fire centered on the McKenzie valley just east of Eugene.  It had grown to over 200 square miles in the two days since it started on Monday evening.  We considered heading home immediately, but realized there was little we could really expect to do, that the heat and smoke would be worse in Eugene, and that we would either be homebound or evacuating in the near future, so we might as well stay one more night.  We walked on Agate Beach, ate clams in Waldport, and spent the night at the Beachside State Recreation area, where we slept 100 feet from the beach, and listened to the surf through the night.

The next day we found Eugene to be a smoky ghost town.  The air quality index was over 500, and no one was outdoors.  With fires sweeping the whole West Coast, there was nowhere near the number of firefighters that would be expected at such a huge fire – just around 200 for the first few days.  Up and down the Willamette Valley over 40,000 refugees from the mountains and small towns have fled into the cities, where a remarkable volunteer effort has sprung up, affording the evacuees (and often their animals) necessary supplies and  places to stay.  The winds have died down and shifted towards the west, rain is expected later in the week, and the immediate threat of the fires (over a million acres just in Oregon) spreading further into the Willamette Valley has abated.  People are staying inside, glued to the news and social media. weathering the latest of what has been an unrelenting string of disasters of all kinds this year.  We’re all saddened by the tremendous losses of our fellow Oregonians, and grateful for the heroic efforts of our firefighters.

As we reflect on our only camping trip of the year – and what may be the last camping trip we take as a family – it seems highly emblematic of 2020 in general – not at all what we expected or hoped it would be, but less bad than any other option.  We’re glad we caught the last days of what has been a beautiful summer, and we’re holding on to these memories to get us through what’s coming this fall.  Stay safe, everyone.




Roadside attractions

No road trip can be documented without its requisite amount of roadside attractions, kitsch, and oddities. Although it doesn’t rise to the level of South Dakota, the inland Northwest does have its share.

The first tipoff was the town of Wauconda.  Besides its obvious Black Panther references, the town was mainly interesting for its sole commercial enterprise, the Wauconda Café, which was defunct.  

Glacier did provide some opportunities for selfie documentation, but nothing on the order of Bryce, or Niagara Falls.

Our campground at Fish Creek mainly had Southerners with huge RVs, but there was some attractive retro glamping. 

We came across an interestingly accessorized car at Lake McDonald.  From the bumper stickers we could tell they were National Park aficionados, but their dashboard totems most reminded me of my grandparents’ dashboard, which had an assortment of crucifixes, BVMs, and action figures of the saints.  This dash seemed more attuned to the secularized (perhaps pagan) tendencies of our pantheistic age. 

The rear window revealed these molded constructions., which we guessed were molded clay representations of iconic topographic features that were of special significance to the owners. It was lovely.

We couldn’t discern the cause of this remarkably twisted tree, but we think it might be used by one of our colleagues in a lecture to illustrate the concept of torque.

At a couple of points on our hikes, we came around a curve to encounter a rapt hiker, staring intently into the underbrush, and desperately signaling us to be quiet.  We thought that there must at least be a bear approaching, or a mountain lion, but no, this is what we saw:

We thought, Where the hell do you live, buddy, Brooklyn?  Most of suburban America is under assault from ravaging deer hordes, and you have somehow missed it?  I went for a short walk in Coupeville the other morning, and counted 27 deer, right in town.

One thing that has changed since our major explorations in National Parks two years ago is the whole political context, and the rise of the Alt-National Park Service.  That gave us an interesting lens through which to view this new sign, erected in 2017 outside the Many Glacier Hotel.  Bravo.

We stopped for lunch at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, and saw these excellent annexes to the inn – cabooses that had been converted to guest cabins, mainly used by cross-country skiers. 

On our way to West Glacier, we had passed this “Ten Commandments Park”, which seemed to follow the Stations of the Cross format, but with the Ten Commandments, and on billboards.  Greta was adamant that we had to return to examine it in more detail, as being a secular Eugenean, she doesn’t get to see religious zealotry too often.  Her willingness to explore the venue stopped short of wanting to engage the proprietors in conversation, especially after she spotted the “Make Jesus Legal Again” bumperstickers.

We had been without a cell phone signal for over a week, as T-Mobile doesn’t seem to bother with areas below a certain population density.  But as we pulled in to the Ten Commandments Park, Linda’s phone erupted with a cacophony of pings and beeps, as the flood of pent-up texts and emails was released all at once.  But as we drove away from the Park, all the bars disappeared.  It was a miracle, she said. 

Driving through Plains, Idaho, we came across a whole street with these regularly spaced garbage cans, each enclosed in what we assumed were cages to keep them from blowing away in the winter.  We especially liked the plaque on each one, pointing out that it had been built by Mr. Friesz’s Shop Class. 

Pullman had an okay downtown, where we were desperately looking for a place to have a god meal on Linda’s birthday, as we had just left Montana, where chicken is regarded as a vegetable (not an original joke).  After checking the options on Yelp, we came to this place – a church:

which had a quite good bar in its basement!  The weekend before Mardi Gras in New Orleans, we had seen an Episcopal church dispensing drinks from its basement church hall, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a church with an actual bar.  Who knew that Pullman would be on the cutting edge of such a cool trend?

We spent a little time looking for food in the Palouse – very small towns without many options – and in Colfax we came across Eddy’s Chinese American.  Despite Tom’s assurance that it was quite good (later independently confirmed by Jug when we returned to Coupeville), its Yelp rating of one star gave us pause.  Both Tom and Jug told us that there used to be another Chinese restaurant in Colfax – Pete’s.

The Palouse may be limited n the culinary area, but it has many options for big machinery.  This is the kind of thing we frequently saw driving down the street. 

While not technically a roadside attraction, I knew that there were other aspects to the Palouse that would please my family, besides the remarkable scenery.  Tom’s barn was full of kitties who, being working farm cats in training, rather than pets, had no idea what to do with a jiggling string. By the second day Greta had initiated them into this new mode of entertainment, and I assume that now they are constantly pestering Tom to pull out that ball of yarn.

By far the greatest roadside attraction we came across was the Codger Pole, in Colfax.  It is the tallest chainsaw sculpture in the world (so they say, and I believe them), and it commemorates two important moments in the town’s history. 

In 1938, Colfax was trounced by St. John in a football game, which they hoped to some day avenge. (You can read the details in the sign below.)

Their chance finally came in 1988, when the game was replayed by the surviving players, fifty years after the original game.  The sign doesn’t mention who won this time, but the occasion was of such note that it had to be immortalized.

Sometimes you come across things in small town America that just make you want to live there.

Architecture in the Palouse

In this week’s edition of our normal finding-the-architecture-in-the-landscape, we turn to the architecture in the Palouse.  As I mentioned, the farms are so big that the buildings are few and far between.  Tom showed us a photographer’s map of the Palouse, which actually mapped all the picturesque barns, grain elevators (and even lone trees) for the region, as potential focal points for landscape photographs.  However, whatever the architecture may lack in number, it makes up for in size.  As in other agricultural areas we’ve visited before (such as southern Idaho, or southern Utah), grain elevators are the dominant type.

The town of St. John has a grain elevator that looks not so much like a building as it does a whole city of grain elevators.  In fact, the parallel holds true even at a deeper, structural level:  the elevators were built at different times and by different companies.  Just as in a city, the form is a reflection of the historical process of growth and change over time.

The metal siding develops an interesting character over time.

In Oakesdale, we came across JC Barron’s flour mill, which is apparently being slowly restored. 

Outside the town of Palouse:

In Ewan, on the way to Rock Lake:

In Endicott, where a concrete and a framed elevator coexist.

There are a few built edifices that are not elevators.  Near Pine City, we came across this corral for hay bales.  Our friend Jug tried to explain its function to us, but I’m still not sure I buy it.  It may have to do with moving and storing hay bales, but it seems entirely too elaborate for that.  I think they just wanted to do something that had that machine-in-the-garden look. 

We meandered down to Pullman, and got to see the WSU campus.  This is the only picture I could grab.  As Greta and I discovered three years ago, it is almost impossible to park anywhere within miles of big university campuses.  All parking lots are designated for those with stickers, and the traffic is usually so heavy that you can’t even stop.  So we did a driving tour of the campus (not too bad), and then drove downtown, where visitors could be accommodated.

The architectural highlight of the trip was the Round Barn in Ewan.  It was just superb, and clearly is being well-maintained, with a recently replaced shake roof. 

The owner graciously allowed us to go inside, and we climbed a rickety ladder to the hayloft, where we found this:

It should be known as the Pantheon of the Palouse. 

As always, the strongest impressions came from seeing the contrast between the landscape and the built environment, whether from the top of Steptoe Butte,

or one of those picturesque barns that had been mapped (this one on the road between Endicott and St. John). 

Wind turbines are starting to edge out the elevators as the big things in the landscape. 

And sometimes the effect comes from rhythm rather than form. 

Once in a while, it is not even a building, but the simplest manifestation of human intention that leaves a strong trace upon the land. 

The Palouse

After a week in Glacier, we opted for a change in scenery before heading back to Whidbey Island.  The Palouse is an area about which we had long heard from our Coupeville friend Jug Bernhardt, who grew up on his family’s farm there, and I thought Linda would especially enjoy some quiet pastoral beauty after the rugged alpine sublimity of Glacier.  The landscape couldn’t be more different from the Rockies, but in many ways it is equally beautiful.

Occupying the southeast corner of Washington, the Palouse has one dominant landscape type: rolling hills. But rolling hills on acid.  It is the landscape a five-year-old would draw if you asked for a picture of farmland (but minus the cows).  If you think of any rolling farmland with which you’re familiar, and then compress the horizontal scale by a factor of five, that’s the Palouse. 

As you drive through the landscape, you are enclosed by the topography.  I don’t know why, but the national grid of townships and straight roads was not imposed here, even though it wasn’t heavily settled until the 1870s. Roads curve in and out of the hills, and you are always at the bottom of a trough, with the horizon a half mile away. 

The color palette is also primal and surreal, limited to five tones at this time of year: tan fields of wheat, green fields of alfalfa or other secondary crops, blue sky, white clouds, and black shadows moving across the land. 

It is strangely devoid of people, or much evidence of their presence.  In our era of gigantic agribusiness, a wheat farm in the Palouse has to be around 2000 acres (over three square miles) to be economically viable, so there are few farmsteads to interrupt the landscape.  It feels like a wilderness of wheat, rather than the pastoral ideal of people and nature in a finely-grained net of inhabitation. 

The built elements you do see are seldom quaint farmhouses or curving fences (there is very little livestock, so fences are almost nonexistent), but the large, shiny, cubic geometries of grain elevators.  The contrast between the curvilinear landforms and the rigidly orthogonal elevators is the best illustration I’ve seen of Marc Treib’s ideas in “Traces Upon the Land”, and I’ll certainly be using these photos in my lectures next year. 

A couple of buttes poke up out of the hills, so we drove to the top of Steptoe Butte to see the big picture.  It looked no less weird from there than it did from below. 

We did spot some attempts to make straight lines, but they were foiled by the irregularities of the hills.

The big view confirmed our perception that the built world occupied a small fraction of the land. 

When I expressed some interest in the Palouse a couple of years ago, Jug put me in touch with his boyhood friend Tom Schierman, who lives on land his family has farmed for a few generations outside of St. John.  Tom is an extraordinary photographer, who always has his camera with him as he goes about his normal day, and his photos on Facebook convinced us to visit the area.

Tom and his son James host campers on the back meadow on their property (listed on Airbnb as Schierman Springs).  They have only one party camp there at a time, whether it is one small family such as ours, or a large group.  So we (in the small trailer pictured below) had this secluded field to ourselves, with only the owls and coyotes interrupting the quiet (quite a difference from the campgrounds at Glacier, where we were surrounded by RVs from the South with generators and many children). 

In a dry landscape, the Schiermans have made use of the springs on the property – building a pond, and cultivating a wider range of plants.  Tom has been planting trees and shaping this landscape for decades, until it feels like an oasis in the high, open, wheat desert of the surroundings.  There is an interconnectedness among the buildings, gardens, ponds, fields, paths, woods, orchards and clearings,

that contrasts strongly with the simpler abstract environment that lies outside. 

In an essay on the world as chronicled and evaluated by Baedeker, Roland Barthes remarked on how the only landscape type deemed worthy of notice by the 19th century tourist guidebooks was the precipitously steep;  flat landscapes were somehow never beautiful enough.  But somehow after a week in the most astonishing alpine scenery on this continent, we found a few days in the Palouse to be equally engaging.

Alpine lakes

Early on in our big trip three years ago, we learned how both Greta and I relate to landscapes:  she gets bored with stopping intermittently while driving to look at the scenery or big views.  She has to be moving – hiking, biking or rowing – and then she can appreciate the surroundings.  On the other hand, I look for constantly shifting views and a variety of spatial experiences: both unrelieved short views (like hiking in the woods), or unrelieved long views (like hiking the rim of the Grand Canyon), bore me.  So satisfying these two criteria became our modus operandi for the rest of the trip, and the character of the hikes often determined how much we liked a place.  Then on this trip, we added one more variable, with Linda’s preferences: she will often focus on the small scale – plants and flowers – that Greta and I barely register.  Luckily for us, there were hikes in Glacier that were spectacular in all these different ways simultaneously, and we all agreed that these were some of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen.

The first was along St. Mary Lake, starting from Sun Point, where there had been a chalet, which fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished. The view from this spot looked west towards Logan Pass, and I can imagine sitting on a porch at that chalet, looking at the light change on this view (while sipping a Huckleberry Smash).

We hiked along the north side of the Lake, which had been swept by the Reynolds Burn in 2015.  As the climate changes and droughts intensify, Glacier has been hit by a series of big fires in recent years; we had in fact planned our trip for early July, knowing that much of the area has been engulfed in forest fire smoke in mid-to late summer in recent years.

But our reaction to the burn areas was not what we expected – they didn’t seem devastated, and we didn’t spend the day bemoaning the loss of habitat and natural beauty.  It was astounding to see how much new growth had appeared in just three years.  The scorched trees were surrounded by undergrowth, and new trees were already springing up. 

It had a strange beauty, in the contrast between the scorched trees and the abundant, bright green growth.  (As we always said to Greta when she was confronted with death or destruction as a small child – it’s the Circle of Life).  The landscape resonated with meaning, and I wondered if this was the same appeal that we architects find in what’s been called Ruin Porn – those stunning photos of major buildings from the not-so-distant past, falling into decay.

We came across information from the Park Service which emphasized to visitors how different familiar trails would now be after forest fires.  Just three years ago, this hike would have been almost completely in the shade, only emerging at a few points to access longer views.  Now the sun shone everywhere, and the mountains were always visible in the background. 

There are series of waterfalls feeding into St. Mary Lake, most of which are accessible on shorter hikes off the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Here Greta has been applying her newly-learned rock-climbing skills to scramble up the Baring Falls (and to make her mother nervous).

St. Mary Falls was pretty crowded, and we began to understand the demographic of summer visitors to Glacier.  On our trip three years ago, we learned that when you’re camping in the South in the winter, you’re surrounded by retired Northerners.  This time we found that when you’re camping in the North in the summer, you’re surrounded by extended families of Southerners (and some Midwesterners).  In the Fish Creek campground, there were many multiple-RV encampments of connected households, who had travelled in convoys from their hot, humid homes.  They all seemed to have at least four kids, and the womenfolk tended to domestic tasks, while the guys messed with their RVs and giant pickups, and the kids rode their bikes in circles and ran amuck with sticks. Then they would all organize themselves, and head off on a short group hike to a noted destination. 

The crowds thinned out dramatically at Virginia Falls – the Southerners wearing flip-flops and dragging little kids along looked at the rocky climb and turned back to their vehicles. But for those less-encumbered, it was well-worth the climb.

On the return hike, we noticed a change in the view.  Hiking west, all of the trees we saw were scorched black.  Now as we headed back east, they were all silver. We realized that the fire has swept up the valley from east to west, so the east-facing sides of the trees had been scorched, and the west sides had been protected.  The fire must have burned off all available fuel quickly enough that most trees were not consumed, but left standing in this strange, two-toned manner.


When I briefly visited Glacier 22 years ago, during a one-week cross-country drive with my brother, I had stood at this point behind the Many Glacier Hotel, thinking it was the most perfect alpine view I’d ever seen (I described it to Greta as reminiscent of a Palladian villa, with its symmetry and hierarchy of flanking elements), and wanting to hike up one of those valleys which flanked the ridge of Mt. Grinnell in the center.  I finally got my chance, as we hiked around the south side of Swiftcurrent Lake, and then up the valley on the left, past Josephine Lake and arriving at Grinnell Lake. 

But before starting this hike, we stopped along Lake Sherburne, to see the huge meadows of wildflowers.  Even I, who has what we have come to term FPD (floral perception disorder) noticed these, and Linda was in heaven. 

Swiftcurrent Lake is circled by an easy trail, on which we kept our eyes open, as we had seen two moose there a few days before, and passing hikers told us of spotting bears. 

At the head of the lake there is short stream which connects it to the higher Josephine Lake.

Both lakes have excursion boats – if you don’t want to do the longer hike, you can take the boat to the head of Swiftcurrent, hike half a mile to Josephine, where you can catch this boat, which takes you to the head of Josephine, and closer to Grinnell. 

The water was much warmer in the lake than in the streams which drained the glacier fields directly. We did some wading, and wished we’d brought bathing suits. 

The hike from Josephine to Grinnell is through the woods and longer, and has some interesting aspects, such as this bridge, and a nice side climb to another waterfall. 

The path opens up, and Grinnell Lake comes in to view. 

It’s an amazing spot, with rugged peaks on every side, and a very cold stream to ford.

The waterfalls across the lake drain the Grinnell Glacier above.  It was hard to believe this place was real – it looked more like a CGI landscape from a movie about Shangri-La. 

Overall, it was about an 8 mile hike, with 800 feet of elevation gain.  Minimal effort, for a series of spots and views that are extraordinary.


Our final alpine lake hike was from the Logan Pass visitors’ center to Hidden Lake.  We took a shuttle bus to the top, which is much easier to do from the east side than the west. The hike starts at 6646 feet, and climbs another 600 feet, before dropping 900 feet to the lake.  It is incredibly busy – lots of visitors get to the pass and decide they can do the first section to an overlook, so the wetter areas have boardwalks to accommodate the crowds. 

We’d been heating stories all week about bear sightings (including someone who said that a grizzly cub snuck up behind him and nuzzled his side), but we hadn’t seen any at all. Finally, we spotted a grizzly sitting on the snow a few miles away (circled below).  Linda thought that was the right distance from which to view a grizzly. 

The path then climbed through a snowfield (which was definitely a slushfield by the time we returned), and where we were able to once again marvel at how tourists will just take off on a hike that seems reasonable, no matter how unprepared they are for it.  We saw many people in tee shirts, gym shorts and flip-flops (and no other gear) heading across the snow, dragging tiny children, some wearing tutus and carrying stuffed animals.  I actually had some initial problems with the altitude, having just taken a bus up the 3000 foot elevation change on the road, but I acclimated after about half an hour.  But we saw many people much older and in worse shape than us, who seemed undaunted.

This recalled an observation Greta and I had made while climbing through a cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde – you can probably complete a somewhat demanding excursion if you are old, or out of shape, or ill-prepared, but if two of those three conditions apply to you, you might be in trouble.  But we’ve found that with little oversight from rangers or officials, people seem to make reasonable decisions about their capabilities.  The one exception we came across was a young family that was about to head onto the pretty demanding hike to Avalanche Lake with three kids under seven, and no lunch (the shuttle from the west side was really busy, and they’d arrived at the trailhead later than expected).  We gave them our energy bars, and when we ran into them at the end of the day, they said they never would have made it otherwise. 

We arrived at this saddle 600 feet above the pass,

and hiked past the overlook to this view of Hidden Lake below.  If you look at the bottom of that notch to the right, you can also see the end of Lake McDonald, 4000 feet below.

The big panorama is breathtaking, but there were other attractions.  We took a break and watched a marmot (between Linda and Greta) licking a big rock. There were many other marmots around, a few different species of chipmunks,

and lots of mountain goats, who seemed quite used to the crowds, and who were willing to pose photogenically in the foreground. 

We left the crowds behind for more slush-climbing and scree fields,

and arrived at this spot by the lake for lunch.  We cooled our waterbottles in the snow, and watched the reflections in the lake while chatting with some other hikers. 

They pointed out that at the mouth of the lake, there was an osprey catching fish, while two rainbow trout were somewhere in the middle of their extended spawning activity.  The female (on the left), was swimming in place in the current, and every few minutes would writhe around, digging a trench in the gravel for her eggs.  The male was waiting to fertilize them, but would shoot off every minute or so, to chase off other males who were trying to horn in on the action.  I’m pretty much a city guy, and I couldn’t believe we were seeing this – it struck me as entirely too much like a staged nature video for it to be real. 

The reflections on the still lake were dazzling. 

We climbed back up to the saddle, and crossed over to the east side again, where the mishaps of the late-day crowds were intensifying as the melting snow got slipperier and slipperier. 

As I’ve mentioned, most of the day hikes in Glacier were either too easy, or a bit beyond our capabilities (that might change if we were there for more than a week).  But these three hikes had everything we were looking for – awesome views of the mountains, beautiful blue lakes, constantly shifting perspectives, a level of exertion that was enough to guarantee we’d sleep well, and the small-scale attractions of plants and wildlife.  At some point on each of these hikes I’d pause, and remark that this was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.  `

On the road again

After a two year hiatus, we have hit the road in Peregrine once again, this time travelling across the great Northwest, with Glacier National Park as our prime destination. I’ll put up a few posts about our trip, but it’s unlikely Greta will follow suit – we probably won’t run into any food worth writing about, and at 16-years-old, she’s getting a little too cool for blogging (preferring Snapchatting with her friends).

We came home from our big trip with the best of intentions to keep the travel momentum going, similar to those intentions we formulate at the end of every summer – we need to get out of town more, we should not let work take over all of our attention, we should do more family adventures while Greta is still at home, etc.

But normal life intervened, with all of its preoccupations and distractions.  We returned from the trip, I turned 60, and every aspect of life beyond our immediate family took a nose dive into a level of chaos and disarray that has constantly yanked our attention away from our personal concerns. The national and international issues are obvious to all, but at the same time, our jobs have involved a high level of chaos, conflict and turmoil for the past two years, as a new regime at the UO has done away with many of the givens of the past 25 years, leading me to question why we have dedicated our lives to this place, and whether the path forward is viable.  One of the drivers of our trip three years ago was my discontent with how the university was going, but in retrospect, that period looks like the golden age.

So rather than spending our free time travelling the Northwest, each weekend we have more or less collapsed, regrouped, and prepared for the coming week. Other circumstances have also kept our roadtripping in check:  I had knee surgery last summer, which knocked me out for months, a spring break trip to eastern Oregon was kaboshed by the weather, and much of Greta’s life has been taken over by her robotics team, which occupies all of her spare time for at least 3 or 4 months per year.  So Peregrine has sat in our carport for two years, an incongruous reminder that we once managed to leave it all behind.  Every once in a while I stick my head in the door, trying to get a whiff of that experience, but it always seems unreal, like a disconnected remnant from a forgotten civilization.  A memory will come up, and Greta and I will look at each other and say, Did we really do that trip?

But last winter I realized that we had to make a commitment to get away – if we just made decisions day by day, we’d never get out of the reactive mode.  This might also allow us to correct one of the problems with our trip – on such a long trip, it was impossible to make commitments far in advance, as we wanted to respond to the vagaries of weather and unanticipated opportunities;  mapping out nine months of travel in detail just isn’t feasible, nor desirable.  But that meant that certain destinations, such as popular National Parks, couldn’t be visited.  We had both wanted to go to Yosemite, but all campgrounds within striking distance had been booked six months in advance.  So making a plan in the depths of winter would give us access to a place which you can’t visit on the spur of the moment, as well providing a light at the end of the tunnel.

One of the themes of our trip had been Climate Change Farewell Tour, as I had realized that much of the world was going to change drastically in Greta’s lifetime, and I thought she should see the state of the current world as a baseline before that happened. The coming change was most evident along the southern coastline (as we visited many places that will probably be under water in 50 years), and in the Southwest, much of which might become uninhabitable for most of the year. The biggest missing piece was Glacier National Park.  I had briefly driven through 22 years ago, and thought it was the most extraordinary mountain landscape I’d ever seen.  Then recently I read that it was down to 28 glaciers remaining from the probable 150 in the 19th century.  It seemed that it was time to go.

So I made campground reservations in January (15 minutes after they were available online), we dusted off the trailer (literally), and tried to remember all the gear, protocols and approaches we’d taken two years ago.  We made one big change this year:  Linda was coming along.  She’s never been a big fan of camping (thinking that it is sort of like normal life, but less convenient or pleasant), but Peregrine was a nice enough little substitute home that maybe she could take a flyer.  Our big worry was that while 85 square feet might be adequate living space for two, it might be too tight for three.  So we hedged our bets by packing up a big tent we’d bought at Walmart five years ago for $40 (to use as a spray tent in our shop when we painted cabinetwork and trim), so anyone who felt the need for more personal space could bail out into the annex.

We left from our summer place on Whidbey Island, turning the corner onto Route 20, which took us all the way across Washington.  After crossing the Skagit Valley, we entered North Cascades National Park – a place we’d never visited, even though it’s only about an hour and a half away.  We stopped at the park headquarters, where I formalized a milestone in my life – for $80 I purchased my lifetime Senior Pass to the National Parks, which gives me and my companions free admission, and half-price campsites, forever!  I had previously tallied up our total costs for our big trip, and realized that my Social Security alone at this point would be enough to support me driving around the country and camping in National Parks;  if this trip goes well, I might not come back in the fall.

Our visit to North Cascades was brief – just a scoping trip, to see if we’d like to return in the future.  The west side of the park is what we are used to in Oregon – fir and hemlock forests, everything muddy and mossy.

Washington Pass was a change – giant craggy peaks rising up into the clouds.

And North Cascades was also where I was able to achieve a milestone I had not been able to in nine months on the road – documentation of a Triple Selfie!

We left the Cascades into the Methow Valley, a beautiful region about which we had only heard.

We drove down the valley to Winthrop, and stayed with our friends Lisa Spitzmiller and Hanz Scholz, whom we had met 16 years ago, when we were in the same Birth to Three group. Our daughter Greta and their daughter Gretta (whom we called Gretta-Two-Ts just to be clear) were friends for years, until they moved (along with their second daughter Stella) about nine years ago.  Lisa has continued her work as a counselor in Winthrop, while Hanz has had a major career change.  Along with his brother, Hanz was the founder of Bike Friday, the maker of superb folding bikes (Greta and I used one of their tandems for years, and Linda still rides a Tikit.)  But Hanz tired of big-city life, so they moved to Winthrop, where Hanz worked at various jobs, and recently bought a yurt manufacturing company in the Valley, which he is moving to Winthrop now.

They live on this beautiful farm (seen above), where Lisa can keep her horses.  We arrived in the middle of a ground floor gut remodel and addition to their house, and so we undertook our first driveway camping experience in years, as they were mostly living in a neighbor’s house.

Greta and Gretta were both the tiniest kids we knew a decade ago, so it was a surprise to see how Gretta had grown into a serious athlete, excelling at state and even international competition in cross country running and telemark skiing.  Stella has followed suit, winning the state mountain biking championship in her age group.  The girls seem much changed, but Hanz and Lisa haven’t, and it was good to see such good friends again after too long.

The next day was a pleasant drive down the rest of the Methow Valley, and a bit up the Okanogan (where we stocked up on cherries for the week).  Afterwards Route 20 was rather boring, through mid-sized, tree-covered mountains.  But then we came to a surprising place:

In the Black Panther movie, much had been made of how Wauconda was hidden away, out of the sight of western society.  We hadn’t realized that their strategy was to situate an African country in the Northwest, surrounded by hundreds of miles of the whitest people we’ve ever seen.

The end of the day was at Sandpoint, on Lake Pend Oreille (which seems to be just the dammed part of the Pend Oreille River).  Sandpoint is a surprisingly nice town (to those of used to the usual northwestern towns, with their sad, decrepit cores surrounded by dismal sprawl).  The historic downtown is in great shape, surrounded by beautiful residential neighborhoods, all of it quite compact, as it is hemmed in by the river and topography.

The next day we continued through northern Idaho, and stopped for a hike at Kootenai Falls, in a narrow valley where the Great Northern Railroad tracks ran right along the river.

By the end of the day, we reached our destination – Lake McDonald, on the west side of Glacier.  The 700 mile drive immediately seemed worth it.

Greta’s New Orleans

I’ve been gradually archiving our blog offline, which has involved going through all of our documentation – photos, writing, mapping – and sometimes in this vast trove of stuff I come across something I haven’t seen before.  Today, while looking for a picture of a sandwich at Cochon Butcher, I found a folder of Greta’s photos in New Orleans which I hadn’t seen before.  I liked them so much, and they were so different from my pictures of New Orleans, that I thought I should share them with you all.

Mardi Gras 2016

On this wet, chilly Mardi Gras back in Eugene, we’re recalling Mardi Gras in New Orleans last year.  I’ve put together a nine-minute video which captures the images and especially the music of that day, from parading with the St. Anthony’s Ramblers and the Panorama Jazz Band through the Marigny, St. Roch and the French Quarter, ending up at the amazing party at Constantine’s in the Pontalba on Jackson Square.

More photos and commentary from that day at  this post.

Life on the road


Life on the road turned out to be different from normal day-to-day life in almost every way. By the end of the trip, we realized what had been the biggest change: for nine months, we didn’t have to deal with any bullshit. No interminable meetings, no irrelevant email threads, no forms to fill out, no middle school classes, no difficult associates. Every day, we had just a few fundamental, primal questions to answer: What should we eat? Where will we sleep tonight? How do we climb up that rock?

Other people have also recognized this salient aspect of travel. Jonathan Raban, in his essay “Why Travel?”, writes:

“If you admit the real reason, you’re liable to attract the attention of men in white coats, or the police. For travel is a kind of delinquency, more often rooted in the compulsion to escape the boredom and responsibilities of home than it is in any very serious desire to scale the Great Pyramid of Cheops or walk the length of the Great Wall of China. It’s kinder to say, ‘I’m going to Surabaya’ than just to say ‘I’m going’ – but as you wrestle your bags through the front door and into the street, it’s the leaving-behind, the going for the going’s sake, that quickens the blood and makes the street itself look suddenly different, full of promise even on this bleak morning.”

That was definitely true for us as we imagined the trip. I needed a break from the university – not from my students (who were often the one point of sanity in my work day), but from the institutionalized lunacy of the machine. Greta also saw no point in another year of middle school – the pace of learning was painfully slow, and the pressure cooker of young teen drama was simultaneously boring and wearying.

But while our motivation for the trip might have been avoiding-the-negatives, as we progressed the trip took on a life of its own, which was surpassingly positive. As we looked ahead, there were certain places we eagerly anticipated (Yellowstone! Chicago! New Orleans!), but there were many more about which we knew little or nothing, and it was that sense of discovery and surprise that dominated our lives throughout the year. We may have been fleeing large parts of our lives, but we discovered a different way of living that was often deeply satisfying.

This sense of discovery wasn’t just about natural wonders and cultural artifacts. One of the many goals for the trip was to expose Greta to different places, different people, and different walks of life. Oregon is a pretty homogenous place – it’s overwhelmingly white, and very middle class – not a lot of extreme urban poverty, but not a lot of very rich people either. Since we were travelling along the coasts, we necessarily saw a lot of places inhabited by the rich – big cities with wealthy neighborhoods, but also smaller, historic, affluent coastal towns. But driving through rural areas on two-lane roads, we saw a lot of small, poor towns, and in big cities, we necessarily came across a much broader swath of people.

We made a conscious effort to get out of our comfort zone, to do things and go places that were different from what we were used to. Sometimes this pushing the boundary was out in nature, where we attempted some semi-scary climbs, or went down into caves until we felt that we had hit the limit of what we reasonably could do. In Arches National Park, Greta spotted this fin where other hikers were having their picture taken.


She clambered out there to so I could snap her picture – but as she moved further out on the fin, she reached a point where she looked at the fall-off and just didn’t want to go any further. It was a nice, precise plotting of her comfort level gradient (which was further out there than mine).DSCF7928

We tried to not categorically avoid any experiences (except when poisonous snakes were involved), but to give everything a shot and base our trajectory on how things felt, rather than preconceptions. Our third day in New Orleans, we wandered through the Lower Ninth Ward, much of which is still devastated and half deserted, ten years after Katrina.dscf1772

Rationally I knew it was pretty safe, but much of it looked sketchy, so I would check in with Greta every once in a while, asking her if she felt comfortable. She always did, and pretty soon we developed some street smarts and felt at home all over New Orleans. One day we were walking home and I suggested going down a certain street. Greta said, Let’s skip that block, dad, there’s a couple of crack houses there. Apparently there were things she was learning from other kids in the neighborhood.

Travelling together

As I’ve mentioned, most of my travelling in the past had been by myself, but in the past decade I came to really enjoy travelling with Linda and Greta, both for the company and the new perspectives it opened up. However, this trip was qualitatively different from any prior travel we’d done – not a two-week vacation from our normal life, but a nine-month journey where we’d spend almost every waking moment together; it was more a new way of life than just a hiatus from our standard one.92-antelope-canyon005dscf8267

As we were imagining the trip I thought back to prior long trips in my life, and tried to clue Greta in to what I thought would happen. I told her that on such a long trip there would days where everything was terrible – the weather would suck, and things we wanted to see wouldn’t be open, and the food would be awful, and she’d be bored and tired of me and wondering why we had done this and she’d want to go home. But that wasn’t an option: we’d be committed to this trip, we couldn’t bail out, and she would just have to believe that the next day would be great. So we were both prepared for the worst when it would arrive, and it just never did. There were a few days with more annoyances than enjoyment (not being able to find anywhere to sleep in the whole state of Wisconsin, blowing out a tire in the middle of the Mojave), but there was never a day where, on balance, either of us really wished that we were home.

Even more shockingly, we never had a fight. I would express annoyance once in a while when Greta wasn’t paying attention and made a navigational error, and she would get frustrated when I dragged her to yet more architecture, but it never escalated beyond that. At some point a friend asked if we were driving each other crazy, and I said no. Greta said, Yeah, he’s been driving me kind of crazy. I scowled at her, and she said, Dad, I’m a teenager – I have to say that.

I think a lot of our getting along came from recognizing our differing interests, and being willing to accommodate them. We didn’t see all the architecture and art I wanted to, but we saw all that Greta could stand. And I certainly spent way more time in natural history museums than I ever would on my own. Some of our favorite places were where we could diverge and indulge our own interests without having to worry about the other person, such as the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh or the Smithsonian, which have astounding collections in both natural history and art. In other places, such as Chicago, negotiations led to a good solution. When I had reached my limit on science museums there, I suggested that the next day I could drop Greta off at the Shedd Aquarium while I walked down to IIT to see the Mies buildings. Greta said that she didn’t know that she was comfortable being by herself in the big city, even if she had a cell phone and it was a controlled environment with guards, etc. I said okay, I understand, I don’t want you to do anything with which you’re uncomfortable, so why don’t we go to IIT in the morning, then we’ll head up to the Aquarium for the afternoon? Greta thought about it and replied, I’m fine being by myself.

We drove 20,859 miles together, and walked around cities and landscapes for days, so there was a lot of time just being together on the move, not at some planned destination. What we did was look around and talk. Wary of the horrors of the presidential campaign always just over the horizon, we never turned on the radio, and never watched TV. (The one time we did, sitting in a Jamaican restaurant in Savannah, where a Republican primary debate was on CNN, convinced us we’d made the right call.)

For the first six months we didn’t really have music – my truck is so old that we couldn’t plug our iPods or phones into the sound system, and a little speaker we bought was so bad we just gave up on it. Back home in March, we picked up a bunch of CDs to play, and I managed to achieve one of my unspoken goals: by the end of the trip, Greta was completely into the Clash, Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers, and the Cars. I walked by her room a few weeks ago, and she was listening to Aqualung. She has really weird tastes for a 14-year-old girl in 2016.

Greta almost never put on headphones and tuned out the world; a few times, when we were driving through an incredibly boring landscape, I’d offer that I wouldn’t be offended if she listened to music or a podcast on her own, but she usually demurred – she found looking out the window and observing this alien place to be entertaining. We’d comment on things we were passing, and we started noticing the same things, such as strange signs by the side of the road.p1080135

After so much time together, we were pretty attuned to what the other person would find amusing, and we always pointed things out. (We now have a large supply of in-jokes we can work for the rest of our lives.) Greta got so good as spotting barricades for me to photograph for my other blog that she demanded that I list her as a spotter if I ever get a book published on them.

This was our first big trip when cellular communication was constant, and it worked out incredibly well. We talked to Linda almost every evening. In general, Greta is a lot less obsessed with her phone than most other teenagers, and that carried through on this trip. She had a few friends with whom she texted a few times a day – I always knew when it was lunch time at her middle school, as the texts would roll in. But that was the extent of it – she was completely aware of being in places she might never visit again, and she always preferred to live in the moment, rather than staying wrapped up in her social life thousands of miles away. I think there was one occasion on the whole trip where I had to ask her to put the phone down and pay attention.

We realized that a lot of texting is like a lot of eating – our day-to-day lives are often rather boring, so we text or eat or websurf to amuse and distract ourselves. When life is interesting, we don’t need to do those things. On balance, the texting was a real positive. I had been worried that Greta would miss her friends, and that this would initiate feelings of wanting to go home. But the texting was natural enough, and constant enough, that she never really felt out of touch with them. She missed them a lot less than I expected, and she didn’t feel completely cut off from her life at home. And when her friends would text that they were heading off to a boring history class, she could send a text back saying, Well, I’m here:91-ne-arizona023dscf8157

As I’ve quoted before, Jonathan Raban argues that “…this kind of pure, serendipitous travel is a solitary vice…travelling in pairs and families is the continuation of staying at home by other means.”  He may be right in his idea that certain kinds of disoriented experiences are only open to the out-of-contact, displaced, solo traveler, but I found this engaged travelling together to be preferable in most ways. I remember travelling in Europe about 30 years ago, and realizing that no one I knew had any idea what country I was in. That sense of literal alienation is intriguing at first, but becomes tiring. Having a constant, excellent companion, and bringing our own little home along with us, reduced the psychic wear and tear. We didn’t get lonely or homesick. There was a good balance between living in the moment, being attuned to what was different and new around us, and still being enough connected to our other lives that missing them didn’t interfere with our pleasure in the trip.

Daily schedule

We settled into a consistent rhythm to our days fairly quickly. Travelling in the fall through the spring, the sun didn’t come up too early, and the mornings were often cold. Since neither Greta nor I likes to jump out of bed really early and head out into the weather, we devolved to hanging around the trailer for a while until the day warmed up. While we ate I’d scan the Times on my phone, and Greta would update her favorite web comics. Then we’d either write – blog posts and fiction (in Greta’s case). We’d firm up our plans for the day if we hadn’t already, setting our sightseeing or driving destinations, and we were always in motion by 10:00.

We’d spend the day out and about, driving, walking or sightseeing, and when it started to get dark, we’d eat some dinner and then hang around the trailer again, unless we were with friends. When we started the trip I thought I’d have a lot of free time in the evenings to read – I brought a big box of serious books; with nine months and no job, how could I not plow through them all? It turned out that almost every evening was spent hanging out with friends, blogging, planning the trip, or sitting outside looking at the stars. The big box of books is still sitting here.


When I first floated the idea of this trip to Greta, I pointed out a number of aspects I thought she’d find appealing, but the one that cinched the deal for her was the plan to eat barbecue all across the South. Greta’s interest in good food has expanded incredibly in the past couple of years, so eating new and interesting food was one of our main goals from the start. Given that orientation, it didn’t make much sense for us to go to a lot of trouble cooking for ourselves. About the third day out we came to a fundamental distinction: there were meals which were an end in themselves (cooked by somebody else) and there were survival meals, which we often made ourselves. On average, we’d aim for one good meal and two sustenance meals per day.

The trailer cooking arrangements were adequate, but obviously not as accommodating as being at home. Our propane stove worked very well, and turned out to be shockingly efficient: in daily use for nine months, we never had to refill the 5-gallon tank even once. We used a 26-quart ice chest, which would stay cold for three days maximum on a recharge of ice. (It turns out that the only place in the country where you can buy block ice – which lasts longer than cubes – is in Utah. But the advantage of the cubes is you can make Manhattans.) Cleaning up was more problematic, with a 10-gallon water tank connected via a handpump to the sink, which then drained outboard into a 5-gallon bucket. This was a pain, so to minimize the washing up, we used paper plates and bowls, leaving just pots, glasses and silverware to be washed.

We kept the pantry stocked with a small assortment of staples: canned soups (not bad when you’re starving after a long hike and there are no other options), crackers and cheese, fruit, peanut butter and jelly, bread, cereal, milk, nuts, dried fruit, coffee, and of course, Nutella. We got pretty good at enhancing the basics, such as by adding fresh broccoli into a canned soup base.

I’ve never seen the point of eating breakfast out – it takes too long when you want to be doing something else, it costs too much money, and it gives you way too many calories. So unless there was a compelling reason to eat breakfast out (such as getting out of a freezing trailer into a warm restaurant, or having your pancakes delivered on a toy train), we made it ourselves. Coffee was first on the agenda, prepared with a manual grinder and the excellent AeroPress. Breakfast was always cereal and fruit, which presented a regional problem. About the only cereal that we can stand, as it’s not too sweet, is Quaker Oat Squares, which we buy in bulk at Costco. But in the South (which we learned is Costco’s Texas-centered region), Costco doesn’t stock this item (it’s probably too healthy for Southerners, and they’ve re-allocated that shelf space to liquor). We had to make do with inferior cereal for a few weeks, and then when we flew home for a visit at spring break, we picked up four giant boxes of cereal at our usual Costco, and that constituted our carry-on luggage on our flight back to Phoenix. The TSA technician did not raise any questions.

The two strangest things that happened on this trip were that we liked Texas, and that we became pretty dependent on Walmart. On Whidbey Island we might go to Walmart once a year to acquire some houseware that isn’t available anywhere else on the island, but otherwise we shun them, for aesthetic and political reasons. But when you’re in small-city America, a Walmart is your best hope for finding everything you need – food, ice and gear – without wasting a lot of time searching. You know what brands are available, the layout is close enough from store to store so you can find things, and the parking lots have lots of room for trailers. For camping, we are big fans of those 4 ounce sealed milk packages (like kids’ juice boxes) that don’t have to be refrigerated, and Walmart is the only place in the country that consistently stocks them.

Lunch was usually a subsistence meal too, unless there was a unique opportunity for something good. We were always doing something in the middle of the day – either sightseeing or driving – and we didn’t want to take the time to sit down in a restaurant. We might grab something quick if we were walking around in a city, but if we were driving or hiking, we always made our own lunches, mostly sandwiches. We ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly. I’d usually ask Greta whether she wanted a subsistence meal or should we look for a restaurant option, and she usually came down on the side of no-frills calories so we could keep going.

At the end of the day, when we were tired and it was usually dark and cold, a good meal was very appealing. Many of the friends we stayed with fed us wonderfully, but when that wasn’t possible, Greta was in charge of figuring out our options. She has become a master of interpreting Yelp recommendations. We were always looking for good food that wasn’t expensive, so the $ or $$ categories were our focus. Greta looked at the rankings, but she also became adept at digging beneath the surface, reading enough of the reviews to understand their basis. She might say, This restaurant has a good numerical rating, but all the people giving it a thumbs-up are idiots. (She also discovered that people from Colorado are never satisfied with anything.) She’d do her research, then lay out four or five options, which we’d discuss and then decide upon. We found a lot of very good places through Yelp, often places that our local friends hadn’t even heard of.dscf0028

Last December, the Washington Post published an article on the 10 Best Food Cities in America, Ranked. Since we were visiting nine of them, we followed up on some of their recommendations (the cheap ones). There were some great ones we never would have found otherwise (such as Leon’s in Charleston), but some others were a disappointment (such as Nam Giao in Houston).

The other helpful source was Roadfood.com, a website started by Jane and Michael Stern, the authors of many fabulous road food books and frequent NPR contributors. The emphasis is on regional cuisine, often hole-in-the-wall places with long histories. Most of the recommendations were good, but sometimes the quality of the meals was less than impressive; Roadfood isn’t just about the taste, it’s mainly about the cultural experience. So we ate at a few places where the food was different but mediocre, while the ambience was notable.69-louisiana020dscf4029

In a year of eating on the road, we discovered one constant: every meal served at a normal American restaurant is large enough to constitute two reasonably-sized meals. Except in Utah, where every meal (or desert) can make three reasonably-sized meals.p1090519

This may not be a problem when you’re at home and maybe over-eat out once a week, but when you’re eating in restaurants almost every day, it’s definitely a problem. We could have followed the Zimmer girl protocol of splitting entrees, but we always wanted to try out more than one thing on the menu. So we’d order two meals, and when the food arrived, we’d do a quick assessment of what half would work best as leftovers, and what half should be eaten immediately. We always had an ice chest in the truck, so we’d pack things away, and then eat them for lunch or dinner the next day. We got to eat a wide assortment of great food (Greta and I always shared our dishes), and we pretty much cut our restaurant budget in half by doing this. Having no microwave or toaster oven, we got to be really good at reheating things in a frying pan. Greta is thinking about writing a diet book, called Leftovers Keep Me Skinny.

Left to our own devices, we came up with a few trailer-cooking recipes, which Greta hasn’t gotten around to blogging about. We think that cold s’mores, made with sliced giant marshmallows and Nutella, are actually better than the original. The precise method for making satisfying tuna melts in a frying pan took some experimentation to derive. A variation on the Piglet Deluxe, a sausage or hot dog with lots of onions, peppers and cheese, became a more frequent dinner when we were camping in the Southwest, far away from all restaurants. But our best invention was Banana Nutella Toast.

While the food was good in most of the places we went, the cocktails were generally terrible. To get a good cocktail you pretty much have to head to a bar where they care about these things, and hanging around in bars was not how I was going to spend my evenings with a 14-year-old in tow. I had notably good cocktails in a handful of places, but in general I made my own. I stocked rye, Carpano Antica vermouth and bitters in the truck, and would often spend the evenings with friends mixing Manhattans. My friend Ray suggested that we might reprise Jon Favreau’s movie Chef, where he travels with his son across the South in a food truck, but in our case turn the Scamp into a bar.p1080261


The driving itself was a big part of our experience, but not as much as you might think. 20,859 miles is only about 1.6 times the mileage the average American drives each year, and we averaged 93 miles per day over the whole trip. We never exceeded 400 miles in a day. On my solo cross country drives I had sometimes approached 1000 miles in a day, but we had no desire to turn any of this into a forced march. We were out to appreciate all of the trip, so we did everything we could to make the driving engaging.

We averaged 14 miles per gallon for the whole trip, about 2 mpg less than I get in the truck with no trailer. Our timing for gas prices couldn’t have been better – we paid an average of $2.15 per gallon (and as low as $1.22 per gallon). If gas had been $4.00 per gallon (which we expected), it would have cost us another $2700.dscf6404

Whenever possible, we drove on two-lane roads. We all know how boring interstates are, but we never truly appreciated just how boring until this trip. Even travelling through an uneventful landscape, we’d sometimes be on a two-lane road, skirting around farms, going through banal little towns, and mildly interested in what we were passing. Then we’d get on a interstate, and be completely bored within half an hour. The zone of homogenization around an interstate guarantees that you can almost never see anything interesting – no amusing little sign, no decrepit vernacular building, no sign of life. There is always a big, straight vista ahead of you, and the act of driving itself is relentless.

There were two exceptions to this rule. When driving across big empty states where the landscape was pretty uniform (South Dakota comes to mind), there were sometimes no good alternatives to the interstate, and the experience was not that different. The other exception is driving though sprawl. Sprawl is basically the same everywhere, there is nothing really to see in it, and driving through it is absolute hell – stop and go traffic, stuck at red lights in front of Arby’s. So when we were in the countryside we always drove on two-lane roads. When we reached the postwar sprawl at the edge of a major metropolitan area, we’d jump on an interstate if we could. And if we were driving into the pre-war core of a city, we’d get back on the city streets.

Pulling a trailer through a big city downtown was not something I looked forward to, and in general we avoided it. In most of the big cities we visited (Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, DC, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, etc.) we left the trailer with friends out in the suburbs, and either drove the truck or took transit into the city center. We did end up driving into and parking in a few decent-sized cities – such as St. Paul, Buffalo, Albany, Paterson, Baltimore, Houston, Santa Cruz, and especially New Orleans. Generally I disdain configuring cities for the convenience of vehicles, but we became pretty sensitive to whether it was or was not possible to park with a trailer; Rochester was great, but Buffalo was impossible.

After a few weeks, we worked out a method for navigating. We don’t have smart phones with GPS navigation which give you step-by-step directions in real time. We have Windows Phones, which we consider semi-smart, but they do have GPS-enabled maps in them. Every night I would draw what I thought would be our likely path for the next day. I would start with Google Maps online, and look at the range of options it laid out, such as going on a freeway or not. I would then open up Google Earth in my computer, and plot the preferred route, factoring in considerations other than just the shortest travel time. (We learned to not trust Google Maps driving time estimates, which must be based upon driving at precisely the speed limit and never hitting a red light. We started multiplying those estimates by 1.5.) When we were moving, Greta would follow that path on the computer screen (which was completely static, not showing our location), and also follow our progress on the map in the phone. She learned how to interpret many kinds of information – the road should be bending to the right then straightening out, we should be coming to a small town soon, we’ll be going over a bridge, etc. She would anticipate our next move (we should make a left turn soon, probably at that next light), and then check that we were still on track.marfa

Sometimes she would have to improvise, adjusting our track to changing conditions. Her biggest test came as we approached Houston during the Friday evening rush hour. I had sketched a route to her cousin Joe’s house, using the I-610 loop. But that afternoon Joe texted us to never get on that highway, especially at rush hour, as it would be completely jammed for hours. So as we approached the city on I-45 from the north, I told her that we were just going to drive straight in to the center of the city against the rush hour traffic, and she would have to figure out how to get to her cousin’s in the southwest. She did it flawlessly, looking at the map and evaluating alternatives, moving us off the interstate and onto surface highways and arterials.

One of the goals for this trip was for Greta to learn things that she couldn’t if she had stayed home, and this could be one of the biggest: Greta may be the only member of her generation who has serious map-reading and navigational skills, and who won’t be lost if her smart phone goes on the blink. Past a certain point on the trip, any time I questioned her directions she’d get annoyed with me, and eventually I realized I should just trust her calls, they were right more often than my doubts. (I started calling her R2.) I’ve become completely dependent on her for getting through unfamiliar places, and I may have to stop travelling when she goes off to college.

We discovered a lot about American drivers on this trip, and here is the central insight: they are terrible everywhere, but in different ways. In Boston they are oblivious to everything around them and are just assholes. In the South they drive insanely fast, even when they can’t see ahead. We saw some very near-misses with cars passing on two-lane roads, and all the insanely dangerous passes were on the Navajo reservation. We couldn’t figure the drivers out in Albuquerque, until Mark Childs explained that no one in New Mexico is used to driving in a city, so they all drive as if they were still out in the desert with no one else around. In California they are incredibly aggressive, but also highly skilled. And when we were nonplussed at how people drove on our return to Oregon, Greta observed, Wow, they’re really slow and kind of stupid, but nice.

We tried to be considerate drivers on this trip, as we knew we were sometimes an impediment to other vehicles, and we were in no hurry. This was especially the case when we couldn’t be passed, on narrow, twisty roads, such as on the California coast. Most places have laws that say you have to pull over if there are five or ten cars stuck behind you, but we would do it as soon as we could if there was one car behind us. Every time we did this in California, the driver passing us would toot the horn and wave. Californians are aggressive, but they appreciate good driving.

Getting out of the vehicle

The most important thing about driving was to not do it, any more than we had to. We discovered very early that neither of us could really enjoy or understand a place from inside a car. (I recalled a conversation with my teacher, the landscape historian JB Jackson, who travelled from his home in New Mexico to his jobs at Berkeley and Harvard on his motorcycle, as he felt you couldn’t experience the landscape while sitting in a box looking out a window.)

There is a huge forward momentum driving in a car – you spot something interesting, but you have this impetus to keep moving. It’s partially practical (you’re going fast, there’s no place to pull over, you’re trying to get somewhere and any stop will add ten minutes to your trip), but its largely psychological – you are so in the mindset of the car and on the road that it’s hard to consider changing your mode of being. Pulling a trailer just made this even harder – you can’t make sharp turns, you don’t want to brake rapidly, you need a bigger space to pull over, you don’t want to park on a side-slope. So often we would keep going, and I would yell at Greta to grab her camera and snap a picture while we were moving. They’re not the best pictures, but at least they are a record of some weird moments.dscf1944

There’s also the problem of where to stop when you’re not at a specifically notable point, but just travelling through a fairly uniform, yet different landscape. (This also happens in cities – how to capture the typical cityscape rather than the iconic building.) Sometimes you don’t want a photo of the special view, you want a record of the typical view, but it is hard to figure out where to best capture that. Sometime I would just randomly stop, (such as here, north of Ft. Davis in West Texas),dscf6330

but often I wouldn’t (knowing it would be a lousy picture anyway). The new technology that solves this dilemma for us is Google Earth Street View. As we have been reviewing the beginnings of our trip, one year later, we find ourselves remembering a little town or landscape, zooming in on the general area, then using Street View to give us the perspective from the road. This may actually be better than trying to record it ourselves – you can spin all around in Street View, look in any direction, then move up the road a few hundred yards and see what’s different.

But even more critical than the issue of getting out of the car to see a spot is the issue of moving through the landscape on your own feet. Even when there are marked viewpoints and turnouts and lots of parking, we both found the experience of getting out, looking, taking a photograph, and then getting back in the car, to be less than satisfying. Often it’s the only thing you can do, and sometimes there are walks that don’t do much to change your perception of a place, but we found that our appreciation and enjoyment of a place, whether a building, or a landscape, or a neighborhood, was directly correlated with whether there was a good hike to be taken. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey makes the case that National Parks should ban cars. Everyone should walk, or borrow a bike, or take a shuttle bus if they can’t self-locomote. We found this be true everywhere, and we often took long walks that weren’t on the official agenda. For example, at Zion almost everyone takes the shuttle bus, getting off to hike designated trails to specific destinations. But we decided to skip the bus (in one direction) and hiked 13 miles up the canyon, able to see the views unfolding and changing at a speed where we could comprehend them.85-zion002dscf7408

The same applied in cities. One day in Chicago I walked fourteen miles and Greta walked nine: we could have taken a bus, but we just wandered through the city, coming to an intersection and deciding which direction seemed more appealing. It is hard to capture the typical, but it is easier to experience it, if you move through a lot of it. Your understanding of a place becomes not a series of discrete points, but rather a summary or integration of an almost infinite number of places.

This way of travelling and seeing became our norm, and it led to a repeated conversation. We’d be approaching some place at a high speed, trying to decide whether we should pull over. I’d say, Should we stop? And Greta would say, Why not? And if we couldn’t come up with a good reason to not stop, we’d stop. Often we’d have a great experience, and we’d be bemused at how close we had come to missing it.

Documenting the trip

When we started out, we knew we’d be taking lots of photos and doing some kind of a blog, and maybe keeping a journal, but we really didn’t know what would be involved. Our first blog posts were pretty minimal – a few photos with captions to let people know where we were and what we were up to.

Some of you have remarked on the photos we’ve taken, so I’ll pass on a little basic information. I was using a Fuji X-E1, a spectacular “mirrorless” camera. It is relatively compact (the body is the same size as my old Leica CL), but it has a large APS-C sensor (important for dynamic range, not blowing out highlights or shadows), some of the best lenses being made, and a real, (albeit electronic) viewfinder, so you don’t have to use the screen on the back unless you want to. (I am old enough to feel that real cameras have viewfinders and dials, not screens and menus.)p1100259

I carried only one lens – the 18-55mm (equivalent to a 28-90mm range on a 35mm camera). This took care of almost all my needs. The camera plus lens weighed around two pounds. For wide angles, the in-camera panorama mode is one I liked and began to use a lot. If I wanted to zoom in closer, I could just crop a picture later in Photoshop (lots of extra pixels to throw away), or have Greta shoot it for me (she was using a Panasonic DMC-ZS15 point-and-shoot with a much longer telephoto, which she got for shooting wildlife). It’s an interesting strategy – instead of carrying a big, heavy telephoto that I would need infrequently, I just used Greta as my telephoto. The Fuji is by far the best camera I’ve used since going digital 15 years ago, and many professional photographers are ditching their 35mm full-frame cameras for the Fujis.

The format of the blog really changed about a week into the trip. We were so horrified by what had been done to Mt. Rushmore that I needed to analyze it and write it down, and from that point on our blog posts were more thematic, figuring out what there was to say about a place rather than just posting some information. I’d never blogged before, and I hadn’t really written that much in years – for my class lectures, I write out some notes on the points I want to make, and I select a lot of images, but I never fine-tune the writing, I just stand up and talk from notes. In contrast, Greta is a constant writing machine. She was working on a few novels throughout this trip, and in November she completed NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month, cranking out 50,000 words on one of her novels.

I thought blogging would be like keeping a journal, but they have little in common. Whenever I’ve kept a travel journal, it’s been more just the raw material – notes jotted down on what happened, maybe a few observations. No one wants to read another person’s journal, and I’ve never been too excited about reading my own later. But just knowing that a few people are going to read what you’ve written changes everything – you have to take some care with organizing and expressing your thoughts. That act of paying attention changes everything again – you’re suddenly really thinking about a place, not just recording impressions. Having to come to a conclusion made me think much harder, and I think much of what we learned on this trip wouldn’t have occurred if we hadn’t made the effort to write for an audience. I’m very grateful for those of you who have followed this blog so closely – I was not just pleased to know that you cared enough about us to follow it, but also grateful that your attention motivated us to make the effort to think more clearly about everything.

Blogging took way more time than I expected. I thought I could throw up some pictures and dash off some ideas; I talk off the top of my head in class a lot, and that seems to work out pretty well. But actual writing was much slower. My usual writing speed was about 500 words per hour, although a few times I hit my stride and pushed it up to 1000. So by the time I figured out what I wanted to say about a place, selected and Photoshopped the photos, wrote the text and put it up online, each blog post was usually a full evening’s worth of work, then another couple of hours in the morning. I found that I could think, mess around with photos and rough out an outline at night, but I couldn’t produce finished writing then – that was better done when I was fresh in the morning. This is why the blog has been consistently months behind – it just took so much time, and our choice was always to do something cool if it were an option, rather than sit down and produce.

Things we would do differently

So much on this trip went better than we had ever hoped that it seems wrong to regret anything, but we did learn a few things en route that we wish we’d known earlier.

There were things that changed from place to place that we wished we’d documented more rigorously. Like road kill. The amount and nature of road kill changes dramatically – in Wyoming there is a dead mammal literally every 25 yards. Some places skewed more reptilian. Some places didn’t have any. (We never saw an armadillo by the side of the road in Texas.) Greta, with her junior naturalist viewpoint, thought this was fascinating.

Another weird change – those signs that warn you that the bridge you’re approaching might freeze earlier than the road you’re on – every state phrases this differently, and we spent some time discussing the semantic implications of every new one we came across.

We wish we’d met more locals. When we were staying with friends we always had an entreé to the local culture, but when we were on our own, we found most of our conversations were limited to people who were providing travel services – waiters and clerks – or to other travelers we met in a campground or at a viewpoint. In Europe I had always attributed this to the language issue, but it wasn’t much different in our own country. I don’t know how to solve this – when you’re travelling you’re really in the travel zone, and sometimes the conversations with the locals working in that zone can be enlightening (I noticed this especially on Indian reservations). But we spent a lot of time in the South, and I can’t say that I understand Southerners any better than I did before we left. (Except in New Orleans, where we were introduced to many people and welcomed in. But they’re not really Southerners.)

We spent a lot of time talking with old friends, and I wish I’d taken notes on those conversations. I discovered that as my friends have aged, they’ve become even more insightful and wise. A number of people have suggested that I should write a book based on this trip (but a book just seems so 20th-century compared to a blog!), and the thing that absolutely keeps me from attempting it is not having any record of those conversations. They were a huge part of the trip, and a travelogue of observations about places would not be nearly as interesting as a book that incorporated those dialogues. It seems like a good excuse to do the trip over again, and just pay more attention next time.

Now that we’ve been home for a few months, life on the road is a distant memory. You come back from a trip, full of excitement, and determined to not fall back into the rut of your day-to-day life. I wish I could say that we’ve avoided that, but largely we haven’t. Greta and I touch on the Groundhog Day analogy – every day is the same, more or less. There are no big surprises in normal life, nothing to shake you out of your complacency. We don’t dislike our lives at all – we have many wonderful friends and colleagues, we live in beautiful places, we have interesting and meaningful work to do, and we are deeply grateful for all of that. (Frequently on the trip, I would ask Greta if she’d like to live in the place we were visiting, and she usually answered that she’d go crazy.) But the sameness numbs you out to a certain extent – it’s unavoidable. We were lucky to be on the road for long enough that it did become a way of life, not just a short break, and we became really comfortable and happy with that life. After a few weeks at home, Greta and I decided that the only two things that were much better about this return to normal life were seeing Linda, and indoor plumbing.

Planning the trip

tripIf you’re going on a two-week vacation, you can do all your detailed research beforehand, and come up with a plan. But if you’re going for a year, you can’t anticipate all the places you’ll go, search out every detailed destination, and map out an itinerary. Or perhaps you shouldn’t even try;  Jonathan Raban, in his essay “Why Travel?”, says:

“Yesterday’s creature of duty and habit is today’s creature of accident – a free spirit, a traveller, open to adventure as the dictionary defines it, That which happens without design; chance, hap, luck. Travel in its purest form requires no certain destination, no fixed itinerary, no advance reservations and no return ticket, for you are trying to launch yourself onto the haphazard drift of things and put yourself in the way of whatever chances the journey may throw up.”

I had sometimes travelled that way in the past, when I was single: I’m going to northern Europe, and when it starts to get cold, I’ll probably go to southern Europe. But in Raban’s estimation, all real travel like this has to be undertaken alone: “For this kind of pure, serendipitous travel is a solitary vice. Going with a companion is cosy, but you might as well be going with a coach party…. Adapting Clausewitz, travelling in pairs and families is the continuation of staying at home by other means.” I agreed with him completely when I was young, and found that even if I came across a simpatico friend while travelling, it was better if we went our separate ways during the day and just met up for dinner. If I was excited about the place where I was, I just didn’t want to compromise with anyone on how to spend my time – it was a too rare and distant adventure to not completely indulge my own instincts and manias.

This all changed when Linda and I were married, and came to a head 15 years ago, when we were on a 10-day bus tour through Sweden and Finland with American architecture students, run by the DIS school in Copenhagen. I found myself getting antsy and impatient , and realized that not only had I never travelled with students, or on an organized bus tour, but I had never really traveled with another person. My attitude completely changed six years ago, when Linda and Greta and I took a two-week roadtrip through northern California. I discovered that having to accommodate the likely interests of an eight-year-old wasn’t a problem, it was a pleasure, and it opened me up to seeing the world in a new way, and appreciating things I would not have given a second glance otherwise. It was the best trip of my life, and much of the pleasure came from sharing things with the girls. I still appreciate Raban’s insights, but I think he’s a bit more of a misanthrope than I am.

As we began to think about this trip, I knew I’d have to make more definite arrangements with Greta in tow than if I were alone – it’s harder to imagine showing up late at night in a strange city with no idea where you’re going to sleep. So I took an approach not unlike that of designing a building – you initially map out the big moves, and then you get more detailed as you change the scale at which you’re working.

I used Google Earth to plan the trip – it allows you to plot and classify your own spots (Placemarks, they’re called) and routes, coding them with icons and turning layers on and off as suits your needs at the moment. It’s a way of jotting down notes about what you want to visit, and you can then see how they relate spatially to other places and possible routes. As we travelled, it also allowed us to plot all the places we did visit and roads we’d driven – we now have a complete cartographic record of our trip so Greta can start with that when she recapitulates this trip with her own kids in 30 years (her idea, not mine).  If you’re interested in a copy of this data to jump-start your own trip planning, just let me know and I’ll send you a copy.  But this doesn’t guarantee that all our friends will let you camp in their driveways.  woodstock

The first thing I mapped was where all of our friends and family lived. That gave us around 50 preliminary destinations (of which we visited 37, once we decided to skip the middle of the country). The big determinant for our schedule was the weather – we’d be travelling through the fall, winter and spring, and we wanted to be in places where the temperature and precipitation would allow us to be outside for much of the day. I looked at monthly average high and low temperatures, and developed a chart which showed those parts of the country where the daytime temps were in the 50s or higher, and the nighttime lows were usually above freezing:weather

This chart revealed a few big determinants: in the summer, you want to be in the Northwest or the Rockies. In the winter, you want to be in the South (and not too far north of the Gulf). Every place else in the country is best visited in the fall or spring, except California, which is perfect all the time. I then analyzed two scenarios – a clockwise loop and a counterclockwise loop. Starting from the Northwest in the fall, a clockwise loop worked best. (In Texas we met a couple from California who started in the winter, in which case a counterclockwise loop was better.) So given these parameters, our initial, big-picture plan was:

  • September:   across the country
  • October:        the Northeast
  • November:    down the East Coast
  • December:    the Southeast (including family in Florida at Christmas)
  • January:         the Deep South
  • February:       Texas to the Southwest
  • March:            the Southwest
  • April:               the Colorado Plateau
  • May:                California
  • June:                home

We pretty much stuck to this, except that we got going two weeks later than expected (as it took so long to find the trailer); when we were in the Northeast, the weather was 10 degrees warmer than normal, so we took our time heading down the coast; and when Glen pointed out that Mardi Gras was only a week away, so there was really no point in our hurrying out of  New Orleans.

Since we usually don’t have the truck when we are out of the Northwest, this shaped our itinerary too, skewing it towards places which you really can’t reach without a vehicle. So instead of spending more time in places like New York (where having a vehicle is a negative), we allocated more time to places like Cape Cod or Harpers Ferry – places unlikely to be destinations on their own, or to which we would fly. We were also biased towards places we will probably not go to again for a long time – Florida is a common destination to see family, but Charleston is just too far off the beaten path.

As I looked over the list of possible destinations and estimated how much time we might want in each, I told Linda that we really needed two years to do this trip. She said, “You get one”. So even thought we covered a lot of the country, there were still important places that didn’t make the final cut. As we drove through Seneca Falls, Ithaca was 40 miles away at the other end of Cayuga Lake. We looked at the clock, and kept driving on to Syracuse. It was the closest I’ve ever gotten to the Cornell campus, but it still wasn’t close enough, and I’m starting to doubt that I’ll ever get there.

I discovered that there are some big geographic facts that are not apparent in advance, For example, the distance on the Colorado River between Moab and Las Vegas is about 450 miles, and there is only one place in that whole length where you can drive across it – the Glen Canyon Dam outside Page.colorado

I also hadn’t realized (until I started searching for routes) that it’s essentially impossible to cross the Sierras for most of the year, anywhere between Bakersfield and Sacramento, 300 miles apart. When you mention these hard-won insights to locals, they look at you like you’re crazy, probably because they’re just so obvious (like not knowing that you have to transfer from the 2 or the 3 to the Broadway Local at 96th, otherwise you end up in Harlem instead of at Columbia).

As we approached a region, I’d start doing more detailed research about a month in advance. What cities did we want to visit, what were specific museums, buildings, parks, sights, restaurants etc. We’d alert our friends in the area with our rough plans and see if those dates worked for them.

Finally, I would start planning our itinerary in detail about a week out – how many days to spend in a specific city or National Park, was there a good campground for which we needed to make reservations, what days were the museums closed, where was the best barbecue? All of this research took a lot more time than I expected, and it was one of the main reasons to stay in a commercial campground, so we could search on the internet for places and attractions.

This method also allowed us to adapt to changing conditions, such as the weather, which we did quite often (including completely changing direction twice at the last minute in the Southwest). As we were about to leave Monument Valley, I saw that the forecast had changed, so I looked at the ten-day forecasts for nine locations, plotted them in a matrix and then shaded the cells where we didn’t want to be, with boxes representing our possible trajectories. So instead of following our original plan of Mesa Verde to Chaco Canyon in this period, we hung out at a low elevation in Page for three days to let the snowstorm go by, then headed to the Grand Canyon and on to Hopi, Tsegi and Chaco from the other direction.screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-2-29-02-pm

There were some online resources that helped at this detailed level too, such as Roadside America, with its state-by-state maps of kitsch and Americana.  We wouldn’t have gone too far out of our way to see the life-sized, revolving Ray Charles music box in his hometown of Albany, GA, but once we had a basic route roughed out, it was easy to look at our kitsch options and diverge from the straightest path to check this one off.

When we did get to a place, the best recommendations always came from friends – we were given great tours of their cities by many of them. How else would we ever have found the Windhill Pancake Parlor (where breakfast dishes are delivered on a toy train) if Aaron and Heather hadn’t taken us?

That became our modus operandi – we always knew our general direction, and we’d often have a destination or two planned and a campground reserved, but when it came down to immediate activities, we just played it by ear. Many mornings, Greta would wake up and ask me, What are we doing today? And I’d say, I don’t know, what do you feel like doing? That usually worked out fine, and maybe Jonathan Raban would have approved.