Tag Archives: #vanlife

One year later


One year ago today we took off on our big trip.  This year, instead, I am finishing up a tenure case review, and Greta is slogging through geometry.  As she headed off to high school this morning, I suggested to her that she could just hide in the trailer until Linda went to work, then we could pack some leftovers in the cooler and take off – we’d have an eight-hour lead, and could get across Oregon before she’d notice we were gone.

But what we’ve decided to actually do every day for the next nine months is review what we did one year before – look at our map, calendar, photos, notes, and blog posts.  Then as we reminisce about the day, we’ll jot down whatever we remember.  (I know it must seem that every moment of our trip was posted on the blog, but we actually skipped over a lot.)  The further we get from the trip, the more it seems unreal, and we want to make one last attempt to cement it in our psyches.

We do still have a few more posts to put on the blog to finish it off, and we may put together a couple of summary posts, but we’re closing in on the end  –  unless we come up with great new insights during our daily reviews, in which case this blog night run for another nine months!

Trailer park life


Once we got our trailer, the next question was, where do we park it? We ended up staying in three really distinct types of venues: commercial campgrounds, public campgrounds, and friends’ driveways. Each of them had different advantages, and sometimes we alternated amongst them on purpose.

We didn’t attempt to camp off-the-grid: although you can camp legally for free on National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands (as long as you are a certain distance from the roads). We weren’t usually off in the wild – as we wanted to see a combination of natural and built environments, those camping options weren’t usually close. It would have taken some time and effort to explore and find good spots, and we didn’t want to spend the time – camping for us was a means, not an end. And with a fourteen-year-old girl along I was more concerned about amenities and safety than I might have been alone (especially as we’d be travelling in parts of the country with heavily-armed rednecks).

Our first night out was at the Crystal Crane campground in eastern Oregon, a private hot spring hippie resort (which later became renowned for inadvertently renting their community room to the Bundys one evening). We arrived in the dark and the rain, and were pretty clueless about how to set up our trailer, and how to organize everything for comfortable living. But the next morning we began to get the hang of it, sitting in the hot spring before hitting the road.01. Oregon-Idaho00115.9.22.04

The next night at Craters of the Moon National Monument introduced us to the National Park camping experience. First, if you show up after 5:00, there’s usually not anyone working there, so you just wander into a campground and find a spot. The spots were close together, but well-sited – usually with vegetation (or in this case, large mounds of lava) in between to give you some privacy. The bathrooms were minimal but fine. Greta began to learn that you don’t need a shower every day.

I had discovered a few weeks before that if you want a campsite in a popular National Park, you usually have to make reservations months in advance. Luckily I was connected on the phone to a helpful guy who found us three nights available in Yellowstone in mid-September, at Madison Village, the only campground there that stays open past Labor Day. (That became our first destination – the fixed reservation that got us out of town on a certain date.) We arrived in a thunder snowstorm, having pulled the trailer over the Continental Divide, in the dark, as traffic had slowed to a crawl with the weather. The office was still open at 8:00, and as they processed the paperwork for all the weary campers, they informed us that a grizzly bear had been spotted in the campground the day before, so if we spotted one, we should stay in our trailers and give the office a call.

Huddled inside eating a can of soup, we realized the essential character of our trailer: it was a hard-shell, bear-proof tent, which is not a bad thing. For the first of many subsequent occasions, we were grateful that after a long drive, we didn’t have to set up a tent, roll out sleeping bags, arrange gear, cook a meal and then put our food in a bear-proof enclosure. We opened a door and stepped into a completely dry, wind-proof space, where we could turn on the lights, heat up some dinner and crawl into comfortable beds. Venturing out to the bathroom later that night, I was startled by some eerie sounds that I couldn’t identify, which turned out to be elk calling down by the lake; the grizzly did not make an appearance. The next morning, we awoke to 25 degree temperatures in the trailer, pulled our clothes on while under the covers, and zoomed off in the truck to find a warm restaurant for breakfast; this became our modus operandi for the next few days.

At a commercial campground in Wall, South Dakota, we made an important discovery. The campground was adjacent to some cool grain elevators, which I photographed in the setting sun.DSCF8500c

At 2:00 in the morning, a train showed up to load grain, repeatedly maneuvering with its loud diesel engine, and often backing across an intersection, which caused gates to descend and bells to sound, waking us up for hours. It turns out that many commercial campgrounds are right next to railroad tracks, or even freight yards. This is probably because many western towns are located on rail lines, and I think that when you’re looking for a parcel big enough and zoned correctly for a campground, you’re often going to find sites that formerly housed industrial uses, right along the railroad lines. As I considered campgrounds in the future, I checked for possible railroad noise, but it often was unavoidable – there would be no other options in the area.

Another commercial campground in Chamberlain, South Dakota, made us more aware of the highway noise issue, as it was located right off I-90. The noise is more continuous, and not as disruptive as trains, but the air brakes on an 18-wheeler coming down a slope are still very noticeable. This was also the first place where we clearly saw where our little Scamp fit in the hierarchy of RVs in a campground, and Greta had an image of a ramp coming down from the back of a moving RV, and we would drive our whole rig right into it, in a sort of James-Bond-goes-camping movie.DSCF8631

One week into our trip, the differences between public and private campgrounds started to become clear to us:

Cost and amenities

Public campgrounds were usually in the $15-25 per night range. Commercial campgrounds were usually $30-50 per night, although there were outliers on each end. These costs reflected different levels of amenity. Public campgrounds had perfectly fine, functional bathrooms, and sometimes a sink for washing dishes. Showers were really uncommon, although at major parks (Yellowstone, Bryce, Grand Canyon, etc.) they could be accessed for a fee in what was often a centralized facility you might drive to (probably added in later years when Americans’ obsession with showers became stronger). Commercial campgrounds always had less spartan bathrooms and showers. Some of them were incredibly luxurious, such as this one with stone and etched-glass in Apalachicola:DSCF0620

Public campgrounds sometimes had a holding tank dump station, but almost never had any utilities at the campsite. Commercial campgrounds offered a range of hook-ups – from full (water, sewer, 50-amp power, cable TV), to simpler 30-amp and water sites. Very few public campgrounds had wifi, whereas most commercial ones did. (We found the wifi very variable – sometimes it was almost useless, as they probably had enough bandwidth to accommodate email and web-surfing, but the patrons would stream videos, and it would slow to a crawl (until all the old people went to sleep after 10:00).


These differences in amenities reflected the differences in clientele, which were notable. In a nutshell, commercial campgrounds were full of giant RVs and fifth wheels, usually towing a car, whose owners only stopped watching their widescreen TVs inside when they needed to take their rat dogs for walks. We almost never met anyone in a commercial campground – they even often used their own bathrooms rather than the common ones.

Public campgrounds had some big RVs (if the terrain permitted), but were usually a mix of tents, pop-up-trailers, normal trailers, and mid-sized RVs and conversion vans. Our neighbors were usually outdoors – building fires, and walking their very big dogs. We got to meet really cool people, such as Patty and Danny, retired psychologists from the Carolinas who had a 16-foot Airstream next to us in Big Bend, whom we met because they would sit outside at night drinking bourbon and playing the banjo. Or this other lovely couple of semi-retired teachers from Dallas, with whom we crossed paths and chatted several times in Big Bend.DSCF5976

The essential difference between the residents is this: in commercial campgrounds, people are living in their RVs. They are bringing all the paraphernalia of normal American suburban lifestyles, and they are looking for comfortable places which facilitate those lifestyles. Many of them are snowbirds (we were camping a lot in the South and Southwest in the winter), and many of them are retired (Greta was usually the only kid in an off-season campground). Outside Charleston, our campground was full of people who’d get into their pickup trucks every morning and go off to work – I think many of them were utility workers who’d come from far off to work on short-term contracts.

In public campgrounds, people are living in campers so that they can experience those places. They are purposefully leaving suburban American lifestyles behind, and they are into exploring and experiencing the places where they’re camping, including meeting the other campers. They don’t care much about amenities, as those can get in the way of the experience.

The difference in lifestyles also explains the dogs: people in big RVs have rat dogs as they’ve acquired a small dog to live in what is essentially a small house. People in small trailers have big dogs as they’ve just brought along the dog that lives with them at home.

I used to get nervous about getting old and living in such a way that I mainly associated with other old people; this trip has given me a different perspective on that. The retired people we met in National Parks were some of the coolest people I’ve met in years. I’d be happy hanging out with them, and I’m already plotting my second career as a National Park volunteer campground host (it comes with a free campsite, and I’d have an excuse to talk to everyone). 

Public campgrounds: sites and locations

National Park campgrounds are located right near the reason you’re there, and the areas right around the campgrounds themselves are often beautiful. This is looking down on our campground in the Chisos Basin, in Big Bend. We were hundreds of miles from any city, and at night every person in this campground came outside, built a fire, and sat looking at the stars.DSCF5770

Here is Greta on a short walk from our campground at Fort Pickens, in Gulf Island National Seashore.Greta.Pickens

This was on a short hike that started at our campground in Mesa Verde.102. Mesa Verde041DSCF0326

The most astounding campground was at Chaco. First, it had actual prehistoric ruins right in the campground.DSCF9027

And our site itself was on the edge of the desert.DSCF9030

Where we could sit outside and watch the gathering dusk.DSCF9034

Even when you are surrounded by others, the Park Service planners take care with the layout of individual campsites, trying to ensure some privacy and engagement with nature. For example, here is our site, backed right up to the bayou, in Davis Bayou in Gulf Islands National Seashore. It was dark and humid, and when Greta got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, she had to contend with lurking raccoons and swamp rabbits.DSCF1503

Commercial campgrounds: sites and locations

Commercial campgrounds were more focussed upon getting as many vehicles onto their property as they could, and we usually got a large parking space between other RVs, often with a picnic table, but no real privacy. As we were travelling in the off-season, this didn’t bother us much – we were inside at night, with the windows closed. In the summer it would probably be less pleasant – I assume there’d be lots of kids running around, lots of grownups noisily drinking beer by their campfires, and lots of generators running air conditioners. (Generators were less of a problem than I’d imagined – most campgrounds have reasonable quiet hours, and the cool weather kept the usage down).DSCF9816

The campgrounds in the Midwest and East were mainly parking lots with utilities, and while the facilities were often fine, the locations were determined more by finding a large property near a metropolitan area, rather than by any attractions in the landscape. However, once we moved into the South and West, even commercial campgrounds were often in beautiful locations.

During our first week out, we stayed at the KOA at the base of Devil’s Tower, where every night they showed Close Encounters of the Third Kind on a widescreen with a view of the mountain.DSCF8420

Outside Macon, Georgia, we found a strange campground run by the Shriners, located behind their meeting hall, on a rolling rural parcel. (There was a serious security gate, one had to rouse the on-site manager – who lived in a mobile home and who seemed loathe to actually accept payment – to get access, and we were one of only two campers there.)DSCF0366

In Apalachicola, the beautifully-appointed campground was obviously aimed at the higher-end RV snowbirds, and was right across from the Gulf of Mexico.DSCF0625

In Moab, the KOA campground had the La Sal Mountains to the east,87. Utah00987. Utah009DSCF7999

and a canyon wall just to the west.DSCF8002

At Gouldings resort in Monument Valley, the campground was tucked into a red rock canyon, with hiking trials climbing out above.90. Monumnent Valley009DSCF8063

The campground on the plateau south of Santa Fe offered views off into the desert in every direction.99. Santa Fe032DSCF9814

The campground at Taos was on the wind-swept (and snowy) high desert, with Taos Mountain in the distance.DSCF0164

Hybrid campgrounds

The campgrounds at the Lake Mead and Lake Powell National Recreation Areas were hybrids – inside units of the NPS, but run by contractors, and seeming more like commercial campgrounds. They had lots of the giant RVs, wifi and utilities, and in the summer I’m sure this place fills up with motor-boat fanatics.83. Hoover dam098DSCF7059

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The Wahweap campground on Lake Powell was quite wonderful, with desert sunsets, privacy plus utilities, an evening program of stargazing, and most importantly for Greta, an overabundance of jackrabbits.91.NE Arizona026DSCF8209

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Another hybrid was at Canyon de Chelly, a National Monument situated on the Navajo reservation, so the campground is part of the Navajo park system. It was a beautiful spot among the cottonwoods by the river, but perhaps the most interesting aspect was the presence of res dogs wandering around. Greta made the mistake of petting one, who then didn’t leave us alone for two days, except when he had an opportunity to tree a cat.P1090152

At one point some water leaked out of our drain, and as it contained some of the water out of a tuna can, we got to watch another dog lick it off the pavement. The next night this dog ran off with one of my clogs, and I found it 200 yards way, with tooth marks. Part of the pleasure of this campground was getting the whole reservation experience.P1090210

State and local parks

We didn’t often stay at state and local parks. As we were doing our research on the fly, it was often hard to find out about them (whereas the National Park Service runs almost all of its campground information and reservation services through one contracted website). Our first attempt to find a local campground was in Wisconsin, where we couldn’t get any information in advance and so just showed up, and after half an hour driving around, discerned that there were no campsites available. We realized that most local campgrounds are used by local people who make a reservation way in advance so they can recreate – they’re really not geared to travelers and don’t make any accommodation for them.

The one great exception to this is Florida. We first found a municipal campground outside Jacksonville, as it was listed on the NPS website, as the only campground within the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. It was fantastic, camping right on the beach at the mouth of the St. John’s River, across from the Mayport Naval Station. It was beautiful, cheap and secure, as there was a guard at the gate to keep non-campers from showing up late to party.53. Jacksonville018DSCF8545

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Through this we learned about the Florida State Park system, which has a website similar to that of the NPS. You can search for available sites, and even pick your spot online. The residents were a cross between those found in national park and commercial campgrounds – campers, but many medium-term, and there for the recreational opportunities rather than any particular features in the landscape. The campground in the bayou at Chassahowitzka was hot and humid, with lots of bugs beneath the cypresses, and seemed to be mainly filled with Canadians, who were having pizzas delivered.DSCF9002

Some of the residents had settled in for the long run.DSCF9006

Our favorite was at Tomoka State Park on the Atlantic coast, where we discovered the Celery City String Band in the community room, practicing for their New Year’s Eve gig the next night. They invited Greta to sit in on washboard.DSCF9052

Ten miles outside Tucson, we stayed in the Gilbert Ray county park immediately adjacent to Saguaro national park, found again because it was listed on the NPS website. It came with packs of coyotes.

Campground decisions

Choosing a campground usually depended on what was available – if we were heading to a National Park, and they had available sites, we’d go there – they were better and cheaper, and we usually didn’t care about amenities. This process was facilitated by the http://www.recreation.gov webpage, where you can check availability by date and make reservations. I set up a rough itinerary for our trip on the website, selecting all the National Park sites where we were likely to go, and as we closed in on one, I’d call up that info and try to reserve a campsite. Some National Parks have a first-come-first-served policy, and it is hard to know how to play that one. The park website will sometimes tell you what the likelihood of getting a site is – such as at Mesa Verde, where we were early in the season, and they said the campground almost never fills up. At others it can be iffy, but we did learn that the NPS often has a fallback plan. Even in campgrounds where they take reservations, they may say the campground is full, but they hold some sites back, in case people show up late with no other options. It’s not likely that you’ll show up at Big Bend after a drive of hundreds of miles and they’ll tell you to turn back.

If there were no public sites available, we’d look for commercial ones. For example, when we made a last-minute decision based upon the weather to head towards Zion rather than the Grand Canyon, there were no public sites available, and we had to head to a commercial campground in Hurricane, 30 miles away. It was sometimes frustrating, as the campground system is geared towards people who can plan their lives six months in advance. We wanted to go to Yosemite, but by the time we knew when we might be there, there were no public camp sites available, and we couldn’t find any commercial campgrounds available anywhere near it.

While commercial campgrounds were sometimes the only ones available, and sometimes a fallback, sometimes we chose them on purpose. If we had been in public campgrounds for days, getting electricity, showers and wifi started to sound attractive. The other big determinant was the weather. If it was down in the 30s or lower, being able to run a heater at night was very nice. Eventually I found a very useful website, RVparkreviews.com. It is geared towards RVers who want full hookups and serious luxury, but the reviews are detailed enough to steer you away from the really ratty RV parks, of which there are quite a few. (One common recommendation seems to be to not stay in trailer parks which also have long-term residents, as they are living different, noisy lifestyles, with kids, late-night parties, and starting up the big diesel to go to work early in the morning.) We also got a KOA discount card, and would sometimes skew towards them, as they ensure a baseline of decent accommodations, although not always in the most convenient locations.

Overall, staying in campgrounds and trailer parks was much better than I expected it to be. It was never terrible, and was often fantastic. A couple of times on this trip we had to stay in motels, and that just reinforced our decision to go camping. We hated the motels with their thin walls, noisy TVs and general lack of appeal. I even considered going back to the parking lot at one motel to sleep in the Scamp.

No campers allowed

There were places without campgrounds where having a trailer (or even a truck) was a problem. When we reached a big metropolitan area where we would be staying in the city (or other place where we didn’t want to take the trailer), we left the rig on the outskirts with other friends – with Aaron in Woodstock when we went into Chicago, Mike and Cathie in Scituate as we headed for the ferry to the Vineyard (avoiding hundreds of dollars in ferry tolls), my brother outside New York, Norman and Ginny outside DC, etc. The most annoying situation was where we had family or friends to stay with, but we weren’t allowed to park a trailer in their neighborhood. As Northwesterners, with our laissez-faire attitude towards life, we hadn’t anticipated this world of CC&Rs at all; the places where it occurred were new developments in the Sunbelt, as distant philosophically from the Northwest as they are geographically. (Although we appreciated the irony that these hotbeds of Republican property-rights mania had all these restrictions, while the commie hippies of the Northwest let you do what you want.) As Greta remarked, there should be a sign which reads, Southern Florida, a Gated Community. So in Florida and Phoenix we had to track down RV storage yards, where we could park our rig for a few weeks.

Driveway camping

The other, very different place we camped was in friends’ driveways, and this was the best. Besides seeing friends and being on the receiving end of their hospitality, we were also getting local informants and guides to the places, who would tell us what to see and where to eat. (And as I mentioned, we hoped that bringing our own guest room would eliminate some of the imposition.) Most of these camping sites were normal suburban driveways, but some stood out for their unusual locations.

We first stopped in St. Paul, where Josh and Laura didn’t have a driveway in this older residential neighborhood, but they got us a spot in the alley behind their house that belonged to their college boy neighbors. Greta slept inside where she got a feline companion, while I tried out urban camping. It worked just fine, and Greta and I started thinking about parking in random city alleys, spending the night and being off in the morning before anyone started to wonder about us.  09. Twin cities029DSCF8828

In Baltimore, we didn’t have any suburban location where we could ditch the rig, so we drove into the center of the city. Neelab and Ben live in a rowhouse and don’t have a driveway, but they pointed out the street around the corner from their house with no-permit-required, perpendicular parking, where we put the trailer and truck in two adjacent spots. I was a little nervous about burglary, so I parked the truck up tight to the trailer door, so you couldn’t open it. We slept in their house, and everything was fine. Except that six months later, we got a parking ticket in the mail from the City of Baltimore, with no explanation or citation of what law we had broken. The burglars left us alone, but the City got us.

In San Luis Obispo, we parked the rig on the ridge in back of Brian and Karen’s house, and this was part of the view with which I was greeted in the morning.DSCF0617

In Santa Cruz, it seemed that Jerry and Gunilla had designed their house with driveway camping in mind. It felt more like a courtyard than a driveway, with a nice privacy gradient from the street provided by the porte-cochere, and easy bathroom access around the back.DSCF0957

But by far the most amazing urban camping experience was in New Orleans at Glen and Michelle’s. For the first couple of weeks we stayed in Glen’s mom’s apartment while she was back home in Cut Off. But when she came back to town, Greta and Glen and I pushed the Scamp through the vehicle bay in the Marigny firehouse (which they operate as a shared office space), and into the courtyard in the middle of the block. There were bathrooms and a shared kitchen right off the courtyard, and we got to chat with all the young creatives who would walk through the courtyard on the way to their offices. It was idyllic – urban camping in the center of the city – quiet, but close to all the action. As in so many other categories of our trip, New Orleans provided our favorite experience. I thought that maybe we should leave the trailer there, Glen could rent it out as an AirBnb while we were gone, and we could just come stay for Mardi Gras every year.68. Glen Pitre005DSCF3557

We started this trip with trailer camping just as a pragmatic means, but it came to be an important part of the trip. We really loved many of the places we stayed, and we remember all of them vividly. For our last nights on the road, we wanted to camp somewhere cool and memorable. We thought of Crater Lake, but the campground wasn’t open yet. So we headed to Redwood National Park, where we stayed in the Elk Prairie state campground. As I made a reservation, I asked Greta whether she wanted a site in the redwoods, or one nearby on the prairie. She said she wanted the spot where she’d be less likely to run into an elk on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. So we ended up in this dark spot in the forest, surrounded by the giant trees.DSCF1873

The next morning we took an early walk out to the prairie, and realized we’d made the right decision for elk avoidance.DSCF1857

We broke camp and headed off towards Eugene, our last day in our little home on the road.115. North Coast012DSCF1843

Trip logistics: camper strategy

58. Fernandina020DSCF9416Many people have been curious about the logistics of our trip – how we decided where to go, our route, where we stayed, camping arrangements, etc. – so I’ll be putting up several posts about the practical side of the trip. This first one is about how we decided to buy a trailer, and how we set it up for the trip. Subsequent posts will deal with campground living and life on the road in general.

Accommodations strategy .  As we began to imagine this trip, one of the central questions was, where would we stay? So as I roughed out a map for our route, the first thing I plotted was where we had family and friends we could visit, since seeing people was one of our main goals. This ended up being a lot of where we stayed – 37 different friends’ households, for a total of 102 nights – about 40% of our trip. This covered much of the territory from Minneapolis to the East, and down the East Coast to Florida, with later friends in New Orleans, Texas and California.

When I considered the big gaps in between friends, at first I thought we might just stay in cheap motels like I used to, then I reassessed. Cheap motels used to be $30-40, but now I was seeing them around $100 in some places. They were seldom comfortable, had uncontrollable ventilation systems, and were usually noisy – I always seemed to get a room next to someone who would turn on the television full-blast when he came in drunk at 2:00 in the morning. There’s the growing bedbug issue, and with a fourteen-year-old girl in tow, I worried more about safety than I did when I was on my own.

There were also the less tangible issues of inhabitation. This wasn’t going to be a short trip – we would be on the road for nine months, and I realized Greta needed a home for that period, rather than schlepping her stuff into a strange motel every few days. (And not insignificantly, having to pack stuff up all the time, with the problem of leaving things behind.) Then I thought about where such motels were usually located – on big arterials at the edge of metropolitan areas, ground zero for sprawl. Staying in motels would sentence us to spending a good portion of every day negotiating unfamiliar sprawl, with its illegibility, horrific traffic, terrible chain restaurants, and general ugliness; we would travel the whole country, but often be in exactly the same homogenized environment. A final problem was that we planned to spend time away from cities and civilization, where finding a vacancy in a motel might be difficult. When I looked at all these issues, it became clear that we needed a vehicle to live in.

I had never owned a trailer before this trip. In fact, I’d never slept in a trailer, RV, van or whatever. In my family, roughing it was a house with one bathroom. I did a reasonable amount of backpacking and hiking when I was young, and my family didn’t get it – why would you sleep in a tent if you weren’t in the army? As I got older I never made the transition to car-camping, with its stationary aspect and its loads of gear. I would sleep in sailboats on coastal cruises, and after I moved to Oregon I would sometimes sleep in the back of the car on one of my not-infrequent cross-country drives (I’ve just competed my 11th). But as I never saw the point of motorized camping, I knew nothing about its requirements and customs, and so I started from scratch a year ago as we began to plot this trip.

I also realized that the camper idea would be useful for visiting friends, as we could sleep in their houses, or we could stay in our camper in their driveways, essentially bringing our own guest room with us. This latter strategy worked quite well, as it lowered the imposition factor: we felt more comfortable inviting ourselves to stay with people if we could say that at a basic level what we really needed was a driveway, an extension cord, and access to a bathroom. They could decide of they wanted to have us sleep in their houses, but if it already was a pretty full house, being able to get out of their hair and not disrupting their daily routines made it much less of an imposition.

Finding a camper.  So I began my research for a camper online, and was bewildered by all the options – old VW buses, conversion vans, camper tops for my pickup, RVs (which have a whole confusing nomenclature of Class A through D, which it is assumed you understand), fifth-wheels, pop-ups, trailers. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so I was looking at used vehicles online; I also knew from almost 50 years of sailing that only completely ignorant or very well-off people buy new boats, as the cost-benefit ratio of used vessels is so much better. Given my complete lack of experience and knowledge in this arcane world, I postponed my search until we got to Whidbey Island last summer, where I have two friends who both have a lot of experience with campers, and who are experts in guy toys: if it has an engine and wheels, Mike and Craig know all about it.

I knew I didn’t want an RV – nothing that big, expensive, hard to navigate around cities, and gas-guzzling. As I already drove a pickup with an eight-foot bed, I started by looking at camper tops that would fit in the back, and eventually found all their problems. They make a vehicle top-heavy, and I’d have to retrofit some serious tie-down anchors on my truck (as well as air bags for the suspension). They aren’t very roomy. As I looked at their specs, I realized that most of them are built more like mobile homes than vehicles – they are framed with wood and have sheathing applied, which means that the old ones are often leaky and rotting, and all of them are surprisingly heavy. My truck is full-sized, but it is only an F-150, and while I can tow 7000 pounds, I can only carry about 1500 in the bed. After weeks of searching for a cheap, light, and not-terrible camper top, I gave up – it is just too depressing spending your time online looking at really crappy old campers.

Some experienced friends had strongly recommended vans, which run the gamut from old Westfalias, through modified American commercial vans, to those cool new Mercedes conversion vans that cost $150,000. Many of them seemed to meet our needs just fine, but I confronted the one big problem: I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so a new van was out; and if I were buying a used van, I’d probably be buying an old vehicle with problems, none of which I’d know about in advance. I had visions of wasting time getting unanticipated repairs when we’d rather be seeing the country, and never being quite sure that we could rely on it. My truck was 16 years old, but it only had 75,000 miles on it, and I knew that it had been well-cared for its whole life. So I decided we’d use the engine we knew and could probably trust, and shifted the search over to trailers.

Whereas all camper tops are pretty much alike, there are a lot more options with trailers. Size, materials, appointments, price range. We looked at the short end of the spectrum – under 16 feet, but even most of those didn’t meet our needs. As with the camper tops, they were wood-framed, heavy (up to 6000 pounds), and with their metal-panel sheathing, subject to leaks and rot. They generally present an 8 by 8 foot blank wall forward, the lack of streamlining causing big mileage problems. They also tried to replicate everything found in a house, badly; we wanted a stripped-down camper, not a box crammed with complicated systems that could break. There was also the aesthetic problem. We’re architects, I design housing, and we care about the environments in which we live – we had just spent ten years building our summer house, and every material and detail was considered and finessed ad infinitum. I just couldn’t imagine spending a year in a trailer where all the finishes were even cheaper versions of the crappy materials found in typical American houses, particle-board panels covered with vinyl film imitating wood grain (being inured to our design obsessions, Greta didn’t care).

As with almost all consumer products made in this country, I despaired of finding anything that would meet our criteria, until one evening in Coupeville I ran into our friend Lori. I mentioned how Greta and I were planning this trip, and looking for a camper. She said she and her husband Jim had just bought a Scamp, a small and light fiberglass trailer, and that I should look at a website called fiberglassrvsforsale.com. I did, and realized this was it – the Scamps, Casitas, Trilliums, etc., were small and light, built more like boats than houses. They had relatively simple systems (fewer things to break), and the interior finishes were largely inoffensive. After a couple of weeks searching, I found one for sale in Montana, and my brother and I drove there to pick it up last August.

Peregrine – our 16-foot Scamp

05. Wyoming104P1030708

It was 30 years old, and until it was bought by a young couple the prior year, it had been owned by one old guy who kept it in a garage. We paid $7000 for it, realizing that we could just sell it for the same amount at the end of the trip if we wanted. It is a streamlined 16 feet long (including the 3-foot trailer tongue), 6′-6″ wide, and weighs 1300 pounds – I don’t really even notice that I’m towing it, and it seems to take 2 miles per gallon off our mileage. The arrangements were simple – a settee across the bow (Greta and I devolved to nautical terminology, as it is so like a boat), which converts to narrow bunk beds, a closet room for a portable head (toilet), a hanging closet, and then a galley – sink and counter on one side, with a propane range and refrigerator on the other.DSCF7933

Across the stern there is a dinette which can be converted to a bigger berth. There is an operable skylight and jalousie windows for ventilation. A propane tank and 12-volt battery with a small PV panel are mounted on the trailer tongue.DSCF7931

We bought a new self-contained head to put in the closet, to be used in the middle of the night in strange campgrounds in the rain – otherwise, walk to the bathroom. The sink had a pump for water from a ten-gallon tank. The oven was difficult to light, but we realized we’d never use it anyway. The refrigerator can be powered by 110-volt shore power, the 12-volt battery, or on propane. I didn’t want to worry about the complications of energy management on a long trip just to keep some condiments cold, so we decided to use an ice chest when we needed to, and I kept my sweaters in the refrigerator. (When we start using the trailer on short trips, we will probably get the refrigerator going.) There is a propane heater we never used – lighting it was complicated, and I didn’t want to have combustion in our living space when we were sleeping – too many worriers with leaking gas, fire and carbon monoxide. When we were in a campground with shore power, we plugged in and ran a small electric convection heater, which was always adequate. If we didn’t have power, we piled sleeping bags on top of our beds. The few times it was hot and humid in Florida, we pulled a fan out of the truck bed.

In decades cruising in small sailboats, I had never seen anyone eat a meal sitting in a dinette, and as I’ve aged, the idea that one could sleep well on a bed made from a dropped table and four two-inch thick cushions pieced together was ludicrous. If an important reason to have a trailer is to bring your own domestic environment, a comfortable bed seemed to be the crucial factor. So we bought an eight-inch thick king-size latex mattress at IKEA, and used an electric carving knife to cut it into berths for me and Greta, which were permanently in place, not converted to some other use.DSCF7956

When we ate in the trailer, Greta and I sat side-by-side on the edge of my berth, and each of us had a countertop right at hand to hold our plates.

The layout worked very well – rather than lying in two parallel berths with a two-foot space in between, we each had our own end of the cabin, with the galley and closets in between, preserving the illusion of personal space. Linda rigged up a curtain for Greta’s berth in the bow, so if she wanted to get away from me into her own zone, she could just pull that closed. (She also became quite adept at wiggling into her clothing while in this narrow space.)

Most importantly, the aesthetic problems were solved. The Scamp is a fiberglass shell made in two pieces and riveted together, with a white vinyl liner (giving it an R-value of about 1.3). Rather than having frames, the shell is braced by the fiberglass cabinetwork and bulkheads, which are bolted through the shell. (Amazingly, only one of these leaked and was easily repaired.) The cabinets were also white fiberglass and fine – the whole look was very much like a boat. But someone had painted the cabinet doors a depressing grey, and the hardware was the overly-ornate bronze seen all too often. The carpet and upholstery were in the awful patterns not seen since the late 1970s. So the carpet was replaced by rubber sheet flooring, as it struck us that unwashable carpet was a terrible idea in a camper, and the cushions were replaced by the mattresses with sheets. The cabinet doors were spray-painted white, and new chrome hardware was installed. We threw away the horrible curtains (if we needed privacy, we clipped a towels across windows, which also helped the towels to dry). With some big pillows and Pendleton blankets, the trailer was clean-lined but homey, and we felt really comfortable in it. We’d lounge on our berths blogging or reading in the evenings. Greta named the trailer Peregrine (after her spirit animal), and hence this blog became Peregrine Nation.DSCF8114

Getting a trailer rather than a camper top also left the whole four-by-eight foot truck bed available for storage. This turned out to be even more important than anticipated, as we had to take so much stuff for a full year – boxes of books, winter clothes and boots, summer clothes, a laundry hamper, hiking gear, a second spare trailer tire, truck and trailer gear, a small portable bar, an ice chest, sleeping bags and extra blankets, a box for souvenirs and gifts, etc. If we’d had to pack this all into the camper it would have been really cramped, and getting to things would have been very inconvenient. In the truck bed we organized gear into cardboard boxes – boots and shoes in one, hats in another, books in a third, etc. – and we could reach into them while standing on the outside of the truck bed. We each brought enough clothes to last us a month – I didn’t want to waste time in laundromats when we could be seeing cool places instead, so once a month we had a lot of laundry to do, usually at a friend’s house. The truck bed storage also solved another problem – security. We didn’t kid ourselves that the trailer wouldn’t be easy to break into, and we didn’t want to leave cameras and computers in the truck cab, where they could be seen. The truck bed has a very solid fiberglass lid, with automotive-quality locks, and no one can look in and see your stuff. Every time we left the vehicles for more than ten minutes, we locked the valuables in the truck bed, and we never had a problem.

Compared to the giant RVs we came across everywhere, our trailer was so simple and had so few moving parts that there were few problems.  Two blown tires were the only notable exception.  I had bought two new tires from Les Schwab in Missoula, after an ancient tire that came with the trailer blew on I-90.  The new tires were warrantied for 15,000 miles.  They both blew out, one in Texas, and one in Las Vegas, with an average mileage of 15, 013 miles.  Les Schwab knows their products.  After this we carried two spares – one on a wheel, and another not, as we had discovered that if you’re away from large cities, it might take a few days to get a tire to a town, and we had no desire to be driving dirt roads in the Southwestern desert without a spare.

Like everything else on our trip, the trailer turned out to be much better than we expected. It quickly felt like our home – after three days staying with Frances in their beautiful apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, Greta told me that she sort of missed our little trailer. For me the strange moment occurred when we had parked in downtown Albany, across the street from the New York State history museum. We toured around the state government campus, returned to our trailer, unlocked the door, and stepped into our bedroom. I realized I could just take a nap right there if I wanted to. The public/private buffer that we take for granted was bizarrely askew.

At the end of the trip, Greta declared that she considered Peregrine hers – any idea we had of selling it disappeared. Greta had never been very interested in learning to drive before, but now she is motivated, so she and her friends can take camping trips into the mountains. I don’t know how I feel contemplating her behind the wheel of the big rig.

I too have become very enamored of the camper lifestyle, and I can imagine doing this for a few months every winter after we retire. But if Greta will have Peregrine, we’ll need to get our own camper, which will give me the opportunity to correct her few faults. The top of the list is thermal performance, followed by a greater ability to be completely self-sufficient, away from campground facilities. At this point I envision a Passive House level thermal envelope, a rooftop solar array, a composting toilet, and stealth capability, so we can camp on city streets and not be noticed. I’ve got a few years to figure this all out, but until then we’ll keep Peregrine on the road with shorter trips.


Incomprehensible or amusing signs appeared throughout the trip.  I had noticed this phenomenon on my first cross-country drive with Dan and Norman, back in 1978.  We were somewhere in the West, and came across a sign that said “Open range – loose stock.”  Being Easterners, we had no idea what this signified, and eventually figured out it meant “Watch out for cows!”  This pointed out a characteristic of many signs – they may make perfect sense to those who installed them or other locals, but visitors just don’t have the context to understand them.  So in recent decades, we’ve seen the movement towards graphic signs which can be understood universally:  p1090384We were on the Low Road to Taos when we started to spot these signs, nowhere near Roswell, NM or Area 51.  We then realized that the context here was not actual proximity to sites of alien abduction, but rather proximity to a population which is strongly inclined to believe in alien abduction.

Incomprehensible universal signs occurred in many other places, such as this one in Carlsbad NM, which we decided meant, No listening to iPods while Burning in Hell.  dscf6400

Or this anachronistic sign at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi.  The label seems important here, otherwise we would have thought it meant, People in period dress or bouncing on yoga balls this way.  dscf1256

Or the greatest of them all, at SFMOMA in San Francisco, which started a wide ranging discussion on Facebook into its meaningdscf1296

There were some graphic signs which did their job, not really even needing the word.  p1080235

But in the Age of Bison Selfies, maybe it needs to be emphasized that caution is being advised, not that animal photo ops are available.


Big Bend National Park

Then there were some unnecessary warning signs, prompted by liability concerns:p1080286



We especially liked the existential warning signs, ones that posited the existence of possible hazards, but hedged their bets.  There were a lot of these in the Southwest.


Somewhere, sometime….


p1080150Possible; but if actual, you wouldn’t be able to see the sign then, would you?

There were the instructional signs which required a higher degree of precision than was likely to be found in the viewers.


Macon, Georgia


There were signs which seems to have a basic flaw in their logic:




Some signs that were just amusing:


Page, Arizona


University of Arizona

and the unintentionally ironic:


I-10 in southern New Mexico


Sun City, Arizona. Usually not that long to wait in Sun City.


Henderson, Nevada.  We believe that the euphemism here is , Crossing 515.

Though not strictly a sign, I couldn’t resist inserting this one.  It appears that the DMV in New Mexico is not that sophisticated in filtering inappropriate vanity plates.  Greta wondered why I speeded up so she could grab this picture for me.  I told her it was an allusion to Pulp Fiction.


Albuquerque, New Mexico

There are the signs where you can’t grasp what they mean:p1090396The only response to this was clearly, Thanks Obama!

Or the ones where you want to know the back story:


on the wharf at Gulfport, Mississippi

But as always, our favorites are the ones where they think you know what they’re talking about.



Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico


Transitory Barricades article

DSCF1819I’ve been taking photographs of temporary barricades all during this trip, continuing my fascination with them from the past 30 years.  I haven’t put any of these photos up on this blog, as many of them have already made it onto my photo blog at transitory barricades.tumblr.com.

And an article I wrote about this project has recently been published at Place Journal, a well-known landscape, architecture and urbanism publication that is now solely online.  So if you’d like to see a somewhat different view of all the places we’ve visited, this is the place to start.

The end of the road


After 8 1/2 months, 20,859 miles and 36 states, we are back where we started.  It has been one of the best years of my life;  Greta concurs, adding that it was right up there with kindergarten.

There is so much to be grateful for with this trip.  A little trailer that was our home.  An old truck that never let us down (except for blowing a tire in the middle of the Mojave).   Damn good weather most of the time.  Good food, beautiful landscapes and interesting cities (but perhaps a little too much architecture for Greta).  Strangers who became friends and with whom we’d like to stay in touch.

But the best part of the trip for us was the family and old friends who welcomed us into their homes and lives, and kept us from becoming homesick.  I hadn’t seen many of these friends in 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years, and in every case, we just sat down and started talking as if we had never left off;  this seems to be the case with all true friends.  Our deepest thanks to all of you, and now that we’ve been to your homes, you have to come visit us.

None of this would have happened without Linda’s full support.  This trip was a crazy idea, but she was behind it from the start, as she knew it was the right thing at this point for me and for Greta.  She has had a busy and trying year, and our being gone just made it harder for her.  She never complained (well, she complained about school), even though she was hard at work while we were gallivanting around the country.  As is her wont, she cared about what was best for all of us, not just herself, and it’s one of the many reasons we love her.  (We did bring her a lot of nice presents, and we’ll probably have to cook dinner for the next couple of years.)

But mostly I’m grateful for the past year spent with Greta.  I knew she was a great kid before we left, but it’s been proved over and over on this trip.  She never complained, she charged right ahead into every adventure, she navigated us flawlessly through complex metropolitan areas, and she grew up in front of my eyes.  Not many people have the chance to spend this much time with their teenager, but I wish everyone did.  On hearing what we were up to, many people we met looked at Greta and said, do you know how cool this is?  Do you know how great it is that your dad is doing this for you?  Greta always said yes, and I always added that it was just as cool for me: first of all, Greta was my excuse for taking the trip, and second, I wouldn’t have lasted two months on my own.

This trip was a great leap of faith for her.  A few months into the trip, someone asked her if she had been positive about taking the trip when I first proposed it.  She said, yes, but only because she had no expectation that it would actually happen.  She figured, it’s another one of dad’s crazy ideas, why burst his bubble right away?  As we drove through Springfield on the first day, she looked at me and exclaimed, Holy crap, we’re really doing this!

Greta made friends everywhere we went, including quite a few surrogate aunts and uncles, and it was really gratifying for me to see how immediately all my friends took to her, and vice versa.  I’ve always been happy traveling by myself, but Greta was the best companion I could ever have had.  I’m already feeling sad that we won’t be spending every waking moment together from now on (although I’m sure she’s feeling somewhat differently).

The trip may be over, but the blog goes ever on.  As you may have noticed, we still have about a two-month backlog.  We tried to catch up a few times, but everywhere we went, it was more important to live in the moment, to see and experience what we could and to talk to the cool people we were visiting.  But now that we’re back in Eugene with time on our hands, we will get back to work on the writing, including some summary comments and greatest hits lists.

And for those of you who have been faithful followers of the blog, we have an invitation.  Next Monday evening, Memorial Day, we will be putting our newfound barbecue insights to the test, since we haven’t had any good barbecue since Texas.  You are all invited to the celebration of our return, which happens to coincide with my 60th birthday.  We’ll have lots of pulled pork, cole slaw and cocktails, but if you’d like to bring more to eat or drink, feel free.  Please just let us know you’re coming, so we can make sure to have enough.

it will be great to see some of you, and it’s nice to be home.



We had entered the gravitational field of home two weeks earlier, as soon as we left the Mojave. We had hoped for a last week of dislocation, travelling along the Sierras and hiking in Yosemite, but given the weather and pre-registered crowds, that was not to be. So we travelled up the North Coast, with an ever-deepening sense of familiarity, as the landscape, buildings, vegetation, and weather made it clear that the alien environments of the past year were behind us.

We wound our way through the last miles of Highway 1 to Leggett, where we joined Route 101, and were suddenly in the redwoods. Most of the land through which you travel is private timberland, but there are big stretches of state and local parks and reserves. 101 runs about 75 miles along the Eel River, all the way to Humboldt Bay. Near Phillipsville we abandoned 101 for the Avenue of the Giants. This was the original alignment of Route 101 until 1960, when the newer and straighter highway was built, usually on the other bank of the river; the two routes intertwine and switch sides a few times. It is a great road, with many quiet waysides and short hikes, away from the speeding trucks and heavier traffic of the highway. But we would have taken it anyway, just for the name – after a year on the road, we are suckers for all such grandiose touristic nomenclature (although we did manage to avoid the Trees of Mystery further north).


We bypassed the fabulous town of Ferndale, and quickly cruised through Eureka and Arcata, all of which we had explored in greater detail a few years ago. We knew we would probably visit this area soon again, and the gravitational attraction of home was increasing exponentially. Humboldt County is a funny in-between place for us – travelling through the last time, I realized it is not so much Northern California as it is Baja Oregon. It is certainly part of Cascadia, the rainy, temperate region where the salmon spawn. Coming from Oregon it feels different, but coming from the south at the end of a long trip, it felt so much like home that we thought we might as well just go home.

We drove into Redwood National and State Parks, a unusual designation I’d never understood, but we learned that there had been state parks here originally, which had then been encapsulated inside the National Park, which increased their area and gave them a higher degree of protection. Our campground was at Elk Prairie, where we had selected a site in the redwoods rather than on the prairie, as Greta did not want to mess with elk while heading to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It was a chilly and misty evening, especially compared to the sunny days of central California, and we ate our last trailer-cooked dinner, left over from the Mendocino Cafe.

Greta and I are not normally early risers, but we both awoke at first light around 6:00. We stared across the trailer at each other, with looks that clearly said, Wow, this is it, the last day. We wolfed down some breakfast and went out for our last hike in a National Park, before anyone else was about. First we went to the prairie, where there indeed was a small herd of elk, moseying along while eating, and then heading into the forest.


We found a beautiful trail from our campground, which wound along a creek and through the redwoods, with many close-up views of nursery logs, and closed-in vistas, rather than big landscape perspectives.


In some ways it felt familiar – a dense, enclosing, coniferous forest, with ferns and a low understory, much like the park at the end of our block. But we then we realized that things felt familiar, except for the gnawing sense that something was slightly off, in one important way. The trees were enormous compared to ours, maybe twice as tall, but many times bigger in girth. To a Northwesterner, the redwoods are dreamlike, trees out of myths. Our second night out on this trip, we had made it to Craters of the Moon National Monument, which Greta had likened to Camping in Mordor. So it seemed appropriate that we spent our last night in Lothlorien.


We packed up the trailer, and once again were able to avoid 101, driving on the Newton B. Drury Scenic Highway, most of the way to Klamath. There were many waysides and areas of interest, but one in particular grabbed our attention – a trail to the Big Tree. We wondered, what would it take to be called The Big Tree in this forest? Hiking along, we kept wondering, Is that the Big Tree? That one? Then up ahead of us, we glimpsed something strange through the brush.


It was clearly The Big….Tree. We had never seen anything quite like it, although Sleeping Ute Mountain, and Face Rock at Canyon de Chelly came to mind. We marvelled at the Park Service’s circumspection.p1100105

No matter what it was called, Greta had no interest in getting any closer, so we continued on with our intermittent hiking and driving.dscf1880

We reached Crescent City in time for a Second Breakfast, and decided to explore. No one ever goes to Crescent City, as it is one of those in-between places, which you pass when you’re always in a hurry to get somewhere else. After a closer examination, we can state that there really is nothing to see there. It is a bedraggled place, which reminded me of Aberdeen, Washington – another depressed coastal town showing the changes in the timber industry in the past decades. It seems that now the major industry in town is the Pelican Bay State Prison, the only super-maximum security facility in California.

However, I have since learned that there is a more immediate explanation for its bereft appearance – it was hit hard by the tsunami from the 1964 Alaska earthquake, which wiped out 300 buildings. Apparently the configuration of the shoreline and the ocean floor focusses tsunamis here, and it has felt lesser effects from more recent earthquakes across the Pacific. It’s a treacherous coastline, but also a vivid one: 115-north-coast014dscf1884

At Crescent City we turned inland onto Highway 199, heading towards Cave Junction, Oregon. It’s a beautiful road in the Smith River valley through the mountains.115-north-coast015dscf1890

We crossed the border, and took the obligatory shot:115-north-coast016dscf1893

We noticed the stickers attached to the bottom of the sign, which seemed to reflect the major pre-occupations of the local populace: the secessionist State of Jefferson movement, and the marijuana culture which had sprung up in our absence, as recreational use was legalized on October 1, 2015.dscf1891

We drove a few miles more into the town of O’Brien, where we passed, in rapid succession, a white guy with dreadlocks and a tie-dye t-shirt riding a too-small mountain bike, an alternative medicine clinic, a Frisbee golf course and a cannabis store. Greta looked at me and said, Dad, I think we’re home.

On to Grant’s Pass, with a large amount of traffic confusion for a small city . We ditched our small-road predilection and joined the great river of I-5, for the first time on our trip, anxious to move on. We had forgotten the propensity of Oregonians for staying in the left-hand lane at all times, even when driving a tractor-trailer up a hill at 25 mph, and we longed for the speed we had left behind in the south. But as we left the mountains and neared the Willamette Valley, the speed picked up, and the afternoon rushed by.

About 40 miles south of Eugene I said to Greta, I think this is the point where we’re supposed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about the trip, what it’s meant to us, and how we feel about it now that it’s coming to an end. There was a long silence as she stared at me.

Or, I said, we could just put on the Clash.

Definitely the Clash, she replied.

So we put in London Calling, which had become our go-to album for the whole trip. Everything around us became very familiar, as we glimpsed our hill from I-5 as we came around the big bend in Glenwood, got off the highway onto Franklin Boulevard, went past our grocery store and turned up the hill to our house. We pulled into the driveway just as the last chords of Death or Glory crashed down.

I had warned Greta over the past weeks  that I thought we should disrupt her no-displays-of-affection protocol, and that one hug at the end of the trip would not be too much for her to handle.  So I stood by the front door, and said, Hug.  Greta walked over and hugged me, then we went inside.


He drew a deep breath.  ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

Glass Beach

P1100066 We discovered by the end of our trip that sometimes the really cool stuff is badly advertised, or hard to find information on. Glass Beach is a prime example of this. If I hadn’t heard about it in a National Geographic Kids magazine several years previously, we would have driven right by on our way north from Mendicino. Fort Bragg, CA used the beach, at that time as plain and ordinary as beaches come, as a dump from the forties all the way until 1967 when the state water control board closed the it for this purpose. Several cleanup efforts were made, removing the largest pieces of garbage, like broken-down cars and kitchen appliances, but they couldn’t get everything. The tides eventually broke down what was left, until the beach itself was made up of weathered glass and tumbled scraps of metal.

There are two beaches open to the public, on state park property. One is labeled easy to get to, the other difficult. It isn’t so hard really, if you can manage a flight of stairs without a handrail you should be fine. The harder to acsess beach is much more isolated from people and the full force of the Pacific Ocean, and so is much more impressive. Mostly made up of white, brown, and green glass, scattered with the occasional blue, the rare red, pieces of pottery, and scraps of metal, it’s best visited when the tide is low. Though its shine is somewhat muted by the milky exterior and sanded texture, the glass within a few inches of the shore that is wetted by each small wave will glitter in the sun. They tell you not to take any glass, for fear of depleting the beach, but I wasn’t arrested for keeping a small handful. P1100057

The North Coast

The last days of our trip were spent on the California North Coast. We’d hoped to cruise through Sacramento and up into the Sierras, but given the lingering snow in May and the impossibility of a campground in Yosemite, we were forced to once again drive up the coast – which may be our favorite landscape in the world. Before we reached the Bay Area we had covered a bit of the coast we’d never actually done before – the 40 miles or so from Santa Cruz to San Gregorio, from where we took 84 through La Honda and in to Palo Alto. This is a breathtaking stretch, with gentle river valleys coming out to the coast – which reminded us of the Olympic Peninsula – and some big headlands. It is astounding how few people there are here, right over the mountains from the Bay Area.dscf0963


A week later we began our final leg, crossing the Golden Gate and following Highway 1. The variety of landscapes on this section is unlike other parts of the coast. In Big Sur you are always on the side of the mountains, looking down into the ocean, and it is unrelievedly spectacular. But here the highway weaves in and out, with beautiful farmland near Pt. Reyes Station,115-north-coast002dscf1703

just before you run along Tomales Bay, which is essentially a fjord, with the ocean hidden just over the hills to the west.dscf1707

At the north end of the bay we cut inland again, driving along Keyes Creek,115-north-coast003dscf1711

where you can see how the California Coastal Commission regulations require that even the cattle must be picturesque.dscf1714

On this inland jog we entered Sonoma County, and then back to the sea, where a wider plain appears between the mountains and the ocean.dscf1716

All of this variation – farmland, fjord, estuary, coastal plain, ocean – occurs within one hour of driving. We were overwhelmed with the density of beauty, how every minute there was some new and different prospect. It was similar to the experiences we had in some parts of the Southwest – Zion, Canyon de Chelly – but with more water.

We entered the part of the drive that does more cliff-hugging, and I stopped taking photos – too many sharp switchbacks with steep elevation changes for someone driving a truck with a trailer to ever have enough warning to contemplate pulling over onto a tiny gravel shoulder – but the scenery continued to amaze us. We had driven this stretch six years ago, and we wondered why we didn’t have a stronger memory of it – perhaps that had been on an overcast day, when the stupendously elemental qualities of ocean, sun, sky and cliff were just not as vivid. The Sonoma coast was one of the most arresting landscapes we saw on this whole trip.

We drove past Sea Ranch, the famous Halprin/MLTW/etc. resort development, but didn’t stop. I’ve learned from prior trips that visiting Sea Ranch without an in or connection is a frustrating experience, as you really can’t see the buildings and views you want. Perhaps we’ll catch it on the next trip, renting a place to stay..

At the end of the day we made it to Mendocino, the 19th-century New England whaling village perched on a bluff sticking out into the ocean. It can be a little too quaint and precious (and expensive), and as Isadore once said, Mendocino seems to be the Spanish word for gift shop. But every time I’ve been here I’ve been blown away, for many reasons. There are very few places in this country that have a setting anything like this – a headland with steep cliffs on three sides,115-north-coast005dscf1754

where the view down every street ends in the ocean.dscf1729

Some of the houses have been spiffed up pretty extensively, such as this one, which was used as the stand-in for Maine in the Murder She Wrote TV series,dscf1788

but much of the town retains its vernacular character, with old houses and water towers.dscf1721

There is a range of styles, from the simple cottages to the more elaborate Queen Anne, Italianate, etc.dscf1768




I think I spent a night sleeping in this house over 20 years ago, when it was owned by the family of one of our students. I was awakened the next morning by the sound of sea lions barking at the base of the cliff.dscf1732

About half of the headland is preserved open space, with walks through fields of wildflowers to the ocean views.dscf1764

Greta and I walked out onto the bluff trail, where we saw the first weasel we had ever seen in the wild, and which was too fast to be photographed.dscf1740

Then there is the light, which changes rapidly and dramatically, as clouds break and fog rolls in. We have been there on sunny days and rainy days, and it is notable how your impression of such a small, simple place can also change so drastically.dscf1719

Mendocino was like many historic towns we visited on the East Coast, where it is obvious that the seeming simplicity and casual quality is maintained by unrelenting diligence and at great expense. But I can’t help being bowled over by these places, even if they represent Disneyfication by the Upper Classes. There are so few corners of this country that have not been overwhelmed by the crap of the past 60 years, that I’m completely able to suspend disbelief, and just enjoy the care and art that has gone into the creation of this environment. My appreciation for Mendocino is probably heightened by our experience in the past decade in the town of Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, which has both a historical building stock and amazing landscape that rival Mendocino’s. However, over the years Coupeville has made some astoundingly bad decisions about zoning and development, which have rendered much of the town indistinguishable from any other postwar suburb. Mendocino happens to be situated in a region that attracted a wealthy and sophisticated populace, which seems to be the solution nationwide for preserving this type of coastal town with any degree of integrity.115-north-coast006dscf1775

North of Mendocino we stayed in Ft. Bragg, a more normal small city which had a fishing and lumber-based economy. It could adopt the informal motto of Astoria – We Ain’t Quaint – but some of the remnants of that period are remarkable. There is the Glass Beach, which Greta has blogged about,dscf1816

the views of the coastline,115-north-coast008dscf1817

and the fabulous Pudding Creek Trestle, where a railroad spur ran right along the ocean.115-north-coast010dscf1826

A day out from Oregon, we were feeling the loom of home, and while the landscape felt increasingly familiar, there were still signs that California is different. In the town of Inglenook we came across this allee of trees, but they were eucalyptus, not the firs or madrones which would have been normal for us.115-north-coast011dscf1831

The highway continued this weaving in and out of farmland, forests, hills and coastal plain. The jogs in the road when we came to a creek were always amusing. We’d be driving along with a panoramic view of the ocean, then there would be a sharp right turn,dscf1834

and we’d be heading up the creek into the hills.dscf1835

A hairpin turn at the head of the creek, and we’d head back out to the ocean view. This shift in perspective repeated often, and each cycle took just a minute or two.dscf1836

Finally, Highway 1 leaves the Pacific for good at Hardy. The Lost Coast, 100 miles of fairly inaccessible coastline, lay between us and Eureka. We followed the last 15 miles of Highway 1, which after many trips I’m convinced is the twistiest highway in the country. The trees closed in around us, and our weeks in the sunny Promised Land of California came to an end.dscf1837

Dan Rabin

As I’ve tried to pass on my hard-won wisdom to Greta over the past decade, certain insights and aphorisms have appeared repeatedly. Be aware of what is happening around you all the time. Always have three points of contact with the boat. How can this be explained by natural selection? Never put pineapple on pizza. But near the top of the list has been the warning, Be careful to whom you talk the first day of college, as you might be stuck with them for the rest of your life.

Dan, Bob and Mike

Dan, Bob and Mike

Dan Rabin is our prime example of this. Dan lived in a single next door to our suite in Hurlbut Hall freshman year. He was slight, youngish-seeming (he did turn out to be a year younger, having skipped a grade), from Silver Spring, MD. As I looked around his almost-bare room, two things jumped out at me. There was a rug on the floor which had a leaping tiger cub and said Daniel Eli, and there was a huge black and white city map on the wall. I didn’t recognize the city, so I looked more closely, and noticed that the map had been pieced together from many 14×17 sheets. It was a very detailed map, with blocks and streets clearly represented, and then I noticed it was hand-drawn in pencil. Dan explained that it was a city he had made up. I later found out that he hadn’t just doodled a map and it kept growing. He had recapitulated the process of metropolitan growth in the process of drawing the map. He started with the small colonial settlement on the natural harbor, which then expanded. In the 19th century, the railroad line came in, which shifted where the growth occurred, and various grids appeared, as new plats were added to the city, and outlying villages were subsumed. Finally, there was development of the 20th century street network, and the interstates came to the city, bringing the postwar suburban growth pattern with them.

This map is a good illustration of how Dan’s mind works – any seemingly casual remark is always backed-up by an incredible amount of research, knowledge and thought (as any reader of this blog knows from seeing Dan’s comments about my posts on Facebook, where he adds a lot of background and corrections to posts I’ve just tossed off.) For decades I’ve relied upon him to know more, and remember more, about a wide range of subjects – cities, music, science fiction, food, transit systems, science in general, computers, geography, politics, etc. – where I have gaps. In a dorm full of what I’ve characterized as “misfits and savants”, Dan was out there at the nerdy end of the spectrum. This was a semi-derisive term when we were young, but I’ve found that Greta and her friends are proud of this label, as it signifies people who have deeper concerns than whatever subjects are currently popular.

Dan arrived at college with an advanced background in science and math, especially computer science. He had been working as a summer intern at the National Bureau of Standards for years, getting an exposure to computers before it was on most people’s radar. Dan started as a physics major, but then like most of my friends, switched over to engineering. However, he took advantage of the range of subjects available, studying folklore and mythology, literature, etc. We talked about Tolkien in those early years (Dan was the only person I knew who actually wrote in Elvish), and he was part of our core group which became exposed to and then dove into the Grateful Dead freshman year. For physical activity, we walked around the Boston area looking at places, and he threw a mean Frisbee. This was when Dan began to really develop his obsession with strange rock music. A Beatles and Dylan fanatic when he was young, before long he was pulling out obscure Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart albums to educate me. Eventually in the 80s he ran out of offbeat rock music to collect (at one point he remarked that he had twelve Gentle Giant albums, and he didn’t really like Gentle Giant), and he switched over to collecting strange jazz, of which there is a limitless supply.

After college Dan, Norman and I drove cross country together, our first exposure to the West.redwood021

We returned to Boston, where Dan went to grad school at MIT for a couple of years in operations research. Living near each other in Somerville, we hung out a lot, and along with Jon Ehrman and John Wenzel, we taught ourselves to cook the new styles of Chinese food that had swept the country in the 70s. Dan stayed on in Boston after I moved to New York, working in the computer industry, and then moved to San Diego to be part of a research group at the university, doing what we now think of as artificial intelligence. After years of gloom and post-collegiate funk in Boston, Dan discovered life in the Promised Land (sunshine and great food!), and has spent most of his life there since. We would get together when business trips or family gatherings brought us cross-country.

Bob, Dan and me

Bob, Dan and me

One day, while Dan was working at Xerox PARC, it occurred to him that maybe he should take a computer class, which he’d never done. So he moved to New Haven to work on his PhD. I remember him gleefully contacting me the first day of fall term, after he had just taught a section of a large intro computer course, to tell me that he was teaching computer science at Yale, before he had actually ever taken a computer course himself..

I spent a year working in Norwalk in 1995, so once again Dan and I could hang out, eating New Haven pizza and taking excursions into the City and around southern New England (Dan was especially fond of the post-19th-century-industrial landscape of places like Taunton). But missing California while succumbing to the widespread loathing of New Haven, he headed back to the Bay Area, where he finished his dissertation and remained. Dan’s timing for graduate school was bad, as there were no academic positions in his specialty for a few years, so he continued working in the industry, with stints at Apple, Adobe and Google. (Dan has noted that unlike most of his colleagues in the industry, he procured a PhD; instead, they procured houses.)

Living on the West Coast, we’ve been able to see more of Dan in recent years, and an important part of this has been his friendship with Greta. (I think their bond was cemented six years ago, when in the middle of a conversation, Dan lapsed into a Monty Python reference – “No, try again ” – and Greta correctly replied “Australia?”) Dan is on her very short list of favorite grown-ups, probably because he exhibits so little of the conventional behavior and opinions you expect from most grown-ups, and he’s always treated her as a peer, not dismissed her as a little kid. He understands the types of ideas and places Greta will find interesting, and our ramblings now skew in that direction, as on this visit in 2010.IMG_2098

Dan has been gainfully unemployed in recent years, devoting his time to biking, photography, and bird-watching (usually combining these three), music, and restaurant-exploration with friends. Those of you who are Facebook friends with me undoubtedly have seen Dan’s many insightful and funny comments on my posts (indeed, not a few of you have mentioned that getting to read Dan’s comments is the main reason you’re friends with me). I think these comments take a significant amount of work, and I’m hoping that his Facebook oeuvre is being archived somewhere for future generations (but perhaps with a pun-filter.)

Greta and I were pretty burned out with trip planning by the time we got to the Bay Area, so we let Dan determine our agenda. He took us to some of his favorite places (such as the Lick Observatory), and a wide range of fabulous Asian restaurants around the Peninsula. I did my normal digression into chicken-walk photography around notable architecture, which works much better with Dan along – when he and Greta get tired of the architecture, they can sit and talk to each other about other things.DSCF1054

Just as Leon Krier often included a small sketch of James Stirling as part of the entourage in his renderings, I’ve noticed that in many of my architectural and city photos over the years, Dan appears in a corner of the picture,DSCF1660

as we have spent much of our time together in the past four decades wandering around looking at places and talking. The partnership works well, as our interests overlap quite a bit, but Dan brings a different perspective and knowledge far beyond mine on many aspects. (For examples, Dan has ridden every mile of the New York City subway system, but he has never lived in New York. Another time, he spent weeks of vacation visiting and analyzing the structure of Central Valley towns, after which he sent me a report.)

When we began this trip, I mentioned to Greta that I intended to track down a lot of my old friends, and she said cool, she wanted to meet more of them, as the ones she knew well (Dan, Bob and Mike, pictured at the top), were really interesting and entertaining. And as we neared California on this trip, trying to decide what parts of that vast state we had time to visit, Greta said she had only two absolute requirements: revisiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and seeing Dan. So it turns out that not only might you get stuck with the people you meet the first day in college, but your kids might also.