Monday, April 18, 2011

Full trip report

OK, I wrote this out for a group and thought I would share it here for the handful of people who actually read this. It is long...very. Covers pretty much the whole trip according to me. Sarah may have another version.

We left Houston and traveled North to Sanger Texas. Middle Texas delighted us with 90 degree temperatures and lots of sun. For those not familiar with the area, it is mostly flat, hot and green. There were some nice bluebonnet patches along the road, cattle and not much else. Having made this trip Avogadro's number of times I find it difficult to even notice the scenery any more. We arrived in Sanger early afternoon, set up in the park and went to eat. That night, things turned cold on us as a front moved through. We woke up to the frigid temperatures of 50 degrees or so. Brrrrr. :-)

Next day was another short day of driving, we only went shortly North of Oklahoma City to a small town called Guthrie, OK. Pretty little town. My sister drove up and we had a nice visit. Another night out to eat, boy that gets expensive, and to bed for another day of driving the next day. The RV park was situated on an 18 hole par 3 golf course. By this time the temperature had dropped into the 40's. No golf. At this point diesel was around $3.60per gallon. (I know all you international listies may find my whining about fuel prices quite silly, but change can be difficult.) WE tried to keep the drive time down below 6 hours most days to keep the kids from rebelling. As long as we let them out periodically to run about like crazed hyenas they tolerated the confinement surprisingly well.

Next day, continuing North. Drove into Kansas. We had planned on going to a campground in just outside of Salina, but decided to check out a smaller, less expensive place in Assaria Kansas. It was raining and cold but the campground looked cool. They had a pond with a large beach area, rope swings and a water slide leading into the pond. There was a paintball area and lots of surrounding farmland. Looked like it would be a fun place to be when it warmed up. Not so much when we were there. Moved on the next day. I will take a moment here to note that the hawk population of the plains states is in good shape. I frequently saw them sitting on fence posts, power lines, trees and once even on a mile marker sign right on the highway. For some reason Sarah never sees them. Oh yeah, she was driving the Civic while I drove the truck and pulled the house. Usually the dog rode with her and I got the kids. We have walkie talkies that we use while we drive. On to Nebraska.

Next day we drove North...again. I was surprised about how much elevation change there was in Northern Kansas. I thought it was all flat. This was the day that marked the furthest North I had ever progressed in the plains states. I had been to Salina once before to hook up with I-70, but never gone further. Our plan was to go to Kearney NE and then backtrack a bit to see the Great Platte River Road Archway museum. We would stay an extra day to see it and to get some rest. Didn't work out that way. We drove under the archway museum as it does span the Interstate. We were trying to stay at the fairgrounds RV park, but it was just a parking lot in the mud at the fairgrounds which had been torn up recently due to a tractor show. The alternate park Sarah found was a state park on the other side of the freeway, but it didn't have any water services. Well, we decided to go ahead and check out the state park anyway. On the way over we really started to get a sense of the size of the Sandhill crane migration which was going on at the time. Huge V's of the birds flew overhead and flocks of them dotted all of the fields along the roadside. Any time you got out of the car you could hear them by the hundreds or even thousands. Pretty cool. We arrived at the state park and filled up the Fresh water tanks and the one spot in the park you could do so. While filling the tanks I took a look around and noticed that, somewhere between the fairgrounds and the park we had lost the foot pad to one of the stabilizing jacks on the RV. Sucker just fell off somewhere. Tanks full (Between 60 and 90 gallons) we circled the park in search of a good spot. Well, all of them had problems, mostly too small. We found the largest one available and tried to get in there. After much backing, positioning and some nervous moments we found ourselves barely in one spot with no room to put down the jacks because the somewhat flat area meant for the RV dropped off steeply to the sides. There was no way we would fit.

Load everyone back in and drive on. It is getting darker, and colder. Supposed to get down into the 30's that night and everyone was starting to get hungry and cranky. Sarah hopped on her smart phone and found an alternative site a few miles further up the road. And what a site it was. You know those one story motels arranged in a square? This one had set up 8 diagonal RV sites in the square and was renting them at a premium. By this time we didn't care and took what they had. It was reasonably level, had electric and sewer and the bones we found out beside the trailer didn't appear to be human. Looked more like dog. We sat at a nearby Sapp Bros truck stop and had dinner. We decided to press on the next day instead of turning back and going to the archway museum. Instead we would head West into North Platte and see what we could see. We dumped the freshwater tanks to avoid carrying an extra 500lbs with us. Diesel is expensive.

By this time the task of departure and arrival were starting to become a bit more routine. Everything in the house had it's place and we had established where that place was. It reminded me of securing for sea in the Navy. Imagine if you knew your home would be drug across a pot hole at 65 mph or pulled up a 5% grade. Plus there is sliding in the slides and hooking up the utilities. The first few times back on the road this took an hour and a half or so. By the end it was 30-45 minutes. Teamwork. On the short drive we hit a snow storm. Just enough accumulation that when we stopped for fuel (Up to $3.75 or so) Michael and Max could get out and see it. Even make a snowball. They were very excited.

The next day brought us to North Platte fairly early in the day as we weren't too keen on lingering in the courtyard of the NoTell Motel. The drive wasn't far and the set up didn't take long. Sarah the Travel Goddess found us a few interesting things to do. We went to the Golden Spike Tower over looking Bailey yard, the world's largest train yard. It was fun. There was some interesting info about the Orphan trains. We passed and orphanage in Kansas and there was a sign about the orphan trains there too. Interesting story. WE learned that there is still a significant hobo population and that there is a distinction between a hobo and a bum. There was also quite a bit of information about the North Platte Canteen. A great story.

Another digression here. Before we left Houston we performed a bit of larceny. As we walked by a house in the neighborhood of a relative we noticed they had some lovely ceramic garden gnomes. The temptation was too great and I took one. I wrote down the address of the residence. At every border crossing and at tourist locales where we stopped we have taken pictures of the children and then a picture of the gnome as though he were a tourist himself. We will be printing and sending the pictures back to his home and will return him next time we are in Houston. :-) There was a cheesy Ft. Kearney gift shop near the RV park. We posed the kids and the gnome in front of various things and took pictures. It was a good day.

The next day brought warnings of high wind advisories. It wasn't too bad In Nebraska, but by the time we hit the Wyoming border it picked up. We were taking 45 mph winds 15 degrees or so off our nose varying to either side with the vagaries of the road direction with gusts reported greater than 55 mph. Even going downhill required pressure on the gas pedal to maintain speed. We dropped the speed from 65 to 45 and pressed on. The weather station on the radio and flashing signs on the roadside were reporting high winds and suggesting no light trailers. At one point we pulled over into a truck parking/chain up area and waited hoping the wind would slack some. It never did. We were 30 miles outside of Laramie, our planned destination. We decided to press on. I didn't find out until later, but the wind was so strong that when we opened the door to get inside the trailer while parked at the chain up area, it ripped two of the three pop rivets securing the hydraulic cylinder to the door and stretched the third out until it was barely securing the door. It would fail two days later. Back on the road. It was tense. We pushed through and made it to Laramie hoping there would be some shelter from the wind. There wasn't. We pulled into the campground and got set mostly up when we realized the water wasn't working. We asked the campground staff and they said it was still off for the winter. We could fill up at the water station at the entrance to the campground. OK...pack everything back up and drive back to the entrance to fill up then back to the site to open everything back up again. Here we encountered a slight problem. We have 5 slide outs. Over each one of these there is a roller awning to help keep water off the top of the slide and prevent leaks. On the windward side of the RV the wind gusts were causing these awnings to act like sails and rock the trailer as well as threatening to pull the rollers from their moorings. We had to fold it up. We spent the night sleeping on chairs in the kid's room with all of the slides rolled in. The next day the wind was a little lower. Enough so that we could open the rest of the slides. The trailer still was rocked by the occasional gust. We debated trying to move on and get out of the wind. Laramie had been one of our planned extra days so we could go to the dinosaur museum at the University of Wyoming and visit the planetarium. Well, you only live once. We decided to stay. The campus of the university is beautiful. Once we got into the town, there was shelter from the wind.

The museum was cool. They had Big Al the Allosauraus. At the Museum of Natural History in Houston they had Big Al 2. This museum had the original. We toured and learned a lot. The kids loved it. That night we went to the planetarium. Max made it through about ten minutes before I had to take him out and wait in the hallway. Micheal said he was bored but when we got home I took him outside and we were able to find some of the constellations they talked about. You don't see those stars in Houston. The next day we took off with more wind warnings blaring on the radio. All day long fighting 40 mph winds with 50 mph gusts. All the way through Wyoming. Tense, nervous driving. The kids of course, are oblivious. They play and scream and yell just like they did in Kansas. I didn't like driving in Wyoming. It was cold and windy. Night temps in the low 30's high 20's F and days into the 40's. As we passed into Utah, the winds dropped thanks to some real, honest to goodness mountains and the temperature started dropping. When we pulled into the tiny mountain town of Coalville, UT it was around 30. No water here either at the site but we were expecting it this time. We filled up at the entrance to the park and then checked the weather. Spring storm warning. We had seen this one coming. There was a possibility of snow by morning. The park was right along a large, fast moving creek. The creek was level with it's banks. If it didn't snow, it would rain. I worried. When we went to bed I told myself when I woke up that night I would check the creek level. But, I was so tired I didn't wake up, Sarah did. She crawled back into bed and told me it was snowing.

Coalville Utah is gorgeous in the snow. The kids have never really seen snow. Sarah hasn't ever really lived somewhere it snows regularly. It was a new experience for them. We went outside and played, made snowballs and snowmen and snow angels. It snowed about 3-4 inches. Finally the kids just started stomping on the ice covering all the puddles. It was time to drive on. We left and drove North. Utah is gorgeous. The area around Ogden is prettier than I expected. Beautiful mountains and rivers. You Colorado folks may not think much of it but coming from Texas we found it pretty spectacular. We crossed the border into Idaho and stopped at the first rest area to take pictures of the kids and the gnome at the Welcome to Idaho signs. We learned that the area where we stood used to be covered by lake Bonneville. Neat. Our destination for the day was Heyburn ID. We made it in good time and got set up at a nice park with a pretty view. Our plan was to go to the Craters of the Moon national monument. This was another planned extra day. We did make it up to the Crater's of the Moon. Most of the road leading through the park was closed due to snow and an unfortunate breakdown of the snowplow. We walked the first mile of the road and sat through some films at the visitor's center. Took some pictures and turned around to make our way home. When we reached the Interstate we saw again a sign for Shoshone falls. On a whim we decided to go and see it. Between the interstate and the falls was the Snake River Canyon. Holy cow! I didn't know that was there. We also learned that this is where that huge lake went. After staring slack jawed at the canyon for a while we drove on to the falls and stared slack jawed there for a while. It is just amazing. We finally pulled away and went home to rescue the dog who had been sitting faithfully at home guarding the house. Good boy.

Next day was a short drive with a planned stop in Fruitland ID. When we arrived we still felt good, the kids were happy so we kept driving. Ended up just outside of Huntington OR I believe it was. Nice place. Far enough off the beaten path that there was no cell service, no TV signal, no internet...nothing. Quite nice actually. Just an RV park sitting on the banks of a branch of the Snake river with large hills/small mountains surrounding. It was peaceful and uneventful.

Got up the next morning and took off. We got up into the mountains just over the border and as we started climbing it began to get cold. There were signs recommending chains. Chains? Really? We had no connections the night before so we hadn't been able to check the weather. We didn't have any chains. No one else was stopping so we pressed on. Soon it began to snow with rapid accumulation. It didn't take long until we couldn't see 20 feet off the roadside and the only visible pavement on the road was the two tire tracks in the right lane. Our speed dropped to 40. Every once in a while a big rig would blast past in the left, one even fishtailing as it passed. Not good. The visibility and road conditions grew bad enough that I started looking for places to stop. The problem was that the exits were all drifting over and I didn't believe that I could drive the truck with the trailer safely through one and I certainly wouldn't make it back on anytime soon. We have four wheel drive on the truck, not the trailer. More tight grip driving while the kids play on. Slowly we caught up to a small convoy of 5-6 RVs. The one directly in front of us was a Cardinal fifth wheel with an Alberta license plate. I figured they were probably good, experienced winter weather drivers and they didn't have chains. IF they could make it, so could we. And we did. 20 minutes or so later we descended below the snow line and were simply driving down a 6% grade in the rain. No sweat.

I drive fairly slowly so it wasn't long before most of the convoy was well out of site in front of us. No worries. We did stop at a rest stop for a potty break for the kids and dogs. Who should we pull in next to but a Cardinal fifth wheel with Alberta plates. I saw a woman walking a small dog in the grass in front of the rv and asked her if that was her rig. She said it was. I said, "We were behind you in the mountains." Intending to thank her for the lead. She raised her hand and said, "I NEVER want to do that again. It was horrible." I laughed and thanked her for being in front. She stated she was quite terrified the whole time and just glad to be through it. Good times.

A quick note about Oregon. Upon crossing the border from Idaho we noticed that we were low on fuel. ($4.25 or so a gallon by now.)We decided to stop and fill up as well as re-caffeinate. I pulled up to the fueling island when a gentleman approached the car quickly. Being from Houston, this sets off certain alarms. It turns out, Oregon is a full service state. Each gas station employs an attendant who will fill your car for you.

So, when this gentleman approaches your car and asks, "What can I do for you?" It would be inappropriate to say, "Get the f*&$ away from my car." If this does slip out you should apologize.

I didn't say it. I thought it, but didn't say it because at about that time Sarah's voice came over the walkie talkie we use and told me it was OK, Oregon is a full service state.

After our Oregon mountain adventure Sarah and I decided we would just press on the extra time and make our destination of Fairview OR a day early. We were ready to get off the road. The further down the gorge we went, the prettier it seemed. It was kind of neat knowing that across the river was a different state too. It occurred to me that when we got to Fairview and parked I would be working in Washington state but the RV might not ever make it over. Then we wouldn't get a sticker for Washington.

Another quick digression. We bought a map outline and placed it on the side of the RV. It comes with stickers you can use to fill in the outline. We created some rules for when you can get a sticker. The RV must be in the state, we can't just go and stay the night in a hotel. The entire family must be there, I can't get the sticker if I go on ahead. It must be an overnight stay, no drive through. So if we parked in Oregon and stayed there we would never get a sticker even though I had been working in Washington the whole time. As we drove I noticed a bridge over to the other side and there happened to be an RV park right next to it. After a quick check with Sarah over the walkie talkie we decided to stop in Washington for the night. Turns out it was Maryhill WA. After parking and getting set up we noticed a stone structure atop a nearby hill. We decided to go up and investigate. Turns out it is a recreation of Stonehenge set up as a World War I memorial for the veterans from Clickitat County who died in that conflict. More pictures of the kids, more pictures of the gnome and back to the RV for dinner and sleep.

Next morning we affix the Washington sticker and move out for the short final section of the drive. As we progressed the drive became more and more beautiful. The sides of the gorge grew more jagged and covered with moss. The occasional low clouds would float in and obscure the tops of the cliffs. I remarked to Sarah that it felt like we were driving through the Lord of the Rings set. Waterfalls dropped hundreds of feet down the cliff faces. Spectacular. This was the most dangerous part of the drive. It is very hard to keep your eyes fixed on the road when you driving through areas like this. That trucker driving the explosive radioactive venomous snake truck should find an alternate route. Coming through I-84 from East to West there are two scenic gorge areas. Both are beautiful. The more Western of the two is just stunning. It includes Multnomah falls which can be seen from the road. We vowed at this time to return this way for exploration.

When we left the dangerous scenic area it was a short drive in to Fairview. We were able to locate our pre-selected RV park easily enough. This is the largest RV park in the Pacific Northwest. It is impeccably manicured, very pretty and entirely not what we wanted for three months. First, the space for us was too small. The only way we could fit the RV, the car and the truck into the assigned area was in such a way that we had to move the truck to get the car out. Second, there were lots of neighbors really close who were friendly and sociable. I don't like that. I like my neighbors at a distance and superficially friendly. There was also a large population of retired permanent residents. In previous experience these people are very particular about every minor rules violation. I like somewhere with a more relaxed atmosphere. We had three days to find another park. Over those three days we searched and found a park in Washington that was more rural, quieter (the original park had a railroad track literally 10 feet outside it's border fence all along the North border of the park.), prettier (read: more natural) with soaring 100 foot+ pine trees. A perfect fit except for one thing. They don't have any laundry room. The nearest laundromat was a 10 minute drive away. Other problem was we didn't find that out until AFTER we paid for our first month. Oh well, we can do anything for one month. We are at that park right now and I have started work. We have already gone up to take a closer look at Mount St. Helens. I have arranged my schedule so that I can attend a class next weekend by on Rory Miller. I have been looking forward to that for a long time. It should be an interesting stay.

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