March/June 2007

A Quick Swing Through California

  Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah

It’s Just a Quick Swing through California

Or…, “What did you do for Spring Break?” 

Following our quick dash to the east coast to pick up the Tiger (see the last few paragraphs of our Mexico 2007 posting for more on that), we’ve had the most marvelous, sometimes exhausting, whirlwind trip to the West Coast and back to South Dakota.  All built on a daughter getting married, a memorial gathering for Kathy’s father who had died last December, and a real need to see West Coast family and friends.  And it was such grand fun.  

As we last spoke (about March 1st), we were in Nacogdoches, Texas, madly shuffling our belongings back and forth among various motor homes (WHERE DID WE PUT THE TOILET PAPER?), ultimately leaving the Chinook to be sold while we hauled the Foretravel back to Rapid City, South Dakota to be placed in storage.  We arrived in Rapid City, did the mad shuffle again (WHERE DID YOU SAY?????), parked the coach and motorcycle, and – 23 hours later – started heading in a southwesterly direction (WHERE?).  Pant, pant.  Did we have the right things for a trip to California?  Hell, who knew!  We’d figure it out as we went along.  All we were certain of was that it was now March 6 and snowing here in Rapid City; we had to be in Tucson, AZ in four days, and then daughter, Lauri, was getting married in Los Angeles on the 17th, hopefully in warm sunshine.  We anxiously got back on the road, looking for better weather.  

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We crossed over into Wyoming and dropped down its eastern edge – the land that nobody wanted apparently, as it was quite desolate.  It was still very wintery; we had lunch in Lusk, where there was a high school poster campaign in progress discouraging the use of chewing tobacco:  “Be Through with Chew”.  I liked “Eschew to Chew” – but apparently that one hadn’t occurred to anyone; probably just as well.  As we traveled along, we were reminded of Annie Proulx’s books of short stores about Wyoming.

The hills, when not covered with snow, were sprinkled with black angus cattle (and lots of calves) standing out against the dry brown hills.  No spring here.  Denver, as we passed through, shone against the mountains; greater amount of snow here, being higher up.  Passing a sign “Bridge Safety Test Site;” we hoped it didn’t fail the test.  And then on into New Mexico. Pretty barren country, with little to tell.  

But here’s a quiz question:  You’re standing in Albuquerque (NM); it’s Saturday, the day before daylight savings time starts.  You are calling a friend in Tucson (AZ), suggesting breakfast the following morning.  You suggest 9:00 am; are you both talking the same hour, or is she an hour before/after you?  Remember:  Arizona doesn’t believe in daylight savings time……

By the time we got to Tucson (where’s Glen Campbell when you need him?) we were enjoying some local global warming; the temperatures were rapidly becoming much more pleasant, and spring was with us in full flower.  Finally.  March in the upper Mid-West is the pits.

And so we began our western swing, visiting friends and family in Tucson, Phoenix and its outskirts, and then into California.  We came by way of 29 Palms (at least) which has not become prettier, and Yucco Valley.  The California desert is so dry and plain, compared to other deserts we have known; we try and cross quickly, looking for the fastest way we can.

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But California also holds many family and friends.  Lauri’s wedding was a treat, held at the historic Women’s Club in Sierra Madre, which reminded me of the Monday Club in San Luis Obispo.  The weather cooperated, the groomsmen wore kilts (St. Patrick’s Day), and we had lots of fun.  While in the area we managed to get to Malibu and the renovated, original Getty Museum, which still has a lot of charm; along Highway 1 we were treated to the sight of two Rescue vehicles speeding along the coastline, one sporting a surf board, the other hauling a Ski-Doo…..only in SoCal.  

We had arranged for several medical visits in San Luis Obispo, and so after a couple of days of R&R at Lake Cachuma, outside Santa Barbara, we head for our old stomping grounds.  And March in SLO is truly a gift from the gods.  The hills are so green, the weather is balmy and the wildflowers in bloom; the area out Los Osos Valley Road isn’t called the Irish Hills for nothing!  We ended up making two trips to San Luis Obispo, with a couple of weeks in between, in order to get everything done.  We visited, we were punched and prodded by the medicos, we had movie night at the Palm; we even got our taxes done.  We trotted off to Lake Tahoe to see some buddies, spring skiing just coming to a close; Lake Tahoe is just as beautiful now as ever.  

Midst all this happy encountering, we also had a beautiful day in the Bay Area for a really nice memorial tribute for Kathy’s Dad, who had recently passed away at the age of 95.  We met on a hillside overlooking the Bay and the Golden Gate bridge, scattered ashes, and then had a very nice family gathering in the house in the Berkeley hills where he had been raised.  A very satisfying experience which included seeing some relatives for the first time in perhaps 30 years or so.  Couldn’t have been more perfect.

We went to watch some of our favorite idiotic friends going around in circles very fast, at a motorcycle track weekend in Willows. Even Willows is lovely at Easter time.  Northern California is almost idyllic this time of year; it’s easy for us to forget that north of San Francisco the countryside is very rural.  The cows are knee-deep in green (cows do have knees, don’t they?) and the Napa Valley vines are coming to life again; on Easter Sunday lots of folks were out traveling the quiet roads and settling down for a picnic.  When we left the motorcycle track, we wandered from one quiet valley to the next, through Napa and then Sonoma, slowly working our way down to the Golden Gate bridge and towards friends in San Jose, Santa Cruz and Monterey; all lovely.  Such a beautiful spring!

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Well, it is now established beyond a shadow of a doubt:  RICK IS A BIGOT (well, I don’t know about that… perhaps just an anti-vegan will suffice; ed.).  You may not know this, but he won’t eat things that are green, mostly vegetables of course.  Artichokes came in for a very bad rap as we passed through Watsonville; being the kind and wonderful person that he is, however, he was willing to stop at a roadside stand for Kathy to pick out a splendid specimen to have for her dinner.    

Pant, pant, back to San Luis Obispo for more visits, then several days with family in the hills above Santa Barbara, then up toward Stockton.  We went through New Cuyama (just how long ago did they build that bridge, anyway?), which is in a much drier area; not a lot of green in these interior valleys; through Taft (yuck), then Hilman.  Ah, Hilman, where the coming weekend was to feature The Udder Run – a 5K extravaganza – this is dairy country.  

(So, what are we going to name this new little beast of ours?  Lily?  Wait, don’t trucks get guy names? – Says who?  How about Ernie?)

Then there’s Stockton – known to at least one fellow who grew up there as “The Armpit of the West” – but even Stockton is lovely in April.  The old valley towns have a lot of charm, with their many parks filled with huge ancient trees and old homes along the river.  We were in Stockton for an RV gathering that lasted several days, at least a couple too many for these two kids who were getting anxious to turn our faces eastward.  

Our last California appointment was in Rocklin (good grief, why???) to have a couple of items added to the Tiger.  At one point we ended up in the coolest muffler shop we’d ever seen:  Architectural Digest and Wine Spectator on the tables in the waiting room (….along with Hot Bike and several girlie magazines, of course); the mechanic was intelligent, interesting, and also very good at his work.  A great experience.

(Maybe HMS Surmise……. Oh, good grief!  Tiger Lily sounds so cute.)

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Suddenly, we were free to roam about the country again.  In 38 days we had visited with 51 friends, plus lots of family as we attended both a wedding and a memorial service, and had seen what we considered the best of California at the best time of the year.  Kathy sent up a trial balloon of visiting Death Valley; hmmm, we looked at the paper and it was over 100 degrees there; maybe another time.  Well, how about going up into the Sierras, and crossing over to the east side by way of the Tioga Pass?  Cool; oops, Tioga’s still closed.  But wait, the Sonora Pass is open; we could go spend a couple of days camping at Pinecrest, partway up the grade, then go on over.  We have lots of time; we don’t need to be in Rapid City for a couple of weeks.  Great.  We had a lovely time at Pinecrest; the campground was virtually empty, the lake was quiet, the trees were beginning to bud out; it’s always lovely in the Sierras.  Heading up, the lupine and poppies were in bloom, and it was a beautiful day.  We were enjoying ourselves so much at Pinecrest that we stayed one extra day.  BAD IDEA.  Sonora Pass, that had been open, was now closed.  The closest way over the mountains was to go 160 miles out of our way, crossing over Kit Carson Pass (open, but quite snow-y and with frozen lakes at the top) and then back down 395 to meet where we would have crossed over through Sonora.  

Ah, well; life keeps happening.  And we like Carson Pass, too.  But all this fooling around left us staying in the mountains an extra night (at over 8000 feet), and it was snowing when we woke up in the morning.  We took quick pictures, then beat feet; dropped down through Bridgeport and Mono Lake, then turned east – and were in Nevada.  Finally.  Seven lovely weeks in California had come to a close.

Well, Nevada is Tonopah.  Always have had an aversion to the place; the townspeople make these strange and futile attempts at cheerfulness – Giggle Springs Plaza, Clown Motel, and, oh, yes, the Joyland Motel.  Who are they kidding?  It’s just too sad for words.  

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As you travel east in Nevada you drop altitude; at 4500 feet we started seeing cactus, which seemed bizarre.  All the way across, we were fighting strong head winds; they didn’t quit just because we reached Utah.  Cedar City, where we spent the night, was blowing to beat the band.  And we woke up to hail/rain.  Our next pass was at 9910 feet, and the rain had become blowing snow.  We passed a bicyclist pushing his wheels toward the top; poor fellow.  (Where were the balmy breezes and green hills of California now?)  

(Hey, how about Ginger?  The Foretravel is named Fred; you know, the dancers????)  (Hah; how about Howard?)  (HOWARD?)

In Utah, we had several destinations in mind; first was to be Bryce Canyon.  We arrived – and it was snowing.  Big, gloppy flakes at 35 degrees, but still snowing.  Where went our spring, we said?  Intrepid, we camped, toured, and took lots of pretty pictures.  The snow didn’t hang around, and a good time was had by all.  We’d last been here in 1994; few changes, happily.  Bryce is, of course, a major tourist destination.  All the signs are in French, German, Japanese and English; we guessed all the Spanish-speaking people were at work in the kitchens and didn’t need to know.

(Chipper would work (as in chip off the old block – Fred); yeah, let’s try that for awhile.  Okay, but I still like Lily.)

We wanted to drop down and visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon; no, said the ranger, that road won’t open for another week or so.  Damn.  Well, let’s head in that direction and then on up toward Mesa Verde, maybe, and certainly toward Arches NP.  And then we had a stroke of good fortune.  

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We spent the night at a BLM trailhead in the Paria Wilderness Area, and made some new friends.  These folks told us there was another road, an unpaved road, which went out to the North Rim, to a campground right on the edge, and they knew it was open.  There would be good views, very few people, and it was one of their favorite spots.  The going would get rough, but the Tiger should be just fine.  And it was; and we were delighted; and it was lots of fun.  It was 61 miles out to the rim (and 61 miles back again, don’t forget – over 3 hours each way) on a horrendous road, ending up going between rocks where we had very little room, and up over outcroppings.  The Tiger took it all in its stride.  After all, this was why we bought the little beastie.

After drinking in the marvelous views down into the canyon, and taking tons of pictures, the next day we trekked on back to the main road, turned east and picked our next place on the map.  We certainly were enjoying the southern Utah/northern Arizona desert.  Shall we visit Mesa Verde?  No?  How about Canyon de Chelly?  Nah, too far off track; let’s go on up to Moab and see how the Arches look in the springtime.  We can go through Monument Valley; cool.  That’s always neat.  And then smack dab in the middle of Monument Valley, in Mexican Hat, we spotted an alternate way toward Moab, Highway 261, which goes straight up the side of a cliff before heading to Natural Bridges National Monument.  Of course “straight up” means twisty curves and hairpin turns, on a somewhat paved road; and Kathy got to drive it while Rick took lovely pictures.  We felt very adventuresome and were enjoying the new freedom that the Tiger (what’s its name) gave us.

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Moab was busy; much grown since 1994, our last visit, but pleasant.  Arches National Park is a real treat, if you’ve not been there; we drove around madly taking pictures and grinning a lot, and drove a circle tour into the nearby mountains about two hours before they closed the road for the year to repair a bridge.  Our luck was holding.  

Colorado was now all that stood between us and South Dakota (at least figuratively).  We were very interested in seeing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which is on Highway 50 (our favorite cross country road) between Montrose and Salida and Monarch Pass is in there, too.  We had passed by the Black Canyon before, but had never checked it out.  A cool spot.  The canyon is different than the Grand Canyon, very different, a narrow chasm with very steep sides; it is unique and well worth a visit.  You can drive down to the bottom of the canyon and along the river, which is lovely; the acacia trees had just leafed out and were showing off very prettily.

Trekking on, we went over Monarch Pass (11,317 very high feet), and dropped down toward Salida; we spent a swell night visiting friends who live right on the river that flows eastward down from the pass; they are at about 8000 feet.  They introduced us to the pleasures of ATV adventuring, and shared their stories of ATVing in Mexico’s Copper Canyon earlier in the year.  The next day was spent in Denver doing some REI shopping (love that store!) and then the night with another crazy friend who lives in a log home he built on top of a mountain overlooking Boulder.  He, for better or worse, introduced us (read:  Rick) to the world of iPods and iTunes.  The next day we bid Colorado farewell, and headed for the barn, as we call our campground at Hart Ranch, outside Rapid City.

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And so here we are, back in Rapid City, the home of the largest gathering of South Dakota license plates outside Sioux Falls.  You see, there’s never a one to be found unless you are actually in-state.  Apparently the locals never get far from home; if you do see an SD plate elsewhere, it’s on a motor home; they are folks like us who don’t live here but are “domiciled” here.  The campground here is full of them.  Surreal, but nice.  And you know, we said March in the northern Mid-West is the pits?  So’s May; we’ve had nothing but rain (but very green hills) and wind.  At least it isn’t snowing!

(What do you think of Bubbles?  Really?  Me, too; kind of cute, huh, and perky, yes, and fun; okay BUBBLES it is.)

Our plan for the summer is to head north, far north, above the Arctic Circle.  We want to visit Inuvik, and Yellowknife, both in the Northwest Territories, both involving unpaved roads into wilderness areas.  We are very excited, and anxious to get moving.  First, however, Rick has decided we need a dual sport bike, one that’s comfortable on all kinds of roads, so that’s in the works.  And we need to have a little work done on the Tiger to fit the rack on the back that holds said bike (which makes it a back-rack, so we’ve named it Burt…..stop groaning!).  In any case, we should be outta here by the first week in June.

(Nah, Bubbles is sorta dorky. How ‘bout Pandora, ‘cause every time you open a cupboard door you don’t know what might pop out.)

Post-Northwest Territories, if the snows have not yet started to fly, we’ll probably head into southeastern Alaska and try to see some of the towns along the Inside Passage – maybe Sitka or Ketchikan or at least Juneau.  We’ll see!  We think it will be a great summer; wish you could join us.

Whatever your plans, enjoy, and think of us (and whos-its) from time to time; we’ll be thinking of you.

Rick, Kathy, Burt, Thumper (the new bike) and … maybe a contest???

P.S.  PANCAKES ON THE HALF-SLANT, with all due apologies to Botticelli and his Venus.  Ever try fixing breakfast on a tilt?  The splendors of a small rig don’t include the wonderful air leveling system we have in the Foretravel, so every meal can be an adventure.  We do have blocks to put under the wheels, but at times that’s not enough.  Rule of thumb:  nose down, otherwise you’ll spend the whole night afraid you’ll roll out of bed.  Pancakes are a special challenge.  Kathy holds the griddle so it will stay on the burner, and Rick pours batter and flips as appropriate.  Yummy, yummy, and well worth the effort.  Life on the edge!  (or at least the slope…..)

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018