Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Time out for visiting family in Southern California

May 21-28, Yorba Linda, California

About three months ago, my step-daughter and her family moved to this area so our major destination here is their home; proximity to them is our main priority. With some sleuthing on her part, we chose to stay at the Canyon RV Park in Anaheim, a brief five miles from their home. It's a little bit challenging to find a reasonably priced RV park in this area that has the usual amenities we love: nice big sites, fire rings, attractive landscaping or nature's own beauty, and good proximity to local destinations. The park used to be a county park, now private, and has an amazingly rural feeling, considering its urban proximity, and meets all of the criteria listed above, with one major exception: it is tucked into the armpit of a freeway and the roar of cars is omnipresent 24-7 no matter what site you choose. Welcome to life in Southern California.

Our time here involves virtually no sightseeing, so my blogging for the next couple weeks is going to be minimal. We are enjoying visiting our grandsons (aged 3, 5, and 8) at their home, school, Taekwondo classes, and their community parks and pools.  Having lived at least a day's drive away from them all of their lives, it is a luxury to be able to be near them for more than a long weekend or a short stint while I was still teaching school. Of course, right now they are still in school but the bonus with this reality is that we were able to visit their new elementary school, go to a kindergarten musical performance, and see the two older boys receive their orange belts in Taekwondo. We feel lucky to be here experiencing their daily life adventures as our typical time with them is a week camping at the Oregon Coast--which is great but different than being a part of their lives at home.

Another bonus for being here is that two of our closest friends from Oregon happened to be in the area at the same time. We couldn't wait to see them in Oregon next month, so we made a little trip to Encinitas one day to see our friends and their five-week-old granddaughter--so precious. After a fantastic lunch at the Union Kitchen and Tap, a neighborhood restaurant and tavern, we took a lovely walk through the Encinitas Self-Realization Fellowship and Meditation Gardens. The gardens are part of a temple built by Paramahansa Yogananda in 1937, an Indian guru whose autobiography was pretty popular in the 70s--I was a devotee back then. The original temple itself was destroyed by erosion so the grounds were made into a peaceful retreat area with koi ponds, amazing flowers and trees, and a terrific view of the Pacific Ocean. We had not seen the Pacific Ocean for almost a year, so this was a good way to pay homage to it from the vantage point of this spiritual place. On the way to the gardens, I saw a great looking local coffee place in an old home painted the color of sunflowers called Pannikin Coffee and Tea. A late afternoon stop here rounded out a perfect day visiting with our friends Ann and Don, and their daughter, son-in-law, and new grandbaby.  (I accidentally deleted most of the photos of our friends and new baby--so frustrating!)

Yesterday we had a surprise visit from our friend Sharon who is in the area for less joyful reasons as her mother is in the hospital.  She and her sister Diane drove about seventy miles to have lunch with us at our noisy RV park. Her home is in Mexico and we manage to talk all the time on the phone, but nothing is as good as a big hug from someone who knows all your challenges and aspirations.  It wasn't hard to fill up about four hours with constant chatter and laughter. 
We sure look forward to reuniting again with these friends in Oregon and enjoying our week of camping at the Oregon Coast with the grandsons and family in July. Being on the road has been a wonderful adventure, but we have missed our connections with loved ones and feel grateful to be able to include these visits in our new lifestyle.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Vegas delight

May 19-21, Las Vegas, Nevada

Woo-hoo. Our trip to Vegas from Zion National Park took on a whole new possibility when we discovered friends we met at a campground in Florida were going to be there at the same time. John and Sharon are the only other couple we have become friends with on this journey who are also full-time RVers. A special bond inherently exists in this world, but we discovered we share many similar views and aspirations, so spending time with them again is a real treat.
John and Sharon at the fabulous Oasis Las Vegas RV Resort
Our sole intention in coming to Vegas was to tour the Hoover Dam. Neither of us had much interest in hanging out in the big city lights on the strip or spending time in the casinos. Vegas just happened to be on the route from Utah to Los Angeles, our longer-term destination for spending time with kids and grandkids. We had originally planned to spend one night just outside Vegas but when we learned that Mr. and Mrs. Heyduke, their blogger names, were staying at the Oasis Las Vegas RV Resort, we decided to join them. And what a resort this is—just a few miles from the strip with an adjoining hotel, a lovely saltwater pool and spa surrounded by palm trees, and a state of the art fitness facility—all for the discounted Passport America price of $22 a night for a back-in site.

We pulled in late in the afternoon on Friday, got set up, and joined John and Sharon at the saltwater pool. With temperatures nearing 100 degrees, the pool was a good choice. After swimming, we had the pleasure of being invited to their motorhome for homemade pizza, lava cake, and red wine—a winning combination but nothing compared to our joy in reconnecting and sharing our most recent adventures with one another.
Jetta made fast friends with Sharon
Our plans for Saturday were a trip to the Hoover Dam, hang out by the pool, and play tourist in the old downtown area of Vegas to watch the Fremont Street light show. The Hoover Dam was not a must-do for me, but it ranked pretty high on Vic’s list so off we went—about a thirty-minute drive from Vegas. There are four options for touring the dam: 1) walk around on your own for free; 2) pay $7 for a ticket to the visitor center; 3) pay $11 for a tour of the power plant which includes the visitor center, a movie, and an "underground" view of the hydroelectric generators at work; 4) pay $30 for the works which includes an inside look of the operation of the dam itself along with everything else. My original plan was to just do the walking tour and museum for $7, but for an additional $4 I was able to see the movie and the power plant. Vic went for the whole enchilada. We saw the movie and power plant together, then he went off for another thirty minutes to see the underworkings of the dam. I have to say the power plant tour was something I could have done without. There are signs warning people who have claustrophobia not to do this tour. I am not in many situations where my proclivity toward feeling claustrophobic is tested, so I thought I would be fine. First of all you take a 1000 ft.descent in an elevator where your ears pop, then when you exit the elevator it looks like you are in a cave. Not for me. You do eventually get to some open areas to see the generators at work, but I also am not a big fan of getting up close and personal with massive kilowatts of electricity. I  kept looking at my watch to psyche myself into believing this thirty-minute tour was almost over.

Vic joined me in the cafĂ© about thirty minutes later. He was really glad he did the whole tour, although he said there were a few places where his acrophobia prevented him from taking advantage of the full views of the dam. Tourists can also take a walk over the newly constructed arch bridge, the Mike O’Callaghan Pat Tillman Memorial (opened in 2010), which spans the dam at 840 ft. above the Colorado River. Aside from the temperatures rising to almost a 100 degrees that day, Vic said he would only consider walking the bridge if he could be in the middle of it—which would put him in a line of traffic on US 93—not much of a better option.
The bridge we didn't cross--second highest in the United States
Lake Mead, largest reservoir in the United States
We made it back to our lovely RV park (which I forgot to take pictures of) with time to spend poolside. We thought about sneaking in a couple beers and discovered when we got there, that many “campers” just brought their whole coolers in. I guess it’s the Vegas factor.

For our last night there, we got together with John and Sharon for a light meal and then headed out to see the light show on Fremont St. The temperature at 9 p.m. was 89 degrees! We enjoyed the lively ambiance of the street with all the casinos, live bands, and, perhaps, most of all, the eccentric displays of humanity. The Viva Vision canopy and light show was amazing;  the $70 million canopy has more than 12 million LED lights extending the length of five football fields. Every hour on the hour from dusk to midnight the canopy lights up, music blares, and thousands of visitors watch and listen to images and songs paying tribute to different bands on the world’s largest screen. We happened to catch the show featuring Queen which included “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions”—hard not to get pumped up in this Vegas party atmosphere. They have also recently added a zipline under parts of the canopy where you can soar 800 ft. down Fremont at speeds up to 30 mph for a $15 ticket. (I have always wanted to do a zipline, but my vision is to do one in the backtrails of someplace like Costa Rica with monkeys cheering me on. I guess you could think of this as a wildlife experience as there seemed to be plenty of untamed characters wandering the street.)
Canopy with zipline platform in background
Look closely to see zipliner in middle of photo

Neon Country--the band we liked the best on Fremont
Barbarella of Fremont
Cupid, who actually propositioned our friend
Pee Wee Herman amongst the revelers
My personal favorite

A talented sculptor who makes creepy masks

Monday morning came too soon and we had to bid adieu once again to our friends. The good part is we have plans to see them in Oregon in a month or so as we will both be touring the West Coast this summer. One distinctive aspect of this lifestyle is the opportunity to meet up with people you met in one place and see them again in totally new environments—something you might only do once or twice in a lifetime with friends from your hometown. In either case, there is something unique that happens when you share travel adventures with others. Perhaps this quotation from the Italian poet, Cesare Pavese, captures it best:

Traveling forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it. – Cesare Pavese

The road is our oyster. Ciao.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

From the Bookcliffs to the Hoodoos

May 16-19, Grand Junction, Colorado to Bryce and Zion National Parks, Utah

This leg of our adventure takes us from Breckenridge, Colorado to Grand Junction, Colorado, from Grand Junction to Bryce Canyon National Park and from Bryce to Zion National Park. We have only planned an overnight and day trip to each of the parks as we are closing in on summer plans in California and Oregon.

The three and a half hour trip from Breckenridge to Grand Junction took us through some gorgeous country on I-70. I-70 itself is quite an impressive feat of highway construction requiring several tunnels (the Eisenhower is the most famous) that carve through narrow canyons. I was a little worried about traveling on this interstate with the tunnels and steep grades, but the coach, and most importantly its driver, did great. Thank goodness we bought a diesel pusher. Luckily we did not have much wind or traffic to deal with, so we just trekked along appreciating the views from our giant windshield.

I-70 West to Grand Junction

Our choice for an overnight stay in Grand Junction was to dry camp at a Harvest Host winery called Grand River Vineyards. They were very accommodating offering us any place to stay the night (or longer if we wished) in a large gravel parking lot with a view of the Bookcliffs to the north and vineyards to the south. The winery was actually in the small town of Palisades about twelve miles east of Grand Junction. We learned that this area is a well-known fertile valley due to the protection of the cliffs and the presence of a major river, the Colorado, for irrigation. They started to grow grapes here early in the twentieth century, then changed to fruit orchards when liquor was banned during Prohibition, so now it has both—over twenty wineries and several major orchards.

The Bookcliffs just east of Grand Junction

We enjoyed a wine tasting at our host’s winery and discovered two varietals that were quite yummy: their Reserve Cab-Franc (the most popular grape in this valley) and their Petite Verdot, a sophisticated-tasting grape with notes of violet and juniper. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day to make the rounds at other wineries in the area, but we were happy to give our business to Grand River, one of the oldest wineries in the region.

On Thursday, we took off for our next destination, Bryce Canyon National Park. We found a Passport America park for $12.50 that was about thirty miles from the park and decided the price was worth the distance as the much closer park we considered was $50 for full hook-ups. We found some state parks in the area but access and site length were possible challenges, so we did not pursue these options. My smart phone GPS calculated our drive to be about five hours, but it ended up taking us almost eight hours, a long day for us. We took I-70 to State Highway 89 South, a designated scenic drive. The road was fine but the wind kicked up to 35 mph gusts, making for a stressful passage on a two lane road for about 60 miles. The Passport America campground, Lutherwood, ended up being a big mistake as the entry road was two miles on one narrow land of dirt (they said it was gravel) with hairpin curves and a steep grade. We both looked at each other after about a half a mile and said, “This is nuts.” Now came the challenge of turning around. A private driveway veering off a big hill offered the only possibility. Vic had to unhitch the Jeep on this hill (he remembered to set the emergency brake this time—another story—and then I had to guide him in backing the motorhome around a curve uphill into the driveway. It had been a long day for us by this point, but we both kept calm and successfully made the turn around. I decided to just drive the Jeep back to another campground we had seen about twenty miles back up the road (and closer to Bryce). By now both the Jeep and the motorhome were absolutely covered in red dust. We had to clean the windshields just to find our way out of there. Needless to say we do not recommend Camp Lutherwood for big rigs or anyone who would like to avoid going down a steeply curving one lane dirt road with their RV and tow vehicle. Our second choice was a  Good Sam Park called Riverside RV Resort, about twenty miles from Bryce and only two blocks from the highway with a nightly rate of $35. The view of the backside of Bryce Canyon from our motorhome was quite stunning and there were large fields where we let the dogs run and play; we felt grateful to find this peaceful oasis.
The view from our motorhome at Riverside RV Resort

Rather than stay two nights at this park, we decided to get up early, see Bryce in one morning, then drive to Zion for our second day of viewing these amazing parks. With the plan to checkout of our park by noon, we were able to spend about three hours touring the main viewpoints at Bryce with time to hike some of the upper rim trails from point to point. We decided to concentrate mostly on seeing what is known as the natural amphitheater area which includes Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration, and Bryce points. The weather was about 65 degrees, clear but windy, and a big storm was moving in so our timing ended up being perfect for what we wanted to see. Each viewpoint had its own spectacular grandeur and unique blend of vibrant pink colors. The views were so stunning that it was almost too much to take in with your eyes. Staring into these canyons, you cannot help but feel humble realizing the vast sweep of geologic time it took to create this spectacle of nature. We both wished we had planned more time to take some of the hiking trails down into the canyons as it would be an incredible feeling to be dwarfed by these imposing free standing columns of rock.

Look closely in the draw to see the person walking here
There's a tiny figure on the trail in the middle of photo
It was also fun to imagine faces in the tall craggy spires and pinnacle called hoodoos. According to Native American Paiute legend, the area that is now called Bryce Canyon was once populated by Legend People, shapeshifters who posed as lizards, birds, and other animals. Because of their trickery, they were punished by Coyote and turned to stone. The legend people were also known for wearing red painted faces which are believed to be the explanation for the vibrant colors of the rock formations frozen in time. A more comical historical perspective comes from the namesake of the canyon: Ebenezer Bryce. His summation of this holy place was, "It's a hell of a place to lose a cow." 
A watercolor artist capturing his impressions of the canyon
Close-up of the spires called hoodoos

Our last day in Utah we planned a short tour of Zion National Park in the morning with a departure for Vegas in the afternoon (about a 2 ½ hour drive on I-15 South).  The main road for viewing the most popular sights in Zion is closed to the public spring through fall. You have to take a shuttle or you can tour by bicycle or foot. We learned that you can bring your bike and put it on the shuttle, then ride down which would be fun to do another time.  Zion is quite different than Bryce first because you are viewing it from the river level up.  The mountains still have the beautiful red hues that you see in Bryce, but the colors are less intense.  The geology is also quite different; Zion does not have the spires and pinnacles; the landscape is one of giant looming rock monoliths with sheer vertical faces. The Virgin River cuts its swath through narrow passages cut between these imposing formations. There are a wide variety of hiking trails with many a surprising number rated easy to moderate--considering the extreme vertical drops. Rock climbing is also popular here but we did not see anyone hanging on the face of the rock walls.  There is a big risk of flash floods in these narrow canyons, so the whole park could be evacuated when significant rainfall is expected. We, however, had a perfectly clear spring day with no clouds in the sky, little wind, and temps in the high 60s.
South entrance to Zion via the charming town of Rockville

Vic standing by the Virgin River at the bottom of a huge vertical granite wall of rock that you can't see

We were happy to have the chance to see Zion but it was a bit of a letdown compared to the breathtaking beauty of Bryce Canyon.  Both parks evoke a spiritual response, but Zion made me feel more aware of God’s omnipotence and even wrathful nature, while Bryce made me feel more in touch with God’s grace and generosity toward mankind. So there you have it. We are off to Vegas, a God forsaken place, except maybe for Elvis’ Chapel of Love. J