Pictured Rocks and Mooching at a Casino

Menominee to Munising, MI – August, 2016 We made our way into Michigan’s upper peninsula and stopped at J.W. Wells State Park. We snagged a lakeside site so our kitchen window looked out over Lake Michigan. It was a lovely place to relax for a couple days.

The next day we hauled the kayaks 20 feet to our beach and set off. We were shocked by how clear the water was. You could see the rocky bottom well after the water was over our heads.

On the left of the pic are some of the lakeside sites just up from ours. The arrow points to where we paddled to, the mouth of Cedar River, two miles away. We took a break on the beach before paddling back.

Jim bought a one day fishing license online for a reasonable $10. He had a few nibbles but finally on the way back he landed this good size bass. It was at least 12 inches. I was close enough to get a picture of his catch before he released it.

Everyone kept saying the sunrises were not to be missed. Each day seemed to dawn overcast and I never was blown away.

The campground was extremely nice and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. The cost for the electric site was a reasonable $20 a night but we did also pony up $31 for a state park annual pass rather than pay the $8 per day park use fee. We expect to visit enough Michigan State Parks to come out ahead.

We were looking forward to our next stop and I was especially looking forward to saving some money on camping fees. I had read that just outside the town of Munising where we were headed was a casino with free electricity. I was so in.

We arrived before noon and had our pick of the 8 sites. Even though the marked spaces weren’t much bigger than standard parking spaces we were able to hang off the edge of the parking lot and mostly fit even with our slides out. Later that day a tiny Airstream moved in to the right of us and they were the perfect sized neighbor.

The next morning we had lots of neighbors but most cleared out pretty early and the next evening it filled up again. Our intel was correct, the sites were free and there was no registration or restrictions of any kind on their use. Sure it was crowded but we were busy sightseeing all day and I was sure ecstatic to save the $28 per night I would have spent at the next cheapest alternative.

The main draw here was Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, 42 miles of scenic shoreline on Lake Superior. There were also many beautiful waterfalls both in the national park and around Munising. First we visited the waterfalls nearest town. Both were just short walks from their parking areas.

I didn’t even notice the stacked rocks in this photo of Wagner Falls until I got it on the computer.

Next up was Munising Falls.

We also visited Sand Point just outside of town. It was a lovely beach with a view of the adorable East Channel Lighthouse across South Bay on Grand Island.

Then we headed out to explore Pictured Rocks. The most scenic spot that is easily viewed from land is Miners Castle. It is also closest to town so it was very crowded.

There was also a nice view from there of a good stretch of the shoreline. The local outfitters rent kayaks from Miners Beach below and lead trips out to the castle and back.

Next stop was Miners Falls.

It is a long drive between points of interest in this park. It was a 35 mile drive to our next stop, a walk along Twelve Mile Beach. Another 9 miles brought us to the Log Slide overlook where we had this beautiful view of Au Sable Light Station.

I would have loved to hike to it. But it is a 3 mile hike one way from the nearest access point and we had a pretty full day already. We would have come back to do it the next day if it hadn’t been such a long drive.

Our last stop was at Sable Falls 7 miles further.

And a short walk beyond that is a beach covered in beautiful multicolored stones.

From there it was an hour drive back to our parking lot with the free air conditioning. We had every intention of staying a third day and night to kayak either at Sand Point or Miners Beach. Even though the next day was the warmest of our visit it also turned out to be the windiest whipping the water into a frenzy. So we scratched that plan and departed for another adventure.

Making Ourselves at Home

South Carolina – April, 2016 We are enjoying our spring visit to South Carolina immensely. We have been here since mid-March and plan to continue to stay in the vicinity through much of May. We have chosen to idle here for good reason.

Thanks to the generosity of my father, we own a little piece of property just off I-95. He and my mother visited the area almost 30 years ago and liked it so much they bought a half acre thinking it would make a great jumping off point for visits to the east coast. When I told my father several years ago that Jim and I planned to retire soon and RV full time, he offered to give me the lot they had never gotten around to using.

It really is in an ideal location. It is about an hour from some great destinations; Charleston, Savannah, and several beaches. So we plan to make it a nice place to park for a few nights or a few months. We plan to stay 10 weeks this visit because there is so much we want to do but also because we are enjoying a brief rest after traveling 30,000 miles last year. We’ve been staying 4-5 days a week on the property and then going to places within a few hours’ drive for a couple days most weeks.

We visited the property for the first time in 2014 and found out that the state of SC would put us in a driveway approach for free. We took care of the paperwork during that brief visit and when we visited South Carolina last fall we finally got to see the approach for ourselves.

Since the approach allowed us to drive across the ditch on to our property we were able to boondock in front of the tree line (left in the above pic). During that visit we had the electric company supply power to the property and started clearing the drive back into the trees.

When we arrived here this spring we were anxious to continue clearing the drive so we could park in the shade and enjoy more privacy. Jim was very motivated to get this accomplished so he got the main drive cleared in just a couple days. He then ran the power underground to the site and set a new power post. As you can see, we are now parked comfortably under the pines.

We originally planned to build a deck but decided on a patio instead. The patio didn’t require a building permit from the county like the deck would have and it turned out to be a bit cheaper. It also is hardly even noticeable when we are not here, which we like. And if we change our mind about how we want camp set up the patio could be disassembled and reassembled in a different spot.

After clearing away some of the unattractive brush at the front of the property we wanted to plant something that would provide us privacy in a few years. The conditions here are ideal for growing azaleas so we planted 6 of them in varying colors across the front. They don’t lose their leaves here so they will provide privacy all year and hopefully we’ll have beautiful blooms each spring. These varieties should eventually get 5-8 feet in height. This cutie hasn’t stopped blooming since we planted her.

They will get morning sun and afternoon shade which should be ideal. I figure there is a 50/50 chance they can survive the summer under these conditions without watering. They were fairly inexpensive so we thought it was worth the gamble. I may offer the neighbor some money to water them if they have any periods of prolonged drought this summer. I also planted an azalea and some hostas near the patio.

Speaking of neighbors, we have some pretty good ones. The subdivision is a few miles from the interstate and town and it has about 10 homes in it. At least half are manufactured homes. A couple of bachelors live next door. Their drive is right on our property line so we can hear them come and go and they can hear us if we are outside. They have stopped by when we were working in the yard a couple times to ask if we need anything.

Across the road is a vacant, overgrown lot, which screens us from many of the neighbors. On the other side of us a couple owns several acres and they built their home way on the other end. We met them the first time we visited. The other neighbors waive if we walk around the block or they drive by but no one has bothered us or indicated we are bothering them.

Some day we may build a carport and/or put in a well and septic. For now we want to explore nearby a few days every week so we just dump and refill when we do. If we want to stay for longer than that we can take a quick trip to a campground just a few miles away. They want $26 to dump our tanks and refill our water which is a bit high (it’s the same price as one night’s camping fee) but you can’t beat the convenience so we will likely use it occasionally.

The money we are saving is helping offset the cost of the improvements we are making. Our electric bill has averaged less than $3 per day so far but as it gets hotter and we run the AC more I expect it will be closer to $5. We are still paying camping fees somewhere most weeks and most of those places cost well over the $20 per night we budget. On average we are spending about half our weekly campground budget on these trips. But we are also saving a lot in fuel while we are here so we will just wait and see how it all pans out.

I was concerned that moving in to the middle of a forest that has never been developed would result in a lot of meetings with creepy crawly things. So far nothing more than an occasional ant has invaded our home. We haven’t seen a single snake but have seen a cute little lizard or two. This guy was on our gas can.

We set up our screen room which has helped with the mosquitos in the early morning and late afternoon. The closest thing to an invasion we have encountered is a whole lot of caterpillars. Jim found this beauty on the screen room one day.

And this little fellow kept me company on my camp chair one afternoon.

So far South Carolina has lived up to its slogan; Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places. We love it here!

Texas’ Colorado River

Columbus, TX – February, 2016 West of Houston a short ways is the Colorado River, no relation to the more famous river by the same name out west. This Colorado River starts and ends in the state of Texas. We decided to spend a week at the Thousand Trails Colorado River Campground since the weather was looking promising, the river looked like a good one to kayak, and the campground was practically free with our membership.

The town of Columbus is fairly small and has many charming characteristics. It has the basic necessities: a far from super Walmart, two grocery stores, three Redbox. There are lots of beautiful old homes and a quaint town square with a gorgeous courthouse.

It is located between the banks of the river since the river makes a dramatic curve, an oxbow, north of town and returns on the other side of town.

We are always on the lookout for such a place where we can put the kayaks in on one side, have a pleasant float, and then take out on the other side and just walk back to get our truck. This place is perfect. It’s a 6 mile float but only a 1 mile walk between the two accesses. The walk is through the small town and the only downside is that you have to cross two bridges, the longest one had absolutely no room for pedestrians. We pondered this problem at length.

We looked for another access with no luck. We studied the nearby railroad bridge which had a nice wide platform you could walk on but also had a no trespassing sign. Jim was willing to walk the railroad bridge. I was willing to chance the highway since the cars can move over but a train cannot. We each thought the other was completely insane. We did agree if we only had a bike the bridge could be safely ridden over.

We had called the outfitter in town, Howell Canoe Livery, and left a message early in the week to ask about water conditions on the float. They didn’t open until Thursday so when they called back and said they’d help us shuttle our truck for only $10 we agreed our safety and marital bliss was worth that much.

We put in on Friday just before lunch. We only saw 3 other kayakers all day. The river was low but we never dragged. It was mostly flat water with only one or two minor rapids.

We watched this bird struggle with his meal for quite a while. No wonder, that’s a pretty big catch for someone with no teeth. He finally managed to swallow it.

The Colorado is considered a good bass river but the outfitter said no one was having much luck recently. Another kayaker that put in just after us and fishes the river frequently said he hadn’t caught a fish all year. So Jim was pleased that he caught 3 bass that day, the first before even leaving camp.

Earlier in the week we put in at the campground’s boat ramp one afternoon to see how far we could get up river. Jim has a trolling motor on a custom mount he built for his kayak. It is really great on lakes but can get him upstream in a river if the current is not too strong. In the slow stretches he can even tow me. Here is the view from my position of leisure.

I use a retractable pet leash as a tow rope. Jim seemed to take issue with being literally on a short leash when we first set up the system. It works well and he got over it. We do get some looks from other floaters and usually a comment or two. But on this day there was not another person on this stretch of the river and the only looks we got were from the many cows that stared at us from the river’s edge.

We got about a mile and a half up stream in an hour. We had plenty of battery power left and could have gone farther but it was already 2 o’clock. I paddled about half the way and let Jim tow me the rest.

The only problem with the motor is that it gets in the way of Jim’s paddling.  So he motored most of the way and only paddled in a couple places it was too shallow to run. There were very few places that had a strong current so we could have made it without the motor if we chose to.

Over the next two hours we floated back to camp and stopped at one gravel bar. Besides the cows we saw lots of turtles, two huge red headed woodpeckers, and a muskrat.

We visited Houston a couple times during the week to pick up this or that. Houston has about every store you could ever want. I had read about a restaurant in an old movie theatre that I wanted to visit. I decided it was a shame we had been to Texas twice in the last year and hadn’t gone to a Tex-Mex restaurant.

The restaurant was fun. They showed an old western on the screen while we ate. The food was pretty good and reasonably priced.

We thought we might go downtown after lunch but decided the trip from the store we wanted to visit to the restaurant was sightseeing enough. The fastest route was by a tollway that was exclusively for those with a prepaid tag. We really didn’t mind taking surface streets because we wanted to see more of Houston. What we saw was the grittier side of Houston, many miles of adult bookstores and strip clubs.

I’m sure if we had more time we would have found a lot of things we enjoyed in Houston but they sure don’t make it very easy to get around this city.  My biggest issue is with their toll roads.  They have many toll roads around the city and their system is not visitor friendly.

Most of their toll roads do not have manned toll booths.  They have entire highways that require you to pre-purchase a tag in order to access them.  This requires a one-time fee of $15 plus a deposit into your account of $40!  Ridiculous!

We encountered the same issue last year in Austin.  One particularly bad traffic day we said to heck with it and took the unmanned toll road.  We got a bill in the mail months later.  Ten dollars was high for 8 miles of toll road but better than being stuck in gridlock for hours.

Some of Houston’s roads say that you need a tag but it turns out that they have toll express lanes and you can in fact use the free lanes without getting charged a toll.  When a highway says things like “last free exit” and “EZ Tag required” I tend to believe it and get off the highway if there is another alternative.

After our first visit I went to their website to try to make sense of it.  It was not very helpful. So I called and waited 30 minutes for a customer service agent to answer my questions.  She was nice and helpful.  But it didn’t change the fact that their whole system sucks the big one!

The best advice she gave me was that if I chose to take a toll road, or inadvertently ended up on one, to just wait a couple days then give them a call. They would then be able to tell me what I owed and take a payment over the phone with only a $1.50 service fee.  OK rant over.

Reflections on a Year Well Spent

Ajo, AZ to Kingsville, TX – January, 2016 The passing of the calendar year coupled with the one year anniversary of us hitting the road is a logical time to reflect on our expectations, realities, and what’s next.

We have been incredibly pleased with our first year on the road. It is everything we had hoped for and more. Any minor concerns we had have virtually vanished. Do we feel safe boondocking in remote locations? Yes. Can we really live on this budget? Yes. Are we gonna strangle each other if we spend every waking moment together and live in less than 400 square feet? Not yet!

Many of our goals revolved around our health. Together we lost over 40 pounds this year. More importantly we are stronger and the aches and pains I feared might worsen with exercise have instead improved.

We try, and generally succeed, at walking no less than 3 miles every single day. But are we ready to tackle mountains? Not yet. Have our eating habits changed? Not significantly.

We nicknamed this first year “The Highlight Tour.” We endeavored to see all the sights out west that we had not yet seen that we would be really disappointed if we never made it to. Many destinations we cheerfully checked off our bucket list. Others were checked and then moved to the growing list of places we plan to return to for a longer visit in the in the years to come. A small few we just didn’t get to but they got moved to the list of places we’ll see on another western roadtrip, hopefully in 2017.

The west was so much more than we expected. Arizona was more mountainous, southern California was greener, everywhere people were friendlier than we ever imagined. Our expectations were surpassed at every turn. But the southwest just wasn’t warm enough for us to want to spend a whole winter.

We experienced several weeks of nighttime lows in the 20s and 30s. It got chilly very quickly in the late afternoon and it often took until almost lunch for it to warm up in the morning. That’s too many hours that we are stuck in the camper staying warm instead of outside being active. We certainly plan to spend a lot more time in the southwest but we will go further south, hopefully to Mexico, for the coldest months of the year.

Since we had committed months ago to being in Houston by mid-February and that was still four weeks away, we decided we were ready to move it on over to Texas. Last year when we were at Padre Island National Seashore we had been too excited about heading west to explore any further south in Texas. So now we wanted to go as far south as we could in Texas to spend a couple weeks before going to Houston as planned.

We had just boondocked for seven days so we stopped in Benson, Arizona at the Escapees Saguaro Co-op for a couple nights to dump our tanks, fill up on water, and recharge our batteries. We loved this park when we passed through last spring. They charge $20 per night plus electric which after taxes averaged out to $27.50 per night. It is a friendly park, convenient, and has one of the cleanest and least expensive laundromats I’d found all year. I was behind on my laundry so this appealed to me.

I was looking forward to making our next stop a winery a couple hours east of Benson. The St. Clair Winery just off I-10 east of Deming, New Mexico, participates in the Harvest Host program which allows RVs to stay at farms and wineries for one night. I joined the program and used it to stay at Tularosa Vineyards near Alamogordo, New Mexico last spring. I had heard about the St. Clair Winery shortly after we had passed that way and was disappointed we had missed it.

I read that you could fill your own containers at this winery with very reasonably priced wine. I couldn’t believe I had missed such a gem! We actually decided to travel further that day but I insisted we stop anyway. This place was awesome! Unfortunately this past year they stopped letting you bring your own containers. Instead you have to buy their container and then you can bring it back as many times as you like.

The prices were still great and the wine was too. They will sell you a filled magnum, the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine, for about $10 and if you bring their bottle back they will refill it for around $6. I loved their sweet white and sweet red. It is probably for the best that I don’t live nearby.

We generally prefer to travel no more than 2-3 hours a day but Jim said he was willing to put in some longer days in order to reach southern Texas’ warmer temperatures. So we passed up staying at the winery in sweet bliss and instead set our sights on the other side of El Paso. After a late start and too short a stop at St. Clair’s we were slated to arrive late on a Friday afternoon.

I kept reading references to bad traffic conditions on I-10 in El Paso and was not terribly excited about heading into that late on a Friday afternoon. So when I mentioned that the Texas Welcome Center at Exit 1, a good 15 miles north of El Paso, had good overnight RV parking Jim agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to stop by on our way through and see if it would suffice for the night.

We had not yet spent a night in a rest area even though Texas has some rather nice ones and 24 hours of parking is allowed at each. The problem is that they are generally very close to the highway and, more importantly, you have no idea how many semis might join you before morning. Semis are rather noisy and not our first choice for neighbors.

The nice thing about this welcome center was that it was set back a fairly good distance from the highway and there were three parking lots; one for cars, one for RV’s, and one for semi-trucks.

We arrived before 3 and were the only ones parked in the RV lot so we took the only spot that had a yard.

We walked in to talk to the folks in the welcome center. They were very friendly and, well, welcoming. So we put out our slides and made ourselves at home. We walked around the parking lot and next door to an RV dealer. Then we made some dinner and watched TV. It turned out to be quieter than some RV parks we’ve stayed at.

When we awoke in the morning one pickup truck camper had joined us in the RV lot and a dozen semis had stopped in their lot. Surprisingly a couple motorhomes had chosen to stop in the semi lot. Weird! We were pretty pleased with our free camping location especially since we had gotten a good night’s sleep and saved $40 on the campground we planned to stop at.

We got a very early start the next day and drove about 450 miles to Junction, Texas. I had read about a city park in Junction that had free camping and all the reviews were good. We decided to drive through and if we didn’t like what we saw we could head over to one of the town’s RV parks. We expected a large gravel parking lot but what we got was amazing. The park was spread out near a small dam. There was a motorhome parked along the lakeshore and we nabbed a spot at the other end of the park below the dam. This was the view out our front door.

There was plenty of room for lots of other rigs but it was just the two of us on a Saturday night. I imagine it is a very popular place in the warmer months.

We got going the next morning intending to make it all the way to our destination about 6 hours away. But when we ran into construction on Highway 77 near Kingsville we agreed we had had enough driving and that this was close enough. I found us a campground on the nearby Baffin Bay for a couple nights and that is where we began the south Texas portion of our journey.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Ajo, AZ – January, 2016 Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was the last item on my list of must see places in Arizona for this go around. I wanted to see it primarily because my father said my late mother had loved it there. It isn’t really on the way to anywhere and I was tempted to save it for another visit. I am so glad we did not as we enjoyed the area immensely. We decided to spend two nights and one full day exploring there.

We started the day visiting the town of Ajo. I wasn’t expecting much of the town so I was pleasantly surprised. It was a rather large mining town until the mine shut down in the 1980’s. What remains is a town of around 1,800 people and some rather impressive buildings. This was their school during the town’s heyday. It has since been renovated to house artists.

They also have a town plaza, some pretty churches, and lots of cute homes. The town has an obvious artistic bent. We spent a pleasant couple of hours walking the town and then driving a scenic loop around it. It was a lovely drive, but all the drives in the area are scenic. We just love the craggily mountains here.

After a morning exploring Ajo we returned home for lunch and then made the 25 mile drive south to Organ Pipe. The afternoon was a perfect 75 degrees and sunny.

We checked out the visitor center first then made a short drive to the head of the Desert View Trail. We wanted to stretch our legs and this trail was a nice 1 and a quarter miles up and over a hill. It had some nice views and the largest concentration of Organ Pipe Cacti we saw all day.

After our walk we didn’t mind getting back in the truck again. This is a very large park so the choice was primarily which scenic drive did we want to make. Since it was already 1 pm we chose the 21 mile Ajo Mountain Scenic Loop. It was a good choice. The views were spectacular, especially during the trip in.

We stopped about halfway at the Arch Canyon viewpoint.

We decided to take the Arch Canyon Trail which was said to have good views of the arch and was supposed to be 1.2 miles out and back. It turns out the best views of the arch were from the trailhead and at 0.6 miles when you’d expect to be at the end of the trail it was really just the beginning of a climb up the rocks that appeared to promise a good view of the back of the arch but never delivered.

You could see a tantalizing small part of the arch and it seemed certain that if you climbed higher the view would appear. Just a little farther we told ourselves, as soon as we get to the other side of this boulder it will materialize. We climbed another half mile and the view never improved. We finally turned around. It is a great hike, and even a fun climb, as long as you don’t expect anything more.

It was a long and rewarding day. This area could easily keep us entertained for a week or more when we return some day.

We boondocked outside Why, Arizona, at Gunsight Wash BLM area which I found on freecamping.net. It is free with a 14 day stay limit. We pulled in on a Monday afternoon and saw around two dozen rigs while we were there. They were fairly spread out. We found a place pretty far in with a lot of space between us and our nearest neighbors.

There are supposedly two roads into the area but really there are a hundred paths in and around the small shrubs that cover the area and it is impossible to tell which is the main one. We broke the handle on our dump tank while maneuvering through one tight spot. It’s not too bad just a little confusing but if you have a large motorhome, or a new rig you don’t want to scratch, I’d recommend staying near the entrance.

We awoke to a cacophony of coyotes each morning. And they continued to serenade us throughout our morning coffee. Other than that the area was incredibly quiet and had the most amazing sunsets!

The BIG Tent, Flea Markets, & Gold

Quartzite, AZ – January, 2016 We have read about Quartzite for years so there was no question we were going to be there our first January out west. For anyone unfamiliar with Quartzite it is a small town in the desert that isn’t much more than a pitstop on the interstate during the summer. The surrounding desert offers tons of free and cheap boondocking so in the winter it is a haven for full-timers and snowbirds.

Every January for 9 days an RV show takes place there. There is a huge tent with exhibitors set up in and around it. During this time the number of visitors really spikes and there are thousands of RV’s parked in the desert in every direction. Here is a pic taken from above our campsite. If you zoom in you will see tons of white specs, each a camper, and the spot where they get really dense is near town. This is one of the less popular sides of town and the hills hide some of the more packed camping areas. Take my word for it, there are a lot of us.

Since Quartzite is not a very photogenic place I am going to throw in random pictures of the only cute things that were in abundance, puppy dogs.

We arrived the Thursday before the show started which also happened to be my 46th birthday. After we set up we drove in to town to have a look around and we stopped by one of the many flea markets to stretch our legs. This particular one happened to be primarily devoted to rock enthusiasts (not the music, the mineral kind). Quartzite also hosts a huge rock and gem show earlier in the month.

I had been fighting a cold ever since the last day of our cruise so there weren’t going to be any wild celebrations for this birthday but I did request takeout pizza for dinner. Jim and I stopped by Silly Al’s Pizza and had a couple beers while we waited for them to make our pizza. Given the size of their crowd we were surprised when our pizza was ready in less than 2 beers. We took it home and had a fabulous dinner.

Friday we headed to town after lunch to check out another huge flea market. This one was near the big tent so it had a lot of RV related items among the standard t-shirt, jewelry, and knickknacks for sale. I managed to spend a whole $1.50.

Saturday, the day of the big show, finally arrived. We got there at 9 just as the show opened which was good because we navigated the tent pretty well to start with but by the time we left a couple hours later it was getting crowded and hard to move. I have to admit that as hard as we tried to keep our expectations low, we did end up slightly disappointed by the show.

We had put off buying the few RV related items we did want until after the show thinking we might find them there so we wouldn’t have to order them. We did not. Jim was hoping to see a solar dealer that has had a booth there before and held seminars but they didn’t participate this year. He didn’t find what he wanted for the price he wanted to pay at any of the other dealers or the stores in town that offer solar.

In the days when I was collecting things and had a house to decorate, I would have loved their flea markets. We visited the ones on Main Street away from the big tent on Sunday and they had some really great old stuff, signs, and the like. But we aren’t allowing ourselves to buy anything that is not absolutely necessary. We are still culling through all the stuff we haul around and thought we couldn’t live without and donating more stuff every month or so.

The Quartzite gathering is as much about getting together with other RVers as it is about the show and flea markets. There are many groups that meet there in the desert; families, clubs, and friends.  They host get togethers all week long and I’m sure we could have joined a party or two but I didn’t feel like being very social with my cold.

We did love our free campsite at Dome Rock. We found a great spot and didn’t have any close neighbors. There are four wheel roads and ATV trails into the surrounding hills that could have kept us busy hiking for a week. We hiked up and around the nearest hill and found a mine shaft. It was a pretty solid looking tunnel that went straight in to the hill about 80 feet. Jim had brought a flashlight and insisted on checking it out.

There were also people panning for gold around us. One afternoon there was a group of men near our camp with metal detectors. They were running shovelfuls of dirt through a dry sleuth. Jim engaged them in a conversation and it turned out one of them was a well-known expert in the field of metal detecting and gold mining. He generously offered Jim some tips about his own equipment and some information on the process they were using to mine for gold in the wash.

Jim got his metal detector out and enjoyed a few hours of detecting and digging in a nearby wash. No gold yet!

American Girl Mine Boondocking

Ogilby, CA – December 2015 We spent the week at a great boondock location that was conveniently located for our brief visit to Mexico I wrote about last. Ogilby is a town that is no more. It was at the intersection of Ogilby Road and some railroad tracks. All that is left now is some graves and a foundation, a school perhaps. It is 6 miles north of I-8, 13 miles from the Algodones border crossing, and 17 miles from Yuma.

There are lots of boondocking options in the area but we chose to make the second right after the railroad tracks onto American Girl Mine Road and preferred it to the other places we saw that week. It was free to stay with a limit of 14 days. There is a fenced area with a water truck a short ways down and we turned left just after it and then went across a large dip. We found a great spot where a previous inhabitant had practiced some rock art.

The area wasn’t crowded at all. There were about a dozen or so rigs there that week and plenty of space for us to spread out. The road is well maintained and was graded or watered almost every day we were there. Even though the American Girl Mine appears to be active we only saw 2 mine trucks on the road during our stay. The wind blew all week from the north and I was grateful we had chosen to park north of the road as it looked like the campers on the south side of the road had to deal with a lot of dust every time a vehicle went by.

We arrived during a dust storm and were not looking forward to getting engulfed in sand while setting up. Thankfully when we got to our turnoff the nearby mountains blocked the wind. It was even pleasant enough to take a walk after lunch while the wide open spaces to the south were still getting slammed by winds the rest of the day.

There was so much to see and explore here. Many of the hills are actually piles of tailings, leftovers from the mining operations. There was also some abandoned equipment around. This was what was left of a chute used to load ore into trucks at some point.

Up Ogilby road a few miles is the Tumco ghost town which we visited twice. The first time we went late in the afternoon and walked the 1.5 mile loop trail barely making it back to the truck before dark. There are numbered markers on the trail but they were out of brochures so we could only guess what they meant. But most were obvious; graves, a well, the remains of a building.

The next time we went earlier in the day and headed in to the hills past the town to explore. We found this mine shaft all blocked up for our safety. Darn!

And lots of cool old mine equipment.

Tumco was a pretty big operation at one point.

Just past the spot where we camped American Girl Mine Road goes to the right and if you take the left fork you are on a road designated number 710. We took this road a couple miles past the fork until it got too rough for our truck to continue and there we discovered a huge abandoned pit mine.

Jim did some research and we believe it was the Obregon mine and town. We didn’t find any relics of the town or the mining operation here but it was fun to walk to the bottom of the mine. It was less than a mile to the bottom but I swear it was 3 miles out. Even though we were there at noon the sun was so far in the southern sky that the light never did reach the bottom of the pit so it was tough to get a good picture.

We stopped and explored several areas along the road on our way back from the pit mine. There are many holes in the sides of the hills and you can’t help but wonder if they are mine shafts. Most aren’t. One such indentation we went to look at turned out to be nothing but on our way back to the truck we stumbled upon the only open mine shaft we found all week.

We poked our heads in and noticed it was very warm inside and there was a faint odor. Jim ventured in about 10 feet, far enough to poke his head around a corner to try and see the end. He had only his cell phone flashlight and could see about 20 feet with no end in sight. He heard some noises (animals, ghosts, his imagination?!) and finally hustled back to the entrance, none too soon for my liking.

We also discovered this awesome rock along the same road.

Jim is very interested in rock hounding and metal detecting and this is the perfect area for both. He has a very nice metal detector he is still getting used to so he got it out during our stay and practiced with it. Mostly he found pop tops and old cans. We also picked up small rocks we found on our jaunts and tried to identify them on the internet. We could easily spend a month in this spot next time we are in the area just poking around every corner of these hills, looking in every hole, and inspecting rocks.

Palm Springs

Palm Springs, CA – November 2015 Before we knew it we had spent a whole week in this area and hadn’t visited any of the spots we wanted to see. We had browsed new 5th wheels for two days, then we worked on our camper for a few days, and then the weather was outstanding so we had to hang out at the pool a couple days. We realized we better get our rears in gear or we were going to miss the Palm Springs experience altogether.

We decided to ride the Palm Springs Ariel Tramway which took us about 6000 feet from the desert floor to the Mt. San Jacinto State Park in around 20 minutes.

We spent about an hour wandering around at the top experiencing each of the view points from the mountain visitor station.

But the best views were during the ride up and down. On the way up the car was pretty packed but on the trip back there were only about 10 of us so you could move around and experience the views better.

Now a few downsides in case you are considering this yourself. The ticket price was a bit steep at $25 pp. I found the trip up rather terrifying but kept my mind off it on the way down by snapping about a hundred bad photos. We experienced a mild case of altitude sickness, mostly shortness of breath and heartburn. We had hoped to hike at the top but decided to enjoy the views then go back down and find a good hike. Finally, the views at the top are really just OK. The best views are during the ride. IF I considered doing this again I would go just before sunset so I could experience the mountains in the daylight, the sunset from the top, and views of city lights below.

A few miles from our campground was the Coachella Valley Preserve. It was a very convenient place to get a couple miles of hiking in so we visited it twice during our stay. The San Andreas Fault runs directly through it and disrupts the water table creating this oasis in the desert.

We planned to drive up in to the San Jacinto Mountains to the community of Idyllwild one morning. It’s just over 5000 feet in elevation so we expected a dusting of snow and some cooler temps. The views of the mountains on the drive up were outstanding. We were just a few miles away from the town when we came upon a line of cars stopped just before a curve. Turns out there was ice on the road and several cars were unable to move. One car had slid in to the oncoming lane. Others had tried to pass and gotten nowhere but in the way. Thankfully not a single collision had occurred but the road was blocked. We waited around about 20 minutes and they didn’t seem to be any closer to resolving the mess so we turned around and headed back down.

We had passed this idyllic lake on the way up so we stopped to check it out on the way back. Many of the trees around the lake were carved with names and figures as the tree in this picture is. I’m sure as a nature lover I am supposed to be appalled but it was quite charming.

The walk was freezing cold but we had brought our warmest layers. We enjoyed a beautiful walk and appreciated the warmer temperatures back in camp even more after that.

We ended up saving the one thing I most wanted to do in this area for our very last day. I had visited Joshua Tree National Park with my family when I was about 12 and it had made an impression so I couldn’t wait to share it with Jim. It was an hour’s drive from camp. The main attraction in this park is rocks, BIG rocks. There are amazing piles of large, very climbable boulders. We stopped at Jumbo Rock, which is actually a campground, and walked a while and climbed some of them. The texture of the rocks makes it easy to get a good grip and they are piled in such a way that it is generally possible to find a negotiable path to the top.

The drive through the park was fun and every parking lot had another great pile of rocks to view, explore, and possibly conquer.

Unfortunately I had not even consulted the weather report for the area and never imagined that there was actually a 4,000 foot rise in elevation from camp to there. It was already one of the chillier days we had experienced in the area and after arriving we realized it was going to do good to break 40 degrees in the park that day. So we didn’t do as much hiking as I’d hoped but agreed we would come back and camp here one day and scramble around the rocks to our hearts’ content.

We really enjoyed our stay at Palm Springs Thousand Trails RV Resort. It is actually about 15 miles from Palm Springs but was fairly convenient. The campground is very picturesque with rows and rows of huge palm trees and it has a great pool and hot tub. We were there over Thanksgiving so we signed up for their potluck dinner. I took a couple of cream pies and we had an incredible meal. We are still using up the 30 days of free camping we got when we joined Thousand Trails so we can justify our $545 annual fee. We have used 24 days to date.

A Cautionary Tale

Pismo Beach, CA November, 2015  We were so excited to find this awesome boondocking spot and I couldn’t wait to share it but first I have to admit some of the difficulties we encountered.

Just south of Pismo Beach, California, is the Oceana Dunes State Recreation Area. Jim found it while looking at a satellite view of the area surrounding the relatively expensive campground we were at in Pismo Beach. It sounded familiar to me and I realized a friend had sent me info on it several years ago.

We drove the beach one morning and it looked like a great spot. You can camp anywhere on the beach that you want after the first mile marker and the fee is $10 per night. It was only a few miles from our campground at Pismo Coastal Village where we had a midweek special of $40 PN for full hookups.

We were cautious so we drove over and checked it out again before moving our rig over on a Thursday morning. We drove to mile marker 4 (which is actually only 2 1/2 miles from the Pier Avenue access) and found a great spot. We made a U turn so our door would face away from the blowing wind and sand and got stuck mid turn. It was ridiculous how fast we got mired down in the loose sand!

We grabbed our travel shovel and several small pieces of plywood and started digging ourselves out. But I don’t think we ever would have gotten out of that first predicament on our own. Thankfully we didn’t have to as an awesome couple that was familiar with the area soon stopped, pulled out a tow rope, and started helping. Over an hour later we had disconnected the 5th wheel and reconnected at a 90 degree angle, another local good samaritan had stopped with a longer shovel, and we finally got out of our original dilemma. We gave huge thank yous all around and cash to anyone that would accept it.

We still had to do a U turn though to get into a good position to camp for the weekend and so we would be pointed toward the exit when it was time to leave. I’ll be darned if we didn’t get stuck again mid turn despite being on the more hard packed “road.” We were within sight of the original couple that had helped us. They were hooked up and getting ready to leave. It was embarrassing! Some other guys in 4 wheel drive trucks with big knobby tires stopped. We weren’t too far gone this time and they quickly pulled us out of that mess and gave us some more pointers about driving in California sand. I insisted they take some beer money.

The short story is that wet sand is our friend on this beach. Also we had to let our tire pressure down to 38 pounds despite what we had read to the contrary. I think the weight of our rig had a lot to do with it as she’s on the heavy side (don’t tell her I said so). After paying people to help us we figure the cost of camping here was $21 per night for our 5 night stay.

Although we had the best time camping here, I can only cautiously recommend it. People were getting stuck all the time! But others were always offering to pull them out. It was a real affirmation of the human spirit.

We spent a total of 9 days in the area and really enjoyed our visit. While at Pismo Coastal Village we walked to the pier every day where there is free fishing without a license.

We also walked to the Monarch Butterfly Grove where butterflies come to spend the winter.

And we enjoyed a visit to the Dinosaur Caves area in Shell Beach a few miles north.

But once we moved to Oceana Dunes we just settled in and didn’t get out much.

We walked the beach for miles. Jim surf fished. We had a campfire every evening. And we people watched. It was a bit loud on the weekend with tons of 4 wheelers and such. But we just sat in our chairs and watched the parade of people and machines with the ocean as its backdrop.

On our last night a couple pulled in next to us in a motorhome and promptly got stuck. They asked Jim’s advice and he said something like “looks like you’re home, come join us at our fire when you get set up.” So they did. We enjoyed visiting with them and the next morning we helped tow them back to the firmer sand before going on our way.

We had wondered all week if we were going to have any trouble getting out. It was like a small cloud hanging over the otherwise perfect days. We had aired our tires back up for a trip to the store and at first we tried getting out without letting the air out. But we finally had to air down. After that, a little digging, and the placement of plywood where necessary we were gratefully on our way.

San Francisco

Morgan Hill to San Francisco, CA – Oct, 2015 We were excited to visit San Francisco but not so excited about the traffic. So we chose to stay outside of town at Morgan Hill Thousand Trails Campground. We had paid for a Thousand Trails zone pass as I explained at the end of my Crater Lake post and now had 30 days free camping so it wasn’t going to cost us anything more. We liked the campground. It was just a few minutes out of Morgan Hill, 25 minutes to San Jose, and an hour drive to down town San Francisco.

Jim suggested we use public transportation to get downtown and I loved the idea. The options were a little daunting and I am grateful I did extensive research on the internet before starting out or it could have been very frustrating. For instance, we would have liked to ride the BART train because it was cheaper but it sounded like parking near their stations was a nightmare. Caltrain came right through Morgan Hill but it turned out it only ran that far out on a very limited schedule. So we chose to drive to San Jose and catch it there. The roundtrip train tickets cost $18 each. We could then ride Muni busses for 90 minutes at a time for $2.25 each or Golden Gate Transit busses for twice that amount (they appeared to make less stops). So loaded with maps and notes and all our standard electronic devices we headed out.

We enjoyed the train ride in. It was interesting seeing the city from the tracks. We walked a couple blocks from the station and caught a bus to China town. At first the bus was almost empty but as we got nearer to our destination more and more people, mostly Asian, many elderly, got on. We happily gave up our seats to older folks. Every time the doors opened many more people got on a bus that I thought was already full. I don’t know how they all fit but they did. We were packed in the middle and couldn’t have gotten off if we wanted to. So we held on till our stop. The throng of people departed along with us and left the bus deserted. It was a fun, interesting experience.

We walked up and down the streets of Chinatown for a while experiencing the very different sights and smells. We looked through gift shops at souvenirs and trinkets we had no use for. I wished we had made this our last stop as it was a veritable farmers market and I would have loved to take some produce home. But we didn’t buy a thing. Just soaked it all in and went away with a couple photos.

We caught a bus headed for the Golden Gate Bridge. We expected to have to change busses along the route. The first bus stopped before we planned to get off and said it was the end of the line. Thankfully we could almost see our next stop so we walked to it and waited for the bus which dropped us off at the visitor center for the bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge was truly awesome! It’s about 2 miles across so we walked to the very center of it and back which made a great 2 mile walk. It was incredibly clear when we got there and the views of the bay and the city were amazing. When we turned around in the middle, a bank of fog was rolling in and by the time we got back to the welcome center we could hardly see the bridge at all.

We planned to catch a Golden Gate Transit bus back to the 4th street train station as it should have been faster. It was a far more confusing bus system than the Muni and ended up taking longer as their busses didn’t arrive as scheduled. It also cost quite a bit more when it didn’t take us all the way to our train station and we caught a Muni bus to take our tired feet the last mile. But we did make it back to the station in time to catch an express train back to San Jose. This train made fewer stops so it took less than an hour to get to San Jose instead of 90 minutes. Next time we will just stick with the Muni busses when in San Francisco.

The most interesting thing we learned from this experience is that the Google Maps app on our phones has all the bus and train schedules on it. Just plug in where you want to go and choose public transportation as your mode of travel and it will give you all the options and usually calculate the cost as well. It is truly amazing the information we now carry in the palm of our hands! Of course, by the end of the day my battery was dead and I had made quite a dent in my data plan, but it really made traveling in an unfamiliar city less stressful.

We planned to make a second trip in to the city to visit Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz. But after having experienced the city first hand, we were more convinced than ever that we didn’t want to drive our big truck in. And when we added the cost of public transportation to the price of the Alcatraz tickets, we agreed it just wasn’t worth it. We look forward seeing more of San Francisco on our next visit someday.

The next day we headed back to San Jose to see the Winchester Mystery House. The mansion tour was a bit pricey at $36 each but had long been on our must see list. Jim was looking forward to the gun museum, a collection of every Winchester gun ever made. It was interesting but paled in comparison to the free gun museum at Bass Pro Shops in our hometown of Springfield Missouri.

The house was very interesting to see, especially since we love architecture. The amount of detail in the woodwork was mind boggling. The stained glass windows and doors were stunningly beautiful. You are not supposed to take pictures inside the house but I couldn’t help sneaking a few with my phone. I loved this beautiful stained glass door.

There is so much to do in this area and we only scratched the surface. We enjoyed a day in Monterey where we had lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf and walked the Bay Coastal Trail. There are wineries galore both north and south of San Francisco and many have beautiful gardens to explore.

We enjoyed our stay in this area immensely and will be back.