Deserts and the tales of the wild west

Leaving the giant state of Texas was a bit overwhelming. We had barely scratched the surface on this giant state, and we were sadly moving on. We drove through El Paso in exactly the same way we had bypassed Houston with its multi lane highway and overpasses galore. The historic markers allude to the old times when this was New Spain and the route between Mexico City and Santa Fe. Flat long highways that were lined with acres and acres of pecan and pistachio groves.

Shacks along the way advertised their availability. We stopped at the at the Don José bakery just outside of Big Bend Ranch State Park at Presidio on our way north to the I-10. It was the first of a few Mexican bakeries that we visited. Not a word of English was spoken but a few of the patrons were able to translate to the Mexican baker and his wife what we were looking for. We were looking for anything fresh and tasty and these clients had us buy their favourites; the rolls that were like brioche with anise seeds in it. OMG. These were fresh, still warm, and we could have eaten 6 of them in one go. The other buns we bought were a simple oblong white roll that were a bit of a staple. We found a plastic tub of rustic (homemade) pork stew in a cooler and bought fresh tortillas from them to have with it. Delish! We really just wanted a loaf of bread. Usually I bake bread but… this was way better.

We were headed for Las Cruces as we had heard from another full time RV family that the Organ Mountains right outside of town were gorgeous and there was a fantastic BLM (Bureau of Land Management) camping area on the edge of the mountains. Las Cruces was also a good jumping off point to visit the White Sands National Monument and do some biking. We arrived before sunset and were set up in time for a phenomenal, warm, glowing sundown with a cold craft beer in hand. We were in a secluded, sheltered dip at the end of a windy road that was lined with campers. We had a gorgeous view of the mountains and no view of the campers. Behind us was the orange and red sunset with increasing glow of the lights from Las Cruces.

The highways were far enough away that road-noise was minimal, and the setting was quite peaceful. We felt so lucky. We BBQ’d steaks and veggies and settled in to plan the next couple of days. While we were eating, coyotes came close with their high-pitched yelps and whistles that we thought they were after the BBQ. Opening the door of the trailer we could see them 30 feet away then they vanished. We never heard them again close up like that. Next morning, a poopy present had been deposited beside the BBQ. We realized this was a symbolic marker of their territory and their tolerance of us in it. 

Next day we drove over the mountain pass and on the other side in the valley was the White Sands National Monument. The dunes that are the “white sands” are made of gypsum deposited into the base of the old seabed basin over 10 million years ago. They stretch for over 250 square miles and are part of a buried lakebed that is below the gypsum deposits. This gypsum sand is blown into a huge dune garden that changes with the wind. Much of it is preserved as a national monument (park) and the rest is part of a military testing range. As we approached the dunes in this stretch of Chihuahua desert, they were a messy white with patches of grasses, yuccas and other indigenous plants that survive there. We stopped at the visitor center, got all the info we needed, and headed into the park. As we drove in the plant life changed then became sparser until it completely disappeared, and we were on a snowy white plain with drifts of white sand completely surrounding us. The similarities to snow were quite striking, as far as its ability to blow around and become drifts requiring plows to regularly clear the roadways through the park area. The changing, monotonous landscape confuses some visitors that venture too far from their cars and become lost in the similarities of the landscape around them.

Signs regularly posted along our route reminded visitors to not stray too far from parking areas or marked trails. It was not sand (or snow). Sand is rock and silica. This white sand was gypsum. Drywall. It was in a low area in the desert and as with all lowest areas, water pooled at the bottom. Like a bathtub. Water cools as it evaporates so the gypsum was cool, hard and wet. WIERD!!!!

The park rangers suggested we take off our shoes and walk on it. The “sand” was cold. Because it was wet! In the desert! As we climbed above the parking area, it became “sandy” and warmer. WEIRD!! And our feet were pure white which continued into the truck and anywhere we had touched these dunes. It was like walking on wet drywall and smearing around the drywall mud. We stayed for about an hour, took the photos that said we had seen it and left. It was kind of neat but didn’t draw us to staying for a long time or returning. “Been there done that”.

The next couple of days were spent mountain biking up into the Organ mountains and visiting Las Cruces and Mesilla which is a historical part of greater Las Cruces. Mesilla once held the distinction of being the capitol of Arizona and New Mexico. It was here that we began to really feel the calamity that was the “Old West”. Mesilla and it’s old Capitol Building is also famous for being the location for the legal trial and conviction of Billy the Kid for murder. Cattle rustlers, Stagecoach robbers and gunfights colour the past of the area and mysterious disappearances of lawmen that chased them down are legend. On such lawman and Mesilla icon was Albert J. Fountain who, with his eight-year-old son, mysteriously disappeared from their blood covered wagon near White Sands NM. The culprits were never found but the suspects were members of a cattle rustling gang that Fountain had tried and had convicted. This area was where romantic Hollywood clichés meet gritty gunslinging survival. 

While Mesilla was cute and decorated for Christmas with evergreens and Chili wreathes, it had many reminders of difficult days gone by. While bike riding, the harshness of the desert was paramount. There is an exotic beauty to the gardenlike flora, but nothing you would want to touch or even fall into.  Desert riding through gravelly washes are slippery, the Barrel Cactus, Prickly Pear, Ocotillo, Yuccas, Creosote bushes, and countless other unforgiving plants give fare warning not to get to close or be harmed. Unforgiving enough to puncture Al’s tire! The rocky routes that we took through washes and ATV chewed roads managed to plunge me into some road rash and bloody knees. No pain; no gain! Right!?!?! Our BLM site at Las Cruces was one of the more beautiful sites to camp that we had experienced and we may come back another time if we are out this way. 

After Las Cruces, we were headed to the Kartchner Caverns State Park. En route we drove through so many different passes that were all different from each other. The most amazing one was a bunch of boulders piled up that made us feel we were in the Flintstone cartoon. The boulders were formed while underground when rains would drain down and rinse away the edges. Over time these carved monuments were pushed out of the ground with the shifting tectonic plates. The most impressive boulder formations along the road were in the rugged fortress called the Dragoon Mountains. This is where the tough and brilliant strategist, Apache Chief Cochise and about 1000 of his followers evaded the blundering US army for more than ten years during the Apache Wars. The “Stronghold” is yet another story of Arizona/New Mexico cowboy Indian army history.

We had heard there was some weather on the way and decided to find a hook up and plant for a couple of days and day trip out from there. The Kartchner Cavern caves are also very famous, but, for shame, we decided not to go below ground. We were feeling like the Carlsbad Caverns were so amazing we had “been there done that”. There was plenty to do and see if we didn’t want to head into these caverns. We went on a beautiful 5-mile desert hike above and behind the campground just before the rains came. We could see as far as the Dragoon Mountains, Tombstone, the mountains surrounding Tucson and far down the valley to Mexico.

The next day we headed for Tombstone and the Boothill Graveyard. This area of New Mexico boasted its fair share of bloodshed. From warring with the Apache, to staking claims on gold, silver and copper, to ranching, to outlaws robbing stagecoaches while rustling cattle from Mexico to the US, and just desert survival, the hardships of the area were paramount. It also bordered the famously dangerous Mexican Sierra Madre where before drug cartels and borders, it was a renowned as a dangerous lawless piece of the world. After reading the book “God’s Middle Finger”, the Sierra Madre didn’t improve with the drug cartels! Tombstone was a town that was a ranching and mining town ravaged by drunken tough guys and ladies of the evening.

The gold seeking pioneer that founded the mine, and ultimately the town, was told “All you are going to find out there is your Tombstone”. Hence the name. The shootout at the OK Corral happened in Tombstone. The town was preserved as a mini museum with actors in period dress, gunslinging cowboys, stagecoach tours, and multiple daily shootouts at the OK Corral, which was really entertaining. Over the years all but one building were destroyed by fires but you wouldn’t know it. As you wander the few streets that portray the old west with saloons, brothel boutiques, and candy stores, you have to commend the locals who have turned what could have been one of the area ghost towns into a viable busy tourist destination. There is a local craft brewery, a historical society, multiple restaurants, museums, and the Boothill graveyard where all the “bad guys” are, including the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton, killed October 26, 1881 at the OK Corral.  The memorable “good guys” that shot them were the Earp brothers Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt plus Doc Holiday. It is hard to know who the good or bad guys were, but the re-enactment had the sheriff running the saloon and the Doc visiting his consort….

The graveyard was a fantastic visit. The grave markers were maintained in a rickety fashion and the map of the graveyard told the story of pain and peril. Not sure where the uppity class were buried but we heard there was another cemetery that held the upper crust folks. 

Kartchner Caverns campground was about an hour south of Tucson Arizona and we hadn’t yet been to Tucson. We decided to drive via the southern entry and visit the Spanish Mission San Xavier del Bac, one of the first Spanish Catholic missions built in North America by the Jesuits in the late 17th century.  After that, they were run out by an Apache raid the Franciscans took over about 100 years later. The building is the oldest European building in Arizona.

There was a very active historical and restoration society that was working on restoring the buildings to their traditional mud plaster architecture. The Spanish architecture with Indigenous folk-art was indeed novel as the paintings and carvings depicted the style of the local people rather than the white Jesus of most churches. Overall the religious tone felt laid back and cozy with the folk-art influence from generations of mixed race cultures  – Spanish, Native American, Mexican and British. We found a delicious Mexican restaurant for lunch in South Tucson and headed back to the trailer. 

Next day we headed out of the Chihuahua Desert and into the Sonora Desert. The Sonora desert had the iconic Saguaro Cactus popping into view often in numbers we considered a forest. We found a BLM site just south of the highway, but we also realized our gas tank was close to empty. Google sent us to a gas station along the highway, but it wasn’t a gas station yet or anymore. There was a pony tailed, elderly hippy, “kind soul”, supervising some others working on a car. He limped over and advised us to go 20 miles up the road. He had a friend in Canada! We got the sense that he was just as happy killing folks as meeting new folks. We made our way and passed hundreds of thousands of cattle that were destined for American dinner plates.

Gassed up, we headed for the BLM and our friendly saguaro cacti. While camped there we hiked over land to a rocky outcrop and caught the last of the day’s sunshine. 

Next day we headed to desert number three, the Colorado Desert, and the town of Yuma in the heart of the Colorado desert with the famous Colorado river sliding through the town as it nears its exit into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. At the tourist information stop, there was a train display immortalizing the fact that Yuma became a destination because there was a relatively easy pass to build a railroad to get over the Colorado River and to the Pacific Coast. Yuma, in Arizona, sits on the US / Mexico and California, so it was warm, cheap and full of delicious Mexican food. Yuma’s topography included a maze of dykes and rerouted Colorado river channels surrounded by mountains that were old volcano cones and farmland.

There was dry barren desert contrasted by hundreds of acres of rich agricultural land composed of citrus groves, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, kale and lettuce fields. All this agriculture was made possible by irrigation from the diverted Colorado river. While driving along the highway it was obvious that the main source of housing was similar to ours and that the people are only here for a few months. RV parks were everywhere. We barely saw any houses. We found a BLM site above the farmlands and the irrigation ditches and stayed a few nights. Our neighbours in the BLM were all snowbirds enjoying the free camping and many of them had OHV (Off Highway Vehicles) quads and dune buggies. All of these quads had 70 something year-olds and licence plates on them so they could also take them on the roads. The trails through the badlands behind the BLM was double track that had all been chewed up by OHVs and made mountain biking on them challenging. Imagine a solid sandbar being stirred up and mixed with rocks on a steep incline. I tried riding it but mostly pushed my bike up and down the trailways. I was so demoralized. From a distance it didn’t look difficult but when you balanced yourself on a two wheeled bike after the quads had taken the blender to the surface, it was really unstable. Even Albert had to renegotiate a few of the hills. Nothing but hard surfaces and cacti to land on if you bailed. I wept.

So, we headed to the lower terrain and decided on a margarita instead of killing ourselves. When the sun went down the UFO’s arrived. Not really but in the dark the airplanes with large strips of floodlights were buzzing the fields below us. These crop dusters were a marvel in aviation skill. The hazards around the fields were not just the mountains but there were electrical wires flanking every field. Reading about them later we learned that many of these pilots had perished from plane crashes and the effects of toxic chemicals they were distributing in their back draft. These occupational hazards had been reduced now that computer and GPS systems were so precise. Electrical power line locations are now programed into their flight plans and sensors measuring moisture, insect infestation and weather conditions in the fields are all considerations in the administration of pesticides or nutrients. These efficient programming tools make mapping the planes route over the fields more effective using fewer toxic chemicals also making it cheaper and healthier for pilots, farmers and consumers. In addition, only fields with a problem were dusted. These amazing pilots were pretty fun to watch. Like dragonflies over a pond.  

After Yuma we were nearing our planned Christmas destination; Palm Desert for three weeks. Last year we booked the last of the time left on our inherited timeshare at the Desert Breezes resort on the border of Palm Desert and Indian Wells. Across the street from the resort was the huge Indian Wells Tennis Garden where the US open and countless other tennis tournaments are held. Marnie and Jim (my sister and her husband) were joining us. And for the one Christmas week, we had their daughter Quin, and our Mum and Don. The rest of our children were not able to join us. 

Greater Palm Springs aka the Coachella Valley, is a large valley oasis with deep aquifers, 9 towns and more smaller communities. There are many manmade lakes, golf courses, and most of the streets are walled, gated and closed to non-residents or non-members. It is very clean, tidy and antiseptic. We are not golfers and to be honest we were concerned that the area may not be “our thing”, although Christmas in a warm desert environment seemed like a great idea. But WOW, did we find lots to do!! Surrounded by the San Jacinto Mountains, Joshua Tree National Monument, the dead Salton Sea, the Mid-Century Modern architecture, artsy walks, movie star homes and the hillsides and oases that were the result of the San Andreas fault tripping through the area, there was hiking and discovery everywhere. 

We hiked up a trail overlooking the unique and impressive previous home of Bob Hope. Although it is someone else’s home now, it is still known as Bob Hope’s house. One day no one will know who Bob Hope is and they may call it something else. We hiked the Cactus canyon up near the Pignon tree line in the San Jacinto mountains. We hiked into a canyon wash along the Palms to Pine highway that narrowed as we ascended and saw, above us, a flock of bighorn sheep.

We drove through Joshua Tree National Park from south to north seeing the transition from Colorado desert to Mohave desert where the unique Joshua trees grow. We stopped and hiked to a palm oasis at Cottonwood Visitors center. We looked out over the whole Coachella Valley that encompasses greater Palm Springs all the way to the Salton Sea. We returned again after a snowfall in Joshua Tree and took sunset shots on the gorgeous rocky outcrops with snowy fields of these Dr. Seussesque cartoon trees.  

We hiked the “Ladder Canyon” driving around a sandy, washed-out road. Then parking beside all the fancy cars (weirdly including a Jag, Bentley and many Mercedes) in the sand and gravel up the canyon. It was a hike up the canyon wash, to a ridgeline overlooking the Salton Sea and the San Jacinto mountains, then down through a slot canyon in the Mecca hills which are on the San Andreas fault. This is the same fault line that hugs Vancouver Island. We hiked along the trails beside the Thousand Palms and through a creek running between them. These huge California palms occur when there is a water source up to twenty feet below the surface. The San Andreas fault has many fissures underground that form wells where these trees grow. Sometimes they were even growing out of the sides of the hills rather than at the valley floor which seemed out of place when we saw them. They were messy and so foreign to the orderliness of the greater Palm Springs cities.

Our cousin, Mike Everett, is the meteorologist for NBC Palm Springs and one evening we were invited to tour and watch the newscast in studio. 

Christmas this year was a completely different with no presents, a Mexican feast on Christmas Eve and another drive through Joshua Tree on Christmas day with our extended families. Quin’s partner Liam, lives in LA and his family visiting from Portland. They were staying in the town of Joshua Tree and joined us for Christmas Eve dinner. They were staying at the iconic Joshua Tree Inn where influential country-rock musician, Gram Parsons took his life with morphine and alcohol. We stopped to visit on our way past on Christmas day. There was a memorial at the motel, thus making our foray into dead musician memorials a thing. 

Jim returned to Calgary on December 29 and Marnie stayed on until after the first week of January. Our timeshare finished up on January 3rd so we took Marn camping in the desert. We headed to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park and with one trip back to send Marn home, we have been there ever since. What a park!!! With Marnie, we stayed at the Borrego Springs State Park Campground with full hookup for three nights. There was a beautiful 3 mile hike into the valley behind the park with a waterfall and more California Palms with their natural hula skirts draping to the valley floor.  The town of Borrego Springs originally had a development plan similar to Palm Springs and it is dotted with a few golf communities, mid century modern neighbourhoods, farming and a lack of water to sustain growth let alone to support the community as it stands. We tootled around the few streets and round-about that make up the town of Borrego Springs, went to an art opening and a drive through the Montezuma highway to the Old Stage Coach road and the town of Julian for pie. Julian is famous for apples and pie. It is on the highway to San Diego and we were there on a holiday Sunday so it was an absolute zoo. We didn’t stop and kept driving a further three miles to quiet Wynola where we found a bakery with DELICIOUS APPLE PIE!! Topping it with cinnamon ice cream, we had the perfect lunch and returned to the campground.

Here are some of our favourite hikes and places in and around Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Our journey north begins next post.

Adventures with Albert in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia

So, I set out after dropping Deb off for the flight to Vancouver. It was about 1:00 PM and my destination was Smith Mountain Lake State Park Virginia. We had a great taste of US mountain biking in Richmond at Fairfax Lake Park and Round Top NY and I was keen to indulge in a few rides in the area of Roanoke. Deb and I had fine-tuned navigating the US highway system with the help of Google Maps on her iPhone. My destination would certainly be as easy to find, right?! Afterall I had more than enough time (4 hours) to check in, settle into the new campsite and plan the following day of biking. About halfway along I made a stop for gas that started a series of turns that kept getting just a bit more like narrow winding country roads instead of major highways. Hmmm? The terrain is hilly as you travel west through Virginia. The Appalachian Mountain include the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah. The topography that makes cell phone signals a little less than reliable. This is frustrating when, alone, after the 5th “rerouting” message you begin to ponder the off-grid option from what might be the completely wrong end of a state you know nothing about!! In retrospect, part of the confusion was probably that this was the first time I had applied my phone to the task of direction finding. In any event, after cautiously steering our pride and joy home-on-wheels through more tight turns, in fading light and dwindling gas than I care to remember, I pulled into a roadside stop where kind locals assured me – I was close. Now punching the clock at 8:30 PM as I wheeled through the park gates, I prayed I hadn’t missed some deadline to check in. A note with my name on it was on the park headquarters door. I breathed a sigh seeing my site vacant and welcoming me through my headlights. Sometime after 9:00 I called Deb to see that her travels had been less arduous. After some grub and a good sleep, I woke to a new adventure, exploring this great looking park.

I had reserved for two nights. The trails around the park were quite bike friendly and very scenic. My first day was a big ride on mostly cross-country style trails in and around the lake. Fall colours and mild temperatures encouraged me to explore it all and at about 4 PM I could hear a cold, local craft beer calling me from our fridge (weird, I know, but these things happen to me). Day two was about checking out Roanoke for a mountain bike park that I reckoned would provide ample new mountain bike trail fun. Carvins Cove is a multi use municipal recreation park encompassing a large reservoir, smooth rising hills and mostly frequented by area residents. I searched and searched for the mountain biking side of it but that was easier said than done. My phone-map took me to an out of the way zone for boaters. After a few hours of lost, I resigned to do better research and headed back to camp. Next day I pulled up stakes and headed for a campsite that was a bit closer to town, Middle Creek Campground (MCC).

MCC was a smallish private campground nestled on the border of the Jefferson National Forest in a holler of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is an access point for the Appalachian Trail on the road that leads to the campground and a picturesque little creek with numerous fly-fishing enthusiasts along the way. The busy season was over, and it seemed that the pace was settling into a much welcomed off season mindset. The people that remained were mostly full timers that had found an accepting locale for their ATV/ dirt bike hobby and they were relishing the lack of competition for trail space. I rolled my eyes at the emphasis on off road mayhem and noise, but they were very respectful of morning and dinner hour curfews. Good thing because I had signed on for 4 nights. Eager to find Carvins Cove Mountain Bike Park I got on the road with a solid, direct route to follow to my destination.

Arriving without a glitch, I assembled the bike and disappeared into the beautiful autumn colours. My enthusiasm was hard to moderate, and I could feel the fine line between careless abandon and levelheaded self-preservation beginning to blur. A trail called “Four Gorges” provoked the less cautious characteristics in me. After about Gorge #2 I was “Carve’n” up Carvins Cove with great abandon.

All good things do come to an end and this one really came crashing down on me. An innocent looking too-close-for-comfort tree clipped my handlebar and sent me into a 30 kph reality check with the uphill trail edge. Humbled and feeling chastised for the lapse in judgment, I attempted to evaluate my ability to proceed in light of the increasing pain from the impact. My hand and wrist seemed to be the area most unwilling to comply with my adrenaline-fueled brain. Compartmentalizing this inconvenient truth, I continued on my way but with a renewed respect for the forces of excessive velocity and gravity (not to mention the limiting factors surrounding the diminished usefulness of my left hand). Unable to ignore the fact that I was now riding alone, onehanded on unfamiliar intermediate ability trails. I decided to avail myself to the wisdom of discretion being the better part of valour. The torqueing that my hand sustained in the fall would handicap me for a month and preclude my ability to enjoy a painless bike ride. The combined swelling with black, blue and greenish brown bruising lasted several weeks and is still a top of mind reminder to err on the side of caution when my inner seventeen year old begins to indulge its careless whims (I do realize that many others have learned to intervene sooner. I, admittedly, am a slow learner of this).

The city of Roanoke VA has a colorful history that intertwines railroads, mining and textile industries. Originally known as Big Lick (so named for the salt marshes where various animals congregated to indulge in these “salt licks”). This title is now remembered in the name of a trendy micro-brewery that I searched out called Big Lick Brewing Co. My first visit to downtown Roanoke left me feeling that I had somehow missed the vitality of a city that should have had more to offer the inquisitive visitor. My impressions of downtown were of a void in the atmosphere in the place, revealing a more desperate social disintegration. I arrived at the City Market area due to a boastful brochure I had read claimed “the oldest continuously operated Farmers Market in VA – open 7 days a week”. There was no visible activity of kiosks selling homemade wares just some homeless people gathered around the available tables in the square. After being accosted by an overly persistent inebriated guy photo bombing my picture at the Deschutes Brewery claiming he would take my picture – “give me your camera” etc. I fled to a nearby hotel before making a getaway back to my car. A quick search on my phone said that Big Lick Brewing was only a short drive away so I made tracks for the familiar sanctuary of a microbrewery.

I wrote that experience off to it being bad timing on my part – a late Sunday afternoon gap. But the next day, after walking a number of square blocks of downtown, it only reinforced my first impressions. There was one exception. The Taubman Museum of Art was excellent and I spent a couple hours enjoying the exhibits there. I resolved to explore the area surrounding Roanoke. After a harrowing Halloween-eve storm (that, incidentally, temporarily impeded my return to the trailer and campsite and cancelled the trick or treat festivities of resident kids) I drove to Mill Mountain and took my obligatory selfie at the Roanoke Star, surveyed the panoramic view from the observation area and took a short hike around the top on the easy trails offered there. My search for redeeming sites of interest led me to the historic Grandin Theatre. Opened in 1932, the Grandin Movie Palace provided locals with a luxury venue for movie escapism. The Joker (from the Batman comics genre) was playing so I decided to take that in. It was a great choice and the old theatre setting provided added nuance to the movie of choice.

It was time to get back to Richmond VA to meet Deb after her trip to the Skills meeting so I set out for a “Harvest Hosts”(HH) site that  would be an easy few hours drive and get me within easy access to a park with close proximity to the Richmond Airport for my next camp site. The host was a small family vineyard off US 460 offering farmgate style local wines. As I mentioned above, the storm on Halloween caused some havoc with windfall in various parts of the state and when I arrived the owner of the property was hard at work with a chainsaw bucking up the debris of fallen tree limbs in his paddocks. From the minimal road signage I wasn’t certain that I had found my destination but when I rolled in, he approached the truck in his straw Stetson, sleeveless white undershirt, and hollered “You must be my Harvest Hostee?” to which I replied “You must be the Harvest Hoster?” As he got closer, I took notice of his Yosemite Sam moustache and a prominent shoulder tattoo of two crossed six shooters with smoking barrels, and what might have either been a confederate flag or a contemporary American flag. Clearly a man of convictions. With a neighborly smile he motioned for me to follow him up the long driveway to a spot where RV’s usually camped. I felt a bit awkward following while he quietly sauntered in front of my truck, walking in silence until we reached the barn shaped winery and tasting room with the adjacent campsite. He casually mentioned that the gravel road led into his vineyards and that I was welcome to proceed further if I wanted but that most people chose the current spot. It was level and that was all I needed to set up. Before he left I asked if the tasting room was open and he said that it being Saturday there would probably be visitors at which point his daughter would be providing tours and tastings. Great – I was curious as to the offerings of this off the beaten track fermenteria. I read and cracked a beer in the remaining sun. Eventually a fellow identifying himself as the son in law said he would show me around and provide the tasting. The wines were rustic and had some unusual characteristics that I found edgy but maybe quite common for the local crowd. I bought 2 bottles out of a feeling of obligation to patronize my “Hoster”. There were posters and t-shirts available as well but not with whimsical pictures of grapes and winery slogans, but these were Rock and Roll themed and more specifically in a Heavy Metal themed. Turns out the proprietor hosts a Rock festival that attracts tens of thousands and ultimately involves most of the town to assist in hosting. The plot thickened. At the till I noticed a stack of calendars and thought to pick one up for the trailer. I flipped through it and, not being too thick headed, quickly picked up on the theme in the images of guns and gun toting enthusiasts. The sponsor was clearly represented on the back in the “Support your local Virginia NRA Club” pitch. For whatever reason I put the copy of the calendar that I was thumbing through down without comment but the wheels were turning in my mind on a scheme to surprise Deb with a brand new 2020 NRA calendar for our trailer. Well the plan gelled after I departed the tasting and fortunately the son in-law returned to the barn/ winery around 8:00 PM to get his ATV so he could retrieve the 8 point buck he had shot in the not so distant pastures. I managed to squeeze in an inquiry regarding the calendars through his animated and detailed descriptions of the kill. “Hey, you know those calendars at the till inside, could I have one?” went my quick change of topic. I didn’t even think to ask if they were free or not. “ I’ll let my father in law know he is the one that takes care of that.” “Oh, okay, great.” Was my response, feeling like this was a bit more than just grabbing a free calendar from a local outlet. The next morning, I finished up with breakfast and with a short drive ahead I took my time planning my day. There was some rustling of activity around the front of the main building and I walked over and caught up with the son inlaw. Inquiring one more time about the “free” calendar he said “oh yeah I’ll get (whatever the proprietors name was) we are just getting ready to go to church.” It didn’t escape my notice that he was quite comfortable with the “Open Carry” status he presented. From my vantage point the firearm looked to be a 9mm Glock or like. I was invited into the tasting room again and “Yosemite Sam” appeared from a side door packing a similar weapon of self-defense. “Yes, you can have a calendar, but they are not free.” “Oh, ok how much?” “$50 bucks” was the reply. Closing my jaw with my hand I quickly backtracked on my intention to acquire the calendar and the surprise for Deb (wouldn’t that have been a surprise!). “But it’s a great deal! It’s a draw a month for some really nice guns. On the first Wednesday of each month there is a draw for collectors’ guns, look…” He proceeded to show me the prizes. He was right they were some of the “nicest” looking guns (rifles and hand guns) that I have seen. I made a feeble excuse as to my nomad existence and “How would they get the prize to me if I won?…” I pleaded lamely. My Harvest Hoster and his family were very courteous and friendly, I felt very safe and at ease the whole time. After-all this is their home and their community and I was a guest that they opened their life to and hosted in a friendly, welcoming manner. I proceeded to get packed up, they headed off to church and all I have is 2 bottles of marginal wine (not yet consumed) and this story but the memory is at least as good as hanging that trophy calendar in our trailer.

Everything progressed as planned. Checking into the new campsite at Pocahontas State Park, picking Deb up at the airport and continuing down the adventure filled roads we have chosen.

Life in the slow lane is still too fast

I know it has been a long while since we got off the island and posted our last piece. We may have had time to post but no WiFi to work on the blogsite aka journal… There was one day when I brought up the site, turned off the hot spot on my phone that gave me an online link, then wrote a whole bunch of stuff and lost it. Apparently, WordPress does not work offline. Learning curve…Shit. Point is, this is a long one.

Mid July – Whistler…We have a time share. Well actually, had a timeshare, but the resort has sold, and we just have some time to use up. Way better!!!!!!! Last Christmas, Marn, my sister, and I, and our respective hubbies, booked a week at Whistler BC. This was even before Al and I contemplated selling everything and becoming trailer trash! We booked a one bedroom plus pullout. We travel well together so it was super doable. Not for everyone, that’s for sure. 

So, off the island we go, dragging our house up into the mountains, even though we aren’t even going to use it, and – where the hell will we park it?!? (We calculated our gas consumption has gone to about 5 cents per litre, ugh) We met Marn and Jim at the check in and the front desk person was very apologetic about the renovations going on at the resort so they upgraded us to another resort with 2 bedrooms in an area that has the only street parking in Whistler. YES!!! So we had our trailer with all our foods, dishes, soda stream, ginventory, ice crusher, etc. all there. This was going to be an amazing week!!!

The next day, off we went on our bikes. Albert and Jim went and hit the hill and Marn and I rode on the many pathways that surround Whistler and the lakes in the valley. Unfortunately, Jim fell on the mountain trails and broke his right elbow and left thumb so that meant no biking for him.

Whistler mountain and the many railways that weave through the valley
Poor Jim!!
Selfie Selfie

So, the next few days we went hiking and Albert and I found some nice trails to play on.

Eric, our son, took Albert on a trail called “A River Runs Through It” that was at the top of his comfort zone. Whistler is full of lots of well-maintained trails for all levels of biking. All in all, it was a good relaxing time with lots of hot showers!!

We left Whistler and rather than take the short steep Duffy Lake route through Lillooet, we chose to take the longer flatter route through the Fraser Valley.

New trailer has new brakes and truck is small, so we thought it wise. We have an app called Harvest Hosts that lists free places to park overnight that are not Walmart!! (www.harvesthosts.com If you RV, then get in touch with us and we can send the referral to give a discount) We stayed at Recline Ridge. The deal is to call ahead, arrive somewhere near the closing time, and no obligation, but maybe buy something from them. OKAY!! We had the vineyard parking lot to ourselves. We drank their wine. It was lovely.

Next day off to my sister’s place in Calgary for two nights. As soon as we arrived, we leveled the rig, then whipped downtown to “The National on 17th” to meet up with Albert’s high school friend, Russel, who lives and works near Calgary for 6 months and spends the rest of the year in Zihuantanejo, Mexico. We will be visiting there down the road too!! As soon as we arrived, SURPRISE,  a grad from the VIU culinary program, Elicia, jumped up and we had a big hug and a great visit!! She is a successful food truck operator; her truck is Lil Truck on the Prairie. She has been nominated for a top chef in the city award and she is vying for Top Chef Canada. Wow. Check it out when in Cowtown!! I wish I had taken our picture together.  Next day, we put in a 30°C 30k bike ride through the bikeways of Calgary and Fish Creek and just dreamed of cold beer. We had ice cream for lunch. 

After Calgary, we were off to Saskatoon via Drumheller. 

In Saskatoon, we met up with two more VIU Culinary grads, Brodie and Steve, at 9 Mile Legacy brewing for an IPA. These guys were a ton of fun when in the program. And super smart. Steve knew he wanted to be a cook and a rock star. Freshly graduated from high school he put an ad in kijiji “Awesome singer seeks band” and the next two years was spent on the road playing music back and forth across Canada a few times!! Then he quit that and got into cooking. He is running a restaurant in Saskatoon now. Brodie and his friend Lewis hailed from Winnipeg and decided cooking school as far away from there as possible was a good idea. They chose VIU in Nanaimo. I gave them a {papier mâché} moose-head that I had for a Red Green Party we hosted and this fit in well with their funny sides. Brodie is a successful sales rep with Centennial in Saskatoon and Lewis is a successful caterer in Winnipeg cooking for the film industry among other things. 

This was on or way to dinner with a friend of mine, JB, that I worked with at 4thStreet Rose, in Calgary, over 30 years ago. John and his partner moved to Saskatoon a couple of years ago. We caught up with another 80’s Calgary foodie, dee Hobsbawn-Smith who is an award winning writer living near Saskatoon. JB had us all over for his birthday dinner and since he originally hails from Newfoundland, he had gorgeous lobsters flown in for dinner. www.lobsteronthewharf.comThey were so rich, we didn’t even use butter. “Newfoundlanders don’t put butter on boiled lobster. Its rich enough.” And it was.   

JB and me

Next day we were off to Wasagaming Campground at Riding Mountain National Park in Clear Lake, Manitoba to visit with Albert’s sister, niece and her young family. Driving through the mountains of BC, then the contrasting foothills and the vast flat prairies, leads you to the grand massif of Riding Mountain National Park. From the horizon when it first surfaces due to the curve of the earth, it is relatively unnoticeable to a BC resident. Our son, on a previous trip, exclaimed, “That’s NOT a mountain!!”. But as we got closer and reached the park boundary a steady uphill and rolling hills after that for about 55 k to Clear Lake and Wasagaming confirmed its hilly stature. Scraped into position over 12,000 years ago, it sits above the Manitoba escarpment and is made up of deposited glacial rubble. On the south east corner is the largest of all the lakes, the spring fed Clear Lake. Consider the name “Clear” lake. Southern Manitoba lakes, to my observation, are mostly brown, weedy and mud bottomed. I don’t swim in them. Albert’s Manitoba childhood was spent catching leeches off his legs (and torturing them) in Lake Winnipeg! No thanks!!! When the “fish flies” hatch, there is a fly-slick that smells of dead fish that washes up on the shore. This in effect feeds the ecosystem, much like a salmon run where the dead fish contribute to the lake and riparian areas. Clear Lake stays clear. It is full of people!! What a destination and being a national park, it is much like a mini Jasper with park buildings, tourist shops, interpretive trails, red chair pairs, plenty of hiking and biking and lots of pontoon boats with families and parties touring the lake.

Wasagaming campground is close to the town of Clear Lake and we were walking distance to a bakery, restaurants, swimming, and the cabin Al’s relatives were sharing. They left the day after we got there, and we had a day to explore on our own. Pretty sure that was our first exploring day (just us) since leaving BC. We rode the trails part way around the lake, the connector trail to a small town Onanole. I think it is on a knoll. Next day, on our way out of town, we stopped at the Onanole farmers market and bought gorgeous vegetables from the Hutterite vendors and natural levain wood oven breads. 

We headed for Brandon. Brandon is not near the mountain but does have a hilly valley feel to it. The Assiniboine River carves its way through the area where the city was built. Brandon is a farming and railway town but also has the Tragically Hip famed Brandon Wheatkings (and pretty things), a large community of education Brandon University(??), Assiniboine Community College with the Culinary Institute of Manitoba (CIM). And this is where Don Berger is an instructor and long-time friend of mine. Don was an apprentice at the Westin Calgary when I worked there as Chef de Partie and then Sous Chef with Fred Zimmerman as chef. Don continued on in his career via Westin Mauna Kea, Hawaii, then into Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel in California. Continuing his journey with Ritz Carlton he eventually was the opening executive chef for the new property in Hong Kong. Leaving hotels, he eventually wound up in Hanoi and ran two restaurants (the last one reaching top 100 Asia!!) that he was forced out of through the bully tactics of the Vietnamese underworld. After losing everything they got out and he and his family wound up in Brandon and he landed a sweet teaching position at the CIM.  Cold winters but clean air and great hours has meant he is able to be the dad and husband he wants to be. Che is going into grade two and he put us to shame with his knowledge of astronomy and math!!! Sweet Thuy is his lovely mom and is a long way from her family and the warmth but also is so happy to have Don back after the 18-hour days, 7 days a week that comes with running a successful restaurant.  What did we do at Don’s? EAT, DRINK and catch up after 30 years. Don’s experience with food in Brandon is that it needs some help. He said he would never open a restaurant there. The best and busiest restaurant is the Keg. So, playing with food and getting students excited about preparing ingredients differently than what they are used to is super exciting. While we were there, he had a BBQ burning twigs that fell from the trees in the yard. Smoked Beef, chicken and duck were cooking. Don made carpaccio of elk (bison steaks at the local Sobeys) with fresh radishes and Thai basil from the garden, smoked duck breast, Caprese salad, grilled rib eye skewers, rice noodle salad with shrimp and peanuts, and way too much wine to remember the rest!! But suffice to say, Albert was BLOWN AWAY with the beer that had a frozen homemade popsicle floating in his beer. The popsicle was a Clam Eye Caesar – Clamato, fresh grated horseradish, worchestershire sauce, vodka and fish-sauce. We had such a great visit. WOW!!! So glad Don, Thuy and Che are safe here in Canada. He is going to change the face of food in the city for sure!!

Next morning the trek to Hecla, Manitoba. Albert Tomasson, spent many years in his early life at the Icelandic fishing village on Hecla Island at his Amma’s house, the Tomasson Boarding House. Icelanders populated the area in the 1800s as refugees after the volcano in Hecla, Iceland erupted, and their village and livelihood was extinguished. Canada offered up some unforgiving land on Lake Manitoba and the commercial lake fishery began. Fast forward to the late 1900s and the Manitoba government decided the island should become a provincial park and they expropriated the land and village from the descendants of the original settlers.

25 years ago when Albert and I were married, we made the trek to Hecla to see his old stomping grounds. “I caught leeches there…I pulled the legs off frogs there…I ate my Amma’s rosettes, sort of like fried batter/doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar…that is the old summer kitchen…this is the desk my dad Carl sat at when he was in elementary school. Look there are his initials carved into the desk…” It was pretty cool seeing it become preserved. Then a couple of years later the government offered the land back to the descendants at a low price as long as they built something that looked like it was old and done within two years. So it has become populated again. Probably because the government has not done any upkeep since they stole the town from the originators, and they want them to maintain it. 

 The park has developed a bunch of trails and bird viewing areas and has a golfing resort with a wood burning pizza oven and free WIFI so we spent some time planning the next stage of our trip sipping craft beer and eating delicious pizza!!

The gull moved in when the people left

Karen, Albert’s sister, joined us for two nights at the campground and we spent a day with their cousin Billy who has a house at the old settlement. We did a fantastic tour of the area and they reminisced about their shared grandparents and the life of the settlers that they had as part of their oral history. 

Sipping a craft beer at the north end of Hecla Island in the lee of the wind. There is always wind.

We spent our third day there riding the trails, doing laundry at the general store and the aforementioned planning at the resort. Originally, we had contemplated going through the southern shore of Lake Superior as the research showed a big savings in gas price. Then we considered the fridge and freezer full of meat and produce and the cost of roaming and realized this would be more expensive in the long run. Hooray, we were about travel through parts of Canada where we hadn’t been before!!

What a great decision!! Once over the Ontario border we hit the Canadian Shield. So different than any other part of Canada we had seen before. Lakes, lakes, lakes and more lakes. Trees, trees, trees and more trees. And the rock. The rocks are old, hard, weathered, pink, white, black, green, striped, granite and quartz with plenty of sparkle. It was like traveling through a showroom of raw countertop materials!

The drive from Hecla to our next provincial campground had a few exciting moments. First of all we were watching the details on our truck dashboard that tells us all the gory detals like, oil and fuel levels, temperature, mileage etc. and we figured we had about 130k left before we would need to fuel up. Dragging our lovely house has been great but our gas mileage has plummeted to about 5k/litre. Yikes. After about another 10 k the confidence building gas level reading showed “LOW” capitalized!!! The next gas station was about another 10k away at Falcon Lake. Then we took a wrong turn and wound up at the Home Hardware and asked where the gas station was. A friendly local said he was going there and that it was 2 minutes away. As we U-turned out of the parking lot the truck hiccupped and we crossed our fingers really tight. We made it. We put 79.47 litres in our 80 litre tank and realized that our dashboard has a 100 k difference between reality and fiction. The Blue Lake Provincial park was not far from there and we pulled into our site that was viewing distance from the beach and a clear sandy beach with NO WEEDS and perfect swimming temperature. The mosquitos chased us out of our site so we took our BBQ to the beach and had a gorgeous dinner cooked lake side with some lovely wine…as usual…

Next morning we headed along the north side of Lake Superior.  We are so glad we chose the north side. I will continue this tomorrow….or the next day….