29 August 2016

Olympic Peninsula

Aberdeen, WA
Feeding the salmon at Quinault National Fish Hatchery
The girls at Quinault Lake
Alexis on the world's largest Spruce tree
Alexis makes sure the Tooth Fairy can find her tooth
Loot for second tooth from the Tooth Fairy
Camilla "waters the plants" at an RV dump station
The Olympic Peninsula of Washington State is home to the humongous Olympic National Park, which covers most of the northwest corner of the state.  Olympic National Park is home to the Hoh Rainforest, one of the largest temperate rainforests left in the world.

We came to “The Hoh”, as the local rangers refer to it, seeking the usual stuff, new experiences and novel beauty, and we found this, but we unexpectedly found much more.

One of our challenges while traveling is meaningful social contact, particularly for the girls, outside of our nuclear family.  They find playmates here and there, but rarely for more than a couple of hours at a time, and with significant gaps between such contacts.  We’re fortunate that they have each other to play with regularly, but new people are good for their playful little minds and social development.

Here in The Hoh we happened to camp across the way from an extended family gathering of American Samoan expats.  We had originally only planned to stay only two days, but the girls hit it off with the other kids and so we left it to them whether to stay longer or move on as we had planned.  “Stay!” was the resounding answer.  And so we stayed.

We were rewarded by being invited into our neighbors' family gathering, and more kind and generous people you will not find.  The beauty of such warm human interaction with formerly complete strangers is as splendid a thing as any scenic landscape or natural wonder we have found on our travels.  Our short time together is a clear highlight in our family's journey.  Faafetai.

Camping next to the Hoh River in the Hoh Rainforest
Hot stone therapy along the banks of the Hoh
A beautiful family

28 August 2016

The Path Less Taken

Given two paths to choose from, I am generally drawn to the Path Less Taken.  “What’s over there?” I wonder.  “What fascination lies that way, yet to be discovered?” 

As we continued up the central Washington coastline, I note that the main route, Highway 101, diverges significantly away from the coast in a number of areas.  Zooming in on electronic maps I can see there are (small and diminutive, possibly unimproved) roads that clearly connect where we are to where we’re trying to go up north.  Once again, I’m drawn to the Path Less Taken.

And so we go.  

This part of the world is host to a number of Native American reservations.  Our maps are fuzzy on where these start and end, as is signage along the byways, making it hard to tell whose territory we’re on at any given time.  A few miles down the road I misread the road signs and we detour into a local town.  

Curious to catch a glimpse of rural life in these parts we drive through town rather than turn around as soon as I discover my mistake.  We are clearly off the beaten path, and tourists in these parts are probably rare, judging by the lingering, noncommittal gaze of the locals.  We pass a building labeled Tribal Courthouse and Law Enforcement, and that removes any doubt as to whether we’re on “The Res” or not.  I quite suddenly find myself a complete foreigner, unsure about customary or acceptable behavior.  I drive us into a dead end and Kirstin doesn’t want to get out to ground guide me as I turn around.  I don’t blame her.  I jack knife, but not so badly as to break anything.  We amble out of town, smiling broadly at everyone we pass, hoping to avoid any untoward attention.

At the edge of town I turn back north.  The US Highway we had followed up to this point now turns into a State Road with the same number, and the road surface turns to gravel.  There’s a big sign that says “No Trespassing Tribal Beaches Closed To General Public”.  Kirstin voices her concerns that this is a bad idea.  “No problem,” I tell her.  “We’re not going to the beach.”  There’s a second sign that says “Unimproved Road No Further Warnings”.  “Like what?  Sudden cliff ahead?”  I joke.

We continue.  Kirstin again expresses her concern that this a bad idea.  It’s a good road, I tell her.  Much better than some of the roads we had recently traversed in the National Forests by Mt. Adams.  “Put on your adventure hat,” I cajole.  She glares.

The road gradually narrows down to one lane.  I notice that our onboard GPS no longer lists it as a State Road, but instead labels it as a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) Road with the same number.

The road quality gets gradually worse.  I note that there are far fewer vehicles out here than we had seen in what I would have considered remote areas of the National Forests.  Fewer because there are none here at all.  

“Well, we finally got away from all those other RVers,” I attempt to lighten the intense mood permeating the vehicle cab.  “Gee, it’s beautiful.  Pristine.”

We’re traveling slowly now because of constant potholes, and are many miles and approximately 2/3 of the way from the where the gravel started to our projected reunion with Highway 101.  I feel like we’re on the home stretch.  The overgrowth along the roadsides starts to choke in on us.  Up ahead there’s a patch of road that I can’t make out because of the shadows.  Kirstin dismounts to check it, comes back and says it’s okay but that she can’t tell about further ahead.

We start down a muddy hill.  After a few hundred meters we discover what that sign back at the beginning had meant.  The sign about “No Further Warnings” about the road.  The road is gone.  I walk it to see if there’s any way through or around.  There isn’t.  Remains from some unfortunate vehicle or vehicles litter the hillside that slopes away from where the road had once been.  A tire here.  Maybe a bumper over there.  Possibly a truck tailgate.

My stomach sinks down past my groin to somewhere around my ankles.  We’re not in any immediate danger, I tell myself.  We have food and lodging for several days, because we’re towing a travel trailer behind usRight here at the bottom of this muddy hill.  …Does AAA send tow rigs to these parts?  Could a recovery rig even get in here in such a way as to be able to recover us?  It’s a moot point as we haven’t had cell reception for miles.

Kirstin is now well past the point of looking daggers at me and can’t even look me in the eyes.  I think that had there been a table at the road’s end in front of us labeled “Tribal Courthouse”, complete with an official looking person seated behind it, she would have in that moment applied for and received a summary divorce judgment.

I put on my brave face.  “We’re going to have to back up the hill,” I say.  Kirstin nods and walks behind the trailer to guide us back out of this mess.  There was a wide spot in the road near the top of the hill.  I hope that we can get there, and that once there it will be navigable enough that we can turn around.  At this point I’ll settle for just getting back up the hill and will thankfully back the trailer up for miles and miles if I have to in order to reach somewhere we can turn around.

I put Ruby into 4WD Low.  If it was just the truck I wouldn’t worry even a bit that we might actually be well and truly screwed.  Ruby could handle this with ease.  If solo.  But I’m pretty unhappy about the reality of having to push a trailer backwards up this muddy hill.  In the middle of nowhere.  While very probably trespassing.  I do my best to conceal all of this and project strength and confidence.

The foliage is so dense that I can’t see anything behind us and have to rely on Kirstin yelling directions.  We start slowly, inch by inch.  Ruby in 4WD Low grips like a rabid tomcat on velcro curtains.  And with Kirstin yelling directions we edge it bit by bit, dodging around the logs and tree branches that protrude into the road, until we finally, blessedly, come out evenish near the top of the hill.  

Okay, as long as I don’t get us stuck trying to turn around now, we are alright.  Have you ever seen the Austin Powers film where he manages to get a golf cart stuck sideways in a corridor two inches wider than the vehicle is long?  I do my very best approximation of that scene.  After about 20 turns I’m worried that now, after having backed all the way up the hill into the safety of “good road”, I may have instead stuck us sideways for good.  

We survey the situation.  We consider and then reject an option of dropping the trailer, repositioning the truck and then reattaching.

I go back to the Austin Powers micro turns.

Inch by inch we bring it around just enough that finally I’m able to drive over a stump on our uphill side, trusting Ford’s Off Road package and skid plates to protect Ruby’s precious underbelly, and we are free!

I stop the truck, wait for Kirstin to get in, and then solemnly express to her the deepest apology of which I am able, from the bottom of my soul.  I promise to never, ever disregard her warnings again.  And I tell her that for the rest of our journey, she gets final say on all navigational choices.

She reminds me that back at the beginning of the trip she had foretold that there would be a point somewhere on our journey, where I would end up backing us out of an unpleasant situation.  

We’re only two months into our Big Adventure.  I most fervently hope that this was the one and only time.  

Sometimes there is a reason that the Road Less Taken is the Road Less Taken, my wife gently schools me.  Noted, my love.  Well and duly noted.

More Thoughts on Coffee

I find it no coincidence that the Pacific Northwest is well known for both their production and consumption of fine microbrewed beer, and for their love affair with the coffee bean.  It only makes sense really, that people balance one with the other to find their zen.  Stimulant followed by depressant equals status quo, right?  

Many smallish towns in these parts have their own microbrewery.  And every inky-dinky, blink-and-you-missed-it, tiny-dot-on-a-map town has a coffee shack to keep the populous fruitful and productive.  

In this spirit, we’ve been refining our personal coffee brewing skills, and have a few thoughts to share on the matter.

First, this:

Stainless French Press by Bodum
is the bomb.  Kirstin’s darling sister wanted to give us something useful to take on The Big Adventure, and she nailed it with this item: vacuum-insulated, stainless steel, Bodum French Press.  It’s simple, durable, doesn’t require additional or disposable filters or parts, can be used to make tea, hot or cold-brew coffee (see previous post on this), and will keep hot coffee warm for hours.  I don’t know how much it cost, as it was a gift, but as I will almost always pay more for a superior product, this item is one that I would have paid a premium for.

Coffee thought #2: Only buy coffee from Costco if you’ve tried it or you are otherwise reasonably certain that you are going to enjoy it, because as you no doubt are aware, a Costco-sized portion of coffee beans will last a loooong, loooong time.  For instance, while “Organic Rainforest Blend” beans may sound delightfully delicious, you might instead find them to be not to your liking.  Should you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, and you are unwilling to simply pitch the giant bag of beans that you just bought, you might consider adulterating your pure, black, coffee nectar with other non-standard ingredients to achieve a more palatable energizing beverage, to wit:

Coffee thought #3: The Recipe.  This is a work in progress, as we’re constantly experimenting.  This version will convert your Organic Rainforest Blend, or other suitably unsuitable beans, into a lightly spiced, not-quite-sweet, rich and energizing elixir.

To make one carafe of brew, add:
  • Coffee grounds (4-5T for our carafe), coarse ground works best for the French Press
  • 1/4t or so cinnamon
  • 6 or so dashes of Indian paprika (this was an accidental purchase on our part that’s turned out well, as the Indian stuff is spicy, unlike regular paprika)
  • 2T unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 8 drops Stevia natural sweetener
  • hot water

Coffee thought #4: Best Coffee Mug Ever award goes to the stainless steel, insulated Contigo handle-less mug, as pictured above next to the French Press.  These are the only travel-style coffee cups we’ve ever used that are legitimately leak-proof.  They stand up well to abuse, fit great in auto cup holders, and keep stuff hot for hours.  Best coffee mug ever.  And also a gift from Kirstin’s sister.  Coincidence?  Not really.  That girl knows her coffee and coffee accessories.

Mt. Adams to Washington

After several days in the relative wilds of Gifford Pinchot National Forest we returned to Hood River for provisions.  And laundry facilities.  Back again in the land where cell phones work, we were saddened to learn that travel plans had fallen through for our friend whom we had hoped to meet in Portland, and so we decided to return directly to the coast and continue north.  

We could have taken a shortcut across Washington, but not wanting to miss any of the coast, and in particular the 4+ mile long bridge across the Columbia in Astoria, we returned there once again.  We tried for a camp site in the Cape Disappointment area, but as the weekend was now upon us and it’s still high vacation season, everything was booked solid.  Cape Disappointment.  Get it?

*Excellent* oysters!  South Bend, WA

We continued on up the coast, checking campgrounds as we went, and finally found a run down county campground a bit off the beaten path, Bush Pioneer County Park and Campground, no reservations accepted, dirty, primitive, surrounded by forest, but otherwise empty.  We set up camp and met some people visiting for the day who were familiar with the area, who told us the interesting history of the Chinook Indian Nation and how the very spot we were camping at was the last place they had lived in their ancestral fashion, hiding and surviving there up until 1953.  Pirates had supposedly used a cove around the corner to hide back in the day as well.  Bald eagles live there now.  We watched them hunt over the trees and small, wild beach.

Hood River & Mt. Adams

From Portland we headed back to Astoria, at the very northwestern tip of Oregon where the mouth of the Columbia River dumps into the Pacific.  Our deliberately vague plan was to continue along the coastline up through Washington into the nether regions of Canada.  A timely message from a good friend, however, reminded us of another locale that required investigation for possible future homesteading: Hood River, located east of Portland in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge.  

Sunset at Crown Point, the Old Highway, Columbia River Gorge
So back we trekked once again through and past the urban sprawl and congested traffic of Portland, and thence into the splendor of The Gorge.  The Gorge was the first federally designated National Scenic Area in the US, and stretches around 90ish miles from Troutdale out to somewhere around The Dalles, between rugged hills on the northern and southern edges of the Columbia River where it forms the border between Oregon and Washington.  It’s a giant outdoor playground.  As a National Scenic Area, no further development is allowed in the area, protecting it from the urban creep and sprawl that’s so common everywhere else today.  Highlights if you find yourself traveling through this area: Multnomah Falls is a mandatory stop, check out the old highway route instead of Highway 84, and definitely hike up Oneonta Gorge to the falls at the back.  Alexis daily keeps asking us when we’re going back.  

Oneonta Gorge
Alexis attempting to fully navigate Oneonta without getting wet
Also, if at all possible, get a room and stay a night at The Edgefield Inn in Troutdale.  It’s a very special place worth taking the time to stay at. or even simply explore for a couple of hours.

The Edgefield, Troutdale
Hood River: Take your pick of water sports, copious hiking and backpacking opportunities, mountain biking, sport fishing and snow skiing (Mt. Hood is but 45 minutes away).  Hood River and the gorge have all this and more.  Hood River is even considered to be the Windsurfing/Kiteboarding Capitol of the World.  The town’s base is historically agricultural, with emphasis on apple and pear orchards, but since discovery as an adventure-oriented outdoorsy mecca, summertime is packed with adventure seeking temporary residents, and the downtown area caters to this crowd, with a slew of eateries and local breweries.  

We camped at a local county park, right next to the actual river of Hood River, while we explored the community.  One litmus test we’ve developed to suss out the underbelly of communities of interest is simply checking out their Farmers Market.  Organic, locally grown produce is a great indicator for us, and we were happy to find a decent selection of such here.  Hood River ticks a lot of our homestead “want” boxes, but unfortunately it does so for a great many other people as well, as it turns out to be the most expensive real estate in all of Oregon.  Still, it’s a top pick at this early stage in our quest.

Cooling off in the Hood River
Some sections of the old Columbia River Gorge Highway have been repurposed as hiking/biking trails.  We rode one such section that passes through some interesting tunnels on its way to the neighboring town of Mosier.

Bike Path Vista along section of Old Highway
Tunnels on Old Highway section that's now walking/bike only path
We prolonged our stay in the area for a possible link-up with a dear friend who had a tentative trip planned to Portland one week hence.  

We spent a day on Mt. Hood.  I showed the fam where papa had once worked many years ago as a Ski Patroller.  We got the full-meal-deal tour of Timberline Lodge.  I never knew that the picture of a woman on a ski lift on PeeChee folders was an early photograph of the Magic Mile at Timberline.  Timberline is a mandatory stop if you are anywhere even close, including Portland.  Book a room well in advance and spend the night, right there at the actual timberline at 7000 feet.  The lodge is fantastic.  The location is fantastic.  And you can ski there eleven months out of the year.  Do you remember the shots of the lodge’s exterior in the film The Shining?  That’s Timberline Lodge.

We spent another day playing at Lost Lake, rowed out across it’s clear, clear waters; tried unsuccessfully to catch some fishies; and jumped into its iciness to cool ourselves.

Lost Lake
Mt. Hood, as seen from Lost Lake
Several days of MATT parked in the shade had dropped our battery levels, and we were ready to explore something new, so based on some recommendations from a lovely couple we met in Hood River, we decided to explore a bit north into Washington in the vicinity of Mt. Adams, where we met another lovely couple and their two horses, and Camilla had her first ride ever on a horse.  

Mt. Adams by day
Hiking near Mt. Adams
Mt. Adams by night

After a day or charging up in the scorching sun we moved on though, and found a tiny little lake that we had pretty much to ourselves in the Forlorn Lakes region of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.  Our campsite was located adjacent to a sign that had a picture of a passenger car with a big red circle and slash through it, and the words, “Road Not Maintained Beyond This Point”.  The next morning I just had to find out what that meant, and so went exploring a bit with Ruby, and sans MATT.  I came away with a keener appreciation for Ruby’s off-road prowess.  In almost all things I consider it good to know your limits, and I learned that Ruby’s are significant.  She is ready for adventure.  As are we.

Exploring the Ice Caves, Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Hunting for froggies.  Note MATT at upper right.

07 August 2016

The Northern Oregon Coast

After departing Coos Bay we continued north, hugging the coast, drinking in the rocky, sandy, salty interface between land and sea that constantly switches from fog to clear skies, calm to a brisk breeze, or sunny-warm to brrr-cold in a matter of minutes or a couple of miles.  The rule of thumb regarding weather in these parts is that if you don't like the weather right now, just wait a few minutes.

At Newport we camped at an incredibly sparse "Dry Campground" provided by the city as an overflow lot for the RV tourist crowds.  Facilities in the gravel lot included a porta-potty and a dumpster.  But the location right next to some lovely bike paths that run along the bay to the adjacent state park, as well as immediate proximity to the Oregon Aquarium, make it worthwhile.  One great attraction that's also immediately next door is the Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center, which has a slew of educational exhibits, things for the kids to touch and play with, all for the low, low price of Free!

After Newport we took a detour inland to Corvallis to visit some extended Framily members, Steve and Bobbi, a lovely mini-vacation from our extended vacation, replete with fine dining, real beds, a visit to an awesome shoe factory (Soft Star Shoes, check them out), catching up with my oldest friend, Jim, who also joined the Army about the same time as I, and who also wisely chose to retire a few months back.  And what trip to the Northwest would be complete without a trip to our very own burger franchise, Burgerville!  Tillamook cheese cheeseburger, Walla Walla sweet onion rings, and fresh, local Marionberry shake, wow.  Gluttony requiring days of recovery and detoxification.

Soft Star men's chukka shoes, yum
Several blissful days later, we head back to Newport and resume our quest for the North Pole.  We next stopped in Lincoln City.  As we drove through town I searched for The Pixie Kitchen, an incredibly kitschy restaurant that I fondly remembered from my childhood.  When I couldn't find it, the internet provided the answer that sadly, not everyone was endeared to their elvish brand of culinary fare as I had been when my age was measured with but single digits, and alas, The Pixie Kitchen had closed its doors not years, but decades prior.  After its demise, a number of the resident elves subsequently moved to one of the bawdier neighborhoods on Portland's east side, it seems, and cornered the local market on elf bowling.

Walking along the D River, shortest river in the world
Further up the coast we stopped at Tillamook.  An obligatory stop at the cheese factory yielded a small cache of cheese curds and a pint of pistachio gelato that rivaled some that Kirstin and I once found in a hole in the wall on the outskirts of Venice, where the proprietor made everything by hand and our guidebook had described the result as "two pistachio nuts making love in your mouth".

We stopped at another Tillamook landmark, a WWII era blimp hangar that is an absolutely immense structure, designed to house eight blimps used in defense of the west coast, but today it houses a modest local air museum.  

Inside the Tillamook Air Museum.  It's so large that they rent out the back end for boat and RV storage.

We spent the night at the Blue Heron Cheese Factory, a charming family-owned antithesis to the Tillamook Cheese corporate conglomerate.  Charming hosts and members of Harvest Hosts, a collective of agricultural-focused farms and businesses that provide free parking for RVers.

Exploring the grounds at Blue Heron
Blue Heron resident
Beach near Tillamook
And then on to Astoria!  I had been looking forward to this part of the trip since its inception, as one of our goals on the Big Adventure is to suss out communities where we might want to relocate at the end of the trip, and I had identified Astoria early on as a potential candidate.  Short version: It's still a contender.

We scored a camp site at Camp Rilea, an Oregon National Guard base adjacent to Astoria.  Lucky for us as all the general public camping was booked solid, plus the camping fees at this sort of place are *very* reasonable.  

But there is no free lunch, is there.  In this case it turned out that the designated RV camping is located immediately adjacent to the firing range.  And being that it's summer, that means Annual Training for all of those Reservists around the state.  Nothing like having breakfast to the rhythmic punctuation of machine gun fire.  Or having to explain to your oh-so innocent 3 and 5 year olds what machine gun fire is.

Along the Riverwalk in Astoria
View from the Astoria Column
Near the base of the Astoria Column
The girls decide for the cross-country route back to town.  Note the 4.1 mile Astoria Bridge in the background.
Fishing goodies
Clamming goodies
 After our initial touchy-feely appraisal of Astoria we turned inland and headed to Portland, my hometown.  It has certainly changed over the years, but for the most part, all for the better.  We showed the girls the house that papa grew up in, and took them to the park that my mum would take me to when I was a tot, along the creek and reservoir where I learned to skip stones.  Alexis played relentlessly in the much-improved-since-I-was-there playground, while Camilla snoozed.  We ate at one of my favorite eateries, the Kennedy School, a former elementary school transformed by the McMenamin brothers into a fantastic hotel with three eateries, three bars (one cigar bar) and a movie theater.  My favorite McMenamin property is still The Edgefield, in Troutdale, but the Kennedy School is great too.

While in Portland we also stopped at the archetypal Saturday Market.  And as we were in the vicinity, we stood in line at Voodoo Doughnuts for about 20 minutes for the privilege of punishing our bodies with basically all the evil things that you can put into one food item.  Delicious.  But with consequences.

After the initial sugar rush, the girls crashed hard.  Shocker.

But there was one more landmark that I *had* to drag everyone to: Mills End Park, the smallest park in the world, as officially recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Seriously, that's it.  It's located in a traffic median in the middle of Front Avenue.

And that, gentle blog-followers, pretty much brings you up to date on the broad strokes of where we've been and what we've been up to.

I'll leave you with just one more brief anecdote, and an unrelated photo.  It's a funny thing that 4WD vehicles are not made to be more operator-error-proof.  For instance, if you were to engage 4WD in order to position and park an RV in moderately sandy conditions, and then after detaching your RV you forgot that you had turned 4WD on, and then you drove around with it on dry roads, your modern, brand-new 4WD vehicle might just go ahead and let you do things that are potentially quite destructive to it's drive train, and not, instead, sound an alarm, or flash a warning light at you, or simply turn the 4WD off.  After owning a fairly fool-proof Subaru for many years, this seems quite counterintuitive to me.  Perhaps the 4WD  truck manufacturers make their vehicles this way in order to create another revenue stream from saps who screw up?

So there we were, after I had just discovered my error, terrified to drive it anywhere out of the parking lot where I had made the discovery when the vehicle finally complained by doing some Weird Things.  Calls to the local dealership were made and they offered a tow and a look-see sometime in the middle of next week.  More calls and internet searches later and a little fiddling around and I got the rear differential's limited slip to disengage, and breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Moral of the story: Never, ever forget to turn 4WD off when you don't need it any more.

Unrelated photo of the girls shucking corn from the Astoria Farmers Market