It’s clear and cool, near 50, with a few puddles left from showers last night as we skirt downtown Tulsa and go west. Since leaving the Blue Ridge foothills of South Carolina six days ago, we’ve traveled lands of abundant forest and plentiful rain. That’s all fading on Oklahoma 51, our lonely route to the Texas border, pavement fissured by oil and gas trucks and convoys carrying oversize pylons for windmills. Judy warns: “We’re going to have to get off this road if it doesn’t get better. It’s bouncing my tits off.” Central Oklahoma is transition country, not east but not west. Wheat is taking hold in fields of black, not red soil, and golden prairie grass is in retreat. We do a speed walk, one hour, at a high school track of asphalt in Canton, along the North Canadian (river). Judy and I travel past miles of windmills atop ridges and patches of snow east of Arnett, Oklahoma. We stop at a signpost near the 100th meridian. A plaque and post commemorate the Great Western Trail, the last route opened for cattle driven from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas, and points north. Settlers with barbed wire, quarantines to protect northern herds from Texas cattle fever and the arrival of railroads and refrigerated cars led to the demise of the Great Western Trail in the early 1890s. A compacted, eroded U-shaped portion of the hillside is evidence of more than 2 million cattle driven through here. Entering the Texas Panhandle, Judy and I agree we are getting close to our home, the West. Early evening shadows lengthen on U.S. 60 as we climb and dip through hills and folds. Snow is a few inches deep in wooded bottoms. We flatten out on the Llano Estacado before entering Pampa, Texas.
Judy and I are on a scouting mission in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas. We want to include water travel in our wandering next year. The Buffalo River, designated as America’s first scenic river in 1972, is on our bucket list. We want to float in mountain country to see bluffs of sandstone and limestone and look for basswood, Pawpaw, blue ash, witch hazel and spring flowers. Our challenge is to figure out how to synchronize our annual trip through the South to visit my sister Ronda and family in South Carolina with water flows on the Buffalo River, which peak in spring. Judy and I talked to a ranger at Tyler Bend Visitor Center near St. Joe, Arkansas. She gave us information on kayak and canoe rentals for the middle portion of the Buffalo River, from Carver to South Maumee. It’s the stretch of 120-mile river that fits our skill level: beginner. Judy is in for this adventure, as long as we float before the sweltering Arkansas summer.
I was ready to blow off Paducah, Kentucky, a once dominant ship and rail hub on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, now a backwater, like so many historic places we poke around. My thoughts were fixed on 1,500 miles of road ahead and a medical appointment in Arizona in less than a week. We stopped last night for German food and drink at Paducah Beer Works, a converted bus station on the edge of downtown. Instead of retreating to the Walmart on the outskirts of town, we ventured for ice cream on dimly lit Broadway, Paducah’s commercial center at the riverfront. Neither of us were impressed with downtown, but Judy saw a sign for the National Quilting Museum as we were leaving to overnight. We decided to check out the museum today, even though we should be driving for eight hours or so. We discover more merit in downtown in morning light. You can see the Ohio River and a mural of Paducah’s history. It’s a mighty social and economic narrative of a town that thrived in an era of steam ships and locomotives and faded with the triumph of the auto and airplane in the 20th century. It’s the best community mural we’ve seen in five years. One of the panels depicts the massive flood on the Ohio River in 1937, which left 95 percent of Paducah under water, and led to construction of a miles-long river barrier protecting the community. The National Quilting Museum, is a fabulous collection of contemporary quilting, global in scope. Never judge a town in the dark. That’s why I’ll always remember Paducah.
Judy and I divert from the route of the Erie Canal for a day trip to the Finger Lakes. I’m a bit disappointed on New York 414, the road to Watkins Glen. It’s all farm and no lake. Soon, the lakeshore dominates, with vineyards, hints of autumn leaves, and a small waterfall as we approach the southern tip of Seneca Lake. If you arrive on a weekday in off-season, the visitors center at Watkins Glen State Park is a pleasant place to step into natural wonder. A lot has changed since glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago. Water from Glen Creek, in a hanging valley above, has blasted through sedimentary layers, very soft shale and less soft sandstone, to create intimate slot canyons and waterfalls, all surrounded by an amphitheater of rock and forest above. The Gorge at Watkins Glen, which opened as a luxury resort in the Civil War era, was purchased by the State of New York in 1906. Beautiful stone steps along the 1.5 mile path are the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Crews had to redo much of their work because of a spectacular flood in 1935.) We camped at Watkins Glen amid the red pines on Tuscarora loop, one of two loops still open. No reservation was necessary.
It’s a beautiful sunny morning at Watkins Glen, but the weather forecast for later this week calls for rain farther east, along the Mohawk River valley. We planned to rent bicycles there to tour an eastern section of the Erie Canal. Instead, we head south to the Corning Museum of Glass, encouraged by Joe and Michele, camp neighbors from Hilton Head Island, who raved about it. I won’t venture into art criticism, but I loved the contemporary works, several focused on global warming, a glassblowing demonstration featuring a whimsical potato with delicate sprouts, and ancient glass from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece.
Judy and I must take care of errands before leaving the Walmart in Elmira, New York. Judy buys books for grandnephews and I poach salmon in the parking lot. She hates the smell. At a laundry in downtown Elmira, I pause my housecleaning to show a couple with lots of questions about full-timing all the features of The Epic Van. Judy can’t miss a chance to promote, joining in. I’m convinced they’re not lookie-loos. We travel east on Interstate 86. Gold and yellow are everywhere in folds along tributaries of the Susquehanna River. As we wind along the east branch of the Delaware River, sheets of fall leaves stream down on The Epic Van. Hard rain pours in the Catskill Mountains as Judy and I roll into Tannersville, N.Y., at 5:30 p.m. We find a campsite at North-South Lake. We’re the only ones on the first loop. I’m too tired to cook. Time for a beer and a third, and final, round of chili for dinner. I think about our camp friends Keven and Georges. He cooks fresh every night! What a dynamo.
We took The Epic Van across the border for the first time, overnighting at Scott’s Family Campground in Niagara Falls. It’s a convenient gateway for Horseshoe Falls, about six miles away. Judy is a first-timer at the Falls; I’d seen it as a grade-schooler from the United States. We began our tour walking along the Niagara River Rapids, strolling past a shuttered Beaux-Arts hydropower building, relic of industrial glory. Approaching Niagara Falls from above is the best way to appreciate the concert of fresh water below. Regionally, Lake Erie, Ontario, Huron, Michigan and Superior hold about 20 percent of the world’s supply. At the brink of Horseshoe Falls, I get a twinge of motion sickness, staring at the Niagara River curling downward. Judy and I weren’t sure a boat tour to the base of the Falls would be worthwhile, but we grabbed our glorified red garbage bag and rode out to spray and foam, blotting out sunshine above. It was a good idea.
In the afternoon, we begin our tour of the Erie Canal at Commercial Slip, under Interstate 190 in Buffalo harbor. Completed in 1825, the 363-mile canal linked the Great Lakes region to New York City ports, creating a trade superhighway of agricultural and manufacturing goods. Hence the title, Empire State. As railroads eclipsed water transport in the early 20th century, Commercial Slip was filled and abused as Buffalo’s sewer line. Reclaimed for tourism in the 21st century, slip, warehouse and military museum are part of the Canalside district.
It’s another beautiful Walmart-and-yoga morning, this one in the Buffalo suburbs. The covered gazebo at Stiglmeier Park in Cheektowaga is perfect. Later, Judy and I grab raincoats and tour Lockport and the Flight of Five, a famous feat of engineering on the Erie Canal. The lock network, five eastbound and five westbound, neutralized the Niagara escarpment, allowing vessels to climb or descend 60 feet. West of the locks, workers blasted a channel with newfangled DuPont explosives to supply water from Lake Erie for the hydraulic system underneath the Flight of Five. Despite steady rain, tourists and locals enjoy a farmers market and local music under tents of vendors. We drive north for Lake Ontario and red sunset, and feel a bit of autumn for the first time at Lakeside Beach State Park.
I ask Judy if she wants to go to Seneca Falls. What’s there? I promptly take her to Women’s Rights National Historical Park. She knows the history, but not the place where the Women’s Rights Convention was held at a Wesleyan chapel on July 19-20, 1848. Inside the visitor center are statues of several women’s rights pioneers, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and their chief supporter for equality, Frederick Douglass.
We take a guided tour of the reconstructed chapel (portions of bricks and plaster preserved) along with Debbie and Enku. Afterward, the four of us talk about the women’s rights movement and the path to realize the Declaration of Sentiments, that all men and women are created equal. Enku, an immigrant from Africa, points out that black men were given the right to vote generations before women, and that a black man, Barack Obama, was elected president while a woman has not. More than 70 years passed between the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls and the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. How many years will it be before a woman is elected president? We want to visit It’s a Wonderful Life Museum, but it’s closed. Instead, we take a consolation prize, looking around downtown Seneca Falls and a suspension bridge, said to be the inspiration for Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls. A plaque on the bridge honors Antonio Varacalli, a 20-year-old immigrant who jumped into a barge canal, rescuing a young woman attempting suicide. He lost his life saving another.
Pat and John shuttle us to the far south suburbs to retrieve The Epic Van at the Sprinter shop in Orland Park, Illinois. The engine is running fine and a crust of prairie bugs has been scrubbed clean. We say goodbye to our loving cousins, thanking them again and again for six days of feeding and tour-guiding. It’s almost 5 p.m. Judy and I have a Chicago dog and Italian beef sandwich, restock our refrigerator, carefully select some diesel fuel and get on the toll road to Indiana. We have no change in our pockets to pay $1.50. It takes us three hectic minutes in the back of the vehicle to scrape up the change. (Nobody honked.) We roll with the truckers to Michigan City, Indiana, overnighting at Walmart.
Our travel plan for the rest of the month, sketched out before we left Longview, Washington, on Aug. 19, needs revision. Our next “bookend” is Oct. 4, a family visit in New York. Judy and I ditch the Henry Ford and Motown museums in Detroit and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum of Art in Cleveland. On the way to Niagara Falls, we do stop at the RV museum in Elkhart, Indiana. Among my favorites: the 1935 Bowlus Road Chief, a sailplane-inspired aluminum design made famous by Airstream; the 1928 Pierce Arrow Fleet Housecar, one of three Gatsby-style luxury models built before the Crash of 1929; the 1964 Clark Cortez Motorhome, the first front-wheel drive RV built in the United States.
It’s been 36 hours since Chicago and we’re 400 miles down the road, a very hectic travel pace. Judy and I slow down a bit among the cultivated gardens at Holden Arboretum, east of Cleveland. We stroll by dozens of rhododendron species, large beds of lilac, a few ‘Princeton’ American elm, resistant to Dutch elm disease. The gardens also feature many tree varieties suited for northeast Ohio: Chinese ginkgo, Japanese maple, Norwegian spruce and European beech. The gardens are warmup for native trees, the object of our visit: maple, beech, oak and hemlock trees along miles of trail on the forest floor. There’s also a canopy walk, 65 feet above the native forest, and tower view, at 120 feet, offering a treetop vista stretching to Lake Erie. Over the next few decades, rising temperatures and heavier rain events will make northeast Ohio less suitable for American basswood, Eastern White Pine, sugar maple and Eastern Hemlock. Climate change models predict that Bitternut hickory, Bur oak and Eastern Red cedar will do better here. We wander for four hours, returning to the Epic Van for late lunch.
My cousin, Dick Almasy, of Freeport, Illinois, is my political bellwether for President Trump. I’ve talked with Dick, a retired industrial electrician, fundamentalist Christian and Vietnam vet, about politics for decades at family reunions in northern Illinois. Although our Red-Blue divide is deep, our conversations are always civil. Dick, a supporter of Ted Cruz during primary season in 2016, voted for Donald Trump. Has he done anything during the last three years to make you reconsider your vote? Without pause, Dick says no. According to Dick, Trump, as president, tells the truth and is law abiding, victimized by a mainstream media smear machine and unhinged Democrats, who never gave him a chance. (Aside from politics, Donald Trump is superior to Barack Obama in personal character, Dick says. However, he respected Obama during his presidency and prayed for him.) The re-election of Trump is even more important in 2020, given the threat of socialists bent on destroying the Constitution, Dick says. What about my political agenda for legislation to reduce global warming, create universal health care, raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy to finance a stronger social safety net, and establish humane immigration policy? To Dick, it’s just a thicket of abstraction for financially secure, educated elites, like me, to fret over. Dick’s agenda: “It’s all about jobs.” Wealthy corporations and individuals, already burdened by taxes that are too high, will create manufacturing jobs in the United States now that Trump is reversing unfair global trading rules and cutting government regulations. According to Dick, the economy is great. Dick and I end our gabfest, agreeing on only one thing. We both want a president who will act to improve lives in Freeport, a struggling, racially diverse, Rust Belt city, and everywhere in the United States. Dick, who has traveled to the Caribbean and Mexico on church missions to help those in poverty, believes in helping others, but also in the sanctity of work. He sees wrongdoing in his community, underachieving folks, white and black, who could work full-time at difficult jobs for low pay, but choose to work sporadically and game the welfare system. From The Epic Van, I see wrongdoing at the top of society, a self-dealing oligarchy that breaks and bends laws through money influence in our nation’s capital. Dick and I can’t agree on what’s fundamentally wrong with America. One of us will wake up the morning after the 2020 election, certain that our democracy is dead.
We wake up at a Conoco parking lot for truckers in Valentine, Nebraska, to the sound of one rig idling. Last night, the lot was partially filled with about a dozen semi-trailers. Shouts of Cornhusker football fans on game night rang from a bar next door. We’re here for a second time to enjoy the Niobrara, a National Scenic River. In 2013, Judy, Nate and I rented a Roadtrek for the first time. I was skeptical about living full-time in a 21-foot vehicle and wanted a trial run. Our float down the lazy river on a hot July afternoon near Smith Falls State Park was one of the highlights of our 10-day vacation. After that, I began to serious consider the possibilities of wandering full time. Our plan today is to hike on the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, which stretches 189 miles from Valentine to Norfolk along an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern rail line. Our segment begins several miles east of Valentine at a signed turnout on U.S. 20. We double back toward Valentine, enjoying a view of the Niobrara from a trestle 150 feet above. The river, originating in Wyoming and fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, drains a region where the Rocky Mountain forest we’ve traveled for weeks gives way to box elder and bur oak, and where western short grass, the mixed-grass prairie of the Sandhills and eastern tall grass intersect. We travel in afternoon sun in northern Nebraska, crossing the 100th meridian and moving into greener ranch country above the river. An hour of solitude on the plains on Nebraska 12, at last interrupted by a passing vehicle.
Leaving Ponca State Park in Nebraska, on the bluffs of the Missouri River, we pass a flooded riverfront campground and boat launch. Late-summer runoff, unusually heavy, is pouring in this unchannelized stretch of the Missouri River. As we enter Iowa at Sioux City, hay fields are out and corn and soybeans are in. I follow the lead of William Least Heat Moon. Our “blue highway” through western Iowa is Iowa 3, a more intimate alternative to four lanes on U.S. 20. I stop at a roadside stand near Cherokee to buy sweet corn and tomatoes, summer staples of my boyhood in central Illinois. I ask the seller about yellowing leaves in soybean fields. Was it because of heavy spring rains? No, the bean fields always turn yellow at the end of growing season. I was red with embarrassment. I left soybean country for Arizona 40 years ago, returned to Illinois many times, but never in September. I’d lost touch with the harvest cycle.
Sadly, there’s no time for rail trails in Iowa. We blow past the Hawkeye state. Judy and I gather groceries in Dubuque for a family reunion dinner in Freeport, Illinois. The Epic Van stammers a bit going up a hill in Dubuque on the way to the Mississippi River bridge. East of Galena, birthplace of Ulysses Grant, a bit of stammering turns into a whole lot of bucking and wheezing as we travel through steeper and steeper hills along U.S. 20, a route used by truckers. Near the top of hills, I edge onto the road shoulder as we slow under 30 mph with the pedal to the metal. Something’s not right, either with the transmission, or fuel system. (We filled up on biofuel about 50 miles ago.) We’re only 40 miles from Freeport. Surely we can limp in. Twenty-three miles from town, defeated, we turn off on a gravel road across from a herd of cattle and dial for a tow truck. It’s 3 p.m. Just before sundown at 7 p.m., the flatbed hauling vehicle we requested arrives. My cousin Jeanne and her husband, Dick, come from Freeport to rescue us. We load clothes and perishable food into their vehicle, and head back to pared-down dinner and lots of catching up on family comings and goings.
Hard rain and winds whip The Epic Van at Walmart in Spearfish, South Dakota, and the forecast calls for no letup all day. We’re reduced to our least favorite option for getting in 10,000 steps a day, the Walmart walk. Raincoats will be cumbersome indoors, so we dash to the entrance. Under fluorescent sky, we begin our walk through blue and yellow signage with constant reminders of Everyday Low Price! (The tariff war with China must be making a lot of this stuff more expensive.) We’ve tried spicing up the walking routine, which we’ve done several dozen times over the years, by going Pac-Man, gobbling every aisle in a store. It’s dizzying. Gets old fast. The Spearfish store has an unobstructed perimeter walk around the box, old-school Walmart design. Updated stores are partitioned to funnel shoppers into the maw. We take a drive in the rain, scouting a section of the Michelson rail trail near Lead, South Dakota, and seek wi-fi at a Pilot truck stop in Rapid City to watch the Democratic presidential debate and camp.
As we cruise toward a rail trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sun shines brightly for the first time since Idaho, eight days ago. Judy and I are doing our first shuttle hike, on the Mickelson Trail, a 108-mile biking and hiking route between Edgemont and Deadwood. If you are looking for ease of travel through steep terrain, nothing beats the gradual up-and-down gradient of a rail line. (This rail trail features smooth, fine gravel, though not all do.)
I start at Dumont trailhead at 9:30 a.m. and head north toward Lead, South Dakota, while Judy parks at the Sugarloaf Trailhead and hikes south toward Englewood to meet me. I stroll in a sweatshirt at 5,000 feet, climbing gently through Ponderosa pine, aspen and birch, dotted with slopes of knee-high emerald grass. I pass through open valley at Englewood, a railroad ghost town once named Ten Mile. In 1890, the town was a bustling junction for three lines: the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, Black Hills & Ft. Pierre Railroad, and the Spearfish line, popular with tourists.
I meet Judy on mile seven, just before noon as temperatures warm up in the valley. In a half-mile or so we’re back under cover of the Black Hills forest for our return to The Epic Van. Our half-day shuttle hike worked perfectly. We’ll do it again.
We begin our morning in Wall, South Dakota, parked on motel row on Main Street. Our plan was to camp last night in Badlands National Park at Sage Campground, but it was full. At least we drove out of the park under the glow of the harvest moon. After laundering and shopping (fixings for buffalo stew), we roll back to Badlands park. On the way, we stop at Prairie Homestead, one of the best-preserved sod houses in the United States. You can walk inside to examine earthen walls, cottonwood beams and a precious few milled planks used to build it in 1909. This was one of the last stretches of the Great Plains opened to the plow. Homesteaders, relying on about 13 inches of rain a year, said: “The government bet you 160 acres of land against $18.00 that you will starve to death before you live on the land five years.” The signs for hundreds of miles along South Dakota highways should lead to Prairie Homestead, instead of the drug store back in Wall. Later, we take a short, steep hike up to Saddle Pass, on the Badlands Wall, a 50-mile barrier that separates upper mixed-grass prairie from lower prairie to the southwest. I looked toward the White River bluffs in the distance, thinking about how grasshoppers, prairie fire, hail, sub-zero temperatures, blizzards and social isolation crushed homesteaders, forcing 80 to 90 percent of them to abandon their dreams in the Badlands.
Our rough outline for West to East travel has us in the Black Hills of South Dakota in four days. We should travel directly there, but the lure of the Little Belt Mountains is too big. Today is a drive-by, a 280-mile loop through low-slung, rounded mountains of pasture and forest. It’s a day to ponder the lives of the “lariat proletariat,” mid-century sheep and cattle hands and their families who eked out a living here. Ivan Doig describes it all wonderfully in This House of Sky. (Thanks to David McElwee for introducing us to Doig in a Dahl family holiday book exchange.)
Our drive-by begins at 11 a.m., taking us from the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers at Missouri Headwaters State Park to Townsend. Then we travel east on U.S. 12 to White Sulphur Springs, which figures in Doig’s childhood. (It’s still a town of many drinking establishments; the springs warm a motel pool.) At a ranger station, an employee suggests a visit to Neihart, Doig’s birthplace. That would extend our day trip until dark. Instead, we travel on U.S. 89 and dip into the Little Belts, about a mile high, driving a few miles north of Sheep Creek before looping back. As we travel east on U.S. 12 along the southern edge of the Little Belts on the way to Harlowton, Judy reads from Roadside Geology of Montana about Madison limestone formation, lignite (coal) bands and the Crazy Mountains. She’s OK with reading from Roadside this afternoon, though sometimes I test her limits. We reach downtown Billings by 6:15 p.m., honoring Montana ranching with a ribeye and filet at Jake’s. We bed down at a nearby Walmart.
Just as we launder clothing and clean The Epic Van on a 12-day cycle, we pick a place for a half day of business every week. Today’s agenda: shopping, blogging, prescription pickup, scheduling a family visit in Illinois and RV dump. We begin at 8:30. I shop for groceries; Judy reminds me to get more mouse traps. She’s bagged two since Idaho; peanut butter was licked off one trap last night. At Walgreens, I learn a prescription called in two days ago isn’t ready, and cancel it. Our RV dump app led us to a wastewater treatment facility without facilities for us. Business half-days often turn out to be close to an eight-hour shift. Traveling southeast on Interstate 90, we turn off at Little Bighorn Battlefield at 4:15 p.m. The visitor center and roads that overlook the 1876 battleground close at 6 p.m. Immediately, a man on a bicycle says hello and really wants to see The Epic Van. We can’t say no. Judy has invited about 200 or so curious folks into The Epic Van during the last five years, but no one was more enthusiastic than Tom Southern, a volunteer historical interpreter for the park service. He was smitten with the functionality of The Epic Van and the dream of full-timing. I predict he will be a road brother soon. Judy and I hurried through the visitor center, bought A Terrible Glory, Custer and the Little Bighorn, by James Donovan, then drove along grassy hillocks and coulees of the battlefield, viewing river plain where 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho camped, and Last Stand Hill, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and about 210 men of the 7th Cavalry were surrounded and killed. A park service vehicle herded The Epic Van and other stragglers out of the park at 6:15 p.m. We saved the day from routine, working overtime to witness history and proselytize for life on wheels.
Our plan was to camp and hike a little in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains near Buffalo, Wyoming, for two days. It’s much too rainy for that, and it’s a bit too cold, mid-50s, for park yoga, even if we found a pavilion for shelter. From the Walmart parking lot in Sheridan, Wyoming, I call The Hub, a senior center with a trendier name, and ask if they have a room or wide hallway to roll out two yoga mats. There are classes in the exercise room until 11 a.m., but we’re welcome to use the space afterward. The Hub is modern and well-appointed with a busy café and a spacious exercise room with large windows overlooking a park. It’s a luxury to have a level floor to move through our hour-long routine. We thank several employees for their welcome and leave a small donation After lunch and a shower in The Hub parking lot, we roll on Interstate 90 to Spearfish, South Dakota, through patches of rain.
We peek at steam rising from Kirkham Hot Springs before leaving for Stanley, Idaho, a likely spot for an RV dump and groceries. At noon, we rush to fill our water tanks at Redfish Lake under a sprinkle and depart as thunderstorm clouds bulge. Pounding rain and hail strike as we travel north on Idaho 75. Wind gusts of 40-50 mph tug at the Epic Van as two Lodgepole pines, about 30 feet tall, snap and fall in front of our vehicle. We skirt them and decide to wait out the storm in Stanley. There’s a flash flood warning and red flag (high-wind warning) until 6 p.m. on the road to Salmon, according to Judy’s weather app. We decide to stay at the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness tonight. We tour the visitor center at Redfish Lake, site of the world’s longest, 900 miles, and highest, 7,200 feet, spawning route to the Pacific for Chinook salmon. Less than 100 natural Chinook, and a few hundred hatchery Chinook, made it back to Redfish Lake last month. Once, thousands of spawning Chinook gave the lake its name. On an interpretive nature walk, we walk along a terminal moraine, an indicator of glaciers that formed the lake. A boardwalk leads over marshy terrain, flush with willows and beaver dams. In the distance, 57 peaks in the Sawtooth Mountains rise over 10,000 feet. We end our afternoon with a short hike along Fishhook Creek trail, amid Rocky Mountain fir, lodgepole pine and sagebrush. A couple from Idaho Falls leads us to a pocket of calm water on roaring Fishhook Creek, pointing to native fish idling. At 6 p.m., we find a spot at nearby Sunny Gulch Campground. Overnight low is forecast at 37. The furnace is set for the first time this summer, 55 degrees, our sleep comfort number.
Today we’ll be tracing the first 100 miles or so of the Chinook migration route north to Salmon, Idaho, on pavement. At 8 a.m., Judy and I begin a gentle descent in morning fog along the Salmon River. Judy reads the first chapter of The Enchanted Hour, the Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. We see a man with coffee mug lounging in a hot spring. We agree that this stretch of Idaho 75 is among the most scenic we’ve wandered in five years. We stop at Sunbeam Dam, the only one ever built on the Salmon. It was partially demolished in the 1930s to reopen salmon travel. We leave conifers, dipping under the cloud layer to a soft brown contours and green fields, then stop at a buffalo jump, a ledge used by Shoshone hunters. (Bighorn sheep also live here on rocky cliffs.) There’s a sign for a farmers’ market in Challis. We grab squash, green beans and fresh eggs. We leave Idaho 75 in Salmon for the road through the Bitterroot Mountains and Lost Pass. At 4 p.m., we arrive at Indian Trees campground, near Sula, Mont., for chair time. On a tall, tilted Ponderosa pine at site 10, there’s evidence of Bitterroot Salish. In spring, as pine sap flows, they stripped away portions of bark, using the tree’s cambium layer for food. Many wide Ponderosa pines in the campground were peeled from 1835 to 1890.
We depart camp near U.S. 93 on the sanitized thoroughfare to Lost Pass, but seek hiking and history on the ancestral route of Nez Perce. I rely on Forest Service ranger stations for local maps, but none were available. We look for road signs on U.S. 93 for the Nez Perce or Lewis and Clark hiking trails. At a trailhead, a map shows where the Nez Perce trail overlaps with a parking spot. We begin our hike at Chief Joseph Pass campground, at 7,200 feet. It’s cloudy and about 60 degrees. We hike on the Continental Divide Trail in Rocky Mountain firs and lodge pole pines, past a network of cross-country ski trails. We reach Gibbon Pass Road, one of the most historic paths in Montana, tread by animals, aboriginals, explorers, fur trappers and pioneers. At an overlook, we gaze toward Indian Trees camp and the road to Sula below. Back at the trailhead, we say hello to Terry, a hunter in camouflage from nearby Darby, Montana. I ask if anyone hunts around the ski area. He nods yes. Judy and I will be buying something bright orange to hike during hunting season. We spend an hour or so at Big Hole National Battlefield, which honors between 60 and 90 Nez Perce killed in 1877, many of them children and women, in an attack by U.S. soldiers and volunteers led by Col. John Gibbon. Thirty-one soldiers and volunteers died in two days of fighting. We travel east on Montana 43 along the Big Hole River toward Butte. Our day ends under steady rain just off Interstate 90, at Headwaters State Park, near Three Forks, Montana.
Judy and I are renewing our nomadic creed for our longest road trip since we began our Epic Van journey in 2015. We pledge to use best practices learned over nearly 100,000 miles of wandering to make our journey from Oregon to Maryland, and back to Arizona, our most rewarding adventure yet. For us, best practice revolves on slow rhythm and simplicity: wake up rested, stop for a few minutes every day and appreciate our natural heritage and neighbors; witness our history, through trails, landmarks, museums and roadside oddities; read something from a book and share one together; improve healthfulness through diet and hiking, and blog about it a little bit more! So here goes, ongoing installments of West to East chronicles (starting from the bottom, most recent on top):
We do yoga at Cascade Lake under layer of clouds in late morning, our first shelter from sun since we arrived in Idaho seven days ago. We’re headed for Salmon, Idaho, about 240 miles east. After lunch and blogging in Cascade, it’s already 3 p.m. Getting to Salmon isn’t happening. I see a cluster of camp symbols on our atlas, east of Lowman. We’ll pick one and have chair time before sundown. Led by intuition, I pass by several shaded campgrounds, confident of bigger stands of trees ahead. Wrong assumption. It’s 5:30 p.m., time to settle into to Kirkham Campground. Seems there’s more pavement than trees. Circling for a camp site, we see a day-use area and discover a HOT SPRINGS sign. We rush to park and pay, slipping into bathing suits we seldom use. We descend from the day use area into a cluster of terraced pools emptying into the south fork of the Payette River. We choose a partially shaded pool with smooth recliner-style rocks to support us. Water temperature was perfect, warm, about 110 degrees, but not sweaty. All that for $7.50 a night.
We stay an extra day in Yellow Pine so Judy has a web connection to find out if she will be exhibiting at the Tempe Festival of the Arts in December. Unfortunately, Periwinkle Polka Dot, which sells upcycled clothing for girls, is wait-listed. Judy and her business partner, Tami, may have to sell on Etsy for the holidays. Judy, Ann and I hop on ATVs for a visit to Bryant Ranch. We stop and say hello to Barry, who’s tying down his plane at Johnson Creek Airport after doing some business in McCall this morning. There have been about 20 takeoffs and landings already, a lot of air traffic for a day after Labor Day.
We climb a road to Bryant Ranch and the White House, perched at the southern end of the airstrip, an alfalfa field the family donated. The White House and occupants almost took a direct hit from a plane crash not so long ago. Our friend Teri gives us a tour of their family home, a two-story home, built in 1925, furnished with the first bathroom plumbing in Johnson Creek. (A Lennox wood furnace, original equipment, still warms the home.) Teri points to a photo of a 1920s Fordson tractor, a rare prototype model given by Henry Ford to H.H. Bryant for his alfalfa field. Decades later, the tractor was donated to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. (Henry Ford married H.H. Bryant’s sister, Clara Jane, in 1888.) Teri says family members still use the home as a timeshare in spring, summer and fall, but never in winter. We return to Yellow Pine, say goodbye to Jeff and Ann and leave at 3:30 p.m. for the 65-mile drive back to civilization in Cascade, via the South Fork of Salmon River. The one-lane forest service road, repaved in sections and with roadbed improvements, is a lot easier on The Epic Van than the 40 or so miles of washboard to McCall. By the time we get to Cascade and resupply with food and fuel, it’s sundown at our overnight camp at Cascade Lake.
Jeff and Ann fell in love with Yellow Pine on a backroad motorcycle adventure. Jeff, a paramedic and former director of an emergency medical-transport company, and Ann, a nurse, with specialties in emergency-medical response and search and rescue, worked in Denver, where they raised two daughters. Jeff came to know central Idaho when he responded to a large fire in 2006, which threatened Yellow Pine. Jeff and Ann rolled into town on motorcycles in 2007 during Harmonica Festival weekend, agreeing to stay and treat anyone who needed medical help. They found the remote town intriguing and began scouting for a place to live. Like Judy and I, Jeff and Ann decided to leave city jobs in their late 50s and begin a new chapter in life. While Judy and I have completely disconnected from work, Jeff and Ann are always on call in Yellow Pine for medical emergencies, from April to November. Fortunately, they take time off in the winter to pursue their passion for trail bikes in the McDowell Mountains near Phoenix. Although they ride boldly in their four-wheel-drive Sprinter and we wander with tenderfeet in The Epic Van, the four of us immediately hit it off. The crowning feature of Jeff and Ann’s home, which they built, is a broad enclosed porch on south and west. It’s the perfect place to share a lifetime of work and family stories and bask in deep solitude. Jeff asks, “How’s your Zen doing here?” It’s usually very good on the road but it’s off the charts here.
We begin our morning in Yellow Pine, Idaho, camped at the home of Jeff and Ann Forster, friends we met camping at Cochise Stronghold in Arizona during our first year in The Epic Van. Ann was our guide on a three-mile game trail circling Yellow Pine, population 50ish. The town, at 4,700 feet, is a flat surrounded by steep mountain ridges in the Boise and Payette National forests. We pass above the outskirts of town to the north and say hello to Sherry Gordon, who spends hours removing noxious thistle near her cabin. On the edge of town, we stroll past an outfitters’ home and horses and say hello to Margaret Libby, who wants to finish home remodeling before cold weather sets in.
On the eastern edge of town, we walk through a sunny forest floor as Yellow and Ponderosa pines filter midday heat. Along the southern edge of the game trail, Ann directs us to the “Bathtub,” a granite bowl in the riverbed scoured by spring runoff. It’s near the confluence of Johnson Creek and the East Fork. We watch amateur prospectors sifting gravel in a sluice box, then climb up to the trail finish our walk along the East Fork. Clear, sun-sparkled water rolling over smoothed granite is tinted pale green.
A golf tournament, which benefits the community of Yellow Pine, is scheduled a half hour after the Boise State football game ends. Those who celebrated a big victory over Florida State at the Yellow Pine Tavern join a dozen or so golfing pairs gathered near a tent at the first hole. The only rules: Best ball and one club-length limit when moving a golf ball from an obstructed lie. The 18-hole course is on Forest Service land where “the fairways aren’t fair and the greens aren’t green.” Only minor alterations – patches of compacted gravel for putting surfaces and tee boxes marked with rocks – have been made.
Legend has it that distances for the holes were determined by how far a softball could be thrown. Bonafide golfers who loft shots can avoid some of the rocks, tree branches and brush surrounding the putting surface. (I couldn’t.) Jeff, Ann, Judy and I laughed our way through the round. An ATV loaded with beer, soda and meatloaf sandwiches kept us refreshed. It was a Labor Day event we will never forget.
Lorinne, barkeep at the Yellow Pine Tavern, a favorite of locals, came by with a question about submitting her state liquor-license renewal to Boise. She came here from Berkeley, a blue-state woman in a relationship with Doug, a red-state man and outfitter. They share a love of camping and navigate political differences over President Trump. Ann and Jeff mention that guests for tonight’s taco bar/corn roast will be similarly split.
Judy and I cook the groceries we brought from McCall, while Jeff and Ann prepare table and settings for an evening picnic on their lawn. We welcome Chuck and Teri, a couple who love to hunt and fish together. They left Boise to live at Bryant Ranch full time. Barry and Diana, own Wapiti Meadow Ranch on Johnson Creek, a vacation destination with cabins and guided fishing tours. Barry, a former commercial pilot and outdoor tour operator, flies to McCall, about 50 miles by road, taking off from a park-like grass airstrip nearby. Fifteen minutes in a plane to run errands is more enjoyable than a couple of hours on washboard road, he says. We learn about the history of Bryant Ranch and family ties to Henry Ford, enjoying conversation with grilled Mexican street corn, roasted chicken tacos, coleslaw and black beans. At the end of the evening, we tell Chuck and Teri we hope to see them again at a winter reunion of townies at Sue and Steve’s place in Yuma, dubbed Yellow Pine South.
Dave, a Valley County sheriff’s deputy, stops by to say hello. “Did you hear about Elliott on social media?” We say no. Elliot the Elk, domesticated as a calf, was hanging out too close to forest service campgrounds in Bear Valley. Two lariats could not hold him, but a net cannon brought in by fish and game employees did. Elliot’s capture coincides with the start of archery season. Dave reported cars parked everywhere along forest service roads as bow hunters stalk elk up mountain. Labor Day weekend is a stressful time for Dave, who pursued violators of forest service rules near Deadwood Reservoir. “Too many flatlanders think they can go anywhere.”
I’ve been looking forward to this day since we left Arizona on July 15. I finally get to use my new TrailLink app, $29 a year, and walk a piece of the Weiser River National Recreation Trail, 84 miles of bike and hike trail along an abandoned Union Pacific Railroad line in southwest Idaho.
Judy and I get up at 6 a.m. to avoid a forecast high of 95 and find our segment of the trail between Cambridge and Midvale. We begin at 8:30 a.m. under the shelter of high clouds with temps in the 70s. We immediately lose the rail trail, wandering onto a farm-service road that leads to a cobbled flood channel of the Weiser. We backtrack to the rail trail, at about 4,600 feet, and the flowing portion of the Weiser, sluggish in August. We stroll south for several miles on packed gravel, walking along tall grass, sagebrush and farms above. We see grouse, pheasant and a coyote. Judy takes a photo of bear scat. On the way back, a cattle herd matches our footsteps for several hundred yards, escorting us to the border fence. Were they looking for a snack?
We get back to The Epic Van at noon and eat lunch. In McCall, Idaho, we get Labor Day weekend groceries. Judy shops for more yarn. We spend the night in Crown Point camp at Cascade Lake, off Idaho 55. I mention our hike along the Weiser rail trail to our camp host, who lives in Boise. She looks at me incredulously. It’s WEESER, not WYSER.
We reluctantly depart our paradise in Dayville, Oregon, at 10:30 a.m. As we drive along the John Day River valley past lush alfalfa fields and bulky cattle, we organize our day. Shade will be our most important priority with temps expected in the low 90s. We find sheltering cottonwoods to post our nomadic news, call family and have lunch at a park next to Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site. It’s almost 2 p.m. We really need to make some miles to reach a camp near Ontario, Oregon, but it’s almost impossible for us to leave a heritage site without exploring it. We go to the interpretive center and sign up for a tour of one of the oldest and best preserved Chinese mercantile stores in the West. The partnership of Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On and their remarkable store, which served as a house of worship, pharmacy, general store, library, gambling and opium den, music hall, mail-order outlet and hotel is fascinating. Their devotion to community is worthy of a separate post. We did get to Ontario, Oregon, but had to give up our plan of camping along the Snake River, settling for a Walmart. We called to confirm that RVers are welcome.
Our agenda: Finish yoga in Springfield, Oregon, by 9 a.m., tour lava fields near McKenzie Pass at midday, fix our broken waste-disposal nozzle and wash salt off The Epic Van in Redmond by 5 p.m., and camp somewhere near Mitchell, Oregon, before sundown. We cruise in our air-conditioned bubble as shadows lengthen and temps in the 90s linger. We’re bound for Barnhouse campground in Ochoco National Forest. There’s no sign for a camp along U.S. 26, but there’s a Forest Service road to the south. I take it, but we can’t connect to Mr. Google to confirm the location. Judy worries that it’s getting dark in the Ponderosa forest. How do I know this is the road to Barnhouse? I smell it, I declare. Judy is unimpressed. We turn around after three miles. (Later, we discover our turnaround was two miles short of Barnhouse.) It’s almost sundown when we arrive at Fish House Inn and RV park, a quaint oasis in the heart of Dayville, Oregon, population 145. David, our camp host, gives us an overflow spot for $25. It was on the front lawn, and we had it to ourselves. If you are visiting John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Fish House camp is the place to overnight. Rate with hookup is $35 a night.
We go east on Oregon 126 toward Mapleton, crossing a bridge on the Siuslaw, then doubling back on the river to find Sweet Creek. We hike up past waterfalls lined by alder and maple in filtered sunshine and temps in the 70s. Jumpers plunge into pools, but exit quickly to sunbathe on basalt banks.
We walked back to the trailhead with Janet Runger and a friend. Janet displays her assemblage art at Crow’s Nest Gallery & Studio in Toledo, Oregon. We promise to visit her gallery next year.
On our way to Eugene, we realize that the beep in The Epic Van may be from a dying carbon monoxide monitor instead of a low battery. By the time we buy it, it’s nearly 6 p.m. We face the nomad’s dilemma. Too late for chair time at camp. Do we pay $30 just to snooze comfortably at a county park or camp at a Walmart in Springfield? Most Walmarts welcome RVers, but when we called this one, the assistant said no. There are no signs prohibiting overnight parking. By 10 p.m., we were the only camping rig left in the parking lot. That’s very unusual. Luckily, we slept in peace.
We finally do all-day camp. It’s Sunday, our fourth day of sun and temps in the high 60s. Outdoor-loving folks under 35 and middle-age parents and their kids go back to the city. There is much less energy. Old-timers are lounging and hosts are manicuring campsites.
It’s a well-rounded day of yoga, blogging, reading (The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren), walking the Captain Cook Trail with Judy and seeing some tide pools, putting together Swedish meatballs on cauliflower, sparring with Judy over the proper placement of logs during a five-hour campfire, enjoying tea with scotch and gazing at constellations with the help of SkyView Life. It was the perfect finale to our Cape Perpetua visit. It’s definitely a four-star camp, our highest rating.
If you don’t have time to camp, stop at the visitor center, walk a few minutes through old-growth rainforest and behold a nearly 600-year-old Sitka spruce.
When we stay for more than three nights at a camp, we spend at least one them for all-day camp. Saturday was our day to park The Epic Van.
Unfortunately, we hear beeping about 10 a.m. Must be a low battery warning. That will require some early evening drive time.
We agree on half-camp day: a ranger-led tour at the visitor center on trees and forest as inspiration for art. (Didn’t know panic comes from the Greek god whose sounds from the woods frightened man and beast.) I take a short hike to the top of the cape on Saint Perpetua trail, about 800 feet above camp.
We make the most of the two hours of recharging. We refuel, pick up some beer, dump our tanks, get lots of firewood and finish with sunset dining at Ocean Beach. Never would have seen it without that beep.
I love to walk in dunes as much as Judy loves chair time at a warm California beach. I’ve sunken my Keens along with Judy into the towering peaks of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, the sand and woodland of Indiana Dunes National Seashore, the scorching heat and ripples of Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area near Yuma, Arizona, and my favorite, the endless snowy gypsum crests at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
Our hike today begins a few miles north of Florence from the Alder Dune day use area. It’s a four-mile round trip to a viewpoint on Sutton Creek with views of lumpy sage-tinted coastal dunes. The trail cuts through a sandy scrub-woodland zone. Salam and beach pines dominate; visible sands dunes are rare. To build roads and expand commerce along 100 miles of dancing sands on the central Oregon coast, the Forest Service introduced European beach grass in the early 20th century. For more on the unintended consequences of imported grass and broom, look for Judy’s upcoming post on Oregon dune history.
We go south, traveling along wind-carved Sitka spruce, sheer basalt bluffs and sun-sparkled parcels of beach to the grassy sand dunes of Florence. We make phone calls to Arizona, wish Judy’s sister Nancy a happy birthday, and find a comfortably warm yoga spot at Miller Park.
I’m very happy with beginning yoga from our new yoga teacher on Down Dog. She does a great job of describing positions and giving points of emphasis on better form as we roll through a session that focuses on core strength. It’s more aerobically challenging than our old app, but in a good way. Great lower back stretch, too.
Judy is mildly irked by the testerone-fueled one-upsmanship of teenage guys swooping up and down a skateboard park on scooters. “We own this place. Get down to the park,” they tell a friend by phone. (Are they saying something about acid? Oh, dear!) “We’ll be here all day.” I remember summer days of freedom when I was a teen chasing a good time in central Illinois, but often came up short. Give the guys a break, I say.
We head south on the Oregon coast along U.S. 101, enjoying sea islands, rolling surf and gentle rain. Problem is we’re noticing scores of recreational vehicles and camp trailers as we scout for a five-night camp south of Lincoln City. We’re putting our faith in unscripted travel to the test during peak season. We roll into Cape Perpetua campground in the Suislaw National Forest on Wednesday at 4 p.m. There are five open sites, confirming my hunch that pleasant sites without hookups for power and sewer are available on weekdays. (Our camp filled by Friday night.)
It’s too rainy to get the chairs out so I cook ahead, putting together a ginger soy pot roast with quinoa, carrots and green beans. Judy reads aloud from Heart Earth by Ivan Doig. The forecast is sunny for the rest of our week.
We liked camp so much at Whalen Island Park in Tillamook County that we spent the whole morning.
From our bed, we watched steel grey clouds descend into the Sand Lake estuary and listened to raindrops tapping on our windshield.
Sea gulls landed on the opposite shore but didn’t seem to linger. A camp host said the gulls cry out if eagles, ospreys or red-tail hawks are patrolling above. Kayakers are nice to watch, too.
We often see campers roll out at 7 or 8 in the morning. We seldom do, having the luxury of time. The best moment of the day sometimes occurs before I finish my tea and leave The Epic Van.
Camp fees at Whalen Island are $38 a night, including RV dump and fresh water. I’d give the place three stars.
Summer weekdays are especially nice. It gets crowded on weekends.
Judy and I pledge to do yoga more regularly on this trip, but morning temps were in the mid-50s, too cold for our Arizona-acclimatized bodies. We figured it would be warmer in Tillamook, Oregon, by late morning, and it was. We set up mats on a tennis court and opened our new, cheaper yoga app, Down Dog. (Our old favorite, Yoga Studio, raised its annual subscription rate to $100. Down Dog is $35 a year.)
Our session was doomed from the start. First, clatter from construction on a home nearby made it difficult to hear our new instructor. Second, intermediate yoga on Down Dog was more impossibly pretzel-like than our old yoga app. Then, a woman sits down for lunch nearby and tells us she’s a yoga teacher. Flooded with insecurity, I stiffen and stumble, unable to follow unfamiliar commands from my virtual yoga teacher as a real one looms. Nate called. The midday sun roared out. We quit in the middle of our planned 60-minute session. It was the first time since we began doing yoga together four years ago that we rose from the mat in defeat. Later at lunch, Judy downloaded a beginner yoga session from our new app and discovered a feature to slow the speed of spoken instruction. Breath in, let your heart rise. Breath out. I must present my yoga spirit to the world,
whatever the place.
We crawl out on our estimated 8,000 mile journey, departing Longview, Washington.
The friends-and-family phase of our journey from Arizona, through Death Valley and Yosemite, over to Carmel, Calif., and north along the Pacific coast is complete. (See Judy’s post for how she got her mojo back for details.)
I wake at 8 a.m., run 2.5 miles and walk a mile on the Lake Sacajawea loop, breakfast on Leslie Dahl’s fine homemade granola, sort surplus books that must be sent back to Arizona because of two recent visits to Powell’s City of Books in Portland. (Meanwhile, Judy is preparing to ship a record-setting stack of gifts bound for six locations.)
We hit the road at 11:15 a.m. By the time we finish mailing at UPS and the post office, refilling propane, dumping waste water, buying groceries and having lunch in the Safeway parking lot, it’s 2 p.m.
Our original destination, a camp near Lincoln City, Oregon, about 150 miles away, conflicts with mandatory afternoon “chair time,” which begins at 4 p.m. Our revised destination is Big Eddy Park near Vernonia, Oregon, about 35 miles from our starting point. We register and park by 3:50 p.m., then lounge under red cedars and big-leaf maples. It’s sunny with temperatures in the mid-60s. Beers are out. Dinner prep is under way. A new north-African stew recipe featuring ras el hanout, amaranth, chicken, sweet potato and red peppers met with Judy’s approval, and mine. Everything is glorious at Big Eddy, except the $5 “transaction fee” for one night stays with no reservation.