Tuesday, July 29, 2008

“Journey’s End”

Monday, July 28, 2008, 8:00 pm

I’m just home from my first day back at work – blecch. If you can figure out a way to stay on vacation, do it. I’m amazed at how differently my mind operates now that it’s back on the regular routine. I’m trying to write this final entry using the same mindset I had on the trip, but I’m finding it quite difficult.

Our last two days (or in the Sommerfeld’s case, the last three days) were little more than completing the final 1000 miles to get back to Marietta (or in the Sommerfeld’s case, the final 1500 miles to get back to Raleigh).

Lee and Kristen used the bulk of this remaining travel time to catch up on as many Lost episodes as possible. Previously, they had only seen an occasional episode out of sequence, so I brought the first three seasons with us on the trip, and they were pretty much hooked. If you watch it from the beginning, it will have you (season 5, coming in 2009!). I think they made it part way into season 2.

On Friday, Scott took us on a driving tour of New Orleans. We didn’t see the worst of the remaining Katrina damage, but we did tour some of the affected areas closer to the Mississippi river. It’s amazing that even after so many years there is still so much to be renovated, repaired, or rebuilt. We also got to see the church where Kathy stayed when she came on her mission trip from Raleigh. The highlight of the tour, though, was Scott driving the RV, barreling down the back streets of the French Quarter, kissing mirrors with the parked cars on both sides of the street at the same time. That was one tight fit. Forest actually crossed the famed Bourbon Street. You can’t drive down it - it’s pedestrian only. But there is one spot where through traffic cuts across Bourbon Street - and we went flying by in Forest. Scott claims he even scared himself a couple times on that run. Kathy’s favorite moment was when we turned left, just behind a couple of boys crossing the street. The younger was probably around 9, and he was in full strut mode - shirtless, sagging, and arms gyrating as he swaggered across. But when he turned and the RV caught his eye, the entire cool fa├žade was lost, and he became 9 again. His eyes got real big and his mouth dropped open, which he covered with one hand while his other pointed up to Kathy in the passenger seat. She just pointed back and laughed.

For our final camping night, we (surprise) got in very late. We passed on two campgrounds (one was the wrong direction after touring New Orleans, the other one smelled a bit too much like.. well.. New Orleans), and we decided to drive another hour into Mississippi before stopping. It was a campground that caught Kathy’s eye in the Woodall’s camping guide – a five star rated campground called Camp Journey’s End. How fitting is that? It was a former KOA and seemed very nice, though we didn’t really get a chance to enjoy it. Its one attraction we did frequent was The Shed, a biker bar BBQ that reminded everyone of the Hog Wild, only with maybe 10 more years hung on it. The Katrina water line was painted on all of its windows, about two thirds of the way to its ceiling. It looked like Katrina dropped all of its trash on The Shed, as the place was covered from head to foot with atmosphere – crates, beers, kegs, tools, rusted equipment, a stuffed horse, a broken down golf cart on the roof, etc. And even as early as 11:00 on a Saturday morning, the place was packed with customers. According to signs there, the place will be featured soon on the Food network. Decent BBQ, but nothing to write home (or a blog) about.

By Saturday night, we were at my home in Marietta. We did make one quick stop at the drug store a mile before we got there, and I ought to share this last bit. Leaving the drug store, I was driving. I guess I had developed a reputation for ‘Atlanta driving’ (although anyone who considers 5 miles below the speed limit ‘Atlanta driving’ hasn’t spent much time in Atlanta…). Anyway, as we began to roll forward out of the parking lot, I hear multiple cries of “Whoa!”, “Eek!”, and “Hold On!” (this last one is properly pronounced “Ho Don”, and is best when repeated three times). I gently brought Forest to a stop and complained - “I only moved it three inches!” I think it was Kristen who quickly replied – “Yeah, but it was a *fast* three inches!”

So it’s done. I know from Scott’s call that they made it back to Raleigh on Sunday. That’s good, but I’m pretty bummed that it’s over. The trip was a dream, a fantastic journey where the sights were spectacular, but the time and the adventures spent together are what we’ll treasure, even the breakdowns. As one of Scott’s t-shirts says, and as the blog hopefully illustrated, “The Journey is the Destination”. I’m only sorry for two things – the financial commitment the Sommerfelds made during the trip, and the many moments I’ve forgotten or failed to include, not the least of which:
- Scott’s running over the Cheetah Chair after stopping for the incredible rainbow on the drive to the North Rim.
- All the great meals cooked on the road (everyone contributed, but Lee gets the biggest credit, I think).
- The hot, claustrophobic foot well and filthy seat pillows in the Japanese restaurant (where we weren’t allowed to wear our ‘dirty’ shoes).
- Mike’s, Jet’s, and Larry 2’s inexhaustible supply of stories, and our wagers as to how many and how far some of them were stretched.
- The fact that we drank in just about every brew pub in operation from Colorado Springs to Austin (including Moab Brewery, the best one and another good reason to include Arches on your itinerary).
- Scott’s further unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the sunblock – to my knowledge it’s still there.
- Our theories for Kate’s purse snatcher.
- …and countless others I’ve already forgotten

Kate may have known what she was getting into when she invited her brother on this trip (probably not), but it’s a rare brother-in-law and teenage nieces who will put up with someone outside their immediate family for such a long time in such tight quarters. During this trip I was able to witness and appreciate, in each of the four Sommerfelds:
- Their selfless, giving nature and sharing camaraderie.
- Their adventurous spirit.
- Their adaptability and uncomplaining acceptance of stress and discomfort.
- Their unashamed expressions of joy.
- Their enthusiasm for laughter.
- Their simple enjoyment of each other’s (and hopefully my) company.
- Their faith and love of God and family.
Everyone was just great on this trip, which more than likely means I was the annoying one. I’ll just have to hope that they were able to overlook my foibles and enjoy everything as much as I. I’m pretty sure that they did. I give my heartfelt thanks to each of them – it was truly a privilege and honor to be included, and I will remember it always.

Thanks also to everyone who took the time to support our trip by caring for our pets, watching our homes, calling us with words of encouragement during the rough patches, or just following along with the blog. Your help and support was and is much appreciated.

Mop (Kate’s and my mother), followed the blog regularly, but she wasn’t able to navigate the registration process in order to successfully post comments. But at one point on the trip she sent me an email saying how proud of us Pop was in heaven, bragging to everyone up there about his kids camping out west together. I absolutely love that image, and I think it’s just spot on.

Love to all,

Luke Hippler
July, 2008

p.s. – Don’t be lookin’ for no postcards. This is it. (Remember Lee and Kristen? “That was it!”)

p.p.s. – Total trip distance, Raleigh to Raleigh, including 220 rental car miles, 250 tow truck miles, 10 Larry 2 junkyard miles, and 10 Hog Wild Hummer miles – just over 6800 miles.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"Rain in Hog Heaven"

Friday, July 25, 2008, 10:00 am

Cindy's Gone Hog Wild is the biker restaurant/icehouse run by Scott's cousin Cindy and her husband Mike. We spent Thursday with them there and at their home just a few miles away in Balstrop, TX, south of Austin. Mike is a total entrepreneur, and he has carved out this successful venture despite the difficulties of running a restaurant and the bar's relative remote location.

The place has a killer burger, cold beer, and an everybody's welcome atmosphere. They've become the number two biker destination in Austin (or is that all of Texas?). It's entirely open air, ventilated by fans and misters, and consists of wood, sheet metal, cedar picnic tables, and garage door walls. They have free live music on the weekends (never a cover) on the back porch and stage that Mike added last year. Mike pretty much built the entire place by hand - after buying the core of the building he had to cut it in half in order to move it to their land (in another county for better liquor laws). The add-ons he's done himself, many of the support posts came from clearing the property where he built his home.

It's a total dive (a good thing), and a blast to hang around. We got there early afternoon, just beating the remnants of hurricane Dolly. She huffed and she puffed and she blowed all afternoon, but she couldn't blow the Hog Wild down, not by the hairs of its chinny chin chin. By early evening it was all over, and we headed to Cindy and Mike's for dinner. Their home and pool are beautiful, more work done primarily by Mike. The pool is as impressive as Chuck and Rose Marie's, with rocks and fountains everywhere, flashing lights, and a hot tub spill-over. After dinner, the adults went back to the Hog Wild while Lee, Kristen, and Cindy and Mike's kids Maddison, Preston, and Zach stayed home for a movie night.

It was poker night at the Hog Wild, and I was itching to make up for my missed tourney in Vegas. Scott and Cindy also played. Nighttime at the Hog Wild was all Cindy. Nearly everyone in the bar knew her and was hitting on her. Cindy, clearly a people person, was totally in her element. She sashayed around, flirting and cavorting and trash-talking with the crowd like she owned the joint (oh, wait...). Before poker started, Scott and Kathy got to show off their surprise - Scott had built and painted the two custom cornhole boards for the Hog Wild, and Kathy had created the set of 8 corn beanbags to use with them. Cornhole is the new up-and-coming horseshoe killer - a beanbag toss to a sloped board with a target hole near the top. It is becoming a big deal; has as official association, rules, website, and a growing following. Mike and Cindy knew the cornholers were coming, and they were eager to christen the boards into Hog Wild lore. Mike has visions of keeping Scott employed by making and selling boards to Hog Wild customers, but Scott's going to have to move his cornhole if he wants to build enough to turn a real profit. The boards were a quick hit, and a permanent cornhole pit is sure to be coming soon to the Hog Wild.

My sad news of the evening was I drummed out of poker quickly - I only lasted an hour. I got moved to a new table and was immediately the short stack there. I went all-in when I top two-paired the flop, but I got busted by a set on the turn card. Scott, however, surprised everyone (including himself) by making the final table. He knew the poker basics but was not familiar with Texas Hold'em or no-limit tournament play. But all you need is a chip and a chair, and he was getting the cards. He didn't make the money, but his final table showing is something to be proud of. It more than made up for my weak play.

We stayed the night with Mike and Cindy, who opened their house to us, Dave and Maggie Lee style. They're a great couple with a great family - stop by the Hog Wild if you are ever passing through.

Next… wrap up.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

“Drive, He Said”

Thursday, July 24, 2008, 10:00 am

A short post as there is little to report. Today’s title is a pretty good song by Steve Taylor. It’s about a guy who’s out driving over a holiday weekend when he learns that his vehicle has become possessed by the devil. He tries unsuccessfully to exorcise him, and he eventually abandons the vehicle in the desert (yes, really).

Driving is about all there is to say about the last couple of days. Tuesday we drove from Sedona, AZ to Deming, NM. We had two brief diversions. First, we stopped by Taliesin West, the desert home/studio/architecture school of Frank Lloyd Wright, just east of Phoenix. Kathy is a big fan, and her front door window is a stained glass replica of one of his designs (started by our Pop and finished by his and Mom’s neighbor and good friend Stella Powers). We didn’t take the time for a tour, but Kathy took a few pics, and we browsed the book store. Wright’s designs are usually geometric and linear – very appealing to anyone mathematical or logic-minded, like computer programmers.

Next, we took a 30 minute detour to stop by Tombstone, AZ. At first, we were pretty disappointed because driving through the town, all we saw was a small sign noting the site of the OK Corral Shootout. Kathy, who had been advocating the stop, took some heat (and then gave some heat) over the wasted time. But as usual, she turned out to be right. Main street was actually a block off the highway, and it was what we were looking for. Dirt street, oversized store fronts, wooden sidewalks and hitching posts. Here was the Tombstone we sought. The find of the day - Big Nose Kate’s Saloon (yes, really). It was one of the original hotels in Tombstone, built in 1880, and the place showed every year, art and pictures on every square inch of wall space.

Wednesday we drove from Deming to Junction, TX, two hours outside of Austin, our next destination. This was an even longer driving day, though we didn’t break our Kansas record. Only one diversion today – an ‘authentic’ Mexican Pottery shop in El Paso. Kathy saw its ad in the RV park. The shop’s location gave the artisans the option to avoid becoming illegals in order to pedal their wares – all they had to do was lob them over the Rio Grande to the shop owner, as the store was alongside the river/border. The place was chock full of clay sculptures, pots, woodcrafts, and rebar formations. The grounds for the entire lot were covered in pecan shells, an interesting and effective ground cover. Most items here were very reasonably priced, and Kathy found a wall sconce and sun decoration that she took home for a song.

Two items caught my eye as well, but neither made the cut. A 25’ weathered wooden ladder tied with leather straps would have looked great next to my front porch, but there was no good way to secure it to the top of the RV. The other item, a rebar wall hanging of the NM symbol with a saguaro cactus, would have fit my front rock garden well, but it was one of the few items that didn’t have a price tag. When asked, the shop owner tried to put one over on the tourista (me) by quoting a price that was more than double any of the similar rebar wall hangings that were tagged. I tried to haggle, but he stayed firm. No sale. I was ticked, but I felt better after a phone call to the Border Patrol as we left.

Night and day difference between the last two campgrounds. The Roadrunner RV park in Deming was a dump, while last night’s Junction KOA was one of the nicest we’ve stayed at. True, the KOA was more than twice the cost of Deming, but it proves that you get what you pay for (even at a campground), and KOAs are almost always a good choice.

Lastly, we had a positive report on Aunt Mary that the alternative treatment went better, and she had a heart cath with favorable results. If a follow-on treatment today goes similarly well, she will be able to go home.

Next up - Austin, and Hello, Dolly!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

“Oh, Wade…”

Tuesday, July 21, 2008, 2:00 am

First, a favor. We learned last night that Kathy’s and my aunt Mary Ness is in the hospital. She needs dialysis, but she is reacting poorly to the treatments and an alternative must be found. Please keep her and her family in your thoughts and prayers.

We just got back from a fancy dinner in Sedona - The Silver Saddle Room at the Cowboy Club. Sounds like your basic steakhouse, but not in Sedona. This was high end, five-star chef quality - fancy drizzles and palate cleansing sorbet between courses. The prices reflected that, probably the most expensive meal of the trip so far, but still more reasonably priced than our resort’s restaurant on the river. We all agreed that even so, it was an excellent meal, and not too bad a price for the quality.

We had a connection with our waiter. He grew up in Charleston, SC, and all of his family had gone to either USC (the lawyers) or Clemson (everyone else). He now lives in Sedona with his wife, who wanted to learn therapeutic massage and believed this was the best place to do that. Kathy and Scott have a friend (Beth Borum, now Beth Choplin) who was a teacher in Charleston. Turns out our waiter had her for a teacher, for one day. On his first day in her class he corrected her. She threw him out, forcing him to switch to another class. Good times.

Sedona is the new age capital of the west, even more than Boulder, CO. The place is a mystical and ‘spiritual’ haven, and all of the local maps show the hotspot ‘vortexes’ of mystical energy that are all over town. It’s why there are so many spas and resorts here (the scenery and tranquility probably don’t hurt, either).

We are staying at one of the premium ones, L’Auberge (I think it means ‘The Burger’, though I could be wrong). It is about as high end as you get. Everyone is super nice, and whatever you ask for just shows up at your door. It’s so posh that they still treat you nice even if you’re not posh. In my case, that’s a good thing. The Sommerfelds have made the shift smoothly, like ducks to water. I, however, feel a little like Jed Clampett, or rather, a poor Jed Clampett without any Texas Tea. I want to sit on the front porch of our cabin and start whistling across the top of my Moab growler jug and yell ‘Yee Haw’.

I’m just teasing. The place is beautiful. Our cabin is right on Oak Creek, and the sound of the stream and the look of the trees remind me of time spent at Bat Cave, NC. Every single staff person here is the epitome of professional, and we all feel like kings and queens. Our personal concierge, Wade, is more than happy to fulfill our every wish, and we have had a great time utilizing his talents:
- “Wade, our room doesn’t have a DVD player, could you find one for us please?”
- “Wade, where are the ice machines? … You’ll bring a bucket of ice right to us? Wonderful, and thanks!”
- “Wade, we’d like to avoid the high cost of your overpriced restaurant here on the premises and eat at one of the restaurants in town instead. Could you recommend one? … The Silver Saddle sounds delightful; could you make a reservation for us please? … Super … Oh, and that would mean walking up the hill, so would you mind finding that cute golf cart and hauling us up there?”
- “Thanks for everything, Wade. And by the way, that DVD player didn’t have a remote, so after you drop us off, see if you can find one and deliver it to our room. You’re the best.”

Sedona is a lovely city and area. We’re only seeing a small part of it since we’re letting Forest rest and are limiting ourselves to foot, Wade, and free shuttle transportation. The surrounding red rocks and mountains are lovely and make this one of the prettiest small towns I’ll never be able to afford to live in. Our drive in from Flagstaff along scenic 89-A is rated by Rand McNally as one of the top 5 in America. It starts off in a lush Ponderosa Pine forest at the top of the ridge. Then you explode out of the forest onto the rim and you are treated to spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. You drop through a series of super tight switchbacks and hairpin turns until you find and follow Oak Creek, which leads you into Sedona.

One last quick story. Lee seems most at home here in Sedona, the mood and lifestyle of the area meshes well with her own sensibilities. She convinced Kathy to join her in the resort’s yoga class this morning, she enjoys organic gardening, and she has a soft heart for all forms of life. She’s become so all-natural that her aunt Sherrie said she was going to start calling her ‘Crunch’ (as in all-natural oat bran cereal), which turned out to be prophetic. We arrived at L’Auberge in the early evening, just after a summer shower had passed through. Walking to our cabin on the resort’s narrow sidewalks, Lee noticed that the local snails were out in force. They were picture perfect, little antennae swishing back and forth, perfectly round nautilus houses balanced on their backs. Lee expressed concern for their safety, as they were small and hard to see on the darkening sidewalks. She decided to help one out and get it back in the grass, when ‘Crunch!’, she inadvertently helped another one become a grease spot. Poor Lee felt just terrible, and she took our many ribbings in great stride.

Tomorrow, we at last make the turn and start back towards home. We are all beginning to dread the return to reality, even though we still have a good five days left. This also marks the end of all pre-trip reservations. Cindy and Mike are still expecting us in Austin on the way back, but we have no set timetable other than when we are due back at work. Roughly, it should be two days to Austin, one day there, and two more days to get back to Atlanta. Kate, Scott, Lee and Kristen will have one final day of driving and rejoicing once they are finally able to cut me loose there.

Hang tough, Aunt Mary. We’re with you in spirit.

Monday, July 21, 2008

“Viva, Las KOA”

Monday, July 21, 2008, 3:00 pm

The end of the Grand Circle tour also marks the end of the canyon lands camping portion of our trip (mostly - we still have some scenic beauty to come in Sedona, and we’ll still be spending most nights in campgrounds and RV parks, but we’ve finished the areas that most people think of when they’re thinking of renting or buying (or trading up) an RV in order to head west and see America.

It’s worth noting that the high gas prices have changed the demographics of the sightseeing crowds this year significantly. First, the Americans are far fewer in number. This was expected, though the impact was far greater than I anticipated. The surprising difference has been the number of Europeans we’ve seen. The cheap American dollar has made a touring RV vacation affordable for many foreigners, and they’ve come in droves. I’d say fully half to two thirds of the tourists we’ve seen in the Parks and campgrounds have been European or Australian. Runners up would be Asians, followed by domestic Americans in a distant third. Most of the RVs out here are either Cruise America or RV4-RENT coaches, and most of the folks in them don’t speak English. There have also been several European high school/college groups traveling in packs, tent camping and brown bagging their way across the canyons. Foreign campers seem to hold to the traditional camping standards (in my experience, campers are a nicer bunch of people than other travelers), as most are friendly and courteous, even if you aren’t able to communicate very well. It makes you feel proud of your country to have so many come from so far to see America.

I remember at the Bryce campground there were several French RV campers near us. As some of them walked by, Scott, who speaks passable French, gave them a polite “Bonjour”. They quickly surrounded him and started peppering him with questions. Scott’s eyes grew big as the speedy French talkers overwhelmed him. He disappeared for about an hour with them. When he returned, he explained that the RV rental companies don’t have a lot of translators on staff. Most will happily rent the first-timers an RV and send them on their way, with no instruction or overview. They had managed to drive the thing, but Scott was able to give them some RV street smarts – how to run the generator, use the propane, attach the hookups, and (of course) dump the tanks. This is what campers do.

But I’ve gotten side-tracked. We left Zion National Park and arrived in Vegas. I don’t think a bigger contrast between God’s Beauty and man’s tacky could possibly be found. Vegas does have its charms, but coming off of the Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion, Vegas seems rather cheap and tawdry. And I mean ‘cheap’ (loose), not ‘cheap’ (inexpensive). We pulled into the Circus Circus KOA campground, which is the only RV park on the strip. It is the largest, hottest, and most expensive KOA I’ve ever stayed at, more than twice the cost of any other campground on this trip. I can easily draw you a picture. Go to your favorite Wal-Mart, look at the massive parking lot, remove all the cars, and replace them with RVs. That’s the KOA Las Vegas. It is literally nothing more than a huge asphalt parking lot with hookups. The ends of 1/3 of the aisles have a small grass median with one or two trees, but that’s it. We managed to snag one of the coveted sites right next to a tree island, and that’s about all I can say that was good about it.

Our two nights in Vegas were Friday and Saturday, the two busiest nights of the week for the city. All the prices were up, and even the reasonably priced casinos were exorbitant, making the KOA our best option despite its price tag. And it was *hot*, 109 hot, with refreshing overnight lows in the high 80s. Forest’s A/C was in overdrive, and it did what it could, but it was no match for the Vegas sun. Relief was found in the many casinos, which we toured Friday night.

We saw Treasure Island (the closest to Circus Circus because both the Stardust and the Frontier have been torn down and new resorts are under construction. The Riviera, across the street, was looking very sparse for the weekend, and it may be the next to get replaced.), the Mirage, and the Venetian, which was everyone’s choice as winner for the night.

Saturday morning we split up. I learned of a small poker tournament held on Saturday mornings at Circus Circus, so I headed there. The rest of the crew wanted to do some restocking, and Scott wanted to give Forest an oil change. Both birds could be handled at the Las Vegas Wal-Mart super store a couple miles away, so they headed there (that reminds me - Kathy, we need sunblock).

Apparently, my poker prowess is legendary in Vegas, as the Circus Circus cancelled the tournament for fear of my abilities (that, or for lack of interest, only two other people showed up to play). As a casino, the Circus Circus is not doing well. The casino floor was not very populated, and a cancelled Saturday poker tourney does not bode well. However, as a resort, it is flourishing. Circus Circus shows its age and is rather shabby and run down, but it is the only strip property that markets to families with small children, and the hotel and family attractions were absolutely packed. It is also one of the most affordable places to stay on the strip.

With nothing else to do, I headed down the strip to pick up the tickets for our show, Cirque Du Soleil’s KA at the MGM Grand. This is how big/crowded Las Vegas is on the weekend – I walked/rode the bus down the strip to the MGM, walked to the theater, got the tickets, walked back outside and down the strip to grab some lunch, and walked/rode the bus back down to the KOA – and by then it was almost 4 in the afternoon (5 hours or so). The Sommerfelds hadn’t fared much better; they were just back from their shopping trip and were ready to head out for the evening. Back out for more walking and bus riding with the throng. Just the walk from our campsite (parking space) through the Circus Circus to Las Vegas Blvd must be ¾ mile or more.

By the time we made it back down to MGM, we only had time to take a quick peek in Excalibur and Luxor before heading to the show – which was the highlight of Vegas for this trip. I’d seen the show once before, but it was the first time for the Sommerfelds, as well as being their first introduction to Cirque in general. Needless to say, they were blown away. KA is the best Cirque show of the 4 or 5 I’ve seen. It’s an acrobatic and mechanical marvel. It’s nearly impossible to describe accurately, but I’ll do my best. There’s no set stage, just a pit and moveable platforms, which can be fully rotated and manipulated into any angle from flat to vertical. At times the performers are using it as a stage, at others they are climbing it like a rock wall, and the surface of this platform is a functional LCD screen that the performers interact with. It is also the only Cirque show I know that tells a story – Imperial twins are kidnapped and the show follows their struggle to escape and reunite. Each set piece focuses on one of the elements or its forms (fire, water, air, earth, ice, and jungle) and one acrobatic or dance form. The highlight of the show is a battle between the two warrior factions – but the stage is vertical, giving the audience a top-down perspective of the action. The whole thing is an amazing feat of engineering, not to mention what the acrobats have to do.

We headed back to the Venetian after the show for a late dinner at a cozy Italian place just off the resort’s indoor canal. A few more miles of walking later, we were back home at Circus Circus. On our final pass through the casino, lady luck smiled on Kate, who managed to tap one of Circus Circus’ slots for a net profit of just over $100, a recoup of some of her losses when her purse was snatched back at the Junction.

We were all pretty wiped and slept late Sunday morning, except for Scott who took another crack at the sunblock blockage. He was able to drain the contents and hopefully depressurize the can, but even without the lid and nozzle the can was still too long, and Forest remains constipated.

The rest of the day was another hot drive, but there were two nice interruptions. First, a quick stop at the Hoover Dam, where our RV status garnered us a much closer inspection by the local rent-a-cops (or as Kathy calls them, Homeland Security). The second was the drive down 89-A from Flagstaff to Sedona, our destination for the next two nights. This is another beautiful scenic road as you descend through the forest into Oak Creek. I’ll touch on this more in my next post.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

“Riverdance on the Grand Circle”

Friday, July 18, 2008 11:59 pm

I can’t believe it’s Friday again. We’re a week into the new RV, and it’s been a real winner. Although I’m not certain it’s definite, the family appears to be settling on the name ‘Forest’, which is a reference to both the RV manufacturer and a nickname of Scott’s (which is itself a reference to the movie “Forrest Gump”, one of the Sommerfeld’s all-time favorites).

The last four days have been a series of spectacular and distinctive canyons one after another. It’s very difficult to describe them in any way that does them justice. The Grand Staircase is a set of cascading canyons that descend from the upper reaches of the Colorado Plateau. It starts with Bryce Canyon, falls through Zion Canyon, and ends with the Grand Canyon. We didn’t visit them in this order, but we have just completed seeing all three – and they are all amazing, unique, and well worth seeing.

We started with the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This is the less visited side by far. According to one of the rangers, the North Rim receives approximately 10% of all visitors to the Grand Canyon. Purists may claim (and with some truthfulness, I admit) that the view from the South Rim is more ‘grand’. However, in my overall opinion, the North Rim blows away the South Rim hands down. The view is nonetheless incredible, you get it directly from the lodge’s veranda, the cabins you stay in line the very rim itself, the entire area is forested, the higher elevation provides much more comfortable temps, and the solitude and tranquility improve the experience. Also, because of the angle of the land outcropping, you get to view a beautiful sunrise and sunset across two different expanses of the canyon.

Tuesday was a chill day. We arrived late Monday night and wanted to make the most of our full day in the Park. There are several different vistas you can drive to if you are willing to invest the time, but we decided that a lazy day in the lodge was what we needed. We ate at the lodge restaurant twice. Both were good, but we generally preferred dinner, mostly because the breakfast waitress was a jerk, full of passive-aggressive barbs. This started when Scott casually asked about her background, something he has been doing to nearly every Park employee with whom he interacts. But then it seemed to shift to Kathy and her food/coffee. Kathy, not one to tolerate such nonsense, was ready to come to blows over the matter, but we were able to duck out of there without further incident.

The cabins were small and rustic (a bit too rustic for their price) but were big enough to hold us. As mentioned above, we saw both the sunrise and sunset on Tuesday, and took a nice rim hike from the lodge up to the campground - Kathy was hunting for her credit cards which were supposed to be inbound, and she needed the campground’s wi-fi (which was the last of that we’d see until Vegas – cell coverage has been equally spotty through this region). It took a bit of sleuthing, and they were in two different places, but we were finally able to track down her new cards, which was a great relief to her. Scott allowed that we could finally put my credit cards in the freezer for a while, to cool them down after the solo mileage they had seen over the last few days.

Wednesday was Bryce Canyon, famous for its hoodoo formations. Anyone who has built a drip sand castle on an ocean beach will find the similarities between drip towers and hoodoos striking. We gave Forest the day off, leaving him at the entrance to the park while we rode the optional on-and-off shuttle through the Park. This turned out to be a great decision, as it allowed us to exit the shuttle at Inspiration Point and easily walk the rim trail down the canyon to Sunset Point. None of us had hiked the rim trail before, and it is delightful, giving you many different angles of the formations than those provided just at the lookouts.

Thursday was meant to be a Zion day, but we made a detour. Rose Marie (Kathy’s and my sister-in-law, who we met for a quick meeting earlier in this blog) had mentioned a great restaurant that she had discovered not far from Bryce in the remote town of Boulder, UT. The place was renowned for its use of ingredients grown in its very own 3-acre organic gardens. Lee was hooked (she is into organic gardening and has started her own back home), and convinced us it was worth the detour. The place is Hell’s Backbone Grill, but I believe the main reason to go there is the drive. Scenic state highway Utah 12 is called the million dollar road, and it earns its name. The route takes you through the Escalante National Monument, another layer in the Grand Staircase. None of us had seen this before, and it is a fantastic drive (as long as you aren’t driving, which I was). The road dips and turns and dives and climbs, at times in a 10% grade and at least one 9600’ pass. In an RV, it seemed a little dicey, but Forest handled it like a champ, and the views of the Escalante Canyons impressed everyone quite a bit more than did Bryce. We all agreed that the S.T. wouldn’t have had a prayer making it through this section of the trip, and the Sommerfeld’s decision to upgrade (Big Ones) was reinforced yet again.

The detour was slow going, and we didn’t get into Zion until fairly late. Going through the eastern tunnel (a marvel, the best tunnel of our trip, it’s just over a mile long) is a blast in an RV, as the tunnel is not big enough to accommodate the RV in its standard lane. So the rangers shut down on-coming traffic, and you get to drive through the tunnel dead center, straddling the yellow line. Such power!

Zion turned out to be Lee and Kristen’s favorite Canyon and National Park so far. For the first time, they were able to see the majesty of these mountains from the bottom looking up, and they liked the new perspective. We stayed Thursday night at Zion Lodge – once again this was the right decision – this allows you to drive deeper into the park than most tourists, and gives you closer access to the mandatory shuttle system and the Park’s best trails. On Friday, we took a couple of hikes. First, to Weeping Rock – the rangers claim that the water takes 1400 years to seep all the way down through the porous sandstone, though it’s hard to fathom that there’s that much water in there. And second, up Riverside Walk, which takes you deep into the end of the box canyon. The end of Riverside Walk is the beginning of the famous Narrows, which is where the two canyon walls come together and the only way to continue upstream is to wade into the frigid waters of the Virgin River. We went about a ½ mile into the Narrows. It was slow going since the water was very muddy and we couldn’t see where to step. All of our shoes are still soaked and muddy, but it was a lot of fun. None of us (save Scott) felt up to the challenge of Angel’s Landing, a strenuous five mile hike to a tremendous overlook (highly recommended by Chuck), so we set out for Vegas.

Anecdotally, there hasn’t been much to write about, just a bunch of wonderful and amazing views, which ain’t a bad thing. Well, ok, that’s only mostly true. The strange fascination this trip has had with the dark plumbing of the RV has continued. While hooked up to both the water line and the dump station at our campsite in Bryce Valley, we were trying to ‘flush the lines’ by flushing over and over so as to clear out …ahem… everything. While this was going on, the medicine cabinet door was opened in order to look for the sunblock, which had gone MIA. Upon opening the door, said sunblock did a one and a half gainer, and plunk, nothing but net as it went down the crapper. Scott and I heard it rattle and hum as it made its way through the system. It cleared the dump valve, but it got hung up at the final T-junction, and there it remains. The bottle is too long to make the final turn and exit the system, and it’s a metal aerosol can under pressure, so the solution is not as easy as busting the can so it can make the turn. The current plan (untested and untried) is to see if Scott can reach the nozzle to depressurize the can, and then bust it. The whole thing is rather distressing and disgusting, yet it seems appropriate for this group and this trip.

The drive to Vegas was hot, dry, and uninteresting, but we’re here, baby! Wi-fi is back, allowing this post, but I’m not sure if I will be able to write about the next couple of days – this is Vegas after all, and it’s supposed to stay here. There’s probably rules and stuff.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

“Fallen Arches”

Monday, July 14, 2008 8:00 pm

First, I need to make a correction and fill in an omission. The new RV is a SunSeeker, but it’s built by Forest River, not Fleetwood. Several of you have looked it up and learned this on your own. More importantly, I left out a defining moment during the purchase of the RV. One of the final steps before handing over the keys to S&K was to do a clean out of the storage tanks. This particular unit had sat on their desert-heated asphalt lot for about a month, so you can imagine how nasty the grey water (sink and shower) and black water (figure it out) tanks had become. Always helpful and wanting to learn how it worked, Scott went over to lend a hand. Walking over, Brad (the cool RV salesrep, remember) noticed that the lot’s permanent drain hose had been inconsiderately run over by a recent customer.

Brad (as Scott connects the drain hose): “I think they broke that hose, man. It looks like there are some holes in it.”
Brad (as Scott reaches for the black water dump switch): “Scott, I don’t think you want to do that.”
Brad (backing away rapidly as Scott releases the switch): “Dude! Bad idea!”

The resulting five-direction fountain of funk impressed everyone except for Scott, who was drenched from at least fingertip to bicep. It might actually have been worse, but I wasn’t going to get close enough to inspect the damage. The number of parallels to the “RV” movie increases, and I’m sure Scott’s “shower of sadness” will be a treasured memory.

Both of our nights at the Moab KOA were early-ins (at least for us), so we got to enjoy the campground atmosphere and meet the neighbors. Like most KOAs, this was a nice one, though it was hampered by the two unsmiling, rule spouting spinsters that ran the place. “The speed limit is 5 mph. Do not exceed it. There are three stop signs in the campground. Here. Here. And here. Obey them.” Etc. It took me about 25 minutes to check in as she read and underlined or circled the entire rule list on the back of the campground receipt and map. Lee and Kristen cooked us fine dinners for the two nights at the campsite, and the setting sun’s light show on the distant La Sal Mountains was a sight.

We arrived at Arches National Park a little later than planned on Sunday, so we booked it straight to the Delicate Arch trailhead to beat as much of the rising heat as possible. The park is as amazing as I remember it. The formations and natural sandstone carvings look like some kind of other-worldly landscape. There are a number of easily identifiable sculptures along the drive (Pipe Organ, Sheep Rock, the Three Wise Men – officially renamed the Three Gossips – heathen bastage no-goodnik activists), though all Kate could identify were various naughty bits of male and female anatomy.

I managed to huff and puff my way up to Delicate Arch, an absolute wonder. For those unfamiliar, Delicate Arch is unique in the park, and Utah’s state symbol. While most arches are sandstone cliffs or fins where a hole has weathered away in the middle, Delicate Arch is the result of an entire mountain that has eroded down leaving behind a completely free-standing upside-down horseshoe, 52 feet tall. I am probably the only one on the trip who feels this way, but Arches is the best National Park, and seeing Delicate Arch up close is the only absolute must-do activity there. Scott was a trailblazer and found a new, unofficial way to get there. The “It’s Alive” desert crust algae may have objected, but it afforded me a previously unseen view of the beautiful landmark, so I was kind of glad we went that way.

We got back down around 1:00, so it was pretty hot (104 or so). Much of the hike is across the sandstone, and the desert sun just bakes you, from above and below. It’s not unlike hiking up Stone Mountain in my home base of Atlanta (just more heat and less humidity). We were beat, and we felt like we had fallen arches of our own, so we opted out of the other planned hike through Devil’s Garden. Instead, we toured the Windows section (home of North and South Windows and Double Arch, another fantastic bridge that was prominent in Indiana Jones 3).

Today (Monday), we are making up the last of our lost time and catching back up to the original schedule. It’s mostly a driving day, though we are in and out of canyons, mesas, monuments, and cliffs, so no one’s complaining. We had two quick stops as we drove. First, the Four Corners Monument, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico join – and Native Americans assemble to charge tourists $3 per head cover charge for the privilege to buy their turquoise art. And second, Lake Powell/Glen Canyon Dam for a drink and a Grand Canyon/Hoover Dam prequel. Lake Powell is gorgeous. It is a man-made wonder, but that only steals a small amount of thunder. As we drove past the turn-off to Upper Antelope Canyon, just outside of Page, AZ, I felt a ping of sorrow. Of everything we had to scrap, I’ll miss that the most. Fortunately, I’ve seen it before, but I’m very sorry that the Sommerfelds haven’t. Oh well, there’s always next trip.

We left Page and are currently in-transit to the Grand Canyon North Rim for the next two nights. A positive note – the new RV gets one mile per gallon more than the Turd (8 instead of 7 – woo hoo)! The way I figure it, a few hundred thousand miles and this baby’ll pay for itself!

I’ll sign off as we just stopped at an overlook on the road to the Grand. It is nearly sunset, there’s a light rain, and the most striking and breathtaking rainbow we’ve ever seen fills the view. It goes from horizon to horizon, and is actually a double (a triple in places). There’s a mesa, a valley, and storm clouds in the distance. Look for the pictures when we get back. A final arch to bless us and send us on our way.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

“It’s Only Money”

Saturday, July 12, 2008, 11:59 pm

That’s about all I can say. Wow.

Lee and Kristen named this blog entry because it’s a phrase Scott uses often. He’s been using it particulary often these last few days. These Sommerfelds, say whatever you want about them… No, I take that back. You say anything about them that is anything other than awe or respect, and you and I are going to have a serious problem. These Sommerfelds have some serious big ones.

It’s been two days since I last posted. We have finally left the Junction (and there was much rejoicing), and are camping in our first of two nights at the Moab KOA just outside of Arches National Park in Utah (our first new state in five days).

The Stationary Turd has undergone a face lift. A *major* face lift. As in - she’s no longer a 1987, 24’ El Dorado Encore. She’s now a 2004, 31’ Fleetwood Sunseeker. And she’s no longer stationary or a turd, so we need yet another name (any ideas out there?)

Scott and Kathy traded in the El Dorado for a new (used) RV. And they did this in one day. And they did it without any ID or credit cards (I’ll explain). In order to ensure this vacation is a success, they’ve made a multi-year commitment to a new vehicle. And in order to get us on our way, they had to shop, decide, commit, do the paperwork, and transfer the entire contents of our vacation – in about 36 hours.

Friday was spent shopping the various RV sites around G.J. The first one we saw ended up being the final choice. And Brad the used RV salesman was just the right personality for this crowd. He's a Doug Hippler type – cool as a cucumber, low pressure, but knows his stuff and is willing to get his hands dirty to fix things that weren’t right.

Now let me tell you about this awesome RV. As I previously mentioned, it’s seven feet longer. It has a slide out that is the entire living room area which increases the hallway space from about 18 inches to about 3½ feet. It may not sound like much, but when you are in it, it makes a massive difference. The Turd accommodated the 5 of us just fine, but this thing has room to spare and then some. We all 5 can move around inside of it and we don’t fall over each other. It’s a class C (the Turd was a class A), so there is a queen bed above the pilot and passenger seats, and the master bed also increases from a skinny double to a queen. There is a third captain’s chair behind the passenger seat, and there is both a sofa and a dining room table, both of which turn into additional beds. This thing is a monster! The sink is on a diagonal, so the person washing dishes, etc. doesn’t block the hallway, so mobility isn’t compromised. Kathy is still nesting, but it appears that storage is at least as good as the Turd – especially the outside bins which can accommodate at least 50% more stuff. I haven’t driven her yet, but Scott says it handles better and feels more like a car. And did I mention that it runs? And everything works?

Actually, I’m being overly sarcastic. All four of the Sommerfelds will be grieving the loss of Bessie, despite the trouble she’s been on this trip. They invested a lot of time, effort, money, and love into her, and all four of them have mentioned that it will be sad to leave her behind. Craig the mechanic did get her running. It was the fuel pump after all, and she was finally mobile again. But that didn’t change the decision to trade up. Confidence in her was pretty much shot. Even if she had performed at peak for the rest of the trip it would have been a constant worry whether or not she would break again. So, friends of Sommerfelds, get ready - there is a new party mobile heading your way!

One additional note of trouble – Kathy’s purse was stolen (we think) from one of the lots while we were shopping RVs. A good chunk of cash was lost, as well as her ID, checks, and all her credit cards (her primary was shared with Scott, so canceling it also invalidated Scott’s card). It was a lot of work for her to correct everything (new cards should be on their way to meet us at the Grand Canyon), and it certainly added to the fun of trying to buy a new vehicle.

The handshake deal didn't occur until close of business Friday, so we spent one final night in Bessie. We stayed at a campground on the outskirts of G.J. (Scott was worried about those last fifteen miles in Bessie, but she worked ok. Saturday was spent fixing up the new RV. There were several things to be done or fixed (new tires, new faucet, one turn signal wasn’t flashing, etc.), and the paperwork to be completed. By mid-afternoon it was done, and we spent the next 2-3 hours moving the piles and piles of stuff from the old RV to the new one (Kathy had that thing packed to the gills). Just like that, we were on our way to Moab. And here we are.

One last little item with Bessie - the very last drive we took in her was to park her right next to the new RV for the transfer of stuff. As I put her in Park and removed the keys - she began rolling down the gentle incline of the asphalt - I guess that new transmission wasn't as tight as Larry led us to believe. Nothing like a final anecdote to make you feel good about your decision.

A quick note on our itinerary – the four nights in G.J. have taken a hit on our plans – Mesa Verde is out, Capital Reef is out, Lake Powell is out (though we will still drive past it), and the Grand Canyon is reduced from three nights to two. We're still doing Arches, but we are late so we aren't staying in the National Park campground - but this Moab KOA is very nice, I don't think anyone really cares. On the positive, everyone has been super nice, and almost all of our reservations were fully refunded. We hate to miss the things that are out, but that will also mean a cost savings, which isn’t a bad thing (despite the fact that It’s Only Money).

Tomorrow we hit Arches. The trip is rejuvenated. The excitement is back, and we are ready to roll!

These Sommerfelds.
Big. Ones.

Friday, July 11, 2008

“Gas Shortages and Excesses”

Thursday, July 10, 2008, 11:59 pm

Wednesday was mostly a day of waiting. Scott and Kristen took Bessie babysitting duty while Kathy, Lee, and I returned the rental car to the Junction airport to prevent another day’s charge. We waited at the airport for the tranny to be done, and Scott would come pick us up in the RV when it was ready.

Mid-afternoon, the call from Scott came:
The good news: the transmission was done, in place, and ready to go.
The bad news: the RV still wouldn’t run.

It starts fine, but then immediately dies. Larry, Don, and Scott spent the rest of the afternoon pushing, pulling, and trying out many ideas, all without success. Larry called in some backup support in the form of mobile mechanic Craig, who determined that there was a gas line problem – a clogged filter, damaged line, or perhaps a bad fuel pump. I’m beginning to think that my sister may have some kind of psychic connection to Bessie. The harder it is to keep the gas flowing to Bessie, the easier it is flowing out of Kate. Man, that woman can clear an RV. I think the closer we get to Balcony House, the more her body remembers (see my Pop’s stories for further info, if you dare).

To make this long story slightly less long, it is now Thursday night, and we still don’t have a running RV. We are still in G.J. operating on a day-to-day basis, trying to get the RV rolling again. Scott, poor guy, has taken the worst duty by staying with Bessie every day, trying to help the various mechanics (and push them to do a better job). Craig still thinks there is a fuel line problem, and will pursue the issue again tomorrow. By the way, the crowd has pretty much agreed that Bessie is getting a new name – “Stationary Turd” – anyone who has seen Robin Williams ‘B’ movie “RV” will understand.

One piece of good news (pretty sure, anyway) – it looks like Kathy’s superior AAA coverage will qualify her to be reimbursed for many of the G.J. expenses while we are stalled here. It won’t pay for the repairs and tows (which are significant), but the hotels, rental cars, and eating out are also adding up. Unfortunately, that window closes tomorrow, so depending on how things go tomorrow (Friday), it’s probably time to make some difficult choices.

Meanwhile, we have made the best of our time here in the Junction. We had some good laughs at the expense of the Ramada Inn employees who didn’t realize that there was a Thrifty car rental literally next door to the hotel (dead shorts if ever there were any). We’ve stayed two nights in a decent Best Western, and today Kathy found a super nice B&B at an upscale vineyard (and for the same price – Pop would be so proud). Kathy’s adventuring skills have really been the saving grace for these diversions. She is always willing to take a detour when she thinks she sees something interesting, and it seems to always turn into something worthwhile. The winery is just the latest example. Both times we split up, she found awesome things for her and the girls to enjoy that they never would have seen if things had gone as planned.

Last night, we toured downtown Junction, another charming and pedestrian-friendly stroll. We ate at another local brew pub only to find that it was nearly identical to the one the girls visited up on the pass the day before. Our waiter insisted there was no connection, but the menus and the beer choices were the same, the decors were similar, and this one even had the same ‘growler’ half-gallon jugs of beer, only with a different label. He lies, I say!

Today we day tripped to the Colorado National Monument, another excellent introduction to canyon land territory, where we saw the 600 ton Balancing Rock (more precarious than GOG’s), Independence Monument, Coke Ovens, and we had a private porch talk from friendly ranger Briana about the geology and formation of the multiple canyons in the monument. The National Monument is much prettier than I remember another reminder that pictures never do these places any justice. After that, we went back to downtown G.J. as tonight was the weekly farmer’s market, and we had sushi and Japanese at a restaurant recommended by our latest mechanic.

We’re frustrated, but we are also having a blast, enjoying each other’s company, and making the best of it. Tomorrow’s a big day, I better hit the hay.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

“Malfunction Junction”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 10:00 pm

…or so we thought.

We had a late lunch in Idaho Springs, a mining town not far into the mountains. Had a good pizza at Beau Joes, one of Scott’s preferred places, and set out for Glenwood Springs, our target for the evening.

Unfortunately, Loveland Pass was more than Bessie was ready for, and our transmission failed after we passed through the Eisenhower tunnel (one of my faves – I loved tunnels as a kid, and that hasn’t changed) and were most of the way up the steeper Vail climb. Scott got us safely to the side of the road and we were able to verify that the smoke wasn’t a fire, just fluid on the hot exhaust.

K&S’ AAA premier coverage gave us a good option. The tow distance allowance enabled us to be taken all the way to Grand Junction at the bottom of the pass. It was a much better location than anything on the pass for shops, parts, and possibilities, and it put us closer to our next destination. Unfortunately, the tow could only take two of us, so we had to split up again. Kate and the girls headed back to nearby Frisco for a motel and a free shuttle into Breckinridge while Scott and I hauled Bessie to the Junction.

Our tow, Jet, was quite a character. A true surfer at heart (including the ponytail halfway down his back), he had been all over the world doing various boating jobs – crewed, captained, fishing, charters – all to support his surfing habit. He had to pull an all-nighter since the tow to Grand Junction was almost four hours, and he would be returning to Breckinridge after he dropped us off…

…which he did in front of the AAA approved RV repair shop in G.J. at about 1:00 am. A rather unsettling place as it was in a relatively barren area of G.J., there was a train yard, other shops, a parts store, and bars on all the windows. Scott and I settled in for a short night of sleep to wait for the shop to open.

Next morning, we got more bad news. The shop couldn’t take us – it would be a week before they could get to it, and they only do replacements, not repairs. However, everyone with an opinion (the good Samaritan passerby that stopped for us on the pass, Jet, and Denis from the AAA RV repair shop) agreed that a transmission specialist could probably get us going even though we were an RV. A few phone calls and another 5 mile tow later, we arrived at Performance Transmissions, a place Denis recommended.

This shop was the absolute definition of low maintenanace – a two bay, corner shop with a bathroom and shelves – no office, no customer area, no air conditioning, and about 150 transmissions all over the place.

Larry (yes, this is my other mechanic Larry) and his son Don, a chatty, down home, family man who does independent tranny repairs because all the nationals became too cheap and dishonest. This has been the trip for meeting interesting characters, and Larry is no exception. A three tour Korea vet, he spent twenty years running a dozen or more transmission shops in Vegas. He sold them all and moved to the Junction when the mafia lost control of Vegas (the good old days – he was connected then – he told us if we had broken down in Vegas, he would have comped us rooms, food, and shows while we were being worked on). Larry is 75 years old, a non-stop story teller, laughs constantly, and has more hearing aids than teeth. You should hear his solution to the entire Middle Eastern crisis - it's fairly economical as it only involves one bomb.

I doubt there’s anyone in the southwest that knows more about transmissions than Larry and Don. They jacked up Bessie and had our tranny out and apart before the afternoon was over. Scott, who can swim in these waters, took an active role in following the action and assisting when he could. According to Scott, when the tranny was opened up, all that was left was “teeth, hair, and eyeballs” – our transmission was DOA. “Not to worry” says Larry, “this is what we do”.

At the end of the day, Kathy, Lee, and Kristen arrived in a rental car fresh from their drive down the pass. They had another great adventure, and were able to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of the mountains that Scott and I missed (too dark when we descended). They took a twenty mile detour on the Shrine Pass to the Mount of the Holy Cross. This was a non-maintained dirt road (but Jill knew all about it), but it led to a beautiful cross formation in the mountain side. They had a late lunch at a Glenwood Canyon brewpub, and brought souvenir shirts and a growler (brewed beer in a half-gallon jug) down to Scott and me.

Larry was so personable, he joined us for dinner at a local steakhouse and shopping at a western wear store. We loaded up gear and headed to a motel for the night. The plan is that the transmission should be rebuilt and ready to go by mid-afternoon tomorrow (Wednesday).

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

“Boulder Dash”

Monday, July 07, 2008 1:00 pm

First a quick note – we are at the mercy of Wi-Fi availability, so entries may be several days or more apart – just like this one was. This will be especially true as we enter canyonland territory.

Yesterday and today have been prime examples of how to do a whirlwind tour of a beloved place. Kathy and Scott lived in Boulder for almost four years just after they were married. They both adored the city, eventually moving back east primarily to be closer to family, to raise one, and job responsibilities.

You can see the nostalgia on both of their faces, and we’ve just spent the last day and a half touring all of the great places they loved, and a handful of their friends who are still in the area. A partial list of our activities includes:

- Driving past Rocky Flats on the way in (Rockwell International). Both Scott and my brother Doug worked at this location, which was shut down several years ago. Scott was surprised (and I think pleased) that the location wasn’t just an empty shell, but had been completely demolished and hauled away. There was nothing but a pile of dirt. The closing time bar just outside was still there and looked to be doing fine, despite the fact that it was now all alone in the middle of the desert.
- Shopping on the Pearl Street Mall twice. What a great street! Pedestrian only, with a center aisle full of kid-friendly rocks, sand pits, fountains, musicians, and performers. On Sunday, the place was just crawling with families and tourists getting out for the day. It had a very European feel, though its look was all American (eclectic American). We went back because time drew us away and there was more we wanted to see. Highlights were Old Chicago’s Pizza Pub, Farfel Pet Store, the Sweet Shoppe, and the Life is Good store.
- Strolling the Boulder Creek Path and dodging all of the bikes. This town is probably the most active and outdoorsy town in the country and it is chock full of bicyclers. The creek is picturesque, cool, and crisp. The stream comes down from the mountains and is surrounded by grassy fields, shade trees, and climbing rocks. As with Pearl St., it was full of waders, splashers, riders, kayakers, and tubers, all enjoying the cold water. The creek itself reminded me a lot of Rock Springs back home in FL.
- A tour of the one and only Celestial Seasonings manufacturing plant. The company prides itself on being dialed into the Boulder community and lifestyle, and patterns its many tea products around that atmosphere. The machinery wasn’t operating on Sunday, but we did get to tour the facility, taste all we wanted, and then buy all we wanted. The standout was the mint room, where a powerful whammy clears your sinuses the moment you step in. Mint is kept separate from other ingredients to prevent it being absorbed by everything else. The entire plant could very easily be dropped into the middle of Epcot as a feature attraction, and many of the employees claim it’s like working at Disney.
- Dinner and overnight with Dave and Maggie Lee, old friends of Kate and Scott’s, who insisted on cooking for us and putting us up. As you’d expect, any friends of K&S are bound to be great people, and Dave and Maggie are no exception. Dave is an architect and he designed and built their house, which is amazing. Elements of their lives and their careers and woven into the walls, stairs, and everywhere. We ate on the back porch which has an irrigation channel (it waters nearby farms) running through it. Maggie serves as a bookkeeper, though she is at heart, a musician. We heard all about their two grown boys, Nolan and Ryan (no pun intended, slugger). It sounds like they share their parent’s faith, good character, and artistic skills. Nolan is soon to be married, and plans are hot and heavy (no pun intended, slugger). Great people, and despite the niceties of the RV, it was good to have a night in a real bed in a real house.
- Breakfast with a couple of Kathy’s old AAA buddies (she used to work there when in Boulder). Joyce, a feisty and friendly mother hen, was all smiles and hugs. She reminds me (in demeanor only, not age) of Granny, the cartoon caretaker of Tweety Bird. She was with her longtime boyfriend Terry. Then there’s Rich (who Joyce regularly refers to as “you old rogue!”), who still works at AAA. He is a prankster and told us of a few practical jokes he’s played on new employees (including Kathy, back in the day). Awfully nice of them to take the time to see us.
- One more quick pass through Colorado University (Lee is college shopping and likes CU, but it is too far away from home), the Dark Horse - a very cool college bar (Scott calls it T.G.I.Fridays on steroids – there are all kinds of wagons, sleds, and knick knacks all in the ceiling, and all of it is huge), and Pearl St (yes, a third time), and we bid adieu to Boulder.

Next it’s up and over the mountains…

Sunday, July 6, 2008

"Westward and Bound"

Sunday, July 6 10:40 am

I've got to start making these shorter, or I'll never have enough time to get through them.

Yesterday, we had a leisurely start (slept late to make up for our long haul yesterday), and then got started on our first real day of sightseeing together - Garden of the Gods, Air Force Adademy, Golden CO, and the Coors Brewery.

GOTG is as breathtaking as ever. It makes for such a perfect launching point for the canyonlands. Big enough to be worth the visit, but small enough that it only whets the appetite for what is still to come. They had moved the visitor center across the street to a nice new facility with probably the best view possible of the kissing camels and Glen Erie canyon (we tried to tour this also, but it was closed for the weekend retreats).

To my eyes, the Air Force Academy hadn't changed a bit. The Cadet Chapel there is still striking and majestic, there is nothing else like it. There were weddings queued up one after the other for Saturday afternoon, so all we could do was peek in the chapel's door in-between two of them, but we were able to enter the Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist temples.

On into Golden, but we were too late for the brewery tour. We settled for a walk through the downtown, pictures of the mountain stream running into the plant, and a cold one at a watering hole that appeared to be owned by the plant.

We got the earliest entry into a campground so far, so Lee was able to cook dinner, and Kate, Scott, and I were able to do our first rounds of laundry. The facilities were extremely nice and clean here, so it was a good time to do it.

This morning, we've had another slow rise, not that we slept late, but we finished up the laundry, had a bacon and eggs breakfast, and took care of the RVs plumbing needs. And in a particularly refreshing turn, the plumbing needs of Kate and myself also resolved themselves. Ah, the camping life!

Today, onto Boulder!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

“I’m gonna recalculate your face!”

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Fourth!

Busted alternator was indeed the problem, and maybe I was too quick to judge Larry dead wrong on his dead short diagnosis last Wednesday. According to our new best friend Al (he, the possessor of the last remaining alternator in St. Louis before the extended holiday weekend), a dead short battery is the number one cause of a busted alternator. Apparently, a dead short battery can cause the alternator to spin into overdrive and burn itself out. Our second breakdown occurred after the brand new battery, sans alternator, drained itself dead. Al patched us up, recharged our new dead battery, and we were mobile again.

Meanwhile, Kate and the girls toured St. Louis. The Gateway arch, the flooded Mississippi river (the crest of the 2008 flood had recently passed through St. Louis – and this massively swelled river was flying – a barge hydroplaned by as they watched), then on to the most important stop of the day – the largest brewery in the world. The Anheiser/Busch brewery tour is free, and includes a stop in the hospitality room, so it was a while before we saw Kathy again.

Scott and I drove into town to meet the girls at the brewery. My fancy-shmancy phone provided back-up technology for us as the girls had the GPS with them. It got us there is straight order, but unfortunately, we were rewarded with additional symptoms. A couple minor electrical problems started occurring – the left wiper would start by itself, a driver’s light would come on even with the car turned off, the right wiper wouldn’t come on at all. We parked at the brewery, and Scott began disassembling the dashboard while we waited for Kate to drain one of A/B’s 3600 beech wood aging tanks.

The conclusion was that we have an electrical issue, but it doesn’t appear to be bad. We aren’t sure what it is, but we have taken steps to ensure that the battery isn’t drained overnight, and we’re going to attempt to continue. The alternative is to sit and wait in St. Louis for 4 more days (at least), and then hope someone can diagnose and fix the issue. That would be a serious blow to our plans and itinerary, so we decide to go for it and see what happens. The only important question that I can see is – could this electrical issue have been the cause of the dead short battery which started this whole cycle of problems? Time will tell.

After a fine dinner within sight of the brewery, we were ready to find a campground for the night. Unfortunately, our friendly hosts from last night were full up, but Kathy called another campground not far away. They were just as friendly, and had a spot. We let them know we were pushing their closing time, but they assured us we were welcome. Just to give us an interesting evening, Jill, the sultry voice of our Garmin GPS, decided to lead us on a wild goose. It knew the campground, but to get us there the Jill led us on a half hour drive on a no-shoulder, narrow, and windy state road. When we got to the destination, we had arrived – at nowhere. Middle of the woods, no campground, and no civilization (it was 10:00 pm).

Eventually, we realized we could use the backup technology, found a website for the campground, and determined that the Garmin had the wrong address for the campground. The difference was a single letter, but thanks to Missouri's revolutionary Hwy naming system (Hwy A, Hwy M, Hwy T, Hwy AT, etc.), the wrong address for the campground was a real location. We corrected the address and set out for the proper location, but Jill got testy with us and continuously shouted “Recalculating!”, trying to convince us to go back to nowhere. We arrived at the campground an hour later, and rolled in for a quick sleep. The campground host was a super guy, got out of bed to show us to our site, and verified that we were the fourth recent victim to this particular Garmin glitch. Technology is making this a very different kind of camping trip. A bad address aside, it generally makes for a much more convenient trip and allows you to plan and coordinate on the road. It also makes for a scene out of Christmas Vacation as every phone, GPS, laptop, iPod, electric razor, camera battery, and bluetooth get plugged in for an overnight recharge.

Friday morning, we get a relatively early start to try to make up some time. The day is mostly a slog through Missouri and Kansas, though we got a great pick-me-up as we stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere to meet Kathy’s and my brother and his family as they traveled east to Orlando, FL. Chuck, Rose Marie, Kent, and Chase had stayed the last month at their new condo in Steamboat Springs, CO. They had a great time, including participating in a City Slickers roundup, but finally had to return home. We originally had hoped to meet up with them at their place, but the timing didn’t work out, and we settled for a quick lunch and a hug on the side of the road as we passed. Once again, technology helped and allowed us to meet at the best possible exit.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully, just a long drive. We decided to forego a dry dusty Kansas roadside RV park, and drove all the way to Colorado Springs. For the third night in a row, we’ll be pulling in to a campground after it has closed, and once again, we’ve made contact with the people there and they’ve assured us it’s ok to come on in late, encouraged us even. Other than a need to sleep in some tomorrow, we’ve caught up our lost time. Just for you trivia buffs out there, that’s St. Louis to Colorado Springs in one day – about 835 miles. No additional electrical symptoms, and all seems well.

“Dead Wrong”

Thursday, 7/3/08 3:10 pm

We made it back to the center of town, and rats! The same problem again – throttle missing and lost power. Scott limped Bessie into the visitor parking for the St. Louis Science Center.

AAA sent their best wrecker (who arrived in less than 30 minutes, a personal best in my AAA experience), and we split the team. Kate and the girls headed into the city, and Scott and I towed Bessie back to the KOA from last night. Right next door was a Ford RV repair center (I’m telling you, we are being protected). Nearly got to see Robbie Knievil break his own record and jump 25 cars in the Six Flags parking lot (also a neighbor to the KOA) as we towed past the theme park.

As I finish this entry, we are awaiting final diagnosis on Bessie. One thing’s fairly obvious, the problem wasn’t a dead short battery. All signs point to a busted alternator, but even if that’s what we need, we’re not sure we are going to beat the holiday weekend before the repair is completed. If not, we’ll be enjoying St. Louis until Monday.

“Dead Short”

Thursday, 7/3/08 10:30

Kathy, Scott, and the girls arrived yesterday morning at 6:15 am. They got to a late start, so instead of slipping schedule, they drove through the night. We loaded, grabbed a quick breakfast, and were off by a little after 9:00. The RV, though smaller than what you probably think of, is amazing, and quite comfortable for the 5 of us. The morning and afternoon were mostly uneventful, primarily spent teaching me the ropes of the coach, learning to drive it, and heading towards St. Louis.

The RV did have two significant issues. There were various electrical oddities – lights, radios, etc. would turn on and off unexpectedly, on their own. And the generator, though it ran, wasn’t supplying power, so nothing in the RV that didn’t run directly off the motor would function while we were on the road (no big problem except for the air conditioner, it made for a hot drive).

I took my first turn as pilot for Bessie. It’s very different from driving the truck or a van or SUV. Despite the fact that this RV is smaller than most, it still feels like it straddles the lane lines on both sides, and the steering is a little loose, so you have to spin the wheel back and forth a good bit to keep the vehicle centered down the lane.

Then, a problem in the early evening. The throttle began misfiring, I started losing power, and the gas gauge started dropping rapidly (even more rapidly than it would otherwise). By the time we got to the next exit, I couldn’t go faster than 30, and we were down half a tank.

We were being protected. That exit happened to contain a truck repair shop, there happened to be two mechanics there, and they happened to be working two hours past closing time. Larry diagnosed Bessie’s primary battery to be a ‘dead short’. This is the term for a battery that has a short somewhere inside the battery, like connecting the positive and negative terminals of the battery with a wire. Larry told us that a dead short battery would produce exactly the kinds of symptoms that we were experiencing. And with that, Larry sold us a new battery and we were on our way. I'm not certain why Larry was so familiar with the concept of dead shorts, but it may have had something to do with his girlfriend(wife?) who took about 15 minutes and two calculators to add $7 to the bill because we also needed oil. While we were stopped, Scott analyzed the generator and found a tripped relay. He reset it, and the generator worked again. Huzzah!

Exuberant with multiple victories, we proceeded into St. Louis in top working order. I was driving again, and had a bit of a scare with an incoming storm just as we passed by the Gateway Arch in the early evening. I was on a high overpass, and 60 mph gusts were pushing me all over the road, and in heavy traffic, early evening, and rain. It made for a nail-biting experience, but we arrived in the Eureka KOA without further incident, just off historic Route 66. We picked this KOA because the other St. Louis KOA had a surly receptionist, and the Eureka one was very nice. We got in a little late, but they had waited for us, and we settled in for a rainy night, complete with Lee’s homemade pesto pasta supreme and blissfully cold air-conditioning.

We took a leisurely morning (with a surprise birthday gift for me - a parrot poker party t-shirt and funny “Does a bear sit in the woods” boxers – no that’s not a typo), and we were on the road back to downtown St. Louis around 10:00 local time.

"Heads Carolina, Tails California!"

It’s not a journal, it’s a blog.
A tale of comedy and tragedy.

The Players:
Kathy (Kate) – my sister and matriarch for the trip.
Scott – my brother-in-law, the handiest he-man I know (sincerely).
Lee and Kristen – their two teen daughters, a pair of knockouts that never fails to get our traveling circus noticed.
Luke – your humble journalist and all-around fifth wheel
Bessie (the Stationary Turd) – the ’87 El Dorado EMC Encore RV, the only diva on this trip.
Forest - the '04 Forest River SunSeeker, the tough young upstart.