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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Oregon Coast Part I: Redwoods and Lumberjacks

This morning I woke up with an icy nose, a sure sign that autumn has actually arrived in my neighborhood. It's the start of the long slow descent into winter and all it brings with it: Thanksgiving with it's brown food and tradition (my favorite holiday, somehow traitorous for being positioned at the beginning of my least favorite time of year); Christmas with it's festive decorations and holiday lights to fight the dark gloom of Pacific Standard Time; then on to New Year's Eve, always slightly melancholy for me though I can't put my finger on exactly why. The true descent is after that: the cold nights, the gloomy gray days, the calendar refusing to turn it's page into warmth and sun. Around January 15th I start browsing websites for the best airfare to Hawaii, and park myself on that webcam pointed at the beach in Maui, the hypnotic sound of waves lapping on warm shores lulling my chilled self. When I close my eyes I can feel the tropical breeze and sea spray on my face. When I open them I realize it was just the heater vent kicking on mixing with my salty tears of despair.

Did I mention I hate the cold? Perhaps I'm not the only one.

Although California is known for it's sun and endless summer, those perky songs you've heard were really written about Southern California. Up here in the north, it's not exactly surfing weather all year round. Sure, compared to Montana we're downright tropical, but we've got our share of below freezing nights and cool cloudy days. I feel guilty hoping for warm weather when we could really use the rain. Perhaps if I wished for warm rain? Who am I kidding. I'm screwed.

I'm smart enough to realize I need something to look forward to if I'm to survive another winter, so we're in the midst of planning a trip to the desert in February. I think I'll live. In the meantime, I have memories of a great summer spent camping in the Sierras and an absolutely magical trip up the Oregon coast we took in September.

On a summer break during college, I took a trip north with my boyfriend at the time, camping all the way up the coast until we reached Canada. I had such fond memories of that trip (though strangely, none for said boyfriend) that I had always wanted to do it again. Mark was game, so early in September we made it happen. I must say, I had an even better time with Mark (much to his relief).

We dubbed it "The 101 Trip" since we'd be traveling Highway 101 the entire way. Our ultimate goal was to reach Tillamook Creamery, one of the fondest of fond memories from my long ago trip. A tour of a creamery with free cheese samples at the end? How can it get any better?

First stop was the Avenue of the Giants, camping in among the tallest trees in the world. California redwoods are amazing and these trees are some of my first memories as a kid. Standing next to one as big around as the family car, looking up 30 stories to the top waving in the breeze, the trees were almost impossible to comprehend. Most of them were there long before I was born, and they will be there (with any luck) long after I die. There's something assuring about that, knowing they'll be watching over things for us when we no longer can.

We camped in Hidden Springs Campground in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Set along the south fork of the Eel river, it's a beautiful campground with well spaced sites that allow for privacy and quiet camping. It was a great way to start our trip, watching the huge swaying trees above us as we ate dinner. Nothing quite equals a meal prepared on a thick wooden picnic table, eaten while being pelted with redwood needles as they rain down from the above. What bowl of pasta isn't improved by tree bits? We sat up late that night, squinting up through the narrow gap in the trees trying to spot a satellite passing overhead. One of our traditions, we can't turn in for the night until we've spied one.

Our campsite was a short hike down from the road.
It overlooked a deep ravine filled with trees and chittering squirrels that kept our dogs on alert.
We parked on the road and carried our dining room down to our redwood suite.

A relaxing day in camp, Hidden Springs CG
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
It was a quiet night. We got up early and went for a run before breaking camp, trying to get a little exercise in before our day of driving. Luckily, the campground had brand new showers right across from our site. A few quarters later we were clean and ready to roll.

I had always wanted to stop in and eat at the Samoa Cookhouse, the stuff of legends in my family. My dad once took a two day motorcycle trip with the express purpose of having breakfast there. Having passed it by multiple times during my life, I wasn't going to let it happen again. I didn't have trouble convincing Mark; turns out he had the same idea.

Photo Credit: Samoa Cookhouse
Located on a spit just west of Eureka California, Samoa Cookhouse started as the Hammond Lumber Company cookhouse in the late 1800s, serving the loggers and longshoremen as they systematically chopped down the redwoods and shipped them down to San Francisco and points beyond. The company kitchen served up three hot meals every day but Sunday evenings, when the lumberman got leftovers. If you've ever heard "eat like a lumberjack" you can imagine the size of the servings.

Photo Credit: Humboldt State University Library
When the lumber industry wound down in the 1960s, there was talk of closing the cookhouse. The head cook wouldn't hear of it, and talked the company owner into opening the dining room to the public. It's our great fortune that he did. The kitchen has been cranking out these huge meals ever since it opened in 1890, 128 years of caloric history.

The dining room
(Photo Credit: Samoa
Round 1
They have a set menu (and price) for every meal at the Cookhouse. They post it on a white board every day and you can decide if you want it or you can leave, none of those namby-pamby choices found at those hoity-toity restaurants. The food is impressive in quantity as well as quality. French toast was on the menu that day and I guess they figured out how to make it after 128 years of practice, because we thought it was the best we ever had. Huge slices of house made bread trundled out on a cart with pitchers of maple syrup and a side of sausage and scrambled eggs. Did I mention every breakfast starts with biscuits and sausage gravy? Not ordinarily something I'd order, but hot damn they were good! Everything is washed down with the jug of coffee and orange juice that comes with the meal. By the end, we barely had the energy to push ourselves away from the long communal table.

Stuffed to the gills, we tottered into the museum adjoining the dining room and looked with glazed eyes at the tools of the lumber trade hung on the walls and display cases. I have no idea how those lumberjacks were able to get back to work after eating like this, but apparently they did with efficiency. There are very few old-growth redwood stands left in the state of California.

Photo Credit: Pacific Lumber Co. Scotia, CA

If it's possible to feel sick and silly-happy at the same time, that's how we felt when we left. The place is as addictive as it is bad for you. We were ready to go back and do it again for dinner–we heard they were having fried chicken that night...

But onward and upward, we were on our way to Oregon and a little indigestion wasn't going to stop us! Pants a little tighter and cholesterol a bit higher, after several attempts we were able to hoist ourselves into the truck and were on the road again.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Canyonlands National Park: The White Rim Redux

The White Rim Road stretches off into the distance.

The trip had started off so well.

After getting to our second campsite on the White Rim Road, I walked to the edge and peered over at what had been the most terrifying part of the trip last time through: the dreaded switchbacks that led down the ridge at Murphy Hogback. A pleasant sight greeted me: the park service had smoothed the road out and gotten rid of the loose and crumbling rock along the ledge. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but it even looked slightly wider. This was going to be a piece of cake! I went back to camp where we toasted another successful day on the rim of Canyonlands. We stayed up late that night, telling those that hadn't been with us in 2016 about discovering a wrecked truck at the bottom of the switchbacks and how the driver had been airlifted out just three weeks before we had gone through (you can read about our first trip here).

The new and improved Murphy Hogback route.
In 2016 this stretch of the road was covered with loose shale.

The next morning as we packed up camp, Mark emerged from the camper with a grim look on his face.

"What's up?" I asked him.

"I don't want to tell you."

This is never a good sign.

He held out a clenched fist and opened his fingers. Lying on his dirt-laced palm was an eyebolt, sheered off at the base where it was supposed to be secured to the camper. Somewhere along the road the day before, the front driver's side bolt had snapped, leaving us with only three tie downs securing the camper to the truck bed.

The source of indigestion.
We were forty miles from the nearest paved road, and about seventy miles to the nearest town. We still had 35 miles of rough, four wheel driving just to get out of this canyon. All these calculations were going through my head while we stared at the broken eyebolt.

Suddenly my oatmeal wasn't sitting so well.

We had extra turnbuckles with us, having learned our lesson ages ago when we lost a few in an accident (you can read about that one here), but you need eyebolts to hook the turnbuckles in, so the extras wouldn't do us any good. Our friends offered a few solutions involving tow straps and ratchet systems, but none seemed viable. In the end, we decided to tighten the remaining three turnbuckles, drive as carefully as we could and keep our eyes on the mirrors. Our friend Mel helpfully offered to bring up the rear "in case you drop anything along the way."

Thanks Mel.

Now I suppose we could be the kind of people to play it safe and stay on nice smooth roads, camp in organized campgrounds, maybe stopping somewhere for ice cream in the afternoons. Sounds lovely don't you think? If a problem were to crop up, we could just cruise into the nearest mechanics shop, or better yet, head back home for a quick fix. For some unfathomable reason, we're not that kind of people.

Actually, other than the occasional hiccup like this, traveling on tough roads is completely fathomable.

A mesa at sunset looking for all the world like Australia's Uluru.

There is little on earth that compares to finding yourself in a place where the lizards outnumber the people; where red monoliths soar hundreds of feet above your head, and huge rivers slide by another few hundred feet below. Lacing around Canyonlands National Park's Islands in the Sky District, the White Rim Road is 100 miles of 4WD trail that roughly follows the Colorado and Green rivers as they course through the park. Viewed from above, it looks kind of like a kindergartner's scribbled outline of the African continent.

Viewed from ground level, it's positively amazing.

Google's view of the White Rim Road

Our view.
Sunset on the White Rim Road
Canyonlands National Park

Six months before, our friends had texted us asking if we'd like to join them for another go on the White Rim. We had done it two years previous, but had to complete the trip in only two days, having only gotten reservations for one night. We had been unable to stop and check out many of the side trips and trails then, but this time around they were able to reserve two nights.

It made all the difference.

We had six vehicles in our group: Andrew in his Nissan Xterra, Craig and Rasa in their Toyota Tacoma, Ron in his brand new Chevy Colorado (brave man!), Mel in his Jeep Wrangler, George in his Mercedes Unimog accompanied by Ryan and LeeWhay, and of course we had our trusty Ford F250 with Four Wheel Camper.

All but the Toyota.

We started our trip at the Islands in the Sky Visitor's Center. After checking the conditions (always a good idea), checking out the displays and perusing the gift shop we were ready to go. We lined up at the entrance to the first challenge: the Shafer Switchbacks.

The Shafer Switchbacks snake down the canyon joining the White Rim Road below.

This is always the most crowded spot on the White Rim. Many people make a quick day trip down the switchbacks, visit a few sites along the first few miles of the road, then head back up. We encountered lines of paid jeep tours, individuals in their vehicles, bicyclists and even a few photographers on foot coming back up as we descended. Luckily, this part of the road is pretty wide, or at least it has enough turnouts to give room to pass.

A bicyclist makes his way down the switchbacks.
Descending the switchbacks
The Mog and Chevy make their way down
Andrew's Xterra is dwarfed by the massive cliffside

We stopped in at the Gooseneck Overlook and...well...looked over. It was a great place to get some dramatic photos of the Unimog. George has a business importing these beasts and selling them here in the U.S. (You can find more about them at As Andrew took some photos, the rest of us milled around and dared each other to get closer to the edge.

Andrew lines up a shot...
...of the Unimog on the edge...
...while we mill around.
(From left: Ron messing with his camera, LeeWhay, Mark, Rasa and Mel)
The view of the river from Goosenecks.

All lined up for the road ahead.

Our first night was spent at Airport Campground.

Our raven friend
We spent the first night at the Airport campground, where we discovered we were being followed. Everywhere we stopped that day, a curious raven circled overhead and landed on various trees and bushes just out of reach. I'm not sure if he called ahead and alerted his buddies along the way, or if the same raven actually followed us throughout the trip (they don't wear name tags and they all dress alike). For two days, everywhere we stopped a raven would land nearby and monitor our progress.

The Airport Tower
Some of the white rim has fallen down the canyon walls.
A close up of the slick rock that makes up a lot of the roadbed. Beautiful, but it makes for slow driving at times.
As the sun set that night, the shadows made castle-like outlines of the "fins" of the canyon.
The formation known as "Washer Woman" looms above at sunset.

In the morning we had a leisurely breakfast then headed off to our next stop: White Crack.

Mark helpfully stands in as a scale marker.
White Crack
White Crack, besides being the fodder for countless schoolyard jokes, is a long deep crack in the white layer of rock that is the namesake of White Rim Road. It's located at about the halfway point on the southern-most tip, down a one mile side road. A short hiking trail from the parking area leads to the crack, and a gorgeous view of the canyon.

We found a baby rattlesnake hiding under some brush.

We stopped here and there along the road during the ride to take photos and generally oohh and awww over the scenery. Driving along sheer cliff edges, and sometimes on the overhanging rock never fails to give you the willies. Strict attention to the road is a must, and it's nice to get out and enjoy the view without risking a painful and possibly fatal mistake.

The view from the end of the trail.
The crack

The road cuts between mesas in the distance.

Our second night's reservations were at Murphy Hogback, the site of my mental anguish from the previous trip. Before discovering our broken eyebolt, we enjoyed it thoroughly; I think it was my favorite campsite on the White Rim.

The impossibly wonderful view

Andrew starts up Murphy Hogback as Mel waits his turn

Yes, it really is that steep in places.

What it looks like from the cab as you go up the switchbacks
The view back where we came from
A lizard poses for a shot

Ron sets up in Murphy Hogback Campground
Sunset that night

The Mog disappears down Murphy Hogback

Our tiny friends are reflected in the mirror as we make our way down.

The entire trip we teased George about the upcoming narrow parts of the road. To this point, the Unimog, as big as it is, had easily fit on the tightest switchbacks and under the lowest overhangs. We all recalled a bad part toward the end of the road, but couldn't quite figure out if it would be a problem. We had all been driving more conventional vehicles, and our F250 and camper combo was the tallest at the time, but the Unimog is a couple feet higher and eight inches wider. Sure enough, just a few miles from the end of the road, we found the spot:

George inspects the lack of clearance before going forward...
...and makes contact with the wall.

And we thought we were big.
The Mog lost a little paint, but thankfully nothing serious happened to the box. I think we found the size limit for the road.

Once out of the canyon, we found a nice campsite on the rim. We had kept an eye on the camper the whole day and were happy to discover it had only shifted a little bit in the bed of the truck. We were confident that with careful driving we would be fine until we got home, where Mark would replace all four bolts for good measure.

When we opened the camper door that afternoon we discovered the only other minor mishap; the stops on our utensil drawer, after 15 years of this kind of abuse, finally rebelled. The drawer had broken it's moorings, scattering knives, forks and spoons all over the cabin. Easily repairable and no harm done.

Things we learned on this trip:
  • Never buy dish soap with a flip top. When it falls over in the cabinet knocking the top open and surreptitiously leaks into the bowls, it makes your oatmeal taste like Palmolive.
  • Things that keep you up worrying all night are never as scary in the morning.
  • When you tell them your great ideas about places to explore, good friends will nod and say "that sounds nice." Better friends join you for the ride.
Here's a recipe we used to celebrate a successful trip:

 White Rim Margaritas
  1. Run a slice of fresh lime around rim of glass and dip into kosher salt
  2. Muddle one slice of fresh jalapeƱo and a some cilantro leaves in the bottom of the glass
  3. Add chilled pre-mixed Lime Margarita and a splash of Lime bubble water (we used La Croix)
  4. Add no ice cubes, because you've been on the road too long and all the ice melted
  5. Toast the fact that you made it out in one piece and enjoy
(Disclaimer: only make these once your driving is done for the day.)