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Monday, November 25, 2013

Sticking Close to Home

Thanksgiving is coming up quick and it's got me thinking about the concept of home.

We've packed up the gear, put the camper in storage and have turned our attention to important matters like: what kind of stuffing should we make for Thanksgiving dinner? And: which of the five invitations should we accept for the holiday parties all held on the same day? It's a frantic, expensive, caloric time of year but what better way to keep your mind off of the lousy weather and short days?

My Grandma Thelma, Christmas 1969.
Did she know how to party or what?
All of this excitement happens at or very near home: I still live in the town where I grew up, as does my whole immediate family (in fact I'm a fifth generation native.) This is how immobile I am: I live in the same house my father grew up in. Mark's family is all in the state, and most of them live within a few hours drive. We don't have to deal with plane tickets or extensive travel plans during the holidays like a lot of our friends. Though we both love to travel and are never unhappy in the new places we visit, we've never had the urge to move our home base. Of course it doesn't hurt that we live in a beautiful place with mild weather, close proximity to the ocean and mountains, with San Francisco just south of us for when we get the urge to go "urban."

The rolling hills and vineyards of Sonoma County.

I've been reading a new book by fellow blogger Kristen Lodge ( entitled "Continental Quotient." It's a series of vignettes about her experiences as she moved west from New Hampshire, finally ending up in Tucson after having lived in Maine, Vermont and Colorado. She was chasing the dream of living in an Albert Bierstadt landscape; not literally, just one filled with mountains, streams and forests as were depicted in some of his famous works. I can understand that dream completely; that's why we camp in Yosemite and make multiple trips to the Sierras every year. I knew we were lucky to be so close to places like that, but I never really thought about it much until I read her book.

What really stood out for me though, was her willingness to move. At first it was a job offer that brought her to a ski town in Maine. That led to a ski town (and a ski boyfriend) in Vermont, which led to a yearning for higher mountains and more snow in Colorado. It's not that she didn't have a family--her parents and sister still live on the east coast--she just picked up and moved when she felt the desire. That is an elusive concept for me.

I admire the bravery of Kristen's journey; to follow a dream and move to a place where no one knows you, away from family and everything that's familiar. Then to continue moving farther and farther away, to a part of the country you've only read about, the other side of the continental divide. That takes guts and an adventurous spirit.

Fraser CO, one of Kristen's many stops on her way west. (photo by Kristen Lodge)

It's funny, but I don't recall ever reading about someone's yearning to move east. I've known a few people who have gone east, but they've always made their way back to the west coast after a few years. In all the books I've read, going west seems to be the direction of choice. It's embedded in our history; west equates to open range, cowboy freedom and a new way of life. From Lewis and Clark to the Gold Rush to that weekend in Las Vegas, people have always been and are still drawn west.

Sometimes as I'm driving to work in that half-awake Monday stupor I'll look around and wonder where all the people have come from. I grew up surrounded by open fields and rolling grassy hills. The building boom started in the 80's here: my first real job after college was in a new office park in the middle of what had been a cow pasture when I moved away to college. Today the city has expanded to encompass the old airfield that was used for training during WWII (at one time far to the west of city limits.) There are 100,000 more people here in my "little" town than when I was born. That's a lot of moving west.

About as far west as we can go: the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, Sonoma Coast.
When we travel, usually driving, our camper is our home base. Even in the most desolate surroundings we can climb in and have our familiar comforts: the sleeping bags we've used since before we were married, the pots and pans that have cooked our meals for 25 years. It's our home in the sense of a place to sleep and eat and be safe. I guess in that way we never really leave home.

For us, moving west would not even require leaving the county. We are twenty miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and considering Mark's propensity for seasickness, living on a boat is not an option. So here we stay, within a few minutes drive from our closest relatives, the people that matter the most to us. We will always have the urge to see new places and travel farther afield, but when it comes down to sharing overly rich foods, drinking too much wine and sleeping in, we will always be drawn back here: our camper away from the camper, our home.

From our home to yours: Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Check out Kristen's book "Continental Quotient" available at

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Camper's Off: The Official Onset of Camping Deficit Disorder

I've mentioned before that our camping mode of transportation is an F250 truck with a Four Wheel Camper on the back. And I've mentioned before (see Overland) that we take it off at the end of the camping season.

Well, today was the day.

We needed to take it off to utilize the truck as a truck and also because we had to face the fact that we really won't be camping again for a while. We have a possible trip planned for the week between Christmas and New Years to Death Valley, but between now and then we've got fence boards, furniture and Christmas trees to haul.

It was a beautiful autumn day; the sun was shining, the birds were chirping and the camper looked forlorn, as if it knew we were up to something.

Mark getting ready to start the process.
It's quite a production; we live in an old house in an old neighborhood. The driveways and garages were not designed for the modern cars or the way we use them nowadays. When this house was new in 1926, I'm sure the builders assumed we'd only need room for one car--how would anyone be able to afford (or need) more than one? Our garage is detached and located in our backyard down a long single wide driveway socked between ours and our neighbor's house. There's an 8 foot fence separating the neighbor's side yard from our driveway, which makes the clearance pretty tight for a full size truck with a camper. There's only six inches of space on either side when it's backed through the gate, which necessitates walkie-talkies for driver and guide (good thing we took those Marshaling courses this year at Overland 2013.) And did I mention the brick chimney and gas meter thrown in to make the process extra fun?
The view down the driveway on a typical day.

First step is taking off the swing arms from the back bumper. They hold the extra spare tire and the gas cans; once the camper's in the backyard, we wouldn't be able to open the camper door if we left them on.

The gas canister swing arm assembly off the truck bumper
and on the front porch awaiting storage.
Notice this latest addition to the rig:
a gift from my brother Patrick who swears
we're ready for the zombie apocalypse.
The extra spare loose from it's moorings.

Then the camper needs to be detached from the bed of the truck. The turnbuckles get unscrewed from all four corners, and the electrical connections are unhooked. If there's any water left in the tank, it needs to be drained (to avoid drinking slimy green stuff on our first trip out in the spring.)

We pull out the free standing cable jacks we use to lift the camper off and put them in place so they're at the ready. The one advantage to having such a narrow area to back the truck is the camper always ends up in the same place--there are practically marks on the ground where it sits during the winter every year. When we bought the camper there was an option to have hydraulic corner jacks, but there's not quite enough room down the driveway for them to fit (unless we want to dig an eight inch groove out of the side of our fireplace, or perhaps "accidentally" back over our neighbor's fence...)

Equipment at the ready.

Then the real fun begins. First, we have to move our other two cars out of the driveway and prop the gates open as far as they will go. At one time, the fence was covered with an out of control vine that caught up in the camper top rail and side latches; we used to have to trim the vine before we could back down but thankfully it has since died and been replaced with a less invasive species.

The driveway in all it's narrow glory.

Mark is always the driver and I'm always the spotter (there's no real reason for this, it's just the way it's always been.) The trickiest part is passing the cement filled pole that protects the gas meter on the side of the house. Mark can't see it from his position, and it also happens to be where the fence starts up on the other side, so both side mirrors are folded in because--you guessed it--they don't fit down the driveway in the out position. This is all made even more exciting because the camper blocks the driver's view in the rear view mirror too, so Mark is driving by Braille and walkie-talkie instructions alone. (Want to test your marriage? Have the walkie-talkie batteries die in the middle of this procedure as they did on us one year.)
The truck starts it's journey. Notice the gas meter and heavy pole protecting it.

Through the gate, the narrowest part of the process.

Once down the driveway and through the gate, we set the jacks in place and start cranking, trying to raise it simultaneously on either side to keep it level. We use the ratchet sound of the crank gears to keep them even. When it's up about four inches above the bed, Mark pulls the truck out and down the driveway, lighter in the rear but a little sad all the same. The truck that is, not Mark. Well, Mark's sad, but I won't comment on his rear.

Cable jack in place.
We have to shim the jack stands too, as the condition of our driveway is less than ideal.

That leaves the camper wavering around in the air, the cable jacks bending under the weight and balancing precariously in the breeze. It was really unnerving the first few times we did it, and frankly, it still gives me the willies when the wind is blowing. We try to get it back to earth as soon as possible so we quickly place cement blocks at all four corners underneath the camper with a couple long boards lined up between them. These prop the camper up off the ground and allow circulation during the rainy season.
Camper in the air on bendy jacks. I think Mark is wiping a tear here. We'll let him have a moment...

Since the cement pad it sits on is almost as ancient as the house, we have to shim one or more corners up to make it level from side to side, and slightly at an angle front to back to allow rain water to run off the top. Our official safety test is to set it down and push on it: if it doesn't wiggle too bad we're good to go.
Leveling up the camper's winter foundation.

Mark wraps up the electrical connections to keep the damp out and we go through the dry goods area to check for expiration dates. We always keep some food, drinks and sundries in the camper because it doubles as our earthquake preparedness kit.

Electrical connection ready for winter rain.

The tailgate gets slapped back on the truck and we're ready for home improvement/holiday/moving season.
The tailgate gets reunited with the truck after spending 7 months in the patio.

It's always a sad day when the camper comes off; as often as we tell ourselves we could always put it back on and go out for the weekend, it hardly ever happens. We're usually town-bound until at least January, at which time we start planning a desert trip to alleviate the painful "Camping Deficit Disorder." (This syndrome is always experienced after eight weeks of eating too much rich food and not moving farther than the distance between the kitchen and the couch.)

So there you have it, the end of another successful camping year. I can't wait until our next trip, but I have a backlog of adventures I would like to write about so stay tuned. And if I haven't expressed it before to you individually, thank you all for sticking with me and reading this blog. I'd still write it if you didn't read, but it's much more fun when you do.  I appreciate the comments and encouragement and freely admit I would be a much sadder person without you.  

Monday, November 4, 2013

Hot Lava: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The clocks have now been turned back and I am not happy.

I am not a cold weather person, and coming home from work in the dark plunges me into a depression. I need sun and I need outside air and I need said air not to numb my ears and make snot run down my face. Winter is not a glamorous season for me.

So this time of year always has my thoughts turning to Hawaii.

Ahhhh...Hawaii. It's where Mark and I went on our honeymoon, and every fifth anniversary (or more if we can get away with it) we try to make it back around this time of year. I like all the islands but I confess to having a favorite: the big island of Hawaii.

It's the newest island in the chain, so it's not as far along in the foliage department as the older ones. Being a desert person, I kind of like the large expanses of lava and the unobstructed views of the ocean. And being an outdoorsy kind of person, I appreciate being able to get away from the crowds of Mai Tai-swilling sunburned mainlanders out for a drunken week-long party (not that we're above swilling a few Mai Tai's ourselves...)

There's a lot to see on the island, but one of the things that you just can't get at home (well, mine anyway) is an active volcano. To witness the earth being built is an amazing and wonderful thing.

On our trip in 2005 we were staying on the western side of the island near Kona (less rain and clearer water for snorkeling.) We had set aside a day to go to Volcanoes National Park, and since it's on the southeastern side, we had to get up early in the morning to be able to spend some time there.

Being from California, we are used to a network of roads weaving the state together like a loose basket. Want to go east? Choose one of a multitude of roads that head east and go. The Hawaiian islands are different: since they are all relatively newly formed mountains in the sea, roads going up and over are rare. The interior is steep, sparsely populated and sometimes molten--not attractive living arrangements--so most of the activity is around the edges. Getting from one side of the island to the other involves a long circuitous route that follows the edge where lava meets the sea. Volcanoes National Park is 100 miles from Kona, a three and a half hour trip just to get to the entrance (the belt road is not a super-highway--everyone has to use it and it goes through every town on the island--so it's slow going.) Once there, it's quite a drive in, with lots of stops along the way to view the Kilauea crater, lava tubes, and of course the Visitor's Center and museum.

Inside the Thurston Lava Tube
Steaming sulfur fields along the Chain of Craters Rd.
The trail around the Kilauea Crater.
Close up of the crater floor.
The volcanic activity on Hawaii is mild in comparison to other spots around the world. Eruptions are a lot like the Hawaiian culture itself: laid-back and not in a big hurry. Most of the time it's more of an ooze than a flow, and rarely does it actually spew into the air. Sometimes it just stops altogether for a while, only to start up from a different vent. In 2005 it was flowing from the Pu'u O'o vent, slowly spilling a (mostly) underground river of lava into the sea. During the day, you could see the steam rising up from the ocean so you knew there was activity, but looking out over the black lava fields it looked deceivingly calm.

Lava pours into the ocean.

We had read that to truly experience it you had to hike out onto the lava field and stay until after dark, so we had come prepared. We wore sturdy, thick soled shoes and brought flashlights with us; both of these items were really for the same reason. You haven't felt real pain until you've scraped a body part on lava rock. Flip-flops don't cut it when walking a couple miles out onto freshly formed lava beds, and when it gets dark, it gets really dark. The black lava seems to suck any ambient light right into itself leaving you blind and in danger of falling...which leads to painfully scraped body parts.

Pahoehoe Lava-the nice kind.
Ropey lava looking for a knee to scrape.

So armed with our flashlights and actual shoes (which feel really funny to put on after a week of walking around barefoot on the beach) we drove to a large parking area at the end of the park road. It literally is the end of the road; it used to go much further in until Pele the Goddess of Fire decided to stop those pesky cars from coming any closer. Lava flows as recent as 1992 have crept down the mountain and covered the road, melting the pavement and burying it under five feet of lava. It's an impressive sight to see the asphalt disappear under the black lava, and sign posts occasionally poking up through it, still standing and recognizable but for the singed paint.

The end of the road, decided by the Goddess of fire, Pele, herself.
Every once in a while the road would reappear in the lava field.

Road sign left in place, minus the paint.
We parked and joined a crowd of people trouping out from the lot and started out over the lava beds. There aren't any official trails, just a general direction toward the steam rising from the ocean. We walked at least two miles before we came up to a series of poles with rope strung between them. In general, everyone stopped at the rope. A few people climbed over and wandered a little further. There were little signs on the rope here and there that said not to cross, but it wasn't really clear why. Mark wanted to go closer, but being the overly cautious one I vetoed the idea. We sat on the smoothest pile of lava we could find and waited for the sun to set.

There were quite a few people, but it wasn't crowded. It's such an open area that everyone had plenty of room to roam around and settle in. The wind was whipping across the open terrain; that coupled with the sulfur smell coming off the distant steam vents made our eyes water.  We chatted with a guy who had flown in from the East Coast specifically to see the lava. We took his picture for him and he took ours just as the sun was setting.

Waiting for the sun to set. (Photo by Steve, or was it Paul? from somewhere on the East Coast)
Notice the rope behind us.

It didn't take long to realize just why the rope was put in place. Not even 100 yards from where we sat a glow started getting stronger as the sunlight got dimmer. Half an hour later a series of glowing veins lit up the field before us like an illustration of the circulatory system in an animated medical film. Looking up into the hills you could see huge pulsing flows of lava coming down and spreading out into individual veins, all eventually flowing to the edge of the field where you could hear the waves turn to steam in the night. It was an incredible sight. So incredible in fact, that even though there were at least 100 people out there, no one spoke. There aren't many things in the world that make people shut up nowadays, but this was one of them. Aside from the clicking of cameras, only nature was allowed to speak.

Lava leaves Pu'u O'o vent and rolls down the hill.
Lava meets ocean much more dramatically after sunset.

To this day I can taste the salty/sulfur air and feel that warm humid wind. Being out in the dark on the darker lava, with all the stars so bright and the orange glow of the lava was one of those lifetime experiences that get socked away in the memory to be pulled out when in desperate need of amazement. I'm privileged to have witnessed many wonderful things in my life, but seeing the earth as it's being built is one of the top ten.

We sat for a while and pondered what might have happened if we had gone beyond the rope. There are stories about people wandered out too far and breaking through the thin layer of hardened lava into the flow beneath. I can only imagine how quickly your skin, not to mention muscle and bone, would burn in the kind of heat that melts rock. No thanks.

We stayed for about an hour before heading back to the car. We walked much more slowly, carefully picking our way over the undulating lava. You would think lava is lava, but it actually takes on many forms. Within the same area there are rolling, smooth areas (pahoehoe in Hawaiian) that were my favorite; much easier to walk on and mostly solid; then there was the areas of crusty, crumbling blocks that wobbled and tumbled as we walked over them (a'a' in Hawaiian--my theory is that's the sound you make as you walk on it). Those were hard to navigate and had the most potential for pain. While we were smart enough to wear proper footwear, we just couldn't bring ourselves to wear long pants in Hawaii, so every step was a potential for losing the hard-earned tan off our shins.

Some of the older lava takes on a polished look. This looked like a turtle shell to me.

We made it back to the car around 10:30pm. We had packed a lunch and snacks, but didn't realize just how late we would be getting back. It took about 30 minutes to get out of the park, and then we were faced with another three-plus hours to get back to our condo. The towns on that side of the island are few and far between--the resorts are all located on the Hilo (east) side and the Kona (northwestern) side--and most businesses in Hawaii close pretty early. So we made our way back, nervously watching the gas gauge in the rental car get closer to E. We finally found a tiny gas station about halfway back to Kona that not only had gas but a small rack of "food". This is how we found ourselves eating a dinner of Hostess Cupcakes and cokes at midnight, running on a sugar high after our 18 hours of volcano tourism. Sweet.

Mai Tai Mark, post-snorkeling.

It was a great time, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Unfortunately the last time we went to the Big Island the lava wasn't flowing. Fortunately for us though, there were still fish to be viewed through our dive masks, and just a couple Mai Tai's waiting for our sunburned-mainland-selves every night.


Snorkeling in Kealakekua (Captain Cook's) Bay