On Monday, after a week in and round Ketchum, Idaho, Kim and I packed up and headed north. We enjoyed our time in Ketchum (and nearby Sun Valley): Kim relaxed one day at a spa, we sampled local beer at a brewfest, we biked the extensive network of multi-use paths, we visited with Kim’s father and his wife, and we enjoyed an evening (and morning) with two of her favorite friends.

Goofing around with Monica and Kelly in Ketchum, Idaho.
Goofing around with Monica and Kelly in Ketchum, Idaho. [photo by Kelly]

But as is always the case, we were glad to get back on the road. We’ve come to enjoy this nomadic lifestyle. As much as we like getting to know the areas where we camp, we’re just as excited when it’s time to move to the next location.

In this case, that meant driving north into the Sawtooth Mountains. Once again, we stumbled upon a spectacular scenic route: For several hours, we wound our way through the lovely Salmon River Valley along highways 75 and 93. Kim got more time behind the wheel of the motorhom on this leg, gaining experience on the tight and twisting mountain roads in the Bitterroot Mountains that separate Idaho from Montana.

A very small town in northern Idaho.
A very small town in northern Idaho.

After nearly seven hours of travel, we stopped for the night at the Blodgett Canyon Campground outside Hamilton, Montana. To our surprise, all seven of the spots were already taken (maybe because camping there was free?). We stopped to talk with the camp host, Chris.

“Do you mind if we park just outside in the day-use area?” I asked.

“Nah, I don’t mind,” he said. “There are a couple of other folks out there already. Just be considerate.” He stooped to pick up a fluffy cat that had been rubbing against his legs.

“You have a cat out here?” Kim asked. Some full-time RVers have cats, but they’re usually on leashes and live inside the motorhome. Chris’ cat was roaming free in a wild, wooded area. It seemed a little risky. Weren’t there lots of critters that would want to eat it?

“This is Cinco,” Chris told us. “I’ve been on the road full-time for the past five years. I took my cat with me, cut she died last winter in Tennessee. I came here in early May. On May fifth, this cat showed up outside my trailer. He adopted me, so I named him Cinco.” I scritched Cinco on the chin, then we set up camp in the parking lot.

Boondocking at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains.
Boondocking at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains.

I didn’t sleep well. For whatever reason, I woke up groggy and grumpy. When we stopped to get fuel in Victor, some bozo parked in front of me, blocking my exit. Like a fool, I chose to let that make me grumpier. We ate lunch on the road, and my sandwich upset my stomach. I grew grumpier yet.

Note: I like to think that, in general, I have a positive outlook and a cheery disposition. I don’t get grumpy very often. But every once in a while — maybe once a month? — I have an off day. This was turning into an off day.

We drove through Missoula, then took 93 north to Polson. (It’s PoLson, not PoIson as I’d originally thought after looking at the map. “Put on your glasses, John David!” Kim laughed when I told her about my mistake.) From there, we skirted Flathead Lake to the east, looking for a campground.

The state parks were more expensive than we’ve seen elsewhere: $28 per night. (Generally, an expensive state park costs about $17 per night.) Still, the RV parks were even more expensive. We’re used to seeing prices between $30 and $40 per night. One RV park in Bigfork costs $65 per night! WTF?!? I was already in a bad mood, and our inability to find a place to camp wasn’t helping.

We leafed through our Free and Low-Cost Campgrounds book, which has become an invaluable reference on this trip. “Let’s try the Swan Lake Campground,” I suggested. “It’s only fifteen bucks per night.” We drove another half hour to find the place.

“This place looks great,” Kim said as we scouted the campground. “It’s clean. It’s quiet. It’s easy to access everything. It’s drycamping, but that’s okay. We’re stocked enough to stay off the grid for a week.”

We parked and set up camp. As we did, we discovered one downside: Flies! The little buggers swarmed everywhere. “Wow,” I said, brushing them away. “I haven’t seen this many flies in one place since growing up in rural Oregon. They used to fertilize the fields with silage. The smell brought swarms of flies. Just like this.” On our next trip to town, we bought a variety of fly traps. They snagged a few, but didn’t really make a dent in the overall population. As you can imagine, the flies made me even grumpier.

“We should build a fire tonight,” Kim said. “It’s supposed to get hot over the weekend — near one hundred. Besides, maybe the fire will help us cope with flies.” She went into the nearby forest to gather woord.

A few minutes later, I heard her calling for me. “J.D.! J.D.! Come look! See that deer? It just charged me. I didn’t know they’d do that.”

“Maybe it has a baby,” I said. “Wait. Let me get my camera.” I dashed back into the motorhome to grab my SLR.

“Look,” Kim said. “It does have a baby.” We stood back from the pair and watched. Mama Deer wasn’t pleased with us. She stamped her hooves — clomp! clomp! — and snorted loudly, warning us not to come any closer. Her cute little baby wobbled along behind her. I tried to get a few photos, but they were too far away and there were too many trees blocking my view. This was the best I could do:

A fleeting glimpse of a mama deer and her baby...
A fleeting glimpse of a mama deer and her baby…

“That was awesome,” I said as we walked back to the RV. Kim cooked dinner — steak and potatoes — while I finished setting up camp. I started the fire, pulled out our camp chairs, inflated the bike tires. Since we were next to a lake, I also pulled out the floating tubes that had been sitting in storage unused since we left Oregon three months ago.

“How do I inflate these?” I asked Kim. They didn’t have any sort of standard valve.

“You’ll have to use my hairdryer,” she said. I did so, but the process was awkward, frustrating. In my grumpy mood, I could have let the frustration make things worse. Instead, I paused. I took a few deep breaths. I did the best I could.

Steak and potatoes and whisky and wine...
Steak and potatoes and whisky and wine…

Dinner was delicious. While we ate, we listened to classic rock on our portable radio. I could feel my mood lifting. After dinner, we sat around the fire for a while and enjoyed the silence. Then we rode our bikes half a mile to Swan Lake.

“How’s the water?” Kim asked the kids playing on the dock. Their black lab bounded and barked and splashed in the water.

“The water’s warm,” one girl told us. But it wasn’t.

I dipped my foot in and found the water was about as cold as you might expect from a Montana Lake on the summer solstice. “I’ll give you five bucks if you jump in,” I told Kim. I’m always offering her five bucks to perform minor dares. So far, my money has been safe.

“No way,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow when it’s hotter. You go in.”

I looked out at the lake, at the sunset, at the trees. Everything was beautiful. I didn’t feel grumpy anymore. Plus, I had a bit of buzz from the wine we drank with dinner. I hate cold water, but what the hell…I ran and leaped from the edge of the dock, diving under. The water was cold, yes, but refreshing too.

“This is awesome,” I spluttered as I swam back to the dock. Kim laughed. (We later learned from some boaters that the water was 68 degrees Fahrenheit.)

The cold, cold water of Swan Lake in northern Montana
The cold, cold water of Swan Lake in northern Montana

After a few minutes in and around the water, we climbed on our bikes. We laughed like little kids as we zipped around the campground, riding in circles, darting down dirt trails.

Later, as I drifted to sleep, I realized I was smiling to myself. I was happy. I’d started the day grumpy, but had ended it on top of the world. It was summer in Montana, and everything was awesome.

{ 1 comment }

Most travel days are routine. By now, we know what to expect, and the expected usually happens. Plus, we can cope with minor misadventures. Some days, however – well, some days bring big surprises.

After a week soaking in the splendid scenery of northwest Wyoming, we were ready to move on to Idaho. I rose early Monday morning – 4:45! – to spend three hours driving around Grand Teton National Park making photographs of mountains and wildlife. Soon after I returned to camp, Kim and I rolled south toward our next adventure.

The magnificent Tetons
Morning in Grand Teton National Park (photo from top of Signal Mountain)

A Slow Start

We hadn’t even left the campground when we had our first taste of trouble. I was driving the motorhome and Kim was following in the Mini Cooper until we could find a place to hitch up. Except that when I looked behind me, she was no longer following. I stopped by the side of the road and waited. Kim drove up a few minutes later.

“Something’s wrong with the bike rack,” she said. “I had to stop because the straps had caught on a branch, and I was dragging it behind me.” Sure enough. Somehow the bike rack had come loose. The bikes were slipping as the straps slackened.

“Wow,” I said as I pulled off the bikes and re-tightened everything. “If we had just hitched up and gone, we never would have known this was a problem. The bikes would have simply fallen off behind us.” A potential disaster averted!

We drove south through the park and into Jackson, Wyoming (which is more commonly known as “Jackson Hole”, although that apparently refers to the larger community). From there, we took Highway 22 west – up into the mountains. “No trucks over 60,000 GVW,” the road signs warned. “Ten percent grade ahead.”

At the top of Teton Pass
Warning sign at the top of Teton Pass (detail of GoPro screencap)

A ten percent grade! Grades of six percent are steep enough to merit warning signs – and sometimes long five percent grades are flagged. The worst we’d faced on the trip so far were a couple of short eight percent grades in Arizona and Colorado.

“Just go slow,” Kim said. “Keep it in low gear.” That I did. I had to. In Drive, the RV could not maintain momentum. It lost speed. Even in third, the speed slipped slowly from 40 to 30 to 20. In fact, there were some sections of the climb during which second gear couldn’t cope; I had to shift into first for short bursts in order to make it to the top. But we made it up. Then I kept the vehicle in low gear as we descended the back side of the mountains – another ten percent grade.

In Idaho now, we wound our way through rolling hills while listening to classic country music (our genre of choice while driving). Near Swan Valley, the hills gave way to green valleys filled with farms. We followed the Snake River into Idaho Falls, then drove west toward central Idaho. The farmland gave way to…well, I don’t have a word for it. Scrubland? High desert? Wasteland? In any event, the farms disappeared and were replaced by nothingness. We passed Atomic City and a national nuclear energy museum. (I learned later that this was part of Idaho National Laboratory, and that we’d driven by an experimental breeder reactor.)

A Wrong Turn

When we reached the town of Arco, we had to make a decision. “Should we head west to Shoshone?” I asked. “There may be hot springs there. I know there’s an ice cave. And there’s Craters of the Moon National Monument.”

“I don’t know,” Kim said. “None of that really interests me. I’d rather get closer to Sun Valley.” We planned to meet her father there in a few days.

“Me too,” I said. “And I feel fine.” As a general rule, we try to keep travel days to five hours or less. Any more and we get punchy. We’d already been driving 4-1/2 hours at this point, but I didn’t feel tired (despite the fact that I’d woken before five to take photos).

“Well, let’s head to Sun Valley,” Kim said. She plugged the destination into my phone. “Should we get gas while we’re in Arco?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I said. “I think we have enough to reach Sun Valley. Besides, the map shows several towns between here and there.”

Following the phone’s directions, I drove northwest on Highway 93 into yet more nothingness. At least here, however, there were signs of life. Homes dotted the roadside and valleys. Cattle grazed contentedly. We passed several small communities, though none could properly be called a town.

“Do you think you should get gas here?” Kim asked as we passed through Mackay. I checked the gauge.

“Nah, I still think we’re good,” I said. And here our troubles began.

At Least There Are Goats

We continued northwest. The few houses turned to no houses. Traffic vanished to nothingness. Soon we came to the Sun Valley junction, a turn to the southwest. We entered National Forest land. Sometimes, as in this case, the “forest” of the National Forest is almost nonexistent. For twenty miles or more, we drove through empty valleys labeled “open range”. But there were no trees, no cattle, no people – no nothing.

“I don’t like the looks of this,” I said as the road continued to narrow. “It feels like this is going to turn into a dirt road.” And sure enough, in a few miles, it did. “Not maintained for passenger vehicles,” a road sign cautioned. “Trailers not recommended.”

Abandon all hope ye who enter here!
Warning sign on Trail Creek Summit Road (detail of GoPro screencap)

“What do you think?” Kim asked. Though I was tired and starting to get fussy, she was surprisingly calm. (We’re both good at this: If one of us is tired or stressed or out of sorts, the other almost always steps up, acts as a rock.)

“I think it’ll take us three hours or more to drive back around to reach Sun Valley from the other side. According to my phone, we’re only twenty miles away right now. And that dirt road doesn’t look so bad. We’ve done worse on this trip.”

“Not in the RV,” Kim said. “Besides, how much gas do you have?”

“Not much,” I admitted.

“Let’s give it a shot,” Kim said. It’s a funny thing. When you travel in a motorhome, you’re willing to take more risks than you might otherwise do. You have your home “on your back”, so to speak. You know that if something goes wrong – you run out of gas, you get a flat tire – you can always pull over and stay the night where you are.

We unhitched the Mini.

Getting ready to rumble!
Kim unhitches the Mini where the blacktop ends…

We followed the dirt roads for several miles, bouncing over cattle guards and potholes and washboarding. Then, as we’d feared, the “low fuel” light indicator came on in the RV. I stopped to tell Kim the bad news. She was unfazed.

“There’s a campground just up here,” she said. “Let’s check it out.” Turns out, the spot was perfect, the kind of place we might have picked even if necessity hadn’t forced our hand.

The Phi Kappa Campground is a National Forest campground situated in a stand of tall trees next to a small stream. It’s typical of the spots we’ve stayed on this trip – except that it seems severely disused. Rodent holes and burrows honeycomb the entire campground. Individual campsites are overgrown with brush and trees. The pit toilets are clean – except for a thick layer of dust covering everything. And the payment slot has been covered by duct tape.

“Well, that’s a good deal,” I said. “Instead of ten bucks to stay the night, I guess we get to stay for free.”

A lovely campsite all to ourselves...
Not bad for a $10 campsite — and even better when it’s free!

We had a great evening. Although we could hear occasional traffic from the road, we were all alone in the campground. Kim cooked up steaks and veggies while I kept us supplied with beer and wine. I lit a fire and Kim kept it going. We sat outside and chatted as the sun sank low in the sky. We listened to our transistor radio. Just before sunset, I noticed some white flecks on a nearby hillside. The white flecks were moving.

“I think those might be mountain goats,” I said.

“Where?!?” she said, and she sprinted to grab the binoculars. For three months, she’s wanted to see mountain goats. Despite having passed through prime mountain goat territory, she hadn’t seen a single one. Until now. There on the hillside was a large group of them: four adults and three babies.

We went to bed happy.

Watching the mountain goats...
Goats! There are goats!

A Rocky Road

In the morning, we exercised. While Kim worked out in camp, I biked up the road to scope things out. “I think we’re good,” I said during breakfast. “The road doesn’t get any worse, and we’re close to the summit.” We hopped in the Mini Cooper and drove to town to get gas. I was right: The road didn’t get much worse – except that the other side of the pass wasn’t flat, as it had been on the east side of the mountain. Instead, the road dropped sharply into Sun Valley.

“Wow,” Kim said. “This is almost as steep as the road we drove yesterday.”

When we reached a gas station, our troubles continued. I filled the two gallon tank easily enough, but then noticed a small stream of gasoline seeping out the side. The service station attendant came to our rescue.

“You can use our can,” he said, “but you have to bring it back.”

“We will,” Kim said. “We just need to put a bit of fuel in our RV. It’s on the other side of the summit. We were on our way here when we ran out of gas last night.”

“Be careful,” the attendant said. “That road is notorious for popping tires. They try to keep it clean, but shale falls from the mountainside and chews up small cars for breakfast.”

As we drove back toward the mountain, we stopped to scout a campground on the edge of town. While reserving a spot with the camp host, we told him what we were going through. He laughed at our story. “Stuff like this happens to all RVers,” he said. “It’s just part of the lifestyle. Part of the adventure.”

He looked at our dirty, dinged-up Mini Cooper. “I’m impressed you came over the pass in that,” he said, “and that you’re going to try it in your motorhome. My wife is convinced that nothing less than a tank can cross the summit. We’ve heard too many stories from folks who’ve had blowouts because of the shale.”

On our drive into town, we hadn’t really worried about the rocks in the road. We were more worried about the road itself: how narrow it was, how steep the grade was, how the road twisted and turned and how the drop off the side fell thousands of feet into the valley below. Now, though, after warnings from two different people, we paid attention to the rocks in the road. Sure enough: there was plenty of sharp shale, some large enough to tear up a tire.

Thanks to Kim’s always excellent driving, we made it back to the motorhome without incident. We poured in our two gallons of gas, and then started back over the mountain. We drove s-l-o-w-l-y. We took our time. We reached the summit and started down into Sun Valley. Twice we had to pull over to the cliff-side of the road in order to allow large loads to get by on the inside. We crept cautiously over the shale. After nearly half an hour, we reached asphalt.

A long way down...
The drop down into Sun Valley on Trail Creek Summit Road

“Did the GoPro get all of that?” I asked. We’ve begun to make a habit of recording interesting drives.

“Almost,” Kim said. “It died a few minutes ago.” We love our GoPro, but battery life on that thing sucks. We carry three batteries, and that’s still not enough to properly document most interesting trips. We’ve heard many others voice similar complaints.

By two o’clock, we’d arrived at our campground, safe and sound. Despite dumb directions from my phone and poor fuel management on my part, we’d made it to Sun Valley unscathed.

A Lesson Learned?

Probably the largest lesson from this story is: Be prepared. Kim and I talk about this all of the time. On a year-long RV trip, you can’t plan for everything. Plus, you don’t want to over-plan (which is a bigger problem than you might guess). Still, it’s important to be like a Boy Scout, to take sensible precautions and to prepare for likely scenarios. I was dumb not to have fueled the RV when it was easy and painless to do so. Failing to prepare led to failure.

That said, there’s another lesson here, and it’s one that gets to the core of our shared philosophy as a couple. Kim and I both believe that it’s important to “go with the flow”, to be adaptable. Travel is tough for a lot of folks who want to adhere to rigid timelines and set agendas. When traveling, you must expect the unexpected. Moreover, it’s generally best to leave room for unplanned adventures, for happy surprises, for serendipity.

To my mind, it’s these unplanned and unexpected events that bring the most joy to travel. When you’re open to anything, then anything can happen.

{ 1 comment }

Moose and Squirrel

June 13, 2015

I was deep asleep last night when Kim jostled me from my dreams. I opened my eyes to find her standing at the foot of the bed, shaking my feet. “J.D.,” she whispered. “Do you hear that?” “Is it a bear?” I asked. I don’t like bears. They scare me. “No,” she said. “Listen. Something […]

Read more →

Visiting Yellowstone National Park (in Three Days or Less!)

June 10, 2015

Greetings from Wyoming! After more than a week in Fort Collins, Colorado, Kim and I packed up and moved north into Wyoming. She even got to drive the motorhome for the first time on this trip… Kim’s first day of driving as we cross into Wyoming Initially, our plan was to make the trip to […]

Read more →

A Week Off in Fort Collins, Colorado

June 8, 2015

At the start of our year-long road trip, Kim and I saw a lot of family and friends. We visited with people we knew throughout California and Arizona. But for the past few weeks — since leaving Tucson — we’ve been winging it on our own. We love the freedom, no doubt, but it’s also […]

Read more →

One Week on the San Juan Skyway

May 29, 2015

After nineteen days in Arizona and five in Utah, Kim and I made the short drive to Cortez, Colorado in the southwest corner of the state. We spent a week in and around the San Juan Skyway. The San Juan Skyway is a roller-coaster ride through Colorado’s San Juan Mountains (a part of the larger […]

Read more →

Taking a Ride on the Durango Railroad

May 26, 2015

I like trains. It’s not that I’m obsessed with them, mind you — I’m not a railfan like my nephew Noah — but I’ve always been fascinated by their sheer size and power, not to mention the engineering genius required to run the railways. I like train movies, train videogames, and even the trains themselves. […]

Read more →

Needles Overlook: The Best View We’ve Ever Seen

May 24, 2015

During the two months we’ve been on the road, Kim and I have seen some spectacular scenery. Some of these sites are well-known. Most folks know that you can find stunning vistas at Grand Canyon and Yosemite, etc. Yosemite Falls is beautiful, but everyone knows about it Other sites offer even better views and many […]

Read more →

A Mini Adventure in Monticello, Utah

May 22, 2015

We packed up and left Page early last Sunday morning. (Early for us means rising at about seven nowadays.) We drove through more beautiful Arizona mountains and mesas as we made our way east and north to Monument Valley. There, just a couple of miles across the Utah border, we paid $22 per night to […]

Read more →

Arizona Rocks! A Photographic Tour of the Grand Canyon State

May 18, 2015

Warning: This page might take a long time to load. It contains many high-resolution images. Sorry about that. On the plus side, you can click on any image to view a larger version. Enjoy! In some ways, this may be the most difficult blog post I’ve ever had to write. You see, we’ve just spent […]

Read more →