Becoming a Bird Nerd

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My mom has been chairing the Pacific City Birding and Blues Festival for the last few years. I’ve been tempted to attend a number of times, but have never made the trip from San Francisco to her little town on the Oregon Coast for the weekend-long event. We convinced Mom to move this summer to Gig Harbor, Washington, where my brother and his family recently bought a house, so this will be her last year as chair of the festival, and there was a bit of pressure for me to finally attend.

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So at Christmas time, knowing I had a casual interest in birdwatching (aka birding), mom gave me a book called Birding without Borders, by Noah Strycker, with a note inside announcing that Noah would be the keynote speaker at this year‘s festival, and that she hoped I would join them. Well, I read the book and loved it. Noah is a talented writer who managed to weave together a travelogue with an account of his quest – and achievement – of the biggest year on record.

A Big Year is when a birder tries to observe as many species as possible in one calendar year. Noah decided to do this on a global scale – a World Big Year – traveling to all seven continents with the goal of observing 5,000 birds in one year, which would be far and away the biggest year ever. Well, he succeeded, ultimately observing a grand total of 6,042 species, which amounts to over half of the bird species in the world.

Pretty much immediately upon finishing the book, I made arrangements to attend the festival. Noah didn’t know it yet, but I intended to befriend him. His trip sounded amazing, and as a traveler and writer, I admired his year-long commitment to his project. But even more than that, I was impressed with his ability to actually complete his book upon his return, publish it, go on a book tour and gain such a following, all considering he wasn’t even 30 years old.

I did my own big six month trip with the objective of writing a book when I was 23; that trip began 16 years ago this month. And I have still not written that book. I was certain with Noah’s influence, I would be once again inspired to settle down and write my book.

Thanks to a flight delay, my trip to Pacific City took way longer than it should have, but I arrived Thursday night while Mom was at a meeting in Tillamook. Her dog Molly and I went for a long walk in the evening as dusk was falling. An owl and some song birds called from the trees near her house. Two deer froze as we passed them at the top of the hill, with the setting sun and Haystack Rock as a backdrop. A feral bunny munched on the grass across the street from her house, unfazed by the approaching human and dog. Pacific City Is an echanting little beach town.

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Oh Deer!

The festival opened on Friday, and I joined a field trip along the Three Capes Scenic Route. This was a day of learning, and meeting lots of people who knew a whole lot more than me about birds. My freshly acquired binoculars came in handy, but I soon realized that the high-powered ~$4,000 Swarovski spotting scopes that my guides Ram Papish (wildlife biologist and artist) and John Rakestraw (writer and bird guide) had were by far the better instrument for observing sea birds at a distance. On day one of the festival I observed fifty-four species.

A wildlife rescue center called Badger Run brought some of their animal ambassadors to educate us about raptors. I LOVE raptors. We got to see a Red-Tailed Hawk, a Swainson’s Hawk, a Rough-Legged Hawk, a Great Horned Owl, and a Turkey Vulture. I had no idea Turkey Vultures were so sweet and charming. And the owl was deilghtful; he had pair-bonded with his primary handler and was downright affectionate with her, nuzzling up and talking to her. But my favorite of the bunch was the very pretty little Swainson’s Hawk, who looked lilac and peachy to me, and was just a doll. Meeting those birds (and even the lovely but invasive European Starling) was a highlight for sure.

That night there was a hilarious presentation/concert by a comedian/musician named Tony Starlight. Full of birding puns, beautiful photos of birds he had observed near his floating home in Scappoose, and even audience sing alongs with parody songs he and friends had composed, everyone agreed that he was a great change of pace from the typical blues performances that have been presented at Birding & Blues for the previous 13 years.

Saturday I went on two more field trips, revisiting one of the areas I’d gone to on Friday (again with Ram), and visiting a new area on the other end of town (with Mark Elliott and Lorelle Sherman). A highlight was stopping at an area with half a dozen or so nesting boxes with tree swallows busily preparing their nests. On Friday I’d had fun taking pictures with my woefully inadequate lenses, but here up close to the swallows, I finally had enough magnification to get some good pictures of these pretty, playful birds.

When we got back, it was time for Noah Strycker’s keynote speech. There was a little time before his talk for me to get my copy of Birding Without Borders autographed, then buy a copy of his older book The Thing With Feathers and get that signed too. He presented a slide show about his big year, and it was fun to hear him retell some of the stories from the book, and to see more of his photos of birds and his misadventures. He seemed like a happy and generous guy, energetic, and smart. It’s not surprising that he was able to get local birders from around the world to help him toward his goal. After the talk I remembered to get a selfie with him, and he asked if I’d be at the blues performance later. Even though I knew he’d be one of my field trip leaders on Sunday, I was excited by the idea of getting some one-on-one social time with him if the show might provide that opportunity.

Turns out it did. The performance by Karen Lovely and her band was way beyond what I expected – she has a killer voice, and I really dug her energy and the grooves of her songs. Plus she had an amazing guitarist, with some of the coolest looking guitars I’ve seen. One had laser-cut wood designs of gears and cogs on the front, and another was shiny metal with cool little cut-outs and pin-prick holes forming florets around the sound hole.

But sure enough, I spent a good deal of the evening hanging out with Noah. I think I played it pretty cool, not coming off as too much of a fangirl. I thought I’d be nervous trying to strike up a conversation with him, but it was really quite natural and comfortable. He was great to talk with – attentive and curious, asking questions about me, and just being present in the moment. It must be strange for him, going into social interactions with people who know so much about him already, when he knows nothing about them. He seems to have a handle on it though; it didn’t seem to faze him a bit. I told him I’d be on his field trip tomorrow, and told him I needed him to find me a Tufted Puffin. Then I moaned about it starting at 7:30am. He said, “I know! It should be 6:30!” Ugh. Birders.

Sunday morning came a bit too soon for my liking, with my wine buzz fading into regret, given the early start. But I made it to Cape Kiwanda just in time, and there was Noah, alongside Russ Namitz (Oregon Big Year title holder), and Wayne Hoffman (a superb birder, and an unexpected bonus guide). Ram even stopped by after a bit. Here we got to take a bit more time watching the sea birds, and I even caught a glimpse of a Tufted Puffin through the scope. I had missed seeing Atlantic Puffins both times I went to Iceland (not that I tried), and I kinda have a thing for them, so this was pretty cool!

We walked to the top of the dune on Cape Kiwanda, and watched for more sea birds. From there we spotted a Peregrine Falcon sitting still as a statue on another rock to the north. It looked enormous through the binoculars – a strange and confusing optical illusion, considering they are not very large birds. We also saw Stellar Sea Lions lounging on a buoy, and even a Gray Whale passing very close to shore! More of the charming, red-footed Pigeon Guillemots, more of the Common Loons, more Double-Crested Cormorants, more, more, more.

It was time to descend the dune and head to our next field trips. I got chatting about Iceland with another woman who was preparing for a trip there, and when we were almost back to the parking lot, another participant pointed out that I no longer had my backpack. Oops. Back up the dune I went, and by the time I got back to my car, everyone was gone. I fueled up with coffee and a citrus & marionberry scone at Stimulus Coffee, then headed back to Sitka Sedge State Natural Area for my final field trip.

Sitka Sedge is so new they haven’t even finished building the parking lot yet. After parking in a dirt area across the road, as I crossed I was nearly run over by Russ and Noah. (Guess I had it coming – I’d nearly run over Russ in the parking lot the day before.) They’d decided to come to Sitka Sedge too, in search of some bird or other for Noah’s Tillamook County list. After catching up with my group, I realized I was craving actual movement and solitude; these groups move slowly, sharing sightings and scopes, learning how to identify birds, and learning about their behaviors and migration patterns. After three days of that, I just wanted to walk through the woods and listen. So off I went, wondering how far the trail went, and how long it would take me to get to the ocean.

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Great Egrets

Along the way I spotted a few birds I kinda sorta thought I could identify (Marsh Wren, I’m lookin’ at you), and one bird sang tauntingly to me through the woods – a long and complicated song – but never revealed himself. Eventually I came upon Russ and Noah, who had stricken off ahead; they welcomed me to join them, and before long we heard the song again and they knew it by ear: the Pacific Wren. Then the bird flew into sight, easy as pie. Jerk.

Noah and Russ invited me to drive with them for a couple of hours to hit up some more hot spots in search of Noah’s bird. Everywhere we stopped, we’d walk really fast along a trail while they’d name birds they heard singing and calling all around us. I barely saw any birds at all, but when we’d get back in the truck, Russ would hand Noah his phone and they’d start rattling off a list of species they had observed, checking them off in eBird (an app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology used to report bird sightings). I had been using eBird all weekend for my own checklists, but never trusted my brain to complete the checklists after the fact. I logged everything in the moment. Mental note: get better at taking mental notes.

 

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Not sad we went on those speed-hikes. JUST. LOOK. AT. THIS. VIEW.

We went back to all of the places I’d gone on my Friday Three Capes field trip, but we never did find Noah’s bird. Back to Pacific City we went, and it was time for beer. Russ had an appointment to keep, but Noah and I met at the Pelican Pub and had a beer and some food, and talked on and on for another two hours. So yeah, now we’re basically best friends, just as I had predicted. 😉

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Me and a couple of world class birders, NBD

Bird nerds are interesting people. They like optics: cameras, binoculars, spotting scopes. They like travel: racing around their city, county, state, country, continent, and planet to see more and more species of birds. They like lists, books, and records: gotta find those birds, know what you’re looking at, and tell everyone else so they can find them too. They like to talk. Boy, do they like to talk. Guess who else likes to talk? This girl! I’m not sure I love the racing-around-just-to-check-a-box part of birding, but I definitely like the experience of being present while out in nature, listening, looking, and observing. And so, of course, I filled my garden with bird feeders the day I got home, and now I’m planting flowers to bring more birds and bugs around. I’m upgrading my binoculars, and taking pictures of birds from my desk. I’m…writing about birding. Thanks, Mom.

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Spring Break, Woo! (Part 2)

Related: Spring Break, Woo! (Part 1)

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Woo! Joshua Tree!

The drive from Idyllwild to Joshua Tree is a little hairy at first, especially at night. Highway 243 winds around the side of Mt. San Jacinto, and deposits you on I-10, when the driving gets pretty dull. Head east to highway 62, drive north a little ways, and then you’re there.

Arriving in the town of Joshua Tree after dark, without a campsite booked, is a mild adventure. With our van, we’re able to camp pretty much anywhere we want outside the park, provided we don’t trespass or bug anyone. We tried to go to “the pit,” a big open patch of ground in town where people apparently just free camp; but there was a deep rut crossing the road that we just didn’t want to try our luck driving over. Onward we went, and eventually pulled off on a dirt track, found a turnout that looked like a popular spot to camp, and called it home for the night.

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Kitties in the desert!

The cats had fun exploring our little patch of desert come morning. As for us, we took our sweet-ass time getting stuff done, then headed to town to the local gear shop Nomad Ventures (“Nomads”) to track down one of Glenn’s local contacts and see what was up. Plans were made to meet up the next afternoon, and Glenn and I headed into the park. We climbed for a bit at Echo Cove, South Side. This mostly consisted of me horsing around on topropes Glenn set over not-really-actual routes.

Call me crazy, but I kinda like just working on moves, hang-dogging on sport routes I have no business on, and holding my back flags and heel hooks half a second longer than I need to, just because I feel cool doing them. I told Glenn, “I think I actually like getting shut down on routes that are too hard for me more than I like sending routes that I can do.” It’s true – but only in vertical and overhung sport climbing. On slab I can hang there all day and just get more and more panicked! But give me a toprope and something a full number grade beyond my max and I’ll mess around until I’m pumped and my belayer is fed up. And anyway, if it’s shady, our crag kitties can hang out with us all day while we play!

At this spot, Eevee just hid under the bushes almost the entire time. Ghost roamed around, hopping boulders, and scrambling up and down the slabs. He even found a little cave riddled with rodent poop, but thankfully he was at the end of his leash, so he couldn’t get in there to investigate.

When Glenn was done cleaning our anchors and heading back to the van, he noticed some other climbers who’d built a toprope anchor which was suspect (or, if you prefer, Jive-Ass, or even Unbelayvable). I’m not sure if it was exactly the American Death Triangle (yes, this anchor is so infamous it has its own Wikipedia page), but whatever it was, Glenn did a service by hollering down to the climbers below and helping them rectify their dangerous setup.

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“Hey…can I make some adjustments to this anchor for you?”

I read on Campendium about some BLM land north of the park where we could boondock, so we headed up there for the night. It’s only about 13 minutes from the West Entrance Station, and about 10 minutes from the Indian Cove Ranger Station – totally reasonable. It was a boondocking wonderland! Every manner of camper was out there, from car + tent folks to vans, duallies + fifth wheels to Class A motorhomes. There were plenty of pull-outs to get basically your own “campsite,” and we found one quickly and got the most perfectly level we have ever been. The bubble level was a perfect bullseye. Unprecedented! Thank you, desert!

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Sunset at our boondocking site at “Joshua Tree North” 😍

Friday morning was spent writing, editing photos, and doing other assorted work and life-maintenance. Otherwise put, we took our sweet-ass time once again. Oh, fun animal sighting: a coyote hunting Eevee-style (pounce!) on our way to the park.

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Coyote!

We were supposed to meet folks at Trashcan Rock at 2:30, and we got there a little early, but they never did turn up. So we just took the kitties over to the Real Hidden Valley, to the Turtle Rock – East Face area. I had a lot more fun climbing here than I expected. It was easy climbing, to be sure, and I still got stumped here and there, but I didn’t get frustrated or panic. I’ll call that a win!

After climbing, we used the remaining daylight so I could practice jumaring (aka jugging). I had learned the RAD (Rapid Ascent and Descent) method in the photo clinic we took at Red Rock Rendezvous. But Glenn wanted to teach me the Yosemite Method of jumaring, which is how most climbers ascend fixed lines on big walls that are not overhung.

It’s not uncommon that I’m a difficult student when Glenn is teaching me. He is eternally patient and forgiving of my grumpy backtalk when I can’t make something work no matter how many different ways he explains it. Eventually I got the hang of it though, and I did manage to jug up the whole line. Once I got the rhythm, and once I was on the right terrain, it was pretty easy, and yeah, kinda satisfying – in a work sorta way.

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Little rock hoppers, pre-mice

By now it was getting dark, and suddenly mice came crawling out from every hidey-hole in the desert and rocks. The cats went right into hunting mode. I was worried they were going to short-rope themselves jumping off a boulder to chase a mouse, but they managed to stay safe. I packed them up and got them back to the van in a hurry, and Glenn broke down our fixed line and walked out in the dark.

We had visions of Pie For the People dancing through our heads, but the line was out the door; there was an hour wait at the Joshua Tree Saloon, and we didn’t think we’d get our orders in before they closed the kitchen. So, we crossed the great cultural divide between Joshua Tree (dirtbag climbers) and Twentynine Palms (Marines) to eat at Rocky’s New York Style Pizza, which I knew from when I brought the boys there on New Year’s Eve 2016/17. I kinda love this place. Tasty, basic thin crust pizzas, a good family vibe, and really really nice staff.

Another night at BLM boondock city, and another morning chillin with the kitties. We had to wait for Glenn’s friend Rand to get to town so we could get our long-lost power cord and surge protector back from him; Glenn had left them at Rand’s place on a prior trip. Anyone with an RV knows how expensive those things are! So while we waited for Rand, we went over to Rattlesnake Canyon near Indian Cove to do some scrambling around before we had to drive for 8+ hours.

Unfortunately, Rand got held up in traffic, so he didn’t arrive until around 2:30. We visited for a few minutes, then hit the road for the long drive home.

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So ready to go

We started a cool audiobook: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. It’s surprisingly captivating! It got us all the way home (close to midnight!), and we still have eight more hours of audiobook to go…

Oh, and the cats were understandably DELIGHTED to be home.

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Home sweet home

Related: Spring Break, Woo! (Part 1)

Spring Break, Woo! (Part 1)

The boys were with their dad in Hawaii this spring break, so the fella and I got to go off on our own for the week. We started off by driving the van down to my godmother’s house in Vista, CA, in north San Diego County, just inland from Carlsbad and Oceanside.

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Kitties so psyched to get back on the road

For those unfamiliar with Vista, I can tell you – it is a wonderland. The climate there is perfect and magical, and the resulting ecosystem is an anomaly. Plants grow there that won’t grow outside of the tropics. Animals live there that have no business being in Southern California. People are friendly and generous. The air is freshened by sea breezes, and the Mexican food is legit.

My godmother’s house is one of my favorite places anywhere. Built in 1947, it sits on around two acres of what was once a 400-plus acre historical citrus and avocado orchard, and boasts many varieties of fruit trees and tropical flowers. At Christmastime, there is a veritable wall of poinsettias as tall as the house. When we were there, a hummingbird nest was seemingly floating in the stems of the bougainvillea by the front porch, with two tiny chicks in it. We even spotted a pair of mountain bluebirds who made a nest in an abandoned woodpecker cavity – those birds are rare in the area, only nesting there thanks to that Vista magic. My godmother, whom I generally refer to in print as “Beautiful Godmother” (we’ll call her BG for short), installed a sandy beach on the hillside facing west, so she can watch the sunset from her own beach. BG recently put a hot tub in one corner of the beach. This might be what heaven is like.

BG’s brother and his wife were visiting, so we got to see them briefly on the night we arrived. The next day we took the cats to the beach. Bringing them out on their leashes is always amusing – the ways people react! But they were actually pretty messed up from the long drive, and the sounds of the waves and a nearby bulldozer pushing sand around had them on edge. So we didn’t stay long. We also got to visit with some friends the second night. The check engine light came on in the van that day, and the transmission had a little hiccup, so we were a bit concerned; but, Glenn had it checked out in the morning and the experts didn’t seem concerned. Meh, Mercedes. Finally, before departing, we walked to the lot for sale behind BG’s magical property. If I could move tomorrow – and not bother worrying about school districts – I would buy that land and go park my van on it until I could build something. I’d plant a garden on the hillside first, and build a house eventually, whenever it started to feel necessary. Ah, to have my own slice of heaven!

Next stop was to be Joshua Tree, but first we made a little detour to Idyllwild, home to Suicide Rock and Tahquitz peak, an historic climbing location. We hit up Suicide Rock, but since we didn’t get there until close to 4:00pm, we only had time for one climb before the light started to fade and we had to hike back to the van.

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At the top of P1 of Surprise – I’m only smiling because I was laughing at the grumpy face I used when Glenn first started to take the photo.

I didn’t mind though, because the slick granite slab terrified me. I struggled up the one easy pitch, willing myself to finish even though I really really really disliked it.  I’m trying to work on my mental game. I want to change my self talk from “I hate this” to “This is fun,” and “I can’t figure this out” to “Whatever, who cares if I fall?” This is something I took two separate clinics on at Red Rock Rendezvous a couple of weeks ago, but it definitely takes practice and discipline. I did manage to finish the pitch, but it was not very impressive. The route was called Surprise, on the Weeping Wall. So named because the first-ascensionists were surprised that the seemingly-blank face went at such a moderate grade (5.8). Pitch 1 is a so-called 5.0. Heh. I call sandbagging on that, you old-school so-and-sos.

The hike back down afforded beautiful views of Tahquitz Peak lit up pink by the sunset. And driving out from Idyllwild toward Joshua Tree, we skirted the mountainside and saw an amazing (likely smog-induced) sunset over Temecula. Totally worth the slab scare.

Related: Spring Break Woo! (Part 2)

Waylaid

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Driving the Going-to-the-Sky Road through Glacier National Park

The best laid plans…

Our plan was to spend a week in Yellowstone with my brother and his family, visit a family friend in Bozeman, head up to Glacier National Park, then onward to Spokane and points west. Sometime during our stay in Yellowstone, the van started misbehaving. It started…not starting. It wouldn’t even crank. Just…nothing. After a few attempts, it would crank and turn over like normal. So it was an intermittent problem, but we weren’t sure how long it might be until it would become a *not* intermittent problem.

We left Yellowstone and drove to Bozeman. We decided to stay a couple of nights in Bozeman, and the matter worsened. Instead of taking three tries to start, it now took eight or ten tries. We worried about getting to remote Glacier National Park – in the far northwest corner of Montana – and ending up completely stranded. Getting a tow from there would not be easy and would not be cheap.

Here’s the issue: our van is a Mercedes Sprinter. Almost nobody will work on these vans. Those who will are usually Mercedes dealership service departments. They charge a fortune – because they can – and they often have long waits for appointments. We started calling around to see if we could get it worked on. Bozeman was a no-go. Billings had a dealer, but they had a 2-week wait for an appointment. Missoula also had a dealer, but a 3-week wait. The next closest dealer was in Spokane, and we weren’t supposed to be in Spokane for another week. But they offered to see us the next day. Decision time.

Glacier National Park was one of the tentpoles around which this trip was conceived. I’d wanted to go there for years, but it’s so remote, it seemed to only make sense to drive there if we were already nearby. Visiting Yellowstone put us within the acceptable range. This trip was the perfect opportunity to get there. So, being the stubborn woman I am, I suggested we roll the dice and go to Glacier anyway, figuring we just wouldn’t turn off the van until we got there. And if it got worse, we’d cut our time there short and high-tail it to Spokane. So, we made the 5-hour drive to Glacier anyway, and sure enough, it got worse. We spent one night, then drove the iconic Going-to-the-Sky Road from east to west through the park, and onward directly to Spokane. The boys still managed to complete the park’s Junior Ranger program, so at least I didn’t feel guilty about them missing out on that. But overall, Glacier got shafted. Scrapped. Forfeited. I was bummed.

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Junior Rangers

Thankfully, Glenn’s childhood friend Zac lives in Spokane, and he offered to let us use his house while we were in town. This is important, because when you live in a van and your van needs to go into the shop…you’re homeless. So Glenn, the boys, the cats, and I moved into Zac’s house, even though Zac and Maggie were in Hawaii at the time. Their dog Louise was at a kennel, but their cats Taco and Kiba were home and had a house sitter coming daily to take care of them. So Ghost and Eevee got to meet Taco and Kiba (whom we called Sheba because that’s what we thought the house sitter said her name was). Taco was a real dick, and took off one night; we never saw him again the whole time we were there.

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Glenn snuggling with Kiba-Sheba

The van went into the shop the morning after we arrived, but the Saturday skeleton crew couldn’t sort out just what was wrong with it. The diagnostic computer was spitting out conflicting error codes, so they decided it would have to wait until Monday for the shop foreman to weigh in on the issue. So we waited…

As our current not-good luck would have it, Spokane was being smothered by smoke at this time, with fires burning all around it in three states. It was also being stifled by high summer temperatures around 95 degrees every day. During our time there, we were told that the air quality in Spokane was the fourth worst in the world, worse even than China. The advisory was to stay indoors. So we had some of the laziest days we’ve had all summer, sitting inside on our electronic devices, napping, reading, and generally lazing about. We lost all motivation and didn’t even want to go grocery shopping or cook, or even go out to eat. We ordered meals through GrubHub and UberEats, and relished the fact that we had ice cubes to put in our cocktails. We don’t have a freezer in our van, so ice is a true luxury. We could also watch Game of Thrones on a real TV, the actual time it aired. Magic! One day I took the boys out to a community pool with a waterslide and lazy river, and then we all went out to see Dispicable Me 3 in the filtered, air conditioned air. But that was about it.

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Fun at the Southside Family Aquatic Facility

Monday came around and the boss man showed up. There was corrosion in the fuse relay (whatever that is) housed to the left of the under-the-steering-column area. They’d need to replace that before they could run further diagnostics to see if anything else was wrong. That repair would cost $750, and the part *might* arrive the next day. My expensive third-party warranty on the van won’t cover anything caused by corrosion (yay!), so we’d have to pay for it ourselves. Tuesday rolled around and they fixed the fuse relay, then determined that there was also corrosion on the DEF injector nozzle, and also a problem with the upstream and downstream nox sensors. My warranty wouldn’t cover any of it, but Mercedes was covering that last item through some extended warranty they had. No idea why, but it saved be a ton of dough. All in, the repairs cost $1500 in parts and labor. And my stupid warranty proved useless yet again.

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Checking out the falls in downtown Spokane with Zac on a smoky evening

Zac and Maggie returned, the boys went home with their dad, and we waited for the van to be finished. We had a great visit with Zac and Maggie, and definitely enjoyed the creature comforts of being in a house. But man, the wind sure came out of our sails. Our plan had been to spend one night in Spokane, then drive to Squamish, British Columbia, for a week of rock climbing. Squamish was another tentpole around which this trip was conceived. Too remote to just casually drive there from home, it would probably only happen if we bundled it with this trip, or flew there. After a reality check that it would still take 8 hours of driving to get from Spokane to Squamish, and another 8 hours to get from Squamish to our next destination, we decided that 16 hours of driving might not be worth the ever-dwindling number of days we’d be able to enjoy in Squamish. Furthermore, I’d recently developed a weird nerve pain in both my forearms and hands, so climbing felt beyond me anymore. We decided to scrap our plans for Squamish.

That made two tentpoles scrapped. Now, like any good seat-of-the-pants travelers, we made lemonade from all these lemons: we got to spend some quality time with Zac and Maggie, and ended up spending the remainder of our meant-to-be-in-Squamish days having a great time visiting friends and family in Seattle, and even got to see my current favorite band Blind Pilot in concert. Considering I couldn’t really climb, it was a mighty good consolation prize. And to be honest, I’m a little road weary at this point anyway. But damn, those were gonna be epic tentpoles!!! I was not so naive to think that we could travel for 14 weeks without mechanical trouble, but it was certainly unfortunate that it happened while in Wyoming/Montana, where finding help with our Mercedes was nigh impossible. This is another inherent flaw in our choice of van. Taking it to the wild places we want to go carries a risk of being sidelined to a painful degree. Sigh.

Insert your own uplifting “c’est la vie” kind of concluding thought here. I’ll just leave it at this: that was a bummer, but it’s all good, and let’s carry on. Three weeks to go.

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Back in action!

Eevee the Huntress

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Hunting chipmunks in Vedauwoo, Wyoming

[Trigger warning: domestic-cat-on-wild-rodent violence]

Back home, we were always amused when Eevee and Ghost would hunt bugs that got into the house. We never imagined what a huntress Eevee would become. So far she has captured rodents in three states that we know of, and for all we know she’s a wanted kitty. She’s captured a young chipmunk, and killed a baby vole (which we originally misidentified as a gopher) two full grown voles,  and a shrew.

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Kill #1, a baby vole at Chautauqua Park in Boulder, CO

 

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Shrew, Gallatin River, Montana

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Adult vole #1, Bozeman, Montana

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I woke up to discover she’d gotten another vole, then went right on hunting for more

Everywhere we go, people stop and talk to us about our cats, telling us how cute they are, and marveling that our cats will tolerate being in a harness, on a leash, and/or on a tether at our campsite. I’ve started telling them about Eevee’s hunting. And in some cases, they get to witness it, or get to see this video:

 

And then there’s the one that got away.

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Lucky little chipmunk in Vedauwoo, Wyoming

I chased after Eevee when she got this chipmunk by the head, because I’m kinda demented and wanted a picture of her with the critter in her mouth, and she eventually put him down. I went to take his picture, then turned to video the next hunt. The little bugger ran right across my foot! I guess he got lucky!

Note that Ghost has basically none of these instincts. He mostly just looks at the poor victims, and occasionally pounces on them if they seem to magically reanimate. But at least we have one mouser in the family!

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Ghost followed this not-dead-yet vole under the van, then didn’t quite know what to do with it.

Reflections on Eight Weeks of Vanlife

IMG_5339Intermission. It’s been eight weeks since we left home – two adults, two children, and two cats. We still have six more weeks to go!

Yesterday I flew from West Yellowstone to San Francisco to pick the kids up from their dad to bring them back out on the road for more adventures. So today we will fly back to Yellowstone and keep on rolling. Since we sublet our house for the summer, I stayed over last night at a good friend’s house, and some other friends stopped by in the evening. So I had four people asking me questions about our trip, and me all alone (Glenn, help!) to try to answer them. I surely rambled a lot and didn’t make much sense, but they were nice to me anyway.

One thing I’m learning is that LOTS of people want to do what we’re doing. “Tell me all about what it’s like – it’s a dream of ours!” I try… But it’s not all that easy to explain what it’s like. It’s pretty much what you’d imagine it’s like: four people and two cats in a van can be cramped, cat hair ends up everywhere all the time, and there’s never enough places to put everybody’s shoes.

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Even the cats are piled on top of each other

The biggest difference for me in daily life has been developing the essential routine of stowing. Stowing is not cleaning or tidying or organizing. It’s usually all of those things, but it’s also putting items away securely. One simply cannot make “piles” in a van. Everything has to get stowed. Here’s all of the stowing that happens between waking up and driving somewhere:

  • Put bed in upright/couch position
  • Strip sheet from bed
  • Stuff 2 blankets into their stuff sacks
  • Stow sheet, 2 stuff sacks, and 2 pillows in cabinet above bed/couch
  • Remove 2 cushions from being part of the bed
  • Remove table top from being part of the bed, fetch table leg, erect table
  • [make coffee, cook/eat breakfast, change clothes, brush teeth, etc.]
  • Empty coffee maker, stow in the lowest cabinet, somehow squeezing it between the pots and the Tupperware
  • Wash all the dishes, dry them, put them away (sometimes this can wait, if everything can fit securely inside the sink, and if we’re not going to be on any bumpy roads that would make it all rattle around a ton)
  • Fold pajamas and put them away (you can’t just leave them out because you’ll step on them in the tiny hallway, or the cats will lay on them and get hair all over them, or something will spill on them; and they usually have to be folded because otherwise they simply won’t fit in the place they belong)
  • Stow table leg and table top
  • Move fruit basket from counter to bench, where it (usually) won’t slide right off onto the floor (we used to keep it in the microwave, but then we’d forget about eating the fruit and it would get overripe)
  • Stow all books, electronics, games, EVERYTHING
  • Arrange our rechargeable fan just-so on the back cushion that it can still recharge and blow, but hopefully won’t crash onto the floor
  • …and that’s when it’s just me and Glenn. With the boys’ beds in the mix, there’s even more.

Stowing is not to be confused with STASHING. Before we started our trip, I knew we’d need more storage/stowage than what we had. So I ordered us some stretchy mesh pockets to mount on the wall – I call them stash pockets.

 

The idea is that some items should be readily accessible, and that storing them inside a cabinet or box is impractical because they’ll just get buried in there and you’ll never be able to find them when you need them. So instead, they need “stash spots.” These can be parts of the car like a cubby, cup holder, or glove compartment; or, they can be add-on stash pockets. But the idea only works if you use the same stash spot for the same item all the time. Otherwise you can’t remember where you put the thing the last time, and it might as well just be bopping around in Granny’s junk drawer for all the luck you’re going to have locating it.

Some examples of stashes: by the bed, which is also under the TV, and next to the charging ports, we have a stash pocket which holds the remote controls, charging cables, and Chapstik. The Chapstik is the stash. In the upper stash pocket by the sliding door, we keep cat treats, the cats’ leashes, walkie talkies, and cameras. Honestly, everything in there is a stash, but the thing I grab most often from there is the good camera. The keys to the cargo box have a stash spot that we both use religiously, which is kind of a miracle. The trouble comes when you get lazy and don’t re-stash your stash after using it. Or worse, if you stash it somewhere else. This bad habit of mine long ago earned me the taunt “Stasher!” Now if some always-easy-to-find thing goes missing, I get called a stasher and get shamed for stashing it somewhere random. Yes, stowing/stashing/organizing is so important in our lives that it was the genesis of a new kind of domestic teasing.

By now someone’s thinking, “Nobody cares about that boring stuff! What about traveling all the time?!” Well, it’s awesome. And taxing. It can be a lot of planning – doesn’t always need to be, but can be. And a lot of driving. And we eat “in” a lot more on the road than we do at home in the city, so there’s a lot of shopping, cooking, and dishwashing to do. But yeah, getting to see cool different places all the time is rad. Duh!

So far we’ve been to five states and ten national parks. We’ve climbed in more different spots than I can accurately count without doing a lengthy look back at our records. Wildflowers blooming all over the Rockies, elk and mule deer munching grasses, raptors screeching to defend their nesting area, chipmunks and squirrels chirping out an alarm when the cats come outside to play, marble-size hail bouncing off the van and the ground, the smoke-tinged horizon glowing peach and hibiscus at sunset, rivers bending gently through a grass valley or raging ferociously through a rocky gorge, and craggy peaks high above, daring us to climb them; these are the sights and sounds of our summer so far. And I can’t wait to get back to them.

Rocky Road

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I once was told that Rocky Road ice cream was created during the Great Depression, to give people something to smile about. Well, last week – on National Chocolate Ice Cream Day – we probably should’ve gotten Rocky Road instead of plain chocolate, because we needed something to smile about after an actual rocky road beat the hell out of our van.

We were staying in the town of Escalante, Utah, right on the northwestern boundary of Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. There are some well-known geological features nearby which I wanted to explore, or we never would’ve been in Escalante in the first place. Spooky Gulch and Peek-a-Boo Canyon are two popular slot canyons which you can explore on a 3-mile hike, squirming through tight squeezes and allegedly smiling in delight the whole way; Devil’s Garden is a grouping of hoodoos that you can actually run around and climb on; and Batty Pass Caves are another cool-sounding spot to check out right in the same area.

The catch is, the canyons are 26 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a BLM road inside the Monument; the caves are down a little ways on a spur road across from the canyons; and even the hoodoos are about halfway down the road (13 miles) to where the canyons are. Had I listened to the checker at the grocery store, who told us even he was shocked by how bad the road was, or read any one of the many websites warning visitors of how treacherous the road was, or put two and two together when I saw that multiple outfitters in Escalante ran twice-a-day shuttles to the canyons, I might have thought twice about driving out there in our van. I later learned that car rental companies don’t even allow you to take their cars on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. They’re smarter than we are.

I had told the boys that we could play hide-and-seek at Devil’s Garden, so they wanted to go there first. The road was almost all deeply rutted washboards, with a few potholes mixed in just for grins. Our van got jostled around like a can of Sherwin Williams on a Home Depot paint shaker. The silverware drawer is always the first to slide open. Then the drawer with the cooking utensils. We even got the little slide-out table to open. The “closet” door edged its way open as the drawers inside scooted toward the aisle. Even the stereo and other parts of the dash were threatening to pop their mountings. I gritted my teeth and held on until we got to Devil’s Garden.

“Now I understand why multiple outfitters in Escalante offer shuttle services,” I thought.

When we got there, a puddle soon formed under our city water hookup. The ballcock was nowhere to be seen and our fresh water tank was quickly draining onto the desert parking lot. The microwave/oven had slid backward into its housing. An upper cabinet popped open and (thankfully only) a book fell out onto the kids. The paper towel roll had unspooled from its holder beneath the overhead compartment and onto the floor. I was not happy.

After rock-hopping and some very hot hide-and-seek, we returned to the van for lunch, then decided we should head back to town rather than continue on that road to the canyons. On the drive back, the heater vent – already loose – came halfway off, risking shearing off the one remaining screw altogether. The wooden wall-mounted spice rack was disintegrating. We argued a bit about how best to drive so as to minimize further damage. Then we argued about how we should think and feel about this unfortunate turn of events. One thing we could agree on was that the chocolate ice cream needed to happen.

We stopped at a hardware store on the way to the house we had rented (to keep the kitties safe from heat while we explored during the 100-degree days) to get some supplies for repairs, then bought the ice cream, then went home.

All in all, eventually, we discovered we’d managed to:

  • Break the city water valve
  • Knock off the heater vent
  • Dislodge the microwave oven
  • Knock the shelf pins loose that held the drawers up in the closet, causing them to collapse
  • Break the spice rack

Over the course of the next few days, and after deciding to risk more destruction on similar roads, more and more things began to malfunction or get broken by our abuse:

  • The motorized step on the sliding door would deploy while we were driving, causing it to take a beating, cracking the plastic on the front corner and causing the motor to groan
  • I dragged our rear end onto a steep hillside to access a dispersed camping spot, shredding the wiring to our cargo carrier, and causing it to hang down and drag on the road
  • The kitchen faucet started spraying water – probably because the messed up, over-drained water tank pumped sediment up into the faucet
  • Under pressure, the bathroom faucet started leaking into the bottom of the closet – maybe for the same reason – onto the upholstered cushion below

Various patches have been made over the last few days, giving me more of sense that we’re held together by chewing gum and duct tape than that we’re actually repairing things in a fashion that would appeal to a buyer whenever we go to re-sell this thing. Some were true fixes, others were literal Gorilla-tape hacks.

  • The city water valve was capped altogether
  • The heater vent was bolted (not screwed) back on
  • The microwave was reseated
  • The closet shelf pins were put back (later coming undone again, now being replaced with L-brackets as a permanent fix)
  • The spice rack was glued back together
  • The motorized step had to be disabled altogether by disconnecting the wiring assembly under the step and taping off both ends
  • The wiring to our cargo carrier was replaced and re-mounted
  • The kitchen faucet was disassembled and put back together without the inner parts of the diffuser to muck things up
  • The bathroom faucet… we couldn’t do anything about this one, but realized that we need to neither use high-pressure city water nor fill our fresh tank all the way

Oh, also, one of our two stove burners is running way lower than the other, so low you can hardly boil water on it.

So…yeah. All these creature comforts are not without their weaknesses, and our use case for this van may simply be too abusive for them. To put it bluntly, we’re beating the shit out of this rig. We had some stressful conversations wherein we both bemoaned the fact that this vehicle doesn’t seem to suit our lifestyle. We’re rock climbers. We bought a camper van so we can drive to and camp at climbing spots. Many climbing spots are located down absolutely craptastic roads. When driving to the crag makes you anxious that you’re destroying your investment, and results in time-sucking repairs, is the van really enhancing our lives? Would we have been better off just sleeping on the floor of the minivan, cooking on a camp stove, drinking water from a jug, and peeing in the bushes? Sometimes simpler is better.

But me – I cannot accept that. It is in my nature to have faith that there is a solution to any problem. Maybe a simpler, more rugged class-B motorhome will work for us. Maybe a custom van conversion would be better. We started chatting about our wish-list of features. There are plenty of features and systems on this rig that we don’t need, and others we don’t have that we wish we did. Eliminate some unnecessary potential sources of malfunction, and add some new technology that supports our adventurous travel. All of that in another post…

For now, enjoy some pics of our damages and a few repairs we hacked together.

And here’s a pic of one of our cute road kitties to alleviate any anxiety this post may have caused you. You’re welcome. Now go eat some ice cream.

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