The Great Plains

The Sunwapta pushed by strong tailwinds across the Great Plains

The trip is over. I am not home, but the trip is over. All my extended RV trips end like this. I wake up one morning and wish I was home. At this point, the trip is effectively over, although I still have to drive home. The rest of the trip will just be a blur as I slog my way home. On this trip I still have 2500 miles to go. I figured making my way home will take me about a week. I am planning on only driving, resting when I get tired, and then continuing to drive. Tired after 50+ days on the road, I’m ready to go home.

Blog Author Note – This entry was mostly written on Wednesday May 17th. The rest of the trip was not a blur. On Thursday, May 18th, a large swath of storms from Texas to Kansas produced numerous tornadoes, including several in the town of Salina Kansas where I am now. At 5 PM my cell phone started piercing out loud alarms notifying me the tornado watch changed to a tornado warning. An hour later tornado sirens blared. I panicked. People started running towards the campground bathroom which was the only concrete structure in the park. I don’t think the bathroom really offered much protection except from flying debris. For the next hour rain blew sideways up to 70 mph. People’s cellphones were all bleeping out warnings from the National Weather Service and other weather alert services. Several tornadoes touched down within a few miles of the campground. An hour later the sirens went silent and the worst of the storm was over. I have not been this frightened in a long time, probably not since 2004 when four hurricanes passed by the Tampa Bay area in a span of six weeks. I am okay, just shaken up quite a bit. I could write an entire blog just on last night. Right now I don’t feel like writing about the experience or restructuring what I wrote before last night.

Never mind, change in plans. Driving east on I-70 from Boulder Colorado, I intended to just keep driving as far as I could. I’ve done this drive from Breckenridge CO to home in three days in my Toyota Sequoia during the summer of 2015. Today I started at 5:30 am just north of Denver. For almost 500 miles and over eight hours a 30+mph tailwind pushed the rig along I-70. Today was the fastest and furthest I ever drove the rig in a day. I hardly had to press the fuel pedal down to maintain a speed 65-70 mph. I felt the spirit of my dear Sunwapta pushing us along the highway. The intense two-handed tight gripped driving wore me out by the time I reached Salina Kansas. I knew Salina was a major decision point whether to keep driving east or turn south. I couldn’t decide which way I wanted to continue home so I decided to stop at a KOA along I-70 in Salina Kansas.

Sometimes I don’t realize the level of fatigue I’ve  reached after hours of driving until I step out of the cab and realize that I can hardly walk. My legs, arms, and back were all cramped up when I stepped out of the cab to walk to the park office. Deciding to stop and spend the night here instead of just sleeping in a rest stop was a good choice. When I first stopped, I didn’t comprehend what I good choice I did make.

Sandwiched between big storms, I hoped to catch the lull behind the one in front of me, and out race the one behind me to my home. I encountered the same types of storms traveling out west seven weeks ago. Every three days an intense wave of low pressure would race eastward across the country.The difference now was I was heading the same direction of the storm. Navigating these storms was similar to being a boat in stormy seas. Going west in the beginning of the trip was like riding against the waves. There was no way to avoid the storms, they were coming in the opposite direction that I was traveling. Driving east towards home was like riding with the waves.  Heading east I hoped I could drive in the swell between the storms.

Well, I didn’t make my way through the first lull. For the next two days where I am and trying to go has a forecast for damaging winds, hail, severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes. I looked into going east, south, and north to escape the storm. The storms boxed me in because the storms were so wide. I decided to stay put and hunker down once again for a few days and ride out the storms in my tin box. The worst of the severe weather and tornado activity is forecast for south of here, the direction I want to head.

I really want to go home, but I remembered my first rule of travel from 21 years ago, the prime directive, “Safety First.” As Tony Soprano said, “Whaddya gonna do?” In my case, probably laundry. I do feel better than a few days ago.  I am almost halfway home, only 1500 miles to go instead of 2500 miles.

I started in the Tetons in Wyoming on Monday morning. The temperature was 32 degrees when I departed. I drove through ferocious winds in Wyoming, driving southeast through the Wind River Reservation. You know you are in trouble when you are driving through a place with the name “Wind” in it. This drive was the two-handed with both hands firmly grasped on the steering wheel for 435 miles type of drive. This drive was the most difficult day I ever spent trying to control the RV. Forty miles an hour wind gusts regularly hit the side of the RV pushing the coach four feet to the left or right. I needed both hands to control the vehicle and ease the coach gently and safely back onto the center of the road. I finally made my way down to I-80 and Rawlins where I planned to stop, but Rawlins was so ugly and so windy. I decided to head to Ft Collins Colorado and find a much prettier place with less wind. Although I spent another hour driving to make my way to Ft Collins, I found a nice spot just north of town where the winds were calm.

The next day I drove about 60 miles south of Ft Collins to visit some friends in Lafayette CO, a town right next to Boulder CO. We had a wonderful time catching up after all these years. They used to live in Florida and moved out to the Boulder area 20 years and never looked back, or even ever came back to Florida. They have a beautiful family and a beautiful home out there. Their children were so smart, intelligent, happy, and academically motivated. Their kids gave me great hope for the future of the country. We watched one of the kids run in a district track meet. I almost forget how much energy kids in 6th grade have. Later that night after dinner at their home, the older kid played jazz piano for several hours. He was very good and extremely talented. Especially since he had broken both his wrists earlier this year snow boarding. I felt like we were sitting a piano bar of a western mountain resort as we sat in their warm cozy home.

When I left Denver snow was forecast to hit the area in a few days, the third low pressure systems in a week to sweep down into the country from the northwest. I hoped to catch a wave and drive across the country between the first and second low pressure systems. The second one caught me. Now the trick will be to try hunker down and survive for the second storm as it passes. Then I will get back on the road and try to surf home between the second and the third low pressure system back to Florida. Representing these low pressure systems are the symbol “L” along jet stream tracks on National Weather Plots. These “L” symbols now scare me after my travels west and east across the country. The “L” now looks to me like a gigantic weather gremlin/monster ready to blow away anything in their path.

Now I am running the AC in the coach. A few days ago I was in sub-freezing temperatures. A snow storm closed many of the roads in Yellowstone a few days after I left. One of the roads closed the road that just opened that I drove between the Tetons and Yellowstone. I knew when I left the Tetons snow was coming.The campground was staring to fill up when I left. I gladly left my spot to some other camper. The temperature differential between the Tetons and Salina partly explains the high winds. I spent three weeks near freezing or sub freezing temperature until I left the Tetons.

This weekend I hoped to make my way home. Now I don’t know when I will get home. Mother Nature always bats last.

Vivaldi Storm

The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks

The Grand Tetons

Bears outnumbering me in Colter Bay Campground was a possibility that occurred to me as I drove from Jackson to Colter Bay Village. I arrived on opening day of the campground. I drove by this campground several days earlier and saw a bear. I stayed in this campground when I was eight years old when my parents brought my family out to the Tetons in 1965. Now I’ve returned over fifty years later. I remember going down to Jackson Lake from the campground, but not much more. The campground is right next to Jackson Lake with the majestic Tetons rising dramatically behind the lake. Within a week, this campground will sell out for the rest of the summer.

I also remember from 50 years ago taking a boat across Jenny Lake to Inspiration Point. I remember seeing a man and woman together at Inspiration Point and decided right then I would come back to the Tetons someday with a kind woman. Well now I am back, but I am alone.

The day after arriving in the campground, I drove to Yellowstone. The road just opened that day, and I saw why. Snow piled high from varying from two feet to 15 feet lined both sides of the road for 30 miles. Arriving at Old Faithful, even the small off-season crowds were too much for me. In a few weeks, tens of thousands of people will mob Yellowstone each day. About three million people visit Yellowstone every year. While waiting for Old Faithful to erupt, I walked around Geyser Hill. The two square mile area has one-quarter of all the geysers in the world.

Then I drove to Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. Grand Prismatic Hot Spring is the largest Hot Spring in the United States and third largest in the world. The spring is 300 feet in diameter and 150 feet deep, with a temperature of 160 degrees. Grand Prismatic Hot Spring is stunning for all the colors from the inner turquoise pool to the rings of green, red, orange, and as the name implies, all the colors visible when a prism refracts white light into all the colors of the light spectrum.

Grand Prismatic Hot Spring

Once again at Grand Prismatic Hot Spring there were too many people there for me. I was lucky to find a place to park. I had to use a spot reserved for a bus. In famous places in the United States like the Grand Canyons and Yellowstone, I noticed there are more foreigners than Americans. I don’t know if that says something about foreigners or Americans, probably both. I can tell you the tourists that come on bus tours overwhelm the places when they pile out of the buses. Mostly shamed out of existence years ago, some selfie sticks are still around. Selfie sticks and tour buses seem to go together. That is all I have to say about that.

I’m now back at the campground through the weekend. The coldest temperatures of the trip will be this weekend with the temperature plunging down into mid twenties.

While hiking alone around the lakeside trail next to the campground, I became concerned about bears. Then I saw a family hiking together and was glad to see other people. There has never been a bear attack where there are six or more people. The family was trying to take a photo, so I offered to take it for them. I asked them where they were from. They said Columbus Ohio. I told them I grew up in Pittsburgh PA. For some reason, the mother asked me if I ever heard of Grove City College. Her question astonished me. I told I was a graduate of Grove City College in 1979. She graduated in 1984, so we never met there. GCC is a very small college with only 2000 students. I thought wow, synchronicity again. We talked for a while and they headed off. I decided to head the way they went and take the long way home. While I did see beautiful lake shore views of the Tetons, much of the trail was still covered with snow and other parts of the trail were under a few inches of water. I figured this would be a good test to see if my new hiking shoes really were water-proof which they were. Near the end of the hike, I turned around and saw a bear warning sign. The sign said; Don’t hike alone, bring bear spray, make lots of noise, don’t run from bears, and there is no guarantee of safety from bears. I started to panic. Then I realized the sign was to warn people walking in the opposite direction to the dangers from where I had just come. I was just a few hundred yards from the trail head. I picked up my slow pace and scampered back up into the parking lot.

Now each morning I wake up wishing I was home. Each successive morning I linger longer in bed. Usually the thought of coffee, toast, muffins, and croissants entices me to finally get out of bed. Then I get going and excited about the day and feel like I don’t want to ever to go home.

I keep feeling there is something I missed on the trip. Of course, this is not a rational thought. America is so vast. One could spend a life time traveling around America and still not see the entire country.

I’ve learned once again to truly enjoy seeing these beautiful places you have to share them with another person. I’ve seen incredible vistas on this trip, but without a person to share them with, the experiences are somewhat hollow. I’m ready to start heading home now. I still have 2500 miles to get home, and have already driven 5000 miles. I’ll head east across America’s heartland. Although the scenery is not as splendid as what I’ve seen the last few weeks, the Great Plains is still a beautiful part of America.

“The world’s big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark” – John Muir

The Sounds of Silence

Climb Every Mountain

Teton Pass, entering Jackson Hole from Idaho

Driving from Missoula to Dillon Montana I felt wonderful and rejuvenated. The drive east on I-90 was beautiful and there were not many trucks. The distance to Dillon was 180 miles. Turning south on I-15 to Dillon I drove between snow-capped mountains. I almost forgot how beautiful Montana is. Being on the road for over 45 days now, I’ve settled into a routine, and so have the cats. The RV has become a tool for traveling, not the primary focus of the trip anymore. These rigs are complex, I still learn something new about the coach each week.

Dillon was a good stopping point between Missoula and Jackson Wyoming. I’ve been to Dillon twice before on cycling tours. The RV park was a little scary, but quiet. There was an industrial plant next the campground, cement, grain, I don’t know, there was a tall cylindrical tower with conveyor belts. At least whatever the plant made didn’t smell.

The next morning I got up very early and headed to Jackson Wyoming. I punched in the RV park location on the GPS Nav unit. I was mildly surprised that the NAV unit routed me on some obscure route and not taking me down to Idaho Falls on I-15 and then into Jackson on 26. The NAV unit has been very reliable so far, so I decided to follow the route.

The drive continued on south on I-15. Very heavy fog and drizzling rain occurred most of the drive on I-15. I turned east on 33 as the NAV unit instructed me too. Questioning the route I pulled off the side of the road and pulled up Google Maps on my phone to make sure I was not driving off into oblivion. The Google Map display helped me understand the route and I thought I was okay.  What I didn’t know was this route was taking me over Teton Pass.

Many people mistakenly refer to Jackson Wyoming as Jackson Hole. A hole is a valley between mountain ranges. Jackson Wyoming is in a valley between the Teton Range and the Gros Ventre Range. Early trappers or mountain men used the word “hole” primarily when entering a valley and had to descend along relatively steep slopes, which gave them a sensation of entering a hole.

To make my way into Jackson Hole, I had to ascend Teton Pass. What a surprise I was in for. I’ve been to the Tetons five times before, but always had entered from the east, north, south, or directly into from a jet airplane. I never entered the Tetons from the west before. Teton Pass had an average grade of 10%. Most grades in mountains out west are around 6%. The ascent to the pass was over five miles long.

At first I was not concerned. I purchased the Winnebago View RV because of the diesel engine. I knew the diesel engine had the power to pull me up mountain passes. Soon I found that I could only attain speeds of 25 mph to 35 mph on the climb. I pushed down further on the fuel pedal which had no effect on the speed. I tried down shifting into lower gears, but that just made the engine jump way up in RPMs without gaining any extra speed. Unlike gas engines, diesels engines have the same power regardless of RPM. I shifted back into drive deciding to let the automatic transmission pick the gears figuring the engineers at Mercedes knew best. I was hauling 11,000 pounds up to over 8431 feet above sea level. Looking back now, the motor did a great job pulling us up the pass. I think a gasoline engine would have screamed at 6000 rpm to 7000 rpm to get up the same pass. The motor in this rig was running about 2500 rpm during the ascent.

The Sunwapta slowly chugged his way to the top of the pass, like the little engine that could. I think I can, I think I can. Blindly following the NAV unit, I had no idea that I was going over this pass. The other route heading into Jackson on 26 would have avoided this pass. Had I picked up the Rand McNally Road Atlas laying on the floor next to me, I would have seen the designation for the pass. The road atlas has mostly just become a prop on the floor that makes me feel like I am traveling across America. There is a pretty picture of Zion Canyon on the front cover of the atlas.

Climbing the pass did reward me with an incredible view of Jackson Hole. At the top of the pass I pulled off on a turn out. The wind was so strong the door blew wide open. The temperature at the top of the pass was very cold. I took in the magnificent view, took a few photographs, and quickly got back into the cab. I always drive in a t-shirt and shorts, I’m just most comfortable dressed that way.

The descent was just an interesting as the climb. For the first time since owning the rig, I considered pulling of the road to let the brakes cool off. The descent was also five miles long with the road falling away at a 10% grade. Fuel delivery for diesel engines is different from gas engines. There is very little engine braking for diesel engines compared to gas engines. Larger RVs and trucks have exhaust braking, jake brakes, and transmission breaking features that help control speed on descents. I found that by down shifting into 4th and 3rd gears I was able to control the speed well using the transmission on the way down without having to use the brakes too much. I was happy to reach the bottom of the pass. The two emergency truck runaway ramps on the descent are there for a reason.

Jackson is at the south end of the Teton Range, just six miles from the park. Jackson is home to world class skiing as well as rich and famous celebrities such as Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone. I stayed in a very nice trailer park on the edge of town. I don’t think I was close to Rocky’s or Indiana Jones’s ranch. I thought I heard someone faintly screaming Adrian. And I was keeping a close on the sky when I passed by the Jackson Airport to make sure Harrison Ford was not crashing another airplane. The park was a very nice to place to chill out for a few days while I waited for the Coulter Bay Campground to open in Teton National Park.

Coulter Bay Village is near the north end of Teton National Park. I will stay in the extraordinary Teton National Park for about four days. This setting may be the highlight of the entire Great American West Tour. There is no cell phone signal there, I will moderate and respond to comments later. The campground opens tomorrow, the day I get there. Temperatures are forecast to drop into the lower 20s at night, the coldest I will experience so far on this trip. I think my previous experience with sub freezing temperatures back in Utah has prepared me for how to take care of the coach in sub-freezing temperatures. I was lucky to get into this campground. By late May, the campground is booked solid for the summer. The road from the Tetons to Yellowstone opens on Friday. I’ve traveled day to day, so getting a spot in this campground was a stroke of fortune. Arriving there on opening day, I don’t think there will be very many people there. Bears will out number people.

My favorite song of all time

Climb Every Mountain

The Best is Yet to Come

The Grand Tetons at sunset, photo taken in June 2007 during the Great Continental Divide Bicycle Tour

Leaving Couer d’Alene Idaho I had no idea where I was going next except I was heading east. After my emotional episode in CDA I thought about just driving home. I also knew Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park were very close to me. The drive from CDA to Missoula Montana was beautiful. The drive felt more like I was in a National Park than just being on Interstate 90. Snow capped mountains draped with dark green trees rose on both sides of the road.

After arriving in Missoula Montana, I still didn’t know whether I was going to continue on I-90 east or head down into Wyoming to Yellowstone and the Tetons. Several folks in the campground told me some roads in Yellowstone and the Tetons are not open yet and the campgrounds are still closed. This information surprised me since we are now in the first week of May. Sure enough, the road I planned to drive between Yellowstone and the Tetons is still closed through mid May and the campgrounds don’t open until mid May.

I really wanted to see the Tetons. Yellowstone is incredible, a bizarre landscape filled with geysers and scintillating multi-colored boiling hot spring pools that makes you feel you are on another planet. The Tetons are magnificent. The Teton Range is perhaps the most beautiful mountain range in America. The Tetons are relatively young mountains, only seven million years old. These mountains have not been worn down by wind and erosion as much as other mountain ranges. Most of the Rockies are 70 million years old, and the Appalachians are over 300 million years old. The Tetons are spectacular as they rise dramatically over 7000 feet from the valley floor.

I’ve been to the Tetons and Yellowstone five times, three times as a kid with my family, and twice on bike tours with Timberline Adventures. The last time I was there was in 2007 during a Timberline bicycle tour traveling from Lordsburg NM to Jasper Canada. We had only two rest days on that 43 day tour. One rest day was in the Tetons. Even during that layover day I rode for several hours through Teton National Park. I thought to keep moving and not break the cycling routine would be a good idea. The second layover day on that grand tour is where I am now, the town of Missoula Montana. I did rest that day.

Looking online, I learned that Coulter Bay Village is opening on May 11th. Coulter Bay is the main campground in the Tetons. Most of the summer is already booked solid. The opening day and week of the season there were sites available so I quickly booked four nights there. I am thinking that the bathrooms will be very clean since I will be the first person there.  May 11th is still a week away, so I am going to spend four nights in Jackson, the ski resort town just south of the Tetons.

I’m really excited about seeing the Tetons again. The Grand Tetons was my mother’s all time favorite place. I still remember staying in Coulter Village when I was a kid with my parents and sister and brother in a tent. I like to think my Mom will be looking down from the heavens when I stay in the Tetons and remember the times we spent there almost 50 years ago.

America the Beautiful

Somewhere over the Rainbow

Johns Pass on the west coast of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico between Madiera Beach and Treasure Island, one of my favorite places to have lunch in my hometown.

I became emotional while eating dinner my first night in Couer d’Alene Idaho. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I didn’t understand why I felt this way. First I thought maybe I was just exhausted from being on the road for over five weeks. I soon realized the feelings ran much deeper.

For several years I dreamed about finding a place to live in the summer to avoid the long hot Florida summers. I was finally at the town where I thought I might want to live for a summer. CDA is beautiful. CDA was everything I hoped the place would be. The weather is perfect, with temperatures ranging from 50 – 70 degrees. Suddenly I knew I would never move here. Then I thought my emotions were from the disappointment that I already knew my dream of moving to a town like this was not going to happen.

I was homesick. I now understood that I didn’t want to live away from my home in Florida for more than a few weeks. After years of dreaming of where else I might want to live, coming to the realization that I already live in the best of all possible places was an epiphany. Emotion overwhelmed me.

Retirement is a process, not a decision. This is a phase of life is where you have the time and freedom to try new things. Some endeavors work out, some don’t. The important point is to try activities, and not just sit home and watch TV. Now I am ready to try a 5 Star Luxury Suite for a while.

From CDA, I will start heading east and south towards home. I still have 3500 to 4000 miles to travel to make my way home. At least now I know each day I drive that I will be getting closer to home, not farther away.

I realized that I love Florida and that Florida is my home. I like the always green lush tropical landscape. Sometimes after returning to Florida after a trip, I think of the scene in the Wizard of OZ when the movie changes from black and white to color. Sometimes you just need to leave home to appreciate how wonderful your home is. I’m sure I will admire the three Queen Palm trees in my front yard when I arrive home. Most days, I take the palm trees for granted and don’t even notice them while I walk to the front door. Yes, you can go home again.

I remembered this long quotation I first read before my first RV trip. The words and thoughts are beautiful.

You’re packing up your sleeping bag, your lantern and your tent. And you’re off to find the life you lost, but you’re not sure where it went. And I hope those mountains teach you how to stand both tall and proud, that you see your life much clearer with your head above the cloud. I hope you swim through rivers with their currents swift and fast, that they show you must be careful when you wash away your past. I hope that you are humbled by the vastness of the sea, that the eagles high above you make you feel like you are free. I hope when night has fallen and your fire’s just a spark, that the stars shine to remind you that there’s beauty in the dark. But most of all I’m hoping that you’re learning while you roam, that no matter the distance, you can always come back home.” – e.h.

Somewhere over the Rainbow