Friday, November 5, 2021

There And Back Again, Again

The Inyo Mountains from the secret campsite
Once one begins to list “retired” as one’s “occupation,” the notion of taking a vacation becomes increasingly moot. When The Beloved Spouse and I began to plan a late-fall road-trip out west to see family, it was hard to think of it as a vacation. Fortunately, “road trip” is a “thing” now, so it provides a useful substitute.

Our window of opportunity was somewhat narrow, because we wanted to avoid family crowds in state and national parks (where we prefer to stay), and to leave late enough to avoid remnant summer heat but get home before cold weather started creeping in. Although we did manage to miss almost all the hot weather, we had to change plans several times to avoid encroaching sub-freezing temperatures in many places we wanted to visit. Porco is a great travel trailer, but his underbelly isn’t insulated, so we need to camp in predictably temperate climes. 

After dealing with some mini-disasters related to bad packing and insufficient plumbing expertise, we settled in for a reasonably comfortable couple of "shake down" days at Copper Breaks State Park near Quanah, TX. Our first hint of trouble arrived as we drove into Trinidad Lake State Park, in southern Colorado, and started mapping out our route for the next day. We were rather gob smacked to learn that the predicted weather for the next few days in mountainous central Colorado involved nights dipping below freezing, so we quickly changed plans to head for the Colorado/New Mexico border instead, to Navajo State Park, and stay there for a couple of days in order to re-map the route. We’d have to traverse the fabled Wolf Creek Pass, but the aspens had started changing color and the views were spectacular. 

The stay at Navajo was quite pleasant, even though it offered us the first of many reminders of encroaching drought (very low lake levels), and gave us time to rethink our plans a little. We shifted over to Utah after that, and moved up toward Salt Lake and across to Nevada, where we rejoined our original route and drove up the "most dangerous highway in the US" (93) to Idaho to visit family near Boise. The foretold danger--on an otherwise smooth, well-paved, lovely road--appeared in the form of a nasty multi-vehicle accident that parked us for an hour and a half. We still made it to the Boise area in good time, though, and had a nice visit with my step-family, who had only recently moved up from southern California. From there we drove through a good chunk of eastern Oregon into Washington, over the Cascades, and spent time with my son and his wife in their new-ish rainforest aerie in Redmond, WA, my former student Jane and her husband in Bellevue, and my uncle, aunt, and cousins and family in the Greater Tumwater Area (where we got to see my cousin Jeff's champion pumpkin before it shuffled off to glory in Half Moon Bay, CA). We ended up spending three days in Tumwater, enjoying my aunt Geri and uncle Art's gracious hospitality and amazing food. Molly and Nylah had a great time running around in the house and yard sans leash, for the first time in two weeks. 

Remnants of the Dixie Fire
Things started going south (metaphorically as well as literally) as we drove toward Eugene, OR through a cold rain and had to change plans again because the temperatures were falling along the Oregon/California border, where we had planned to join Highway 395 and follow it south. So, after changing a flat in one of Porco's tires, we kept on I 5 into Redding and then went east to Susanville—through some of the remnants of the recent Dixie Fire (which had not yet been entirely contained) near Lassen Volcano. We had reserved a couple of nights at a funky campground beside the Bridgeport Reservoir, but had no cell service and thus no way to check on the weather. By the morning after we arrived we got enough information to know that the temperatures would not be favorable overnight, so we abandoned the rest of the booking, sacrificed the fee, and got on back on to 395 south. 

The trip down was lovely, with dramatic clouds, a significant dusting of new snow, and gorgeous views down to Mono Lake. We dropped in at a viewing spot near the tufa and snapped a couple of pictures, and then drove to Big Pine where we filled our freshwater tank. Our preferred RV park in Lone Pine was full, so we decided to try one of the BLM areas (not the Alabamas, which have become an RV cult spot). We found a terrific campground that would only cost us USD 2.50 per night thanks to our Geezer Parks Pass. I’ve opted not to name it, because I’m a selfish old bat and just don’t want to share the discovery. But we loved it, the animals loved it, and we had three days of peace with only one “neighbor” for two of them. TBS hooked up the solar array and kept us in electricity, and we got in some hiking and trips to sacred family sites in the valley. 

Bridgeport Reservoir, with geese if you look closely

New snow in Mono Country

Mono Lake from outside of Bridgeport

Mono Lake Tufa

View from the campsite with haze from
Sequoia/Kings Canyon fires

Unfortunately, this idyll marked the end of our journey out, and everything that followed focused on getting us back to Texas, which would require more re-routing, a missed opportunity to visit my beloved 99 year-old cousin Willma in Sedona, and some of the scariest driving we’ve ever experienced. We were leaving just in time to avoid a freeze, but also just in time to have to negotiate one of the periodic katabatic wind storms I’ve known since I was a child. 

Owens Valley frequently experiences very high-velocity winds that blow from north to south and west to east (at the same time). The dust kicked up by these storms, especially off of Owens Lake (mostly dry) and the dunes at the southern end of the valley can blind drivers and cause horrific accidents on 395. After attending to some necessities (fixing Porco's flat, dumping our tanks, and visiting the Interagency Visitor Center for Valley swag), we got on the road just as the storm got serious. We probably should have waited it out for another day, but decided to take it slow and easy, and to get off the road if necessary; it was supposed to freeze in Lone Pine that night, so our options were slim. Our rig is relatively short (20’ for Porco, 20’ for the Gladiator), and pretty low-profile, presenting less of a wind target than most RVs. 

We managed to get around one accident blocking the southbound lane by moving over to Old 395, and later saw two semis overturned in the northbound lanes. We got to Pearsonville before we lost visibility, and pulled off. GPS told us that we were near where the highway curved east, so as soon as it was clear enough to see anything, we drove past the junction with CA 14, just as it was being closed, and found out that 395 had been closed both north and southbound. Turning east meant that we had the wind at our tail, were out of the valley, and the most dangerous part was over. 

Coming into Kramer Junction 

After that we got some of the best mileage of the trip. The winds caught up with us as we turned south again, but they weren’t nearly as strong. We ran into another visibility problem as we drove into Kramer Junction (the only photos I got of the storm were through the windshield here), but instead of 0 feet, we could see for 10 or 15. By the time we stopped for gas, the dust was gone, and we were headed east again: to Needles for the night, and then on to a stretch of old Route 66. 

While we were cruising along the next day, reading old Burma Shave signs and stopping at a couple of tourist traps, we learned that the overnight temperatures along I 40 would be well below freezing, resulting in yet another change in plans, and direction. We had to abandon our reservations at Meteor Crater, and our plans to visit Sedona. (We’re now thinking of making that one up with a special trip out to Arizona next spring.) We took a sharp right turn just before Flagstaff, and headed toward Phoenix, where we stayed in an RV park right out of the Twilight Zone. If I ever do a review of the places we stayed, I’ll tell that story. But think Stepford Wives meets Heinlein Mars colony and you’ll get the idea. 

We managed not to have to take an extra day by abandoning all plans to visit interesting places, and sped on back through southern New Mexico (where we stayed at a campground with Great Horned Owls) and into Texas. We spend our last night on the road in Sweetwater, and got home by early afternoon, twenty-five days after we left. 

In the end, it was wonderful to be able to visit most of the folks we had planned to see, and to drive through parts of the country I hadn’t seen since I was a seven year-old on a caravan trip with my grandparents. Future trips, however, will involve many fewer one-night stands at RV parks and more, longer-term stays in more remote places. The unfortunate (for us) boom in recreational travel has meant that many state parks are booked months in advance, the national parks have been over-run, and some of our favorite places (like the Alabama Hills outside of my home town) have become RV Disneylands. I once remarked that if Los Angeles hadn’t taken all that water from Owens Valley, the towns south of Mammoth would have become overpopulated and overcrowded themselves. Although I don’t really see that happening now, the tourists have become far more abundant than I’ve ever seen them. This creates a bit of an economic boom for valley dwellers, but lessens the enjoyment quotient for lovers of peace, quiet, and dark skies. 

As I go through my travel journal to fill in gaps and have a chance to ruminate more deeply on the trip, I’ll probably add posts that expand on this one. But for those of my well-wishers who’ve been waiting to get more than brief text messages, I thought it prudent to get this part out. 

Daylight savings time ends this weekend, the leaves are falling, it’s getting much cooler, and we’ve turned on the furnace in the house. We’re also enjoying a bumper crop of pecans, which require endless shelling, but are welcome nonetheless. We’re both now boostered, and still sport our Ghibli masks when we go out, so feel about as safe as we can in this part of the world. There will be a Thanksgiving this year, again hosted by daughter and her partner, for which I have little to do but enjoy when we get there. 

Now that we’re back, we can get back to work on making the house livable for the foreseeable future, with measures to withstand future, climate-related difficulties. Despite the fact that everybody in Real Estate Land seems to want to buy our house, the trip has provided one more insight. No matter where we travel, this house is where we all—spouses, cat, and dog—feel at home. So no, we won’t be moving west. But we’ll still get out there once in a while.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Deep Summer Busy-ness

As the summer begins to wane, we on the Farm find ourselves busier than we've been in quite a while. There are injured trees to fell, caravan projects to complete, software programs to learn, clearing out to accomplish--all in addition to the daily necessities of newspaper reading, puzzle solving, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and pet service. 

I suppose I've mentioned innumerable times that we do a large measure of the daily stuff without benefit of central air conditioning. This isn't generally a problem, at least in the morning, when things are cool enough (if we're sitting under fans) to read the paper, do the crosswords, and even tidy up. But after noon, we try to shut down and work in one of the rooms with a window unit (living room, snug, study, bedroom) in order to conserve power. Fortunately, Porco has its own air con, so any of the projects we're undertaking in preparation for our rather ambitious, month-long road trip west can be done in relative comfort.

We still take time in the morning and evening to spend time out of doors with the animals, and so our activities are pretty well-paced. Not long ago, we installed a more efficient ceiling fan in the kitchen, which makes it easier to cook. If I'm on the ball, I get something prepped and put together in the morning, then put it in the oven to bake later, rather than simmer on the stove top. Or we have salad nights. Having come from pioneer stock that made their lives in the western Nevadan and eastern Californian basin and range deserts, I have good models for dealing with heat, and because the humidity demonstrates the relative abundance of water in north Texas, there is really little to complain about. 

But climate change is certainly "messaging" us, and strongly nudging us in the direction of some preparatory gestures. Last winter's Big Freeze (as they're now calling it in the Daily Poop) has prompted us to buy a lovely ceramic cast iron log burner, which will take its place in front of the fireplace at the end of this month. The greenhouse also falls into the prepper device category, and after we're home from our trip, stepped up efforts to fortify our food-growing capabilities will begin: enhancing the veg space wherever we can. My old, battered copy of Ruth Stout's No Work Garden Book (saved from some flood or another), and Helen and Scott Nearing's books on the Good Life are on my autumn reading list, and there are several more books on my shelves with similar themes: making do with less, all written before it became trendy again to "make do and mend."

Work on Porco Rosso has produced new "classic" faucets with metal handles, a cargo carrier for hauling what TBS quaintly refers to as the "honey wagon" (don't ask) and extra water. We also installed, inexpertly but eventually adequately, a new awning. The old one was once white, but the spring rains and dying trees had ruined it, so we got something a bit too cute but much more serviceable. 

There are also a new lock and new keys, after it proved too difficult to get a damaged key replaced. We also got better locking devices for the exterior storage bins. Interior storage will be enhanced with numerous IKEA amenities, from boxes to baskets to small shelves for stashing spices. And my makeshift pillowslip curtains will finally be cut to fit and insulated. We're planning to leave just before the solstice, camping first at Cedar Breaks State Park on the night of the Full Corn Moon (they call it the Harvest moon around here, but I grew up with the Corn moon). The new binoculars TBS gave me for my last birthday will be put to use taking photos for a later Skywatch entry, from a good Dark Sky site.

The travel planning is pretty much complete now, and we've had time to clear out some of the winter damage and tired remains of spring's extravagant growth. Pottering around in the yard has led to a few wildlife discoveries, the best of which is another spider. Last time, I included a shot of a tiny argiope in a cedar tree--the first I'd seen in years. This last week, however, we discovered a much larger variety and I've been watching it faithfully over several days. The first time I noticed her, Nylah had already barged through her very large web (strung between the downspout and rain butt on the northwest corner of the house, and a large pecan tree about six feet away), and the spider (now known as Shelob; much smaller, but with similar habits, for those of you Tolkien fans) was already busy repairing it.

My feline correspondent, Tigger (see last post's comments) hasn't seen this variety before, so I thought I'd provide her a much larger example. Two days ago, there was also ample evidence of mayhem. I'm including a sequence of photos to illustrate the dramatic goings on, and to give you (perhaps) an idea of why my family has always been so fascinated by these industrious beasties.

Argiopes are orb spinners, which you should be able to see in the last picture; it and the one above it were taken after she had devoured her packet of Japanese beetle. The opening shot on this post is the only one taken from behind the web. At first she was pretty skittish, and every time I came near, she'd run up to the eave to hide. But more recently, I've been able to get closer--although getting my cheesy excuse for a Skywatch Friday entry required crouching down in back of the web. 

The next few days are forecast to be a little cooler (93F instead of today's 97), although the rain promised for the weekend seems to have left the map. But now that the major project work is done, I'll be spending a few more hours trying to master a new web design program (Pinegrow) which I'm hoping will allow me to get back to work on revising the old page and a couple of other web efforts.

Stay safe, folks. And have a good weekend (to those of you for whom weekends still mean something).

Friday, July 23, 2021

Midsummer Murders


The title of this post is a (shamelessly opportunistic) corruption of the perennial British crime fiction TV favorite, Midsommer Murders, but roughly describes the latest observations in the accidental/anarchist's garden.

A few days ago, during my first perambulation of the morning with Molly, I noticed evidence of utter mayhem: feathers everywhere, apparently from a mockingbird, which had met its demise at the claws of one of our local raptors.

She looks guilty, but is not responsible.

I attributed the carnage (although there were no grisly bits) to a hawk or an owl, both of which hunt in our yard, and went about my business. The next day, however, evidence of further havoc appeared in the same area, and this time it might have been a mourning dove. Since we often see barred owls, and sharp-shinned, red-tail, and other hawks flying about, activity like this does happen occasionally, and I thought I'd identified the culprit(s) when I captured some video of the swoops and glides of a group of raptors a couple of days later, after hearing their cries. The winds were up a bit and these birds (which I now think might have been Mississippi kites) were having a great time soaring on the thermals.

As it turns out, however, if these were indeed kites, as insectivores they were not the perpetrators of the previous days' butchery. If I were Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, I would be able to rely on the skills of an excellent forensic scientist and his or her team in order to solve the crime. But I'm not terribly good at this sort of investigation, and haven't even been able to reliably identify the birds I filmed for two minutes after I caught one of them in the opening shot. I've only managed to locate a couple of websites that can help with silhouettes, and will just have to keep the real camera handy for the next time I hear tell-tale raptor noises. Maybe then I can get clearer evidence. 

I should probably note that the day before all this happened, I had caught in mid-air a downy, floating feather from what was probably a large juvenile bird--possibly an owl. Since we've had experience with these chaps (one is likely responsible for the untimely demise of our beloved Emma, Molly's predecessor), one of their young'ns is now my chief suspect. 

In my last post I mentioned the relative absence of butterflies (exactly one monarch and one black swallowtail so far), but that at least means that I haven't had to spend any time protecting caterpillars from death-by-anole or -cardinal. Part of this has to do with the fact that my usually voluminous fennel and parsley plants were devastated by the spring rains, and there isn't nearly as much black swallowtail food around. One of our three cardinal pairs has successfully nurtured a chick (finally, on their third try), but they're all foraging elsewhere. 

I have had a couple of insectivorous surprises, though: spiders.

I finally have an argiope, which is my favorite garden spider. One built its web in front of my kitchen window when my daughter was a baby, and her first word was "'pider." Ever since, I've made sure to nurture any that show up, but we've only seen once in the twenty years we've lived in this house. Now, however, there's a small one in the cedar tree outside my study window. It has managed to construct its web next to one of the failed cardinals' nests, but nobody seems to have bothered it, and it's been a couple of weeks since I noticed it. It's also getting bigger by the day, and the characteristic stabilimentum that gives it the "zipper spider" common name is growing.

Also, just before our last rain (at the weekend), I almost literally ran into an orb spider in action, spinning an enormous web (the supporting ends had to be at least eight feet apart) across the sidewalk that leads out of our back door. The speed at which she worked was astonishing, and I caught a couple of minutes of her before I had become food for one too many mosquitoes. [Unfortunately, my lack of video editing skills and the file-size limits of Blogger have prevented me from uploading the evidence.] The web was almost complete, and I wonder if she managed to catch anything tasty before the downpour next morning obliterated the whole effort. I had left a note on the back door ("SPIDER WEB") to alert anyone letting out the dog or cat, but by the time I got down to check, it had disappeared without a trace.

So my efforts to track down predators this week have shown very limited success. Still, I'm glad that some of the faunal members of our little garden family are thriving; and even if some of them become victims of others, it's all part of the process. Sometimes it's comforting to know that something in the world is still working properly.

Image notes: The first "forensic" shot was taken in situ; the second is of a representative cluster of feathers, and the third was posed; Molly is not guilty of avicide, but rather had plopped down nonchalantly amidst the crime scene. The opening and closing shots were, unfortunately, obtained quickly and under sub-optimal conditions for getting the best out of an iPhone 7 camera.