Saturday, May 31, 2008

Yippee Ti Yi Yo

We are in Laramie, Wyoming, at (can you guess?) Wal-Mart (map).

We had a great visit with our friends Beth and Flash, and managed to get away with parking on the street in front of their house for two nights in RV-unfriendly Fort Collins. (No map link, of course, for privacy reasons.) The last time we stayed with them was Halloween of '04 (just before we started recording everything here in the blog), and we had some catcalls from drunk university students staggering out of parties, as well as one plaintive "Take me with you!". This visit was quiet -- the university is on summer session.

We had a lovely drive up US287 yesterday. I had hoped to boondock somewhere along the way, but we found no accessible public lands along that stretch, despite it being some pretty open country. We ended up coming all the way here to Laramie, where our directory indicated a few options. The city park downtown, adjacent to the old railroad depot, was our first choice, but it seems that the large vehicle parking got eliminated during the last restoration project. Too bad, as there looked to be some nice dining options there. After hunting around a bit more, we fell back on the old standby, but, like many of the enormous new Wal-Mart supercenters, this one is pretty far from town. At least the drive here took us past the university, which was interesting to see.

We were off the road pretty early, because I had some work to do on a Red Cross project due today. While we were sitting here plugging away at our keyboards, Brian, of RV Boondocking the Good Life, knocked on the door. They were heading back home to Colorado and had stopped here for some supplies (apparently, there is a soft drink brand available here but not there) when they spotted Odyssey and decided to say hello. It was very nice meeting you, Brian and Heidi.

I just wrapped up my project about an hour ago, and we dropped in to the store to grab some groceries. This afternoon we'll continue rolling north on 287 toward Medicine Bow. Our next schedule stop is the Flying-J in Casper, where we will need to fuel up.

Small Space Saturday: Cut Yourself Some Slack

On Saturdays I write about strategies for living in 300 square feet

I'm a big advocate of keeping things neat and tidy in an RV. Clutter can be visually distracting, difficult to keep clean and even dangerous in a moving vehicle. I've shared some ways that we use containers, items that fold down or nest for storage, and our "one in/one out" rule.

I try to include photos in my posts to demonstrate my point and perhaps give you a few ideas of your own.

Those photos are carefully staged, you know. I dust and polish and straighten and rearrange to make Odyssey look as neat and tidy as possible. When I was making the video tour I drove poor Sean nuts with all the cleaning. "Don't set anything on the counter! I'm filming!"

In reality, disorder lurks in the bus, and that's okay. Erin over at Unclutterer says,
...People can have the misconception that being organized means that every single minute aspect of one’s life is in pristine order. Order is a goal, yes — but so is sanity.
She shows her sock drawer as an example:



We have a couple of unorganized, sloppy spaces of our own.

I'm very proud of the bins in the fridge. I've featured them several times here.



Ahhh, so clean and pretty! What I never show is the freezer portion:



No neatly arranged bins here. Spare batteries, old frozen veggies, blue ice packs for sore muscles: all crammed in willy-nilly. Often items fall out when I open the door. Shameful! But it's okay. We rarely use the freezer, so it hasn't been worth my time to whip it into shape. When I do, you'll be the first to know.

Here are the remote controls for our stereo and TV. A symphony of neatness! A place for each and each in its place!



And here's the awkward cabinet that holds winter scarves and gloves:



They are crammed in there so tight that in order to pull out a pair of gloves, all the hats fall on the floor. I can't see where my favorite pink scarf is, and when I finally find it, it's all wrinkled.

But hey, spring is here and I hope to not need fuzzy hats for a while. The cabinet is conveniently located near the front door, which is a great place for hats, so they'll stay there all summer in their wadded-up glory. Maybe next October I'll figure out how to fit it all in neatly.

In the meantime, the items we use daily and the visible surfaces are organized and tidy. I try not to let a bit of hidden disorder make me crazy or distract me from how much fun we're having living on the road.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Escape from Aurora

We are at the brand new Wal-Mart in Longmont, Colorado (map).

We are glad to have finally escaped Aurora, even if we have no DirecTV receivers to show for our extra time there. The post office has, apparently, lost them. We finally extracted a promise that, if they turn up, they will be forwarded to us wherever we happen to be.

So we now have the original eBay seller on alert to look for the package, since it may have been "returned to sender," and we have the post office going back through scanner records to see if they can figure out exactly who scanned it as "delivered," which might reveal exactly where this alleged delivery may have occurred.

In the meantime, we're out $24 and we still have no working TV service. Neither of which disturbs me as much as the prospect of starting all over from scratch: finding a pair of receivers identical to our own for, say, $20, from a seller who will ship to an unconfirmed address, then nailing down a post office where we can be certain to pick them up. It's possible that these stars won't align again until we're in Gillette a full month from now. That's another month I'll have to persuade DirecTV to knock off our bill, since we're not actually getting any service.

No matter -- life goes on. Today we will visit our friends Beth and Flash in Fort Collins, just about an hour north of here. I expect by tomorrow night we'll be in Wyoming.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Talkback Tuesday: Share Your Website or Blog

Tuesday is "Talkback" day, where I share what other people have to say

Lately, we've been getting lots of great comments and feedback from readers. You are full of good ideas and I am always interested to learn more about who you are.

Many of you already know that when you post a comment, there is a way for other readers to click your name and read more about you. However, not everyone reads all the comments, especially those on older posts.

Today I'd like to make the links between you and your websites more accessible to everyone else. Below, you should see a place to enter your name and website. This could be your own blog, a link to your resume, or any other place on the web where we can get to know you better. It doesn't necessarily have to be about RVing or bus conversions, just about you.

If you've been using the links available in the comments, please re-submit them below so they will be stored all in one place. If you have more than one website or blog, that's great, too. (Froggi Donna, I'm talking to you.) If you don't have a website, I hope you'll enjoy reading others'.

To get the ball rolling, I've put in our non-blog website. I promise to visit every single page submitted below, so thank you for participating!

(Edited to add: The box below to enter your website was generated by "Mr. Linky." They produce add-on scripts for websites. After you submit your URL, the script automatically asks you to submit a comment, but that isn't necessary here.)


Hurry up and wait

We're back at the Wal-Mart on Exposition in Aurora (map), where I spent three days last week.

We came here after the Flying-J because (a) it's the closest spot to the Aurora main post office, (b) the Century 16 cinema is across the street and (c) there are several restaurants nearby. These were factors because (a) I'm still waiting for a delivery, (b) we wanted to see the new Indiana Jones movie and (c) we went out to dinner with Jim and Pat last night.

On the mail front, I finally got a tracking number from the sender -- I've been hounding him for it for six days now, and life would have been much simpler had he simply used the eBay shipping tools, which would have sent me the number upon shipment. Unfortunately, the tracking says the package was "delivered" on the 19th. Since I did not pick it up, it's anyone's guess to whom it was "delivered." I am now waiting for the Altura station manager to call me back with word on exactly which postal employee scanned it as "delivered" and what may have happened to it. We should hear in another couple hours.

On the movie front, we both enjoyed the film, even if it was rather formulaic. It's the first feature film we've actually seen in a cinema in as long as either of us can remember. Usually when we are parked within walking distance of a cinema we read the marquee and shrug our shoulders because neither of us has even heard of the dozen selections playing. We found the place surprisingly uncrowded for a holiday, and they even let us in for the matinée price.

Jim and Pat came over around six, and we headed over to Macaroni Grill for dinner. It was great catching up with them. There's a small chance we'll be able to join them for the Converted Coach FMCA pre-rally after Escapade, although we've no plans to attend the FMCA convention this time around.

We're planted here now until we get to the bottom of the package mystery. I am hopeful that we'll have a definitive answer today, which will likely be one of three things:
  1. The package was mistakenly marked delivered, and has, instead, been returned to sender.
  2. The package was mistakenly "delivered" to either a PO box in the station, or to one of the other suites that shares the same building and street address with the postal station.
  3. The package was mistakenly marked delivered and is still actually sitting in the station somewhere or on a carrier vehicle.
If the package is in or near the station, we should be able to recover it today. If it's been returned to sender or just lost, we'll give up on it entirely. So in either case, we should be able to leave Aurora today and start heading north.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Let there be lights

We are at the Flying-J in Aurora (map). We needed water last night, and I also needed to put air in the tag tires, so we pulled up to a truck fuel island for both. No fuel, though -- it's a good $0.15 cheaper in Wyoming, and we're going to try to stretch what we've got in the tank till then. The next Flying-J will be in Casper, although it would be a short diversion to Cheyenne if we needed it sooner.

We generally try to patronize a business when we park overnight, and so we had dinner in the restaurant, the "Country Market." They have a regular menu, too, but the Sunday buffet was too good a deal to pass up, at $8.99. Comfort food, and lots of it, and it was tasty and fresh (no wine, though). I was a bit surprised; we buy plenty of fuel at Flying-J but seldom eat in their restaurants. Too bad we left the Flying-J card back in the bus -- food purchases count for points towards fuel discounts later.

We'll be back in the C-store this morning, since we need a new CB antenna, and we spotted one there after dinner. We decided this time to wait until we had the card with us. The CB antenna is the tallest thing on the bus, and we often whack it on low trees, overpasses, wires, and what-not. We've been averaging one antenna every nine months or so.

Yesterday's Home Depot run and repair-fest was successful. The FanTastic trouble turned out to be, as I suspected, a sticky/corroded plunger switch, and a few shots of WD-40 took care of it. It's had both failure modes of late: the fan running even though the lid was closed, and the fan refusing to run even though the lid was open. I shot a few squirts at the plungers on the other two fans, too, as a precaution.

I am also happy to report that the HID floodlights are once again working. Since so many readers responded to my plea for help with these, I will report here on the final resolution: I purchased a complete "HID Conversion Kit" on eBay from an outfit in ShenZen, China. These folks make drop-in replacement ballasts (in 12 or 24 volt), and convert HID bulbs to retrofit into stock automotive headlamps to "convert" the lamps to HID. (This, BTW, is unlawful in the US and the EU -- apparently it is very popular in Asia, and many people here in the US are doing it in spite of the law and the hefty penalties for getting caught.)

It was a bit of an unusual request for them, I think, but they were happy to supply the kit with stock D2S HID bulbs. What they would not supply for their standard kit price was the connectors for the D2S bulbs, a much pricier and more specialized item than the connector for, say, an H4. But for a total of $113 (including shipping), I got two 24-volt, 35W ballasts, two D2S lamps, and some unnecessary miscellaneous mounting hardware. Considering a single D2S lamp is close to that amount of money out the door from more, umm, "conventional" sources, I thought it was a great deal.

Yesterday I lopped the connector off the old, dead ballast, and carefully spliced it to the pigtail of one of the new ballasts. I was a bit nervous about this, considering the voltages involved -- these pigtails use special high-voltage insulation and the wires are fully molded into a high-dielectric outer casing. I was very careful to separate the butt splices in the two wires, offsetting them a quarter inch or so, and double-shrink-tubing everything. In any case, I got the whole thing back together, sealed up the offending weep hole with clear silicone, fired it all up, and, voilà, working lights. The color temperatures of the two lights are now slightly mismatched, so at some point I will probably install the second new lamp in the other floodlight, just for appearance's sake.

I now have a spare ballast as well as a spare lamp, which ought to cover any further issues with the lights. I also noticed, while I was removing the pigtail from the dead ballast, what looks like, perhaps, a board-mount (solder-in) fuse on the dead ballast, which reads open. I'm now thinking I could have solved the ballast problem by simply soldering in a new fuse -- oh well.

Our friends Jim and Pat from RV Safety Systems are back in town, and we're hoping to meet them for dinner tonight. Tomorrow I will be following up on the mysterious missing DirecTV receivers that are somewhere in the bowels of the United States Postal system, keeping us here in Aurora.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Deja Vu

We are once again at the DIA Wal-Mart that I described in great detail previously (map).

It was not really our plan to end up here. Yesterday afternoon I drove in to the airport and got Odyssey squared away in an oversize-vehicle space in the "Mt. Elbert" overflow long-term lot. I went in and kicked around the terminal for a while and used the free WiFi while I waited for Louise's flight. The idea was that we would grab a bite there in the terminal after she landed, then retire for the night in the long term lot, leaving this morning.

It was not to be. Louise's flight was scheduled to land at 8:35, but was delayed. It was after nine by the time she popped up out of the train tunnel. By this time, every joint in the terminal was closed, even Panda Express, with the sole exception of the Burger King (which I think is 24-hour). That was not what we had in mind for our reunion dinner.

That left us with the option of cooking a pot of pasta (the only food I still had on board by this time) in the parking lot, or rolling out to one of the restaurants in the area. We did not want to take a chance on eating at one of the closer joints, such as Ruby Tuesday or DeCicco's (one of our old California haunts that has opened up here) and then finding out that we couldn't just leave the bus there overnight, so we came here instead, where we knew there would be a good overnight spot, with a Chili's right across the street. Chili's is open till 11 on Saturday, so it was no problem walking in at quarter past ten.

As long as we were here this morning, we went in and did the grocery shopping, stocking up for the next several days. In a few minutes, we're going to pull up stakes and head next door to Home Depot, where I don't feel out of place being on the roof for repairs -- I still need to get the HID lights fixed, and now the bedroom FanTastic is also on the fritz.

When we're done there, we'll head over to the Flying-J, one exit west, for the night. We're out of fresh water (I put in less than half a tank in when we were there last Monday), and that's probably the closest spigot that doesn't involve finding someone to grant permission. Besides, they have 150 parking spaces and a restaurant.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Pummeled

First and foremost, thanks to everyone for the concern and check-ins. For the record, (1) there was no golf-ball sized hail here in Aurora, although I understand it was that big and larger some ways north, around Greely and Fort Collins, and it might have done some damage had it hit us. And (2), no, I did not get sucked into a tornado, although that, too, happened just a short distance from here. The whizz-bang auto-alert weather radio has been coming to life and squawking every couple hours since late yesterday afternoon.

We did get rained on (a little), thundered at, lit up, and blown around pretty good, and I put the dish down yesterday afternoon as a precaution. The thunderstorms were pretty fierce, and the lightning was less than a mile away, by my reckoning. I estimate the winds at 25-30kts steady, gusting to 50-60 or so. Fortunately, not enough rain to cause any leaks, and most of the destruction was a good distance away.

In anticipation of the next question, yes there is a Red Cross disaster response for the tornado, and I called in to the Disaster Operations Center to let them know I was close and available to help, even though I am not officially "available" right now (we won't go back on the availability list until after the Escapade next month). The response is still being handled by the local chapter, so other than the ECRV crew, no out-of-area volunteers such as myself will be dispatched unless it escalates to something larger.

I am heading into an unprecedented (for us) third night at the same Wal-Mart. And, before anyone reminds me that I've ranted previously about RVers overstaying their welcome at Wal-Marts, I will reiterate what I've said before: that it's a matter of perceptions and managing them, and a lot has to do with how discreet and unobtrusive one is. I'm parked in an isolated part of the lot that is completely unused (and virtually unusable) by store patrons, I show no visible evidence of "camping" (other than the satellite dish being deployed, if that counts), and I'm almost invisible. This is what Odyssey looks like from the road in front of the store:



This is the most prominent angle, a view from elsewhere in the far reaches of the lot:



The store has only two entrances, the main entrance and a small door into the garden center. Odyssey can't be seen at all from the main entrance; this is the view from the garden center:



Obviously, the employees (particularly the stockers in the garden center), security (who rove the lot continuously in a pickup truck with a flashing amber light), and management all know I'm here, but I suspect most customers haven't noticed. Interestingly, I was talking to someone who works at another area Wal-Mart who shared with me that a fifth-wheel has been in their lot for weeks, and management does not seem to have an issue with it.

In any case, circumstances have conspired to keep me here another night, to wit:
  • The mail I am expecting has not arrived, and if and when it does, it will be at a post office just four blocks from here. (There is actually a whole story behind this, which I will relate in a moment.)
  • Long-term parking at DIA, one of my other options for today, was already full when I checked the status around mid-day. So far, the airport has not returned my call about whether oversize vehicles are permitted in the overflow lot, which is now open.
  • Today starts the holiday weekend, and so most other options (e.g. the state park a dozen or so miles from here) are no longer open to me, as they are no doubt full up.
So I have just resigned myself to another night here, which, all things considered, has been a great spot. The only things I haven't been able to do here are the two outdoor projects, and getting the scooters out so I can dust them off (the dirt roads create dust havoc in the bays), start them up, and breeze them out. In the meantime, I've occupied myself with other, stealthier projects, like clearing off and restoring my old Vaio laptop and getting it listed on eBay. The store's doing OK on me, too -- I've been in there five times already, and dropped over a C-note here.

I have my fingers crossed that my mail arrives tomorrow. What I am expecting, BTW, is a Priority Mail package with a pair of DirecTV receivers in it, to try to get our satellite TV service working again. When I called the post office to which I had the package addressed, I discovered they don't accept General Delivery mail there (whoops...), only at the Aurora main office. Nevertheless, they related that they had not seen anything come in. After the requisite mea culpa and some begging, I got them to agree to send it over to the main post office when it comes in, rather than "return to sender."

I called the main post office, just a few blocks from here (the other post office was closer to where I thought I'd be staying, the now-defunct Aurora Elks lodge), and they hadn't seen it either, although they thought it would go directly to the other station if that was how it is addressed. I've left a message with the seller to see if he can get me a tracking number on it. Louise comes back Saturday night -- if the package does not show by Monday, I'll probably let it get returned to sender (it'll sit here for a month, first), and have to do something else about the TV; I've only got $24 invested in it.

For those who've arrived here at our blog from the unclutterer or frugal for life, it may seem strange that I've managed to spend a C-note at a major big-box store (that does not sell groceries). I promise I have violated neither our clutter-free nor our cheap-skate ethos. I've been in the store buying three kinds of things:
  • Parts for broken bits
  • Replacement clothes
  • Some camera upgrades
The broken bits include the HID flood lights, and our extensive first aid kit, which was in a plastic keep-box that is on its last legs, and is prone to popping open at inopportune times. It is also a single large compartment, and that made it hard to re-pack (and know what got used) the last time we had to use it, at a tractor-trailer rollover accident.



I sprang a whopping $5.80 on a transparent plastic toolbox with a tray and some compartments in the lid, and completely reorganized the first aid supplies into it. Now the kit has a handy carry handle (something the old box lacked), and the next time we need to grab it, and the AED, and the fire extinguisher, and whatever else to sprint a hundred yards to an accident scene, it will be easier to do (and the supplies won't end up all over the road). While I was in there I noticed we were short on some dressings, so I went back in and bought those, too. The old keep-box is going to Goodwill; it still has useful life in some less stressful occupation.

Meanwhile Louise just loves the little Canon Powershot SD400 camera that we use for all the photos and videos we put here on the blog. It's the only camera we own, having gotten rid of the last of our film cameras some time ago. It's now a bit long of tooth, having been eclipsed long ago by more powerful, faster, and whizzier models.

Nevertheless, it is perfectly adequate for us -- compact enough to take anywhere, and powerful enough to do even artistic photography, with enough settings to confuse even a pro. And five megapixels is more than enough resolution for our purposes. Lately, however, it's been dying in the middle of shooting -- the battery is at the end of its life. Also, Louise has been taking more and more video (perhaps you'd noticed), and periodically she fills the memory card up, and that's it for shooting until she can unload some of it. (The camera came with something paltry; I put a 1GB card in it right after we bought it, the largest available at the time.) This last happened in the middle of the Red Mountain Pass shoot.

Since I had some extra time on my hands here, I took the camera with me into the store and hunted around until I found the correct battery. ($40 -- gulp. But still much cheaper than a new camera.) I also found a 2GB memory card on super-duper sale for just $16, which will double our video capacity. I'll unload the 1GB card either on eBay or here in the blog. The environmentally unfriendly older Lithium Ion battery we will likely keep as a spare, useful for running the camera while the new one is charging. So I guess that's one additional piece of clutter, but it's incredibly small, and we can't just throw it away anyhow, at least not until we get to someplace that can recycle it.

The replacement clothes, BTW, are due either to the laundry disaster back at Beaudry (OK, so I'm a little slow), or the fact that I've lost some weight and dropped a pants size or two, and I've been slowly replacing them (I know, boo-hoo). Fortunately, there is one of those unattended charity clothing drop boxes right here in the parking lot (see, Wal-Mart does have everything), and I've stuffed several items in there already. Sadly, the Beaudry laundry victims are not even suitable to give away, so I've had to toss most of it, except for a few items useful as rags.

Tomorrow morning I will call both post offices again, crossing my fingers that my package will arrive before closing time. And I will either head to the overflow lot at DIA (if they'll take Odyssey), or orbit the terminals waiting for Louise. (The wait-for-your-party cell-phone lot, which we've used previously while waiting for one of us to land, is now closed to oversized vehicles.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Another day, another Wal-Mart

I am at the Wal-Mart off Exposition in Aurora (map), one of the two other Wal-Marts in this town.

When last I posted, you may recall that I said I was moving over to the Aurora Elks lodge, and that is, indeed where I drove, only to find that it's... gone. The building now houses "Martha's Aurora Events Center," which was deserted when I arrived. A quick call to the number I had listed for the lodge revealed it to be disconnected.

The Elks is an organization in decline -- our own "home" lodge in Richland, Washington is in financial peril -- and this has happened to us before. We try not to go too far out of our way to find a lodge without calling ahead, since you never know. I later learned (once I got online and could dig into it) that the lodge sold the building last June. Odd that none of my on-line research ahead of time turned this fact up, but then, it took a good several minutes of digging on-line to figure it out, and that was already knowing it was closed.

In this case, I had a couple of backup options scoped out on the map, and I took a shot on coming here, even though I thought I might find it posted for no overnight parking. It is not so posted, and actually turns out to be a good spot.

This is an older and smaller store -- no groceries, and it's even small for a general merchandise store. I can't imagine it will be open much longer. Even so, it doesn't look like a traditional Wal-Mart -- it has a red brick facade, and non-standard signage. City ordinance, I imagine.

The garden center has expanded out into the parking lot in such a way that there is a small "orphaned" section of the lot, with only one way in, and thus not on the "way" to anything. It's also about as far from the doors as you can get. Consequently, it is completely empty. Large, mature trees surround it, providing shade and a good deal of privacy and stealthiness.

The good news is that I did not have to travel very far past the old Elks to get here. That's especially important because I have mail en route to the post office closest to the defunct lodge. My other backup option, the Englewood Elks, is another dozen or so miles further. My plan to get the mail on my scooter will have to be scrubbed, as we don't, as a rule, take the scooters out in a business parking lot except for emergencies.

This location is also just a block away from the mall, as well as several dining options. That ought to provide a needed diversion, as my other plans for the Elks will also have to be scrubbed: working on the Webasto (and maybe the HID floodlights). Again, we generally do not do outside work on the bus at a Wal-Mart, with the exception of installing items that we purchased there. Fortunately, there is no Webasto-weather on the horizon, and may not be now until fall.

With any luck, I will be able to stay here for two nights. If this spot seems uncomfortably obvious or in the way, I can move next door to the Sam's Club (although their lot appears busier and does not have a similarly orphaned section). That will just leave Friday night before I pick Louise back up at the airport Saturday, and I will either move back to the DIA Wal-Mart for one night, or perhaps get a jump on the holiday crowd and settle back in at the long-term shuttle lot in the airport, since I'm concerned I won't find a space there at all by Saturday.

If dinner and the mall, with its 16-plex cinema, does not keep me occupied for the evening, I discovered Wal-Mart has a Redbox Video dispenser here, and I might give that a try. We've lamented the fact that a service like NetFlix is unavailable to us on the road -- we don't rent movies, since tracking down a BlockBuster or whatever, picking up the movie, going someplace else to park for the night, then having to go back to the store to return it is way more hassle than it's worth. If these Redbox kiosks start popping up at Wal-Marts, though, it's a perfect fit: pick up a movie for a dollar, watch it while staying overnight in the parking lot, then drop it back off in the morning.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go update the Elks RV Parking discussion group with the news about Aurora.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Experimental schizophrenic Wal-Mart



I am parked in the "large vehicle" lot at the Wal-Mart DIA, technically in Aurora, Colorado (map).



Rather than take up four or five paragraphs here explaining the "experimental" nature of this store, let me just point you to this press release (old enough, now, that many of the links don't work), and this follow-up report (PDF). The short story, for those who'd rather not bother with the links, is that this store, along with the store in McKinney, Texas, are test beds for various "green" technology and construction techniques that Wal-Mart is looking at implementing in new stores nationwide. The report details which efforts seem to be working and which do not.

One of the first things we noticed, driving in, was clear signage directing oversize vehicles to a particular lot. While we've seen this before, the experimental nature of this store meant there was a sign explaining the intent:



Note the sign describes their expectation that the store will get extra RV and semi traffic due to its proximity to the interstate. Note also the photo of the two RVs, which is actually a PhotoShop of the same RV, in one case with the leveling jacks deployed. Text on the sign describes the extra-heavy duty paving and underlayment to support this. Note also the large callout on the blueprint photo, "RV Parking Area." The sign all but comes out and says they are expecting overnight guests.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered this sign late yesterday evening, after I was already squared away for the night (after a large truck, which had been blocking it, pulled out):



Hmm. It was clear to me that neither of these admonishments is being enforced. Trucks idled here the whole time we were here on Sunday, as well as since I arrived here around 3ish yesterday (it was around 9pm when I saw the sign and took the photograph). Also, this truck



was here Sunday afternoon, parked with the driver nowhere in sight, and was still here Monday night. (It was also here this morning when I got up -- probably waiting for a load.) Ditto goes for this (possibly abandoned) class-C in the main lot:



The class-C is still here tonight. I think the tumbleweeds wedged underneath add a nice touch. The truck-tractor in the foreground isn't supposed to be in the main lot, either, but those signs are also, apparently, not enforced.

Since I was already parked for the night, and had had a couple glasses of wine, to boot, I decided I was just not going to worry about it. I am guessing that the "No Overnight" bit is actually a concession to the city of Aurora, as I've heard they've banned it at the other two Wal-Marts in town. I had a peaceful night, and was undisturbed (other than the idling trucks, but then, I'm used to staying in truck stops).

Normally we try not to spend more than a single night in a Wal-Mart. This place, though, has the atmosphere of a regular overnight free-for-all truck-stop, and Odyssey is actually pretty unobtrusive here. Besides, I had more shopping to do today, both at Wal-Mart and also at some of the adjacent stores, which include a Home Depot, a Best Buy, a Bed, Bath and Beyond, a Petco, an Office Depot, and a few more I've forgotten already. I also wanted to eat tonight at one of the myriad restaurants -- I chose Chipotle, but there is also a Chili's, Del Taco, McAllister's Deli, Wendy's, two outlets inside Wal-Mart (Subway and Papa Murphy's), and let's not forget the hotdog stand in front of Home Depot.

While Odyssey was the only RV in this lot (among many trucks) last night, tonight I see an Allegro Bay and a Bluebird here with me. I don't want to overstay my welcome, so notwithstanding being nearly invisible among the trucks,



I will move tomorrow to the Aurora Elks lodge, which is reputed to be in not the nicest of neighborhoods, but at least has 15-amp power (available, oddly, only at night) so I can charge up my batteries after three nights of dry camping. We'll see how it goes over there -- I might end up moving again before the week is out.

I took some photos of some of the experimental aspects of the store here. This shows the front end well lit with natural light from the sawtooth ceiling, with north-facing clerestory windows to provide natural light without letting direct sunlight (and thus heat) in. You can also see the low-level (11') HVAC ducts:



Here is a shot, over the truck/RV lot, of the two wind turbines. The massive one in the back is 50kW, and has fancy tilting blades that can withstand gusts up to 120mph. The one in the front is much smaller, only 1kW:



The fancy solar-powered blinking "Stop" and "Pedestrian" signs (along with an RV and a truck parked in the "No Trucks" main lot, ignoring the "Large Vehicle" signage):



The retaining wall, made of "Staplestone" -- actually chunks of the old runways at now-defunct Stapleton International Airport, just a few miles west of here. Pulverized bits of the Stapleton runways also form the pavement underlayment and some of the building foundation:



Another shot of the small turbine and some solar panels behind the monument sign, also made of "Staplestone," and the interpretive sign about the turbines:





It's been a pleasant, if somewhat baffling, stay here, and I wish Wal-Mart success with their many green initiatives. I will pull up stakes and roll out tomorrow after a noon conference call with the Red Cross.

Dispersed Camping on Public Lands



A few days ago I wrote that we were parked for free on unmarked BLM land, away from any developed campgrounds or recreation sites. The very next day we were again parked for free in a National Forest. This prompted some of our readers to inquire if we could provide a sort of primer on "dispersed camping" on these public lands. And so, without further ado, herewith is my best attempt at collecting a variety of information on this topic, gathered from many sources, into one place:

What is Dispersed Camping?

Both the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Forest Service, the two largest stewards of publicly accessible federal lands, manage "developed" campgrounds on these lands. I put that word in quotes because it is the official term for any sort of preparation whatsoever -- sometimes a "developed campground" is little more than an official sign, and maybe a fire ring or two. In other developed sites, there might be extensive facilities to include restrooms, running water, picnic tables, ramadas, dump stations, and sometimes even power hookups. Most such facilities are considered "US Fee Areas" and require a nightly payment for use, often collected on site in a secure drop box colloquially known as an "iron ranger."

It is a perhaps little-known fact, however, that both the BLM and the Forest Service permit camping on virtually all land under their respective management, usually without fee. Both agencies call this "Dispersed Camping" in their official parlance. As with all federal programs, there are exceptions, and there are rules. Let's start with the rules, since knowing them will help explain the overall process and why some of the exceptions exist.

Rules

First off, let me say that both of these organizations are hierarchical, and the management of any given piece of land falls under not only the respective agency, but also potentially a regional office, a state office, a district office, and finally the office in charge of the given forest or BLM area. In some cases, rules are set by the local office in charge that differ from other units in the district, state, or region. I will try to give some general guidelines here that are in widespread use, but you should always check the specific rules for the forest or BLM area you intend to visit for any deviation, special rules, or restrictions that may be in force (more on this later).

Generally speaking, dispersed camping is permitted anywhere on BLM or Forest Service land unless otherwise posted, usually with the following rules:
  • In most locations, you must choose a site at least ¼ mile from the nearest paved road.
  • You must not choose a site closer than ¼ mile to any "developed facility" such as a campground. (There are some exceptions - BLM often permits overnight stays in picnic areas, for example, whereas the Forest Service does not.)
  • If you are going to an area where others have camped before, pick a site that's been used before. Plants, soil and wildlife are impacted by new campsites, so using existing ones will minimize your impact.
  • Camp on bare soil if possible, to avoid damaging or killing plants and grass.
  • Do not camp within 100 feet of any water source such as a lake, stream, river, or spring.
  • Do not camp in the middle of a clearing or meadow -- try to make your campsite less visible so that other visitors will see a "wild" setting.
  • Don't try to level or dig trenches in the ground at your campsite. For tents, pick a site that's already level with good drainage.
  • Campers, trailers, and other units must remain mobile (i.e. wheels must remain on all wheeled vehicles). Pickup campers may be set on jacks manufactured for that purpose.
  • Motorized vehicles must remain on existing roads, trails, and washes. Roads or trails commonly in public use cannot be blocked by parked vehicles or by any other means.
    • Park your vehicle safely off the road, but do not drive further than necessary from the road.
  • Quiet hours are from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m local time.
  • Operation of audio devices or motorized equipment, including generators, in a manner that makes unreasonable noise, as determined by the authorized ranger or officer, is prohibited.
    • The National Park Service noise limit standard of 60dBA at 50' is a good guideline to follow for daytime generator use.
  • Archaeological or historical properties including, but not limited to, petroglyphs, ruins, historic buildings, and artifacts that may occur on public lands cannot be disturbed.
  • "Pack it In -- Pack it Out": do not leave any trash behind.
  • Restore the site to its condition before you occupied it.
  • Dispersed camping in any given location is allowed for no more than a period of 14 days within any period of 28 consecutive days.
    • The 28-day period begins when a camper initially occupies a specific location on public lands.
    • The 14 day limit may be reached either through a number of separate visits or through 14 days of continuous overnight occupation during the 28 day period.
    • After the 14th day of occupation, the camper must move outside of a 25 mile radius of the previous location until the 29th day since the initial occupation.
  • Campers must not leave any personal property unattended for more than a specified period, usually from 72 hours to 10 days.

Most of our visitors here at Our Odyssey are probably interested in RV camping, but there are some additional rules when tent camping in the backcountry regarding dealing with human waste, spreading groups out over larger areas, and other "Leave no Trace" issues. You can read all about them here (among other places).

Note that sometimes the rules above are at odds with themselves. For example, the admonishment to stick to well-used sites when possible may conflict with the rule about being 100' from a water source, as such sites often can be found adjacent to streams or lakes. Use your best judgment in such circumstances -- we usually use the existing site, but are careful that our activities do not present any further contamination to the water source. The rule not to drive off the road conflicts with the rule not to park on or block the road -- again, use judgment: don't break new ground; instead, choose a spot where vehicles have been before, or where the impact will be minimal.

Campfires

One subject that deserves more than a bullet point is campfires. While many RV travelers do not indulge in this particular camping ritual, there is something about being in the rustic conditions common to dispersed camping that cries out for it. If you wish to have a campfire, be aware of the following:
  • Collection of "down and dead" wood is allowed on most Forest Service and BLM land for personal, immediate use (as opposed to stocking up for your wood stove at home, which requires a permit and a fee), unless otherwise posted.
  • Do not cut down any live trees or branches.
  • Gather wood over a wide area away from camp. Use dry drift wood on rivers and sea shores.
  • Many areas restrict open fires seasonally or when weather or other conditions dictate. Check the fire restrictions for the area you are in before deciding to build a fire. Camp stoves are generally allowed when open fires are prohibited, but there are times when even these are restricted. Appliances inside of RV's are generally exempt. Charcoal grills and even smoking cigarettes outdoors are not permitted when fire restrictions are in force.
  • Some districts require a campfire permit for fires outside of developed campgrounds. For example, all units in California and Nevada share a joint permit system -- permits are free and available from any ranger or forest fire station, good for one year.
  • If you choose a site that has been used before and already has an established "fire ring," use that for your fire to minimize the additional impact on the site.
  • If there is no obvious fire ring, make one yourself as follows:
    • Clear an area at least six feet in diameter of all combustible material such as brush, pine needles, cones, "duff", dead wood, etc.
    • In the center of the cleared area dig a pit about 12-18" diameter and 6-8" deep. Surround the pit with the soil removed from it.
    • If rocks are available in the area and wind dictates that you will need their protection, gather rocks from a variety of locations (try not to pick them all up from one spot) and arrange them around the pit. Use the loose soil to fix them in place.
    • Build your campfire in the center of the pit. Use only as much wood as will burn down completely by the time you are finished with the fire.
    • Make sure your fire is "dead out" before retiring.
  • If you built your own fire ring, you need to remove it before you leave the site:
    • Remove any large pieces of wood not fully burned, and pack them out with your trash. (Burn all remaining wood to white ash before putting your fire "dead out.")
    • Carefully return the rocks you used (if any) for the fire ring to the approximate places you originally found them.
    • Use the soil you originally removed from the pit to bury the remaining ash in the fire pit, smoothing the surface to match the surrounding environment.
    • Replace as much of the material you moved to clear the circle, such as pine needles, to restore the original appearance of the area.
You will note that you will need a shovel for some of these steps. It is generally required that you have a shovel on your site if you will have an open campfire. We use a small spade type that is only about 3' long, with a D-handle. This is perfect for campfire use (and we've also used it to dig Odyssey out of the sand), yet stores easily in the bus. Stay away from the folding "camper" or "army" style shovels or "entrenching tools" -- they're OK for backpackers, but you'll be more comfortable with a fixed model (trust me).

Exceptions

As with anything run by the government, it's not all that simple. There are some important exceptions you should be aware of:
  • Wilderness areas. Some parts of National Forest and BLM land are designated wilderness areas. While dispersed camping is generally allowed, travel by any sort of motorized vehicle is not. There are, therefore, no roads in wilderness areas. You'll need to go in on foot or horseback, and camp under the stars or in a tent.
  • Fee demonstration areas. There are several entire National Forests as well as some BLM lands that require a use fee for any recreational use at all, including dispersed camping. Generally, you can travel through these areas on the roads (paved or unpaved) for free, but stopping for any reason (e.g. hiking, camping, birdwatching) requires payment. These areas are often close to heavily populated areas -- examples include the Los Padres and Angeles National Forests near Los Angeles. Day passes can be purchased at a variety of locations, including ranger stations, or an annual "Adventure Pass" can be purchased for a specific forest or area. The good news here is that holders of the "Interagency Annual Pass" (what used to be the "National Parks Pass" with "Golden Eagle" endorsement, or "Golden Eagle pass") are already covered -- display your card, expiration date side out, on the dashboard, or the ranger station will give you a plastic holder to hang it from your mirror.
  • Seasonal closures. Many roads on federal lands are not cleared in the winter, or may have impassable washes in the spring. For that reason, roads are closed, usually with a locked iron gate, during these times. Check with the forest or BLM office for seasonal closure information.
  • Environmental closures. Some areas that are otherwise normally open to vehicle travel and dispersed camping may be restricted due to soil erosion, floodwater damage, nesting or habitat destruction of protected species, etc.. It always pays to check the web site or call the ranger or superintendent's office beforehand to find out if any areas are off-limits. Signs to this effect are sometimes posted on travel routes, but you can't always count on them.
  • Note that not all closed gates are locked or represent closures -- sometimes, they are just there to keep the cattle inside (many federal lands have grazing leases). Open the gate, drive through, and close it behind you.
  • The BLM operates several "Long Term Visitor Areas" (LTVAs) in the southwest. These areas require a fee and have a raft of rules of their own. There's a nice write-up on LTVA's and other BLM lands here, from www.rv-camping.org (note the official links to the BLM pages there -- follow those for specific regulations).

Resources

So, great, you say -- how do we find this stuff? I'm glad you asked. We use a wide variety of resources to ferret out good dispersed camping opportunities. Most of the references I will mention here were discussed in Louise's great compendium of travel reference books, and so I will not link them directly here.
  • There's a app for that... our good friends over at Technomadia produce the US Public Lands app for iPhone and Android; read about it here.
  • AAA maps, as well as DeLorme's Street Atlas and Topo software, show the rough major outlines of most National Forests. None of these is accurate or detailed enough for you to know whether any particular spot is inside the forest boundary or not, but at least they will tell you a forest is close by your route, and give you the name so you can look it up elsewhere.
  • BLM land is a bit tougher, as it is so ubiquitous that it is not shown on road maps. Most BLM land is in the west; this interactive map is a good starting point, but not detailed enough to be useful for specific sites.
  • The Forest Service publishes detailed maps for every area under their management. You can purchase a map for a specific forest for a few dollars from any ranger station in that forest, from the forest's headquarters, or from the superintendent's office. Or you can follow links on this page to order maps. We knew before we started our full-timing journey that we would spend lots of time in the forests, so Louise painstakingly ordered the visitor map for every forest in the continental states ahead of time -- hundreds of dollars worth that completely fill up a regular-sized file drawer. Now when we find ourselves crossing into Forest Service land, we just pull out the relevant map, and don't need to worry about trying to find an open ranger station to know where the roads are in the forest, or which ones are paved and which ones dirt, or where the seasonal gates are.
  • BLM lands (and sometimes state-owned public-use lands, where applicable) are often shown on the above-mentioned National Forest maps. These are usually only small patches of BLM land shown incidental to the primary purpose of showing the forest lands, but we've often made use of these areas.
  • Some DeLorme state Gazetteers, such as Arizona, show BLM land in detail, while other state Gazetteers, such as Texas, do not. This is kind of hit-and-miss, and I don't have a list for you of which do and which don't. Generally, when we enter a state and find a store selling the Gazetteer, we'll look to see if any BLM lands are shown. If not, we usually don't buy that Gazetteer, as this is the main purpose for which we use them.
  • The Forest Service has a web page for every forest (and "grassland," what the Forest Service calls lands it manages that contain grasses rather than trees), and you can reach any page through the "Find a Forest" link. While detailed maps are not generally available electronically, they often have other maps (such as seasonal route closures, restricted areas, etc.) on-line. This is also where you can find out about campgrounds and other developed recreation areas in the forest, as well as closures and restrictions I talked about in "Exceptions" above. Often the dispersed camping rules for a specific forest will be found somewhere in the links on the forest's page.
  • To access on-line BLM resources, go to their home page and click the state you are interested in on the map. In addition to other useful information, a state "district" map will load, and you can click on a district to get contact information for that field office.
  • Sometimes just Googling the name of the forest or recreation area you are interested in will turn up a wealth of information -- but be careful, some of it may be out of date or just plain wrong, so double-check anything you find on a non-official site.
  • Lastly, if you are a member of the Escapees (well worth it, I might add), their members-only "Days End" directory often lists good boondocking spots on BLM and Forest Service land that have been used by other Escapees in the past.
That concludes Our Odyssey's "dispersed camping primer." I've tried to be as complete and correct as possible, but please post a comment if I've made a mistake or omitted something important. I hope you've found some of this information useful; better still, I hope some readers will give dispersed camping on America's public lands a try.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Monday Miscellany: Moving, moving, moving

Today I am a guest blogger over on Unclutterer. I am also on a flight to California to help my Mom move from a 3 bedroom house to a studio apartment. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I can do both simultaneously.

I grew up in a military family, and we moved our entire household on average once every 18 months until I left for college. Mom can pack a box like it's nobody's business, but it has been about 15 years since she and my stepfather Bob moved into their home. She's been working for months to downsize and I'm giving her a hand with the final tasks. Within the course of 48 hours she'll need to move into the studio, put most of her furniture into storage and get on an airplane herself to celebrate my niece's high school graduation. At bit frantic even for seasoned movers like ourselves.

If you're in California and I don't get a chance to visit with you on this brief trip, please forgive me.

The Jet Set



I am parked in the Pikes Peak Shuttle Lot,
the long-term parking at Denver International Airport (map). I've just come back from the terminal, where I accompanied Louise as far as the TSA checkpoint -- her flight to San Jose leaves in about half an hour. Some of the parking shuttles here are Neoplans -- we felt right at home.

We left the Silverthorne Elks about 2 or so yesterday afternoon, and had a beautiful and uneventful drive down the hill, on the retarder most of the way. I erred yesterday when I said we would pass through the Eisenhower tunnel (although that's what everyone calls it anyway) -- the eastbound lanes actually go through the parallel Johnson tunnel completed six years later.

After a brief stop at the Flying-J in Aurora to dump and fill tanks (but not for fuel -- $4.399 at this writing), we still had some time to kill, so we stopped at the whizzy eco-friendly experimental Wal-Mart store on Tower road. I'll probably be back there tonight, with some photos and more to say about this particular location.

We stocked up on cat food and fruit, and caught up on email until 5ish. We then continued north on Tower until it intersected with the airport approach, and came directly here. I had called the airport a week ago to check on where we could park Odyssey, and they indicated that al oversize vehicles needed to use Pikes Peak, where there were designated spaces. Sure enough, signs immediately inside the lot entrance directed us to a specific row ("OO").

We arrived at the designated area to find about ten well-laid out, 45' angle pull-throughs. Signs at either end of the row proclaim "Oversize Vehicles Only -- All Others Will be Towed Away." However, the entire row was unavailable to us due to, you guessed it, regular cars in all spaces save one (which had a truck-trailer combination in it). We parked in an aisleway and called the airport parking people again.



After complaining about the lack of enforcement of their own rules, we asked for instructions on where to park. They transfered us to AMPCO, who runs the lot, who told us to just take two spaces end-to-end. I insisted on them taking our license information so that we'd be in the clear if we got dinged for parking elsewhere than the designtated oversize zone.

Two end-to-end spaces proved easier said than done here. The parking aisles are extremely narrow, as are the stalls. There was no way to turn Odyssey into any given pair of spaces and stay within the lines. While there were sections of the lot empty enough to get thusly parked, the possibility existed that even one or two cars parking in just the right stalls could have boxed me in. The "end caps," which otherwise would have been a good choice, have concrete bollards in them holding up stop and directional signs -- in fact, maneuvering around the lot will all these bollards made me feel like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

We eventually found two spaces that would work by virtue of the fact that the lot is angled here and each successive aisle is one space longer than the preceding one -- when I am ready to leave, I can just back up 50' in a straight line and I will be on the perimeter aisleway. Given how tight things are, and the lack of enforcement at the oversize spaces (which are both wider than the normal stalls, and angled such that entry and exit are less of a challenge), my original plan to just park back here next weekend when Louise returns may get scrubbed -- that will be the middle of Memorial Day weekend, and I expect this lot to be even more full than it is today.

Since we did not pull in here until around 6ish, and a single day's fee is good for 24 hours, I'll just remain here until sometime this afternoon, when I will head back down towards the Wal-Mart. I plan to stop enroute on an empty side street somewhere to fix dinner -- I have a steak I need to grill, and I don't generally like to pull the grill out at Wal-Mart.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Saved by the Elks, again



We are at the Elks lodge in Silverthorne, Colorado (map).

Yesterday we got a very early start from Grand Mesa. That's because Louise realized Friday evening we needed to make a deposit at Wells Fargo before Monday (long story), and, unless we wanted to backtrack 18 miles to Delta (=$24, round trip, at today's diesel price), we'd need to make it to Carbondale before the branch there closed at 12:30.

We had another campfire Friday night, and so I packed up our table and chairs when we were done for the night. Saturday morning I disassembled the campfire ring and buried the pit (and more on this in my forthcoming primer on dispersed camping, now delayed another day or so), and we were on the road by 9:30 after our morning coffee ritual. I know to many RVers that sounds like a late start, but considering we are rarely on the road before noon, it's early for us.

The drive north from Hotchkiss and Paonia along the north fork of the Gunnison and then, north of Paonia Reservoir, along the very aptly named Muddy Creek, was quite scenic. It was also a good bit of a climb, from 5,350' at Hotchkiss to 8,750' at the top of McClure pass. Of course, we started at over 8,000' at Grand Mesa, so we had a free ride down to Hotchkiss. There is a large switchback on the north side of the pass, with sheer but fragile rock on the uphill side.

Coming down the middle zag, we were surprised to find a group of motorcycles coming at us in our lane. The reason was soon apparent -- a large boulder had come off the cliff, rolled across the downhill lane, and was squarely in the middle of the uphill lane.



I would estimate it at perhaps a quarter ton. We wanted to call it in and report it to someone, but we had no cell service for the next half hour. Coming into Carbondale, we saw emergency vehicles heading south, and we hoped that it was not to tend to a motorcyclist forced into an accident by the rock.

We made it to Carbondale with a half hour to spare. We took care of business at the Wells Fargo, while legions of youth soccer participants gawked at the bus, then continued north to Glenwood Springs and I-70.

Glenwood springs would have been a great stop, and the hot springs beckoned in the beautiful spring weather. But this being Saturday, the town was packed. (Well, OK, not as packed as it will be next weekend, but crowded enough to make finding parking a challenge.) So we hopped on the freeway and began the climb through what is probably the most scenic stretch of Interstate in the whole country, Glenwood Canyon.

There are several "rest areas" along this stretch, which are actually parks. A scenic bicycle trail parallels the freeway through the canyon, intersecting these parks along the route. The parks are situated right on the Colorado, and several of them also serve as raft put-ins or take-outs. We stopped at the Grizzly Creek rest area to eat our lunch -- beautiful. Too bad there is no overnight parking in Colorado rest areas.

We had set our sights on Vail as our overnight stop. Our map and guides show a Forest Service campground just a few miles east of town, and we were looking forward to perhaps taking the ubiquitous Vail buses to dinner in town. After slogging two miles uphill from the freeway exit, we were disappointed to find the gate locked. Our guide said it was open from May through September, but, apparently, "May" is code for "Memorial Day Weekend."

This did not bode well. But there is certainly no urban boondocking in Vail, so we continued up the hill, hoping that, perhaps, the situation might be different at one of the dozens of campgrounds or dispersed sites around Dillon Reservoir. No dice -- we drove through the quaint burg of Frisco and checked out four different sites along the north end of the lake, which was still partly frozen. All were closed, although we saw a couple rigs in at least one -- early-arriving camp hosts, we guessed, getting ready for the onslaught next weekend.

After traipsing all over Frisco, Dillon, and various parts of the forest, we gave up. Our Elks guide said there was a lodge in nearby Silverthorne, and it had room for two rigs with 15-amp power, so that's where we headed. The lodge looks nice, although it is closed on the weekend. We found the power outlet at the back of the lot, adjacent to the Kum & Go gas station, and we dug in for the night. We walked to dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, and even did a little shopping at the Target store one block further up. If we had wanted to wait for it, Silverthorne also has a free transit system that interconnects with Frisco, Dillon, and Breckenridge.

While open 24 hours, the gas station and mini mart were fairly quiet through the night, and it was a fine stop in a pinch. The 15-amp power was plenty to top up our batteries as well as provide hot water and heat throughout the night.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Louise realized that the air compressor was running continuously -- it came on at some point and never shut off. It also did not sound "right" to her, so she got up and shut it off at the breaker. This morning I had a mad scramble to try to fix it (after starting the bus to air up all the tanks). We use our compressors hard -- they see more duty than their intended job-site use, sometimes in extreme weather or altitude conditions. We're on our fourth one. I think the piston rings are wearing out on this one, but it also looks like the oil level dropped below the crank, and the rings are lubricated (and sealed) with splash oil.

I did a complete oil change on the compressor, which was a bit trial-and-error since Hitachi, in their infinite wisdom, has not published the crankcase capacity. The plastic dipstick has a roughly 1/8" notch in it, within which the oil level is supposed to sit. However, the shape of the dipstick tends to "wick" the oil up the stick as soon as it touches -- 1/8" is within the margin of error of the stick. I fumbled around until I found a wooden pencil, which gave me a better reading, and with the oil finally set at the proper level, the compressor once again compresses after 2-3 seconds of running, as the oil reaches the rings. I'm probably still going to have to replace the rings, as I am sure now that we are getting oil in the air supply.

This afternoon we will cross the Continental Divide in the Eisenhower tunnel, and descend into Denver. Louise has an early flight tomorrow morning, so our plan is to just spend the night in the long-term lot at the airport. We'll probably be in stealth mode, meaning we may not deploy the satellite dish, so probably no further update here from me until the next stop.

Super Sunday: Poem for Full Timing

by Diane Ackerman

The great affair, the love affair with life,
is to live as variously as possible,
to groom one's curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred,
climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day.

Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding,
and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours,
life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length.

It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery,
but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Grand Mesa Solitude

We are in a clearing just inside the southern boundary of Grand Mesa National Forest (map). We are at the end of county road 3100; Forest Road 128 continues north from here, but is closed by a locked gate until the end of the month. The Forest Service has provided this clearing as a parking area for snowmobile users -- snow machines are allowed in the forest when the ground is covered, even though automobiles are not.

While we can see snow all around us, this spot is clear and dry now, and we are all alone. We consulted with the Forest Service office in Delta, and were told that this clearing is fine for "dispersed" camping, and, given that the gate is still closed, advised us that we might have company. In fact, there is evidence that folks have been camping here recently -- they left us several large split pieces of ponderosa pine and even one of those chemical fireplace logs.

We had actually brought a bundle of firewood with us from Delta ($3.50 at Wal-Mart), thinking we might want a nice campfire up here. I assembled a fire ring from some rocks that were gathered in another spot for the same purpose, plus some extras that were strewn about, and we made a roaring campfire with the fireplace log and three of the ponderosa pieces, kindled with most of the discarded items from Tuesday's mail windfall. The last embers are just dying out now, as I watch carefully from the window.

Tomorrow morning Alfred, whose cabin is maybe only a mile from here, will come visit bearing homemade muffins. We'll go have a look at the cabin as well, leaving the dog on guard duty.



It seems we don't do it very much, but this is the sort of experience that we envisioned as routine when we embarked upon our full time life aboard Odyssey -- parked on public land, far from anywhere, with not another soul around. It is, for us, the perfect, quintessential camping experience. Yesterday's spot on BLM land was close, but within sight of highway 92 it doesn't really count.

Speaking of which, my post this morning generated a private email asking about the whole concept of dispersed camping. Rather than answer privately, I think that's a great topic to share with everyone here in the blog, so look for a post dedicated to that topic in the next day or so.

Before we came up here, we needed water, and I also had to find a mailbox to drop off one of my eBay sales. We ended up having to overshoot our turn and drive another three miles into Hotchkiss. The county office there has a public water standpipe, where you deposit quarters into a slot and it dispenses about 41 gallons for each quarter. Unfortunately, it's an enormous 3" hose, intended to drop into a 12" or so opening in the top of a water tank -- no way to adapt it to our 2" water fill, especially with the whole 40 gallons coming out in perhaps 10 seconds or so (we watched someone use it just ahead of us).

Instead, we headed a bit further east to the county fairgrounds. It turns out that they have a half dozen or so 50-amp hookups there for $6, or dry camping for $3, and they were happy to let us put some water in our tank from one of their hydrants for free. We were a bit surprised that they were not listed in any of our guides.

Louise took a bit of a hike this afternoon, finding some trees where the bears have been sharpening their claws, and stopping to admire a group of tiny frogs singing their mating songs. It's just lovely here, and we'll likely just spend tomorrow night here as well, heading back down the hill on Saturday and north on highway 133 to Glenwood Springs and I-70.

Prairie Dog City



We are parked on a dirt track just off a dirt road in a small patch of BLM land just north of Colorado 92 (map). This swath of BLM is completely unmarked, and we would not have known about it at all had it not been for the fact that it is marked on the Grand Mesa National Forest map, and I was looking at that map yesterday to figure out how close we could park to our friend Alfred, who lives just south of the forest boundary.

After we left Wal-Mart yesterday we backtracked a short ways and spent another few hours in Delta. Louise did the laundry at the Sudsy Duds, and I hoofed it downtown to the liquor store where I did find one of our cherished box wines. A far cry from Wal-Mart pricing, but at least we're covered for another couple weeks.

It was only a dozen miles from Delta to this spot, but it's a world away. The agricultural flatlands ended a couple miles ago, and we are now in rolling hills covered with scrub, cholla, and patchy wild grasses. As with a lot of BLM land, there is evidence of cattle grazing all around us, including hoof prints, the inevitable cow pies, and even a skeleton of a small one (possibly a calf) that didn't make it, just a hundred feet from us.



We are also surrounded by prairie dog holes, and one popped up yesterday afternoon for a look around while we watched from our windows.



This dirt road follows the old D&RGW tracks (now UP) as they divert from highway 92 briefly. The tracks are only about 25 yards from us, which is fine, because we actually enjoy the sounds of passing trains. The only trains we've seen, though, have been unit coal trains -- empties heading east, and loaded headed west. Maybe a half dozen trains since we arrived yesterday afternoon, but each has been over a mile long.



This afternoon we will continue toward Hotchkiss, turning north about three miles from town onto a gravel county road that will take us all the way to the Grand Mesa forest boundary. The gate there is still closed for the season -- it opens May 31st. But there is a large clearing just outside the gate, but still on USDA land, where we can park for a couple days for our visit. I called the forest office yesterday to confirm that dispersed camping is permitted in this clearing, which is typically used by snowmobile folks heading into the forest in the winter. I'm a little sorry the gate's not open yet -- there look to be some choice dispersed spots a little further in.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mail call

We are at the Wal-Mart in Delta, Colorado (map).

After leaving Ridgway State park just a bit past the noon checkout, we found ourselves in Montrose at only 1:00 in the afternoon. We stopped at the Wal-Mart there for much-needed cat litter, and decided to call the post office in Olathe, one town north, to see if all four parts of our mail had arrived. A bit to our surprise, they had, and we decided to continue north to pick it up.

We put the dish up to scope out stay options in Olathe or Delta, and determined that Delta had a friendly Wal-Mart as well as a couple of RV parks and some public lands just a few miles out of town. We figured we'd find a place to stay within cell coverage for our conference call without too much trouble, and so we stowed the dish and continued to Olathe.

Olathe is a very small town, which is why we chose it to get our mail. (Small town post offices are, in our opinion, less likely to misplace your General Delivery items, and they usually know instantly whether or not they've been received when you call them.) That meant a small post office, in this case with no bus parking. We circled the block and parked on a pea-gravel shoulder across the street.

We went in, got the mail (two giant boxes and two smaller packages), and came back out to leave. By the time I had started the engine, the local constabulary had shown up to find out what we were up to. The officer asked if we needed any "help," but I got the distinct impression that what was really going on was they did not want RV's parked anywhere in town other than the lone, expensive RV park. We explained that we were picking up our mail, to which he retorted that this was an awfully big vehicle in which to be picking up mail. Give it a rest, buddy -- it's not unlawful to drive to the post office to pick up mail in whatever size vehicle you'd like, so long as it's licensed and registered. After that little episode, you can be sure we will not spend a single dime in Olathe.

We continued here to Delta and settled in at the Wal-Mart. Our plan was to go in to the store after our teleconference and pick up one of those hot roasted chickens, but there was none left by the time we were off the call. We settled for a frozen lasagna instead, which was passable. A much bigger problem, that we had not foreseen, is that grocery stores in this state can't sell wine, and our last box ran out. We had to uncork a bottle from our stash last night, and today we'll need to hunt down a liquor store to restock. Harumph. Consumer-unfriendly protectionist legislation at work. They have blue laws here, too -- you can't buy wine at all on Sunday.

As long as I'm ranting, I need to clarify some of yesterday's rant. It has been pointed out to me that the paragraph on Durango was very negative and that we had overlooked its finer points, such as some nice restaurants. I had not actually intended for it to come across that way.

We would have loved to have spent a night in Durango, and had intended to do so before the weather intervened in our plans. I am certain they have some great restaurants, and we'd even enjoy taking in some of the sights, even if the tourist-trap nature of such places is something of a turn-off for us. (Yesterday I wrote that we had "little use" for such places -- true, but distinctly different from "no use.")

A big problem with Durango specifically (and many tourist attractions in general) is that they are RV-unfriendly: they have not provided any RV parking convenient to anything like restaurants, they've outright banned RV's from parking overnight anywhere but licensed RV parks, and they've even made it difficult to park at big-box stores and the like just to shop. So they are not exactly facilitating my ability to leave any money in the town coffers.

Nevertheless we will return someday to Durango, and probably even take the very touristy train to Silverton. Preferably in weather a tad warmer than Monday's jaunt, where it was in the 40's there.

Tonight we are eying a swath of BLM land between here and Hotchkiss. We have two more nights before our visit there, so perhaps we will just settle in. In the meantime, we need to find a liquor store, possibly on our way across town to the coin laundry here in Delta.

Red Mountain Pass

Yesterday, Sean said, "Words fail to describe the raw beauty of the San Juan mountains." Unfortunately, I don't think my little Canon PowerShot SD400 captured it very well, either. It just doesn't have the depth of field to handle the deep canyons, towering cliffs, and range of spectacular colors found on Red Mountain Pass.

Nevertheless, I filmed it as best I could. The video is mostly from Silverton to Ouray, CO on U.S. Highway 550. This is the narrowest and curviest part of the San Juan Skyway. Watch for how the exposed rock changes from yellow to red to brown to green to gray to purple. Try to ignore the dead bugs on the windshield and George's ear in the frame.

If you're an RVer, you may notice how small the shoulder is on both sides: either a sheer rock face to kiss your paint job or a dizzying drop off to keep your lane position honest. The road is challenging, but not frightening and I hope you have a chance to drive it yourself and see how truly beautiful it is.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Winter Spring Wonderland

We are at Ridgway State Park, just north of Ridgway, CO (map).

There are hardly words to describe yesterday's drive. After leaving our wonderful little spot in the badlands we drove through the unremarkable town of Bloomfield, which more or less segued uninterrupted into Aztec some eight miles to the north. Aztec has some history to it, owing to the Puebloan ruins located there, and the combination of historic downtown and modern tourist amenities made for an interesting drive-through.

We stopped as planned at the Aztec Ruins National Monument, and took the self-guided walking tour of the extensive and elaborate ancient ruins. There were, of course, no Aztecs here -- an erroneous supposition on the part of early European explorers made its way onto maps of the day, and stuck long after the truth was well known. Excavating and studying these ruins became the life work of famed archaeologist Earl Morris, who reconstructed the enormous Kiva (the largest of perhaps dozens) on the site, and whose on-site home is now the Park Service Visitor Center.

We've explored many ancient Puebloan ruins, and so most of the NPS historical boiler-plate was familiar to us -- it took us only 45 minutes or so to see the entire site (well, at least the small portion open to visitors). We were eager to get an early start on the grade, and so we moved along, driving north across the Colorado line and through the Ute Nation reservation.

Durango, Colorado is the sort of tourist-trap destination for which we have little use. The town is so yuppie that their architectural control standards have big-box stores like Wal-Mart looking like Swiss chalets. It almost goes without saying that no overnight parking is allowed at Wal-Mart in this town. Nevertheless, the town has a free RV dump at its Gateway city park, on the Animas River south of town -- incidentally the location of the municipal sewage treatment plant.

While our waste tanks were far from full, I estimated that we had at least a half ton of waste on board. While half a ton does not sound like much compared to Odyssey's 23.5 ton loaded weight, every little bit counts, and I didn't want to waste the diesel carrying the extra half ton all the way up the hill, so we stopped here to dump. I'll spare you the sordid details, but suffice it to say the RV dump here involves dumping through a ground-level grate (as opposed to sticking the end of your hose down a 4" or so hole), and you can imagine what that's like. At least it was convenient and free.

Thus unburdened of 1,000+ pounds of stuff (I also emptied some of our fresh and drinking water, leaving just enough in the tanks for one night's use, in case we got stuck someplace), we proceeded north on 550 and the ascent to Coal Bank Pass. The grade is nearly a constant 6%, and even in the rapidly descending temperatures of the mountains, we had to keep the tranny in third and the speed below 45mph to keep the engine temperature in the green. I also turned off the battery inter-tie -- no sense using ten engine horsepower to charge the house batteries on the upgrade, when we'd get all the charging we could handle for free on the other side.

The scenery became spectacular almost from the moment we pulled out of Durango. Words fail to describe the raw beauty of the San Juan mountains, and so I won't try -- Louise is working on a video of our trip over the mountains. At 30-45mph, I even got to enjoy some of the scenery myself.

We coasted down the back side of Coal Bank and then Molas pass, and even with the alternator working hard and the retarder on full-time, I still had to get on the brakes for the hairpin turns. The infinite fuel mileage (diesels use no fuel whatsoever at zero throttle) helped just a little to make up for the 1.7mpg we got on the upgrade. A couple of final switchbacks and we were in Silverton.

Another historic town, where formerly they mined silver and now they mine tourists. A pair of steam trains of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad were sitting in town as we came through, steam and smoke wafting into the cold mountain air. We opted to skip the traditional tourist activities this trip, to return here some other time, probably on the train, and in warmer weather -- it was in the 40's as we passed through. Instead we continued north toward Red Mountain Pass.

This pass is twisty and narrow, with a sheer rock face on one side, and an unprotected precipitous drop-off on the other. Nevertheless, it was well within Odyssey's capability and certainly nothing so bad as what we drove for nearly 500 miles in Baja. The pass is theoretically restricted from commercial trucks, but we passed no fewer than five, including a giant Office Depot 53' semi behind a 72" conventional sleeper cab, some 75'+ in overall length. Certainly it was a through-truck -- there is no Office Depot atop Red Mountain Pass.

We made it across without incident, finding ourselves in the mountain hot springs resort of Ouray, which bills itself as the Switzerland of America. After the fairly intense mountain driving, hot springs sounded like a great idea, and we were sorely tempted to find an RV park and spend the night. We knew the snow line would be at least that low, though, and did not relish the idea of perhaps getting stuck in Ouray until the road was clear, so we continued down the grade to Ridgway and then here to Ridgway State Park.

There are apparently several different campgrounds here in the park. We ended up at the $18 per night "electric only" one, as opposed to the $22 per night full-hookup campground. That does not count the $6 park entry fee, which must be paid as well. The park is virtually empty, and we had our choice of sites. We picked one with a view of the snow-capped peaks in the distance, and some protection from the wind consisting of low pines. We knew the temperatures would head south of freezing, and the 30-amp hookup would let us run the electric heaters, and also the air compressor, which would have to labor the whole night to keep up with the low-temperature leaks.

The forecast called for snow down to around 8,000', and we're at 7,100'. We were, therefore, somewhat surprised to wake up to snow all around us.



It didn't really stick to the roadway, but there was a dusting on the ground and a whole bunch in the trees. Unfortunately, there was also a 3" accumulation on our roof as well as the 10" or so of awning we had left protruding on either side to keep the rain off the somewhat leaky windows.

By 8:30 or so it had started snowing again, and I figured I'd better work on getting the awnings in before any more accumulated up there. Unlike the last time this happened, when we had to stand on the slippery roof with a broom, this time I had a squeegee on a retractable 10" pole (which we use to clean the upper windshield), and I was able to poke the awnings from underneath and "pop" most of the snow off them to get them retracted.

That did not stop us from having to go up on the roof. We were completely off-line because there was a good caking of snow on the satellite reflector, as well as some on the feedhorn. And the solar panels, air conditioners, deck, etc. were covered with a 3" layer of wet snow -- our roof insulation is really good. I managed to get the snow off all the important bits (can't keep you blog readers waiting, ya know), while Louise took photos and video of the whole process.

This is a very beautiful spot, made even more so by the snow, and we thought about staying another night. However, we're completely out of cat litter, the laundry needs to get done, and we have another conference call this evening and there is no cell service here. So we will be packing up shortly and moving north a short distance to Montrose, where there is a coin laundry, cell service (we presume), and several overnight options, to include a Wal-Mart SuperCenter and an Elks lodge.