I am a retired teacher, a seamstress and a mom of two adult children. Along with my husband Stephen, we are embarking on a journey across the U.S. in our teardrop camper. This small space requires us to live minimally but allows us to explore without limitations. We plan to visit all the National Parks across the United States. Join me as I journal about our travels.
North Cascades National Park in Washington is remote. We’ve attempted to visit this place for three years and in July we finally made it. With the Vistabule in tow it’s a tough climb over several mountain ranges but certainly worth the effort.
Half-way up the mountain
Wildflowers take center stage after a recent fire
Lucky for us, we arrived during huckleberry season and collected a bowl of berries. Without access to an oven, I attempted to make huckleberry crisp in a frying pan. Not bad!
The Hiawatha Trail in Northern Idaho is a converted railroad track turned epic bike trail. It’s a fifteen mile ride through a pine forest. Often dubbed the crown jewel of the Rails-to-Trails, it includes seven trestles and nine long tunnels. With a solid recommendation from our friend Kim, we decided to give it a go.
Because of limited space we were not able to travel with our own bikes so our best option was rental bikes. We tried to avoid the crowds and departed early in the morning for the cycle shop but it seems many others had the same plan. It was a long ordeal to collect and load our gear but with everything finally sorted, we googled directions to our next stop…the trailhead.
The start of the trail was an unexpected fifteen mile drive up a curvy, single lane gravel road. It was a chore to navigate as we honked our horns around blind curves and prayed there were no cars driving the opposite direction. Stephen and I looked at each other and wondered if we’d gotten in over our heads.
Two hours later with bikes unloaded and helmets donned we looked at the view in front of us. Wow!
While our drive up to the trail was rather hairy, the bike ride itself was relaxing and quite easy. We hardly needed to pedal with a slight two percent grade and gravity propelling us to the bottom of the hill. Our biggest challenge through the tunnels was remembering to remove our sunglasses.
There were many people enjoying the trail but we all kept at a safe distance.
After two hours of easy riding and multiple photo stops we pedaled to the end. While we could have jumped on a bus that would return us to our car, we chose to turn around and cycle back to the top. The fifteen mile return was more challenging but we never tired of the view. Stephen and I have been on several Rails-to-Trails and we both agree the Hiawatha truly is the crown jewel.
Travel during a pandemic is a scary proposition but after reading several articles on risk level, it seems that camping is probably a safe option..all things considered! Based on this and other factors, we decided to explore the Pacific Northwest. There are a plethora of parks to explore in this area, particularly North Cascade National Park in Washington. We departed the first of July with a quick stop in Glacier National Park and currently we’re traveling through the panhandle of Idaho and the Coeur D’Alene area.
Kootenai River Falls Suspension Bridge, Montana
Now that we’ve been on the road for a week, Stephen and I have figured out a routine that allows us to remain safe. We have set up our own changing tent and we choose campsites that are less popular and provide ample space.
Remote campgrounds generally mean limited cell and internet connection but quite honestly a break from all the news has been a welcome respite. I feel calm and relaxed for the first time in months
While we expect to be on the road for awhile, there is a second factor that propelled us to travel during a pandemic. We sold our condominium earlier this month and are home free. The Vistabule is our abode until we figure out a new plan. We’d like a warmer climate and are considering a move to Arizona. The timing is uncertain but a plan is slowly unfolding.
Right now we are enjoying the simplicity of a small space, the warm summer months and the opportunity to read, write and explore. I’m happy to report that our camper is completely repaired and leak free. Bert and his team at Vistabule did a great job of finding and repairing the problem.
Stephen continues to research and write baseball articles for SABR (Society for Baseball Research). If you are a baseball fan, check out the links to his most recently published articles.
Along with all of you, we have been in self quarantine. I wrote this blog several weeks ago before Covid-19 was on our radar. I hope that reading about Death Valley NP will create a small diversion as we all shelter in place.
Our quest to visit all the U.S. National Parks continues and because we were in Palm Springs this winter, a trip to Death Valley was within reach. With such a foreboding name, I could not generate much interest in this park… but Stephen was game.
While Stephen spent several days researching and planning a full day of park highlights, I dragged my feet and reminded him that Death Valley is the hottest and driest park in the nation. He was undeterred so I figured a quick drive-by would satisfy him and also allow us to cross this park off our bucket list.
With several spots marked on our map, Stephen began driving while I sat dubiously in the passenger seat sipping coffee and hoping the day would pass quickly. Just ten minutes after crossing the park boundary my entire demeanor changed. I sat up and realized this was no ordinary park. Rugged mountain ranges on both sides enveloped us and the further we drove the landscape became more interesting.
We were in a desolate place but the landscape was stunning. Sharp angled rocks and mountains eventually turned to sandstone and white rolling hills. There was very little vegetation which added to the peculiar but beautiful landscape. Zabriskie Point was our first stop and we embarked on a three mile hike over the white sandstone hills and into the canyons. There were others exploring in the park but we were very much alone in this area.
Following the hike we visited the famous area called Badwater Basin, the lowest North American elevation at 282 feet below sea level. The white stuff in the photo appears to be snow but is actually a salt flat with briny puddles in the background.
The day continued with a trip through Artist Canyon where pink, aqua, and purple hills are the result of metal oxidation in the soil. The beautiful view looked like someone had splashed buckets of paint throughout the hillsides.
We had a terrific day and I apologized to Stephen for dragging my feet. While I originally thought this park was inaccurately named, we encountered some crazy weather events that caused me to think otherwise. An unexpected windstorm stirred up dust thicker than fog and a blinding snow storm appeared out of nowhere. I’m not keen on the name Death Valley but maybe it has earned its reputation. Regardless, this is a beautiful park that is now on our top five list. It is worthy of a second visit.
After Stephen fulfilled his condo board responsibilities we decided to celebrate by heading east and experiencing the colors in the most visited national park in the nation; The Great Smoky Mountains… located in both Tennessee and North Carolina.
“Stop the car, we gotta get a selfie”
Our Vistabule was still in for repairs so instead we arranged for a house-sit in Asheville, North Carolina through TrustedHousesitters.com and filled in the gaps with Airbnb’s along the way. On our drive east we made two quick stops in Kentucky at Lincoln’s boyhood home and Mammoth Caves National Park but the main attraction was the Smoky Mountains. WOW! We arrived during peak color season and the leaves provided a rainbow of yellows, reds and golds. As we drove through the park every turn was more beautiful than the next.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The park is enormous so we selected some well known hiking trails and started walking as beauty surrounded us.
The Smoky Mountains are also home to one of the most famous long distance hiking trails in the world; The Appalachian Trail, also known as the AT. This 2,200 mile trail stretches from Maine to Georgia and every year hundreds of people attempt to hike the entirety.
We hiked five miles and then turned around as the sun went behind the mountain
Fifty years ago when Stephen was a young lad he hiked 100 miles of the AT with his Boy Scout troop at the northern tip in Pennsylvania. Last week we had the opportunity to hike a portion of the trail that meanders through North Carolina.
A dream fulfilled
It was a fantastic day for both of us and fulfilled a bucket list item for Stephen. We had fleeting thoughts of returning next year to hike a larger chunk of the Appalachian Trail but after visiting one of the trail huts we decided a day hike would suffice.
AT Trail Cabin
Sleeping with strangers…no thanks!
We encountered lots of traffic on this trip as everyone was out to enjoy the colors but this gave us more time to enjoy the view. Such beauty!
Stephen and I were thrilled when we arrived at the storage facility in Three Forks, Montana and found our Vistabule just as we left it.The facility owner mentioned that temps had dropped to -30 F over the winter so we were prepared for battery failure among other problems. It was such a relief to find the battery charged, the tires full of air and no invading small critters.We turned on the refrigerator, filled it with food and headed to southeast Idaho to our first destination; Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Craters of the Moon National Monument
We both agree this park is aptly named…it’s almost like entering another planet.Black molten lava fields cover the desolate terrain with very little tree cover. We hiked through the park, climbing into lava caves and ascending cinder cones.This was such an unexpected visit as we’ve never experienced anything remotely similar to this landscape.
We were also happy to find a well maintained campground in the park with plenty of sites and ample amenities. It is well worth a visit.
Camping on the Moon
We were off to a good start and looking forward to visiting several other parks but then our plans started to disintegrate. Ugh!
Stephen serves on the board of our condo building and some unexpected meetings were scheduled.With some big decisions on the horizon we both felt it was important for him to be present at these meetings. We turned the car around and started the long trek home.
Long stretches of open area
As we drove across Wyoming both of our phones sent out piercing alarms of an approaching tornado. Our only option was to seek overnight shelter at a road-side rest stop and then continue driving the following morning.
Ominous clouds in Wyoming
We managed to dodge the tornado but then we discovered the Vistabule was leaking water through one of the doors and a hubcap.Double ugh!
There is a rainbow behind the Vistabule
It was a long drive but we made it home safely.Stephen spent many hours attending board meetings and responding to emails, while I delivered the Vistabule to the factory in St Paul for repairs. We spent most of September and October in Minnesota but we departed last week for Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I can’t wait to share some photos of this beautiful park in my next post.
When we travelled to Australia in January we did not purchase a round trip ticket. Our visa had a time limit so we knew our departure would be sometime in early May. Originally we considered a round the world tour through Dubai and Amsterdam but we stayed a bit longer in Australia than anticipated and decided on an alternate route. After some research we found some well priced one way flights to Vancouver on Air Canada. This would allow us to see a few more “bucket list” items including Butchart Gardens, Olympic National Park and a visit to our daughter in Portland, Oregon before our return to Minnesota.
Seven years ago I visited Butchart Gardens and always wanted to return with Stephen. It is a reclaimed quarry that was transformed into a stunning year-round garden.We spent a day walking the grounds and soaking in the beauty before catching the ferry to Port Angeles.
Port Angeles, located on the Olympic Peninsula is the gateway to Olympic National Park. We took the 90 minute ferry ride from Victoria B.C. and finally returned to the U.S. It’s nice to be home! We intended to visit Olympic National Park in our Vistabule last year but it is so remote that we bypassed it. This year instead of camping we stayed in an Airbnb and explored for a few days.Velvet green moss is abundant and beautifully covers all the fallen logs and trees. Despite the rain we hiked through some beautiful rainforests.
Olympic National Park
A unexpected side trip to Seattle via the ferry took us to a Mariners vs Twins baseball game.Who knew the Twins would be in town just for Stephen?
Mariners vs Twins in Seattle
And finally a stop in Portland to visit our daughter Abby.Together we explored the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood.
And now we are home.
It’s time to pull out the bicycles and reconnect with friends.No more airplanes for awhile.We need to pull the Vistabule from storage and resume travel in our queen bed and a kitchen.
For those of you interested, the TravelPro Maxlite luggage was a great purchase. It held up well and carried everything we needed for six months.
There are no direct flights from Perth to North America so we decided on a route through Singapore.
Sentosa Island in Singapore
This allowed us a week to explore and experience this multi-cultural city that was recently featured in the film Crazy Rich Asians.Although a small island, Singapore is home to more than five million people from Malaysia, China, India and Indonesia.There are four officially recognized languages butfortunately for us English is the adopted business language to unify the multicultural community.This allowed Stephen and me to easily navigate on public transportation and visit the hundreds of food hawker stalls and other attractions across the island such as China Town, Little India and the infamous Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
Hawker Centers are large indoor spaces containing hundreds of stalls and ample public seating. The prices are low and the range of dishes overwhelming. We discovered through conversations with several locals that most people purchase their meals from hawker stands rather than cook at home.With so many stands throughout the city, Stephen and I decided to join a tour and learn how to navigate between all our choices.
Food tour through Singapore ethnic neighborhoods
We were a group of six and along with our guide Janice we spent the day tasting delicacies from all parts of the city.Indian dosas, Malay coconut candies, Chinese noodles, and fresh pressed sugar cane with sour plum.
It was a fabulous day and we visited places that as a tourist we would never have found on our own.
At the end of the week after exploring from morning until night Stephen and I were both tired. The heat was taking its toll and we caught “hawker food fatigue” syndrome. Too many food choices and too many people! We just couldn’t summon the energy to search out another interesting meal or visit one more museum. On our last day in Singapore we sat in an air conditioned mall, people watching and eating ice cream.
Last night we arrived safely in Vancouver and now we’re starting to make our way towards Minnesota. Just a few more stops and we will be home.
If you are interested in a challenging multi-day hike with incredible scenery, I have the perfect opportunity for you. West Australia’s Cape to Cape Track near Margaret River hugs the coast for eighty miles between two well known lighthouses, Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. The trail showcases the wild and varied landscapes of the area, including pristine sandy beaches, eucalypt forests and limestone cliffs.
The emerald blue/green colors of the Southern and Indian Oceans complete the stunning surroundings.Despite the demands of the hike, Stephen and I soaked in the surrounding beauty. We allotted five days for walking, which is aggressive, but time constraints would not allow for an extra day. While we trained for this trek, we could not anticipate the difficulties ahead.We prepared for scrambling over rocky cliffs and steep uphill climbs while lugging several liters of water but nothing prepared us for the endless hours of ‘shoe sucking’ sand that made every step a chore. Our pace slowed on the beach and every forward motion led to burning calves and multiple toe blisters. After some practice we discovered our best option was to walk in the footsteps of those in front, or even better, the occasional 4WD vehicle tracks along the path.
Photo credit: Victoria Johnson
Even with the adversities, this hike was extraordinary. Joseph greeted us at different spots along the track and provided us with a cold beer and extra bandaids. Companions Stephanie and Glenn spurred us on as we shared the experience together. At the close of our final day when Stephen and I spotted Cape Leeuwin lighthouse in the distance we both shed a few tears. This was a big accomplishment for both of us and despite sore feet it was a worthwhile hike. We’d both do it again if given the opportunity.
Cape Leeuwin lighthouse in the distance….our final destination.
This month has been so full of adventures that I find it difficult to capture all the memories in a single blog. Our hosts Joseph and Ingrid Mania along with their seven children and twelve grandchildren have warmly embraced Stephen and me and treated us like part of the family. A few of the memorable events include Friday night wine and tapas with Chris and Jen, a visit to Dryandra village with Stephanie and bush walks with Karena.
Bush walking with Stephanie and Jennifer
Chevron Tour with Chris
Footie with Karena and Eliza
Karina and Patrick on a rails to trails walk
Perhaps our sweetest family encounter was with Benji the four year old grandson. We were invited to spend three days camping south of Perth with some of the Mania children and their families. Earlier in the week I learned that molasses is not common in Australia so I decided to make my molasses gingerbread cookies to share with the group.On our first evening I placed a container of the home-made cookies (aka biscuits) on the picnic table. Benji, who loves sweets, was the first to have a taste and it was love at first sight. He dipped his hand into the cookie jar for seconds and thirds when his mom wasn’t looking. Early the next morning Benji walked over to our cabin and softly knocked on the door.With his sweet Ozzie accent he looked up at me and said “Hey mate, do ya reckon I can have another one of those American biscuits?”The container emptied quickly and I promised Benji another batch before we depart Perth. It’s on my “to do” list this week!
And…we attended an Opera in Nambung National Park among the pinnacles.Last night we gathered for a farewell party, but I’m certain this is not a forever goodbye…. We will return for another visit. Stephen and I also walked the Cape to Cape trail which deserves a blog on its own.Stay tuned for more on this adventure.