Friday, July 31, 2020

Not the weekend I would’ve planned for myself

I had studied the Forest Service online maps, my Benchmark Oregon Road & Recreation Atlas, iOverlander, and Google Maps. The mountains between Grants Pass and the ocean, along the Rogue River, looked good. I hadn’t been there before. Yay, someplace new! 

I headed out shortly after sunrise, stopped in Medford for supplies, cruised into Grants Pass, turned north, took the correct exit, and saw the forest road I wanted just in time to make the turn. Pavement turned into a nicely maintained dirt road climbing into the mountains. Good.

Then things started going weird. According to the maps, the dirt road was supposed to turn back into pavement after a few miles. It didn’t. The numbers on the road markers didn’t match well with what I was seeing. Did I miss a turn? Had I followed the wrong road? I came to a junction. The road left had a number post but the ruts were overgrown. The road ahead, with an upside-down partial sign that simply said “Road,” looked pretty good but seemed to head in the wrong direction. The road to the right felt like the right one but the numbers had been removed from the post. The road I had arrived on had a number, but I couldn’t find it in the atlas. And GPS just showed nameless white squiggles. When I punched in the town I wanted, the wizards at Garmin replied with a straight pink line between my location and my goal. Thanks, but I do not fly as the crow.

Well, rather than wander more, I turned around to retrace my route back down the mountains.

That’s when the occasional moan the Rolling Steel Tent had been making for months turned onto a howl, a squeal, a message the thing that had been going slowly bad had reached full-on badness. Shit.

It was the type of sound a spinning object makes in its final days. Water pump? Oil pump? Power steering pump? Air conditioning compressor? Alternator? Damn, I hope it’s not something with the transmission. The temperature looked good. The alternator was charging properly. I turned on the A/C and the noise didn’t change. Okay, given the problem a while back with the brake hydro-boost, which is powered by the power steering pump, I suspected that was the culprit. 

I pulled over and checked the power steering fluid level. The dip stick was dry. Luckily, I had some fluid left over from the leaky hydro-boot days. I filled the reservoir and… the noise quieted. Ah, okay, that’s the problem.

But the fix didn’t last long.

I made it back to the highway and bought more power steering fluid at a small gas station. A puddle had formed under the van in the time it took me to make my purchase. Sigh. I emptied the new bottle and bought another, just in case.

Things held out well enough to make it back to Grants Pass and to a mechanic. Of course, late Friday afternoon is not a good time to show up with a mechanical semi-emergency. They doubted they could fit me in on Monday, and Tuesday was iffy, but if I could leave it… Um, no, I live in the van. I’ll come back Monday.

Do I go buy a case of power steering fluid and head back out to find a camping spot, and maybe become seriously stranded? Mmmm, no. Do I try stealthing? In triple-digit heat? No. 

So here I am, at Motel 6 for a little unplanned/unwanted staycation. Woo-hoo! Indoor plumbin’ and air conditioning! Without any of that wasteful fanciness.

Best-case scenario: it’s just a leaky hose. Worst-case: it’s the pump, and they can’t get to it until midweek. Man, I wish I had one of my Mexican mechanics.

If you ever felt inclined to click the donation button, this would be a good time. And sincere thanks to those who have donated in the past.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

It’s fire season

And that means a possibility of injury and damage from red powdery stuff falling from the sky. Beware of fires and firefighting methods.

It’s not beneath me

During my lazy years (approximately 1958 to 1970) various adults warned if I didn’t get my academic shit together I would end up with some humiliatingly menial job, like ditch digger or garbage man. (I was raised among white collar people, many of whom—like my parents—were happy to escape farms and factories and to rise in social status.) While I never became the superachiever they had hoped for, I did well enough to enjoy a decent non-manual-labor career.

Yet here I am, in my retirement years, playing garbage man. 

Upon arrival at boondocking spots, and on my walks, I pick up what litter I can (which would exclude bulky items like mattresses). Because besides being hounded about academic performance, I had it drummed into me to not be a litterbug, to give a hoot and not pollute, and to clean up after my own damn self. Besides, picking up other people’s trash bestows a delicious feeling of self-righteousness. I can feel superior while doing work we ascribe to those we wrongly imagine to be our inferiors. It’s the ones who dump trash who are inferior, not the ones who clean it up for a living.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Yet again, where to?

My bit of business near Klamath Falls has been taken care of. I can stay or go. If I go, then where?

Out at the coast the daytime highs are in the low 60s. It’s overcast with very high humidity. Mmmm, no.

In just about every other direction I have the choice of hot and humid, very hot and dry, or very hot and dry with daily thunderstorms. Oh, and it’s the beginning of forest fire season.

In order to get to higher, cooler elevations, I’d have to pass through some triple-digit heat. But that could be done in the early morning.

It’s nice here, even though the afternoons are rather hot, in the 90s. I have adequate cell service. And friends. But the forest makes me feel hemmed in.

The rational decision would be to hang here for a while, but my rational side doesn’t have the majority vote. As with most elections, it’s a matter of which side can appeal to the undecided electorate.

Morning walk

X/@#x!* locals

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Change of pace

Out of the desert and into the forest. With some friends (not pictured).

Open doors, horizontal rain, and the air bidet

I was camped on the Alvord dry lake bed. Eighty-four square miles of perfectly flat sunbaked sediment. I was happy. But it started to cloud over, and by evening it looked like it could rain sometime during the night. I checked the forecast. Yup, chance of rain.

I didn’t want to be on the playa when it got wet. The parched earth might be able to soak up the rain with no problem. Or it could turn into 84 square miles of mud. So I moved to higher, firmer, ground by the entrance, just in case.

It was still warm, so I left the back door open. “Just until I start to doze off,” I told myself. But I fell asleep without closing it. I woke a few hours later. Doh. I closed the door. Fortunately, it hadn’t rained. And it didn’t rain the rest of the night. So I returned to the lake bed in the morning.

It clouded up again by early afternoon, and I could see rain falling in the distance. About three seconds after I decided it was time to go, a dust storm blew through. Not haboob proportions, but enough to solidify my decision to leave.

I knew of a free campground with a hot spring and showers, to the west, just inside Nevada. No mud problem there, and I could de-dust-ify myself.

I found a good site off to the side and set up camp. Then I went to avail myself of the vault toilet.

Vault toilets have a vent stack designed to draw away the, um, aromas. But if the wind is strong enough, it blows into the stack, down into the vault and up your butt. I was surprised when that happened, but it was curiously refreshing.

Just as I was being air dried by nature, there was the splat-a-pat of fat raindrops on the window. Then it was like the assault of a firehose. Uh-oh! I had left the side door open on the Rolling Steel Tent! I pulled myself together and ran.

Luckily, the rain was nearly horizontal and the side door was leeward. The van interior remained dry, but I was soaked. I wouldn’t be needing that shower.

Monday, July 27, 2020


They ask, “How can you live in a van?”

I reply, “I have enough room.”

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Social distancing to the max

Alvord Dry Lake, Oregon

Somewhere between a celebrated failure and an utter disaster


I had made a commitment to meet up with a friend in western Oregon. I was in Idaho Falls. After considering my options, I decided to just blast across southern Idaho on the Interstate instead of taking a slower, longer, more scenic route.


I would be passing Twin Falls. Hmmm, besides once having been the hometown of a college friend, it’s where Evel Knievel attempted and failed to jump Snake River Canyon. I looked it up. There’s not much left except a small monument and the deteriorating remains of the dirt ramp. Why not go? It would make a fun blog entry.

What I hadn’t learned was access to the site is through Shoshone Falls Park. It was Saturday and traffic to the park was backed up. And there was a five dollar entry fee. Screw that. It didn’t want to see the jump site that much.


I had been in this part of Idaho my first month as a nomad. Back then I had stopped to photograph myself next to the sign for the town of Bliss. I was very happy to be starting my new life. It would be appropriate to recreate that picture—especially since I can’t find it now. Lost bliss. I exited the Interstate and… the sign was gone. Well damn.


I had read a blog about boondocking at the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. It would be an interesting place to spend the afternoon and night.

In Bliss I punched the MNSRBoPNCA into Google Maps and headed off through farm and grazing land. A somewhat boring drive suddenly got my attention when Maps told me to turn onto a road that wasn’t there. And since I didn’t/couldn’t turn, it told me to take the next road, which also wasn’t there. And then it wanted to send me down a “road” that was only someone’s driveway. The Maps voice seemed a bit disgusted with my inability to follow simple instructions, then plotted a new route, which took me almost to Nevada and then nearly to Oregon. I saw much more of southwestern Idaho than I had ever planned. Or desired.


So there I am, cruising through more farm and grazing land, when I crest a hill and see… What the… Is that? It was.

Wilma and Fred are about a foot tall

It impresses me when someone has a fun idea and goes to the time and trouble of turning it into reality. And I love it when stuff like this is in unexpected places. A roadside shrine on a highway used only by a couple hundred locals and those unfortunate souls misdirected by Google? Sure, why not?


About the time I figured I must be in Nevada, there was an Idaho historic marker. All I could read as I passed was the title: An Utter Disaster. Was that a warning? Or had I driven into the future and the marker was actually about my day’s wanderings?


I finally made it to Swan Dam, in the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (hell of an unwieldy name), and despite it being Saturday, I was able to snag a campsite.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Up on another mountain

This time I took the ski lift at Grand Targhee, on the west side of the Tetons. Much easier. (Darned hat put a crease in my head.)

Sometimes sisters know what they’re talking about

A few days ago my sister, Connie, posted about the trip she and her husband, Kent, took to the Grand Teton area. Among other things, she said the drive on US 26/287 from Dubois WY to Moran was beautiful, especially when you come around a bend and see the Tetons rising up. If it hadn’t been for her report, I wouldn’t have considered that route. And if I hadn’t gone that way I wouldn’t have experienced Brooks Lake and the Pinnacles, high up on the Continental Divide.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Not yet

It had been a few weeks since the last spam attack, so I was thinking about turning off comment moderation. The spammers must have anticipated that, because there was a load of herpes cure scams yesterday and today. (Eye roll)

My own place

The Forest Service for the Big Horn Mountains has decided it’s okay to park unoccupied RVs all over their dispersed camping areas. Owners bring them up early in the season, use them on weekends and holidays, but just leave them there between visits, blocking others from using those spots. Then, at the end of the two weeks one is allowed to occupy a site, the owners trade spots with friends or family. Whereas other Forest Service districts require you to move at least 25 miles, or even completely out of the district, the regulations here require only five miles. As the crow flies. It’s a racket that favors locals over visitors. So what is one to do?

Go where the RVs can’t or won’t. Up the narrow, rough, twisting side roads with low overhangs. Jeep-ish roads. That’s how I found this place.

After the RV-unfriendly road there was this

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Back in cell range

If you want to test your rig’s power and engine cooling system, take US-Alt14 up into the Big Horn Mountains. The Rolling Steel Tent managed to do it without blowing up. That route also got me to my destinations in the northwest part of the mountains sooner.

First up was the Medicine Wheel and a test of my ability to hike at 9,000+ feet. It’s a mile and a half walk from the parking lot to the spiritual site. I handled the short trip—even the uphill sections—just fine. No shortness of breath, no aches or pains.

Next up was Bucking Mule Falls. I waited at the trailhead for the afternoon light. The sign said it was two miles. A hiker I passed on the way said his GPS had it at a little more than three miles. But it was a fairly easy walk, because it was mostly downhill. Of course, that meant the return trip was mostly uphill. My cardio systems worked fine on that slog, but my legs were, well, almost on their last legs. Other people can hike eight, nine miles in one day, no big deal. But this was the most I’ve hiked since I was a Boy Scout. But it was worth it.

Handy guide at a fork in the trail

Sunday, July 19, 2020

I like big maps. Still.

I saw there was the type of sporting goods store in Billings (and Helena) that focuses on the hiking/backpacking/climbing segment rather than the usual ball sports, hunting or fishing. The Base Camp. I went to see what they had. On clearance, maybe.

There were no shoes, apparel or gear that struck my fancy, but... Ooooooo, maps!

The topo maps were beyond my needs, but I could sure use something more specific and detailed than my atlases. I’m headed to the Big Horn Mountains for the first time, so, bingo, a Forest Service map of exactly that area. Of particular use to me is the key to different road types.

True, there are free, interactive online versions of these Forest Service maps, but I don’t always have access to the web—particularly in the mountains.

The Itch

I lost my cell signal Friday evening when the rain started. Fortunately, I had Season 5 of Better Call Saul to binge watch.

I woke up Saturday itching to move on, head out, hit the road, make my way toward the Big Horn Mountains. And supplies. And laundry. And a shower. So I went to Billings.

All cleaned up and restocked, the next issue—a trickier one—was where to camp. Two things complicated the choice. The first was that the closer one gets to the western sides of Montana and Wyoming, the more one gets into extremely popular vacation and recreation territory. Competition for boondocking spots increases. The second was that it was the weekend, doubling the difficulty factor. I did my research, decided on a destination, and crossed my fingers.

Itch-Kep-Pe City Park, in Columbus, is on the Yellowstone River. My hopes sank as I drove in. It looked mighty full. I cruised the first loop. No vacancies. I continued on to the second loop. Things didn’t look any better there. But, surprise, there was a spot down at the end, away from the river, that was actually rather secluded, considering.

It has worked out well, so far. The neighbors have behaved, the generator users aren’t too close, trains passing through didn’t blow their horns much, bugs haven’t been a problem, I slept well, and I have a good cell signal. And luck.

"I’m good, thank you. And yourself?"

Friday, July 17, 2020

Hoppin' good

My current campsite is surrounded by tall grass. And this time if year that means grasshoppers. Zillions of them. Small ones—about an inch.

If I had a net to gather them, and the correct seasonings, I could make a pile of chapulines.

Yes, I have eaten bugs. On purpose. Voluntarily. Happily. Yum.

Grasshoppers are almost flavorless. It’s all about the seasoning. Salt, onion, garlic, chilies, vinegar, lime juice… Go to your spice rack, be imaginative. It’s like creating a high protein alternative to potato chips. Oooo, how about chilies, cinnamon and chocolate, like mole? Or coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger and mustard, like curry? Or go simple: fry ‘em up in some clarified butter and sprinkle on some salt.

C’mon. Hoppers are organic, free range, grass fed, non-GMO, and I’m sure someone will claim they have wondrous medicinal qualities.

However, I have no information about the pros or cons of grasshoppers taken while copulating, like this lovely couple. Hey! Get a room!

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

More access

Far West Fishing Access, Rosebud MT

Sweat it

The last bit of “road” into the last night’s camping spot was a short, steep collection of boulders and potholes. But gravity did its thing, and other than bouncing around and rearranging the Rolling Steel Tent’s contents, it was not a big deal.

However, I worried about getting back out.

In the afternoon an angler leaving the fishing access in a pickup spun his wheels. A tire had dropped into a pothole and was up against a big rock. He had to back down, switch to four wheel drive or turn on his locker, and give it another go.

Hmmm, I don’t have four wheel drive. In fact, with an open differential, I really have only one wheel drive.

Another guy arrived later to stare at the river a while and decompress from work. It took him two tries to get up the hill in his four wheel drive truck.

Oh man. Was I going to be stuck there? Would I need to be towed out? And what if it rains and everything gets muddy? I didn’t sleep well.

This morning I thought, okay, I need to know what will happen. I studied the hill. It looked like I could avoid the worst rocks and holes if I hugged the left side and then quickly switched to the other side at just the right spot. If I didn’t lose traction. If I didn’t get caught on a rock.

I secured all my stuff, crossed my fingers and gave it a go.

Except for one nanosecond of tire slip, I drove/bounced/shook right up the hill. Yay me! Yay Rolling Steel Tent! Yay Cooper all-terrain tires! Yay luck!

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

There and here

Last night, Tongue River, near Miles City MT

This afternoon, Yellowstone River, near Terry MT

This evening, still by the Yellowstone River

Been here before

The clunking told me something was wrong with the Rolling Steel Tent, so I got down on the ground and checked.

Yup, the stabilizer bar again. Only instead of just worn out bushings, one of the mounts was broken. Weak metal? Severe blow? Too many washboard roads? Oh well, it’s not a big deal to fix.

I left camp and drove into Miles City. Google pointed me to a mechanic. The soonest they could get to me would be in a week. Not good. 

I thought I could try replacing the parts myself, as long as I didn’t need to take the weight off the front wheels in order to do it. I went to the NAPA store. They could get the rubber bushings the next day, but their parts list didn’t show the metal bracket. The guy asked, “Did you try the Chevy place?”

Ugh, dealerships. Charge too much, wait too long… But maybe they could at least get the parts.

“We have those parts in stock. Do you want the service department to install them?” Mmmm, let’s at least learn when I could get an appointment.

“Well, we’re kind of backed up, so not until this afternoon. Say 1:00?”

I’m good with that.

I didn’t ask them what they’d charge, but my budget is looking good, so I can probably handle it. I hope.

FOLLOWUP: They got it done in a half hour, charged me for one hour (their minimum) and way overcharged for the bushings. I expected they would. They have overhead and all that to cover. A couple o' hundred bucks.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Getting around

Last night, at Camel’s Hump Lake, near Sentinal Butte, North Dakota. Free. Very peaceful until the storm came and I worried about hail.

This morning at Camel’s Hump Lake. A very slick layer over hard ground. Slippin’ and slidin’ on the mud, but managed to get out without assistance.

Later this morning, at Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In my opinion, this is the part of the South Unit to see, when the sun is low and the lighting more dramatic. Get a back country permit, backpack in, and stay a day or two.

This afternoon, at 5 Mile Dam Fishing Access, on the Tongue River, near Miles City, Montana. Free. I didn’t even know this place existed until I saw the sign. So it wasn’t planned. Yay for luck.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

I drove clear off the map

My stack of Benchmark Road & Recreation Atlases doesn’t include either of the Dakotas. So I missed my ritual of studying the trip before taking off. I had to depend on digital resources. It’s just not the same. But I made it.

Oh, and a good thing about the flatter states: good cell reception everywhere.