All posts by Kathe Simons

The Best Laid plans—even better!

When we started shopping seriously for an RV and a tow vehicle, we knew we wanted something that could accommodate a couple of our grandchildren traveling with us at a time. We chose an RV with a pull-out sofa bed AND a truck with a crew cab and plenty of legroom for growing kids. Even before purchasing Rhett (RV) and Scarlett (our ruby red F350), we started dreaming about when we might be able to have our two oldest grandsons join us for an extended vacation.

We began planning with Graham and Dean more than a year and a half ago and asked them what national parks they’d like to visit. We knew it would be summer of 2019 and by then they’d be 13-1/2 and 11. They first mentioned wanting to see Arches and Canyonland; we put our heads together and planned an amazing itinerary that would include all of the national parks in Utah as well as the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and maybe even the Petrified Forest NP.

Our first park together, Arches NP.

At Christmastime, we enlisted the boys’ help to research each of the parks in Utah—what specific places/hikes within the parks would they like to try? We chose dates and we started making reservations at campgrounds along the way — people warned us over and over about how blistering hot it would be in the summer so we made sure that we’d have full hook-ups (and air conditioning) at every stop.

Canyonlands! Park #2.

To say that these last three weeks have been everything we hoped for would be a tremendous understatement. Graham and Dean have been the most wonderful traveling companions—incredibly helpful, appreciative, curious, flexible, and hilarious! We have had such a fabulous time laughing and living together—we are REALLY going to miss them!

The most recent blog post (authored by Dean) covered our adventures through July 9th. After that, we spent time in Zion National Park, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and the Petrified Forest NP (including the Painted Desert). The boys visited Walnut Canyon National Monument with Grandpa on the last day of our adventure.

Al was really excited that we’d be able to spend time at Zion; we had visited it VERY briefly 30 years ago (when our kids were 11 and 7) and Al had really looked forward to returning for a more complete visit.

Zion National Park

In Zion, you’re at the bottom of the canyon, looking up. A nice change!

In contrast to Bryce, Zion was incredibly warm. We topped out at 111 degrees! Our campground was about 14 miles from the entrance to the park. We were able to drive into community of Springdale where we picked up a free shuttle into the park and transferred onto a free park shuttle. When there are shuttles running, no private cars are allowed into most areas of the park.

We got up early in the morning (before the heat of day) to hike the Riverside Walk up to the start of the Narrows. The shuttles were pretty busy(*) and we noticed many folks with special waterproof shoes and walking sticks. These items are available for rent for the brave souls who would actually walk up through the water-filled canyon–we talked to a couple of women who had walked in to where the water was up to their waist. One of them tripped and fell into the water (but luckily didn’t damage her expensive camera).

(*) Pro tip: The shuttles are very busy with 45 minute to one hour waits at the visitor center even as early as 7:00 AM. If you arrive at the park relatively early, drive up to the first stop, the Museum, and board the shuttle there. You’ll have to stand, but you can get on with no line! I don’t know when the museum parking fills, but there was lots of space there when we went by at a bit past 8:00.

We only went to up to the point where the trail moves into the riverbed. Maybe another time we’ll go up the river a bend or two but even going only this far the canyon shows many different faces.

Photo credit: Graham Simons
Photo credit: Graham Simons

Walking alongside the river was a great time to learn about fast shutter speed photography, to stop the motion of the water!

Photo credit: Graham Simons

The land is home for the wildlife; we are just visitors.

Soooo many squirrels gathering and burying food! We were walking through their pantry. Photo credit: Graham Simons
A mule deer browsing just a few feet off the trail. Is it good that they are completely accustomed to the flow of people? Photo credit: Graham Simons
But this one wanted to get away from all of us… and did!

The valley section containing the canyon and Narrows is in the west side of the park. Our second day in the park, the boys and Al went to the east side, where the geography is very different.

Al: To go between east and west one must go through a long, narrow, twisty tunnel. Our dually pickup Scarlet was too large to go through with traffic flowing both directions, so we had to wait for westbound traffic to be shut down so that we (and many others) could go east. The Ranger’s last words to us before we entered: “Drive in the middle.” Talk about “it goes without saying!”

We saw so many large vehicles waiting in line both directions that I think it likely the tunnel never sees two-way traffic during the summer. But even so, we couldn’t take Rhett through if we wanted to (we didn’t), because it is too tall!

The geography in the east side of the park is very different. It is pretty much wide open, with sloping sandstone hills showing very distinct layers. Graham, Dean, and I had a great time scrambling on the rocks in a few places. We would have done more, but the heat limited our willingness to be out of the truck’s air conditioning for a longer time!

Photo credit: Dean Simons
Photo credit: Graham Simons

There are still peaks on the east side, but overall the area is much more open.

Photo credit: Dean Simons
“Checkerboard Mesa,” named because of the pattern of fractures both horizontally and vertically. Photo credit: Dean Simons

Grand Canyon National Park North Rim

From Zion, we went to the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park. We camped in Jacob Lake about 42 miles north of the park–it was the closest campground with electric hookups (air conditioning is essential to us in Arizona in the summer). A sign near our campground at the start of AZ-67 said “This road is not plowed in the winter and not patrolled at night.” It quickly became apparent why. This is basically a very long driveway to the North Rim; there is virtually nothing for the whole distance.

Nothing, that is, but some cattle and bison, and one gas station selling gas and diesel at obscene prices. A monopoly!

Bison mother and calf Photo credit: Graham Simons
Cattle right next to the road… Photo credit: Graham Simons
…and ON the road!
Proof positive…
Or is this better proof? Thanks for the picture, Graham! Photo credit: Graham Simons

Brother Graham framing up a picture of the canyon…

Photo credit: Dean Simons

We’ll let the grandeur of the canyon speak for itself, as words can’t improve on it.

Photo credit: Graham Simons
Photo credit: Dean Simons
Photo credit: Dean Simons
Photo credit: Dean Simons
Photo credit: Dean Simons
Photo credit: Dean Simons
A little bit of water, and a few million years go into making a canyon. In the center of the picture is the Colorado River, over a mile below us. Photo credit: Graham Simons
Angel’s Window. Notice the railing out at the end of the fin? Yep. We went out there! Photo credit: Graham Simons

Unbelievably, after visiting the Grand Canyon it was time for the last National Park of our time together. But first, a quick stop after driving to our next campground.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

It is not often that you get to be next to a (dead? dormant?) volcano. Sunset Crater Volcano erupted about 900 years ago, so it is relatively new, geologically speaking. The cone is still covered with lava “pebbles.” (Sorry for not knowing the right term; somebody please fill me in.) Nature hasn’t taken the ground back with vegetation. Also, there are huge chunks of lava jumbled about. It is really quite interesting to walk through.

Photo credit: Graham Simons
Many acres of lava rubble Photo credit: Graham Simons

For many years hiking was allowed on the cone. This resulted in paths that were waist deep through the lava pebbles. Restoration efforts were made by shoveling many tons of pebbles back into the tracks. The scars from this are still slightly visible, but we didn’t get any good pictures of that.

The National Monument was created in response to a movie company wanting to dynamite the cone to create a landslide for a scene! The locals said heck no, and pushed for the creation of the Monument. Phew!

There are secondary outlets from the volcano, and their mounds are called “spatter cones.” They are very fragile, and many of them are no longer complete.

A partial spatter cone. Photo credit: Dean Simons

Nature is trying to re-vegetate the land, but it is slow going.

Photo credit: Dean Simons

Sunset Crater Volcano was named because later eruptions expelled a reddish, instead of black, rock, covering the rim and lower slopes with red. This reminded some of a sunset. Or so the story goes!

Photo credit: Graham Simons

Petrified Forest National Park

The calling card of Petrified Forest NP is of course the abundance of petrified wood—huge logs of rock. But it offers so much more: the remains of an ancestral Puebloan village, petroglyphs, the Painted Desert, and more.

Our last entrance sign picture!

Petrified wood is formed as mineral laden water migrates into the cellular structure of the wood. Different materials such as iron oxide cause different colors. It is beautiful!

The pure white is uncontaminated quartz. Photo credit: Graham Simons
Contamination sure looks pretty! Photo credit: Dean Simons
Reds and yellows are from iron oxides contaminating the quartz. Photo credit: Graham Simons

You can still see the tree’s structure preserved in the rock. The park said that there are some logs here where you can count the rings, but we didn’t find them.

Photo credit: Graham Simons
Photo credit: Graham Simons
Photo credit: Dean Simons

All of those pictures were taken walking through a one mile loop behind the visitors’ center. Then we drove through the park stopping at several of the view points.

Part of an 100 room village believed to be from the ancestral Puebloan people. The area was abandoned in the 1200s due to severe drought. Photo credit: Graham Simons
The petroglyphs near the Pueblo village were varied and fascinating to check out. Photo credit: Dean Simons

After Petrified Forest, we had one more stop.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

This was a short stop very near where we were camping, on the morning of our last day together.

Despite heavy looting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many cliff dwellings still remain in this canyon.

Half way up the opposite canyon wall. How did they get there? From the top or the bottom?
Lots of cliff above, and below.

The “Island Trail” is a loop trail. When we were here several years ago in a February, the trail was only passable part way because of ice. This year the trail is only passable part way due to trail maintenance. Fortunately, it closed the other half, so across two trips Al was able to see the whole trail.

The side that is now open has much more extensive dwellings right along the trail. Some can be entered, some are posted to keep out

The trail goes right alongside these structures.
Many of the structures were dynamited to make it easier to loot them. Sad. Notice the “No Entry” sign.
A still-intact wall with entry… And a No Entry sign.

We have such easy lives. Imagine that you had to carry your food, and water up or down a cliff every day—several hundred feet of nearly sheer rock face, either way. How did they get Amazon deliveries? Oh… Wait.

Then we spent the rest of our last day together getting ready for the trip home and playing games. Then Al had to say “goodbye,” and drive us to the airport. It was a great visit with Graham and Dean, everything we’d hoped for and so much more!

Big Country, Great friends

Traveling full-time in an RV can make it challenging to keep in touch with friends. Thank goodness for the internet — email, Facetime, Facebook, Messenger, and this blog have helped to bridge the gap.

Traveling in an RV can also make it possible to reacquaint ourselves with friends from 50 years ago (Barbie and Jeff in D.C.!), to visit with Maine snowbirds in their away-from-Maine homes, and to make and foster NEW friendships along the way.

A dear friend who splits her time between Maine and Idaho caught up with me on Facebook and asked if we could get together when we came through her area. Jean suggested that we meet in the beautiful city of Couer d’Alene to have lunch and then take a boat ride on the lake. She brought along her daughter, one of her sons, and her granddaughter (all of whom I’d heard so much about). We had a ball! This part of the country is simply magnificent — we managed a short hike before lunch and even biked 10 miles on the famed Couer d’Alene Bike Trail after dinner. So good to see you, Jean! See you in Maine this summer. 🙂

Coeur d’Alene has lots of public art around the downtown area.
Can anyone name this mouse and moose from a children’s book? There are five of these in the area, forming a trail for kids to explore!
Just like on MDI, there are “small” vacation homes on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

While on the Arizona desert, we made friends with several couples. Lydia (a fellow Quartzsite Quilter) and Tom spend their non-desert time in their home in Helena, Montana. They were kind enough to invite to “mooch-camp” in their yard (we hooked up to their water but used our solar power) and it was terrific! We got to know them so much better—they were amazingly generous and couldn’t wait to share their beautiful part of the Big Sky world with us!

Montana lives up to its nickname, “Big Sky Country.”

Tom took Al on an 80+ mile ride up into the mountains on his flashy new Razr (4-wheeler). What a ball they had! Even though it was early May, there was still plenty of snow up in them thar hills and that determined the length of their ride. I’m quite sure that Al and Tom will find plenty of places to explore this winter when Lydia and I are at quilting club.

Al and Tom ready to go. In Montana (and Arizona), vehicles like this can be street legal, so we just rode from Tom’s driveway!

(Al) We rode up to the continental divide. Beside the amazing views, it is quite something to realize that all the rain falling on one side goes to the Pacific, and on the other side it flows to the Caribbean and Atlantic.

Onward to the Pacific.
End of the ride, at least for today. We didn’t want to get stuck in the snow!

Lydia and I had quite an adventure ourselves! Lydia couldn’t wait to show me several of her favorite quilt shops. Even though Helena is the state capital, it’s not a terribly large city. It supports a number of successful quilt shops which I found amazing.

As we drive/ride outside of the Northeast, we are struck by the speed limits. 80 mph is the posted limit in so many places! It’s not at all unusual to be able to see 40 or 50 miles ahead—little dots in front of the huge mountains turn out to be farms. Traveling 80+ miles to go out for dinner isn’t a big deal to those in Big Sky territory. Think about it: in the same time it would take us to drive back and forth between Bass Harbor and Bar Harbor, we could be nearly 80 miles away. But we don’t. When we’re pulling Rhett, we don’t go faster than 60.

I can see for miles and miles and miles and …. (The Doors)

We learned that the Missouri River headwaters are in Montana! The river actually begins at the confluence of the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin Rivers near Three Forks, Montana. We followed miles and miles of the Missouri and it was breathtaking: huge, still a bit brown with snowmelt and erosion, and marked with a number of beautiful falls where water flow is managed and electric power is generated.

Just past Great Falls, we stopped at the very impressive Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. We spent a thorough two hours learning so much more about the incredible adventurers who answered President Jefferson’s charge to check out what the U.S. had just “purchased” or was it “acquired”? This was one of many, many times on this trip where we were reminded of the very complicated relationship between the Native Americans and the white man. It took us right back to our church’s mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota some twelve years ago. It still hurts.

Tom and Lydia showed us a terrific time and we’re already talking about the next time. They say we’ve barely scratched the surface!

Our friends and hosts: Lydia and Tom.

We are LOVING the West—South Dakota and Yellowstone NP blog entries will come in short succession here. We’re trying to catch up at a time when the driving distances can be long and we’re spending most of our time away from our computers enjoying all that’s here to see and explore.

SERENDIPITOUS SPRING and salmon

I love to photograph flowers.

In a workshop we took with the amazing photographer/writer Colleen Miniuk, I learned that before I capture the image, I should title it. Yup. Before I even push the button.

That has stuck with me.

We camped recently in Mount Vernon, Washington. When we made our reservation, the campground owner made mention of the fact that since we’d be there “after the big crowds,” he had space for us.

Imagine our thrill when we learned upon checking in, that the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival was ongoing! The busiest time was the weekend just before we arrived but there were still fields and fields of tulips to enjoy (and far smaller crowds).

After we settled in, we grabbed our cameras and took off in the truck to take in tons of terrific tulips. It was totally astonishing!

Roozengaarde features a five acre display garden planted with over a half million bulbs, a 25 acre tulip field and 20 acre daffodil field. Tulip Town has another half million bulbs planted. The entire event goes on for the entire month of April (but sometimes the tulips are a bit early or late). The festival includes dozens and dozens of coordinated events in the region, everything from parades to fun runs, art shows to salmon barbecue dinners, and classes of all kinds.

We enjoyed a scrumptious salmon dinner sponsored by the local Kiwanis Club; it’s their biggest fundraiser of the year. It was a great way to meet and support the locals.

Back to the tulips. Here are a few of my favorites.

Whisper

Shadow Play
Lean on Me
A River Runs Through It
Parrot Song

Roozengaarde was founded when William Roozen emigrated from Holland in 1947. The family began raising tulips in Holland in the mid-1700’s and has continued through at least six generations. It is now the largest tulip-bulb grower in the country and farms 2000 acres!

Fancy Fence

Here is a gallery of the rest of my favorites — hope you enjoy them! Click on any picture to view them all as a slide show.

Dry camping — it’s a boon (dock)!

When we first starting considering getting an RV, Al was quite excited about the possibility of dry camping, i.e., living ‘off the grid.’

I wasn’t so sure. All I could picture was Little House on the Prairie: brushing my teeth with a twig, beating my dirty clothes on a rock (while it’s raining, of course), combing baby powder through my hair every week or so, and dragging myself across the dry desert in search of an oasis.

You get the idea.

Will Al REALLY make me do this?

“It’ll be fun!”
“It’ll save us money!” and
“We can DO it!”
just didn’t cut it for me.

Last year, after we’d made our purchase, but before we had taken ownership of our RV, we flew out to Arizona for one last time sans RV. Al had read extensively about a wide variety of dry camping locations, most of it land owned/managed by the US government: Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers (COE), and lots more. We wanted to explore our options.

Think of it as ‘shopping for land’ if you were building a house. Kind of.

It was late winter/early spring. We drove through some US Forest Service mud sludge wetlands logging roads woods. We spotted a couple of campers set some distance off the road beaten path. I couldn’t see a soul. I was convinced that those RVs were set there as a come-on for would-be camping enthusiasts.

Too isolated for me.

We couldn’t find any COE areas near us. We did drive along a stretch of the Colorado River where we saw quite a few campgrounds. RVs were literally inches apart from each other. So close that you could borrow a cup of milk from your neighbor by leaning out the window — never having to leave your rig!

Too crowded for me.

We had read about Quartzsite. An RV mecca in the winter. Snowbird country. Home of a HUGE RV show (the BIG TENT) each year. Rock Capital of the World.

And desert. LOTS and LOTS of desert.

Lots and lots of empty desert!

Not that Lawrence of Arabia kind of desert with blowing white dunes. No oases either. And actually a bit more vegetation than I expected.

We had read about the BLM land in Quartzsite where many snowbirds park their rigs and boondock (dry camp) for most of the winter. We stopped at the small brick building at the entrance to LaPosa West; there we found a very friendly host couple volunteering their time to answer questions and register newly-arrived campers. They couldn’t say enough about what a fabulous time they’d had in Q during this, their second winter onsite.

I remember peering out the small window. There were RVs but they were spaced at quite a distance from each other. And I saw people! In a few spots, I could see a group of 3 or 4 campers near each other—a neighborhood!

The hosts encouraged us to hop back into our rental car and drive through the area to check it out. It turns out that this Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA) is one of a network of seven winter LTVAs across southwestern Arizona and southern California. They pointed out that the BLM area in Q comprises four large areas (LaPosa West, North, South, and Tyson Wash). AND…(drum roll please!) that there are actually a dump station, waterfills, and trash dumpsters at LaPosa South!

Maybe my teeth and hair could possibly be very happy here.

We drove into “town” and it seemed fairly peaceful quiet deserted. Turns out that it was late in the season and many of the snowbirds had left for points north. Knowing all too well about the craziness of ‘tourist season’ (summertime in Acadia National Park), we had a hunch that Q might be just the right spot for us. And all that desert!

Fast forward seven months. We get our eight solar panels installed on the RV (details in this earlier post) along with all of the thingamabobs that will sustain us electrically while on the desert.

Fast forward another six months. We recently left LaPosa South where we spent just over four months. And…WE LOVED IT!

How did we fare? Just great! We learned that:

  • Having nearly four acres of desert all to ourselves is AMAZING! There are literally miles of land available for camping. Having stayed at so many campgrounds with TIGHT spaces as we came across the US, camping on the desert was a dream.
Desert twilight
  • Paying $180 for an entire SEASON of camping is a sweet deal. You can park on an LTVA — and move from one LTVA to another within the system in SW AZ and SO CA — from Sept 15 thru Apr 15 for just $180.
  • Navy showers aren’t so bad. Short and sweet.
  • If you are careful, you can easily go a week before needing to refill your water tank and dump your black/grey tanks.
  • Wiping off dishes with a paper towel just after eating greatly reduces the amount of water you’ll need for dishwashing.
  • Pouring your dirty dishpan water down the toilet helps to maintain the black tank.
  • Eight solar panels can sustain you every day! We only ran our generators 2 or 3 times across the four months we were there (and that was when we’d had two cloudy/rainy days in a row.
  • You can NEVER get tired of desert sunrises and sunsets.
  • People are very trustworthy. You can LEAVE your camper on the desert (while you fly to see your kids and grandkids over Christmas) and not a thing is disturbed.
Not our site; this one was like this for well over a month. Their gear was never touched!
  • The desert can be VERY windy and dusty; I became quite proficient at wiping down counters and windowsills frequently.
  • It’s easy to meet new people on the desert.
  • The rattlesnakes don’t reappear until very late in March.
  • Many, many people who spend the winter on the desert own and ride their side-by-sides, jeeps, or ATVs all over the desert.
  • Bicycling on the desert works best if you add an extra-thick gel seat to your bike. It’s also a good idea to wear a stretchy nylon cowl or bandanna over your mouth and nose in case a side-by-side passes by and kicks up dust.
  • Following the desert bloom is thrilling!
  • Rockhounding in the Q area is a nearly full-time hobby for many snowbirds. The Q Gem and Mineral Club has so many resources available for novice and experienced rockhounds and lapidarists including classes, use of equipment, rock/gem shows, and lots of rockhounding field trips.
Quartzsite quartz!
  • Quartzsite is a hub for so many fabulous things: an incredible public library (large supported by snowbirds); a very active quilting club (my peeps!); welcoming churches; one of the best game stores we’ve ever seen; an amazing number of fairs, festivals, rallies, concerts, hobby clubs, gatherings; and best of all, some fabulous new friends who are certain to be traveling companions.

It was just right. And we’re going back next fall.

A Delicious “Field Trip”

Our kids and their spouses got really creative this Christmas and gifted us with some unique experiences in the Yuma valley, about 80 miles south of where we are wintering in Quartzsite, Arizona.

Beth and Jon gave us a Field to Feast experience and what a fabulous time we had this past week! We had to be at the Yuma Visitor Center by 7:45 AM so we left our campsite just after 6 AM. It was that time when the dark of night yields to the first trace of dawn; the stars and a few planets were still visible as the eastern sky was just giving way to a hint of light.

We arrived in Yuma and were surprised to see a very large, luxurious tour bus waiting for us in the lot. We signed in and hopped onto the bus just as the sun rose in front of us for another gorgeous desert sunrise.

Mark, our tour guide, explained our itinerary for the day—our first stop would be the University of Arizona Agricultural Center where we would meet with a master gardener and a research scientist before harvesting some vegetables for the local food bank.

When we arrived at the Ag Center, the speakers hopped onto the bus one at a time and explained the gardens.  Martha first told us about the variety of crops and how they’re planted in a rotation so that there is always something to harvest. The huge garden includes brussel sprouts, several varieties of lettuce including romaine, broccoli, several kinds of beets, cauliflower, radishes, carrots (including purple ones!), and lots more.

Dr. Paula Rivadeneira then hopped on board and explained that she has her Ph.D. in poop! She is an associate professor who specializes in food safety and wildlife as a cooperative extension specialist.  Her main goal is to assist fresh produce growers in excluding wild and domestic animals from their fields and gardens to prevent potential fecal pathogen contamination of fresh produce crops.

Most of us on the bus were aware that the Yuma Valley was the source of the romaine lettuce recalled in the recent e. coli scare.  Paula explained the precautions that are taken regularly by all the farmers in the area; food safety is the farmers’ number one priority! All farm workers are required to take safety training which is updated and reviewed regularly.

She is quite certain that the e. coli was introduced farther along the production line (the offending romaine was found in bagged salad sourced from multiple farms) when it was  processed  in a plant on a variety of machines and handled by a number of people.

Arizona growers can participate in a “Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement” (LGMA), which sets practices and standards for food safety. Participation is not mandatory, but nearly all growers do—competitiveness in the market demands it.  If a grower participates, then the LGMA’s requirements become mandatory for the grower. The LGMA received a major update after last year’s e. coli outbreak.

Prior to harvesting, SIXTY soil samples are taken from EACH acre of the crop. Each sample is analyzed  for fecal matter and other contaminants in a microbiology lab.

If any animal poop is discovered in a section of the garden, there is a five foot buffer zone established around that section; nothing can be harvested there. Scientifically, it’s proven that five feet is a sufficient buffer but many buyers opt for a 100 or even 200 foot buffer zone! She said that she wishes the buyers would understand the science and not unnecessarily waste so much food.

She pointed out that when driving by the fields, some people will stop and notice a section that the “farmer must have forgotten to harvest!” In fact, the passerby will sometime stop and grab (i.e., steal) some fresh veggies. NOPE. Farmers don’t forget to harvest an area of the garden;  it’s money out of their pocket!  These unharvested areas are where a fecal sample or some other problem was discovered and a buffer zone (don’t harvest!) section is designated.

Dr. Paula (as she likes to be called) talked about consumer food safety in great detail. EVERYTHING should be washed as soon as you get home from the market—yup, even that ‘triple-washed’ stuff (lettuce, spinach, etc.). She said to fill a CLEAN sink with cold water, a couple of glugs of white vinegar and a squirt or two of lemon juice. Soak everything for two minutes; run it through your salad spinner and you’re good to go! She also recommended that we clean our refrigerator shelves AND crisper drawers with the same solution.

The recommendation that we often hear to ‘wait to wash your fruits and veggies until you’re ready to eat them’ is WRONG.  Wash it all as soon as you get home.

And, yes, even wash those bananas, melons, avocados, and pineapples. Whatever lurks on the skin, just travels through the fruit as we cut and slice. Interesting fact: cantelopes in the U.S. are the ONLY cantelopes in the world that do NOT have a smooth skin. The webbed skin can make it easy for ‘things’ to lurk there that you really don’t want on your food. Yuck!

Dr. Paula explained in great detail the variety of ways in which birds are kept out of the huge gardens. A range of acoustic deterrents are used including sound cannons, screamers,  and shooters. Falcons and owls are used to deter small rodents; Paula is particularly excited about the falconry program! Counters (people) are used to stand on the edge of a large garden tract to keep track of bird activity and monitor the effectiveness of the deterrents.

It was time to help with the harvest! We had been told ahead of time to wear closed-toe shoes. Once off the bus, we had to wash our hands and put on hairnets and gloves. We were each handed two plastic bags and a knife–we were to write our last name on one bag and the other bag would be filled and placed into large crates for the food pantry. Yup! The bag with our name on it was for us to FILL AND TAKE HOME! And we had TWO!! What a treat!

The rows in the garden were clearly marked — we could choose whatever we wanted. We first went for brussel sprouts (we love to roast them!) and learned that they can be quite difficult to pick. We were warned to not cut off a stalk but to go for individual sprouts.  If the stalk is taken the plant will not produce any more sprouts; if only the sprouts are taken it will continue to produce.

Then we found a stupendous head of butter lettuce with large leaves, just perfect for the veggie wraps we’ve been enjoying this winter. We dug up two large golden beets  and a gigantic head of cauliflower!

One of the master gardeners handed us some purple carrots. We ended up with two HUGE bags full of fresh veggies that were stored in the luggage compartment under the bus along with the other visitors’ bags; what fun!

Just before we left the U of A site, a local farmer (he calls himself a “grower”) came on board to talk to us as we traveled to one of his farms; he farms more than 4500 acres and that’s considered a small farm.  This is a HUGE agricultural metropolis! In fact, nearly 90% of all domestically-grown vegetables found in U.S. supermarkets this time of year come from from the Yuma Valley region.

While en route, we learned more about the irrigation systems and the effects of the petulant weather on the crops in the valley. All of the irrigation is supplied by a canal system sourced by the Colorado River. This particular grower said that fields need to be irrigated the first few days after a new crop is planted so that seed germination can take place. He doesn’t have a particular sensor system to tell him when to water as the crops grow; he goes out into the fields to check on the dryness of the soil.

The soil types in this area vary greatly.  This grower’s fields have a large component of clay; it holds the water quite well resulting in less frequent waterings.  We visited another (research) farm where the soil was much sandier; they have to irrigate every few days.

Too much water can be as much of a problem as too little. If there happens to be a heavy rain across a couple of days (which happened recently) and lots of wind, entire crops can be lost. Crops that haven’t made it, as well as areas that have been buffered due to fecal contamination, are just tilled back into the ground. Everything breaks down and helps to build up the soil for the next crop.

Crops are grown to order (rather than on speculation).  The reason these people refer to themselves as “growers” is that they simply grow the crops; the purchaser is responsible for all of the other steps—harvesting, processing, packaging, shipping, etc.

It was fascinating to learn that broccoli is shipped by boat to Japan on the same day it is harvested.   Due to a poor growing season in Europe this year, romaine lettuce from the Yuma Valley is in great demand and shipped by air to Europe.

As with all other parts of our lives, technology has radically changed farming.  Tractors and other large equipment are self driving, guided by enhanced GPS (apparently the farmer still has to turn them around at the end of the rows). The irrigation systems used to bring the Colorado river’s water are gravity fed.  To make this efficient, all the fields are leveled by laser as the last step in field preparation before each planting.

We arrived at one of the grower’s fields just over the Colorado River in California where romaine lettuce hearts were being harvested.  This is an amazing process with the people actually picking the hearts and the people bagging and boxing them working only a few feet apart.

From the time the lettuce leaves the ground to the time it is bagged and in a box ready to be shipped to the supermarket appeared to be well under a minute!

Our guide, Mark, told us that he has been leading this tour at least once a week for three years, and he had never before been as close to the harvesting operation as we were able to get!  Score!

After thanking the grower and saying goodbye, we went to Arizona Western College, for a lunch prepared by their culinary department using food from the UofA Ag Center’s garden.  Delicious!

A culinary delight!

Finally, the tour went to AWC’s agricultural center. The college offers an associate degree in agriculture.  Their focus is twofold: hands-on learning in the soil to complement the book/classroom learning, and doing research studies in conjunction with industry.  Many of their graduates go on to complete a bachelor’s degree with a double major in agriculture and business at the University of Arizona.  We were able to talk with AWC students at various stages of progress through the program, as well as one graduate of the program (and of UofA) now employed in the industry and performing research on the college’s fields.

After a very full day, we headed back home (the camper is home!) and washed all our new vegetables as instructed by Dr. Paula.  Now… how to fit it all in our refrigerator???

There’s No Place Like Home

Happy New Year! We’ve been back on the desert for just over a week having spent Christmas in New York with our son, daughter-in-law, and four of our grandkids.

We had a terrific visit — we attended Christmas Eve Candlelight worship (and rang our bells!), marveled at Santa’s generosity, learned some new games, enjoyed some local cuisine, watched some favorite movies, visited the Corning Museum of Glass, and took the kids bowling.

Bowling — we ALL could have used the bumpers. We had our own cameraman.

Mira bowls a strike!

I even taught our 5-year old granddaughter to knit–she’s a natural!

Brynn chose the yarn and needles herself.

After the demonstration given to hundreds, Graham and Dean had a special opportunity to get up close and personal with a glassblower and his furnace!

We also visited with our daughter and her family on Facetime and look forward to our upcoming time with them in Vancouver, B.C. this spring. In the meantime, we’ve ordered our own copy of a fabulous new game that our daughter had gifted to our son’s family—5 Minute Dungeon! We’ll certainly learn about many other games when we visit B.C.—board games have become a staple in all branches of our family. Such fun.

While in New York, we found ourselves making a huge shift in our thinking; we started referring to home and ‘going home‘ —To. The.  Camper.

It’s hard to believe that I was feeling so isolated early last month. In the last six weeks, we’ve been swept up into the desert lifestyle and this wonderful community. We’ve been busy and it’s hard to decide which things to do!

A friend has asked me a couple of times—what do you do there? There’s nothing. It looks so desolate.

Well, yes, the desert itself is sparsely vegetated but there is a LOT going on here — we just needed to investigate!

We found a LOCAL church (just a couple of miles away) and it’s been so nice to get to meet and worship with some great folks. They have a charity quilting group that meets weekly and I attend.

Lots of snowbirds attend this church.

We have a couple of favorite restaurants in town. A lovely little diner for breakfast and a Mexican restaurant with fabulous fish tacos! We don’t eat out a lot but it’s nice to take a break once a week or so.

There’s a new coffee shop in town that boasts an entire room of fresh produce. It’s terrific and not only do they have fresh fruits and vegetables but dozens of recipes on display each week for the taking. We had a scrumptious vegetable soup and a squash soup, too. It’s a treat to visit the shop each week and see what they’ve stocked.

I joined the local Quartzsite Quilting Guild and it’s great fun to gather at the Sr. Center each Tuesday (we’re not all seniors but most are) for six hours of quilting—lots of chatting and collaborating and a guaranteed show-and-tell each week. Tomorrow, the owner of a quilt shop in Yuma is coming with fabric, threads, etc. for sale. It’s much more fun sewing with a group and making lots of new friends than it is to sew alone.

And, oh, the SHOWS!! We had heard the Quartzsite, AZ boasts about being the Rock Capital of the World.  (I’m pretty sure many other places do, too.) It’s a huge destination for rock hounds as there are many places to search and find amazing stones. However, we had NO idea that this was also the destination for so many kinds of shows during the Jan/Feb time frame. Just this week, a huge Rock and Gem Show started at the local “fairgrounds” with more than 2 miles of storefront across hundreds of booths. We had a ball with our cameras taking dozens of shots of gorgeous rocks and gems — a total blast! We’ll go back for sure.

Click on a picture for a full-size slide show.

But beyond that, there are three huge quilt shows, a big Embroidery show in Phoenix, another rock/arts/crafts show here in Q, a bluegrass festival, a hot air balloon festival, etc., etc. Honestly, it’s hard to keep up and to decide which ones we’ll visit in a given week!

This is also a HUGE mecca for ‘tribute bands,’ e.g., groups that perform hits made famous by everyone from The Eagles to Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles to Ricky Nelson, and the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys! I guess they know they’ve got a captive audience with so many snowbirds of a ‘mature’ age.

A Peter, Paul, and Mary tribute band will perform in Quartzsite this month.

AND, we’ve made the decision to get back into ham radio. We purchased an HF radio so that I can get back on the air and talk to people all over the world. We also got two handheld radios for local communication. We’re both licensed but haven’t been active in amateur radio for well over a decade. It’s a very active hobby here; we attended our first local radio club breakfast here this past week. So many friendly and fascinating people, many of whom have been involved in the hobby for upwards of 50 years! Fortunately, this group is also dedicated to bringing young people into the hobby and is working hard to make that happen.  Al has already volunteered to help with some repeater maintenance. And yup…there are TWO huge ham radio events coming up this month. We’ll be there.

This afternoon we’ll move our camper a couple of miles down the road for a few days to another stretch of BLM land so that we can participate in another Grand Design RV Rally–much like the rallies we attended in IN and DE, there will be workshops, seminars, and lots of camaraderie.

This morning, the desert smells like spring. We actually had some rain over the weekend and there has been a pollen alert for a couple of weeks. The moisture in the air is apparently working its magic on the desert flora and it’s glorious to enjoy a preview of the spring desert bloom.  Our cameras will get a real workout this March and April.

So, that’s how we’re spending our time here in our new home on the desert. We’re learning about new opportunities every day! No rest for the retired (although we are enjoying sleeping in frequently).

When we don’t sleep in, it isn’t hard to start each day when you can see this…

Sunrise on the desert!

It’s Gettin’ Real – and We LOVE it!

Boondocking. It was a new word for me. Just over a year ago.

We had already purchased our RV — let the planning begin!

While we were dreaming about what might be ahead for us as we neared Al’s retirement,  he mentioned (with great excitement) the possibility of boondocking. It sounded like something out of a 60’s sitcom, but I soon learned what it meant.

No hook-ups. What?!?!

So, when you camp with an RV, you can camp in a campground or state park that might have hook-ups, i.e., a spigot that you can attach (with a hose) to your camper, a pedestal with electric power (30 or 50 amps) that you can connect with an electric cord to your camper, and a septic hook-up—you got it! You hook up your sewer hose to the hole in the ground. You get the idea.

In some of the campgrounds we have visited en route to Arizona, we stayed *very* close to our neighbors.  It’s not unusual, if the campground is near a tourism hot spot (a National Park, a popular city), to be lined up very close together.

Another name for boondocking is DRY camping.  It can also be called dispersed camping—as you are outside of a campground. You bring your own water, provide your own electricity (if you choose to), and have to dispose of your own waste—both black (septic) and grey (shower, kitchen sink) tanks. It’s just you and your “campsite.” And lots of room.

We knew we wanted to be in the Southwest for the winter. We’d visited Arizona several times and loved it. Less than a year ago on our last trip to Arizona (before we took delivery on the RV), we drove around to check out some boondocking sites.  I remember my stomach doing a little flip as we drove through some fairly desolate areas. I couldn’t help wondering…will I feel safe? Will I feel isolated and lonely? What if we run out of water? And on and on.

Al assured me it’s something he’s sure I could handle but there was absolutely no pressure. We took delivery of Rhett (our fifth-wheel coach) in April and had lots of fun dreaming about where we’d take him. Occasionally, Al would mention the boondocking “thing” and soon he started investigating solar power for the RV.

For those of you who know Al, you will understand when I say that he researches everything VERY comprehensively. He’s been a regular on the Grand Design Owners’ Forum  online for over a year — and has learned SO much from SO many.  As he learned more about solar and helped me to understand what it would allow us to do, we soon decided to get a recommendation for an installer.

Al already told you all about that install in an earlier post.

So, here we are now. On the desert. So what’s it like? Here are the good points:

It’s dry, dry, dry.  (NO snow!)

There is lots of sunshine, but it never gets too hot. We’ve been averaging in the mid-to-high 60’s and sitting out in the sun is a pleasure. The nights are cool and we sleep with a bedroom window open. Love it.

We have been able to run everything from our eight solar panels, and haven’t run the generators yet. It’s going to be quite overcast for the next couple of days (it’s actually raining right now) so we may end up turning on the generators to keep our batteries topped off.

We have plenty of water and if we need to refill, we either drive the RV just 2/10 of a mile to fill up OR Al puts the large water bladder into the truck bed and takes it to fill.

We have a good deal of space to ourselves;  Here, we’ve got several acres of desert to ourselves. It’s nice! And, as you can see, Al can fly the drone here—he’s quite happy about that.

The sunrises and sunsets have been absolutely glorious! (If you follow me on FB, you’ve probably seen my photos — it’s so hard not to share them!)

    A magnificent sunrise—I took this pic from bed!

Sunset on the desert.

There is lots of space to ride our bikes (although some of it is a bit, um…challenging! More about that below).

The surrounding scenery is magnificent. There is so much to explore—a number of huge wildlife refuges included—yeah!

I’m sewing again—and I seem to have my cooking mojo back, too.

Sewing again!

Black bean enchiladas with Hatch chiles. Yum!

And the not-so-good stuff:

Wi-fi has been spotty at best when camping. Luckily, my Messenger and Words with Friends games don’t use much data so I’ve been able to keep up with folks. I’ve even been able to still participate in my Maine church’s Bible Study via Facebook video. And email works, too, but on its own schedule.  But forget it if you want to use the Internet—downloading or even just following a link is impossible 90% of the time. (I know—first world problem!). We’re in the public library right now because they are hard-wired for the Internet—it’s like buttah! (And this is a pretty amazing library for such a small town—we need to find out about library cards for snowbirds.)

DUST…DUST…and you guessed it, MORE DUST! I know—we choose the desert.

Biking off-road on the desert can be a bit tricky.  I took another spill off my bike this week. When you’re trying to cross the desert (think: bushwacking), you never know when you’re going to hit a patch of deep sand or rocks, and those desert washes can be a challenge!

Off we go! Pretty innocuous.  We’re actually on a four-wheeler track here. It’s all fun and games until you decide to  cross the wash (it’s where the water collects when there’s rain—and therefore, it’s quite thick with bushes and undergrowth—and steep gulleys). Like this…

I’ve been kinda lonely.   Don’t get me wrong; Al is great company! But I am missing my family and friends and this week, the desert grey-brown got to me.  It didn’t feel like Advent at all. And being together 24/7…well, we all need some independent time occasionally. So Al encouraged me to take the truck and go off for the day. It was *just* what I needed! I drove 80 miles south to Yuma (just shy of the Mexican border) and it was wonderful. Flowers, large trees, lush green fields of all kinds of crops, beautiful mountains, and a huge shopping area that went on forever. It was great to see lots of Christmas decorations and it really put me more in the mood.  And it was simply nice to be around lots of people. It’s a balance.

So, it’s official. We are BOONDOCKERS. And SNOWBIRDS. We’re learning how to live on the desert — and for the most part, it’s awesome!

A Difficult, Humbling Day

I admit it. I’ve been thinking about this post for several weeks and needed time to let it percolate.

Truthfully, I’ve been procrastinating. I’m not sure I can do this experience the justice it deserves but I’ll try.

While exploring what to see in Memphis, we learned that it is the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is actually on the site of the the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This destination jumped to the top of our list for our Memphis stay.

We had no idea.

The balcony where MLK was murdered. Notice the small kiosk on the right; there were a half dozen of these spread out on the plaza — you could lean into one and learn important details about the time and place.  The shape of the kiosk kept the sound enclosed so as not to disturb others’ experience while taking it all in.

The NCRM has two large buildings— the Lorraine Building  (the motel) and the Legacy Building across the street, which was the boarding house from where the assassin James Early Ray took aim.  The path of the bullet is depicted in the pavement that runs between the two buildings.

Notice the path of the bullet, the dark stripe in the sidewalk.

From the moment we stepped inside the museum, it was very clear that it had been designed with incredible precision and purpose.

The museum was incredibly text rich—it took us several hours to read our way through the museum and I’m sure we didn’t read all that was posted.  (It did make me wonder how someone who isn’t able to read English well would experience the museum.)

The expanse of coverage was overwhelming both in size and scope—the museum’s floor-to-high-ceiling exhibits span the Civil Rights Movement in the United States beginning in the 1700s  with resistance to slavery and continuing into the current day with worldwide events that not only conjure inequality but also call us to work for equality—for all.

We were overwhelmed by the impact the exhibits had on us.  I felt a combination of breathlessness, anxiety, regret, and anger.  There was so much to take in. So much to learn.

This stunning two-sided bronze sculpture, Movement to Overcome (Michael Pavlovsky, sculptor), stands 14 ft high, 21 ft wide, and 6 ft deep.  It depicts the slow, uphill struggle for Civil Rights.

The powerful introductory movie concluded with shadows of people marching across the screen. As the theater was dimly relighted, we were asked to exit by climbing a few stairs onto the stage and exiting behind the screen.  We became part of the march. Chills.

It was difficult to witness some of the bone-chilling exhibits.  In a large room focused on slavery, an alcove depicted the innards of a slave ship where life-sized bronze statues wrapped in chains were crowded together on the floor.  Their agonizing screams and groans played on a continuous loop.  It felt disrespectful to even consider taking a photograph. We were there to learn. And we were humbled.

As we tried to take it all in, the displays continued to draw us into each scene as if we were present.  The story of school desegregation was displayed in a courtroom and a classroom.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s experience in the Birmingham Jail was told in a jail cell.

We agreed that our own public education had been tremendously lacking in U.S. history past the Civil War.  The school curriculum in Stamford, CT in the 1960’s did not include anything past the beginning of the Reconstruction era. Current events were glossed over and never put into an historical context.

I felt ashamed as I realized how little I knew.  We should all know this history.  Why weren’t we taught this?

I won’t presume to be the one to teach others this history that is so new to me; hopefully you already know much of it yourself.

The Rise of Jim Crow began in the late 1800’s and continued well into the 20th century.  The 15th amendment and legislation were passed to guarantee rights to African Americans and were then destroyed by a series of new laws and Supreme Court decisions that made “Separate but Equal” the law of the land. Segregated schools. Separate water fountains. Separate. Separate. But never Equal.

The Jim Crow era led to. . .

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

The Student Sit-ins

A lunch counter sit-in.

The Freedom Riders of 1961

A burned out bus used by the Freedom Riders

Incarcerated Freedom Riders in the early ’60s.

The Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis

Civil Rights Marches

In the afternoon we visited the three-story Legacy Building across the street.  On the 3rd floor, a timeline tells the story of the American Civil Right Movement up to the time of MLK’s assassination.  The entire second floor is dedicated to the investigation of the crime:  the conspiracy theories,  extensive evidence ,  and the actual spot where James Earl Ray took aim.

I felt unsettled. Is this where the museum leaves us? I was glad when the tour ended on the first floor.  Here we learned more about how the Civil Rights Movement here in the US has impacted human rights and civil rights throughout the world. We were left with the voices of many who have been called into action and who are making huge impacts globally to work toward equality for all.  In the dimly lit room, a mural of silhouetted men, women, and children led us out; again, we became part of the story.

Ol’ Man River

When we were looking for a campground near Memphis, several folks suggested the Tom Sawyer RV Park (actually in W. Memphis, Arkansas). We learned that it is RIGHT on the banks of the Mississippi and this totally intrigued us. The park’s website includes information about the importance of monitoring the Mississippi River as your camping time approaches; they’re closed when the river overflows its banks. Yikes! We checked and it looked like we’d be just fine; it takes a couple of weeks for rain far north to really affect the height of the river. We knew we didn’t want to approach when THIS was happening!

Here’s our site where it would be during a flood!

High water! Camping on the flood plain.

During our first hour at the campground, we were drawn to the river (actually only about 50 yards from our site) as a huge collection of barges (all attached, 7 barges long, and 3 across) was pushed along by ONE boat (that looked quite a bit like an oversized tugboat).

Can you count all the barges?  Most of the loads were three barges across and anywhere from three to ten barges long!

One of the best parts of moving around the country is how much we love being so close to different forms of transportation. In Indiana, we camped very close to a very active train track — it ran all day and night (never kept us awake) and reminded us of how much our nation’s commerce depends on different modes of transport. Then, of course, there are the thousands and thousands of tractor trailers (some pulling two or even THREE trailers!) that we share the road with as we move along the nation’s interstates. And while on the Mississippi for several days, a low rumble accompanied us much of the time — we could look out the bedroom window and watch the barges moving through as we fell asleep—and then again, when we woke up the next morning.  Sometimes we could tell what they were hauling, and other times, hmmm… They were mesmerizing. It’s fun to watch our nation’s commerce on the go!

So, why Memphis? Graceland, of course! We’ve learned to take others’ recommendations, whether positive or negative, with a grain of salt. We like to experience what we can and draw our own conclusions—sometimes a place that someone else told us to not waste our time with, is a favorite of ours!

So we drove to Graceland our first morning there—and spent hours poring over building after building of memorabilia not just about Elvis but also about many other musicians. We started with a tour of the mansion—and were quite impressed by all that we were able to see. I’ll let the pictures tell the story:

The Presley’s home — treasured and beautifully maintained.

The living room and music room beyond — the 12 foot couch was specially ordered

The dining room

The heart of the home

Elvis’ jungle room–his favorite

Elvis designed this pool room himself — nearly EVERY surface was covered with fabric — the walls (pleated), much of the furniture, and yup–the ceiling!

Elvis’ media room hurt our eyes!

Family graves in the memorial garden on the grounds of the mansion

But Graceland comprises much more than the house! There were a number of buildings that featured everything from Elvis’ car and motorcycle collections, gold records, a gallery featuring dozens of musicians who were/are influenced by Elvis, a huge archive of all things Elvis including items related to his military service, and, oh yes, an incredible array of bedazzled jumpsuits!

It took us at least a couple of hours to get through all of the extra buildings. We were pretty impressed and Elvis’ music serenaded us throughout the entire complex.  Not having ever been huge Elvis fans, we had a lot of fun and found ourselves humming Elvis tunes for several days!

Caverns, Caves, and Bats, Oh, My!

I remember a small cave in the woods out behind my Nanny and Pop-pop’s house when I was a little girl. My brother told me about it; I decided to take his word for it.

Two weeks ago, while in the Shenandoah Valley (Virginia), we visited Luray Caverns. Luray is a commercial attraction and not part of Shenandoah National Park. We signed up for a tour and were led down a long, fairly steep staircase to an amazing underground world. I remember seeing stalactites and stalagmites in Howe Caverns in New York State as a youngster. But these…

Stalactites hang ‘tight’ to the ceiling.

Stalagmites (bottom left) ‘might’ reach the ceiling some day.

The young man who toured us thru the caverns seemed to be in training for some kind of footrace; we wanted to take lots of photographs but he kept insisting that we stay together and keep up with him. It was frustrating and we finally decided we’d take our time and take the photos we wanted to—we had paid dearly for the tour and wanted our money’s worth.

Sometimes the stalagmites reach up to join the stalactites to form pillars or columns.

The stalactites are formed by water coming down through the roof of the cavern carrying dissolved limestone. The limestone is left behind when the water evaporates.  Stalagmites are formed when those drips of water drop off and hit the ground; as the water evaporates, the stalagmites grow upward. Many experts claim that the stalactites and stalagmites grow as slowly as 10cm every 1000 years. They are precious.

We were fascinated to learn that until the 1920s, tourists were allowed to snap off the end of a stalactite as a souvenir. Once the tip is broken off, the stalactite will cease to grow. It was sad to see so many broken, flat ends as we worked our way through the passages.

The old expression “A picture just doesn’t do it justice!” came to mind when we downloaded our pictures of the reflecting pool. It was pure magic; footsteps ceased and all you could hear was the intake of air as each tourist rounded the passage and gasped as they faced the pool head-on.

Can you find the waterline? See the perfect other-worldly reflection?

On our way to Luray, we passed dozens of billboards (and I mean dozens!) advertising the caverns. Many of them called attention to ‘The Great Stalacpipe Organ’—what could that be?

Sure enough as we were nearing the end of our tour, we came into a huge room within the cave that had an organ console up on a landing. Apparently you can make arrangements to get MARRIED in this room, complete with a pipe organ accompaniment. (It’s a bargain at $1900 for just 12 guests!)

The famous stalacpipe organ in Luray Caverns.

The organ is actually an electrically actuated lithophone that produces tapping of a large number of pipes (stalactites)  throughout 3-1/2 acres of the cave. You can see the wires along the walls, weaving in and out of the limestone appendages. The tour guide pushed a button and we were regaled with the limestone version of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—you could almost make out the tune! Because of the enclosed space of the cavern itself, the song can apparently be heard throughout the entire cavern.

One of the most magnificent features in Luray Caverns are the ‘curtains’— they are beautifully translucent stalactite formations that drape down from the ceiling —almost like long sheets of beautiful linen. Glorious!

Stalactite curtains

During our stop in the Shenandoah Valley, we had the solar panels installed which required Al to be at the campsite all day. He encouraged me to go out into Shenandoah National Park by myself.  The first day I went out, I missed a sign and ended up driving across the width of the park into the next town before I realized what I’d done (without my trusty navigator with me). So I turned around (I’m getting really good at those twisty-turny mountainside roads) and found the turn I’d missed.

When I finally got through the gate, I drove up to the first viewpoint. It actually involved a 4 mile loop hike and it was not something I was up for. So I stopped into the ladies’ room—The woman at the sink reminded me of someone from back home. “Wait! I know you!” I exclaimed. It was Dot—I’ve known her for a couple of decades — we attended the same rughooking retreat for many, many years back in Maine. What were the chances? We had a great time catching up for a few minutes. Back to the park . . .

Shenandoah NP boasts its centerpiece Skyline Drive as one of the VERY BEST places to see beautiful fall foliage (don’t worry, Mainers —I don’t believe anything can top autumn in Maine); it runs the entire length of the park. Unfortunately, there was not a smidgen of fall color. There were, however, some beautiful overlooks with views that reminded me of the Great Smokies—I stopped a number of times and made a stop at the Visitor’s Center just as a few spritzes of rain appeared on my windshield.

From Skyline Drive in Shenandoah NP–no fall foliage in sight

By the time I got back to the truck, the clouds and fog had really socked in—and it was raining more steadily. Yeah, doing twisty roads—steep and downhill—and not being able to see past a very few feet in front of my bumper was NOT FUN.

I went back to the national park on the second day of the solar install and was able to spot just a few more leaves giving way to a touch of dark yellow. Many leaves appeared just brown and shriveled. Disappointing. We’ll go back another year— and for Al, it will be his first time IN the park.

Fast forward five days — poof! We’re in Cave City, Kentucky, the home of Mammoth Cave National Park.

Imagine a series underground caves and tunnels that layer, twist, and intersect for more than 400 miles! We stopped at the stunning visitors’ center and learned quite a bit about the cave system. O.K., I knew about the bats but not about the cave crickets and cave rats!

The descent into the Historic Entrance

We had pre-purchased tour tickets online for the Grand Avenue Tour for the next day so this first day in the park, we decided to venture into the self-guided “Historic Entrance.” It comprises two huge rooms with numerous placards with all kinds of information; you can read your way right through. There were lights — just enough so you could see your way around and read the signage (kind of). There were three rangers on duty. Al’s great about asking questions and learning as much as he can from the rangers. Interestingly, one of the rangers told us that since those placards have gone up, it’s rare for anyone to talk to the rangers anymore. How sad! She explained that they have so much knowledge to share but if no one approaches them . . .

During the revolutionary war, much saltpeter was mined from the cave to make gunpowder.

We stopped to speak to another ranger on the way out. I asked about the bats. They’ve lost about 90% of the bat population due to the White Nose Syndrome; it’s a fungus that has killed millions of bats across the U.S. It came from Europe and Howe Caverns was where it was first detected here. The ranger said he’d only spotted two bats today and he pointed his flashlight to a tiny black spot high up on the cavern wall. So small.

The next day’s Grand Avenue Tour comprised four miles of strenuous walking and climbing—-all at 260+ feet underground!
Two rangers accompanied us —one at the front who flipped light switches ahead of us and who taught us so much along the way. The second ranger brought up the rear and switched lights off as we moved on.

It was magnificent—see for yourself!

Notice no stalactites or stalagmites! A sandstone layer above the cave’s limestone prevents water infiltration through most of the cave.

Gypsum (calcium sulfate) “flowers” grow throughout the cave.

The gypsum takes on many different appearances but yes, it’s the same gypsum that is in the wallboard of our homes.

Sometimes the passages are wide and low; other times tall and (very) narrow.

They reminded us of the slot canyons we saw in Arizona.

The cave was a commercial attraction in the 1800s. People were encouraged to put their names on the cave ceiling, using candle soot!

At one point during the tour, the rangers had us sit at on benches along the sides of the path. They wanted us to experience TOTAL DARKNESS and turned off all the lights and just listen. It was amazing.

Can you see my hand? Neither could I!

There were side passages everywhere!

As we neared the end of our Grand Avenue Tour, I asked the lead ranger what the difference is between a cave and a cavern; having visited both, I was curious. He gave me a very simple answer: “RN!”

Toward the end of the tour we reached a section without the sandstone cap, resulting in some stalactites. Places that are moist are lit with amber light to cut down on algae growth.

As we approached the exit, the ranger stopped us and shined his light on the ceiling so we could see a large group of cave crickets. They hang out there and only leave the cave every 7-14 days to eat. Cute little critters, eh? I told the ranger I was glad to see the crickets and was REALLY glad I HADN’T seen any cave rats. “Don’t look over to your right then,” he told me. “I can’t guarantee they’re aren’t some over there.” Aaaaaand, I made a very quick exit!

The cave crickets are about 1.5 to 2 inches across.

Water, water, everywhere! It’s what carved the magnificent cave system. The Green River and its tributaries did most of the work and it still runs several layers below the tunnels that we traveled.

We hiked a trail near the historic entrance, and found river height / flood gauges…

Don’t want to be anywhere near here when there is a 56 foot flood!

Finally starting to see some color!

The cave systems we visited were magnificent and very different from each other; Luray was commercialized with a very quick, pricey tour while Mammoth Caves had a huge range of tours and with our Senior Park Pass, it was a steal! We’re so glad that we got to experience both of these amazing places. And, yes, we’re still on the prowl for some fall foliage!