Taryn? Another post so soon? Why yes. I’m experimenting with a new format. I’d like to try for daily posts, or near daily depending on cell service coverage. Why? To explore my creative being. And now that I am caught up I can start… except the area we are in, is of course, spotty with coverage.
Where did we end up? The road closures yesterday guided us towards Twentynine Palms, CA and that is significant because it is an entry point for Joshua Tree National Park. Which I fortuitously discovered reopened to camping the day we rolled into town. Yesterday. Sometimes the gods of chaos give me good gifts instead of grief. This morning it rained and we packed out of the BLM land with a chance at getting a reservation or walk-in. The popular California campgrounds were challenging to get into before Covid-19 and across the country campgrounds became harder to reserve after Covid-19. How long was it going to take for California to realize it had something to do just outside of Los Angeles? It was a long drive across the Park to find out..
A few reserved signs were posted and a couple campers had already set up but we were golden. Twelve days in Joshua Tree National Park. Hold on to your hats; this right time, right place almost never happens when I’m in the vicinity.
This was a heavy year, 2020. It is 8:06 pm on New Year’s Eve, here in these last glowing embers of the year I’ve shrugged off the worst of my grief. I’ve pulled myself back together (for now), remembered how to find joy and magic in the world. A heavy year indeed, but I’d rather not talk about the year or our collective struggles. I want to talk about feeling magic again. Where is the magic in this world? Everywhere. I thought my overgrown black tomcat Mister was magic. As was our bond. Finding a little ginger kitten (born near the time Mister died) with a giant personality: magic. My marriage to someone who compliments my personality: magic. The chance to spend so much time being right where I want to be: also magic. That brings me to when we (my husband and I) were both getting the blues. Social distancing has its price. That price is culture. Many places we wanted to see are closed to us. Many we avoided out of social responsibility. Some states we drove through were lax in their handling of masking and we didn’t want to linger. Some states had too many restrictions for convenient rv traveling. Without adventures… we were feeling… lost.
Which brings me to the Salt River Wild Horses, but all I knew about them were:
b. Lived on a river
One day I thought we were packing up to refill the water tank, but my very talkative spouse had really decided it was time to drive north to check out the horses. Except. He was piecing information from a random blog? Look. We made this entirely harder than it needed to be. We attempted to enter at two different points as far from the Salt River as you can. Slowly. Because the roads were not good for truck pulling a trailer. What could of been a one day drive from outside of Tucson, we made a two day event. I’d love to say I took the camping advice I received from an Instagrammer, but no. We camped in the Bulldog Canyon ohv area (fee and code required). First impressions… We arrived Christmas Day. Just in time for ALL the new motorized toys. (Things have settled since).
What was I expecting: We’d walk down to the river from our campsite and I’d take amazing photographs of wild horses playing in the water at dawn and dusk. Because. That. Is. What. I. Read. What I found out was the walk “to” the river was fine. The walk “back” was steep and I should’ve brought my stick and also, *maybe* walked a few times this fall. Which was all extra disappointing when there were zero horses. It was pretty though.
How did I get to see my first band of wild horses, you ask? They sauntered by the camper. And I went out there. Then they sorta started to follow me. And I kept backing up. And I was trying to maintain that space (50 ft I read) between us… because I’m honestly a little afraid of them. (ok a lot afraid of them).
Just one. One horse on a mission. Walked by the camper. I followed him hoping to get a good, clear shot. He turned and looked at me once, then headed off to do horse business. Now, I thought for sure he was heading for that river. I had them this time. I went to gather things, as one does, before rushing gleefully down the trail to the river. First, you must be so excited your ankle folds, and you sprawl out in the dirt in front of the camper. Then! Then you get yourself down to that disappointingly horseless river.
We checked out the Coon Bluff area of the Salt River and met a member of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. They were a fountain of information about the Horses and tipped us off where a band was that morning. I do recommend checking out their social media. They are doing great work keeping the Horses free. After my quick lesson on wild horses we moved on to locate the band. Seventeen. They weren’t interacting with each other as much as the previous band. All business. Eating. But then I learned on the Management Group’s social media the drought is hitting the area hard and they are supplementing their feed. Not that lay people should because they are using weed free feed and horses are mysteriously delicate creatures. Good intentions can turn deadly with well intentioned food. (Hint: Donate money to the Management Group)
They may be scrappy little mustangs that have survived on this land for centuries or they may be feral horses occupying land that could be used for steer (yes, many people want to squash what is beautiful, wild and free for possible profits) but to me they may as well be unicorns for the magic they bring into the world.
After a week we needed to have a business day. Dump the camper, fill the camper, supply run… etc… Had this idea we’d try out a different camping location. Coon Bluff was only open to camping on Friday’s and Saturday’s so we looked into a different dispersed camping area. This was not going to work. We found this area to be even busier with orv traffic. And then there was the apocalyptic landscape. This area burned recently. Back to Bulldog Canyon ohv. The next evening we took our cue from the sun and headed to the river. We started following a path starting at the Goldfield Recreation Area heading towards the Coon Bluff Recreation Area. The path followed the cliff above the river, more or less. We were able to see see up and down the river well. Soon enough we found fresh signs of horse activity. Fresh tracks and dung. Then a band appeared from the desert and headed gingerly down the path to the river.
My husband held my impulsive self back to let them do their thing. Then we followed them down and settled on the bank of the Salt River to watch wild horses be wild. I’m going to say right now, this was certainly one of my favorite experiences. The light, the innocence. Perfect.
Then a buzzing. Louder. I couldn’t see where the noise came from. The horses became agitated, then behind me I heard my husband say they didn’t like the drone. Drone. Drone? DRONE? Sassy tails and plucky footwork. Those horses headed for the cover of the trees while the drone hovered over us. Waiting. I may have popped out of the tree line to use an ancient Americana symbol to communicate all of our communal displeasure. At least that wasn’t the end of the day right there. While walking back we caught sight of the band again. And in the glowing light of the setting sun.
One last go at a chance for river magic. We headed for the same stretch of river as yesterday. Odds seemed good we’d catch a band there. We hiked in further than previously, but ended up following the sounds of hooves on rocks. We arrived in time to see a scuffle of dust and hooves peeking under the thick tree branches. Then the band appeared one by one out of the trees and headed into the desert at a brisk pace. We had no hope of following their pace. We walked the horse trails back to our truck. No further sightings.
These are long days. These are long days. These are long days.
We let go of our idea of how life was supposed to be as our best layed plans fell apart. Faced with the long dark northern winter during a pandemic, not working and living in our isolated house, Kurt (my husband) and I, decided to return to the road.
The plan: Head due west into the setting sun into uncharted territory before heading to the Arizona desert.
The reality: We drove directly into the first major storm system of the year.
On an inauspicious frosty October morning we departed from our home peninsula set snuggly among the Great Lakes and headed west. At first the day was bright and full of hope. It ended with us colliding with a snow storm somewhere in Minnesota. That is where, after spending a night in a glorified parking lot, we decided to travel directly and quickly south.
South through Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas.
Here was our dilemma: The plains states were being hit with the winter storm front. It was sweeping down across Colorado, Oklahoma and parts of Northwest Texas. The southwest states were still getting triple digit heat. The fires were still burning in the west. And the Gulf of Mexico was being hammered by a historical hurricane season.
So… Texas Tour 2.0
Initially Texas was just going to be a place to stall for time while the weather cleared. Then Texas became ground zero for kitty search 2020. I think I’ll save that story for another day. However: cause and effect.
The one place in Texas I wanted to see was Caddo Lake. It was a challenge to get a reservation in the campground so I settled for just one night. We skipped around a few different Texas State Campgrounds before and after that.
We languished for weeks on the Gulf Coast and I’m not sorry for the experience. We discovered there were places along the Texas Gulf Coast where camping was free right on the beach. (watch those tides though). Imagine falling asleep to the rhythms of ocean waves, windows open, camper door open all night to humid breezes. Waking to red sunrises and going to bed after the sun bleeds into the night. Everything is covered in a layer of salt. Your hair, your skin, your bed, the floor… Great Blue Herons fishing in the waves next to you… Days filled with the zen of watching the tides erase your footprints.
After Texas we had to plan how to get to Arizona. We needed to trek across Texas, driving through El Paso (one of the Covid hot spots), and across southern New Mexico. Camping to out-of-state residents in New Mexico was discouraged in state parks. The Covid numbers were causing tighter restrictions and shut downs. Traveling in late 2020 required more planning. What is open, what is closed and what requires reservations in advance. Each state may be tighter or more relaxed on masking which might reflect on the data for infection rates. Who wants to risk getting seriously ill hundreds or thousands of miles away from home… and out of network. We avoided high Covid areas and areas that weren’t taking masking precautions.
Arizona. Reliably sunny. Warm days, cold desert nights filled with wide open starry skies and the singing of coyotes. Night after night of perfect sunsets. The days running together. This year we miss the restaurants and the arts. The excitement of new roads. This slow year. I squat in the desert making art. Mostly waiting for clouds. When the clouds come I’ll get to photograph something new.
I was approached on the beach by a middle age woman with the gift of gab and some painful ideas. She regurgitated ideas from memes like the virus would disappear one day and come back in ten years. I tried to keep my space and assist her in reality. My husband had his own conversation with a teacher where he learned that the local population holds beliefs about this being a part of God’s plan and the end times. There being excitement in the religious population to embrace current events and little desire to change habits.
Tuesday, March 17, 2020: Clear Lake State Park, California
The first night. We changed direction and pace to make our way home, traveling by mostly interstate instead of scenic backroads. We had to drive south to go east because a winter storm was sweeping through the Rocky Mountains, Plains and Midwest. We found this state park about an hour from where we stopped for supplies. Restaurants were starting to move to take out only by force in some places and by choice in others. It was dark and late when my phone, blue-toothed into the radio, blasted out the warning declaring a shelter-in-place order for Sonoma County. Then mid-morning a park employee accompanied by California Park Police came through to inform us they were closing the State Parks and to give us advice about where to try to stay.
Wednesday, March 18, 2020: Rabbit Island, California
Rabbit Island, a familiar camping spot for us in a National Forest, we stopped at before going to the Sequoia National Forest. Again we rolled in well after dark. And in the morning there were no cows to greet us. The news? Pennsylvania was shutting down rest stops. Someone else traveling from Florida to Michigan reported on Facebook finding hotels closing up behind and ahead of them. The Canadian/American border is closed to unnecessary travel.
Thursday, March 19, 2020: Mojave Desert Preserve, California
We stopped before dark. Finding resting spots on wild lands is too challenging after dark. Part of me was happy to see the desert again, but it wasn’t supposed to be this way. A spring rain storm swept through. In the morning President Trump announces closing the southern border and sending asylum seekers back to their countries. I weep for the cruelty.
Friday, March 20, 2020: Thirty Minutes Outside Kingman, Arizona
Supplies. We’ve carried minimum supplies. After the troubles in Death Valley I started stocking up on dry foods (that was traumatic, food deserts are real), but we still kept minimal dog food and paper supplies because of the minimal space. Now we cannot find toilet paper (three states later). Getting dog food and meds filled just over the Arizona border. Getting pet food. Errands take time, checking for toilet paper and some groceries while we wait for the scripts to fill.
Illinois under stay-at-home order beginning tomorrow at 5:00pm.
Made it about thirty minutes south of Kingman, Arizona. We originally planned to cross Arizona at Flagstaff, but that city was getting cold and snow so we are going the more southern route and swinging past Phoenix. Between Phoenix and Flagstaff are mountains and twisty roads we don’t want to get tangled in right now. I’ll get to say hello to the Saguaros for a brief moment.
Saturday, March 21, 2020: Navajo National Monument
Home is probably still snowed in. Can’t stay here. Can’t get there. One day at a time. Uncertainty rocks the world. Humanity is in crisis. May we walk through this fire and come out better for it. Here, now, communities rally together finding creative ways to support each other, while our governments make cruel decisions and we let them.
We traveled. Stopped in a small town for a couple staples, tried again for toilet paper: nope. Wanted to take a break from the road and reality by stopping at the Grand Canyon. There were more people than we anticipated and a young woman up on her soap box. She stood on a rock, all attitude in her cocked hip, yelling into her phone about the people not keeping six feet apart and everyone was going to die infecting her small village. Too much. When I realized she was filming, that’s when the panic attack set in. To be clear I was able to be there without being in anyone’s space. And it took some cognitive processing to manage it.
We headed SE on 64 (Desert View Dr.) into the Navajo Nation lands. All their roadside stands were vacant and scenic points closed.
We found a place to camp for the night just before sunset in the beautiful Navajo National Monument.
Sunday, March 22, 2020: Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
The night before we discussed staying a day or two to catch our breath, but in the morning (late morning) we both felt ready to go on. No sooner had I stepped out of the camper, then a park officer rolled up in his truck, decked out with a regular surgical mask, to inform me the park was closed and we had to leave. Not that it was closing, closed, note: there was no one to pay for the site last last night and the park was half full.
I’ve tempered my desires to stop for photographs in exchange for eating more pavement. This was harder driving through the harsh and beautiful Navajo lands of Arizona and New Mexico. Passing on Monument Valley and Shiprock. Along with local flavor like homemade signs; “I Eat Pilgrims” and “Tourist Go Home.” Also passed up (I believe) a Native mural depicting a face with respirator “Beware Covid-19.”
We thought we had found National Forest land to camp on twenty minutes outside of Taos, New Mexico. Found it gated and the road snowed in. I was tortured with the drive through Taos to get there. Knowing no matter how much I wanted to see the town, circumstances were out of my control.
New Mexico’s decision to close state parks became, clearly, more of a challenge than anticipated as the sun set. I made my husband pull over (despite his insistence the signs demanded a pass to park) to eat and stretch before we did this stretch of road in the dark (and hopefully find an easy place to stop for sleep off of I-25 or before. A rest stop, Cracker Barrel or Walmart would do.
Or… a wildlife refuge.
Monday, March 23, 2020: Stapleton, Nebraska
Morning came on slow and mild. The morning plan: north to Nebraska via Kansas to avoid the storm systems. Ever North and East.
Michigan, our destination: Stay Home, Stay Safe Order; in effect at midnight.
Rolled through the Kansas plains while the news cascaded on by the minute. What inevitable choices would our leaders make? I worry for us more now than I did after 9/11. As much as I’d dreamed of seeing this country and then maybe the world, now I want to curl up in the forgotten forests of the southern shores of Lake Superior. Where our winters are harsh, but the people are strong. Where the world can forget to send it’s problems and we can carry on.
Tuesday, March 24, 2020: Blue Mounds State Park, Minnesota
Home was closer, but still too far away. Woke up to a cloud of starlings filling the air and spring fields with sound. Word came that the road to our home was narrowly plowed with tall crusty snow banks. Two hard days of travel or linger and hope for a melt? Linger and what new developments would occur in the country? Linger and be subjected to unknown tides. Or go on?
Thank you Nebraska gas station, finally scavenged a roll of toilet paper. Situation critical. By this measure, Tuesday was a good day. By others, I don’t know. On this day the United States President switched his rhetoric from being a war time president to seeing churches packed for Easter and reopening the economy while we crossed the American heartland.
Drove by a rural bar in South Dakota with a full parking lot. What will history sound like?
We had made reservations for a campground in Minnesota. I was stoked upon arrival to check out the showers. I practically skipped over to the building, to find each door locked.
Wednesday, March 25, 2020: Blue Mounds State Park, Minnesota
A great long deep breath and stood still while the world turned.
Hoped to shower. Dashed.
Hoped to do laundry. Failed to rally the effort and energy.
My husband went to procure supplies from the nearby town while I could barely keep my eyes open. The other camper left. We saw many campers and RV’s on the road this week, more than we had seen moving before.
News: Wisconsin: “Safer at Home” went into effect for 30 days. Waiting for news on the governments passing the relief bill. India locked down.
Thursday, March 26, 2020: Home, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan
We left the campground before sunrise. Drove through fog and drizzle, I reflected on the desert. A place still relatively wild and free because of its harsh climate, like home.
News: Minnesota “Stay at Home Order” ordered and in effect Friday, March 27. We passed a huddle of smokers outside a pretzel factory and saw people sitting down to eat at a gas station diner. News about New York grows worse daily. New Orleans. Georgia. Washington state. Florida. San Francisco.
Home. I know these roads and trees. For hours now I’ve known these roads. We are going to pass near where we bought the camper soon. (It is coming apart again). The snow banks are still high. The trees are small and grow densely together. Boreal Forest. 35 degrees. No cactus. No Border Patrol. No surreal landscapes. No starfish. No whale plumes. To reach a big metropolitan area one has to drive at least six hours. To reach a major city, eight to nine hours.
News: the United States has surpassed Italy and China in Covid-19 cases.
Update: after crawling across the snow bank with a cat in my arm and sliding down into the dark recesses of my cold dark home, I waited while my husband hit the switches on the circuit breaker. Heat and hot water would be mine soon. My cat wandered the dark rooms calling. Light! Glorious light. Which dimmed… and flicked and died away. We are back in the camper for the night. Dreams of long hot showers without pressing buttons every thirty seconds will have to wait on the power company.
A driveway stay for a little over a week. Long enough to completely scatter our things across the camper. A breath of stability and exploration of the coast.
There were challenges finding the correct location of the tide pools. Challenges, I say.
Attempt no. 1 brought us to this beautiful bay we could park right next to and waltz up to the shoreline. We arrived just before sunset at low tide.
Attempt no. 2 “I think it’s this way.” We parked and had a few choices on trails to take through the low shoreline scrub brush leading into the cascading dunes. I followed, blindly, my husband up and down the coastal dunes (sand mountains?) to a dead end with rubber legs. And back up I slogged through the sand. We tried another trail. Up and down the dunes to the tide pools.
Attempt no. 3, with new directions, we tried again following a reasonable trail down through the shore vegetation to the tide pools.
I can’t forget visiting Morro Bay and Otters…
Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon
Near Hearst Castle the Elephant Seals gather for the breeding season. Thousands. Hundreds were on the beach and so many more were in the water. Mostly they lay on the sand barely moving, flipping sand across their backs on occasion. We followed the sounds down the beach to where an older male was chasing away an interloper and the yearlings and pups were playing.
After leaving the main beach we stopped at another roadside pullout. My husband thought it was a regular beach (signage was in not apparent) and just before reaching the beach I stopped him from coming face to face with a young male elephant seal.
Los Padres National Forest
Big Sur. We stayed on the south side for two nights and it rained in California. For a brief moment the sun shined and we took a walk to the ocean cliffs. Where I was quickly about the abundance of poison oak in the state of California. I made it out of California unscathed.
We left the campground in Los Padres National Forest and followed 1 up the coast to Monterey. We camped at Laguna Seca with it’s epic green views and racetrack. Racetrack. Yes we camped to the sounds of race cars zooming all day.
250 years old with a literary and canning past, Monterey sits by the ocean with its gem the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’ve never been to one so I have no comparison. All I can say is it was spectacular and inspiring. When we arrived the octopus was active and moving around it’s tank. Swelling and swirling his arms. In addition to the real Octopi there was another beautiful multimedia exhibit dedicated to how octopi and squid were historically depicted. There were schools of fish swimming in current tanks, jellyfish dancing. rescued shore birds, touch tanks, sharks, a green sea turtle, and art exhibited by artists dedicated to bringing awareness to the problem of plastics in the ocean.
Unfortunately for me I was the recipient of an ignorant and hostile public policing effort at the Octopus tank. A young mother, with a brood of homeschool kids, took it upon herself to attack me for my camera’s meter light because the sign said no flash. Then there was a mob reaction. Another woman chimed in with: “haven’t you taken enough photographs, you can stop so the rest of us can enjoy the exhibit.”
I was so frustrated and angry. Not one of those women felt the need to say a single word to my husband who was also photographing. And a guy next to me flashed the octopus with his iPhone, but he just “made a mistake.”
It took a male staff member to step in and set the mob straight. And as an artist I’ve been singled out more than once in my life for not following the rules as other people, and often, women see them. And more than once I’ve had to stand my ground, hold my breath and carry on knowing that I’m on a different path they don’t understand, I’M NOT WRONG I AM AN ARTIST.
We made a stop an hour outside of San Francisco so I could attempt to make contact with someone in the city. We crossed over the Golden Gate for fun (not fun) and later the Bay Bridge for me to search a six story public library with no luck on finding this person. My heart breaks for this country of haves and have nots. I wish others understood, or tried, a little, to understand how fragile mental and financial stability are.
Northern California & Touching Oregon
Its sort of a blur now. I’m writing this and it is still recent history. That wasn’t even days ago I was in San Francisco and now its under a Shelter in Place order. The thing about the old truck was we didn’t have a radio. We couldn’t listen to any news in the truck and we were often places with poor service. History is now catching up so fast now that we have the news available in the new truck. When we were driving up the California Coast to Oregon the Covid-19 troubles seemed distant. By the time we landed in Brookings, Oregon it was obvious that we needed to head home. Now California is shutting down state parks. New Mexico already shut them down.
With great sadness, my feet kissed the Pacific Northwest and turned tail. We are heading south to head east because it is still winter in the Rocky Mountains. It is time to go home. The world is out of our control and it’s time to go home to the roads we know.
The rest of this tale will hopefully be of the long road home.