Bad luck comes in threes, doesn’t it?
Cristi and I were pretty fried after our wildfire experience near Pinedale. The next morning found us at Pine Coffee Supply eating a “brookie” and talking things through. Our situation was mostly unchanged from the night before. It was hot. The forecast called for more of the same. Eighties, maybe nineties. Our most obvious camping options were in places that would take the full force of the sun for most of the day. We were looking at the prospect of a couple weeks of hot weather at fairly high altitudes before we were supposed to meet friends for a river float in eastern Wyoming. Not very fun.
Cristi was looking at her phone and showed me a picture of a Casita at the beach. “I want to go there,” she said. I thought about it for a minute. There was nothing stopping us from heading to the West Coast. We had friends in Portland and Seattle and White Salmon that we could visit. Maybe we would go up to Olympic National Park for a few days. “OK,” I said, “let’s go.”
Just like that. We walked back to the truck, turned the key, and rolled north out of Pinedale toward the Idaho border.
A hard day of driving brought us to Three Island Crossing, a beautiful state park in Idaho on the route of the Oregon Trail. It was evening when we pulled in. The air was warm and humid. Bugs hummed. The grass was green. We were out of the desert.
As darkness fell we fried a couple trout from Boulder Creek and plugged in to AC power to enjoy the luxury of air conditioning after a few weeks of dry camping.
The next morning we were up early and headed west. We had made a few calls and would stop in Portland first to visit our friends Shawn and Brit and their family. That night we stayed in the Columbia River Gorge at Deschutes River State Recreation Area, where the Deschutes drops into the Columbia. Another beautiful spot. Sue, the campground host, helped us find a spot just big enough for the Casita, and let us know it was OK to park our truck on the grass in the site.
Another perfect site. This time with wonderful neighbors–a family who had just finished touring the Oregon Trail with their (mostly) refurbished 1950’s Airstream. The kind of folks you exchange numbers with in hopes of seeing them again.
It was Tuesday. Our friends would be at work during the day so I thought we might shoot out to the Oregon Coast for a quick view of the Pacific. Shawn suggested that a better plan would be to head up to Mt. Hood for the day. It wasn’t too far out of the way and we could get in a hike. He sent me a few photos from his guidebook and mentioned that, if we liked the Old Faithful Inn, we should check out the Timberline Lodge. Decision made. We would drive up to the Lodge and try to hike for a couple hours before heading into town.
That turned out to be a very good choice. The Timberline Lodge is amazing. It looks like something out of the Hobbit, built of huge blocks of volcanic stone and decorated with carvings, textiles and ironwork in the Cascadian style. The centerpiece of the Timberline is a soaring stone chimney that starts at the ground floor and rises four stories through the main lodge lobby and balconies. It’s spectacular.
The Lodge was built during the depression by CCC and WPA employees, and there’s a museum in the basement that details the construction process. When we walked in a guided tour was just starting and we were able to listen in to the details. The original rugs in the lodge were hand hooked by women in the WPA. The fireplace andirons are forged from railroad rails. The spark screens are repurposed tire chains. The whole place has an otherworldly feel to it. I would love to visit in the winter.
We left the lodge and headed out for an out-and-back hike that followed the Pacific Crest Trail toward Canada. It was hot and dusty on the trail. Brilliant sunshine, wildflowers and big views. Just what we needed. A couple hours later we were back in the car and headed to Portland.
Portland is quite a shock if you’ve been living out in the sticks in the Rockies for a month. We managed to time our drive perfectly to coincide with the evening rush hour. I followed instructions from the lady in the phone, weaving the Casita in-and-out of four lanes of frantic urban commuters. The wooded road that led up to Shawn’s place near a huge conservation park was a welcome relief. An oasis of green after our concrete afternoon.
That evening we discussed our plans for the coast over dinner and hoppy Portland IPAs. Cristi and I had a rough idea, but nothing firm. I thought we might drive up the coast of Washington and make a big loop around toward Seattle, where our friends Phil and Molly live. Shawn thought it might be more interesting to spend some time on the coast of Oregon. He showed us what he meant on the map. There wasn’t really a good way to tour the coast in Washington. At least compared to Oregon. The Oregon map showed park after park on the shore along Highway 101. Sounded like a beautiful drive. We decided to head south.
The next morning we went over maps again and came up with a rough plan. Cristi and I would drive south on the 5 to northern California and then follow 101 back north to tour the entire Oregon Coast. It was close to noon when we pulled down their street and back toward the 5. We were on our way.
Down around Eugene we pulled off at a Safeway to resupply. As we wheeled our cart back toward the truck I noticed something odd. The spare tire seemed to be drooping a little lower off the back of the trailer.
Cristi had been concerned about the tire bracket for some time. The weight of the bike and the constant jarring of the road had bent the bracket downward at an angle. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “it’s steel. It’s really strong.”
To my mind it was unlikely that the steel angle holding the tire would wear enough to fail. I would take it in someplace to get it reinforced later, but I was sure it would make it through the trip.
I was wrong. The bracket had broken and the tire was hanging at an angle. Half the bracket still held, but there was no telling how long it would last. What we didn’t need was for the bike, rack and tire all to part-company with the rig at 65 mph on the freeway. Time for a field repair.
I pulled the bike off the rack and the rack off the tire. Then I dug in my tool bag and found a couple feet of rebar tie wire. I wired the whole mess to the frame of the spare tire rack. It looked like it would hold. Next, the rack went into the bed of the truck and the bike was crammed into the Casita. It was a hassle, but it would do until we could get a repair.
Cristi and I were both pretty frustrated with the situation. She wished we had left the bike on the side of the road somewhere. We hadn’t used it or the canoe for well over a month and it seemed ridiculous to be carting them along. I was stressed about where we might be able to find a shop that could do a weld for us. We were both sick of the I-5. A few miles down the road we turned off toward the coast.
Our route took us down the valley of the Umpqua River and spit us out at Umpqua Lighthouse State Park. It was near 6. Late. We were lucky to grab the last site that would take the Casita. A light rain was falling. We cranked out the awning and settled in for the night, a little road weary and thankful that the spare tire had stayed on the trailer.
The next morning we went for a walk around the lake and put things in order to get on the road. We would drive the coast down to CA and then double back on the same route for part of the trip. Not as much fun as a loop, but we were on the coast already and we still wanted to see the whole thing.
The trailer was still connected from the night before. We would roll out, take a quick peek at the lighthouse, and get on down the road toward Jedidiah Smith State Park in California. I took one last sweep around the trailer, hopped in the truck and turned the key.
That’s strange. I didn’t think I had left anything on overnight. The trailer had never drained the tow vehicle before, so it probably wasn’t that. Maybe a door had been left cracked and the dome light stayed on? Weird. But not a problem. We had a jumper box in the truck and would be able to get things up and rolling again.
I pulled out the jumper box (we call it the robot) and pressed the battery condition light.
OK, I’ll try it anyway.
Nope. No luck.
Fine. On to plan B. I pulled the generator out of the bed of the truck, grabbed the 12V leads from my tool bag and set it up on the picnic table where the leads would reach the battery. The generator cranked right up and started charging the battery. I took our 12V tester out of the camper and plugged it into the outlet in the dash so I could monitor the charge. And then the generator stopped working.
It was out of gas. Not a problem. I filled it back up and cranked it over again. The monitor showed the battery charging very slowly, and any time we opened the door the dome light drew it sharply back down again. I was wondering how long this might take when our neighbor across the way offered us a jump. Thank You!
The jump did the trick. I ran the truck for a while and then cut the engine to make sure the battery was taking a good charge. It turned right over again. Great. We’re back in action. Must have been something on in the truck that we missed last night. We would be more careful tonight.
At this point, Cristi started speculating about the Rule of Threes. Bad things happen in threes. We’d had the spare tire carrier break and a dead battery. What was the third thing? The robot being dead? I didn’t think that counted. Running out of gas in the generator? Hardly qualifies.
When we pulled out of the parking lot of the lighthouse and my Yeti mug went flying off the bed cover into the ditch I thought I had my answer. The mug must be number three! Thank goodness it was only the mug!
We found the mug, largely undamaged. Down the coast we went. In Coos Bay we stopped at Bayshore Auto Repair. They welded a big piece of ¼” angle under the bracket of the spare tire carrier. Fixed. Bombproof this time.
Back down the road toward Cali.
When we arrived at Jedidiah Smith the sign at the entrance said “Campground Full.” I figured we might as well go in there and ask, just to be sure. If nothing else we could ask the rangers for advice on where to camp in the area. We were only planning one night in the redwoods before heading back north on the coast. We lined up at the entrance kiosk behind a couple other cars. No point in idling here. I turned off the truck.
When the car in front of us pulled ahead I turned the key. Nothing. Dead battery.
We were jamming up the one-lane entrance road. Nobody could get past. The ranger said they had a jumper box back at the station and drove off to get it. We waited with the hazards on.
When he returned we jumped the truck and it started right up. I left it running while Cristi asked advice on where to stay. Mill Creek wasn’t far away and they had some open spots. Off we went, but first we would stop in town at an auto parts store to get our battery checked.
At Autozone they hooked our battery up to a digital tester. It said the battery was fine. Normal wear. We asked them to check our Casita battery too. AOK.
I didn’t know what to do next. We couldn’t keep rolling with a truck that might or might not start. The Autozone staffer suggested we drive down to George’s Diesel and RV and have them look at things. Left at the next light. We started up the truck at headed that way.
Bill at George’s checked the specific gravity in the battery cells with a hydrometer. He diagnosed the problem. Bad cell in the battery. Great! “That makes me want to buy a battery from you guys,” I said and they got the ball rolling.
Since I had Bill and his hydrometer I asked him to check the Casita battery as well. It checked out just fine. I mentioned that it hadn’t been holding a charge very well and he suggested that all our dry camping might not have given it a chance to build a full, deep charge, even if we were hooking it up to the generator every other day.
Since we were there, and I had determined that he was the guy, I asked him to look at our trailer pigtail. It didn’t seem like we got any DC charge from the truck to the trailer, even if we were driving all day. Bill told me that we shouldn’t expect much, since the alternator in the truck has no way of knowing how low the battery is in the trailer. If we want to charge DC from the truck, he suggested, we should have a smart solenoid installed. That would allow the alternator to send a strong current to the trailer if the battery was low. Something to think about.
Our pigtail was badly corroded, especially the positive wire for 12V power, so I asked Bill to put a new one on. Fifteen minutes later we were back in the truck, new battery, new pigtail connector. A little poorer but back in action and ready to head toward Mill Creek. Hopefully there would be a campsite available. I put the truck in reverse and carefully backed the blind side, trying not to jackknife the rig and jam up the sway bar.
“HEY! HEY!” I heard behind me. CRUNCH!! I put my foot on the brake. Then put it in drive and pulled forward. Out of the truck to see what I’d hit.
I’d hit Tom’s pristine 1995 Chevy Silverado 1500.
Dammit. That’s number three.
What followed was pretty painless. Tom was relaxed. I called State Farm and filed a claim. They would take care of him. We lost a half hour. I was a little rattled. “It’s not like you to back up the trailer without checking behind it,” said Cristi. Yep.
Last week, after he read the post about the fire, my dad told me we should take a rest. Prophetic words I guess. We were both getting a bit tired and stressed-out here on the road. I was making mistakes again.
Our friend Larry texted just before we got to Jedidiah Smith and broke down for the second time. He’d seen our Instagram video of the rain at Umpqua. Said maybe I should do a post about the tough times on the road. Stuff that is the hardest to manage day in and day out. Prophetic again.
What have been the toughest times so far? The forest fire might qualify, but that was kindof exciting at the same time. Wet weather? Bugs? Breakdowns?
Breakdowns, flat tires and repair work are certainly stressful. Since you don’t live in the town where you’ve broken down, you don’t necessarily know the best place to go. I worried about the spare tire bracket until we got it fixed. But we did get it fixed, and it was hardly a hassle. Fifty bucks, a half hour and some fun banter with the guys who did the work. No, repairs aren’t the worst.
I think the toughest part about traveling full time is finding a place to camp. At the end of the day we want a relaxing place to cook dinner, enjoy a libation and get some sleep. It’s not always easy to find. In fact, when we’re on the moving, looking for a place to stay is a big part of our travel day.
Cristi and I don’t have a set itinerary so we don’t know exactly where we’re going from one day to the next. Since you can’t reserve a campsite online the day of your stay, we usually roll the dice and hope that there will be a first-come site available when we arrive. We try to arrive by three. Earlier if we can. We’ve had pretty good luck. We did get a site at Mill Creek that night.
It’s still stressful.
It’s a low level of stress, but it’s there almost every day. A few missed spots early in the trip and a hot night in the Bozeman Walmart were enough for us. The resources for finding spots are better than ever, but still not good enough. Recreation.gov is OK but not great. Campendium can help. But nothing makes it easy and seamless. There’s no way to know if there will be room at the inn when you show up. If you tend to worry a little, like I do, the uncertainty can wear on you.
Talking with friends and other campers we’ve learned that online reservation systems have made it more difficult to grab a site on short notice. With online reservations, reservable sites are often booked six months ahead of time. Some crafty people are even jumping the line by reserving a two week stay at their preferred site, with the weekend they really want at the end of the stay. They reserve 6 months plus two weeks ahead of time. It’s a way to sneak in two weeks earlier than they would have if they had only booked the weekend. They can cancel the rest of the stay later. Crafty. Villains.
No reservation services allow you to reserve the same day of your stay, and many require 48 hours before the day of your stay. This makes them doubly irritating. You don’t know what’s actually available one or two days out, and even if you did, there is no way to secure a spot. You have to roll the dice.
Reserved campsites are a bummer for spontaneous travelers like us, or for anyone who finds a little time free on the weekend and wants to head to the woods for a break. They’re fine if you know where you want to go six months ahead of time. If you’re planning your vacation season that far in advance, my hat’s off to you. That doesn’t work for everyone.
Sometimes you don’t know when you’ll be able to break free to spend time outside. If all the sites are reserved you can’t even try to head to your nearest state park or forest. This is a real barrier to participation for many people. Barriers are the last thing we need when it comes to getting outside and enjoying our public lands.
I hope that state and federal agencies consider this in their management plans and leave a good proportion of campsites available as first-come. They do this at Yellowstone. Some of the campgrounds take reservations. Some are first-come only. Without this mix we would never have found a place to camp in the park. We’re grateful that we did.
I’m happy to say that Oregon does a good job of mixing reservable and first-come sites at their state parks and recreation areas. We’ve had good luck here so far. As I write this we’re parked on a bluff overlooking the Pacific at a beautiful first-come site that we grabbed yesterday afternoon. This morning we decided that we should stay another day.
Time for a little rest.
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