August 20, 2006—I'm late with this update, and it feels as if a lot has happened in the three weeks since I last wrote. That's probably because I've been on the move—I've stayed in five places in the past three weeks. Normally I like to stay in one place for at least two weeks at a time.
Figuring out the logistics of buying my new rig, Skylark, was a complicated business. The rig is in California (the San Francisco bay area, to be precise); I was in northern Wyoming when I made the deal to buy it; and I needed to be in Albuquerque in two months for the Balloon Fiesta. I'll spare you the details, but getting from point A to point B to point C would have involved more than 2,500 miles of driving in seven or eight weeks, which is way faster than I like to move. With gasoline at $3.00 a gallon or more, it would also be a considerable expense. My fulltiming lifestyle is affordable because I don't normally drive very often or very far... which also helps keep it relaxing and enjoyable.
So I decided on a different plan: drive straight from Wyoming to Albuquerque (about 870 miles), and then pay a transport company to deliver Skylark from California. It will cost me about $400 more to do it this way than if I drove out to California and picked up the rig myself... but it will save me 1,800 miles of driving. To me, that's money well spent.
So a week or so after my surgery, Kate & Terry headed west, leaving me at the Sheridan County Fairgrounds for another week—I still had to see Dr. Holst to have my stent removed, and then take Gertie back to Coffeen Dyno to have her squealing belts and cracked exhaust manifold replaced.
Meanwhile, the fairgrounds people asked me to move my rig to a new location: right next to their machine shop. This was one of the three least desirable places I've ever camped (the other two being the Tucson Truck Terminal and a China Buffet restaurant's parking lot). Aside from the lack of scenery, it was far from restful, as dump trucks, backhoes and Bobcats drove in and out night and day, and men bashed away noisily and enthusiastically in the shop. But... the temperatures were still peaking at above 100° F., so I needed a place to plug in in order to have air conditioning. Staying at the fairgrounds was costing me only $10 a night, compared to $30 a night at either of Sheridan's two commercial campgrounds. And I needed to be in town for my appointments. So I pulled down the blinds, tried to ignore the noise, and worked on my web pages.
The next Tuesday I went to see Dr. Holst, and in a quick and (to my surprise) nearly painless office procedure he pulled the silicone stent tube out of my right ureter. It had done its job, allowing the ureter to heal from the damage done by the kidney stone and its removal. Once again I was impressed by how well equipped and competent Holst and his staff were. If you've got to have a kidney stone, Sheridan is a great place to do it—and have it treated!
A couple of days later it was Gertie's turn. I dropped her off at Coffeen Dyno and then walked across the street to a big mall, where I found a book ("Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell") and a quiet, comfortable place to read it (Arby's, believe it or not). I sat in the farthest corner, munching on a really excellent roast turkey Reuben sandwich and other tidbits and sipping from my giant water jug, for seven hours, during which I read the first 408 pages of this 1,006-page novel. I found it absolutely fascinating.
By evening Gertie was all finished, and I drove back to the fairgrounds with not a peep from the belts for the first time in months. What a relief! My joy would have been complete if I could have gotten a good night's sleep, but that night's rock concert at the fairgrounds kept me awake until nearly midnight. Earplugs were no help; I just had to wait until they finished.
The next morning I left Sheridan, headed south. I was glad to get away from the fairgrounds after three weeks of boredom, but on the other hand I was grateful to them for letting me stay there so cheaply while I recovered from my surgery. (And of course to my friend Kate for arranging it!)
I drove a long and tiring 270 miles to Grayrocks Reservoir, near Wheatland. One thing I learned on this drive is that if you drink 75 ounces of water while driving, you're going to have to pee about every twenty minutes. Of course Gertie carries her own bathroom, but I had to stop in order to to use it. That meant repeatedly pulling off onto the shoulder to use the bathroom, while 18-wheelers roared past me, rocking the coach alarmingly. Then I had to merge back onto the interstate, which isn't easy since Gertie takes a l-o-n-g time to get up to speed. All in all, it was very uncomfortable and less than safe.
I stayed three days at Grayrocks. On the second day my weather radio began to beep, signaling a severe thunderstorm alert, so I disconnected my satellite dish cables and battened down the hatches (OK, closed the windows). I got some rain and plenty of wind, but as it turned out, the worst of the storm passed a mile or two to the west, just on the other side of the reservoir. It was a doozy, with vicious-looking clouds, torn by turbulence, dumping dense gray columns of rain.
From Grayrocks I drove to Denver's Cherry Creek State Park. I arrived exhausted, although the drive was not that long—I must not have slept well the night before. In fact, I was so tired by the time I got near my destination that I nearly fell asleep at the wheel in Denver rush-hour traffic! It was a frightening experience. I would slap my face or my thigh to keep myself awake with a jolt of pain... but each slap was only good for about thirty seconds, and then I'd start to lose attention and have trouble focusing my eyes.
Normally I'd deal with this by simply popping an Atomic Fireball into my mouth. These super-hot cinnamon-flavored candies make it absolutely impossible to fall asleep, and for that reason I carry a handful in the glovebox where I can easily get at them. But when I reached for one, I found that there were none left. I knew there was half a bag of them in the kitchen, but by the time I realized I needed one, I was caught in the swirl of rush-hour traffic on an eight-lane freeway... I couldn't pull over to get them! I had no choice but to keep driving.
So I had a rather scary time of it for about twenty minutes, and when I got within a mile of the campground, I very nearly had an accident: I made a left turn in front of three lanes of oncoming traffic after the left turn arrow had shut off and they were starting to move. One little red sports car who was especially quick off the mark came within a few feet of hitting my right fender before stopping. If there'd been an accident, it would have been entirely my fault. My reflexes were just way too slow; I shouldn't have been driving. As soon as I got to Cherry Creek State Park, I replenished my glovebox's supply of Atomic Fireballs. I don't ever want to go through that experience again!
I've described Cherry Creek before: it's immaculate but sterile. There's little scenery or privacy, and it's very expensive for a state park: $27 a night with hookups. Compare that to the $4-a-night rate that my New Mexico annual pass gets me, and you'll understand why I wasn't anxious to stay there any longer than I had to.
The next day a friend took me to a park with a large population of foxes—we saw as many as half a dozen at a time romping through the woods, often cutting across the footpath behind and in front of us. They moved fast, but they weren't as shy as you'd expect.
My friend explained that the situation here is unusual, in that these foxes aren't exactly wild. Instead, they are the descendants of animals that lived on a local fox farm, but were set free when the farm went out of business some decades ago. Close contact with humans in the park since then has made them less reclusive than would ordinarily be the case.
I loved watching the foxes! I had never seen a fox close up before, and I was struck by their intelligence, their beauty... and above all, their graceful, almost catlike, movements. (They have slit pupils like cats, a feature typical of nocturnal hunters.) We spent more than an hour photographing them. I was glad that I had my Panasonic FZ30, whose 12x zoom lens is ideal for wildlife photography.
The day rapidly warmed up, and we strolled to a shady bench overlooking one of the park's two ponds. The glassy surface mirrored the sky perfectly.
Nearby, I was lucky enough to capture a shot of one of the pond's many waterfowl just as it took off.
My next stop was Trinidad Lake State Park, near Colorado's southern border. This time the drive was fairly easy... but finding the park was not. To begin with, the highway exit that my faithful GPS navigator, "Mabel," was expecting had been closed. A new exit with a new number led into town by a recently paved route that wasn't in Mabel's map database. In Trinidad, many of the streets seemed to have been rearranged and there was a lot more fresh asphalt.
Mabel seemed to be getting confused, so I pulled into a gas station where a police car was parked, and asked the patrolman where to find the state park. To my intense relief, he offered to lead me there. I thanked my lucky stars as he lead me on a complicated route through the hilly town, ending at... a large dirt parking lot next to a skateboard arena? As I looked around for the lake and campground, the friendly policeman waved and drove off. About thirty seconds later I spotted the sign identifying this as the Trinidad city park. Great.
So I put my trust in Mabel, and blindly followed her directions. The route led through a maze of streets and out the other side of town, but sure enough, a few miles up the road was the state park. As I've done so many times before, I said "Thank you, Mabel!"
Trinidad Lake had better scenery than Cherry Creek, but was just as expensive... so I only spent two nights there (and took no photos) before heading south again. It felt good to cross into New Mexico at the Raton Pass, even though Gertie slowed down considerably on the long upgrades leading to the 7,800-foot-high pass. Entering New Mexico feels almost like coming home, because I have so many good memories of this state and its beautiful (and affordable!) parks.
My destination was Villanueva State Park, where I'd stayed before, enjoying the beautiful views and solitude of the "El Cerro" campground up on the hillside. I'd been traveling with my water tank half empty in order to lighten Gertie's excessive load, but when I reached the park, I filled up with water before tackling the steep, rocky road that leads up to El Cerro. It's strictly dry camping up there, and I didn't want to come back down any sooner than I had to.
The road looked a lot more rutted than I remembered it, but Gertie had made it last time with no problems... so I headed up the hill, past the sign that reads "NOT RECOMMENDED FOR RVS OR TRAILERS." But about halfway up, Gertie slowed to a crawl and then stopped. I floored the accelerator and heard the engine rev, but there was no forward movement.
Very carefully, I inched back down to a slightly less steep stretch and tried again, making an effort to get a running start. "Go, Gertie, go!" I muttered... but it was no use. My poor overloaded rig, with an extra 200 pounds of water in the tank, just couldn't make it up that hill. Knowing that if I tried any more, I'd risk overheating the transmission, I gave up and carefully backed down to the more crowded lower campground. Luckily, there was nobody behind me. Just the same, it was pretty embarrassing.
I had planned to stay here for a week and get together with my friend Cynthia Wenslow, but things didn't go the way we expected. She was tied up with a house guest, so we couldn't meet. The weather was dreadful: cold, rainy and disgustingly humid. I found myself saying "This can't be New Mexico! This is as bad as New Jersey!" It rained for three days straight, bringing the mosquitos out in droves and driving me indoors. The normally placid Rio Cebolla that runs through the park—the same stream that was barely a foot deep when I was here in May—turned into a raging muddy torrent. The ground is so soft that my satellite internet dish's tripod keeps sinking deeper, shifting its position and losing the signal. Then I have to go out in the rain and adjust it again.
And then I got an email from my friend Sandra Bishop (the Wandering Potter), saying that she'd just been diagnosed with liver cancer and was planning to head home to Tennessee shortly. Sandra is at Storrie Lake State Park, only fifty miles north of here. Although it means backtracking a little bit, I'm going to go spend the next week with her; it may be my last chance. I'll leaving tomorrow... hope the rain lets up!
Note: I was able to visit with Sandra for a week before I had to head for Tijeras to pick up my new rig. Sandra died six months later in Las Cruces; see "The Wandering Potter" for more about her.