Monday, September 30, 2013

Curves & Beauty & Naming Schemes

While traveling, I have noticed that beauty and curves often go together. They are not mutually inclusive by any means, but they are often related. A beautiful woman very often has great curves of some sort. A scenic byway normally means a slow and curvy road from which to better observe beautiful landscapes. This is definitely true of California. The famed Ca-1 was so winding at times we had to take a break to give my mind and stomach some respite. In fact, some of the roads there reminded me of Central America, narrow, winding, and cutting dangerously close to objects such as rocks, trees or telephone poles.

In Sequoia National Park, we drove up a winding road to the grove of giant sequoias.
DSC05877 See the twisting road we traveled?

At one point, we even got to drive under/through a fallen sequoia.

Another item of beauty with ample curves that I have discovered that I love is tree roots. When the tree falls over and exposes the beginning of the system of roots that it has, the roots are displayed in a whimsical, enchanting way.

To get to the panoramic views atop of Moro Rock, we had to climbing a curvy staircase.
The sequoias were huge. They aren’t as tall as the Coastal Redwoods, but they get much thicker than them. They have a more brusque, “big and strong” appearance, while the redwoods have a finer, more wispy appearance. And, get this, the sequoias actually have red bark! The scientific name for redwoods is sequoia sempervirens, while the sequoias is sequoiadendron giganteum. This drives me crazy. They should have given the sequoias the common name of “redwood,” and instead called the redwoods “sequoias.” I have no faith in our ancestors’ naming schemes.
DSC05901 That is me at the bottom of this monolith.

There was a fuzzy black bear with its cubs on the walk to see General Sherman. I got to get pretty close, but the trick is to keep someone else between you and the bear.


In front of the world’s largest tree by mass.

DSC05929 This is an outline of General Sherman’s base. He no longer grows any taller, but each year he grows another thin layer of bark, which is the equivalent mass of another small tree.

Yosemite had more winding trails that lead to beautiful views.

DSC05993 Bridalveil Falls.

DSC06004 Mirror Lake (currently dried up).
And, last but not least as we left California, we visited the ancient bristlecone pines. These trees are the oldest known living organisms on earth with some aged at 4700 years old! It is amazing the history contained in the tree rings of these trees. They have been able to identify major geological events in the rings, such as an unusually-cold year which corresponded with a volcanic eruption which lowered worldwide temperatures for over a year. They aren’t much to look at, except for their pinecones and their skeletons!

DSC06046 The oldest pines are often shorter, stunted and damaged trees.

DSC06036 The first-year pinecones (yes, they take multiple years to mature) are purple red spikes.

DSC06054Their skeletons of hardwood last for centuries as well. Look at the curving, whimsical beauty of this guy!

So, California has the tallest, largest, and oldest trees that we currently know of. This does not seem fair.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

West Coast Hysteria

San Francisco airport had the best chance of me getting on a flight to get to Kansas to make it to my sister’s and cousin’s bridal showers. So we arranged our travels to make it there by the time that I needed to fly out. We decided to participate as tourists for once and drive over the Golden Gate bridge and visit Fisherman’s Wharf while we were there. We had read online that there was a $6 toll in the southbound direction, so we were prepared to pay. However, as we approached, there was a sign that said no cash. We figured we would then pay with credit card. When we got to the toll booth, there was no attendant or way to pay, so we just drove on through. Apparently, San Franciscans have this “pay by license plate” or something, where you are billed based upon their plates. Maybe we will get a bill in the mail?


Then we made our way to Fisherman’s Wharf. As we progressed closer to our destination, we figured parking would be difficult to find. We did finally find a spot on the road and scrounged up enough coins to purchase an hour’s worth of parking. It happened to be about lunchtime so we decided we would find lunch and get back, having completed the task of visiting the wharf.


Walking about looking for a place to eat, we realized that America’s Cup Finals were being held in San Francisco this weekend. In the bay, we could see sail boats sliding by, showing off before the race. One of the boats offering rides to watch the Cup was the “Lovely Martha.” Jonathan’s grandma, Martha, has been watching this boat since she was a young woman. In fact, on one of Fred & Martha’s first dates, she took him to see it and next to it was the “Captain Fred.” Oh, the ironies of life! Sadly, this time it was Captain Chris that was next door.


We decided on Alioto’s for lunch. It is the oldest restaurant on the wharf, and they were offering cheaper lunch specials from their second story with views of the bay. Jonathan got the fish and chips and I the tortellini with tomato cream sauce. Both were excellent. The fish had such a great flavor; I was impressed.

We made it back to our van just in time and made our way back out of the city in search of a reasonably-priced campground. We made our way along the coast to a campground that I had found whose prices I thought would be $10. When we got there, we were going to be charged a minimum of $30. So, we decided to drive on for another 45 minutes to the next campground, which definitely offered $12 tent camping. We got settled in for the evening, and then during dinner, a ranger came up and told us we were in the wrong area. Then he asked if we had bought camping for an RV. I said no, that we considered ourselves a tent. He said that we needed to purchase the RV permit for $30 and call the number on the kiosk during business hours to get a refund on our tent permit. Frustrated with the fact that we would have to pay so much more and we were only going to be there until 3:30am, we decided to leave and find a Walmart. When we got cell reception, we discovered that California cities don’t permit overnight parking in their Walmart parking lots, so we searched for a rest area. Jonathan found us one a lot closer to the airport, which was a plus.

My flight left at 5:50am, so I needed to be there at 4:50am, so we were up at 4:15am. I did catch both of my flights. My dependable brother had arranged for a vehicle to be in the parking lot for me to take when I arrived. So that weekend, I got go to my cousin’s shower on Saturday and my sister’s shower on Sunday. I had a ton of fun, while Jonathan got to entertain himself in the California wilderness by himself for 4 days.

California’s living expenses are frightful. Gas is about a full dollar more expensive than the Midwest prices. Food prices are exorbitant. For example, we needed groceries and couldn’t find a Walmart. The prices were high: a pound of chuck roast was $10, a large can of parmesan was $9. Then to top it off, free campsites are few and far between. Most of the campgrounds in California, especially state parks, charge $30 for dry-camping! You may get flush toilets for that price. Ridiculous. This has definitely made us want to limit our time here.

I had heard that Big Sur area along Ca-1 is one of the most scenic drives and Jonathan had heard that Montana de Oro State Park was pretty great. Since we were already so far west and south in California, I figured we might as well as hit up those spots now, despite our desire to get out of California as soon as possible. When I was reunited with my husband Monday morning, we made our way south along the coast again. I guess I must have just been spoiled with my other travels, as I did not find the scenery very enticing. Maybe it was just the wrong time of year—it was really dry and everything was dead.


We did continue on to Montaña de Oro State Park. While camping costs are extravagant in California, at least day use fees are nonexistent. On our way to enjoy the park, we came across a colony or two of elephant seals. They were quite entertaining to watch as they slept and played.


After the elephant seals, we were thinking of checking out Hearst Castle, since someone had recommended it to me. However, when we got there, we discovered it was $25pp entrance fee, and we weren’t interested enough to pay that much. But, as we pulled away on the highway, there were zebras grazing in a pasture. Must have been a Hearst purchase…

DSC05821 Hearst Castle.

DSC05826 Seeing elephant seals and zebras in one day outside of a zoo is not a bad day.

After lunching and a brief walk on one of the trails at Montaña de Oro State Park, we left the west coast for the interior, with Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks in mind.

DSC05836 Jonathan on a fly killing spree at our campsite that night. He took out well over 150 flies.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Walking Among the Giants

Since we are in a hurry to see as much as we can before we have to be in Kansas for half a month for familial weddings, we left Eagle Point, OR, on Monday. The plan was to scope out the coastal redwoods and California’s coast as we made our way south. Within a few hours, we had entered Jedidiah Smith Redwood State Park, the first of the redwoods, coming from the north.

We missed the visitor’s center, and then the Walker Road exit, so we did a lot a turning around and going back to things that day. When we did find the visitor center, they had seeds and saplings for redwoods that you could buy and grow your own redwood. I so wanted one, but didn’t get around to purchasing it—it probably wouldn’t like the van climate.

We stopped for lunch on Walker Road. The redwoods here were fairly large—old-growth, they call them. One of the first things you notice about these trees are their massive trunks. They are the tallest trees in the world, but it is really hard to fathom their height. For one, most of us are really bad at perceiving heights—horizontal distances are one thing, height is another. For another, you are in a forest, so it isn’t like you get a clear view of a single tree (one of those can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees things, or more like can’t-see-the-tree-for-the-forest thing, I guess). So, you mostly just get an idea of how tall the tree is by examining the girth of its trunk, then following it up to see if you can tell whether it is towering over its neighbors. This is hard on your neck. You almost need a neck brace to rest your head on while you are examining the canopy—no, seriously! They get to heights that are taller than football fields are long—350+ feet.


Other interesting observations about the redwood forests:
  • the ground is pretty much roots and mulch. Literally. I dug into the “earth” there, and for several inches (I didn’t care to go further—too many roots making the job too difficult), there is nothing but roots and wood chips from fallen redwoods. I imagine this makes a pretty good dirt after a while, but for now, just an interesting mulch that plants who manage to survive in the darkness of the forest thrive on.
  • most redwoods don’t look very red. Apparently, under the bark the wood is pretty red, but the bark itself looks rather grey. I was a bit disappointed by this—I was expecting red trunks. Apparently the namers only care about the harvested wood color. 
DSC05725Finally some red on the redwoods!
  • the red comes from a chemical called tannin, which protects the tree from pests and fungi—rot and decay. So fallen redwoods last a long time.
DSC05742 There is a Jonathan in this picture—the little speck of red at the far end of the log.
  • there are very few other plants in a redwood forest. Since redwoods live so long—approximately 2000 years—they just grow up and block out light. They get so big that even floods and fires don’t phase them, leaving them as one of the few living species after such an event and making it even harder for other species to grow. And, there are banana slugs which tend to eat everything in its path except redwoods and their seeds, which also decreases the chances of other species surviving.
DSC05721 A dying banana slug.
  • of the species that do coexist with the redwood, there is a plant called sorrel—a three-leaf clover with purple on the groundside of the leaves (green on the sky-side).
  • the redwood forest is really quiet. Our guess is that there are such few plants, including berries, that other animals, including birds find it difficult to inhabit the forests.
  • there are lots and lots of tree hollows. Growing up, I would always read these stories about people who would find shelter in the hollow caverns of tree trunks. In all my travels, I had not once seen anything I might take shelter from the rain or cold in the base of a tree, except for maybe a hole in the ground beneath a root. I found this very disappointing. However, much to my delight, the redwoods have lots of these shelters.

As we drove along Highway 101, there were many other chances to see redwoods. There were also a lot of redwood gimmicks. One of the more interesting ones were they built entire (small) houses out of a single log of redwood. These huge logs, laid on their sides, hollowed out, and furnished. They looked to be bigger than our home—Chuck—but smaller than most people’s large RVs.

All in all, the redwoods are amazing, if a bit difficult to fully appreciate. At times, I felt like trying to comprehend the height and age of these trees was similar to trying to comprehend God. I can make comparisons and try visualizing something I know and multiplying to get a scale, but still it is beyond what I will ever experience or fully appreciate. I mean, some of these trees were alive when Christ walked on the earth; I can imagine that but not really. Anyways, seeing the redwoods in person is an experience that I feel every American should do at least once in their life.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Oregon Visit

In our year of travels, we had made it to all of our immediate family’s homes except for Jonathan’s Grandparents Youngblood. So, paying them a visit had been on our list for a while. Their location just hadn’t crossed our path yet. Since they live near the western coast of Oregon, it seemed only fair that we would should stop by. So they tentatively penciled us in for the whole month of September.  (That’s about as accurate as we get due to our notoriously variable travel plans.)

After visiting Craters of the Moon we made our way west across Oregon’s eastern deserts.  The rain shadow from the Rockies is serious business.  There is no simple way to traverse central and southern Oregon; so, true to form, Jed (our GPS) sent us down the slowest, most-winding path possible without actually taking dirt roads.  Despite the Jed-induced misguide-ment-ness, we arrived at a reasonable hour.  Unfortunately, it was quite warm in this region.  Highs in the upper 90s, although humidity was reasonable.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about temperatures as much in Fred & Martha’s nice air-conditioned house.


Being situated in a classy neighborhood backing a golf course, Chuck got plenty of interesting looks (he is probably the oldest car for miles, and the dirtiest).  However, being near the vanagon mecca, he didn’t stand out too much, and we saw plenty of Westfalia campers and regular vanagons alike.


The day after we arrived, we decided to visit Crater Lake National Park for some hiking-picnic action.  Thankfully, the many thousands of feet in elevation gain reduced the temps to manageable levels. Crater Lake is a member of unique group of lakes situated in the craters of dormant or extinct volcanoes. 


On Friday, Fred had to work; so Martha sent us out to kayak one of the nearby lakes. It had been a very dry summer, though, and most of the lakes  were low.  Not wishing to paddle and stare at muddy banks, we opted to do some shopping and go to the Mercedes dealership.  Without batting an eyelash, a salesman took us to look at some new Sprinters.  As far as vans go, they were rather cool, and expensive, with base models starting around $30k, and easily breaking $45k with options.  Sure makes Chuck seem like a bargain. Though, the combined 30mpg engine they are coming out with next year is pretty tempting. Also interesting is that they now have electric Smart cars (only costing in the low 20s). Apparently if you buy one in California, the state government will pay half of your monthly payment, making it really reasonable. We spent the rest of the day catching up on our miscellaneous items that we needed to do.

With the warm temperatures in the interior of Oregon, the place to go is the coast (if you aren’t already at Crater Lake). So, on Saturday, all of us piled into the car to explore the Oregon coast. The temperatures were cool as promised. Cool enough to require long sleeves and jackets. But it was perfect kiting weather, and Jen had never successfully flown a kite before. So Fred and Martha pulled out their kites and succeeded in teaching Jen how to fly a kite.




DSC05679   DSC05686

Our kites. The colorful one was easier to fly than the seagull.

Flying a kite is exhausting on your neck. It is much easier to watch your kite laying back like that.
Sunday took us to Fred and Martha’s church, where we learned that they knew half the church. After lunch, Martha made us some delicious peanut butter popcorn balls and I tried out a homemade Butterfinger bar recipe (substituting white chocolate for the milk chocolate, of course).

DSC05716All week, Martha lovingly worked hard to make us tasty meals and snacks that fit our diets.

We took our leave Monday morning so that we could see more places before I had to depart for my sister’s bridal shower.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The New Wish List Tab

People often ask us what they can get us for gifts on our birthday, Christmas, etc. Normally, we wave them off and tell them that we don't have space for gifts. Really, we don't have room for non-functional items. We always have room for something that will make our lives better. And, we always have a list of things we want. Unfortunately, they are generally expensive or hard-to-get, so we don't even mention them when someone asks. So, to help out those to whom it is really important to give us gifts, we have come up with a wish list.

If you ever feel like giving us a gift, check out the new page on our blog:

We will keep it updated with what we want and what we get along the way.
Thanks for the support!

The Casualty List

Sufficient time has passed since our Panama rendezvous  for me to render judgment and a declare a casualty list.  Casualties in this instance are defined as non-consumable items that were consumed in the course of our trip, or as a result of it afterwards.

Tires.  Four Continental Vanco 2 tires in the 185/R14C size.  These tires took quite a beating in our Alaska and Baja trips.  Despite a few small leaks they were holding strong when we crossed the Mexican border. Alas, the first to go was in Guatemala on the way to Semuc Champey.  A wooden stake finished this one off in the blink of an eye. We were forced to find a replacement set in Guatemala City, so we put on two new Toyo tires.

The second tire was in its death throes somewhere in Missouri.  This tire was done in by extensive driving on large rocks and potholes.  This resulted in tread separation near the sidewall.  Thankfully, I noticed this issue before we began our current trip westward.

Rola roof bag.  Our trusty roof bag was purchased as a replacement for our travel trailer that we abandoned in the deep foliage of my brother's front yard.  The bag's vinyl fabric began to separate somewhere on a northern Mexico toll road on our return leg.  We managed to patch the ever-growing breach with some duck tape on the side of the road.  Back in Tulsa we were able to save the bag with some rip-stop nylon fabric and our trusty can of contact adhesive.

The ripples on the right are the nylon patch.

Center shift bushing.  The vanagon has a very long shift linkage due to the driver being in the front and the transmission in the back.  Over the course of our travels, I have replaced all but one of the bushings on this linkage.  Why all but one, you ask?  There is a very good reason for this.  The final bushing is located above the voluminous fuel tank.  Nearly impossible to remove without dropping the tank (at least that's what the internet says).  Knowing this, it's now obvious that Murphy's law almost guarantees that this bushing will need replacement.  Thus I had a spare and was able to swap it out using an ingenious tool made of 3 feet of socket extensions (all of them actually).  The bushing finally fell apart somewhere in southwest Kansas. (Jen note here: of course, this had to fall apart when I was driving. Just another added to my personal list of things gone wrong when I drive the van.)

The bushing that was destroyed.

Driver side door and mirror.  Somewhere on the Pacific coast of El Salvador a rogue coconut palm attacked Chuck, decapitating the driver’s side mirror, and crippling the driver’s door.  The door met its end in a recycling bin and a replacement has been installed. The mirror I repaired on Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua.  By gutting the power mirror wiring and tapping the core for a 10mm bolt, I was able to restore it to structural integrity.  Alas, its power adjustment is lost forever.

Exhaust.  The entirety of Chuck’s exhaust piping from the header onwards was complete trash.  Between the damage done in Yellowstone and the forceful addition of ground clearance in Guatemala, there was nothing left to save.  It all came off, mounts included, and was replaced with a new system from Foreign Auto Supply.  Mmmmm sexyness…

The Old exhaust and other stuff for recycling.
A section of the new exhaust.

Front and left engine mounts.  These mounts were little more than cracked and crusty rubber by the time we pulled them off.  The front was cheap, aftermarket junk, the left side was severely overheated by having the exhaust bent up near it.  The front was replaced with a solid urethane bushing from T3 Technique.  The left side was replaced with a Saab hydraulic mount inspired by the Vanagon I4 Google group.

Starting battery.  Our EverStart engine-starting battery gave up its ghost in Danlí, Honduras.  We bump-started the van, and found a replacement in Tegucigalpa.  The sheer volume and intensity of the road-induced vibrations had caused the internal bus bar to crack and separate from the terminal. 

One of these things, is cleaner than the others....

Roof-vent filler board.  This poor piece of untreated plywood was subjected to horrendous treatment in Central America.  Despite two coats of exterior paint, various fungi and several species of insect decided to take up residence within the wood.  Despite insect killer and extra sealant, the invasion continued.  A brief toss in the fire ended this monstrosity.  A suitably sized piece of HDPE plastic replaced the wood in supporting the roof vent. 

Honorable Mentions

Sliding door panel.  This dirty little bastard started coming loose somewhere in southern Mexico.  It would stay put long enough to fool you, and then come apart enough to jam the slider.  Too big to stow in the van, we were forced to endure its brutal and devious torture.  Twenty-odd sheet metal screws and finish washers put the nail in this bad-boy's coffin. 

Caframo fan.  Due to excusive abuse (I blame heat-induced hysteria) the internal wires got twisted and broke.  This was a quick fix in Antigua, Guatemala.

Flashing-light relay.  Due mostly to my incessant tinkering, this relay developed a cracked solder joint in southern Mexico.  A quick re-solder job at a Pacific resort town had this one fixed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Whizzing Westward


Despite our need to get west as quickly as possible, we did take some to enjoy the roses, so to speak. While researching the top parks in the US, I saw the name “Dinosaur National Monument” and the picture associated with it was a fossil in a rock. I immediately wanted to go there and scope it out. The chance to see fossils in the earth was a totally awesome opportunity in my mind. So, as we made our way west, we detoured through the mountains to northwest Colorado and northeast Utah to the monument. To make things interesting, when looking for a camping space, we got a bit stuck. We had to air down our tires and place sticks in the way for the tires to grab.


Turns out, they do actually have a “quarry” of dinosaur fossils that they have preserved for future generations. it was pretty sweet. I felt like a child again, getting excited about dinosaurs. I even made Jonathan go on the Fossil Discovery Trail, where we could discover small fossils on our own. Quite enjoyable, at least for me.

DSC05458 Most of the bones are in a jumble in this rock face, but there were a few that remained intact with their connecting bones.

DSC05462 This thigh bone is nearly bigger than me.

DSC05470Finding fossils on the trail. You can the see the vertebrae of a dinosaur here. 

DSC05498 There were also petroglyphs in other parts of the park. I think the peoples who did these were awfully bored or showing off to a female, as they had to climb up and hang on for dear life to draw some of these.


We decided to visit our transmission-mission saviors from last year. We pulled in Sunday afternoon and hijacked the remainder of their day. Then it was decided that we should go camp at the Big Eddy outside of town. On the way there, we ran into a thunderstorm complete with hail and lightning. The storm shortly passed however, and we were treated to a double rainbow and a lovely sunset.

DSC05528 Hail.

DSC05535 It is apparently really difficult to get all of a rainbow in a picture.




After our departure from Driggs, we decided to do a quick tour of Craters of the Moon National Park (after driving half of Idaho). Apparently, the US has a dormant cinder cone volcano similar to what we boarded down in Nicaragua. This one didn’t have enough loose ash or steep-enough sides, but it did look a bit similar, despite the age difference.

DSC05546 The dormant cinder cone volcano.

The splatter cones, which are mini volcanoes, were pretty cool. Surprisingly, the walls were really fragile. They were almost like a wall of bricks without mortar. Well, you know, minus the size and and shape… Only the friction and shape was keeping the chunks of the walls together.

DSC05561 Small volcanoes (that is a trail, not a road).

By the time we had done the tour, we were tired, so we decided to camp there for the night.