Phoenix: An old friend

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Not that old.

I’ve arrived in Phoenix and had lunch with a dear friend who will be joining me for the trek to the Grand Canyon. She’s an amazing person—taught me how to be a pilot (fixed wing) while working with her many years ago.

Fearless, it’s no wonder she’s willing to risk a long drive in an old minivan with a crazed retiree exploring the west!

There’s only one original tire on the Sienna now so, I think we have a pretty good chance of making the Phoenix-Canyon round trip without a hitch. I hope I’m not jinxing it by saying this!

Oh, these poor people with jobs!

We’ll be leaving on Thursday at noon—after an appointment she must attend. I’ve already cleaned up the minivan and done the laundry.

Man, it’s a huge undertaking to make a bed in a vehicle that has access only through the driver’s and side doors (I needed a nap after wrestling with it!).

Winter!?

Well, in Phoenix, “winter” doesn’t necessarily mean cold like the cold I’ve been experiencing in the last month or so.

Honestly, I almost don’t know how to sleep without the fight to avoid freezing to death. But, an overnight low of 42º feels like a summer day—compared to, oh, 25 below zero! So, after a brief rest, it’s back to the highways and byways—and the giant trench called they call “Grand Canyon.”

Happy trails my friends!

Flagstaff, AZ: One more mountain!

Sitting in the shadow of a lone mountain.

Yes, the terrain visibly changed the moment I left Utah. Those crazy Arizona bluffs, those striations of the sedimentary rock becoming a mixture of red (iron) and green (copper) and those interesting rock piles—where larger rocks balance on top of smaller ones in a magical way—replaced the mountains and extended valleys of Utah, Montana and Idaho.

But, the horizon changed when I approached Flagstaff, with a beautiful snow-capped peak just to the north of Flagstaff.

There’s an App for that.

You’ll remember that I have several Android Apps to help me navigate the camper world; one of them is “RV Parky” that finds any place you can stop on a Google map display: Rest stops, truck stops, camp grounds and, of course, Walmarts!

The App showed that the Walmarts in Flagstaff don’t allow overnight parking—due to a local city ordinance—but, there were many comments by users that posted “there are always several RVs there with no problems.” And, sure enough, there were twelve here when I arrived. No police, no sheriff, no problems!

The Mr. Heater problem.

A little research online answers the question, “why is Mr. Heater so difficult on really cold nights?” I am pretty sure it’s the oxygen sensor being way too sensitive. It becomes more sensitive the colder it gets—which is why Mr. Heater fights me in the middle of the night when it’s frigid cold!

The way to combat this overly-concerned device—besides taking the unit back and getting another—is to fool it into thinking we’re all fine with the amount of air in here! Crack the door that Mr. Heater sits next to and she lights right up! Ha!

Not used to it.

Yes, I know that I came south to warm up a bit. But, last night, I found myself at a loss of what to do without single digit or negative temps plaguing my every moment! First, I was too cold. Then, I was too hot! Looks like there’s going to be a little learning curve dealing with
“milder” weather! Pretty silly, eh?

Phoenix is on my dance card for later today—with my sights on the Grand Canyon shortly thereafter.

Happy trails my friends!

Kanab, UT: The end of the world

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When Utah ends, it ends!

Yes, Utah is a very strange state. It’s covered in snow and markedly missing any real rest stops (Utah has “partnered” with truck stops to call them “rest stops”).

Utah is full of places with no names and communities of housing with not a single store nearby—including gas stations! Why would people want to build a house in the frozen boonies with no supplies nearby?

I don’t know!

The end of the earth.

In Kanab, Utah, “The Greatest Earth On Show,” there are few businesses other than motels (I’ve never seen a town made up completely of motels but, Kanab is one of them!).

The mountains, hills, gorges and long valleys literally end in the last 15 miles heading south out of Utah. Oddly, when that terrain ends, a new terrain (Arizona) begins—like a line drawn on a map.

I’ve been poking around in Walmart parking lots and make-shift rest stops for a few days now. I got really cold when the temperatures dropped to below zero so, I decided to fly south for the winter!

Mr. Heater!

Oh Mr, Heater, I found that when it’s really cold, you don’t want to work! Once the thermometer drops below 10 or so, the mechanical aspects of Mr. Heater get pretty flaky (you have to fight with it a bit to get it to light up!).

Still, even with waking up cold and half asleep, a great sense of accomplishment lulls me back to sleep once I get the damn thing turned on!

Rearranged.

At my last rest stop—a real one, in Utah—I took about an hour to do some rearranging of everything stored under my bed (things I could not get to because of the frozen back door are now accessible from the sliding side door!

Yaay, coffee!

Another new tire!

Two new tires in Spokane—on the back—and I wasn’t expecting I would need to replace the front ones, too! But, the front passenger tire did that same steel belt failure that left the two back tires in need of repair. This time, since I knew the tire was ruined from the inside I decided to drive on it to the closest tire store.

Once again, another hundred out the door—when I have a brand new spare that I got before I left but, can’t get to because of the back door refusing to open!

Phoenix!

Yes, I’ve set my sights on Phoenix now—where it was 66º yesterday—and plan on staying warm at night for the immediate future. An old friend lives there and has floated an interest in spending a leg of my trip—the Grand Canyon—traveling with me.

So, it’s one more stop for what might be the last time I need to buy some propane cylinders and then it’s Highway 89 to Interstate 17, direct to Phoenix!

Happy trails my friends!

Yellowstone: Mostly closed

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The roads to the south are all iced over.

Very cold and very windy! There’s a picture perfect miniature rest stop just north of the entrance to Yellowstone. It seems few people are aware of its very existence.

I blew right through Butte and Bozeman, except for some gas.

Get outta Dodge!

There’s a marked change in the terrain in this swath of the country, with the mountains considerably more rocky and at a much greater vertical angle to those also made from uprooted sedimentary rock face.

Since their angles are steeper, I’m going to call them older than those newbies that are closer to the coast.

The pattern.

There’s a pattern to the topography as you drive west to east in the Pacific Northwest. There are great expanses of flatland valleys where livestock and crops—primarily wheat and hay—have a natural home.

And the mountains that were forged long ago by lava dot the horizon in impressive review. It’s all so pastoral and yet, the evidence of massive—and violent—changes made to the early landscape are everywhere I can look!

Pray.

Pray is the tiny town just before you reach the model rest stop. The imagination reels in deciphering the origin and cogent meaning of naming your town Pray!

And just to CYA, I did say a prayer while driving through. It doesn’t take too long to traverse the whole town so, make your prayers succinct!

Yellowstone.

The entrance to Yellowstone is a large arch, giving way to the winding mountain roads I have come accustomed to.

But, the road going to the geyser (Old Faithful) is snowed out! You can get a personal guide to take you in—a process that includes miles of walking and a snow cart, whatever that is—and it will cost close to $300 for the day-long excursion.

For that price, I can see the magma feature another time—like in the summer, when I can drive right to it.

I found a little area resembling a rest stop (parking, garbage and outhouse) and stayed there for the night. The low tonight was 5° but, I’ve done that before—without a heater!

I had a rude awakening in the morning: a park Ranger knocking on my glass to tell me I can’t park there (I got a written warning in lieu of a $480 ticket!). Yeah, nice guy!

Tonight, however, the low is expected to be minus 25 degrees. I might be chickening out of that and starting my run to the south and headed to Phoenix, Arizona. It’s 60 degrees there today!

Happy trails my friends!

Missoula, MT: Making Time

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Lots of miles, little cell signal!

Yes, the speed limit in Montana is 80! Eighty. Not for me, of course, as I usually travel at or below “truck speed limits” for safety—and to be frugal with fuel.

It’s been raining or snowing and sometimes both for the past few days—after I left Spokane. For at least a day, I haven’t had any cellular connection so, emails and other apps that require internet access haven’t been working.

It’s okay; I knew where my next few stops were: a rest area—and a Dollar Tree (“where everything’s a dollar”) store, in Butte, for some windshield cleaner (I’m out—and it’s dangerous driving without a way to clean your glass). As I sit in this McDonald’s, I am thankful for an internet connection that works; the last three Mickey D’s I stopped by wouldn’t let me connect!

Adios, Spokane!

While in Spokane, I bought two new tires, a case of Mr. Heater propane cylinders (that should last me a while, no?) and some other everyday supplies (water, paper towels, cookies, etc.) and treated myself to some Thai food!

I’m pretty picky about my Thai food—that’s what living in Los Angeles does to you—and, after a quick search online, I found an amazing, little hole-in-the-wall place where grandma does all of the cooking: Phonthip Thai restaurant in Spokane on Francis Avenue. Phonthip is easily the quality of a large city’s Thai offerings.

I pigged out on some Pra Ram (spicy peanut chicken).

Rest Area Awards!

I am thinking that I am becoming quite expert in analyzing the quality of rest stops, after seeing so many of them!

Well, my friends, the decision has been made—and I’m awarding TheMinivanExplorer “Best TP Award” to Idaho! Two words that sealed the deal for Idaho: “two ply.”

Yes, Idaho rest area toilet paper is the best TP I’ve encountered at any rest stop!

Congratulations!

Every time I go to the bathroom from this point forward, I will think of Idaho! Okay, maybe that isn’t the best endorsement for Idaho but, it’s something!

What the hell is that!?

“Okay Google, what is that tall smokestack thing in front of me?” That, Dave, is the Anaconda Smelter Stack, built in 1919 and at 585′, it’s the tallest free-standing all-brick structure in the world!

It really threw me for a loop: it’s so tall, there’s nothing around it, it sits on top of a small mountain—and I could see it from, easily, ten miles away. For your viewing perspective, know that it has a diameter of 75 feet at its base—and the entire Washington Monument could be hidden inside of it.

One more mountain.

Okay, mountain range—and I’ll be sliding in to Boseman, which is just north of Yellowstone. I’ll try to update you before I get lost in the forest there for a couple days.

Happy trails my friends!

Spokane: Stuck in Spokane!

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Experienced.

I have extensive experience in dealing with the foibles of owning old, used cars. I’ve only owned two new cars in my whole life!

That said, you know that I am not going to be surprised by repairs needed while on the road.

But, all at once?

It’s just that I don’t take kindly to multiple problems from unconnected sources all going wrong at the same time.

When I awakened a couple days ago to a back door that would not open (no coffee!), I was ready to deal with it.

But, in the quest for a hot cup of coffee at a nearby Chevron station, I discovered my two rear tires are self-imploding, one of them completely gone and flat as a pancake. That meant a new tire—because my brand new spare is locked away behind a door that won’t open!

This one too!

The mechanics at the tire store in Spokane pointed out the steel belt coming through the tread of the remaining tire, and warning that I don’t have much time before that one does the same catastrophic fail as the one being replaced.

Fine.

These things are to be expected in used car. And although I really can’t afford to replace my minivan one part at a time, the investment into two brand new tires seems to be a good one.

But, this morning…

This morning, new tire and all, the Sienna wouldn’t start! I’m not talking about a bad starter motor or battery or something common like that.

No, this was the ignition switch! The key simply wouldn’t turn!

The good thing.

The really good thing about old cars and having the internet is, no matter what problems you may have with your old, used car, there is a website out there addressing the problems that other owners have, or have had, with the various components of their old cars.

“Sienna ignition won’t turn.”

There were thousands of returns from Google and at least six different methods of dealing with this problem—a good reference, for sure!

Now, the problem I have, I found out, is pretty widespread, especially for my Sienna’s year and several years around it: the switch goes bad after about 60 thousand miles (bad news for those of us who have over 120K miles!).

There were great prose online for dealing with the “transmission interlock” system, which is the thing that denies you from starting the engine with the gear shifter in any position other than Park or Neutral.

Wiggle it.

There were lots of people suggesting I wiggle the steering wheel and that I wiggle the gear shifter to see if that is the problem I have.

But, no.

My steering was free and my gear shifter wouldn’t even move – because the key has to be inserted and turned for this method to work.

I finally came across a Sienna online forum where I found a string of discussion about the exact issue I was experiencing.

Jury rigged.

“Put in the key and pull it back about a sixteenth of an inch,” one fellow owner wrote, explaining that the “stops” inside the lock wear out and must be adjusted for by pulling the key back a short way.

No way!

Yes, way. The key turns fine and she started right away! I think I will use this little trick for the time being and just make a mental note that—in the future—I will be replacing my ignition switch.

Craaazy good!

I bought that new tire and I plan on replacing the other tire that has not yet failed entirely but, those are two unexpected costs I wasn’t really ready for. After all, I bought a brand new spare tire before I had left San Diego.

We’ll see if I can solve the back door problem without spending what will be left of tomorrow’s SS check.

I would really like access to coffee, car fluids and the spare tire wherever I am—even in the middle of nowhere, where I am known to regularly travel.

Then, I can leave Washington confident of my tires (all of them, including the spare) and head across the wilds of Idaho and Montana, on my way to Yellowstone to see this geyser everyone’s talking about!

Happy trails my friends!

Spokane: A flat tire!

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Actually, the tire was mangled beyond hope.

When I woke up this morning at a rest stop just west of Spokane, WA, I found my rear door won’t open! So, I went in search of coffee at a Chevron station just down the freeway.

When I arrived in the gas station’s snow-covered parking lot, I heard a squishy sound from the back—it was a mangled rear passenger tire! With the back door sealed, there’s no access to the jack, the tire iron or the spare.

That means a new tire from Les Schwab, about $80. Geico road service picks up the cost of the tow from Sprague to Spokane. The tire blew because the steel belts separated, disintegrating the tire from the inside.

This is hardly something I could have foreseen—most likely set in stone long before I even bought the Sienna.

Could it be a Gremlin?

I don’t know why these things happen at the worst times. I’m really broke until my SS check comes on Wednesday (spent the last of my cash on more propane cylinders for heat—very addicting!) so, it was a real possibility that I could be staying in the tire store parking lot until then!

I asked some friends to make me a short-term loan to change that scenario and to get back on the road. Johnny told me he can do it so, I decided on the “tow-me-to-the-tire-store” plan to get that new tire.

Thank you, Johnny.

And the door?

Still don’t know what to do about that stuck door! Maybe it will return to normal the same way it stopped working—all by itself! Yeah, right.

A non-functional rear door isn’t a deal breaker (i.e. it won’t be ending my trip) but, it will make life a little more difficult not having easy access to coffee, cooking and other car necessities stored in the very back.

I suppose, if I cannot solve this little issue, that with a little reorganizing, I could continue my trek almost normally; I am thinking about finding a body shop next week to see if they could get it open and ensure it stays open and working like it should.

As Star Trek’s Mr. Spock says, “there are always options”—and I’m down with that—armed with a new tire and searching for a solution to regain access to the cooking capabilities I have become accustomed to.

Happy trails my friends!

Washington: Snoqualmie

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Fun to say, repeatedly!

The Snoqualmie mountain pass is how you get over the mountains just east of Seattle—and that’s where I am and what I’m doing now.

It’s probably the most beautiful, wooded area you’ve never heard of—or seen.

The falls were discovered by an engineer for the railroad named Charles Baker in the late 1800’s. When he found them, looking for a route for the train tracks over the northern Rockies, Baker realized their energy could be harnessed—for the new discovery of electrical power.

Baker borrowed some money from his dad and bought up the land around the water feature. Two hydroelectric power plants were built to serve the area—and the railroad—and still operate today. It was the world’s very first underground power station.

Seattle.

I spent a few hours driving around Seattle. It’s an old-style kind of city, spread out along its waterfront and packed with sporting goods stores (one on every corner, it seems).

The Space Needle was fun to see but, Seattle is a member of the one-way street club (every street is a one-way!)—and I really hate that kind of Central Business District. I suppose it’s fine for the locals but, for visitors—like moi—it’s a huge hassle.

The first Starbucks.

I went to Pike Street to catch a glimpse of the very first Starbucks, squeezed into a small walk up storefront and facing the bay. No parking, for the most part—and a line of people who also wanted a taste of the first “corporate coffee shop.”

Sorry but, I don’t care for the flavor of Starbucks coffee!

They roast their beans to perfection and then they roast them a little bit more—until they are just burned. They say that’s how Starbucks gets its “smokey flavor.”

Burned coffee!

No, that’s not flavor. That’s burned coffee, morons! I prefer Dave’s Famous Minivan coffee drip—even when it’s frigid cold and I have to boil water in the elements to get some made.

Finally, snow!

The weather service has been talking about large amounts of snowfall for over a week now and, finally, I got some!

Oh, the Sienna doesn’t like snow—I’ve found myself piloting her slightly sideways on the highway (even at only 35 MPH). It’s like the back tires are going faster than the front tires—but, we know that’s impossible!

It’s icy and slippery but, there’s no accumulation—primarily because the State of Washington appears to be quite diligent in snow removal. So, I have yet to test out the tire chains.

I did watch a few YouTube videos on how to put them on so, I think I’m ready for the install when they’re necessary.

Drained.

After a couple of hours of this high stress highway maneuvering, I really needed a rest area to decompress. And I found one just east of the Snoqualmie pass. It was the second rest area; the first one on the map simply didn’t exist!

I had the entire rest area to myself until nightfall—and then hundreds of trucks turned in, fighting for spaces to stop and rest (several trucks pulled into the passenger car section as the truck side filled up). A very gladiator-style affair!

Learning curves.

That’s when I saw something I realized that I had to do: wait for a plow truck to go by—and get in line, following behind! It worked!

Chilly Willie’s.

It’s 17°, real temperature, and “feels like” five degrees but, the forecast calls for overnight lows below zero—the real zero—to minus five over the next few days both here and in the places to which I am going.

My final destination for this leg of the trip: Yellowstone, just south of Bozeman, (MT). That’s where I-90 takes me!

Happy trails my friends!

Seattle: Walmarting

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No overnight parking!

The signs, dozens of them, say “No overnight parking” at the Walmart in Federal City, just outside of Seattle. But, when I arrived to stock up on a few propane tanks for my new Mr. Heater Buddy, I found the largest collection of campers I have seen in a Walmart parking lot since, well, ever!

So, I decided to stay myself.

Despite several drivebys by the Federal City Police, no one was spoken to and no one was asked to leave—one officer pulled right up to me and simply smiled! And then, he left.

The story goes…

FYI, most Walmarts encourage campers to use their parking lots as Sam Walton, the story goes, was a big RV enthusiast. But, some Walmarts apparently don’t (I have an Android App that shows me where every Walmart is and whether or not overnighting is allowed).

“Sam Walton left it in his will that anyone can sleep in his parking lots for the night.”—Common knowledge, which may or may not be true!

These particular campers were also about the messiest campers I’ve seen, leaving behind all kinds of trash when they took off Saturday morning. That’s in direct conflict with my own philosophy of leaving not a speck of garbage behind wherever I go.

Coyotes in the parking lot?

I did notice one nondescript old white van (only one window!) that regularly dispatched family members into the store for leche (milk) and other sundry items.

The crusty old white guy who was the driver basically stayed away from the van once he arrived. I’ll bet he didn’t know his passengers were frequenting the store while he was away!

My guess is that there were at least four or more people inside that van—going somewhere (we’re so close to the Canadian border, could Canada be their ultimate destination?).

Uh oh, another Trump wall!

Old vans, new problems.

I really felt for a young man (with crazy hair) who has been having mechanical issues with his GMC van—right out of the 1970’s. I mean, just what do you do when you are stuck at a Walmart with an old, misbehaving vehicle that is your home on a regular basis?

The noise coming from his engine tells me he’s got a hole somewhere in his exhaust system—or the manifold. So, it’s probably not a game killer—just loud!

The Space Needle!

Seattle means Space Needle and I’ve found it on the map (there’s a nice park next to it that calls my name)! I crossed Boeing off my list—because they charge $25 to tour the manufacturing floor!

You don’t even get a free plane at the end of the tour!

Turning east.

With my excursion spanning the west coast now complete, it’s right about now I have to decide which route to use as I head to the east. I am drawn to I-90, the road that takes me directly to Snoqualmie Falls, on a direct course to the northeastern corner of Wyoming—where the great attraction of Yellowstone is located.

I’m also happy to report that there are several National Forests along the way—and that means some scenery and a good selection of camping/sleeping opportunities! And you already know how much I like our National Forests!

All those jokes?

And all of those jokes about Seattle and rain? They’re not jokes at all! It’s all true! Even when it’s supposed to snow, it rains, instead! As a matter of fact, the rain has not stopped—day or night—since my front tires crossed the Oregon-Washington state line!

Christmas cash!

My nephew sent me some Christmas cash! His timing is really good—because I need some “Mr. Heater” propane (from Walmart, of course!) and I could use some backup gas money (my SS check won’t arrive for another week!)—although I currently have a full tank of gas (about 350 miles).

Thank you, Paul. I love you!

Happy trails my friends!

Oregon: Sparse

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Open Spaces

There are a lot of open spaces in Oregon. But, I don’t go anywhere near them when there’s a forecast for 18 inches of snow!

That put the kibosh on my plan to take in Crater Lake. And affected my plans for Mount Hood.

It also set me on a course of bouncing around the state—mostly north—by focusing on rest areas and Walmart parking lots until I hit Portland.

I’m okay with that.

I’ve been people watching.

One of my favorite things to do, people watching. I’ve found never-before-seen behavior patterns at both rest areas and Walmart parking lots!

One of the most obvious is the human nature of congregating with your own kind: no matter what size camper—from little minivans to those big drive-away jobs—we all have a tendency to coagulate in one particular area of the lot (I do it myself, looking for the “best” place to overnight).

Out of sight, out of mind.

There are advantages to grouping together, the least of which is as an organized wind break!

I’ve also found that others who are living in their vehicles haven’t been as diligent as I in making sure you can actually do it—and survive. I’m not bragging here but, I am concerned for their safety: living in a car when it’s 14° outside is not for the unprepared!

Dead battery!

One fellow I found this morning living in his car had a dead battery. Of course I helped him; I have a portable battery jumper—and seconds later, his little car was running and off he went, to work, smiling and grateful!

The people of Oregon are, I have to say, a hearty bunch. The cold doesn’t seem to bother them (or they are accustomed to it) and you’ll find many people driving their cars with their windows open (even when the wind chill is deep into the negative numbers)!

Not sure what the story is there!

I mean, I wouldn’t do that. But, it’s a common occurrence. I just shake my head.

Mount Hood

Once again, I am out of position to hit up Mount Hood—unless I turn a couple hundred miles east—and, even then, that area of the mountain is due for some exceptional snowfall. So, it’s off to Washington state for the Minivan Explorer!

The View!

Wow. What a view out my back door window as I huddle inside my warm Sienna at a rest stop overlooking Mount Saint Helens! Oh, that poor mountain isn’t what it once was. Missing its top, it looks like it’s a little sick. Nothing that a couple hundred million years of erosion can’t fix!

Music!

I hate to say this because I can’t remember any of it but, I’ve been composing some really good music! I suppose that I should have written it down or at least recorded some of it but, really, I was just having some fun and stumbled across some interesting stuff! Sorry! If I am compelled once again to compose, I’ll be more determined to keep a record of the composition for you.

It’s Christmas!

I’ve been sent a Christmas package by my brother in San Diego! Snail mail is an interesting process: I map out where I can be in three days from now, the package is sent to “General Delivery” in a post office at my destination and the package is picked up when I arrive (just show government ID).

Hello Washington!

Happy trails my friend!