Autumn in our hometown of Ashland, Oregon is truly a thing of beauty. For a leisurely stretch of several weeks, the valley is painted with rich reds and golds, the weather is generally perfect, and the holiday season is ushered in with the most outrageous Halloween parade and street party imaginable.
We usually return home once a year in our travels, and stay for about a month. This year, of course, was very different with Eric’s unexpected health crisis and surgery. We arrived just in time for the fall colors, survived one of the coldest, wettest, longest winters in history, and are now enjoying the spring blossoms.
Sitting still in one place for seven months (seven months!!) was certainly not what we had planned when we started our full-time journey almost four years ago. But if we’re going to be settled down somewhere, Ashland is where we want to be. It’s been wonderful to reconnect with friends, and to even share our hometown for a few days with fellow full-time traveling buddies MonaLiza and Steve (Lowe’s Travels), who came to visit in mid-October.
It’s a bit disconcerting to realize that so many months have passed. I can’t quite tell you where all of the time has gone—but suddenly, we’re just weeks away from leaving town. It’s a strange feeling to have had something of this magnitude happen, and to have had our lives rearranged for us for such a long stretch of time. It certainly puts into perspective the illusion of control.
I’m excited about resuming our travels, and also feeling a bit tentative. Part of me wants to go, and part of me wants to stay in our beautiful hometown, surrounded by people we love, doing things we enjoy right here in our own backyard. This is a familiar internal tug-of-war. I don’t know that I’ll ever reconcile the two.
But as I think about our summer and fall plans—the Oregon Coast, Olympic Peninsula, San Juan Islands, North Cascades, and Glacier—I feel the spark of adventure rekindled within. And in my mind, I hear the words of my favorite poet, Mary Oliver, nudging me along: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and wonderful life?” For now, travel wins.
On the morning of December 5th, Eric underwent open-heart surgery and a triple bypass. As he told the surgeon, this experience was not on his bucket list. Nor mine. Needless to say, this has been the most intense month of our lives.
All things considered, Eric is doing remarkably well. He’s now walking 30 minutes a day, soon to increase to 45 minutes. He looks great. But he looked great before the surgery, and had no symptoms other than occasional minor chest tightness when we were hiking or biking strenuously. We were lucky. This could have turned out very differently, and I try not to think too much about that.
There have been times in our adventures when we’ve been hiking alone in the middle of nowhere and I’ve thought, “I wouldn’t want to sprain an ankle out here, miles away from help.” I’ve even had brief imaginings of “What if something really bad happened and help was hours away?” At those moments, I’ve reassured myself by acknowledging that I’d rather accept the risks that come with doing what I love instead of indulging my fears and staying home where life is undeniably safer. Nonetheless, I am extraordinarily grateful that we didn’t suffer a tragedy on the trail.
Our doctor told us that Eric is very fortunate—that only about one quarter of people have symptoms that indicate cardiovascular disease. Apparently the first symptom for the remaining unlucky 75 percent is a heart attack. Eric didn’t suffer a heart attack. In fact, his heart is remarkably strong (the EKG tech referred to him as a “work horse”). He also has perfect blood pressure, a heart rate in the 50’s, low cholesterol, and takes no medications. We thought he was bullet proof. But his dad had a heart attack at age 47, and died from cardiovascular disease at 58. So there’s that.
Even now, almost four weeks after we entered the cardiac lab for a diagnostic angiogram (“He might need a stent,” said the cardiologist) and ended up in the hospital for nine long days and major surgery, the whole experience is surreal. I still have times when I expect to wake up and discover that this was all merely a bad dream. The image of Eric in intensive care, hooked up to a tangle of tubes and wires and flashing lights, haunts me. More than ever, I am in awe of both the fragility and resilience of the human body and spirit.
I have always been skittish around hospitals and medical procedures, and do my best to keep medical intervention at bay with a healthy diet, daily exercise, and a positive attitude. When we need help, we turn to herbs, acupuncture, massage, and other noninvasive treatments. This problem, obviously, required drastic measures. The technology and approach of Western medicine is at once terrifying and miraculous. This has been the most humbling experience of my life, and I will be eternally grateful to the skilled and compassionate people who saved Eric’s life and made a scary situation as comfortable as it possibly could have been.
Both Eric’s surgeon and cardiologist assure us that in time, we will be able to return to our normal lives. And they understand that “normal” for us looks different from what most people think of as normal. The doctors and nurses were intrigued by our stories of travel and our outdoor adventures. In Eric’s chart, one of the doctors wrote, “He and his wife travel the country full-time in their RV, and are active hikers, bikers, and kayakers.” I loved reading that. It made me feel that they understood something about us, and that they cared.
So, here we are. We would never have signed up for this adventure, but we are extraordinarily grateful that we discovered the problem before it turned into a tragedy. We are grateful that we’re here in our hometown, within a few miles of one of the finest cardiac centers in the country. We’re grateful for our wonderful surgeon and the skilled nursing care Eric received. And we are grateful to be in the embrace of our loving community of friends and family, who have held us in the most challenging moments, opened their homes and their hearts, brought us nourishment, and encouraged and supported us through it all.
Here’s to life, and to doing what makes your heart happy. You’ve heard it many times, but I have to say it anyway—don’t put off doing what you want to do. Tell your family and friends that you love them. You can’t say it too much. I know that I’m going to do my best to be more present, more generous, and more compassionate in this amazing, wild journey of life. We wish you peace, joy, and good health in the New Year.
Every so often, I’ve wondered how it will feel when we decide to stop traveling fulltime. I hope I’m not going to feel as lost as I’ve been feeling the past few weeks.
Other than a two-week trip to Portland in October, we’ve been parked in our hometown of Ashland since mid-September. Our original plan was to head south by the end of October, wending our way leisurely across the country, and ending up in Florida for the winter. But life doesn’t always go as planned, and we have things we need to attend to before we can leave. At this point, it looks like we’re going to be here until sometime in January.
We love Ashland. In all of our travels, we’ve yet to find a place that we would rather call home. And we dearly love our friends. When we’re here in Ashland, life returns almost to our pre-full-time-traveling “normal,” and we share wonderful dinner parties, music jams, creative art projects, and outdoor adventures with friends. This is home, in the deepest sense of community.
I love being here, and at the same time, I feel out of place. I’m deeply grateful to our friends who welcome us home, and who create a place for us to stay when we’re here. But this isn’t what we had planned, and it’s knocked me off course. Winter is nipping at the heels of fall, with the gray and chill and rain that is typical for November in Ashland. We’re home, but we’re not home—we’re in our small trailer, instead of in our cozy house on the hill with a fireplace and plenty of space for entertaining.
I feel stuck, and the mud that I’m slogging through on the trails is a metaphor for the spiritual mud that I’m slogging through as I try to motivate myself to get things done. We’re getting out for long walks everyday, we’ve recommitted to a daily meditation practice, I’m working on my music. I have a blog to catch up on. We have plenty to keep ourselves occupied, some things more fun than others.
Our plan was never to travel fulltime forever, but we’re not done yet, not by a long shot. (I check in with Eric, and he feels the same.) Maybe that’s why I feel like I’m adrift between two worlds. It calls on every glimmer of awareness I can muster to be here, now, knowing that we’ll be leaving again before too much longer.
Wherever I am, I want to be fully present. Truthfully, it’s effortless when we’re traveling. When every day brings fresh adventures, it’s easy to be present and appreciative. Simply being in a new place, I feel energized and happy. But it’s much more challenging for me to be present on a trail that I’ve hiked in Ashland thousands of times (I’m not exaggerating—I’ve done the math).
And so I’m practicing—yet again—opening my eyes to what surrounds me in the present moment. Traversing the path in the park that I’ve walked almost daily for 18 years, I turn my attention to the sounds of the creek, the birdsong, and the rhythm of my breath. I watch the leaves as they turn to gold and then fall from the trees. It brings me back to the present moment, which is where I want to be. Even if I can only manage that for a brief instant, it’s something.
We’ll be leaving again, before we know it. I don’t want to miss any of our time here in Ashland by worrying about the present and all that we need to do, or planning for the future. I just want to be here, now, grateful for this moment, for our friends, for this beautiful place that is still our home. When I can manage to stay in the present moment, I never feel lost.
As of mid-October, we’re back in Ashland, Oregon, taking care of a myriad of things that need to be completed before we can again resume our travels. This is a challenging part of fulltime RV life—there’s always a mountain of stuff to deal with when we return to our hometown each year. It’s no different than what any other grown-up person has to deal with in life—traveling or not. But it feels a bit daunting when we’re compressing a year’s worth of necessary evils into a few weeks. (The wonderful part is that we’ve also rejoined the tribe of our dear Ashland friends.)
We’re in the midst of trailer repairs, medical and dental appointments, taxes, maintenance tasks on our Ashland home, rooting out our storage unit, trailer home-improvement projects, and more. Last but not least, I have a blog to catch up on. So without further ado, I’m going to whisk you back to mid-June and our summer on Lopez Island.
As the ferry churned through the cold waters of the Pacific and chugged past the maze of islands that make up the San Juan archipelago, we leaned over the railing, anticipating our first glimpse of the small island that would once again be our summer home.
This year, we spent two-and-a-half months on Lopez Island—our longest stretch yet. From mid-June until early September, we were once again temporary Lopezians, immersing ourselves fully in the unique culture of Pacific Northwest island life.
We fell in love with Lopez the first time we visited, almost a dozen years ago.
Six of the past seven years, we’ve spent part of every summer hosting at beautiful Spencer Spit State Park. We contemplate spending time other places, but each summer finds us once again on the ferry to the islands.
I don’t think life gets any better than summer in the San Juan’s. The weather is near perfect, with plenty of sunshine, low humidity, and temperatures in the 70’s. (This makes up for long, long winters of gray and chill and rain—one of the primary reasons we don’t seriously consider living in the islands year-round.)
The scenery is idyllic—pastoral farmland, deep green mossy forests, secluded coves, and rocky cliffs plunging to sapphire seas. Small wonder that the first European settlers to the island described Lopez as a paradise.
Perfect weather and idyllic scenery aside, the strongest draw for us now is our community of friends on Lopez. In our six summers on the island, we’ve developed enduring friendships that transcend time and distance. We gather often with friends for delicious meals, evenings of music, and a variety of island adventures, from biking and hiking to art openings, concerts, and wine tastings. Each summer, we also delight in sharing Lopez with friends visiting from Ashland and fellow full-time RVing friends we’ve met in our travels. To add to this year’s fun, our grandson Findlay sailed to “Camp Lopez” to stay with us for a week.
We’re fortunate to have a hosting position that fits perfectly with our interests. This was our fourth year teaching Interpretive Programs for kids and adults, including the Junior Ranger programs. We teach about native plants, birds found on Lopez, and the traditions of the Salish tribes who first inhabited the islands. Making hundreds of copies of the Jr. Ranger’s booklets gets tedious, but teaching never does. We often come away from a morning of teaching feeling uplifted and inspired by the brilliance, inquisitiveness, and hilarity of the kids we teach (a lot of the adults are just as much fun).
We’re lucky, too, in that the staff at Spencer Spit is terrific. Each summer when we return to the park, we feel like we’re returning home. Our relationship with Lopez and the community of wonderful people on the island continues to deepen—for this, we are deeply grateful. Thanks, Lopez and friends, for another delightful summer. We’ll be back!
I’ve written in detail about our Lopez adventures over the past several years. If you’re interested in reading more, type “Lopez” in the search box and you’ll find lots of posts and photos. Here’s a post with some basic information, should you be interested:
Ifirst visited Petrified Forest National Park about 20 years ago, in mid-August, at mid-day. It was scorching hot, the sky hazy, and the petrified logs were uninspiring brown lumps. As you can imagine, I was in no great hurry to return.
But Eric had never been, and wanted to see for himself. “There’s not much to see,” I told him. But because we were passing by on our way from Lyman Lake to Flagstaff, we decided to make a quick stop. I was so wrong! Apparently time of year and time of day make all the difference here. This place is gorgeous—a couple of hours weren’t near enough, and Eric ended up having to drag me away.
In mid-May, with big billowy clouds sailing across the sky, the Petrified Forest was a wonderland of undulating dunes and colorful wood turned to stone by the magic of time and geologic processes. The names bestowed to the trails and historic structures enticed us deeper into the park: Rainbow Museum. Crystal Forest. Agate House. Jasper Forest. We walked several miles of trails, fascinated by the landscape and the spectacular rainbow colors of the petrified wood, remnants of the sub-tropical forest that stood here 200 million years ago.
With only a couple of hours in the park, we explored only a fraction of what we wanted to see. And sadly, we didn’t get to the Painted Desert, which is part of Petrified Forest National Park. Although there’s no camping within the park, just outside the entrance are two campgrounds associated with gift shops—Crystal Forest Campground is free, with no hookups; the other has electric hookups for $11. We’ll return, and we’ll stay in one of those campgrounds while we explore the rest of this unique and beautiful park. (I assure you, it will not be in August.)
Although we were headed for Flagstaff (another 120 miles away), a late spring snow storm in the mountains ahead deterred us, and we stopped instead at Homolovi State Park, halfway to our destination. It was no hardship—we love this little gem of a park. We first discovered Homolovi 10 years ago and have stayed here several times in our cross-country journeys.
Considered by the Hopi to be part of their ancestral homeland (Homol’ovi means “place of the little hills” in their language), the park—which includes seven sites with ruins—is a combined effort between the state and the Hopi people to protect this sacred place. The Hopi live on nearby mesas and regularly make pilgrimages to Homol’ovi for ceremonies and offerings.
Two of the ruin sites are open to visitors. Pathways wind among the adobe rubble of ancient villages, the only sound the gentle rustle of the wind through the grasslands and the harsh calls of the ravens. The most fascinating part of wandering these ancient villages is the abundance of potsherds left behind by the people who lived here between 1260 and 1400 AD. Painted, inscribed, coiled, and stamped—thousands of pieces of pottery are scattered throughout the ruins. Picking up and admiring the pottery is permissible—but of course, you can’t remove anything from the ruins.
After a peaceful night’s sleep and a morning of exploring the ruins, we continued another 85 miles to our campground just south of Flagstaff. (The snowstorm the day before had passed, and we arrived in perfect weather.) We’ve never found a private campground in Flagstaff that we like, so we always stay in one of the nearby Forest Service campgrounds, which are lovely, spacious, and peaceful. There’s one drawback—both Bonito Campground and Pine Grove Campground are almost 20 miles from town. But it’s an easy drive, and worth it for the tranquility and beauty.
It was a quick stopover for us in Flagstaff this time—just long enough for some truck maintenance and a couple of hikes, including part of the Arizona Trail in the campground, and the Fatman’s Loop in the hills above Flagstaff while we were waiting for our truck repairs to be completed. Lunch at Café Daily Fare was also on our short list of things to do—the food is creative and delicious, and we always make it a point to stop here when we’re in Flagstaff. (Do not bring your rig—the parking is atrocious!) To round out our stay, we had a surprise call and delightful meet-up for coffee with our hometown friends Brenda and Morey, who were heading to the Casita factory in Texas to pick up their new rig. So much fun to meet up with friends on the road!
About the campgrounds:
Homolovi State Park seems to be somewhat of a hidden gem. It’s conveniently located just a few miles off of I-40 near Winslow, Arizona. The campground is peaceful, with spacious sites, fabulous sunsets, and dark night skies. It has an excellent visitor’s center and short but fascinating hiking trails. Although the campground seems to be getting more popular, we’ve never had a problem walking in and getting a site. Water and electric hookups, immaculate bathrooms and separate, private showers, good Verizon; $20 per night ($15 for non hookup sites).
Pine Grove Campground is a Forest Service campground 18 miles south of Flagstaff. Aptly named, the campground is situated in a beautiful forest of fragrant Ponderosa pines. If you choose a site on the exterior of the loops, your backyard will be an expansive view of pine forest and open meadows. Open from May through October, half of the sites are reservable. No hookups, but clean bathrooms, one coin-operated shower facility, dump station and water fill station, good Verizon. $22 per night, $11 with the Senior Pass.
Acouple of years ago, we discovered the French Quarter Festival—a four-day celebration that takes place the second weekend in April in New Orleans. With more than 20 stages scattered throughout the Quarter, upwards of 1,700 local musicians performing throughout the day and evening, and small plates offered by the best neighborhood restaurants in lovely outdoor venues, it’s like a huge neighborhood block party.
This party, though, just happens to be in a neighborhood world-renowned for incredibly talented musicians and fabulous cuisine. We drifted from one venue to another, enjoying jazz, blues, zydeco, gospel, and people watching. We picnicked on savory shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake, crab and artichoke salad, crawfish crepes, and smoked duck po’boys, accompanied by local ice cold Abita IPA. Despite the fact that this is a huge festival, it has a mellow, friendly vibe. We had an absolute blast, and came away with even more affection for “The Big Easy.”
In keeping with our attempt to rein ourselves in a bit (not an easy feat when New Orleans beckons), we stayed five nights at Bayou Segnette State Park, but spent only three days in New Orleans, followed by one day on the trails at nearby Barataria Preserve for a different kind of wild. Adding to our enjoyment were our new friends Ed and Diana, whom we met on Dauphin Island—they decided on the spur of the moment to accompany us to New Orleans for a couple of days.
Bayou Segnette SP is perfectly located for visiting the city—it’s an easy 12-mile drive to the ferry landing in quaint Algiers Point with its plethora of adorable candy-colored 1800’s cottages, and a five-minute ferry ride across the Mississippi, landing in the French Quarter. No driving in the city, no parking issues, and only $2 for the ferry ($1 if you’re over 65). Couldn’t be more stress-free.
On our last visit to New Orleans a couple of years ago, we realized that we needed a guided tour to get the most out of our visit. In general, we avoid tours, preferring to just wander on our own, photographing and exploring at our leisure. But we were interested in learning a bit more about the city without the frustrating experience of “self-guided” walking tours. Trying to read from a brochure of tiny print while stumbling along city streets in search of landmarks is not my idea of fun. But I’m also less than enthralled with the idea of an expensive tour on a crowded tour bus with a bored or overenthusiastic guide delivering corny jokes.
Luckily, we discovered Free Tours by Foot. It’s a pay-what-you-like arrangement, with local freelance tour guides who are highly motivated to deliver excellent tours. I booked reservations for tours of the Garden District and the French Quarter, and we were delighted with both (next time, we’re going to do the Voodoo Tour and the Food Tour). The guides were well informed, engaging, and humorous—we learned a lot about the history, architecture, and culture of New Orleans—including some of the local dirt.
There truly is no other place in the world like New Orleans. A melting pot of culture, religion, ethnic groups, food traditions, and music, it’s one of the oldest cities in the United States and one of the most fascinating. We still have no desire to visit during the insanity of Mardis Gras, and although the Jazz Festival in mid-April is mighty alluring with an incredible line-up of performers—it’s the French Quarter Festival that calls us to return. (All of the locals we met told us that the French Quarter Festival is their favorite, and that they hide out during the other events.)
A few tips for visiting the French Quarter Festival, should you decide to go:
• It’s FREE! The festival is supported by food and beverage purchases, so no coolers or outside food or beverages are allowed. Water is the exception, and you should bring plenty because it’s generally hot in early April. (And you probably don’t want your only beverages to be beer and daiquiris.) The food is terrific, and for the quality, it’s reasonable at $5-8 per small plate.
• Thursday is the mellowest day, with the crowds and events ratcheting up throughout the weekend. Saturday and Sunday at the big waterfront stages you can expect wall-to-wall people. Go early in the day and even the waterfront is manageable.
• Our favorite stages were the smaller ones, especially the Jazz Stage in Jackson Square with its lovely grassy lawn surrounded by billowing white tents of our favorite food vendors, and the Zydeco Stage on Decatur Street (with the lovely courtyard of the National Historical Park French Quarter Visitor Center available for a shady, quiet respite from the crowds and a bathroom that’s not a porta potty being used by thousands. Shhh. Don’t tell!)
• Wear a broad-brimmed hat or bring an umbrella for sun protection. There’s not much shade at many of the pavilions, especially those along the waterfront.
• Bring a folding chair and set it up in a prime location early in the day. You can wander away at any time and come back when you’re ready. If your chair is unoccupied, someone will likely enjoy it while you’re away, but no one will take issue when you return. Locals told us this is expected; it’s all part of the neighborly vibe.
• Don’t miss just wandering the streets of the French Quarter. You’ll find plenty of entertainment—and fabulous musicians—on every corner. It’s also a delight to escape into an open-air coffee shop and watch the crowds go by.
About the campground:
All of the sites at Bayou Segnette State Park are spacious and paved, with grassy lawns and a backdrop of lush green wild shrubs. Water and electric hook-ups, free laundry in the restroom complex, and good Verizon coverage; $28 per night. The big draw for us here is the location—we love being near New Orleans, but with the benefit of returning to a peaceful spot in nature in the evening.
Bonus tip: Don’t miss the wonderful seafood market adjacent to the park—a dozen vendors offer excellent fresh shrimp, crab, and crawfish for some of the most reasonable prices we’ve seen anywhere ($3.99 per pound for beautiful Gulf shrimp).
If you enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, birding, art, music, quirky towns, good food, and good friends—you'll enjoy traveling with us. Join us as we explore the backroads of North America—we love company and comments!