Road Trip Bonus Post: The Bayliner of RVs

We’ve now spent a week getting to know the features and quirks of our CruiseAmerica Standard RV – the good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak. Miranda has christened this the “Bayliner of RVs”, to use a boating analogy. Now, before any Bayliner owners get their noses all out of joint, we have owned not one, but two, Bayliners, and enjoyed them both. So… we know of what we speak.

Not fancy, but functional

Bayliners are known to have good interior layout and good use of space. Our RV does, too. Sleeping accommodations are above the cab for Miranda and aft of the galley for me. Both can be curtained off. There is a dinette table that could accommodate 4 in a squeeze. It folds out to another berth. The galley has a deep sink, cooktop, microwave and a good sized refrigerator freezer. It is a little challenged for counter space, but has good storage space for food and utensils. There are storage cabinets up high all around, more than we need. The head is tight but functional.

Bayliners were also known for having issues with fit and finish, using some lower quality materials. Our RV suffers from the same issue. All of the lamination and edge moldings is pretty chinzy, and many have separated. Little things like locks and latches are of low quality and are bothersome. The systems work pretty well – propane for cooking, water heating, cabin heating and refrigeration, shore power for 120V AC, and a dinky DC “coach” battery. There is a basic monitoring system, but it is a bit cheesy. When we told the guy at check out that the holding tank monitor showed full, he said “yeah, that always happens”. We learned the hard way that the coach battery takes some abuse. Ours gave up in Yellowstone NP, making it so that the cabin heat would not fire up during the 30-some degree mornings. However, this is more likely a reflection on quality of service rather than equipment.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I suspect that our RV is heading for a refit and sale, so we might not be seeing a typical example, but ours has not worn particularly well. I had a peek at CruiseAmerica’s used RV sales pages and see that refurbished models of similar mileage go for mid-$30s… that seems like a pretty good value, assuming that everything gets fixed in the refurb process.

Miranda came up with the Bayliner moniker as we were driving down a secondary, two-lane highway that had a bit of a crown on the road surface. The RV wallowed and rolled much like our Bayliner in choppy seas. On the other hand, we flogged it over a 4900 ft mountain pass on dirt forest roads and survived. So maybe it can handle tougher conditions than we can. I’ll also note that it can’t really be driven safely faster than 65 MPH. By the time it gets to 70, it starts a little shimmy that is, shall we say, unsettling. Now you might think that 65 is plenty fast. Maybe. Unless the speed limit is 80 and you are in the right lane getting waked by everything that moves, including ALL the other RVs of various types.

So if our CruiseAmerica is the Bayliner of RVs, what is the “Nordhavn” of RVs? Forget the Super and Mega Land yachts we saw – 50 footers towing land dinghys like jeeps, SUVs and pickups. What about the roadworthy, well-built, well-finished models in the same size range? It seemed clear that the spiffy ones were built on a Mercedes Sprinter chassis and diesel powerplant.

Wow, look at that pop out! Now, that’s the Nordhavn of campers.

It’s clear that many companies make these – we saw them with brand names such as Jayco, Leisure, Prism and even Winnebago (a name I remember from road trips as a kid). They all seemed to be quite similar in exterior design with much more aerodynamic shapes, and in general, just looked like they were higher quality. I wonder if there is a single coach builder and all of these companies are just resellers? I didn’t get to tour the inside of any of these, but several we saw in the same size (25 ft) had side pop-outs to create more interior space. Of course, I’m sure that the price of one of these compared to our CruiseAmerica approaches the Nordhavn-Bayliner price ratio. Checking the Winnebago website shows the model above sells new for around $175k.

Miranda and I also had discussions about the “ideal” type of RV. There are several different classes of RV (which I know almost nothing about). Ours is apparently a Class C, which I think means a box built on a truck chassis. It seems to us that this is the least useful type – for example, at 25 ft long and 12 ft high, these cannot travel on the smaller roads in the national parks, including the famed Going to the Sun road in Glacier NP. A very common alternative we saw was the trailer towed by a pickup, where you can at least park the trailer and explore with the pickup. We saw these in lengths that must have been up to 40 ft, some with 3 pop-out sections. There were lots of very cool-looking variations on the Mercedes Sprinter vans, which seem to be small enough to fit on the various park roads. They do look a bit too compact for comfortable living, at least for an old guy like me. Of course, there are the Mega and Super land yachts towing the land dinghies. These all seem to be in the 40 ft range, and while I am sure they are comfortable, they seem like a handful to deal with. I concluded that the ideal setup would be to have a crewed Super land yacht that towed a 4×4 while we drove from place to place in a really nice sports car, maybe like the C8 Corvette we saw in Yellowstone.

Now this is the way to see our National Parks!

CruiseAmerica Assistance Services

We called the CruiseAmerica Assistance Services from Old Faithful village to get the dead battery replaced. They took our information to pass onto someone who would “work the case”. About an hour later I called back, as we were waiting to explore the area. They said that they haven’t gotten to us yet. I mentioned that we were in an area with very limited phone service and couldn’t wait hours for a call back, and I asked them what their service level agreement was for returning roadside service calls. After a few moments of silence, the response was “we don’t have one, we just answers the calls in order”. I finally got a call back from someone who told me to go to any NAPA store and buy a battery, and they would reimburse me when I returned the RV. I explained that I wasn’t in a place to be able to search for NAPA stores and asked them to recommend one nearby, suggesting West Yellowstone, and specifically questioned whether the NAPA stores would actually be able to replace the battery. They sent me the info, but when I called the store, sure enough, they indicated that they don’t install batteries. Exasperated, I started searching within the park to see if there were places that might do RV repairs. It turns out that Miranda found one 100 yds away from us in Old Faithful Village. The gas station was able to replace the battery, and they were, as it turns out, a NAPA dealer. There was nothing in the documentation showing where the coach battery was located. We eventually found it and the nice guy at the service station replaced it, while also cleaning up the battery box and lubing the sliding mechanism, obviously for the first time. The battery that came out was a high quality Lifeline AGM deep cycle battery, but at a Group 31 size, clearly too small for the job. I’m sure it doesn’t help that it gets run completely down to 10V every day that it’s used. Of course, as is typical with customer service folks these days, everyone I talked to was nice… they just didn’t solve my problem.

Anyway, renter beware with regard to CruiseAmerica “assistance”.

Road Trip Days 9-10: Grand Teton NP and on to Utah

Goodbye, Yellowstone, hello Grand Teton

Our itinerary called for just one day in Grand Teton NP, just South of Yellowstone. We didn’t have reservations, so wanted to get down to Colter Bay campground on Jackson Lake before it filled up. We crossed the Continental Divide 3 times heading to the South Entrance of the Park. Part of the drive was pretty smoky due to a fire in the Park south of the main road. We didn’t see any signs of the fire and the smoke seemed to abate as we got further south. Along the way into the park we saw a solo cyclist on a road bike who obviously went over the same passes – we had seen him the previous day at Old Faithful. When we spoke to him briefly at the laundromat later that day he said that he started in San Francisco, went South to Orange County, across to Denver, then to Steamboat (over 11,000 ft Rabbit Ears Pass) and through Rocky Mountain NP. He said his highest elevation reached was 12,000 ft! I was going to comment on his crossing of the Continental Divide in the park, but realized that this was a warm up ride for him given his previous altitude training. I am totally impressed by this guy riding this distance solo, particularly with the incredible amount of climbing he has done. When he gets back to sea level, he’ll be pedaling with “no chain” (as the pros would say).

Jackson Lake and the Tetons from the beach by our Campground

We got into the Colter Bay campsite and explored the little village, where we found wifi, washing machines, showers, gift shop, food and ice cream. The rest of the day, therefore was devoted to laundry, etc. I took a 5 dollar shower for the pleasure of having a showerhead that was above my head and room to move around, not to mention unlimited hot water. We had some lunch at the lodge, perused the visitor center and gift shop, got some produce and ice cream at the general store and walked down to have a look at the lake. This was a very active bear area, with bear boxes at all of the sites, and the store staff reporting a mother and 3 cubs hanging around the campground. We were also warned about the bears by campsite staff, who said our RV was a good bear box…. just keep the windows closed. We had a low key evening and Miranda asked me to let her know if any bears dropped by in the middle of the night. I did hear and feel them give us a shake, but I could not see anything from my vantage point… it was just too dark.

It started to rain this morning just before we started out for Rockport State Park outside of Park City Utah. Unfortunately, the clouds obscured the view of the top of the Tetons, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless.

The Tetons from the park road on a cloudy, rainy morning

Miranda was busy looking for land for her planned Dude Ranch (wouldn’t that really be a “Chick” Ranch). The route out of Jackson took us along the Snake River through beautiful Canyons and a blaze of fall color. Really spectacular scenery.

Beautiful scenery along Hwy 89 South of Jackson

A high point of the trip for me was passing beneath the worlds largest Elkhorn arch in Afton, Wyoming.

The worlds largest Elkhorn Arch. Who knew?

It was cloudy the whole way with periods of rain, but by the time we arrived at Rockport State Park (which was built around a reservior), the sun came out and we finally saw blue, smoke-free skies!

The reservoir at Rockport State Park

The air quality reading is in the 20s for the nearest monitoring stations some 25 miles away, a big relief from what the far West has experienced. Our campground had electrical and water hookups, and a covered pavilion with a long picnic table on a concrete pad. We are also back in the land of cell service. The view towards the reservoir is not beautiful, but the one to the other direction is not bad.

Looking east from our campsite in Rockport State Park, UT

License plate update

Yellowstone was pretty productive for us – we even got Hawaii!

Only 5 states to go!

I am wondering what’s up with those folks in the Northeast. Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut (OK, and Delaware)? Are they stay at home types? Or are they enjoying the parks in New England? We need them to get off their couches and get out on the road!

Next stop for us is Zion NP in the far Southwest corner of Utah. Zion Canyon road is closed to vehicle traffic, and the only way up the Canyon is via shuttle bus… or by bicycle. We’ve opted to rent some electric bikes to spend the day exploring the Canyon.

Road Trip Days 5-8: Yellowstone NP

We departed the Butte KOA and after a quick stop at Walmart for some inexpensive grilling supplies, headed down to Yellowstone via MT 287, following the Madison River and passing by Earthquake Lake, apparently formed (hence the name) by a giant earthquake in 1959.  The river was beautiful and obviously very popular for trout fishing judging by the number of resorts and boats.

The first National Park – established in 1872

We arrived at the West Entrance early in the afternoon and were soon on our way to the Madison campground.  We got settled in and went for a walk along the river and saw a lone bison grazing across the way.  Beautiful.  The next morning we got an early start, heading for the Canyon area, some 35 miles across the park.  We got there early enough to grab an RV parking spot at the South Rim near Artists Point, and cooked some breakfast.  The view of the lower fall was indeed spectacular, and one could easily understand why it was called Artists Point.  We did a nice little hike along the South Rim past the lower falls to the upper falls, enjoying the gorgeous vistas and staying a little back from the steep and deep drop-offs.

The lower falls from Artists Point

Along the way we passed a trail that was closed due to deterioration which consisted of a steel set of stairs that went all the way down to the bottom of the Canyon.  The trail’s namesake ran a guiding business at the turn of the 20th Century taking tourists down the Canyon via ropes and ladders!

Miranda striking a pose from a viewpoint along the South Rim Trail.
The upper falls from the South Rim

Next we drove along the North Rim, but by that time all of the parking lots were full… and we decided that we had the better views on the South Rim.  So we went off to Canyon Village to have lunch, get gas and fulfill Miranda’s hunt for Bear Spray.  We got lunch at the Canyon Lodge cafeteria and ate at the tables outside.  The sun was out and there was relatively little smoke in the sky.  The food was surprisingly good – I had a bison sloppy joe and Miranda had a veggie version.  We also bought our obligatory t-shirts, stickers and post cards at the gift shop, and were able to find bear spray at the gas station.  All of the park papers and signage indicate that visitors should carry bear spray.  I noted to Miranda that there were so many people around armed with the spray, we’d only need to shout “bear!” and be inundated with a fog of spray issuing from all directions.

Plenty of traffic in the park.

After lunch we drove back to the Norris geyser basin.  There were huge crowds of vehicles parked all along the access roads and the overflow lots, but we decided to chance driving up to the main parking lot.  They had RV parking and luckily, another CruiseAmerica RV was pulling out just as we arrived.  The big feature here was the Steamboat Geyser, one the erupts infrequently for long periods of time.

We caught one of the infrequent eruptions of Steamboat Geyser

  We watched the show for a little while then wandered around the back basin on boardwalks above the geothermally active land.  There were many pools and mud pots, and interestingly, viewing areas built for geysers that were no longer active.  Towards the end of the walk, we came across a geyser that had been obstructed by rocks thrown in by tourists when the park road ran nearby.  Seeing examples like this and learning a bit about the history of the National Parks revived a bit of discussion between us about the nature of people.  I, in my aging cynicism, find difficulty in the notion that people are “inherently” good.  I see too many examples of the opposite.  Miranda has a more nuanced view that people are all born with the capacity for good and are influenced by their experiences.  I wonder what experience influenced the person that stole a couple of measly pieces of firewood from our obviously occupied campsite?

The afternoon consisted of a nice little nap and then a dinner over the fire.  We were back to the old reliable “hobo dinners” that we made in my youth, mixing potatoes, onions, ground turkey (in a nod to Miranda), cheese and broccoli (also Miranda) in aluminum foil cooked directly over the coals.  Of course, we had s’mores for dessert, and turned in early.

Roadside Bison

The next day was a visit to Old Faithful and the upper geyser basin.  We had another early start to make sure that we were able to park.  Along the way, we saw a small crowd of cars on the side of the road and by now knew that this meant there was wildlife around.  Sure enough, a herd of Bison was right there alongside the park road, including many juveniles.  The humans clearly missed the instructions to keep at least 25 yards away, but perhaps they were to be forgiven, since the Bison were gathered right on the shoulder of the road.  We got to Old Faithful a little after 8 AM.  On the way in there was quite a bit of smoke due to a fire burning South of the park road.  There was plenty of parking – the lots really didn’t fill up until lunch time.   We found that we actually had cell service so spent a little time getting a data fix.  I also wanted to call the CruiseAmerica assistance line, as our “coach” battery was clearly dying.  It would not hold a charge and was not even strong enough to allow us to run the propane heater in the frigid Yellowstone mornings.  Fortunately, after a bunch of calls and some good scouting by Miranda, we were able to have the battery replaced at the gas station right there in the village.

Hey, we got a picture of Old Faithful!

We walked around to the back side of Old Faithful to view the eruption, and then walked pretty much all of the Geyser basin.  This one was, contrary to the Park literature, much more active than the Norris basin.  We watched Castle and Riverside Geyser erupt and took in many of the bubbling springs.  It was a surreal landscape of steam and hot water flowing into the Firehole river.  I certainly don’t have any words to do it justice.  Except, maybe, crowded.

Riverside Geyser

We eventually found our way back to the Old Faithful Lodge for another take out lunch from the Cafeteria.  They had a mask mandate and were controlling entrance, but it was still crowded in there.  Unlike the Canyon Lodge, there was little to no outdoor seating, so we wound up taking our lunch back to the RV.  Again, the food was surprisingly good and actually quite inexpensive.  After lunch we were both ready for a nap, so headed back to the Madison campground.  We dumped the holding tank and filled up with water on the way back in and then had a good long nap.  Another campfire dinner, this time hot dogs, salad and leftover beans from lunch.  We cleaned and cleared the site to prepare for departure in the morning and passed on the s’mores so we could watch an episode of a show on Miranda’s iPad.

Road Trip Days 3/4: Glacier NP area

We had a leisurely mid-morning departure from the St Regis Campground, emptying the black and gray water tanks (much easier than on a boat) and topping off the propane. The drive towards Glacier took us along the beautiful Flathead river, across huge expanses of prairie land and then along the West side of Flathead lake before arriving at Emery Bay campground , down 5 miles of washboard forest road to the Hungry Horse reservoir.

The site was just fine, and we noticed that there was a big brown box between our site and the next one. The sign on it said it was a bear box for food storage – more on this later.

The campsite at Emery Bay. Not the big brown box in the middle.

The smoke has made it into Montana, and we were in it all day. I went down to the campground’s boat launch to look at the reservoir and it looked like a foggy day on the water. I only saw one boat, and that one was getting hauled out at the ramp.

The reservoir by the campground, socked in with smoke.

We had a nice dinner of hot dogs and corn cooked over the fire pit, and finished it off with s’mores (again). We cleaned up, closed everything up, and crawled into bed for the night. I thought about moving our snack box (a sealed plastic bin containing snacks in sealed containers) to the the bear box, but decided not to, instead locking it in the outside storage compartment of the camper. In the middle of the night, I awoke to the feeling of the camper getting pushed from side to side, heard some scraping sounds and realized that a bear was trying to get to our box of snacks. Oops. I guess that’s why the sites had bear boxes. After a few minutes, it stopped, so I thought “that wasn’t such a big deal”, and went back to sleep. Sleep did not last long, as the bear returned several times over the course of the night. I worried that it would rip the cover off the storage compartment, but it eventually gave up. When I got up in the morning, the cover was still in place, and unlike me, none the worse for the wear.

We drove up to Glacier National Park early this morning, but it was completely socked in with smoke. We stopped at the Lake McDonald lodge and make a pancake breakfast in the parking lot.

Lake McDonald Lodge, Glacier NP.

After breakfast we walked down to the lake, but it was clear that it was not safe to hike (AQI > 180), and there was so much smoke that there was no sightseeing to be done. We called an audible and decided to head South a day early, hoping to get out of the worst of the smoke and take a chunk out of the long drive to Yellowstone NP. We were able to find a spot at a KOA in Butte Montana, which is in a less bucolic setting, but has no bear boxes. The smoke is still visible down here, but the air quality readings are in the moderate range (AQI mid 70s), much lower than up North.

The tour boat on the dock at the Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier Bay NP. It has not been running this year, and there certainly would not have been anything to see today.

Tomorrow we head on toward Yellowstone, an easy 180 mile drive from here. Our fuel economy over the last two fill ups has gone down a bit to 8.5-9.5 mpg. Climbing mountain passes on state highways and forest roads accounts for the decline, and it is good to know that we have about 450-500 miles of range between fill ups. We’ve spotted a few more license plates in campgrounds and the Glacier parking lots, and need to update our map. We won’t have any connectivity in Yellowstone (or Grand Teton??), so it will likely be a few days before the next update.

Road Trip Day 1: Anacortes to Camp Cour d’Alene

We got underway from Anacortes this morning, battling smoke and later, Spokane traffic, while crossing Washington to our first stop on Lake Cour d’Alene in Idaho.

Ready to depart Anacortes this morning.

We covered 397 miles in about nine hours, including a last minute supply stop at Camping World, refueling a couple of times, a lunch stop at a rest area along the way, and a bit of Spokane rush hour traffic. I was surprised at our gas mileage, which was better than I expected at 10.8 mpg. I kept the average speed around 60 mph, creeping up to 65 on the downhills and flats and trying to hold 55 uphill. The RV handled much like a boat in small swells, wallowing back and forth quite a bit. It was loud but not unbearable, with most of the noise sounding like it was coming from the rear differential. Our RV has 116,000 miles on it, and I am wondering if they allowed us to take this particular one on a one way trip because it is time to go to the RV retirement home (or some unwitting buyer).

Gwen insisted that we play the license plate game, and given that we had thousands of cars blowing by us, it was a fun way to pass the time. We were astounded to see plates from 27 states before even getting out of Washington. There were at least two or three unique plates that we couldn’t identify because the cars passed too quickly!

Miranda’s tally of license plates from Day 1.

We were originally planning to take Highway 20 from Anacortes through North Cascades National Park, but unfortunately, that route ran right into the area consumed by the two largest fires in the state, the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires. We instead went South and took I-90 across. The smoke was pretty steady, cleared a bit climbing over Snoqualmie Pass, but then socked in pretty heavily in the middle of the sate past Moses Lake.

Pretty Smoky on I-90.

By the time we got through Spokane, things had cleared up considerably. We had some really nice views of Lake Cour d’Alene as we were heading into the campground for the first night.

The late afternoon sun over Lake Cour d’Alene. Photo courtesy of Miranda’s fancy new iPhone.

We’re now settled in for the night at Camp Cour d’Alene. We have electrical and water hookups, and are running the air conditioning to minimize smoke exposure overnight. Our goal tomorrow is to ride a rail trail called the Route of the Hiawatha along the Idaho/Montana border. We’ll see if conditions permit.

Pulling into camp.

Road Trip Day 2: Route of the Hiawatha

This summer, I heard about a Rail Trail called the “Route of the Hiawatha“, located in the Bitteroot mountains along the Idaho-Monatana Border. It is reported to be a “Hall of Fame” rail trail, featuring 10 tunnels and 7 trestles running along it’s 15 mile length on the former Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway. We considered doing a road trip to ride the trail, and when the idea of the cross country RV trip came up, I knew this was a stop we’d have to make.

The Hiawatha Route. We are renting bikes at the lower trailhead at Pearson and are thinking about riding up as far as Moss Creek, covering most of the trestles and tunnels.

The trail is operated by Lookout Pass ski area, which rents bikes and runs a shuttle from the bottom of the trail back up to the top. The typical way to ride the trail is starting at the East Portal, riding through the 1.6 mile Taft tunnel and then taking the shuttle back from the lower, Pearson trailhead. We don’t want to be on a crowded shuttle with no mask requirements, so we arranged to have bikes delivered to Pearson.

We read on the website that there was a good (20 mile) forest road that led from the town of Wallace to the Pearson trailhead. It started out great, with new blacktop pavement. And then the pavement ended, but there was a wide, well-graded dirt road. Which got narrower. And bumpier. And steeper, with lots of switchbacks. And we were on the outside of the road noticing the long dropoffs. The road goes up and over Moon Pass (I later learned that the top elevation was 4931 feet) and then descends down along the river to the trailhead. There were definitely some sketchy sections, more suited to the many off road vehicles around here than to our RV. Very exciting. The smoke, by the way, got pretty thick as we climbed out of Wallace, but the thinned out quite a bit on the other side.

We arrived around 10 AM, when the bikes were supposed to be delivered, but no one was around. Soon we saw the first riders from the top finishing their ride. Eventually the bikes arrived, but without the powerful headlights that were supposed to be necessary for the 10 tunnels. The guy working at the bottom managed to come up with a dinky one for Miranda, but nothing for my bike. Fortunately we had some headlights with us. The bikes were in pretty rough condition and the shifting was badly out of adjustment. If you plan to rent bikes for the ride, we’d recommend upgrading from the basic bike.

The start of the trail from the bottom at Pearson.

The ride was fantastic, along a well maintained gravel/dirt trail with lots of informational signs (which we mostly rode right by) and plenty of rest stops (same). It was a steady false flat grade of about 100 ft per mile, following the valley along one side of loop creek and then around to the other side. The trestles were absolutely spectacular, standing several hundred feet over the valley floor. In many places you could see the trestles on the other side of the valley.

Standing on one of the trestles with another across the valley in the background. It was 10 miles and 2 hours up, 1 hour down.
One of the trestles.
The big one across the way.

The tunnels were a fun and cool relief from the warm, sunny day. The ones that we passed through ranged from 200 to 1500+ feet in length – we did not go all the way to the 1.6 mile Taft tunnel at the top.

Entrance to the 1516 ft long Tunnel 22.

There were literally hundreds of people out on the trails riding every kind of bike you could imagine. A fair number of them were a bit clueless. Miranda suggested a mandatory lesson on trail safety and etiquette before allowing anyone to ride.

The crowds lined up for the shuttle back to the top. Lots of people, no masks.

It was only as we were riding along the trail that I realized that this was the area of the Great Fire of 1910, which eventually burned 3 million acres across Idaho and Western Montana. I read an interesting book about this fire and the beginnings of the US Forest Service called The Big Burn. As it turned out, the fire burned along the North Fork of the St Joe River, and we saw many, many burnt, dead trees that must have been remnants from that fire. As we returned to the town of Wallace after the ride, the fire smoke was eerily thick (a good bit of Wallace was destroyed in the 1910 fire).

Negotiating a switchback on the Forest Service road.

We were going to stay at an RV park in Wallace, but they were first-come first serve only and full, so we headed East on I-90. After passing a couple of sketchy RV parks including one behind a roadside “Casino” we arrived at the very nice Campground St Regis in Montana, where we cooked hobo dinners on the coals of a fire and roasted marshmallows for S’mores. All in all, a great adventure day! Next we are on towards Glacier National Park.

Road Trip!

A new question for these pandemic times… how can we go and visit my mother and the rest of our Georgia-based family, safely, and without having to spend two weeks beforehand in quarantine? Miranda came up with a kinda crazy, kinda cool solution – renting an RV and doing a road trip, so that we “quarantine” while traveling across the country. She pitched the idea to me, suggesting that we visit some of our National Parks along the way and turning it into a big vacation/adventure. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical at first. But, considering that I am retired, the season is ramping down with Freedom Boat Club, and I am being being offered the gift of spending a couple of weeks with my daughter…. how could I possibly say no?

Both Gwen and I have fond memories and many stories of cross-country road trips when we were younger. We did a small road trip with Miranda on our way out to Seattle 12 years ago, driving from Milwaukee on the Northern Route across country and visiting (well, really driving through) sites such as the Badlands of South Dakota, Devil’s Tower, Mt Rushmore, and a tiny bit of Yellowstone. We drove my dearly departed BMW M3 and stayed at hotels, taking about 4-5 days to make the drive. We had a great time, and we were glad to have Miranda experience at least a little bit of road tripping. Now Miranda and I will have a chance to do a real road trip and along the way experience some of our most famous national parks for the first time. Unfortunately, Gwen will not be able to join us because of her commitment to her 6 months locums gig out on the Olympic Peninsula.

We did some internet searching to find a route that included some of our bucket list national parks, which looks something like this:

The plan is to spend about three weeks and about 4100 miles meandering across the country.

Our route will cover nearly 4200 miles over 21 days, visiting the following places:

  • North Cascades (OK, maybe this shouldn’t count, since we are just driving through this on the first day)
  • Ride the Hiawatha Rail Trail in Idaho
  • Glacier NP in Montana, camping in Flathead National Forest
  • Yellowstone NP, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
  • Grand Teton NP, Wyoming
  • Rockport State Park, Utah
  • Zion Canyon NP, Utah
  • Arches NP , Utah
  • Canyonlands NP, Utah
  • Mesa Verde NP, Colorado
  • Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico
  • Carlsbad Caverns NP, New Mexico
  • Cedar Hill State Park, Texas
  • Lake Ouachita State Park, Arkansas
  • Seven Points Campground, TN
  • Ending in/around Atlanta, GA

I’m pretty excited about the number of National Parks that we’ll be able to visit, albeit briefly. Of those on the list, I’ve only been to Carlsbad Caverns and Yellowstone (a short stop at Mammoth Hot Springs on the way out to Seattle). We do have three long (400+ mile) days, but also have several multi-day stops. Our median day is about 219 miles.

We are doing a one-way rental of a “Standard” size RV from Cruise America. Miranda has done an outstanding job of organizing the trip, reserving the RV and campsites along the entire route, and is now busily working on our meal and provisioning plans. The RV, as you might guess, is set up much like a boat. It has fresh and waste water systems, range, refrigerator and microwave oven, air conditioning and both a generator and external power hookups (and of course, a waste water pump out system). It is not cheap to rent, nor is it particularly cheap to travel by RV, particularly if you stay in places with full hookups. We are paying a steep per-mile rate, and I am told that the expected fuel economy is single digit miles per gallon. We could probably fly first class and quarantine in a 4 star hotel for less, but what fun would that be?

Kinda like a boat, but with wheels.

We leave next Friday, September 11th and expect to arrive in Georgia sometime around the first of October. We’ll try to post regular updates as we go. If you’ve been to any of the places we plan to visit, we’d love to hear your recommendations… feel free to leave a comment below.

A (not so new) Summer Pastime

Coming back to Washington with no boat left me wondering what I would do with myself this summer. As mentioned previously, I was fortunate to land a job as a Training Captain with Freedom Boat Club, which has seen a tremendous jump in membership during this “stay local” summer.

Being landlocked, I’ve rekindled my on and off love of cars and fast driving. It all started with my buddy John buying a Mercedes AMG sport utility (yes, there is such a thing) and signing up for the AMG driving school, which wound up being cancelled due to the pandemic. Talking with him reminded me of doing track days in Wisconsin with my 2005 BMW M3 with the local chapter of the BMW Car Club of America. They offered High Performance Driving Experience (HPDE) days during which you would receive driving instruction and drive your own car on a race track with an instructor (until you were “qualified” to drive solo). It was not racing, in that passing was strictly by consent, but it was a whole lot of fun! I did several events with them, eventually graduating to “solo intermediate” and drove at Blackhawk Farms in Illinois, and Road America in Wisconsin, reputedly one of the fastest tracks in the world.

Not my M3… I couldn’t find a single photo of mine, so borrowed an image of the identical car from the “Mad Russian”, a well-known M3 enthusiast. In retrospect, I REALLY wish I had kept the car.

I figured that we could find a local, non-brand specific driving school, and sure enough, we discovered Proformance Racing School at Pacific Raceways, a bit south of Seattle. They offer a range of programs from one day high performance driving school to lapping programs to a full two day racing school.

Next, I needed to find a car to use. We have a 2014 BMW 328i wagon, and believe it or not, these turn out to be pretty good on a track. Gwen was having NONE of it, however, as it is our only car. So the search for a cheap, trackable car was on. John realized that it might not be a great idea to turn his fancy, very pricey AMG into a track car, so agreed to partner with me on one. I remembered that my other buddy Ryan was a car guy with a shop and a bunch of cars. We pulled him into the search as an advisor and eventually wound up buying a 1998 Nissan 200SX SE-R from him for dirt cheap. The SE-R is no M3, but it is a lightweight, manual transmission coupe with a reliable, but low-powered engine. In other words, a car that is not likely to get you into trouble on the track.

The track car, a 1998 Nissan 200SX SE-R. Pretty much guaranteed to the slowest car on the track on any given day.

Having secured the car and drawing up partnership papers, we went to work on preparing it for track days. This included the following parts and service:

  • New/upgraded tires
  • New/upgraded brake pads, rotors, lines
  • New windshield, as the old one was cracked, new wipers
  • New rear hubs (bearings were shot)
  • New CV axles
  • New coolant system hoses
  • New fluids – oil, transmission, coolant and brakes
  • New sparkplugs and wires
  • New headlights and turn signals
  • New air intake

As you can see, money can be spent on a car nearly as quickly as it can on a boat. Fortunately, it seems to flow in slightly smaller increments, and we were able to use Ryan’s very well-equipped shop to do the work. It was actually fun to work on the car in a shop with a lift and all the right tools. Like working on a boat, except that everything is easy to get to. Soon, we had the car ready for our driving school day.

John, Ryan and I all did the Proformance Driving school together. John opted to drive his AMG, and Ryan drove his C5 corvette, leaving the SE-R in my capable(?) hands. The morning included a bit of classroom talk and a number of exercises such as braking, a slalom course, lane changes and deliberate skids to learn how the car reacts. I did quite well with the skid exercise… the car’s antilock brakes are not functional, so I had to brake the old-fashioned way.

The afternoon consisted of lapping the track with a coach in the passenger seat showing us the track and providing real-time instruction and feedback. We all had a great time, and agreed that we would come back for a lapping day, during which we would receive another hour of in-car instruction, and then be issued a “sport” license and a logbook to record our progress. This would allow us to drive solo on subsequent track days.

I realized during the driving school that the old suspension was shot, so we ordered a set of coilovers (which are an adjustable set of shocks and springs). While we were waiting for the coilovers to ship, John and Ryan both got out and earned their sport licenses, and I was signed up to earn mine the week after the parts were to be delivered. Ryan and I installed the coilovers, lowering the car 1.5″ in the front and 1″ in the back, and I then took the car in for a full alignment, which is necessary after replacing suspension components.

Finally, I was ready for my track day and the chance to earn my sport license. I had a good day, and the instructor was impressed with how our little car handled. His main suggestion was to replace the stock seat with a proper sport or racing seat and harnesses. Thus, another item was added to the upgrade list (that is turning into a bit of a long story best saved for another day). All was going well during my first solo session when I noticed that the car suddenly got a little noisier. I came back into the pits and had a look, but didn’t see anything amiss. I went back out onto the track for a few more laps, and it got louder again. Clearly there was a problem. It turns out that I had cracked the exhaust manifold (in several places, actually). We had been thinking about adding headers and a sport exhaust system anyway, so this was a handy excuse to pull the trigger on yet another upgrade. The problem is that all of us had signed up for another track day just a week later. A few frantic calls, a whopping shipping bill, and a hard-core overnighter by Ryan got the new headers in place in time for our track day this week.

John wasn’t able to make it, so it was me in the Nissan and Ryan in his Corvette for a sunny afternoon down at Pacific Raceways. The start of the session was delayed a bit due to the crash of a Mercedes AMG GTR coupe on the front straight in the morning session. We heard that it was caused by a rear tire blowout, which caused the car to go off the track and into the retaining wall. Fortunately, the driver was not injured, and equally fortunately, had track-day insurance to cover the damage sustained by the nearly $200,000 car.

We finally got out on the track and were having a great time. The car was handling well, and I was running a bit faster than my last time out as I started to get a feel for the track. I got a very cool timing device called Harry’s Lap Timer that uses the iPhone to capture data and video. Here is a clip showing my best lap in the Nissan:

SE-R lap, August 12

If you look closely at the video, you will see that there are cones along both sides of the track. The orange cones indicate braking zones, the yellow cones indicate turn-in points, the green cones indicate the apex of the turn and the white cones indicate the track out points. Basically, you should come as close as possible to the green cones and the white cones coming through and out of the turn and you’d better be off the brakes by the time you are at the yellow cone.

After about 15 laps or so I heard the exhaust get louder… again! I pulled into the pits, opened the hood, and could see the gasket sticking out of the joint between the header and the exhaust pipe! Looking closer I could see that two out of the three bolts holding the pipes together were gone. Very disappointing! I was done for the day after less than an hour.

Or was I? Proformance has a fleet of Toyota FRS sport coupes that they use for the driving school. They will also rent them out during track days, I discovered, for the princely sum of $200 per half hour of track time.

The trusty car #11 that I beat on (oops, I mean drove) for a half hour.

I decided that I had spent too much time, money and effort getting here to sit around for the rest of the afternoon watching other people have fun, so I ponied up the $200 for a session. The FRS is a very nice car, featuring a 200 HP engine (compared to the 140 HP in the Nissan), a six speed manual transmission, rear wheel drive, a comfortable seating position, and all the expected modern goodies like anti-lock brakes (yay) and traction control (boo). It was definitely faster than the Nissan, and I liked the steering feel of the rear wheel drive. I managed to turn in a lap time 4 seconds faster than my best in the Nissan.

Proformance FRS lap, August 12

While I really enjoyed driving the FRS, it really made me appreciate how good the Nissan is. The FRS definitely had a softer suspension with more body roll, and I don’t think the tires were as good as the ones on the Nissan. The braking was similar, and I realized only after the session that the traction control on FRS was kicking in around some of the tighter corners (the funny chirping sound you might hear in the video as I go around Turn 3b). The power and top speed was certainly nice, and it is definitely a more refined car. However, at a purchase price (used) at about 10x what we paid for the Nissan, I think we have put together a little car with pretty good bang for the buck. I did love driving for several laps in front of a hot Mustang that blew past me when I was driving the Nissan, and could not get around me in the FRS… even with me giving “point bys” in the passing zones. Ryan said the Mustang driver was commenting in the pits that he couldn’t get around me because I was too good a driver.

To top the day off, I think Ryan felt a bit sorry for me, so he let me take a couple of laps in his Corvette. That is a much more serious car, powered by a 350 HP v8 with a 6 speed manual transmission that will get you going to “oh sh!%” speeds in a hurry. It was a blast to drive, definitely way faster and stronger than the other two cars, and noticeably heavier. But it was really very easy to drive smoothly around the track. Thinking about the difference between the cars, I was driving both the Nissan and the FRS pretty hard, but going easier yet faster in the Corvette. I felt like I could push both the Nissan and the FRS hard without getting into trouble, but not so with the Corvette – much like my old M3, it was a much better car than I was a driver.

Wringing out the SE-R down the front straight. Image from local track photographer Karl Noakes

All in all, a great day, and I realized that I really do like doing this. Next step is to get the Nissan repaired – in this regard it seems much like a boat – and get back out on the track for more fun.

Staying Safe… Staying at Home

It has been just over a month since we left Miss Miranda at Marina CostaBaja in La Paz and returned home to our condo in Anacortes, WA… and the “Stay at home” order. The photo above shows the view of the Skyline area from our condo, pleasant save for the empty slip in front of us!

Catching up

To rewind a bit, we returned to La Paz from San Diego at the end of March, having decided to leave the boat and return to Anacortes. That left us with less than a week to find a slip for the season and prepare the boat for our extended absence.

On the nearly empty Alaska airlines flight from San Diego to La Paz in late March. There was one other passenger on the flight. Yes, it is jarring to Gwen to see that we weren’t wearing masks!

Fortunately we were able to secure a slip at Marina CostaBaja, which we have paid for through the end of December. At first we were worried that the slip might be too tight to get into, but it turns out to be a great fit, with fingers (and cleats) on both sides.

Miss Miranda tied up at Marina CostaBaja, courtesy of our friend Chris from SV Reality Check

Next, we starting going through preparations for long term storage, helped tremendously by a checklist from friends Laurence and Penny on MV Northern Ranger II, another N50 that lives at CostaBaja year round. This included things like emptying the refrigerator and freezer, closing through hulls, filling the water tanks, shutting down non-essential systems, etc. Fortunately(?), our SubZero freezer failed in Mazatlan (no, we are NOT kidding) so we had less stuff to give away.

We arranged to have a boat watch service along with regular diving and boat wash with La Paz Cruisers Supply. They check the boat at least once a week and wash and dive on the boat monthly. We are fairly confident that the boat will be in good shape when we return, though we have been warned to expect that something (things) will fail over this long layover.

As an aside/update on the fuel delivery system, we did get a warranty replacement fuel manifold delivered to us in San Diego, thanks to outstanding effort from our guy Ian at Philbrooks and terrific product support from Racor. Unfortunately, we wound up having to pay import duty when we brought it in as checked baggage at Cabo, in spite of showing the Temporary Import Permit. We were under the impression that the TIP is supposed to exempt us from duty on replacement/repair parts. Apparently not. Anyway, the manifold is on the boat, but not yet installed. That will be job one when we return.

Life at home – Larry

I hit my “official” retirement date the week after we returned home. I have to admit that I was not at all pleased that we came back from Mexico and not happy that my entry into retirement coincided with the quarantine order. With (plenty of) time for reflection, I have realized that I have much to be grateful for. We are safe and healthy. We are fortunate not to have to expose ourselves to the virus, unlike all of the people out there that are doing the critical jobs – obviously the healthcare workers, but the folks that work in the grocery stores, restaurants and all the other folks doing things that we need but take for granted. I am grateful for the beautiful weather we have had and the ability to out for walks, bike rides, and even play the occasional game of pickleball (exercise is NOT forbidden by the stay at home order). I am grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with friends, even if it is virtually. I am very grateful for the opportunity to see Miranda.

In terms of keeping busy, I have started roasting coffee again and have even done some batches of homemade half sour pickles, reminiscent of Gus’ Pickles in New York.

Homemade half sour pickles…. Yum!

I am not sure what I am going to do over the summer. Gwen will tell you about her job prospects, but I need to find some way of keeping busy in retirement. I was hoping to find something in the boating industry, but obviously, the pandemic has shut that down. I have signed up for a combined ABYC/NMEA certification course (on Marine Electrical Systems and Electronics) that I hope will still happen – it is scheduled for November. In a bit of good news, Fishing (and therefore, I assume, recreational boating) is reopening on May 4th. My hope is that if/when the boating season opens, I can put my Captain’s license to use, perhaps helping people move their boats, doing deliveries, etc. I am also hoping that some of our boating friends will take pity on us and invite us out on their boats!

And in a bit of a midlife crisis moment, there are conversations ongoing with unnamed friends about buying an inexpensive sports car to use for “High Performance Driving Experiences”, which is fancy for hauling ass at a racetrack.

Of course, there is always the thought of filling the empty slip with a little boat for fishing/playing.

Life at home – Gwen

I am relieved to be at home, although sometimes get wistful at the thought of what we have missed the last month in Mexico. But I know I would not have enjoyed the uncertainty of being there during this time, even if in a beautiful place. Fortunately, I seem to be able to fill my time easily with cooking, reading, working on Spanish, wasting time on a game my brother introduced/addicted me to, naps, and finally taking up yoga.

The job I thought I was coming back to suddenly dried up right before we came home, so my plan to work for most of the time we are home was suddenly upended. The healthcare industry in the US has taken a big financial hit due to shutting down revenue generating procedures like surgeries, etc. My field, primary care internal medicine, is generally a money loser in healthcare, so believe it or not, many places are laying off primary care doctors. (I know this will sound extremely strange to any reader from outside the US. I am more than happy to talk about this off the blog to anyone who wants to know more!)

Luckily, I am part of the Public Health Medical Reserve Corps for King County, and this has provided me with an outlet for my desire to help. I’ve been doing one or two shifts a week providing telephone medical coverage for the isolation and quarantine centers in King County. Some of those shifts have been quite busy with numerous calls, others very quiet, but I feel a little bit useful. It’s actually fairly competitive to get shifts, since so many physicians want to find a way to help, so I it hasn’t kept me as busy as I thought it would!

Fortunately, I was recently contacted about a new need for an internist on the Olympic Peninsula, so I will be working there 4 days a week for about 6 months. This is a real positive for me since I want to stay clinically active, and if Larry is going to buy both a car and a boat, I guess I need to keep my nose to the grindstone.

Concluding thoughts

We hope that everyone stays safe and survives this pandemic. Under ideal circumstances, we hope to return to Mexico in December to spend a season exploring the Sea of Cortez before bringing Miss Miranda back up to Washington in May of 2021. Of course, all of this depends on how the virus impacts Mexico. We just learned that the Port Captain of La Paz has prohibited all boating, save for commercial fishing in the region. It is also pretty clear that Mexico has limited capability to manage the crisis, both from a healthcare and general economic perspective.

We have friends that are still on their boats down in Mexico. We hope that they stay safe and healthy.

Rainbow over our neighborhood last night after a very stormy rainy day. Hopefully an omen of better days to come.
Another shot of the rainbow by the other blog contributor.

OK, as is often the case, each of the blog contributors took a rainbow photo. We need your help deciding which is best. Feel free to leave a comment voting for the first or second. We may reveal who took the “winner”.

Return to La Cruz and Yelapa

I’d rather have a palapa in Yelapa than a condo in Redondo – quote from a Mexico boating guidebook.

View back to the other side of the bay.

After doing some work on our chronic fuel delivery problems we decided to run across Banderas Bay to the pueblo of Yelapa, located on the South side of the bay, a bit East of Cabo Corrientes.  The only way to visit is by boat – there are no road connections from Puerto Vallarta.  It is 15 NM across the Bay, so a couple of hours each way.  A great way to spend a sunny day and a good check on the repairs we made on the fuel system. 

No dock to tie up at at this yacht club.
View of the jungle like hills above the town, and a waterfall just about 1/3 the way up.

We headed off around 9 AM and saw several different groups of whales along the way.  We slowed and watched a couple, but after a while, we decided to keep going, wanting to get over to Yelapa before lunch.  Approaching the entrance to the bay, we were greeted by Philipe in a panga from Fanny’s restaurant, a beachside palapa.  He offered to guide us in to a mooring buoy, necessary here because the bay is very deep with only a small shelf suitable for anchoring.  Yelapa is absolutely gorgeous, with steep cliffs covered in vegetation rising from the bay and sandy beach.  It is, however, very rolly… open to the NW Pacific swell.  Friends reported spending the night moored between two buoys, but also reported that their guests got seasick.  If we stayed, we certainly would have had to deploy both flopper stoppers.

On the path back from the waterfall I realized the church steeple was above the mural.

After tying up, Philipe took us over to the village dock, where we walked through the hillside town up a paved path to the waterfall.  Along the way, we met Charlie the burrow and his owner, Manuel, a lifetime Yelapa resident.  Here along the path, families set up open air shops featuring their handmade wares.  We wound up buying two light blankets made by a son and daughter of Manuel. 

Charlie the burrow. He did not like it when the church bells rang – lots of loud braying.

The waterfall was beautiful and served as the fresh water supply for Yelapa.  Returning to the town dock, we hailed Philipe again and went across to his family’s restaurant on the beach.  There we had an outstanding lunch.  I had the whole red snapper, grilled with garlic and butter, while Gwen had some gigantic, and tasty shrimp. 

Seemed like it would be refreshingly cool to get in, but we didn’t.

After a couple of pleasant hours enjoying the scene, we returned to Miss Miranda and started back to La Cruz.  The highlight of our return trip was a breaching, dancing, playing whale that was right in front of us, seemingly unwilling to let us pass without putting on a show.  Gwen got some outstanding pictures.  We also saw a school of rays swimming just under the surface, but they swam off before we could get photos.

Two sedate whales and an exuberant one.

We got back to La Cruz without incident and with enough confidence in the fuel system to take on the next leg, 171 NM North to Mazatlan.