50 Shades of Gray in Port Townsend and Fort Worden

July 8-11, 2019

We drove south from Snoqualmie through Tacoma instead of taking a car ferry, which let us avoid Seattle completely and takes the same amount of time even though it’s more mileage. I’m not sure of Tacoma’s reputation, but what we saw of it was interesting–steep and nestled on the side of a hill with great old buildings. They have a really nice art store–better than anything we have in San Francisco at the moment. I got watercolor supplies as I’d determined at the last minute to do one painting per day to brush up on my skills (so to speak – ha ha!). (Spoiler alert – I only did two but that was better than I expected.)

From there we drove north, seeing mostly trees and occasional glimpses of Puget sound and working ports. To my surprise, the landscape became drier (compared to Snoqualmie). Not super dry, just not the lush wetness I’d expected. Maybe the Olympic National park grabs up all the rain in the summer?


Awesome drive-in movie theater on the way to Port Townsend. I wish I’d gone! 

I’d expected Port Townsend to feel more isolated, but there were towns, houses, farms, and businesses all along the way and no real sense of transition when we arrived.

First stop, Safeway to get snacks, as I feared that once we arrived at Fort Worden the family reunion would be ON and it would be hard to get away. The store was lively and I got a kind of Sebastopol feel from the clientele…tattoos, hippy vibe, some colored hair, teen dressed in a candy-raver outfit, a few down and outers in faded cotton with tattered sandals. We ran into my aunt and uncle there (they came from British Columbia for the reunion) which was a fun surprise.

We drove down the main street and it was cute as promised, but smaller scale than I’d expected, maybe a dozen small blocks. Much evidence of artsy-ness though, and probably more bookstores per capita than SF has.


It’s breaking my designer heart not to tweak the contrast on this,
but mid-level gray is most accurate.

The homes, once we turned onto a neighborhood street, were nicer and more upscale than I’d expected. All very well maintained, a mix of older and more modern structures, and with great landscaping and gardens. The place feels prosperous and I began to wonder who lives there and what they do for a living.

After only a few minutes, we arrived at Fort Worden. The town is small! I’ve been imagining and planning for this and somehow I misread the scale and assumed anything on a peninsula was the size of San Francisco.

I didn’t have high hopes for Fort Worden (it being a state park and me knowing that contracts to run these places often go to vendors that don’t feel the love) but overall it was very nice. It’s a late 1800’s military base that’s been converted to a park and conference center. The forts built in this era (for coastal defense) all look a bit alike, with many nondescript two-to-three story wooden buildings, plus fancy houses for the officers. They’ve done a great job repurposing the place, and now it’s got a nice restaurant, woodworking center, small press, marine center and museum, campgrounds, fitness center, a college of some sort, and is home to other arty-sounding organizations (based on the signs on windows). There was a painting workshop going on while we were there, and a week-long writer’s workshop starting next week.


Victorian (as advertised)? I guess? Definitely in need of fresh paint.
That’s my house (left side only – they are duplexes.)

Our extended family rented four officer’s houses, all next to each other. Though they were built in the Victorian era, from the outside they weren’t really classic Victorian looking (to my eye), and all were a bit drab and in need of a fresh coat of paint.

The elders got the fanciest house, a Commander’s unit with six bedrooms. The interior was lovingly restored to Victorian splendor, with nice carpets and wallpaper and books and art and decorative plates, mirrors and antique clocks. All that stuff. A little too fussy “bed and breakfast” for my taste but well done.

We popped in there to get the key to our place, hugged a few people, and hurried to our house to unload the perishable groceries…and…our house was SUPER CRAPPY. Stained grey industrial carpeting, no art other than a few lame photos of cannons that were too small for the frames, peeling paint on the ceiling, beige walls chipped and gouged, no decorative plates, no fancy lamps on marble side tables – nothing! Not that it was empty. We had a couch and two chairs in the living room, a dining table that seated six–but the wooden chairs were missing crucial pieces that made me nervous to sit in them. The bedrooms were awkwardly furnished, ours having an oversized wooden dresser placed in front of the window (partially blocking the view), a table in the corner perhaps meant to serve as a desk, but with no chair, and a double bed that clearly was not going to hold two full-sized adults comfortably.


There was only one shower for the seven of us staying there, and the bathroom looked like something from a prison. They’d screwed a piece of frosted plexiglass over the window so we couldn’t open it. Why??

That aside, all the houses had great, deep porches and those were tons of fun. We moved from porch to porch throughout the days, socializing. We’d gather at the big house in the afternoon (they had the most chairs) and have drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The houses fronted a huge lawn (aka the parade ground) and the smaller kids ran wild there and it was easy to keep an eye on them. My aunt, super sweet of her, brought a fully-loaded piñata and got us all out on the lawn the first night to wack it. It was a great way to see and greet everyone because, due to being in four separate houses, we were never quite sure where anyone was at any given time. Though I’d have liked us to be all together more often (we were only all together twice) it would have been like herding cats to try to coordinate group activities.


Okay, the weather was occasionally very nice. But only for a few hours, so I don’t have to change the title of the post. 

Instead, we randomly encountered each other and spent time in smaller groups hanging out on the beach, walking to town, going to the store, visiting the light house, checking out the marine mammal center, hiking on the hill, kayaking, grabbing lunch, playing bocce or board games, etc. It worked out well.

The weather was mostly shades of gray with occasional sun and rain. Not cold. The temperature was very pleasant. Oddly, the grayness had a kind of glare that irritated my eyes. A bright diffuse light that came from everywhere and nowhere. I didn’t want to wear sunglasses because that made things too dark, but I kept my hat on, brim pulled low, to deal with it.


As I walked the beaches and the charming streets, I hoped I’d fall in love with Port Townsend but I never did. It has the right elements on paper, but in real life it didn’t work for me. Firstly, where were all the people? I know it’s a small town but the residential streets were deserted. I could walk all the way from the fort to the downtown and see no creature but deer (which were weirdly lounging all over the place). No one mowing the lawn, no one washing their car, no one biking. So freaking odd. Clearly people live there because of the immaculate yards. I like neighborhoods to have people in them. The dead end street I live on in San Francisco, which has about 50 houses on it, is abuzz with activity on a normal day. I guess that sounds hellish to those that prefer the peace and quiet of small towns but I love it.


The beaches and water views were nice, but not as dramatic as I expected. I thought I’d sit on the bluff and watch the clouds drift around and the light play on the water and the mood shift but nothing much happened. It was like being on a lake, with no waves, just a gentle lapping on the shore. The tide did go in and out, but that just meant more rocks exposed, less rocks exposed. The sand is a grayish tan, and the bluffs are made of the same. The rocks and pebbles are kind of nice but I was hard-pressed to find any I wanted to add to my collection. The huge driftwood logs on the shore are interesting but you get used to them.


Does this look like heaven? You should move to Port Townsend!

I guess, bottom line, peaceful, gray, quiet coastlines aren’t my thing. My soul did not connect with that landscape.


I did like all the bird sounds everywhere. That was really nice. And I saw an eagle! I’m not sure I’ve seen one in real life before.


I feel like not being able to see beauty everywhere is a kind of personal failing, along the lines of, “only boring people get bored,” but aesthetics are subjective. And listen – I tried to take nice, artsy pictures here but I struggled. I didn’t feel moved. Rarely did I grab my camera and think – I’ve got to get this right now. I had to pull myself out of the gray and think – I might be able to do something with this later. And as I write this post, the photos look nice and I feel happier looking at them then I did being in the place, which is weird.

beach bonfire

One of my favorite places was not in Port Townsend, but 11 miles south in Chimacum–Finnriver farm and cidery. https://www.finnriver.com/


It’s an organic farm with a huge covered seating area where they serve food and (obviously) cider, and have guest food trucks and music and other events.


The evening we were there, a woman hosted a science fiction trivia night in a room off the bar. They had bocce and cornhole and hula hoops, and the setting was lovely–it felt like I was in Napa or Sonoma valley.


Overall, the family reunion was a success, and Fort Worden was a good place for it. If we’d have been somewhere more exciting we’d probably have never seen each other at all. This event was about spending time with people, not sightseeing. I was really sad when everyone began to pack up and drive away on Friday. All my whining about wanting us to have held the reunion in Hawaii was me wanting a vacation, and overlooking the reason for the trip–which was family bonding. Yeah, I like vacation but I’ve got to devote more time to the extended family. They aren’t gray–they are amazing, interesting, creative people and I love them.


A company town

September 14th, 2014

Today was a driving day. Not tiring though. We each drove halfway and the roads were clear.

We stopped in Gary, Indiana because we were curious about the city. It was founded as a company town for U.S. Steel in 1906, which in the 1960’s laid off most of the workers. Half the population left, and the city has since fallen into ruin.


A huge abandoned apartment building,
no barriers around it to prevent it from falling on passers by

We’ve been to Detroit and thought we had a handle on ruin but Gary is a completely different experience. It is both smaller scale and vastly more troubling.


An entire downtown block, abandoned

Most of the areas we walked around in downtown Detroit were completely abandoned, so I never had the feeling I was disrespecting anyone’s neighborhood by gawking. Gary is a putrefying town that people are still trying to inhabit, picking their way around the dead bodies. We were stunned. I’d guess there was one functioning building for every 50 abandoned. My artistic interest in decayed buildings was overwhelmed by an urge to tell everyone I saw to run, fast as you can, out of this place.


But no, people live here. In some cases, maybe only one or two houses on a block are inhabited. And those houses are next to burned down houses, or houses that will probably burn down soon, or gigantic empty brick apartment buildings that are shedding facades from seven stories above.


Notice the facade is greenish bricks, red beneath?  Those green bricks are are falling on the sidewalk below. The whole building could fall on the houses next to it.

The potholes on the streets are 8 inches deep and impossible to avoid.


There were abandoned hotels, churches, stores, a convention center, rail lines…it was astonishing. I didn’t feel comfortable stopping to take pictures. Not because someone was going to jump out of the bushes, but because there were people here and there and this place was their home. I snapped some pictures from the car window.

I don’t want to get political here on a travel blog but why do we have the money to fight foreign wars but not to deal with one of the 10 most dangerous cities in the United States? I’ll bet the money spent on one drone strike could do a lot to help Gary, and would probably save as many lives. I’d like to vote where my tax dollars are spent, please.

Santa Fe road trip day 3: Dinosaur quarry fiasco

After another strange hotel-chain buffet breakfast, eaten with plastic silverware so weak the knife nearly bent in two when I tried to butter an english muffin, I went out to explore the town of Richfield, Utah.

We’d driven down Main Street the night before so I had no illusions about what I’d find, but small towns fascinate and confound me. I passed a Mormon church, an insurance agency that looked like a Mormon church, then entered the depressed and depressing shopping area. A good number of storefronts were vacant.

Though it was 11am on a Saturday, many businesses were closed. Those that were open–shoes, furniture–held nothing that interested me. The one cafe serving breakfast was cute and cheerful, but I needed sandwiches to take with us on the road. I found a highly-rated deli (the highest rated restaurant in that town on Yelp, “way better than Subway.”)

Despite a super sketchy exterior (windows completely obscured by posters and ads), I went in. The interior was dark and stuffy. A few cheap tables and chairs, unoccupied, were scattered around the good-sized room. A woman at the counter was taking an order from a man dressed in western wear, yelling it back to someone out of my view. A few open bags of store-bought bread lay on the counter beside her, getting stale. I looked at the handwritten menu on the wall. All the sandwiches came with provolone cheese. That was the only choice.

We went to Subway.

Next stop: the Cleveland Lloyd dinosaur quarry. Though detour this will take use over a hundred miles out of our way (that spike up to Price you see below), I wanted to see a *working* dinosaur quarry. Though I don’t have any kind of top 10 list, I think seeing dinosaur bones being dug out of the ground would have to be on it.

Though the website says the place is open, the phone number I called to confirm went to a BLM voicemail box. I am gradually settling in to the road trip state of mind, but it is hard to shake off the feeling that we are going somewhere in particular and if that place is closed, I screwed up. Really, our main goal is to see new things and this stretch of highway is off the beaten path, so, success.

The scenery was amazing, and the road wasn’t, as google maps would imply, a crooked pencil scrawl of a line on a blank canvas ending in the town of Cleveland, but an artery linking active micro towns.

We turned off the paved road and followed the signs to the quarry as a thunderstorm brewed in the west.

The 12 plus miles on the dirt road were slow going, but we lucked out and saw some antelope!

Eventually, we arrived at the quarry visitor center, which truly is off the grid, solar-powered, no phone lines–which explained why my calls went to voicemail. Behind the building I see two tin sheds, a pit toilet, and a picnic table. I figured we’d have to walk a ways to the real quarry. I had a vision…hiking over a hill to behold a huge pit, transversed by string lines, interns kneeling in the dirt gently brushing at bones that were obviously the vertebrate of a huge creature.

In the visitor center we view reproductions of dinosaur bones, because, as the sincere ranger tells me, this is a terrible climate for preserving bones! I get a sinking feeling. I ask if any of the bones around us are real, and he points me to *one* case that contains a rare smashed femur.

Lemme just cut to the chase. There were many many bones here. They were all over the place. People came and took them away. Now, there are two 15×30 tin shacks, one covering a neglected half-hearted dig and the other housing staged exhibit. The dig shack is locked. Through the dirty windows I can barely make out piles of junk (storage for the visitor center, as far as I can tell) and one small hole that maybe has bones somewhere down in it.

The other shed is open and has signs all over the ground so I doubt this is still an active dig. The bones here are for the most part (maybe all) reproductions showing where the originals were found.

Like the rare femur in the visitor center, I am crushed. This is NOT what I was promised. I’ve been duped! I didn’t need to drive hours to see fake dinosaur bones in a tin shed. Sigh.

The rest of the drive to Montrose is lovely, but long now that we’ve gone so far out of the way. We are entertained by great thunder and lightning for part of the way. The dramatic scenery seems to recede as we approach Colorado–still there but in the distance.

Santa Fe road trip – Day 2, St. George to Richfield

We woke in our adequate room at the La Quinta. I had a troubled sleep thanks to the loud in-window air conditioner going on and off all night. It kept startling me awake and gave me bad dreams. Or, come to think of it, maybe the dreams were caused by the greasy food we had for dinner. Why is it so hard to find decent food in these mid-sized towns? St. George isn’t small with 70,000 people. Based on reviews, there seemed to be a couple of very expensive, anniversary-dinner type places, then price and quality plummet down to Denny’s level. The place we picked was on a “best of” list that included the Olive Garden.

Nonetheless, after a weird, make your own waffle at the free breakfast buffet and a couple of cups of coffee and hot chocolate, I was alert and ready to go and we hit the road!

First stop, dinosaur track viewing! I, always the optimist, thought we’d be walking on a path in a narrow canyon and see 50 million year old tracks right there, in situ. Nah. Some developer found the tracks when he was clearing a building site and they hauled all the big blocks of stone to a shed-like building and laid them around in there. In case you were wondering, dinosaurs stepped in wet ground, sand filled in the tracks, and that is what we are seeing here.

I…well…I wanted to be really excited and I did like these, but they all looked exactly like this one and frankly, what had the biggest impact on me in this small museum was a 50 million year old imprint of a leaf. One beautiful leaf. *That* I could relate to. Wow. When I see a dinosaur print I keep flashing back to Jurassic Park. That’s all I’ve got, so these prints feel fictional.

Next stop: Zion National Park! Where I stepped in quicksand – for real! Okay, I’m not sure of the technical definition of quicksand, but I was walking around in a three-inch deep sandy creek to cool my feet next thing you know I was sunk down to above my knees. I was not happy about this but I did manage to wrestle my way out.

Oh yes, how could I forget – we saw bighorn sheep! At the time I was excited but I’m even more excited now that I learn sighting them is Very Rare. I wish I could say we were on a ten-mile hike, but no, the three sheep were right beside the road, causing a huge traffic jam.

Zion is breathtaking but the big vistas were almost too big to photograph. Maybe stereo photography might work, but my pictures felt flat and small. I preferred more intimate scenes.

After we exited the park, the landscape changed to mostly rolling hills, some cool “southwest” features, and many cute small towns.

I’m going to wimp out right now and not try to figure out all the names of the places, but I promise to properly cite the following photos soon…very soon.

Here is the route we took today:

Santa Fe road trip – Day one, Las Vegas to St. George, Utah

Every long-time San Francisco Bay Area resident is faced with the same situation: getting out of town requires driving the same six or seven roads over and over again.

I haven’t got much to complain about. The scenery on these roads is quite nice, but it is hard to maintain that initial excitement in the face of familiar landmarks, especially when your goal is to experience new things. For short, 2-4 hours trips, we go out of our way to take small roads as long as they head in the right direction, but this can double travel time.

For this trip, taking the long way round to a family reunion in Santa Fe, we are flying to Las Vegas and renting a car to give us a jump start.

We wanted to rent a small SUV (for visibility) but ended up a beefy Jeep Liberty. After my Honda Civic it feels like a tank, but out here in the “country” everyone seems to drive enormous cars, so we fit in fine.

Today’s day of travel left my head spinning. I cleaned and prepped the house for our friend who is house sitting, packed, jumped in a cab, jumped in plane, took a bus, then drove 3 hours. On the road we saw a beautiful moonrise as well as much lighting, but I’m not in the road trip groove yet. I just want to “get there” which is the wrong attitude!


Railroad trip to Chicago, Day 2

We were finally allowed to board the train sometime after midnight. When I saw our sleeper car, I was crushed. I had expectations. Not “Oriental Express” level expectations, but realistic expectations based on looking at diagrams of the car, videos other people had posted, photos. Add to this the fact that the sleepers cost more than I’ve ever spent on a hotel room, even a nice one in New York. I had high hopes.

The attendant, who was very nice and helpful, had made up the room for sleeping. Unfortunately, this meant we could not actually enter the room. The 3 foot 4 inch wide bed pressed against the wall of the tiny bathroom bulb out (which was immediately to the right of the front door) making it impossible to get to the only place we might be able to stand–in front of the single chair beyond the bathroom.

Above our heads, a towel was crudely duct-taped over a hyperactive air conditioning vent. None of the controls did anything to stop the blizzard. The attendant mumbled and apologized but it was clear there was nothing he could do.

Problems aside, the roomette was just plain depressing. Shabby, dirty, ugly fake wood, soulless plastic and dented metal, I felt like I was in a crappy rental RV–not a train!

The train finally got underway, and since we just got on and weren’t ready for sleep (and there was no space to recreate in our room) we made our way to the observation car. R. had fond memories from childhood of the observation car being attached to the bar car, and at night he could visit the normally off-limits world of grown ups drinking and smoking and having a great time.

After making our lurching way through numerous cars, we arrived at the observation car to discover that passengers without sleepers had claimed the benches and seats and were using them as makeshift beds. Instead of the lively bar scene R. described, I found myself in a homeless encampment.

Dispirited, we made our way back to the roomette, stowed our stuff as best we could, and lay down on the tiny bed.

Let me be clear. R. and I are tall and do not fit in a 3’4″ wide bed. I got in first, laid on my side, and held onto R. to keep him from falling out.

We slept through Idaho and all of Glacier National Park, which is probably beautiful when viewed at a time other than the dead of night, and woke in Cut Bank, Montana.

Now is when I really realize my biggest misconception. I thought I’d be able to take pictures. I’m faced with several insolvable problems. First, the window is dirty and tinted. Second, by the time I see and process something, it’s gone! We are passing by rolling plains, incredible “wild west” scenes like sun-bleached cow skeletons laying in a ditch, and falling down wooden homesteads which for all I know might be 100 years old.

For someone who loves going to middle of nowhere places and taking pictures of just this type of thing, the relentless forward motion of the train is torture!

On the plus side, we take note of the fact that the train tracks roughly follow Route 2, the northernmost highway in the U.S., and we vow to return in a car.

(rail) Road trip to Chicago. Day one, Seattle to Spokane by bus

Oh my god, I really did jinx us! When I woke up I had a voicemail from Amtrak alerting me that our trip had a schedule change. After 10 minutes on hold, I found out we’d be taking a bus from Seattle to Spokane due to “track work.” I’ll spoil the surprise right now: there was no track work. That was bullsh*t. The Chicago-Seattle train was so late that is was faster to bus all those passengers to Seattle and all of us out to Spokane so that they’d have time to service the train. The conductor told us all about it. Rationally, I get what they were doing, but I didn’t like being lied to by the customer service agents.

So, our train trip started out in utter confusion as hundreds of people with double that number of suitcases milled around the under-construction Seattle Amtrak station.

We got seated, and got underway.

seattle to spokane bus

The scenery was quite nice but I couldn’t get over my disappointment that we weren’t in the train yet.We climbed pretty mountain passes,

descended into pastoral farmland, and watched a lovely sunset.

We made it into Spokane just after 10pm and we were starving. The train wasn’t scheduled to leave until 1:30am, so we popped out for a bite. Turns out the station was near the bars and clubs, so we got a glimpse of Spokane’s youth getting their drink on. I was a little surprised at how wasted everyone was at such an early hour. Nonetheless, all their energy revived me, and we headed back to the train in good spirits.

(rail) Road Trip – Seattle to Chicago

I’m really bending the rules to report on this trip. I may have to delete these posts later, but R. tells me a train trip counts. Eh…I’m not quite buying it but we haven’t been on a long road trip in a while so here I go.

We took a cab to a plane to a light rail and now here we are in downtown Seattle. Tomorrow we get onboard the Amtrak Empire builder to Chicago. I sprang for a roomette so that we’ll have a place to sleep. I can’t wait to see it!

The weather was lovely today, warm and overcast. We dumped our bags at the hotel and immediately hopped on the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge island.

On the way back to the hotel I caught a glimpse of a modern glass building that looked suspiciously like the Seattle public library I’d read about in architecture magazines. It was! I had only had 15 minutes before it closed for the night, but I got a quick look around. The exterior didn’t wow me but the interior was incredible.

I might go back tomorrow to explore some more. Oddly, all I could think about after I left was, what will they do with this amazing space once all the books are gone?

We met friends for dinner and drinks and then had a nightcap at the hotel. I’m trying to be objective, as I realize that whenever we are away from home we have “vacation brain” which is a happy brain, but it really does seem like waiters in San Francisco are way more angry and aloof than waiters in any other city–including New York. Here in Seattle, no servers gave me the, “Thanks to you I’m going to be late to band practice” glare, though my friend assured me, they probably actually are going to be late.

Day twelve: West Wendover, NV to San Francisco

last day map

It is the last day of our road trip, and I can’t believe that R. is ready for more! He has schemes for going up into Oregon but I had to nix this. I hate to ruin the fun but I need a break. Packing and unpacking and sleeping in different beds every night and hunting for food/shelter/sights/etc. wears me down after while.

I’m glad we drove around the back streets of West Wendover before we left, because we found this guy on the old highway:

Wendover willWe wouldn’t have seen him if we got on highway 80 right away. I wonder if the neon still works?

Our first stop (of our day of non-stop snacking) was in Battle Mountain, Nevada. We saw many strange bikes and contraptions in town, and it turns out the World Human Powered Speed Challenge is held there September 12-17th. We missed it by a day.

the owl clubThere were big billboards on the highway for the Owl Club Casino. It turned out to be a small one-story building with a tiny motel attached. I love the fonts on their logo.

R. had the idea that he wanted to go to Blimpies, which he said was a sandwich chain like Subway. We found one in a small, decrepit truck stop on the edge of town. Much in the same way we’ve become a  bit desensitized to beauty, we’ve also become used to decay, and our standards regarding restaurants have fallen drastically.

This was a real truck shop and the store inside sold fire extinguishers and gas cans and flashlights. I was stoked because they had a real slot machine with a non-video monitor and coins actually fall out when you win. A rack in the front of the store held free magazines, including RPM for Truckers and Big Rig Lease.

One of the girls behind the counter was an amazing beauty. Petite, porcelain skin, fine sharp features–she was something out of a Jane Austin book. And Then She Spoke. Oh my god. Effect ruined. Now I know how the professor in My Fair Lady felt. I wanted to rescue her from Blimpies and send her to finishing school so she could become reporter for a TV station in Reno instead of getting knocked up at 17 in Battle Mountain. Ah well. I hope both she and that kitten do alright.

R’s sandwich was so vile he threw it away immediately. Mine was fine. Go figure!

After Reno, the scenery was familiar but still pretty, and a thunderstorm in the Sierras helped keep the sun out of our eyes during the westward drive in the afternoon.

Now we are home, and the cat is requiring all my attention. When I look around the city, all I can think is Gray and Green. Everything is gray and green. Not an unpleasant palette but a big change from the red that dominated most of the trip.

San Francisco

Day eleven: Moab to West Wendover NV


First off, I want to apologize for dissing Moab yesterday.

I took a long walk through the residential area this morning and it was really pleasant. The mountains were pretty and it was quiet and peaceful. A creek flowed over rocks and it wasn’t all muddy like the Colorado river. I saw an elementary school that was so picture perfect Disney might try to copy it for a school in Celebration. Oh god…I found a lost kitten. I so wanted to take him home. He was in front of a guest house and ran up to me crying. I held him and he purred. I didn’t know he was lost until a woman staying at the guest house came up and asked me if he was mine. She said he’d been there all morning. I went around and rang doorbells in the area but either people didn’t know about him or they didn’t answer. He was well cared-for so I can only hope someone goes to look for him soon. Walking away from him was so hard!

Anyway, Moab. I can’t believe I got suckered into hanging around the tourist ghetto. I’d never go to places like that in San Francisco. I got lazy.

We found this great Volkswagen junkyard on the outskirts of Moab:

volkswagenbugWe headed north on highway 6, and the scenery started to look more like the Sierra foothills, but with different trees. I wanted to stop at a dinosaur quarry, but it closed for the season at the end of August.

Once we hit Spanish Fork, development was nonstop from there to Provo to Salt Lake City, and traffic was heavy. I’ve only been to Salt Lake City once, by plane, so I didn’t have a good idea what the area around there was like. The mountains are very dramatic and the setting is lovely.

I have a probably not uncommon instant association that Salt Lake City=Mormon. The Mormon church appears to be VERY active in Utah. In Torrey, for example, there was quite a large church, and the town population is 170. Not only that, 15 miles away was another small town and they too had a fancy church. The churches all have a distinct look. I started feeling a bit like I feel about Starbucks…a big chain with good branding that can afford to lose money in some places to maintain a presence. ??

Anyway, we came to the Great Salt Lake. I had zero expectations as to what this lake was supposed to be, other than large. We exited on a road that promised a marina, and parked next to a strange run-down event hall. The “shore” or beach or whatever it was at least a quarter mile deep. I trudged through mud, crunchy salt, dead things, and sand flies. It reminded me of the Salton Sea. As the director of a Salton Sea documentary said: “Once known as the California Riviera, the Salton Sea is now called one of America’s worst ecological disasters: a fetid, stagnant, salty lake, coughing up dead fish and birds by the thousands.”

I’m sure the Great Salt Lake is perfectly fine and healthy, but it creeped me out.

great salt lakeNo one (that I could see) was sailing or doing any of the normal things you’d do on a lake on a Saturday. Don’t listen to me though, I spent 20 minutes here.

We drove across the Bonneville Salt Flats with a rainstorm behind us and sun in front of us and it was really beautiful. We tried to go to the state park, but got turned away near the end of the road because some event was happening. The guidebook said the salt is six feet deep in places, and it probably is, but it was mucky colored and I wanted it to be pure white!

bonneville salt flatsNonetheless, it was cool, and I feel like I got a taste of the burning man playa experience that we missed.

Now we are at a casino hotel in West Wendover, Nevada. I like staying in towns I’ve never heard of. The front desk clerk told us most of the customers are from Utah. Mmm hmm. I see how it is.

Day ten: Park, park, park, bar

I’ve never been truly afraid of being struck by lightening until this trip, and I wouldn’t have thought about it much now either if it hadn’t been for that waitress in Bryce who told me that a German tourist had been killed two weeks ago, standing on the rim of the canyon. There is something a little malevolent about the lightening striking him and not a metal handrail or tree or one of the many oversized tourist buses driving around. I realized I didn’t have to be the tallest thing, or the most conductive.

We were surrounded by thunderstorms today so I definitely kept one eye on them as I toured the sights.


We had breakfast on main street Moab, aka the main highway, as semi trucks rumbled past. Moab is built a little valley by the Colorado river, safely protected by nondescript red hills from all the beauty that surrounds it. To be fair, if you blindfolded me and brought me here from San Francisco I would probably say, “Oh wow, this is so pretty!” But go just a mile in any direction and things get amazing. I’m sure the city is in this spot for practical reasons, but it is a pity. Also, this is a big hub for “adventure” tourism…mountain biking, rafting, 4-wheeling, etc. so in that case people wake at dawn and don’t come back until evening and don’t care what the town looks like. I feel bad putting in a crappy picture, but here is Moab:


Have I mentioned that all the tourists around us are from Europe? French, German, Italian, misc. I want to apologize to them for the bad food they are being forced to eat. There is good food in the U.S. I swear! Except for that one good meal, we’ve been eating stuff that is Denny’s-equivalent. Edible but dull and greasy. I’m not a food snob by any means but I’m not used to having a waitress look at me blankly when I ask if the trout is fresh. “Fresh? Well, it’s frozen or processed or something. I’m not sure.”

Our first stop was Arches National Park, just a couple miles from here. This is the first time I felt I was on the tourist treadmill. It isn’t a big park, and everyone got their maps from the ranger and obediently drove to each viewpoint, got out, snapped a picture, got back in and drove to the next. The scenery was gorgeous, but at this point I’m very spoiled. We’ve been driving on empty two-lane roads and have had beautiful spots completely to ourselves and I love that. Having to wait for a parking spot to view nature kind of ruined the ambiance!

arches national park

Also, I think arches are neat, but they aren’t on my top 10 list of land features I must see.

Next we headed to Dead Horse Point state park, where you get an amazing view of Canyonlands.

view from dead horseIt was getting late, but we wanted to visit Canyonlands as well, and it was only a short drive (short now means 15-20 miles!) so we went.

I’d been viewing Canyonlands from above at Dead Horse Point, and I was hoping/assuming that we’d be able to get down in there and see those crazy mountains from the ground, but it turns out the road runs along the top of a butte(?) mesa(?) and we had almost the exact same view, just from 10 miles south. I’d like to come back sometime and rent a jeep and really check it out. These fast trips are really just to give us an overview of places we’d like to come back to someday.

We had dinner at a good Thai place and then tried to hang out at Woody’s Tavern, but the live band was so bad and loud it was unbearable.

Day nine: Torrey, Utah to Moab Utah


To start this post a little in reverse…we are staying in a nice hotel tonight in Moab and I’m so very happy. We’ve been staying in funky old-timey motels, like the Sandstone Inn in Torrey…

sandstone inn

which had a great location and a comfy bed, but the usual creepy indoor/outdoor carpet, one-piece plastic shower tub unit, scary polyester never-washed bedspread, one weird piece of framed poster art, low-hanging “fancy” brass light fixture, the same TV that R. gave away 10 years ago…all fine and good in that you don’t think, man, this is so much nicer than my house, I could totally live here.

But to back up and start from the beginning…

We left Torrey and headed to our first stop, Goblin State Park. As soon as we got a couple miles out of Capital Reef Natl. park, the landscape began to change to more muddy grays and yellows, and the mountains looked more like disintegrating sand castles than rocks. Still stripey and interesting, just not, in my opinion, the epic rock architecture we saw yesterday. Granted there are some crazy buttes (?) that we passed, but overall the landscape was more mellow and predictable.

highway 24 vista

R. was experiencing the travel fatigue/overload that I was feeling yesterday (I’m all better today) so we put on an audio book so I’d stop yelling out how beautiful everything was.

I had him pull over once to get some pictures of my favorite subjects…an old house and car.

old house.old truck

Goblin State Park was great – but totally not for the reason I thought it would be. This *is* one of those “oh my god” parks where you drive through typical scenery and then turn the corner and the attraction is front and center. In this case it is a valley full of funny rock formations about 10-20 feet high. I’d seen photos so I expected them.

goblin state parkWhat I didn’t expect was that the whole valley was like a maze! This grouping above isn’t a great example of how these are spaced: they are everywhere and often close together. Within five minutes, I’d lost R. completely, and the place was dead silent (5 or so miles from the highway and no town within 25 miles). It was really fun to wander around and explore! I found some great rocks…just outside the park or wherever it is legal to collect rocks…


I wanted to go to a nearby dinosaur quarry, but the ranger reaffirmed that the road did require a high-clearance vehicle, so that plan was nixed and we got back on highway 24 north.

We took the business loop in Green River, one of those towns that the main highway forgot. I felt sad–so many businesses and motels shuttered and abandoned. As much as I find rural ruins pretty, I don’t like seeing a whole town whither because the new freeway was built 3 miles to the east of them.

premium oil

We arrived in Moab and my heart sank. I was expecting a real town crossed with the touristy-ness of Sedona. This main street though is pure Fisherman’s Wharf/chain motels/junk shops.

moab storeI thought we were going to have to stay in a Best Western. We pulled into the shade on a side street and hit the internets hard, trying to find an alternative. Everything here is expensive. There are some cool “ranch” places out of town, but the ones we called were booked. Argh! The first time not planning ahead bit us on the ass. Anyway, we found a promising non-chain called the Gonzo Inn, and they had a cancellation, and now here we are in probably the nicest room in the place for not too much more than the Best Western. Our room is Tastefully Decorated, and the headboard isn’t a piece of plastic bolted to the wall and we have 2 rooms and a jacuzzi tub. I found a health food store and, after feeling like an extra in an episode of Portlandia, managed to buy some bath oil, and now I am hitting that tub!

Day eight: Capitol Reef N.P. and environs

No map today. I’m not getting lazy, it’s just that we didn’t travel far from Torrey. This morning I walked into town to get a cup of tea. I’m always amazed when rural towns don’t have a place for pedestrians to walk. Main Street, aka the highway, is narrow and drops off on both sides, so I had to stand on the edge and hold my breath when the massive RVs drove past. Conclusion: No one here walks.

This old Chevy was sitting in the back of an empty lot.


After tea, back in the car. First stop: Chimney Rock, where we hiked a little and I found some cool rocks. Second stop: Capitol Reef National Park.

capitol reef park

It is a very pretty place, but not *that* different from the area immediately adjacent to the park (which is awesome). Granted, one day the surrounding land will be a strip mall and this will still be protected. I am just experiencing what I will call the “Yosemite effect” (or Bryce Canyon effect) which is that you are driving through a nondescript landscape, you get to a gate house and pay someone $15, turn the corner, and holy crap! It is a different world! Waterfalls! Huge granite slabs! Hoodoos!

On the plus side – a park ranger had a telescope set up at the visitor center and I got to see the sun, and sunspots! That was a definite first for me.

After that I took poor R. on a forced march hike into Grand Wash. I thought this was going to be a narrow canyon and we’d hike down a stream in the shade. Turns out this is a big canyon with walls hundreds of feet high. In the photo below, you will see tiny R. in the bottom left quadrant.

Grand Wash

The canyon walls were really neat.

Grand Wash wall

After this, I wanted to get to the meat of the park. This is what I saw when I looked at the park homepage on the web:

“The Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust known as a monocline, extends from nearby Thousand Lakes Mountain to the Colorado River (now Lake Powell). Capitol Reef National Park was established to protect this grand and colorful geologic feature, as well as the unique natural and cultural history found in the area.”

I asked a park ranger, “Where is this thing, the thing on the front of the brochure? Because it looks like a cool place.”

She told me it was in a “less developed” part of the park. To get there, we had to drive out of the park, take a country road for 10 miles, then drive on a dirt road for 5 more. Um…okay, sure, we can do that. R. likes to 4-wheel it off-road, so we went.

The drive was lovely, though at some point we knocked off half the front spoiler thanks to these 45 degree down, 45 degree straight back up trips in and out of stream beds.

We kept going and waiting for something that looked anything like the picture on the brochure. What was saw was this:


Okay, you can’t tell scale in this, but that feature in the middle that looks like a pile of dirt was probably half a mile from the road, the cliffs of lighter yellow above that, some unknown distance, and the high cliffs further still. On the other side of the car, lovely tumbled stones and dirt as usual. Not Very Interesting, and nothing like the brochure.

From what I can tell: the fabulous Waterpocket Fold can only be appreciated from the air. The road is in a frickin ditch, and there are no trails, vista points, or signs. I was really glad we didn’t break down because we only saw one car and he was leaving. I wish the ranger would have clued me in.

Driving back to Torrey, we saw a lovely extended sunset, so I was glad we were still out and about.


Day seven: Bryce to Torrey, UT (Beauty overload)


After today I need to spend 24 hours in a completely white room. Seriously, I’ve seen so many amazing things, I can’t assimilate any more. In late afternoon we stopped at a scenic vista that is the kind of place the devil would take someone and say “You can have ALL OF THIS in exchange for your soul!” I got out of the car and was like, “Hey, look at that cute squirrel!”


Granted, he was really cute, but behind him was a thousand mile vista.

To explain my saturation…I woke up early at Bryce to get to the sunrise viewpoint, and was greeted by dull clouds. At the time I was disappointed that my photo op was ruined, but when I downloaded the pictures, I was pleasantly surprised that the gentle light yielded some nice results in contrast to the sharp sun of midday.

Sunrise Point, Bryce Nat. Park

I got a cup of tea and went back to collect R., and by the time we got checked out of the room and ready for our hike, it was bright sun. We took a “moderate” difficulty hike and took WAY WAY too many photos. I will spare you all but a few.

Bryce hike

Climbing down into the valley was fun, climbing back out was a brutal switchback. 80-year old women with walking sticks were passing me.

bryce hike 2

After that we took a brief tour to check out Kodachrome Valley State Park. The road there was great…farms surrounded by southwest-style hills. Unfortunately, as soon as we got to the park, a thunderstorm rolled in.

Kodachrome state park

I’m from California so this phenomena was totally new to me. One moment we were standing in the sun in 74 degree weather, the next, there was thunder and lightening and rain and the temperature dropped almost 20 degrees. A waitress at Bryce told us a German tourist was killed two weeks ago by a lightening strike, so I hurried to the car. Within about five minutes, the thunder and lightening were happening only three seconds apart, and the rain was coming down so hard we could barely see. It rained hard on and off all day.

We headed back to “scenic” Highway 12. Turns out it wasn’t even paved until 1985. The scenery changed constantly and dramatically.

highway 12

Bare white rock, red cliffs, river valleys, dramatic vistas, high plateaus with meadows and aspen trees, pine forests, farmland surrounded by striated peaks. This is probably one of the most amazing 100 mile drives I’ve ever taken.

utah vista

By the evening my head was spinning, probably in part to the tiny windy road we were on all day. We checked into a traditional motel in Torrey Utah, and had a great dinner at Diablo Cafe. Tomorrow, I’m planning a hike in a “small, steep-sided canyon.” I think that my brain can handle that amount of scenery!

Day six: Primm Nevada to Bryce Canyon


We got a bit of a late start today due to super slow breakfast service at the casino hotel. As soon as we hit the road it started to rain. Argh! Seriously. I came on this trip for summer!Who’d have thought it would be in the low 80’s and raining in Las Vegas?

The views through Nevada were dull thanks to the bad weather. When we crossed the border into Arizona though, bam! The scenery changed completely. Virgin River Canyon was gorgeous. I didn’t get any great photos but sheer rock walls were rising on either side of us and it was great.

Soon after that, we were in Utah. St. George (beloved of retirees I read in my guidebook) is a city I’ve never heard of, but the setting is amazing. I’d say it rivals Sedona. Big vistas, gorgeous mountains (I will try to not overuse the word gorgeous but it is hard with this type of scenery). I’m really sorry the weather wasn’t better, but even so it was amazing. We pulled off the road just out of town to try to get better photos and found ourselves in a hillside community of really nice homes on huge lots. I promise I did not pump up the saturation on these pictures. The green really is that green and the red is that red–even on a dull day. Whenever I get home to San Francisco after a trip like this I feel like someone is messing with me. The colors in the city seem so drab and faded. This is why.

mountains in utah

Mountains near Leed

We continued northeast on 15 to Cedar City, then headed east on highway 14 through Cedar Breaks National Monument. We were surprised to find ourselves climbing to nearly 10,000 feet on a two-lane highway. (Surprised because we are playing it by ear this trip and not “over-researching.” Frankly, we did almost no research as the whole point is to have an adventure and be amazed.) More surprising were the aspen trees and the lava fields. I can’t say I’ve seen them both together before.

We did a little too much driving again today, so I was glad when the signs said we were only 30 or so miles from Bryce.

motel near Bryce

motel sign

The rain let up, and we even got a rainbow. Another great surprise: Red Canyon!

red rock canyon

The only lodge in the park said it was sold out, online, but I called and they did have a room.

our room

It was still daylight when we arrived, but the light was fading fast, so I decided not to go look at the “hoodoos” (the rock formations everyone comes to see) and hope that the weather will be better tomorrow so I get a “wow” when I first see them. Thanks to that name, I have that song that has the chorus “she loves me like a rock” stuck in my head, (Paul Simon?) as he keeps saying “who do, whoooo doooo you think you’re foolin’.” Argh!

Day 5, Palm Springs to Primm, Nevada


We got off to a purposefully late start so we could enjoy our friends and the pool for a bit longer. Plus, the afternoon light makes the scenery look amazing.

wind farm

I love the windfarm right outside of Palm Springs.

We took highway 62 north east. Yucca Valley is a bigger town then I remembered, and seemed in decent shape economically. Joshua Tree was smaller, not as nice. Twenty Nine Palms was spread out and featured a military towns preponderance of bars.  We were excited to find they have a working drive in though!

In Twenty Nine Palms, we turned north on Amboy Road.  The population thinned, and I started seeing more of the decrepit, abandoned houses that I find so fascinating. The huge, flat valley seems to be divided into 5-acre lots, few currently occupied, though there were mailboxes by the road.

for sale sign

We turned onto a dirt road to get a better look at some houses.  The photos are pretty (I think) but don’t adequately capture the feeling of excitement and fear I get when creeping around these places. I’m not sure if I’m being paranoid or not, but I worry that some half-crazed schizophrenic loner is going to pop out and get me. I mean, this is where crazy loners live, right?

Despite my fear, or maybe because of it, investigating these places is really cool. It is fun the way crawling around creeks used to be fun when I was a kid. I love seeing what people take and what they leave behind, and wonder what happened–why they came and why they left.

abandoned house




It was really hot today, 104, but I’m starting to get used to it.

two lane road

Amboy Road was great – two lanes and zero traffic and neither of us had driven it before. We crossed Route 66 in Amboy. We have been to Amboy twice before, and I know this sign is overly photographed, but I still love it.

roys in amboy

After Amboy, we headed north on Kelbaker Road up into Mojave National Preserve. Again, new territory for both of us. Gorgeous desert, dead quiet except for insect sounds. Also the kind of place that makes you feel a tiny bit nervous when you notice there is no cell service and no other cars on the road. We modern people are pretty wimpy, I’ll admit that.

Unfortunately, the sun set while we were still in a pretty area, so we did miss some good scenery.


We wanted to make it to Las Vegas tonight, but by 8:30 we were tired and hungry so we stopped just over state line in Primm Nevada and are staying in a casino tonight. Walking into that lobby was pretty jarring after such a peaceful drive.

Day four, Palm Springs

Yesterday was another pool day…too hot to hike. We had dinner at the Ace Hotel, and then drank and danced at Toucan’s Tiki bar. The go-go dancers there were very friendly.

Kings Highway at the Ace Hotel

Day three, Palm Springs

dinner in palm springs

Last night we hung out at the house and barbecued. Good things about the house: Nice kitchen/dining/living area. Bad things: Pool pump sounds like a small steam engine is running around the backyard, constantly.

Day two, Palm Springs

It won’t be hard to leave this…

Fog in San Francisco in September

I love San Francisco, but we’ve been having the most miserable summer. It’s been foggy nearly every day…clearing for a few hours mid-day and rolling back in at night.

We were supposed to go to burning man, but the RV place we reserved from, Cheapa Campa (I know, I know) canceled our reservation (made 10 months ago!). They said “our” vehicle had been in an accident and would not be available. We suspect that since burning man sold out this year, the RV place decided to cancel the inexpensive reservations and rent to others for twice the price. Who knows, but there was no way to get another RV two weeks before the event, so we rethought our trip. Our friends were renting a house in Palm Springs, so we figured we could spend a few days there, then head up to southern Utah to see natural wonders!

I checked the weather in Palm Springs and it was 89 degrees at 8:30 a.m.! That is wonderful and awful at the same time. Mostly wonderful, but I might have to rethink my plan to hike. The drive down seemed particularly long this time. I’m not a highway 5 hater, I just wasn’t in the mood. We try to limit our driving to five or so hours per day on these trips so we can explore, but sometimes you just have to get somewhere.

first day driving