Serenity at Palm Springs
Quite unexpectedly, a sense of peace, of calm, of serenity settled over me the few of days before we uprooted ourselves from our annual, 3 month stay in Palm Springs at the end of February. We were experiencing an unusual, synchronized, upswing in our individual senses of wellbeing and in our shared experience. It felt like a rare celestial event that left me frequently smiling for no particular reason.
No doubt the underpinnings of the peacefulness were, at this one year point in our pandemic journey, from being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. We had been hyper-vigilant for a full year to reduce our exposure to the contagion, had focused the best of our individual excessive-compulsive behaviors for a couple of months on obtaining both our first and second doses of the Moderna vaccine, and had succeeded. While we slowly prepared to hit the road, we celebrated our 2-week anniversary of receiving the 2nd dose which, in our minds, would make us almost bullet-proof against infection. We would still observe all of our fastidious protocols, but we no longer feared becoming ill or succumbing to the much-dreaded ‘long haulers syndrome’.
“The Dolly,” Bill’s new contraption to spare our backs from ever lifting our heavy trailer hitch again.
Bill was finally able to wean himself off of most of the covid and vaccination news. There was still intellectual curiosity but, for us, the personal drama was over, it was behind us. It had been a year almost to the day; it was time to move on to further normalizing our lives in the ongoing but subdued pandemic.
Coincidentally, the multiple national and regional crises we had been following hit a low ebb and we could finally close our minds to most of the traumatizing news and turn our attention elsewhere. Amazingly, we could actually do that: at last, we weren’t so shell-shocked that we couldn’t focus on other things, to be productive, to feather our nest.
It was welcome timing and we both began preparing for relocating our trailer ahead of schedule. Bill especially busied himself with maintenance chores and finishing projects that often were postponed until the last minute. We both purred with delight when the to-do list began melting away in our path instead of growing. There would be no crises, no last-minute regrets. We would have an unusually calm and orderly departure at the end of our deep-winter stay, even with doing a big hike the day before.
My sense of well being was buoyed by finally being at a better place with my multiple disc issues. I was deeply disappointed not to be completely over them but I had achieved my most important benchmark, which was being at a sustainable place. If they never further improved, I could live with the current level of pain, but I was still aggressively treating them every day with the prescribed exercises and lifestyle guidance. I also, at least briefly, achieved a truce with my high blood pressure medication that made me sick for hours everyday. The truce only lasted a few days, but it was heavenly to feel like myself for one of the few times in 3 years, to be reassured that the person I knew was still there. Bill was also being victorious over his hindrances and challenges, which further enhanced the spaciousness in our little trailer.
Such a cautious celebration: 2 weeks post the 2nd vaccination eating take-out from our own dishes in our truck.
Joshua Tree National Park & 29 Palms
Putting In The Miles
By default, nearby Joshua Tree National Park (JT) had become our annual, post-Palm Springs, rehabilitation venue. It kept us out of the snow to our north and the rising temperatures in Palm Springs.
Its long-distance California Riding & Hiking Trail generally has a smooth surface and modest gain. The trail was a disappointment when were itching to work hard on steep slopes but it offered great trails for healing.
Back in 2012, we lingered for weeks in JT while I recovered from a knee injury and subsequently, Bill had recovered from a hernia repair and a troublesome below-the-knee twist similar to my knee injury at JT. This year, we hoped to reclaim our ease with hiking 20 milers since we couldn’t tolerate a steady diet of them in 2020.
We also enjoyed safely listening to audio books on the JT trails since the spare vegetation and generally wider paths made it easier to spot rattlesnakes than is the case on many trails we travel. Interestingly, in the hundreds of miles we’d logged over the years in JT, we’d never seen a rattler. The Park would also be a place for me to go through car identification withdrawal since there wouldn’t be much of a car show there: we would likely mainly see economy cars, Jeep-like things, and fully equipped travel vans.
Parking at 29 Palms and hiking in JT always has its challenges and the wind is a big one. The March storms that torment the lands to our north always register in JT as wind and usually cold. Our sunny, dry weather is usually preserved, but it isn’t always fit to be outdoors. We sat-out 4 days of 2 of our 5 weeks in JT this year because of the sharp winds. The forecasts on those days was for steady winds over 20 mph with gusts to 40 or maybe 50. For short intervals, the gusts could go even higher. We managed one 4 mile and one 8 mile hike in those conditions, but it was brutal. We knew better than to attempt 20 milers on those days because of the penetrating cold and lack of even brief shelter on the trails.
Like in prior years, when it was windy, we made up our weekly mileage shortfalls by doing as many as 16 miles in laps inside our RV park. To better interrupt our time spent sitting, we’d walk 2 miles in the morning, then 2 in the afternoon. One morning, we retreated to the trailer after a half a mile because of the airborne grit blowing in our eyes. The surface in the RV park, in 29 Palms, and in JT varies between sand and grit, so being sandblasted is always a hazard if we get caught in higher winds. But even with the perils of the wind, we completed our 2nd 20 mile hike on an easy through trail while in Joshua Tree. The 20 milers were a huge accomplishment for me given that a mere 2 months before I had to hang it up after 2 miles of city walking without a pack because of buttock muscle pain.
A year ago, we were also in Joshua Tree National Park but were experiencing our first surge of pandemic terror. We were shaken to our bones after seeing grocery store shelves stripped, of not being able to buy what we considered food. We were scrambling to find HEPA vacuum cleaner bags to make our own masks and scrounging to buy the last of the alcohol to substitute for the hand sanitizer that would be unavailable to us for months.
Mega-clamps kept a neighbor’s table cloth attached to his picnic table in the high winds at JT.
We considered ourselves among the lucky ones to have not gained the extra 2 pounds per month that many did because of the lock downs. We weren’t ever really locked down, only ‘hemmed in’ a bit. And we were able to maintain our fitness levels within other constraints, like lack of elevation gain on hikes, 100° temperatures through the summer, and wildfire smoke. We were able to get outside almost every day to exercise. And we also escaped the mental health setbacks and PTSD that so many experienced. We had been impacted by the plague but exited the worst of it unscarred.
As at this juncture, we were preparing to head home for a brief stay after an unplanned 18 months in our trailer. The deep cleaning and sorting of our gear was typical for going home but was loaded with symbolic meaning this year by also representing shedding the cloak of the pandemic.
We had a great sense of accomplishment from having sheltered from the virus by staying in our trailer but it was quite a jolt one evening when I was writing an email, paused to add up the months, and realized that we’d be spending an additional full year in our trailer with 2 weeks at home at the 18 month point because we weren’t going overseas. That would amount to two and a half years of almost continuous living in our trailer!
Early in the pandemic, Bill questioned his staying power to be in our 28’ rig beyond our usual 6-7 months and did a bit of online shopping for a new one. RV park neighbors quickly informed him of his folly, that it was a terrible time to buy, that demand for all rigs had shot up because hoards of people were seeking ways to avoid lock-downs. We spoke with one man in California who was driving back from Texas after picking up a new trailer and was quite pleased to have gotten something.
As the months rolled by, Bill’s perpetual tug-of-war between spaciousness and more storage with being shut-out of some venues if we had a bigger rig continued. But then, on the eve of returning home for our 2 week break after 18 months in the trailer, he found himself hoping that the worrisome grunts and groans of our slide-out wouldn’t signal the end of our trailer’s useful life. On one hand he wanted an upgrade, on the other hand, there was nothing available that was as suitable as our special order travel trailer for our needs.
When Bill and I discussed our regrets from anticipating the upcoming additional 7 to 8 months in our trailer in the 2021-22 season with only a 2 week break away from it, my biggest lament was not having taken a long, hot shower for 18 months. I had a hot shower every day but one best not dilly-dally with a 10 gallon hot water tank which immediately begins cooling the water when showering as water is drawn from it. We hoped that in the summer we and the RV parks we were in would deem it safe to use their sometimes more generous shower systems. Bill still longed for a larger rig to live in but not to drive or park and shifted his focus to enjoying what we had.
The Drive Home
A Late Start
The annual, 1,100 mile trip home to the Pacific NW from JT and the SW with the trailer is always a mix of the familiar and the unexpected. The familiar and yet always-startling scenery changes provoke many of the same comments, like we were seeing it for the first time. The harsh desert landscape that we’d been in for months was our winter normal and yet seeing it out the truck window for mile after mile for several days always gets our attention. It’s harsh, it’s unrelentingly dry and yet it fluctuates between barrenness and substantial biomass.
In anticipation of a late snow storm, “beater” trucks with a blade were often seen ‘round back’ on our drive north in April.
While Bill readied the trailer for traveling, I had driven towards Palm Springs only to discover that the building’s air conditioning had failed and the Labcorp office was closed for the day. Disappointingly, even though they opened the door, they wouldn’t accept my specimen. I took the tech at her word that I could take it to any Labcorp and after Bill did some research while I was driving back to the trailer, he determined that we should be able to get to the first Labcorp on our route before it closed at 3 pm.
After keeping the pressure on by eating lunch while driving, we made it to the first Las Vegas Labcorp before 3 pm, but to no avail. Minutes of knocking on their door was fruitless: they had closed-up shop early on that Friday afternoon. Our sweaty-palms, high pressure effort behind the wheel was a failure.
Labcorp had one location in the greater Las Vegas area with longer hours, so we spent close to an extra hour of driving to reach it. Only there did I learn that I needed an additional blood sample drawn, which they graciously did even though I lacked an appointment. I hadn’t factored that into the day and I wondered if the original lab in California even knew about it.
When the desert journey continued the next day with leaving Las Vegas, we were surprised that we’d forgotten images like the expanses of Joshua trees 2 days north of Joshua Tree National Park. The hours went by and the desert gave way to the towering Wasatch mountains of Utah that seem to go on forever. They are abruptly tall and jagged and feel confrontational. It’s like they dare the visitor to stay. We are always in awe but just as happy to move on from their overpowering presence and often the threat of imparting some of their snow on us.
After driving much of the length of Utah, the snow-accented Wasatch diminish, yielding to relatively more rolling terrain. I’m always delighted once the lava beds begin appearing in Idaho. Sharp and harsh, but they are largely at road-level instead of towering over us and fascinating but not so threatening as the Wasatch.
Weather is a wild card for everyone, everywhere, all the time and snow is always the joker in the deck for us in the spring. We’d been watching the forecast for 1-2” of snow slide around in our driving interval for about 36 hours. Last year, it caught-up with us in Utah and Colorado, this year our collision with it looked like it would be in Idaho, though we hoped it wouldn’t materialize.
The deeply buried controller box with the tiny reset button.
Darn it anyway, as one of the last steps before being underway in the race against the arrival of the snow, I pressed the large, black rocker switch for our slide-out to the “In” position, the motor engaged, the slide creeped in, and then stopped. It had been finicky for over a year, making our hearts stop each time, but it had always recovered, but not on this day. The trailer would be in the shop for its annual maintenance on Friday and the slide had been evaluated by several RV mechanics in the prior months, but none of that mattered. It would periodically budge when we pressed the switch, but only moved a few inches either in or out.
The approaching snow storm added time pressure to the slide failure that had to be fixed: we couldn’t possibly drive with the 38” room hanging out the side of our trailer. Precious minutes ticked away while our determined efforts to solve the problem hit one dead-end after another.
We each carefully picked-through the 3” binder of product manuals for the components used to assemble our trailer and found nothing for the slide. My call to our dealer requesting to speak with the service guy for help failed as well—he called back 2 hours later. I did succeed in obtaining a phone number for a mobile RV repair guy in the area, but that was a last resort, one that would likely consume the driving day and surely put us in the middle of the snow storm.
We each futilely searched online for helpful videos and Bill began dismantling things. It was when Bill unscrewed the “controller” box from its mounting at floor level under the sink area and behind some drawers, that he could see a brand name on the box and photo’ed it. That was the turning point. With that name, we found a key for interpreting the flashing red lights in an online manual, which narrowed the source of the problem to the slide motor itself.
With the help of online images, Bill found the all important reset button on the controller box and, with repeated use, was able to coax the slide closed so we were able to get under way. Our Oregon trailer service guy called after we were on the road (and when we had cell service again) and diagnosed it as ‘failing sensors in the motor’. He said that we could continue putting the slide out each of our last 4 nights on the road though we might have to repeatedly use the controller reset button to close it in the morning. I was inclined to chance using the slide but Bill was reluctant, so we kept it closed for the remainder of the journey.
Leaving the slide in was very, very awkward and prevented us from continuing to organize for a quick exit from the trailer once home, but it was the safest approach. The slide had been troublesome for more than a year but it took failing on the road for an accurate diagnosis of the problem to be made—kind of like our bodies???
Dropping the dinette table top to knee level barely made it possible to navigate with the slide in.
We stayed on schedule for the remainder of our journey to La Grande, Oregon for our trailer service appointment on Friday. And better yet, we slipped in an 11 mile hike while it was being serviced, which cut our mileage deficit for the week down to 8 miles.
The service day was a success: our trailer was readily fixed. The one ailing motor of 2 on our slide failed for the last time while Wayne was fiddling with it in the shop. He replaced the motor and tended to about 10 of the items on Bill’s list of a dozen. Early in the pandemic, RV parts and supplies became scarce and Wayne still couldn’t get the 2 parts we needed for the other repairs.
It had felt like the trailer was disintegrating around us in the last month with the slide failing, the awning ‘topper’ on the slide tearing lose in high winds at JT, and discovering water leaks around the doors when we washed the awning. Fortunately, that wasn’t Wayne’s tone at all. It was all routine in his mind.
Bill had been sure it was time to replace our 5-6 year old trailer but Wayne assured him that if it didn’t sustain water damage, it would go on almost forever. Wayne’s trailer was a 1996 model. Bill was perpetually conflicted: he wanted to live in a bigger trailer but didn’t want to pull or park a bigger one. He wanted a bigger refrigerator and more storage space. He wanted something new. But, with gradually making peace with doing a little more maintenance work, understanding that the need for maintenance wasn’t a sign of failure, and not seeing any new trailer layouts he liked as well, he decided to love our trailer. In contrast, I’ve always been very happy with it: its compromises work for me and I’d rather go play than shop.
Wayne recommended that we take some of the weight out of the storage in the slide under the dinette. It always made me nervous to have heavy cans and jars of food on its outer edge, at the end of the ‘lever’ but Bill wasn’t concerned. Wayne weighed in, commenting that it seemed too heavy of a load, not knowing that we’d already trimmed a lot of our inventory from it. Reluctantly, we would be reorganizing our storage with weight distribution in mind over convenience. Of course, initially, it seemed that there was no better way to stash our stuff but inspiration slowly struck and we did what needed to be done.
We booked for a follow-up appointment with Wayne in July to have him re-caulk/seal all of the external joints to prevent the catastrophic water leaks. Nothing urgent, but the caulking was showing signs of aging. It would be a half day job. Since we would be living in it most of the summer, there will be more things on our list by then and perhaps needed parts would become available.
We left the shop with smiles on our faces and with a huge burden off of our shoulders. There had been a gnawing uncertainty about things being beyond repair and a bit of tension between us about buying a new rig or carrying on. Now the air was clear on many levels and we could turn our attention to other things.
Lucky for us, the truck tire was patched without unhitching the trailer.
The slide performed perfectly when in camp at La Grande but when we were ready to leave the next morning, one truck tire had lost about 1/3 of its pressure overnight. Grumbling, we noted it was the second nail puncture we’d had in La Grande. We used our 110v air compressor, which we can plug into an outlet inside the truck, to pump up the tire and headed to a tire shop in town for a repair. None of the shops could get to it within the hour, so we cautiously decided to drive on to Pendleton where a shop manager said that they weren’t busy. It was about an hour drive and we thought we could make it.
The truck instrument panel displayed the tire pressures and it was holding. We needed new tires soon but really didn’t want to buy them that day. Fortunately, there was enough tread on the tire that they were allowed to fix it and the nail was far enough from the outer edge of the tire that it would hold. As is often the case, there was no charge for the repair though we tipped the young man doing the work.
We were on our way again and easily made it to our night’s stop not far from Portland though, once again, our time for a walk that day had been diverted to repairs. We like to make the final driving day short so we essentially have a full day to unload the trailer that technically is not allowed to be parked in our apartment building lot. We were hooked up and dinner was on the stove when Bill decided to check something in the truck and was greeted with new, alarming messages on its display. It took about an half an hour to determine that it was likely a battery problem and not an electrical issue like it first seemed. Reluctantly, I agreed with Bill to forgo our quiet evening and gentle re-entry to home the next day by abruptly breaking camp and driving the rest of the way that evening.
One of our RV park neighbors was in, he kindly gave us a jump, and we were off to The Dallas at 5 pm hoping to buy a battery before the shops closed for the weekend. I made phone calls and lined-up a shop that would both sell and swap-out our battery while Bill drove. Fortunately, it indeed was the battery and with only a little bit of confusion, our new but lower quality battery was installed. On days like this, we are so grateful that money isn’t a constraint when solving our problems like it is for so many people.
Confrontations with Self
Back in our little apartment after the unplanned, 18-month, pandemic-induced absence, we sat on the floor, surrounded by our 20-25 year-old inventory of 8, mostly heavy-duty, black duffle bags. We’d planned to continue culling our belongings during our 2 week stay, though these hadn’t been on that list. Inspiration to sort through them struck before sunrise, so there we were in the middle of the heap.
Holding one up, Bill said “I’d still like to get to the Canary Islands and maybe….” I was a bit too rude, too impulsive to let him finish painting his image of that trip that surely explained why duffles would be a good choice of luggage. Instead, images of our ongoing, daily back exercises to help our spinal discs heal shot through my body and brain.
In 2004, we’d bought duffles as disposable luggage for making a jaunt from England to Iceland without our bikes. Two of the 3 weeks were to be in a rented car, so cheap luggage seemed fine. However, it was when on the way to the airport the first day of the trip that I decreed “Never again!” Never again would I have luggage without wheels: it was too hard, too awkward, too slow.
Cherry blossoms carpeted the sidewalk on our way to our Burnt Bridge Trail urban hike.
There it was, another painful reminder of an end of an era, an end of a stage in our lives. Of course, it wasn’t a brand new thought: we had happily been buying disposable, wheeled luggage as needed and never considered tapping into our fine duffle stash. As Bill said, “It was like when you realized that we’d never serve dinner for 12 again.” Not necessarily a bad thing, just a different stage of lifecycle that our inventory in our limited storage needed to reflect.
Even with that, it was a bit hard to part with those duffles, some which harked back to the week-long Cycle Oregon events in which we participated back in the 1990’s. A symbol of our history and yet, we didn’t need to keep duffle bags to keep the memories alive. After a bit of reminiscing and grieving, we agreed to donate 5 of the biggest, heaviest bags and keep the smaller, light-weight ones for storage containers. “Good stewardship” of stuff is a worthy endeavor and we applauded donating the duffles to someone who would actually use them; the other 3 would be safe at least until the next cull.
In hindsight, the duffles proved to be a good place to start our thinning project because we were able to sort through the issues around keeping them fairly quickly and sending the 5 bulkiest of them out the door freed a lot of needed space. Our excessive pack inventory was then immediately on the chopping block and our success with parting with the less-cherished duffles made it easier to be realistic about our day pack needs. Severely culling our duffles and packs freed the most of space that we made while at home; during the rest of our stay we were parting with smaller items here and there.
The passage of time while home was marked in other ways as well. I was horrified to learn that my very kind and pragmatic gastroenterologist of 13 years was retiring at the end of the year and that the neighborhood public park hill that I used for interval training was gone. I zipped out one morning for my efficient, one hour workout and they had flattened and fenced-off most of the hill. Everything is transitory, but you expect a hill to be there when you return, at least I did.
The next generation of “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers.
Our brief, 2 week stay at home went as planned. Bill got a clean bill of health from his few appointments and my scheduled 10 health care appointments expanded to 12, but I got them all in and there was no bad news from any of the screening tests and procedures. I left without a resolution to my 3 year old problem of being “between the devil and the deep blue sea” with my hypertension and the medication side effects or with my chronic buttock muscle pain issue. But at least we could resume our active lifestyle within those familiar constraints with our trailer serving as our mobile base camp.
We had braced ourselves for the sad sight of the destruction during the 2020 riots of our treasured downtown Portland as well as the explosion of homeless encampments during the pandemic in the greater Portland metro area. Sigh. There seemed to be little to do but honor our sense of loss and hope for a resolution to the underlying issues perpetuating the horrible problems for so many.
We doggedly pursued our 40 miles a week of walking while at home at the expense of our weekly bike ride, which left us well poised to hit the trails of Central Oregon in early May for the summer. Our itinerary was driven by RV site availability and would be interrupted by a 3 week bike tour on the Oregon coast in July because of the lack of RV sites. We anticipated that the weather and the smoke from wildfires would be our biggest challenges and hoped for the best with them. With a trailer, we can always try relocating but there isn’t always any place to hide or space available. After a busy 2 weeks, we were abruptly on to the next adventure: discovering our homeland from the trails.