It was a cool autumn evening. The sun was lazily ambling down the western sky and the smell of wood-fires and home-cooking infused the air with familiarity and reflection. On my evening walk, I passed two children playing in a huge natural yard. I noticed how different it was from the perfectly manicured, postage-stamp size yards, I’m used to seeing and how surprised I was to see the kids out in plain sight. In the San Francisco suburbs, children don’t just play out in the open like that.
I marveled at their carefree innocence from the other side of the street. They laughed and played and hung on a good natured and patient Golden Retriever. Not a care in the world; they didn’t even notice me. I felt like I’d been transported back to simpler times.
I’d parked my RV at the little league fields, a few blocks away, earlier in the day and spent the afternoon working and writing and enjoying peace and solitude. I was amazed that not a single kid came to the field to play nor nearby residents to walk their dogs. And I realized, it’s because here, in tiny-town USA (Enterprise, Oregon) everyone has a yard. Their little league field is for actual Little League, not a community yard where people who live in giant houses with tiny yards and neighbors within arms’ reach must drive to get some exercise and fresh air.
Spending the day in the tiny northern Oregon town took me back to my own Upstate New York roots – the ones I fled when I moved to San Francisco at twenty-one, and never looked back. Roots that I’ve spent my whole adult life running away from and denying. In my race to run from my past, I ran from myself. I ran from my predisposition toward a simpler way of life: where the streets aren’t always paved and the clerks in the grocery store know their customers by name.
As I hobbled over the cracked and crooked sidewalks, through old neighborhoods with normal-sized single-story houses (not super-sized McMansions), and inhaled the crisp home-town air, I realized how much living in a metropolitan area for nearly three decades had changed me. I’d forgotten how the rest of the country lives; how pure and simple life can be.
I was surprised at how comfortable it felt. Like I’d walked into a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special and a world where kids are innocent and free and old-fashioned kindness and community rules the day. I wanted to wrap the town around me like grandma’s handmade quilt and fall asleep in its warmth.
As the afternoon turned to night, I meandered through the tiny town wanting to see and experience it all. I saw, through the lighted windows of cozy homes, quaint shops and tiny wooden churches with stained glass windows, what had been missing in my city life. Family. Community. Simplicity.
It dawned on me that my big city experiences and values had isolated me from the reality of what most Americans experience daily. I pondered the contentious election, and for the first time, I understood. I understood the fear. I understood the challenges that small-town America faces and how they feel like their way of life is on the verge of falling off the cliff. I understood how they view a sensationalized version of the events in our country – and the world – through their TV screens and it terrifies them. I understood how their serene and quiet lives seem threatened. And like the crackle of a fresh log put on a dying fire, my brain awakened to a new concept of reality. And a new awareness of how relative “reality” can be.
What a gift I was given that day. My new life as a full time RVer put me in a place I’d never have experienced in my old life. My new, slower, RV Life allowed me to get out from behind the windshield and immerse myself into new places – and not just fly past at 70 miles per hour. A new town isn’t just another double almond-milk cappuccino served up by the local Starbucks barista at an anonymous interstate town, but a real, live breathing place with history and community.
I spent three days in and around Enterprise, Oregon. I talked to chatty coffee drinkers in cafes, friendly grocery store clerks and helpful mechanics. I got to meet real people, with real wants, needs and concerns. Real people, with families, friends and happy Golden Retrievers. Not nameless, faceless political ideologues or Facebook trolls. But real people.
What a wonderful life I have: one that allowed me to step away from my version of reality. Life on the road allows me to forge my own path and a new reality. My RV Life opened my eyes – and my heart – to a community, which, on the surface seemed so different from my old Bay Area community, but at the core, was very much the same.
Thank you, Enterprise, Oregon, for letting me temporarily live in your town and experience your reality.
I loved this part of northeastern Oregon! Enterprise and Joseph are just six miles apart but are quite different experiences.
I first drove into Joseph from the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway and was spilled into a small town bustling with a pleasant mix of (mostly boomer-generation) tourists and old-time residents. The idyllic scenery is the first thing you notice; with a quaint tree lined main street stretching toward the picturesque Wallowa mountains. One sign referred to the Wallowas as “The Little Alps” – and for good reason. As I drove out to Wallowa Lake on my second day, that is exactly what the small, but dramatic range reminded me of.
Joseph’s Main Street is the heart of the tiny town, speckled with restaurants “WELKoming hunters”, locals and tourists with names like: “Outlaw Restaurant”, “Old Town Cafe”, “Home Cooking Cafe” and “Stubborn Mule Saloon and Steakhouse” and a couple similarly themed hotels: “Indian Lodge” and “Bronze Antler B&B”. There’s also a “Cattle Country Quilt and Craft” store and art galleries full of rustic old-timey Cowboy and Indian inspired bronze sculptures, photographs and paintings of local scenery and western themes.
And then there’s the usual tourist fare: souvenir shops selling Enterprise, Oregon T-shirts, mugs, shot glasses and overpriced magnets and candy; an ice cream store; a gourmet chocolate shop; espresso cafes; and the obligatory small-town True-Value Ace Hardware that carries everything from souvenir t-shirts to washing machines to guns.
Our first stop was food! We’d been driving for hours; it was past lunchtime and we were both starved. We found the perfect spot, a diner brimming with locals and aptly named “Home Cooking Café”. After clearing a table for us in the full diner, the waitress handed us menus and giant plastic cups of ice-water. She seemed to know everyone by name and chatted them up as if she sees them every day, “Hey Joe, where’s Frank today? Did you get that part fixed on your car yesterday?”
As my friend Bob and I ate, discussing travel plans and the weather, the man next to us busted into our conversation and gave us his weather report. He was friendly and helpful, so I forgave his eavesdropping and crashing into our apparent, not-so-private conversation.
The walls were covered in old barn boards, adorned with burnt-in brands of local ranches, washed-out black and white photos of days-gone-by Joseph, and framed posters with funny sayings like, “Historical moment, an argument was won by the man of the house on this date….”. There was an old iron wood stove against the back wall that sat cold, even on that gloomy and rainy autumn day.
The meal was humongous – I ordered a veggie omelet and home fries and my plate came heaped high and overflowing . It literally took me 3 days to eat it all – and I don’t have a tiny appetite! (In my RV life, I’ve become “mostly-vegan” when I eat out. Unless I only want to eat salad and French fries, it’s nearly impossible to find vegan fare in most small towns).
After lunch, we walked the two blocks along Main Street to the post office to see if my general delivery mail had arrived from California. Along the way we peeked inside inviting storefronts and pined for ice cream and chocolates even with full tummies. As suspected, my mail hadn’t arrived yet (it has just left California the day before) so we headed back to the RV parking lot, behind the local grocery store, to work for a couple hours before heading out to find home for the night.
We’d arrived in Joseph with two potential locations for boondocking, just a few miles from town in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. One was off of Hurricane Creek Road, which, according to Google maps, had a couple of forest roads that appeared to be worth exploring, and the other was outside of Enterprise, on Lime Quarry Road. The question was- as always in this area – will there be cell service so we can work?
Before nightfall we headed out of town, past the tiny airport to Hurricane Creek Road. At the Joseph Grange Hall, Hurricane Creek Road turned toward the National Forest and within ¼ mile pavement turned to gravel. We passed several residences with big signs warning travelers to slow down. The forest road that Google Earth Maps showed, off to the right about two miles in was nowhere to be found (and now researching this blog, it shows a house there – that was not there a month ago!)– another Google maps mystery!
We’d passed a National Forest campground and decided to turn around and stay there for the night rather than drive to Enterprise and explore another forest road so late in the day. When I found a wide spot in the road, big enough for my RV to turn around in, we made our way back to the campground. As suspected there was no cell signal – so we had the night off of work! For $6/night, with all three spots that were big enough for my rig and Bob’s van open, we decided to call it home. It’s a small campground with about 13 sites, resting right on Hurricane Creek, which even at this time of year was flowing freely, providing a nice backdrop to the already cool and misty evening.
The next day we drove back down to the RV parking lot in town to work for a couple of hours before Bob took off for Salt Lake City to meet up with his son who flew in from Alaska. When Bob invited me to go, I debated, but in the end was looking forward to some time alone to finish exploring that part of Oregon. We’d been planning to head to Seattle to see Bob’s friend Suanne and I thought I might still head there – or maybe the Columbia River. Or Maybe Couer d’Alene, Idaho. “Who knows?” I thought, “that’s the beauty of my new life. I can go anywhere I want and I can decide tomorrow!” But I couldn’t go anywhere until my mail arrived- I still have a couple clients who pay me by check – and they are on their way!
After Bob left for Salt Lake City, I worked for a few hours and then headed toward Wallowa Lake to do some exploring. But first the post office… no mail – sigh. It was Friday. That meant I was stuck there through the weekend, which wasn’t the end of the world, but I hate feeling trapped! .
The drive to Wallowa Lake was scenic and I found a day use area with good 4G, a beach and a gorgeous view of the lake. I made a mental note and continued toward the State Park sprawled at the base of the Little Alps on the other end of the lake. Once there I discovered a little touristy lake-side community with cafes, restaurants, hotels and the Wallowa Lake State Park. I considered spending the $30 to stay there, but there was no cell signal. I decided I’d rather stealth camp in town. I spent some time at the day use area, took Capone for a walk on the lakeshore and relaxed a bit before driving back to the RV parking lot in town to get some work done.
I ended up parking in front of Joseph Community Center across from the Forest Service for the night. Other than a little bit of traffic and loud drunks passing by when the restaurants and bars closed, it wasn’t bad.
I woke up early and drove to the Wallowa Lake day use area and boat ramp, made coffee, turned on my generator and got to work.
Later I drove to the small neighboring town of Enterprise. A really cool, sleepy little town, with streets lined with buildings that used to house bustling businesses – now scarce with a consignment shop, a couple of restaurants and cafes and empty storefronts and offices. Unlike the relative bustle of Joseph, Enterprise felt like a ghost town. It’s wide streets, empty and plenty of room for me to park my RV. Which was convenient since I found Gypsy Café and couldn’t resist stopping in for an almond milk Cappuccino!
I also noticed ample opportunities for stealth camping around town both on the streets and near the small city park off the main drag. After hitting Safeway for a few groceries, I ended up at the little league field behind it. The parking lot was far enough away from homes, that I doubted anyone would even notice I was there. I spent the whole afternoon without seeing a single person visit the field – it was only near nightfall that a few people showed up to walk their dogs and play with their kids. I could see the curious looks as I peeked through my curtains, but I spent the night with no issue. The next morning, after coffee and a couple hours of writing, I moved on to another location to get a blog published and then back to Hurricane Creek Campground.
I spent a peaceful night in the dewy forest and headed out the next day to get my mail (it HAD to be there by now!) and hit the road to Coeur d’Alene!
As you know from my last blog that didn’t quite go as planned and I ended up staying an extra day to get some repairs done on the RV. But at last, on Wednesday I was on my way! Only I’d changed my plans: instead of Coeur d’Alene I headed to Walla Walla, Washington!
I had a great time in Joseph Oregon and learned that when my RV, Big Bertha speaks to me, I need to listen! Here’s how I handled a break down while living in my RV.
I’d been hanging around Joseph and Enterprise Oregon for three days waiting for my General Delivery mail (client checks!) to arrive from my UPS mail forwarder in California. My friend Bob left for Salt Lake City Saturday and I’d been enjoying being alone and free to wander, explore and do a little stealth camping in town (Bob doesn’t do stealth camping!).
Stealth-Camping in Joseph, OR
After one night at the community center in Joseph and one at a little league field in Enterprise (another small town, 6 miles from Joseph), I was ready to go legit – even if that meant doing without internet for a night. I went back to the Hurricane Creek National Forest Campground where Bob and I had stayed our first night in Joseph. It’s just a few miles outside of town and for $6 I got a pretty, wooded campsite along the creek, in a remote setting. And even more importantly, the peace of mind knowing I wouldn’t get a knock on my door in the middle of the night.
I got to the Joseph post office around noon on Monday (after doing laundry at the small (and expensive) laundromat a couple blocks away), hoping that my third visit would finally produce my mail. The tiny post office parking lot and side street were full so there wasn’t any place big enough for my RV to park (I don’t fit in a regular parking spot and take up about 4 spaces sideways). I ended up on a side street and stopped in front of an old farmhouse where an elderly lady and (who I assumed to be) her caregiver sat in lawn chairs on the plush green grass in the shade of an apple tree, escaping the mid-eighties heat (the first hot weather eastern Oregon has had in weeks!).
As I pulled my RV to a stop they stared at me and a wave of self-consciousness engulfed me; I realized I shouldn’t have parked there. Even though I was on the street, it was her street- and I was kinda sorta blocking her driveway. I wouldn’t be surprised if she grew up in that old farmhouse and remembered Joseph before the post office moved next door and the fancy art stores, cafes and gift stores cluttered the main street that used to be her backyard. I jumped out and ran over to the other side. “Is it ok if I park here for just a minute while I run into the post office?”, I pleaded.
The frail elderly lady stood up and with waning authority in her voice, said, ‘yeah, but just a minute – and no more!”
“Ok, thank you very much. I’ll be right back.” I ran into the
post office, got my mail (yay! Finally!) and anxiously hoisted myself into the driver seat of Big Bertha, ready to take off. Idaho, here I come! As much as I’d enjoyed my stay, it was time to hit the road.
Excitement fluttered as I basked in my freedom… nothing like the beckoning open road…. CLICK, CLICK…Oh noooo… I turned the key again. CLICK. CLICK. NO!!! Not here! Not when I’m intruding on an old lady’s peaceful day. I turned the key again. Nothing. Just the same empty, loud CLICK. CRAP!!!
The panic was hitting me like pebbles before a rock-slide: oh shit, what am I going to do. How much will THIS cost? Where will I stay while it’s getting fixed? How will I get out of this old lady’s way? NO! NO! NO! I want to go and I just got my money and now it’s already gone…!
I reigned it in before the panic-boulders fell and crushed me. My inner calm, rational, let’s-just-deal-with-this self took over: It’s ok. You can handle this. You knew, when you bought an old RV shit would happen. You said that would be part of the adventure! Remember???
Ugghhh. Me and my damn adventures. Maybe for once, it would be ok to take the easy route!
The panic began to slide away and was replaced by gratitude: at least it happened in town and not at the campground where I was miles from town with no cell signal – or someplace even more remote.
My First Breakdown and a Full-time RVer
Ok, let’s figure this out.
Maybe the battery connections are loose again. I hopped out and popped the hood. Once they saw me do that, the elderly owner of the house and her caregiver stopped being annoyed and became very helpful. The frail old woman walked toward me and I noticed a blank look in her eyes as she mumbled incoherently. I hoped it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, it’s such a sad disease… She stood next to me while I fidgeted under the hood (as if I knew what the heck I was doing) and suddenly became coherent: “Why don’t you put it in neutral? Neutral. Put it in neutral. Did you try to put it in neutral?”
I had no idea what that would do, but what the heck- I had nothing to lose! I hopped in, slipped it into neutral and turned the key again: CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. Well, it was worth a shot.
As I climbed back out, the old woman’s caregiver was on her phone yelling something to me from her lawn chair in the shade. As I walked toward her, I wiped the sweat from my temples, it figures, it’s been a pleasant seventy degrees the whole time I’ve been here now I have to deal with this in the heat! I was dressed for fall, not Indian Summer.
The caregiver was telling me that there are two auto repair shops within a few blocks. “You can walk, they’re close.” She yelled to me, apparently not realizing people carry cell phones these days. While the elderly lady mumbled, “did you put it in neutral? I’ve had many cars die on me over the years, but I’ve always managed to get them started by putting them in neutral…” I thanked her, wondering if she was suggesting I try to jump start my fourteen-thousand-pound RV! I mixture of gratitude and sadness overwhelmed me; oh, the memories she has – and has lost.
Before trying the local auto repair shops, I called AAA – I paid for the premier service, so why not try them first? I got through in a few minutes and was put on hold for ten. And then a new operator came on and I had to start all over again – and she put me on hold again. Patience is not one of my virtues, so while on hold with AAA I walked the 3 blocks to Alpine Auto and talked to Peter, the owner. After explaining that I was stuck behind the post office and that I suspected it was the starter (it starts slow when hot and drags at times. I’d had a feeling it was on its way out), he closed up shop, grabbed the mechanic’s version of the doctor’s house-call bag and headed over. Wow, you gotta love small town service! The AAA operator came back while I stood in Peter’s lobby – “Never mind, I already got my own mechanic, thank you very much.” I curtly told the her. Apparently there’s an issue with my account – something I’ll have to deal with later…
Peter did some testing under the hood and then crawled underneath Big Bertha explaining that if it is a bad starter, we may be able to get it to started by hitting it with a mallet. That’s my kinda fix!!! “Ok, let’s try it!” I was enthusiastic and hopeful!
Once positioned he yelled, “ok, give it a try” Click. Click. And then music to my ears, her engine sputtered and whined into motion. “Yay!!!” I was practically jumping out of my seat in relief! But the relief evaporated as Peter explained it was a temporary fix and that it may not start once I turned it off. I needed a new starter.
So, I drove to his shop and parked on the edge of the grassy yard of the hotel across the street. Without turning off the engine or locking the door (you can do that in small towns!) I went into the front office to explain my situation and ask if I could park there overnight. The lady at the desk seemed a little reluctant, but said yes! I’m amazed at how nice people are! I think I’ve lived in big cities too long!
By 2:00 the next day, the new starter was installed and I was looking forward to being on my way… oh, wait. NO. Peter told me my brake fluid was extremely low and my brake pedal was too spongy. “You’re going to Lewiston?” he confirmed, “have you ever been on that road?” I told him I hadn’t, “It’s very steep, and narrow and windy. I don’t think all of your brakes are working. I’d get them checked before driving on that road, it’s dangerous. There have been fatalities… There’s a Les Schwab in Enterprise…”
Ok, Ok. I did kinda notice my brakes seemed ‘off’ the other day when my RV skidded in the dirt and came to a bouncy, soft top. And yeah, now that I think about it, I’ve been moving my seat further forward to reach the brake pedal because it’s going so far to the floor. Oh – and the brake light and rear ABS lights have been on for months -OOPS!
I’ve been checking my fluids regularly, but I never checked my brake fluid because the front brakes were replaced when I bought the RV (I know because when I test drove it they were metal on metal). I figured the brake fluid had been filled and would still be full. It never dawned on me there might be a leak!
On to Enterprise I went… I started to feel like I was in some warped version of an old CCR song and I sang as I drove, “Oh Lord, stuck in ole’ Oregon again..” Whatever it takes to get through the day!
Les Schwab in Enterprise was as awesome as Peter from Alpine Auto in Joseph. They got me right in, did an inspection, told me it looked like a leak on one of the rear wheel cylinders and gave me a best case scenario quote (about $150) – and worst-case quote ($700 or more). After two hours I was out of there with a new brake cylinder, a brake pedal that feels super-sensitive and a bill on the better side of ‘best case scenario” – just $200.
All in all, it was a great day! I no longer have to worry about my starter or my brakes (Les Schwab did a visual inspection and everything else looked good!) and the bill for the day was only $550! I couldn’t ask for much better than that!
So here is what I learned about RV Maintenance and Repairs:
Don’t take anything for granted with an old RV: Before my RV Living adventure, I’d been driving a 2006 Toyota Avalon that I bought brand new. I diligently had routine maintenance done and I knew that car inside and out. Big Bertha is OLD and worn out and I have to assume it wasn’t maintained properly. So that means when I suspect something isn’t working right, I need to get it checked out right away.
Pay attention to the little things! I was on my way to a very steep, narrow and harrowing route in a 14,000-pound vehicle with bad brakes. It dawned on me: if my starter hadn’t gone, I could be dead right now. Dramatic? Maybe. Maybe not. I’d ignored the ABS light for months thinking, “oh, it can wait, my front brakes are new- who needs ABS anyway?” (yeah, I really thought that). And, when my brakes skidded, it didn’t’ register. I will now pay attention to everything and not take any chances.
I’m driving a huge, heavy vehicle! When my ex-husband became a truck driver, he had to pass a test to learn how to drive a big rig. And every time he got in that rig he had to do a pre-trip inspection to make sure everything was in working order. Vehicles that big can be deadly when not handled or maintained properly. While my Class C RV may not be a big rig, it’s no passenger car either. Proper RV maintenance is not only important to keep it running, but to keep me -and others on the road safe!
Routine RV maintenance is critical – Checking all my fluids regularly, getting oil changes and tune-ups, checking tire pressure and tread and getting brake inspections are things that I will now be diligent about.
Peace of mind is priceless. Little by little I’m learning more about the condition of my RV by taking care of problems as they arise. For $550, my RV starts right up with no dragging, my ABS and brake lights went off and now I know my brakes are in good shape. Even if it had cost $2000, it would have been worth not having the nagging worry I’ve had for five months!
I think I’ve learned my lesson: my old reckless, “it’s all an adventure” days are behind me.. well for today anyway!
After boondocking for six weeks in the National Forests near Medford, Klamath Falls and Sisters Oregon, I decided it was time to move on. I left a perfectly good camp in Deschutes National Forest to drive 275 miles to a new location near the tiny town of Richland in northeastern Oregon. My inner Nomad was alive and kicking! Why stay in one spot when there’s a whole country to explore? The dent in my budget from the catalytic converter, a new cabin battery and the trip to Arizona has been recouped and now I have enough in reserve to afford to travel again .
I’d been happy there; nestled among new growth Lodgepole Pines, Mountain Hemlocks and Subalpine Fir. It was far away from people and noise, yet just 5 miles from the tiny tourist town of Sisters and 28 miles from the bigger city of Bend. However, the scenery was getting passé and the surrounding roads and trails had all been walked. I was ready for a change of scenery: the open road beckoned.
When I declared it was time to move on, my traveling buddy Bob and I carefully studied the Delorme and Benchmark Atlases, consulted the Public Lands Android app, Google Earthed various National Forest and BLM roads and referred to the Verizon coverage map to carefully select a camp that would give us everything we needed to live and work. We finally found a spot that seemed perfect: 30 miles east of Baker City, near the tiny town of Richland. It looked far enough away to get the solitude we both enjoy, resting on the edge of the Powder River in the high desert – and according to the Verizon coverage map, a strong 4G signal. We’d found our next home!
On Wednesday morning, I headed east, excited to be getting further from my former home state of California, exploring new places and being on my own (even if just for a few days until Bob and our camp guest Cathleen met up with me again). Within a few hours I was at the turnoff to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and the Painted Hills. I’d been hoping to find a place on the surrounding BLM land to camp for the night but I’d been in a cell phone dead zone since the small town of Prineville about 100 miles back. I had a project due for work; I needed a cell signal and had relied on the Verizon Map. There was supposed to be cell service along Route 26!
I drove the seven miles out to the Painted Hills site without so much as a peep out of my phone alerting me that my notifications had come to life. It was getting on in the day and I was ready to stop driving. The frustration and worry settled in like a heavy mass in my gut. I didn’t want to have to turn all the back to Prineville but I had to get some work done! Damn the lying Verizon Map!
Well, I’m here, I may as well enjoy the scenery! I leashed up Capone and walked the short trail to the lookout for the best views of the red streaked hills. The sign near the parking lot explained that the layers of yellow, red and gray painted onto the sandy hills represent different geological eras. The different layers were formed when the area was an ancient river floodplain. The black soil is lignite, a vegetative matter that grew along the floodplain. The grey coloring is mudstone, siltstone, and shale. The red coloring is laterite soil that formed by floodplain deposits when the area was warm and humid. (Source: Wikipedia). I spent about an hour taking pictures, wandering around and enjoying the quiet remoteness before heading back on Route 26 in search of a cell signal and a place to spend the night.
I drove another 74 miles and ended up at Clyde Holliday State Recreation Site in Mt. Vernon, Oregon. They have first-come-first serve tent and RV sites with full hook-ups (and a few Tee-pees that have to be reserved ahead of time), a good 4G signal – and hot showers! Sold! It was about 5:00 pm on a Wednesday and there were only three sites available, which were filled by dark.
As I rolled in, I immediately noticed how clean and well landscaped it was, with willowy Cottonwood trees, plush green grass and enough shrubbery and trees that each site had some privacy. It rested between the gentle John Day River and Highway 26 (a surprisingly busy and loud highway). For $24 I got to plug in and recharge my cabin battery, refill my fresh water, dump my tanks AND take a nice long hot shower in a roomy, clean stall with plenty of hot water. Well worth the investment!
Once I was set up, Capone and I went for a leisurely walk along the river as the sun set. It had only been about five hours since I left camp in Sisters, but it already felt like I’d been on the road a long time.
The next day I left the campground around 11:00 am and traveled through lush green forests, along narrow roads hugging canyons sliced by the meandering Powder River and middle-of-no-where farmland, as I headed east on Route 26 toward Richland. I stopped along the way in John Day, parked Big Bertha just off the tiny main drag and lazily wandered the street of the quaint old-time town. I even had a surprisingly delicious almond milk cappuccino at the John Day Corner Cup Café (I sure do miss my Peet’s Coffee!).
Back on the road, I headed toward Richland. I wasn’t sure where I was going exactly, as I have a habit of “winging-it” and relying on my memory. How hard will it be to find the dirt road next to the Powder River near a tiny town?. But I began to grow weary as windy road after windy road over forest and high desert and through valleys and canyons yielded not a second of cell phone service. Most of highways 26 and 7 west of Baker City and all of Route 86 east of Baker City were virtual dead zones. How can that be? The Verizon maps… Those damn lying Verizon maps! I was starting to panic. I had a conference call with a client at 9 the next morning, I had to have a signal! The last thing I wanted to do was stealth camp in Baker City. I’d been in the forest too long to consider going back to the headache and stress of finding a place to sleep in a city!
I had a knot in my stomach and I was growing impatient as I navigated the narrow windy Route 86. I’d been driving two days and was feeling done. I just wanted to find a quiet place to camp, but there weren’t any BLM roads in sight —-CRUUUNCH!What the —-??? Before I knew what hit me (literally), my driver side mirror disappeared into thin hair. What the hell??? It took a few minutes to realize the truck going the opposite direction grazed my mirror, smashing it to pieces.
The road was narrow with a sharp drop-off to the river on my right so I couldn’t pull over to see if the truck was stopping. Out of habit, I kept looking at the void where my mirror had been, to see if he was stopping or turning around. But the black shell stared blankly back at me. I can’t drive like this! I can’t see behind me! I kept driving until I found a place, about a half mile down the road to pull over. Even pulling off to the right without my driver side mirror was unnerving. Shit what am I going to do?
Now the weariness and frustration that had been simmering in me all day about the cell signal and lack of camping options boiled to the surface. Ok. Calm down. It’s going to be OK. I’ll get through this… Thinking quickly, I grabbed my hand mirror out of the bathroom, stuck it out the window toward my missing mirror and voila! I could see behind me. Ok it’s not great, but it’ll work! And using my bright pink hand-held mirror, I pulled back onto the road, feeling relieved that at least I had a short-term solution to this problem. I was just about 10 miles from Richland and the camp Bob and I had scouted. I found my optimism again and thought, “Ok, I’m almost there – and there will be a cell signal and a nice place right on the river to camp! I’m going to be OK.”
The road to Richland meandered along the Powder River and as I cautiously maneuvered my handicapped rig along the narrow roads, I searched for my turnoff, with one eye on my phone for a cell signal. No roads. No signal. Ugghhh.
I drove through the itty bitty town of Richland which was surrounded on the east and the west by sprawling farms and old houses clumped together in tiny neighborhoods. Where’s the BLM land? And the remote spots to camp? I remembered the turnoff being right in town – but there’s no BLM here… At least I have cell service!
I drove through the tiny town in a blink of my eye and immediately lost the cell signal again. NOOOOO…. My stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to turn around…
Fifteen miles later, atop a hill I found a 4G signal and a road that appeared to lead into BLM land. But it wasn’t the road on the River that Bob and I had scouted. Ok, enough is enough. I need to figure out where I’m supposed to be going. Bob had emailed me the GPS coordinates, which were in my Outlook inbox, on my laptop. I parked and pulled out my laptop. Crap! I’d overshot the turnoff by 25 miles! Grrrr.
Now I had a dilemma: do I explore the dirt road in front of me with a sign reading, “Campground 11 miles” and gamble that: a) the 4G signal lasts, b) the road will be passable for my monstrous rig and/or c) that there might be a place to pull off and camp for the night? Or do I turn around and just go to the spot I was aiming for? I was feeling vulnerable to getting stuck or not being able to turn around in a tight spot without my driver side mirror. I am prone to getting into hairy situations and needing all my faculties for getting out of them. Not having that mirror put me at risk of getting into something I couldn’t get out of – or worse. I decided to turn around. I needed to go back to Baker City the next day to get my mirror fixed anyway.
About 40 minutes later, with the help of Google navigation and a wavering 3G signal, I pulled into the location Bob and I had scouted. I’d remembered driving right past it and wondering where it led on my way to Richland… If only I could learn to slow down and refer to maps! But Nooooo, that would make life far too dull – I must do everything the hard way!!!
The spot that looked so perfect on Google Earth, turned out to be not-so-great in real life. What I failed to notice was that it’s a cattle wrangling/staging area and Google Earth didn’t show that it’s littered with dried up cow patties. There are giant mounds of sand and rock and it rests directly below Route 86 on a river I could hear, but not see through the thick brush. PLUS it had a weak 3G signal that lasted barely long enough to get me there. By the time I set up it was gone; I was in a dead zone. Oh well, I’ll just have to get out of here early and drive the 31 miles back to Baker City (on narrow windy roads) to make my 9 am conference call and shop for a new mirror!
Oh well, what am I going to do? At least it’s not a town! I found a level place to park, pulled out my step, laid my carpet and unfolded my camp chair: I was happy to be home. I heated leftovers for dinner and ate outside, listening to the river I couldn’t see and ignoring the cow patties in favor of the barren high-desert hills. As darkness swiped the day, the traffic on the curvy road above, already light, became almost non-existent and I was left alone in a silent and magical world…
It didn’t take long for the stress of the day to melt away. The thing is, not every day of RV Life is peaches and cream…
Sometimes you forget you’re driving a 29’ monstrosity, drive too fast on narrow windy roads, and cross the yellow line, causing your mirror to get wiped out by a passing truck.
Sometimes you overshoot your destination and have to backtrack 25 miles when you’re already tired and cranky.
Sometimes the Verizon coverage map lies and you have no cell service when you need it to work.
Sometimes all the maps and apps and technology in the world can’t paint the whole picture.
And sometimes you leave a perfectly good camp and drive 300 miles, only to end up in a field of cow shit.
But when all the challenges and long days of driving are behind you and you’ve done all you can do for one day, you park your rig, set up camp and call it home for the night. And as the crickets’ chorus and the babbling creek play you a private melody, fresh desert sage wafts away the smell of cattle as the cool air settles, the cow paddies disappear into the earth with the fading daylight and a gentle breeze brushes against your road-worn skin, you realize there is no place you’d rather be.
Living and working in an RV isn’t easy. Your rig will break, your maps will mislead you, your technology will fail and your best laid plans will go awry. It’s all part of the experience. But if you can roll with the punches, think on your feet and stay open to the possibilities, you’ll find that you end up in some of the most amazing places…. And exactly where you are meant to be.