A Traveler and his Cat exploring America.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Retreated Home

Here it is one week later and I find ourselves just two hours from home instead of two thousand miles from home. I took note of diesel fuel prices in Rio Vista on Thursday before our next camp. It was $4.59. The next morning Friday, as we left Brannon Island State Park (don't go there), they had raised the price by 30 cents per gallon overnight! just because the weekend is here. It's a conspiracy I tell you!
I had the transmission fluid checked when the repair was being done as I knew the transmission was working hard climbing those long grades in the Trinity mountains, what with being underpowered with no turbocharger. The fluid was brown instead of red, as I suspected. It had got hot. This will have to be taken care of and is something the owner cannot do himself. It's been engineered this way by Mercedes. Hell, I cannot even check the level as there is no dipstick. "A trained Sprinter service technician must perform this service." $300! Yikes! More conspiracy.
So we came on home and will rebuild our travel purse for a later date and more adventures.
But as to not leave you without something interesting to ponder, consider the cunning and resourcfulness of the Common Crow. I packaged up a half-eaten chicken carcass in it's
plastic container, then placed the entire package in a plastic grocery bag, tying it off at the top. I tossed it in the dumpster at camp in the afternoon and before night I noticed the crows were having dinner. They had opened everything and eventually carted off bones and all.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


We left the coast and started inland on Hwy 299 through the Trinity Mountain Range towards Redding. This 142 miles held promise for many camping opportunities. Soon on I detected something not right with the engine. On a long pull it would falter very slightly as if starving for fuel, the resume on. I turned back towards Eureka not knowing what to do but it seemed to have cleared itself out and was running fine, so I turned back again towards the east. However it started up again but got no worse and didn’t take away from performance so I ignored it. Then I discovered the Forest Service campgrounds were close – too early in the season. Finally at Burnt Ranch a campground was open and there we stayed.
The next morning I took off on a unmaintained trail down to the river but realized half way only Mountain Goats cold navigate this so turned back towards camp. Eager to find a wide-open place to camp along the river we moved out without any breakfast. Yesterday’s engine problem was still with us only to manifest itself into a much more serious condition. It would just slightly hesitate on climbs then continue right along although with power really dropping off. This was the worse place to be, in the Trinity Mountain Range with all it’s ups and downs and 100 miles from any place of note. For the first time I was grateful for road construction where they stopped you and you had to wait for a pilot truck. I was able to place myself at the end of the line then once through the construction, knew I had no one behind me for miles until the next group caught up.
Turning back towards Eureka was not an option. I had passes to climb that way plus all those on 101 south towards home. Redding and the flat Central valley was our only salvation. We had two big passes to clear today and was very concerned, or at least I was. Sinbad was oblivious to the situation. The first one at 2500’ I started up, fell down to 30 mph or less and did a quick U-turn back down to the bottom. I figured this was it; stuck in Johnson City, population 300. I turned off the engine, got out to pee, started up the engine and went for it again. This time the turbo kicked in and I was up to a respectable speed before it shut off. We made it to the top not without an engine light coming on. It was the engine control unit. The manual stated to bleed the fuel system (easy to do) and with four or five starts, it should clear up. If not, take to your nearest Sprinter Dealer. It didn’t clear. I figured a faulty electronic device not sending a message to the turbo to kick in. So from now on when things got steep, I shut the engine off then started it up again and hit it. This worked to some degree. Now just if we could only make it to Redding. This required a final 3500’ pass. We we’re pulling a grade with the usual problems and then rounded a turn and saw the sign, Buckhorn Pass. “This is it Sinbad! We made it!” I didn’t realize this was it and it wasn’t as bad as the other pass, meaning not as long a pull.
Through Redding and onto I-5. I found if we got up to speed, the cruise control could hold it steady and a few hills did slow us down to 45 where I flicked on the flashers for safety. We miraculously made it to Chico where I parked at my daughter’s at 3:30. reflecting back on what we had accomplished on limited power I was very grateful.
There were two places I could go for repairs, Roseville and Folsom about 150 more miles on limited power. Although I-5 would be a farther route, it proved least nerve wracking. The cruise control could keep us going at 60 with the strong tailwinds and second lane for cars to pass.
We arrived at the dealership at 12:30. I explained the symptoms and my thoughts to the problem with the service manager, a nice guy. He got a flashlight and checked the turbo resonator before anything else and said “There’s your problem”. I was flabbergasted! I could see it separated at the seam. The failure is this plastic hollow canister; a component, nothing electronic. This is a common weak point with these engines of ’06 vintage. I knew of this and went to change it early on in ownership to the improved version (Q-5) only to discover the previous owner had already done this. Q-5’s never fail as does the Q-3’s and 4’s. However, here this one did. The discussion group I monitor for these Mercedes Dodge Sprinters have only heard of one Q-5 failure. Why me? I never looked at it having placed a false sense of knowledge in knowing this part was fine. Had I looked, I could have repaired it with some JB Weld way back there in Johnson City and avoided two days of drama driving! GRRRR!!!
There is an aftermarket version of this device made out of a solid billet of aluminum, nothing more than a tube (I knew of these), not plastic with a seam. It’s not a factory made item but surprisingly the dealer had them. I could have another Q-5 put in under warranty (free) or select the aluminum one (not under warranty - pay) and never worry about this happening again. He said all the UPS and FED-EX Sprinters go with it for they cannot afford breakdowns alongside the road. Since I was already planning to spend bucks ($$$) on some electronic gadget I said do it. $232 later I was out of there at 3pm and he gave me a Q-5 anyway on the side (under warranty), which I could sell or give to some unlucky View/Navion owner, broke down along the side of the road, who didn’t know any better and thus be a hero.
We blew on down to the Delta area and found a nice peaceful campground all to ourselves for the night.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Redwoods

We got off to a late start yet again. This seems to be a reoccurring theme at the beginning of each trip. I wanted to pick up my new glasses at Costco which didn’t open till 10. I planned to go south from there, then over to I-5 and begin heading north. The more I thought about this that morning the less appealing interstate traffic became, so after picking up my glasses we turned around and retraced our tracks north on 101.
The plan for this trip was to venture into eastern Oregon and Washington with the only real point of interest as a must see was the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon. While driving along I began losing motivation for the trip in part due to the high cost of fuel and still operating on a limited budget. We made it as far as Richardson Grove along the Eel River for the first night. I found the Redwood setting very peaceful, relaxing and realized that all I am looking for is right here. There was no need to log in long high mileage days. I rationalized the money saved on fuel, could be put towards campground fees, which I normally avoid. Sinbad and I held a meeting that evening and we cemented a new plan. I’ve been following online the exploits of a 70 year old man boondocking around in Mexico. George averages 50 miles a day travelling leaving most of his time to explore and enjoy wherever he is camped. I tried this out at the end of our last trip and discovered how pleasant it was. So it appears we will stay in northern California for the entire time and I am perfectly happy with that. Sinbad is too.
I went for an hour hike early in the morning, then moved the rig down by the river in a sunny spot I found while hiking. I simply enjoyed watching the river flow by, walking and sitting by the riverbank. We lounged around Richardson Grove until 2 o’clock that day. We then moved on up the road taking the Avenue of the Giants scenic route and pulled into the first campground we came to, Hidden Springs. As was Richardson Grove there are very few campers out this early in the season and this is good.
The next morning after my hike, I walked across the road to meet Fred & Ruth from Riverside. They had a small camper van on the same chassis/engine assembly, as is the View. I’ve seen these before on the road and was curious as to the gas mileage they get in comparison. Fred was equally happy to make my acquaintance, as they had been interested in Views also. They had a Rialta van a few years earlier but lost it due to a fire. Fred said he got about 20 mpg on the average with this new van so this is only a couple miles better than the View. He invited me in for a tour and I was afraid I might like what I saw, wishing perhaps something on this order may have been more practical. Once inside though I instantly knew otherwise. I felt I was in a coffin equipped with a small refrigerator and stove. My head almost touched the ceiling and I do not know how they can call the two bench seats twin beds. They asked me to sit and visit but being hot and sweaty from my hike I said I couldn’t. Ruth sensed I was about to leave so she quickly asked if I was familiar with “Born Again”. I thought to myself “No, she’s not going there is she? Maybe ‘Born Again’ is a brand of RV.” I was wrong and she launched onto a full-blown born again Christian spiel. That I needed to repent for my sins (I don’t know if there’s enough time left in my life for me to account for all my sins). That I needed to make sure there will be a spot reserved for me (yes, she used the word ‘reserved’, which caused me to liken heaven as a campground) in God’s Kingdom. Caught completely by surprise I stood there with the proverbial deer in the headlights look. I soon regained my senses and I assured her that I had already experienced the ‘born again’ feeling when I retired four years ago. “I’m a new man!” I wished them a happy trip and returned to camp with the words of “our savior Lord Jesus Christ” following me across the road. Back in side the sanctuary of the View, I was thankful for everything it was.
This sinner and his cat continued on their journey reaching Patrick’s Point State Park later in the afternoon. After a cup of tea and with binoculars in hand, I walked through the campground underbrush following the barking sounds of Sea Lions below the cliff. Finally, I located a clear spot where I was able to see the ocean. Within minutes, I spotted a whale surfacing, blowing spray then diving deep with his tail fully extended out of the water. Wow! I couldn’t ask for anything more. I walked back to camp with the biggest smile on my face having been able to see a whale. Tomorrow I look forward to hiking the trails in the park, trails that we did as a family over 25 years ago.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Hot Night at the Brothel

After a few more nights in Death Valley, we moved on to new adventures. We meandered up Highway 395 visiting the Japanese Internment Camp at Manzanar then stayed at various campsites along the base of the Sierra Mountains. Each of these campsites afforded spectacular views of the snow covered eastern slopes and each camp had an icy cold trout laden stream running through it. Best of all the weather was ideal, sunny with very dry air during the day and the nighttime temperatures never became bad at all. Yet days later when we arrived at Mono Lake there was snow on the ground and I knew this would not do. I had planned on staying a couple days around the lake but now that was out of the question. Not only that, but Tioga pass through Yosemite was still closed so an alternate plan had to be devised. After lunch at the lake, we turned east for Nevada and lower elevations. This was a good decision as we spent a very pleasant evening at Walker Lake some 3000’ lower than Mono Lake.

The next day we blew on down the Highway 50, “Loneliest Highway in America”, another one of my favorites. This was a bad decision. I say we blew down the road for the strong tailwinds out of the west made for great travelling. Yet our intended camp for the evening, Sand Mountain, was infested with off-roaders and their ATV’s. Being the middle of the week, I thought we would be okay there. Doesn’t anybody work anymore? So after lunch I turned around and fought 30 mph winds all the way back to Fallon and beyond to Lahontan Reservoir, the nearest available camp area. The last 10 miles were the worst being buffeted all about on a two-lane road with sand blasting us head on. The camps were situated on the beaches at the lake. Fortunately a site was located behind a large dense ground-hugging tree and this afforded us protection from the now 40 mph winds coming in off the lake. The following morning was quiet and still.

Oh, and the brothel? On the way out Hwy 50, I was surprised to see the Salt Wells House of Sensual Pleasures had burned to the ground. Located about 10 miles out from Fallon it had always been a landmark to look forward in seeing. Not only did I wonder under what circumstances did this fire begin, but no doubt the disappointment of returning customers who had driven all the way out there to have their pencil sharpened only to discover their little secret place in ashes. Hmm…now I will have to come up with some other way to celebrate my upcoming 60th birthday.

Oh the stories these mattress springs could tell.

Now our month long road trip chasing desert flowers draws to a close and we work our way back home. I will take a month to re-group and take care of business at home and hopefully will be back on the road come May.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Martin and the Swiss Miss

We left camp at Texas Spring above the Furnace Creek complex this morning and continued our leisurely pace to the north end of the Death Valley. The first point of interest was the Salt Creek turn-off. I hesitated at first since I’ve seen it several times but turned anyway just to kill some time and see how the desert pupfish were doing. Two bicyclists were parked at the beginning of the dirt road and the guy asked me if they could get a ride in. They were not too keen having autos kick up a lot of dirt on them as they whizzed by on the mile and half long washboard track. I said sure, get in and Sinbad ducked under the covers in back.
They were Martin and Franziska (Fran-chess-ka) from Switzerland. Both spoke English well enough but conversed back and forth in German as we drove in and walked the boardwalk. Martin earlier said if I wanted to hurry along that they could find a ride out with someone else, but I assured him I had nowhere to go and all day to get there.
They had flown in to Los Angeles and hired a taxi to take them out of the city. I thought that quite smart and now wish I had asked where the taxi dropped them off at. Their goal is to hit as many National Parks as they can in 5 ½ months on a route that loops down south then north up to the Yukon. I asked why the Yukon but I think pretty much was because it is there. Franziska was looking forward to seeing Las Vegas after Death Valley. That will be an overwhelming experience for her. From there they will go down to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier/Jasper and I’m sure others she didn’t mention, including the Grand Canyon no doubt. They average around 50 miles a day. Martin who was 32 (Franziska a few years younger) had been to the states before with friends in a rented RV, but it was Franziska’s first time.
I asked about preparation for this along with how Europeans are able to get so much time off to travel as they do, whereas Americans can’t seem to get it together. In their case they quit their jobs for this trip. Martin explained that Europeans for the most part work and save for things like this. They, especially the Swiss, Germans and Dutch, save their money to care for family, to be prepared for any unexpected financial needs and to travel. “Europeans love to travel and see the world. I think Americans spend all their money as soon as they get it and don’t plan.” He nailed that pretty well I thought.
They planned for a year for this trip. Most of the information they needed to know as to expenses, best places to go and stay and the best way to go about accomplishing thier goal was available from books and guides (and the Internet of course) written by other Europeans who had bicycled in the U.S. Other than the flight over here and shipping of their bicycles and gear, the only expenses they really face are camp fees and food which Franziska was quick to add “ lots of pasta, bananas and water”. I offered them some sodas at the end but they declined.
As we walked the boardwalk they both had camera bags with them but only Martin pulled his out. I asked if he would like me to take a photo of them together with his camera and he said okay while gingerly handing over his expensive Canon with a large zoom lens to me. Damn, that thing weighed over twice as much as my SLR and I wondered about him lugging this thing around on a bicycle. I took one shot and then went to take another at a different angle when he quickly stopped me. “It’s not a digital! It has film in it and I don’t have that many shots available.” Well, I could appreciate someone wanting to shoot slides but on a trip like this, riding a bicycle, that seemed hardly appropriate. With the small 10-mega pixel cameras the size of a pack of cigarettes they make now, he could take thousands of pictures of equal quality which would leave lots of room for more pasta and bananas.
They were a very nice and friendly couple. With more time I could have found out more, like what Franziska’s early impressions of America was, and what their thoughts of Americans in general were, but I didn't want to grill them too hard. I bid them a safe trip and sent them on their way south while we continued on to Mesquite Campground near Scotty’s castle and Sinbad crawled out from beneath the covers.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What difference a week makes! We came back through Joshua Tree National Park and the place has exploded with flowers of all colors, so much so that we encountered a couple of flower jams along the way. Come on people, pull off of the road all the way. Leaving half your car on the pavement makes it an interesting process trying to pilot a small house down a narrow two-lane road when an even bigger house is approaching from the opposite direction. Further on were valleys full of Joshua Trees just bursting with blossoms that should be opening by the end of the week.
We left the park at the Twentynine Palms entrance traveling north from there towards Amboy on old Route 66. The historical gas station/motel in Amboy, has long been vacant for many years. An enterprising individual in just the past month purchased, renovated and re-opened Roys for business once again. A side trip along the original Route 66 from Ludlow off of I-40 east of Barstow is only 8 miles longer than driving the Interstate and a lot more interesting.
We crossed under I-40 and continued north into the new Mojave National Preserve staying the night at Kelso where the park service has restored the old railroad depot there. This entire area nestled between interstates 40 and 15 eastward to the Nevada border deserves some more exploration in a future road trip, but for now, onward to Death Valley and see what surprises it holds in store for us.
The Future is already here!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chasing Desert Wildflowers

Tread Lightly.

The Flowers will LOVE YOU!

March 2008

Our first stop on the Desert Flower Tour would be the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve west of Lancaster. Expecting the hills to be carpeted with bright orange flowers I was surprised to find none at all. In fact no one was there; we had the place all to ourselves. Evidently it is too early in the year for them. So, I ate breakfast took Sinbad for a walk and on the drive out I finally spotting one lonely poppy by the road’s edge. Lucky me! I was witness to the blooming of the first poppy of the season and everyone else missed it.

Retracing our tracks from a few months before, we motored on to Joshua Tree National Park. Entering Joshua Tree will be an experience I will never forget, for we drove in FREE of the $15 entrance fee, thanks to my Annual National Parks Pass given to me by my daughter for Christmas. I felt like a VIP as the Ranger swiped my card, verified my ID and wished me a pleasant visit. “Don’t I get a map and park newsletter?” I asked. Since I wasn’t handing over any money, perhaps he felt I wasn’t entitled to the automatic free handouts.

So here I am, in the park, driving along at my usual traffic impeding pace and there is not single wildflower to be seen. What is going on here? I wondered. We camped for the night and left the following morning continuing our search for the ever-elusive desert wildflowers. Once we crossed over the ridge at Sheep’s Pass and dropped down on the southern slopes the flowers began to appear. Faints patches here and there of small little violet colored blossoms and little more. I reasoned the further south we go, the more flowers we would see…hopefully.

We arrived at the Cottonwood Visitor Center at the south entrance to the park an hour earlier than last time, thus it was open, not closed for lunch as before. Inside the place was packed with each and every visitor asking, “Where do we go to see the flowers?” I could tell the Ranger lady’s patience was at its ragged end, no doubt having answered this question so many times already, and here her day wasn’t even half over. To the other Ranger lady standing there with glazed eyes I asked “What are the people doing alongside the road with the little black trash bags bundled up along the way?” She was very happy to answer something that it seemed no one had asked before. “I believe biologists and volunteers are in the process of removing exotic plant life from the park.” Sounds like a fun thing to do on a nice spring day in the desert.
I wrestled with the idea of staying at the campground here rather than to rush off southward. After several passes through the two loops of Cottonwood campground, not finding anything that promising or level and not relishing the idea of parting with $12, I decided to head for Anza Borrego as the day was still young. As soon as we crossed the Joshua Tree park boundary I noticed some boondockers on a side road. I had not noticed this area the last time through here. We drove in, liked what we saw and made camp for the night.

We spent the flowing week exploring Anza Borrego where the wildflowers of all varieties were abundant. It wasn’t till we ventured to the southern portion of the park did I finally discover some barrel cacti, cholla, hedgehog and beavertail cactus in bloom. All are in their early stages and I’m sure come April they will be in their full glory.

Desert Sand Verbena


Desert Lily

My desert guidebook doesn't show all the flowers that I have seen and photographed and this here is just one of the many unknowns. I plan to go to the visitor center after posting this into the blog and see if I can ID some of these unknowns. I fear though the visitor center may be like walking into a K-Mart during a blue light special being it Sunday and the weekenders are here.


Barrel Cactus