More Idaho: Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River

We had just completed two interesting and pleasant days at Craters of the Moon National Monument, chosen largely because it was the rough halfway point between Grand Tetons National Park and this day’s travel destination, the Salmon River in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Our stay on the moon left us a short, perhaps three-hour drive to the section of the river just northeast of Stanley. a quite small (but larger than we remembered from our visit here in 2015) town with a heavy tourist industry focus. River guides, hunting guides, fishing guides, offroad vehicle guides. Lots of guides, in other words.

Staggeringly beautiful rough shore near our site.

I don’t mean that condescendingly, because it is unusual for a town so centered on tourism to give off such an… authentic vibe, I guess. Like the town had this incredibly high concentration of local knowledge of the land. All the rest of the touristy stuff they didn’t go hard in an as much.

We came here before, in 2015 during our first full time RV year, and loved it, spending three days on the shore of the river surrounded by deer and eagles. Back then we only had the old bus, no tow vehicle with which to explore, so we really looked forward to returning. This time we did a lot more research, particularly on the campground options, which was fortunate since our first choice, where we stayed before, was closed for some reason. I could not determine if it was erosion or just manpower efficiency, i.e., closing some of these national forest areas to reduce the burden on rangers and staff as the season came to a close.

Rock pools at our nearly private river front beach.

We continued northeast into the mountains to check out several of our backup options, all drycamping national forest sites, and ended up picking a spot at Mormon Bend, another modest riverside campground. Upon arrival we accidentally pulled into a double site, though it seemed no bigger than several others. The camp host let us get away with it for one night, but we had to move to a single site the next day or pay double the $18 nightly fee.

Our spacious beautiful site at Morman Bend.

All the sites are very close to river with sort or private paths made by previous residents down to the water, resulting in nearly private little rock beaches for each rig. In mid-September there is still plenty of green on the vegetation, making each beach area, and even much of the RV site itself, nearly secluded.

An ideal hammock location.

One of the things we missed in 2015 was the many hot springs along the river. This year, equipped with Loki and plenty of online research (bolstered by additional info from locals) we set off to find and enjoy some of them. The first one we found, locally known “The Boat Box” looked a bit sketchy, like a redneck jacuzzi made from some sort of industrial container, supplied with hot spring water from an old two-inch pipe jutting out of the steep bank.

PKM on our private path to the river. She found it very convenient.

We moved on looking for others from our research, and soon found Sunbeam Hot Springs, the site of an old and now defunct bathhouse constructed by the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. During peak season in good weather it can, apparently, be quite popular, possibly since it is one of the few public hot springs in the area equipped with a changing and bathroom. Only three others where there during our visit. The river’s edge boasts a series of loosely arranged, human made, rock lined “pools” collecting hot spring water flowing out from various points along bank. Bathers can adjust the pool temperature by shifting rocks to allow in less or more cold river water. Though our day of arrival had been glorious, and warm with blue skies day all around, by late afternoon of the second day colder weather was inbound, which made the warm pools quite delicious.

That weather change became more significant through the night, depositing fresh snow on the Sawtooth Mountain ranger nearby, with more on the way. That’s more than enough of a signal for us warm weather fans, so we cut our time there short and started our long run back to the Pacific Coast: it was time to get lower, both in altitude and latitude.

Idaho: Craters of the Moon National Monument

Invigorated from our wonderful time in the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks we turned back west, bound for California, eventually. Then general plan for the year was to spend most of the summer in the Pacific Northwest, the late summer and early fall exploring the upper Midwest, and then work our way back to the Pacific Coast and south, all the way into Mexico, before winter.

One of many spectacular and surprisingly varied lava fields at Crater of the Moon.

Our next long-planned for destination would be the Salmon River in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Seeing as how that was more than a six-hour drive ending in the mountains, we looked for a convenient way to break the trip into two legs, and soon found Craters of the Moon National Monument just over the halfway point on our route. As long-time readers know, we often let the locations of national parks guide our itinerary, but have not focused much on the hundreds of other properties managed by the National Park Service, such as national monuments, forests, or historic sites, so the proximity and convenience of Craters of the Moon really worked out for us this trip.

Rose on the dried remnant of a twisted juniper tree.

The park is located just outside of Arco, Idaho, the home of America’s first fully nuclear-powered city electrical grid, as well as our country’s deadliest nuclear accident, when maintenance activity resulted in a meltdown and explosion killing three people in 1961. The investigation provided two theories as to how it happened, 1) an accident due to a sticking control rod or 2) something more nefarious involving a highly distracted, emotionally troubled maintenance member pulling out the control rod too far. So, uh, don’t work on nuclear reactors when in a bad state, ok kids?

Notice how different this lava field look compared to the first picture in this post. All the small, white, almost evenly spaced objects on the field are dwarf buckwheat plants, only a few inches tall and wide, their root structure is about 3′ in diameter, allowing them to dominate moisture up take in their area.

We arrived without reservations to find the park unexpectedly full. One uniformed employee directed us to the visitor center back parking lot, where we set up camp for the evening. A different employee seemed to think this was not at all kosher, but she did not make a fuss about it since we had already been given permission. They do not seem to have a consistently enforced policy on using the parking lot as an overflow, a fact driven home by the other RVs that pulled in for the night behind us.

Once again, notice how different this lava is from the other pictures. This path leads to several excellent examples of lava tube caves.

This first day we did little more than set up camp, explore the exterior of the visitor center and associated gardens, where we learned, among other things, that the visitor center has intentionally eliminated most of their non-native grass once they confirmed it was causing mule deer to risk dangerous encounters with automobiles trying to get to it. Yes, this is an odd little fact that I could not figure out how to seamlessly incorporate into this post, so we will have to live with that awkward segue. We also planned out the next day’s activities, which would start with moving into the first available official RV spot. This we accomplished by late morning the next day, having consulted with the camp volunteer running the check in booth after observing several rigs pull out.

Preparing to enter one of the aforementioned lava tube caves.

The campground is all “first come first serve” dry camping, has a 35′ length limit, and includes an extended loop for smaller rigs that should not be even entered by anything over 30′; one of the sharp turns is quite the tight maneuver for, say, a 35′ class A motorhome (so I hear.) We secured a beautiful and spacious site that would be a nice pull in for a smaller rig but required a bit of maneuvering for Serenity. Sure, we shifted from our free visitor parking lot to this $15 a night unserviced site, but at least we were fully legal, and the views and ambience really were lovey in a stark, millennia’s-old, lava field kind of way.

Our second site at Craters of the Moon. The campground is spacious, well layed out, and tiered such that you can only see part of two other RVs in this wide shot.

Once set up we spent the rest of the day exploring the park via the seven-mile loop road and adjacent off shoots and paths. This really is one of those places that you can see most of in one solid day of exploring. The loop road has seven major pull off areas that give you an excellent idea of the geology, history, and environmental conditions. While the bulk of the property is a rough lava field, or “Holocene basaltic lava field” for you pedants, there are fascinating variations, including a number of cinder cones, splatter cones, and eruptive fissures that make for fun and educational short hikes.

One end of Indian Cave. One of the few caves in the park that is large enough to allow casual exploration without flashlights or hard hats.

Next up: We return to Idaho’s Salmon River.

If you look carefully you can spot the elusive Greater Lava Cat, her camouflage broken only by her pink tracking collar.

Grand Tetons & Yellowstone

After a significantly longer stay in Spokane than anticipated we headed east, bound for Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. We visited both in 2015 during our first fulltime RV year as we circled the country, but major mechanical issues with our bus and the lack of a tow vehicle (yes, we spent most of our first year with just the bus) significantly hindered our enjoyment of the parks, especially Yellowstone. In 2017, our last western RV tour, we skipped Wyoming in favor of other, more northern explorations (Glacier and North Cascades National Parks) before continuing on to the Dakotas.

Odd looking cow we spotted passing through Yellowstone.

Though that initial visit half a decade back had been stressful and limited, what we did see we enjoyed, especially in Grand Tetons. We vowed to return, knowing both of these national parks had so much more to offer than our all too brief and troubled visit had allowed. So in the fall of 2021, with our vehicles in working order, we plunged ahead. From Spokane it is 500 miles to Yellowstone, a solid two days of travel for us in the RV, where 250 miles is usually the most we prefer to drive in a day. Given the leisure of a few extra days we might have broken the trip into three easy legs, but since we had fallen behind our admittedly arbitrary travel schedule, we pushed a bit harder than normal.

We made a one night stop over at a very nice little park in Montana. Though no military or Passport America options where available in our targeted stopover area, we found Bernie and Sharon’s Riverfront RV Park (and yes, that is the official name) an easy couple of miles off I-90 in lightly wooded rolling grass hills near a river. We had a large grassy space with full hook ups for $32 after a 10% veteran discount. The neighbors were nice, the park management very casual, and the general ambience quite nice for our short stay.

Our one night stop in Montana.

The next day we pushed on to the parks, entering Yellowstone from the west and driving nearly 60 miles through the park enroute to our campground. Yellowstone is positioned just north of Grand Tetons, so we planned to enjoy it first, but the availability and price of RV parks is much better in the latter. Given their proximity, camping at the north end of Grand Tetons puts you almost as close to the Yellowstone attractions as being in the park itself.

Love the campground at Colter Bay. The price and availability… not so much.

Colter Bay Campground, a spot we had stayed in 2015, fits that description, and we secured three days in one of their dry camping loops. This park is not to be confused with Colter Bay Village, the much more expensive, less available, resort style concessionaire managed property nearby. That is not to say the campground is cheap; we paid $42 a night for a basic site with no services, but given the popularity of the area, we were thankful to have it.

PKM liked this campground quite a lot. Plenty of squirrels, though none wanted to play her reindeer games.

Each day we made the 30-mile drive from Colter Bay to Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road, passing into the park via the southern entrance. Even this drive, miles from any of the well-known sites, is spectacular, with much of it directly parallel to the Snake River and associated gorges. It has a good number of sightseer pull outs, and unlike the frequently crowded ones on the main park roads, you are much more likely to have them to yourself.

The aforementioned Yellowstone Grand Loop Road is a 142-mile route that will take you to most of the well-known attractions. While one can certainly drive the whole thing in five or six hours, there are far too many things to see in one day. We selected two sections for our time there; the southwest and southeast quadrants, each of which took us a full day of exploration. The southwest section will take you to the Old Faithful and the other well-known geyser basins, while the southeast section runs along Yellowstone Lake and River with some fantastic waterfalls.

For our first full day we predictably selected the southwest quadrant. We stopped along the Snake River in a couple of places, but mostly headed straight for Old Faithful, which is conveniently one of the first spots you encounter driving clockwise along the loop road from the southern entrance. The size of the tourism infrastructure dedicated to just this geyser basin area is not to be underestimated. With over 4 million visitors to the park each year, the majority of whom will stop for this particular attraction, the park management has constructed an entire village, along with huge parking areas (think multiple Walmarts) to accommodate everyone.

Rosemarie waiting on Old Faithful.

Don’t plan on just pulling over after checking the schedule of eruptions; you need to plan an hour or two just for this sight. Other than the parking, walking, and crowds, Old Faithful’s schedule varies by about half an hour, with the interval largely dependent on the strength of the previous eruption. We were rather fortunate, arriving with plenty of time to find parking, stretch our legs, make our way to the viewing area, and select a decent spot to watch along with several hundred other tourists. The payoff is worth it.

There she blows.

After exploring the touristy village around Old Faithful, we continued along the loop road to the other spectacular geysers, hot springs, and mudpot areas. There are a staggering number of them. While many have viewing areas, some are barely acknowledged with but a small marker. The road in this section runs along streams and rivers with hot springs running off into cold water or boiling up directly into them.

In addition to Old Faithful, the southwest quadrant of the Grand Loop Road includes other popular sites, including Black Sand and Biscuit Basins, Fountain Geyser and Paintpot, and the astounding Grand Prismatic Spring. I’m sure it’s possible to tire of seeing them, but we did not. The variety is amazing, even the same hot spring seen from different viewpoints can provide great variation.

Along one area you might find a vast shallow lake with intense rust and earthy tones from iron oxide deposits. Cross round to the other side, and you might be rewarded with the otherworldly appearance of glass lake, steam rising across its breadth, with the entire visit reflected in its surface.

Yet in the same basin, along the same path, you can also find crystal clear deep pools with striking blue hues. The three major geyser basins (Upper, Midway, and Lower) in this southwest quadrant are filled with such sights, too many for me to describe, but well worth your time should you ever get to visit Yellowstone. There is so much to see in this park, but if you only have a day or two, make this area a priority.

For our second full day we again made the drive to the southern entrance and loop road, but this time turned right, or counterclockwise, to explore the southeast area long Yellowstone’s largest lake and associated river. Along this section you can find many more examples of hydrothermal activity, but with different appearances than most of those found in the main geyser basins, many along the edge of the lake, others creating enormous, sulfur rich mudpots.

It’s not that we had our fill of hot springs, but what we were really looking for in this section was waterfalls and wildlife. It did not disappoint. We took the side road to Artist Point with views of the large Yellowstone Lower Falls. This point allows you to drive a few hundred yards of the main viewing area, with the option of several hikes of varying length and difficulty to see other viewpoints or the upper falls.

As for wildlife, we passed a few small groups of Yellowstone’s ubiquitous bison, though none close enough for good photography with our cell phone cameras. We had far better luck with elk, coming across a bull and his mate grazing beside the road during our return trip. He was pretty calm, allowing for a few nice pictures, until another car got too close to his lady, riling him up enough to trot aggressively towards them with a few warning snorts too boot. What a fantastic way to end our day.

Our three nights at Colter Bay complete and with no openings available to extend we made a one night reservation at Gros Venture Campground at the southern end of Grand Teton National Park. I had considered trying for one of the first come boondocking sites along the road between the parks, but given how few spots were listed, we elected not to take a blind chance on them. Unfortunately, upon arriving at and trying to check in at Gros Venture, we realized I had confused my dates, and we were not due to arrive until the next day.

The helpful staff recommended a boondocking area just outside the park on national forest land. It was an adventure in and of itself just trying to find the place, requiring a couple of stops to consult online sources, but we found the Shadow Mountain area several miles down some dirt roads, just as promised. We talked to a couple of other campers, sort of unofficial hosts, and settled into a fantatic, and free, site with excellent views and friendly neighbors.

We took the opportunity to do some off-road driving, putting Loki in four wheel mode and headed up Shadow Mountain’s occasionally challenging trails, discovering geocaches, great vistas, and beautiful flora along the way. We did get lost, but only after we came back down the mountain a few miles from where we anticipated. It was all good, and if we come back to Grand Teton, we will seriously consider boondocking here again.

The next day we made the 30-minute drive back to Gros Venture for our last night in the area. Once checked into our site (like at Colter Bay, dry camping for $42 a night) we headed into Jackson Hole for a beer, a meal, and other general touristy behavior. We dined at Roadhouse Brewing Company, and it was quite good: excellent food, beer, and ambiance all around.

So that is our big Wyoming Post: 6 days, 550 miles, 2 national parks, 4 campsites, and a couple of happy RVers. Next up: Idaho.

80 Months Full Time RVing: August 2021 Report

The Distance: 482 miles by land and sea, counting the ferry to and from San Juan Island. The bulk of this distance is from our hard run from Anacortes inland to Spokane. Our total for the year is up to 5837.

The Places: We started with a week at our new Whidbey Island back up campground, Rhododendron Park. Though with limited facilities, this county property is in a desirable location and has a fairy-land quality due to the massive old growth trees and other foliage. Given the price and general availability, it is similar Lake Monroe in Central Florida. We bounced back over to Cliffside RV on the naval station and then again to Rhododendron for two final days on Whidbey Island.

Finally, after two months on Whidbey we caught the ferry to San Juan Island for four days at the county fairground at Friday Harbor. We finished the month well inland at two military properties near Spokane; first Fairchild Air Force Base Family Camp, then Clear Lake Recreation Facility.

In August we spent 19 days in military parks and 12 in county facilities. We had full connections for 19, electrical and water for 4, and dry camped for 8.

The Money: A tough month that saw us well over budget, 38% in fact. Our $430 ferry fee to get our rig to San Juan Island and our annual RV insurance pushed us over despite a couple of modest Saturday markets.

The Drama & Improvements: Our ongoing problems with Loki included the loss of a fanbelt pulley while touring San Juan Island, which necessitated a longer than anticipated stay in Spokane, as well as another unexpected repair bill.

After Two Months in Coastal Washington, We Head Inland: Spokane

On our last highly delinquent yet riveting episode, our heroes had barely caught the ferry from San Juan Island to Anacortes due to the unfortunately ongoing drama with our tow vehicle, Loki, an awesome yet currently fickle 1997 Geo Tracker. It will not surprise long time readers to know that we had little plan other than “get to the mainland and head inland,” assuming as we do that time and distance would provide clarity.

Having started our day before dawn meant that even after a multi-hour ferry experience, we began the mainland drive earlier than is our custom, and us such put in a bit more mileage than is usual as well. More than six hours down the road we arrived at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane, Washington. The Family Campground there is a perfectly serviceable, if not particularly exciting, full service and affordable campground. While it is not located in what one might call a high demand nature and tourism area, it would give us a safe and affordable place to settle in while we coordinated repairs to the Geo Tracker.

After some online research and a few calls, I settled on the downtown location for Performance Automotive. We towed Loki there, it’s only a few miles outside of the base, and by Monday they had a parts list available, most of them located, but had not located the main part, the harmonic balancer pulley. If you are going to own an old vehicle, it really comes in handy knowing a few of the specialty shops to go to when you are on a hunt like this, and Richard at Xtreme Zukes Offroad back in Florida came through for us. He had the part on hand and FedEx’d it to the shop here in Washington.

The entire process took about ten days, during which we made the best of it in Spokane. Having spent most of 2015, our first year full time RVing, without a tow vehicle, we had experience living with just bicycles and our motorhome as transportation. Mostly this involves a bit of advance planning for supplies and entertainment. We combined our trip off base to drop off Loki with a stop at the commissary and even a casino for a drink and some low stakes slot machine action.

It was quite hot, and thus our $25 a night full hook up site was greatly appreciated, but we knew that three days of living exclusively on the base would be more than enough, so we made follow on reservations at the military-owned Clear Lake Resort just outside of town. This is a modest lake front facility offering RV sites, camping, cabins, and water-oriented equipment rentals at the usual discounted/subsidized prices for military members, retirees, and other veterans. We were ablet to snag four days there, Sunday through Wednesday, during their last week of operation.

Catching them in their last week of operation also meant even further discounts on their already affordable boat rentals, so we rented a johnboat equipped with a small outboard motor for an afternoon on the lake. We had a great day of boating, a lunch on the water, and gathered a few challenging geocaches along the shore as well. We returned to the Fairchild Base Family Camp to await the completion of Loki’s repairs and lingered a couple more days taking care of basic business and necessities before continuing east through Idaho and into Wyoming. Next up: We return to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Finally, the San Juan Islands

Rosemarie has mentioned her desire to visit the San Juan Islands for years. These are a group of islands between Whidbey and Vancouver famed for tourism, beauty, and whales. I had not really internalized how badly she wanted to see them until, during our time on Whidbey Island, we were planning out the rest of our summer and she placed it as her number one priority. (In my defense, she has a rather extensive list of must-see places.) And so we planned it. Doing so this late in the game was hardly ideal; many of the RV park options, especially the county and state parks, are full, and the ferry spots for large vehicles can fill up, but we made it work.

On the ferry with the other large vehicles. Several other RVs, but none quite as big as us.

Let’s start with that ferry. The Washington Island system provides service from Anacortes, less than an hour up the road from Rhododendron Park, to the four largest islands, San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw. Based on our RV park selection, we needed a round trip from Anacortes to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Due to the size of our rig (52 feet with the tow vehicle attached to the motorhome) it cost us over $400 for the journey. We paid less than $100 for the trip from Port Townsend (near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula) to Whidbey back in July, but this is a longer trip, though not by a lot, taking about 90 minutes each way.


As for our accommodations, there was really only one game in town available: the county fairgrounds in Friday Harbor. The county and state parks were either full or could not accept rigs our size, and even most of the private resorts were at capacity even with their exorbitant prices. As it was, the partial hook up (power and water) fairground was over $50 a night, despite which we were lucky to find four days available split between two different sites.

So many beautiful coastal lookout points.

Friday Harbor is a fun little tourist town. Our campsite was within easy walking distance of downtown where we enjoyed the plethora of boutique shops and seaside sights. We found the locals very helpful with recommendations as to what to see, how to do it, and where to eat. Such freely given advice helped us plan our car tour of the island during our second day.

We had a great little sightseeing adventure, taking the mostly coastal road along the west side of the island to Lime Kiln State Park. While enjoying the views and heading to a couple of geocaches, we noticed a distinct and rather loud vibration coming from the Tracker’s engine. Popping the hood, I could not spot anything visually, but we resolved to head home. Unfortunately, Loki had seen enough of the island, and dropped what we would later learn was the harmonic balancer pully straight off the engine into the road within the next half mile of travel. This is one of the main pulleys, and the associated fan belt powers the engine cooling fan, among other things.

Though we were able to retrieve the actual pulley, and Loki would still start and run, it would overheat almost immediately unless coasting downhill. Now, we only had about nine miles to get back home, and it’s possible that we could have made it by pulling over, shutting down, and letting the engine cool off every half mile or so, but man if we screwed that up we could be looking at another blown engine. Instead we coasted to a wide spot along a cliffside pull out, and I hitched a ride back to the rig. Since nothing can be simple, I of course forgot to bring the door key, and had to break into the RV through a window, managing to crack the screen of our front TV with my wildly careening foot in the process.

I made it back to the lookout point in the motorhome where, with some assistance from a couple of locals, we managed to push Loki into position and hook up while the limited traffic along the road waited patiently. Thank you, San Juan Islanders, for your assistance and understanding during this stressful event. The silver lining: Rosemarie got to see orcas swimming and broaching along the coast while I was gone.

OK look, we have been here before. The tracker is 23 years old, and even with a fully rebuilt engine, things break. We were on a beautiful island, within walking distance of a cute town, biking distance of other interesting sights, and with plenty of bus tour options as well. Heck, we did most of our first year of full time RVing with no tow vehicle whatsoever, so we would manage. The next day we took advantage of the tour bus availability and enjoyed a day trip around the island with a lengthy stop in the ritzy, yacht-filled Roche Harbor on the northwest side of the island.

We toured the harbor, the main waterfront drag, and a few of the points of historical interest before enoying a light lunch overlooking the harbor at one of the lovely outdoor restaurants. We spent most of our time, however, in the beautiful botanical garden filled with installation art pieces. We found a handful of geocaches before catching our bus back to Friday Harbor. Once back in town, we closed out the day with a rather odd pizza buying experience, involving as it did a seemingly closed restaurant, ordering through a cracked open door, cash only of course, and waiting in the parking lot for it to be done. Fun experience, mediocre pizza.

On our last full day, lacking a working car, it was bike time. We took our old, rickety bicycles on a multi-mile tour of the Pear Point Peninsula, hitting half a dozen geocaches along the way, enjoying the coast, beautiful weather, wild raspberries, and exclusive looking neighborhoods.

The next morning we had reservations on the first ferry out, and awoke before dawn to get things ready. Unfortunately, with Loki broken, I had a very difficult time getting connected for the drive to the terminal. Much swearing, sweating, and panicking ensued as the minutes raced by. Eventually we got it done, arrived at the ferry, and despite being beyond the show time, they let us on for our journey to the mainland.

We would definitely return to these islands, although next time with a bit more advance planning, and hopefully the ability to visit a couple of the others. Next up: Spokane, Fairchild Air Force Base, and auto repairs.

Half of August on Whidbey Island Before Getting Back on the Road

When last we wrote the Shell On Wheels clan had completed three weeks at the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island, followed by two days off island for windshield repairs, then returned to Whidbey for nine more days, including a full week stay at Rhododendron County Park in Coupeville. Despite all this time we just weren’t quite ready to leave, so we returned to Cliffside RV Park for nearly two more weeks to close out our time on the island and plan our next moves.

Rosemarie never tired of photographing the amazing flowers at Cliffside RV Park.

As we strung to together a couple more stays at Cliffside, the front office informed us that we were close to our maximum allowed time in the park. Many military bases, especially the seasonally popular ones, have such limits, and the specific rules vary greatly from place to place. In this case we were caught off guard, thinking that our time off island and at Rhododendron Park had reset the clock.

As ever, Pad Kee Meow is beside herself with worry and tension.

Four years ago during our first visit to Whidbey that would have indeed been the case, but a few cases of perceived abuse had prompted a rule change and we needed to vacate a bit sooner than expected. So we pushed out as far as they would allow, finished our time on the island with a couple of days back at Rhododendron, and allowed the stay limits to help define the dates of our next adventure.

Cool driftwood sculpture in Anacortes.

We took advantage of our remaining two weeks on the island to revisit our favorite places, find a couple of new ones, and participate in three more local Saturday markets put on by the Lion’s Club. As we had in July we timed one of our RV moves to coincide with the market, making this event quite convenient. Between July and August we sold at this venue five times, and while not all of them were great, the average of our sales made the overall endeavor worthwhile.

Did you know artichoke flowers were this beautiful? Neither did we!

The Lions Club market is the island’s newest regular craft event, and fills a niche for what I think of us “entry level” or “easy access” sellers. I.e., it is cheap ($20 vendor fee), short (one day a week for five hours) and accessible (all are accepted with no category limits and no special licensing or paperwork.) For us it replaced the weekly (and since cancelled) 2nd Street Market in nearby Langley at which we sold in 2017. They are still growing, working on their client base and community awareness. If we were back on our home turf in Florida and COVID had never happened, we would have skipped this modest market, but here out west, with so many festivals and fairs still rebuilding, it was quite worth our time and effort.

Part of the Penn Cove Bay near Coupeville. The floats are mussel farms.

In this, our second summer on Whidbey Island, growing familiarity with the place has solidified our favorite spots. Coupeville is our preferred town here. It is quite small, and the limited population and tourism mean there are only a dozen restaurant options, some of which have quite limited hours of operation which further constrain the unprepared diner. We love Little Ren Hen Bakery, but it’s only open Thursday through Sunday. Front Street Grill (our favorite mussel place) and nearby Toby’s Tavern are both open daily, whereas Oystercatcher is much more limited, and we never managed to catch them when we were hungry.

Despite such limitations, we thoroughly enjoy this town, and had many great experiences. Besides, Coupeville is big enough to boast its own craft brewery, which is sort of a minimum requirement to be considered civilized in my book (I’m looking at you, Sequim.) We expect to be back in mid 2022, and look forward to catching a few of the places we missed this visit.

While we were in Whidbey, Baby Zion, our new nephew was born to Melissa and Hamed in New York.

So that’s Whidbey for 2021. After nearly seven weeks on the island, it’s time to move on. Next up: The San Juan Islands. (Hint: not Puerto Rico.)

79 Months Full Time RVing: July 2021 Report

The Distance: 264 miles, all of it coastal Washington driving, as we finally got around to visiting the Olympic Peninsula and then returned to Whidbey Island. We piled in a bit more mileage with our trip off island for repairs. Though we will be stationary for most of August, we get back on the road “for realz” toward the end of that month. Our 2021 total so far: 5,355 miles.

The Places:  We left the Enumclaw Expo Center bound for Sequim and the Blue Hole, staying three days at an unofficial site in someone’s empty lot before shifting a few blocks to Dave and Rebecca’s street. We took the ferry to Whidbey Island, staying at Cliffside RV Park on the naval station for three weeks. We left the island to get our windshield replaced at Louis Glass in Mt Vernon, staying in their parking lot for two days. We returned to Whidbey Island, splitting time between Cliffside and Rhododendron Park, a wonderful and underutilized county property with a small, dry camping loop.

Fourth of July at Dave and Rebecca’s in Sequim.

We spent the bulk of our month, 23 days, at a military park, 2 days at municipal properties, and 6 at a private residence or business. We enjoyed full hook up services for 24 days, partial for 5, and dry camped 2.

Penn Cove mussels to go at Front Street in Coupeville.

The Money:  9% under budget, which is a much-needed change after the previous month’s financial challenge. We managed to get ourselves back on track primarily by getting back to vending at markets, starting out with a fantastic showing at the Kiwanis annual event in Oak Harbor, and followed up with two modest Saturday markets put on by the Lions Club. It also helped that we did not have any significant unexpected bills; Loki only required a modest $59 lug nut repair and PKM just needed her annual check up and vaccinations. Though our campground fees where a bit higher than we like, we did what we could to keep those in check by staying at free spots for three days and working the naval station’s system to qualify for the modest weekly discount. We averaged $33 a night for the month.

Kitty Meow Meow loved Cliffside Park’s many plants and edible wildlife as well

The Drama & Improvements:  Very little to report, and thankful for it. We continue to work through an annoying slow transmission seal leak on Loki, which I had repaired in California but continues to bedevil us, and we fixed a damaged lug nut as well. The cat is fully vaccinated again, so yay for that.

Next up: Our final two weeks on Whidbey Island before we resume our travels.

Geocaching in Rhododendron Park.

Back to Whidbey Island, Where Lack of Availability Drives Us to Find a New Place: Rhododendron Park

During our recently completed stay at Cliffside RV Park on Whidbey Island we had been quite fortunate to string together three full weeks at this popular spot on relatively late notice. We had done so by using our well tested “method” of checking for cancellation-based openings daily, which has brought us success at Bahia Honda, Wekiva Springs, Sigsbee Key West, Travis Air Force Base, and many other locations. It does not always yield an opening, of course, and this time luck was not with us; after our windshield repairs in Mt. Vernon were complete we headed back to Cliffside, but only for two days, unable to extend into the weekend during this, the summer high season.

Pad Kee Meow surveying her new woodland realm.

There are not a lot of RV park options on the island, and those that do exist are mostly full (and quite pricey) during the summer months. Though willing to rough it and only requiring a two day stay, we could not even avail ourselves of “parking lot camping” at a Walmart or Cracker Barrel: like many high population or touristy areas, the few “almost big box” stores on the island do not allow overnight parking. Fortunately, we had done our research during that previous three week stay and found a little discussed county park in the nearby town of Coupeville, already a favorite of ours due in no little part to the Penn Cove Mussels.

Yes, yes! More crafting supplies. Haha, exactly what we need. Yes.

Because of the dearth of information available online (RV and campground review sites had very limited and occasionally incorrect information) we had physically scoped out the place in our Geo Tracker earlier in the month. This reconnaissance revealed that Rhododendron Park, located on 37 wooded acres, has 15 sites along a bisected loop of sometimes narrow dirt roads. There is no onsite management, security, ranger, or camp host. All sites are “first come, first serv” and “unserviced” dry camping, i.e., no electrical, water, or sewage connections. The narrow roads and tree canopy likely act as a natural size limiter, but there is no posted official maximum RV length. Though not mentioned on the county website, signs in the park itself list a seven day stay limit. Finally, the website mentions that only three of the sites are suitable for an RV (versus a tent), and this probably refers to the three sites along the center paved strip, no signs in this unmanned park forbid an actual RV at any of the other sites, several of which were, in fact, occupied by various sized RVs during our scouting venture.

Almost all of these factors worked in our favor: the “first come first serve” basis and limited length of stay allowance meant that a few sites might still be available, while the dry camping, narrow roads, and heavy tree canopy would discourage a significant segment of the RV community, and thus limit our competition for a weekend spot. Which is pretty much how it worked out: though we arrived on a Saturday, there were still a handful of sites available, and we ended up with a fantastic, large, oddly shaped, heavily wooded, dreamland faerie site in a park next to a quaint seaside town on a fantastic island. Hard to ask for better than that. Oh right, it was only $15 a night.

Given the beauty, price, and availability of the park along with our tolerance and equipment for dry camping, we elected to stay for the maximum one week. This would temporarily eliminate the battle for a spot at the naval station, cost less than half as much, give us a bit of variation in our summer environment, and provide an esoteric, unusual benefit related to our newfound weekly Lions Club market as well: we could time our RV moves between campgrounds to coincide with the market, meaning one less painful haul of stuff in a cram packed little car to the market and back, and the convenience of our home on site for the duration of the event. As a comfort factor, this is not to be underestimated.

The previous Saturday we had participated in this relatively new and modest market to test the waters, and enjoyed just enough success to lure us back, particularly since we lacked any other options. I realize that sounds a bit negative, something south of “damned by faint praise,” but I don’t really mean it that way. It comes down to how much trouble are you willing to go through for limited and uncertain returns? In our early days the previous week’s earnings would have locked us in for a month of Saturdays, but the intervening years have taught us a lot about event selection and thus raised our expectations, though we are still adjusting those to the latest COVID reality. Which is a long way towards saying that the additional benefit of the RV move coordinated with market day made us more comfortable with the cost benefit calculation. Need a break? There’s our house. Want some coffee? Breakfast? A cat? Also in the house.

An example of one of the things available to us during a market if we bring our house.

Once settled in, we really took to this park and Coupeville. Though of modest size and close to town, the 37 wooded acres feels larger and further from full civilization than it truly is. The trees create a natural sound barrier, removing road and neighbor noise, particularly with only fifteen campsites and surprisingly limited day use. Partially market paths, some of them well-trod, others close to overgrown, meander through the property. A score of geocaches are hidden on or near the trails, with more along the nearby bike paths.

While most of these were along well marked trails, due to overgrowth a few of the loops were quite difficult to find, and we ended up doing some light bushwacking until we intersected a path or at least a game trail.

The proximity of Coupeville allowed us to explore it a bit beyond the two blocks of waterfront cafes and shops. We found wonderful chocolate croissants and other baked goodness at Little Red Hen, and craft brew with next door pizza at Penn Cove Brew. The big town of Oak Harbor was only half an hour down the road if we needed supplies, special shops, or annual check up and rabies vaccination, as one of us did. This was a great week on Whidbey Island, and we will happily include Rhododendron Park in our plans during future visits.

Next up: a monthly report and our two final weeks on Whidbey Island.

Heading Off Whidbey Island for Long Overdue Windshield Repairs

Two and a half years ago, shortly after picking up the motorhome following repairs made at Mr. Mobile RV in Florida, we took a rock from a passing semi to the windshield, leaving a noticeable divot in the passenger side. Knowing that Florida law requires insurance companies to cover all windshield repairs for vehicles registered in the state (with neither a deductible nor rate impact) we knew we could get it repaired, just as we had twice in the past, but that it might take some weeks to get the new glass, arrange the repair, and so forth.

Our damage.

We were not in a big hurry to do it, but when a couple of sales reps for a glass repair company talked to us at a weekly craft market and were willing to coordinate with our insurance company on the spot, we were convinced to proceed. What followed was a six-month odyssey of incompetence, mismanagement, and general delinquency by this unmentioned auto glass company. We had repair people come out only to realize they needed more tools, an extra person, or more parts. They rescheduled five times. It culminated months later when the third person from this company to come out for the same repair did some prep work on the seals, promised to return the next day for the full replacement, but then never showed or contacted us again.

I ran out of pics for this limited post, so enjoy this map of the eight geocaches we found while getting our windshield replaced in Mt. Vernon, Washington.

Once COVID hit we sort of forgot about the whole thing, particularly once we got back on the road for real travel. But come this last summer we contacted Progressive Insurance to finally get the repair done, expecting to get some push back because of the just discussed fiasco, but they took the info they needed and put us in contact with their recommended specialty glass company right away. We coordinated the windshield glass order, arranged for delivery at our anticipated July location, and worked with them to select the closest repair shop, which turned out to be Louis Glass in Mt Vernon, Washington, just off Whidbey Island to the northeast.

Our campground for two nights while Louis Glass replaced our windshield. Electrical hook up, wifi, and enough room to put out the slides. We are surely glamor camping now!

So: after three weeks at NAS Whidbey Island’s Cliffside RV Park, we pulled chocks and headed north across Deception Pass and then onto the mainland. Though focused predominantly on car windshields, Louis Glass was well prepared for bigger vehicles; they had a section of their parking lot set up for oversized rigs, and even provided us an electrical connection and wifi during our stay. Since we arrived the night before, a tech was able to start on our rig first thing in the morning. The deed was done within perhaps two hours, though we stayed overnight to allows the glue to fully cure.

Repairs in progress. Look, this guy has his own ladder!

The ease and speed with which our Louis Glass man accomplished the removal and replacement rendered the months long clown show provided by the previous repair company even more bewildering. The contrast reminded me of an old AAMCO commercial where a frustrated car owner encounters ridiculous service headaches, culminating in a slack jawed dimwit exclaiming that he “always wanted to work on a transmission.” Lest you think this comparison a stretch, consider some of the comments and actions of the first company’s techs that came out for our repair:

  • “Oh man, I’m gonna need a ladder for this one. Do you have one I can use?” Because, you see, each half of the windshield is four feet tall, nearly five feet long, and extends up over ten feet in height on our rig, something that was apparently completely unknown to this tech before arriving on scene.
  • “I think we’ll need to reschedule until I can bring another person.” Again, because the size of the windshield being a complete mystery to this second tech before arrival.
  • “I’ve never seen one that was glued in place.” Referring to the aforementioned giant windshield.
  • I don’t have a quote for this, just imagine it starting with “Darlin’ ” or “Sweetie Pie” or some other vaguely southern, faux suave, caricature of office sexism, and proceeding for 20 minutes as this third tech flirted, on speaker phone, with his dispatcher/office person, seemingly for my benefit and amusement, which I safely assume based on the number of knowing winks he gave me during this painful-to-witness conversation.
During my google search I found several of their ads from that era, but only this screen cap from the specific AAMCO commercial in question. Y’all remember it though, hopefully.

Incidentally, a few asides originating from my casual research of the aforementioned AAMCO commercial, which, because I harbor no illusions about the reader demographics of this retired RVer couple’s blog, I believe most of you are certainly old enough to remember (even if, because of your ages, you don’t actually remember.)

  • It was from 1984, the end of what some high-profile automotive writers refer to as the “malaise era” of US car production (i.e., a rough decade of crappy cars made by The Big Three, who were ever so slow to catch on to the new era of gas prices and foreign, quality-based competition.)
  • Apparently, there was some sort of James Brolin connection to AAMCO that was casually ridiculed by late night comedians, particularly after his wedding to Barbara Streisand, which of course sent me down another google rabbit hole to figure out why.
  • The Brolin-Streisand nuptials (and subsequent comedian references) occurred in 1998, yet I remember far better the AAMCO commercials from more than a decade previous, which says something, though I am not sure what, about memory, advertising, and celebrity. 6
Everyone remembers James Brolin, but not all of you have heard of Barbra Streisand, apparently a minor player in Broadway musical theater and film. A rigorous internet search turned up this photo of “Babs” pictured in her childhood bedroom surrounded by local talent contest trophies earned during her youth.

Next up: Back to Whidbey Island, where we explore a new campground, Rhododendron Park.