Monday, July 3, 2017

COLORADO: Final Days


I spent 2 largely lovely days in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It really is a geological wonder. Long ago, volcanic activity left behind some softer rock on top of the harder granite rock. Flowing water now known as the Gunnison River easily carved through that softer rock and then became trapped in the newly created river basin. Over many centuries, the river has carved out this deep, deep gorge in the bedrock. The sheer cliffs are truly astounding – and a bit terrifying. Many of the vista points have railings, but many do not. People do rock climb and river raft, but you need special permits. This is not for the ill-prepared. I don’t think any of my photos capture the perspective needed to gauge how deep and narrow the gorge is.

Painted Rock

The trip was marred by a couple incidents, however. The first is one that seems so minor in retrospect that I wish it was the one that preoccupies me still: A condescending, sexist campsite host spoke to me so rudely about my driving of the camper that I fumed all the way down the mountain to town about what I wished I had said to him in response. Sadly, this memory was soon wiped out by a horrific episode at the dump station. I guess I need something worse to happen so I can rid my mind of that. OK, wait. No. Nevermind. I'll learn to live with the dump station memory. No no no no. Nothing worse, please!

Related or not, I soon decided to abandon my original plan of driving all the way down to Mesa Verde National Park to see the ancient pueblos. It would involve a lot of driving and much hotter temperatures, and my confidence in the camper was waning. My “levels” indicator in the camper was malfunctioning – it said the fresh water was empty right after I filled it and that the gray water was full right after I emptied it. Then the propane stopped working, which affects the refrigeration and stove. 

It was time for a Plan B, which became getting a hotel in Gunnison, Colorado. It was a good choice, largely because after I checked in and had a 2-hour nap, I strolled down to High Alpine Brewery and sat at the end of the bar watching baseball and chatting with various locals. The one I’ll remember most is “Ray of Sunshine” (a mnemonic device he offered for remembering his name), who is a paramedic in town. He recently moved back to Colorado from Flagstaff, Arizona, where he had worked as an air rescue EMT, rescuing, among others, people from the Grand Canyon. All interesting enough, but as we talked, Ray revealed that he lives in his van. “You live in a van?” Yeah, for about 10 years. “You’ve lived in a van for 10 years?” And he hoped I hadn’t noticed his speech impediment, because a year and a half ago he had brain surgery to remove a tumor. “You lived in a van while recovering from brain surgery?” The conversation then turned to health insurance, and then to politics, and I asked how he could vote without a permanent address. Oh, he said, he hasn’t voted in years. “You haven’t voted in years??!!” I think the last revelation was the hardest for me to hear!

After Ray left, I met a lovely young couple who wanted me to go rafting down (a quiet part of) the Gunnison River with them the next day. I have to say I was tempted, but I felt I would need another night in the hotel to recover from a day of rafting in the high-altitude sun, so I passed. I spent part of the next morning waiting for Cruise America’s service people to call me back and help fix the propane. I finally pushed on to Buena Vista and the Cottonwood Hot Springs. The service people didn’t call back for 7 hours!!! And at that point I was soaking in the hot springs, waiting for my massage appointment.


I’m now in Buena Vista, a cute touristy town at the base of several “fourteeners” – peaks all around that top 14,000 feet (namely, Mt. Yale, Mt. Harvard, and Mt. Princeton; not making that up – they call it the "collegiate range"). Cottonwood Hot Springs is a very hippie, mellow place, with rustic cabins, a lodge, and tent sites. I’m at a tent site in my camper. My neighbors are a young couple from Denver, with whom I shared cocktails and snacks before the sunset last night. This morning, I slept in and then had a soak in the hot springs and a nice hot shower.

So in the end, Plan B has worked out fine, and I've enjoyed having a little more contact with people since leaving the Black Canyon. I had had a small crisis even earlier (not camper-related), at about the mid-point of the trip, when I pulled into a remote and relatively deserted campground. I suddenly felt very isolated and lonely. Not surprisingly, the mid-point of one of these crazy trips is when I question what the hell I am doing. What the hell am I doing? I’ve had an amazing trip, and I’ve seen some of the most beautiful areas in the world, let alone the US. I’ve read some great books, met interesting people, and learned many things – about myself and about the world. Those are all the things I hope to get out of my travels. And traveling alone is its own particular experience – no one to question my decisions, my driving, my choice of where and when to go, do, be. But it is, of course, isolating and lonely. It always is. Eventually a few people pass in and out of my story. But what about the main cast – my family and friends back home, who say “someday,” or “next time,” when they talk about traveling? I don’t like to say “someday.” When I find myself saying “someday,” I pull out a calendar and find the day. The result is always amazing, but also occasionally isolating and lonely.

later that day...
Shortly after writing the above, a thunderstorm rolled through Buena Vista. I had driven back to my campsite and sat out the storm from inside my camper, with the windows and doors open, listening to the crashing thunder and the pounding rain. It was a lovely summer storm, and a fitting bookend to my trip, which had begun the same way, back in RMNP.

I then hit a local bar for my last drink on my last day of my vacation. I think I'm getting the hang of this sitting-alone-at-a-bar thing. I ended up exchanging some very lovely conversations with a couple different people; the last, a single woman in her 60s, told me about her travails with online dating, on the site Farmers Only. Yep. Are you "Single in the Country?" This site is for you. She gave me some advice: feel into the energy out there. The energy of a person is what matters, what calls us, and what we should try to respond to. I've studied and read and meditated on this concept. And now Sherrie, 63, who lives in her RV and builds greenhouses, is reminding me. The energy of the moment led me on this latest adventure, and to meet people like Ray and Sherrie. Hey, Universe! I'm ready for what's NEXT!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

COLORADO: Days 7 and 8

DAY 7:

I had a VERY bad experience at the Dump Station. I do NOT want to talk about it.

DAY 8:

I stayed at a hotel.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

COLORADO: Days 5 and 6

Kebler Pass

This scenic byway has its own Tripadvisor page: 5-stars. I had wondered if I should really take the camper up and over this winding road, but after I learned that the Cottonwood Pass was closed for repaving (a different scenic byway I had wanted to take), I decided I'd do it. I headed up to Crested Butte, a quaint town at 8,300 feet. I grabbed a coffee and some Ibuprofin to stave off the altitude-induced (or was that alcohol-induced?) headache that was coming on, then headed out. Not far outside Crested Butte, the paved road turned into a barely-paved road and grew more and more narrow. I was having serious second thoughts when the song “Try Everything” came on my playlist. I decided I would.

The views over this pass are absolutely breathtaking. There were times that I came around a bend in the road and just had to stop the truck right there (luckily, it is not a well-traveled road). The snow-capped mountains, the blue sky with puffs of white clouds, the meadows of yellow and orange wild flowers, and the forests of white-barked trees…. It was as though an artist had painted a masterpiece of color and composition and then waved a wand so that it appeared before my eyes. A true masterpiece. Well done, God. Well done. I wish these photos did it justice.


Life at High Altitude

The entire trip has been between 8,000 and 12,000 feet. Turquoise Lake and nearby Leadville, where I spent two days, are at 10,000 feet. Leadville is an adorable mining town, with a mining museum, cute shops and historic buildings downtown, and also an Oxygen CafĂ©. I know this has been a fad in the “lowlands,” but here it actually makes sense. Crested Butte, at only 8,300, also boasted oxygen: "Don't let the altitude ruin your trip!"

Turquoise Lake

One thing I've learned about: High-altitude diuresis. That is a thing. I couldn’t understand why I had to pee every 30 minutes. And, like – NOW. I needed to pee now. It’s a good thing I have a toilet essentially in the back seat of the truck! So at a point when I had an Internet connection, I looked it up – overactive bladder at high altitude. Yes, it’s a thing. Apparently it is a sign that you are acclimatizing well. But when you can’t even hike for 45 minutes without having to squat behind a tree, that is extremely inconvenient! And when you are at an altitude where the trees are sparse, and they are really just tree trunks, with no branches or foliage at “squatting” level, you have to apologize to man and beast who might have the bad luck of passing by at that moment. “I have high-altitude diuresis!” I say into the wilderness. “It’s a thing!”

Today I arrived at the second of the two national parks I’ll visit: Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It is an extremely deep and narrow gorge carved out by the Gunnison River. The rim is at about 8,300 feet, but the gorge drops by a couple thousand feet at points. I've yet to drive past all the vistas, but a short hike upon my arrival was impressive enough.

Lying and Stealing

When I was in Kuaui with my 5-person hiking group, we made the somewhat snap – but also completely reasonable – decision to pool our grocery expenses and do an accounting at the end. However, that meant that if you were the only person who wanted something, there was a kind of peer pressure not to get it. So when I learned I was the only person who takes sugar in her tea or coffee, I felt peer pressure not to spend the pooled money on it. And so began my criminal activity of quietly putting sugar packets in my purse when we stopped at cafes or coffee shops. I mean, we were buying coffee and pastries there, so is that really stealing?

Traveling alone now, it has just made sense to engage in similar criminal activity – I buy a coffee, and then slip a couple extra sugar packets in my purse for my tea the next morning. Then a couple of those tiny salt and pepper packets. Then at the Safeway deli section, some packets of gourmet mustards to have on my campfire-grilled sausages later (which I did purchase at the Safeway). I'm traveling alone, so... it just makes sense, right?

I typically don’t advertise that I’m traveling alone. When I ask for directions or mention which way I’m headed, people will say, “Oh, are you guys going to do X, Y, Z.” Or, “How did you guys like X, Y, Z?” Well, “we guys” liked it a lot. I have in my backpocket the fact that my brother, who just got out of the Marines, is asleep in the camper. You see, he doesn’t sleep well because of the PTSD he suffers from the time he beat someone up for harassing a woman who just wanted to travel around Colorado by herself. So he takes a lot of extra naps in the back of the camper. But he doesn’t take sugar in his tea, so I don’t need to steal too many extra sugar packets for my ex-Marine brother.

Monday, June 26, 2017

COLORADO: Days 3 and 4

I arrived a bit later than planned at campsite #2: State Forest State Park, a place so nice they (almost) named it twice. This little campground had gotten good reviews online and seemed to be, on the map, just on the other side of RMNP. It is, as the crow flies, if the crow could fly over the 12,000+ peaks between there and here. For me, the trip was about 109 miles.

State Forest State Park is what might be considered the “foothills” of the western Rockies, being at only about 8,500-10,000 feet. It was a peaceful campground on a fishing lake, overlooking a meadow. The only town for miles is Walden, calling itself the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado.” I stopped at the Moose Visitors Center, and considered going to the Moose Overlook. But exhaustion and altitude limited my hiking excursions. Instead, I tried hanging my hammock to rest and read. But weak trees, fat human (wait – I mean full figured!), and gnatty little bugs put an end to that attempt. I did build my first campfire of the trip (I am an excellent campfire builder – one of my hidden talents). I also perfected the sleepwear formula that allowed me not to freeze my ass off. The temperatures here swing from the 30s to the 80s in a 24-hour period.

Sunday morning I went on a wildlife expedition (aka, a leisurely hike across the meadow and through the wood in hopes of seeing a bull moose). I was armed only with binoculars and camera. No moose sightings, but I did see beautiful wildflowers and got a decent video of a chipmunk.

My next hunting expedition was for high-speed Internet. I broke camp and headed back to Walden, a town in the middle of nowhere with no apparent reason for existing. Seriously, it is the only incorporated town in the entire county, with about 700 residents. I could not figure out what industry could support a town to have sprung up in this location. Surely being the "Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado" is not sufficient to support 700 people. There is definitely ranching. And there is recreation from the nearby state and national parks and wildlife refuge. I did not see immediate evidence of mining or farming. Why is this town here? 

Walden. That's it. There's nothing else

On Sunday, as I pulled in with hopes of finding Internet, there was a parade going down mainstreet, and all traffic was being directed onto side roads. It was truly a town-in-the-middle-of-nowhere parade. Smoky the Bear walked down the road (no float or even back of a pickup for Smoky). Some guys on Harleys. Some decorated pickup trucks. I headed for the public library, but it is closed on weekends. The library is closed all weekend – when people are not at work and might like to get a book or use the Internet. That’s when the library is closed.

I pushed onward to my next campsite. Sunday’s drive took me back over the Rockies, this time west to east, to a campground on Turquoise Lake, at 10,000 feet, my home for the next two nights.


Camping always involves a variety of chores – setting up and taking down tent, packing and unpacking gear, fetching water. All of these chores are made obsolete with a camper!! I LOVE that I don’t have to unpack and repack my gear. As long as it is securely stowed inside the camper before I start driving (especially the refrigerator), I’m good to go. And I LOVE having running water!! Perhaps the thing I love the most about the camper is being able to change my clothes standing up and in complete privacy. I detest changing my clothes in a tent. I cannot stand trying to squirm in and out of pants while seated on the bottom of a tent. I hate not having privacy as I try to give myself a sponge bath. And of course, having my own tiny little bathroom, shower, and toilet is wonderful. But those amenities mean a camping chore that is new to me: the “dump station.”

There is a control panel in the camper that allows me to monitor my “levels” – fresh water and battery should be high, gray and black water should be low. Gray water is the soapy water from doing dishes or using the shower. Black water is, well… you know. I watched Cruise America’s tutorial videos and got a walk-through at the rental center, and then I asked a guy at my first campground if I could observe operations at the dump station there. Apparently there is a scene in the movie “RV” that the man’s little girls did not mind describing in detail. I wish they hadn’t.

So when my “levels” indicated that I could no longer postpone my destiny with the dump station, I was glad it was at the remote and less crowded State Forest State Park. I took my time hooking up the hose and read all the directions twice; then I released the black water valve and stepped waaayyyy back. There were sounds of swishing and water flowing, but no hoses came loose from anything. Thank God. I then released the gray water valve, which essentially serves to wash out the hose (remember, it’s my dishwater). Success! But now that I had gotten over this hurdle, I was more liberal with my use of the gray water tank (I had been avoiding overuse so that I could put off the dump station as long as possible), so now it is full again already. Ugh. Dump station, here I come.

The benefit of having Cruise America’s logo all over my camper is that it is a billboard announcing that “She doesn’t know what the fuck she is doing.” When I’m moving slowly up the inclines on the highway, or backing in and out of parking spaces, or pulling up to the dump station, I feel my newb status is self-evident. And I’m OK with that.

Sunday, June 25, 2017



What do you do when you’ve had 4 hours of sleep and then 12 hours in transit to reach the first stage of your Rocky Mountain solo road trip, to find yourself in the middle of a summer hail storm? Hole up in your home on wheels with a bottle of wine and your Kindle, and then sleep for 12 hours, that’s what!

I’m now well rested, acclimated to my little truck camper that will be my home for the next 10 days, and preparing to hike a bit in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) before driving over the alpine ridge that the brochure calls “Nature’s Knife's Edge.” The Trail Ridge Road is only open 4 months out of the year, and will take me across the “Continental Divide,” where the snow melt that chooses to flow east will eventually make its way to the Atlantic and that flowing west will reach the Pacific.


I have always thought that RVs and campers are renown for their clever storage nooks. This little camper has a shocking dearth of storage. And I have already broken 5 nails trying to pry or twist open the few storage compartments there are (#firstworldproblems). And the biggest storage fail of Day 1 was the little refrigerator. I had provisioned myself at Safeway before hitting the road and stored a few items in the little fridge. When I arrived at RMNP a couple hours later and opened the camper, I found strawberries, blackberries, and cantaloupe pieces splattered all over the interior of the camper. Not. Joking. The fridge had flown open, and although nearly everything had fallen out, only the little fruit bowl I’d purchased had popped open, flinging fruit everywhere. Luckily, I had also purchased handiwipes and paper towels. So while the hail pounded the roof of my little home, I was on hands and knees cleaning mushed blueberries. I am still finding them 2 days later.

I will blockade the fridge door much better today.

Home away from home


Literally. The Trail Ridge Road through RMNP reaches 12,183 ft. This makes it the highest continuous paved road in the United States. It was a truly spectacular drive. I stopped at the many vista points and took about 50 photos. Here are a few:

12,000 ft, just off Trail Ridge Road. Just the morning before I had been at sea level back home.

Elk, right off the road

Alpine tundra. Apparently the rock formations here are a specific pattern found in the tundra, created by... the freezing and thawing of the soil? Or was it by snowdrift patterns? Or something.... I'm not sure I see it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Japan and China, July 2016: Nanning

The last days of our trip were spent in Nanning, the town -- the very same hotel -- where we first held Anna in our arms. It has been 14 years since that day in 2002, and 7 years since we visited the last time, in 2009. (Should the next visit be in 7 years?) 

I am surprised at how little has changed. The town has more buildings (and residential high rises), and the airport is new, having just opened 2 years ago. But the hotel is very much the same. Many families stayed here in the 1990s and early 2000s when they came to adopt their children in Guangxi Province. Now it hosts returning families like us. We came as a large group last time, and our guide said "The Majestic" has already hosted a group of families this summer.

Our guide has also been host to returning families before. He has visited several orphanages in the area, including Anna's. We set out early our first morning here to visit Anna's orphanage in Yongning district, a suburb of Nanning. The Yongning Social Welfare Institute was brand new when Anna had arrived there in 2001 -- it had just opened in 1999. When we came in 2009, we weren't allowed to visit because the swine flu scare had China very concerned, and Social Welfare Institutes are also nursing homes. The orphanage director and doctor came to The Majestic instead. Both had been working at the orphanage in 2002 and remembered Anna.

This time, we pulled up to the orphanage itself, and again, it was remarkably similar to that very first visit in 2002, when we had had Anna for just 3 days. Just before this trip, we had watched the video of that time in 2002, and it was fresh in my mind. I had also brought some of the photos of the staff from way back in 2002, to see if any still worked there. Surprisingly, two still do, and people remembered the others in our photos. One even pulled out her copy of the photo she had taken of herself with Anna in 2002 at that farewell visit, which she had kept all these years. And the doctor still works there, and held Anna's hand or arm for almost all our visit. The director is new, but she was also very warm to Anna, also holding her hand. And many of the women stroked Anna's hair. I had managed to pull together some photos of Anna's life onto my phone (I had not prepared for this visit well, having really no idea what to expect). The women were all very interested. It was really quite moving. Anna came out of her shell a bit and shared photos on her phone of herself with friends and classmates. They wanted to know about Anna's interests and hobbies, what she wants to do when she grows up, what her relationship with her brother is like -- is he protective of her?

We posed for many photos, exchanged small gifts, and then it was time to go. 

We were both quite exhausted and slept much of the afternoon. I don't know if it is just exhaustion from a long trip or the emotion of the day that wore us out -- well, Anna is always tired; I rarely nap like I did that day, straight through dinner. We ate in the hotel at 9:00 pm, and I still fell back to sleep quickly that night!

The second morning, we drove out to the large industrial farm where Anna was found at 7 days old, on the doorstep of the hospital. We had also visited this place in 2002 and 2009. Both times, the staff remembered Anna (in 2002, it had only been one year since they had found her, and they described the day to us, and in 2009 they remembered us because the visit of two tall, very white, Americans was memorable. Also, in 2002 I had mailed back the photo we took together with the staff with a letter in Chinese that a friend had helped me with, and that apparently is still remembered at the hospital to this day).

This time, the site of the hospital seemed both the same and different. The location seemed correct, but the buildings were somewhat different. Indeed, the current hospital building is new and taller, built right behind the old, which had just been torn down recently -- we could still see the remnants of the foundation. I remembered construction going on in 2009, but some of the construction seemed not to have advanced much in the last 7 years. Maybe the rapid rebuilding of China is moving more slowly at Mingyang Industrial Farm.

It took a little waiting, but our guide was finally able to speak with one of the doctors and explain who we were, and they still remembered us and that I had mailed back that photo. Anna had been sitting back near the car, not understanding why we had even come to this place (perhaps it is a bit odd, but for some reason I think it is an important part of her story that should be kept alive). We again posed for some photos and were back on our way. I captured some video of the people coming and going in this busy, but remote, place. Today there are also sugar factories to process the sugar cane grown here, and large fields of eucalyptus are grown for paper. The area is now known as the Mingyang Industrial Zone and has its own website, which I had looked up before we left. But it still feels rural and remote, to me, an hour's drive outside of Nanning.

Tomorrow morning we board the first of our two flights home. Anna is very excited to finally head home and has claimed dibs on the washer and dryer! I am looking forward to clean clothes and familiar surroundings. But I am not anxious for the trip to be over. I have enjoyed (almost) all of it immensely (all but the heat and oppressive humidity, and I could have done without some of Anna's grumpiness). I don't know that I will ever get enough of the aliveness of traveling, when every day, every moment takes on a specialness and fullness, when time seems to last longer and mean more. In contrast, in the work-a-day mundaneness of regular life, days blur together and there is always the danger of moving from one thing to another like a zombie, without noticing your life as you live it, on autopilot. Traveling is anything but autopilot. 

But I start a new job and a new life when I get back. That will keep me from falling into a rut too quickly. I'm going to need a few more long naps before that next great adventure!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Yangtze River Cruise

This is the longest river in China and the third longest in the world, with the largest dam in the world. There were no permanent bridges across it until 1957; today there are 76 bridges across the Yangtze, including 3 of the world's 10 longest suspension bridges and the world's third highest bridge (8 of the top 10 highest bridges are in China). China doesn't do things by half.

Much of our time here has continued to be hot and muggy, and the day we toured the Three Gorges Dam, the mist hung low over the river so we couldn't see much of the section with the hydroelectric power turbines. We did have nice views of the ship locks, but not as amazing as we were going to have when we actually went through onboard the ship.

The locks are in 5 stages, lifting the ships about 20 meters at each stage. When our ship entered the various stages, we were accompanied by two other ships, neatly positioned to fit within the massive steel walls, with huge doors keeping a 20-meter wall of water from crashing down on us. But once our stage filled with water and lifted us up, the huge doors opened and we passed through to the next stage. It was indeed impressive. And slightly terrifying, almost like a dystopian movie -- trapped within a massive, massive steel cage.

Our cruise is upstream, so once we were through the dam, we saw all the vast area of China that was flooded by its construction. It was started in 1996, so those first 10 years of construction also involved the building of new cities on higher ground and the forced relocation of 1.4 million people before their homes were flooded. Many of these towns have clear demarcations of where the new city was started, above the flood line. They say that on some days one can see the remnants of homes down below the water line. And of course, as we come upon larger cities along the coastline: residential high rises. Always residential high rises.

There are also small fishing boats and fisherman along the shore of the river as well. And cargo ships. And shipbuilding plants. And residential high rises.

We've had three excursions: the tour of the dam, a small-boat tour of one of the Yangtze's tributaries, and a tour of a 400-year-old, 9-story wooden pagoda . There is a couple from Sri Lanka by way of Australia who speak English and a family from Britain whose company we have really enjoyed, but otherwise we are mostly with Chinese speakers. The ship staff is absolutely lovely, and not only serve us all day but also entertain us at night, staging dances and modeling the styles of dress from various eras of Chinese history and from the different minority's groups of China.

And they want to know why Anna doesn't speak Chinese.

Downstream of the dam: the ancient architecture and ways of life are better preserved

Top: Touring the dam. China has made an incredible effort to make the dam tourist-friendly. They want you to see this amazing accomplishment. Bottom: Going through the ship locks.

Touring a tributary by small boat

Village street scenes