It’s Okay To Ask the Question: Having Fun Now?

Bridge Across the Mississippi River from Illinois to Iowa

Long distance van travel, camping, outdoors 24/7, unknowns, weather, and solitude are just not everyones cup of tea … although for me that cup of tea is usually around 10:30 each morning! 

I’ve been in Illinois the last few days and asked myself, am I having fun? Despite the cold weather in Colorado and Nebraska, I had plenty of places to visit and birdwatch during the day with occasional sunshine. Time in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio is pushing me to my wits-end with damp, cold, gray weather! Worse yet, the rain! I don’t mind bundling up for a walk in cold or even windy weather, but rain …yes, I do mind! That calls for time to see a movie: I saw “Coda”. (It’s a good one to watch at your local theater or Apple TV.)

My battery for charging my electronic devices, Goal Zero Yeti 150, died. Sure I could plan library stops to charge all my electronic devices, or as I recently did … asked for a lunch booth near an electrical outlet. I have only been charging my phone in the van. All batteries are having a difficult time with the cold temperatures. Thankfully I am warm at night under my layers: flannel sheets, fleece and fiberfill blankets, sleeping bag and with thermal underwear, alpaca socks and hat on! (I know when backpacking I would have my fuel canister, clothing and whatever else under the covers with me, but I have not done that on this trip yet. I have to draw the line someplace to realize I am in a van and not a tent!)

In 2019, I bicycled through parts of Iowa, never spending much time by the Mississippi River so I purposely chose to visit this area on this trip. Since weather is not allowing me to bicycle ride, I drove south on the east side of the river, crossed it and then north on the west side. Loud Thunder Forest Preserve: birds smart enough to shelter somewhere out of my sight, except for 2 turkey vultures on a dead, roadside deer. Fairport State Recreation Area: I took time for my cup of tea, writing back to Goal Zero rep, increasing cell data on Ipad as I warm it on my chest (battery is struggling with the cold temperature), looking at upcoming days of cold weather and making alternative plans. 

The good news is I am not tenting! The van does provide a certain amount of protection from the elements … the wind rocks me to sleep and I have no worries of  rain drops leaking in. However, as I see people in heated RV’s, turning their TV on to watch whatever, I think to myself … hmmm … am I having fun? It takes a certain personality to handle unknowns such as weather. I do awake each morning under warm blankets in my van, wonder and observe, is it as cold outside as in the van? Is the sun shining? Is the wind blowing? Will my fuel canister light so I can make breakfast? Even as I look out the window I do not know every answer … and then I step out of the van … and immediately know what I will do for the day The best thing about the van is I carry everything with me so I can cook, relax, and travel anywhere to make a day work for me.

One thing I realized with the van is I only have to arrive at a campground when I am ready to sleep. Having dinner, preparing the bed area, finalizing my communications and planning for the next day can all be done anywhere. I discovered I was leaving the mat and step stool outside my van door at a campground when the weather had been nice in the morning, but on questionable weather days I take them with me … subconsciously thinking, I don’t need to return here if I do not want another night at this location; I will lose the cost of the campground that night, but I may have found something or weather better elsewhere! (Have never had to actually do that, but who knows, it may happen!)

The cost of everything has gone up. Let’s skip the gas price discussion for a moment. I discovered family restaurants at breakfast or lunch are the best deals. For maybe double the cost of a fast food joint, their prices are up too, local restaurants provide huge meals! A Reuben sandwich is my favorite and when I had fries, and cole slaw and soup, wow! Plus I received a discount because I paid cash. 

Back to the gas prices. When my Mom asked if I noticed the price of gas, I told her if I thought about it I would not be visiting her. However, truth be told, I did think about it and am doing my own little experiment. I purchased a basic Costco membership to possibly save money on gas. First challenge: find the Costco gas station on my route, 2) guess which will be the fastest line at the pumps, and 3) compare the Costco price with local price to determine savings. So far I have saved money, especially if filling with an almost empty van tank. Unfortunately, not many Costco stations on the east coast, but I can continue to save money when I return home since a Costco is a few miles away.

I have not been motivated to take many photos. Plenty of birds have been observed but the rainy gray sky is not exciting me for any photography. This morning I saw great blue herons, Canada geese, a pied-billed grebe, robins, ducks, red-winged blackbirds and grackles … all noisy while I made breakfast. A northern cardinal flew by and I wondered if it was the same one I saw the previous night singing its heart out. My campsite is in-between 2 lakes so plenty of water birds to observe.

Another day I drove on the west side of the Mississippi River. There are parks and places to watch river action near the locks and dams. I will return to this area to bicycle ride when the weather is warmer. So many bicycle trails come through this area which was my reason for stopping here to cycle, but 45 degrees and windy weather is not my idea of a fun day.

Although not cycling did provide me time to locate help for my Goal Zero Yeti 150. Batteries Plus set me up with a new battery on the spot for about $20 more than if I had it shipped to some place on my trip. It’s true, you pay for convenience and now I do not have to make library stops to charge devices.

As I look out on the lake where I am camping, there will soon be white caps on the water. Fortunately this morning I did take time to birdwatch and photograph some of the birds. Here are photos from these past few days. The answer to my question at the start: I am having fun, but I’ll have more fun with friends, family and warmer weather!

On wall of Building in Rock Island, Illinois
American white pelican at Sunset Park
Great blue heron at campground lake
I heard the woodpecker and found it; red-bellied woodpecker.

My “GT” Van Travel: Arizona to New Mexico to Colorado

Well I am heading east! My first couple of days on the road were to visit some towns in New Mexico and bird watch at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. Do you know where this bird can be found?

Las Cruces, New Mexico: I camped in the area but drove into town since I had never been. At one of the scenic rest stops just before this town I found the sculpture, pictured above, constructed from many items. There were no birds in this town, understandably since the Rio Grande River had no water at its surface. Apparently May till September is when the snow melt from Colorado’s high peak mountains will finally get here and provide enough water for the locals to swim in the river. 

I met an interesting couple from Ontario, Canada. They are traveling for another 4 months and return to teach at a school. They explained “Harvest Host” membership to me and it sounds great when I can be very flexible with my travel. One can reserve only a day or two ahead at a winery, distillery, lavender farm, or whatever the business … arrive before they close, purchase something as that is your payment to the owner, then leave early in the morning before the business opens. You need to be self-contained, so with my luggable loo I would be okay! Unfortunately the Canadians were having transmission problems with their converted ambulance. I hope they can get back on the road soon!

My next-door neighbors at the campground were from Cambria, California. They already spent 2 weeks getting to New Mexico! Their plan is to travel only 300 – 400 miles per day: travel to Florida, up the east coast to Maine, across to Washington State, and south to their home in California … with hopes to accomplish all in 3 months!

Interstate 25, not a busy highway now, and probably less back in the 1950’s. I heard a report about a town along this highway originally named Hot Springs for its geothermal spring-fed spas. In March 1950 a NBC program “Truth or Consequences” promised free publicity to a town with Truth or Consequences as its name by April 1 of the same year. Between March 4 and April 1, the Hot Springs town voted to have a name change and on April 1 the Truth or Consequences show was aired in the town! 

I was on my way to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge; no visit to Truth or Consequences. My interest in Bosque del Apache NWR was to scope out the area and return, hopefully in October or before February of next year, to see sandhill cranes here. Birders mentioned I would be closer to the cranes here compared to Whitewater Draw in McNeal, Arizona. This would be a longer drive for me, but if each road here is open to birders then we would be closer to the cranes. I saw 20 plus different species of birds in my 3 hour visit driving almost 10 miles of road. There were plenty of places to pull-off, some with observation decks and another with a blind. Some hiking trails and a bike trail so it will be a good place to return. Unfortunately camping is a distance away since it is not allowed here. Here are just a couple of birds:

Western meadowlark has a beautiful song!

Here are a couple of photos taken at the wildlife refuge:

My drive to Colorado was a long travel day with rain and gusty winds! High profile vehicles, such as my even my low-roof van, sway with every bit of wind. My arms, shoulders to fingertips, were tightly holding onto the steering wheel! At one point I was thinking about my past solo bicycling trip and thought there was no way I would want to cycle in this wind! Miles down the road I saw a couple on a tandem bicycle, miles from anything! Power to them! I was also concerned about a lone pronghorn caught between fencing on both sides of the road it was standing within. I hope it eventually found a place under the lowest wire of a fence to be back grazing with the other pronghorns!

I prepared my breakfast and left New Mexico with 43 degree temperature and very cold fingers. I arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado at dinner time with 47 degree temperature and wind! Thankfully I still had a meal prepared from home to eat. Hopefully weather will improve. I have been happy with my sleeping accommodation in the van: flannel sheets, fleece blanket, fiberfill blanket and thermal underwear … you know this Arizonian will feel the cold so I am bundled … I slept well; no complaints!

Travel Day #2 … Trains and Trucks, Oh My!

Today I had many hours and miles on the road from New Mexico through the panhandle of Texas to the middle of Oklahoma. Do you know how huge Texas is, and I am only going through the panhandle! Everything is big in Texas. My billboard reading tells me I could get a free 72 ounce steak … I am guessing it is free at the restaurant only if you eat the whole thing in one sitting … I’ll pass! The beef lots are huge too and I could tell one was coming up before I got even near it because of the smell. No housing developments near these properties. I wondered what they did with the old wind turbine blades and sure enough there was property where they stored them. What can one do with an old wind turbine blade?

Thanks to road construction built during President Eisenhower’s administration in 1956, the Interstate Highway System parallels much of the railroad system in western USA and, as I learned yesterday, the billboard industry was booming. I have seen many a train and many a very, very long train. Our country depends on moving freight by trains and trucks. Hundreds of trucks are on the road using the highway system just as I am doing. 

Motorists, like myself, and truck drivers must look quizzically when driving under some of the highway bridges. Are the engineers providing accurate info and are community leaders listening and getting the necessary repair work done? We’re seeing buildings, bridges and roads in disrepair, so let’s not wait for any of them to collapse before we act. We need to care about all construction and realize there are factors affecting their structural integrity as years go by. No highways, bridges, tunnels, support beams last forever.

While driving hundreds of miles per day I am beginning to see the variety of road surfaces. I don’t mind paying a toll on certain roads. Those areas where I paid a toll had amazingly smooth surfaces! One road actually had a speed limit sign: maximum 80 and minimum 60! Wow! Everyone drove fast on that road and it was nice to know I had no worry of an upcoming pothole. 

I hope by the time I post this our federal government approved an infrastructure bill. There is work to be done in our country and people looking for work with good pay. Our interstate highway system is important for us all … do you know how many Amazon, FedEx, UPS and freight-carrying trucks for various businesses are on the road? Thousands… let’s keep them rolling … we do want to receive our stuff on time, right? Aren’t we still paying a gas tax for road repair? Hmmm….

My campsite tonight is in Choctaw, Oklahoma just down the road from Tinker Air Force base. We are still in a pandemic and people may wonder why I am wearing a mask, and even though I am vaccinated I have no idea if others have been. It is easy for me to wear a mask, so I do.

Tonight’s campsite I have a picnic table by the tent and one under a huge pavilion that becomes instrumental in the morning rain as I take my tent down.

Drive, eat dinner, walk the campground, then sleep … my day.

Monday Memories: Solo Bicycling Trip

I decided I was not getting any younger, and I was reading about people in their 60’s bicycling across the USA! Could I do the same? I did not know, but I decide to attempt some distance.

Yes, in June 2018, I did bicycle 600 miles from Prescott, Wisconsin to Rensselaer, Indiana by way of many small towns following most of Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier route. After a heat spell, I continued on on New York State’s Erie Canal trail for 100 miles before meeting friends in central NY.

People asked why I chose that area of the USA to bicycle ride. Since I typically fly over it, I thought it a good idea to actually see it. I saw many windmills, fields of corn, artwork and rolling hills.

There were sights to see. An Eagle Center, National Farm Toy Museum and the famous Field of Dreams to mention a few. I also stopped at activities roadside, such as this dog competition where they collect the bird that was shot. When I heard about saloon bars similar to an AZ bar, I checked it out as I did often stop in churches for a reflective moment.

Most nights I stayed at bed and breakfast, or motels, and did camp. My goal was to survive so I wanted comfort at the end of the day, especially since you never knew if the next 40-60 miles per day was going to be in the heat or a drenching rain. There is nothing worse than bicycling in the rain; stopping to check the weather radar to discover how many hours you may be sitting and waiting out the weather. Some places were entirely for myself and I would wander into the town to find dinner, and other places I spent hours talking and eating with the owner of the place. I always love connecting with people when I travel. All of my accommodations were wonderful from Motel 6 to some really nice bed and breakfast places!

One of my most fun places was at an old jailhouse. The woman helped me hoist my loaded bicycle up the five steps into the place, invited friends over to have a beer with us, and cooked delicious dinner and breakfast for me. She offered me an additional night, yet I decided to keep on my plan since the weather was good.

Enthusiasm for bicycling is beginning to take off in the USA as we develop the US Bicycling Route System to be added to many Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Routes and Adventure Cycling’s Routes. I did see a bicycle campground and I rode a bicycle path where each rider pays a fee. Men drove on the bike path to collect the fee from me and were pleasantly surprised when I could show them I had my receipt of payment.

I ate plenty of snacks, which I carried in my bag, and always a lunch. I loved Casey’s General Store located in many small towns. I was hooked on white cheddar cheese popcorn, until I broke a front tooth – later repaired in Buffalo, NY. I also bought Arizona green tea and Gatorade to supplement my water bottles. I love chocolate and that meant a Snicker’s bar too.

I discovered I was close to Route 66 so I decided to ride a portion of it, especially since I did not know if I would ever ride its entire distance from CA to IL. Lots of history along that route! The road was so busy at one point there was a passageway for people to walk under the road! Of course, there are still some old gas stations in the area, and portions of the road are grown over with grass in its cracks.

I met many other bicyclists on the road and all going from east to the west coast (I was going west to east). There was only one other solo female bicyclist, yet every single person always stopped at the bottom of a hill to say hello, check-in on how I was doing, and offer ideas of what was coming up in the next town or two. I really appreciated the camaraderie! One guy told me he was sleeping in ditches at night after cycling about 100 miles a day. Another guy told me of a free place to set a tent. A mother and daughter team had stayed at the lodging I was heading to on my 70 mile day. Other people at stores, bars, and their homes were very generous. One family offered their swimming pool to me as I laid on their front lawn, under the only shade tree I think in the county! Another guy brought out bottles of cold water for me as I sat by a church he was renovating for his family home. Another guy stopped in his pick-up truck and asked me if I was okay, and if I knew how hot it was that day. Yes, wherever I could find some shade, I spent time there. I could tell you more, but I think you got the picture!

The heat did me in! To hot to go on, dehydrated and with concerns of heat stroke, I decided to take the heat wave in the US seriously. Unfortunately I have been in hospitals needing fluids pumped into me other times when on hiking and bicycling trips. I knew I did not want that happening here. With the help of great people in Indiana, I rented a car a few days after getting my fluids back to where they needed to be and headed to Buffalo, NY. Along the way and there, I had wonderful friends allow me time to recuperate before jumping back on my bicycle to cycle the Erie Canal trail to central NY where I met other friends. Yes, I shipped my bicycle home and relaxed before planning my next trip. What an adventure this was … and cannot wait to do some bicycle travel again!

Lucy’s Warbler Nest Boxes

At Isabella Lee Natural Preserve, I saw five Lucy’s warbler triangle-shaped nestboxes at 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 feet above the ground on a tree. Tucson Audubon set these up to find out which nest box the birds prefer since they ordinarily nest in woodpecker holes or bark crevices of old mesquite trees. Those trees are often removed for their valuable wood so this project is to encourage the Lucy’s warblers to remain in the Tucson area, especially if they do not find the tree of their choice.

I saw no activity in any of the nestboxes today; however, there were numerous hummingbirds, a couple of vermillion flycatchers, a red-tailed hawk flying overhead and signs of horses being through the area. This was my first time at the preserve which encompasses the confluence of Agua Caliente Wash and Tanque Verde Creek. Expect to see snakes, javelina, coyote and wildlife since it is a wildlife area also for them.

A spot to see the seasonal changes … come back again.
Lucy’s warbler nestboxes
All the info you need on this poster.
Rules will be enforced.