Thanksgiving in the desert, Death Valley National Park. We expected a clear sky and warm days when we drove down a rutted four-wheel-drive-only road into the Panamint Basin. We planned to car camp in the desert, then hike in 4 miles to climb a set of five towering sand dunes at the foot of a mountain range. Car camping means you can bring more stuff with you, so we had two sleeping bags EACH for the cold nights and salmon on ice to grill for dinner.
After we set up our tent – a six-foot tall screen tent with a cover on all sides, pretty inappropriate for the terrain but nice and roomy – we set off for the two-hour hike to the dunes, hoping to see the sunset at 4:30 and return in the light of the rising full moon.
Even before we headed out at 3 pm, we could see two large clouds hanging dark and low in the sky, but we convinced ourselves that they could be gone before sunset.
We walked for two hours, then turned back in order to enjoy the pink afterglow reflected on the clouds. But the big dark cloud hovered over the mountaintop where the moon was expected by 5 pm.
As we walked, it became clearer that we would not have any moon to guide our way. For two more hours we walked and stumbled through the rock-strewn desert, the wind picking up as we went. We had ridiculously small flashlights on a key chain that helped a bit.
The tent was still standing when we got back to our campsite, and we set about making dinner. We sliced zucchini, peppers and potatoes for grilling and Mark found a corner protected from the wind to light the charcoal grill.
As the food cooked, we sat in the car, warming up and listening to NPR. When the wind began to spit rain (yes, in the desert!) we decided to skip the salmon and just eat the vegetables. They were delicious and we topped them off with a pair of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the main course.
As the wind howled, we had to find rocks and more stakes to batten down the tent, which shook like a bowl of jelly. Sand was blowing into the screen house tent but by the time we crawled into our bags we just hoped that we would not be blown away.
The desert was quiet when the sky lightened and we peered outside. The moon had shown up after all and still hung low in the west over the mountains. But to our amazement, the mountain peaks around us were covered with snow! A beautiful sight on Thanksgiving morning.
After coffee and oatmeal at our campsite, we packed up more peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and water, then headed back to the dunes, where we climbed the 200-foot peaks. The brilliant blue skies were cloudless and we were filled with Thanksgiving gratitude.
Silver Falls State Park. We arrived mid-afternoon in a steady downpour, parked the rig, then headed into Silverton for some Thai food. It wasn’t until the next day, after Mark left to go work back East for a week and my sister joined me, that we discovered the beauty of the falls that gave the park its name.
Walking along a canyon for a mile or so in a steady rain that changed to sleet for a few moments, we passed a half a dozen falls, ranging in heights up to 178 feet.
The hiking trail passed behind one of the tallest falls and you could feel drops of water as it cascaded down.
The moisture feeds a brilliant green moss that drapes itself over twisted trees and rocks.
One thing I have learned out here in central Oregon: the weather changes from sun to rain at an instant. Check out the photo below to see the rain clouds pushing out a blue sky near Sublimity, Oregon.
We took a break in Portland, Oregon, and stayed at a hotel on the banks of the Williamette River for two days. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the city but could never help but feel it was the “other” Portland, and somehow lesser than Portland, Maine. I now think they are roughly equal.
Portland is a bustling city (much larger than its Maine counterpart, btw) and we explored it using our favorite mode of transportation: our feet.
Our first stop was Powell’s Bookstore, billed as the largest bookstore in the world. Although I am reluctant to buy books given our limited storage space in the RV, I walked away with four small volumes of early American history that you couldn’t find easily anywhere else.
Portlandia people love books and even paste photos of books along the sidewalks where in other cities you might see ads for Broadway shows or graffiti. On the Northeast side of town, we found this mural with a moral.
People here also love food and we soon discovered why. We dined at two restaurants inspired by young chefs where all the flavors were delicate and the ingredients were extra fresh and local (of course).
The food truck culture is highly developed on the streets of downtown Portland. I had a classic grilled cheese with cauliflower soup and sampled some delicious Thai food.
After climbing up the tallest hill in town to visit the Rose Garden at Washington Park, we went to the Portland Art Museum, which has an eclectic collection of mid-20th century art that was on exhibit.
The city revolves around the river, from crews that race by to a cruise boat that takes tourists out for a spin.
We looked up an old acquaintances from CNN, Andrew Holtz, and his wife Kelly, who live on a beautiful new energy-efficient houseboat on the river (sorry, no photos). We later visited their daughter, Judy, who lives with my nephew, Thomas, in Eugene. Here's their photo.
Next stop: Silver Falls State Park outside Silverton, Oregon and a visit from my sister.
Western history has taken on new meaning with our visits to the broad steppes, wide rivers and majestic mountains of the West. From the Lewis & Clark expedition in the early 1800s to the Christian missionaries who arrived forty years later to proselytize the Plateau tribes, we have gotten a superficial look at the clash and co-existence of two peoples.
Ten years after the first missionaries arrived, 5,000 people a year were arriving to the Walla Walla region via the Oregon Trail. At first, the Native peoples responded in friendship, attending services, trading and living near the missionaries
As their numbers increased, settlers brought diseases that wiped out half the people in many tribes. The Native people fought back, killing missionaries and fighting US troops at places like Cottonwood Canyon or White Bird Creek.
I visited a quiet graveyard in a grove outside of Fort Walla Walla and read the markers of the fallen soldiers. Calvary soldiers, many of them veterans of the Civil War, came West with the US Army and died in pitched battles with the Native people whose dwindling numbers inspired them to make a last stand.
And in the graveyard, a few markers remain, many of people still unknown.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.