Sunday, July 19, 2015

Synopsis of the Evolution of La Lair

     For the next couple of months I'll be blogging about modifying my empty ProMaster cargo van into living quarters for camping. It won't be a Class C motorhome with traditional motorhome contents - there will be no windows, no water/sewage tanks, no plumbing or shower, no refrigerator, no batteries, no upholstered furniture and no cabinets. Maybe some day I'll regret these omissions.

     I know myself well; I'm a minimalist who follows the KISS theory. For showers, I've been using the campground's shower facilities, but in an emergency, I could heat up water in my solar-water-bag, hang it on the rear door that swings outside, wear a bathing suit, and shower outside. For bathrooms, I've been using rest stops, the campground's facilities, and library and grocery stores' bathrooms when I'm running errands. And when that's inconvenient, I have a 20-gallon bucket of kitty litter (see scoop in photo below), a plastic bucket lined with a plastic bag and seat which works very well (tie it off, toss), and a large Sysco Restaurant commercial-size plastic container with a handle and a leak-proof wide-mouth lid. It's important for women not to underestimate the value of a wide-mouth opening and the handle; a container without a handle won't work.

     And I'm also a klutz with cataracts (translation, old lady) so I need lots of empty space inside with white interior walls/ceiling that will offer good lighting with just two fluorescent ceiling lights. I don't want to squirm sideways or contort my stiff joints to retrieve something from somebody else's wonderful idea of square storage compartments that waste too much space. Plus, I want full access to the sliding side door and both rear doors so I can unload/load my toys (8-foot fiberglass kayak, one-piece wood kayak paddle, SCUBA gear, heavy electric bicycle, heavy-duty ramp for bike, and maybe someday my saddle).

     I track in a lot of dirt and wet gear inside La Lair, so I installed 3/4" thick rubber mats (each weighs 100 pounds) sold by Tractor Supply typically for horse stalls, gym floors, garages and trailers. They came in convenient 6x4 foot sections, so I used three mats. I trimmed the mats with a regular electric meat-carving knife. To clean, I use a broom and then a wet sponge mop. I can also remove the mat and hose it down with water and re-install, too. It's sturdy, has no smell and is very comfy to walk on.

     Since leaving Texas over two months ago, I've been living in a messy cargo space behind the cab . . . That six-foot long red Polartec bag in the photo is a bean bag I used as a mattress on the floor. My bicycle was strapped next to the sliding side door.

     After cleaning everything out, here's what the space (lined with Insul-Bright fabric) looks like . . .

     I'm a lucky woman to have a mechanically-inclined very good friend who lives in Montana's beautiful mountains, Chef Renauld (AKA Ron). He's sacrificed all his summer projects and has kindly volunteered his time, home and workshop to help me build La Lair. Here's his workshop which shares an interior wall with the huge garage where La Lair is parked.

     Chef Renauld is a retired electrical engineer formerly with the US Forest Service. He's also refurbished several vintage Airstreams. He loves to help (and cook for) his neighbors, his family and his good friends. The reason I fondly call him Chef Renauld is because his passion is baking and cooking and growing his own veggies in his garden (but no garden this summer because of me). Although he looks like a classic wild and crazy Mountain Man, his soul belongs inside a bakery making pies, cheesecakes, bread and cookies in a little village in the French Alps, where all the villagers would visit every day and gossip with "Chef Renauld". And he'd be micro-managing a restaurant next door, too. And since neither of us is a Republican, we easily laugh together at life and ourselves, especially when we goof.

     Last winter through numerous emails, Skype calls and photo exchanges, we came up with this basic design for the wall behind the driver seat. During the next few weeks, we hope to bring this wall to life . . . . we won't finish everything this summer, it's going to be an evolutionary modification project.

          If anyone has suggestions, questions, ideas or solutions, feel free to comment!! I'll pass it on to Chef Renauld and give you his response.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Montana's Rocky Mountains

     When I approached the Blackfeet Indian Reservation town of Browning from northeast Montana, I finally saw in the western sky the breathtaking Rocky Mountain skyline which is also our Glacier National Park.

     Browning was a busy dusty little town when I arrived as the Blackfeet Tribe was celebrating its 64th Annual North American Indian Days.
In addition to numerous beadwork arts and crafts, there are lots of interesting scrap-iron sculptures in Browning.


     There was no admission charge at Indian Days, but there was a $10 charge for taking photos with a cell phone or camera. So I returned later without a camera to watch the men's, women's and children's "Indian Dance Contests". I saw colorful, varied, creative dance costumes with a 21st Century worldwide ethnic flair. And as I watched, I philosophically asked myself if life was imitating art as portrayed by Hollywood movies. I moved on to watch the traditional fairground rides that spin and turn screaming kids upside down and around, along with the smell of traditional fried and overly-sweet snacks to chug down with over-priced sodas. Every national origin has its own annual celebration days; but they share similarities. Folks like to flock and be celebratory with birds of their own feather.

     Next to the North American Indian Days was the Stampede Park racing track where horse racing relays were being held. Unlike the free Indian Days events, this event cost $5 with or without a camera. It took me awhile to get the hang of what was happening as it's not a traditional horse race. They ride bareback and there is no start-gate to keep things organized and uniform. Someone yells "Go!" and if the horse is still fussing and acting out, that rider is at a disadvantage to win. In this photo, there are seven riders; take note of the rider to the far right - he was the winner of the race because his horse wasn't fussing.

 The "relay" part in the horse race means that the rider must jump off the first horse and hop on the second horse. It's crucial for the "pit crew" that handles the horses to let go or grab those reins just as the rider relinquishes one set of reins and grabs the next horse's reins. It's split-second teamwork! In this photo, the rider prepares to relinquish the reins and the crew must grab them . . .

Here's what teamwork looks like; someone always has the reins . . .

 And if teamwork fails, this is what happens . . .

     There were about four or five riderless horses throughout the evening. I saw two riderless horses racing each other around the full track, it was funny. 

     In my experience with my horse (now deceased), which was a Thoroughbred like these horses, they love to race and beg to be ridden bareback. If horses could talk, they'd say "Toss that darn saddle, hop on and ride!" This riderless horse looks like he's enjoying the race. 


 A couple years ago, PBS did a great documentary about the Indian relay horse races, and the Seattle Times did a good article of the races

     I camped near the historic East Glacier Hotel at the Summit Campground in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, but visitors can visit and tour this impressive hotel. Inside and outside are huge tree trunks, over three feet in diameter; the lobby is immense. The history of the construction of this hotel 100 years ago is fascinating; it was built with huge cedar trees and Douglas fir to resemble a Swiss Chalet (click here for information about the construction).

Who can pass by a rocking chair with a great view! Another historic hotel with a wonderful porch.

     I crossed over the Rocky Mountains on the "Go to the Sun Highway" through Glacier National Park. There's a vehicle limitation, no more than 8-feet wide (including side mirrors) and 21 feet long, which meant I was just inches away from being illegal on this road.

There's a mountainous area called "The Triple Divide" because the numerous waterfalls and streams go one of three ways, to the Pacific, to the Hudson Bay, or to the Atlantic.

     I stopped and parked to walk the Trail of the Cedars.  Although it's a popular busy but short easy walking trail with handicapped accessible boardwalks, wide paved trails and miniscule elevation changes, it was one of the most majestic trails I've ever walked. The giant cedars and Black cottonwood are over 500 years old. I highly recommend this trail; don't let its "easy rating" fool you into thinking it's not worthwhile. I didn't take my camera; sometimes it's nice to just hike for myself, to be in a zen of my own.

     Spontaneity kicked in when I exited Glacier National Park at West Glacier.  I drove an hour south of Kalispell to ride a mule to Van Peak (Flathead National Forest) with Clinton, a guide for the Swan Mountain Outfitters.  I've never ridden a mule before. They claim mules are more surefooted than horses on rocky mountainous trails, but that's true only if they're paying attention to the rocks on the trail. My mule was so distracted by tasty weeds and bushes on the trail, that he stumbled alot simply because he wasn't looking where he was stepping. I tried to outguess his impulses by slightly jerking his head high before he snatched a quick bite, but it turned into a cat and mouse game between us . . . he was a sweet-natured mule though. The four hour ride reminded me how much I miss horse trail riding in the forest. Maybe I'll find a place to keep my saddle in La Lair and rent a horse periodically.

 Once Clinton and I were higher in elevation, we had a good view of the Mission Mountain range for most of the ride. We ate lunch near Van Peak.

     In the valley which holds Swan Lake and hayfields and pastures, the floor of this valley is made more beautiful by the mountains on both sides . . . .

     For the next couple of months, my good Montana friend Chef Renauld and I will be working on modifying La Lair (building kitchen, bed, storage; will continue to blog but in a different mode). So as a fitting conclusion to my travel-related blogs for awhile, here is the chorus-line from Montana's state song . . . a song voted as one of the ten most annoyingly cute state songs in the USA (click here for song).

Montana, Montana, Glory of the West
Of all the states from coast to coast, You're easily the best
Montana, Montana, Where skies are always blue
Montana, Montana I love you!

Hayfield near Marion, Montana

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Everyone has a story to tell

     Four years ago while traveling, I accidentally stumbled upon Fort Peck, which is not a town nor a "fort" in a military-sense; it's technically a dam on the Missouri River in northeast Montana.  Only about 250 residents call this place home, but the area swells to hundreds of summer visitors, mostly Montanans, during the frequent fishing tournaments. There's also a well-maintained public grass-runway airfield nearby; about a dozen folks built homes with attached hangars near the airfield.

     Fort Peck isn't on the tourist circuit, so few Americans are familiar with the Fort Peck Dam. The construction of the dam began in 1933 and was completed in 1940. It was supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers shortly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill authorizing the building of the dam that would eventually employ almost 11,000 workers during the Depression.

     I fell in love with Fort Peck from the moment four years ago when I stepped inside the historic Fort Peck Theater and the historic Fort Peck Hotel and visited a media history of the construction of the earthen dam at the free Interpretive Center (which is also a natural history museum with models of dinosaurs and displays of dinosaur bones found during the construction of the dam). So, when I found myself accidentally in northeast Montana again (having aborted my plans to travel further west in Canada due to wildfires), I was drawn to Fort Peck like a very good old friend.

     Fort Peck is brimming full of stories. But it isn't just the fascinating Missouri River stories from Lewis and Clark's Expedition, and it isn't just the deceased dam workers whose preserved stories reveal an incredibly hardscrabble life, it's also stories from visitors and campers next to me at the campground. Like me, most of the visitors and campers come to Fort Peck to play outdoors. We're basically "non-touristy" folks, and many have unique stories to tell.

     Across from my camp site was a woman (also a grandmother!) who is traveling solo on her motorcycle via Route 2 from California to Maine, and back to California on Route 6 later this year. She's also writing a blog about her travels. We have much in common, and I enjoyed her company for a short evening. We swapped stories about our lives and the different kinds of gear for bare-bones traveling.

      Nearby was another camper from North Dakota who pulled in with a "little red barn" that caught every one's attention. And when he cranked the barn down to ground-level (no need for steps up into the trailer), he really pulled in the curious camp mates.  Inside was all the comforts of home, plus a hole in the floor for ice-fishing in Canada.

     Four years ago, I had an opportunity to take these aerial photographs of the Fort Peck Reservoir from a powered parachute ultralight. It's other-worldly from the air. The climate is semi-arid, completely different from the climate on the other side of Montana. The reservoir this year, however, is much lower due to lack of rain all year.

     The nearby wildlife refuge named after western artist Charles M. Russell is also other-worldly from the air; in fact, it's almost impossible to visit by vehicle.

    After setting up camp and swapping stories with my camp mates, the next day I bicycled to the Theater to once again admire the beamed ceiling, light fixtures, and the lobby where many original promo-photos of famous actors and actresses from the 1930s are displayed. The Theater offers plays and musicals on summer weekends (mostly performing arts college students) but being there mid-week, I regretfully missed their performance. My next stop was a rocking chair on the porch of the Hotel where I imagined Franklin D. Roosevelt must have had a drink and a cigar smoke with his buddies (he visited twice during the dam construction). As I rocked, I re-read the wonderful 63-page brochure of the history of the dam (downloadable free here, warning - large pdf file).

      Fort Peck also had new paved trails around the downstream areas, about four miles of trails, for pedestrians and bicyclists. And it was fun to re-visit the Interpretive Center which has enough information for another half-dozen more visits. I plan to visit Fort Peck regularly during the next decade.

     My short three-day mid-week visit was sweet. When I left Fort Peck, I stopped by nearby Hinsdale to visit with Daniel and Francine Jensen, a couple in their late 80's who I had met and visited with four years ago. Daniel had installed the Lewis and Clark historical markers along the Missouri River and was commissioned to do the heavy equipment work involved. He was a tall, robust and hardworking man; he told us many wonderful stories. Francine had made breakfast for all of us, and at their round table we laughed at their stories, especially the story of how they met in high school and eloped. I ran into their neighbor Jerry, a retired rancher who flies a powered parachute ultralight, and he told me Daniel had died less than a year ago and Francine was away for a few days. I will always remember their stories, too. Everyone has a story to tell.

Monday, July 13, 2015

One . . . Long . . . Yawn . . . . . .

     I said "Au'Voir" to my sister and her hubby near the Saint Laurent River; they were headed to Rhode Island for a sailing adventure and I was headed west to Montana. I had already been through Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota several times in previous years, so I decided to remain in Canada and take the road less traveled, "The Northern Highway".

      La Lair umphed, thumped, shook, rattled, and swayed on this highway because it was under construction, to be constructed, or already badly constructed. Several times, I stopped to re-arrange fallen items behind me in the cargo area. Some road sections were gloriously smooth, but the view rarely changed . . . .

     For hundreds of miles, there were lakes and tree plantations and no paved shoulders, just gravel shoulders, and no bisecting paved roads. All other roads were dirt roads with the exception of a few very small villages. About every hundred miles was the appearance of a "man camp" for tree plantation workers, I suppose similar to off-shore rigs for oil and gas employees who are shuttled back and forth from isolated employment in the Gulf of Mexico to their homes every three weeks or so. It's lonely country . . .  but it's heaven for avid fishermen, fisherwomen, hunters, and ski-mobile enthusiasts. Nobody else has a good reason to congregate here.

I saw three separate bears on the bisecting dirt roads to this highway . . . didn't see any moose.

There were moments of isolated beauty . . . 

I had supper on this picnic table on a dock and was thankful for the lake breeze that kept the mosquitoes and flies away. I spent the night here, too.

About day three into this long, too long lonely highway, the road got hilly and my heart skipped a beat of happiness.

When a road sign announced the "Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park" was ahead, I stopped to visit and walked its pleasant short trail.

          Soon, I was in Thunder Bay on Lake Superior, and since it was July 1, it was "Canada Day" which is the Canadian equivalent of our Independence Day on July 4. I watched the sailing regatta with a friendly Canadian woman who owned a Bed and Breakfast nearby.

      She told me Thunder Bay's fireworks were decent, but most folks go across the border on July 4th to see the best fireworks in the USA. I mentioned that the USA had better roads, too, and she wholeheartedly agreed.

     The next day, I drove westward all day, hoping I'd see a change of scenery. But the hazy horizon on straight roads went on and on and on . . . I was bored, so I did a road trip mileage report at 48 mph in sixth gear on a straight wind-less road for four hours. My best mileage was 31.3 miles per gallon.

  I stopped at this windmill which was constructed as a pun for Mr. Holland, the first postmaster in a small village named after him. It had a picnic table so I made brunch; buckwheat pancakes and coffee. 

     I suspect a citizen of the "Rural Crime Watch Committee" (yes, there were signs announcing the existence of this committee) made a call to a local farmer, because he visited me with his two very young sons. I asked him if it was always hazy here, and he told me about the wildfires in Saskatchewan. He was friendly and polite, and once he was convinced I was harmless, he wished me well in my travels and returned to his home.

      I pondered my future travels in Canada with the news of wildfires and continued hazy days ahead of me. Decided to enact Plan B, go south as soon as possible. That plan took me to the beautiful fields of eastern Montana. Life on the road was starting to feel good again! My happiness improved considerably (here's where I singalong with Jimmy Cliff's song, "I can see clearly now, the haze is gone, it's gonna be a bright bright bright sunshiny day!)

Monday, July 6, 2015

Two Days, Two Trails, Two Tales

     I'm ashamed to admit I never heard of the Laurentian Mountains until I found myself on a road running through those mountains. This is a beautiful mountain range in the southern part of the province of Quebec. From Lac Saint-Jean, I traveled south on Route 381 known as the “Highway of the Mountains" enroute to meet my sister and her hubby the next day (my #2 stop).

     The beauty of the Laurentian Mountains compares to our Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountain ranges but with a unique difference - the Laurentian Mountains are located in the wonderfully cool boreal climate range.

     I stopped at a rest stop (see #1 on map) on Lac Ha!Ha! It's such an unusual name, but could not find an explanation.  While pouring myself a fourth cup of coffee at the rest stop, I noticed a sign inviting folks to hike a trail in the “Parc de la Digue”. So I got my hiking poles and put on my “bear-siren helmet” and was immediately immersed in this "very boreal", dark and shady, mossy-cushioned-path which was minimally marked and mostly ungroomed. I wasn’t sure where this mysterious trail would lead me, but since I had designed my own trail in East Texas in the Pineywoods a few years back, it was clear to me this trail was designed by someone like me. She or he wanted to keep this little gem of a trail looking “un-troddened”. 

 And about 90 minutes later, this was my view of the northern part of Lac Ha Ha! 

      About another 45 minutes later, I was back at the rest stop feeling elated, refreshed and emotionally satisfied by that wonderful trail.

     The next day I met my sister to hike the “L'Acropole-des-Draveurs Trail” in the National Park des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie which is a very popular hike. We had been told it was difficult and approximately six miles, but little else was known. The beginning of the trail was beautiful.

     Then we grew weary of the trail resembling “tumbling rocks” . . . 

    For several hours during the climb up, my sister and I marveled at the younger hikers; they were bouncing, running (yes running!), and skipping pass us with nimble surefooted light feet. Everytime they passed us with their smiley faces of deference to their elders, it was a rude awakening that we weren’t nearly as youthful as we used to be. And the thrill of the trail was lost when doubts crept in our old foggy brains that maybe we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew. That's my sister in the photo below; pink jacket.

     And when we were about three-quarters finished (hiked from S to next arrow in photo below), with the hard part behind us . . . . 

  . . . we had this view of an oncoming storm.

     Someone returning from the top of the trail hinted that this view was almost as good as the view from the top. So, it was here that we concluded we’d done enough, and returned down the rocky trail now made doubly difficult by the rain. I concluded that while the previous day's hike made me feel emotionally elated, this hike made me feel old and emotionally deflated.