Wednesday, September 26, 2012

That's Entertainment

During our motorhome travels over the years, one of the things we have enjoyed doing is going to local theater venues. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is generally fabulous and we have been there three or four times, usually staying a few days and taking in a couple of plays. We have also been to the repertory theater in Creed, Colorado and used to go fairly frequently to the Great American Melodrama in Oceano, California near Pismo Beach.  Some of the theaters we've gone too are in what seem to be odd, out of the way places, but the production quality has been surprisingly good

Our son at USF from a previous trip
On our most recent trip, we went to the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. We had done this a couple of times before and the quality and professionalism there are very high.

We stopped on the way to South Dakota for a couple of nights and saw a Moliére play called Scapin which is a farcical comedy. It was actually quite funny although I don't know how much credit for that can be given to Moliére. The play had to be translated from French but they also took the opportunity to modernize much of the humor including references to modern pop songs and TV shows that Moliére had obviously never heard of. That was probably a good thing. I looked up a somewhat more literal translation of the play online and I imagine a modern audience would have found few belly laughs in it. The Utah version followed the same general plot but included little of the original language. In any event, we enjoyed the show very much.

On the way back home, we stopped by for one night and saw Les Miserables. I have never seen this musical before despite its being one of the longest-running Broadway shows in history. I thought the production was very well done and the singing was outstanding. I found the story itself a bit maudlin and it did not inspire a burning passion for me to go and read Victor Hugo. Still and all, it was a great experience and I certainly would recommend the show to anyone traveling to that area in the next couple of weeks.
Hobnobbing with the Bard

As part of our planning for going full-time, we would like to do more of this. It does require a certain amount of forethought. In some venues you are unlikely to be able to get seats at the last minute and the plays do have limited runs, so you have to make sure you're going to be in the right place at the right time.

There is an outfit called the League of Resident Theatres ( which includes 75 local repertory companies located throughout the United States and at their website you can see what might be coming up in the areas you plan to be visiting. Hopefully we will be able to use this information to our advantage when we have the time and mobility to utilize it.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Size is way compact
About three years ago, after watching way too much of the Food Channel, I decided I desperately needed to be able to smoke meats and, not being willing to tend a wood fire for 10 or 12 hours at a throw, bought myself a propane smoker. It is not a perfect instrument but it's adequate for my needs and I've done a fair amount of smoking over the last few years. Unfortunately, a metal box standing over 4 feet tall and 20 inches deep doesn't travel easily, so when we started thinking about going full-time in the RV I started wondering what my options were to continue woodsmoke barbecuing.

According to Alton Brown, you can use a couple of gigantic flower pots and a hot plate to get the job done but it seemed kind of slapdash and requires a lot of heavy ceramics and a certain amount of luck to get things to fit together properly. Then I came across an item called the Smokin-it model one electric smoker which you can see here:

This baby has a 300 W electric heating element, gets a maximum amount of smoke out of a minimum amount of wood and maintains its temperature automatically, so you can set it and forget it. It weighs under 50 pounds and fits perfectly in the basement cabinets of our Allegro.

A steady wisp of smoke - just what you want.
Here you can see it set up at our campsite at Rifle Gap. We smoked a tri-tip roast that I had put a spice rub on in the morning to season while we drove. The body of the smoker is insulated kind of like a refrigerator (whereas my propane smoker is just sheet metal) so it retains the heat well and seals up tight to hold in the smoke. I have used it a few times at home but this is the first time we took it traveling with us. We carry an extension cord and plugged it into the 120 V outlet on the electrical hookup post and it worked like a charm. It took about 90 min. for the tri-tip to come up to temperature, then I finished it with a few minutes on the grill.  Something like a pork shoulder would take overnight, but it really doesn't require much tending.

The result was more than satisfactory. I love this thing and can't recommend it enough. You probably need to check the dimensions and make sure it will fit in the storage compartments of your rig, but if you want to do woodsmoke barbecue from your motorhome, I think this is the way to go.

Hard at work fixing dinner

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rifle Gap

One of the differences (we hope) between vacationing and full-time RVing is that when you're on vacation you have a schedule and at times you have to seriously cover ground. On this trip, of 18 days away, eight of them were spent getting to and from South Dakota. That means covering 300-400 miles per day. We always try to find some interesting stopovers to make use of the few hours of free time this schedule leaves.

Rifle Gap campground
Rifle, Colorado is a tiny little town on I-70 between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction on the Colorado River. The town itself is pretty tiny and apparently has little to recommend it but just north of town are several Colorado State Parks. Unlike California, where the state parks have been under the budgetary ax for the last several years and you're lucky if they even let you in, Colorado appears to take considerable pride in its parks system and provides surprising amenities. We stayed at Rifle Gap State Park which is situated on the North Shore of a reservoir maintained primarily for fishing. You can see the campground in the accompanying photo. There are long paved concrete pads that can take motor homes up to 42 feet with full hookups. It would really be perfect if the reservoir were not down about 30 or 35 feet related to the fact that the entire center of our country is undergoing the worst drought since 1956. Even so, there was water present and a few fishing boats out on the lake and the whole scene was pretty idyllic. By the way, the dark motorhome in the upper center part of the photo is our Allegro.
Chez Rains

You can see it a little better in this shot taken with my 500 mm lens. I had to use it for something.

Rifle Falls
A little farther north from the campground is Rifle Falls State Park. There are actually three separate waterfalls pouring side-by-side over a limestone cliff. There are some caves up behind the waterfalls for the more adventurous. There's also camping available here although it is not quite as big rig friendly as Rifle Gap.

This really did form a perfect afternoon break on our way back. You can make reservations over the Internet, which we did a couple of months ago, but the campground was not full while we were there and I suspect this is the rule for week days after Labor Day. If you are going through the area, it is definitely worth a stop over.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Custer, our last stand in the Black Hills

The Needles
In the southern part of the Black Hills lies Custer State Park named after the Civil War hero, discoverer of gold in the area and the genius of Little Bighorn. The park itself was first opened in the 1920s and at this point encompasses about 77,000 acres. It has some spectacular scenery and an abundance of wildlife. We drove through the various park roads multiple times over the course of several days both before and after our trip to the Badlands.

We ate at two of the park's three lodges. They were pleasant and the food was actually pretty good so if you're seeing the park we can recommend them as an agreeable break in your day.

The park allegedly has a herd of about 1300 bison although we only saw perhaps a dozen. But there are also several types of deer, Rocky Mountain goats, pronghorn antelope and allegedly elk, although we never saw any signs of the latter. There are also a surprising number of wild turkeys and we saw a few turkey vultures and hawks.

There are donkeys descended from a group that used to haul tourists up and down the hills. They were released when the tourist hauling outfit went out of business and have become a feral herd that blocks the road and begs for food which the park personnel apparently do not discourage, quite unlike their attitude toward the feeding of the "wild" fauna.

You can drive the park's "Wildlife Loop" road just about any time of day and see a few isolated bison or pronghorns. But at about 6 PM, deer start appearing in astonishing numbers. Apparently the locals consider seeing deer about as exciting as seeing dogs and cats, but for us it was still pretty cool.

I am posting some representative photos of our tour of the park. Hope you enjoy them.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bad is Bad

We are currently spending a couple of days at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Neither of us can remember ever having really been here before. I remember going to the Wall Drugstore on a trip with my family when I was really little but there was no national park at that time and I doubt that we stopped for much more than the free ice water.

We drove through the park last night in the hour just before sunset to get the best possible light and took some photographs, most of which kind of look like this…

Real life
That's interesting, the sedimentation layers show up all right, but we've been planning this trip for a while now and had seen photos of the park and they all seemed somehow more colorful, more vibrant, more like this…

Seeing is no longer believing. With a good photo editing program you can change the world. And if you were going to hang a picture of the South Dakota Badlands on your wall, which of them would you prefer? But it again brings up the question, is it "cheating"? If you are purporting to be presenting "the facts" then maybe it is. This borderlines on the kind of finagling that gets news photographers fired. And if you are producing a brochure for the National Park Service, trying to bring in the suckers…  oops, I mean citizens, it seems unfair that when they arrive, you don't really have that vibrant landscape to show them. They promised us Utah but gave us Death Valley.

Pronghorn antelope

We did see a few critters on our drive. There were a couple of bison, some pronghorns and some female bighorn sheep which were completely wild except for the radio collars around their necks.

But the most fun at Badlands National Park for us was the prairie dog towns. The main one, the Roberts prairie dog town, was 5 miles out on an unpaved road and was much more extensive than you would at first guess. If you didn't keep your distance, they would go scampering off into their various holes. But if you stayed on the road they would just sit up and bark at you. Good for 15 or 20 min. of entertainment anyway.

Conference session (with buffalo chip in background)

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Whenever we are traveling, we tend to take lots of pictures. In particular, we enjoy photographing whatever local wildlife we happen across. Last year, when we went to Yellowstone, we got some fairly decent photos of elk, deer and more bison than we could really stomach. We were hoping to get some similar photos in the Black Hills during this trip and so we set out yesterday on a drive through some of the backwoods, little used roads of South Dakota.

Elk with his fall rack of antlers

We didn't know what to expect, but we were pleased to come around the corner and see a bull elk lounging in the grass. Elk are not common in this area but do show up occasionally apparently.

Reindeer, a little far south

We were rather surprised however, when a couple of minutes later we came across a reindeer. We were wondering how he got to Black Hills when we were distracted by a couple of gamboling river otters playing by the side of the road.

In case you didn't know, this is what gamboling looks like.

Where did he get the dog biscuit?
Later we were gratified by the site of a gray wolf. We knew they had been reintroduced to the Yellowstone area but didn't know they were present in South Dakota.

Much more surprising was the pack of Arctic wolves around the next corner. I was lucky enough to snap this photo before the pack turned and headed for the (black) hills.  Then on my way back to the car, I understood why when I was confronted by...

a bear!

All right, perhaps we didn't run into all of these creatures entirely by blind chance. No, we forked over our hard-earned dollars to drive through Bear Country USA, a small drive through "wild animal park" just south of Rapid City. We wandered around Yellowstone last year at all hours of the day and night and never saw a single bear so we decided this year by golly, one way or another, we were gonna have bear pictures.

The drive-through portion also had some bighorn sheep, mountain goats and a few other critter areas. We really liked the Arctic wolves and drove in a circle through their area about a half-dozen times. But the clear stars of the show are the bears, of which they seem to have about 30.

Bear cubs at play
After the drive-through portion, they have a small, more traditional "zoo" type area with some smaller and/or more dangerous animals like grizzly bears, badgers and a bobcat. They also have an enclosure where they raise bear cubs after they are weaned from their mothers until they are big enough to survive amongst the male bears in the drive-through compound. It was fun to watch the bear cubs running around play-fighting with each other exactly like our schnoodles do.

As kitschy as this is, we actually really enjoyed it and thought it was $32 well spent. The weather was cool enough that most of the animals were out and about and there was a certain amount of excitement involved in waiting to see what was coming around the next corner. The only drawback is that the park rules are that you have to stay in your car with all the windows rolled up, so the photographs were all shot through an extra layer of glass. Particularly with the windshield, this was a problem because of the angle of the glass sheet. But they did have the foresight to have a window washing station at the entrance so you could get your windows reasonably clean before you started.

Bear up a tree
Now the question is, from a photographic stand point, is this cheating? Are animal pictures taken at a zoo intrinsically less worthy than pictures taken in the wild? My bias is, if it's a good photograph, how you get those pixels together is your business. When a magazine needs a picture of a bear, do they send their photographer on a three-week jaunt through the forest to get it or do they send him to the Chicago zoo? I'm guessing usually the latter. (Actually, they probably just pull up a stock picture and that was probably taken at a zoo.)

Anyway, of all the chintzy attractions on the road to Mount Rushmore, we thought this was the least chintzy. I mean really, would you rather spend your time in Sitting Bull's Crystal Cave or petting goats at Old McDonald's Farm? So if you're traveling through the area, consider stopping by and visiting the bears. It's the closest safe view you are likely to get and you won't have to worry about becoming grizzly grub.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

To the Black Hills

We made it to the Black Hills safely, the motorhome has not completely flooded yet and the scenery is lovely. Locals say it's ugly and dry because of the drought but to us it looks like a nice wet year in California. The only downside is that the bark beetle has reached this area and there are large swaths of forest land showing its adverse effects.

Flaming Gorge
After we left Dinosaur, we spent one night in Flaming Gorge and had an evening drive through the area which convinced us it might be worth going back to when we had a little more time to spend. Then it was on to Casper Wyoming. Our special RV GPS wanted to route us 200 miles out of the way to avoid US 287. We weren't sure whether it was too steep or possibly had a low bridge along the way but we couldn't find any warnings about this road on the Internet and it made a three or four hour difference in driving time so we decided to risk it and ignore the GPS. And the road was fine. Fairly flat, four lanes much of the way, no steep hills, it was a breeze and got us into Casper in the mid-afternoon. This whole area is hundreds of miles of prairie land and not much else. We had a very nice dinner at a brew pub in Casper and left the next morning. And that was about the right amount of time to spend in Casper.

 Roughlock Falls
The following day brought us to Deadwood, South Dakota, site of the 1870s gold strike and the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok. The gold ran out about a century back and I gather the place had pretty much hit the doldrums until the state authorized limited gambling in 1989. I'm not sure exactly what the "limited" part means since every building in town seems to be stuffed full of slot machines. Anyway, part of the deal was that a certain percentage of the gambling profits had to be used for historical restoration, so the town is really spiffed up in a gambling, touristy sort of way.

We spent the next day looking at real estate. We are thinking of buying a vacation rental in this area with the money we get for our Redlands house both to provide some income and to help establish our bona fides as South Dakota residents for tax purposes. With luck, it might bring in enough income to cover the cost of our camping fees and RV insurance when we start traveling.
Spearfish, south of Deadwood

Next, we will be spending some time in Rapid City and then on to Badlands National Park and we will keep you all updated.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


Our first big stop on this trip was at Dinosaur National Monument. Knowing nothing of the area, we decided to stay in Dinosaur, Colorado. (Note: there are no dinosaurs in dinosaur Colorado except for big plastic ones like this example outside the town hall). The only motorhome park in town is the BlueMountain RV Park. Do not stay here. It's a couple of acres of rock and mud with a few sad looking permanent residents and some disappointed looking visitors, like us.

The south visitor's center for dinosaur national Monument is a couple of miles outside town. (Note: there are no dinosaur fossils at the south visitor center). From here a 31 mile road takes you up to the Monument south entrance. The landscape is basic high desert, mostly no more or less scenic than millions of other acres of the American West you can see from the interstate. There's a relatively small area of the national Monument that you can drive around and there are some fairly scenic areas there but there are no dinosaur fossils.

Typical western landscape
There was supposed to be a really nice area called Echo Park you can reach by driving down a rock and gully 11 mile road with about 10% down slope and a large sign at the top that said "not recommended for passenger vehicles". Some guy in a Jeep drove by and told us that it would be no problem, we should go ahead, then he drove off laughing. After a couple of hundred yards we decided maybe we should believe the sign and turned around.

The fossil wall
The next day we went to the west entrance where a road allowed you to explore another small section of the Monument. Here lies the Carnegie Quarry where, lo and behold, there actually turn out to be dinosaur fossils. Carnegie did not find any of them, he simply paid the bills. The fossil bed was discovered in 1909 and over the next several decades thousands of dinosaur bones were excavated and shipped back to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. So many in fact that the museum literally ran out of space for them. Then Carnegie died and his heirs decided with a few thousand specimens, many of which were still encased in plaster, stored away, enough was enough and they stopped funding the project.

So it was decided to chip away the rock matrix from around the remaining exposed dinosaur bones and then cover the whole rock face with a protective building and allow visitors to come and see the bones in place.
Dino ischium

It is actually pretty interesting to see. Our son would have loved this when he was six or seven years old. Now, probably not so much.

Three fossils
This is really a middle of nowhere destination. There are some nice views and the Quarry is interesting and educational. The question is, is it worth driving 200 miles out of your way to go see. If you have no place else you have to be it probably is, but I can't say that this is the best use of two days I have ever come up with.
Pioneer cabin

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Drippity Drip

Well, we think we have found our leak.

For the past several years we have been using bidet attachments on our home toilets which saves a ton of money on toilet paper and adds a strangely pleasant finale to every trip to the bathroom. It is particularly invigorating since I was too cheap to buy a water heater attachment for any of them. Anyway, about a year ago I had one installed in the Bounder.

Now, installing one of these things at home is a fairly straightforward, 30 min. "do-it-yourself" project, but the plumbing in a motorhome is distinctly different and none of the fittings match, so I had our favorite local RV repair place put the thing in and they did a great job, we never had a bit of trouble with it.

Cheap bidet
So when we got the new motorhome, the first thing we did was take it in and, among other things, have them install a Biffy Bidet. They somehow jury rigged the connections and got all the hoses to fit behind the toilet in a space about a half-inch wide. Well, guess where our leak was. Behind the toilet, in the space about a half-inch wide. It would probably be fairly easy to tighten it up except there is no possible way to get at it without removing the toilet, which I'm not really up for. So we're living with this leak for the next two weeks. With the pump on, it's about a drop every 3 or 4 seconds.

We've worked out a system where every time we turn the water pump on, when we are done we turn the pump off, let the pressure out of the system and then flip the bidet handle to drain all the water above the toilet so it doesn't gradually run down to the leak point. You have to cover the waterjet so it doesn't spray all over the bathroom. Vicki uses a glass over the spray. I've discovered it's easier just to sit down on the throne and run it until the soothing sensation fades away. Ahhh...

We also learned another important lesson. Don't leave your sewage drain valves open. RV waste water is divided into black water (water from the toilets and kitchen sink) and gray water (water from the bathroom sink and shower) each with its own holding tank. We have a small washing machine in the  new motorhome and it also drains into the gray tank.

At the end of our first weekend trip to Julian, we decided to try out the washing machine and I opened the gray valve so that the water could drain directly into the sewer system. After the laundry ended, I apparently unhooked the sewer line and capped the opening but forgot to close the gray water valve. This somehow allowed fumes from the black water tank to enter the gray water tank.

I guess  sewer gas is heavier than air because we didn't notice anything amiss until I started taking my first shower this trip. Then the water draining into the gray tank displaced the sewer gas and sent it rocketing up into the shower producing the smell from hell. At first I thought my shower water was being pumped directly out of the black tank, but after some reflection I decided this wasn't very likely. We went out to the dump cabinet and found the valve open. I closed the valve and removed the cap, releasing about a quart of black sludge. I have no wish to know what that was. We just hosed the cabinet out, hooked up the sewer line and drained everything. Leaving a valve open is a mistake I hopefully will not be making again anytime soon.