Californication

Californication

It’s been about seven weeks since we left The Golden State, but I honestly started feeling the pangs of leaving immediately after crossing the state line.  I’m pretty sure that it’s not the traffic congestion, high gas prices, outrageous camping fees, the gangster neighborhood we did our laundry in or the constant thought of earthquakes that left my heart back there.  It could be the fact that in only a matter of hours I could find myself hiking through the forest, strolling along the beach, gallivanting around the city or exploring in the desert. Or maybe I simply felt spoiled by having affordable, local and organic produce at my disposal, a farmer’s market in every community, and a Trader Joe’s on virtually every corner.

We spent more time in California than we have in any other state in our 17 months on the road and are all in agreement that a return visit is absolutely necessary.  Factoring in winter weather conditions and our job at the tree lot (see Bri’s post), made for the unfortunate but necessary decision to bypass the mountains this time around.  We came in from the north in Humboldt county and basically hugged the coastline down to San Diego.  Here’s what we experienced in just two short months…

Redwood National Park

I love trees, all trees!  I remember spending many days as a kid in a tree fort,  My dream home is a log cabin (on wheels of course),  My very first crush was The Lorax!

Giant Redwoods
Giant Redwoods

The Redwoods are amongst the oldest and tallest living things in the world and to stand alongside these ancient giants one can’t help but feel the majesty of their beauty.  We spent an entire day in the Prairie Creek State Park area exploring the forest.  We stood inside the trunk of one of the gigantic elders, located the remnants of yet another giant which at one time housed an entire family, and hiked a foggy, misty trail which resembled something from one of the  “Jurassic Park” movies.

Where's Mom?
Where’s Mom?

A couple of days later we took a drive along the infamous “Avenue of the Giants”,  a 31 mile stretch of road nestled between these towering beauties.  Half expecting this to be a tourist trap, we planned on driving straight through….until we discovered the groves.  Founder’s Tree Grove was our favorite. A half mile nature trail, complete with an informational guide, provided for a very educational walk along the plush forest floor, abundant of uprooted and fallen trees.

Founder's Grove
Founder’s Tree Grove

I personally felt very much alive in the coastal redwood forest and found it difficult to leave….that is, until I discovered that we were also in Big Foot country.

He aint so Big!
He aint so Big!

Sacramento

We ended up spending a day here because we were graciously offered an awesome opportunity by Birkenstock for the kids to participate in the making of their own pair of Arizona sandals.  This experience, thanks to Anne, our contact at Birkenstock, and the owners of Birkenstock Midtown Sacramento, provided for a hands on lesson in what it takes to run a successful retail business with the added bonus of walking away with a custom-made quality product.  Even Daisy was given VIP treatment as California is truly a dog-friendly state. 

Arizona Birkenstocks
Arizona Birkenstocks
Birkenstock VIP
Birkenstock VIP

The second half of the day was spent in Old Sacramento, a historic landmark along the Sacramento River set within the time of The California Gold Rush and The Transcontinental Railroad.  We explored this quaint little district rather quickly along the docks, over the railroad tracks and through the alleys.

Old Sacramento
Old Sacramento

San Francisco

Having only one day to explore the city we took advantage of the public transportation system (minus the cable cars as the line was excruciatingly long) and covered many miles on foot.  Our first stop was the Golden Gate Bridge. Aside from being one of the most popular Facebook profile picture settings, the Bridge Pavilion houses various exhibits on its history and construction.  Mercy’s assignment for that day was to find out why this bright orange wonder is named The Golden Gate Bridge. It didn’t take her long to find her answer and I am betting that unless you are either a Californian or a geography buff, you wouldn’t know that it is named after the Golden Gate Strait which is the entrance from the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.  We braved the gusty winds and the three busloads of tourists ahead of us and walked out onto the bridge to feel its grandeur.  It truly is a technical masterpiece!

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge

Haight Ashbury.  I’ve been wanting to get back there for 20+ years.  Unfortunately, the kids weren’t as hippy happy as I was to hang out in thrift store, iconic rock star heaven for any length of time.  We hit a local market, a few hip shops and a record store and called it good.

Hanging in the Haight
Hanging in the Haight

Fisherman’s Wharf.  We donned our tourist caps for this colorful waterfront community and spent a few hours popping in and out of various shops alongside spectating interesting street performances.  We made our way to the infamous pier 39 where we all decided on a restaurant as we had been looking forward to a fresh seafood meal for a while. Looking back, I find it quite humorous that we all ordered New England clam chowder and Maine lobster bisque.

Being in San Fran during the Christmas season provided for some interesting holiday entertainment amongst a few of the homeless characters.  Here is Bri’s spot on impression of a jolly street panhandler we encountered and grew very fond of…

Suffice it to say, this performance is sure to become a part of the Dunn family Christmas tradition!

Pacific Coast Highway

One of the most scenic drives in the country,  the PCH actually extends from the southern tip of Baja California to the top of the Olympic peninsula….roughly 2500 miles.  We knowingly ventured along portions of this highway while in Washington and again in Oregon, not realizing that it was just a preview of what would take our breath away when we hit the infamous route 1 along the central coast from Monterey to LA.

Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway

We were hesitant at first to take the 5th wheel along the hairy, twisty, turny, cliffy, misty, and at times foggy stretch of this highway. But, seeing as our max speed would only be around 25 mph, we figured we’d have enough time to jump ship if we got too close to the jagged edge.  So, we went for it.  And what a trip it was! Mountains to the left, ocean to the right, cyclists up ahead, idiotic, convertible sports car speeders passing you from behind.  All part of the experience I’m told!

The plan was to spend a couple of days exploring and hiking in the Big Sur region.  The only problem with that was that we didn’t plan.  We never really do plan. This time though, it was a holiday weekend (New Year’s) and that is when everyone else plans.  So, we were out of luck and couldn’t get into a campground.  I must confess that situations seem to work out for us as I feel we truly benefited from not being able to get into the campground. Instead, we pulled off on the side of the road just as the sun went down and set up camp for the night .  In the morning we awoke to this! 

PCH near Big Sur
PCH near Big Sur

You can’t get an unobstructed view like that  from a campground, even if you pay for it….which we didn’t!.

Heading further South that morning with our destination in mind and feeling totally sight satiated, we hadn’t planned on any more stops.  That is, until we noticed groups of people congregating along the pull-offs….and I’ll be damned if I’m missing anything!  So, I insisted Bri pull off at one and I believe everyone is thanking me that we did.  Otherwise, we never would have witnessed the unbelievably large colony of northern elephant seals covering the shoreline.  What an incredible sight and our timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  The female harems had just arrived and had given birth to the cutest shiny black pups!

Seal Pup
Seal Pup

Ventura

Said to be one of America’s most livable communities, Ventura has lots to offer.  Miles of surf-friendly beaches, neighboring mountains, and scenic bike paths combined with a mild year-round climate make for some healthy and happy residents.  The city also prides itself on supporting local businesses and promoting economic, social and environmental sustainability.  No wonder Bri and I both have placed Ventura at the top of our list for future,  part-time residency!

Trying to decide on the perfect place to hang out for a few days wasn’t easy.  One thing we discovered early on in this state was that we had to be prepared to pay higher camping fees.  Beach front with electric and water at an affordable rate was going to be a challenge…so we thought.  After making Bri drive up and down route 1 and pull in and out of tight areas we found Hobson Beach campground where we settled in amidst a mecca of care-free and friendly recreational surfers.  The price was attractive, the view spectacular, and the vibe sunny.  It was definitely one of the harder places to leave.  For me, exercising on the beach every morning and watching the sunset over the Pacific every evening is paradise.

Beachside living
Beachside living
Ventura Sunset
Ventura Sunset

Hollywood

Hollywood Baby!
Hollywood Baby!

Much fun was had by all four of us in the famous LA district which is nicely detailed in River’s post.   I will add that if it wasn’t for the hospitality of a dear friend who also played tour guide for the week, we would never have had the opportunity to experience as much as we did during the time we were there.  Aside from the studio tours, activities on Hollywood Blvd and our adult night out on The Sunset Strip (where Bri and I were hoping to bump into some rock stars…..instead we got Ron Jeremy),  I thoroughly enjoyed my morning hikes in Runyon canyon with Daisy where the view never got old. The drive through Laurel Canyon up to Mullholland Drive was also a highlight for me as I was envisioning a time when the bohemian neighborhood was alive with some of my favorite iconic rock legends, like Jim Morrison.

Runyon Canyon Lookout
Runyon Canyon Lookout
Sunset Blvd. fun
Sunset Blvd. fun

San Diego

We were all eager to get to San Diego for a few reasons.  First being, we had decided mid-way through working at the tree lot that this would be the place we would splurge, for the first time, and spend an entire week in a resort, complete with all the amenities.  In doing my research, I chose the one boasting of its central location, super sites, spa facilities and superior customer service.  Upon our arrival (after getting lost due to the lack of signage pointing us in the right direction), we soon discovered that the central location was nestled between the busy freeway and the active railroad tracks, the super site required our neighbor to move his vehicle in order for us to back our rig in, the spa facilities consisted of a two person hot tub in the pool area where we could barely carry on a conversation due to the noise level of the traffic, and the superior customer service was more than lacking.  I should have been clued in at the time I made the reservation when after I declared my budget wouldn’t allow for the weekly fee, the representative actually asked me what my budget would allow and gave me a pretty sweet discount.  Nonetheless, we decided to stay as we had a pretty busy agenda planned and we didn’t want to deal with the hassle of picking up and moving.

A visit to The San Diego Zoo and a whale watch excursion were two more reasons for our stay in the area.  The zoo had been on our list since the planning stages of the trip and it surely did live up to all of our expectations.  Our day spent there is nicely detailed in Mercy’s post.    As for the whale watch, we got lucky on two levels. Groupon happened to have a half-off deal for the 3 hour cruise and our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It was migration season for the gray whales and they were passing through from Alaska on their way south to Baja which made for many sightings on our tour.  Such beautiful creatures they are.

Big Whale
Big Whale

Bri and I had our own motives for hanging in San Diego and that would be to re-live some memories from our first trip where we spent a large chunk of time living in and around the parks and beaches.  Surprisingly, we didn’t really notice any major changes.  It seems it is still a very popular hangout for those living out of their vehicles.  We actually found ourselves trying to locate a couple of characters we befriended there back in 1992 and then realized that one guy would be well into his 90s by now.  Hey you never know….once you’ve gotten a taste for the nomadic lifestyle, it’s hard to leave it! 

We hit the farmer’s market in Ocean Beach, took a drive through Mission Beach and enjoyed a local brew in Pacific Beach.  My favorite….Dog Beach!

Pacific Beach Alehouse
Pacific Beach Alehouse
Dog Beach
Dog Beach

Joshua Tree National Park

The trees, the trees, the Joshua Trees, I’ve never before seen trees like these!

The only thing any of us knew about this National Park was that it was home to these very unique looking trees that U2 had titled one of their albums….and that it was in the California desert.  The rest remained sort of a mystery to us and I refrained from researching anything but the campgrounds before our arrival so as to make it somewhat of a surprise.

The name Joshua Tree was reportedly given by a group of Mormons in the mid-nineteenth century as the trees’ form reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky.  I guess this was before Dr. Seuss’ time.

Joshua Trees
Joshua Trees

Two deserts come together in this park, each with its own ecosystem. The Colorado, being at the lower elevation and occupying the eastern end of the park, is generally ten to fifteen degrees warmer and also where we chose to camp at Cottonwood Springs.  Unbeknownst to us, this was not where we were going to find the trees.  Their special habitat is located in the  Mojave, which is higher up in the western part of the park and about fifty-five miles from Cottonwood Springs.  So, being that it was nearing sunset, we decided to wait until the next day to drive to the west end and explore.  We hung out in the campground listening to the desert sounds and witnessed a fearless and apparently very hungry coyote rummage through everyone’s camp-fire pit.

Not so coy coyote
Not so coy coyote

The drive was spectacular.  To see and feel the crossover of the ecosystems and the changes in scenery was very interesting.  In the same day, we went from an arid land abundant of beautiful Ocotilla and Cholla cactus to a cooler, moister climate plentifully bestrewed with the park’s namesake trees. 

I could never tire of looking at the trees.  Each one, individually unique in size and structure, tells a story of survival and resilience.  Of course  Bri tried to locate the famous one on the cover of U2s album “The Joshua Tree”,  but to no avail.  We did have a lot of fun re-creating that cover in total “Dunn” style…..which so proudly graces the front pages of this blog.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree

Of other interest throughout the park is the amazing geologic landscape.  Huge eroded boulders lying on top of one another and naturally formed dikes within the granite made for some fun climbs.

Joshua Rock?
Joshua Rock?

We managed to fit in two fairly strenuous hikes during our stay, one in each of the deserts.  Ryan Mountain in the Mojave, took us up over 5,000 feet to the summit where the views of mountains and valleys in the background were complimented by the Joshua Trees in the foreground.  It was cold and windy up top.

Ryan Mountain summit
Ryan Mountain summit

In The Colorado, we hiked Mastodon Peak.  3,000 feet up this hike required some basic rock climbing skills.  The views from here included mountains, jagged rock formations and The Salton Sea.  It was warm and sunny on top.

 Mastodon Peak hike
Mastodon Peak hike

Slab City

Where to start?  Known by its inhabitants as “The last free place”, it’s no city at all.  Formerly a military training base during World War II, the only remains are the slabs of the deconstructed buildings.  There is no electricity, no water, no sewer, or no trash removal.  It is simply off-grid living in the middle of the desert where, during the winter months, you will find the likes of many nomads including RVers, squatters, hobos, and train hoppers hanging their hats (or bandanas).  However, there are a handful of permanent residents who weather the 120-130 degree summer temps. and therefore retain the authority to impose the ethics and courtesies that all visitors are expected to follow.

Welcome to Slab City
Welcome to Slab City

Slab City is also home to a fairly well-known attraction and most likely how we discovered it…  Salvation Mountain.  Created solely by one man,  this 50 foot tall and 150 foot wide painted adobe clay structure has a recurring theme of “God is Love” and is Leonard Knight’s tribute to God and his gift to the world.  It is listed as an official “Folk Art of America”, draws hundreds of visitors daily and has been featured in the movie “Into The Wild”. 

Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain

Speaking for my family, I can say that none of us was deeply moved by the message.  That is not to say that Leonard’s passion and dedication is not worthy of admiration and appreciation and his Seuss-like art style thoroughly fun and enjoyable.

Adobe Art
Adobe Art

There were many interesting sights in Slab City and certainly no lack of interesting characters.  We kept busy during our stay and by the time we left we were somewhat familiar with the “neighborhoods” and “communities” and all the happenings.  There was a one-man radio station, and a Saturday night talent show.  There were Canadian clubs and singles clubs. There was art and there was junk-art. There was hip and there was hippy.   There was trash and there was trashy.  There was clean and there was dirty.  There was young and there was old.  

Slab City Art
Slab City Art
Slab City Junk Art
Slab City Junk Art

If we took anything away from this out of the ordinary boondocking experience, I would say that it’s the realization that everything is not as it appears on the surface.  Our trepidation upon our arrival was totally overcome by the time we pulled out four days later and we now know that desert life is crawling with creativity and irregularity….in the good sense.

Slab City living
Slab City living

I would say that California was the state that exposed us to a multitude of diverse experiences in such a short time.  My hopes are, that if the four of us don’t get back there together, the kids will make it a point to at least get out to Yosemite National Park someday.  As for Bri and I, we’re already California Dreaming about getting back there.  And this time you can bet that Wine Country won’t just be a drive through!

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Sugar Beet Harvesting in Montana

Sugar Beet Harvesting in Montana

I write this post for three reasons…..to admit guilt, to redeem myself and to spread awareness.

As a family of four, traveling (living) on only one income is very challenging at times, most times. Brian averages 32 hours per week working remotely.  We always seem to make ends meet as we are simple people and know where our priorities lie. That being said, there are sacrifices that I refuse to make, especially when it comes to keeping myself and my family healthy. I’m talking about food choices.  Yes, perhaps we would have a little extra in the budget if we lived solely off of processed, pesticide ridden or genetically modified foods.   Then again, perhaps that little extra would end up going to remedying the illnesses I’d expect one (or all) of us to contract from eating such foods.

It became inevitable after the first couple of months of being in areas not conducive to our eating habits that we would have to try and pick up some short-term work along the way. So, with the help of  FB, Craigslist, and RV forums, we have managed to supplement our income enough to keep our bodies (as well as our truck) fueled.

Back in June, I came across a thread on the Fulltime Families FB page, one of the on-line family travel groups I belong to.  Folks were talking about working a sugar beet harvest in Montana and how insanely lucrative it had been for them in the past. Upon doing my research, I learned that the job required little experience, the commitment was for roughly one month during September and October, the employment agency put you up in an RV park with full hook ups, and the pay was indeed desirable.  Perfect for us!  We planned on visiting Glacier in early September so we’d be in the area anyway.  Not to mention we had just spent a chunk of cash on RV and truck repairs, setting us back quite a bit. Applied. Hired. Happy.  Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure what a sugar beet was.  Nonetheless, the idea of working outside, in the fall, in the dirt was quite appealing . I bookmarked the company’s website and forgot about it.

Until…  sometime after arriving in Montana I came across information that sugar beets were amongst the top GMO foods in the country… not good!  GMOs are food products that have had their DNA altered in a lab to make them drought, herbicide and pesticide resistant.  Sometimes referred to as “Frankenfoods”, they have been altogether banned in many other countries.

Red flag went up.  I panicked. I researched. Suspicions confirmed.

I had signed us up to work for the devil…otherwise known, in this case, as Monsanto!

I was discouraged, the kids were horrified, and Bri , well, let’s just say he’s the reason to my rhyme.   After a fairly lengthy discussion we decided to honor our commitment and show up to the job.  Yes, we were compromising our principles and going against our beliefs.  But, as Bri pointed out, it was a necessary evil. We had already counted on the money to get us to California.  And, in my defense, none of our earnings would be knowingly spent on Monsanto supported foods.   Furthermore, we could use this opportunity to spread awareness.

We pulled in to Sidney, a remote town situated in northeastern Montana with relatively low expectations.   We learned that the area was currently in the midst of an oil boom, which was clearly evident by the shoddily constructed “man camps” we observed along the way.  We had also heard that there had been a fairly recent murder in the community, which, once again, made us rethink our decision.  We decided that we would show up to the RV park (aka county fairgrounds) and if at that point things appeared overly sketchy, we’d skip town. Fortunately, that was not the case and upon our arrival we were greeted by our camp host and security guard who assured us that we had nothing to be concerned about, safety wise. Aside from the two other families there with kids, the majority of the RVers in the lot were retired couples with fancy rigs and small dogs.  If it was safe enough for them, then we had nothing to worry about in our 04 model 5th wheel guarded by our ferocious watch dog Daisy May.

Nearly half of the world’s sugar production comes from sugar beets and in Montana it is a $60 million industry.  Local farmers are contracted to grow the beets  and are paid based on yield and  sugar content.  Here is where my issue lies. The farmers are only allowed to plant approved seed varieties.  And guess what?  Ten out of the twelve approved varieties are “Roundup Ready” seeds.  Yes indeed, a Monsanto product.  I’m not quite sure about the other two varieties but that really doesn’t matter.  If some growers did plant the other varieties, and if they aren’t GMO seeds, cross pollination would contaminate those fields anyway.  So, it is my knowledgeable assumption that all of the sugar beets that Bri and I worked with were genetically modified. Very bad!

Beet field
Beet field

During the harvest, the beets were delivered by truckloads to a factory yard where they were weighed and piled and random samples were collected for testing. I was part of a 6-7 member crew who worked in the factory yard for 7 hours a day.  We kept the piler running, the area clear of all stray beets and collected the samples. From that shift, I went to work inside the factory with Bri for another 4-5 hours.  It was more or less an assembly line job where we weighed, washed and dried the samples before the pulp was extracted and sent into the lab for sugar content. Neither position was difficult but the hours were long and went by ever so slowly.

Beet factory
Beet factory

We worked with many interesting people, toting quite diverse backgrounds during our time there. Aside from our fellow RVers, we fraternized with a group of transient 20 something year olds ,a train hopper, a retired local schoolteacher (who came to our RV bearing fresh, produce from her garden), a car salesman (who brought us fresh, local eggs)  and “Cowboy John” (who provided us entertainment via song and ferrets).  I’m pretty confident in saying that I don’t believe many of these people are even aware of Monsanto and their evil ways. I do know that most are aware of my affection for kale which did prompt some words of healthy living from me. And though I do feel a bit hypocritical, I’m glad we had this experience.  Especially, if it adds more members to the Millions Against Monsanto campaign.

Piling beets
Piling beets
Weighing beets
Weighing beets
Summertime

Summertime

Summertime Blues just hit me. Not because of the weather as I do so enjoy the crispness of the autumn air and the beautiful colors the season brings with it.  Here in Montana (where we are working a sugar beet harvest until mid-October), it’s almost as comparable to Maine…..almost.  But let’s be factual here. Living this nomadic lifestyle allows us to chase the warm weather and enjoy summertime climates year round.  So what’s the deal?  Why so blue?

I’m missing something that highlighted my summer in more ways than one. I’m missing  the celebration of happy people gathering together amidst the trees and fields, under the sun and stars to celebrate life and love in the form of music. I’m missing  BurntWoodsStock.

Family, live music, nature, people, local food,  and quality beer.  If you know us, you’d agree that those are the elements that make The Dunns  “Happy Campers” !  So, when we stumbled upon an opportunity to volunteer at a 3 day music festival in the Burnt  Woods of Oregon, we immediately jumped on it. (Well, I did the jumping.  They had me with the name as  I’m a sucker for anything relating to the flower power era.  Bri, on the other hand, needed a few more details of what I was signing us up for).

BWS

The festival was created four years ago by James and Julz Kasner, musicians themselves, who wanted to share their vision of  an all ages  family oriented gathering down on Kasner’s farm.  Well, their vision turned out to be a successful one and for 3 days in July, a variety of regional and local bands show up to do their thing!  Whether it’s rockin, groovin, swingin or jammin, hippies and hipsters alike all gather together for some soul singin!  And the four of us were fortunate to get the chance to be a part of all this magic.

I corresponded with Julz via email months prior to the event and I knew without even meeting her that she was an energetic soul oozing with kindness and personality. My feelings were confirmed upon our arrival at the farm when we were greeted with smiles, hugs, a headful of blonde dreadlocks and a baby blue canopy. (See Bri’s post, “Final Thoughts On The Ranch, A Comedic Interlude Part 1”).  Amazingly enough, she knew all of our names.  Mercy immediately became a big fan!Mercy and Julz

After we set up camp in the field with the other volunteers and vendors we went to the information tent to sign up for our duties.  Enter… MrWavyGravyMadHatterPsychadelicJesterMan and volunteer headmaster…Kevin.  A tried and true BurntWoodsStock head, (I believe he is still wearing his bracelet), he and his wife Chris were our super supervisors.  Never a dull moment at their camper… aka… registration booth, security center, ticket counter, supply closet, and volunteer meal shack, they kept things pretty well-organized on very little sleep.

BWS

Bri, Riv and I took gate duty.  Mercy, at her request, was assigned to the kids area and that is where she remained the entire time.  She kept busy crafting and gaming with the little ones. We saw her when she got hungry or when she decided  a hula hooping break was in order.

BWS

Our gate shifts were a mere 4 hours, leaving us ample time to play. Naturally, Bri and I hit the beer tent where the owners of  Rusty Truck, poured us a mighty tasty IPA.  River decided he would hang out with the wood fired pizza guys.  It didn’t take long for him to become a repeat customer.

BWSBWS

We also became quite friendly with the merchandise vendors.  It was great to see folks, mainly families, peddling their goods to people who appreciate supporting “the little guy”.  The tie-dye family was very popular. They kept everyone colorful and comfortable.

BWS

There’s nothing like being able to see and hear live music for 12 hours a day to keep your mojo going.   Not being from the west coast we were unfamiliar with pretty much all of the bands but that didn’t matter. Each one put on a spectacular performance and kept the crowd singing and dancing well into the night.  Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the  impressive fire dancers whose mesmerizing performance left you in a daze.  And the belly dancer who put you in a trance.  Talk about keeping you entertained between band changes!

Bri and I took in as much as our bodies would let us. ( It’s not like the old days where we would dance until the sun came up).  We both agree that our favorite was, ironically enough, The Sugar Beets,  from Eugene Oregon.

What sets this festival apart from others is what happens on the last day. This is when local teens are given the opportunity to take the stage (some for the first time) and showcase their musical talents. I truly admire James and Julz for seeing how important it is to provide a venue for our youth.  We witnessed some amazing talent and  it’s highly likely that some of these kids may find themselves as future BurntWoodsStock headliners.

I can’t imagine the amount of work and time that goes into planning and pulling together an event of this caliber.   My wish is for its continued  growth and success and that we will be able to return in the years to come.

BWS

Until then, I think we’ll just head to California, where there just may be a cure for the summertime blues.

The Black Hills…”Native” vs.” American” History

The Black Hills…”Native” vs.” American” History

MOUNT RUSHMORE

Mt. Rushmore

VS.

Crazy Horse

CRAZY HORSE

                  OR

White Man vs. Red Man?

Power vs. Honor?

The Beach Boys vs. Steven Tyler?

The Black Hills of South Dakota behold many miles of impressive scenery and a wealth of wild west history.  It is also home to two majestic stone mountain carvings drawing millions of tourists annually to marvel at the beauty and perhaps embrace the history that so inspired these masterpieces. And although we don’t like to put ourselves in that “tourist” category (yes, we have totally become travel snobs), I will say that our initial reason for visiting the area was to do just that.

We decided to start at Mt. Rushmore, the monument that epitomizes what most Americans consider the ultimate memorial to the birth, growth, development and preservation of our country. Admission to the memorial is free, however they do get you with an $11 parking fee which was not covered by our National park pass. Apparently, federal funds weren’t used in the construction of the lot which is a concession operating under a contract between the National Park Service and The Mt. Rushmore society.  What???   That aside, the sight of the 60 foot heads of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln from The Grand View Terrace is well worth paying the parking fee.

We began our tour the same way we do at every National Park we visit.  We spent about 45 minutes in the visitor center, first checking out the exhibits followed by a viewing of the park movie detailing its history, culture, science and nature. Then we headed out to walk the 1/2 mile Presidential Trail loop, admiring the different viewpoints, waiting patiently for our turn at the prime photo spots and shooting a few takes for the  “On the Road with Mercy ” series.

This  is what we learned while we were there…

Gutzon Borglum was an incredibly talented sculptor.  It took 400 workers 14 years to complete. The conditions were at times very harsh but there were no deaths. They blasted with Dynamite.

This is what we did not learn while we were there…

The land on which Mt. Rushmore sits was wrongfully taken by our government from the Lakota Indian tribe .

Gutzon Borglum was at one time an active member of the KKK.

17 miles away sits Crazy Horse,  the memorial honoring the culture, tradition and living heritage of  North American Indians.  When finished (which most likely will not be in my lifetime) it will be the largest outdoor sculpture in the world.

Being the colossal size that it is, you can actually get a fairly decent view  from the road.  That being said, we had already planned on going in for a closer look  as for some reason or another Bri and I bypassed this one 20 years ago. Paying the $27  wasn’t  all that difficult to swallow once we were informed that every bit of the fee goes to the non-profit foundation which funds construction of the monument as well as various educational programs and scholarships. The fact that we were able to leave with a chunk of the granite blasted from the mountain was an added bonus.

Once you’re on what they refer to as their campus, you have access to the entire visitor complex which consists of  The Visitor Center, The Indian Museum of North America, The Native American Education and Cultural Center and Korczak’s Studio/Home. Again,we began by viewing the 20 minute orientation movie, “Dynamite and Dreams” which left us all just sitting in our seats trying to absorb the magnificent feat set out upon by one determined man whose motto was “Never Forget Your Dreams”.  We spent the next couple of hours on campus.

This is what we learned while we were there….

Korczak Ziolkowski was a gifted sculptor who worked briefly on Mt. Rushmore.  He was invited by  Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to carve a memorial celebrating the spirit of their Sioux Warrior Crazy Horse.

Ziolkowski accepted the invitation and singlehandedly took on the project first by constructing roads to the base, stairs to the 600 ft. summit and a cabin to live in. He declined two offers of  10 million dollars in federal funding. He married and had ten children. He worked on Crazy Horse until his death and left detailed plans to carry on his work. His wife Ruth, now in her 80s and 7 of their children are dedicated to continuing his dream. When completed, all four presidential heads will be able to fit inside Crazy Horse’s head.

Crazy Horse was an inspiration to Native American tribes. A legendary leader who wanted for his people to remain on their lands and live freely without having to seek out permission of the white man.  He was stabbed and killed by an American soldier while under a flag of truce.

This is what we didn’t learn while we were there…..

Hmmmmm…..nothing comes to mind.

We ended up extending our stay in The Black Hills region where we camped in an area held sacred to many Native American tribes. We experienced the land, the legends, the history and the culture of these indigenous people and I personally left with a spiritual connection.

However, there is one thing that does not sit well with me and perhaps the reason for me writing this post. From a moral standpoint, how was the US government able to   continuously violate treaties allowing the Indian tribes to keep their own land every time an opportunity for personal gain was revealed?  How ironic is it that the very culture of the indigenous people revolved around respecting and protecting  the land and today these reservations are some of the most run-down and impoverished  areas of our country.  I have seen this personally. This, my friends is American history and it is unfortunate that for centuries this feeling of entitlement may be the only thing that has “trickled down”.

As for the music reference, these “rock” stars  have their own style and perhaps each a different following…..  And, although there are no documented photos of Crazy Horse, I’m guessing he would be the one with the more eccentric wardrobe,  the flashier peace pipe and the more indiscriminate fan base.

Crazy Horse

Pretty Vegas

Pretty Vegas

Fabulous Las VegasOr, shall we call this, The Dunns do Vegas…..rated G?

Believe it or not, Las Vegas can be both family friendly and affordable and with some diligence and planning we were able to spend four nights and five days taking in a little of  the fun and craziness the city of sin had to offer. The total expenses for this family of four? $271….and here’s the breakdown.

Camping~ $56

So what if it was in a casino parking lot, under some bright lights, not far from the highway overpass. It was far enough away from the strip, patrolled by security and occupied by many retired couples. That price included full hook ups, which was our sweetest deal yet. We generally pay that price for dry camping.  The weather was 112 degrees when we arrived and there was no way we could’ve left Daisy in the RV for any amount of time without air conditioning . And it wasn’t until we hit Nevada that we ever even turned on the AC unit.

Vegas camping
Vegas camping

Food and drink~ $76

This total is mostly snacks and drinks we had to grab while out on the strip as we weren’t toting a cooler around town with us.  However, if you look, you can find some great happy hour deals and that we did.  We actually hit one the first night at the casino we were camped at, which coincidentally happened to be the local award-winning brewery. So, Brian and I, being suckers for sampling local beer, decided that dinner would be ½ price apps. $2.50 IPAs and root beer floats. No arguments from the kids and a great introduction to “Viva Las Vegas”.  Other than that we didn’t spend any more than usual to feed ourselves.  Maybe even less as I did mange to locate a Trader Joe’s and stock up on some healthy essentials.

Casino
Main Street Casino

Free Attractions~ $0

Just about every hotel has some sort of attraction and this did take some planning.  I honestly think we walked more miles on the strip than we did hiking in Utah trying to see as many as possible.  Some are very visible and easily accessible with frequent happenings throughout the day and evening, such as  the Fountains at the Bellagio, and the Volcano at The Mirage.  Others, which we realized later, were strategically located inside where you had to first walk through either a mall of high-end shops,  through a smokey casino or past a timeshare rep. offering free shows to take their tour.  These included The Fall of Atlantis at Caesar’s Palace, and The Fashion Show at Fashion Show Mall.

Fashion Show
“Did you really have to drag me here?”

The Siren’s vs. Pirates at Treasure Island was our favorite.  The show is performed at various times nightly and does draw a fairly large crowd so after the first night we realized that it was wise to show up about ½ hour early to get a good viewing point.  I say after the first night because after lining up for four nights, we actually got to see the show on the fourth night. Every other night it was cancelled due to gusty winds.  It was well worth the wait as the cast’s performance was stellar.

Sirens vs. Pirates
Sirens vs. Pirates
Sirens
Sirens vs. Dunn boys

Vegas Show~ $116

You can’t visit Vegas without seeing a show and thanks to Groupon, we saw “BeatleShow” for ½ price at Planet Hollywood. The music was dead on as the band performed songs from mop top to Sergeant  Peppers to Let It Be. The appearance of the naturally beautiful go-go dancers and Austin Powers was an added bonus.

John Paul George Ringo
John Paul George Ringo River Mercy

Celebrity sightings~ $2

Or, celebrity impersonators making a killing  posing for photographs I should say.  I believe we counted 5 Elvis’ (all of a different ethnicity), 3 Captain Jack Sparrows,  a plethora of Disney characters, a few of  The Avengers, one drunk Batman, one homeless looking Spiderman, an elderly guy with a lame Liverpool accent claiming to be John Lennon,  the guy from “The Hangover”, a nearly naked gladiator, and a Botox botched burlesque diva.   Aside from the Diva, all had tip jars overflowing with dollar bills and by the looks of it they probably raked in in a day what we net for a week!  That got Bri and I thinking…..if someone’s willing to ship us our Halloween boxes, we could definitely have that street market cornered.

Stormtroopers
Stormtroopers
Vegas Avengers
Vegas Avengers
Elvis'
Elvis’

Gambling~ $21

Bri and I are not gamblers by any means(and this total does include tipping the cocktail waitresses), but that didn’t mean we weren’t gonna try our luck, especially after Riv had a dream that we hit it big.  We signed up for slot cards at every casino we went through offering free money and played the 25 cent slots while the kids hung in the corner people watching.  This never took longer than 10 minutes and just when the kids started to complain (or noticed security eying them), I hit for $80.  (So, technically, that would bring our total down to just $191).  Thankfully, that was on our last night so just as we started to feel that tinge of winning greed, we split town.

Gambling

Vegas was a great experience for all of us and it stands to reason that both River and Mercy are now savvy to the ways and ideas of sin city.  To name a few, pole dancing can be a profession, drinking margarita yards tends to make some women loud, mouthy, and obnoxious, about 90 percent of the women donning six-inch heels have no idea how to walk in them, a bag lady does indeed carry lots of bags and the cards and brochures being handed out on the strip aren’t souvenirs. I wonder if they’ll have any desire to return anytime soon?

Deserts and Canyons and Arches…Oh My!

Deserts and Canyons and Arches…Oh My!

America The Beautiful….The appropriately named National Park pass we purchased for $80 which has paid for itself 3 times over already.  We love the National Parks and experiencing as many as we can on this journey is a goal we are trying diligently and joyously to fulfill.  The campgrounds, the visitor centers, the rangers, the educational programs, the wildlife and the hiking trails all contribute to  the overall beauty which  in turn feeds the soul with such profound feelings and emotions, sometimes difficult to put into words….but here goes.

Grand Canyon….POWERFUL

This boundless view is capable of literally taking your breath away. Whether you’re a first time visitor or a return visitor (of 20 years, as are Bri and I), it takes more than a few moments to process its greatness. From the colorful layers of the earth, to the deep chiseled rock carved by The Colorado River, you literally feel as if you’re staring into a painting.Grand Canyon

We stayed 4 nights in the park campground at south rim.  And, although it is considered the “touristy” region, our experience was what we made it…spectacular .  We hiked several trails to various look out points, sometimes alongside mules and sometimes alongside unprepared tourists. This was the first time any of us did what we referred to as a” backwards hike” where the ascent was on the return route.  It was a slight challenge at first, but we were well equipped with the necessary supplies, mainly enough water, to prove the trek gratifying.  I’m not so sure the woman caked with face makeup, wearing flip-flops, one hand clutched to her Gucci bag, the other to a frappacino, felt the same way.  We also biked around a portion of the rim, attended a ranger led talk on The California Condor (a rare bird with a 9 1/2 foot wing span-which, unfortunately we did not see),  witnessed a small, intimate wedding, admired a very peaceful sunset and  had a beautiful elk visit our campsite for coffee one morning.

Grand CanyonColorado RiverG.C. sunset

Bryce Canyon……MAGICAL

Truly a fantastical backdrop of unique rock formations  everywhere you look.  Called “hoodoos”, these structures were formed by thousands of years of water and ice erosion. Boasting vibrant colors of red, orange and white, I initially had to remove my sunglasses to see if my eyes were deceiving me!Bryce

We stayed 2 nights in the park, again “backwards hiking” and walking the rim to the popular vistas. The names of some of the formations are quite fitting. “Fairyland”, “The Queens Garden”  and “Thor’s Hammer” were some of our favorites. After the first day, both River and Mercy, with a tinge of guilt in their voices, confessed to liking this canyon a little bit more than The Grand. We were also fortunate enough to have to stop for a herd of pronghorn, which aren’t often seen in the park.

BryceBryceBryce

Zion…….SPIRITUAL

Comprised of some of the tallest sandstone cliffs in the world and receiving its lifeblood from the ever flowing Virgin River, the scenery here is striking.Zion

We entered the park on the east side, coming through the 1.1 mile sandstone carved Mount Carmel Tunnel. In hindsight, we should have come in on the west side as some problems did arise. Our trailer just fit the size restrictions and we had to obtain a tunnel permit ($15, which our pass did not cover), and as with all oversize rigs, we had to wait for rangers to stop traffic and let us through. Despite losing our trailer tire rim and hubcap somewhere in the tunnel, we were still able to enjoy the stunning views exiting the tunnel and descending down the long, steep and winding mountain.  Until……..roughly 2/3 of the way down, the trailer brake controller started flashing these bright red letters….OL OL OL.  Then, that smell of burning rubber and Bri realizing that our braking powers had all but fled. Luckily, there was a pullout and after parking it  for a while to let the brakes cool (and to recover from a near heart attack) we realized we had enough power in the truck brakes to crawl the rest of the way down and into the campground.  Upon leaving the park, our brakes started working again. But, after inspection, we did require a new $800 brake job.

We stayed here 4 or 5 nights as the inherent change of landscape and the presence of flowing water refreshed us physically and mentally after having spent weeks in  hot, dry, and dusty deserts. The desert in Zion is different as it harbors more than one environment and the ability to witness the  diversity in one place was a respite.  The fact that many of the trails had water of some form or another (Emerald pools, weeping rock , and of course the river) made for five happy campers. (Daisy also got some swim time in). Witnessing the sun cast it’s effervescent glow upon the majestic cliffs in the late afternoon was something to look forward to each day we were there.

Zion tunnelVirgin RiverZion

Arches……..INSPIRATIONAL

Sculptured rock scenery consisting of towering spires, pinnacles, balanced rock, windows, natural bridges, and of course, arches, makes for some gorgeous photographic opportunities.  Although you can see a lot of the park by car, the foot trails and short hikes give you  more of a sense of the size, scale and density of the rocks.Delicate Arch

We stayed 5 nights just outside the park at a great campground in Moab along The Colorado. We did most of the park in just one day, hiking out to Delicate Arch, which is THE famous arch, the one seen on the State of Utah’s license plate.  A relatively easy but hot hike in which the payoff of seeing the enormity of  it in addition to having our photo taken underneath it was gratifying. I’m not so sure  it was like that for the young 20 something year old couple hiking out there with nothing but 2 bottles of Mountain Dew. I seriously thought we were going to have to forfeit all of our water when I saw the girl could only go approximately 8-10 steps before having to stop , sit down and catch her breath.  She claimed she was getting over a sickness.  Bri and Riv explained to her boyfriend that they should be carrying water and not a dehydrating, caffeinated, sugary drinks. I believe they made it back okay.  

Landscape Arch was our next hike.  After watching the park video, we learned that a portion of the arch broke off in 1992, witnessed and caught on film by some hikers. Today, you can see the pieces that broke off and as you look up.  It’s hard to fathom that the thinnest part of the arch is only 6 feet thick. Who knows how long it will be before the entire arch crumbles. I’m just glad it didn’t happen in our presence. Knowing me, I would’ve stayed to catch it on film and sold it to National Geographic or The Discovery Channel…..for the soul reason of prolonging our trip.   Mercy received her first Junior Ranger badge here and now she is hooked on the program.

ArchesLandsccape ArchArches

We have left the desert and are currently in Colorado. I do believe that the kids have a renewed sense of adventure after seeing such lush, green landscape in this state.  Or, it may have something to do with the fact that school is out and summer has been bringing more families to the campgrounds, which in itself is…..DELIGHTFUL!

BIG and Beautiful BIG Bend

BIG and Beautiful BIG Bend

As our drive out of Austin took us south into some vast open land, my soul felt as if it was headed north into some boundless open air.  This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy our time spent in Austin. I most certainly did. I love city living. I love city working. I love city partying. It’s fast, its social, and it’s a necessary balance when one is living on the road. Nevertheless, there’s something to say about being at peace with nature…..for me anyways.

For one reason or another, we never made it to Big Bend during our travels 20 years ago.  And, to be honest, I wasn’t even really sure what the draw was, then or (up until) now.  It is not one of the busiest National Parks and in doing my research, I hadn’t found much information outside of the fact that it was in the desert, very picturesque and pretty far off the beaten path .  It was more or less word of mouth that convinced us to make it a destination this time around and I am convinced that the decision to stick with this plan was by far the smartest one yet. I must admit that due to the reality of its remote location, our time constraints, and the outrageous jump in gas prices, we almost nixed the plan entirely. What a grand mistake that would have been. I now know and understand the reason why the majority of the visitors to Big Bend are return visitors.   We had 2 days  to explore and experience this enchanted land, and that we did!

Located in southwest Texas, the  park expands along the Rio Grande River, occupies the upper third of the Chihuahuan Desert and contains the entire Chisos Mountain range.  The unique geological structures, formed years ago by the earth’s faults are absolutely stunning!  Rising up from the desert floor into the openness of the blue sky, these formations of nature extend as far  into the horizon as the eye can see. Waking up to these views of grandeur each day was more of a perk than my morning cup of coffee.

We hiked along the river that serves as the boundary between the US and Mexico.   We descended down into a canyon laden with volcanic rock.  We climbed limestone cliffs embedded with prehistoric evidence.

We stood at the foot of a 1500 foot high canyon wall.  We sat  in the naturally purifying hot springs.

We witnessed colorful sunsets with the bats.   We enjoyed the starlit night sky with the coyotes.

We camped without hookups, without cellphone service and without wi-fi.

AAAHHH……..