The Ultimate Road Trip: THE SILVER SNAIL : A solo woman's full-time RV adventure
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Brookings, OR

So I thought Brookings would be a place to rest while waiting for the smoke to clear in California...and, well, it was - only I ended up settling in for a lot longer than originally planned. As soon as I arrived, I felt like an old friend had welcomed me home. I was drawn in by the beautifully rugged, undeveloped coast and its miles of hiking trails. Back in 1967 the state declared the entire coast as public land and that's partly why the coastline here is still so incredibly beautiful and hasn't been ruined by overgrown development. The state parks have some of the best real estate on the coast, and their campgrounds can't be beat. Samuel Boardman State Park runs along a 12-mile length of Route 101 and offers some of the most beautiful overlooks and hiking trails of the entire coast. And if you somehow get tired of the tremendous Pacific, it's a quick drive inland to Loeb State Park where you can swim in the pristine Chetco River, gape at the beauty of the surrounding mountains or walk through the quiet peace of the fir and redwood forest. And then there's the wildlife...driving south on coastal Route 101 near the Pistol River, a juvenile cougar jumped into the road and ran ahead of me for about a quarter mile, before jumping back into the coastal brush. At Secret Beach, I could watch sea otters frolick amid the seastacks while sea lions lazily baked on the sunny rocks. At any time, flocks of brown pelicans could always be seen gracefully flying above the waves and it's not uncommon to spot an osprey overhead with a freshly caught meal in its talons. And of course there were the regular visits from deer coming to visit my little trailer at Harris Beach State Park, where I was blessed with a most incredible view of the Pacific:

Of course, no town is complete without a good wifi coffeeshop and tHE sALTY dOG cOFFEE bAR, in Brookings Harbor, fits the bill with an excellent drink selection, friendly crowd and wonderful ambience. Like all good coffee shops, this was a great place to hobnob with the locals and make new friends, including Adam, who I met shortly after I arrived.

July seemed like a good time for Adam and I to take a quick trip to Crater Lake. Passing through the Siskyou Mountains, Route 199 to Grants Pass runs parallel to the gorge-ous Smith River and has its moments of being treacherously narrow and twisty, but towing the trailer was smooth sailing. We stopped in Grants Pass to say hello to Adam's parents and had a beautiful campsite on the edge of the Rogue River. Since we were so close, we spent a day wandering around amiable Ashland and lingering in Lithia Park before heading into the wilderness of the Crater Lake region.

We decided to camp at neighboring Diamond Lake - and in the middle of July, the resident population of giant hungry mosquitos were happy to welcome us into their lakeside home. Great. No barbeques or late-night campfires for us. In fact, we only stayed a couple nights - enough to drive around Crater Lake and take in its splendor - before we made a break for it.

Crater Lake is a most interesting phenomenon. It lies inside a volcanic basin that was created when the mountain collapsed 7,700 years ago after a large eruption. Winter snow melts and fills the lake with water - there are no inlets or outlets to the lake. This pure bluest-blue water is almost 2000 feet deep and is the deepest lake in the United States. Underwater visibility averages 120 feet, and you can bring your scuba equipment and dive - but you have to hike your gear down a steep mile-long trail to get to the water's edge. Since I didn't have my sherpa or pack mule with me, I wasn't prepared to do it. There's not a lot of underwater wildlife to see, but I hear the experience of diving in such crystal clear water and clearly seeing the mountains above you is exhilerating and pretty cool. To put it in perspective, I am used to diving in Maine where a good day of vis is 15 feet.


Instead of taking the same way back to Brookings, we took a northerly loop back to the coast, through Coos Bay. I thought it might be nice to camp at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, until we got there and the place was abuzz with ATVs everywhere. With miles of huge sand dunes, this area has become a prime destination to go full throttle on these noisy, destructive devices, and IMHO, it kinda ruins it...still, a part of me can appreciate the fun of free-wheelin' on the jumps and whoops of smooth sand mountains...and I just might have to try it...someday.

Being a Saturday in the busy summer season, all of the coastal state park campgrounds were full, and it was getting late in the day with no home for the night. We searched and searched for someplace that would have some kind of ambiance or natural beauty...but every place was full, so by dusk we were forced to admit defeat and stopped at a less-than-ideal roadside commercial park in Bandon. Breakfast and a stroll through charming Old Town was a nice way to start the next day, though and we decided to hunt down a place on the coast that had the natural beauty and lack of crowds and mosquitos that we had been looking for. We found it at Floras Lake, and were lucky enough to get one of the few relatively private lakeview campsites.

It's pretty remote, but quaint Port Orford was close enough for groceries and a tasty breakfast joint (Paradise Cafe). Kite-boarding and wind-surfing are the thing to do there at Floras Lake, and there is a school and rental shop to get you started. A funny thing about that lake: around the turn of the century, someone thought it could be a great harbor town if a channel was dug through the dune to connect the lake with the ocean. He got people excited, sold land plots and planned an entire town, only to realize, when construction started, that the lake was at a higher elevation and just drained out into the ocean. There's a plaque there commemorating that little nugget from the past.



September 2 - October 9:

Adam had a whole month off and had always wanted to go to Austin, and I loved it in Austin and liked the idea of going back we made plans to go...why not...that's what having a trailer is all about, right? Well, the thing is, this trip didn't go so well.

We got everything hitched and ready to go the night before and woke up before dawn to get an early start - only to discover the trailer brakes weren't working. After a bleary-eyed hour of troubleshooting the brake controller, Adam saw that it was the 7-way plug that was broken and used a rubberband to fix it. Then we had to get gas, and instead of popping the gas door, I accidentally popped the hood...and...the latch broke, so we couldn't get the hood closed. Another hour later, with the help of a screwdriver and gas station attendant, we figured it out. By the time we were cruising south on California's I-5, it was something like 800 degrees outside, and our brains were locked in on putting miles behind us.

We aimed to drive way too many miles in a day and stopped in noisy, hot, dusty truckstops to "sleep" without air conditioning. Riley got super-fidgety in the car because all he wanted to do was sleep, but the movement of the car kept upsetting his restful attempts. By the time we got to Wilcox, Arizona, everybody's nerves (everybody, that is, except for cool, calm, Peyote) were so frayed that we decided to get an air-conditioned hotel room before we all went postal. That was a good break, and lucky thing, too - because next morning, not even 30 miles on the road, one of the trailer tires blew on I-10. We pulled onto the narrow shoulder and on the side of the highway, in the scorching 800 degree sunshine, our hero Adam, choking on diesel exhaust and just inches away from speeding semi trucks, quickly got the spare tire on and we were back on the road in no time.

It wasn't that simple, though. The blown steel-treads mangled the entire wheel well and part of the side panel, requiring yet more major body work on the trailer....AND it caused a kink in the gas line to the fridge, so that crapped out on us and we had to throw all of our food away. And then, the icing on the cake - when we finally got to Austin, Hurricane Ike was a couple days from arriving, and in preparation, all of the state park campgrounds were closing it was time to give in and modify our plans. The trailer damage was a big deal, and I inquired about having Roger Williams in Weatherford do the work, but it would mean spending another month in Texas. Since I was so close to Ohio, I figured this was a good time for me to make the pilgrimage to the Airstream factory in Jackson Center and know that I was getting the very best workmanship. It would also give me an opportunity to visit my family in Cleveland again. So i went to Ohio and Adam headed back to Oregon.

So to Ohio it was, with free overnight stops in Cracker Barrel parking lots along the way. My first day on the road I had more good luck: the Toyota got a flat tire in Thrall, Texas. Lucky for me, not a quarter mile down the road, there was an excellent tire shop that gave me a fair price on a whole set of E-series truck tires and immediately went to work installing them. Yeah, it turns out all of my tires were pretty much bald. Oops. I KNEW that - I had just hoped for another few thousand miles. Patrick, way back in Olema suggested new tires, but the guys in the oil-change shop told me I still had a few thousand miles left, so I had decided to play my luck. Getting the flat tire really wasn't so fun, but it all turned out just fine and with new, super-hero truck tires, I continued on to Memphis for the night... and what road trip is complete without a visit to Graceland, right?

As it so happens, there is a wonderful RV park right across the street, behind the Heartbreak Hotel, where I could get a full hookup - which meant the relief of air-conditioned sleeping and a pool. And I didn't need to unhitch, since Graceland was right across the street. Also, one of the tourist-centric restaurants offered free pink limo rides to a nearby restaurant for dinner, which was great, because my fridge still didn't work, and Elvis Presley Boulevard is terribly big and ugly and not someplace I'd want to be on foot, by myself. Apparently, when Elvis bought the place, it was surrounded by pasture. Ahhhh....progress.

So the next morning, before hittin' the road, I shelled out thirty bucks for the tour of Elvis' legendary home. And you know what? It's worth it just to have experienced a step back in time and see this iconic image of America...but I was surprised to feel like I was in the Brady Bunch house, not the grandeur of The King. With all due respect, I enjoy Elvis' music, but I am not an Elvis fanatic. I stopped there mostly to see what it was all about...and now that I know, I can say it's a little bit of a tourist trap...but I can say I've been to Graceland. Here's some pictures so you can all save your money:


So I got to Airstream's Terra Port in Jackson Center not even an hour before the fierce winds of Hurricane Ike started blowing through. I had been racing ahead of the storm's path but had no idea that I'd be speculating on whether we would be blown clear to Oz. It was truly powerful and a bit frightening. A window on a neighboring Safari was left unlatched and the wind picked it up and shattered it to bits. Dangerous debris was blowing all around and a big hunk of tree fell just a couple yards from my now questionably secure little home. In the middle of the night, it finally passed, but not without some major damage to the surrounding area.

First thing I did when the factory opened the next morning, was take a tour of the plant, which was pretty cool to see. I was hoping they'd have a representative of every current model, but unfortunately they don't have a showroom of new models there, just the factory and a few vintage models in the front parking lot. Jackson Center is a very small town, and the Terra Port is within walking distance to everything you need: pizza shop, small grocery store, even a little movie theatre. Without an appointment, Airstream was still able to start work on my trailer within a couple days, but since they'd need some time to complete everything, I packed up the car and headed to Cleveland.

For those of you not in the know, the Cleveland area is truly beautiful in the summer. It's very green with trees and rolling hills, bridges, rivers, babbling brooks, pleasant temperatures, and of course - Lake Erie. Cleveland proper has some great multi-cultural neighborhoods and excellent restaurants. I had always visited during the winter holidays, when it tends to be cold and dreary, so this bright and shiny Cleveland dusted off some cobwebs of long-forgotten memories. And for the first time in 18 years, I actually considered moving back. It was great to see family and friends again, revisit old haunts and stroll through trendy Tremont. The highlight was cycling on the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath in the new-ish Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It's the same historic path that mules walked to tow canal boats loaded with goods and passengers.

...and BACK TO BROOKINGS, via Astoria
By September 29, my Airstream was good as new and I was ready to hit the road again and head back to Brookings. I thought about taking the most northerly route, but since I'd be traveling through possibly snowy mountains, and wanted to get to the coast as soon as possible, I opted for boring, but safe I-80, with no treacherous snowy grades to negotiate. Like Mark Twain once said: "I'm glad I did it, partly because it was well worth it, but chiefly because I shall never ever have to do it again." I braved the long loneliness of the Great Plains and the humbling overnight stays in Flying J truckstops surrounded by huge displays of beastly diesel power. I dodged big wooden bookcases in the middle of the highway, narrowly passed burning roadside wildfires, until finally my trusty Toyota's 183 powerful horses brought me and my aluminum-covered wagon to Astoria, Oregon, in the exact area where Lewis and Clark landed. In the end, it took me 6 days to get to the coast....and on the 7th day, I rested.

Astoria, in my mind, is a land of mythical wonder. A storybook town and one of our country's oldest settlements, it is reminiscent of a mini San Francisco. A small town with no lack of good coffeeshops, microbreweries and restaurants, it sits on the edge of the great and magnificent Columbia River. Historic victorian houses are situated on the hillside with views of the river, the bridge, and mountains. There's a friendly, artsy, funky and youthful local culture and a spectacular view of the surrounding natural splendor practically everywhere you can stand. I stayed only a few nights in nearby Fort Stevens State Park, but promised myself that I would come back and spend more time here.

The drive down the Oregon coast is amazing and also worth spending some quality time to appreciate. As it was, I was anxious to get back to Brookings and stopped for one night in South Beach State Park before arriving the next day in my old familiar home, Whaleshead Beach Resort:


SOME LESSONS from this month's traveling fiascos
Don't try to do marathon drives when towing - always plan a trip with plenty of time to be comfortable and enjoy every single day. Also, maybe skip the 800-degree southwest in the summertime and try to stay clear of the path of hurricanes. And no need to ever drive I-80 across the country again.




Being eleven years old now, Riley is a pretty lumpy dog. For the most part, they are harmless fatty lumps, but a couple of them had gotten so big on one side that I was concerned about them becoming a bigger health problem for him. They were about the size of watermelons and while he didn't complain about them, I was growing increasingly worried. We had been to a number of vets over the past few years, when they were just big, not huge, and all of them had said not to remove them. Dr. John, at Town and Country Animal Hospital in Brookings was the first doctor to strongly encourage me to have them removed. He made a compelling argument that confirmed my growing concerns and so I scheduled this major surgery here for Riley.

His surgery went really well, and the next day I was able to bring him home. It was right around Halloween and poor ol' Riley unintentionally donned a Frankenstein look for the holiday. Shaved and stitched up all over, he looked pretty bad, but he was still his normal bouncy self. For two weeks, my little snail became a doggie infirmary and it was not a lot of fun. I put down the spare bed and covered the interior of the trailer with plastic because Riley had a couple drainage tubes that needed to be able to drip and ooze freely. yuck. yuckyyuck. It was a great relief when he finally healed up enough to get our home back.


Brookings is a wonderful small town, with tremendous natural beauty - but it is like living on an island because any major city is at least a two-hour drive away. But that beautiful 2-hour coastal drive south from Brookings lands you in Arcata, California. A very liberal, hippie college town and a fun place to go for a change of pace and scenery. With most activity focused around a large central town square, Arcata offers a popular weekend farmer's market, a wonderfully festive art walk, and restaurants. It also ranks high on the strollablity factor. It's quite a bit different than little ol' Brookings - while Brookings is a popular place to retire and attracts a somewhat more mature crowd, Arcata attracts crowds of dread-locked, hemp-cloaked, barefoot street peddlers, who are almost always obscured by a cloud of smoke.

On the way there or back, one of California's most beautiful state parks, Patrick's Point is definately worth a stop, especially for sunset:


So it was mid-November on the coast of Oregon, and it had rained for two weeks straight. I love the rain, but I love it more when I have a little more space, am not fighting to keep things dry, and am not worried about condensation inside the trailer. I was hoping to spend the winter months in the Pacific Northwest, but after experiencing the rain, I decided it was the best time to continue my original plan and head back to California's wine country and then on to Southern California.


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All images and words © Sharon Pieniak
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