Monday, November 19, 2007

The Maiden Voyage of Tango

I wasn’t worried anymore about pulling the trailer. If I kept the speed reasonable and minded the trailer brakes on the hills, everything would go smoothly… as long as I didn’t have to back up. I didn’t think I was quite ready to test my abilities at that skill level, which is one of the reasons we picked Butterfield Ranch RV Park near the Anzo-Borrego State Park (Southeast of Julian), because they had pull-thru sites, nice and easy, pull up, pull out. No backing. I wasn’t ready.

It was our first time out with the trailer, and we spent a lot of money outfitting the rig for our trip, buying most everything you’d need for a second house it seemed. I figured it would be a good investment in buying plates and pots and most everything we would need instead of taking them from the house when we went out. That way, we wouldn’t have so much to pack, just our clothes and food, and we can get going quicker.

With Kara’s guidance, I hitched up the trailer to the truck on Saturday morning and we left around 10:40, about an hour behind schedule. Of course, a few miles down the road, we started mentioning things we had forgotten, like the mug and hot chocolate for Kara, the small first aide kit we put together, a corkscrew for the bottle of wine I brought and an opener for the two beers chilling in the fridge. Oh well, there’s more than one way to open a beer if you don’t have an opener, and if you get desperate for a glass of wine (which we also forgot), you can push the cork into the bottle.

In Temecula, I turned east on Highway 79 and headed for the desert. Thirty miles later, we came upon the town of Winchester…which wasn’t supposed to be there…then we saw a sign that we were well on our way toward Hemet, which really wasn’t supposed to be there. As it turned out, we weren’t supposed to be there, and I had taken a wrong turn.

The first turn on our first trip and it was the wrong way.

We were headed north, as there are two Highway 79s, a north and a south, with two exits on the 15, one for each. Who knew? Maybe me because I had been down to Temecula 100 times, but never noticed that the highway had two exits, and my hand-drawn map obviously didn’t show the difference. The whole time, Kara was looking on the wrong 79, so everything looked a-okay to her, but when we had to turn on Highway 74 (which the 79 shares for a while) toward Hemet, we knew something was wrong.

Now that we figured out we were going the wrong way, it was easy to hop on this littel road, R3, and head south back to the correct Highway 79 and continue on our way. It was nearly the same mileage to take R3 as it was to go back to the 15 and find the right Highway 79...and I hate going back. We drove through Hemet (stop and go traffic with a dozen traffic lights, of course, but the benefit was that I could adjust the trailer brakes) but no R3. No sign that said R3. No sign that said Redoc or Aguanga or Highway 79 to the south, just street after street. Then Hemet was in the rear-view mirror and we were in the desert again. Okay, do we turn back? Did we miss it? We were both looking for it, so I doubted that we missed it. Kara and I consulted the map and came up with a different plan, the third one for the day.

Plan C was to keep going on Highway 74 past Highway 243, around Lake Hemet, and an additional 30 miles to Highway 371, which would take us south to the Holy Grail that the 79 was fast becoming. Who knew that Idyllwild lay in the way, or that the elevation would change from 1596 feet in Hemet to Idyllwild's nearly 5000 feet in only 10 miles or so? Not me, because I wasn’t looking at the map, and I don’t think Kara noticed either because it is a camp map from AAA. The name Idyllwild is obscured by a notation that there is a campground in the vicinity and the elevation marker is ambiguous…it just looked like a nice clean straight level road to the next highway. Who knew it wasn’t?

Well. It wasn’t. Apparently the road to Idyllwild is a freakin’ mountain road, two lanes, narrow, with steep switchbacks and other cars and craggy rocks lining the road. Oh yeah, and giant drop offs on Kara's side (I'm glad I didn't have to look down them) with no guard rails, and the few pullouts were merely graded dirt plots cut from the hill. On top of it, the trailer is as wide as the road, so I had to thread the rig through the needle every time a car came by with sometimes only a foot or so to spare. We just went slow, around 40mph most of the way, though there were a couple of turns Kara said I probably took too fast, and she was more than likely right.

Then we had to come down the other side. I adjusted the trailer brakes so they wouldn’t drag so sharply when I put on the truck brakes, and I even used only the trailer brakes so I didn’t wear out the truck's. It was thrilling and a little scary...but I must admit some parts were kind of fun (if you forget the fact that there's three tons of trailer behind you). Kara and I talked about a book she was reading to get our minds off of some of the nerve-wracking parts of the road, but mostly it was quiet. I watched the needle on my gas gauge swing down like a samurai sword and I knew this little extra excursion was going to completely screw up the gas schedule I had considered. We were only going 220 miles round trip, which means that we would have had plenty of gas to make it. I figured, after the extra-curricular travel up the hills, my fuel economy would completely tank (no pun intended), but I didn’t account for this 60-mile detour, nor did I figure into the equation a giant elevation change. The odds of us running out of gas on the way home suddenly increased substantially; it didn’t help that I didn’t fill up the tank all the way that morning. Since gas is so damn expensive, I reached the pump’s $75 dollar limit before I completely filled up.

Needless to say, I started to worry, which was compounded by the fact that the last gas station I saw was in a distant memory.

Once on the other side of the mountain, we turned south on Highway 371 and entered the desert. It was pretty and aptly desolate, aside from a few houses and dirt farms. We turned onto the correct Highway 79 finally, and we were back on track. It was a nice smooth road with a few hills, but nothing like we had just been through. I thought I had joined the ranks of veteran RVers via our trial by fire in the Idyllwild mountains, but I had one more test to go through, unknowingly, that wouldn’t happen until our trip home.

After about 30 miles, we only saw one town, Warner Springs, before we turned on S2. From S2, it was 29 miles to Butterfield Ranch, our final destination. Four hours had gone by, when I planned on it only taking two. Until now, the kids were having a good time. They slept for a while and enjoyed the scenery. Natalie had a bloody nose because of the altitude change and the dry weather, but Matthew was a good camper. However, they were both past hungry, and since the trip should have been over by noon (it was after two), Kara didn’t bring anything with us in the truck for them, no juice or snacks or anything. Plus, Natalie had to go to the bathroom, which is no big deal because we were carrying one with us. I pulled over and Kara took care of the kids’ needs before we pressed on down the road again.

We turned south on The Great Overland Route of 1848, which is kind of cool knowing that the road we were on was once used as a stagecoach route 150 years ago, and finally made it to Butterfield Ranch. We checked in and the woman at the counter—one of those leathery middle-aged tough-as-nails women that I wouldn’t be surprised to find on the back of a horse (or the horse on the back of her)—she told us to set up anywhere.

Anywhere to us was Space 141, off in the corner, away from everyone else, but just across a road to the spectacular vistas of the Anza-Borrego mountains. The campground was mostly dirt, but it had a bunch of trees that provided little shade, and thankfully it wasn’t hot at all, around 80. I would have prefered more grass for the kids--because I don't like to get needlessly dirty (they do as it turns out, but I don't). It took a few a few tries to get the trailer lined up in the spot, and we switched from another spot because the sewer wasn’t lined up to the back of the trailer (i.e., we were facing the wrong way).

Kara started on a late lunch for the kids and I set up camp. I dropped down the awning, set out the chairs for each of us, plugged in the electricity, water and sewer. Of course, the sewer was sloped in the wrong direction and I didn’t have anything to fix it… oh well, I worry about that tomorrow. Also, the trailer was leaning to the left, and I didn’t have anything to level it, so I jacked up the front as high as I could get it, lowered the stabilizer jacks and told everyone to make the best of it. It was hardly noticeable, but there was a little puddle of water in the sink that wouldn’t drain down on its own. I got out the table and barbecue and set out a light for later.

After lunch (ham sandwiches), we suited up and headed for the pool, as I was looking forward to splashing around in a heated pool with the kids. On the way, we toured their collection of old fire trucks and an assortment of antique wagons and farm equipment. When we got there, the pool was about 15 degrees; I had to chip off a layer of ice with my feet before I could step into it. It was suck-air-in-through-your-teeth cold! I got up to the bottom of my swimsuit, about mid-thigh, and could not go any farther; there was no way I was going to let that water cross the equator. I wouldn’t be right for a week. Natalie splashed me a little bit and I thought I was going to pass out. I noticed that when Matthew hopped into the water, his entire stomach sucked in and he took a big gulping breath and his skin stretched over his ribs. It was impossible to enjoy, since I couldn’t move, so we went up to the front office and asked where they hid the heated pool. Sheila, the tough-as-nails woman, sent us to the back of the campground, beyond the group camping section to a relatively vacant part of the campground. The pool was hardly what I would call heated, but it was warmer than the first one and tolerable once you got used to it. It also had these interesting swimming bugs. They looked like beetles, but with big wide legs, and they were able to dart through the water easily. The kids found them exciting and funny to watch, especially when they started to come near us. Kara discovered the Jacuzzi, so we all moved into that and had a good time; that’s what I call heated!

After about an hour or so, we went back to get ready for dinner. I fired up the barbecue and enjoyed how quiet it was, sitting on a chair and listening to a whole lot of nothing. Looking around, there were maybe 12 other campers in the vicinity, and I saw some lights on in a few of the cabins they also offer. The kids were enjoying trailer life, and they both couldn’t decide if they wanted to go out or go in, so they kept going out and going in…which irritated both Kara and I, so much that we had to institute a “stay out or stay in” rule. Matthew, chose to stay in at that moment, but while he was looking out the screen door at what I was doing, he leaned on it with his hands. Before, Natalie hadn’t latched it completely, so when Matthew leaned on it, the door swung open and he tumbled out into a somersault. I'd have to guess that it would have been about a two-foot fall if it weren't for the metal steps, and as quick as I like to think I am, I wasn’t able to catch him before he hit the first step with a clunk. His head hit the step and I grabbed the rest of him before he could fall any farther. When I caught him—this is what scared me—I heard a crack. Either it was my arm, which does crack upon occasion, or it was something of his, but I instantly worried that he broke something… especially since we’re 40 miles from anywhere, and we only have a quarter tank of gas left.

He didn’t cry until Kara held him, and then boy did he! I'm glad we had chosen to be off by ourselves. I checked to see that all his parts moved, and in a few minutes he was back to normal…albeit, with a lesson learned, since he was much more cautious around the screen door from then on.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of it for Matthew. Natalie opened up the screen door and it swung out and whacked him in the side of the head—he cried, and he thumped his head on the kitchen table—he cried. I think that’s all, but each time, it added to the stress of the trip… and I wondered how my parents did it all those years. They had two Matthews to contend with.

I was tired. It was getting dark. I barbecued some chicken, while Kara made some rice, salad and some vegetables. For whatever reason, either the barbecue or the stove, but the smoke alarm went off, and the whole trailer smelled like the oven was burning off a layer of plastic newness. It was a sickening smell, so she finished it in the microwave…in which the tray wouldn’t spin around because it was still taped down. Ah, camping. I guess we’re learning.

Natalie got rice everywhere (and got in trouble for it) and Matthew put a ketchup hand on the wall (and got in trouble for it), but it was a good first dinner, kind of like a rattlesnake roundup though, since Matthew wasn’t in his regular chair and was all over the place.

We had had dinner, and I was ready for bed. Driving up the hills on an unknown road toward an unknown destination in an unknown part of the state I had never been to was taking its toll. But the campground was hosting a star gazing party at 7:30 and I was looking forward to that most of all. We got the kids in the wagon, gave them both flashlights to carry and we met Glenn, an art dealer and amateur astronomer with one of those giant barrel-shaped telescopes that automatically tracks a star or planet, etc. There was about 25 people there and he gave an interesting talk about the various constellations and the stars in the sky. Natalie only wanted to see where the North Star was, and she was elated to finally get to see it “in nature.” But by this time, Matthew was beyond bored, so Kara took him back to the trailer (plus, she said that as soon as they started to leave, he said, “I pooped!” which he did).

Don’t take this to be arrogant, but I think that I’m a pretty smart guy, and it was especially evident by the questions some of my fellow campers asked of Glenn, the amateur astronomer. It was completely dark out, with a half-moon, so you could only see shadows of the people around you, and maybe that gives people an anonymity, but the first question from the lady sitting next to Natalie and I was, “What’s a falling star?” Are you serious!?! What's a falling star!?! Then someone asked what the Milky Way was, and how long does light take to get to the earth…someone said six months…and then someone asked about the age of the earth and everyone was amazed at the concept of the speed of light. Did these people skip Seventh Grade Science class, or did they never look up at the night's sky? I was fairly dumbfounded, but Glenn was patient (and his son Nick even answered some of the questions). It was interesting to look at the various constellations he pointed out with a green laser pointer that looked as though it actually reached up and touched each star he pointed to. He showed us the comet that is currently visible and we looked through the telescope at the Seven Sisters constellation. After that, Natalie wanted to go back, because she was getting tired and it was getting late. Plus, she was happy to see the North Star.

On the other hand, it made me want to get a telescope again.

Once back, the kids watched a movie, and Matthew then went to bed. At least that was the plan. It took him nearly an hour of constantly getting out of bed, sitting up, calling for us, Kara having to lay down with him, two cups of milk and a few threats to get him to fall asleep. Natalie went easy. She always does now. Kara and I stayed up a little later and watched “The Hoax” (with Richard Gere) and went to sleep around midnight. For whatever reason, I made a crazy assumption that the kids would sleep in. I figured they were out of their element and tired from the trip and that they’d just take their time waking up, like they do at home sometimes. Unfortunately for me, every little squeak, rustle of the trees or indescribable thumping noise kept me awake…that and Matthew woke up twice, once around two and again at four. Then, both of them got up earlier than normal, around 6:30. Damn. I was so tired, and on top of being sick for most of the week, my throat was thick and scratchy, I wanted to lay in bed longer (I did manage to squeeze out another half-hour or so before I got up).

Kara made all of us a great breakfast of sausage, eggs and hash browns (tater tots actually, but what’s the difference), and then we took a nature walk down a nearby trail toward a 1500-year-old old Indian camp among the boulders. The trail got a little rough and we turned around at a deep gully the kids wouldn’t have been able to go down. I climbed up a nearby hill to take a couple of pictures of the valley and we headed back to camp.

Getting the trailer ready to leave was easy. I packed it with the idea that everything has its place, and if you put the things back where they're supposed to go, it is quick and easy. Kara got everything inside stowed away, while I put up the carpet, the awning, the chairs and table, etc., unplugged the power, disconnected the water line and then dealt with the sewer. Just how exactly do you make it go uphill? I’ve been downhill from it quite a bit in my life so I know that it rolls downhill, but never back up. I didn’t empty either tank while we were there, and I did that on purpose, thinking that the force of the liquid would be enough to make it up the hill. For the most part, I was right, but toward the end, I had to help it along, which isn’t entirely pleasant, but necessary. I also brought along an extra hose to wash out the slinky after everything had drained, so the fresth water hose wouldn't come in contact with the slinky. All in all, it was a clean experience. I kept a second bin for all the sewer equipment, that way it stays separate from all of the other general stuff I needed, which I kept in another bin. Yes, I'm damn organized.

We were ready to go, but what about the gas situation? I asked Sheila at the front office where the nearest gas station was, and she didn’t really know…which is reassuring. We could go up the hill to Julian, which was 30 miles away but 4200 feet up. We could drop down to Agua Caliente Springs towards the 8, but who knew if there was a gas station there… plus that’s the opposite direction from home. Sheila had her assistant call the one gas station in Warner Springs to see if they were even open, and while she was doing that, the kids each enjoyed a popsicle….while daddy stressed about having to call AAA to bring us more gas. The Warner Springs gas station was open, and it was 33 miles away.

We got underway and made it to Warner Springs without incident, and I started to look for the little gas station. I was following a motorcycle, and he turned on his signal to make a left turn into what I thought was the parking lot for the gas station, because the whole area was thick with pine trees and I couldn't really tell where it was. I saw the gas station sign on the left and made a weird assumption that the motorcycle was turning into the gas station also. At the last second, the rider changed his mind and went straight. Well, I continued with the turn and it wasn’t the gas station I was turning into, but instead a country club parking lot! By the time I figured it out, it was too late. I had done it. The lot was narrow and filled with cars and golf carts…with no way out, well, no easy way out that is. I tried to pull around the lot, but there was no way the trailer would follow without taking out a couple of cars on the left. I had to stop about a foot away from side-swiping a truck with the trailer, and we sat there for a second, wondering what to do. I was hoping the parking lot might be connected to the gas station next door, but it wasn’t, and the only way out of this lot was back up the sloping driveway, back towards the way I had come in. I got out and walked around a little to find the best route that had the least dangers. The image below shows the gas station and the country club parking lot. The red line shows how far I had made it into the parking lot before I realized that I couldn’t go any farther and the blue line shows the route I took to back out again. You may not think that it looks that bad from this picture but remember that it was Sunday. The lot was full of cars. Just great.

Put simply, I learned how to back up the trailer, which was the one thing I had tried so hard to avoid on this trip. I had a couple of options, but I went for a reverse three-point-turn because it seemed the easiest and it used the widest part of the parking lot. Kara got out and directed me on the radio, and she learned how to do that really well. Of course, at one point, she said, “Come towards me,” and the only problem was that I couldn’t see her in either of my mirrors. There were a few uncertain moments and some confusion on my part as to which way the trailer was going and which way I wanted it to go. Had the kids been awake (they both fell asleep soon after we left the campground) they would have learned a couple of new words, but it was actually easier than I thought it would be. There were trees on the right, cars on the left, a narrow space to aim the trailer into behind me and people all around, but I took it slow and methodical and we got it out of there. Kara got some dirty looks from a few pretentious golfers on their carts because I was blocking most of the driveway while I turned around, but it went well. I squeezed the trailer next door to the gas station and paid 50 cents more than normal for gas. Because of that, and the fact that I was using an antique gas pump (I had to flip up the handle, remember those?) that only pumped a gallon every 45 seconds, I only put in 15 gallons, which was more than enough to get home.

Which, an hour later, we did just that. Overall, it was a good first trip, and if we hadn’t taken a wrong turn at the beginning, I'm sure it wouldn’t have been as memorable.

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