FINALLY, We Will Summer at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge

Jude and I have spent a leisurely winter in Lake Havasu.  One of the reasons we go to the “blue green” Colorado River impoundment is the benign weather plus it is a really beautiful. It is close to several National Wildlife Refuges.  We love volunteering for the Bill Williams and Havasu Wildlife Refuges.  That involvement with other people who love doing things for beautiful places has really influenced us.  In fact it has led to this summer’s destination.

Threes years ago in 2013, we were nomad traveling through Minnesota, we happened upon a NWR named Tamarac. It was a natural jewel!  Just driving around this refuge and seeing the Loons, Bald Eagles, and its most famous residents, the Trumpeter Swans were enough for us to send off a volunteer application. We waited anxiously!

We were accepted!  Wow, were we excited and then we got the phone call that started a nearly two year quest to keep Jude’s youngest son Chance on the face of the planet.  He was diagnosed with Glioblastoma which is the most aggressive type of brain cancer. We realized our caretaking duties and called Tamarac to cancel our volunteering commitment.

Chance graduated to heaven on July 7th, 2016.  We began to pick up the pieces after his passing and our thoughts returned to Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. Located on the western edge of Minnesota near the border with North Dakota, we contacted the Volunteer Coordinator and queried if the refuge remembered us.  They did!  They would love to offer us a position at the refuge. We accepted and were so excited!

After a few times across the U.S. in our travels, we were familiar with deciding the best most direct route complete with our favorite campgrounds along the way.  With our passage determined, we set out from Havasu and arrived in Tamarac May 9th. Our early arrival was timed to assist the Refuge staff with its spring bird festival.

Tamarac Wildlife refuge is famous for its populations of Warblers.  Hundreds of people attend these expert-led adventures into the secret world of Tamarac to not only to catch a glimpse of the thirty-five different Warblers, but the Wood Ducks, Scarlett Tanagers, and Baltimore Orioles.  In the first two weeks of being there, I took nearly 500 photos. That’s how spectacular this refuge is!

Tamarac NWR lies in the heart of one of the most diverse zones in North America.  Here the Eastern Deciduous hardwoods, the Northern Coniferous forests and the Western tall grass prairie all converge.  This convergence creates a rich assemblage of plants, animals and birds. The refuge is well known for its high numbers of Golden-Winged Warblers and its successful reintroduction of Trumpeter Swans.

The sheer numbers of birds was nothing short of magnificent. Equally, the numbers of wildflowers, Orchids, Whitetail deer, Porcupines, and other mammals were impressive.  To put it mildly, there was so much to focus upon (LOL)!  This area was beyond our expectations. We loved our opportunity to work and live here.  We felt so grateful!

As usual, there were some set-backs to the full-frontal nature in your face.  Nature has a few critters that are less inviting.  The Rocky Mountain Spotted Ticks were of biblical numbers.  It was creepy the numbers we found crawling on our clothing.  On our first day, Tamarac staff issued us a small pill bottle filled with Rubbing Alcohol and a pair of tweezers so that when we found ticks we would deposit them in the Tick Hotel” to kill them.  Around the first of July, their numbers declined but Jude and I had deposited over a hundred ticks apiece.  Yuk!

Following the Ticks was a mind-boggling number of Deer Flies.  Everywhere in the forests, you were buzzed by thirty to forty of these biting flies.  When working outside, we were adorned with head and body netting to keep their painful bites abetted. Walking place to place, we carried paperback books to wave around hoping to discourage them.

We had been warned to next expect mosquitos! With lakes, sloughs, and ponds everywhere, we believed the biting scourge of outdoors would descend in clouds, but no, they did not – they never showed up at all!  The colder summer temperatures curtailed their development. All of Eastern Minnesota celebrated!  And we joined in!

On our first summer of being full-time RVers, we traveled from campground to campground in fifteen states.  We found our sense of community was never established.  We would find very interesting people that we would love spend some time with, then either we had to leave the next day or they were leaving!  That summer moved us in the volunteering arena.  We felt that staying in a central place would allow us to develop a deeper sense of community.  We were right!

The staff of Tamarac welcomed us with open arms.  Our continued relationship just grew and grew. Soon they were telling places to visit and things to see not only in Tamarac but in the supporting lands.  Venturing out on their recommendations was an absolute joy. We worked four six hour days leaving us three and a half days a week for exploration.

Mia came for her annual visit, and we even traveled to Winnipeg and visited the Human Rights Museum.

The eight story museum was a slick modern monolith dedicated to record the history of human rights violations. Its continuing theme was equality and acceptance formed the higher road.  We visited each exhibit and were informed at each station the leaders who dedicated and even sacrificed their lives to attain that equality.  I would highly recommend this museum to everyone.

One of the most unique things about nearby areas exploration is the number of statues that are displayed.  It seems that every central town in an area would celebrate its claim to fame with a statue.  Around Tamarac were the world’s largest Turkey statue, Paul Bunyon and Babe his blue ox,a  giant Loon, the World Largest Bluegill or Smallmouth Bass and a fifty- foot Holstein Cow.  These were always announced with a huge sign that was almost equally impressive!

Our 24 hours a week became a blur of visitor services at the Visitor Center and mowing. Because of my experience of being a Trail Crew Foreman in Grand Teton National Park,  I was put in charge of developing a new trail around the refuge’s Discovery Center.

The Discovery Center was the refuge’s educational building. It was a half million dollar building gift from the Friends of Tamarac!  It was the epicenter for adults and children programs. I was privileged to enjoy a photographic wildflower excursion and a Dragonfly identification seminar. The center was well designed for formal classes coupled with guided field trips that would apply the material introduced to practical real-time applications. Both were very enjoyable!

A major part of the children’s programs was walking the surrounding trails around the center and experiencing the refuge first- hand. The trail needed a redesign.  It was the refuge’s hope that eventually the re-design would eventually morph into an American Disabilities Act trail.  That meant reducing steep grades, constructing rest areas, updating signage, and improving the functionality of the trail.  It was nice to bring a skill forward from my youth and build a new trail that would provide a pleasing experience for children and adults for a long time.  It was great to put my stamp on Tamarac that would remain for an extended amount of time!

The lakes and ponds around Tamarac were prolific with wild rice. It is the Americas only natural grain. It is remarkably nutritious and these lakes produced huge acres areas of this natural grain.  It is a staple of not only humans but countless birds. By Minnesota state law, the crop can only be harvested by the state’s Native Americas.  Here on Tamarac, the Ojibwa has the rights for harvest.  It was very interesting watching them gather the grain that they use the crop for their own nutrition and as a revenue crop.

They used narrow canoes and pushed them into the shallow waters with long poles.  The wild rice stalks are over three feet high and densely-spaced. Accessing the areas is very physical and difficult. Then, once the canoe enters the green-walled rice areas, a person in the middle of the boat bends the rice stalks inside the boats and beats the stalks to loosen the grains into the canoe’s bottom.

This is only part of the process.  Then they take the load and knead them to loosen the flax around the kernels. They then toss small amount into the air to separate the flax and then parch the kernels.  Here’s where the different types of wild rice are produced.

When you see packaged Wild Rice, it is either rather dark, almost black to light brown.  The darker variety is parched (dried) with propane heat while the lighter variety is parched with wood fires using cedar.  The gas parched wild rice requires longer cooking time while the lighter variety does not require so much energy.  We found the wood parched to be more flavorful.  Yum, Yum!

Rice gathering season is the beginning of the fall.  Already the Signet Trumpeter Swans are flying, and the Loon calls grow more haunting in the foggy colder morning mists!  The solid green canopies of the deciduous trees are punctuated with larger and larger areas of red, orange and yellows!  I call this the cusp of fall.  It is so beautiful and at the same time, sad.

We gather our belongings and pack them away.  Our volunteer time here at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge is ending.  While it is sad that we are leaving, it is also exciting as our nomad travels are taking us to other roads and to a winter destination that we also love, Lake Havasu, Arizona.

The call of benign Winter temperatures, the contrast of the “blue-green waters” against the towering Basalt granite Colorado River mountains is truly a beautiful area.  I think of the Winter friends Jude and I will soon connect with; I think of the future angling experiences on Lake Havasu and my sadness turns to anticipation. I turn the key and start the key to the mother ship. We close our wonderful time here in Minnesota.  And once again, our departing emotion is gratitude.



Second Winter at Havasu Springs

Jude and I have spent the winter at Havasu Springs resort nestled on the southern end of Lake Havasu.  We arrived in early December fresh from our Amazon Camperforce adventure.  We welcomed the more benign temperature here in western Arizona.  It was a balmy 19 degrees when we left Campbellsville, KY.

After enduring the snow storms with our cross county trip, we welcome the 70 degree days and bring out our shorts.  There is somethings so comforting as to wearing shorts and t-shirts on Christmas day!

We settle in but it soon becomes apparent that this will not be a normal winter in Arizona.  The first clue is the amount of rain that comes in waves throughout January and February.  Normally the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges suck all the moisture out of the storms and leave very little for the Mohave Desert.  This year the Pacific storms overpower this barren and unleash their plentiful moisture on the steppes and mountains.  It is still warm but the desert southwest is not behaving as a desert but more like the Amazon rainforest.  We look at the radar when making plans.

With the increased precipitation, we are soon rewarded with an explosion of bloom.  The desert has what is called a Super Bloom.  This has not happened since 2006. It is so spectacular to see this phenomenon.  It is just another reminder that the nomad life has such unexpected rewards at time when you least expect it.  We are grateful and look for our plant identification books.

Havasu Springs is a resort of snow birds and golfers but they are also drawn to its shores because they like to fish.  I don’t talk too much about fishing, but I love fishing!

We’re Going to Work at Amazon

After 20 months in California, I fire the mothership’s V10 engine back to life. We have spent the last weeks severing the roots that just magically seem to appear when a nomadic life becomes more sedimentary in nature. It is just a reality that the stationary life style produces more possessions. An important step in reviving our nomadic life is the shedding of those anchors.  We lose weight and plot an eastward course.

Jude’s youngest son, Chance graduated to heaven in July.  It was a hard fought 20 months with alternative and standardized treatments but in the end, the seemingly alien cancerous life form in his left temporal lobe finally conquered his and those around him will to keep him on the face of the planet. Jude had waged an all-out assault with everyday commutes to his Oakland home, transportation to and from appointments, and placing him into spiritual development situations.  Our little HHR Chevy tow car has weathered nearly 80 thousand miles.  It was costly and depleted our nomad travel savings. We look for solutions.

When the spirit is willing, the universe will answer.  Suddenly, we became aware of an opportunity to help replenish our savings.  Everyone knows how Amazon dominates the online purchasing market, but we learned that they use RVers as a labor source for their holiday seasonal high demand periods. On investigation of their Camper Force program, we found it to be a perfect fit for us to help generate some savings recovery.  Amazon hires seasonally until December 24th. They are very appreciative for a labor force that is punctual, dedicated, and mobile to their site locations where they cannot fill their labor needs locally.  We apply. Since we are still able to walk and talk, we are hired on the spot!

We are going to Campbellsville, Kentucky. Looking at the map, we discover it is located directly in the heart of the state.  It is an hour and a half from both Lexington and Louisville and while near both metropolises, it is touted in the Amazon brochure as being rural.  We like the exploration opportunities as it nears many recreational areas and Mammoth National Park. We accept the employment offer and turn onto Interstate 40 for a 2200 mile trip.

Leaving California is a steady climb. It continues nearly through the entire area of Northern Arizona and New Mexico. Only when entering Oklahoma did Interstate 40 cease to be a steady uphill grind. Now the route features more and more farming fields edged by old growth Oak and Cottonwood trees still cloaked in their summer coats despite the late September time frame. The driving is easier and we enjoy the open landscape capped with soft billowing cumulus clouds.  We enjoy a magnificent sunset completely engulfed in soft pinks; purplish hews that frame the western deep red and oranges of the retiring sun. We surrender to the beauty.

The openness of Oklahoma disappears into the tree-lined highways of Arkansas and Tennessee.  It is similar to byways of New England, only the names of the trees have changed.  Farmlands only become a glimpse and a brief opening to the lands that lay beyond the walled Interstate.  We travel on seeking our Amazon adventure.

We arrive in Campbellsville, Kentucky.  It is connected to the outside world by curved winding highways that pass through the foothills adjacent to sporadic outcroppings of the Ozarks Mountains. The small town is spread-out over the landscape with its main commercial area separate from the older red brick downtown buildings.  Its supportive residents are tucked back away from the town’s byways almost out of sight.

Their homes are a mixture of columned porches with similar downtown brick construction to aluminum sided homes or just wood.   One thing they all have in common is the lawns surrounding these homes are all mowed. Throw in the white rail fencing and it gives the whole community a sense of a Thomas Kincaid portrait.  Mixed in that portrait are a noticeable number of churches.

They range from minuscule one room cabin types to multi-storied large red brick structures. Although different is size but they all flourished white steeples and adjacent graveyards. This is the first time in our travels that we have noticed that churches having graveyards surrounding them.  In our western American experience, graveyards are distinctly separate from any church dominion.  Viewing these, visions of “Eleanor Rigby” and Father Mackenzie leap to mind!

There are a number of Baptist churches but they proudly shout their names as “Primitive, Separate, or First” and I silently wonder the difference besides the size of the graveyard or the parking lot supporting them. Regardless, the local paper has a whole page dedicated to their respective times of functions and services. I conclude we are immersed within the Kentucky contingent of the “Bible Belt.”

Exploring the surrounding country, it is easy to know when you approach a different community.  All are distinguished by their hundred foot towers that are the heart and soul of the communities’ water system.  Each water tank has the name of the city in a fifty foot font and some even have their individual high school mascot emblazoned on them.  You can see them on the Kentucky skyline miles away. Kentuckians have a heightened pitch southern accent and are very friendly. They wear an equal number of supportive jerseys, hats and shirts pledging their allegiances to the Universities of Kentucky Wildcats or Louisville Cardinals.  Most loudly tout their support to their favorite university and while they love all sports their university initiates, make no mistake; this is basketball country. Both universities produce National Champions and have Hall of Fame Coaches!

Our first look at the Amazon Fulfillment Center does not impress. It appeared modest is size when viewed from the front.  Even the cars parked in the newly asphalted parking lot seem few in number.  I was wondering what was beyond the front door and how this modest building was a superstar with the online giant.  We park the mothership at the Heartland RV campground that is located across the street from the fulfillment center. We are anxious making the short walk to the front door. We open the door and step inside to our Amazon adventure!

This is not a modest building.  It is actually four buildings. They are four stories high with giant circulating fans with blades as long as our RV in constant motion.  It has docks where the trucks come in, receiving lines where the items are coded and robotic trains which ferry coded merchandise to the different floors where it is scanned and put in bins.  Pickers then come and take the coded item when it sells, place it on one of conveyers and it travels to the place where the item is packaged and sent to outbound trucks.  The conveyers themselves are 12 miles long and there are 12 million items stored in the warehouse bins! It takes a full 10-12 minutes of brisk walking to cover the warehouse from end to end.  This is a major industrial operation.

After a day of orientation, we are assigned to stow positions. We will join an already constructed stow team.  They are the ones who take the received coded merchandise and place in cardboard bins. This fulfillment center is 70% apparel with the rest being called “Tech” but actually consists of everything else from baking pans, Oakley sunglasses and Wrestling Mania action figures.

We will work evenings from 5pm to 3:30 am. Our four work days are 10 hours from Sunday through Wednesday and we will receive $11.50 per hour each. There is ample demand for extra work which will pay time and a half.  Our season will be from September through peak ordering time of Black Friday to Christmas Eve.  We will also receive a dollar bonus for every hour we work after we complete the season.  They also pay our parking space at the campground.  We happily sign the dotted line.

We undergo a shortened week of training and what they call “hardening.”  This refers to conditioning the legs and feet to the constant exposure of working on their concrete floors.  We are told that our positions can expect to walk six to eight miles a day. This means Amazon has become our personal fitness trainer for the coming months.

Anticipating this ordeal, Jude and I have purchased a full body massage pad for a zero-gravity chair we already own, then partnered it with an Isqueeze machine that treats the lower calf and feet. We are silently confident that these mechanical massage additions will help us weather the difficult hardening process.  After a few weeks of daily exposure to the concrete and our massage partners, we know we made a great choice and are extremely happy with the ease our bodies adapt! We walk with ease and recover quickly!

As the weeks go by, we began to understand the sheer magnitude of physical exertion that the position entails.  Often we are required to lift heavy boxes.  There is a 49-pound weight lifting limit, but many boxes are 48 pounds.  This with the additional breaking down boxes and the constant repetition of scanning and stowing items, we are exhausted at the end of every shift.  I make a mental note that I have not worked so hard since I was a beer distributor, but that was when I was a lot younger.  We really understand why these positions are hard to fill from the local labor pool.

The Campbellsville Amazon Fulfillment center is basically new and as we approach the peak seasons of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it becomes really apparent that the center is not receiving their anticipated order levels. That meant they had a labor force that was far beyond the work they had.  The stowing team was asked to take voluntary time off.  Then suddenly they asked if any CamperForce Members would like to end their season early and still receive their season-end bonus.  Faced with decreasing cold temperatures from Polar air masses sliding into the mid-west states, we jumped at a chance to make the trip back to Arizona and the promise of more benign temperatures.

We leave Campbellsville, Kentucky in early December and slide into Tennessee all against a backdrop leaf-stripped trees stretching towards cold gray skies.  It looked like scenes straight out of a Tim Burton Halloween movie. Our course is not the more northerly Interstate 40 but a longer more southern sojourn across I-10 hoping to avoid any approaching cold fronts. This means a total traverse across Texas rather than a glancing trip across the panhandle.

We burst on the Texas spaciousness with the similar confidence MacArthur had when he waded ashore in the Philippines.  The mothership with its V-10 engine is cruising seemingly without effort but I see we are headed directly into threatening lowering clouds.

Our luck runs out near Big Springs, Texas and we run into a four letter world most RVers cringe to experience. SNOW!  And when that is accompanied with its evil twin sisters, Cold and Windy, I turn up the defroster, nestle into truck conveys and push on towards El Paso.

Texas coats their roads with chemicals that slow the icing of the highways.  It also provides a sticky coating on both our tow vehicle and the Mother ship.  When we burst into the sunshine near Las Cruces, we look like two dirt clods moving steadily back to Arizona!

After a nine hundred mile Texas, we make short work of New Mexico and enter Arizona.  Its welcoming signs fill us with a sense of accomplishment.  It holds the promise of re-acquainting ourselves with friends and a long well deserved rest in beautiful Lake Havasu.

On the way to our lakeside resort, we receive word from Tamarac Wildlife Refuge that we are accepted to become their volunteers for the upcoming summer season.  We see wonderful adventures ahead.

Holidays of the Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows

The days shorten and it is different with the move back from Mountain Daylight time.  It is now dark at 5:00 pm.  As Thanksgiving approaches, Jude and I are grateful that Chance has survived for over a year.  Ninety percent of people diagnosed with Glioblastoma do not survive a year – nine to 11 months is the usual prognosis.  We are grateful for living in a beautiful wilderness and still being able to be a major support of Chance’s treatment.  We are grateful for our all of our friends and their support during a difficult time.  We are grateful for our health.

Chance has long wanted to spend Christmas in Lake Tahoe.  We make plans to rent a house and gather friends and family to celebrate this family holiday.  Jude and I look forward to a new year.  We are as committed to this survival battle as we were on the first day of hearing the diagnosis. Chance is alive!

Jude and I do not know the outcome of this battle nor do we know the course of our nomad travels.  One thing for certain is that our lifestyle has led on a journey that was never dreamed of three years ago when we started up the mothership and headed out on the highway. Even though our well thought out plans of visiting Minnesota went array, we were totally blessed for our 2015 nomadic travels.

Hard as it is to admit, it is apparent that the tumor continues to grow.  Nothing seems to slow the steady progression in its size. Last September we learned Chance was not a candidate for further surgery because of the location of the tumor – too close to his language and memory functions, meaning the result of surgery could be worse than no surgery. The handwriting was on the wall. We could not bear to read it.

Chance had long promised his daughter he would take her to Hawaii. The plans came together and they traveled in early April.

Brain tumor patients live in segments between MRIs. For Chance that was every 90 days, then every 60 days, then every 30 days. It was difficult in May of 2016 when the neuro oncologist starts speaking of making plans for hospice.  I am not sure of what to expect, but I know it is concerning to watch Chance lose physical dexterity, the vision in his right eye, and being able to form sentences.  I worry and lean heavily on Jude.  She is the rock and offers insights to the future. My anxiety is calmed.

Chance walked 10,000 steps a day.  That was his daily goal.  Even as his right leg started to drag and he tripped often, he picked himself up and continued to march along.  He continued with this until the a few days before he graduated to heaven.  His determination was so inspiring!

When Jude’s mother passed away in October of 2012, the last six days she hardly spoke a word to Jude and me except to mumble “Thank You” to us or her hospice caretakers when we made efforts to make her comfortable.  Her gratitude never wavered.

Chance’s passing in July 2016 left me another admirable trait.  Gratefulness to the end plus quiet strong determination in achieving his goals has enriched my life.  Thank You, both!  You are physically absent now but these traits will live on forever in me!

Summer on the Delta

I always think that Jude’s and my positive attitude leads to positive results.  We needed a place to stay that had total “reachability” by phone AND internet.  We put out our need and found a local rancher near Rio Vista that needed a caretaker for his animals while he traveled.  He offered a free place to stay for return to care for his two horses, one dog, three cats and light landscape maintenance duties.  We visited the couple and accepted their position.

This gives Jude and I closer access to Chance and his appointment needs and care.  It is also close to the Sacramento River/San Joaquin River Delta.  This area is called “The Delta” and is one of the best fishing destinations in the United States. It is a thousand mile wilderness complete with countless Blue Heron, Great Egrets, Mink, Beaver, and Sea Lions and River Otters. I clean my camera’s lens and organize my tackle with anticipation.

It is hard to conceptualize that California is in a drought when you live on the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. The River confluence is wide and mighty as it flows into the San Francisco Bay.  It is a beautiful wild wilderness that is separated from the urban sprawl by thousands of miles of levees, sloughs, and side channels. Its irrigation water supports millions of acres of seed corn, alfalfa, wine grapes and strawberries. When all of California is brown and dry, this area is alive and a vibrant emerald green.

Over the next few months, we perform daily feeding of the horses and cats and some light watering of trees and lawns. Of course, when you water, you have to mow but it is a small lawn.  It is actually the very first lawn I have ever mowed.  Also, I am in charge of horse shit, dog and cat shit, but I am blessed for not having to deal with any bull shit!

As soon as the diagnosis was given last fall, Jude set off on a determined effort to research Glioblastoma and what survivors were doing to treat their own specific tumors.  She quickly discovered that if patients strictly follow their Oncologist’s “gold standard” care protocol that feature surgery, Temador chemotherapy and targeted radiation, it is a death sentence!  She finds that long-term survival depends on the patient formulating a supplement regiment that has tumor suppressing properties that can partner with standard care to aid in Glioblastoma cancer survival.

Not only does Jude find direction with regards to the administering of a specific “Drug Cocktail” she find support from medical researchers who have concentrated on brain cancer.  With their support and direction, Jude formulates a supplemental regiment cocktail to aid Chance’s battle with Glioblastoma brain cancer. With unrelenting focus, Jude finds a research- based path and a plan of attack that is not merely grasping at straws but designed by renowned knowledgeable medical individuals who help Jude design that specific cocktail that focuses its aggregate properties towards tumor suppression. There is nothing more intense than a mother’s research to save her child.  I am in awe!

Chemotherapy sucks! That is the only thing that can be said about that standardized cancer treatment.  I have always struggled with the concept that you have to get terribly ill in order to get better.  It just seems illogical.

Chance is one tough individual.  He absorbs the chemotherapy punishment with grace partnered with strength.  At one time, Chance was taking 194 pills a week that was part of the tumor treatment suppression regiment.  It laid him down often but his strength and fitness rises above the chemotherapy sickness and he prevails. Jude now focuses on a cure!

Clinical trials seek that cure.  These trials for cancers are increasing focused on immune therapy. These trials seek the effectiveness when tumor cells receptors accept a virus that is known and recognized by the body’s immune system as invaders.  This recognition by the body then allows the immune system to attack the tumor and destroy the infected cells.  Chance is accepted into UCSF’s TOCA 511 Clinical Trial testing where that immune therapy works against this insidious cancer. It gives us hope and hope is a wonderful thing!

As the days pass into late summer/early fall, we move away from the ranch and settle in a RV resort next to the Mokelumne River. It is a third river system feeding the delta.   We enjoy being closer to the water and now we are blessed with a daily spectacle of countless thousands of Geese, Sandhill Cranes, Hawks, and Blackbirds filling the Pacific Flyway.  The chorus of calls is raucous and loud. The flocking behavior of tens of thousands Brewer’s Blackbirds is just a visually pleasing experience.  I have never seen such a continual massive migration before. The daily migration stage is ever-changing and magnificent.

Wintering in Lake Havasu

The Brittlebush is blooming and long V’s of Geese are heading north. The Arizona daytime temperatures climb and begin flirting with the 90 degree level. It is our cue.  Just as snow birds move towards their summer breeding grounds, we consider our next move for our travels. We have obstacles and many decisions facing us.

We have enjoyed our winter hibernation on the shores of Lake Havasu.  It was an everyday treat to wake up and look across the “Blue Green Waters”.  The moderate temperatures in Arizona are also a blessing. When millions of Americans were suffering from the onslaughts of “Polar Vortexes,” endless blizzards and mountains of snow, we face decisions of which t-shirt and shorts to wear.

The day after we arrived in Havasu Springs last November, we received a phone call that changed our nomadic perspective. Jude’s son, Chance had a seizure, then another which eventually lead him into the caseload of the University of California at San Francisco.  It is the nation’s number four Neurological treatment center. Chance had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball. It was immediately scheduled for resection.

It is malignant. In fact, it is the most aggressive form of brain cancer. It supports itself with a well-developed series of blood vessels and it contains several different types of cells. It is virtually impossible to totally remove and the probabilities of re-growth are nearly 100%. Glioblastoma is a most deadly form of cancer.

We make the decision to forgo our original summer plans.  We were scheduled to volunteer at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, a summer nesting area for Trumpeter Swans near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. For two years, we planned to spend our summer in this lush Minnesota refuge. Now we make decision to cancel those summer volunteer plans and begin searching for volunteer opportunities closer to the Bay Area. We need to respond to any needs that Chance may require. We are determined to keep him on the face of the planet.

Because he insisted he didn’t need help, although we very much wanted to hover, we resisted the notion. We scour the pages seeking volunteer opportunities that remain unfilled and close to San Francisco.  We locate several opportunities that were offered by the Corp of Engineers.  We settle for a Campground Host position at a 62-site campground at Eastman Lake Recreation Area near Madera, California.  It is only two- three hours from Chance’s Dublin, California home and will allow us to be close to him without seeming to be hovering over him.

The Eastman Lake Recreation Area is located in the Sierra Nevada Foothills and is a step-off location for visitors who are headed for Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks. It is also well visited by springtime fisherman seeking the trophy Largemouth bass that live in the lake.  However, Eastman Lake is a mere shell of its normal self after nearly four years of severe drought.  It is down nearly two hundred feet and the locals call it the “frog pond!”

The Sierra Nevada foothills are an expansive area of huge granite outcroppings and cliffs intermingled with Oak and Pine trees and expansive grasslands.  It is the home of Bald Eagles, Red Tail Hawks, Bullocks Orioles and Miriam Turkeys.  It is also the home of the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.  We keep our walks limited to the paved road and avoid any high grassy areas!

We settle into a routine making the best of our situation and after a little snake education for Jude, we are enjoying ourselves for the most part.  Campground visitation is heavier on the weekends leaving us with a fairly quiet work load on the weekdays. We take this opportunity to explore the surrounding area.

Ever since Jude and I have been together, we have always expounded to the thought of “I wonder where this road goes?”  Here on the Sierra Nevada foothills, it leads to great experiences of grandeur trees and towering landscapes punctuated with deep rugged valleys.   We enjoy the massive mountains, forested valleys and pristine mountain lakes that are associated around Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  I am in awe of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There is much to explore here.

Sierra Nevada means snow covered range but the mountains are barren of any snow cover.  The entire area is bone dry.  I can’t help to think about fires here.  Any fire has tons of totally dry grasslands and drought stricken trees.  A single lightning strike would set off a fire storm of biblical proportions. I worry silently and constantly scan the skylines for smoke.

Eastman Lake has negative phone reception. Even our trucker phone antenna is useless.  We have excellent internet reception but are totally unreachable by phone.  We soon realize that this feature is totally unacceptable for our caretaking role with Chance.  He suddenly had another seizure and we realize that our non-communication by phone is a deal breaker with the Corp of Engineers.  We pack and make plans to locate closer to the bay area where all forms of communication are easily at hand.

Traverse from Maine

We fire up the mothership on the first day of fall 2014. Our time in Maine has ended and we will move our home across the nation headed to our winter location along the Colorado River in Arizona.  We were reminded by the sharpness of the early morning temperatures that an early season snow is a high probably in Maine.  There are two four-letter words that make us move: snow and cold. After all, we are snowbirds!

One thing about the eastern.U.S. is it is hard to find a way out of the region that does not entail extensive use of toll highways.  While the use of toll highways is sometimes unavoidable when moving westward, limiting their use across this part of the country just makes common sense. The recent experience of a $68 toll just to drive across a New York City area bridge was fresh on my mind. It helped to motivate and discover an alternative route whose purpose was to avoid as many toll highways as possible.

While we were trying to map our specific route, we were lucky to gather valuable information for one of our Maine co-hosts.  For years, he was a long-distance trucker.  His experience was our gain.  We were able to determine our route across the five eastern states that extensively avoided tolls highways when traveling west.

With that route, we steadily moved westward across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania.  We are quite pleased as the route allows us to travel through less traveled sections.  We are doing what Nomads really desire; to see the United States.

We are also blessed to see these states when they are bathed in the cusp of fall colors.  Everywhere there are areas of intense reds, oranges and yellows that are inter-mingled with trees and vegetation still cloaked in their vivid summer green.  It is a wonderful delightful visually-pleasing trip!

One of our goals this summer was to gain experience with our volunteer work and applying that experience toward obtaining positions within the National Wildlife Refuge systems.  They don’t allow camping and are focused upon ecological education, invasive species intervention and species preservation.  They are always in beautiful places with tons of birds, wildlife and fish.

Our specific focus now is to travel back into Minnesota and leave our updated resumes at a 48 thousand acre refuge called Tamarac that is near Detroit Lakes, MN.  It has a recently remodeled Visitor center and an under-construction Discovery building that is focused entirely on education/display of how diverse biological systems within the refuge operate.  Its acreage includes 11 lakes and thousands of acres of shallow surrounding wet lands.  It is a summer home for many Trumpeter Swans and thousands of migrating waterfowl!  This is just a fisherman’s and photographer’s dream location.

After meeting the Refuge’s administrators and dropping off our updated resume and letters of recommendation, we head south.  Traveling through North & South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, we again take the non-interstate routes.  We find they give us a neat and unique individual flavor of each area we travel through.  There is some magical traveling down highways whose road shoulders are filled almost right to the asphalt’s edge with high rise corn fields.  My mind revisits “Field of Dreams.”

After exiting the Panhandle of Oklahoma, we travel into the vast openness of Texas.  It is void of vivid color that accented the northern states and the highway is surrounded with constant browns and greys that testify that the vegetation has endured a long hot summer.  Yet the country is clean and the far horizon just magnifies the vastness of the late summer sunsets.

All of our nomad travels have used Albuquerque, NM as a constant pass through.  Jude has family located here and after three days of traveling, we welcome a brief respite there.  This year we were going to visit Jude’s oldest Granddaughter who has just entered her freshman year enrolled at Fort Lewis College located in Durango, Colorado.  It was a wonderful opportunity to travel by car looking at all the terrain changes and scenery through upper New Mexico and into the 7000 feet altitude surrounding Durango. After spending a whole summer near the Atlantic Ocean in Maine & Maryland, I quickly feel the effects of altitude sickness. I drink plenty of water and avoid a lot of exercise and quickly adjust.

After NM, we travel a short distance to one of our favorite spots.  For years, we have enjoyed staying at Roper Lake State Park near Safford, AZ.  It is an absolute oasis in the desert.  It is always full of resident birds including Cardinals, Vermillion Flycatchers, and raptors along with a constant turnover of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.  It a welcome rest from our traverse from New England and Minnesota.

We have traveled nearly 4000 miles.  A monument to that amount of travel is what looks like 1000 pounds of dead bugs on Mothership’s front grill.  I am actually amazed at the collection and marvel at the variety of different colored grasshoppers, dragon & butterflies and God knows what else!  I laugh but draw a tub of soapy water and set out scrubbing.

One thing about Roper Lake is that it is just a small sojourn to Tucson. We always look forward to the reconnection of all of our close friends in Tucson. There are tales to tell, photos to share and great laughs.  It is such a special thing to have great friends.

I am looking forward to traveling to Lake Havasu.  We are going to stay at Lake Havasu Springs.  It is a Colorado River resort located right on the shores of the lake. It is adjacent to the Bill Williams National Refuge area and of course great fishing.

When we arrive at the lake, we were shocked to find the best RV site with the best view was waiting for us.  It had the most magnificent view overlooking the lake and the far shoreline.  We happily occupy it and start the process of settling in for a six month winter retreat from our nomad travels. Jude and I look forward to making new friends.

North Woods Maine

We leave Greenbrier State Park just as the surrounding local corn fields reach the shimmer stage.  The rowed stocks are knee high and a vigorous youthful green that bows and waves a reflective silver sheen in response to the ever-changing directional afternoon breezes.  It is pleasurable to watch as we head the mothership out on the interstate. Our direction is north.

Mia has joined us for our last two weeks in Maryland and first two weeks in Maine.

Our first stop before Maine is a visit to New York City.  I was surprised how suddenly the skyline just jumped into view as we drove down the surrounding New Jersey hills. It was a clear day without the haze that usually surrounds such a mega-metropolis.

We locate our campground and hurry off to visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.  It was late in the afternoon but we believed we had enough time to catch the ferries.  Unfortunately we missed the last ferry to the Statue so we spent our time exploring the historical displays on Ellis Island.

New York is a walking town!  We plot our next full day’s journey before by planning where and how to catch the Path trains and the subway.  We also have tickets for a Broadway production of “Wicked.”

After a standing room only jaunt on the Path Train, we arrive at the 911 Memorial.  It was like a sunken Vietnam Memorial with water!  I did OK looking at the Survivor Tree at Ground Zero and all the mangled twin tower steel girders, but nearly lost it when I viewed the story about the fallen Fire rescue dog.  Suddenly all the sadness about that day swept in again.  I guess that is what Memorials are supposed to do; make you remember!  I wipe my eyes.

After a subway ride up town, we stop in Macy’s. Mia was like a child possessed seeking out the junior’s floor.  This was the Macy story I heard about it all through my youth on all the movies and television shows.   I was taken back how the smells of the street mingled with the perfume sampling at the front door.  It was also cool riding on the ancient wooded escalators.  Their jostling and creaking made my back crack.

Leaving the store, we headed towards the Empire State building.  We were hawked on the street from a young enterprising man who swore he could save us money and time at the skyscraper by buying a ticket from him.  He was charming but we saw the value and believed him.  We bought our tickets and he escorted us to the Empire State building express way.

Before getting on the elevator, we sat through a New York experience of a filmed sky walk narrated by Kevin Bacon.  It was like a roller coaster ride in the dark but at a movie, and the highlight was the view from the 86th floor.  It was great to look over the Hudson River, see the sea of yellow cabs inching through the crowded avenues and the small skyscraper neighbors with their individualistic domes and construction. I swear I saw Snoopy parachuting down from the top of the Met Life building!

Walking in New York is also an experience.  You cannot walk in a straight line. It is more or a bob and weave and watch out on the corners where two directions of human beings intersect!  There are a billion cigarette butts laying in the gutters and the water that lies stagnant in the cracks and gullies of the street look like they had the same bacterial count as a Kimono Dragon’s mouth.  Sometimes the smell of exhaust is over-powered by a sewer vent.  We hurry past those.

After a full day, we slide into our seats at the Broadway Play of “Wicked.”  It housed nearly two thousand attendees but it was very comfortable and the view of the stage was perfect.  Wow, what a performance!  I suddenly realized that the New York experience was not walking the avenues or riding on crowded trains & subways, it was what went on behind the billions of doors in the city.  That play drove it home that the experience was finding those doors.  I am glad we opened that door on Broadway.

It is easy to get into New York.  It is not so easy to escape the city in an RV.  Our GPS route sent us to the Lincoln Tunnel.  The NYC policeman was very polite when he informed us that RV and the propane tank it carries are not allowed in the tunnel.  RV’s are only allowed on the bridges.

That set in motion a series of escalating driving stress.  When we got to the George Washington bridge, the attendant informed us that the toll was $68 dollars.  I wish I had a video of my face when I realized she was serious. Scrambling to come up with that amount of cash so soon after experiencing a night of dinner, Broadway and trains was a miracle.

Just when we thought we had made our escape, we were ushered onto a thoroughfare that suddenly announced that no trucks were allowed on it because of low bridges.  For the next forty miles there was no exit except into the boroughs and with increasing frequency, the stone domed bridges became lower and lower.  Every time we went under one, Jude & I both ducked.  At any second, I expected we were going to deposit our air conditioning unit on the highway.  It was the most harrowing driving experience since becoming a nomad!

Lucky we saw a “To I-95” sign and we escaped. We relaxed and took our time driving through Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and then finally crossed into Maine.  We entered it like MacArthur coming ashore in the Philippines; confident but getting wet!

The skies opened up and we traveled the whole state in the grips of outer rain bands of Tropical Storm Arthur.   We arrived in Trenton at a RV park just as the rain broke.  We were to meet our State of Maine contact in the morning.  She was going to escort us to the location of our Maine summer residence. Her name is Sunshine; I wonder silently “is that a child of the 60’s” or what?

Outside of Ellsworth about six miles is Happy Town Road that accesses Boat Launch Road.   At the end of that gravel road, we drive past a newly constructed boat ramp and into our summer campsite.  The ramp is neighbor to a State of Maine day area located on shores of Branch Lake.  This will be our charge for July and August.  Excited, we explore our surroundings.

Branch Lake is nestled away in a dark leafy canopy whose undercover is punctuated by massive moss-covered Granite boulders left by ancient glaciers. The lake is fairly large and open.  Its water is crystal clear.  Out on the lake, I hear a loon announcing our arrival! Oh my God is there anything  more beautiful?

The Day area is a beach about 200 yards long.  It is a conifer-lined beach, filled with ground granite sand and dispersed with a total of six picnic tables and a near-by vault toilet. Our duties are litter patrol, clean the toilet, and light mowing.  We are also to be an informative agent for people who come to the beach not to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes and take their trash with them. Wow! I have a feeling we will meet people who are proud of Maine and maybe some who are definitely not.

Suddenly our phones buzz with an ominous weather warning! Hurricane Arthur was demoted to a Super Tropical depression but it still packed winds in excess of 40 m.p.h., and torrential rain was forecast to have a direct hit on the Down East Maine area!

The rain was non-stop during the night. The surrounding forest protected our home from the gale force winds but the families who lived in their summer homes awoke to their dock and boats in disarray due to gale force driven waves that pounded the western shore of the lake!  We help people look for lost kayaks, paddles and small dinghies.  Most are found and returned safely to their homes.

Down East Maine is a mixture of forest, blueberry fields, and seafarer camps.  In nearly every residence there are gabled windows, snow plows, and huge stacks of fire wood. It is not hard to spot hundreds of lobster and crab pots stacked in many residents’ yards. We make plans to indulge in those feasts of lobster, crab and a new crop of Maine blueberries. YUM!

Ellsworth is a resort community.  It lies south between Bangor and Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island in Acadia National Park on the Maine Coast.   It is in the throngs of summer visitation and the highways in and out of the spread-out city are many times choked with congested travelers.   We quickly located the best ice cream shop in town.

Greenbrier State Park

Greenbrier State Park is located near Boonsboro MD.  It is heavily wooded with Maples, Oaks, and Gum trees.  They are as leafless as their Oklahoma and Arkansas cousins.  They stand gray and silent with their previous summer’s leaves packed around their trunks.  It is like a set on Maleficent or the Brothers Grim.  The only sound that reverberates through the forest is the ominous call of a murder of Ravens.  I gaze ahead in time and wonder how this forest will look fully clothed.

Greenbrier is the Administration center for a series of Maryland State Parks that envelop Interstate 70.  It is called the South Mountain corridor and extends for nearly 150 miles.  Greenbrier is a very popular State Park due to its numerous camping sites and its lake with a white sandy beach.

Surrounding the park are two story red brick homes with columned porches and gabled windows. They nestle next to curvy narrow roadways that give you the feeling that they are built next to some ancient horse or oxen wagon trails.

Some more modern houses overlook spacious fields of hay and harvested corn.  I remember my previous summer’s constant companion of endless fields of corn.  Last summer, I followed their progression nearly into harvest time.  Here surrounding Greenbrier, I see the remnants of that harvest.

The fields of corn are laid low. They look as if they withstood volley after volley of Civil War Minnie balls. Only an occasional stock rises above ankle level.  Their old angles whisper a violent end similar to the ranks of the Irish Brigade when they marched on the entrenched Confederate Army on the battlefield of Antietam.

We are the Camp Host for Cedar loop.  Our charge is 41 campsites and a bathhouse nestled along a side hill adjacent to the Appalachian Trail.  It is the only loop in the park that has electric and allows dogs.  These two amenities make it the most popular camping loop within the park.

The Maryland State Parks do not allow alcohol and users have to pack out their garage.  They limit the people who use the day area and they contract with Goodwill industries to have their bathroom cleaned  All we have to do is greet the campers, answer questions, make their stay enjoyable and just clean the site when they leave. This is the experience we need? We set out to make ourselves indispensable!

The entire Eastern USA suffered a long and cold winter.  Residents here endured Polar Vortexes with continuous winter snow storms and bitter below zero temperatures.  We soon realize that this cooler pattern is still present.  We don our larger coats and quickly locate where we can fill our portable propane tank that provides us with heat.  Several mornings we look like homesick Eskimos with the layers we piled on.

The colder temperatures keep the park nearly empty of campers.  It gives us the time to explore.  Over the next month, we travel forth and explore the sights.  In quick succession, we travel to Washington, DC, for the Cherry Blossom festival, the Antietam battlefield, the first Washington Monument, and nearby Lancaster County in Pennsylvania and its high population of Amish.

The Amish are major cool not for their religion but for the food they produce.  We walk into an Amish/Mennonite market and I am blown away on the cheese selection.  Only in Wisconsin have I seen such a variety of hand crafted cheese.  We quickly settle on a Smokey Pepper, Havarti Dill, and Cheddar Chipotle. All organic and mind boggling good!

Exploring is like fishing.  There are so many fishing lures to wash and there are so many things here in Maryland to explore.  We visit Harper’s Ferry, the Civil War Medical Museum, and the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center.  It is so fun traveling to all these destinations as the roadways are like narrow trails through hills and low valleys, in and around little communities nestled around the hardwood forest bands.

With all the rains, the color green explodes.  The ability to see far into the forest ceases.  The forest is a wall of different shades of green that tower up and even surround the roads in almost tunnels.  The trees echo cheerily with calls of Blue Jays, Cardinals, Tufted Titmouse’s and the thumping of Red Bellied Woodpeckers.  The forest transformed from a set on a B-rated horror movie to a scene straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Wood Fairy Kingdom! It is beautiful and we are grateful for waking-up here every morning.

After several months of cleaning campsites, I have a new perception of volcanic ash.  Every site that had a campfire has given me a total understanding of residents around volcanos and their experience with the ash that has blanketed their farmlands, cars and homes.  This is some pretty nasty stuff and I am amazed at how many campers believe foil and Aluminum will burn!

Our enthusiasm for greeting campers and diligently working to keep the area, the bathrooms clean has landed us some compliments and our Maryland State Park Rangers and Supervisors are pleased with our performance.  Tomorrow, Mia joins us.  We have many plans for her exploration.

Soon we will travel to Maine for our planned volunteer work for the Maine Department of Resources. We are excited to move into a new vast area to explore.   Faintly, but clearly, I hear the call of a Loon echoing across a clear deep North Woods Maine lake!

The Dash, Bob and Weave

On March 25, our 365th day of nomadic travels, I turned the mothership’s Ford V-10 over.  It rumbles to life!  Its deep-throated purr sounds more than capable of completing our 2300 mile trip to Maryland and Greenbrier State Park. Our 2014 adventure awaits and our anticipation is high! I hear the theme of “Rawhide” in my head, “Head ‘em up, move ‘em out! Rollin’, Rollin!”

Our first stop was in Albuquerque. We are quickly reminded by the frosty 25 degree morning temperature that we are not in Arizona any more.  We rush to fire up the RV’s heater and plan our next dash.

I keep an eye to the sky as we are planning our traverse across the Great Plains.  All the states we are moving through are famous for spring time severe weather, even snow.  We quickly agree that any mention of a cold front approaching our planned route would freeze us into immobility!

New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma yield to the constant turning of our 20 inch wheels.  They are a blur of grays and browns.  Dominating the adjacent landscapes were the leafless hardwood forests bands.  They stretch their silhouettes out and up to a contrasting gray sky. As we travel into Arkansas, we notice with increasing frequency blossoming Bradford Pear trees along Interstate 40.  They are stunningly pearl white and are in sharp contrast to the prevailing gray.  They almost look divine against that deep gray sky.

The pear family is unique in its efforts for pollination.  These are stunningly beautiful trees and their clustered white blossoms hint at the possession of having a most attractive scent, but they contain a super surprise.  They emit the odor of rotting flesh! They count on attracting flies to cross-pollinate.  That blend of beauty and repugnance is cool!

Suddenly, a large, slow moving cold front pins us near Memphis.  We agree to stop at a heavily-wooded RV park nestled next to the Mississippi River.   We spend the next two days allowing the front to continue on its easterly passage while exploring the rich musical history of this Tennessee city.  It was cool to see where Elvis first started at Sun Records.  Wow!! The Birth of Rock & Roll!  I feel its chronological age!  I also feel like a proud parent for I remember sweetly the beat and the words of that early sound!

I had forgotten that Memphis was also the end of the one of the most powerful movements I ever watched in my life.  Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel downtown Memphis! After that, the peaceful civil rights rallies yielded to the rage of the black nation in the form of street riots, the Black Panther Party and the influential urges of Malcolm X!

The Lorraine Motel is now a shrine to his passage.  We waked the peaceful grounds and listened to audio bits of his inspiring speeches.  In my head I hear the lyrics “The Good, it seems they just die young! I just looked around and he was gone! Abraham, Martin & John.”

After Memphis, we dash up through the Volunteer state and landed in Pigeon Forge near The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It is the most visited national park in the nation and we want to know why.  I had seen its famous haze that surrounded these lower Appalachian Mountains but never had the opportunity to explore them.

It is a serene place.  It is so hard to comprehend its solitude being surrounded by gateway communities of Pigeon Forge, Dolly Wood & Sevierville. Driving their highways, you are reminded of all the ways people can dream up to separate someone’s cash from them!  I was acquainted with all the tourist traps in my home town of Jackson, Wyoming, but that was romper room compared to the trappings around The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Once in the park, Jude and I sought the less traveled trails.  Once, we even walked through the hardwood forest without the luxury of a trail.  Almost immediately we discovered a small herd of Whitetail deer.  They were virtually immune to our presence.  Even when one stamped his foot in an alarm, they moved ever so slowly away from us completely void of fear or panic.

On the third day of exploration, a sudden drop of temperature allowed snow to blanket the park’s upper mountains.  All of a sudden we are reminded again that we are no longer in Arizona.  With the upper passes closed in the park, we wait until more benign temperatures arrive and head north!

We drive across Virginia and our route is like the Appalachian Trail!  We go up, down, up, down up, down and do it all before lunch, but soon we are in Maryland.  Our excitement peaks as we move towards the open gates of Greenbrier State Park!  Our exploration of Washington, DC, the bosom of the Civil War, and the Chesapeake Bay begins!