101 Casita Nights

Orion and the Casita — Indian Cove campground, March 2016
Orion and the Casita — Indian Cove campground, March 2016. This was one of my favorite campgrounds of the year.

A little over a year ago, I left Portland on a lovely September morning, headed for Deming, New Mexico. There, I hoped to purchase a slightly used 17′ Casita travel trailer that I had found on Craigslist. I had an envelope full of cash and a gracious promise from the owner that he would not sell the trailer until I got there.

That drive to Deming took two and a half days; it was exhausting, but exhilarating, and luckily, when I arrived, the trailer turned out to be exactly as advertised. I relinquished the envelope of cash to the very nice couple, took possession of the Casita, and drove home a bit more leisurely than my trip to Deming.

Once home, Susan and I went out on the road a few times after we purchased the Casita, but our true focus was on 2016. We had long talked about living on the road for an extended period, exploring and enjoying this beautiful country, while working to determine the direction that we wanted our lives to take (if you’re coming late to this, the full story is on my blog).

So, on February 26, we set out on our first road trip, a two-month sojourn to southern California and Utah (start here), followed by a trip in May and early June to eastern Oregon and Washington. In late July, we headed to Canada, to check on our new trailer–which we had ordered a few months before we purchased the Casita–and in September, we boondocked through southern Oregon for nearly three weeks. Four great adventures (five, if you count a lovely weekend on Mt. Hood in early July) in just a few months of time.

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Our last night in the Casita — September 2016 in the Alvord Desert. Strong afternoon winds meant that we couldn’t use the awning or the pop-up tent, but we still had a cozy campsite.

Overall, we were away for 103 days out of 213, and 101 of them were spent in the Casita (two nights were at hotels in Las Vegas and Bend). We put almost 10,000 miles on our vehicles, with no trouble, save for the occasional mountain passes, which required low gears and patience to get up and over—or down, which was often more scary than up.

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Thirty-three days were spent going from one place to another—what we called road days—and we drove more than 6,000 miles total on those days. Susan and I learned a few things early on, but one of the most important was keeping the road days manageable. Eight hours in a car isn’t as easy as it was when we were twenty, and pulling a trailer is a lot more work than driving a single vehicle. So we did everything we could to keep the day’s driving in the 160- to 220-mile range; we would leave camp early in the morning, and make sure we were parked well before dark. For the most part, we were successful. For some reason, our Canadian trip had the two longest driving days of the year, 309 miles and 401 miles respectively. Some of that was due to our unwillingness to stay at crappy RV parks between Portland and Seattle; there aren’t a lot of decent places off the I-5 corridor.

We spent approximately $1,600 in gas on our travels, with an average price per gallon of $2.79 (it would have been about fifteen cents lower if you remove the Canadian trip; gas was significantly higher up there). Overall, between the two vehicles, we averaged about 14.8 miles per gallon, which was 5 MPG lower than our regular, non-trailer averages. I thought it might have been a lot worse.

Awesome places

Susan and I have talked quite a bit about our favorite places on the trip, and they keep changing, which is pretty remarkable. Of all the places we’ve stayed—I have counted us as staying in 29 different locations over the six months of travel—there are less than five I would avoid if I were in that area again. There were only two places I can heartily tell you all never to stay at: Lewis & Clark Trail State Park, north of Walla Walla, and Brookside Campsite, in Cache Creek, BC. (We wouldn’t stay at a horse show again, unless I were showing, and even then I’d probably think twice about it.)

Out of the places we loved, today’s favorites are Indian Cove (Joshua Tree), Needles Outpost (Canyonlands), Island in the Sky (Canyonlands), Wallowa Lake State Park, the Crooked River, and of course, the trio of places we went in Oregon in September: Waldo Lake, Hart Mountain, and the Alvord Desert. But then, when I look at that list, I keep going: “Hey, what about Valley of Fire, Zion, or Lake Cahuilla, or that awesome little park in Tehachapi? What about Tumalo or Cold Springs campgrounds?” The reality is that we really were lucky to find some great places to camp. We found one-night sites that were good, safe places to rest our bones and long-term sites that were wonderful base camps. (I am working on a list to post here; like so many other things, I’m behind on it.)

As we look to our 2017 travels, we will head to some of these areas again, and look for some new ones. We’ve gotten braver about camping in open spaces like BLM land, and have discovered some great resources (books, apps, and websites) that have been guiding us to places we hadn’t known (or thought) about.

Things learned on the road

I could write a small book about the revelations we had on the road, but here are a few of the big ones:

  • Cozy is good. A friend asked us recently how Susan and I did with the “togetherness” aspect of the Casita. For us, the Casita was cozy, but comfortable. Even in bad weather we were able to carve out separate spaces without getting in each other’s way.
    One thing that definitely made our camps seem bigger was setting up a good outside space for us when we ended up somewhere for more than a day. We brought a camp kitchen, an outdoor rug/mat, a grill and a portable stove, pop-up awning/tent, chairs, and a camp table. Setting all that stuff up gave us what felt at times like an extra room, and eased a lot of the tightness inside the Casita. When we had a few days of rain—as we had in the Wallowas—it was fine, and we always remarked that it was better than being in a tent.
  • We don’t need our home on the road. One of the things you find out quick when you’re camping in a 17-foot trailer is how rare it is to find a small trailer. More often than not we were next to giant trailers, some of which had three or four slides to make them even bigger than they already were. It is almost as if the people who owned them—perfectly nice people, mostly—wanted to have their home with them on the road. Susan and I never felt that we were missing something by keeping our world small while on the road.
    That said, it kind of blew me away to see the latest trend in big-ass trailer manufacturing: porches. Yes, there were trailers with back porches that folded down from the rear of a trailer, complete with railings to keep the riffraff away. One trailer had both a back porch and a side porch, with a sliding glass door (in addition to the main door right next to it). Crazy. Almost as crazy as the trend towards outdoor compartments for large-screen TVs (see below).
  • We can eat the way we want. Susan has written extensively about our eating on the road (Part I, and Part II); I would add that one of the great surprises for me was her work with the dehydrator before we hit the road. She made beef jerky, dehydrated veggies, ground beef, and lots more. Not only did that save space and weight, but when we were dry camping in Oregon for three weeks, it meant that we didn’t have to worry about making a grocery run. I loved the homemade jerky, but the best was when Susan dehydrated a container of my marinara sauce; it reconstituted quite beautifully, and saved valuable space in our fridge.
  • Home is a quick recharge. One thing I hadn’t really expected (I think Susan did, for herself) was my deep desire to head back out on the road after only a few days at home. When we came back after our first long jaunt, we were both talking about wanting to be back home and in our bed. But less than a week after getting home, we were climbing the walls, talking about where we were going to go next, and that hasn’t changed after all our travels. If the Casita weren’t cleaned and waiting for its new owners, I think Susan and I would be talking about a quick trip right now. I have always considered myself a homebody, but the wanderlust gene has definitely kicked in for me.
  • The road is friendly. People are pretty great, for the most part, which makes us introverts much calmer on the road. I’ve written before about folks like our campmates Jan and Tom, who were gracious with advice about a lot of things (and saved me a long drive to get an unneeded replacement battery), and our Canadian neighbors who battened down our camp when a wind storm suddenly hit, but the fact is that we ran into lots of people on the road who were pleasant and kind, generous with advice and stories, and overall, were just nice folks. We had a few people we wanted to get far, far away from, but luckily they were few in number, and we were able to deal with them.
  • Free camping is cool. One of the things we knew about, but had little experience with, was the idea of camping on free public land. Out West, there are millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, where you can camp for free (or for small fees). When we started out, we didn’t have much of a clue as to how to find them, but as time went on, we found a bunch of great places to camp, including BLM land outside of Capitol Reef National Park (which was full the day we went) in Utah, along the Crooked River in Prineville, and in the Alvord Desert (which we had camped in before). We drove past a few places with “dispersed” camping (as it’s called) that looked sketchy, but it was easy enough to drive on to other areas without worry, especially once we found a few sites and apps that catered to BLM and other free or low-cost camping areas. If you’re interested, check out the Ultimate US Campground Project app (there’s a Canadian version as well) or the US Public Lands app. (There are corresponding websites for these apps as well, if you don’t want to spend the mere $3 for either of the apps.)
  • Writing is hard. On the (seemingly) down side, one of my intents in going out on the road was to spend time writing, without the worries of having to “do something.” I wish I could say that I was successful here, but I don’t feel it. I published only one essay—What Means Grief, which I’m really quite proud of—and worked on a couple of others that are in various states of disarray. I did spend a bunch of time reading memoirs and collections about death, dying and grief, which was one of my objectives this year, and I consider that helpful, especially since I now know I have no interest in writing a cancer memoir: even the beautifully written ones (The Iceberg) were uninspiring to me.
  • Snapshots vs. art. On the photography side, I didn’t stretch as much as a photographer as much as I would have hoped. I did go out and shoot frequently, but not always with purpose, and I didn’t get a lot of photos that transcended snapshots (which is fine, actually—we do want memories from the road). I won’t beat myself up about this one too much; I did get some lovely shots here and there, and I’ll keep working at it.
  • Some things will never change. I also learned that I really am incapable of packing the right amount of t-shirts or pants. Somehow I either pack too many or too few. The same thing happens when I travel by plane, so this is clearly a character flaw. 😉
Our camp in Lake Cahuilla — March 2016
Our camp in Lake Cahuilla — March 2016

That’s just a few things; others we’ve mentioned in some of the posts here, and a few that I am sure we will mention down the road. One thing I won’t go into here—but hope to elaborate in a separate post—is all of the cool, mostly inexpensive gadgets and things that made our travels much easier. There are a slew of resources on the web that turned up things like the $6 amazing siphon, the weather radio, the special clamps, and more.

And, while it doesn’t fit into the “lessons learned” category, the funniest thing I saw on the road this year was at an RV park outside of Zion. I was out for a stroll around suppertime, and walked past a large trailer with two people sitting outside, watching a big flat-screen TV that was displaying a documentary on the Outdoor Channel. I really couldn’t stop laughing at the irony of the situation, especially with the mountains of Utah off in the distance.

Closing the Casita chapter

As I write this, we are ten days away from driving to British Columbia to pick up our new trailer. The Casita has been emptied, cleaned and polished, and is ready for its new owners. We will miss it, but it always was intended to be a bridge between our readiness to travel and the delivery of the Escape trailer late in the year. It was a great trailer for us to learn with, and it helped inform the options we chose for the Escape (solar, bigger fridge, etc.) and also our confirmed our correct decision to go out on the road.

Our friends who are buying the Casita are purchasing it for the same reasons that we did: it is a nice, relatively inexpensive way to get into the world of fiberglass trailer camping; it is comfortable and weathertight and close to the right size for two people; and it will have better resale value than the standard aluminum campers you see in force out on the roads these days. We have no regrets about either buying the Casita or selling it for the Escape, and I can heartily recommend it—and fiberglass trailers overall—to anyone who doesn’t feel the need to bring their entire home with them on the road.

In the Alvord with the Casita — September 2016.
In the Alvord with the Casita — September 2016.

It’s been a great year, and it won’t be a surprise to most of you that we have decided that we’re going to do this again next year. In March, after the film festival is done, we plan to put our stuff in storage and hit the road full-time for at least three months, if not more. I’ve gotten some freelance work that will help keep us in gas and food, and there are still a lot of places we want to visit. We’ll also use that time to figure out where we’d ultimately like to keep our home base, which currently is up in the air.

Stay tuned, and thanks for all the kind words and encouragement to us this year; we truly appreciate the support and love.

Rick and Susan

 

The gallery below includes route info for all four of our expeditions from this year. Click on any one of the photos to see the route larger.

 

 

3 thoughts on “101 Casita Nights”

  1. What a great piece to share with us all. It’s nice to be able to read of your travels and see the photos of some of the places you two go.

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