#1 HEADING SOUTH AGAIN (mid January)

Snowbirds Taking Flight
Packing It In
The local news dished out an unremitting barrage of freezing rain advisories; ice storms alerts; avalanche warnings; high wind warnings; flood advisories; reports of actual and predicted landslides; and various road closures while we packed our bags to head east and then south to “find Fox,” our camper. The only in the long list of weather induced regional obstacles that weren’t threatening us were those to the west along the nearby Pacific Ocean where there were even higher winds, exceptional ocean swells, and homes disappearing under airborne beach sand.

Of course, as snowbirds we were supposed to have dodged the snow, not be launching into it. But we’d obediently trekked home for the holidays and now were faced with a string of severe perils from the mid-January “Storm of 2012” if we were to pick-up The Fox and rejoin the disorganized migrating flock more than a thousand miles to the south.

Fortunately we had the upper hand while being confronted with these challenges: we were both in a safe location and on our home turf. The broad knoll supporting our “traveler’s apartment” is about 200’ above both sea level and the Columbia River, which is high enough to be safe from rising waters and yet low enough to be among the last to get hit during ice storms. The gentle slopes towards the river begin blocks away, keeping us safe from landslide and mudflow hazards. We were weary of the heavy rains that were bringing as much as 7” of precipitation in 24 hours to nearby communities but counted ourselves among the lucky ones after reluctantly deciding to delay our departure south. At least we weren’t distracted by a power outage or storm damage and we could stay focused on our trip preparations.

As almost full-time travelers for the last 11 years, we often have felt especially vulnerable in extreme weather conditions such as these because of our lack of local knowledge but this time we had the needed edge and were intent on exploiting it. We spent hours scrutinizing the road and weather reports for a window of opportunity to make our get-away, folding in what we knew about the typical patterns, especially in the most treacherous areas. Being familiar with landmarks mentioned in passing by meteorologists and the authorities aided us in digesting the stream of changing information.

Yes! No ice & little traffic on I-84 east of Portland.
Under Way
Leaving for southwestern Utah one day late and further delaying our departure until the early afternoon worked like a charm: the ice coating the freeway along the notorious stretch of the Columbia Gorge was completely gone, as were all remnants of the jack-knifed trucks and motorists that had slid into the ditches and against the retaining walls the day before. We cruised at the speed limit for 2 hours, then stopped for the night at The Dalles before the slush in the motel parking lots refroze for the night. Even with only 90 miles under our belts, it was “Mission Accomplished” for effortlessly traversing the single stretch of road on our week-long route most likely to be closed due to ice. A few days later we would learn that postponing our departure by 1 day had us missing a nasty ‘snow and ice on the roads’ event in northern Utah as well.

Day #2 was also tinged with uncertainty and apprehension because we again were compelled to obsessively compare the conditions outside our window with those forecasted. Freezing rain was now rolling off of the lips of the meteorologists for our location but nothing was coming down while we did our morning exercises and packed. And despite the reported temperature, the slush in the motel’s parking lot was still soft. Our truck “Blue” reassuringly reported road bed temperatures between 36-37º as we headed east along the Columbia River Gorge that morning.

Ooops! This truck on our I-84 shoulder was aimed the wrong direction.
Bright, overcast skies as we left the broad Columbia River and journeyed southeast towards the range land around Pendleton kept our confidence high that we wouldn’t be trapped in the “wintery mix” of snow and ice on I-84. Just east of Pendleton, about 200 miles east of Portland, the roadside snow was completely gone but its legacy lingered. Thick carpets of grit filled the broad shoulders, some of which doubled as Chain-Up areas, and 2 mangled truck-trailer rigs had been abandoned beyond the shoulders. A few days later in Utah, others told us the tales of terrified truckers on this segment of Interstate 2 days before we traversed it.

A little further on, climbing the steep road to the high plateau unexpectedly changed our outlook on the day. The roadbed temperature that had just peaked at 40º plummeted to 31º and several inches of snow again covered the surrounding land. Biting winds and alternating sprinkles and snowflakes underscored the perils of getting stalled on this isolated stretch of road. Suddenly there was no debate as to how far to go: stopping sooner rather than later for the night at Baker City was the prudent choice.

Our luck held day after day: the 5 day forecasts during our traverses of Oregon, Idaho, and Utah had indicated an almost perfect rolling window of passable weather and the forecasts were close enough to reality to meet our driving needs. Several afternoons, like when approaching Baker City, we stopped early because blowing snow pinched the visibility beneath our comfort level but the following morning always gave way to intervals of brilliant sun.

As expected, the temperatures were consistently colder an hour after leaving Portland, but the much drier weather yielded overall safer driving conditions. Thirty degree temperatures in our soggy Willamette Valley is all it takes to begin the tally of road fatalities whereas the same temperatures in Idaho are likely to portend a lovely day on the road.

Old Fort Utah at Salt Lake City: The storm threat was well behind us now.
Each day we scrutinized the forecasts, watched our truck’s instrument panel for the roadbed temperature, and held our breath, hoping for the best. By the time we cleared Salt Lake City, Utah, we were home free. We had been on the tails of their snowy blast blowing in from the Columbia Gorge and no more ‘events’ were in the forecast before our arrival in more temperate St George, Utah where we’d stashed The Fox.

The 5 day window of forecasted opportunity had held, allowing us to successfully slalom through the storm-free slots to reach the sunny SW without slipping, sliding, chaining up or scrapping ice off our windshield. Yee-haa! The snowbirds had landed.

Freeway Bound
Neither of us enjoy sitting in a vehicle all that much and needing to rack-up miles with daily freeway driving left us feeling like ill-behaved children in the back seat. But years of near-daily cyclotouring gave us endless practice with being fascinated when there was little of interest around and we did our best to apply those skills while staring at the wide-open spaces surrounding I-84 and I-15 as we drove to southern-most Utah.

Recent snow from the Columbia Gorge storm on the mountains at Ogden, UT.
On this trip I took note of how highly visible the patient hawks were when silhouetted in the barren trees, spotting several each day until reaching Twin Falls, Idaho. Every time a dually truck passed us, we again considered ourselves lucky for dodging that purchase--our big, single rear axle, 1-ton was challenging enough to navigate in the cities. I said a silent “Thank you” for the welcome heating in each of the Interstate rest rooms, few of which we didn’t visit along our route. And the book exchange for visitors to Utah’s tourist info office north of Ogden struck me as an unusually homey touch for such offices though we didn’t have anything to contribute.

The driving days were tedious and the stops for the night had us frequently chiming “I miss Fox” because of the variable quality of lodging. As international travelers, we slowly learned how to have the best over night experience for the price as possible. In Austria, it meant heading for the river bike routes for bright, spacious B&B rooms for half the cost as elsewhere. In France, the overpriced, threadbare abodes that didn’t match our definition of “charming” were best dodged by selecting from the budget chains at the freeway interchanges. In off-season coastal Croatia, fully equipped tourist apartments were always in our sights at the end of a chilly day. But all of that refined experience was useless because we now needed the same level of detailed knowledge to navigate around the incredibly mixed bag of US interstate motels.

On the trip home in the early winter we thought we’d died and gone to heaven when we checked into our first Super 8 Motel in little Burley, Idaho. For a little over 50 bucks we had a huge, I mean huge, room with a big window and thoughtfully chosen furniture. We could easily manage our excess of luggage and all of our food preparation and still had space for our morning exercises. But no need to exercise in the room: a meeting room sized fitness center held the usual 4 or 5 pieces of workout equipment and left a vacuous space for our routines.

The next Super 8 we tried was in Oregon and it was almost $90. We negotiated to select a rare room that wasn’t penetrated by the buzzing hall ventilation system noise and struggled to shoe-horn ourselves into the cramped space. No fitness room here: morning exercises had to be compressed to fit the European standard of private space. We tried the brand again in Utah but our room lacked the frig and microwave indicated on the booking and our morning entertainment was overhearing the Utah police interrogating a pair of identity theft suspects in the hall for about 2 hours.

So far, Eastern Oregon has been the toughest place on I-84 for us to find decent lodging. Online reviews of the handful of available options in John Day and Baker City that were under $133 were filled with descriptors like “shabby, thread-bare, luke-warm water, mouse droppings, mouse-sightings, and bad smells”. The few, interwoven glowing 5-star reviews smacked of having been counters submitted by the managers of the maligned establishments. Our second stay at one of the sort-of renovated, old highway motels along Oregon’s byways had us renegotiating our price point to avoid such unpleasant rooms again. In contrast, Idaho was a breath of fresh air with lovely budget-priced rooms but we only needed a single night in that state when heading north or south.

Twin Falls, ID: The Snake River was walking distance from our delightful motel.
Moving Up The Learning Curve
So far our recent ‘moteling’ in the US has been limited to the brief intervals in which we trek home without our camper, so we may never get the critical mass of experience to master the in’s and out’s of US interstate motels. Though we did tumble into the delightful 20% savings of online booking a same-day deal at AmericInn as we exited the freeway for the night at Twin Falls, Idaho--a trick we’ll try to capitalize upon again.

Interspersed with writing about our latest Super 8 experience, I returned a feedback questionnaire to booking.com about our disappointment with our room. In minutes, they called us, offering to book us into another hotel at their expense, that same night if we wanted to move. We declined to move but instantly learned that we had a bulldog in our corner. Should we book with them again and learn upon arrival that the available room is not what we reserved--like no microwave and frig--we are to immediately call them. They would pay the difference to get us into another hotel that met our specifications that night. We learned that they also provide this same satisfaction guarantee on overseas bookings, which could be useful to us when we travel through larger cities. Minutes later we received another call from them indicating that they had just arranged for a 20% refund on our room. Wow!

Finding Fox
We rolled into always sunny St George about noon as planned after 6 nights on the road and munched our lunch in the waiting room of a Chevy dealership while Blue had its first scheduled maintenance: an oil change and tire rotation. Forty five minutes later, as promised, we were on our way to pick-up Fox having only spent $60 for the work and materials. Not having owned a vehicle since early 2001, we were braced for a bill twice that and couldn't believe the bargain. Purring with satisfaction from the great price and from timing the work when Fox was already off the truck, we drove to the bedroom community of Washington City to fetch Fox.

Our almost new camper was exactly as we had left it in the southwestern Utah storage unit almost 2 months prior. And as hoped, there were no moisture, freezing, or rodent problems. It took an hour to load the camper onto the truck, which is about 3 times longer than usual. But we knew when we off-loaded it that the reload would be difficult because of the approach angles involved and the bump up to the concrete floor from the asphalt grounds. We needed all of the time we'd budgeted for loading and then transferring our considerable stash of gear and food from the backseat of Blue into the camper before the sun set. The bikes that had been in the unit were heaved back into the space we'd made in Blue and we headed for a familiar RV park in St George for the night knowing it would take days or a week to get everything tucked back into its allocated space.

What had been a cheery and satisfying day morphed into a long and frustrating night because while we climbed over and around the clutter inside Fox, we discovered that our water pump would run but not pump. Hook-ups meant that it was superfluous for that night but the pump would be essential for the week's stay in Zion National Park that would begin the next day. Freezing overnight temperatures and feeling a need to flush our fresh water tank added extra tasks to the evening when we were already running out of steam. Finally we called a halt to the problem solving and went to bed.

By noon the next day the crisis with the pump was over. After a couple of calls to the camper manufacturer in eastern Oregon and some fiddling by a nearby RV dealer, the pump was fixed. No charge and no explanation as to what the problem had been, we were nonetheless satisfied. We settled for a culprit-something being dislodged in the process of troubleshooting and Bill was confident he could replicate the non-specific fix should it happen again. Then it was on to the nearby Walmart and Costco to restock our frig and pantry for the week in nearby Zion, a place we'd been unable to visit in December because of a fierce wind storm. There we hoped make Fox feel like home again and to have a grand start to our 2012 snowbird traveling season with some great hiking.