My estranged aunt posted one of those memes on Facebook recently. It stated that the human body recovers from the negative effects of restless sleep caused by technology after only a week of camping. Like most of the Internet's information today, this is about as sound as the “ten tricks to burn fat in three minutes” posts.
Either way, I was becoming a bit restless and the longing was creeping back into the voids of my mind like rising ground water. The pavement was becoming too guided and confining and the horizon ever further away. The aches returned to my joints and fingers as all things tame and civilized could not satisfy their labors. The setting sun called to me every night and beckoned me to follow. As a dancing bear in the circus of society, I could not find my release. My freedom.
When our family friend Brian shared a photo of a recent trip up north, I knew I'd found my next destination. The target was set, clear in the center of my cross-hairs. He and his father had frequented this place. The water in the photo was clear as glass, something I had not seen since I lived in Washington.
We were quickly packed and headed for the Sierras.
I had just upgraded the tires on the truck to larger, more rugged 37″ BF Goodrich All Terrains (same type as before but stronger with a bit more tread) and doubled the size of our onboard air compressor to the Viair 444C system. This was the perfect trip to test both systems out, as I knew we were bound to be off-road for significant periods of time. I was excited to air down the tires for better traction and a softer ride.
Up to now, Chelsea and I have come to dance to the same travel rhythm. I choose and plan the broad travel plans and she focuses on the finer points. In this case I knew we were headed to northeastern California, and she found her own crannies to explore. The first special location was a hot spring called Crowley Natural Hot Spring. Known to the locals as “Wild Willy's.” A short drive offroad didnt deter me from airing down as I loved the chance to practice. We drove past our familiar travel friends the cows and found ourselves at a culdesac of sorts with wood plank walkway leading to the hot-springs.
The boys needed a bit of time to decompress, so I took the opportunity to open up the CVT awnings. We timed their deployment to one minute and ten seconds each. The dogs got a chance to get out and stretch their legs. As I looked in every direction, I found that I was cradled in the arms of a jagged mountain range, perfection in every direction. Vast fields. Rain falling in the distance. Blue skies in the other direction.
Chelsea, the boys, the dogs and I all played in the hot spring. We were later joined by a fellow San Diegan with his own traveling dog, and enjoyed a nice conversation about animal rescue. The hot pool was complimented by a cool steady breeze flowing across the plain. Even Minion got to happily splash in this natural bath.
Chelsea took up the next leg of driving as we pressed on to our campsite. A dirt road snaked through a dusty forest path. We found our clearing and after a short conversation with an experienced older gentleman, set up camp overlooking the crystalline babbling brook singing nearby. I set up the stove and took to making dinner. A fine selection of sausage accompanied by chocolate milk and Squirt grapefruit soda.
We settled in comfortably and slipped into a warm, fleece-covered sleep. How ironic, I now think, that fleece would wake us.
“Baaaaaa. Baaaaaaaaaah.” This repeated a hundred times over as the sun began to peak over the horizon. The clank of a half-dozen copper bells joined the cacophony of walking wool. “Chelsea! Chelsea! What the hell is that?” I shouted. “I…have…no idea,” she blearily returned through bloodshot eyes. I climbed down the ladder and cautiously opened the door to the tent. There, I was met by the indifferent glances of one thousand six-hundred something sheep all passing around our camp like river water by a giant rock. How do I know it was that many? I asked one of the five shepherds walking with them. Through a thick accent, he gave me an exact head count down to the gender and age. After the initial shock of surprise, it became surreal and a bit magical. I was glad to have been caught in the middle of this annual migration.
As the sun shone through the light dust cloud made in the wake of the fluffy flock, I found myself wanting to make the moment last for hours. Sadly, the encounter would be fleeting and only a lasting memory. Little did I know, this would not be my only “first” as far as animal encounters for the week's voyage.
I fired up breakfast and let the boys loose. They played with the rocks (their favorite) and found the nearby parked forestry service tractors too monstrous to approach, despite their love of Bob the Builder. I surveyed my fortress and marveled at its mobility and remote deploy-ability. The Cascadia Vehicle Tent was now almost fully in use as we only had a few accessories still untested.
The 99″ awning became a nursery after realizing I had forgotten to pack the portable crib. It turned out to be a fortunate oversight, as the boys enjoyed having a playroom. I sat, eating my breakfast, and realized we were all there together without any distraction from the modern world. Our phones were as good as battery powered night lights and all we could do to entertain ourselves was…entertain ourselves.
We packed up into the truck and explored our new lands. We ventured to Twin Lakes and ate a hardy lunch in nearby Bridgeport at a corner hamburger stand packed with French tourists. I love listening to their conversations, watching their quirky mannerisms and wondering if we seem as interesting in their countries. This was a farming town, so I found it amusing to watch one of the older male French visitors attempt to secretly hide his cash – separate from his wallet – in his tall socks. I presume he was afraid of being mugged, as he was sure to become a victim at one of the surrounding cattle ranches. He was probably looking out for those famous western highway bandits on horseback.
We returned to camp and, fatefully, I prepared the fish we had caught earlier in the day just up stream. I made special efforts to clean the fish a mile from our camp and downwind from the bulk of the forest.
Not good enough.
At midnight, about an hour after falling asleep, Bjorne (who we coincidentally named “bear” in Norwegian) set off like a fog horn. The blue moonlight lit everything faintly, but the awning blocked sight of anything directly below us. Then I heard the sound of my cooler rolling over. I knew exactly who was making Bjorne so angry. A 500 pound black bear. I quickly threw on my shirt and Crocs and made my way down the ladder. Carefully again, I opened the door to the sound of an unseen animal. With a flashlight and my “last ditch anti-bear” device, I stepped out to find the intruder of all intruders. I was mad at myself for having food out, but really, there was nowhere to put it. No bear boxes (for those of you who think those things are just everywhere) and no tree suitable to suspend our food.
I turned the corner and my light landed on his right side just ten yards from me. “HEY!” I shouted as he surveyed the icy contents of his find. He looked quickly up at me and darted off towards the woods. I let the dogs out of the trailer and they barked away. Bjorne would be the only one brave enough to continue his alarm. The bear called off his retreat at just forty yards, then sat under a tree to watch me. I closed my distance to fifteen yards and stared as he sat unflinching with a bummed look on his face similar to Some Boy when I catch him sneaking a cookie.
Eventually, after thirty minutes had passed, the bear seemed to realize I was not backing down. He headed off towards other camps in search of easier opportunities. I followed for about a hundred yards, into a group of tents, and asked a man turning in for the night if he had food in his camp. He looked at me with cautious irritation as though a bum had followed him from the city. I pressed on, adding “because there is a bear coming right for you guys.” The words sunk into his sleepy ears, and I shone my light twenty yards to the right. Bright yellow spots of eyes reflected back at the ground camper. “Holy spit!” I'll admit that's not an exact quote, but close enough. “Honey, get the kids. Get up, get the kids.”
Seven campsites were cleared out within three hours. I returned to my site after I thought the bear had decided to move on, only to be woken again an hour later. Again, I slowly warded off the lumbering animal. Chelsea asked if we, too, should abandon our camping plans. “No, you go to sleep. I'll deal with him.” Seven hours later, the bear went home…full of other camper's food. I had only lost grapes from his first visit.
We finished off the trip after packing up our camp, and Chelsea did her part to clean up after previous campers “forgot” some trash items. Boys and dogs loaded, we headed off. We rolled back to pavement and stopped for the last time on the dirt road by Buckeye Hot Springs (also known as Travertine Hot Springs), the main draw for campers in this area. We got out and refilled our tires and I realized my investment in the Viair onboard air compressor was a wise one. I could fill and repair my tires, and even fill air mattresses anywhere…hundreds of miles from the previously sought-after gas station air pump. Minutes later, we headed off to the east entrance of Yosemite National Park.
We'll leave that for you to discover on your own.
P.S. I recommend if you plan on taking your family on the road more often, get the Interagency Annual pass. It's totally worth it and you get access to all the parks, easy peasy.