The Great American Road Trip

We’re feeling very Griswald-y around here, with our tent and our van and all our gear; we actually heard someone in a bathroom singing “Holiday Road,” for a little background music. After shipping about 750 pounds of stuff to my very patient and accommodating cousin in Madison, our family headed north from Tucson towards the Grand Canyon.DSC_0885

DSC_0925We’re really used to traveling without a specific itinerary, after two years of being weather-dependent, so one of the challenging shifts for us is to learn to operate within the time-specific parameters of the US. People want to know when, exactly, we’ll be showing up at their house; we’re trying to wedge ourselves into campgrounds where people have made reservations six months in advance. We’re trying to adjust, roughing out a schedule, but there’s not much we can do about campground reservation systems.

Donkeys coming down the Bright Angel trail

Mules coming down the Bright Angel trail

A little wind erosion on the rock face

A little wind erosion on the rock face

So far, we’ve lucked out. We positioned ourselves for success at the Grand Canyon, pitching our tents for the first time at the Coconino National Forest, just outside of Flagstaff. Fire danger is high around the southwest, so no campfires, and the van backseat does not make the world’s most luxurious mattress, but we scrapped it together and started to invent systems for efficient camping. The next day, we rushed north to nab a spot at Desert View campground, a no-reservation site on the eastern edge of the south rim.DSC_0921The advantages of traveling by boat have become glaringly clear. On Milou: arrive at a spot; relax immediately; prep dinner in the fully-equipped galley; any teenagers feeling angsty can escape to the privacy of their room; beds are made, comfy, ready to rock. On the van trip: arrive at a spot; pull most of the gear out of the van immediately to set up the tent, van bed, access clothing, etc.; prep dinner on the picnic table, shuttling between van food-storage, kitchen equipment in bins, and wet food in a cooler full of ice; any teenagers feeling angsty can read off to the side in a camp chair and glower at anyone who approaches them; beds are lumpy (van) or hard (tent).DSC_0977

We spent just two nights at the Grand Canyon, but managed to explore much of the south rim. Rafting adventures and multi-day hikes are beyond the scope of this trip, but we managed a successful three-mile hike on the Bright Angel Trail, and rewarded ourselves generously with massive sundaes. We mastered the Park Service bus shuttle system, and watched the sun go down from the Desert View observation spot. We managed the crowds without losing our minds. According to one of the rangers we spoke to, the majority of the six million annual visitors to the Grand Canyon are not American; our suspicion is that it’s becoming more difficult for people in the US to take the extended road trip that was a classic when we were kids, going from Yellowstone to Bryce to Zion to the Grand Canyon to Yosemite and home. We overheard one German tourist explaining his itinerary, and the American he was talking to couldn’t believe he was fitting in so many parks over two weeks; the German explained that, no, he was traveling for two months. The ranger was enthusiastically promoting their distance-learning programs, but it’s a pale substitute for experiencing those actual vistas. We feel lucky to have this time to explore our own country before heading back to the Midwest.DSC_0874

From the Grand Canyon, we struck out to the west, headed for California. Friends and family were lined up, so our schedule led us to put some miles on Iron Van. We spent one last night in the desert, at the Hole-in-the-Wall campground in the Mohave National Preserve, before shifting north and making our way to Sequoia National Park.

Camping setup in the Mohave

Camping setup in the Mohave

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DSC_1080Michu and I have both been through Redwoods National Park, and I think we expected Sequoia to be similar. We were wrong. Sequoia is in the High Sierras, and the van performed admirably up the twisted mountain roads, climbing up to almost 8000 feet in pursuit of tall trees and a place to pitch the tent. Once again, we scored a campsite in the park. With our Grand Canyon experience under our belts, we aced the shuttle bus to check out the General Sherman tree and hike among the forest giants, learning the differences between redwoods and sequoias, and enjoying the cool, moist air. There’s no question, we’re in trouble when the Wisconsin winter sets in, but the shift to jeans-wearing weather has been pretty pleasant. Our desert-accustomed eyes are pretty impressed with freely-running freshwater streams, as well.DSC_1049

Your standard Christmas card shot

Your standard Christmas card shot

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Look at all the fresh water!

Look at all the fresh water!

So now, we’re in the Bay Area, meeting up with cruising friends and spending time with family. We’ve spent our first night in American house in a very long time, and have immediately acclimated to gigantic refrigerators, unlimited hot water, and comfy beds with lots of foot space. We’re starting to look forward to our own return to a regular house…eventually.DSC_0996

Back in the USA

…aaaaaand, we’re in Tucson.

Goodbye to all of that.

Goodbye to all of that. So far, not finding Tucson very photogenic.

After a very hectic week of wrapping up the boat, pulling all our gear off and schlepping it to Iron Van, we flopped down in the glorious air-conditioning of a nearby hotel room. The boat had been hauled out of the water and safely stored in Marina Seca, and we were ready for our exit.

Naked boat

Naked boat

Canal number stays with the boat for life. Man, that seems like a long time ago!

Canal number stays with the boat for life. Man, that seems like a long time ago!

Hauling out by tractor in San Carlos.

Hauling out by tractor in San Carlos.

DSC_0885Driving north from San Carlos was easier than expected, and after a last Mexican lunch of cold shrimp tostadas from a roadside stand, we found ourselves at the border. Time for the next test: would we be pulled over and stranded while every piece of gear was pulled from our haphazardly-packed land yacht, searched by customs and immigration for contraband? We couldn’t even tell you what all was in there. The value of foreign-purchased items was impossible to tally; we had two big tubs of food, plus a bag of snacks, plus a cooler–what items aren’t allowed, again? But fortunately, we were waved through without a hitch, and there we were, back in the United States.

Please do not ask me what is in here.

Please do not ask me what is in here.

We immediately noticed how insane the roads are. Yes, it’s luxurious driving on four lane highways with actual shoulders, rumble strips, guardrails, and consistent signage (in English!). But we have been in no other country where millions of dollars have been spent on huge overpasses and interchanges everywhere, just to allow drivers to go a little faster. Costa Rica puts their resources into conservation and universal health care, instead.

Our brains are still trying to operate in Spanish. For every transaction, we pull up the required vocabulary from the depths of our brains, and are startled when everyone comes at us with English. Tucson is very easy to navigate as a visitor–if you have a car. We’ve been able to find what we need and move around so efficiently, we’re ahead of our game plan.

That plan involves decanting our gear into a hotel room; sorting out what can be shipped to my cousin’s house in Madison; and repacking Iron Van with only what we need for a couple of months of camping and visiting friends and family. Our house rental doesn’t start until August 15, so we don’t plan to be back in our hometown until early August, giving us two whole months to try and acclimate to the pace of life in this country. Everything is fast, everything is efficient, everything is expensive. We’ll adjust.

Meanwhile–the beds are huge! And slightly dangerous; we haven’t been able to fall out of bed for years, and T found the limits of his bed this morning at about six am–fortunately landing on a pile of clothes waiting to be sorted. We completely lost our heads at the local grocery co-op, Food Conspiracy, and spent and outrageous amount of money on what was basically lunch. We had Thai food last night, and it was a religious experience. Mostly, we’re overwhelmed by the amount of merchandise. We’ve absorbed more advertising in the last 48 hours than we had in the previous six months, and the sheer number of things for sale seems to be impossible. Who is buying all of this stuff? Later today, we’ll be attempting to navigate REI without losing our minds. We have a list. We’ll see how it goes.

Obviously, we can’t stay in this situation for very long without being completely overwhelmed, so in a couple of days we’ll decamp for the Grand Canyon. We plan to head to Desert View, to avoid the crowds and find some space in nature. We find the lack of water disconcerting, but are looking forward to time away from this concrete environment, and back to a desert landscape.

Change is afoot.

Remember two years ago, when we were getting ready to move out of the house and onto the boat, using every waking minute to pack and plan and repair and organize? And all I could pull off for the blog was the bullet-point summary? We’re essentially back to that stage. Eventually, I’ll have the time to write thoughtfully about what the end of cruising means for us; how we’ve changed as a family; highlights and lowlights from the last two years; what we hoped to have gained from this experience. But in the words of Aragorn in The Return Of The King: Today is not that day.

Keeping cool with some paletas

Keeping cool with some paletas

We left Santa Rosalia Saturday afternoon for a calm overnight passage, already exhausted after a rushed two days of cleaning. Three different potential buyers had expressed plans to visit the boat in San Carlos over the weekend of the 27th, but due to some easier and cheaper travel arrangements, one family decided to book flights for the 20th instead. That was our planned arrival date at Marina San Carlos, so we went into overdrive to get the boat somewhat presentable. We weren’t going to have the luxurious week at a dock to haul gear off the boat and do a deep cleaning, but at least this family would get to see what it really looks like to live aboard our boat, and we wouldn’t be juggling three separate buyers over the course of one weekend.

A shady spot in Santa Rosalia

A shady spot in Santa Rosalia

The steel church in Santa Rosalia, designed by Gustave Eiffel. Santa Rosalia is an old French mining town, and is very different than most places we've been in Mexico.

The steel church in Santa Rosalia, designed by Gustave Eiffel. Santa Rosalia is an old French mining town, and is very different than most places we’ve been in Mexico.

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The passage went smoothly enough, aided by some take-out pizza and our reliable Perkins 4108, and we eventually pulled into a slip deep enough for our almost-7-foot draft. Napping was not really a part of the equation; we were too nervous about meeting our buyers. By 6, we were sharing a beer with them and spilling all we could about life aboard, sailing Mexico, and our boat in particular.

Coming into San Carlos in the morning.

Coming into San Carlos in the morning.

Why does no one talk about the Evil Mosquitoes of San Carlos? Certain anchorages are renown in Mexico for their own particular bugs, but no one had warned us about the cloud of vicious biters that filled our cabin that night. The kids slept ok, but Michu and I were up all night and both look like we have some kind of pox.

Monday morning saw our two families going over every part of Milou. We are bad liars, and have no interest in hiding the boat’s flaws, so we pointed out every worn spot of varnish or unrepaired fitting—while at the same time, singing the praises of our robust and newish systems, from electrical to plumbing. Our buyers were too overwhelmed to absorb even a tenth of what we were telling them, so we decided to take the boat out for a sail in the afternoon and just enjoy hanging out. The breeze was perfect; we hoisted all our sails, demonstrated the glories of a solid autohelm, and showed them how to anchor on the way back to the marina.

I think they like the boat.

I think they like the boat.

The next day was the survey, when a marine professional would come and painstakingly rip apart our boat, evaluating every little piece for flaws or wear. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. The surveyor our new folks hired never actually hoisted the sails, missing the small tear in the foot of the genoa; he didn’t understand anything about lithium batteries; he didn’t point out the stains from water ingress near our fixed port lights from when they used to leak. There was a lot he missed about the boat’s condition; yet he still chose to compare our boat to some very neglected and ill-equipped Beneteau First 38s that had sold in the past few years and pretend that they were essentially the same as our boat. We were really unimpressed with his abilities and his subsequent recommendations to the buyers.

Poking around during the survey.

Poking around during the survey.

Nevertheless, we persevered, and by 7:30 that night had reached an agreement on price. Milou is officially sold! Is Milou officially sold? Well, almost. We aren’t using a broker, so we’re working out our own contract, which is almost done. It takes a while for the title to transfer. The surveyor still needs to inspect the boat out of the water, which won’t happen until we haul on the 31st—although, having had her out of the water so recently, we feel pretty confident about her condition. The final settlement won’t take place until August. But I think we have very happy buyers, eager to take our boat around the Sea of Cortez next season with their nine-year-old daughter, and we’re feeling pretty good all around with the arrangement.

No rest for the weary, however. After another sleepless night, our family split up; Michu took a ride north with our buyers to search out a van in Tucson, and the kids and I stayed behind on the boat to assess what needed to happen before hauling out. It was the first time our family has been apart for more than a few hours in the last two years, and it felt really weird. Soon to be the norm, I guess, once we return to school, jobs, and schedules.

Kids and I enjoying internet and chilaquiles.

Kids and I enjoying internet and chilaquiles.

Michu quickly found a vehicle that we hope will hold our stuff, at least until we can cross the border and ship some things back to the Midwest. Our new ride is a GMC Savana full-sized van, and it is AWESOME. It goes so fast! The seats are so cushy! There’s this stuff called air conditioning that controls the heat! Phenomenal. Title, registration, insurance, and the quick purchase of a phone with an actual contract, and Michu was back by Friday with most of the accoutrements of American land life, including a Starbucks coffee cup next to the dash.

Look at all the space that we can fill up with smelly boat stuff!

Look at all the space that we can fill up with smelly boat stuff!

Land yacht.

Land yacht.

So now we are scrambling. Decommission the boat, so she is well-stowed for the summer. Remove all our personal gear. Process a great deal of weird paperwork. Plan a two-month road trip. It is insanity. But really, it’s pretty strange to think about our end game. I don’t want to jinx anything, but…when we were planning our two-year trip, we said we’d sail out of Milwaukee; down the East Coast of the US; through the Bahamas and a bit of the Caribbean; through the Panama Canal; up the western coast of Central America and Mexico; and sell the boat in the Sea of Cortez. That’s exactly what we did. It’s hard to believe, but here we are, finishing up a trip of a lifetime, just as we’d planned when we started out.

Finally--thank goodness for buddy boats! This is our friends Nomi at anchor south of Santa Rosalia. We've been leaning heavily on each other for the past week to juggle kids, as we both deal with exit plans.

Finally–thank goodness for buddy boats! This is Nomi at anchor south of Santa Rosalia. We’ve been leaning heavily on each other for the past week to juggle kids and pull off boat tasks, as we both deal with exit plans.

Yet another photo dump.

Guys. Why are you even still reading our blog? It’s turning into the worst kind of slideshow-of-our-vacation rant! Lots of action coming up soon, as we wrap up our trip, but for now, just photos of beautiful places.

Dolphins passing us by.

Dolphins passing us by.

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Your basic morning dolphin visit.

Your basic morning dolphin visit.

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View from Honeymoon Bay.

View from Honeymoon Bay.

Do not use the rock as a bathroom!!

Do not use the rock as a bathroom!!

Our girl at anchor

Our girl at anchor

The Butt Cactus. It was a steep descent on this trail, and our friend Maeve slid into this pointy plant, butt-first.

The Butt Cactus. It was a steep descent on this trail, and our friend Maeve slid into this pointy plant, butt-first.

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Beach potluck at Puerto Ballandra

Beach potluck at Puerto Ballandra

Cruising kids!

Cruising kids!

 

Cruiser's shrine at San Juanico

Cruiser’s shrine at San Juanico

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We enjoyed finally meeting up with S/V Galapagos, after messaging Melissa for years.

We enjoyed finally meeting up with S/V Galapagos, after messaging Melissa for years.

View from the water at Playa Burro

View from the water at Playa Burro

Underside of the thatched roof

Underside of the thatched roof

Mamas and beers

Mamas and beers

One of the "bell rocks" up in the hills around Playa Burro; the high iron content makes the solid rocks resonate like a bell

One of the “bell rocks” up in the hills around Playa Burro; the high iron content makes the solid rocks resonate like a bell

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The bees have found us!

*Remember–Milou is for sale; read all about it here!*

For the most part, our time in Baja has been pretty insect-free. We’ve been pestered by little non-biting flies called “bobos” a couple of times, but haven’t seen more than a handful of mosquitoes. That’s all over now.

The bees in Baja are legendary. They have a hard time finding water in the desert, so they’ve adopted a strategy to seek out any small source. Drip in your faucet? They’re on it. Wet swimsuit, rinsed in fresh water? You bet.

The solar shower on the stern. Find the leak!

The solar shower on the stern. Find the leak!

Early in our trip, we weren’t so awesome at keeping the bugs out. We’ve got screens for most of our hatches, but the companionway was regularly swarmed with mosquitoes, and we kept it closed and often draped with towels to protect ourselves. That doesn’t work in hot places–we need the air circulation; so we’ve stolen a genius idea from an Ovni we met in Jamaica, and draped the companionway with a hanging bug net.DSCF4289 (1)

It’s a little bit of a hassle getting in and out of the boat, but we can wash our dishes without fear of getting stung.