As we continued the long process of leveling and unhitching, plumbing and plugging in, unpacking and tidying up, the aforementioned flies (Poor Judgment) left their shady idyll and came to see what we were doing. We swatted and flicked and didn’t think too much of it until I washed out a few smalls and hung them up. “Oh, look. They’re attracted to pink.” They were also attracted to white and black and glass and wood and chrome and human flesh. They began to set themselves up for the night on the leeward side of the trailer like a sociable Spanish family who will sit beside you on an otherwise empty beach.
It was hot and we were tired so we shut ourselves in for the evening and had an early night. By early night I mean we went to bed, not to sleep. Freight trains plied a steady trade and you could tell even in the dark if they were trundling east or west simply by listening to the whistle.
By 3:oo am I ceased to cat nap between the guess-the-direction-of-the-trains game as the wind had picked up and the awning was flapping and banging its supports. Jimmy had another long drive ahead of him so I left him to doze as best he could while I dashed outside in my nightie to tension the strut on the awning. The flies immediately descended on my bare arms, face and back so I performed a swatting sort of break dance as I pushed the strut, twiddled the knob and hopped back indoors.
Wide awake now I watched daylight begin to seep through the blinds. I opened them and gazed out the window to witness a gorgeous sunrise of violet, orange and pale yellow, as the dazzling orb rose up over the horizon. Examining the golden morning through binoculars I could see clouds of flies swarming in front of the site owner’s house, keeping him company as well.
I watched swallows swooping and feeding their young, nesting in holes of old elm trees. Three vibrant yellow-headed blackbirds paid a visit to feed just outside my window and two pairs of goldfinches appeared. Off in the field I thought I could see rats and squirrels, but with the aid of binoculars I could tell they were prairie dogs, like fat rats, but so cute as they stretched up on tip toe to survey their patch.
My quiet morning nature watch was interrupted at 5:00 am when the daylight coming through the frosted window on the other side of the trailer appeared spackled with black. Opening the blind, I could hardly see out through the seething mass of flies. Unable to contain myself I ambushed Jimmy, yanking open all the blinds, shrieking, “Look! Look!” as he sat up, blinking.
As yet we were not troubled “indoors” by the flies.
An eight-hour drive towing our unwieldy trailer required an unaccustomed early start so we left for our next campsite well before the noon dismissal. We breakfasted, washed, dressed and battened down the hatches; we picked up keys, water, phones, hats, etc. and braced ourselves by the door. One, two, three, go!
Scuttling out and slamming the door quickly behind us we found one whole side of the trailer and the car black with teeny, tiny flies. The plastic cover on our heavy-duty batteries seemed to have a particular electrical attraction as it was dripping with thick lumps of flies. Neither of us has ever seen anything like it or wish to again.
But it got worse. And more comical.
“There is an awful lot of not very much here,” said Jimmy as we drove and drove and drove through the high desert of eastern
Washington – a dry, barren, biscuit-colored landscape. It dulled our senses after the lush, picturesque bank of the Columbia River. We had kept to the north bank of the river except for one brief interlude when the navigator zoned out and sent the driver over a bridge giving us lovely east and west views up and down the river, or so I insisted, and taking us into Oregon briefly.
With only had two tasks to engage my mind over the hours on the interstate I missed the exit, and failed to find a suitable campsite for the night. It was like choosing a line in the supermarket; I narrowed it down to two possibilities in the camping directory then chose the wrong one, but how do you know?
Our first clue that I’d made a bad choice should have been when we drove over an unmanned railroad crossing 50 yards before the entrance to the site. The alarms bells did not go off in our brains as they would in our ears later.
We’d unhitched the trailer from the car and plugged in to electricity before the first WHOOWHOO! WHOOWHOO! DING!DING!DING!DING!DING! Four locomotives and 110 freight cars rumbled past. Jimmy and I just stared at each other in open-mouthed stupefaction. That was strike three against the campsite. We’d already had a run in with the owner of the site for daring to drive on to his campsite and had tried unsuccessfully to outrun the flies.
It had appeared to be a pastoral, tranquil campsite with individual sites lined up along a lake, half of them under the trees and half in the open. As soon as we stopped under the trees, flies descended on us so Jimmy wisely chose to move further along to an open aspect.
He pulled forward into a field ready for a reversing maneuver as I skipped from site 19 to site 20 to site 18 and back to 19, evaluating the merits of each – level ground, good view of the lake, pretty tree outside my bedroom window.
“Make up your mind!” he yelled. His demeanor deteriorates after eight hours of driving.
Just then the owner bowled up to me in a golf cart. “Can I help you?” he began, almost pleasantly. I would have thought it was obvious why we were there.
“We’re just trying to choose a site.”
“Well you should have come to see me first,” he spat. “I’ve got a lot of people coming in.” It was five o’clock on a Thursday and I looked up and down the line of 38 empty campsites.
“The office was closed.”
“You can’t expect me to sit in there all day.”
Oh no? “As the office was closed we took a late registration envelope to pay our fee,” and I waved it at him to confirm that we hadn’t tried to sneak in behind his back.
“You have to register first. Didn’t you see the sign?”
“I saw the sign. How can we register when you’re not in the office?”
“I was on the phone in the house. You should have waited.”
How am I supposed to know that? “We phoned you for a reservation but you didn’t return our call.”
He ignored that and continued his rant. “You can’t just park anywhere.”
“Where can we park?”
“How long are you staying?”
“Well get set up here and then come and register, but you’ll have to leave by 12:00 tomorrow.”
Oh trust me, I thought, we’ll be long gone before then and why couldn’t you have asked that question first?
And that was just strike one.
We think that we rely on weather forecasts to plan trips in our trailer, where in fact we were oblivious to imminent wind storms that crushed RVs and blocked roads and then snow and ice that caused fatal accidents. Both storms followed us at a discreet distance up the west coast to our cosy apartment in Olympia and we viewed the all damage on TV. Still, we watched the forecasts in the belief that they would be correct before the weather happened. Often they are not. Predicting the capricious weather thrown at the Northwest by the Pacific is not easy so was often incorrect but the forecasts could be very entertaining.
Our favourite presenter by far was Whistling Sid. My guess was that he had some dental enhancement done and he hadn’t quite got the hang of his new pearlers. We listened eagerly for severe storms, snow and sleet, scattered showers, snow showers and scattered snow showers especially if they were predicted for Saturday and Sunday. Any weather in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or 90’s ended with whistle – about a high C I would say or perhaps a C sharp.
One night Siskiyou Pass and Stampede Pass were expecting heavy snow with isolated snow showers in Seattle and Shelton. Heavy snow was expected on the eastern slopes and summits of the Cascades with scattered snow showers into Saturday and Sunday east of the Cascades as far as Spokane and Boise. Try saying all that with an emphasis on all the s-s-s’s. If it hadn’t been snowing outside our window we would have thought that a devious script writer had made it all up.
Sunny wasn’t mentioned. Whistling Sid didn’t seem to have much use for that word around Western Washington.
With or without Sid, we were just lucky to miss all the bad weather while puttering down the coast in our little box house.
We had a little blip with the electrical system in the trailer this morning. It turned itself off. Somebody plugged the toaster in when the fan heater and microwave were on. I’ll spare you the boring science lecture about watts and amps and volts and just say that you can’t do that. You’ll blow a fuse, or at least that’s what we thought.
A trip to the local “country” market – which sold and wildly overcharged for everything from dune buggies to beef jerky – ensued for a replacement fuse. When we returned to the trailer several dollars lighter, but with coffees, postcards, huggies with funny sayings for soda that we don’t drink, decorative fishing lures when we don’t fish and fuses, we spent ten minutes looking for the fuse box as it was cunningly hidden behind a camouflaged panel.
We pulled each fuse out of the fuse box squinted at the old fuse, shrugged, put the new one in the empty slot – nothing – pulled the new one out, put the old one back again and went on to the next circuit, seven times. With the same result each time – nothing. This involved a prone position to get to the conveniently located fuse box and a pair of needle-nose pliers to pull the stubborn little devils out. Marital harmony was displayed as we each took a turn – neither trusting the other to do it correctly – without arguing.
Whilst reclining on the cold floor staring helplessly at the fuse box, the machinations of the circuit breaker, repeat circuit breaker, suddenly became evident. Flip the switch, whir, whir – sorted! Toaster, heater, action! Fuses weren’t needed at all.
There’s only one good thing to say about this latest ordeal. That “somebody” mentioned at the start wasn’t me!
I’m going to tell you something which you may feel is just a little bit too much information so you may skip this if you are squeamish. There are certain jobs on RVs that involve tanks: filling – that one is okay, and emptying – not so much.
There are two tanks that require emptying on an RV, unlike at home where you pull a plug or flush and don’t give it another thought. One tank fills with what is referred to as grey water, which is water from the sinks and bath or shower. The other tank fills with black water and I’ll leave you to figure that one out.
Whilst emptying the black tank, it was my duty to strike a ballerina pose, balancing on one foot and trapping the door to the septic tank in the ground on to our outlet hose with a delicately pointed toe. Being a princess I certainly I didn’t want to touch it with my hand. It was all going swimmingly (try not to think about that literally) until Jimmy and I began to chat, I used my arms to gesture and lost my balance.
Two options came to mind, neither of them choice. I could keep my foot on the trap and fall onto my hands in the channel where our and other people’s sewage overflow runs. Or I could let go of the trap with my foot to catch my balance and let the hose fly mid flow.
A similar scenario from many years ago flashed through my mind. In a cottage far, far away the septic tank chap with his truck turned up, unreeled the big hose from the (already partly full) truck, inserted the hose into the septic tank, much like we were doing, but as it was his job to “collect” sewage made the mistake of pushing the wrong button on the truck – blow instead of suck. The wildly snaking hose deposited “it” everywhere – up the walls, in the trees, over the roof, coating the windows and flowing under the door to pool ankle-deep in a downstairs apartment.
So as an alternative I screamed, ‘CATCH ME!’ shrieked, ‘QUICK!!!’ and began frantically windmilling my arms backwards as I tilted ever forwards for an agonizing two seconds before an hysterical Jimmy took a baby step forwards to save me. I was less amused than he, so hung on to him and made him stand downwind with me and my still prettily-pointed foot as punishment for his mirth and less than lightning reactions.
I made fun of Jimmy. No change there then he would say. Walking to the Pacific shore from our secluded campsite on a sheltered path amongst scrubby shore pines, he stopped suddenly, grabbed my arm and said, “Listen. Sea lions.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said laughing.
“Yes. I heard it. Don’t be silly. It’s not sea lions.”
“Yes it is.”
“Well where are they? Hiding in the sand dunes? Camouflaged by the sea grass? Sunbathing on the beach? Arguing over brunch in their RV? There must a dog kennel over there somewhere.” I waved my hand in the general direction of the barking and waltzed off not taken in with his fanciful imagination for one moment.
It’s funny how, at a certain age, information surfaces in the brain, briefly, and then sinks without trace, but if you can hook it, reel it in and throw it into the hold of memories before it sinks it could stop you making a fool of yourself.
The next day, driving towards the local town of Newport, Oregon, I saw a sign for the Historic Bayfront and remembered having read something fascinating about it in the guidebook before we set off on our trip. But what? It wouldn’t come to me.
We swooped off the main road and parked in town beside the picturesque fishing fleet. As we got out of the car a cacophony of barking sea lions filled the fishy sea air. There were dozens of the blubbery creatures, some reputedly weighing up to a tonne, wallowing on the rocks and low-lying jetties, sunning themselves and napping. Like so many giant slugs, a great heap of sea lions appeared to form an island in the middle of the harbour. They slept on their backs. They slept on their fronts. They held tricky yoga poses. They lifted their faces to the sun, eyes closed, like New York office workers on their lunch break. But the sea lions that weren’t napping were barking. Just like dogs.
Oh yes, I remember now. I read about that in the guidebook.
I have to say, Jimmy did not gloat with triumph as I would have done. It was definitely this barking we had heard the day before and the sound had travelled a good four miles to us on the beach. We admired them from the fishing wharf until we were too cold, went for a walk, had some lunch and came back to see that many of them had not moved.
You might think one sea lion looks much like another but number “95” – distinguished by a brand on his butt – had not given up his prime position with his harem. Apparently a bull will protect his cows, as many as thirty of them, and go for weeks without food to herd them because the cows are not particularly faithful! The greedy devil! The cows!
So I stand corrected. He did hear sea lions. I was wrong and he was right, but don’t tell Jimmy. He likes to write down these occasions in his book.
I tried to spell the barking noise. Is it EU! EU! EU! or EUW! EUW! EUW! or OOOH! OOOH! OOOH? I guess you had to be there.
Our first stay in our brand, spanking, new trailer was at Fort Stevens, an Oregon State Park on the coast. We stayed from Monday to Friday to endure all the previously mentioned disasters/mishaps/stupidities and then returned to our apartment. On that Sunday the Pacific delivered one of its howlers to the west coast, downed many tall trees and knocked the power out from thousands of homes in Washington and Oregon.
We returned to Fort Stevens with the trailer a week later as a staging post on our way further south congratulating ourselves that we had ridden out the storm in the relative safety of our apartment. On arriving we discovered that in just one small loop of the 495 site campground, six once-soaring conifers had been blown down, hoisting their alarmingly small root systems from the horizontal to the vertical. The downed trunks, what was left after the rangers had been busy with their chainsaws, pointed this way and that, but amazingly none of them had come down across a campsite. Nevertheless, we were unnerved.
The campground was almost unrecognizable with more light penetrating from the now thinned tree canopy, branches piled high on the roads and verges, and the occasional unscathed RV surrounded by tree rubble looking like a ship tossed up on the beach after a storm.
The fir tree’s root system seemed not to be enough to cope with the fir’s towering height, the tallest in the area except for the coast redwoods. It is possible for densely grown trees to interlock their roots. Would that mean that should there be more ferocious winds they would hold each other up or would one weak link bring down its whole circle of friends?
We maneuvered carefully through the tree detritus and looked for a site out of range of the remaining trees. Not possible. We chose a spot, prayed that our tree neighbors had re-established their grip in the week since the storm and had a very uneasy night.
The next day the rangers were still working to clear the sites of brush and ankle-deep needles. I approached Ranger Bob and asked him, “So what kind of damage do these trees do if they come down on you? Would they slice through your trailer like butter?”
“Oh, yeah.” he told me candidly.
“So you could be killed then?”
“Oh, easily!” he told me with glee. We moved on right after breakfast . . . . . to a campground with smaller trees.
We learned early on when RVing in the U.S. to take nature seriously. One evening, when still quite new to the RV-in-the-back-woods thing and taking a walk after dinner, we stopped at the campsite facilities before returning to our trailer. Posted prominently outside the shower block were instructions on what to do if you see a bear. It seemed at first, for a tourist, entertaining reading. This is what you should do:
2. Stay calm
3. Appear large
4. Fight back
5. Make noise
We were laughing and debating fighting techniques and what stances we would take in order to “appear large.” Jimmy flapped his arms in the manner of a little boy playing airplanes which to me didn’t get across the appropriate level of aggression. My impression of hailing a cab was no better.
We discussed whether we would even have the presence of mind to make loud, scary noises or just run and scream like girls. Then we read the last line on the poster. “Last bear seen at this site
on _____.” The “on” was crossed out and written in large caps was:
We didn’t run. We didn’t scream. We didn’t hang around either.
Back to the beginning and the start of homelessness. We packed our four-bedroomed English country cottage into storage and traveled through Europe in a trailer.
We sold the trailer after two years, packed up what was left of our belongings and flew from London to America via Copenhagen. A 10 hour transatlantic flight was endured with two Danish cats across the aisle yowling and peeing all the way.
Empty-headed from last-minute preparations, jet lag and sleep deprivation as well as sad at having given up my previous life in Europe, I mustered enough brainpower to be sanctimoniously pleased at not being the one faced with A Green Card Interrogation. This wouldn’t be the last time I could relax in the relative safety of being an American passport holder on native soil while my other half runs the gamut of being the alien.
I tried to keep up the pretense of being supportive as Jimmy had only recently sprung free of the concentration camp of working life. Forty-two years of long, high stress days had taken their toll on his health. Living in America was his reward. However. The Immigration Officer was going to be his problem.
We were ominously singled out from the long snaking queue of disheveled travelers channeling through the immigration hall in Seattle. Indian saris and African native dresses brightened up the drab, wrinkled mass of humanity. Rich spicy smells and exotic perfumes let me know I wasn’t in line quite yet for Would you like fries with that?
The taciturn immigration official who’d beckoned us to his desk greeted us with “Sit down!” Jimmy’s green card application papers were requested with a glare and a gesture and he poured through them with fierce determination. After a nerve-wracking five minutes and without a word he waved Jimmy back up to the desk. I languished in my chair until he pointed a knobbly finger at me and grumbled, “Her too.”
Here it comes. The inquisition. A marriage of convenience with the spouse as sponsor? He’s going to ask me what color toothbrush Jimmy uses, his mother’s maiden name and the name of his first pet. Did he even have a pet? Unsure of much less obscure facts in my present state – What is your name? Where have you flown from? Are you here for business or pleasure? all tricky questions, I’ve found, when jet-lagged – I got up and stood meekly by, avoiding eye contact with the man who had so far spoken only four words.
He continued to shuffle Jimmy’s papers as though looking for some incriminating information he’d spotted earlier but then said to Jimmy, “I’m gonna take your fingerprints,” and suddenly grabbed Jimmy’s right index finger in a vice-like grip. He inked the digit, hovered it over a form and commanded, “Now relax and le’me do it.” He aimed the finger at the box on the page then backed off and accused Jimmy, “You’re pushin’.”
This was the last step in the immigration process for Jimmy that had so far taken two years, hours of pouring through contradictory forms, hundreds of pounds sterling spent, prodding by expensive London doctors, several visits to the U.S. Embassy in London and unnecessary chest x-rays carted thousands of miles.
Mr. Congeniality waggled Jimmy’s hand, shaking his whole arm like a dog with a bone, aimed again, and fumed, “You’re still pushin’.” Keeping my eyes down, I stared at the blank form. Involuntary pictures – hallucinations? – formed in my head. The gnarly immigration officer began to resemble Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, but without the hair and the beard and the staff and the long dress.
After ten bouts of finger wrestling and with Jimmy’s whole upper body relaxed by the imposed mini Mexican waves, the fingerprints were eventually smeared on the page and the form filling was quickly completed. I never spoke. Jimmy never spoke. We were dismissed with a “You’re outta here.” What a sweetie.