At about 10:00 on the morning of July 8, Shirley and I were in Dodge City, KS on our way to Southern Colorado. At the Visitors Center I asked a very nice woman if Miss Kitty, Chester, and Marshal Dillon were likely to be at the Long Branch that early in the day.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Honey,” she said. “Normally they don’t show up until after lunch, but these are not normal times. Last week the marshal announced that, in the interest of social distancing, he had decided it was time to get out of Dodge. Let me tell you, Miss Kitty was not happy to hear that. Besides, the marshal said he was sick and tired of running over to the bank every time somebody showed up wearing a mask.” (Don’t you just love people who immediately pick up on a gag?)
Marshal Dillon was not alone in his desire to “get out of Dodge.” Millions of us were stuck at home for months because of the Great Plague. When things started to loosen up ever so slightly, it was as if the dam busted. Everybody wanted to go somewhere. It really didn’t matter where. But it mattered how. People were still a little nervous about flying in a metal tube, re-breathing other people’s air, or staying in hotel rooms last occupied by who knows who.
So there was a dramatic up-tick in the sales and rentals of RVs. In addition to safe distancing and hygienic conditions, there are other benefits to RVing. Some may seem minor but if you are on the road for more than a couple days, they can become increasingly important. For example, you may have noticed that not all hotel pillows and mattresses are to your liking. If it is only for a night or two, you might just tough it out. But Shirley and I always know that our pillows will be My Pillows and we are absolutely certain that the sheets were recently washed and changed. Fairly recently, anyway.
Though our RV breakfasts may not be “free” like those offered by motels, they are always prepared exactly the way we like them. There is often time for an extra half pot of coffee perked in a real percolator and enjoyed outdoors where that heavenly aroma is further enhanced by the scent of pine. As with real estate, location is the three most important things about camping and RVing. The most beautiful, serene places in the world can be right outside your door.
Even so, you shouldn’t assume that conditions will always be practically perfect in every way. When we consider the half million road miles we have logged, the disappointments are extremely rare. Some of that is pure luck. Much of it is a matter of planning and attitude. As the great moral philosopher Roger Miller asserts, “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.”
Our initial objective in Colorado was a return to Great Sand Dunes National Park, site of the tallest dunes in North America. You can climb them and pretend to be Lawrence of Arabia, go sand sledding or sand boarding, splash around in the creek at the base of the dunes, and thrill to the night sky with stars as big as quarters and the Milky Way a glittering diamond bracelet.
The park and the campground reopened on June 17. Camping reservations were required, rather than optional as they were before the Pandemic, so Shirley went on recreation.gov to secure a site. Closest date she could get was Aug.18. For one night only. So, never mind. But the dunes themselves were still open for day use, so we thought that was an option. Until, that is, I read on the website that visitors should expect delays of up to two hours at the entrance station. “Be prepared with food, water, and a full tank of gas. There are no restrooms available while waiting in line.” Well, never mind that either. Under the heading of sour grapes, it might be pointed out that the sand was just scorching anyway.
But flexibility is another major benefit of RVing. Though I devote considerable time to planning an itinerary, we are never bound to a fixed schedule—or even the original route, for that matter. Plans are not handcuffs. If we like where we are, we stay longer. If the weather disappoints or there are other little bumps in the road, we move on.
Getting to the places we love sometimes requires dealing with minor challenges. For example, the Great Plains with open grasslands undulating all the way to infinity have their own special charms. Unless it is 104°. Then we start looking for a campground with electric hookups so we can run the AC and sleep in comfort. You may recall that July was a tad warmish, so we spent three nights in campgrounds with electricity on our way to Colorado. Under more favorable conditions, we would have settled for Walmarts and Cracker Barrels.
At Monte Vista, I stopped at the Bureau of Land Management and told the agent we were looking for a campground at a higher elevation so it would be cool during the day and good sleeping at night. My other goals were to secure a site before the weekend rush where we could spend three days or so adjusting to the higher elevation. (Altitude sickness is not pleasant, so we try to postpone strenuous activity until we have acclimated.) He said to take Second St. to the end of the pavement and the gravel road that follows Rock Creek another eight or nine miles up the mountainside. There were several places to camp along the way as we drove back an increasingly narrow canyon to 9,200 feet.
On our second morning there it was 41°. Good sleeping with the windows open. Shirley put the coffee on the RV stove while I went to start the old Coleman camp stove on the picnic table. (We prefer to cook and eat outside even though we don’t have to.) But the reliable old Coleman died. Bad news. But at least we still had the RV stove. I went to break the news to Shirley. She beat me to the punch. Said the RV refrigerator had died.
The fix for that was simple: two styrofoam coolers and 20 lbs. of ice. You are probably ready to suggest that, with coolers, we could have just kept going. We were really tempted and tried to figure out a way to make that work. But our plans had been to zigzag north through Colorado, revisiting some of our favorite trout streams and, after five or six weeks, spend yet another week in the Tetons. Replenishing ice every day when you are way up gravel Forest Service roads and at least 20 miles from the nearest town is just not practical. We were headed home.
After supper at the end of that day, we sat planning the rest of our route and options for where to get hookups for the next two nights. Shirley looked up and said, “Eek! There’s a chipmunk on the bed!” (Actually, she has never used a girly word like “eek” in her life. I just threw that in for dramatic effect.) Evidently he climbed aboard while we were busy packing up that morning.
She went around to open the back door through which I would shoo him out. Except he dived into the storage compartment behind and under the bed. So, I went back there to empty out all the gear and persuade him to leave. When the compartment was empty, I reloaded all the gear. Though I never actually saw him leave, the compartment was definitely empty. Really it was.
The next day he miraculously reappeared again right next to my driver’s seat and bounded past my feet up behind the brake pedal where he was sure to be trapped against the firewall. “Got you now, you little bugger!” I exulted. “Time for you to get out of Dodge.” I pulled over to the side of the highway and turned on the flashers while we negotiated the terms of his eviction. But he wasn’t trapped by the firewall. He had scurried up behind the dash. We could hear him scritch-scratching around back there. So I generously let him be until we reached our campground. Put some peanuts as bait outside three doors and watched for two hours. Snatch and dash! Back to the security of the dashboard he went, rejecting numerous opportunities for freedom.
In South Toledo this spring, there was a dramatic increase in the chipmunk population. Our friend Bill said he had heard of a “humane” way to dispose of them. At this point, I was not interested in a “humane” solution. I wanted the little beast to suffer and beg for mercy—which I would refuse to grant—and then perish in horrible agony. At a Tractor Supply store I bought the biggest, most gruesome looking rat trap they had. This whole thing would be hilarious if it were happening to somebody else. But the only laughing I did was maniacal. By this time, we were back in Kansas, so I extended the threat. “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog Toto too!”
In my head, I had started calling him Monk. Not for the jazz musician but for the fervid desire that he would never have or even attempt to have any progeny.
On the third night, at Land Between the Lakes, KY, it looked like I had finally chased him out. By now you know that is not what happened. While we were on the road the next day, he descended from behind the dash, right between my feet, and took up residence under the driver’s seat. After pulling over to the side—yet again—I blocked off access to the dash and prodded him out with a fly swatter. Shirley had opened the side door so he could exit, and he did go zipping in that general direction. She thought maybe he had finally gone out. Maybe.
We arrived home that night and the next morning we completely emptied the rig, including the bedding and mattress. Not a sign of him anywhere. Hallelujah!
Our neighbor Kelly and her daughter Kaitlyn came over to welcome us home, though somewhat earlier than expected, and to tell us they had seen a chipmunk jump out of the RV, run a few laps through our rose garden just to stretch his legs and jump right back in.
Now, there is something heroic about struggling with a worthy adversary, but if you have conquered a chipmunk, where is the glory? And if you fail to conquer, you are an even more pathetic loser for picking on a cute little guy.
On the other hand, if you are the chipmunk weighing in at about four ounces who manages to outwit two giants, you are entitled to wear a belt with a huge buckle proclaiming your championship. Maybe even get a movie contract. This time next year, check the listings on Disney Plus to see if they have produced another of those heartwarming films about courageous animals that make their way home over improbable distances against improbable odds. In this case, 1,743 miles back to the mountainside above Monte Vista. Though Walt Disney might not approve, I fantasize about him being pursued successfully by a weasel who tears him to shreds or a coyote who swallows him whole or a bobcat mother who toys with him playfully before carrying him home for her kittens to finish off. At no point have I pictured his odyssey as just a walk in the park.
But wait. There is a happy ending after all. Thanks to our vigilant neighbors, I reset that horrendous Tractor Supply Company trap baited with a nibble of extra crunchy peanut butter. That did the trick at last. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)
“Aww,” said Shirley, “I was starting to like the little guy.”
“That’s not what you said this morning,” I reminded her. “Think of him as a rat wearing a more fashionable fur coat. And remember how many times he pooped on your bed.”
Shirley ordered a live trap from Amazon that arrived the next day. In no time at all he went in to sample the peanut butter. Then I carried him up to the Chessie Trail for release. Shirley then insisted that I reset the trap because of that chipmunk infestation I mentioned above. “They’re digging around in the potted coleus,” she said. “I can’t stand the little #$%&s.” (Actually, she has never said #$%& in her life. I just threw that in for dramatic effect.)
Choose the ending you prefer. Both could be true. Or at least as true as anything else you are likely to read in this column.
The moral of this story is that it is not just the Covid that can make you eager to get out of Dodge. So, here we are with no winter trip and a summer trip of ten days (eight on the road and two in camp), and we are still looking forward to our next walk in the park. Any park. We don’t care. A Metropark might do. Even the Chessie Trail. Because you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.
LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site