The idea was pretty simple: Roam around by myself in Oregon for 12 days in a recreational vehicle. But in reality, I don’t like driving an RV.
My focus was on landscape photography. Desert. Mountains. Dramatic coastline … but I don’t like landscape photography.
At the very least, I wanted to enjoy being by myself with no itinerary. Looking back, I was lonely, bored and talked aloud to myself, although I was a good listener.
I had never driven an RV nor seen much of Oregon, where our son Russell had been a college student for four years. Since my husband Bruce [who is an investor in Southside Daily’s parent company, Local Voice] couldn’t get away for a car trip, I decided to rent an RV for the adventure. Why not? It was the perfect opportunity, considering Bruce thinks that ‘roughing it’ was a hotel without HBO.
In the end, I drove nearly 1,400 miles in that thing.
It was 25 feet long and “slept five,” which meant only two full-sized adults could be comfortable in it. Why did I get one so big? It had a toilet, small shower and a kitchen.
I found out quickly that one of the downsides was waking up in the morning to a faint smell of septic gas and then realizing it was not a bad dream.
Another minus was that the gargantuan motorhome comes with you everywhere you go. Want a good cup of coffee in the morning? Take the whole thing with you. Want to pull off the road for a quick look? Good luck with that 12-inch shoulder.
The thing was unwieldy. Hauling the RV on a trailer would have been a more convenient option because if you did that, then you could just leave the beast somewhere and still be mobile.
Everyone asked, “Was it gross to empty the waste?” It was not all that bad. Some free advice: Just be sure to bring along hazmat gloves and a full-face mask.
This did not happen to me, however, one of the upsides would be if you were caught in a brutal ash and dust storm that turned the air a dark cement color like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz and it blew down a nearby tree with a hearty crack and crash, you could relax in your heavily-fortified RV and sip a cold beer while watching other campers scramble to batten down tents and coolers and canopies and jump in their cars to escape a coating of soot.
I actually thought about Pompeii.
Driving the RV
Let’s just say there were some major blind spots and the side mirrors were really huge and didn’t serve any purpose other than providing obstacles that you will later smash your head on while walking nearby.
Don’t even think about a Taco Bell drive-thru.
It is illegal to use handheld devices, like cell phones, while driving in Oregon. But I’m pretty sure you can hunt elk out of a moving vehicle.
And backing up was very tricky. All the mirrors had that warning but big trees behind me really were closer than you think.
One other thing: If you are making a tight turn to avoid a fire hydrant, you really can catch a pickup truck bumper and find it stuck in your wheel well. Yes, you heard me right. Stuck in the wheel well, where you cannot move forward or backward without ripping the entire rear bumper off a $40,000 truck. I know it sounds strange, but I can attest to this. My insurance agent now knows it can happen, too.
Noise from the RV
My RV was incredibly loud and the rattling sounded like screws and bolts and the laminated plastic that was glued onto every surface was going to explode at any second. My advice is to bring a tool kit and plenty of Gorilla Glue so you can tighten stuff up after every 50 miles.
Also — and I’m not much of a gearhead — but I think there might have been a loose engine block and oil pan and possibly a carburetor.
Sometimes the noises were my fault. Like when the engine sounded like it was straining for dear life. Turns out, I had it in third gear for about an hour.
Cost of the RV
I could have stayed at fancy hotels or inns and driven a regular rental car for much less. The cost of renting the RV for 11 nights, gas, and then campsite fees came out to a whopping $2,700. Divide that by 11 nights and I spent $245 per night. And I still had to drive the thing, too.
So don’t do an RV adventure to save money. That is, unless you have a bunch of people to share costs, drive only a few miles and stay on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public property for free. Then it might be worth it, financially.
Oh, and then there was a $1,000 deductible charged for that whole bumper in the wheel well situation. So yeah, overall, this trip cost a pretty penny.
Oregon State Parks
One word: Incredible. Clean sites, numerous hiking trails everywhere I stayed, and a very efficient online booking reservation website, which usually charged $36 with full hookup and that included electricity and water.
I loved “camping” in the state parks and met some really nice folks, mostly Oregonians who were very proud of their state. They were also very welcoming, especially when I let them think I had driven all the way from Virginia.
The “camp hosts” stayed for free in their RVs in exchange for four hours a day of on-duty service, which could include anything from leading interpretive walks to selling firewood. These folks were very friendly and decorated their sites with elaborate canopies, satellite dishes, plush indoor-outdoor rugs, reclining lawn chairs, mood lighting, and very large wire pens for dogs and toddlers.
Meanwhile, all I had was a pitiful $9.99 red camping chair.
A complete surprise. As social as I am, I adore being alone, but apparently not for long and without a compelling activity or focus.
Roaring campfires are no fun when you’re alone. I slouched in a cheap camping chair as the red canvas was about to rip at any moment and I sipped wine from red solo cup. It was not a festive scene.
Even my beautiful golden retriever decal seemed depressed. All it did was stare out the window.
Other people in RVs
There were a lot of RVs on the road in Oregon. Huge ones. There were many that had to cost at least six figures. The owners stood in their campsites, protected their satellite dishes, hands on their hips and watched me intently as I attempted to back up into my campsite.
I’m pretty sure they doubled over in laughter at my nine-point turns.
The one time I backed into a large tree, about 25 old men with really good hearing aids tumbled out of hiding to check on the damage.
On occasion, I would see some bent-over, decrepit, octogenarian couple, as they shuffled around with walkers and some poof-ball, yappy, fur-rather-than-a-face miniature dog that a squirrel could probably beat up. Then the next morning, they would pull out in a humongous and sleek motorhome, that probably had step-in tubs and oxygen tanks. The drivers could barely see over the steering wheel, but it didn’t matter because they always exited the campsite with precision and expertise. It was plainly obvious that I could not compete.
The ‘other Oregon’
If you like pine trees, you will really like Oregon. There were billions of them. I was traveling during October and I thought there would be plenty of colorful autumn colors. Not so much as I discovered there were only a handful of deciduous trees in the entire state.
If you have any plaid shirts, be sure to bring them to Oregon. I had to buy a couple at Target so I wouldn’t stick out like a camel-riding Bedouin.
Everyone knows about the glorious and dramatic coast that Oregon offers, and it lived up to all superlatives. You cannot beat the dunes, rocky cliffs, tide pools, saltwater taffy, craft beers, dungeness crabs, clamming and working fishing harbors for 363.1 miles on Route 101. It was absolutely stunning.
View from Ecola State Park
But in tourist booklets and on many websites, the “other Oregon” was promoted. Those thousands of square miles just east of the majestic Cascade Mountain Range.
While working up and down the snow-capped Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Bachelor, I had to floor it in the RV just to hit a blistering speed of 50 miles per hour during the climbs. I got cramps in my right leg while thinking, “So much for driving a fuel-efficient hybrid car at home.”
But I immediately started to appreciate those Cascades only after I cleared them. Because right after that, I drove through endless desert, scrubs and grazing land, which meant “really boring” land.
The eastern two-thirds of Oregon was so boring that I would not have faulted Lewis and Clark if they had just called it a day. This part of the state felt as big as all of that Manifest Destiny land, plus Alaska. There was not much road signage in those parts, and for good reason.
I made the effort to head east because I was eager to see the Painted Hills and the John Day Fossil Beds. At some point, after driving through really boring land for hours, I called Bruce to complain and he replied, “That’s why you never hear about Eastern Oregon.”
The Painted Hill
The Painted Hills should really be called Painted Hill (singular). I had pictured acres and acres of candy-colored, striated, sand-drip hills that were on the scale of Bryce Canyon National Park. Instead, there is literally one valley with a hill.
If there were other painted hills nearby, they were apparently buried somewhere or are hiding behind the signs that threaten “Do not walk on the ground.” Where, then? Do yourself a favor and just buy a postcard.
It was also a big fossil area. Flora and fauna fossils? Dinosaur fossils? You can even dig for your own fossils behind Fossil High School, which is located in — you guessed it — the town of Fossil, Oregon. But I was closer to the John Day Paleontology Center, ‘closer’ being a relative term, so I passed on the digging and drove there.
The hardships continued when I arrived and discovered a handwritten “closed today” sign on the gate. You know what? I wasn’t a big fan of fossils anyway. They are overrated.
Signage along the road
- “Lots of Ammo Here” Oh, great.
- “BBQ Stuffed Avocado” Why not?
- A swimming sign next to Eel Lake. I want to meet the person who swims with eels.
- “Organic Pumpkins” For Jack-o’-lanterns?
- “Vegan Jerky” Give me a break.
- “50 percent off Glocks and Stereos. Today Only!” I was waiting for a sale.
- “Tsunami Hazard Zone” Sign was next to a house for sale. Yeah, good luck.
Despite my sarcasm, I was glad for the opportunity to spend so much time in Oregon. Obviously, having two long dinners with my son, Russell, in Eugene were the highlights. Got to see some friends, too.
Then there were a few “in the moment” times, that were just awesome. Personally, I need to be away from home and in a not-too-occupied state to feel these. I was nearly giddy when it occurred during this RV trip.
First, I had good stuff for my ears. Bruce’s album Rehab Reunion was the musical soundtrack to my trip. I blasted it repeatedly and learned every nuance. I smiled and sang along with gusto. It kept me in good spirits as it was the right flavor and vibe.
Second, and truly memorable, involved a shower of cedar needles. While taking a long hike in Silver Falls State Park in the Cascades on a foggy morning, the wind kicked up thousands upon thousands of fragrant cedar needles into the air and then they swirled down on me like snowflakes. The scent was heavy and earthy and the experience was surreal. It was as if I had walked through a fragrant breeze of serotonin as I felt like dancing in wide, loping circles consumed by my very own fluttering shower of needles.
Third, I spent a good hour contemplating and photographing a big branch washed up on the beach. I kept studying this skeletal creature as if it were a puzzle. Where were the shadows? Does the proportion of this branch look odd with this perspective? Do I want to have these lines intersect? How about infra-red?
Problem solving with no real solving can still be so satisfying.
On some of my other hikes, through dunes or along craggy grasslands on the coast, I would experience these out-of-body times when just being felt light and effortless. Everything that was around me just floated through my eyes and into my brain and then I would close my eyes and hope that I would not forget that feeling.
If I could do it all over again, I would stick to the coast and drive a car. I would also spend some time at wineries in the Willamette and Umpqua Valleys, which I had only skipped because I was driving a 25-foot monster. I would probably stay in some of those charming inns and cabins and I would also bring Bruce so we could watch HBO together.
Kathy Hornsby, a native Virginian, is as happy strolling the streets of Colonial Williamsburg in her backyard as she is struggling up the sand dunes of Namibia halfway around the world. She is married to musician Bruce Hornsby and their identical twin sons, Keith and Russell, are 25 years old. She is a teacher, graphic designer, painter and photographer and for the past three decades, she has also been her husband’s business manager because “He hasn’t fired me yet.” She loves to travel because it is an eye-opening journey, whether it be observing something puzzling and new or revisiting something familiar and loved. www.kathyhornsbyimages.com
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