Idaho, Alaska!

That joke has been stuck in my head since we drove into Idaho two days ago. We headed out of Jackson, WY, but not before stopping at an awesome little natural grocery store to restock our food supply. It was called Jackson Whole Grocer - get it? Really cute little store with a juice and smoothie bar. We drove over Teton Pass and headed into Idaho to meet Brian Charette. Brian was a customer of Tom Sr.'s solar panal mounting business (Custom Marine Products) and lives in the honest-to-goodness middle of nowhere Idaho. The directions included lines like, "turn right at the dirt road, no name, just a white sign with no writing and a green electrical box". And then there were several more turns after that. It was gorgeous country. Brian's house is situated overlooking rolling hills and a valley with the back side of the Teton range in the distance. 
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The house is mostly self-sustained and off the grid. It's straw-bale construction and uses solar and wind energy as well as rainwater recycling systems and a peat moss toilet. The home itself is beautiful, Brian was the designer and builder and has built several other, similar homes.

Brian and his girlfriend Diedre were so awesome and hospitable. When we arrived we headed out for an off-road bike ride on a trail right through Brian's property. It was so pretty and peaceful. That night, Brian cooked us dinner and we ate out on their patio, overlooking the sunset in the valley. Brian and Tom got along like peas and carrots and shared story after story about back-country skiing, kiteboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking, sailing, and backpacking. Brian is headed out for about 2 months on a sailing trip on his Cat-2-Fold sailboat. It's a really cool design, a 36-foot catamaran that collapses into a trailer-able boat. It's a one-of-a-kind design that he is outfitting for the journey. It was a great time and so awesome to meet more amazing people! 
The next morning we headed out in the general direction of Boise. We stopped first in Idaho Falls to replace Tom's broken phone and to find a place to get the Westy's propane regulator fixed. At the propane shop, we met Carl, who was quick to shimmy under the Westy and help us replace the regulator with the part we had with us. When we asked what we owed him, he tried to let us go for free! Remembering my parents had given us a bunch of $20s (with the instructions to spend one in each state on something cool), we offered him one, on the condition that he pose for a picture. If you ever need propane work in Idaho Falls, check out V-1 Propane and ask for Carl!
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We headed onward and decided to hop over to Sun Valley, ID, a cool little ski town. We ended up eating dinner at another awesome cowboy restaurant, The Pioneer Saloon. The owner pointed us in the direction of free camping for the night in Sawtooth National Forest and mountain biking trails for the next day. There have certainly been no shortage of fantastic people on this trip! The campsite was great, just inside the park and near a river. It was similar to our campsite in Gallatin National Forest, but last night it was PITCH black with no moon. This morning we are headed off to find some great trails and see where the road takes us next.

Love from the Westy,

Lisa and Tom
 
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Saturday we drove from Yellowstone Park into Teton Park with the intention of backpacking and back country camping. We arrived a little late in the afternoon and after trying to register at a few closed ranger stations, we finally found an open one and got some advice on where to go. We settled on the Taggart/Bradley Lake trail to camp and then continue on the next morning to Amphitheater Lake. We picked up a bear canister at the ranger station to store our food (this was new technology for me - check it out here).

Let’s talk about the bears for a minute... this area of the country is FULL of them. Black bears and grizzly bears make their homes in Yellowstone Park and the Tetons, and they have been particularly active this year, with several attacks on hikers, campers, and residents. So we were extra cautious and also brought the recommended bear spray, which looks like a mini fire hydrant and is supposed to ward off an attacking bear so one can escape. But enough about a potential bear attack...

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We arrived at the trailhead in the late afternoon sun and packed up our gear for the night. We hiked through the most beautiful scenery on the way to the lake. The sun was beginning to sink low behind the Teton range and lit up the aspens all around us which were turning gold, orange, and red. It was only about 2.2 miles to our campsite. It could not have been a prettier spot. It was situated right on Bradley Lake with a view across the water of the Teton range. We set up camp and made our dinner and sat back and relaxed, watching the sun set over the mountains and listening to two elk bugleing back and forth to each other somewhere out on the peak.

Then the craziness started.

As soon as it was too dark to see across the lake, we heard a huge splashing, crashing, bumbling noise from right around the shore bend. Dear God, what is that! It sounded like one something HUGE or a lot of somethings that were mildly huge. We couldn’t hear animal noises so we weren’t sure what we were dealing with. We decided that it must be a moose, since we had read that they really like this particular lake and because it really did sound unbelievably clumsy. After a while the noise stopped, which only meant that the something was now in the woods with us. But, we figured a moose would probably not bother us. We packed up our food in the bear canister and walked together with our headlamps to store it away from camp. On our way back, Tom suddenly sprayed the area with bear spray! Turns out it was accidental, but man that sure got my heart going!

Once we were back in camp, we stopped and looked at each other. Tom asked, “Do you smell that?” And I sure did. You could smell that something large and beastly had recently walked right through our camp. We started scanning around looking for the culprit, but we couldn’t see anything. Eventually the scent began to fade, but we made the mutual decision that it might be best to hike back and camp in the Westy. We decided to leave our food, tent, and sleeping bags and carry the rest of our gear back to the van. In the dark.

The hike back to the van was pretty awesome. Tom had bear spray in one hand and a large stick in the other and I was carrying a sizable rock in each hand, ready to brain whatever animal might spring on us (mountain lions are nocturnal, I remembered as we walked along). We talked loudly and I sang every hiking song I had ever learned in girl scouts to try and scare away whatever was on the path ahead. We each had a headlamp and were constantly scanning left and right and sometimes behind us, checking for wildlife. And man did we ever see some wildlife! We saw giant toads hopping across the trail in front of us, small nocturnal mammals up in the trees with their eyes shining when they were caught in the light. And as we walked back along the creek, I turned to my left and saw, no more than 3-4 feet from my shoulder, a proud 6-prong mule deer buck. I could have reached out and touched him. He stood there with a look that said, “Why are you two so loud? Don’t you know it’s the middle of the night?” We all stared at each other in silence for a few seconds and then we went on our way. After that we calmed down a little and even turned off our headlamps for a few minutes. The stars were unbelievable on a totally moonless night, more than I have ever seen in my life. We even saw the headlamps of a few hikers way up in the distance who must have been camping up towards the Grand Teton. We made it back to the van and slept, even though we were jazzed with adrenaline and even though we had left our sleeping bags in the tent. 

The next morning we woke up and ate a quick breakfast and got back on the trail. From the trailhead, it was a 6.5 mile hike up to Amphitheater Lake, with a stop by our campsite to check things out. The morning was chilly but warmed up quickly. By midday it was close to 75 degrees and bright sunshine, perfect hiking weather. On our way to the campsite we saw the same buck grazing in the moraines. We also heard the elk, still bugleing, but it sounded like it was right next to us, just over a ridge. Tom wanted to go see it, but I protested, since we had read about how aggressive and territorial they are in the fall and that the bugeling is to warn other bucks that they are there (I’m such a party pooper). Our campsite was intact and undisturbed when we got there and we headed up the trail to the lake. The Amphitheater Lake trail gains 3000 feet in the last 4.8 miles up the face of the Grand Teton, which makes for some strenuous hiking, but the view along the way and at the top were worth it. We even saw a bald eagle in flight at the lake. On the way back through camp to pack up our things, we finally saw the elusive bathing moose across the lake. He was huge, just like we thought.
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That night we headed into Jackson, WY which is a cool ski town where the celebs hang out (Jackson is the town, Jackson Hole is the valley). We ate dinner at a cool upscale diner and then ran into a couple we had met on the trail that morning. We had drinks with them at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where all the barstools are real saddles, and met another couple traveling from Australia. The six of us had an awesome night sharing travel stories. An outstanding end to an awesome adventure.
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After leaving Big Sky, we headed into Yellowstone park for a few days of sightseeing and wildlife watching. We entered through the west side of the park and immediately came upon a female elk grazing by the river. We headed north and west, stopping at Norris Geyser Basin and then by Mount Washburn, where a ranger and a horde of tourists had spotted a grizzly by the road. Unfortunately the bear had left by the time we got there. This was my first time to the park and I was really impressed by the geothermal features. The different colors and textures of the geysers and different pools were amazing. We then headed into the far northwest corner of the park to the Lamar Valley, where the wildlife spotting was supposed to be great. We saw pronghorns, bison, and deer all along the valley floor. It was truly a stunning drive. We exited the park that afternoon and headed for Cody, WY to camp and check out the town. 


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Cody is a true western town, complete with real live cowboys on every corner. There happened to be a classic car street festival in town the night we rolled in, so we parked the Westy and strolled around for a bit. We camped at the Ponderosa campground, right next to another couple “van camping”. They were in their late 50s or early 60s and from Seattle and were taking about 10 days in the Yellowstone and Teton area. They gave us  some great tips on what to see in Yellowstone the next day and also some great info on which route to take up to the Northwest. They were traveling in a Sportsmobile van, which is a converted Dodge cargo van. It was a really similar setup to the Vanagon, but with a different kind of pop-up top and a little more modern.

The next day in Cody, Tom worked for a little bit in the morning and I cruised around downtown on my bike. I went to the Dug-up Gun Museum, which is one gentleman’s collection of antique “found” guns and weapons dating all the way back to the 1800s through WWII. He has about 800 guns on display, it was pretty interesting. That afternoon we ate lunch at the Proud Cut Saloon. A proud cut is apparently a horse or bull that has been castrated, but the procedure is botched and he still thinks he’s a stud. The specials sign out front is even decorated with bull testicles. We did indulge in some Rocky Mountain Oysters which weren’t too bad, but mostly tasted like breading and cocktail sauce. After lunch we biked over to Old Trail Town, where they have transplanted and preserved buildings from the old west, including the Hole in the Wall gang’s hideout and several homestead cabins. 

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After our western adventure, we headed back to Yellowstone via the southwest entrance, this time headed for Hayden Valley to hopefully spot wolves, to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and to see Old Faithful. We didn’t spot any wolves, but TWICE our car was surrounded by bison. Those suckers are HUGE. 
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Two days of driving around the park was enough for us at that point, so we headed south to Teton National Park for some backpacking and camping.

 
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After tiring of 9 hour driving days, we spent 4 days and 3 night in Bozeman and Big Sky, Montana. We fell in love with both towns and met some really great people. Bozeman has a quaint historic section, great little restaurants and bars, mountain views in every direction, a major university, spectacular public spaces and running trails, and world-class hiking and camping within 30 minutes of downtown. What more could we ask for!

The first afternoon in Bozeman, we spent a little bit of time at Wild Joe’s Organic Coffee on historic Main St. We came back again and again to this spot for their awesome looseleaf tea spectacular people watching. It seemed to be a common meet-up location in town. We saw everything from groups of old cowboys sipping coffee to student-faculty advisor meetings. It also housed a self-serve bike and ski repair shop in the back. Anyone could bring in their gear and use the tools in the garage space in the back. They also advertised organized rides and workshops weekly. That evening we treated ourselves to dinner out in town. We got a recommendation for a place called Over the Tapas, and it was fantastic. Great food and great people.
That night we drove just outside of town to Gallatin National Forest for some camping. Just a little ways into the park, we pulled over to a spot in the canyon by a rushing river to set up for the night. It was COLD as the dickens, but one of the most peaceful nights we have had so far. In the morning we woke up and grilled a real cowboy breakfast, bison burgers and eggs, and headed back into town.

Tom rented a by-the-day office space on the MSU campus for Tuesday and Wednesday (check out www.loosecubes.com) so he dropped me in town. I had seen a $5 hot yoga class advertised in Wild Joe’s the day before and went to check it out. The space at Your Yoga was great and the class was really enjoyable. It was a style of practice called yin yoga, which I hadn’t heard of before. It involved the stretching of the ligaments and joints rather than the muscles. We went through a series of about 5 poses, holding each for 3-5 minutes per side. While it wasn’t particularly strenuous, it was intense! After yoga I headed to the Bozeman Community Food Coop for a post-workout kombucha and to mooch off their wifi access. For lunch, Tom and I indulged in their hot food bar and salad bar, both of which were OUTSTANDING. Better tasting, homemade, and cheaper than Whole Foods, yes, you heard that correctly.

After lunch we drove back out to Gallatin National Forest for some hiking. Tom had gotten a recommendation for the Palisade Falls Trail. It was a pretty laid back hike, but ended at a really impressive waterfall, which cascaded over a cliff formed by rock and landslides. We later found out that this is world-class ice climbing during the winter months! Tom of course, had to check out the “climb-ability” of the rock face. See if you can find him in the picture below:
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That night we tried to find a new campsite, possibly one a little warmer than the previous one that had been tucked deep in the canyon. We drove around town and picked up a few needed items at REI and Walmart. At Walmart we noticed a rather large contingent of campers and RVs parked in the far corner of the lot. We decided it might be fun to try out the infamous Walmart camping, and maybe we would meet a few fellow travelers while we were at it. For those of you who don’t know, Walmart is one of the only stores that allows RVs and campers to park overnight in their lots for free. We set up camp and cooked our dinner there, the whole night we didn’t see one other person! Apparently it’s pretty comfy-cozy in those giant RV busses and their owners didn’t feel much like socializing. Probably the last time we’ll Walmart camp unless it’s a last resort.

The next day Tom went into work again in the morning, but in the afternoon we met up with his friend Jarid’s sister, who lives in Big Sky, MT. We met Lindsie and some of her friends and their awesome kids at a playground in town and had a picnic lunch. Lindsie started a wrap shop in Big Sky with some friends, so we had to stop by and visit it. The Wrap Shack is a great little shop in downtown Big Sky with really delicious wraps, tacos, and burritos. They make all their salsas and toppings in house. We ate at the Wrap Shack and then spent the night parked outside Lindsie and her husband Brian's house.  They are former Westy owners as well! Brian has owned 3 VW buses and they just recently sold their 1976 Westy. A friend of theirs is actually the man behind the soon-to-be-released documentary “The Bus” :
Brian is also the writer of The Insiders Guide: Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton Park! We got some great advice on what to see, what to skip, and where to stay in the area, and he even gave us a copy of the book. We had a great evening sitting around their kitchen table and talking about travel stories, bear stories, and Westy stories - some stories involved all three. We had a great time and were very grateful for the showers!

Today we head to Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks for a few days. Hopefully we come back with more stories to tell.

Love from the Westy,
Lisa and Tom
 
It’s true, you can grill anything. As a child, my dad taught me to treasure a good grill, specifically a charcoal Weber. While we await repairs on our propane tank in the Westy, we are cooking all of our meals on a small 20x10 inch propane mini-grill. It turns out to be a great substitute! Saturday night we grilled bison steak (bought locally in South Dakota), chicken breasts (bought locally at the Walmart), and corn on the cob. It was fantastic! Tom even fashioned a grill stand before we left Chicago out of one of the two Westy tables. It really came in handy that night as it was downpouring for most of the evening. Sunday morning we grilled eggs, yes... eggs. We made little tinfoil “cups” and cracked a few eggs in each, then sealed up the top and tossed them on the grill. Voila! The eggs steamed themselves in a few minutes. We also put a tinfoil packet of kale on the grill and that turned out perfectly. Give us a few weeks and you don’t even know what else we might think to toss on there! (PB&J? Soup? Who knows!)
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Chillin and grillin in the Westy
Saturday we spent the morning driving into Rapid City, SD with the intention of seeing Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Mountain, and climbing Harney Peak (the high point of South Dakota). On our way out from Chicago, we had been feeling that the Westy was pulling a little to the left. Given the worn out bearing on that side, we decided to get the alignment checked in town. Two mornings at the mechanic in two days! After getting everything sorted out, we headed over for a glimpse of Mount Rushmore. It was very impressive and worth the stop. 

When we got to Harney Peak, we started out in a light drizzle, but then the thunderstorms moved in. We decided that since the next day forecast was for sunshine and 70 degrees, we would wait one day and try again. On our way to our campsite we stopped by to see the partially completed Crazy Horse Mountain. We had been warned that it was a pretty big tourist trap, so we just viewed it from the road. Even at that distance, you could tell that it will be really impressive once it’s completed.
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Westy visits Mt. Rushmore
Our campsite for the night was awesome. Quiet and tucked away in a wooded valley a ways off the main road, it was by far the most peaceful night we’ve had so far. It poured like crazy, but we were able to grill out under the awning and stay comfy and dry in the Westy. Sunday morning we were up with the sun, cooked breakfast, and broke camp by 7:30am. We headed back to Harney Peak for a glorious hike to the summit. The view was really clear and the temperature was perfect. It was a moderate 3.5 miles to the top with really pretty pine forest and beautiful rock formations all around. On the way back we took an alternate route which was just as picturesque. Completing Harney brings my total of high points to 8 and Tom’s total to 22!
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Harney Peak, Highpoint of South Dakota, Elev 7242 ft.
After completing Harney, we headed north to Amidon, ND to complete the high point there. White Butte is on private property about 5-6 miles off the highway on a gravel road. It took about 4 1/2 hours to get there and when we did, no one was home. So we called and left a message (their phone number is in the US Highpointers guide) letting them know we were headed up to the peak. The access "road" had a road closed sign, but the Westy managed to navigate the two-track, overgrown path just fine! We parked by an abandoned farmhouse and hiked the one mile to the summit. The trail was very faint and at times disappeared altogether, only to reappear on the other side of a meadow or rock formation. It was a gorgeous piece of land and a great 360 degree view from the top. We summited just before sunset so everything was in a pretty orange light. White Butte made 9 highpoints for me and 23 for Tom! We are really racking them up.
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White Butte, Highpoint of North Dakota, Elev 3506 ft.
After spending the night in North Dakota, today (Monday) we are headed across Montana. Big sky country here we come! 

With love from the Westy,
Tom and Lisa
 
Just as you cross from Minnesota into South Dakota, there is a sign that states "355 MILES TO WALL DRUG". And every 5-10 miles after that is another sign tempting travelers to come and explore this magical place. But between Minnesota and Wall Drug, South Dakota is bursting at the seems with roadside attractions. Outer space exhibits, dinosaurs, reptiles, and more. We only stopped at a few of these on our way west towards the South Dakota highpoint. But here they are.
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Buffalo Ridge Bison
Before we left, my parents gave us a bunch of $20 bills for our anniversary, with instructions to spend one in each state on something cool. Our first stop in South Dakota was Buffalo Ridge Ghost Town. But not to see the town, to buy some local, grassfed buffalo/bison (apparently they are the same animal). We bought bison filet steak, jerky, and burgers from this kind fellow who obliged us with a photo. 

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Further into SD, we came across the World's Largest Corn Palace in Mitchell. This was actually recommended by a South Dakota friend from work (who is from Mitchell and attended her prom at the Corn Palace), so we had to stop by and see it for ourselves. The Corn Palace's facade is made completely from corn husks, cobs, stalks, and silk and is redesigned every year. And this particular day they were hosting the 2011 Polka Festival! It was really fun to watch and walk around.

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Finally after many hours of driving, we arrived at the world-renowned Wall Drug! The story goes that a couple bough the drug store in Wall, SD in the thirties when times were really tough and business was slow. The wife had an idea to put signs out on I-90 indicating "Free Ice Water" at Wall Drug Store. Given that there was no air conditioning and that people had just travelled through the Badlands, this really boosted business at the store. Read the whole history here. Now, 80 years later, Wall Drug is an enormous complex including a leather shop, jewelry store, chapel, cafe (which seats over 500 people), taxidermy displays, photo exhibits, and even an animatronic T-Rex! It's a wild place!

 
We are off! We left Chicago yesterday afternoon and headed west on I-90 towards Mount Rushmore as our first destination. Our current plan is to hit the high points of South and North Dakota and then head to Yellowstone. But than may change given the CHILLY weather that has settled over the midwest this week. While it's cozy-cool during the day and perfect driving weather, the nights are pretty cold and the Westy is not super-well insulated. We need to get our furnace fixed pronto if it's going to get colder!

We got a good 6 hours of driving in yesterday and were headed through Rochester, MN around 8pm when we heard a not-so-great noise coming from the front driver-side wheel. We pulled off into the construction zone thinking that we blew a tire, but all four tires were intact. We called AAA and they sent out a tow-truck to bring the Westy into a shop for repairs. It turns out that we blew a wheel bearing, but it's very fixable and could have been a lot worse. And even better, they have the parts we need! Thanks to Virgil's Auto Clinic in Rochester, MN! 

But let me backtrack a bit to our tow-truck driver, Doug. He could not have been a nicer guy. He arrived quickly on the scene and set to analyzing the situation with the Westy. Given the two bikes strapped to the front, the rear-wheel drive, and the rear engine he had a few curveballs that he may not have encountered with a stranded Ford Focus. He seemed to relish in the mild challenge and set to strapping on a "dolly" system which raises up the front wheels and supports the back wheels on four mini-tires. Pretty cool. The whole time he was chatty, friendly, and funny. 

Most of you know that my husband has a true gift for asking people great questions and getting them talking about their lives. Doug told us all about his wife, who is also the dispatch for their tow company (and who has better luck waking Doug from sleep by calling his cell phone, even though he's right next to her in bed), and his three grown children (who all live in Rochester as well), and his ex-wife (who has a strange telepathy with his current wife and when one is thinking of the other, they call each other - which is sometimes twice a week), and his service in the army (he was a heavy machinery engineer), and his failed retirement (he was retired for three years and travelled to 47 states with his wife visiting army buddies and their families, then back to work). When he dropped us at the repair shop, we asked if the shop might mind us camping in their parking lot. Before the words were even out of our mouths, Doug was dialing his phone and offering to house us for the night at his place. We explained that the car was meant for camping and we weren't really stranded, but he gave us his card and number before he left, just in case. We were pretty blown away by his generosity and caring, not always typical of your standard tow-truck driver. God has an amazing way of putting great people in our lives, we're excited to see who we meet next!
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Westy getting ready for her tow ride.
 
This Labor Day, we spent the weekend with Tom's family in Birmingham, MI outside of Detroit. It was great to spend the holiday weekend with family and especially had fun with our nieces and nephew (who are BIG fans of the Westy). We headed out Friday after work to drop one car in South Bend (where we will be storing both of our daily drivers during the big trip). With a quick trip over to visit Grandma Trimmer, we were finally headed to Birmingham at about 9pm. Unfortunately, it's about a 4 hour drive from South Bend to Birmingham and we were WIPED after a full work day. So around 11pm we decided to pull over and sleep for the night, with plans to leave early in the morning and have a full day with the Trimmer/Bâby clan. We woke up around 8am to find ourselves in this situation:
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Poor little Westy looks like she's trying to be tough around all the big boys! Soon we were on our way.

We spent the day with our adorable nieces and nephew (and their parents and grandparents!) at Cass Lake. We even jammed an old windsurfing board into the Westy and the kids had a blast using it as a diving board/pretend restaurant/stand-up-paddleboard/king of the mountain game. The lake was perfect, the temperature was not too hot or cold, and the depth stayed at about 2 1/2 to 3 feet for a long way out, so the kiddos could play without worrying about getting too deep. We brought along a picnic lunch and found some perfect tables in the shade right by the water.

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Saturday night we planned a camp-out in the Westy with our 5- and 4-year old nieces. The girls had never been camping or to a sleepover before, and we were VERY excited to get them into sleeping outdoors. It ended up turning into a girls-only Westy party in a thunderstorm, with Tom opting to sleep in a real bed for one of our last few nights of having that opportunity! The girls had a blast switching from the top bunk to the bottom bunk and back again a few times. They had lots of excellent questions like, "where does the thunder come from?", "what's that noise?", and "why does Uncle Tom have so many empty tubes of toothpaste?". We ended up all three sleeping on the bottom bunk until the little ones fell asleep, then Aunt Lisa snuck back up to the top bunk for a little snooze. The girls were champions and slept the whole night! They didn't even wake up until 8am! We were very impressed all around.
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Sunday, we headed to Dearborn to visit Tom's grandfather who has been in the hospital for quite a few days. He seemed very happy to have so many new visitors and we were able to chat with him for a little while and meet all his "girls" who take such good care of him! Hopefully he will be headed home soon. That evening we met up with Tom's friend Curtis and his family and neighbors and headed over to the Royal Oak Arts, Beats, and Eats. The music festival was really fun and we had a great time catching up with Curtis and his family and meeting some new friends.

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    The Trimmers

    Lisa and Tom Trimmer are from Chicago, IL and traveling the country in their 1985 VW Vanagon Westfalia Campervan.

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