When we left off, Kevin and I were just outside the western entrance of Mount Rainier National Park, about sixty miles southeast of Seattle. By the time we drove away from our campground, we were itching for some city time.
One thing we knew pretty well before we started traveling, but definitely know now, is that we are city people. It doesn’t have to be a huge city – though we do love those – but the idea of having to drive an hour or more to get to a decent hospital, veterinarian, hardware store, or taco provider makes us twitchy. So after several months of being in beautiful but remote locales, we were more than ready for some good old fashioned shitty attitudes and overpriced parking.
We also needed somewhere to hunker down for Labor Day, one of the many camper friendly holidays that inspire the masses to head out in their RVs.
All of that led me to book a week at Columbia River RV Park in Portland.
“Portland??? What? Everyone’s rioting! The whole place is on fire! It’s mayhem!!!”
No. It’s not.
Contrary to the clickbait-y news reports, the unrest in early September was limited to a very small area and most of the violence and stupidity could be avoided by simply staying away from the downtown area after dark.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that, when trying to assess current events in the places we want to visit, it’s best to find local resources. The national news will offer surface level reporting which, while dramatic, is oftentimes short on the details we need to make well-informed decisions. Local news, on the other hand, tends to focus on providing more detailed and helpful information to their local viewership. It is the kind of information we need to decide whether to go somewhere or not. Once I started focusing on local Portland news sites, I quickly became convinced that our visit to the city would be Molotov cocktail free.
So, the plan was to spend Labor Day week in Portland, then drive due south for a week in Eugene, before heading southeast to Crater Lake. After a week at Crater Lake, we’d continue south, cross the California border, and head down U.S. Route 395 – a gorgeous road that tracks the eastern side of the Sierras. I had booked lengthy stays for multiple towns along 395 with the intention of spending all of October and part of November hiking in the Sierras.
But, Mother Nature had other plans…
We spent the first several days in Portland pretty much holed up in the RV. We try to avoid going out on weekends in general, and holiday weekends in particular. We figured we’d let the holiday pass and then go do whatever we needed to do during the week. So, other than taking Thor to a dog park, we just stayed in and enjoyed the stunning views from our parking space:
But then, just as the holiday weekend ended, the wildfires started. Over the course of a day, we went from this:
All week, the wind was noticeably intense. One day, I was walking the dog and noticed a bunch of campers with damaged awnings:
and that night, the entire campground lost power for several hours when falling tree limbs took out nearby power lines.
These were the same winds that were turning the mountains east of us into conflagrations.
But, truth be told, we weren’t really that concerned. Our 2018 visit to Oregon had been marked by wildfire smoke and this, initially, felt like more of the same. Additionally, as you can see from the above pictures, while the winds were persistent, we had periods of blue skies interspersed with the smoke.
It was all unpleasant, but none of it felt particularly threatening.
That all changed one day when I got an email from my friend, Heather. Heather and her husband, Dave, live in Eugene – where we were supposed to be heading after Portland. Out of the blue, she emailed me to say they were preparing to possibly evacuate because there was a huge fire burning just east of Eugene. She said we would be wise to consider leaving the state entirely while we could, and gave me a number of Twitter sites to follow for news and information.
As soon as I started looking at them, the reality of the situation became clear.
In areas that were not historically subject to wildfires, fires were burning out of control and repeatedly doubling and tripling in size. One fire southeast of Portland went from 500 acres to 130,000 acres in a day. People would go to sleep thinking the nearest fire was miles away only to wake up in the middle of the night to an inferno outside their door. Entire mountain towns were being reduced to ash in a matter of minutes. In northern California, over 200 campers had to be rescued by helicopter when a fast moving fire trapped them at a lakeside campground. In southern Oregon, authorities closed I-5, the main artery that travels up and down the west coast, for several hours as fires tore through and destroyed several towns near the highway.
Based on Heather’s suggestion, I followed the local parks department for Lane County, where Eugene is located, and watched as the county carved the city into sections, each governed by different evacuation orders. Level One: Ready meant “pay attention,” Level two: Set meant “get your stuff together and be ready to leave at any time”; and Level Three: Go meant “get out right now.”
So when they suddenly started posting messages like this for an area just a couple miles down the road from the county park we’d been planning to stay at:
it was a true “Holy Shit” moment.
And not long after that “Holy Shit” moment, I saw this on Facebook:
It was jaw dropping.
We were, obviously, not going to be going to Eugene or Crater Lake, and staying in Portland didn’t seem like such a great idea either. Not only was the smoke becoming overwhelming, but fires were actively approaching the southern edge of the city. In fact, the day before we left, the government warned Portland residents that evacuations might start to affect parts of the city.
The question was, where to go?
There were fires and road closures everywhere, and looking at a map, we were already pretty limited in our potential options. In reality, our options were to head north, back to where we’d just come from in Washington, or east to try to get on the far side of the fires.
Our friends, Dave and Shannon, live part time in Bend, Oregon, which is east of the Cascades. While considering various options, I texted Shannon to ask what the situation there was. She replied that the skies were clear and we should come on over. Perfect! We had a solution. I was able to reserve several nights at the county fairgrounds located in Redmond, which is just north of Bend. We’d stayed there in 2018 and figured it would be a good place to regroup and figure out what to do.
Unfortunately, soon after I made the reservation, I saw this article which made clear we weren’t going to be escaping the smoke, after all. The following day, Shannon texted me to tell me they were buried in smoke. She suggested we go north instead. But, looking at the air quality maps, north didn’t look all that great either. There were just no good options. I told her we were going to stick with the plan and just take it day by day.
The day we left Portland was positively apocalyptic. The smoke was so thick it hurt to breath, visibility was down to tenths of a mile, and no matter how far east we drove, we couldn’t outrun the smoke:
When we got to Redmond, the air was so bad, it was – literally – heading off the chart:
But we were immediately reminded that we were very lucky. The county fairgrounds were also being used as a Red Cross shelter for people who’d had to evacuate, some of whom would have no home to go back to. At least we were safe and whole.
However, as the week wore on, it became harder and harder to stay positive.
Day after day, the smoke hung in the air, making it impossible to do anything without paying a price in lung function. We basically stayed inside, running the air conditioner, 24/7. The only times we left were to take Thor out for very quick bathroom breaks or to run to the grocery store.
There is something unnerving about not being able to step outside your home. And, whereas, in a typical situation, we might be able to escape by going somewhere inside – a museum, a restaurant, a shopping area, because of Covid, those were unavailable to us.
We couldn’t find an indoor escape because of the virus, and we couldn’t find an outdoor escape because of the toxic air.
We found ourselves prisoners in our tiny home.
Thor felt it too. And he was not happy:
Pretty soon, though, his unhappiness morphed into low level psychosis.
The dog is used to getting a lot ( A LOT) of exercise, and we had been cooped up for days. It wasn’t long before he went “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”
There was no solution to any of this. We were just stuck.
Eventually, we had a couple afternoons where the air quality went from “atrocious” to “pretty terrible”
and we jumped at the opportunity to get him some exercise, but we paid the price every time we did it.
Finally, though, the smoke cleared. All told, we’d spent about two weeks stuck inside. I know that probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but it felt endless.
When we finally looked outside and saw this:
It was about the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen.
The next question was what to do going forward. We still had all our 395 reservations and we really wanted to make that work. But fire season was just beginning and, well, look:
Obviously, this was not going to be the year to head down 395. Not only did we want to avoid fires, but we wanted to avoid being in some small town with limited resources when all of this was happening.
That basically left us two options: Stay put where we were in Bend/Redmond, or head southeast to somewhere in Nevada or Utah. I zoned in on southern Utah because I figured it would be far enough away from the fires that the smoke should be minimal. But I nixed the idea when I started thinking about Covid.
The wonderful thing we’d noticed about the Pacific Northwest is that people are really good about wearing masks. They just put on a mask and go about their business. No whining, no complaining, no protests, no videotaped confrontations with Walmart employees… Nothing.
It was wonderful.
In fact, I think my upcoming debut memoir, entitled: “STFU and Put on a Mask – One Woman’s Struggle to Get People to Just STFU and Put on a Mask” will sell really well there.
Seeing all the nonsense happening in other parts of the country (including, in particular, this idiotic “mask protest” in Southern Utah) convinced us that staying put in Bend would allow us the most freedom to go out and do the things we wanted to do without exposing ourselves unnecessarily to Covid and/or idiots.
So, with that in mind, I canceled all our upcoming 395 reservations, and we moved to a gorgeous campground in Bend for what turned out to be a fantastic seven week stay. More on that soon.
Where we stayed:
Deschutes County Fairgrounds and Expo RV Park, Redmond, Oregon
Columbia River RV Park, Portland, Oregon