We parked alongside a quieter portion of the Roaring River in Kings Canyon, near the end of the careening road through the stone walls. I wanted to make my hippie ancestors proud and wash myself in the cold mountain water, so I changed into my swimsuit and grabbed a towel and our biodegradable camp soap. “I won’t be able to feel the water, anyway,” I assured myself, fearing this river water would be similar to the freezing water we’d waded in at Lake Tahoe but knowing that my spinal cord injury would prevent me from feeling anything up to my waist.
But I was very, very wrong. Even though I couldn’t feel the ice water that I’m sure was going to freeze over any minute, my legs still spasmsed violently in protest. Quickly I squirted the soap all over my head and over my body, caring less by the second how clean I was actually getting. Ethel looked worriedly over the top of my head, balancing on the rock I was leaning against to check on me but not caring so much that she would have to get in the water too. Dusty just clutched his stomach laughing at me, having camped and trained in the woods enough times to know no amount of clean was worth getting this cold. “Qqq-uuiiet you”, I scowled at him with my teeth chattering and braced myself for another dunk to rinse.
Dusty helped lift me from the water and sit me down on the rock behind me to dry off in the sun. The dry air and high elevation thankfully made quick work of my sopping wet hair and soon my breathing returned to normal. “Julia, look,” Dusty said suddenly and grabbed the back of Ethel’s harness. I turned to reprimand him, I don’t like anyone grabbing at Ethel other than myself and her former trainers, but he pointed to thirty feet away on the other side of the river. “A black bear!”
And sure enough, there was a black bear. Not quite a mature adult, the smaller bear was walking along the far bank of the river looking for what seemed to be a good place to enter the water. He (or she, I’m not going to pretend to know how to tell the difference between male and female black bears) was moving in the way bears do in what only can be described as a gallumphing fashion (gal-LUMPH gal-LUMPH) with the paws on each side moving in asynchronous order. Hardly hearing myself, I alternatively commanded Dusty to “take a picture! Take a picture! Hold onto Ethel! Ethel, don’t move! Did you take a picture?!”. The large paws gripped the slippery rocks as he bent towards the water and then smoothly glided into the stream. It was majestic watching him swim, barely making a disruption in the fast moving water. “Ok, we gotta go,” Dusty said suddenly. “Why?” I wanted to watch this beautiful beast catch a fish like in the Pixar movie Brave. “Because it’s coming to this side of the river. Let’s move!”
Forgetting that I, you know, can’t walk, I tried getting to my feet in a sprint to get back to the RV. All I got was wet as my feet slid back into the water and Dusty turned so I could climb onto his back. Ethel had seen the bear too and while interested in the big dog across the way, Ethel wouldn’t go near water to meet any friend or person. But the bear either hadn’t seen Ethel or wasn’t interested and I was not in a hurry to find out. Dusty jogged back to the RV, too much in a hurry to try to secure me with his arms and left me dangling from his neck getting jostled with each step. On our way we called out to the four caravan family that had just parked behind us, telling them of the bear that could be headed this way. They didn’t seem that eager to photograph a bear sighting on their family vacation, because I distinctly heard car doors slam as Dusty set me down safely inside the RV.
It wasn’t until later, after we’d left the river, did I remember from the educational signs all over the park that I was supposed to make a lot of noise if a bear was nearby. So, for good measure, I screamed loudly when we had pulled into a gas station to fill up. Even though I explained I was trying to save all of our lives, Dusty was still mad.
And thus concluded my first bear sighting. You could say that while we ended up safely ensconced in our RV afterwards, we really only bear-ly escaped.
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Leaving Salt Lake City, we weathered the blinding heat and barren roads driving due west towards some California bliss. Our route would take us from Utah to Nevada and finally to northern California.
Before touching the borders of Nevada, however, we found ourselves in a surreal white wasteland in Utah. The ground on either side of the two-lane highway was as white as snow and reflecting the intense light of the glaring sun. The highway formed a sort of bridge cutting through the white lake, displaying messages people had written on the salt using dark, handful-sized rocks. The words “Feel the Bern” and “Weed Rocks” shouted up at us from the whiteness and we pulled over at the only turn-off for miles.
When I opened the door, the heat hit me like someone had smacked a pillow into my face. Ethel panted in the doorway to the RV and looked up at me accusingly for exposing her to this heat. But when you see a giant white wasteland of an ancient sea dried up, you just have to go roll around in it. So I doused her in water and held on as she ran onto the ancient white shores.
We were unexpectedly met with large salt rocks sitting in white mush strewn for miles. I didn’t know the Salt Flats would be so wet, the salt sucking all the moisture from the air and pooling it on the ground. Salt sprayed on either side of my wheels as I urged Ethel on and soon her grumpiness evaporated as she began to frolic. She kicked up the white spray behind her, which landed on me, and I sprayed it out behind me through my wheels. It was boiling hot and glare from the sun on the mushy salt was nearly blinding, but the joy of running wild was insurmountable.
Later, Dusty the Amazing took apart my wheelchair at the water spigot provided by the Salt Flats State Park. It was necessary, the surface of every tire and bar on my chair was covered in clumpy salt and would absolutely become corrosive to the metal if left on. I doused Ethel again in the water while she gulped from her portable bowl happily.
We arrived a day later at Lake Tahoe after leaving the Salt Flats. During this drive, we became very familiar with the inner temperament of our generator due to the absolute need for air conditioning. One of the effects of a spinal cord injury is the inability for the person to sweat. Having an incomplete spinal cord injury, I can still sweat in some places but not in others. Therefore, it’s imperative I keep myself cool and hydrating in the heat or risk heat stroke more easily than an able-bodied person. The generator in the RV is what powers the air conditioning when we’re parked and when it began to kick off randomly, Dusty and I tried everything to keep it running. He’d run outside and tinker with it while I did my part by superstitiously throwing salt over my shoulder and rocking my wheels in a sort of rain dance thinking that air conditioning and rain served a similar enough purpose to count. But it was probably Dusty’s tinkering, and not my rain dance, that fixed it in the end.
Ethel, being a dog, can’t sweat either and I watch her tongue to see how hot she is. If her mouth is open slightly and she’s panting, she’s fine. If her entire face is split open to allow for more air to pass and her tongue is hanging out one side, I know she needs to cool fast. She’s a very, very smart girl, however, and airs on the side of dramatic at times. At out last duty station in Missouri, during the summers when I’d grab her leash she’d begin to pant before I ever opened the door. She hates the heat and looks up at me with betrayl every time I take her out in the summer. I’ve come to learn that she won’t hate me for too long when I take her out in the heat, but either way I want to yell out “Mayday! Mayday! Got an overheated dog! Code RED, RED I SAID!” every time I see her begin to pant.
Lake Tahoe was no different for her and her eyes shifted up at me to make sure I knew she was unhappy until we got to the shores of the lake. To me, Lake Tahoe is very reminiscent of Lago Garda is northern Italy. Beautiful mountains tower over the bright blue water on all sides, forming the lake into a cauldron bowl of sorts with alpine lined sides. The sun’s reflection on the water glistens every day and the rocky, pebbly beaches curtail the normal amount of crows seen on flat beaches. The towns surrounding the lake, however small, were fairly populating with summer visitors and residents and housed all the necessary groceries, libraries, adventure outfitters and gasoline. Little cafes on both Lago Garda and Lake Tahoe line the shores and while the coffee may taste different between the two countries, the small shore town feel does not.
We boondocked in two locations we had found on the western and southern shores of the Lake. The first day we drove the entire perimeter, in search of a beach that would be hidden from the crowds but accessible to reach by wheelchair. That turned out to be an impossible task; the only beaches of Lake Tahoe are man made, everything other shore is instead outcroppings of rocks and boulders or just a straight cliff. But luckily, there are fantastic areas of Lake Tahoe that are wheelchair accessible and included long paved bike trails that line the southern shore. We spent the next three days on beaches near these paved trails, wading in the freezing water and laughing at the antics of Ethel as she raced back and forth along the shore splashing the water in puppy bliss.
Dusty and I have both had to adapt to a different way of going to the beach than how we did before my accident. While I’ve heard of a handful successful strategies for pushing in the sand, it’s just a fact that wheelchairs don’t roll well or at all on the beach. There are beach wheelchairs and amphibian chairs, with huge tires and handles for someone to push the person in the chair, but they are not always available. We could’ve called ahead and found out if any of the ranger stations or fire stations had a beach wheelchair available, these being the two places that would house such a chair for guests of the town, but the less complicated strategy is to push the wheelchair as far as it can go and then have Dusty carry me the rest of the way. We’ll hunker down in the sand close to the “parked” wheelchair and Dusty will again pick me up and carry me out to the water. Since I have the ability to stand with support, he carried me knee-high into Lake Tahoe and helped me stand in the freezing water. I couldn’t feel the cold, but my feet spasmsed enough for me to know it was pretty cold water. Ethel, having decided that I wasn’t going to drown and wouldn’t require her to jump in, laid down in the sand to dry off next to my wheelchair.
“Why is the lake gold?” Dusty asked, looking down at the water around us. He was right, instead of just the blue water around us, we seemed to be standing in a what looked like the shimmering golden eye shadow I wore when I was twelve. Dusty reached his hand down and tried unsuccessfully to cup the golden flakes. “This can’t be pollution or something spilled into the lake,” I reasoned, although I know next to nothing about what water looks like after it’s been contaminated.
“Let’s drink it,” Dusty said suddenly. From the back pocket of his shorts he pulled out a water bladder with an attached filter and empty bag. He bent over and filled the bladder and then moved my hands up to brace on his shoulders so he could let go of me. He then squeezed the bladder to push the water through the filter and into the empty bag. When he finished, he pulled off the filter and showed it to me. It was covered in layers of gold flakes, resembling even more my old compact of eye shadow. We drank the water, blissfully cold, and wondered aloud if we could sell the filter to one of those cash-for-gold stores.
We found out later from a friend that it was deposits of Pyrite or Fool’s Gold that floated in the river. Just like our Gold Rush ancestors before us, we had been duped into believing we had drank golden water. Oh well. There’s always the Fountain of Youth or Bigfoot to find next.
An accessibility footnote:
Nothing about our adventures is advertised as accessible. There are wonderful companies and resorts that do cater to the disabled community and provide the adaptive equipment and routes on which to have accessible fun, but we have yet to use them. There’s nothing wrong with the adaptive adventure, I’m just too impatient of a soul and too cheap a person to pay the higher prices that they cost. Instead, our adventures rely on our creativity, Dusty’s strength and young back, and our persistent faith in humanity. I learned early on how to put my pride in my pocket and ask for help. While the realm of accessible vacations is growing, there are far too many other places in the United States and world that do not offer this yet we want to see. So we trek out on our own and make do with the struggles we face. I don’t recommend this to everyone but the young and dumb. Which we happily will say we are.
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The journey down the Oregon coast became our first attempt at some serious boondocking exploration. Boondocking, or the fancy French way of saying “I don’t want to pay for a campsite so I’m going to pull over here on the side of the road”, is similar to tent camping in that you don’t have a water, sewage or electricity hookup and must rely on your stores in your RV. This type of camping, however, is illegal on private land, city parks or any public area that says “No Overnight Parking”. The big chains of Walmart and Cracker Barrel do allow overnight parking, however, and we have used them liberally when we’re just trying to get from point A to B.
As a state rule, Oregon allows for day and overnight parking in its state parks as long as you do not park at any one spot longer than 12 consecutive hours. We set out down Route 101 from Seattle with plans to spend our daylight hours in one area and then park in another free spot for the night, understanding that we’d leave again in the morning. This may seem tiring, but we’re young, dumb and ambitious so the constant movement only served to fuel our wanderlust. Our RV is smaller, but has adequate clean, gray and black water storage to last us for quite a few days (not showering, but, eh, we love each other anyway) without needing to resupply. This was how we explored the beautiful Oregon secret of the People’s Coast, a section of the Oregon coastline that follows Route 101 along the Pacific Ocean and is home of the infamous 804 hiking trail.
Route 101 wove serenely along the coastline, leading up and around bluffs that leaned away from the ocean as if trying to pull away from the rhythmic, pounding waves. We watched as the thin trees gave way to rocky walls sheltering sandy beaches clearly strewn with large boulders and rock formations. By the time we parked in a small picnic overlook, we felt the pulse of the Pacific below us in the driftwood railing that lead down to the beach. Even later, as we stopped at one of the many coffee huts for an espresso while we waited for our laundry to finish at a coin laundry shop, we heard the drumming of the heart of Oregon, the pull of the Pacific, in the people of the small town Yachats and Waldport. While of the residents we met had the slower pace of retirement in their step, even the young families and adolescents we spoke with met us with acceptance and had the attitude of live and let live. Possibly even rarer than the beauty of the Oregon coast itself was the contentment we saw in the residents of the coastline towns, a contentment that is hard pressed to be found in much of the western culture.
Where to Boondock along the
People’s Coast of Oregon
In between Waldport and further south to Yachats, there is the Governor Patterson Memorial State Reservoir, Beachside State Park, Smelt Sands Park Recreation Site, the residential area of Wakonda Beach and San Marine, and then the Yachats Ocean Road State Natural Site just south of Yachats. These areas are wonderful day use parks and beaches, with picnic tables, bathrooms (or outhouses), and shade. Along Route 101, or the Oregon Coast Highway, there are overlooks with parking lots and beach access for day use as well. All of these areas are clearly marked that overnight camping is not allowed and we only parked here for the 12 hour daylight hour times.
For overnight parking, however, we made our way to Cook’s Chasm south of Yachats where the rock formations Thor’s Well and Spouting Horn are located. This smaller parking area is one of the few that are not marked for “Day Use” only and does allow overnight parking. We’d arrive here around 9 or 10pm each night and there were parking spots still available.
Laundry and gas, two necessities of the boondocking adventure, were taken care of in Waldport. There is gas available in Yachats as well, but the only open laundry facility we found was in Waldport. There is also a Post Office available in Waldport.
For groceries, we kept to the single, but thankfully open late, market in Yachats.
There is free water and RV dumpingat Carl G. Washburn Memorial State Park located just south of Yachats on Route 101. This is also has great beach access for day use.
An Accessibility Footnote
Sadly, none of the Oregon coast was particularly accessible. The beaches did not have boardwalks, for most of the shoreline protected by sand bluffs and boulders. To access each beach we found, there was a flight of stairs and then usually several rocky areas to cover. Dusty simply carried me down to the water and once I plopped down to the sand, he went back for my wheelchair. The only “accessible” path along the shore was the 804 Trail found at Smelt Sands State Park Recreation Site. This trail is a dirt path, not particularly level, and can be steep in some sections but it does follow along above the water and is home to some spectacular views. With the help of my mobility service dog, Little Miss Ethel, I was able to ride the trail without Dusty but I would not recommend this trail for a power wheelchair.
There were two other sights near the coast of Oregon that were accessible (hilly, but level dirt trails with little difficulty): Catherine Creek and Lost Lake
There is a great resource from the National Park Association about accessibility in Olympic National Park, giving detail descriptions of campgrounds, trails and sights deemed accessible. We used this resource to guide our itinerary, choosing to visit only the sites and trails I could roll easily. Already equipped with our accessible RV, La Tortuga, choosing an accessible campground was less of a necessity. Here is the list of campgrounds where we stayed and trails that we took during our exploration of Olympic National Park, as well as a map from the park service.
Staircase Campground, just past Lake Cushman in the Mount Skokomish Wilderness
This lovely campground is deep into the forest, off the paved main highway 24 by twenty minutes on a gravel trail. But the campground itself was built among giant boulders and thick trees, giving each camp site rock walls and tree trunk screens of privacy. The thick canopy of leaves overhead makes the campground continually cool and just a few meters from a few of the camp sites is the rushing Slate Creek river. There is a handicapped campsite, which was a level paved site located right next to the campground bathroom (also accessible) and water station. Due to the nature of the location for the campground, however, it is quite hilly and I relied on my service dog Ethel to pull me up and down the rolling grounds.
Beach 1 through Beach 4 of the
Continuing west from Staircase campground, we arrived at the coastline on Highway 101 and parked at the Kalaloch Ranger Station to explore the beaches. Unfortunately, we were disappointed to find that the shoreline was twenty feet below us and could only be accessed by a steep climb down the cliff side. Stairs had been fashioned at each of the Kalaloch beaches (beaches 1 through 4) and there was a trail above the shore connecting each of the beaches. Upon further review of the Olympic National Park accessibility guide, we saw that only Beach 4 was made accessible and the ramp was only taken out during the summer months.
However, we parked for the night at the Kalaloch campground and were astounded by the view. The higher vantage point above the shoreline gave us an eagle eye view of Washington coast. Windblown trees surrounded each campsite to give privacy, as well as the planted hedge groves separating each site. There were several handicapped camp sites, which had more of the site paved than a non-accessible site. The campground bathrooms and water stations were accessible as well and the entire campground was paved and flat. There were several trails along the coast that left from the campground and while they were not paved, there were level and wider.
This short hike was well worth the drive off Highway 101 following the Elwha River. The drive of Highway 101 around the perimeter of the park is a scenic route in itself and is enjoyable. While the parking lot was not paved, the entire trail to the falls was paved and level. It became steep at a few points, but my service dog led the way and after less than a mile we had arrived. The hike leads to a viewing platform of the Madison Falls waterfall and made for a pleasurable afternoon.
The drive to Hurricane Ridge takes you south into the center of the Olympic Wilderness and climbs up the Klahhane Ridge mountains to reach an elevation over 6000m. While our RV is small enough to handle the hairpin turns and switchbacks of this drive, I was white knuckled as I listened for any signs of our belongings flying out of the cabinets. None did and we arrived at the top of the ridge safely. The few is astounding from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, which is paved and accessible. There was also a short, paved trail around the top of the ridge to reach a higher viewing area.
Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge
While not part of Olympic National Park, this wildlife refuge sits on the northern Dungeness Bay above the little village of Sequim. We camped here for two nights and while not advertised as accessible, this refuge was one of the more inclusively accessible areas we had come across in the park. The camp sites were level and the camp bathrooms were accessible, however I only saw the RV side of the campground. But the best feature of the wildlife refuge was the accessible trail along the coastline and down into the tiny peninsula Dungeness Spit. The refuge covers the Spit and Bay shores, which are accessed by a paved trail through the Wildlife Refuge complete with informational signs about the protected species of the refuge. Down on the Spit, a common sight was the hoard of seals that would sun themselves on the rocks. The last portion of the paved trail is a very steep descent down to the water and was too steep for me to roll down, even with Ethel and my husband. I would not recommend the trail for manual wheelchairs, but a power wheelchair could have climbed this last portion with ease.
There was another trail that was part of the Dungeness campground that followed the coastline through the Dungeness Recreation Area. The trail hugged the edges of the cliffs with the water twenty or so feet below. This was not a paved area and there were roots protruding the trail every so often, but did not have steep portions.
Port Angeles and Port Townsend
This seaside villages were great hubs of all the necessities campers in the park would want. We visited a few restuarants and gorged ourselves on the fresh seafood taken right out of the bay a mile away. The towns did not seem to have the funding to have the most accessible sidewalks, however, and I did encounter many stores without ramps and streets without sidewalks.
Leaving the experiences of Yellowstone and its’ later twin Pike Place behind, Dusty and I turned our RV towards the Pacific coast of Washington State. We were needing the solitude of the forest, the serenity of the ocean and the caffeinated high of Washington style coffee.
We were not disappointed. As we drove into the Olympic National Park, giant dark trees with moss climbing up their trunks towered over us with their canopy of deep green leaves. Low hanging branches dripping with stringy, hairy moss cradled the deserted road where we traveled and blocked the sun to give the forest a magical, dim glow. I couldn’t decide if we had entered someone’s Secret Garden, the Dark Forest at Hogwarts in Harry Potter or a rainforest where any minute a monkey would shriek out our arrival. But we were met with silence. The racketing sounds of various instruments clunking in the RV as we drove along were the only noises and they echoed off the ravine walls and dense forestry, giving way to the small waterfalls that appeared every now and again. But these sounds too were swallowed in the thick mist of silence of the forest.
We parked at Staircase campground, a secluded spot along a small river deep inside the southeast corner of Olympic Park. We could faintly hear the other campers in their camp sites scattered around, but the steep embankments that surrounded each site gave a rare privacy not normally seen in public campgrounds. The thick air seemed to swallow the sounds of tents rustling, cook wear washing and the twinkling jingle of light conversation around us.
There was a time in my life when silence unnerved me. I felt a responsibility to fill any gap in a conversation or to divert attention away from an awkward silence. A fear would seize me in those moments of silence, where I anxiously thought that the silence was brought on by my uninteresting self and my fault. I fled from yoga, meditation, moments of reflection or even the silent pray time at church.
But something changed while we were stationed in Europe. While traveling in Spain, Portugal and Italy, I would notice the young and the old sitting around tables at a café or in the benches in front of fountains gazing at something in the distance. Sometimes their eyes would lazily wander of the crowds in front of them and occasionally these eyes would close and I’d hear a satisfied, slow sigh. These quiet ones along the peripheral of the densely populated tourist cities of Europe struck me as one of the more unusual things I had seen. In the United States, the only people I remember seeing being stationary in the cities were either homeless, elderly or made of marble. “Why aren’t they doing anything,” I wondered to myself. “Aren’t they going to be late for something? They’re just sitting there, wasting time.” I mentally dismissed these quiet curiosities as lazy and, feeling superior and self-important, I carried on my trek.
How wrong, judgmental, sanctimonious and ignorant of me. These gazers, sighers and quiet examples of strength sitting in the edges of my selfie photos in front of World Heritage tourist sites were investing in a practice so foreign to me and so crucial to happiness. They were practicing being silent and relishing in the happiness that silence can bring.
Back in Washington, the thick canopy of the trees and cradling rock ravines towering on either side of the road in Olympic National Park forced upon its’ inhabitants a quiet stillness that no human could break. I could sit on the edge of the river below me, nearly as still as a lake, and yell out to the wind but the sounds would simply ricochet around the rock walls and fade away. The park was intent on keeping its’ sanctuary as free from human sound as possible and as we set up camp for the day and hiked in the woods, I surrendered to its’ silent will. I shut my mouth and tried to simply be. I had taken enough meditation and yoga classes just to accompany friends in the past to know you always try to start with focusing on the breath.
There have been so many conversations over the years between Dusty and myself or with friends that claim a desire to find contentment in a slower life. “Yeah, at the next duty station we’ll be able to slow down and take it easy,” we’d assure our friends, who would respond with an agreeing “You should try to meditate, I read about how healthy it is for you. But who has the time, really? There are so many things to do in a day!”. And given the opportunity to learn how to be still and be happy with moving slowly, I’d push down the gas pedal and promise to go slower in the next chapter of life. Military assignments at different posts required fast decisions and rapid movements. Traveling called for cramming in as many sites and photos in the available hours as possible. Being silent and moving quiet equated with not keeping up, not being good enough. There was never a real desire to slow down because that meant letting go of another opportunity to move on to what always seemed to be greener pastures.
Sitting on the bridge by the river in our campground in Olympic Park, I let my eyes become unfocused on the slowly moving water and breathed in crisp air. Unsurprisingly, my timid but unrelenting friend Doubt whispered in my ear as he moved in close to my shoulder. “You’re missing seeing the trail behind you. This isn’t going to do anything for you, you’re not good at this and you can’t learn how to get better,” he malevolently said. I tried to shrug him off and concentrate on breathing, but I could feel his tight grip in my mind. Ready for a fight, I imagined my breathing as a dragon, with flames of passion and when I exhaled my next breath I visualized the flames coming from my mouth to chase away the scampering, simpering Doubt. But then the flames blew into an oven in my mind and in the oven cooked what had to be brownies and then I forgot what I was doing on the bridge in the first place and when was the last time I had a brownie.
Muttering to myself to stay focused, I quietly continued to breath a few more breaths and but again got lost pondering the curious relationship between a dog and an elephant I had seen online after searching for the meditation recipes that dominating Pinterest and Instagram. Frustrated I had lost focus again, I reminded myself sternly that I was supposed to be finding contentment and following in the footsteps of all the yogis I’d seen smiling serenely on Pinterest. I could hear Doubt laughing on my shoulder. “What a jerk,” I thought to myself. And then I realized something.
I didn’t need to be good at this now. I didn’t need to make this happen today, this trip, this year. I’ll know when I’m ready to understand how to be silent. Maybe it’s more important to appreciate each step in this journey of learning how to find contentment in simply being than it is to have mastered this on the first day.
I heard the gravel crunch as Dusty walked towards me. “The next campsite is further north, near the beach. Ready to go?”, he asked. I refocused my eyes on the stringy moss wrapping around the trunk of the tree next to me. “No, I’m not,” I answered slowly, with a smile. “Let’s stay here a little longer”.