Archive for October, 2009

Copperstate Fly-In

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Traveling via Airstream is great, but I also love being able to park at an event and spend the night.  At the end of a day at the fair, jam, balloon fest or rally it’s really nice to just retire to your home rather than getting in the car to drive away.  When you’re camped at the event, you’re usually away from the general parking crowd and close to the action, too.  That’s why we took the Airstream to the Copperstate Fly-In rather than just making a long daytrip out of it (80 miles from our home in Tucson).

dsc_3037.jpgThe Copperstate Fly-In is not so large that access is a problem even for casual visitors, but still it was nice to be camped just a few feet from the flight line.  The RV camping area is just a dusty parking lot with white chalk lines to delineate sites — nothing fancy at all.  No hookups, just blue porta-potties and trash cans.  For $10 a night it was a decent value because of the proximity.  We could see the aircraft taking off without even leaving our site, and easily hear when some warbirds were starting up for some formation flying.

dsc_3056.jpg

The only downside for us was the generators.  Quiet hours were posted for nighttime, but during the day several RV’ers left their generators running up to six hours.  We were unlucky enough to be parked near several of them, and the fumes were constant.  I’ve seen many cases where people did this in hot weather because they (or their pets) needed air conditioning.  Dealing with heavy generator use seems to be a regular factor when we attend these sorts of events.

dsc_3027.jpgBeing October in the Sonoran desert, we could have gotten any kind of weather.  We were lucky enough to get near-perfect weather for a fly-in: highs in the low 80s, clear skies, and not much wind to kick up dust.  Visibility was typical for this area, about 20-30 miles.  Like most fly-ins, access to the airplanes and the owners was excellent, so we could walk up and talk to anyone about anything we saw on the field.  I spent a lot of time with the Cirrus guys and sat in the SR-22 G3 Turbo X (fantasizing), and also chatted with owners of powered paragliders, warbirds, biplanes, helicopters, and light sport aircraft.  There were also amphibious aircraft, homebuilts, and a gyrocopter.

By the way, Emma was very comfortable in the Cirrus’ back seat, and it looks pretty easy to fly.  Does anyone want to make a donation?  I just need another $600,000 to buy it.

If you want to see more pictures from Copperstate, check out my Flickr album.  I uploaded 156 photos there, enough to satisfy all the airplane buffs in my audience, I hope.
dsc_3066.jpgWe spent three nights camped at Casa Grande Municipal Airport, so there was plenty of time for side trips to the area around Phoenix.  One stop we made was to the Queen Creek Olive Mill, to take the $5 tour.  It’s a relatively brief one, involving an informative talk about olives, olive oil, and the pressing process, and then a quick look at the room where the extra-virgin oil is pressed out.  The pressing machine itself is the least interesting thing.  It’s basically a large box from which oil and “pomace” (leftover olive bits after pressing) come out.  But the guide and informative signs all around are educational, and the gift shop/restaurant are well done. I recommend the gelato.

dsc_3360.jpgThis trip is one of the very few times we’ve done an “out and back” short trip from our winter home base. The nature of these trips changes a lot of our assumptions about how we travel and what we do.  Most people do only these sorts of trips, but for us it is the exception, and we are still getting used to it.  Some aspects are really great, like the low fuel consumption.  In four days we used only 1/2 a tank of fuel including 140 miles of towing and about 150 additional miles not towing.  Other aspects are not so great, like the day we spent re-packing the Airstream.

If there were more multi-day events available in the area with RV parking, I think we’d do more … something for event organizers to consider.  I certainly intend to take my own advice.  Here’s a sneak preview.  Next year, Airstream Life magazine will be hosting a major event.  It should be great fun, with seminars, vendors, entertainment, a barbecue, and much more.  It will be open to all RV owners (Airstream and non-Airstream, new and vintage), but be warned, if you show up in an non-Airstream trailer we will convert you on the spot!  As to location, all I can say is that it will be east of the Mississippi.  I can’t reveal more at this time but there will be a formal announcement with all the details sometime in November.

The corollary to this is that the popular Vintage Trailer Jam will not be back in 2010.  The co-sponsors of the event have decided not to continue with it.  We all had fun but we’ve decided to let it go.  So if you’ve got time next summer, keep an eye open for the new event.

Home life didn’t last long …

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

We’ve been in the house for nearly a week.  Time to hit the road!

I’m serious.  We haven’t even unpacked the Airstream from our four month odyssey this summer, and we’ve already found a reason to take off again.  On Sunday I was doing what suburbanites do all over the USA: reading the Sunday paper.  (In my case, it was mostly for the novelty of it, since I haven’t read a Sunday paper in about a year.)  And there it was — an ad for the Copperstate Fly-In,the fourth-largest fly-in event in the USA.

cmp-rl.jpgTo appreciate how that hit me, you need to know that I was for several years a card-carrying member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Experimental Aircraft Association. In those heady days B.K. (Before Kid) when we had disposable income from two well-paying jobs, we owned an airplane which we flew all over the east coast. My mother, father, and one older brother all have pilot’s licenses.  In the era B.K. my brother and I flew to major aviation events including EAA’s Oshkosh, the world’s biggest fly-in, and camped next to the airplane in a tent along with 13,000 other aircraft.  My brother and I also flew to the 2nd largest fly-in event, Sun-n-Fun, in central Florida, and camped there too.

rich-andy.jpgThe third largest fly-in is the Arlington Fly-In, held up in the northwest.  I haven’t made it to that one yet.  But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the fourth largest fly-in is held only about 80 miles from our home, right here in southern Arizona, this week!

It seems like the perfect diversion from sedentary suburban life.  The weather in southern Arizona is ideal right now, and it’s a shame to spend the time cooped up in the office.  I think Eleanor is not in a hurry to settle into housewife mode either.  All I had to do was mention the existence of Copperstate, and she was immediately on board.

Hey, what’s not to like?  Dry RV camping for ten bucks a night, right by the action.  Aerial demonstrations, rides, exhibits, and all kinds of aircraft.  We’ll see warbirds, ultralights, historic aircraft, plenty of home-built aircraft, helicopters, and who know what else.  When the action slows down, I can return to the Airstream to do some work, take a nap, have lunch — or we can drive a short distance to Tempe and Scottsdale for some retail action.  (We’ve got a few things on our list at REI, IKEA, and other places up there.)

One of the really great parts about camping at a fly-in is that you can always hear the sound of engines coming and going, all kinds of different engines.  Old rotaries radials on the antique fabric bi-planes, pistons on the modern single-engine craft, turbines on the big boys, little 2-strokes on the ultralights, and lots of variants.  Pilots love aircraft noise. It is part of the fun of being on the field.  I remember one damp morning, very early, at Oshkosh when we were overflown by a low-altitude diamond formation of WW II bombers.  I’ll never forget it.  The sound was so thunderous and menacing that we all were shaken from a sound sleep and rolled out of our tents thinking (in our half-awake state) that we were going to die.  It was great.

So I hope for a few exciting moments like that, this week.  Feeling the ground shake as 50-year-old warbirds fly over gives you a tiny taste of the fear of war.  In that moment when the bombers passed by, I suddenly knew the terror and helplessness that people must have felt in Europe when the machines of World War II visited them.  I think that’s an experience that would be good for anyone, to have perspective on what it means to go to war.

rich-flying.jpgAnd during the rest of the time, I hope Copperstate causes us to meet some local aviation folks, and maybe a few RV’ers.  I’d like to explore the possibility of getting back into aviation in the next few years.  It would be fun to do a little flying again, perhaps in an ultralight like we used to do in Vermont.

So now we are re-packing the Airstream.  Since we took very little out of it, our re-packing efforts are more about removing things than loading up.  Eleanor has unloaded some heavy items like Emma’s schoolbooks and her sewing machine, and we’ve taken out the things that we were transporting from Vermont.  We’ve filled the fresh water tank and defrosted the refrigerator.  Tomorrow I’ll toss my office bag back in there and hitch up.  That should do it.

Still, I’m keeping a lot of stuff in the trailer that, strictly speaking, we don’t need for a three day trip.  I can justify this because it’s more trouble that it’s worth to remove those things, but the real reason is that I want to leave the option open to extend the trip.  What if we suddenly get the brainstorm to keep wandering, say, up to Roosevelt Lake for a few days?  It would be a drag if we couldn’t only because we left some piece of equipment behind.  So we are packed as if we are going out indefinitely.  I doubt we will stay out more than three days, but anything could happen …

Unwanted guests

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

And now, we return to our regularly scheduled program of home life in Tucson, AZ.  We are back at winter home base, 12,000 miles and four months after departing Tucson at the beginning of summer.

The Airstream is tucked into its bay and connected to water, sewer, and electric.  We’ll be clearing out half of the stuff in it, partly to clear space for future guests who will stay there, partly because we need those things in the house (like my office equipment, Emma’s books, and Eleanor’s sewing machine).  A summer full of gifts, treasures, and miscellany needs to come out, be sorted, and dealt with, and we’ll do that over the next couple of weeks.

As we planned, the house was ready for us when we returned.  Everything we needed was still in place, so our first night back was a matter of moving some food and the computers. I needed only to turn on the air conditioning (it was well into the 90s when we arrived), light the water heater, and plug in the Internet modem — ta-da! — instant home.  Clean sheets on the beds, fridge already cooled down thanks to our wonderful neighbor, and …. uh … what are these tiny black pellets in the kitchen drawer?  And hey, look, they’re in here too.

In fact, they were all over the house, concentrated in the kitchen and bathrooms. Rodent droppings.  Looks like we had a visitor or two while we were gone.  That meant a serious program of cleaning for two days.  Hantavirus is a possibility in Arizona, and we don’t want it.  Good thing we left very little food in the house (and it was all sealed tightly).  The critters ate part of some scented soap in Emma’s bathroom, chewed holes in a bag of soup mix, and not much else.  I doubt they were here for long, since there was no water available.

But finding unwanted guests was the worst thing about coming back.  We were greeted enthusiastically by all of our great neighbors within minutes of showing up, and that made a huge difference.  You can pull in after a long trip feeling tired, hungry, grumpy, and stressed about all the unpacking work that has to be done, but with a few people who are happy to see you waiting by, it all feels much better. Carol swept the dust off our front doorstep, Mike had some of our recent mail, Tom received a book for us that came last week via UPS, and Kevin was keeping an eye on everything with his trusty peacekeeper in reserve.  Frank and Joanie swung by within an hour to say “welcome.”  You can’t beat neighbors like we’ve got.

Oh, sure, there are a few weeds in the backyard, but I’ll deal with those once the heat ends.  No rush.  Right now we need to give ourselves time to make the adjustment again, from 200 highly mobile square feet to 2,000 completely stationary square feet.  It’s harder than you might think.  Everything changes, from daily habits to traffic patterns.  What you do each day changes.  The places you go, the things you think about, what you buy at the store, the clothes you wear …It’s a shock to the human system, like switching from a life as a suit-bound Wall Street executive to a Red Cross workers in Ethiopia. We’re all adjustable but still, big life changes take time to absorb.

Speaking of rodents, we have a few others in the back yard.  Pocket gophers have apparently been a long-time feature of this particular property, at least according to one neighbor. Over the past two years, as I have carried on my campaign to eradicate the invasive grass, they have flourished under my neglect.  Now the backyard is riddled with mounds and holes.  They even pop their little furry brown heads up during the daytime and toss dirt into the air.

I have a destination in mind for those gophers and it’s not Disneyland.  I had thought that there was no need to remove them until we got more serious about making our backyard something other than the wasteland it is at present, but now I’m re-considering.  In the meantime, they are providing a useful service.  They have burrowed under our composting bin (it has no bottom) and tunneled through our rotting vegetables.  This introduces air and soil into the compost mix, which speeds decay.  I looked in the bin and found that everything we left in there last winter had decomposed, except for a few late items that simply dessicated before they could break down.  It’s “gopher-assisted composting,” a new concept that may be more palatable than vermiculture. I’ll re-start the pile with some water and fresh greens.

Useful or not, a supply of traps seems to be in order.  Anyone who potentially carries hantavirus is not welcome to inhabit our house or our silver guest house in the carport.  We would prefer that visitors coming to Tucson this winter be capable of walking on two legs and using the bathroom rather than our kitchen drawers for their ablutions.  It’s not a lot to ask, is it?

Walnut Canyon National Monument, AZ

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

We’ve been chased by weather for the past few weeks.  It seems that lately every time we leave a place, it gets inundated with horrible weather.  We fled the upper peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Colorado, each time two steps ahead of cold rain, storms, and even snow.  The weather we have experienced has been very fine almost consistently, despite the fact that we have been running on the ragged edge of winter in these northern states and higher western elevations.  We’ve been lucky.

As I mentioned, traveling in the shoulder season also means fewer campsite choices, but there are still options.  We wanted to visit Walnut Canyon National Monument after leaving Petrified Forest.  There’s no campground at Walnut Canyon, and the Coconino National Forest campgrounds closed over the weekend, but there is a Cracker Barrel restaurant and a Wal-Mart just a few miles away in Flagstaff.  That’s what I meant yesterday when I talked about flexibility.  There’s always a way, even if it is perhaps not the most glamorous.  So from Petrified Forest we drove directly to Walnut Canyon, hiked the 0.9 mile Island Trail (with 240 stairs up and down), and then continued on to Flagstaff for the night.

dsc_2918.jpg

Walnut Canyon is a remarkable ancient cliff-dwelling site, with literally hundreds of ruins in a relatively small area.  The Island Trail brings you past 24 cliff homes, many of which you can enter.  The trail is a little strenuous if you aren’t in shape because of the 185 foot stair climb at nearly 7,000 ft elevation, but most people seem to handle it just fine.

We’ve seen a lot of cliff dwellings over the past couple of years, but they still inspire a tingly sensation of ancient mystery for me.  For hundreds of years, people lived here in these lofty rock homes.  They struggled hard to build houses of stone where mountain goats would struggle to walk.  They farmed squash and corn in a climate so dry and soil so sparse that large trees cannot live.  Generations of people, raising families communally, experienced all the drama of our modern lives, rich with stories … and hardly any record of their experience survives.  I can only look at the stone alcoves and wonder.

dsc_2915.jpgThe park closed at 5 p.m., before we had time to see everything.  So in the morning we towed the Airstream back over to hike the Rim Trail (flat) and complete the Junior Ranger program.  (Emma now has over 50 badges, nine of which were acquired this summer.  We’ll do a full inventory when we get back to Tucson.)

We could have lingered in Flagstaff, or detoured north to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, but we’d already made the decision to head home.  From Walnut Canyon it is an easy drive to I-17 and then down, down, down from Flagstaff off the rim of the Colorado Plateau.  Farewell, high elevations and chilly weather.  In less than two hours we bottomed out at 3,400 feet and then climbed back up to 5,000 in the town of Prescott, AZ.

We are still at moderately high elevation but we’ll continue downward soon enough. We are making one last stop before we return to home base. Prescott is where our friend Rich C now lives.  We traveled with Rich for months back in 2006 while he was full-timing and searching for a new home.  He found a new life in this funky western town, and has built a small business downtown making art prints and selling his photography. We haven’t seen him in over a year, so it was time to drop in and check on things.  As a bonus, our gruff and itinerant friend Gunny also happens to be visiting Prescott, so it’s a reunion of sorts.

The final trip segment is now determined.  We’ll spend two nights here in Prescott, then drive 222 miles to Tucson (with a brief stop in Tempe for an extra bag of frozen Swedish meatballs from IKEA).  Our summer travels began on June 17 and will end on October 16 — almost exactly four months on the road. The total mileage will come to about 12,000 (including side trips and unhitched travel), of which about 85% is towing miles.

If you are looking for grand conclusions, you might be disappointed.  Although our travels will cease again for a little while (perhaps six weeks, perhaps longer), I don’t see this as an end at all.  We are simply switching gears for a little while.  I can’t conclude my thoughts because I don’t see a conclusion yet.  We are still traversing the Maze of life, still trying to grow bigger in relation to our surroundings, still trying to understand the world.  At most, we will pause to reflect, but the long walk through The Maze will continue.  I’ll keep writing, too.

Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

There is always a way.  Keep that in mind when you travel.  When you have little time off (say, a long weekend), and many things you want to do it’s easy to get worked up when things don’t go exactly to plan.  In the Tour of America blog I always emphasized the importance of flexibility, because only by being flexible could we deal with the many unexpected events that travel threw at us.

In other words, we had a choice:  we could go through life on the road constantly being disappointed by things … things we couldn’t do, things that went wrong, things that made life a little harder … or we could roll with the punches, think creatively, and look for alternatives.  “Always look on the bright side of life.“  This has been particularly applicable to our overnight stays lately.  To get to the places we wanted to be, we’ve had to work a little outside the box.

On Monday we drove from Cortez CO down through the Navajo Nation on Rt 491 about 100 miles to Interstate 40.  As drives go, Rt 491 is not especially fantastic but it is not bad. The Navajo Nation is sparsely settled, with a few small towns that hold most of the population.  Along the road you’ll see scattered homes and small farms, and almost every home has a traditional hogan beside it.

dsc_2814.jpgIf you look closely you might see small hand-lettered signs for “Indian Frybread” or other items for sale, but it’s not until you reach I-40 that the big-time tourist traps start to appear.  There are several along I-40, including Geronimo’s, Chee’s, and Indian City.  You can get authentic Navajo rugs and other crafts in these places, but beware … if you see a rug (not a wall hanging) that costs less than $200, it’s probably not a true Navajo rug.  They are meticulously hand made and quite expensive, even in the small sizes.  $600 for a 3×2 rug is not uncommon, if the quality is high.

Our goal for the day was Petrified Forest National Park.  For drive-by park visitors, this has to be one of the most convenient in the USA.  You just exit I-40 and there you are at the Visitor Center.  The entire park is a drive-through, with pull-outs or parking lots at all the interesting spots.  Almost all of the parking lots are big enough for any RV.  If you have a full day, you can putter down the 28-mile road, stop at half a dozen good places, and exit the park at the southern end with time to spare.  That puts you on Rt 180 which brings you northwest to I-40 again.

dsc_2885.jpgThere is a little hiking to be done in Petrified Forest.  We’ve done most of the hikes before, but somehow managed to miss the “Long Logs” and “Agate House” trails from the museum/visitor center at the south end of the park, so we did those this time.  Both are well worth the short walk (about 3 miles in total on level ground), but don’t be surprised if there’s a strong breeze.  There’s not much to block the wind here, and it seems to be windy more often than not.

Along those trails are the best concentrations of the beautifully agatized ancient pine trees that give this park its name.  You’ll also see a partially restored home (dating from about 1100 AD) made from blocks of petrified wood — that’s “Agate House.”

When you see all of the incredible and colorful petrified logs, the temptation to pick up a tiny piece as a souvenir is strong — but don’t do it!  dsc_2886.jpgThe park is amazing because people have been restrained enough not to loot the logs, and so they are still lying there at your feet as if you were the first person to discover them.  Besides, the fine for taking a piece, no matter how small, starts at $325, and every visitor to the park gets a “snitch sheet” for the express purpose of turning you in to the authorities!  (If you want a big chunk, wait till you get up Rt 180 to the town of Holbrook, and you’ll find “Bob’s” has an incredible amount of legally-collected petrified wood for sale.)

There’s more to the park than just petrified wood, too.  You’ll find some fantastic concentrations of petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock, and the remains of a small Ancient Puebloan settlement, called Puerco Pueblo.

dsc_2842.jpgFor RV’ers, the minor challenge of Petrified Forest National Park is that there is no campground anywhere in the area.  You have two choices: just drive through and continue to your destination elsewhere, or spend the night at one of the two large gift shops at the southern entrance of the park.  Overnight parking there is free there, but if you want them to turn the electricity on you need to buy something in the store.  Since there is no traffic in or out of the park at night, it’s beautifully quiet for sleeping.

That’s where we ended up for the night on Monday.  On Tuesday we towed the Airstream back into the park for a second shot at some of the places, then had lunch in the Airstream, and finally departed to the west. I’ll describe our next stop, and the dodge we had to invent to make a national park visit possible, in tomorrow’s blog.

Chasing 72 degrees

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Full-timers often say they are “chasing 72 degrees,” meaning that they follow the weather around the country to maintain that perfect summer day as often as possible.  Normally that’s our plan as well, but it’s harder than you might think.  If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know we often run into unexpectedly hot or cold weather because the timing is never perfect.

Lately we’ve been chasing 62 degrees, with freezing nights.  We spent too much time in September getting across the midwest, and as a result we arrived in the higher elevations west of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah in time for fall.  Rather than head to lower elevations, we’ve taken advantage of the shoulder season and enjoyed relatively uncrowded campgrounds and trails.

But the late season is putting a cramp on our activities.  At night we’ve encountered temps as low as 18 degrees, which forces us to burn a lot of propane (and hence buy a fresh tank every four or five days).  Morning hikes have been chilly, and the sun is setting early. Seasonal stores and attractions have shorter hours. Evening Ranger talks have ended.

The big limitation of fall is that some campgrounds are closing.  We were considering visiting three Flagstaff-area national park sites (Sunset Crater, Wupatki, and Walnut Canyon) but the only camping nearby is at National Forest Service sites in the Coconino NF.  Those sites close for the season today, October 12.

This is happening all over, as overnight temperatures dip to freezing.  So we’ve decided to skip those three national park sites this time, and start working our way toward the low desert. Eleanor and I realized this morning that we’ve been deliberately delaying our return to Tucson only because we have a house there and we know that once we arrive, we’ll settle into a homebody routine.  Ironically, if we didn’t have a house, as in years past, we would already be in Tucson at a park enjoying the dry 85-degree days because we would know that in a week or two we’d continue on.

Well, we are not going to delay much longer.  Last night the catalytic heater refused to light.  It has been getting increasingly balky over the past two weeks, taking longer to light and occasionally going out if not run on the maximum setting.  These are symptoms of the catalyst pad being “poisoned” by contaminants.  Since this heater has been used only infrequently over the past eighteen months I suspect bad propane may have killed it.  Dust can also terminate a catalytic heater prematurely, but we have had a dust cover on it.  When we get back to Tucson I will have to investigate “an authorized Factory Service Technician” as the owner’s manual suggests.  I suspect that catalytic heater service technicians are not on every corner.

We used the furnace instead, so we weren’t cold last night.  I just hate listening to it cycle on and off in the early morning, especially when it comes on every five or ten minutes.  That’s a sign that we need to move somewhere warmer.  If we were going to skip the house I’d aim at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern AZ, but the lure of suburban life is calling us.  It is time to chase — and overtake, for a while — 72 degrees.

Exploring the Green River, Canyonlands NP

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

dsc_2756.jpg

Staying a third night at Horsethief campground turned out to be a good move.  Eleanor’s  back was not ready for backpacking, but just a short distance from the campground was a 12.9 mile dirt road (Mineral Road) that led through BLM land to Green River just west of where it enters Canyonlands National Park.  This road is favored by mountain bike touring groups.  They start at the Rt 313 end (8 miles from the Visitor Center of the park) and cycle to the edge of the canyon, then get a ride back.

The sad thing is that they see the least interesting part of this long dusty road. It rolls up and down across a fairly featureless scrub plain with almost no canyon views until the very end.  But just a few feet further, the road becomes an adventure, zig-zagging down into the river canyon to the banks of the Green River.  In the photo above, you can see us starting the trip down.

This road is much easier and more civilized than the Shafer Trail, and easily twice as wide in most places, but there are still a few tight and “interesting” spots to keep you awake.  It might look smooth and easy from the picture, but that’s deceiving — 4WD is a very good idea and don’t expect to go more than about 8 MPH at any point.  Still, it’s a drive almost anyone who is not terrified of heights can make.

dsc_2758.jpgAt the bottom you have a choice: left to follow the river, eventually to enter Canyonlands and the White Rim 4WD road; or right one mile to the Mineral Bottom boat launch.  We tried left and explored along the river for a while, then turned around after a few miles and went to the boat launch for a picnic. Rafters launch here for multi-day trips.  A few miles from this point, the Green and Colorado Rivers meet in a confluence and then begins some of North America’s greatest whitewater rafting, so I’m told.  The group we saw departing was off for a week, heading all the way to Lake Powell.

dsc_2796.jpgOnce back, we decided to check out the Gemini Bridges, also near the Horsethief campground.  No 4WD needed for this trip, since it’s just a typical dirt road most of the way.  The Gemini Bridges are a pair of natural sand stone bridges that you can walk over (or beneath if you approach by a different route) — well worth the trip off pavement to explore. The hike from parking lot to the bridges is only a quarter-mile or so.

We left the Canyonlands early this morning, spurred on by the need to get to Cortez CO (150 miles away) before the post office closed.  Before departing Cortez I felt the need to pick up some diesel and ventured into a Shell station that I shouldn’t have.  Normally I check carefully before turning into a station but in this case the sun was right in my eyes and I couldn’t determine the situation clearly until we were committed.   Of course, it was one of those impossible arrangements for trailers, and we got wedged in between some pumps and the building.

What to do?  Well, first, may as well fill up.  So we did that, and evaluated the situation while the pump was running.  There was no chance of proceeding forward, and no room to back up.  We’ve been in tight spots before, and one thing I’ve learned is that you never panic, and always remember that other cars can be moved.   Eleanor got out and started negotiating with a guy parked behind us so that we could carefully back up into his space.  Then another parked car moved and we were able to start see-sawing back and forth to straighten the trailer a little.

To escape, we needed the cars in the middle pump aisle to clear out entirely.  This was tricky because the gas station was very busy, and clueless people in little cars kept zipping in and out.  Meanwhile, the owner of a Porsche Cayenne seemed intent on not merely washing his windshield, but detailing his car right there at the pump.  Once he finally cleared the aisle, Eleanor stood blocking the entry.  I maneuvered the trailer a little more — veeeeery carefully — to both get a better starting position and to intimidate anyone foolish enough to try to slip past me.  A little more negotiation ensued, and soon the next car left. Vroom!  We were outta there.

And of course as we drove through Moab, we passed at least three other stations with wide open spaces for big trailers and diesel fuel for five cents less per gallon…

Overlooks in Canyonlands

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Our big day of hiking turned into a little day of hiking.  Eleanor did something to zing her back and was in such excruciating pain that wearing a backpack for six or seven miles on the trail was not realistic.  This was disappointing for all but I had great sympathy for her predicament, since the exact same thing happened to me about two weeks ago in Wyoming.   Neither of us has a history of back trouble, but we both celebrated birthdays in the, uh, latter half of our 40’s, and we suspect that we are facing the reality of so-called middle age.

Well, not wanting to go quietly into decrepitude, Eleanor took a few Motrin and shouldered her burden long enough to hike a two mile trail at the spectacular Grandview Point of Canyonlands National Park.  It was worth it, I think, but after that we needed to give her break.  Fortunately, you can see a lot in this park just by driving to overlooks and walking short distances.

dsc_2695.jpg

Driving in the park is kind of fun, thanks to squiggly roads and great scenery all the time.  I really didn’t mind cruising around and stopping at overlooks, and it was a good excuse for a roadside picnic.  Emma and I did get in one more short hike, at Whale Rock.  It’s described as “good for families” with some slickrock climbing, but on a breezy day like yesterday the final stages of the hike can be a little intimidating.  Zoe the Stuffed Cat (who always rides in Emma’s backpack) had to be securely zipped inside so she didn’t blow out, and we could hear her yowling the whole time.

dsc_2679.jpg

We have decided to stay another day, in the hope of Eleanor’s recovery, and in any case because we can’t think of any other spot we’d rather be at the moment.  The weather is fine, the campground is pleasant and cheap, the scenery is fabulous, and there is plenty to do whether we choose to drive into the park or just play around here. Most importantly, our water supply is holding out, and there has been sunshine to recharge the batteries.

dsc_2736.jpgThe major reason to depart may be our next mail drop.  It is awaiting us in a town three hours south of here, and the post office in that town is open on Saturday for only two hours.  This means we must leave early Saturday in order to get the mail, or wait until Monday to pick it up.  Normally a mail pickup is not a big deal, since the post office will hold mail sent to General Delivery for three weeks.  It’s just one of the many factors we consider as we develop our ongoing itinerary.

In this case, however, I need that mail ASAP.  It contains the registration paperwork for our car.  There was a SNAFU with the title and as a result our temporary registration expired yesterday before the permanent registration was processed.  As of today we are legal again, but we don’t have any paper to prove it, so I’d like to get that document before we go much further.  In four years of full-time and part-time travel with the Airstream, we have not been pulled over by the police once, but of course Murphy’s Law says that’s what will happen if we don’t get that paper in the glove box soon.

We are in the “end game” of this trip now.  There are only a few stops left before we end up in Tucson.  We’re weighing the final stops carefully now, trying to get the most out of the high-altitude sites before we flee to the low desert and winter warmth.  We will definitely be at winter home base before Halloween, and our next scheduled Airstream adventure will not be until after Christmas. Knowing this gives us reason to drag our wheels as we drive through the Four Corners region.  For you, blog readers, this means perhaps another 10-14 days of travel blog before we switch gears to home life (and three-quarters of you tune out!)

Offroading Canyonlands National Park, UT

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

We decided to skip Dinosaur National Monument this time around and head straight to Canyonlands.  Dino is operating under some restrictions due to the visitor center being closed, and the fact that it is off-season.  We’ll visit that park on another trip.  So our route took us down from Blue Mesa reservoir along Rt 50/285 to Montrose, and then northwest to Grand Junction CO, where we picked up I-70 to Utah.

As I’ve mentioned before, the drive along Rt 50 across Colorado is a fantastic and worthy roadtrip.  I-70 from Denver to Grand Junction is pretty good (for an Interstate highway) as well, but given the choice  I’d pick Rt 50 except in winter.  I can’t say the same for I-70 west of Grand Junction, because as soon as you cross into Utah it becomes a pretty featureless and dull road.  The compensation is that you’re out of the mountains and on the straightaways, and so you can go fast.

I upped the rig to 65 MPH just so I wouldn’t get blown away by cars and trucks going the legal limit of 75 MPH.   The increase in speed dings our fuel economy but we still got an overall 13.5 MPG for the segment, which isn’t bad for towing.  We could have gone the speed limit with no problem, but as a general rule I don’t tow that fast.  The trailer’s tires are rated for only 65 MPH and the fuel cost would have been high.  As another GL320/Airstream owner once told me, “The GL will tow at any speed you care to pay for.”

The entrance we used to Canyonlands National Park is  just north of Moab UT.  The park is divided into four districts, each separately accessible: Islands In The Sky (where we are), Needles, The Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon.  The districts have completely different routes leading in, and this makes it virtually impossible to visit all of the districts in less than a week.  The distance from one entrance to another can be several hours.  We chose Islands In The Sky for its accessibility and features — it should be a good orientation to the park overall.  We’ll have to visit the other districts in future trips.

You have to come prepared to visit this place.  Visually, it is like a mashup of Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon.  The views are stunning.  But there is no lodging, no water, no fuel, and no services (restaurant, repair, or otherwise).  The only campground in this district is called Willow Flat and it has just 12 sites.  It fills every day this time of year.  It has no dump station or water either.   For just about anything, you have to drive 25-30 miles to Moab along a circuitous (paved) road, which means a minimum 45 minute trip one-way.

img_5429.jpg

We arrived at 3 p.m., far too late to get a campsite in either Willow Flat or the nearby Dead Horse State Park (just outside the park boundary).  We ended up at a Bureau of Land Management campground called Horsethief, about 5 miles from the park.  No water, no dump, no hookups, but nice scenery and well-spaced dirt sites in the boonies ($12 per night).  Amazingly, my cell phone and Internet work just fine both here and at the Canyonlands visitor center, so I’m able to keep up on work and post the blog. That means we’ll stay at least two nights and perhaps three.

Our usual program when arriving at a national park is to drop the trailer and immediately hit the visitor center for orientation.  The rangers are always happy to meet someone who is going to stay a few days (rather than the usual, “We’ve got two hours — where are the good views?”) and they will provide insider tips on where to go.
img_5438.jpgWith only a couple of hours of daylight left (after Emma finished browsing the visitor center for clues for her Junior Ranger program), we decided to drive down into the canyon on a four-wheel drive road called Shafer Trail.  Now, you might be thinking, “Hey, that’s a Mercedes — it doesn’t go off-road,” and I’ll admit I was thinking the same thing.  But Mercedes says that this SUV has parentage from their famed off-road beast the G-wagon.  The GL comes standard with all-wheel drive and an air suspension that can be lifted two inches at the touch of a button. (In the photo at right, you can see the suspension in the “raised” mode.)  I wouldn’t take it on major 4WD roads that require very high clearance because our hitch reinforcement would probably scrape, but the Shafer Trail looked like a good bet — and if it wasn’t, I was prepared to turn around or back up, and go home.

img_5435.jpgWell.  I was pretty busy trying to observe the incredible, occasionally terrifying, view while driving the car around steep hairpin turns over loose rocks … so I did not get any photos of us coming down the road.  However, you can get a good idea of what it is like to drive the Shafer Trail from videos taken by other visitors. The photo at left (click to enlarge) shows part of the descent we did.  The car did just fine, had no clearance problems, and handled as well or better than the Nissan Armada we used to do these sorts of things with.  So I’m amazed that Mercedes managed to engineer a car that can go 150 MPH all day on the Autobahn in comfort, tow a heavy Airstream with good fuel economy, and still be a capable rough-road vehicle too.

The trip down Shafer Trail takes a while.  We put the car in “Downhill Speed Regulation” mode, set the limit to 6 MPH, and it crept down the hairpins while I tried to avoid sharp rocks and major potholes. In about 40 minutes we were down to the Gooseneck hiking trail, parked the car, and hiked 0.3 miles to a stupendous overlook of the mighty Colorado River grinding its way through the sandstone canyon.

img_5445.jpgimg_5443.jpg

Yes, it was worth the trip.  I would have liked to have gone farther, but the setting sun dictated that we head back up.  I could not imagine driving the Shafer Trail in the dark.

At Gooseneck, the road we were on was part of the White Rim Trail, which is a backcountry 4WD adventure of over 100 miles.  It takes at least two days to traverse completely.  I am sure there are parts of that road I wouldn’t have taken our car on, but the rangers indicated that if we had time we could have gone at least to Musselman Arch.

Today we are going hiking. I have the Winter 2009 magazine 95% wrapped up, and my major task in the next few days is to review layouts and resolve last-minute problems before we go to press.  This is work that can be done at any hour of the day, which means we can play in the sunshine and I can work in the early morning and at night. It makes for a long and peculiar day, but it works for me.  I see the kid is waking up now, and that means it is time for me to wrap up the morning’s work and start preparing for a day in Canyonlands.

Curecanti National Recreation Area, CO

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

 It was time to break camp at Cheyenne Mountain state park.  I took a short walk to drop off the trash in the bear-proof dumpster, and the camp host gave me a cheery wave and a big “HEY! How’s it going?” as I walked by.  I thought he was being a little enthusiastic for a casual greeting, but when I returned to the campsite I found the ranger standing there and she said:

“Are you the guy who posted that nice blog about us?”

Turned out she’d been tipped off by Google Alerts.  Everybody’s using it now, and that means within a few hours of my posting anything, random people are coming to blog to check it out because it mentioned something they’ve asked Google to monitor for them.

I’ve got to be more careful.  Sometimes I don’t like a campground or a town.  If I post my thoughts before we depart, the rise of technology means that people in the local area will find out before we’ve safely escaped the area. You might think I’m paranoid, but it has happened before.  I once was threatened with a lawsuit for “defamination” by a campground owner in Creede CO for expressing my opinions.  He carried on a campaign against me for weeks, with phone calls, faxes, and emails.  I still get angry comments on the Tour of America blog for having dared to write sarcastic remarks about Solvang CA.  I’m not afraid of the counter-criticism, but I’d prefer not to have to deal with grumpy locals at my campsite.

dsc_2676.jpgFortunately, I can say nice things about our overnight stop.  We drove the beautifully scenic Route 50 from Canon City, through the Royal Gorge, and up to Salida, Gunnison, and eventually to Curecanti National Recreation Area.  I recommend this road trip to anyone who likes western scenery.  We are parked in one of eleven campgrounds strung along the edge of Blue Mesa Reservoir (the largest body of water in Colorado).  The Blue Mesa’s name is apt, as the water is stunningly blue at times, almost rivaling the color of Crater Lake.  All around this long reservoir are pinnacles and scrub-covered hills, and the road follows it for many miles from just west of the town of Gunnison to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

dsc_2671.jpgWe have stopped at the Lake Fork marina and campground, 27 miles west of Gunnison.  There are only two other campers here, since it’s so late in the season. The visitor center is closed, there’s no campground host, and the campground is dry and self-service this time of year, but that’s all fine.  Frankly, having nobody at the desk just means we can check in a lot quicker. I bought a $6 overnight ticket from the self-service machine and we picked a spot.  Every spot here has a view of the water.

dsc_2668.jpg

On the way here, we paused at Monarch Pass.  The last time we stopped there was in 2006, and the grade leading up to Monarch Pass hasn’t shallowed one bit since.  It’s a long pull to the top, several miles of 6% grade leading up to over 11,312 feet of elevation.  I took this photo for those who still don’t believe that you can tow an Airstream comfortably in the mountains with a V-6 turbodiesel.  The car was perfectly content to haul us up the hill, and the engine stayed at normal operating temperature.

As I write this, the sun is rising over the reservoir.  It was cold last night, and right now the official temperature in Gunnison is 18 degrees.  If I’d thought it was going to be so cold I would have run the catalytic heater instead of the furnace, to save electricity. The Tri-Metric battery monitor says we managed to use 40% of our battery capacity in one night, and most of that was due to the furnace cycling on every few minutes, sucking up 7.5 amps as it ran.  I got up at 5:45 and switched over to the catalytic heater but the damage to our power supply was already done.  Fortunately, the skies are projected to be very clear again today, so we’ll probably get back to 90% charge by afternoon.

The plan for today is to continue heading west on Rt 50/285 through Montrose and up to Grand Junction.  That’s about as far as we’ve gotten with it.  We need to decide today if we are going to Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado (a big detour), or Canyonlands National Park in Utah, or both.  Since it is getting cold at the upper elevations, weather will be a big factor in the decision.  We can see the end of our travels in this part of the country approaching quickly, but we’re milking it for all we can.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine