Archive for the ‘National Parks’ Category

Notes from the mid-west

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

After writing the previous blog extolling the virtues of slower travel through the Plains states, I felt obliged to get off I-70 as soon as feasible and explore other routes through Kansas.  We dropped south to parallel routes and spent our evening in Great Bend, KS, a small town that we chose only because it was about the time of day that we wanted to stop traveling.

When you are moving around the way we are, it’s hard to be fussy about where you stay.  We are always prepared to boondock a night or two in a parking lot or driveway, and it’s actually a good way to cut down the cost of travel. Long-time blog readers know we rarely make reservations, and this is part of the reason why: we often don’t know exactly where we are going to be tomorrow. In this case the decision to stop in Great Bend was made about an hour before actually getting there.

I use an app called “Allstays Camp & RV” to look ahead for possible campsites each day. (Apps like this are basically the modern equivalent of the old Woodall’s and Trailer Life paper directories—but far more useful.) In this case we could see that Great Bend had a few small campgrounds that were all exceptionally cheap, running about $10-15 for a full hookup.  At that price you have to expect that the campground will be basically a parking lot with no amenities at all, and that’s fine with us.  For an overnight stop, we don’t need a shower house (we have our own) and certainly not a trout pond.

Thus, we have gone from Grand Bend, ON to Great Bend, KS, in a little over a week.  This reminded me of June, when I went from Perce Rock on the north Atlantic coast off Gaspé, to Morro Rock on the Pacific coast off California. This has been a summer of almost too much travel. I’ve really enjoyed it.


Yesterday I tweeted a photo of our unimpressive campsite on a mud & gravel parking lot. I forgot that these days there’s always someone monitoring … and so I heard back from fellow tweeter @GreatBendKS with a comment that next time we should get in touch and they’ll direct us to a nice place at a similar price.  This sort of thing has happened before, both on positive and negative comments I’ve made about campgrounds. In one case an armed ranger came to our campsite to say “Thanks for the nice review,” and in another case a campground owner threatened to sue me.  Luckily, people in Kansas are friendly.

Ft Larned NHS

I thought our visit at Ft Larned National Historic Site would be quick but it turned into a multi-hour saga. Emma got another Junior Ranger badge (I think she’s earned over 70 of them at this point) and we had lunch. It was tortuously hot, running 103-105 degrees, which made a mockery of my earlier decision to skip I-44 down to Oklahoma in favor of “cooler weather” heading toward Colorado. But Ft Larned was interesting and well worth the stop.

John Martin Reservoir State Park

With the last few days running progressively hotter, we’ve spent every night in a state park or commercial campground just for the electric hookup to run the air conditioer. I don’t mind that because the state parks have all been great. Last night’s stop was perhaps the best of a great bunch: John Martin Reservoir State Park in the town of Hasty, CO. It has both sunny sites by the dam and shady sites beneath mature trees, and at least during this week it is mostly empty, which I love. Now that we are slowly climbing the plateau, we’re up to about 3,300 ft elevation and the nights are running cooler even if the days are still pretty hot.

maintenance list

A note about maintenance:  I’m reminded once again that this sort of rapid travel across the country does come with a price.  We have logged nearly 8,000 miles so far this summer (since leaving Arizona in May), which is about average for us.  In the past two weeks we’ve done routine and minor maintenance such as greasing the Hensley hitch, adding DEF to the car (a diesel thing), and disassembling the bathroom sink plumbing to clear a clog. But when we get home we’ll need to tackle the “bug list” that has been accumulating on the white board.

The GL320 is due for some love.  The car is now at 97,000 miles and due for an oil change, transmission fluid change (we do it about every 30k miles), and a new set of tires fairly soon. I don’t mind because the GL has been pretty good to us and looks good to go for many more miles. And I still get the question almost every week we travel: “Does that little car pull that trailer OK?” Watching people gape at our 30-foot trailer and “little” SUV can be pretty entertaining, especially at the fuel pump.

The Airstream also needs a few tweaks.  The rainstorms we’ve been driving through have revealed two leaks. The MaxxFan in the front bedroom seems to have a small, wind-driven rain leak.  That’s probably just a matter of re-caulking a spot, so I can do that easily once I get a chance to get on the roof.

The bigger problem is the front storage compartment, which has always leaked but really flooded in the last storm. We’ve had it “repaired” twice and nobody has ever been able to really get it to be totally waterproof. It is also difficult to open and close when the Airstream is hitched up, because the body of an Airstream is flexible, and the flexing causes the door to jam.  I have concluded after years of hassling with it that the only solution is to replace the compartment door with the updated design, which has rounded corners instead of square. This job will be major surgery that gets a little beyond my personal comfort zone, so I may recruit the help of one of my more experienced Airstream friends this winter.

In the meantime, since we may encounter rainstorms again today, we’ll seal the compartment with packing tape, as we used to do years ago when we were full-timing.  It’s a kludgy solution but it will do until we get home.  We’re only a little over 800 miles away from wrapping up this trip.

Salinas Pueblos National Monument

Friday, September 20th, 2013

A few days ago when Eleanor and I were talking about our options for travel west of Kansas, we got a bit stuck.  So we did what we often do: we opened up the map and just looked around for things that were unfamiliar and interesting. I regard that exercise as a real privilege, because it means we’ve got time to explore whatever we like, and that doesn’t happen as often as it used to.

After a few minutes of map searching I noticed a tiny green speck in northern New Mexico indicating a national monument we’d never heard of: Salinas Pueblos. We immediately got on the NPS.GOV website and discovered that it comprises three separate units: Abo, Quarai and Gran Quivira, each containing the ruins of pueblos that had been occupied for hundreds of years, but not much since 1667.  We were already sold on going there, but it was even more interesting to see that the pueblos were in an area of New Mexico that we’ve never seen (or even heard of).  So Salinas Pueblos became the centerpiece of our route home, and we made our other routing choices (like Capulin Volcano) around it.

We wanted to stay at Manzano Mountains State Park, but found (upon arrival) that it was closed. The official reasoning is severe fire danger, but locals told us it hasn’t been open for three seasons because of budgetary issues.  So we ended up at the only other spot within 50 miles: an RV park in Mountainair, NM.  And it was across the street from a very busy freight rail line.  Oh well.  At least we had a full hookup.

I hadn’t expected cell phone service in this part of the country so I wasn’t disappointed.  Cellular voice service was hopeless, but Skype on the iPhone running over the campground wifi allowed me to make a few calls anyway.  Interestingly, the new rooftop antenna and amplifier I installed last spring for Internet service worked amazingly well.  (I was able to get online with the router reporting a virtually non-existent signal strength of -101 dBm, but used the RV park wifi most of the time.)

Salinas Pueblo-1

The fine weather continued for the most part, which made touring the ruins a picturesque experience.  They are all around 6,700 feet elevation, surrounded by grassy plains and ringed by mountains in the distance. Puffy cumulus popped up each afternoon to dot the sky.  Eleanor likes taking pictures of clouds, sunsets, and wildlife more than photos of ruined stone foundations, so she was practically wearing out her camera while I judiciously composed shots of the landscape.  When we compared notes later it seemed she shot about three for every one of mine. But we both got great pictures. It’s hard not to, in such a majestic and historic place.

Salinas Pueblo-3

Salinas Pueblo-6

There is a very sad tale that surrounds these pueblos, which is well documented at all three sites.  Since our recorded history basically begins when the Spanish attempted to colonize New Mexico, there’s not much known about the pueblo Indians life in the 800 years or so prior to the Spanish arrival.  But we know all too well what happened when the first Spanish friars showed up, and it’s a classic story of outside influence destroying a culture.

Salinas Pueblo-2The natives were forced to adopt Christianity and abandon their traditional beliefs, work as virtual slaves for the Spanish crown, change farming methods, and abandon trading with other tribes.  It wasn’t long before these settlements that had survived for centuries were suffering from starvation, unrest, violent raids, and ultimately complete failure.

Salinas Pueblo-5

By 1677, the pueblos were abandoned: the natives migrated elsewhere, the Spanish decided New Mexico would never be profitable, and everyone lost.  Other than a brief occupation by Hispanics in the 19th century, nobody has ever lived at these sites since. What we know of them today comes from records by the Spanish and archaeological study. There’s a lot more to the story, but you’ll need to visit Salinas Pueblos yourself to learn it.

Salinas Pueblo-4

Salinas Pueblo-8

Emma helped us out by doing the Junior Ranger program at all three sites.  You get a pin plus a ribbon for each site, and she collected all of them over the course of a day and a half.

Salinas Pueblo-9

If you come here I recommend two nights minimum to be able to explore all three sites, if you can stand the train noise at the RV park. (My solution was to get very poor sleep one night, and sleep like a log the second.  Huge thunderstorms on the first night helped with this.)

I know Montana owns the slogan, but this is really “big sky country.”  On a clear night the stars and moon are worth a look, and it seems like the land goes on forever without a city in any direction.  (Albuquerque is on the other side of a mountain range, effectively invisible from here.)  There’s not much here beyond the salt lakes and the ancient pueblos, so it’s no surprise that tourism is minimal (cattle ranching seems to be the big business), but it’s a beautiful spot nonetheless.

Salinas Pueblo-7

Our trip “plan” at this point called for us to head to Silver City and then up to Gila Cliff Dwellings, but the recent rains in New Mexico caused the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument to close.

It’s open again as of today, but with the warning that the trails may close in the afternoons as thunderstorms build up.  Given that, we’ve decided to head over to Valley of Fires State Recreation Area in Carrizozo NM for a night and then figure out the rest of the trip from there.  We’ve still got five days to play with before we have to be at home base, and we want to make the most of every day we have.

Capulin Volcano National Monument, NM

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

We lucked out.  Not only did we manage to miss the rain that has plagued the western states, but we hit this part of northern New Mexico in time for some flawless late summer weather.  That made our visit to Capulin Volcano a huge success.

We have moved up in the world, literally, climbing to a base elevation of about 6,800 feet here at the RV park, and that means a big change in climate.  Days are sunny and in the 70s, but come sunset the temperatures plummet and anyone outside is quickly reaching for a warm layer to wear.  Those humid days in Jackson Center only a few days ago seem far off now.  We’ve gone from air conditioning to furnace in no time at all.

The town of Capulin is quiet and tiny, just a few houses and one small store, an RV park, and not much else.  There is no grocery store, no night life, no downtown.  Our host at the RV park is also the rural mail carrier.  Up the road is the equally tiny Folsom, made famous for the “Folsom man” discovery which proved that humans lived in north America at least 10,000 years ago.  Otherwise, this area is all wide open landscapes and grassy cattle ranches punctuated by volcanic remains like cinder cones and lava fields.  It’s stunningly beautiful on a clear day.

Capulin NM E E rim trailFrom the summit of Capulin volcano it’s a million-dollar view in all directions, and the best way to get it is to drive to the top and hike the one mile Crater Rim Trail, which of course we did.  Here’s a hint: it’s a lot easier if you go counter-clockwise.

We also hiked into the shallow crater on the Crater Vent Trail, and along the Boca Trail (2.0 miles), for a total of about 3.5 miles of hiking.  Not having done much hiking lately, and also acclimating to high altitude again (about 7,800 feet at the rim), we all felt like total couch potatoes, but we plowed ahead anyway.  We all need the exercise. Being winded is just part of the experience.

Capulin NM ladybugs

One feature of the volcano that we did not expect was ladybugs.  Apparently they are quite prolific, for reasons we did not learn today.  If you look closely at the bush in the picture, you may be able to see that the red dots are ladybugs, not berries. Eleanor purchased a souvenir pin for the park, which features a ladybug, and now we understand why it’s there.

I mentioned that this is cattle country.  The RV park sells “premium beef” from one of the local cattlemen, which is all organic, grass-fed, beef with a long list of perceived benefits.  The brochure even mentions that they “use animals of a gentle disposition, and always handle gently and quietly.”  It’s expensive stuff but we couldn’t resist three steaks from their freezer, so now they are in our freezer. Our best souvenirs are always the edible ones.

Since we slowed down, life in the Airstream feels exactly like it did when we were full-timing—except that our daughter, who was once so portable, now requires a chunk of the dinette table for her ever-present laptop computer.  But otherwise it’s very familiar, comforting, and just feels right to be out here. I would be happy to extend this trip for a few weeks if we didn’t have obligations back at home base.

Capulin NM E E hikeEmma has of course done the Junior Ranger program, so we’ll turn in the completed booklet and get her badge tomorrow.  I could easily see spending a few more days here, touring the backcountry outside the National Monument, but that would have us in the car even more and that’s not terribly appealing after 30+ hours of driving in the past week. We have decided to move tomorrow to see some native American ruins further south in New Mexico, and camp in the Cibola National Forest for a couple of days.  We’ll probably lose Internet connectivity for that period so I’ll update the blog when we emerge.


Waterfalls, inside and out

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Since we are settled into the campground, there is time to take care of little things. As when we were full-timing, we have to do various jobs as we travel because it doesn’t pay to let them accumulate until the end of the trip. Eleanor has been re-packing some of the provisions that she didn’t have time to deal with before we left Tucson, which means the big pile of stuff in the bedroom is slowly disappearing into the cabinets (or being consumed).

We discovered on Tuesday that our shower is leaking at the corner where the wall meets the shower pan, just below the faucet. This is a routine job. It needs fresh caulk. I had done the other major leak point over the winter, but didn’t think this spot needed service yet.

Digging around my bin of repair supplies in the back, I found a tube of white silicone caulk that I keep specifically for this job. Unfortunately, it was a previously opened tube that (despite careful re-sealing) had fully cured in the tube since the last time I used it, probably a year or two ago. We’ll have to come up with a temporary seal (likely a strip of tape) for the shower, and buy some fresh caulk at a hardware store on the way to Ohio.

This may not sound much like a camping trip, with re-packing and re-caulking, but that’s life on the road. We do a little of the obligatory stuff each day and spend the rest of the time having fun, so I don’t want to make it seem like we are primarily focused on household duties. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will still get our attention

Today’s plan was to seek out some of the many waterfalls in the park. This is a huge park, so we focused on those along the northern edge of the park by the Little River. A couple can be seen from the road with no hiking. We picked out two roadside falls and two that required 2.5 mile hikes (roundtrip).

I can’t say enough about the scenic beauty of this place, but it is sadly complemented by massive crowds almost everywhere. The parking lots were overflowing at every trailhead we visited, despite being mid-week and theoretically not yet in the peak season. We abandoned plans to hike one trail after seeing the hordes at the parking lot, and tried it again at 5:30 pm when things had quieted down. Even a mile into the woods on a muddy trail there was nothing approaching solitude. Normally I find hiking in the woods to be relaxing but this felt more like we had gotten off the tour bus.

This led to a new Eleanor-ism. Speaking of one of the more crowded trails, she said, “Well, that seems worth not doing.” We spent the rest of the afternoon’s hiking trying to identify other things that seemed worth not doing. (And for those of you who are long-time blog readers, yes, Reagan is still dead.)


Getting to two of the waterfalls on our list required us to break my earlier commitment not to leave the park, because it’s necessary to exit through downtown Gatlinburg to reach the “Motor Trail.” This is a horrifying shock if you have been camped in the forest of a few days. In seconds you go from dense green forest to a crowded and visually noxious tourist center, filled with every food chain imaginable, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, ersatz fashion outlets, and (oddly enough) multiple pancake restaurants, all stacked up against each other in a mish-mash example of urban planning gone amok. Eight stoplights of this before you can make a right turn and escape back into the woods.

So that’s where all the day-trippers are coming from. I had no idea, but now that I do I feel like retreating further into the woods.

Despite the crowds, we did manage to finally complete our four waterfalls, hiking a total of about 5.5 miles for the day and amazingly not encountering any thunderstorms. The day’s drive totaled 73 miles, more than I would have preferred but every inch of it scenic and astonishing (even Gatlinburg, in its own way).

We returned to the Airstream around 7 find that I had missed the fact that the center roof vent was open. A splatter pattern on the new vinyl floor showed that a rainshower had come through while we were gone; fortunately, not a flood and no damage done. The good news here was that the rain had kept the camp “fires” at bay, so the smoke level was low for a chance and we could open up the windows to let in some cool air. It is nice to smell the sweetness of the pines and the delicate odor of moss, if only for a moment.

And finally, because the Gatlinburg restaurants had planted a seed in our brains, we made pancakes on the stove with blackberries and maple syrup, and wrapped up the evening with a couple of games on the iPad.

Great Smoky Mtns National Park

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

As expected, traveling into the Great Smoky Mtns National Park meant total isolation from wireless communications. Once in a while that’s a good thing, because for about 360 days a year I’m tied into email and phone. It’s nice to be unreachable for a while. For those who can’t bear the thought, I will only hint that if you electronically sniff around certain buildings you will find open wifi. For the record, I am not admitting that I checked my email at any point during this trip.

We set the Airstream down in the Cades Cove campground, which is sheltered by a mountain ridge so that outside influences are beyond view or detection by our technology. There are no buildings, antennas, city lights, or clearings to be seen from the campground; we are in a bowl of greenery which is only reached by occasional thunderstorms and light breezes.

It was a tight fit into the campsite, even though the ReserveAmerica site touted it as being suitable for 35-foot RVs. If you actually put a 35-foot anything in the site, you’d have no place for a vehicle. Our 30-foot Airstream fills the space to the extent that the Mercedes must be parked sideways.


But the real trick was backing into the site. The recently-repaved campground roads are single-lane width, and turning radii are challenging to put it mildly. It took us three or four separate maneuvers to get the Airstream into the space, working around trees, stones, and other obstacles, and we’re not exactly beginners at this sort of thing. I may have to make a couple of passes to get the Airstream back out, later.

This park is one of the big ones, and reputedly the most visited national park in the US park system. I can believe that. While it’s not peak season now, there are a lot of day visitors milling around everywhere and occasionally the roads feel like they are overcrowded. This feeling is exacerbated by the narrowness of the roads, typically lacking shoulders and sometimes one-way. The park service seems to have striven to keep some of the feeling of old times, by avoiding the temptation to turn all the roads into 4 lane highways. Between the campground and the roads, everything feels a bit tight. I’m not complaining, just observing.

So far there have been no surprises, good or bad. We had expected a deeply forested, quiet, and pleasant campground in Cades Cove, and we have that. We expected daily thunderstorms, dense humidity, historic buildings, and lots of wildlife, and we have all of those. The campfires smouldering at every third or fourth site are pretty much as expected, too, alas.

Yesterday when we arrived the Airstream had gotten pretty warm in the sun, so we opened the windows and ran all the fans to try to cool it. We were not making much progress on cooling it, but we were filling it with smoke pretty well, until a massive thunderstorm barreled through. Soon the outside temperature was 64 degrees, hail the size of cherrystones was bouncing off the roof, and all the fires were neatly quenched, which gave us a chance to air out the trailer with cool evening air before the fires started up again.

This was our battle again today, but the thunderstorms have been on our side, so we have a reasonable compromise between those who must have smoke filling the campground and those of us who would like fresh air. I know we can’t win this battle, because some of the nearby campers came armed with (I am not exaggerating here) half a cord of wood and/or several four-foot logs. Plus, the park service allows people to collect deadwood from the forest floor and burn that, too. (That’s a mystery, since collecting deadwood is a big no-no in most national parks.)

The sun is another outside influence that barely reaches us. The tree cover is nearly 100%, so our solar gain each day has been negligible. No problem, we expected this and there’s really no need to use much power anyway, since we have no Internet, and no need for furnace this time of year. Our first night we splurged by watching a DVD on one of the laptops (plugged into the inverter, which means it was running off the house battery) and it cost us about 12% of our total power reserve. We won’t be doing that again on this trip.

For blogging purposes, I am testing the iPad with a keyboard. This is working well. It’s not as convenient in some ways as the laptop, but the iPad has the enormous advantage of using hardly any power, and being easily recharged from a 12-volt socket. I definitely recommend it as a boondocking-friendly appliance, along with the optional digital camera adapter sold by Apple, and a commonplace 12 volt USB plug.

Having just driven 1,800 miles in five days, we really wanted to do just about anything today other than sit in the car. Alas, most of the attractions of this park do require some driving, but we kept it down to less than 12 miles all day by doing the Cades Cove scenic loop and browsing various historic buildings from the settlement days.


Although the buildings (churches, cabins, a mill, etc) get a lot of attention, it was interesting to note all the wildlife. We spotted a black bear, two deer, wild turkey, a large salamander, a snake, and many butterflies. All of the mammals were seemingly unafraid of the gaggles of humans hanging around and taking pictures, which is something we’ve noticed before in national parks where generations of animals have been completely protected from human molestation.


Otherwise, we have done very little. A game of Monopoly on the iPad in the evening, a walk around the campground, reading—all camping-type things. Nothing “exciting.” We haven’t bought any t-shirts or ridden the rides at Dollywood down in Pigeon Forge. In fact, we have no plans to depart the park until we leave for good on Friday.

Lake Mead NRA

Friday, April 5th, 2013

It has been several days since I posted and I have a very good reason for that. We were at one of those wonderful confluences (for a working person) of time & space, specifically, a state park where cell phone signals barely penetrate AND a two day period where I was not obligated to be online for work reasons.  It doesn’t happen often these days.  I’ll tell you about that in greater detail in the next blog entry.

Our stay at Lake Mead National Recreation Area was fine, if uneventful.  On the way over Thursday afternoon Kyle discovered a leak in his AirSafe hitch (which is basically an airbag contraption to soften the ride), and after we were parked the campground we spent a couple of hours effecting a field repair.

All hitches have their failure points, and so I don’t hold it against any particular brand when there’s an issue, unless it’s a design flaw that repeatedly causes problems.  When (early on) we had problems with our Hensley I noticed there were always people eager to step up and use the breakdown as evidence that the hitch itself was not worth using, which I think is a case of a pre-determined conclusion looking for supporting evidence.  I haven’t seen the hitch brand yet that never has failures, be it Reese, Blue Ox, Hensley, AirSafe, EZ-Lift, Equal-i-zer, or whatever.  The important thing, to me, is that when it breaks down in the middle of nowhere—which is where they always go wrong—that you can make some sort of repair on the spot and proceed on your way.  The real failure is when a part breaks and no substitute can be found locally, and nothing can be rigged up temporarily.

In this case, the field repair was fairly simple.  We deflated the air bag fully and wedged in a chunk of wood to lock the AirSafe in the deflated position, which effectively nullified it but made it possible for Kyle to continue towing.  The local ACE Hardware store was kind enough to let us borrow a hand saw to cut a 2×4 to the correct size.

Since this was a short trip, I brought along the Dutch Oven and the Weber grill, and Eleanor packed ingredients for both.  We had agreed before we left that we would do a lot of outdoor cooking, which is uncommon for us because we usually don’t have time, but really more fun.  Thursday night I grilled hamburgers and attempted a “Lazy Peach Cobbler” in the Dutch Oven.  The cobbler came out OK but the oven sat low in the gravel, and this partially smothered the charcoal beneath it, so it was a bit underdone.  Lesson learned.

The grill was already out, so I grilled Teryaki Chicken on Friday, and Saturday morning I made a country breakfast thing in the Dutch Oven, which was sort of like a frittata.  That came out well, and I think may have fooled our friends into thinking I know how to cook.  In reality, I have a secret tool which allows me to avoid most horrible mistakes and season things to perfection.  It’s called Eleanor.  Thus the peach cobbler contained ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon, which was far more than the recipe suggested.

Hoover Dam view Tillman BridgeOn Friday we took our friends over to Hoover Dam, since they’d never seen it.  The new Pat Tillman bridge is now in place, and so the thru traffic now flies high over the dam, but the traffic on the dam is really no better because of all the tourists.  We walked the dam, took some pictures, and then walked the new bridge (spectacular views) but fled fairly quickly to get away from the crowds.

As we’ve been traveling I’ve been noticing stupid camper tricks and meaning to document them. Friday morning we encountered a great one.  The guy next to us used a hammer drill (a.k.a. impact driver) to raise his stabilizer jacks.  Now, I use a cordless drill myself, which quickly winds up the stabilizers and makes a small amount of noise for a few seconds as it goes.

But an impact driver pounds the metal as it turns, and that creates a whole new level of excitement as it resonates.  Especially at 7:30 a.m.   Especially since his giant fifth wheel had eight stabilizers.  And they were big ones, so the noise went on for quite a while.  It was like someone had decided to jackhammer the sidewalk next to us.

The best part was an hour later, as he was about to climb into his truck.  He stopped and said to me, “I hope I didn’t bother you with the noise.”  Nah.  We like waking up to heavy construction sounds.

We headed out on Friday morning because our next destination was Valley of Fire State Park, about 60 miles north.  My research revealed that it was a beautiful place of red sandstone formations, it had a few campsites with water & electric, and it didn’t take reservations.  My conclusion:  get there early on Friday before the weekend crowd arrives, and hope to snag two spaces for the Airstreams. So at 9 a.m., we were off …


Tired again

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Yesterday, (Sunday of Labor Day weekend) we were 550 miles from home and needed to get a jump on our southward trek in order to make appointments set for Tuesday in Tucson.  But before we headed out this morning we took another crack at the Slickrock Foot trail because we’d been shut out the day before by thunderstorms.

We managed to cover the entire 2.4 mile trail in about 90 minutes, and it was well worth the effort.  We got some of the best views yet of the Needles rock formations that give this district of Canyonlands its name, and several dramatic overlooks into canyons near the Green River. Still, when we got back to the campsite we discovered we were late to depart, since checkout time for Squaw Flat is quite early at 10 a.m. Usually checkout is at noon.  Hustling everything together, we managed to clear out and be on the road about 15 minutes after getting back to the site.

On the way in or out of the Needles you will pass the Newspaper Rock State Historic Site.  There are actually several “newspaper rocks” in the southwest, including one at Canyon de Chelly that we’ve visited before.  They are simply large flat areas of sandstone covered with centuries of desert varnish and riddled with dozens of petroglyphs.  We’ve seen a lot of petroglyphs but these were still remarkable for their clarity and descriptiveness.  In some cases it’s anyone’s guess what a petroglyph means, while others are perfectly understandable as drawings of commonplace animals, events, and humans.  Take a closer look at the photo and decide for yourself what centuries of rock artists were trying to convey.

Other than that, our drive for the rest of the day was uneventful, the way you want things to be when you are hauling a trailer long distances.  We made a quick stop in Blanding to dump the tanks and refill the fresh water, and encountered some thunderstorms as we drove through the vast Navajo Nation in northwestern Arizona.  It was still raining when we pulled into the Bonito (Coconino National Forest) campground next to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument just north of Flagstaff AZ that evening.

This was to be our last night on the road, so we had let some supplies dwindle away, including milk and most fresh vegetables. Eleanor made a salad of what was left, and spaghetti with meatballs, and we settled in for the evening while the temperatures outside dropped into the low 50s.  I was thinking how novel it would be to need blankets on the bed at night for this one night, before returning to the desert heat on Monday.  And it was indeed a pleasantly chilly night.

But our plan to make Tucson on Monday was foiled.  We left early and were descending down the 6% grade about 50 miles south of Flagstaff when suddenly we began to hear a “thwap-thwap-thwap” noise.  That’s never a good sound.  Neither the trailer’s nor the Mercedes tire monitor reported any loss of air pressure, so I was fairly sure it wasn’t a blowout. Still, it had to be investigated immediately.  Traffic was heavy, but I managed to get the Airstream off to the breakdown lane within a half mile and from there Eleanor and I searched for causes.

We didn’t find anything. The Airstream was secure, the car looked perfect, and yet … upon driving away, the sound returned.  I took the next exit and found a dirt lot where we could search further.  Eventually we found the cause: a 1″ wide strip on the inner edge of the right rear tire of the Mercedes had neatly peeled off. In other words, we had a tread separation.

This is a sadly familiar situation.  We had numerous tread separations when we were running various brands of ST (Special Trailer) tires on the Airstream, but that problem was resolved when we switched to Michelin LTX Light Truck tires.  (They still look like new, by the way, with hardly any visible wear after 21,000 miles!)  But I hadn’t expected to suffer this type of failure on the Mercedes.

We’re running the factory-specified tires on the Merc, which are Goodyear Eagle 275/50 R20 RunOnFlats.  Our first set was replaced at 34,000 miles, which I was told is “pretty good wear” thanks to the highway miles we tend to cover.  The current set has 32,000 miles and I had already made some inquiries about replacements since I figured they had only about 2,000 miles left in them.  All of the tires have tread above the wear bar indicators, have been rotated regularly and kept at proper inflation, and are evenly worn, but the one that failed definitely has a little less tread than the others.  That doesn’t excuse the failure—it simply should not happen with usable tread still on the tires, even with the added load of towing. I’ll be looking for a different brand this time.

So let’s look at our situation:  (1)  Tread separation while towing and we have no spare tire (this car comes with Run Flats and no spare carrier).  (2) It’s Labor Day, so there are no open tire stores.  (3) We’re in a part of northern Arizona where there are few services and no alternate roads to the busy 75-MPH Interstate.  (4) Our car takes an odd size tire so a call to Roadside Assistance probably wouldn’t be helpful.  The tire will have to be ordered.  In short, we found ourselves in the “nightmare scenario” that made me hesitate when I first bought this car.

Although the tire was holding air, there was no way it was going to be safe for another 200 miles at Interstate speeds and in desert heat.  Our conclusion was to find a place to park for a night or two, and wait until a set of proper tires could be ordered in.  So we pulled up the Allstays app on the iPhone and found a nice RV park in nearby Camp Verde AZ, and gingerly towed the Airstream at reduced speeds another 16 miles down the Interstate to our safe haven.

My plan is to call the tire stores first thing tomorrow and order in what we need, with the hope of getting back on the road by Wednesday afternoon.  Prescott AZ is nearby, with plenty of choices, so I’ll be over there tomorrow once someone tells me they can get us five appropriate tires.  I say “five” because I have a spare Mercedes rim back at home, and one tire will be mounted on it.  The spare will go in the Airstream’s tire carrier, replacing the Airstream spare.  Since we switched to Michelin LTX tires on the Airstream two years ago (in other words, real tires instead of that ST-class junk the industry favors), we haven’t had a single puncture or failure, so I don’t mind not carrying a spare for the Airstream.  Besides, the Airstream can be towed on three wheels, and the car can’t.

And so our trip has been involuntarily extended.  Things could be worse.  We’ve got a friend to visit in Prescott.  I’m working on the Winter magazine from here, using the campground wi-fi, and we had a nice swim in the pool, and Eleanor is getting the laundry done.  When we finally do get home, we’ll be caught up on a few things, rather than coming home to a pile of work.  Other than having to reschedule appointments at home, this may turn out to be not a bad diversion.

Rain in the Canyonlands

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Camping at the Canyonlands Squaw Flat campground has been idyllic.  The air smells of Juniper and desert sage, and from our shady site amongst the red sandstone formations I can see little lizards scuttling around each morning, hunting silently for tiny insects. The campground has been dead quiet, and the weather has been just about perfect.

The ranger we met at the visitor center said that later in the day there would be a chance of thunderstorms, possibly featuring hail, but as late as 11 a.m. there was hardly a cloud in the sky.  Still, we planned a light day of hiking the shortest trails in the park, so we could take it easy and get back to shelter if a storm popped up.

The women’s bathroom at the visitor center had a unique color chart on the wall, entitled “How dehydrated are you?”  Eleanor and Emma were a little mystified by it at first, since it only featured shades of yellow.  Then they got it.  The men’s room has no such chart.

These days Emma has finally graduated from a tattered purple backpack that suited her when she was five, to a adult-sized pack that has such niceties as a hip belt, lots of adjustment points, pockets, and a place for a water bladder.  Zoe the stuffed cat, however, still comes along on every hike with her head poking out of a zippered compartment.  We are happy to maintain that tradition for as long as Emma likes.

Like a lot of the big western parks, Canyonlands Needles district is mostly backcountry, but you needn’t go far to see lots of interesting things.  Just a short walk from the roadside are “Roadside Ruin” featuring a granary from about 1200 A.D., and Cave Spring, which features a century-old cowboy camp and ancient pictographs.

The fatigue I’ve felt recently was still with me as we did these simple hikes, and the heat approaching upper 90s didn’t help.  I finally gave in to the temptation that had been dogging me all week, and took a siesta after lunch, during the peak of the afternoon heat.  Then we attempted a longer hike, Slickrock Foot, which features four viewpoints along a 2.4 loop trail.  But as we began the hike a thunderstorm began to form to the southwest and menace us with flashes of lightning in the distance.  If it came our way, I didn’t relish the idea of being caught out on slickrock, entirely exposed and a mile or more from the car.  After going less than 1/4 mile, we decided to abandon this hike for another time.

That storm ultimately missed us, but it was a good idea to get back to the Airstream to secure the vent fans and awning in case another storm developed.  To stay close to home, we took the Squaw Flat hike that left right from the “B” side of the campground (about 500 feet from our campsite).

This hike crosses plenty of the famous Utah slickrock and also takes you through a variety of other terrain:  narrow crevices, under rock overhangs, through shallow washes lined with trees, and culminating with a steel rope handrail up a steep massif of red sandstone.  It packs a lot into a mere two miles.  I would have enjoyed it more if I didn’t have to keep an eye on the quickly-moving rainstorms that were passing by.

That evening during dinner one of the storms finally targeted us.  It was one of those moments when you are reminded of why you have an Airstream.  Our neighbors, nice folks with a couple of small boys, were forced to quickly clear their picnic table and huddle in their tent as the heaviest rain began.  We just kept on eating dinner, watching the tumultuous rain out the window and listening to the rolling thunder echo through the canyons.

As the rain cleared I could hear a newly-formed stream rushing by the back of our campsite.  A miniature flash flood had occurred in one of the little washes, and a couple of small waterfalls were pouring off the slickrock.  This brought out all the children, who reveled and splashed in the water for a few minutes until the waterfalls dwindled to drips and the stream reverted to a sandy wash.

In a place where only eight or nine inches of water fall annually, this little storm was a significant event. The soil was penetrated to only about 1/2” and the water vanished like a puff of smoke, but it was a life-giving event for every plant and animal in the area.  For us larger mammals, it brought lovely cool evening temperatures for our last night in Canyonlands.

No reservations

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

As I mentioned in the previous blog, we left Dinosaur CO with no firm plan of where we were going to spend the next night.  This is not unusual for us, as we tend not to make reservations as we travel.  In this part of the country there are lots of boondocky BLM campgrounds that will serve for a night’s stay without much fear of the campgrounds filling up.

That is, under normal circumstances.  Unfortunately this is Labor Day weekend, a fact that I had overlooked when initially sketching out our rough travel plan a few weeks ago.  Labor Day, like Memorial Day, is one of the weekends of the year that always causes us problems, because everyone who owns an RV comes out and fills every national, state, county, and BLM campground for three days.

Added to that was the factor of climate.  We are usually heading back from New England around this time of year, and so air conditioning is less of a requirement than it is in the desert southwest.  At Dinosaur we were encountering temperatures in the mid-90s by day, with lots of sun, and as we worked our way down the border of Utah and Colorado it wasn’t going to get any cooler.  In this part of the country, altitude means a lot more than latitude, and we were definitely going down by both measures, so the primitive BLM sites would mean a warm evening.

Our drive down through western Colorado was filled with bucolic rolling scenery.  I had put all faith in Garminita, which is always a bad idea.  She chosen Rt 139 in Colorado, using her usual doctrine of “quickest” possible route, which in this case took us over an unsigned pass called Douglas.  Scenic and direct, yes.  My only tip that things were about to get interesting was a gate at the beginning of the climb, which the road crews use to close the road in winter, and a drop in speed limit from 45 to 25.  There were no signs indicating that a steep grade was ahead.

Well, the Mercedes has not yet met the grade it can’t climb with 7,500 pounds of Airstream attached.  It doesn’t climb quickly, but it always gets there.  In this case, we estimated Douglas to be about a 10% grade on the way up (heading south) and a 10-12% grade going down, with a peak elevation of 8,200 feet.  It easily was the steepest road we’ve ever descended, and equal to the dreaded Teton Pass (10%) between Jackson Hole WY and Idaho.  The only steeper one I’ve seen is the road into Tonto Natural Bridge State Park (AZ) at 14% and we didn’t take the Airstream down that.

We climbed and descended successfully, using second gear much of the time for engine braking on the way down, and managed to complete Douglas Pass without overheating, needing to turn off the air conditioner, or smoking the brakes.  Still, it would have been nice to have had a sign beforehand warning of the steep grade.

After this, while on Interstate 70 from Colorado to Utah, we began discussing our options for an overnight stop.  From a distance perspective, our ideal stop would be somewhere south of Moab.  That would allow us to pull in around 6 p.m.

We had our eyes on Canyonlands National Park’s “Needles District,” which we’ve never visited before.  But being the holiday weekend, it was iffy whether we’d get in there.  The National Park campground, Squaw Flat, is not very large and is entirely first-come, first-camped.  Worse, the entry road from Rt 191, which is the main highway heading south from Moab, is 34 miles long, so just taking a peek to see if spaces were available would take nearly an hour.

My second choice was Navajo National Monument in Arizona, but that would require us to drive over 300 miles and arrive around 8 p.m.  Hovenweep National Monument would be a slight detour from our route (about 20 miles) but like Navajo, the campground rarely fills because of its remote location, so we weren’t in danger of a shut-out.

We shelved the decision for a while and opted to take a scenic route from I-70 in Utah down to Moab, namely Rt 128.  We had no idea what a great decision this was until we got about 15 miles into it.  At that point, the road begins to follow the Green River through astonishing red sandstone canyons.  It is—and I say this as a guy who has driven a lot of scenic roads in the past few years—among the top ten most scenic drives we’ve ever done.  Absolutely spectacular.

Somewhere in this drive we stopped by the river to take a break.  I was opening the screen door to step out of the Airstream when a gust of wind caught the unlatched main door and slammed it against three of my fingers.  Ouch.  After icing the fingers for a few minutes I resolved to ensure that the door is always latched when open.  The throbbing fingers at least had the effect of keeping me wide awake for the rest of the drive.

Along this road are numerous BLM campgrounds, all of which seemed about 3/4 full but I wasn’t ready to stop driving quite yet and the outside temperature was hovering in the low 90s.  We pressed on through Moab (setting a new record for highest fuel price paid in our travels: $4.29 per gallon for diesel), down past a half dozen commercial campgrounds, Wilson Arch and the famous Hole In The Wall tourist trap, and then we faced the decision point, where Rt 211 heads west toward the Needles District of Canyonlands.

What to do?  If we took the turn we’d be facing a one way trip of 34 miles and no guarantee of a campsite.  From prior research we knew that there were three campgrounds down the road:  Squaw Flat (no hookups but the most appealing site to us for its in-park location), a commercial operation just outside the park entrance (unappealing sites but at least some hookups), and a BLM site called Hamburger Rock about five miles from the park entrance (no hookups).

A park ranger was sitting in his truck at the turnoff to Rt 211, so Eleanor checked with him and he said there were “probably” two open sites at Squaw Flat.  Good enough for us.  Nearly an hour later, we arrived at the entrance to Canyonlands and found a few empty sites and a handful of white-box Class C rentals being driven by Europeans on vacation. They were looping around the campground like it was a game of musical chairs, trying to choose a campsite.

Being fussy about which campsite you get is not a good idea when there are four campers looking at three campsites on the Friday of Labor Day weekend.  You don’t hesitate in a moment like this.  Amazingly, our luck held.  We snagged a really fantastic site before the musical chairs game ended, and a few minutes after that the campground was full.

This is a beautiful spot.  $15 per night, no water, no electric, no dump station, but it’s the scenery, not the services, that you’re paying for. Imagine a place right out of a Wiley Coyote/Roadrunner cartoon, with unlikely red sandstone formations, vibrant blue skies, twisted trees, and deep canyons.  The ranger talk we attended last night was held beneath a natural rock overhang.  Our campsite is bordered by trees and great boulders that Emma can climb.

We’re reasonably sheltered from both morning and evening light, so hopefully it won’t get terribly hot in the Airstream but we’ll still get midday light for the solar panels.  Not that we’ll be using a lot of power.  There is no usable cell signal out here, and no wifi at the visitor center.  No need to charge the laptops, phones, or iPad.  We are in a very remote and quiet place, perfect for Labor Day weekend in my opinion.

Dinosaur National Monument

Friday, August 31st, 2012

After our long drive across Colorado it was nice to discover the peaceful setting of Dinosaur National Monument’s Green River campground.  I could have spent the day just hanging out there in the Airstream, despite the heat, but we had come to Dinosaur to explore and had budgeted only a couple of days to do it.  So we piled into the car in the morning with all our gear for hikes and photography and started our day at the new visitor center.

We had first planned to visit Dinosaur when we were full-timing back in 2006.  Coincidentally, that was the year the visitor center began to approach total collapse, and the park service closed it.  (The previous visitor center was built by the famous Fossil Quarry, and unfortunately began to disintegrate due to unsuitable soils beneath.)  For this reason we shelved Dinosaur for years, waiting for the new visitor center to be built, and finally last October it was opened.  So this visit has been a long time coming.

After all these I wasn’t disappointed.  Every point of this enormous park is beautiful, and the Fossil Quarry is fantastic to see. It’s hard to believe that all those amazing fossils concentrated into one small area, are real.  We chose to take the ranger-led hike along the nearby trails, which was also well worth the 90 minutes spent hiking in the heat.  Weather forecasts we had checked before coming were misleading; temps have been in the low 90s and so the only other people on the ranger-led hike were from Phoenix.

Even for us, the heat was enervating.  I couldn’t put my finger on why, but after just two miles of walking Eleanor and I had no interest in hiking any more.  That’s odd, for us, but we just decided to go with it and spend the rest of the afternoon auto-touring.  First Emma got her Junior Ranger badge at the visitor center (note the sweat marks on her shirt from her backpack), and then we drove out to Split Mountain where the rafting trips down the Green River terminate, and the Jessie Morris cabin, and found some petroglyphs here and there.

By late afternoon we were fading fast.  Back at the campground I toyed with the idea of jumping into the Green River to cool off, but it was so silty I’d have to shower afterward.  So we spent the rest of the afternoon in the Airstream with all of the fans running, taking cool showers and planning our next moves.

The fatigue never really let up.  I think it’s a form of post-traumatic reaction.  The next day we had a slow start, and after relocating the Airstream to the town of Dinosaur (about 25 miles east, much closer to the Canyon entrance to the park), none of us were in a hurry to go exploring.  We took a drive up the Harpers Corner Road, stopped for photos and dramatic vistas at a few points, but as the day wore on I just got less interested in exploring and thinking wistfully of laying in the Airstream for a nap.  I started to worry about having caught a virus, but nothing came of it.  In retrospect, we probably should have spent one of our vacation days doing nothing but reading books and napping.  The Airstream is a good place for that.

We have spent a lot of time over the past few years in remote western national parks, and nearly all of that time has been enjoyable.  One challenge we perennially face is food.  Eleanor always packs the Airstream with massive quantities of ingredients, but she’s not big on “convenience” foods if she thinks they aren’t healthy, and most of her ingredients require fresh produce and other perishable items in order to be prepared.  Knowing that we are going to be remote locations she pre-cooks and freezes some meals, but the freezer space is very limited in the Airstream and of course I always need a half-gallon of ice cream in there.  So we are usually looking for a decent grocery store or farmer’s market every three or four days.  That’s a challenge in a place like this.

Of course, if you can’t find a grocery store with fresh produce, you probably also don’t have a lot of good restaurant options.  That’s the position we found ourselves in the last two nights, plus we were tired.  The first night Eleanor managed to put together a smorgasbord, and the second night we drove 20 miles down to the oil field town of Rangeley to find an Italian restaurant.  We were lucky it was only 20 miles.  In other parks like Big Bend, Yellowstone, Great Basin, Navajo, Hovenweep, etc., the drive could easily be 50 miles or more.

Today’s plan is to head toward home base, traveling down the Utah/Colorado border toward the Four Corners region.  Today I awoke feeling fairly well rested so a long tow will be easy to do.  Of course, Labor Day weekend is upon us, so we’ll have to pick our stops carefully.  We have a few ideas for tonight’s stop but ultimately it will come down to happenstance.  It should be an interesting day.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine