Chasing 72 degrees

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

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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

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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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

 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.

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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.