Dinosaur National Monument

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.

Rt 40, Colorado

It was a late start for us yesterday morning; between the mouse hunt and general post-fandango fatigue we ended up not awakening until well after 9 a.m.  Then Eleanor decided to make scrambled eggs with a little of the leftover gravlax that she made in her “no cook” demonstration.  All told, it was nearly noon when we were finally hitched up and ready to move.

After looking at the calendar we decided it would be better to cut short our visit to the Grand Lake area and move onward to Dinosaur National Monument, about 200 miles west.  First of course we had to go to the RMNP visitor center to see the rangers so Emma could get her Junior Ranger badge, which Eleanor estimates is number 68.  (She already has one from the east side of RMNP; now she has one from the west side.)

The drive west from Granby CO on Route 40 is another one of the great scenic opportunities of Colorado.  For a while, west of Hot Sulphur Springs, the road winds down a steep and narrow canyon with a river and railway.  With the white cumulus popping up overhead, and gray streaks of virga in the sky, it was a fantastic visual experience.

Later the clouds turned to bands of rain, which surrounded us and lent even more drama to the sky.  We stopped at Rabbit Ears Pass for a roadside lunch (9,500 feet elevation), and then, now west of the Rockies, gradually descended for a few hours all the way back into the desert.

Our arrival at Dinosaur National Monument was perfect to catch the setting sun lighting up the park in fiery orange.   A few miles past the visitor center (closed when we arrived at nearly 7 p.m.) we came to our destination: Green River campground.  This is a very pleasant place right at the banks of the Green River, with lots of large trees for shade and paved level campsites.  However, it has no hookups, which is probably part of the reason it never fills.  We debated a few minutes whether we wanted shade for coolness during the day, or sun for solar power.  We ended up with site #59, which offers sun most of the day and shade in the late afternoon.  Hopefully this will be a good compromise, as the temperature when we arrived was about 91 degrees.

I’m surprised to have a weak but usable cell phone signal here.  We are in a valley, at least 7 miles from the highway and any semblance of a town.  I had expected to go fully on vacation for a couple of days.  The campground has a payphone, connected by satellite, which is usually a tip-off that cellular signals do not penetrate.  But since I can make contact with the outside world, I’ll at least check email once a day and try to post a blog.

Our mouse may have bailed out.  There’s no sign of him today, despite Eleanor deliberately leaving out a few champagne grapes as temptation.  He could not had have an enjoyable trip across Colorado, since Route 40 has plenty of bumps & rolls.  In our experience, mice don’t like towing.  Tonight we may have to try leaving out a little chocolate, just to be sure.  He definitely preferred Special Dark over the Mr. Goodbar.

The comments keep coming in about Alumafandango. Apparently my public venting about the staff experience encouraged attendees to offer their point of view, and they have been uniformly positive. I got a call from Joe P yesterday, signing up for Alumafiesta in Tucson, and he said that he was signing up for Tucson specifically because he’d had such a great time in Lakeside.  Many other people emailed to say they had a wonderful time too.  I have to remember the duck theory:  Remain placid above the water, and beneath the water keep paddling furiously.

During our drive along Route 40, Eleanor and I were talking about this, and about some of our favorite attendees.  There were some people who really embraced the philosophy of the Wally Byam way of Airstreaming, and among those were the Finnesgards.  Merlin, Maxine, Joe and Beverly came in two Airstreams parked side by side at Alumafandango, and they were such wonderful people that I want to give them a little “shout out” from the blog.  Being Minnesotans, they are people who take care of themselves.

One of their group is on oxygen, and they are all seniors, so you might think that they had justification to really complain when the power went out on the first two hot days of the event.  But far from it.  Those Finnesgards were endlessly cheerful.  I never saw them without a smile on their faces, and they went out of their way to tell us what a great time they were having.  They knew that whatever happened, they had their Airstreams, which meant they had everything they needed, and so why complain?  That’s how Wally would have done it.  Thanks for coming.

Today our plan is to explore this side of Dinosaur National Monument, with a series of small hikes and perhaps a Ranger talk.  This is a big park, so tomorrow we’ll relocate the Airstream nearer to the Canyon area (25+ miles away) and explore over there next.

Grand Lake, CO

For our attendees, departing Alumapalooza or Alumafandango is a sad moment, saying goodbye to friends new & old.  But for us organizers, it’s always a great feeling to be pulling away from five days of intensive work, and just winding down.  We spent our Sunday evening in the overflow lot of a nearby RV park, cleaning up the accumulated dust and re-organizing the Airstream.  For us it’s a time to take long showers, eat a leisurely dinner, and get a good night’s sleep.  So we did all of that and then we hitched up for points unknown.

Our intended goal was Dinosaur National Monument, 370 miles away, but we quickly began to be tempted by the many mining towns and natural sites of Colorado, and before long we detoured the scenic way up Rt 40.  This route winds north from I-70 through some fantastic mountain views, all the way up to Berthoud Pass at 11,314 feet.  Halfway up we found we could roll down the windows and open the sunroof to let the 64 degree air chill a week of Denver heat from our bodies and psyches.

Less than a hundred miles from Lakeside, we ended up in the Arapaho National Recreation Area near the town of Grand Lake, CO.  We’re set up at Stillwater campground, a beautiful site atop a bluff that overlooks Lake Granby and the mountains to our east.

Everything here is reserved for the Labor Day weekend, but we are only staying for one night.  We got here early enough on Monday that we had time to go to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) and check out the historic Grand Lake Lodge, then the RMNP visitor center, then tour the historic Holzwarth dude ranch, and walk downtown Grand Lake.  We got caught by a torrential thunderstorm while walking the boardwalks of Grand Lake, and had to take refuge for a while before I finally ran two blocks through the rain to get the car.  It was a great & full day, and now the dust from Lakeside (both literal and psychological) is washed off.

Our plan today was to do a pair of hikes in the RMNP but we woke late.  We’re still catching up on sleep.  Also, a mouse came into the trailer last night to eat my stash of Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate bars (we’d left them on the counter in a plastic bag), and we heard his attempts to drag an entire mini-bar away for a private nosh.  So around 5:30 a.m. Eleanor and I were awake to secure all the goodies.  Eleanor spotted the culprit, a chocolate-colored beast himself, with large “cute” eyes, before he disappeared somewhere in the kitchen.  He will abandon ship later today when we start towing; they always do.

Given that we’ve blown half the day already, and with an eye to the fact that Labor Day is this weekend (so many popular campgrounds will be full) we’ve decided to move onward to Dinosaur today.  We’ll spend a few days there and then work down through Utah back to home by Sunday or Monday.  Along this route are many lesser-known campsites that don’t take reservations and rarely fill (Dinosaur’s Green River camp, Hovenweep, Navajo, etc) so we’ll follow the path less traveled and have a nice flexible weekend.

Fortunately, everything got better

I  promised you that the second half of the story would be better than the first, so hopefully you can read this blog entry without wincing.

When we left off, things were finally starting to turn in our favor.  By Thursday we had the electrical problems mostly worked out, water was extending to all of the campground, most of the trailers were parked, and our seminars were purring along.  But we weren’t in the clear by any measure.  One of the legs of my 30-amp power cord had melted (due to corrosion and heavy use in Tucson) which caused it to fuse to the surge protector device and melt part of it as well.  This meant we could not connect to the power at all.  Adam went out to Camping World and bought a new pair of plug ends, so I could fix the cords while working registration in the Event Trailer.  The borrowed Caravel that Brett G and Lisa were using had a plumbing problem that caused their black tank to fill up with shower water, and they could not get 30-amp power all week (due to their location).  Their refrigerator didn’t work either, so they carted their groceries over to a nearby display trailer and used its refrigerator instead.

Meanwhile, Lucy the bathroom trailer was functional but didn’t have any toilet paper, soap, towels, or hand sanitizer.  We managed to get some TP in there but I don’t know if the rest of the supplies ever arrived.  (I never had time to go look.)  Our dump station still wasn’t done, and so gray water was undoubtedly being disposed by “creative” means.  The vendors in the Showcase area were still operating on very limited electricity, and the Event Trailer itself (our headquarters and home of several laptops and all our walkie-talkie chargers) had no power at all.  Periodically we’d steal the cord from Chris Cooper’s trailer to recharge all our stuff.  He was nearby selling iPad cleaners, and was very good natured about sharing the power.

Amidst all this we had many heroes.  From Timeless Travel Trailers, Brett Hall was literally tireless.  The man never seemed to sleep.  He stayed calm throughout every mishap and always had a plan to overcome.  He also ran fantastic historical tours of Lakeside Amusement Park on Wednesday and Friday that helped people appreciate the unique setting we were in.  From his team, Paul stood out as an incredible worker, always with a good attitude and quick to solve a problem.  Frank, Dick, and John were there most of the week too, running the Bobcat and fixing the power—all great guys who put in a lot of hours to get our sites ready. Lori G, who helped us at the last two Alumapaloozas, helped again with parking and running errands, including fetching pizza for all the staff on Tuesday.

Scott V was there every day to help with parking despite the sun and heat, and his wife Denise came in as well to staff the Event Trailer when the rest of us were running around crazy.  Mary and Kyle helped us tremendously just by bringing their daughter Kathryn, because Katheryn and Emma stuck together the entire week and mostly kept themselves entertained. The two sleep-overs were really helpful too.  Mary pitched in at registration for a couple of days, even through she was a paying participant in the event.  Kevin and Laura volunteered their extremely cool hexcopter to shoot aerial video and the photo you see above.

So if it all worked, it was not because of our core team (Rich/Brett/Eleanor/Lisa) but because of the dozen or so people who jumped in and worked overtime to do their very best.  And we’re incredibly grateful.

Now, all of this narrative has been solely my perspective.  I was in the trenches, and rarely got a chance to stick my head up and find out what was really happening.  As it turned out, the event wasn’t half the disaster that I thought it was.  Most of our attendees were very understanding of the glitches and appreciative of the program we’d put together for them.  We had tours of Lakeside and Timeless, many seminars, vendors, contests (Aluminum Chef, Backup Derby), dozens of door prizes, some great entertainment, Happy Hours, Open Grill on three nights, Swap Meet, Blogger’s Roundtable, and Luke Bernander’s one-of-a-kind “BarStream” (a.k.a. the “rat trailer”) was hosting evening parties until midnight with free New Belgium beer and popcorn).  I gradually began to notice that people were actually having a lot of fun.  It was just us workers who thought everything was a disaster.

To some extent, this happens at every first-time event.  We set a high standard for ourselves and our events.  Our goals are to keep everyone preoccupied with fun things, and have lots of surprises (in this case: free beer, popcorn, Hi-Chew candy), and have everything work smoothly.  Well, nothing ever goes perfectly smoothly the first time, but nonetheless by Friday I was being inundated by people saying that they were really enjoying what we’d put together.  And when the park opened on Friday night, and everyone saw all the gorgeous lights and rode the rides, they started saying, “I get it now.”  They could see why we went through the trouble to build a campground right on the edge of Lakeside Amusement Park.  It started to get magical.

In fact, things were running so smoothly by Friday that we all took a break for the evening and rode the rides too.  Eleanor and I started with the Ferris Wheel, then the Cyclone roller coaster  (the best ride in the park), the Wild Chipmunk, Merry-Go-Round, and the Spider.  I joined Adam, Susan, Brett and Lisa for a race in the little “Sports Cars” that go putt-putt around a track, and then the bumper cars (called “AutoSkooter”).  We rode until nearly 11 p.m. and then collapsed into the Airstream, wiped out by five days of sleep deprivation.  Emma and Kathryn rode the Spider eight times.

There were some other hassles that occurred as late as Saturday afternoon, but overall we felt like we’d managed to work around all the problems and everyone I talked to said they had felt it was a marvelous week.  Most of them said they’d like to come back, despite everything.  I don’t know if that will happen yet.  We are going to look for a number of important improvements before we commit to a repeat, including things like a grass surface and our own entry gate and tent. A few people even signed up on the spot for Alumafiesta in Tucson (Feb 5-10, 2013), so I guess they were really pleased.

After dinner (which was good and ran smoothly, thank goodness), I spent Saturday evening unwinding with some new and old friends among the bloggers.  They have documented Alumafandango far better than I could, with photos and video, so I encourage you to read their version of events.

Riveted
Mali Mish
Channel Surfing With Gas

Normally I would have blogged this event daily, but I think you can appreciate why I was silent all week.  There just wasn’t enough time for anything, including photos. I have virtually no pictures of my own.  But now that it is over, and we have caught up on sleep, I’m able to reflect on everything and read the comments of those who were there.  The horrible week I had is starting to look not quite so bad.  We survived.  We conquered.  We learned a lot.  And we’re still married.  Overall, it was a success.

Now for a little vacation.  We’re heading out today for points west.   Dinosaur National Monument is at the top of our list.  After that, we’ll meander down through Utah.

Alumafandango post-mortem

*sigh*  Like most stories, it all turned out well in the end. But I’ve just had a week I’d rather not repeat.

You might have detected some hints of trepidation in my pre-event posts.  Over the past few months the amusement park we’d selected had suffered from a serious thunderstorm that washed away much of the area where we’d planned to camp.  The management of the park didn’t give the site crew access until the event date was imminent, and that—more than anything else—put us squarely behind the eight-ball.

The site work that was started on Saturday continued through the weekend.  I made a short movie documenting some of what happened, because it was just unbelievable.  The Caterpillar scrapers hauled dirt all weekend and into Monday, moving hundreds of cubic yards.  On Sunday a water leak sprang up from the ground (an old subsurface pipe leak probably forced to the surface by the 55-ton weight of the machines), and Brett Hall spent much of the day digging with a backhoe to find it.  Sunday night the leak became a 15-foot fountain, and water to much of the park had to be shut off.

On Sunday we also found out that repair work to the Merry-Go-Round would prevent us from running the QR Code Hunt through the park, so I quickly revised the Survival Guide and Brett picked up the corrected copies at the nearest Staples.  The we learned that the blackout curtains we had expected for the Royal Grove pavilion, where we were to hold all of our seminars, weren’t going to arrive.  Our stage turned out to be a no-show too.  Brett G got busy on his phone and managed to arrange new stuff within a few hours. This was typical; we kept finding things weren’t as we had expected, and we just had to jump on every problem and find a solution as quickly as possible.

Monday the guys were still building the 30-amp power system while Brett H continued to dig with the backhoe.  Some handwritten records from fifty years ago were located, but they might have just as well been hieroglyphics.  Our excavation turned up a maze of undocumented water lines, sewer lines, valves, and telephone lines.  Brett G and I ended up in the five-foot deep pit at one point, digging with a shovel to uncover a valve and a series of ridiculous pipe connections.  Then, since the Timeless Travel Trailer guys were all busy working on the site, Brett and I hitched up all the display trailers to my car and towed them, one by one, into their display spaces.  You should have seen me moving the 40-foot “Western Pacific” railway crew Airstream.  It’s worth about $170,000 and I had to maneuver it very carefully into a space next to a telephone pole, guy wire, and a metal pipe railing, without denting anything.  I pity the guy who has to get it out of there.

Meanwhile, sitework continued in the southern park of our camping area, and the electricians continued to hustle.  I bailed out of the site at about 9:30 pm, sunburnt and exhausted, but some of the Timeless guys worked until well past 1:30 a.m. and got back at it by 6:30 a.m. the same morning.

Tuesday dawned and we still had no water, no power, and our attendees began to arrive.  We brought our Airstream over early in the morning and came face to face with the hideous reality that nothing was ready. Parking was a total nightmare.  The west gate we had planned to use was unavailable because construction at the Wal-Mart next door was ongoing.  We had to post a person all day, every day, at the published arrival location to redirect trailers to the main entrance of the park (halfway around the city block).  Lisa and Eleanor shared this job.   Worse, we had been told over the weekend that the main gate would be locked nightly at 10 p.m., and anyone who was on the outside after that would just be out of luck.

Because we had no water to the campsites and no idea when we’d have water, we set up a “water fill” location and stopped everyone who didn’t arrive with full water tanks there, so they could fill up before being parked.  Then we discovered that the site map we’d been provided with was drastically inaccurate, and in fact the net campground space would accommodate only about 2/3 of the trailers we had planned.  So we quickly came up with a plan for a new camping space west of the abandoned racetrack, although we had not the slightest clue yet how we were going to get power to them.

The bathroom trailer, named “Lucy,” was on site but nobody had time to connect her to the sewer tanks, so she was unusable.  We had a Port-A-Potty brought in as an emergency backup.  Likewise, the dump station was not ready, so anyone who showed up with full black/gray water holding tanks had to leave and dump elsewhere, but fortunately only one trailer had that problem.

All of this had us hopping around like kernels in a popper. It was in the upper 80s and we were doused in sweat, guzzling bottled water whenever we could.  We set up the pavilion, checked in dozens of guests, answered endless questions about the lack of utilities, parked trailers, and even dealt with an upset dentist (he didn’t like the trailers lining up in front of his storefront office).  The event trailer still wasn’t on site, so registration was set up in the pavilion instead. I got chewed out badly by a woman who was extremely upset about our state of confusion.  She demanded a refund, which I agreed to give her if she chose to leave.  She walked away without saying anything else, and I later discovered she wasn’t even registered, only her husband was!

Our ice cream social ran out of ice cream in 15 minutes because the supplier brought 2 gallons instead of the 5 gallons we had requested.  Nothing seemed to be going right, and it continued well into the evening.  Our 4 p.m. “Happy Hour” was probably the least happy hour I’ve spent in years, since Brett and I could do little more than stand there before a hot and irritated crowd and make weak apologies for the lack of 30-amp power to run their air conditioners.  Showing the 3-minute movie of the weekend’s dirt work helped people appreciate the situation a little, and I asked everyone to think of “how Wally would do it,” so that they’d keep perspective.  I think almost everyone got it, and they were much more patient with the situation than we probably deserved.

I collapsed into bed that night feeling like I had a total disaster on my hand.  One or two participants were already calling it “Alumafiasco,” although fortunately I didn’t know this at the time.  We were all already sleep-deprived from the crazy weekend, and I think if I’d heard that I might have been tempted to just go home.  I awoke at 4 a.m. from the sheer anxiety and sat at the dinette to write up a list of emergency measures we had to take to save our event.  Brett and I compared notes the next day and found we’d both been kicking ourselves for everything that had gone wrong.  Text messages were flying around day and night between us and Brett Hall, trying to keep after everything.

Wednesday morning the excavators were chasing another leak at the entrance to the park.  A commercial plumbing crew was on the job now, but they couldn’t find the leak.  Now water was shut off to the entire park, including our backup water fill.  We discussed bringing in a water truck if they couldn’t fix it by Thursday.  But the good news was that the 30-amp power was finally ready, so we flipped the switch Wednesday afternoon to the delight of most.

I say “most” because the power promptly fried the converters of four trailers.  It turned out that one of three legs coming from the transformer was not working right, and gave those trailers a dose of 208 volts.  The power went off again for everyone, and we dispatched electricians to get on the problem again.  So our second day came and went with only a few hours of usable power.  Timeless Travel Trailers sent Paul—one of the big heros of the week—to meet with each affected owner and replace their power converters with upgraded units with 3-stage charging, at no cost to the owners of course.  They also ended up replacing a microwave oven too.

I had a seminar to deliver in the midst of all this, which went well.  But our Happy Hour that afternoon wasn’t much better than Tuesday’s, and now we had at least four people whose trailers had burned out converters to boot. Things seemed to be getting worse.  One trailer pulled out, and I was afraid things were about to get ugly, so we begged for more forgiveness and, behind the scenes, continued chasing down problems and shooting off increasingly tense text messages to the poor guys who were killing themselves trying to get everything fixed.

At the end of Wednesday Brett & I decided we needed to make a bold gesture to the people who had paid for 30-amp power and not gotten it.  We ended up writing 21 pro-rated refund checks and hand-delivering them to all those people who had arrived Tuesday or Wednesday.  This helped ameliorate some feelings and we started to get compliments from people who noticed how hard everyone was trying to make things right.

The 30-amp power seemed fixed by Wednesday night, but on Thursday afternoon I noticed only 110 volts at my trailer and a distinct smell coming from the campground’s main transformer, which soon turned to smoke.  Off went the power  again.  A new transformer connection was made and a few hours later we were able to announce reliable power again.  This time it stayed on.

Later on Thursday the water was finally turned back on and we managed to run water to about half the campsites.  Word spread and soon everyone began putting hoses out.  By that evening most trailers had water, which was very welcome to a few who were running low.  This was our day to run tours to Timeless too, so many of their guys were back at the shop, and we were able to slow down and breathe a little while the shuttle bus did the work for the day.  Things seemed to be finally going our way.  Of course, we still had about 20 trailers to park in the heat, with minimal staff, and we had the Aluminum Chef contest to run, so it wasn’t exactly a vacation.  But since Eleanor, Brett, and I were judges for the Aluminum Chef entries, at least it was a picnic.

I’ll tell the rest of the story in tomorrow’s blog entry.  Trust me, it does end happily.