Exploring America’s National Parks

Before I continue with the next post on our trip through Utah, I have to announce something I’m pretty excited about. My next book will be coming out soon—and it’s a topic that is particularly special to me: exploring America’s National Parks.

This book is the culmination of 14 years of working with Bert Gildart, who has been contributing to Airstream Life magazine continuously since 2004. Bert is known for his romantic and inspirational articles about national parks and other American destinations, and for his incredible photography (especially wildlife photography). He also happens to be the only person to contribute to every issue since the magazine began in 2004, other than me.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that my family has visited a lot of national parks over the years. Last time I counted we’d been to over 140 of them, so I’ve got a lot of advice to share. Visiting the parks has been an obsession that started even before we had an Airstream, and over 20 years later we’re still actively seeking out more every time we get in the Airstream. (Flaming Gorge Nat’l Rec Area, in recent posts, is an example.)

National_Parks_book_front_cover For a long time Bert and I have talked about writing a book together, but it was only a couple of years ago that we got serious about it. We decided to write from two perspectives: Bert’s warm & fuzzy style of travel essays about a few selected national parks, and my practical style of “here’s how you do it.” Because we are very different writers, we hoped the contrast would give you a better understanding than any single writer could.

The book is called EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks From Your RV.  We used the term “RV” instead of Airstream because the book can be useful to any RV traveler, but just between you and me, you’ll find photos of Airstreams almost exclusively on the pages.

This is book I’ve wanted to write for many years. I used to do a slide show about visiting America’s National Parks at rallies, and every time I did it the room was always packed full, and people asked lots of good questions. It seems that lots of Airstreamers have figured out that the best of America is tucked away in the national park system—and they want to share in the joy of exploring it.

The book is in layout right now, so I don’t have a final page count but I think it will run about 150-180 pages. [UPDATE: final page count is 184 pages!] We’re going nuts with photos, so it’s extensively illustrated. I’ve put some thumbnails of the first few pages below, just to give you the idea.

Like my other books, I’m going to offer Airstreamers an advance purchase deal.  The book will be shipping in late December 2018 for $29.95,  but if you reserve a copy before December 15 you’ll save $11.95 per copy.  Click here for more info on that.

Like I said, I’m super excited about this. I hope a lot of you will benefit from this book and get going on your own national park adventures. They’re the greatest bargain in America and, in my opinion, the ultimate “bucket list”.

EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks With Your RV, by Bert Gildart and Rich Luhr, 184 pages, softcover, 10 3/4″ x 10 3/4″ Collectors book format. Available in the Airstream Life Store and Amazon.com in December 2018.

Salt Lake City, UT

In 15 years of extensive Airstream travel, it is amazing that we never managed to get to Salt Lake City, Utah.

It wasn’t for lack of interest. Our Airstream friend Jim had been telling us for years that we needed to come to SLC, but it was never quite on our route. Salt Lake City is an easy stop if you are heading east or west on I-80, but we always took Bugs Bunny’s famous “left turn at Albuquerque” (or Denver or Flagstaff) and missed it. The few times we were headed further west we tended to go north and end up in Washington state.

This time I made it a goal. SLC still wasn’t “on the way” but after all that rushing through the midwest we had earned some slow & meandering travel, so after Flaming Gorge we headed northwest instead of the obvious southbound route home.

Jim had very kindly offered his driveway in central SLC (a 10 minute walk from downtown), which was very appealing. I always treat driveway camping offers with a little healthy skepticism because it’s fairly common for people to not appreciate how difficult it can be to maneuver a 30-foot trailer into a driveway. The homeowner’s car, truck, and boat may get in there easily, but things change when you are in a rig that measures 54 feet long and 8.5 feet wide.

I did my usual vetting of the site, using Google satellite images, and it looked marginal but worth a shot. Unfortunately a satellite image doesn’t tell the whole story: when we arrived there was heavy rush hour traffic even in the residential side streets, and lots of cars parked along the street that reduced our turning area by a crucial 6-7 feet. We took a few stabs at it with Eleanor standing outside holding a walkie-talkie to guide me and stop traffic (massively annoying local commuters in the process) but after a few attempts to back the Airstream in, it became obvious it just wasn’t going to work.  I called it quits after digging some ruts in Jim’s front landscaping and “trimming” a bunch of tall flowers near his mailbox.

I try to always have a backup plan for situations like this, and so we already knew there was a decent KOA near downtown. All we had to do was navigate downtown rush-hour traffic with a big trailer … which can be incredibly stressful but as always we survived and I’m sure the locals that I traumatized while changing lanes in their faces with a giant slab of aluminum will eventually recover.

SLC signsDowntown SLC

Salt Lake City surprised us. It’s actually a pretty interesting town with a good food scene and natural beauty in the surrounding hills. We hoofed it around the downtown for half a day and visited the Natural History Museum of Utah, which is world-class. If you like dinosaurs it’s worth a visit just to see the well-presented collection, but there’s also a lot more worth checking out including a thought-provoking native culture exhibit.

Ut Natural History museum fossil lab

Jim got a behind-the-scenes look at the room where volunteers prepare fossils. It’s painstaking work, done by dedicated people who spend many hours wearing noise-cancelling headphones (the fans and tools can be loud) while they focus on details that most people would never notice. There’s a certain thrill in being close to the fossils as they gradually emerge from the stone that has held them for tens of millions of years.

SLC Jim B and Eleanor_That afternoon we hit a Italian grocery that Jim recommended, and Eleanor stocked up on several interesting cheeses, chocolates, olives, and tiny “champagne” grapes. Together they hatched a plan to have some sort of crazy cheese-and-chocolate pairing session before we had the dinner that Jim made.

I’ve never had cheese and chocolate together but, yes, it works. Especially when you are sitting out on the backyard patio with friends and the sky turning to stars as you eat.

Two night in Salt Lake City weren’t enough, but we made a note to come back for another visit with Jim. SLC won us over, so I’m sure we’ll make another detour.

At this point we still had a few days left and nowhere in particular to go. All we knew at this point was that we should be generally heading south. I took a look at the map and decided we’d visit Glen Canyon National Recreation Area next, near Page AZ.

Heading west, part 2: Flaming Gorge, Utah

Driving 400 miles a day is not my idea of ideal Airstream travel. It’s more like being a long-haul truck driver, with “gas and go” stops along the endless concrete, and few opportunities to stop and explore. We only do it when we have to trade off one part of the country for another, and that’s why we chose to rush through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The reward, we decided, would be Utah.

Utah’s a great state. It’s under-appreciated in my opinion. Not only does Utah have an amazing constellation of national parks (Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, and some smaller units of the National Park Service), and dinosaurs being dug up regularly, but it is also just beautiful nearly everywhere. I love the rocky red and yellow outcrops, the hoodoos and pine forests, and the ever-changing roads. So we traded a few states we’ve visited many times for a week to explore Utah a little more.

We arrived with a souvenir from Nebraska. Near Grand Island the Tesla caught a rock in the windshield which put a nice long crack right in the driver’s field of view. Being a relatively new car made by a nascent manufacturer, spare parts are hard to get, and so after a few phone calls from the roadside we realized we had no choice but to press on and ignore the crack. A replacement windshield wasn’t going to be available for two weeks. Although the crack continued to grow from 7″ to about 24″ over the next day, the laminated glass would not shatter or fail and so it was just a matter of learning to ignore it.

The windshield crack was a low point in the trip. We had been on the road for days of uninspiring highway driving and we were still at least a day and a half away from our goal, and then our new car had gotten damaged in the middle of Nebraska. It felt like bad karma, but there was nothing to do except keep plowing west against the headwinds and crossing our fingers that nothing else would go wrong.

I started feeling better when we hit Cheyenne WY. For some reason being in the dry and wide-open west, especially at high altitude, always invigorates me. We spent the night boondocked in a parking lot. Although normally we never leave the Airstream in an “overnight parking” situation, in this case we felt safe to leave the Airstream and Mercedes hitched up and take the Tesla to get a steak dinner at a suitably western restaurant. Eating out at a place where guys would be wearing their best cowboy hats and jeans felt like the right thing to do in Wyoming. Even though I was exhausted that night and not much of a conversationalist, it felt recuperative.

From Cheyenne it was still nearly a full day of driving to Flaming Gorge, but everything seemed like it was getting better. Wyoming along I-80 is stark, open, and occasionally harsh, but also beautiful as the light filters through clouds to make the yellow hills glow. Despite constant winds and tough uphill climbs, I enjoyed the drive much more than I had any of the previous three days.

Flaming Gorge-2

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in Utah is an amazingly beautiful area surrounding a reservoir. The reservoir is the result of a 1950s dam project along the Green River (part of the series of dams that include Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell, and Hoover Dam at Lake Mead). It’s relatively quiet, dominated mostly by fishermen and other boaters on the reservoir, and it’s not hard to find your own little piece of paradise along the lake or on a trail. Plenty of camping opportunities too—although there’s only one campground with hookups. You’ll find that in the little town of Dutch John, which was the town created for the original dam workers.

Flaming Gorge-1

Most non-boaters seem to take the dam tour, hit the visitor center at Red Canyon, and move on. But there’s a lot more to do here if you take the time, such as horseback rides and excellent hikes along the riverbanks. If you don’t have a boat there are lots of fishing guides ready to take you out for a day. We spent a day exploring the river downstream of the dam, where the current runs strong and clear and cold, and watched birds from a flat rock. Occasionally fishermen would float by, but mostly we were alone.Flaming Gorge downstream fishermen

Getting in and out of Flaming Gorge is fun with an RV, since there are unavoidable steep grades no matter how you arrive. 8-10% is not really a big deal with proper technique—it’s more of a psychological challenge, especially when the road is winding and there are steep drop-offs. But if you go, be sure you know the right way to control your rig’s speed when descending a steep hill so that you don’t smoke your brakes. This even applies to cars: we smelled a few sets of hot brakes on the way in.

Utah Airstream near Flaming Gorge

Now that we had slowed down, we had time to think about where we would go next. We had over a week of time left, and I saw no reason to get home early, so after a bit of thinking I proposed we go to Salt Lake City. In all of our travels to 49 states we had never made it to Salt Lake City, and for years our friend Jim Breitinger had been telling us to come visit him there. Since Jim had long ago courtesy-parked his Airstream in our driveway, he wanted to repay the favor. So we packed up after three nights and started pulling the Airstream northwest …

 

Heading west with an Airstream and a Tesla

In the last blog I alluded to the fact that for the first time, Eleanor and I aren’t traveling with Emma in the Airstream. I wrote that just as we headed back out on the road in August, anticipating that things would be very different for us without our little traveling companion.

I was right: driving back was a little strange. Eleanor was following me in a car for the 3,800 mile trip, so for most of the day I was alone in the Airstream with my thoughts and a few podcasts.  The familiar chatter of E&e was gone, and I realized that even their silent physical presence (as they read books during the long drive) was something I missed.

For a while we were just hustling to cover the miles, until we could get to something that was of particular interest. We breezed through New York with just a short stop at the Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park (plenty of room in the parking lot for RVs), dropped in on our friends in Ohio for a couple of nights, and then zipped up to the Detroit area to finally hit a place that had been on my list for a while: The Henry Ford Museum and Dearborn Village.

Dearborn Village flowers house

Those were great and I highly recommend both. That’s part of Dearborn Village above, at a place where we stopped to try the High Tea. It took us two days to see all of Dearborn Village and the Henry Ford (plus a couple of hours to do the Ford Rouge Plant tour), so if you go, I wouldn’t skimp on the time.

The visit was made better because we camped at Camp Dearborn in Milford MI.  It’s a nice place—about 30-40 minutes drive to Detroit—and the Tin Can Tourists go there annually so the staff is accustomed to seeing all kinds of cool vintage trailers. But best of all they have a nice discount ticket deal with The Henry Ford Museum, and you’ll definitely see all kinds of cool stuff there.

Henry Ford Museum cool car

Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion house by Rich Luhr

The photo above is the interior of a Dymaxion aluminum house, invented by Buckminster Fuller. (We talked about it in the Spring 2005 issue of Airstream Life, if you still have that issue in your collection.) Being made of aluminum, the Dymaxion house is beloved by many Airstreamers.

2018 travel route west

From Detroit heading west we had no planned stops at all, so for a while I was somewhat at a loss for what to do and where to go. That’s odd, since as the family navigator I usually have at least a rough idea of where we are headed. Here’s another place where Emma’s influence was critical: normally I’d be looking for educational opportunities for her. I wasn’t used to having to figure a route for two adults in their 50s. Where do childless people stop in Iowa and Kansas?

Airstream & Tesla plugged in

Finally we decided to just plow west against the headwinds on I-80 and try to get as far as we could in the next three days. It was an uninteresting part of the trip, so this is probably a good time to mention that the car Eleanor was driving was a new Tesla Model 3, an electric car.

For those who know me, it’s no surprise that I’m a big believer that electric cars will be huge in the next few years, nor will anyone be surprised that I waited to get this car for over two years. I am looking forward to the day when I can buy a Tesla pickup truck and finally get free of the dreaded “CHECK ENGINE” light and all the other hassles associated with internal combustion engines and transmissions.

The car is relevant particularly along this leg of the trip because I know there’s a lot of confusion about electric cars, and one thing people often seem to believe is that you can’t drive them very far.

That’s ancient history. Even against a typical Plains State headwind, Eleanor stopped for a quick recharge about the same number of times I stopped to buy diesel fuel, and her cost was about $5-10 versus the $65-80 I was dropping on diesel.  A few times we charged the car for free on campground 50-amp connections. In the end, it cost $99 in electricity to drive the Tesla 3,800 miles (2.6 cents per mile). I’ve paid more than that for a single fill-up of our tow vehicle.

Wyoming Sierra Trading Post AirstreamOn those nights in Iowa and Kansas where we were just parking overnight in a lot it was no problem to find a place to stash the car. In fact it was kind of handy because we could go out for dinner without unhitching, as we did in Cheyenne WY the night we parked at Sierra Trading Post.

The rest of the time we were lucky enough to get campsites with room to squeeze in the car, or at least park it nearby. If we could each the power pedestal it was a bonus, but we didn’t worry about it. Tesla’s Superchargers are conveniently spaced along the highways and the car can go over 300 miles on a charge, so we never really had any concern about where we’d charge up next—even when we got into some remote parts of Utah.

Part 2 of this trip starts there. I’ll continue the story in a few days.