Waterfalls, inside and out

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 p.m.to 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

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

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

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

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.