Bowl hike, Guadalupe Mtns National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is known for great hiking.   For years I’ve been wanting to go explore the back country of this park, ever since Eleanor and I first happened upon it in early 2000 on a pre-Airstream road trip.

Emma was in the womb then, and at seven months pregnant Eleanor wasn’t prepared for hiking many miles (and also it was winter), so we made a note of the place and vowed to come back.  Come back—yes, we did, several times, but each time one circumstance or another kept us from going on a serious hike.

Like a lot of national parks, Guadalupe isn’t convenient.  It isn’t near anything, being 50 miles from Carlsbad and 120 miles from El Paso.  It isn’t just off an Interstate highway, and there are no accommodations other than tent or RV for at least 20 miles. Even now, parked here in the comfort of our Airstream we have no hookups and no dump station to use when we leave.  So you have to really want to come here.

Being here is only the beginning, because to see the back country you must hike up mountains that erupt steeply from a desert landscape.  We pulled out all of our gear yesterday morning and got assembled for a full day of hiking, with the plan to make a circumference of some of the mountains that would run about eight miles.  As always, our gear included sun hats, sunscreen, packs, snacks, trail shoes, cameras, and lots of water—although not quite enough, as we discovered quickly.

Some hiking friends of ours will read this blog, so I’ll detail that we left the campground at 9:30 a.m. and took the Foothills Trail to Frijole, then up Bear Canyon, left on Bowl (now above 8,000 feet), and followed Bowl to Tejas and back down.  That makes it seem straightforward (you’ll need a map from the Visitor Center), but the really relevant part of the description is we didn’t get back until 5:45 p.m.—eight hours later.

Yes, it was a bit beyond what the parks usually describe as a “strenuous” hike.  Still, none of us regretted the hike, and it had many rewards like spectacular vistas throughout and lots of little surprises in geology, plant life, and scenery.  The climb up through Bear Canyon was particularly rewarding, which was crucial because this was the steepest and longest climb of the hike, taking us over two hours to complete.

Before we reached Bear Canyon Eleanor and I realized that we had drastically underestimated our water needs.  I had my big 100 oz. Camelbak filled, but they did not have their Camelbaks on board the Airstream and so (on my hasty and poor advice) had only three 16 oz. water bottles each.  They should have had at at least five bottles each (80 oz).  We had a conference after two miles of hiking to decide whether we should continue or abort the hike.

A big part of the problem was that the air temperature at our starting altitude was already in the 80s and climbing, plus the first few miles of trail offer no shade.  Eleanor and Emma consumed 1/3 of their water before the serious climbing even began.  Still, we decided to proceed because I had more water than I needed and could share.  I filled an extra 16 oz. bottle for each of them from my supply and we continued up.

The steep climb through Bear Canyon, with its many switchbacks, would have been psychologically demoralizing if it weren’t for the great scenery.  None of us had done any serious hiking in about a year, and we also didn’t have any time to acclimate to the altitude, which atop the water concern gave us plenty of psychological challenges.  The trail was rocky and hard on the feet even with hiking boots.

I knew that we would make it physically, but in situations like this the big enemy is your own brain telling you that maybe it’s time to panic because you’ll never make it, you’ll be stuck here halfway up a mountain without rescue and no water and you can’t go another step, etc.  And maybe your brain is right, because running out of water plus a twisted ankle could easily equal a very bad situation.

Of course we did make it, with lots of rest stops, photo opps, happy conversation, and a few energy snacks.  Atop the mountains we found a beautiful park-like glade with scattered pine trees, and sat down on a bed of needles to have lunch.  This long break seemed to re-energize everyone, and of course from there on the trail was gentle and fairly easy.  It wasn’t long before we were looking down from a high cliff and realizing with a slight sense of awe just how far we’d gone.  The vertical ascent of this hike is claimed by the Park Service to be 2,300 feet, but I can tell you that it looks and feels like a lot more.  I felt like I’d climbed the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

We predicted early on that we’d run out of water before we got back, in the last mile or two, and we did run out right on schedule.  No matter, at that point we were down to nearly base camp elevation and it was an easy final stretch back to the Airstream (with plenty of motivation).

I want to point out something significant.  During our entire eight hours of hiking, we did not see even one other human being.  This has never happened to us before on a long hike.  Such solitude is like nirvana for hikers, with the caution that this also means if something happens to you (like a twisted ankle or running out of water), you’re on your own.  There’s no calling 9-1-1 out there either, so self-rescue is your only option.

Late in the hike after we’d run out of water Emma wanted to take an extended rest break, thereby handing me a wonderful parental privilege, the opportunity to say with a straight face, “Would you rather hike back to the Airstream with us and get an nice drink of cool water, or stay here and die?” —and have it be perfectly true.  Too often parents have to resort to exaggerations in our attempts to motivate children, but out here the forces of nature make exaggeration unnecessary.

By the time we dragged our enervated bodies back to the campground we were bone-tired, dry inside and sticky outside, with eyes burning from drips of sunscreen and joints aching from miles of walking on uneven rocky trails.  We had covered 8.5 miles.  One of the great joys of such a hike comes afterward: stripping off the dusty clothes for a shower, then slowly re-entering the civilized world of Airstream living. Eleanor assembled a casual smorgasbord dinner of bread, several cheeses, cold cuts, salad, guacamole, and cottage cheese, and picked over it in our zombie-like state, then I made some popcorn and we watched a movie before collapsing into bed.

When we first came back to the campground after our hike we were struck by the lack of campers. Being Friday night we had expected that the place would fill up.  After all, the weather is beautiful and I would expect this to be peak hiking season. But nobody showed up. It’s still just us and one other guy in the RV camping area.  I’m amazed but I can’t complain.  The campground is dead quiet most of the time (just a few day hikers driving in, or tent campers walking over to use the bathrooms), and it feels like was have the park almost to ourselves.

So we are seriously contemplating spending a third night here.  It’s only $8 per night (no hookups, no dump, but there are bathrooms and a dishwashing sink to help extend your holding tanks) and the climate is far better than where we are about to go.  Our solar panels are getting the batteries up to about 95% of capacity because it’s summer, so electricity isn’t an issue, and we have plenty of food.

If we do stay today, there’s another hike nearby that I’m tempted to sell the family on, called Devil’s Hall, and it’s only half the length of yesterday’s hike with a piddling 400 ft ascent.  There’s also the park Visitor Center that we should visit, and if nothing else I could be happy just reading a few books and listening to the birds.  At this writing, everyone else is asleep, so we’ll hold a family conference later this morning to decide.

Life out of the box

We are out of the box at last! By that I mean that finally we have reached higher altitudes in the west and have escaped the muggy hot weather that has plagued us since we left New York state. After a final push from Palo Duro State Park, we have reached Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat, TX and are comfortably parked at an elevation of 5,700 feet.

It’s beautiful here. The RV portion of the campground is nothing special (tenters get nice sites but RVs are laid out in an asphalt parking lot separated only by white painted lines), but you come here for the scenery that surrounds you. And that is spectacular: a 2/3 bowl formed by the mountains that this park is named for, and the remaining 1/3 a crystal clear view east to west Texas. It’s one of those places where you step out of the Airstream and realize that it’s not the campsite that’s important.

Our plan to arrive on Thursday worked perfectly. We pulled in around 6 p.m. (Mountain Time) to find the campground nearly empty. There is only one other RV in the parking lot. We had a beautiful and quiet night with the windows letting fresh air drifting in and the sound of crickets, instead of a night sealed up against oppressive air and the air conditioner whooshing constantly.

That’s the big change from being in “A/C weather” versus “camping weather.” Even our day off from driving (in Tulsa OK) was spent locked up inside the Airstream with the air conditioner struggling to hold back the outside, and so it didn’t feel very much like we were enjoying the great outdoors. At times like that, we’re not even close to “camping,” we’re just hiding inside a silver tube with the shades drawn, like recluses.

Now we have the ideal air around us, and the Airstream is set up the way it should be: windows wide open, screen door instead of solid aluminum door, a fan or two running, curtains open, solar panels supplying all the power we need instead of a 30-amp power cable connected to a pedestal. It’s a massive change in attitude, comfort, and spirit. With the windows and door open, the Airstream is in “social mode,” ready to receive visitors or let a child run and out with little discoveries of rocks and bird feathers from nearby.

So now you can see why I’m happy to be parked in an asphalt parking lot with no hookups. We will be here two or three nights, living off our supplies of water, propane, and a refrigerator stocked with Eleanor’s ingredients, which is certainly no hardship at all. I’d much rather be boondocking in the desert on a pleasant day like this, than in a full hookup campground somewhere with the air conditioner blasting away.

Palo Duro State Park, Canyon TX

Our campsite in Tulsa was located right next to a highway, cramped, and featureless, yet ideal for the two nights we spent there.  There’s no question we all needed a day off from the incessant driving.  400 miles a day is nobody’s idea of fun, and the burnout factor was off the charts.

All I wanted to do was stop driving and get some work done, and for that the campground suited just fine.  The wifi was fast and  worked well (rare for a campground), the 30-amp power didn’t sag in the peak of the heat & humidity (96 degrees), and the water pressure was exemplary.  I plugged in and got busy.

Eleanor got busy too, with a chance to use her crockpot and simultaneously test a “no heat” cooking method she’s going to demonstrate at Alumafandango.  We took one break, to go grocery shopping, and otherwise were in the Airstream just doing our stuff.

The layout of the Fall magazine is about half done and progressing on schedule, we continue to forge ahead on Alumafandango, we’re nearly ready to open registration for Alumapalooza 4 (and wait till you see the cool t-shirts!), and Brett & I were able to advance another joint project that we will hopefully announce in the next couple of weeks.  It’s yet another Aluma-event, but I can’t say more than that until the contracts are signed.

A job on the “personal” list was to look ahead while we had good Internet, and decide on our reward.  See, the crazy long driving days have an upside: because we covered 2,000 miles in six days, we have a few extra days to meander around in the west before heading home.  So, how to squander our remaining time?

After considering a lot of options, we have decided to go for Guadalupe National Monument in Texas, just south of Carlsbad Caverns.  We’ve dropped in there a few times but never had the right weather to go hiking in the mountains, and that’s really what Guadalupe is all about.  The park is at about 5,000 feet, with higher mountain peaks, and summer is the time to be there so we’re going for it.

This means major sacrifices, however.  My dream of browsing the Mogollon Rim with its glorious cool forests will fall by the wayside.  We’ll have to miss Valley of Fire Recreation Area and a lot of scenic driving in northern New Mexico.  Going to Guadalupe means we will exit at El Paso on I-10 and follow a well-worn path through the lower desert across New Mexico and Arizona.  It’s not an interesting drive after the first dozen or so times, and the temperatures will be abominable.

There’s one other sacrifice as well.  We drove another 400 miles today (OK, to be accurate it was only 380) to Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Canyon TX, just south of Amarillo.  We arrived at 6 p.m., just in time to take a peek and get our campsite set up. This is a beautiful place that deserves more exploration than we’ll be able to give it, because we have to leave tomorrow morning to drive another 380 miles to Guadalupe.

I had considered spending two nights here, as we really should, but if we do that we’ll be arriving in Guadalupe on Friday night and there’s a good chance that the campground will be full.  They don’t accept reservations there, and the campground is small.  So our best strategy is to arrive on Thursday and squat on our site through the weekend.  That will give us lots of time to go hiking and decompress from the cross-country drive.  In other words, we are sacrificing Palo Duro and a few other things to get a really good visit in at Guadalupe.  I think it will be worth the tradeoff.

Blog note:  Verizon doesn’t work in this canyon so today’s blog is being posted on Thursday and backdated.  Also, prior experience has shown that our Internet connection  is extremely marginal at Guadalupe, so it’s questionable whether the blog will get updated over the weekend, but I’ll try.

We’ve hit the limit

I think we’ve discovered how many days in a row we can tow 400 miles.  The answer is “four.”

I find it very convenient that someone, back in the early days of American westward emigration, conveniently spread out certain cities exactly 400 miles apart. Burlington VT – Buffalo NY – Jackson Center OH – St Louis MO – Tulsa OK – Amarillo TX.  That was great forethought, pilgrims.

But 400 miles is too far in the long run.  It’s just too much time in the car.  Back muscles begin to stiffen, eyes glaze, bowels seize up, and gradually your mind begins to go.  We found ourselves asking what day it was, what state we were in, and (worst of all) actually interested in roadside attractions just as a way to escape the car for a few minutes.  Somewhere in Missouri, Eleanor ended up buying a set of steak knives.

This morning didn’t start out very well for me.  We slept late, which was well needed, but that just meant that the temperature was already spiking as I worked outside to prepare the Airstream for departure.  I had some extra jobs to do today, like lubing the Hensley hitch.  The old BAL Tongue Twister came apart while I was using it, too.  It has been rebuilt once already and needs replacement, but I gave it a quick partial reassembly and threw it in my box of tools.  By the time all things were ready I was also ready for a fresh shower.

Well, no time for that, so we headed out and promptly got on the wrong highway, then stuck in some crazy traffic caused by a wide load, and all the while the loose parts on the Tongue Twister were making an incessant rattling noise.  Eventually it was all sorted out, but it wasn’t much later that I was looking for a break, and we hadn’t even gone 100 miles yet.  By 3 p.m. I was worn out and abruptly pulled the Airstream into a rest area to do something we almost never do in those places: actually rest.  Thirty minutes later we resumed rolling down I-44, and I was just hoping that somehow I’d make it to Tulsa.

We did, finally, but not until 7 p.m. and it was again hot, at about 96 degrees.  It will be ironic if the coolest stop we make is in Arizona, and at this point I’m guessing it will be, somewhere around Eager AZ just north of the Apache National Forest.

The refrigerator has been way too warm lately.  Eleanor defrosted the coils less than two weeks ago, but all the humidity has caused them to frost up again and this drastically impedes cooling.  Some sausages had to be thrown out upon arrival in Tulsa, so we did an emergency defrost followed by turning on the electric boost fans.  I think we will run the boost fans while towing from here on in, at least as long as the temperatures are above 90.

We’re taking a break here.  The RV park we are in is nothing special, and Tulsa has no particular attraction, but we all need a day out of the car to move our bodies and recover our minds.  I’ll spend most of the day working on Fall magazine layouts and Alumafandango stuff, and then we’ll hit the road again on Wednesday.


Air conditioning at any cost

I think, amidst the endless concrete and mediocrity that adorns the American Interstate highways, we have managed to work up a Plan.  Brutal heat and humidity continue to dog us through the midwest, as expected, but we will escape to the high desert and Ponderosa forests that begin in New Mexico.  It may be just as hot there but at least it won’t be as humid.

So our day unfolded much like the previous two, rolling down I-75, I-70 across the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  The day started well.  I woke up feeling like I hadn’t gotten quite enough sleep but still very refreshed after a shower and a night of blessed air conditioning.  We got up early because we were expecting a visit from Dave Schumann, the veep of Airstream’s service department around 7:30.  He and I have been trying to get together for months to talk about some future projects, including his participation in the upcoming Alumafandango, and this was at last a chance to sit down face to face.  While he and I talked in his office, E&E got prepped for the day, and sometime after 9 a.m. we were on the road again.

It’s good to start off the day in a good mood and feeling strong, but I knew that I was short on sleep and at the end of our third 400-mile day in a row I was going to need to take some time off.  By 5 p.m. it was hitting me, but we had reached our goal of St Louis MO and in the process crossed a time zone, so we all get to sleep an extra hour tonight. Plus, we aren’t expecting any visitors in the morning.

Knowing that we’d need air conditioning again (100 degrees as we arrived) we had already researched campgrounds.  St. Louis has always been a tough place to camp, at least for us.  The pickings are dismal among commercial campgrounds and there aren’t any state parks with camping in the area (somebody correct me if I’m wrong —I wish I was).  This time we tried the Casino Queen RV Park, which is in East St Louis, just across the river from downtown.  We can see the Arch from here, and there’s a free shuttle to that, and of course the casino.  Those of you who know East St Louis know that it’s not exactly a dream destination, but this RV park has the advantage of being right off the Interstate for those weary travelers who just towed 400 miles from central Ohio and are desperate for a level spot with 30-amp power.  We are paying a royal price for this privilege, $46 for a night and we will not be visiting the casino.  This is what desperation will drive you to.

We had a partial plan to courtesy park with Stevyn and Troy, folks we have not yet met but who will be at Alumafandango, at their home about an hour west of St. Louis, but that was too far off our route to justify.  We’ll have to wait to meet them in August.  I found myself explaining to Stevyn that we don’t normally travel this way, roaring across the country without so much as a sniff of the flowers, but this was an unusual year for us.  We are crossing a swath of the USA that would normally take us three weeks, in roughly six days.

So here’s the Plan.  We will continue our great race two more days to Tulsa (about 400 miles) and then Palo Duro Canyon State Park near Amarillo TX (another 400 miles).  Once we reach northern New Mexico where the air is cooler, we’ll begin to slow down and take about five or six days to meander through NM and northern AZ, skimming the edge of the Mogollon Rim and then—at the very last possible moment—make that final drive back into the low desert and home.

It seems like a great plan, but I don’t really know if it will pan out that way.  Work will undoubtedly interfere at some point, and the need for decent Internet connectivity may force us out of the forests and back to the Interstate, or at least towns with cell phone service. Since I can only loosely predict what’s going to happen work-wise in the next week, we’ll have to stay flexible.  But flexibility shouldn’t be a problem once we are out from under the threat of massive thunderstorms and energy-sapping humidity.  We’ll have more choices of where to camp because we won’t be restricted by the need for air conditioning at any cost.  Tomorrow, we will hit the highway again…