From a ridge top in the Needles district of Canyonlands.
#9 Utah To Home (late April, May 2013)

"The Needles" District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah
"Wow! Stunning! Isn't this beautiful! I'm so glad we came." That pretty well sums up being in Canyonlands National Park. Like all of the other show-stopper destinations on the Colorado Plateau with some assortment of the post-Permian layers of colorful sandstone, Canyonlands was an eyeful. We've seen many variations on this theme at Bryce, Snow Canyon, Valley of Fire, Red Rocks (several of them), but like glorious sunsets, we enjoy them every time. The alternating layers of red, yellow, and white rock combined with each areas unique erosion patterns results in a different visual experience at every park.

Bill had had his eye on Canyonlands for the last couple of years but it proved to be a difficult destination. A little off a logical route and far from services, it required careful planning. Water is only available at 3 places in the Needles district and the single campground is a highly competitive, first-come, first-serve affair. We spent a night outside of the Park on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) property strategically parked next to a rare vault toilet that turned out to be a destination for rock climbers overnighting in a very primitive campground. We headed into the Park itself before breakfast, arriving at the entrance gate when it was staffed at 8 am so we could receive the all-important maps without the time-drag of detouring to the visitor's center. Then we began the irritating and obnoxious 'trolling' process for a campsite that was due to be vacated that day.

We spied a spot that would guarantee good charging for our solar panels, that was flat enough to allow leveling our rig reasonably well, and resigned ourselves to a 5+ minute walk to the water spigot and toilets. We parked in front of the slot and I declared our intentions to the lady of the house who happened to be traveling alone. This was her 26th year of camping in the Park and she was entirely sympathetic with what we were doing.

Lithified sandstone is grand for barefooting.
The vacating camper warned us that she wouldn't be departing until the required 10 am check-out, which I assured her was just fine. She gave me her spare payment envelope for the campground, urging me to hang-up our occupancy tag right away, and cleared the picnic table so we could eat our breakfast on it. We appreciated not being viewed by her as the vultures that we felt like. The official campground sign was right: all of the sites belonging to departing campers were claimed by new arrivals by 10 am. Apparently it's like that every day from March through April and then again in the fall. Definitely a "snooze and you lose" kind of place, which degrades the initial experience a bit.

The Needles area at Canyonlands gave us a distinctive hiking experience with the longer trails guiding us through one shallow canyon and then over a sandstone ridge to experience yet another canyon floor. The total elevation gain for an 8 mile hike was modest at under 1000' but the routes delivered on the views. It was a pleasant change to be in low but robust pinyon pine and juniper forests with a vigorous undergrowth of yuccas, cacti, and occasionally grasses. It was a more lush feeling than the average desert setting despite the humidity being under 10%. And presumably the barren rocky ridges prevented the experience of Canyonlands from being that of successive, devastating wildfires as was the case in Bandelier and Mesa Verde National Parks which we had recently visited.

The weather at Needles however threw us for a loop. Only 1,000' - 1,500' lower than we were at nearby Mesa Verde in Colorado, the highs were in the upper 80's and we awoke at sunrise to almost 60˚ temperatures instead of the recent 20˚. Needless to say, we were dragging on our hikes even though we were at lower elevation than we'd been at a for a month and were only doing modest elevation gains. I'm less heat tolerant than Bill and was suffering on the hikes by afternoon but it was hard to complain because it was so lovely.

Moab is on the way to views like this one of Delicate Arch in Arches.
Moab, Utah--Now
"Bug-eyed," "Blown-away," "Spell-bound," it's hard to categorize my first reactions to Moab. The main street, which is also the through highway, was positively pulsing with too-much-caffeine-like energy on a Tuesday afternoon when I walked to a store. Jeeps and Jeep-like-things were everywhere in Moab: bombing down the Main Street highway; parked on the side of the street; being towed by half of the rigs in our RV park; and in the retailer's parking lots. For months big pick-up trucks were "the" vehicle to have, then briefly while in climber's heaven on the BLM land it was Subaru's, and now in Moab, it was Jeeps that ruled the road and defined the culture.

Moab felt like "Jeep Central" and huge tires, deep treads, high suspensions, and dried mud were de rigueur. Old beat-up ones; ones with shovels strapped on the back; open air or with doors; some with air tanks in the back (for inflating tires?)--it was the street-legal, rock-clawing spin on the duner crowd we'd immersed ourselves in at the Imperial Dunes in California. Even half of the local Post Office's small fleet of delivery vehicles were Jeeps. Of course, they weren't tricked-out and I doubt that they had the instructions on the back window that I saw on one private vehicle which read: "Get in, sit down, shut up, and hold on."

It seemed that for several blocks of my walk that every other store front was a Jeep rental place, a mountain bike rental shop, or an outfitter. The 60 different outfitter and guide operations in this town of 5,000 had something for everyone. How about a "Hummer Safari" for under $200 for 2 hours for 2 people? (I think we're talking HumVee's and not hummingbirds here.) Or rafting? Or mountain biking? Or rock climbing? Or canyoneering? OK, maybe horseback riding, a scenic flight or a combination of a couple of the above options? Or shuttle service? Or a hot shower for $5-$7? There still are possibilities, like a guided hike; driving tours of a National Park; winery tours; movie location tours; photography tours; or a hot air balloon ride. Or surely you need one of those bright red, spare gas canisters for your Jeep so prominently displayed on the sidewalk. Didn't come to Moab with a Jeep? You can rent a 2-door for a day for $155 + tax.

Competition for customers was high in Moab. None of this "Restrooms for customers only" or "No public restrooms" posted on the store door. Not in Moab. In Moab it was "Public restrooms inside; no purchase necessary." And under one store name banner "Free filtered water." At another it was "Cliff Bars 99₵." Anything to get you inside. Though the dark side of the culture was hinted at by the sign on our above-average RV park restroom doors: "Prevent theft; secure your cooler at night." That was a first….and validation for the hunch that had us staying at a more expensive place than usual while in Moab.

Moab is the only town for miles in any direction in southeast Utah and it is the most central access point to 4 stunning red rock parks: the 3 separate parks under the Canyonlands jurisdiction: The Maze, Needles, and Island in the Sky plus Arches National Park. As a consequence, Moab is the common stopping point for a wildly diverse crowd.

The whole area was crawling with tourists like us (Mesa Arch/Island in the Sky).
Despite the Jeep renters and outfitters practically shouting at passersby, most of the people on the street were like me and looked out of step with the reckless adventurer image being promoted. Many were regular tourists that probably were doing the scenic drives through the parks and taking in short, paved walks at several of the destinations. Rental RV's were out in full force both on the street and in our huge RV park and a number of those were operated by international tourists.

It was obvious to us that the otherwise rare showers-for-hire in town were for the dry campers in the parks and on BLM land. We too dry-camped for several days and had made conserving water for daily showers a priority but those in tents or car camping usually only showered if they heated bathing water in the sun. We planned to spend at least one night in a Moab RV park to enjoy free-flowing-water showers, fill our fresh water tank, dump our sewage, and do laundry. Others skipped the overnight in town and paid separately for each of those services. But interestingly, even the tent area of our better RV park was full so some on a tighter budget were also opting for a night or 2 in town with ready access to full services.

Moab, UT--Then
You'd never know it now, but Moab was founded by the Mormons in the 1800's as an agricultural town. But the texture of the community was instantly and permanently transformed in the 1950's when one of the richest reserves of uranium in the country was discovered outside of Moab. Overnight it became the self-proclaimed "Uranium Capitol of the World"--it was one of 800 uranium mines in the 4 corners area (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah).

"Two scoops" (notice the small lower arch with the man climbing through it).
Prospectors enticed by the federal government's $10,000 bonuses (in 1950's dollars) for discovery of a new, high-grade uranium mine had fueled a frenzy that was often compared with the gold rush days. Soon after the discovery at Moab, one of the 6 uranium ore milling plants in the state was sited on its city limits. Fast-forward a few decades and the defunct mill is now a Superfund clean-up site: the slurry pond and tailings pile located on the Colorado River had been contaminating the ground water and river. In addition to the problem of radioactive material in the water supply and heavy metals in the soil, the high ammonia levels were killing the fish.

The brief reference we'd read in the National Parks literature before arriving in Moab about the Cold War era uranium industry had had the air of a curiosity. Their passing comment had been that many of the roads in Canyonlands and the surrounding area were constructed by or for uranium prospectors in a frantic effort to secure domestic sources of the mineral for bomb making. It read more like the story of the predecessor roads to Route 66 built by the US Army than the beginning of significant, ongoing environmental stress in the area. But its Superfund status was underscored when we saw the line of trucks and train cars about half way through their 12 year project of cleaning up Moab's mess. Perhaps I'm overly cautious, but I was horrified to see the string of new hotels and RV parks built in the obvious flood plain immediately adjacent to the toxic heap. Somewhat by chance, we'd stayed in an RV park on higher ground and farther away from the river and will choose it again--just to be safe.

Arches National Park, UT
Each of the National Parks in the southeastern corner of Utah have different features in their red rock terrain. Not surprisingly, arches are the exceptional feature at Arches and there are over 2,000 of them in the park (a minimum span of 3' qualifies an arch for the list). I assumed we'd see arches everywhere but it was more of a "one here; one there" affair. But any disappointment in not being surrounded by arches was quickly forgotten because there was so much over-the-top geology. The fins, pinnacles, balanced rocks, and stunning red and yellow layers kept heads turning and cameras snapping. It was a satisfying mix for us, with a number of hikes, sandy and slick rock trails to further our barefoot training, and interesting geology to ponder.

The geology story at Arches has a different twist from the stories of the surrounding Canyonlands parks. Like at the other red sandstone parks, the usual factors were involved: uplift, sinking, filling, draining, collapsing, and weather-related erosion. But at Arches, a mile deep deposit of salt left over from the 29 fillings and emptying's of an ancient sea is at the bottom of the story. The salt deposit was subject to the usual geological forces but being more pliable than rock, the story played out differently. And curiously, the 2,000 arches developed not on top of the massive salt deposit which was a central player, but on the edge of it. It was the salt deposit's capacity to form a massive dome, which then collapsed on an equally grand scale, that caused the peculiar cracking of the adjacent rock that eventually lead to the arch formations.

Island in the Sky had a look all its own.
Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, UT
Island in the Sky was the second and last of 3 separate park districts in the Canyonlands National Park that we visited. We skipped The Maze which is reserved exclusively for outback touring by foot or watercraft and hosts hikes that begin with an 80 mile drive on dirt roads--not our style. Island was immediately different from most red rock destinations in the SW because the majority of its roads and viewpoints are on top of a mesa instead of being on the valley floor. It is however much like the Grand Canyon, with canyons deeply cut by the Colorado and Green Rivers. Amazingly however, the canyon is only cut about 8" deeper every 1000 years despite periodic erosion due to flash floods that can create massive destruction.

The mesa itself looked deceptively lush. It was a grassland with a scattering of junipers and pinyon pines instead of being more desert-like ground cover of cacti and yucca. But closer inspection revealed that my 'grassland' was actually bunches of grass intermixed with spindly Mormon tea, a stout survivor found in arid climates.

The "No Water Available" sign at the park entrance was distinctive too. Usually National Parks have several watering holes for visitors, but not so at Island. Fortunately Bill had done his homework and we arrived ready for a rare, truly dry dry-camping experience. With few trails and subdued reviews from regular visitors to Canyonlands, Bill only planned a 2 night stay as a part of this year's reconnaissance of the area.

Chris from Poland was loving the National Parks in the SW.
But we'll be back. One of the 2 longer hikes we took (Upheaval Dome trail) was quite a humbling challenge and we are game to do again. The sudden spike in the temperature into the high 80's took its toll on us, but we enjoyed the mix of scrambling, steep grades, and trail finding.

Like at Needles, getting a campsite was very competitive, even with the total lack of water in the campground. But here too we postponed breakfast and arrived a little after 8am and had our choice of several sites. The 2 families that were leaving our top picks were gracious about us trolling to get a spot because these departing campers had done the same. What was different here was the social pressure for a spot was intense all day long.

After sliding into our new slot at the official check-out time of 10 am, we noticed a forlorn cyclotourist looking for an opening. I confirmed he was alone and only staying 1 night, then invited him to share our oversized site. The young Polish man biking from San Francisco to New York accepted our offer after noting that everything else was taken. At 10:30 am I deflected a man from Oregon pulling a large trailer before he could press further--his rig's footprint was just too big to be in our space/face. But I caved-in to a pleading professional photographer and his friend at dinner time that night. They were in tents, they would be out all evening photographing the night sky, and out before daybreak for the famous Mesa Arch shot. And indeed, they did not disturb the ambiance of our lovely, canyon view campsite. They nabbed their own site the next morning as planned and Chris the cyclist accepted our invitation to stay a second night. We were the only folks who appeared to be sharing their site.

What a view! Shoshone Falls at Twin Falls, ID.
Having wrenched our bikes out of their tightly packed position in the backseat of the truck when in Albuquerque, we resolved to ride a bit during the week's drive home. The tantalizing online reference to Twin Falls's bike route along the Snake River gorge lured us to stop there for a ride. Unfortunately once we arrived at the visitor's center and had their map in our hands, we realized that the bike route segments were measured in fractions of a mile. But we pressed on and mustered an 18 mile ride with 1100' of elevation gain, about half of it on 10% grades. The 2 dips down from the mesa top to the river easily got our quads burning on the way back to the top. Not the lovely, out-of-traffic ride we'd hoped for but we may repeat it on other journeys home because it gives us an easy-to-access, efficient training opportunity.

While Twin Falls is struggling to connect its brief segments of bike routes, Boise has accomplished the task in an award-winning way. Should you be tooling along I-84 with a bike in tow, take time out to enjoy a ride on the Boise River routes. Whether you are in the mood for a "La-de-da, it's a beautiful day" ride or are itching to get your heart rate up, you won't be disappointed.

We parked our rig for free at the lovely Ann Morrison Memorial Park in central Boise and rode east along the river to Lucky Peak State Park for a 23 mile round trip event. The warm-up was at slower speeds while the path wound along the university campus and through some neighborhoods but then it left the urban scene and traversed the dramatic basalt-lined river gorge. Occasionally there are 2 or 3 dedicated bike paths paralleling the river which helps keep the route interesting. Going west from our parking spot would probably make it about a 30 mile outing, though there would likely be more pedestrians on that segment of the path.

Up, Up & Away!

Digging Out
During this spring's trip to the SW we capitalized on the slowly building momentum around digging out from years of being on the run by getting caught-up and on top of a few more things. Bill was energized (and I was relieved) by his decommissioning of a total of 3 old laptops as we were leaving town in January and during our first weeks on the road. He also finished another burdensome project, which was uploading the remaining CDs in his collection onto his computer. Jettisoning the CDs that always occupied prime real estate in our storage area because they had been on the verge of being finished--for years--triggered new enthusiasm for tackling other stored items that needed to be ushered out the door. And of course, uploading the music onto our i-Things meant we had all those old favorites with us all the time, from The Doors to Pink Martini. By mid-trip, Bill was actually excited about the prospect of tackling one of the worst albatross-class boxes still on the shelves at home.

Finally finishing the gargantuan password project at the end of March in which our 300 accumulated passwords had to be re-evaluated and transferred to a new, more stable program was cause for celebration. We began the process just before New Years and it was a relief that it didn't linger any longer than it did. The day after it was completed, Bill was saying that he was on the cusp of being the most caught-up with chores and projects than he'd ever been in his life, though there was still more to do.

We only watched the BASE jumping off the Twin Falls bridge.
Deciding to switch to electronically generated photo albums in 2010 had bogged down so much that by 2013, the last completed photo album was from 2009. Even this onerous, dreaded project was improving while we traveled this spring, with 2010 and 2011 being nearly ready for publication by the time we returned home in May. 2013 was being kept current--only 2012 was largely undone--giving us hope for it too.

Getting out from under projects months and years old was slowed by Bill's decision to make all of our reservations for our summer in Europe in advance. A daunting project that he did for the first time in 2012, he knew it was worth the time and effort spent. It was an absurd project to take-on when we traveled 9 months at a time but it made sense for 90 days, most of which would be during high season. At one point in his planning he spouted off "I've been to Bormio (Italy) many times in the last few weeks but I still can't figure out how to leave it" in reference to the high passes effectively making it a dead end for us when on bikes.

Making all of the reservations for our summer travel was a slow, frustrating process but it did ramp-up the anticipation for the trip. Bill selected a resort village in the Italian Lake District (Riva del Garda) for our jet lag recovery location instead of lingering in the big cities of Frankfurt and Bolzano like we had done several years. Riva is a lovely village we'd biked through in the past and had scoped-out for hiking. And Bill was pleased to come up with all-new hiking venues for the summer, except for our base/bike storage location in Selva.

We inadvertently put a little more time pressure on ourselves when we stumbled upon the idea of extending our overseas trip in 2014, but out of the EU, by joining a guided hiking trek. The idea was spawned when reading about the new high peaks trail in Albania and a little online searching about it also put walking to Petra in Jordan on the short list of options. We've always been loath to spend the money on group tours but this would be a way to put some pizzazz back into our overseas travel and visit places too hard to tour by bike or on our own. After an initial round of excitement and research, we decided to put detailed planning on hold so that we could assess the political climate closer to the fall 2014 departure date.

Feeling Better
It only took 2 days into our 2 month trial gluten-free diet starting at the end of January for us both to decide that there would be no gluten challenge--we both felt enough better to permanently suffer the inconveniences of the regime. By the time the usual trial period was up at 2 months, there was no going back. Long term, odd ball health issues were suddenly much, much better for Bill. His altitude intolerance that used to set in at about 7000' when he had nitrates on board held-off to about 8000' without nitrates, but coincident with being on the diet for 6 weeks, he was suddenly good to almost 9000'. An old, 100% predictable equation: "Bill+ cold = cough for 6 weeks" evaporated. Bill's latest cold ended with the cold; there was no lingering cough. And the list goes on. Could it all be related?? At our age, the science matters less than feeling good.

Attention Turned to Europe
It's a good thing we arrived home in May feeling better and ready to tackle challenges because we didn't manage to make any progress on the new project of deep cleaning our camper en route. Our entire first full day back home was spent cleaning the inside and outside of the rig, though we didn't quite make it to cleaning the inside of the truck. But nonetheless, the feeling of finally being in charge of our time and our tempo persisted as we began tending to affairs at home and readying ourselves for a summer of hiking and biking in the Italian Dolomites.