ALBUQUERQUE, NM to HOME (April 2014)

Looking Back
The Itinerary That Didn't Happen
Upon arriving, we were all too aware that Albuquerque (ABQ) was our last playground for our 6 month traveling season. Once we left Albuquerque, we'd be on the road home. We'd let ourselves down gently by spreading the 1500 mile drive over almost 2 weeks, which would include a number of short hikes, but it still signaled the end. Arriving home would initiate the contraction of our expansive lifestyle. Once there, we'd be like students fidgeting in their seats after the long summer vacation. The rigid schedule, the singular focus, the less pleasing weather, and the more limited venue would all trigger a bit of acting out. But we tried to brush that all aside by focusing on the fun hikes and bike rides we'd enjoy in Albuquerque and by reflecting on our travels.

"Doing the Narrows' at Zion in October.
It's always a surprising process to look back at a travel segment while still in it and re-experience it with the usual disbelief of "Was that this year?" But what a nice realization: that our lives had been full enough that experiences only a few months old felt more distant.

The first consolidation of memories revealed that Bill's rough 6 month itinerary only defined about a total of 9 weeks of our trip. Our first stops, Zion National Park, Death Valley National Park, and Palms Springs were on the list, though Palm Springs was only to be a 2 night re-stocking stay, not a 2 month layover. But it was the winter of a relentless series of arctic blasts that kept us tightly held in the SW corner of the US. Even scooting along the southern reaches and going east to Big Bend National Park became a non-starter because of nasty and sometimes dangerous conditions. Instead of traveling far and exploring new areas, we stayed in 3 areas 3 weeks to 2 months to optimize our active time. narrows

Instead of it being a winter of "first's" in terms of destinations, it was a season of first's in activities done and accomplishments. A campground neighbor's suggestion at Zion had us "Doing the Narrows", as in walking up the Virgin River in rented wading outfits to see the narrow canyon walls from the water. In Death Valley we abandoned the tedious business of hiking up rocky washes in search of dry falls to climb and settled for more CV-focused walks on minor roads, some of which were closed to traffic. Not a big thrill, but it was a resourceful way to be active in a favorite retreat area.

We were absolutely shocked to discover that Palm Springs was an excellent winter hiking venue. The scenery wasn't anything special, but being warm and dry during vigorous hikes while winter raged not far away was special--day after day. We were slow to realize that the unusually warm, dry winter that killed the ski season at the top the aerial tram at Palm Springs created an opportunity for us, which was to do the area's classic summer hiking going from the valley floor to the top of the lift.

Unusually, the entire trail to the upper tram station was already almost completely snow-free in early February. We far exceeded our previous greatest elevation gain day by hiking 8,300' to the upper station in a little over 7 hours with no altitude acclimation. The passage of time over the next couple of months gave me a deeper appreciation as to how rare it is to even have the opportunity to do that much gain in a day. That particular trail is unusually steep so the distance is in day-hiking range plus we limited our total output by only hiking up and then riding the tram down--ahh.

Looking through Window Rock in Tucson.
Later in Tucson, Bill pushed our endurance out by planning an 18.5 mile hike, with 15 miles being our customary big effort (though one we've only started doing in the last 6 months.) And then in March we managed to secure a cabin at the bottom of the Grand Canyon so we could have the experience of visiting Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River without hiking down and back up in the same day. On that 2 night outing to Phantom Ranch we hiked over 30 miles in 3 days, which matches or is close to an all-time high for us.

Tromping the trails in Albuquerque reminded me that all of these "first's" were indebted to our journey into the world of forefoot striking that began in the Alps in the fall of 2009. There I enviously watched a handful of experienced local hikers effortlessly and quickly navigate steep, rocky descents. In contrast, we slowly and fearfully picked our way down the same slopes aided by walking sticks. I wanted what they had: confidence, speed, and ease on the treacherous slopes. Soon thereafter, a chance viewing of a trail run event on Austrian TV inspired an online search about trail running, which revealed that trail runners hate steep descents because like me, they destroyed their knees and quads. And next up was a solution offered to them: forefoot striking. This year's "first's" wouldn't have happened had we not hiked barefoot, worn numerous models of minimalist shoes, and tediously worked through transition injuries to become forefoot strikers. Our bodies couldn't have withstood the stresses of doing the miles we did this winter as heel strikers.

It was also entertaining when we were tromping down a long descent to catalog all of the little advances we'd made this winter because of having the Ortisei mountain run as a goal for the summer. A huge benefit was that the Italian event motivated Bill to put in the drudge work to finally fixing his foot/Achilles problem instead of backing off on his therapy when the pain went away. That meant no more periodic sitting-out hikes because it was time for him to tend to it again.

Bill flashing his gaiters on our sunny lunch rock down from Oso Pass, NM.
Knowing that one of our biggest obstacles to participating in the summer running event would be training injuries, we both stepped up our stretching programs to support our more vigorous workouts and happily, made some break-throughs with nagging old problems. And then there were the accessories that we wouldn't have bothered with, like trying a new minimalist running shoe company's product and also discovering that wearing small hip packs on our bellies neatly resolved some of the limitations of our pocketless backpacks. With the hip packs, we could keep snacks close at hand when either 'speed hiking' in which we don't pause for 2-3 hours or when social hiking with folks that don't eat as often as we do.

The fun side of the domino effect happened when I watched the video for our new running shoes that mentioned their built-in Velcro tab for mountain running gaiters. Gaiters specialized for trail running were news to me but I instantly knew that they could be a game-changer for Bill. Bill's feet have an amazing talent for scooping up rocks and tucking them into his footwear, even when he is wearing sandals. If the gaiters worked well, they could prevent numerous stops for Bill to clear debris from under his feet. It wasn't hard to decide between the dark, dignified "Joe Trailman" gaiters or psychedelic Dirty Girl gaiters to go with his red shoes and mine that were orange and lime green (the only shoe colors available). Soon we were proud owners of gaiters in prints named: Venomous, Meltdown, and Shattered Red.

More Social Connection
This winter we also had the pleasure of more substantial social encounters along the way than before. We met Diane in Zion who is a robust hiker that was fascinated by our barefooting and minimalist shoe hiking as well as our speed. She was much faster than us on the flatter terrain but couldn't quite catch us on the uphills even though she is 10 years younger than we are. We had a number of long conversations with her about the related hiking/training issues as well as our life style choice of being near full-time travelers.

A San Diego family welcomed us like long lost relatives when we arrived in Death Valley for Thanksgiving. We had met them last year and were campground neighbors both then and this year. They introduced us to some of the other repeat visitors for the holiday and filled us in on the neighborhood gossip. And we shared the next holiday with RV park neighbors at a Christmas dinner pot luck in Palm Springs. There we also met a hiking couple with whom we car pooled for several hikes. Like with Diane in Zion, we have kept in touch with the hikers in hopes of rendezvousing in the future. And at the end of March, we visited with our irrepressible friend Iva in Phoenix. More social connection than usual was a pleasant aspect of this traveling season as we often only have brief, polite, business-oriented conversations with others while on the road.

No summit sign at the top of S. Sandia Peak near ABQ at about 9700'.
Good Health
We had fewer health dramas this 2013/14 traveling season than the previous two years. There were no trips to the ER and our ailments were limited to bruises and bangs self-inflicted on the trails, none of which slowed us down much. Last year Bill was side-lined for about a week each with a nasty cold at Yosemite and with a bad skin split at the base of his big toe in Albuquerque. My usual show-stoppers tend to be orthopedic issues with dislocation-type changes in my ankles causing significant leg and knee pain. But this year we only experienced low-grade issues--a pile of band-aids and generous use of our heavy duty gel packs for icing kept us active until our sports massage folks in Portland could straighten us out on a deeper level.

Active in Albuquerque
We'd planned to divide our last month on the road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque but the extra 1,400' in elevation at Santa Fe over Albuquerque meant it was freezing almost every night there, which would have been chilling and necessitated draining our fresh water and sewer hoses every night. The colder nights in Santa Fe and then learning that the monthly rate at our ABQ RV park was a break-even over the weekly rate after about 2 weeks made it easy to decide to skip Santa Fe. At first we were disappointed to miss the extra altitude training that Santa Fe offered, but we soon found ABQ's thin air was sufficiently challenging.

Our urban RV park in ABQ was about a 10 minute drive to a trail head that gave us direct access to several hikes in the Sandia Mtns. Hawkview is a short, steep trail that is perfect for a relative rest day hike with a lovely, sheltered viewpoint for lunch. The trail to Oso Pass let us work on endurance and branched to the summit trail of the 9,700' South Sandia Peak. And like last year, being on the Oso Pass trail resulted in an encounter with someone eager to share their experiences with bears and mountain lions on the same trail. We listened wide-eyed, hoping to cull a few more survival tips. And with our longer stay in ABQ this year, we explored several unfamiliar hikes that are favorites with the locals.

The view from the top of Pyramid Trail at Gallup, NM.
The Trip Home
Maintaining Our Fitness
Frustrated with his poor showing for finding cool hikes for us on the drive home from the SW last year, Bill was even more motivated this time to solve the difficult problem so we could maintain our fitness level for Ortisei. His planning began with picking the route home on the basis of hiking opportunities. The goal was to make some sort of a hike almost every day with a full day or 2 over the course of 2 weeks devoted to a bigger outing.

Each day that we could be active on the trip home felt like a victory. We began our road trip by doing a 30 minute jog in ABQ on our departure day and then taking an absolutely stunning hike out of Gallup, NM the next day. The last time through, we'd missed doing the Pyramid Trail that essentially starts at Gallup's rodeo grounds because of a local dust storm. We didn't know that the hike was anything special but had made note of it because it was close to the freeway as well as the campground in which we stayed. We'll to that hike again and again because it delivers an impressive red rock scenic experience in 2 hours RT with almost 1,000' in elevation gain.

We also had less-stellar but handy, satisfying trail walks at Flagstaff, AZ and Page, AZ before beginning our driving days. Next up was Bill's trophy hike for the trip home in a carved, red rock canyon outside of Page, AZ. It was a 10 mile drive on a dirt road in and out and a night of dry camping at a tiny rustic campground. The tiny campground was full when we arrived but a couple with a huge trailer allowed us to tuck-in on the back end of their slot to be legal. This stop to hike Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch was one of the highlights of the season, not just the trip home.

Note where the recent flash flood left debris.
But the approaching storm that motivated us to only spend 1 night instead of 2 on the dirt road that becomes absolutely impassable, even to 4WD jeeps when wet, spoiled several days of Bill's planned hikes. Instead of hiking our way through Utah, we settled for a trail run graced by a few snowflakes and then called it good. One afternoon we turned on the TV after we'd parked for the night to find that there had been a small but unconfined wildfire near us and those high winds that had given us a lovely tailwind had resulted in the freeway being closed behind us due to poor visibility from dust once the winds hit 60mph. Then it was a pounding by a 1/2" of rain and freezing overnight temperatures that made us huddle indoors. Suddenly driving days looked like a good choice.

Other Transitions
Leaving the red rock landscape behind and hitting the middle of Utah highlighted that we were in the transition zone between the West's north and south. It was where the sounds of coyotes at dusk in the SW were often replaced by chorus of herded cows. And it was where I realized that the fleets of rental RV's primarily driven by Europeans had vanished and instead almost all of our overnight neighbors were folks like us in their own rigs from Oregon and Washington who were heading home for the summer.

When parked under a tree canopy in a southern Idaho RV park we were slow to understand what had changed. It was 4 pm and in the SW we would have been bathed by bright sunlight through our camper's skylight but it was so dark--even with all of our lights on. "It's the trees" we slowly realized. We'd preferred to have been surrounded by light-sharing cacti than those lovely shade trees. There was no forgetting that we'd made the transition to the north and that we'd be home soon.

"You Don't Have Snowshoes, Do You?"
Bill dropped in on the National Forest office in Baker City, OR in hopes of getting information about road conditions for the hike he'd planned for the next day. It was our last "in transit" hike before our biggest driving day and he wanted it to be good. The staffer scrunched her face and said that there really wasn't any good hiking in the area right then, that it was just too early. Then she said "You don't have snowshoes with you, do you?" He grinned and said "Yes." One of my fantasies for our US travels was to be ready to be active in any weather. Our nearly-new snowshoes and cross country skis that had only been closet clutter for the last 18 months showed their worth as the woman proceeded with explaining that the Anthony Lakes Ski Area was closed but the conditions were still good for snowshoeing.

Barb's permanently shriveled boots became "left behinds".
We had a brief setback in our snow play when I pulled my new waterproof, minimalist hiking boots out of the cabinet for snowshoeing and their first wearing this season only to discover that they were ruined. A dehumidifying chemical in the cabinet had spilled and irreversibly shriveled the leather. Ouch!

An expensive pair of foot wear was now useless and then I wondered if my snowshoeing adventure would be trashed too. But the unworn, $10 water shoes I had bought as an experiment saved my day. I intentionally bought them oversized and was able to wear thin wool socks and Goretex waterproof socks and and still have loads of room for my wide feet. The warm day and our high level of activity ensured that my feet stayed toasty until we slowed down on our return to the parking lot.

I had happy feet and it was a delightful day on the snow. Sunny, 50 degrees, and light winds made for a stellar outing. The only thing that would have made it better would have been compliance from the folks in the "No Snow Mobiles" area. But darn it anyway, we had to occasionally plug our ears and scramble out of the way of snow mobiles on our track.

Ironically, our first and only previous snowshoeing experience had been at Anthony Lakes in the fall of 2012. At that time we cautiously took a loop around Anthony Lake on our cross country skis, had lunch in our camper, and then headed out for a loop on our brand new snow shoes. Not wanting to be stiff and sore from the new activities, we kept our snow play time short and saved our concentration for the tricky drive down the steep, snow covered road with our camper on board.

A glorious day & a dandy CV workout on snowshoes.
We were stunned on this our 2nd adventure on snow shoes: we felt so strong and confident. We didn't bother with the relatively flat lake loop but headed into the woods and powered our way up what looked to be a Black Diamond level downhill ski slope. About 45 minutes into it, it dawned on us why we were doing so much better the 2nd time: it was our partial altitude acclimation from our 3 weeks at 5,600' in ABQ. We started at 7,200' and went to about 8,000' at Anthony Lake. It was hard work and we slid backwards in mushy snow on the steepest sections but we were far from overwhelmed--instead we felt triumphant.

Finale: May 2
Bill had developed an appetite for finales this winter and the weather just-held for his last big event. We would end our road trip like it started, with camping in the Columbia River Gorge and making the 5,000' gain hike to the top of Mt Defiance. But best laid plans…. Bill was having a bad case of "keto flu" the day we arrived in the Gorge. Not quite a week into our latest, weird diet, Bill was having a classic 'flu-like' distress but without the expulsions. Since I'd clearly be hiking alone the next day, I opted to do the longer but lower Larch Mtn instead because I'd feel safer: the trail was easier to follow and there would be more people on it.

Bill felt slightly better in the morning and decided to push himself to keep up with me through the first steep pitch and then go back to the camper to spend the day recovering from his indiscretion. Knowing that we are too often on the verge of running out of food and water, I suggested he pack provisions for the full hike "Just in case." We'll never know if it was lucky timing or the magic of exertional challenge when "being keto" but "The Sick One" took off like a jack rabbit. We had to take the longer Wahkeena Trail because the lower bridge was out on the main trail to Larch Mtn, which added 4 extra miles. It was ultimately an 18 miler with 4,800' of gain and the "The Sick One" beat me to the top by 1-2 minutes. And ironically, there was almost no one on the trail, in part because the road was still closed for the winter to the viewpoint at the top. We had gone all-out on the way up and took many, many needed pauses to rest on the way down.

The trilliums were still in full bloom at 3500'.
It was a fitting end: the rains arrived early and we heard the pitter-pat on our camper roof the evening of our big hike though they weren't in the forecast until the next day. But we had been lucky--again. We had squeezed in our last hike in good weather and Bill's metabolic upset had resolved in time for him to have a great finale. We'd had many near-misses this season but had had many happy endings as well and this was certainly one to celebrate.

We weren't however pleased to again spend the weekend unloading our gear from the camper and the camper from the truck in the rain. But rain had been in the forecast and we'd planned for it. For the first time, we'd completed all of the wet cleaning, like hand shampooing the camper's bits of carpet, washing the window screens, and polishing the wood work, while we were still in the land of low humidity. We'd also done more culling and organizing of our gear during our drive home than usual to simplify the unloading process. All work and no play was ahead of us, but at least we had refilled our "play hard" reservoir before the serious work of being at home began.

The pressure to have more altitude acclimation time in Europe shaved a week off of our "at home" time this spring. Our 5 week stay in town would be filled with chores, appointments, and fitness activities. We hoped to make one big hike a week, fit in one 30-35 minute jog per week, do a P90X workout on all non-hiking days, and go for some bike rides to keep in shape. And our always-treasured massage appointments were even more important to us during this stay to clear-out any brewing injuries in preparation for our first mountain run in July.

We'd compress the transition as best we could between being in the SW to gearing up for 89 days in Europe. Bill had our travels in the Alps of Austria and Italy entirely planned and booked, a trip that would include more cycling than has been the case the last several years. Our first stop would be in the lower elevation Lake District of Italy for jet lag recovery, then we'd head for the mountains for 3 weeks and hope that the snow had cleared from the trails. By then we'd definitely be in 'count down' mode for our big event, the Ortisei mountain run, on July 13. Now the only question is what we'll do next year to keep us pushing: Will we do the mountain run a 2nd time or find something new?