#1 Onto the SW (October-November 2013)
Under Way
On the road at last, we had several layers of chaos behind us but our nest was still a mess. Normally putting away the piles of essentials that we hurriedly load into the camper is a top priority but at the beginning of this season there were other tugs. Squeezing in a last big hike on Larch Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge and a smaller effort near Madras, OR between rain storms was too good to pass up and then there were the series of unexpected cabinetry and faucet repairs to be made.

Mt. Jefferson & Lake Billy Chinook viewed from our last Oregon hike.
The single big drawer in our 2 year old Arctic Fox camper not only came off its tracks when Bill pulled it out, part of the tracks came with it. Instantly the clutter destined for that drawer made a beeline to our seats at the dinette for the next 3 days. First, the drill that concurrently failed would have to be replaced and be allowed to charge, then glue around the dowels into which the new screws would go needed to dry. Next, another drawer demanded attention and the failure of a previous repair on the kitchen faucet created a minor 'water in the cabinet behind the barrier' problem. "Oh, the joys of ownership."

A dab of SuperGlue had been enough to solve the faucet problem with the first failure but it didn't do the trick the second time. When we arrived in Klamath Falls near the California border, our unsuccessful search for new faucet head "innards" had us concerned that we'd soon be looking for a whole new faucet system. The surefire problem-solving strategy of looking online for parts had let us down and our big driving day was spent instead going in circles from one Klamath Falls home improvement store to the next, reminiscent of the figure 8's we had done in Portland a few days earlier. We'd be more than 3 weeks into our trip before we had a properly functioning faucet and that was after paying about double what we would have paid at home. The good news was that we had put the current bad weather behind us: we escaped with an overnight low of 20 d in Klamath Falls, winds, and a dusting of snow.

A compound adjacent to a Nevada highway rest stop.
"We've Arrived!"
The goal in leaving the Pacific NW was to get out of the rain. As we drove south on the less traveled Hwy 39/139 into California, the goal became to get out of the cold. Taking one of the more easterly routes to the SW put us at 4,000-6,000' for days, which was a pleasant change of scenery but chilling. We lived in our heaviest long johns and wore our fleece sleeping hats at night in order to be comfortable. It paid to bundle up given we were out in the biting wind when we switched drivers every 30 minutes and when eating lunch in the camper that cooled as we drove. Snow on the highest points and overnight lows in the 20's encouraged us to keep heading south. But on the day that began around 4,000' at Hawthorne, NV; peaked at over 6,000' in Tonopah; and ended at 3400' Beatty near Death Valley, we knew we'd arrived.

We backed our rigs into a spot at the rustic RV park on the edge of Beatty, NV and immediately went for a walk in the desert terrain on a trail 10' from our door. "Ah, we are finally in the SW" (at least by our standards). It was 50 degrees with no wind at sunset as we strode in rocky grit amongst the shrubby mesquite looking towards the distant hills devoid of snow. "Yes! It was only going to get better." It was another freezing night but the weather system that had dropped temperatures everywhere along our route was passing and with it would go the chilling nights.

"Arriving" also meant an end to our long driving days. Bill's appointment for his Global Entry pass in Las Vegas had put us on a tighter schedule than we preferred and necessitated exceeding our usual 150 miles/day limit. Being caffeine-free, we resorted to playing Janis Joplin albums a bit too loud to stay alert on the less scenic expanses of Nevada's highway system. But that was behind us. We'd spend 2 nights in Vegas to restock our pantry, pick-up both a package sent to us General Delivery and our special-order kitchen faucet at an RV store, and deliver Bill to his appointment. Then we'd be off the clock, only needing to strategically plan our stays at fast-filling campgrounds on the weekends and for Thanksgiving in Death Valley. That was the plan but unfortunately neither of our 2 packages arrived as scheduled so we returned to Las Vegas 2 weeks later to fetch them.

Everything looks different to us in the SW.
Flummoxed by the Weather
We'd arrived on the SW's doorstep without an itinerary and slowly realized that our default strategy wouldn't work. The previous 2 years we'd gone home for Christmas, trading the worst of the SW's winter for that of the Pacific NW's. Bill had envisioned making a beeline for Big Bend, TX this year but then realized it was best to be there at the end of winter, not on winter's approach. Blithely looking for 4,000' elevation gain hikes would likely put us in cold, harsh weather, if not snow, anywhere in the SW. It became clear that we should stay near the mountains as long as the weather held to maximize our steep hiking opportunities and let the snowy weather push us due south.

"Plan B" would begin by lingering in the region but looking for elevation. Zion National Park, UT was an obvious choice with its steep trails and lovely setting. Nearby Snow Canyon would give us a few days of less-strenuous hiking at lower elevations in another stunning area. The Red Rock area outside of Las Vegas would be a relatively warm and dramatic area to entertain us before taking refuge in Death Valley. Then perhaps we'd explore the hiking on a steep mountain outside of Palm Springs that we rode our loaded bikes up 15+ years ago.

Training for the Ortisei, Italy mountain run in July 2014 had given our travels a new focus. Bill always planned our routes with playing hard as a priority and this year we'd be even more driven. Steep trails and lots of them would be the main course on our menu. The Ortisei event is 9 miles long with 4,200' of gain, so we'd be looking to match one or both of those numbers as often as possible and ideally, once a week. Second best would be doing hard climbs on our bikes or doing laps up and down lower gain trails to match the level of effort.

Grand views from a new-to-us Zion trail.
Zion National Park, UT
Knowing the Ropes
We were treated to a gorgeous week of fall weather in the middle of November at Zion this year. Having the benefit of staying there before, we carefully planned our hikes on the north facing side of the canyon early in the week when the highs were in the 70's and shifted to hiking on the south facing slopes late in the week when the highs dropped into the 60's. Two bike rides in the main canyon gave us some relative-rest days as did an unexpected outing to "Do the Narrows" in the river.

Another benefit of this being a repeat visit to Zion was that we knew where we wanted to spend our time and didn't need to drive as many miles to explore the park as before. In addition to spending more time doing satisfying activities, it also meant that we weren't compelled to off-load our camper. Zipping around with only the truck is a relief but in a park with no sewer or water hook-ups, it's nicer to have the camper on the truck so as to make daily trips to the nearby dump station to experience "Out with the old (water), in with the new (fresh) water." Less scrimping on shower water and no use of the campground's outdoor, cold water sink for doing dishes and washing produce would be an excellent trade-off for lugging the camper around with us.

Properly outfitted & keeping upright."
Doing the Narrows"
"Doing the Narrows" of Zion Canyon had escaped us as a 'must do' activity though it was brought to our attention by a campground neighbor. Not having done much in the way of water sports as a child made Bill less than enthusiastic but further quizzing of waders shedding their rented outfits tipped the balance for him. They universally thought it was a wonderful experience of Zion and its deep canyon, so off we went a few days later.

Doing the Narrows is one of those slightly reckless activities that gets institutionalized to the point that more risk-averse people like us end up doing them. In the fall and winter the proper attire is a pair of low top water boots, a pair of neoprene booties, a set of waterproof bib overalls or pants, and a thick wooden staff. For $39 + tax per person we rented our gear the night before and headed out the next morning with zero guidance of what to do.

Doing the Narrows involves walking upstream in the river when no land is available at the base of the narrow canyon walls. Most of the time our wading was in water knee to crotch depth though it was much deeper in many places. Places where the water was deeper and faster moving pushed us up the learning curve as to how to stay upright. We both quickly settled upon moving slightly diagonally upstream as the best strategy. I was hugely aided by directly facing the current and side stepping across the river because my legs created less resistance to the force of the water when my knees pointed precisely into the pressure. Bill devised the "2-hands on the staff" approach, leaning upstream on the stick. Combining our respective techniques kept us upright--barely--and moving at a respectable pace though not all were so lucky.

Bill in the Narrows.
As promised by the gear vendor, the downstream return was much easier than going up. We'd been unconvinced early on given that avoiding a dunking seemed to be the biggest challenge. Our fun adventure turned more serious towards the end of our downstream return when we discovered that a woman we'd passed earlier had sprained her ankle. But lucky her: an ER doc happened to be wading by about the time of her injury and he ruled-out a fracture. Her much shorter friends hadn't been very successful in supporting her has she hobbled back to the "trail" head but a tall young local guide kindly walked her out. A part of me was't surprised at the number of talented fellow waders that was revealed during this time of need: there always seems to be a diverse group of highly skilled people in the outdoor adventure crowd.

Despite seeing one of the hazards of the sport before our very eyes, we still anticipated 'Doing the Narrows' again when in Zion. Walking against the resistance of the water was great cross training for our hiking and cycling because it used many of the same muscles in different ways. And in addition to seeing the splendor of Zion from a new perspective, we delighted in the distinctive sensations of the wading: the deeper water forced the air out of our pants making our legs feel like tightly compressed sausages; our feet were constantly wet but didn't get cold as expected; and it was strange to persistently battle the current just to stand up.

Fan Club of 1
It was at Zion that we received a tremendous affirmation of our fitness lifestyle that had us glowing for days. Early on one of our steep hiking days we passed a very capable woman hiking alone up the tough grade. Unbeknownst to us, she was horrified to have been passed by a couple that was clearly older than her, one in thin sandals and the other who was barefoot. She reacted by rallying all of her strength to catch us to ask "What are you eating, drinking, or smoking that makes you so strong?" When she mentioned her curiosity to other hikers she (and we) passed, their conclusion was that we were merely crazy.

Diane, who can run circles around us off the grades, gained on us on the flat segments of trail but was dropped by us on the next grade. Not knowing she was trying to catch up, the pattern of almost catching us but then dropping back was repeated several times. Later I told her we'd happily have stopped to chat if she'd hollered but she indicated that she relished the challenge of overtaking us. Her game was suddenly over when we paused at a trail junction where we must have talked together for close to an hour.

Diane, 52, and her 60 year old boyfriend who stayed home to work, were confronting demons we'd already faced down, such as the drive to keep on achieving professionally. Reporting our larger story in a call to her boyfriend that night was enough to make him back-down from closing the deal on a new work commitment. The long conversation with her that day and several shorter ones over the next several days had her charting new waters for both of them. A little bit of experimenting on her part convinced her that they too could leave their knee problems behind by shifting to lighter footwear and forefoot striking when hiking. She could also see just as clearly that it was time for them to cultivate self care practices like yoga and massage to keep themselves active and fit for years to come.

Snow Canyon: fun, fascinating, & lovely.
We were all amused by the many parallels between their lives and ours and Diane was chagrinned that there could have been even more of the favorable parallels if only they had dared. She could see that we all had had the same opportunities but that they hadn't taken the big step needed to shift their focus. For our part, we were pleased to have been a catalyst for change--we always hope that our examples of good self-care will inspire others to do more to enhance their wellness and well being.

Snow Canyon State Park, UT
Lovely little Snow Canyon in far southwestern Utah quickly became a favorite red rock stopover once we began traveling with our camper. It lacks the steep climbs we crave but it is so beautiful, so peaceful that we are instantly mesmerized every time we visit. The petrified or lithified sand dune mounds in strong reds and whites intermittently framed by jagged black basalt are captivating. We stare, we murmur, and we stare some more. Our bare feet delight in climbing the solidified dunes with their mini-terracing as though successive waves had been frozen. We're never successful in maintaining a vigorous walking speed in Snow Canyon because it's too much fun to roam and let our feet play. And it's so soothing to one's being and so delightful to the eyes when in Snow Canyon that it's always hard to leave.

A glimpse of the dramatic I-15 gorge from our hike.
This fall as before, our visit to Zion was bracketed by short stays at nearby Snow Canyon and with each visit we accumulate a few more stories about the park. The disappointing rain showers on our departure day triggered a new story from the Camp Host. He told Bill that heavy rain drives away the campground guests but draws the locals for a drive through. If the rain is continuous, then some of the water collects in the little basins on top of the sandstone mounds and lava fields. Once the water accumulation is sufficient for it to spill over the faces as waterfalls, the locals will flock to the park for the sole purpose of viewing the multiple cascades of water. Death Valley aficionados track the rainfall for viewing the subsequent wild flower blooms; in Snow Canyon the rain is relished for the waterfalls.

The Virgin River Recreation Area, AZ
Exactly one week after "Doing the Narrows" of the Virgin River in Zion Canyon we were again fording the Virgin River some 70 miles downstream from Zion National Park but without the gear. Each time we drive the stretch of I-15 between St George, UT and Las Vegas, NV we are wide-eyed at the short, steep-walled gorge where I-15 briefly cuts through Arizona. Like being on an amusement park ride where you cannot stop if you want to, we oblige by doing our best to keep pace with the traffic rather than stop to stare at the dramatic scenery because there is no place to stop. But always in search of another hiking venue, Bill's research after our last riveting ride through the area revealed that there was a place to stop, a place that had a little campground and a single, long trail. The catch was that one had to ford the river shortly after the trail left the campground to access the majority of the route.

The fast moving river looked impassable to causal hikers like us as we studied it during our downstream trek from the campground to the posted crossing area. Once there, we swapped our novice water-reading assessments and decided it was a no-go for us. "Too deep; too fast there and over there" we concluded. We followed the river's edge as best we could as we continued downstream looking for a safer place to cross. We reluctantly returned to take a second look at the official crossing when our progress downstream was blocked by the sheer face of the red rocks at the water's edge.

Bill scouting the river's depth for us.
After further study of the currents, Bill volunteered to directly assess the difficulty of crossing, leaving his pack and long pants on the shore. He quickly learned we'd been completely wrong: using our newly honed fording skills, Bill crossed with relative ease in the fast-moving water that turned out to be knee-deep at most. We'd assumed the water was much deeper. He returned to fetch his belongings and we both safely made it to the opposite shore without mishap and continued our walk towards Sullivan Canyon. Unfortunately the forecast rain cut lose shortly after we arrived at the distant canyon, compelling us to turn around prematurely. The good news however was that the worst of the downpours and gusty winds of the next big storm held-off until we arrived back at our camper an hour and a half later. Our hike had been cut short but we'd had a fine, confidence-building adventure by making the river crossing several times that day.

Moving Into the Desert
The storm system that shortened our hike in the Virgin River area dumped record-breaking amounts of rain over the next several days. The rain and dark skies were all the talk in Las Vegas where we laid over 2 nights to tend to chores. We hoped that there would be a silver-lining in the clouds for us--we hoped that they would spur a wildflower bloom in Death Valley, our next destination.