Thursday, May 29, 2014

Meeting special friends and hitting the trails in Moab

May 22-24, 2014
Portal RV Resort
Moab, Utah

Choosing a campground in Moab was easy after learning that three couples whom we follow on blogs all have the same favorite site at Portal RV Resort. The best part was learning that one of these couples, Gay and Joe of Good Times Rollin’, would be there at the same time as us.

Portal has two different sections: a campground with gravel sites and fewer amenities and a resort side with lots for sale or rent. Some of the resort sites have been improved by the owners with special landscaping and outdoor furniture and gazebos.

All the sites on the resort side have concrete pads with large patios and staying in the resort includes  access to a lovely pool and spa and a dog park.

A few of the owners’ sites have the largest casitas we have ever seen. Seems like there should be a different name for these three level adobe structures. Most of the RVers who stay here have come to do some serious four-wheeling. We have never seen so many beefed-up Jeeps, and other types of all terrain vehicles. Lots of toys.

When we pulled in to our site at Portal, we were delighted to learn that Gay and Joe were just across from us. It was only a matter of minutes before Gay popped out of her motorhome exclaiming, “Pam and Vic are here!”  What a warm welcome from someone we have only known from following each other’s blog the past year. We knew we shared some important things in common: like us, they are completing their third year of full-timing in a motorhome; their “canine dependents” are an important part of their lifestyle; and they like to be active. Gay and I were also teachers and we both share a love of flowers and birds. Reading their blog and seeing their hikes (along with Pam and John of Oh, the Places They Go! and Hans and Lisa of Metamorphosis Road) inspired us to get some good hiking boots and get out there on the trails.

We quickly learned that getting out on the trails in Moab can mean at least three different things: hiking, mountain biking, or four-wheeling. Four-wheeling is also one of Gay and Joe’s hobbies. It didn’t take long in our first conversation together for them to invite us to go four-wheeling with them the following morning in Pearl, their beefed-up Jeep (off-road enhancements). They were kind enough to choose a moderate trail for our maiden journey: Kane Creek Hurrah Pass.

The scenery driving in on this dirt road was quite interesting. Lots of small campers and tents strategically placed out on this BLM land.

We were a little surprised to see this house built into the rocks. There must be a colorful story regarding its occupants.

It didn’t take long to figure out that we were in good hands with Joe’s skills and cautious sensibility. When we came to a challenge in the road, he typically got out to assess the situation and plan a strategy for tire placement so we wouldn’t get high-centered (the frame caught on an obstacle).

Aside from having a great time taking in the views and experiencing the thrill of sitting in the Jeep at various angles, we learned about airing-down the tires, sway bar disconnecting, rock crawling, the importance of a skid plate, and the likelihood of adding to Pearl’s Utah pin-striping (scratches).

Fortunately, we didn’t learn firsthand the importance of having a winch and strap, necessary additions in case of the need to call for a recovery, like these folks in the truck had to do. (The word rescue is only for wimps).

I also learned about the added advantage of being able to lock the differentials which allows both wheels to turn at the same speed regardless of traction—a feature I think Joe plans to add. Another term I learned about later, called “leather-pinching,” is something I never had to do because the trail wasn’t that gnarly and, I think for our sake, Joe was often driving in “granny low”—a speed that would allow your grandmother to pass you in her walker. 

We were especially impressed with Joe’s ability to just “kiss” the rocks that appeared as large obstacles along the trail. Another thing we really appreciated was the light rain that occurred the night before which helped prevent us from having to “suck sand”—as we were riding with the windows off. There were only a couple challenges when it looked like we would be three-wheeling instead of four-wheeling and it was at one of these points when Joe wisely decided to turn around.

Like Gay realized in her post about this trip, we both were so busy talking there are no photos of us, but I promise we were both in the back of the Jeep. What a fun experience this was for us to see off-road sites we would never be able to see on our own and to bond with Gay and Joe in this way—with Joe’s life in our hands!

Our day two plan was originally going to be hiking in Arches National Park while Gay and Joe were out four-wheeling with friends visiting from Belgium. With Memorial Weekend upon us, the string of cars lining up to the park entrance caused us to go with Plan B: a trip to the Island in the Sky part of Canyonlands National Park, a little less than an hour’s drive away.

What a great choice this turned out to be. There was no line at the gate and the scenery was absolutely breathtaking, much like a mini-Grand Canyon. After reading the park newspaper, we quickly decided to do the recommended four-hour agenda: hike the Grand View Point (2 miles), Mesa Arch (.5 mile), and Upheaval Dome Overlook  (2.6 mile) trails. 

canyonland map

Our first stop at Grand View Point, the southern-most point on Canyonland’s high mesa, turned out to be the most breathtaking views of the day. We were lucky to catch a ranger talk at the first overlook which gave us a greater appreciation for the geology of this gorgeous sedimentary rock canyon carved out by the forces of the Colorado and Green River. He said that each layer contains clues revealing the varied features of Utah’s geology over time as the climate once resembled a tropical coast, interior desert, and everything in between except what you might find in the tundra of the North Pole.

From this overlook, you can hike out one mile to the right on a wide sandstone trail along the edge of the bluff. These are some of the views we encountered on this part of the trail (with threatening storms in the distance that luckily never came our way).

We learned only recently that they use cairns (stacked rocks of two more stones) to mark the trail—works much better than breadcrumbs). It’s rather fun to stop and appreciate their different designs.

Another delight along the trail were the unexpected clumps of various wildflowers. After I looked at these photos, I tried to match the images with their names from the park service website.
View album
View album
Desert Indian Paintbrush
View album
Hopi Blanketflower
View album
View album
Mountain Pepper Plant
View album
Princes Plume

From Grand Point, we drove a short distance to an area known as Upheaval Dome, a three-mile wide 1,000-foot deep crater. Geologists have two possible theories for what caused Upheaval Dome, a salt dome bubbling up or the more widely regarded theory of a meteor strike creating a large impact crater. In either case, it was worth seeing.

There are two overlooks on the trail, with the closest one a third of a mile up about 150 feet of stone steps. Again, there are cairns to mark the trail to the second overlook which requires descending about 180 feet around the jagged sandstone rim. We enjoyed some of the challenges of this trail (my first time scrambling on slick rock) and the surprise of a smiley face to guide the way.

Mesa Arch, just a few miles down the road from Upheaval Dome, was our last destination for the day. This spot is popular for its sunrise views with the backdrop of the La Sal Mountains. (If we were staying longer, I would like to get up this early to see it.)  It is also popular since it only requires a short hike of half a mile to see it.

I actually had to wait my turn to pose for this slightly scary photo on top of the arch. The secret was not to look at the drop off behind me.

As we were leaving this stunning place, we stopped to take one more photo using the panorama setting on the camera. Someone at this overlook was kind enough to take a photo of us too.

Now if this day wasn’t enough fun, we had dinner plans to look forward to with Gay and Joe and their friends from Belgium, Catherine and Guy. When we returned to the RV resort, I headed to the pool and spa for an hour of refreshment before joining Joe and Gay and four of their friends at one of the best spots in town, the Moab Brewery. The food and beer was very good, but the sharing of laughter and fun stories was even better. Here is a photo (that I stole from Gay’s blog) that captures this memorable occasion.
  gays brewery photo

By day three of our one-week stay, our only regret was that we only had four more days to enjoy this recreational mecca.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A day trip to Mesa Verde and final days in Durango

May 19-21, 2014
Alpen Rose RV Park
Durango, Colorado

This post should be called Durango Part II, although instead of covering six days this time, I am only writing about how we spent our last three last days here.

Monday was a bit of slow day for us as I had an appointment for a haircut at noon and Vic took the Jeep into town for an oil change in the morning. (Full-time RV life really does include the mundane as well as the exciting.) After my much-needed haircut, I wanted to shop at the locally-owned organic grocery in town, Nature’s Oasis, for some vegies and their bakery goods from Serious Delights which we had tasted at the James Ranch. The most exciting part of the day for us happened later that night on TV. We are big Dancing with the Stars fans and this Monday night was the finales. If you are curious, we were both hoping Meryl and Max would win because we felt she was the best technical dancer, and, after thirteen seasons, we think Maks finally deserved to win the mirror ball . Having said that, we were also big supporters of Amy who did an incredible job dancing with prosthetic lower legs.

I can’t begin to write about the next day, Tuesday, May 20, without acknowledging this date is the third anniversary of my mom’s death. I felt her spirit hovering close. It was most evident in the surprise sighting of one her favorite flowers: Forget Me Nots, a flower with a rather appropriate name for the occasion.

Tuesday was the day we reserved to visit Mesa Verde National Park. Since it is an hour away to the entrance, then almost another hour to the popular trailheads, we had to carefully plan our day in terms of being away from the dogs. (Alpen Rose RV Park has dog walkers for hire, but we did not think ahead enough to arrange this option.) Another challenge was Vic getting a severe bloody nose in the morning which put a bit of a caution sign in terms of our hiking plans but we decided to go for it anyway.

The drive to Mesa Verde on Hwy 160 is quite pretty.

From the reading we had done ahead of time, it was pretty clear when we were seeing the Green Table (Mesa Verde in English). The cliff dwellings are located on the back side of this large plateau. The ancestral Pueblo People cultivated crops on top of the mesa.Vic learned that “table” is a bit of a misnomer because the mesa is rather slanted which was a bonus in terms of farming on this part of the land as this tilt gave them  twenty-two days more of sunshine. The more accurate term for this geologic feature in Spanish is a “cuesta.”

The brand new Visitor’s Center at the entrance to the park has some of the most lifelike recreations of the we have ever seen, much like those you would find in a wax museum. These dioramas of the Pueblo People sure helped us better appreciate and envision what we were seeing when we visited the cliff dwellings.

Our plan for the day was to spend all of our time in the Chapin Mesa section of the park where we would visit the museum, hike the Petroglyph Point and Spruce Canyon trails and see the sites along the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road.

mesa verde map

All seemed doable until we headed out with no one else around on the Petroglyph Point Trail. Being the rookies we are for this type of hiking, we were a little surprised to see features of the trail that we considered on the challenging side. (The hike is described in the park literature as moderate.) Fortunately, I had read enough blogs (see: Oh, the Places They Go, Good Times Rollin,’ and Metamorphosis Road) to know that we were supposed to walk through this slot.

The next challenge on the Petroglyph Point Trail came in the form of very narrow steps leading down the trail. Vic did not like the steepness that faced us but I also know he just wasn't feeling good that day. We were both okay with turning around--a new freedom for me since I tend to feel compelled to push myself even when it is not wise. 

Regardless, we thoroughly enjoyed being out on the trail, discussing all kinds of philosophical aspects of our lives. (I am an NPR addict who doesn’t sleep well through the night, so I often listen to podcasts and Tune In radio stations such as New Dimensions, On Being, Living on Earth, and my new favorite, New World Kirtan.) The night previous to this outing I listened to an engaging interview of Catherine Ann Jones on New Dimensions where she posed provocative questions about the archetypes, metaphors, or images that are unconsciously guiding our lives. The questions she uses to uncover this symbolism are worth considering as a way to gain some altitude on viewing the arch of one’s life. Anyway, I learned that Vic’s dream was to be captain of a ship, a perfect metaphor for his past career as a school principal and current role as pilot of the Big EZ. What metaphor best represents your aspirations in life?

Somehow being in the presence of such stunning history going back to 1000-1200 AD made our conversation even more powerful. It is almost hard to believe you are looking at relics from the ancient culture who lived in this area for more than 700 years, generations before the Hopi, Ute, and Navajo tribes.

After turning around on the trail, we headed for the Spruce Tree House, one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the park.  This ruin turned out to be one of the best we have ever seen.

We couldn't help but think what it would have been like for the 19th century ranchers to have come upon this amazing sight.  A few areas that were crumbling or in danger of crumbling have been restored, but this dwelling of over 100 rooms remains quite similar to what it was like over one thousand years ago.

With more time to explore, we decided to go back to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and watch the twenty-five minute film which provides an excellent overview of the history of the area.From here we drove the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road, taking time to stop at most of the viewpoints.

The biggest highlight of the loop was an overlook which provided a good view of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the park. Had we known we were going to cut our other hiking intentions short, this tour is one we would have signed up for (as you can only visit the Cliff Palace on a guided tour ). Pretty darn amazing to see such awe-inspiring ancient history sites in our own country.

Looking at the cliff dwellings, I recalled a novel one of my students gave me to read as she knew I loved the author, Willa Cather. The novel, Song of the Lark, turned out to be one of my most memorable reads. The main character, Thea, escapes from Chicago to the Southwest where she has a powerful transformative experience of living for several days in a cliff dwelling. Even though I read this novel more than ten years ago, I can still remember the hauntingly beautiful scenes of Thea surrendering herself to days spent in harmony with the natural world. Cather believed anyone who visited the cliff dwellings could benefit from the power of being in the presence of these sacred places.

On our last day here, we were torn between taking a hike to the La Plata Canyon to see the wildflowers and mountain meadows or finally ride our bikes on the Animas River Trail. As we were getting ready to head out, Vic looked at me with droopy eyes and said he needed to lie down for awhile. Four hours later my typically stoic sweetheart woke up feeling a little better, but not well enough for any strenuous physical activity. Our third choice for the day was to take a drive to Vallecito Lake, one of the largest lakes in Colorado.  A main attraction at the lake is the Tour of Carvings, created as a memorial to the Missionary Ridge Fire that took place there in 2002.

The drive to Vallecito Lake from Durango takes almost an hour. The scenery along the way is quite pastoral with the beauty of the Pine River, and lots of log cabins and stunning ranches to feed the imagination along the way.

We had originally imagined the Tour of Carvings as something we could walk along a path on the waterfront. Not so. The fifteen carvings are located at different locations along an eighteen-mile drive. As a result, we did not take the time to see them all. The first carving we came across is dedicated to the the black bear and cubs who were killed when over 70,000 acres of the forest burned.

This carving is the most significant as it is dedicated to the one man who lost his life fighting the fire: Alan Wyatt.  They sure chose a powerful location for this tribute to the young man who “now stands looking at the burnt forest in a valley for which he gave his life trying to save.” We can imagine this place as a popular mountain retreat in the summer with all the boating and fishing recreation that takes place here.

This trip to the lake was our final adventure in our nine-day stint in Durango. That night we reserved for watching the real finale of Dancing with the Stars where Maks and Merrill took home the mirror ball trophy. All’s well that ends well. 

Next destination: a three-hour drive to Moab where we are looking forward to exploring Arches and Canyonland National Parks and meeting Gay and Joe of Good Times Rollin’!