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A day off in Capitol Reef

In my rush to post a quick blog entry yesterday I didn’t have time to describe the setting of Capitol Reef.   The park is 100-mile long north-south sliver of Utah, surrounding an ancient fold in the Earth’s crust where tectonic plates collided, forced a ridge to the surface, and then weathered into remarkable canyons.


They call this the “Waterpocket Fold” because the geography traps pockets of water which encourage plants and animals in this part of the Utah desert.   Indeed, in the center of the Waterpocket Fold are the remains of the historic town of Fruita, where Mormon settlers lived from the 19th century until 1969 and raised fruit trees.   The park is centered in Fruita, and the National Park Service still operates the orchards for visitors to pick fruit seasonally.

Fruita is really a series of strips of lush cultivated land inside the canyons, flattened out and manicured into parklike settings.   After driving through a hundred miles of red rock desert, it is startling to arrive in Fruita, where green grass and shade trees are everywhere, and a creek flows rapidly alongside the campground.   It is like arriving at a city park, an oasis in the midst of dry sandstone and crystal clear blue skies.

The skies are part of the reason the night stars and daytime views have been so startling.   The average summer day visibility here is 145 miles!   Very little pollution from southern California, Las Vegas, or southern Arizona arrives here ““ so far ““ and there’s not as much airborne dust, pollen, or humidity as other places.   The result is magnificent views day or night.   Yesterday we could easily see mountains a hundred miles away, from Panorama Point.

In the campground our view is quite different.   We are sitting in a canyon looking up at sheer rock walls on both sides.   The sun reaches our solar panels more than two hours after it has lit the high peaks of the canyon walls, and we are in shade about two hours before actual sunset.   (Fortunately, we are still getting enough solar power to keep up with our daily usage.)   From the bedroom’s front window we get a marvelous view of the glowing red sandstone in the light of the setting sun each evening.

The danger of visiting so many incredible western parks in such a short time is that you can begin to lose appreciation for them.   It’s easy to say, “Ah, that’s just another pre-historic petroglyph,” or think, “I already hiked a canyon, so let’s skip that.” On a daily basis we are seeing things and hiking places so wonderful that any one of them would be the highlight of a week’s vacation.   Too   much of that is like eating too much dessert, and we don’t want to get sick of this only halfway through our planned loop of Utah.

We also are spending a lot of time studying the history of the area (Butch Cassidy, Mormon settlers, the “Fremont people,” early European explorers, geologic history, etc.)   I have been reading a book about Utah’s outlaws every day, in addition to guidebooks, maps, and interpretive signs everywhere we go. Emma has been working on Junior Ranger projects continuously for over a week, and she needs a break from that too.   Even though we are having fun, we are constantly learning about where we are, and eventually that can be a burden too.

So once again our trip plan is changing.   (It will keep doing that.)   Rather than rush down to Bryce Canyon today, we are spending another day, and possibly delaying our arrival in Bryce.   Everyone is telling us that the Rt 12 route from Torrey to Boulder and Escalante is one of the most stunningly beautiful drives in the country.   We were originally planning to cover the 118 miles from here to Bryce Canyon in an afternoon, but now I’m thinking we might take most of the day just to get to Escalante, or spend the night at Calf Creek (BLM) for a night.   That will allow plenty of time to stop and take pictures along the way, or visit roadside attractions like historic sites.

For today, our plan is very low-key.   I’ve been working on the magazine since 7 a.m., and will probably spend the rest of the morning at that.   Eleanor and Emma will go explore some of the historic structures of Fruita, and then around noon we’ll go to Torrey to pick up our mail and send/receive email at Robber’s Roost (a local bookstore/café).   We might drive another dirt road down a canyon just to see what’s there, but we won’t do any hikes.

In other words, today is a day “off” from the schedule of hiking and studying. It’s funny how a day of business and errands can be a welcome relief from physical recreation.   Emma has announced that on her day off she is planning to spend the entire day in bed reading.   I think we’re all looking forward to a day like that.

Late note:   We found Robber’s Roost to be a very comfortable cafe (and smallish bookstore), but the free wifi didn’t work.   There was a connection error when I tried to join the network with my Mac.   We asked permission from the on-duty manager to unplug one of their computers and use the that computer’s Ethernet cable to connect to the network.   He said it would   be no problem.   Later, when I was outside on the phone, the Uber-Manager showed up and bitched Eleanor out for connecting to the Ethernet.   “I charge for that, you know!”     Turns out she knew the wifi was misconfigured so that only PCs can connect to it (not Macs, for some reason), but rather than fix it she chose to blame the Macs instead.   The on-duty manager was embarrassed.   I could have fixed their wireless router but didn’t even bother to suggest it.     The “high speed Internet” connection turned out to be dial-up, too.   Go for the coffee, but don’t bother going for the Internet.   Go to the burger shop instead.

 Second late note:   There are   few services near Capitol Reef Nat’l Park.   Gas is available in Torrey (11 miles from the visitor center), but not much else.   Verizon and Sprint have no service here.   (We made a few calls “roaming” on some local network, but I’d be careful about that if you don’t have a roaming plan as Eleanor’s phone does.)   There is one ATM that we know of, but it didn’t work.   The town shuts down even more in the winter season, which I think means all the art galleries close.   Come here with everything you might need.

Ventura highway, in the sunshine …

Finding camping in and around Los Angeles is always trickier than other places. Finding camping over Thanksgiving week — at the last minute — is nearly impossible. This is one of those exceptional times when our “no reservations” policy has made life more difficult. We’ve looked around the past couple of days and found that our choices have dwindled to virtually none.

Normally we’d bail out of the metro area and head a hundred miles into the desert where other people don’t go, but this week we have special considerations. We need to be back to LAX on Saturday, and we have friends to meet in the area, and I want to get some work done before we fly out. Plus, Eleanor wants to do some cooking even if we aren’t going to have a full-blown Thanksgiving dinner in the trailer this week.

That means we need the impossible: a camp site that is inexpensive, close to Los Angeles, and offering full hookups. In reality we can get any two of those three things this week.

The reason is that area campgrounds are charging “holiday rates” for sites. Here that means $55 per night for a site that should cost about $30 normally. The more reasonably priced state parks are booked solid. We have a potential strategy to try to get into a county park that doesn’t take reservations, but it is boondocking only (no water, electric, or dump station). So we decided to spend one night in an overpriced full-service campground so we could dump, refill, do laundry, and stay closer to our Ventura friends. Fully restocked with water and with empty holding tanks, we’ll be ready to hit the county park on Tuesday, assuming we can get an opening.


The place we have ended up is actually very well-kept and would be a decent place if it were not located directly adjacent to Highway 101. Pick any major interstate highway and imagine yourself camped in the breakdown lane, and you won’t be too far from what it is like to be here. By day the noise is tremendous, a constant four-lane roar layered with thundering tractor-trailers, the whine of tires on concrete, and the occasional unmuffled motorcycle.

There is no chance of sitting peacefully under your awning in the afternoon, unless you are stone deaf. This is not what Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell had in mind when they wrote their lyrics.

“There are a lot of transients in this area,” warned the nice lady at the check-in counter. They asked me to destroy the secret code to the bathrooms and the pool somewhere off-site, so a dumpster-diver can’t find it. Propane refills are $4.50 per gallon, and you have to leave your driver’s license while the tank is being refilled.

And yet the place is sold out for Thanksgiving, at $55 bucks a night. When I see situations like this, I wonder “Who in their right mind would choose to stay here and pay that rate to park in the noise? Can’t they think of a better place to be on a holiday?” For us, this is like torture. I’d rather be at a Wal-Mart. The noise makes me feel like we are staying at the Flying J truck stop, only with grass.

I’ve never understood why people will voluntarily park for more than a night in a noisy RV park. But even in the rattiest hell-holes of RV parks I have met people who think they are in paradise, so clearly there is something I’m not seeing. It is probably that, like us, they have a particular reason to be here (relatives?) and are simply taking what is available. It certainly is true that along this stretch of coastal California there are hardly any places to camp away from Hwy 101, so perhaps they figure that at least in the RV park they get hookups with their dose of noise.

In other parts of the country we have bypassed such places and found a lovely county or state park just a few miles away. I know most of these folks have a copy of Woodall’s guide or the Trailer Life directory, so they must know that other options exist. For some reason, they won’t take them.

Well, perhaps tomorrow we will. Up the highway the county parks we have our eyes on probably won’t be a lot quieter because they’ll be near Hwy 101 too. There won’t be any hookups at all and we’ll have to conserve water and electricity as we have done so many times before. But for those considerations (plus $20 a night) we will be just a hundred feet from the pounding Pacific surf, and we’ll have a million-dollar view. I’ll take that deal — if I can get it. If not, we’ll have to figure out Plan B.

Creede, CO

First official day of the rally has been mostly nice … Creede is an interesting old mining town with a historic downtown butted up again towering rock walls. We took Rich C into town and did some exploring.

Creede downtown.jpg

There’s a lot for such a small community: a historical society, a museum, hotel, general store, “self-service B&B”, a dozen or more shops, a lot of rental cottages, and “the best doghouse in Creede.” We went to the dog house and got some bratwursts for lunch.

Creede doghouse.jpg

From downtown you can drive a few miles up into the former mining country and see abandoned mines everywhere. We were told the rockhounding was good, so we took the drive.

Creede rockhounding.jpg

In 15 minutes of hunting we found some colorful stones and a lot of rocks flecked with iron pyrite (Fool’s Gold). Eleanor and Emma are planning to head up again tomorrow to do some real searching. Emma wants to find a piece of fluorite.

The road makes a grand circle up into the mountains to well over 10,000 feet, and then winds down with views of Creede and our campground.

Creede view.jpg

This evening’s rally events were great, too. Tonight was the chili dump, a notorious event where everyone brings a portion of homemade chili and it all gets mixed into a big pot and served. It came out pretty well …

It’s a shame that the evening had to end on a bad note. When we returned to our campsite, after dark, we found our new friends and next-door neighbors pulling their vintage Airstream out of their campsite. They had only arrived this morning. I was told that the campground management was rude to the mother over some minor issue, and their 13-year-old daughter spoke back, saying “You can’t speak to my mother like that.” The management, unable to deal with a 13-year-old, evicted them on the spot.

We’ve been here only one day and it has become obvious that this campground is not family-friendly. Every child attending the rally except Emma has had a run-in with the management. The campground is busy selling long-term leases for campsites (reportedly for $60k!) and apparently would prefer that children not be part of the scenery.

The transition to leased campsites is not attractive anyway. Rich C was bitched at by some busybody “owner” (lessee) for pulling up in the wrong spot while registering for his site. I (and several other people) got lectured for using a “private” walkway alongside the campsites. Some of the people who are buying lots here have crossed the line from happy campers to possessive fools. If that’s what “campsite ownership” turns people into, I’ll never do it.

Our other Airstream neighbors are leaving tomorrow — three days early. Even though they don’t have kids, they no longer feel comfortable staying here. I am wondering if we’ll be next. We would hate to leave the rally, but ethically we are caught between supporting our friends who put a lot of effort into organizing the rally, and disagreeing with the policies of the campground management. One thing is certain, I cannot recommend the Mountain Views RV Park in Creede Colorado to anyone with children, and if you don’t have children, be sure not to set foot on an “owner’s” campsite.

Teton Pass, between WY and ID

OK, there’s one really good reason why people don’t make the 20-mile drive from Jackson, WY to much cheaper campgrounds in Victor, ID: the Teton Pass.

Teton pass.jpg

Rich C went over first, yesterday afternoon. He came down trembling, and called us to warn us. The pass is a monster — easily the worst one we’ve seen yet. 10% grade up and down, with lots of twists. In the winter, it’s basically impassable many times due to heavy snow (it tops out around 8500 feet).

It did turn out to be an interesting test of the Nissan Titan/Armada. Rich C has the Titan, we have the Armada. Both are identical engines, transmissions, and nearly identical towing capacities. But Rich C has an advantage going up: his trailer weighs about 6500 lbs loaded and ours weighs about 8000 lbs loaded. So he got up in second gear, occasionally slowing to 25 MPH. That wasn’t bad because the speed limit was 25 most of the way.

We had more difficulty. The engine got hot about halfway up and we had to climb in 1st gear to keep it under control. Thanks to keeping the engine revolutions high (over 3,000 RPM), the transmission never got hot, but about 2.5 miles from the top, we were forced to pull over and rev the engine in neutral to let it cool. It was 87 degrees when we did this, so we also pulled out some of our other tricks, including turning off the A/C and turning on the heat, full blast. This is the first time in 25,000 miles of towing that we’ve needed to go to such extremes.

Downhill, we had the advantage. Rich C has the factory drum brakes, but we have discs. Even with a much heavier trailer, we have more than double his braking capacity. It was no big deal for us to modulate the speed all the way down the 10% grade. Rich C’s ride wasn’t so pleasant …

Rich C stated what we all felt: “There’s NO WAY I’m going over that pass again with the trailer!” We’ll use a lower pass about an hour south of Victor to get to Colorado, when we go.

The campground and the little town of Victor are nice, in a western style. We’re all loving the dry climate and beautiful weather. Emma and I spent the early evening in the pool diving for sticks, and just relaxing.

However, there’s no Internet in Victor. Sprint doesn’t cover the area. The campground wi-fi, predictably, doesn’t work. So today we all drove over the pass again (without trailers!) to Jackson and I settled in here at the local cybercafe/tattoo shop/jazz cafe to get a day’s work done. We may stay another night or two to get caught up on things, then we’ll head into Colorado for more adventures.

I’m still catching up with blog entries and photos too, so look for more backfilled stuff as I get time.

A peek at Nogales

Did I mention it’s cold here? The locals are swearing it’s just a spell, and “it hardly ever gets this cold,” but every night the low temperature seems to be lower, and three nights in a row our water hose has frozen solid.

Fortunately, it warms up nicely during the day, so Eleanor and Emma are able to walk about town and take care of business (laundry, post office, playground). They also spent half a day trying on Emma’s clothes and bringing a huge pile of stuff that she had outgrown to the local Thrift Shop. Meanwhile, I’ve been working so much in the Public Library that all the librarians know me and I have a regular space. The world headquarters of Airstream Life are at the square table by the window, first room on the left.

There’s not much in the way of grocery shopping here, so we took advice and headed 19 miles south to Nogales (AZ) to visit the big stores there. Nogales is actually a big town with all the usual big-box development. But it’s like visiting Berlin before the wall fell; the city is divided by a giant fence. Across the fence lies Mexico.

Mexican border.JPG

Of course we couldn’t resist taking a peek, but overall it was disappointing. If you take the lesser-known east entrance off the end of Morley Ave, you end up in a sleazy bar/massage parlor district. If you cross over the train tracks and take the west entrance by the big US Customs Building, it is exactly like downtown Tijuana: streets lined with vendors, all selling the same junk. Silver jewelry with questionable stones, pottery, prescription drugs, leather bags, dust collectors, and then they repeat over and over again.

For some reason I found myself buying a “wool” poncho made of, I believe, acrylic. Probably it was the thrill of haggling over the price that motivated me. I ended up with it for $21 and a sense that if I wore it anywhere in the southwestern states I would cause locals to snicker. The bargains are better at Wal-Mart.

Nogales will probably be our only border town experience. Frankly, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I’m sorry now that we didn’t go through Sonoyta to Puerto Peñasco when we were in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. That would likely have been more interesting than Nogales, and quite a bit more authentic, too. I doubt we are going to have a similar opportunity in Texas, since our time near the border will be short. Next time we go into Mexico it will be for a much longer visit, with the Airstream (perhaps next winter!)

There isn’t much in Patagonia for Emma, so we are going to move out a couple of days earlier than planned. Sunday is set for a visit to Tombstone and Bisbee, then Monday we will move up to Tucson for hiking, museums and whatever else Tucson has to offer.

Bolsa Chica State Park, Huntington Beach, CA

We arrived at the Bolsa Chica State Beach campground before 8:30 this morning, but they have a policy of allowing no “check in’s” before 2 pm. So we bought a site and parked the trailer in the Day Use area, while I headed off to Costa Mesa and Chino Hills to meet some Airstream people (research for future articles). When I got back at 4 pm, I hitched the trailer back up and towed it into the parking space — er, I mean “campsite”.

None of us are wild about this spot. The beach here at Bolsa Chica is long and broad, but also flat and featureless. The high surf and cold water meant frolicking at the beach was not much fun (despite daytime temps in the upper 60s), and the campsite is so close to the Pacific Coast Highway that the roar of cars is nearly constant. Campsites here are really just parking spots on asphalt, delineated by painted white lines. There are no trees. All this for $39 — the most expensive site we’ve purchased to date. We’ll be outta here tomorrow morning, in search of a better place somewhere down the coast.