Moab – Day 4: Arches National Park and Ziplining

An earlier night last night (9:30pm) had me in bed in much better time to be okay with a 5:30am wake-up call, although I still groaned as the alarm on my cell phone went off.

I let the dogs out, made a sandwich, loaded the cooler and was out of camp by 6am and heading for Arches National Park.

From Arches National Park brochure: The story of Arches begins roughly 65 million years ago. At that time, the area was a dry seabed spreading from horizon to horizon. If you stood in Devils Garden then, the striking red rock features we see today would have been buried thousands of feet below you, raw material as yet uncarved. Then the landscape slowly began to change.

First, geologic forces wrinkled and folded the buried sandstone, as if it were a giant rug and someone gathered two edges towards each other, making lumps across the middle called Anticlines. As the sandstone warped, fractures tore through it, establishing the patterns for rock sculptures of the future.

Next, the entire region began to rise, climbing from sea level to thousands of feet in elevation. What goes up must come down, and the forces of erosion carved layer after layer of rock away. Once exposed, deeply buried sandstone layers rebounded and expanded, like a sponge expands after it’s squeezed (though not quite so quickly). This created even more fractures, each one a pathway for water to seep into the rock and further break it down.

Today, water shapes this environment more than any other force. Rain erodes the rock and carries sediment down washes and canyons to the Colorado River. In winter, snowmelt pools in fractures and other cavities, then freezes and expands, breaking off chunks of sandstone. Small recesses develop and grow bigger with each storm. Little by little, this process turns fractured rock layers into fins, and fins into arches. Arches also emerge when potholes near cliff edges grow deeper and deeper until they wear through the cliff wall below them.

Over time, the same forces that created these arches will continue to widen them until they collapse.

(Usually open 24 hours a day road construction has limited the park to only being open 7am-7pm except on weekends. This is what made me decide to come on a Saturday and be early).

With most traffic turning off towards Delicate Arch first thing I was mostly alone on the road as I headed further north to the Devil’s Garden Trailhead where I let the dogs run briefly. I loaded my day pack with water, donned my hiking puffy jacket and headed up the trail towards Landscape Arch. It was quiet out and I only ran into a couple of people when I finally reached the base of Landscape Arch. It was a short 0.8 mile hike on a graded gravel trail to one of the most famous arches in the park, and the world.

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In 1991, with a group of tourists sitting beneath the long, narrow span, a 60ft section fell from the lower side of the arch creating an even narrower bridge across a massive space. With the possibility of the arch collapsing the trail beneath the arch is now closed and I could only view it from a short distance away.

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Landscape Arch was not my final goal and I headed out on a more primitive trail to hike the 1.3 miles to Double O Arch. “Primitive Trail” seemed grossly inaccurate to me since I am used to following “normal” hiking trails but I guess it means “not graveled or paved”. The trail cut across sand washes and climbed massive slick rock fins all the while following cairns that marked the way…or at least most of the time.

The trail is the lower section of smooth rock between the two fins. You can see where it has been worn smooth beneath decades of hiking boots:

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There were definitely times, after scaling a rocky fin or outcropping, the cairns disappeared and I was left to wander around or make an educated guess about the right direction. Thankfully I have enough trail experience to know what to look for in most instances and I eventually came across Partition and Navajo Arches, Black Arch in the distance, and eventually Double O Arch. I had the whole trail and all the arches to myself which was awesome, until I turned around to head back to the truck…then I was passing a lot of hikers and photographers.

Yes, the trail goes up and over and it sorta has a ladder:

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90% of the parks visitors probably never see some of these lesser-known arches and being a hiker and willing to get out an explore definitely helps to find some of the more remote and less-visited locations. National Parks are often crowded but an early start and a willingness to get away from the road and the graded trails helps to provide a better experience, at least for me.

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With the crowds coming in every increasingly bigger waves it was time to depart the Landscape Arch trail. I made a couple of brief detours to see Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch, grab a photo or two, and leave. I was ready to be done and had been hiking or climbing for the best part of 2 hours…I wanted a cold drink despite having two liters of water with me that I hadn’t touched.

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I had planned on taking a dirt road out of the park and checking on a couple of other sites (Tower Arch and Marching Men) but I missed the turn off and just decided to head out the way I came in at the main entrance. Of course the line to get into the park was now pretty long and I was ready to leave the masses behind.

Balance Rock (trail closed):

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I headed back to the camper to eat lunch and get some work done, and relax before I headed back into town for some epic zip lining with Ravens Rim 4WD and Zip Lining Excursions at 4:30pm.


Raven’s Rim Zipline

I had booked a 4:30 excursion with Raven’s Rim for Saturday afternoon and arrived at the office half an hour ahead of schedule as requested. Backpacks and water were recommended, cameras were a necessity.

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Our guides, Ron and Nate, quickly introduced themselves as they got our gear ready and lined up on the pavement outside. The whole group was ten people which is their maximum group size; me, a couple of ladies who were trying to zip line in all 50 states, and two families, one with a 13 year old girl. We were all handed our waiver and signed our lives away as we put pen to paper.

After being reminded, multiple times, to use the bathroom before we left (two and half hours without access to one, or even a bush) we headed outside to the line of harnesses and helmets where we received a quick safety talk and a check to make sure we all had long pants, close-toed shoes and our hair tied back (even under a cap) and then instruction on how to put on our harnesses correctly. Ron and Nate checked our rigging and added the handles and line to the front of the harnesses which made them awkward and heavy. Helmets were next and then we all loaded into some beefed-up, six-person side-by-side vehicles and headed up a slightly crazy and steep trail (cake walk for the side-by-sides though).

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One of the ladies behind me was a little freaked out by the speed and the angles, and the steep terrain and narrow trail and I could hear a constant barrage of “Oh my God” and “Woaaahh!” Everyone was friendly though.

After a 20 minute ride over some pretty tough terrain including slick rock, rock scrambles and ramp climbs we made it to the top and our first zip line. It was here we received our first instructions on how to zip and land safely…DON’T put your feet down and try to brake yourself at the end, or you MAY break yourself (a former patron had broken an ankle in that manner).

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The first zip was short and sweet and I used the handles on the rigging to get going but felt no need for them as soon as I was airborne and let go. The feeling was amazing, like flying, but very short sadly. It was their shortest and shallowest line and the 13 year old, Elliot, didn’t make it to the end and had to be retrieved. Weight and head winds make a difference in how fast you go and if you make it to the end or have to be “rescued”.

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We hiked a short way on slick rock (the term for the kind of rock referring to what it was like for horses with metal shoes, not because the rock was slick) and took our turns on a longer, steeper zip line. My speed was faster and I could feel my stomach getting left behind as we dropped and sped towards the end. Again it was too short.

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After the two shorter zips we crossed a suspension bridge, a place that apparently many cameras, cell phones and water bottles go to commit suicide. Many have been retrieved from the bottom of the rock crack over the years, and then sold on Ebay according to our guides! I was the last to cross and of course one the guys ahead of us wanted to make things difficult for his family and was making the bridge bounce. The movement didn’t bother me, especially as we were hooked on to a safety cable, but I was trying to take pictures and didn’t want to lose my phone to an Ebay auction (it has only recently been replaced in the past two weeks).

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We still had four more zip lines to do; a mid length one, two 1/4 mile lines and short one.

The mid-length was the longest we had done so far and I asked one of the girls to film me. Sadly she was on Team iPhone and couldn’t figure out how to make the video on my phone work. Her male companion (brother/cousin or something) was on Team Samsung and offered to video me on the next zip…the 1/4 mile line.

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Ron, the guide who had gone down first, had called up to Nate and mentioned that anyone under 150# might have a tough time making it all the way due to the shallow grade of the line and a stiff head-wind. I started looking around for a 40lb rock to shove in my pack. Pat, the guy who had offered to video went down a head of me and was followed by the last one in their party of four, then it was my turn. I barely made it to the end and had to be pulled in the last few feet. Elliot, who had gotten stuck on the shortest zip due to her tiny size went tandem with her mom on this line.

Here is the video of the epic zip line. “Look Ma, no hands.”

The next zip line was another short one so to make it more fun an challenging the guides strongly “suggested” we run backwards off the edge without holding on. I was up for it and ran off the rock, while filming, and didn’t hold on (except to the camera). It was definitely an eerie feeling running backwards off the rock but I had faith in my harness.

Elliot going off backwards…she was the first to go:

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Everyone else went off backwards although some ran and held on, some walked and held on, a few did what I did; running and NOT holding on. I definitely look as though I am enjoying myself here:

The next and final zip was also a 1/4 mile long and a little steeper than the other. With a tail wind and a slightly steeper grade even Elliot was able to go down by herself. I held back, taking pictures of a massive storm that was almost overhead. A couple of rainbows formed in front of the La Sal Mountains just as a few rain drops started to fall. With the rain came the sound of thunder but no visible lightning…and I was standing out in the open, on a massive sandstone hump/rock just about to be attached to a zip line aka GIANT lightning rod. It was a little hairy for a few seconds as I headed down. I got one more piece of filming in before I reached the bottom…the view I had as I zipped down the line:

With our zip lining done we walked a short distance into a wash where a cooler of ice water was waiting for us. I hadn’t consumed much of my water so I left it for the others. The guides went to retrieve the side-by-sides and then we loaded up and headed down the same hairy-scary trail we came up. With a little more familiarity between our group and the guides Ron made the trip down at a slightly faster pace than he had coming up, including a couple of intimidating drop-offs, which he backed up over and did again.

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We had been watching the rain and thunder clouds gradually edging closer and the downpour finally hit us just as we reached the bottom. We all hurried inside to escape the deluge.

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We divested ourselves of our helmets and harnesses, thanked the guides and tipped them, and said goodbye to the others in the group. I forgot my jacket (are you seeing a pattern here?) but thankfully Nate knocked on my window and returned it to me before I left the parking lot.

Raven’s Rim provided an excellent and unusual zip lining experiences as they are one of the few that doesn’t use or have access to trees. The guides were professional, safety oriented and fun to go out with, being both personable and professional. The experience is well worth the time and money and I highly recommend them.

Their office can be found at 998 N. Main Street, Moab, Utah or you can call them at (435) 260-0973 to book a zip line and ATV excursion. They can also be found online at www.ravensrim.com

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Moab – Day 3: Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands

The Legend of Dead Horse Point:

Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock atop sheer sandstone cliffs. The peninsula is connected to the mesa by a narrow strip of land called the neck. There are many stories about how this high promontory of land received its name.

According to one legend, around the turn of the century the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. Cowboys rounded up these horses, herded them across the narrow neck of land and onto the point. The neck, which is only 30-yards-wide, was then fenced off with branches and brush. This created a natural corral surrounded by precipitous cliffs straight down on all sides, affording no escape. Cowboys then chose the horses they wanted and let the culls or broom-tails go free. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below.

I was up well before dawn in order to make it to Dead Horse Point to watch the sunrise. It was a tough alarm clock to wake up to as we hadn’t made it home until 11:30 last night. More than a glass or two of alcohol also doesn’t agree with me and I had not slept well, so it made for a rough start to the day.

It was a chilly morning and it was obvious that a others had a similar idea as I followed, and was followed, by other vehicles. The drive was probably scenic but I couldn’t see much in the dark except the road, which was not necessarily a bad thing as I didn’t have to see just how narrow “The Neck” was driving over it the first time…sheer drops to either side makes one a little nervous…even for one not afraid of heights.

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I made it to Dead Horse Point by 6:50am, just in time to find myself a spot and wait for the sunrise. With a few clouds overhead I was worried that it might not be as pretty as I had hoped but it ended up being beautiful and I was glad I had made the effort to get up at 5:30am to see it.

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I wandered the paths to check out other vantage points and views, and every way you looked was stunning. It is not a huge park and with the sun rising well above the horizon it was time to leave and head to Canyonlands National Park a few miles down the road to the south.

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Canyonlands National Park

From the National Parks’ Website:

Canyonlands National Park cover 527 square miles and preserves one of the last relatively-undisturbed areas of the Colorado Plateau, a geological province that encompasses much of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Carved out of vast sedimentary rock deposits, this landscape of canyons, mesas, and deep river gorges possesses remarkable natural features that are part of a unique desert ecosystem.

The foundation of Canyonlands’ desert ecology is its remarkable geology, which is visible everywhere in rocky cliffs that reveal millions of years of deposition and erosion. These rock layers continue to shape life in Canyonlands today, as patterns of erosion influence soil chemistry and where water flows when it rains. At center stage of the park are the two canyons carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers. Surrounding the rivers are vast and very different regions: Island in the Sky on the north, The Maze on the west, and The Needles on the east.

Known as a “high desert,” with elevations ranging from 3,700 to 7,200 feet above sea level, Canyonlands experiences very hot summers and cold winters, and receives less than ten inches of rain each year. Even on a daily basis, temperatures may fluctuate as much as 50 degrees.

With the time on the clock still relatively early the park was fairly empty, with a few cars on the road and a only a handful of people enjoying the vistas. There were so many things alongside the road, which travels atop a plateau called “The Island in the Sky”, that you don’t have to drive more than a mile or two before there is yet another thing to see.

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The first pause in the drive was for Shafer Canyon Overlook, a massive canyon looking like it reached down into the depths of the earth. It was also possible to see the narrow and winding Shafer Trail Road that led down to the lower plateau. Dozens of other view points dotted the highway including Green River Overlook (looking down on the Green River canyon), Buck Canyon Overlook, Orange Cliffs Overlook and finally Grand View Point Overlook where it was starting to get pretty busy and crowded.

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Other than the massive views and unreal-feeling vistas the two highlights of the park were the hike up to see Upheavel Dome, a strange pointed dome at the head of Upheaval Canyon, and Mesa Arch.

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A short but steep half mile hike to the top of Upheaval Canyon from the parking lot was moderately strenuous but not arduous. Occasionally the trail was a little unclear (as I found out coming down and took the wrong path) but mostly it was easy to follow. The view from the top was impressive and looked down into the canyon to Upheaval Dome, a jagged dome of pale peaks and troughs that seemed very out of place when surrounded by all the red sandstone. Geologists are still unsure as to the exact reason for Upheaval Dome and there are two theories about how it came to be:

Salt Dome Theory: A thick layer of salt, formed by the evaporation of ancient landlocked seas, underlies much of southeastern Utah and Canyonlands National Park. When under pressure from thousands of feet of overlying rock, the salt can flow plastically, like ice moving at the bottom of a glacier. In addition, salt is less dense than sandstone. As a result, over millions of years salt can flow up through rock layers as a “salt bubble”, rising to the surface and creating salt domes that deform the surrounding rock.

When geologists first suggested that Upheaval Dome was the result of a salt dome, they believed the land form resulted from erosion of the rock layers above the dome itself. Recent research suggests that a salt bubble as well as the overlying rock have been entirely removed by erosion and the present surface of Upheaval Dome is the pinched off stem below the missing bubble. If true, Upheaval Dome would earn the distinction of being the most deeply eroded salt structure on earth.

Impact Crater Theory: When meteorites collide with the earth, they leave impact craters like the well-known one in Arizona. Some geologists estimate that roughly 60 million years ago, a meteorite with a diameter of approximately one-third of a mile hit at what is now the Upheaval Dome. The impact created a large explosion, sending dust and debris high into the atmosphere. The impact initially created an unstable crater that partially collapsed. As the area around Upheaval Dome reached an equilibrium, the rocks underground heaved upward to fill the void left by the impact. Erosion since the impact has washed away any meteorite debris, and now provides a glimpse into the interior of the impact crater, exposing rock layers once buried thousands of feet underground.

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The second highlight of Canyonlands was Mesa Arch. Another short half mile uphill hike on a graded and mostly gravel or rock trail brought me out to one of the few easy-to-get-to arches in Canyonlands. I had almost run the trail to see it as a tour bus had pulled into the parking lot behind me…and I wanted to be well ahead of a massive influx of camera-toting, bus-riding tourists. I got lucky and didn’t run into them until I was heading back down.

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Mesa Arch looks out over some incredible formations and canyons below and with few people around I was able to get most of my pictures without others in them. I hiked a little higher for a better view point and then headed back to the truck, suddenly bombarded by a stream of Asian tourists all carrying massive cameras, iPhones or iPads. While I don’t like tour buses or massive parties like that I do understand how much money they pour into the National Park system and that it may be the only way some get to enjoy the stunning land we call America.

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I had eaten lunch at the Green River Overlook early since I had had an early start and with most of the park now firmly embedded in my memory, and the memory card of my camera, plus it was getting too busy for this introvery, I headed out. The road and visitor center was certainly much busier on the other side of the road as I drove north.

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Upon exiting the park I had decided to take a short drive off pavement and down into the canyon. A two-wheel-drive road provided access, and with a boat ramp at the bottom I figured it would be an easy drive. And it was, for the first 12 miles. The last mile down to the river was one of the scariest roads I have ever driven…it was extremely narrow, very winding with sharp hair-pin turns and few places to pass someone…I was praying I wouldn’t run into someone coming the other way. Once committed to the road there was only one direction to go…down. I white-knuckled it the whole way down in granny gear and was definitely sweating by the time I reached the bottom. The road’s only saving grace was that it really was suitable for a car and was only a little bumpy in a few places. I couldn’t believe vans hauled trailers loaded with boats down that thing!

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At the bottom I talked briefly with the park ranger who was taking care of the bathrooms before letting the dogs out to run for a while and play in the river. Once again the cliffs towered above me and made even the Colorado River look small in comparison.

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With nothing left to do but enjoy the scenery I was forced to drive out the same way I came in…straight up that terrifying road. I actually found it slightly easier to go up than down, maybe because I wasn’t looking down into the chasm that would swallow me up if I made even a slight driving error and maybe because the ranger was behind me…a little like a security blanket. Two UTVs were coming down the road when I was at the bottom and I waited for them to pass, while taking a picture of the road ahead of me, before checking the rest and confirming that there were no other vehicles coming down. Upon reaching the top I parked and went to take pictures looking down on the hairy-scary road. It would probably have been less nerve-wracking in a smaller vehicle, like a UTV or Jeep, but a large truck like mine is pretty wide and the long nose and tail make her less a mountain goat and more of an elephant.

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There is a road in there somewhere…if you can find it:

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Back on flat, wide and straight gravel I cranked up the speed a little and headed home.

Another invite to go into Moab came from the RVers in the Class As just down the road from me and we headed in to check out the farmer’s market. Unfortunately we managed to get a flat tire on the way (ironic since we had been talking about that exact subject not 10 minutes earlier as we left camp) but we made it into town safely and met up with the rest of the group; there were now 14 people altogether. A unanimous agreement was made to eat dinner together again (eek on my bank account) and we wandered away from the park and to Zax restaurant. Somehow they were able to seat all 14 of us within a reasonable amount of time.

A lone and very small glass of wine and a non-alcoholic O’Douls were all that I drank but I did order another plate of ravioli albeit a different flavor. I had thought about the Cobb salad in order to be a little healthier but I can stomach spending $14 for two meals (which ravioli always is for me) than $14 for a lone meal. It was just as good but different than the previous night’s ravioli and I could have eaten more, I just chose to save enough for left-overs.

Once again the conversation was great and I sat with Joni (my camp site “roomie”) and Ben and Lanni who had recently arrived in our camp area that day. When you meet new people for the first time in the normal world a good conversation starter is asking what people do for a living…not so much in the RV full-timer world…we ask how long someone has been full-timing, where they are originally from and what prompted them to become a full-timer. And that was exactly what our conversation mostly revolved around.

Moab, Utah: Days 1 and 2

Moab – Day 1 and 2

Having scratched my brand new glasses the first day on the road (they fell off the table and weren’t in a case…dumb ass me) I made a slight detour via Grand Junction to get the lenses replaced. It was the only town nearby that had places that did glasses in an hour.

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A quick jaunt back via Dinosaur National Monument and then south via Rangely then had me climbing a narrow, winding and steep road over Douglas Pass and down a slightly less steep and windy road on the other side as we covered the 40ish miles to Grand Junction. I don’t like cities and I wanted to be there as short a time as possible. Thankfully I found a place quickly and had new glasses within 2 hours.

From Grand Junction we headed west along I-70 to a campsite just inside the Colorado state line. It was nothing fancy but it was a flat spot to park for the night. Three others shared the RV parking and camping area for the night but the two vans were gone before I even got out of bed.

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A few miles along I-70 was the turn off to Moab going the back way through a narrow canyon and following the Colorado River. The road was much narrower than I expected and it was a little nerve-wracking at times with the edge of the road and the water so close to my passenger-side tires. The views were stunning and it was really hard to keep my eyes on the road. I risked a few photos where it was safe to do so but mostly I just enjoyed the massive red cliffs rising up all around us.

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With 20 miles of canyon behind us we reached Moab. I headed to the south end of town to the gas station with a potable water supply for RVs, topped up with fuel and then headed back north on 191. I followed some Google directions I had been given to an open spot to park on BLM land several miles north of town, and setting up within visual distance of some fellow full-time RVers I had been in contact with. I relaxed for the afternoon and did some writing and made dinner before my camp site “roomie” returned from her day in town. We chatted for a while until it got dark and then we both headed for bed.

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Thursday wasn’t a particularly productive day. I made a sandwich, loaded the cooler and headed into Moab to get a feel for the area. I paused briefly at the visitor center in Arches National Park to book a ranger-guided hike in the Fiery Furnace for Monday. It was fairly quiet when I arrived but by the time I left at 9:15am the line at the entry gate was already pretty long. I am planning on getting to Arches early on the days I go.

I stopped at the visitor center in the center of Moab for brochures so I could decide what activities I want to do and which companies/destinations sounded the most interesting. I walked downtown and peered into stores without really walking into any (I’m not a good window shopper and there is nothing I generally want to buy). I made a note of the Jailhouse Cafe that bragged about having the best Eggs Benedict…I am going to have to stop there on my way out of town next week to check out how good they really are (I didn’t, sadly).

I ate lunch in a small non-descript park with a creek and let the dogs out to play and go potty. I booked all the activities I wanted to do while I was in Moab…this town is going to make me broke (joke, I had money set aside for this kind of thing)…but I figured I’m out on the road to live life and have experiences and create memories so why not do the things I really want to do. Each day has a different thing going on; hiking, zip lining and ATVing, canyoneering, horse back riding and maybe even a short guided mountain bike tour.

With my money well-spent, or at least allocated, I headed back to the camper and relaxed for the rest of the day while planning out my one free day…Friday.

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The fellow RVers who had invited me to share their camping location contacted me as it was getting dark and asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. Seeing as I hadn’t any plans, and half of the reason for me choosing to stay in this site was to meet fellow full-timers, I agreed and they came to pick me up about 7:30. We headed into Moab to “Pasta Jay’s” where we were seated in the protected outdoor patio. A couple of glasses of wine and a large bowl of amazing ravioli had me sated for the night plus gave me left-overs. I also ordered a desert to go, which I never do, but they had tiramisu on the menu and it is my one dessert weakness (not included pavlova which I have never found in the US).

We had some fun conversation and I got to know everyone a little; three couples in Class As, one van-dwelling couple and one van-dwelling solo who is my campsite “roomie”.

Another campsite “room-mate”:

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Three Days in Vernal, Utah

Everything was pretty wet this morning leaving Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, including the sandy soil…thankfully this made for an easy hook-up and pull-out at 8am.

From the campground we headed south, crossed the Utah state lane and followed highway 530 south towards Vernal. Initially the road was moderate but it quickly got steep as it climbed into the Uintah Mountains. There were no easy grades here. A steep decline into Sheep Creek Canyon was stunning but hairy (another thanks for finally having good brakes) and I passed a handful of Big Horn sheep on the side of the road. Sadly, due to the road and the lack of pull-offs I was unable to get a picture. I did try to capture some of the scenery when safe driving permitted.

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None of the highway to Vernal was easy and I rarely got above 4th gear, often being in either 2nd or 3rd due to the incline or decline. However it was very suitable for hauling and the views were spectacular and I enjoyed the drive. Hwy 530 finally joined 191 and we made more steep descents and climbs as we made our way to Vernal.

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Coming into Vernal was simple and well sign-posted and we turned right onto Hwy 40 towards Salt Lake City as we kept an eye out for a Walmart. I didn’t need to pick up anything but they are almost always guaranteed to have RV friendly parking lots in which to look at maps, phones and GPS devices.

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I oriented myself in the town, ran into Walmart for the bathroom and headed back out…turning west on Hwy 40, back the way we had come, before turning south on state or county highway 45 towards the Green River and BLM land where we found an empty dispersed camping campground. We set up quickly, relaxed for a while and then headed back into town to explore.

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Our first stop was the museum in town to learn about the geographical and geological history of the area. The Uintah Field Museum of Natural History is combined with the visitor center and is a good place to start off any visit to Vernal and the surrounding area.

The Uintah Basin was originally a massive lake that eventually evaporated over time leaving layer upon layer of sediment that entombed the history of the area for us to find millions of years later and helped us to understand what happened here and how.

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The museum provided multiple brochures that were each listed as a day hike/activity in the area. There were 12 to choose from and I picked the couple that I had been recommended; Dinosaur National Park and Fantasy Canyon. From the museum I crossed the street to the Vernal Brewery, a recommended place to try a local brew before heading back to the camper for the night.

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The dogs and I were up early to head to Dinosaur National Monument where we finally got our annual pass (they had been out of them in Grand Teton NP when we were there a few weeks ago). We briefly stopped at the visitor center where we were told we could drive up to the quarry as the shuttles weren’t starting until 9:15am. Being an early bird has its perks.

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The visible quarry is housed in another massive building to protect it from the elements but in the rock wall it is possible to see hundreds if not thousands of bones. The reason for the huge amount of dinosaur bones in the area was due to a lengthy drought during which many hundreds of dinosaurs perished on the banks of the dry river. When the rains came again and the river rushed back through it carried the bones and bodies into the Uintah Basin and the surrounding area. Sadly the Fossil Trail was closed for maintenance (the bane of coming in the shoulder season) so we headed down the road and turned left, further into the park.

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The Tilted Rocks Scenic Drive is the main road through the park and it is obvious to see why it gets its name, even more so from a distance outside the park. The geological formations of vertical and split rocks, enhanced by the gentle flow of the Green River, made for a stunning drive and I found the beauty more intriguing and interesting than the bones of old dinosaurs…of course their history is intertwined but there is something about the upheaval of the earth and the erosion by wind and rain that inspires me.

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The end of the paved road crossed a cattle guard and turned to dirt as we drove towards Box Canyon and a small homestead long abandoned. A short hike into the box canyon was stunning and I felt particularly small as the walls towered above and dwarfed me. Rain came quickly as it had been threatening all morning and I stashed the camera quickly and made for the truck. Sadly the Hog Canyon trail as also closed so we got turned around and headed out of the park.

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A glance at the clock confirmed it was barely 11 am and I wasn’t ready to be done for the day yet. I am out on the road to do and see things, not sit in my camper and watch TV.

We headed for Fantasy Canyon, a remote canyon 40 miles south of Vernal on mostly-paved roads. After leaving the Green River/Red Wash Highway the views were not inspiring with all the pumps, wells, pump jacks and other industrial equipment. Fantasy Canyon is located in an area surrounded by all this ugliness but is worth the drive.

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The canyon itself is incredibly delicate and you can see where nature has already felled some of the spires and creations. It felt like I was in Mordor or some other fantasy realm where Orcs or other evil creatures lurk…I half expected to walk out into Middle Earth. Sadly that didn’t happen. The canyon is only a little over 10 acres in size but the formations are pretty incredible to walk between and around…just be careful of Prairie Rattlesnakes…they even warn you on the bathroom doors!

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With Fantasy Canyon toured we called it a day and drove the long way back to the camper, almost getting lost in the process (thanks Google Maps for not being obvious).

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Drove to Horseshoe Bend (not to be confused with the one in Arizona) for the sunset:

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Our last day in Vernal saw us heading to check out Moonshine Arch, a little known arch and tourist “attraction” north of Vernal. The brochure gave good directions and I still missed the almost-invisible turn-off and had to turn around. The dirt road is easily navigable and the way fairly well signed with rust-colored or green signs pointing the way. A gate and fence line was where we parked due to a massive washed-out gully in the way but it is possible to drive up further with the right vehicle, and even to the bottom of the arch with and ATV. I chose not to beat the hell out of my truck.

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A short mile-long, well-marked, up-hill hike brought us directly to the base of Moonshine Arch and the shadowy caverns behind it. You don’t actually see the arch until you come around the last corner and are right beneath it. It would really be a sight to see water rushing through the channels and washes of the canyon and caverns but of course that would also make the trail dangerous and difficult to navigate like many of the trails in the area.

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We spent a few minutes exploring and climbing on the rocks and into the caverns around the arch before starting to head back to the truck, and then realizing half way down that I had left my jacket hanging in a tree. I hiked back up, retrieved my jacket and started back down…again.

I gave the dogs some water and headed back into town for lunch. I had been recommended a restaurant called Swain Bros Steak House. It was on the east end of town and I ordered the California Burger with sweet potato fries…it was definitely as good as the recommendation.

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Our last activity in Vernal was a short drive up Dry Fork Canyon and a quick stop below the memorial for Remember the Maine, a battleship destroyed in 1899 during one of the many wars in America’s history.

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Back at the camper I re-heated some food, organized everything for an early departure, played with the dogs and went to bed.

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Leaving Wyoming

For so long, especially when the world had been hanging heavy on my shoulders, I have wanted to hook up the fifth-wheel to my truck and get on the road. I have spent three years ready to do something different after my ranch partner passed away in 2014, and two years getting my truck and trailer ready for full-time living. I saved money and spent money on upgrades. I made friends and I lost friends and I ended up in court, twice, and that is a story best left off the internet but I’ll leave you with the knowledge that I was not on the losing side either time.

August 2nd was my move-out/move-in date. The camper was finally ready with solar, fully-functioning plumbing, a sealed roof and seams, new tires, heavier rims and axles than she had come with and an interior redesign that would rival even Ragnar Lothbrock’s long-house. I was so ready, but I was also sad too. I had spent 6 years in an amazing house that would soon be in the hands of others to take care of…I had a lot of good memories with my parents in that house and it was a little heart-wrenching to walk, or drive, away.

However, I was only moving about 300 yards down the road to a friend’s property. Her and her family had recently purchase another property and were no longer on the premises so it was perfect for me to work out the last kinks I could find while living in the trailer and still finish up with some final commitments in the area. Very little happened during my time on the vacant property and I was fairly bored most of the time while my feet itched to get on the road…and finally we did.

I left Story on September 2nd, a month after I had moved into the fifth wheel, and headed for Casper where I was due to drop it off at Stalkups RV for a repair on a jack that wasn’t fully retracting. I also discovered during my trip down that the brakes were still not functioning right and also asked them to check out what the issue was during the week they would have her. I would be in the Wind River Range backpacking for a week with a group of four people I had never met (see previous blog post here) and would be out of contact for a week.

With the backpacking trip over I returned to Sheridan to pick-up mail, wait on a check and a couple of packages to arrive and to have a beer or two with a few friends before I left. I talked to Stalkups RV about the issues with my camper: the jack was a simple fix thankfully and didn’t require a replacement. However the brake issues were a little more serious with pads falling apart, incomplete wiring, bad magnets etc) and I authorized them to complete the work so that I would have a road-safe RV finally…it would be good to have brakes that actually worked!

Again, despite only being back for two days, they dragged by slowly and I was ready to leave again. It wasn’t until I was completely loaded, with the food in the coolers, my packages unboxed and put away and the dogs in the back of the truck that I really felt truly sad about leaving…this really was it and there was no coming back for a while.

Once I was on the road and heading towards Casper, some good country music on the stereo, my melancholy mood quickly left and I was bopping down the interstate towards my home on wheels. It was a good site to see as I pulled into the lot and quickly unloaded some of the gear that had been cluttering up my truck. I went to pay for the work and was shown exactly what the brakes had looked like…certainly not a pretty sight.

I spent the night in the RV service lot so I could visit a friend early in the morning and then head out with plenty of hours to spare in the day. Another sad farewell was made with Megan, a former room-mate from Sheridan and now good friend…we had shared several fun days at renaissance faires together.

With nothing left to do I hooked up the trailer, made my final checks (including brakes) and drove out of Casper towards Muddy Gap.  On the way I passed Independence Rock but with no warning signs and the only sign being 20 yards from the turn-off I didn’t have the time or distance available to stop and so I just got to enjoy it from the road. A little further on I did have enough warning to be able to stop for Devil’s Gate a couple of miles to the west, info for which can be found here and is part of the old Oregon Trail. There is also an old settlement on the west side of the gate which use to be a ranch and homestead but was sold to the LDS church in 1997 and is now the Mormon Handcart Historical Center.

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The weather was perfect for a first day out on the road with my home on my back and we made good time over the pass and into Rawlins. I didn’t want to travel too far on my first day and used one of the free apps on my phone to locate a good boondocking spot for the night. The closest one I could find was Teton Reservoir south of town and I followed the directions.

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I never made it that far as a sign for Rim Lake Recreation Area caught my eye a few miles along the road and I pulled off, driving the mile-long dirt road to something more akin to a cattle pond than a lake…but it was quiet, easy to get to, had clean toilets and was flat. I didn’t see any “No Overnight Parking” signs but nor were there any purpose-built campsites either. I pulled into the unused (unusable too) boat ramp area and called it good for the night. Plenty of hours of daylight left gave me a good chance to get more organized and finally put away all of my camping gear and de-clutter the camper while enjoying a glass of wine and texting friends. Cell phone service was limited to non-existent but I’m not on the road to be constantly connected to the outside world. I did watch a movie and was a little shocked to see how much power the TV and PS3 pulled from my four batteries.

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I was up early after a restless night listening to the incessant rain and wind on and around the camper. It was certainly a gloomy and wet morning. I used the recreation area facilities and let the dogs run in the rain for a while before I loaded them up into the truck, unplugged the extension cord from the inverter and left Rim Lake.

We pulled back on the highway, got diesel in Rawlins from a rinky-dink Sinclair station that was 20 cents cheaper than the larger truck-stop Sinclair station three blocks away…it was worth maneuvering into for that price difference. I’m glad my rig isn’t larger than it is.

From Rawlins we drove through intense rain and wind, almost feeling like we were blind as truck after truck passed us and kicked up spray that was more like a wall of water than airborne droplets. It was a slow journey but finally it cleared up and we could pick up a little speed. Of course the wind picked up speed and it was a constant fight to maintain a straight line, not to mention I could see the sway of the back of the trailer behind me.

We exited at Green River and filled up, again. I try to keep my truck’s tank above half full so I never have to worry about running out of fuel and it is also less painful to look at the pump when paying for it…psychological, I know, but still the way I do it.

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A camp ground in Flaming Gorge was our destination for the night and the drive in was beautiful. The campground itself was empty except for a lone Class A and I asked if there were campground hosts to pay…nope, they just come around and ask for money. It was $12 for the night and the view was pretty amazing; I had picked a nice secluded spot right along the edge of the lake and I spent some time uploading previous blogs and pictures since I had a couple of bars of 4G service.

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With the sun going down I decided to explore the local area and headed into Manila for the evening…a two bit town whose only bar seemed to be on the Wyoming side of the state line…go figure that one out!!! I enjoyed a cold beer and then got involved in a couple of games of pool with some locals and some guys up from Salt Lake City who were in the area to hunt bear. A fun evening, and meeting new people is half of what being on the road is all about for me. I called it quits at 9pm and headed home with some damp dogs (it had apparently rained a little while I was inside) and went to bed.

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So far, a good first couple of days on the road albeit very little to share.

 

 

 

 

Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 2

Day 5

We got a late start again today but at least the sun peaked over the horizon to the east sooner than usual and got us warmed up after a night below freezing. The mile hike down Ranger Park was gentle and easy and we kept watch for wildlife. We had to duck under a rope crossing the trail as the guys who had generously donated the beer the night before were blocking their horses’ escape route. We passed their camp, wished them a good morning and moved on. The trail split and we took the upper trail to Grave Lake. The initial climb was moderate and it soon leveled out. We passed two amazing waterfalls before we reached the lake and took a moment to enjoy the scene.

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Grave Lake was beautiful and more still than I think I have seen any body of water. It was like a mirror for the mountain surround. We paused for a snack and to take pictures…right up until I dropped my camera in the water. Yes, the second camera I have now drowned but the first that was almost brand new. I wasn’t happy but I hope I saved the SD and dried it out quickly. (How many photos were posted earlier in the blog will attest to how successful this was!)

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Thankfully I still had my phone and could continue to take pictures (which ironically turned out to be better quality than the ones from my camera). Of course the guys are taking plenty too so there will more than enough to choose from.

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We circumnavigated Grave Lake and climbed up over a boulder field which had taken out the old trail. The trail could be seen below us. We soon faced another steep climb to yet another waterfall, and then above it to cross the creek that flowed out of Baptiste Lake.

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We stopped for lunch and to refill with water while we enjoyed the incredible view of Mt. Hooker, a slab of sheer granite with a vertical wall that just didn’t look real.

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From the creek crossing it was all uphill to Hailey Pass. What looked like a short 1000 ft climb over 1.2 miles ended up being one mile of easy hiking followed by .2 miles of snow fields and a near-vertical trail of marbles. It was a trail where one false move would send you crashing to the bottom. Jerry said we could be at the top in 40 minutes. I thought that would be impossible and just laughed, but with that challenge in my head I motivated myself to get moving.

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Initially the trail meandered through rock-strewn grass meadows next to a snow-melt-fed creek before ending at the bottom of another snow field, beneath which was buried the switchbacks of the trail. We eye-balled the trail above us in order to give us a rough direction of travel and then went for it. Shoes with good grip and my hiking poles helped immensely to stop me from slipping more than a few inches in the melting snow. If I fell too far I’d probably have taken Jerry’s feet right out from under him too as he wasn’t far behind me.

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The trail after the snow field then got tough…and I mean one of the more nerve-wracking and steepest climbs I have ever done. I was amazed at how tough it was but also at how fast we managed to do it. Although it wasn’t 40 minutes we did make it to the top in 50! Now that was something I was proud of…and I still felt good and like I had energy. It was pretty freaking awesome.

We spent a few minutes at the top, hollering down the valley at Doug way below us, just a tiny dot on the trail, before turning west and heading down towards Pyramid Lake.

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We passed two alpine lakes immediately, one with a massive snow field to the side that looked like it would be fun to glissade down and fly off straight into the lake…if only it wasn’t so cold.

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We crossed the stream leaving the lakes and followed a rocky path down the valley for two miles before reaching a trail junction…and a bunch of tethered llamas! It was an odd site to walk on. From there we hiked another mile to Skull Lake where we made camp for the night at 4pm…a good time to allow for eating and relaxing.

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It was still warm and breezy and our tents dried quickly as we did camp chores. (We hadn’t had one morning where we woke up with dry tents…frozen, but not dry). Jerry had erected a large sign for Doug to see when he arrived in camp comprised of a dead-fall branch and his Ursack (I forgot to take a picture of it though). He wandered into camp a little before 6pm looking a little beat and voicing the same disbelief at the pass we had all just climbed, crossed and descended.

With dinner eaten we discussed the next day’s plans as I crawled into my sleeping bag to stay warm. We talked together as day faded to night, and waited for the moon to rise. We went to bed before it did.

Day 6

We were out of camp by 9am this morning with a short day ahead of us. We hiked only a mile before I emptied my pack, Doug pulled out his sleeping pad and umbrella, and Jerry and I made the 2.2 mile side trip up to Shadow Lake. Both of us wanted to hike more miles than the approximately 5 miles from one camp to the next.

We had barely gone 10 minutes when we saw a group of 4-5 people with a loose dog that didn’t look like it was under control. We stepped way off the trail, more than 40ft (further than I usually do), and as usual I put Kye and Cody in the down-stay position. This dog barreled up to us and then after sniffing introductions the dog laid into Cody. I kicked the dog who backed off and Jerry grabbed my hiking poles from me and stood on the defensive. One of their group hurried over to get their dog and several of them apologized although I wasn’t exactly in a mind to accept it. (Forgive the rant here: Dogs should always either be on a leash if they are not under complete voice control at all times. I always think it’s a little sad that people feel like they have to thank me for having well-trained and well-controlled dogs).

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The hike to Shadow Lake was easy terrain and we made the 2.2 miles in 50 minutes. We passed or talked to several groups going up over Texas Pass and into the Cirque. The pass looked pretty intimidating…as steep, or steeper, than Hailey Pass and no maintained trail over the top. As we ate a snack and drank some of our water we could see two tiny dots that were people on the top of the pass. That is what we must have looked like to Doug when we were at the top of Hailey Pass.

Texas Pass is the saddle in the far left of the picture:

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We returned back to the trail junction to see Doug taking a nap under his umbrella. I ate lunch and then we headed down the trail for a few miles. It was a short day, mileage wise between camps, and we set up camp in Fish Creek Park. Still no wildlife to be seen anywhere…this certainly isn’t the Bighorns where I usually see a ton of wildlife.

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We talked and did camp chores, ate dinner and talked some more with some very interesting subjects coming up. Once the debates on some of the more popular conspiracy theories came out I kept my mouth shut…not a subject I generally get into as it can get pretty heated and I don’t argue a point without facts to back me up.

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We had the clearest night yet and spent a while watching the stars and the Milky Way appear overhead before finally retiring to bed for our last night.

Day 7

We woke up to an earlier-than-usual-sun due to our camp site location which was nice as our tents and sleeping bags were once again soaked. I ate breakfast and brushed my teeth in my tent as I let my sleeping bag dry in the warming sun. We were slow to get going (again) as we only had 4 miles to hike to the truck…and from there a few decisions were going to have to be made.

Jerry and I talked most of the way back as we followed an easy trail down a mild grade with very little in the way of the spectacular scenery we’d been seeing over the past few days. Doug mentioned he wanted to take his time and savor the last few miles we had left in the Wind River Range.

Jerry and I got back to my truck around 11am, removed our packs and I grabbed a much needed diet Pepsi…it tasted pretty awesome. We found a note on the windshield from Jeri and Wayne and we set off to find them in the campground, just next to the trail head. They had done some hiking while we had done the loop but Jeri had remained sick the entire time we had been gone although she was starting to feel better, finally.

Upon a brief discussion all agreed that a hotel, a shower and beer and burgers in Pinedale were definitely called for. After that had been decided (we already knew Doug’s opinion on the matter) Jerry went to wait for Doug by the privies so he didn’t walk all the way back to the truck at the other end of the parking lot as Jeri and Wayne packed up their camp.

While Jeri and Wayne packed up, and Doug threw his pack in the car, Jerry and I headed for my truck to go see if we could find my misplaced headlamp at the place we had camped the first night. We had no luck.

With no headlamp to be found (I did find it in the camper when I got home) we headed down the mountain towards Pinedale and I pointed out the original trail head we had planned on using (Scab Creek TH) which was much further out in the basin than Big Sandy TH. We agreed we had made a good choice in changing it.

The sign as we drove into Pinedale was pretty apt. It read “Pinedale: All the civilization you need”. After a week in the wilderness a small town was exactly what we needed to ease back into the world of motors and money.

The first stop in Pinedale was the liquor store during which time Jeri, Wayne and Doug must have passed us as they called us from outside the brewery, and they had originally been behind us. We drove to meet them and I made a few phone calls and managed to locate enough hotel rooms in the same hotel to accommodate us all for the night. With beer in tow we headed for the Gannett Peak Motel, and despite desperately needing showers we all opted for a cold beer or two first. Showers did follow quickly as we were all hungry and ready for a good meal and did not want to completely offend the Pinedale locals with the smell of the mountain and hard-earned sweat.

With everyone showered and in cleanish clothes we finally walked the couple of blocks to the Pinedale Brewery and Grill where everyone ordered the much-talked-about burgers, except for Doug who had been more vocal about steak (and Rocky Mountain Oysters but they weren’t on the menu). We were also joined by our motel neighbor, Ramone, who was heading out for his own solo trip in the Wind River Range the following day.

Burgers, beer and steak disappeared fast and the conversation flowed well. Dinner was followed by Jerry riding a moose and then a brief visit to the Cowboy Bar where we listened to the jukebox and played a couple of games of pool (Wayne and I won both games as a team). We headed back to the hotel shortly and all headed to our respective beds to get some much needed rest.

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Day 8

No one slept well last night. I think we all slept worse than we did on the mountain, which is saying something for me since I did a lot of cussing at my hammock quilt (such a small one is not recommended for ground sleeping).

Coffee was found across the street, as was a cold diet Pepsi. Bags were packed and loaded in vehicles, dried tents were folded and put away and final pictures were taken. Dogs pouted and sulked as they knew something different was happening with people they had bonded to. With not much left to do we said our goodbyes with hugs and handshakes and I watched everyone drive away.

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It felt strange and kind of empty now that I was alone. I had spent 24 hours a day with Doug and Jerry for a week and we had certainly built a bond between the three of us with our shared time on the trail and the experiences we had. If this is what it feels like coming back to civilization after only a week on the trail, and creating amazing memories with new friends, I can begin to understand how it feels for a thru-hiker who has spent many weeks and months on the trail creating these relationships and then having to go back to “real life”.

Summary

The Wind River Range loop we did was brutal, beautiful and challenging but all those facets came together in the most amazing way to push me harder than I have ever been pushed before and also to learn how much more I can challenge myself. Depsite how tough it was there was never a moment in my mind I thought I would quit or couldn’t do it and I thrived on the challenge.

We had impeccable weather despite most nights dipping below freezing. We saw almost no wildlife (a couple of deer, multiple marmots and lots of squirrels and birds) which was surprising, but the majesty of the mountains mostly made up for it.

I created some friendships that I believe will last a lifetime and we are already talking about other trips together. This really was one of the most amazing weeks of my life and I look forward to repeating it in the future.

Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 1

Day 1

I awoke early to frost on the windows and a frozen water bowl for the dog. I heaved myself out of the warm confines of my cozy bed to let the dogs out, brush my teeth and grab a diet Pepsi (my coffee). We were soon on the road and heading over South Pass at the southern end of the Wind River Range, and a well-known re-supply hub for CDT thru-hikers.

A turn onto Lander Cut-Off, a well-packed dirt highway, would take us straight to the turn-off for Big Sandy trail head where I was to meet the others backpackers I would be hiking with but whom I had never met. The road was typical Wyoming dirt highway and it was safe and easy to drive at 40-50 mph, except on the frequent and often-unmarked curves. After 26 miles I took the right turn up to Big Sandy trail head. The road was slightly rougher but still a decent 20-30 mph road with a few washboards and some small rocks, but the views at the top were stunning.

I had planned on arriving early as the fishing looked promising in Big Sandy creek, but after finding a good campsite 3/4 mile south of the trail head I checked the creek out for a hour or so, using the 2-weight fly rod my dad had left in my care. Other than being completely thrown by the right-hand reel the fish just weren’t interested no matter what fly I cast out into the water. I could see a handful biting but just not where I was. The creek was wide enough that my 4-weight might have been a better choice for fishing. After just over an hour of attempting to catch a fish I gave up and went back to the truck.

I ate lunch and took the dogs to the creek to play since there were no fish and no fishermen to disturb. I threw sticks and rocks for them to chase and go after in the current (the sticks not the rocks), and Kye brought me at least half a dozen 1lb rocks that she had dragged out from the bottom of the creek, and not the ones I had thrown. With the dogs worn out and thoroughly soaked we headed back to the truck where I set up a chair, grabbed a beer, turned on the music and made bets with myself about when the others would arrive.

Arrive they did, right at 3:15pm (I had bet myself 3pm) and introductions were made as we talked and drank a few beers. (Despite comments on White Blaze not enough beer had been brought in their cooler). One by one everyone grabbed their packs to set-up tents and roll out sleeping bags and pads…I was the only one who didn’t as I was going to use and appreciate one more night in a bed with sheets and comforter in my truck. As dark settled over us we gradually dispersed to our sleeping areas, all excited and looking forward to the week-long adventure that lay ahead of us.

Day 2

Last night was slightly less chilly than the night before which was surprising since I believe the elevation was higher.

I awoke to the sounds of car doors slamming before the sun had peeked over the horizon. I think I was the last one out of bed, but the window coverings I use keep my truck a lot darker than the tents were. It was a slow start to the morning as everyone made their coffee or oatmeal, stretched, warmed up and eased their way into the day. Camp was packed up and we hit the trail head parking lot at 9am where we made good use of the privies before heading up the trail.

Doug and Jerry:

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With the exception of a few rocks and a couple of short, steeper sections the trail was easy hiking through old pine forests with a lot of ground debris and dead fall (not on the trail). We passed dozens of parties coming down the trail, pulling off to the side almost once a minute for the first hour. Couples, singles, groups with dogs…most of which also carried packs, and almost all of which were well behaved…hiked down as we hiked up. We took our first break at the half hour mark as Jeri was struggling slightly. It was a good place for a snack and we BSed for a while until everyone was ready to continue.

Wayne and Jeri:

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The trail remained mostly flat and easy to hike and I barely used my hiking poles…they began to feel like a useless appendage. Within another half hour Jeri was really having a hard time and we took another break with an amazing view of green meadows beside Big Sandy Creek. Sadly Jeri became unwell and decided to that she needed to rest a while before continuing. She told Doug (Huck), Jerry (Not Bad) and myself to continue. We left Jeri and Wayne and hiked on, all three of us feeling terrible about leaving them behind but also knowing what we had each committed individually to this trip, financially and emotionally. We committed to only hiking as far as Big Sandy Lake and waiting for them, camping the night there.

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So on we went, taking our time to meander the four easy trail miles, enjoying some stunning views in between the trees and taking breaks to refill water and BS. We all hiked at our pace and caught up with each other every 10 minutes or so. Jerry, with his long legs and tiny pack was way out front leaving the rest of us in the dust. I found myself in the middle of the pack hiking my normal moderate pace with a heavily loaded pack set up with seven days of supplies. Doug brought up the rear, enjoying a leisurely stroll.

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By 2pm we arrived at Big Sandy Lake and stopped to eat a late lunch as yet more groups passed our phenomenal lunchroom-with-a-view lake-side eatery. We looked at the map and got our bearings, picking out a good spot half way around the lake to stop for the night, flat and easily visible if and when Jeri and Wayne showed up.

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We picked our tent spots and got our tents up in between gusts of wind, and despite the rocky terrain the ground was surprisingly easy to put stakes in securely…always a nice thing to have. Sadly Doug’s tube of pesto sauce had leaked in his food bag and all over his now-smelly bear-resistant Ursack (so much for the smell-proof Opsak liner). At a suggestion he grabbed his soap and headed to the creek to at least try and get some of the oil and smell out before dinner (and no, he didn’t wash it in the creek).

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We had plenty of time to kill so we took pictures, I sent my check-in message to a friend via my InReach and we talked. We hoped we’d see our missing companions but none of us were optimistic, sadly, and all of us were bummed as this trip had been long in the planning.

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With evening drawing in we cooked and ate dinner as the wind remained strong and kept me a little chilled…the other two were fine. We debated about hanging food. We had Ursacks which are bear-resistant kevlar bags with odor-proof liners and can be tied to a rock or tree to prevent bears taking off with them. However, with the area known to have habituated black bears around we decided to try and hang them too…just to err on the side of caution. It was an interesting hang and definitely a team effort to get 3 7lb bags of food high into the chosen tree. On a positive note for me I managed a personal best for rock throwing…made it over the branch on my second throw. Yay me! Hope we still have food tomorrow or this is going to be a very short backpacking trip.

After the bags were hung and camp was set for the night we looked at the map and brainstormed about the trail for the next day or two and made a rough plan, all the while still watching the trail across the lake for the others.

Finally it was too cold to be outside the tent and I crawled into my tent with the dogs and under my nice, snug quilt. Just as I was switching my socks for bed I got called back outside to watch the moon rise over the peak to the east…it was very cool to watch but tough to take a good picture of.

The guys talked for a while as lay in my tent writing…of course, being guys and knowing my feelings on bears (this trip was only going to be a possibility as a group trip for me) they tried growling, which I just snorted at. Then, of course they had to give me a hard time about not providing them with epic Dune Elliot reading material for the trip…something they had both asked for prior to the trip. Funny guys, and good entertainment too. They don’t know I hid peanut M&Ms under their tents for the bears to find!!!

Day 3

For some reason we seem to be slow getting started in the mornings. It might be something to do with it being damp and cold and it is hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag and into cold clothes.

The view was just as stunning this morning as we packed up camp, retrieved food bags, ate breakfast and tried to warm up. The only bad thing about such an amazingly gorgeous location was the tougher-than-normal search for a private location to dig a cat hole!

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We were out of camp by 9am (again) and the trail immediately started out steep, turning and curving up some switchbacks before flattening out for a short time but the grade and foot-bed was generally pretty good…not the incessant rocks I’m often subjected to on less popular and more remote trails. Each step higher gave us more and more incredible views as we approached treeline. Every time we paused to look back at the view the cameras were immediately pulled out.

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There were a handful of other hikers on the trail but there were far fewer than yesterday. We finally asked a group of climbers to take a group picture of the three of us. We took our time, slowly climbing towards Jackass Pass that would lead us into the Cirque of the Towers. Each panorama was more spectacular than the last, although how I am not sure.

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We crossed the creek and bypassed the first lake as we looked down into its clear blue waters, which looked inviting but were bitterly cold. At the head of the lake we were half way to the top of the pass and we snacked and refilled with water before making the final push to the top. Another steep tail led up from the lake before once again flattening out for a short time before we reached our biggest challenge.

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Between us and the pass into the Cirque was another small lake. On one side was a solid wall of granite with a pretty deep snow shelf hanging above the water, on the other was a small boulder field followed by a large boulder field…this is where the trail went.

Initially it wasn’t too bad as most of the boulders were hoppable and easy-ish to navigate. A short dirt trail led onward into another boulder field and then led up. This was no longer hiking…this was bouldering and climbing. The dogs did superbly although Kye got stuck in one place and almost fell into a hole…thankfully Doug was behind her…but she managed to extricate herself and move on. It had my heart pounding slightly as I couldn’t get to her quickly and she could have fallen. It was a pretty gnarly section of “trail” and we agreed to stop and have lunch before hiking the last half mile to the top.

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Some of these boulders were as big as trucks and small cabins:

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I gave the dogs a reprieve and removed their packs as they had done a lot of hard work in the boulder field. They took naps and we ate. It was the first glimpse we got of one of the towers that comprised the cirque. We also watched two rock climbers either climbing or repelling a seemingly sheer rock face.

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The last half mile was the steepest yet and nothing but loose sand and a few rocks. I was stopping often, not just to give my muscles a break but to visually inhale the view. Nothing up until that point compared to the towers, peaks and valleys of granite that assailed our eyes as we reached the apex of Jackass Pass (aptly named) and the beautiful Lonesome Lake at the base of the Cirque. It was too much to take in…there were just no words to describe what it looked like or how it made me feel to see. If I could imagine a cathedral God would create…that would be it.

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Feeling dumbstruck and slightly emotional we descended towards Lonesome Lake (the first test if how my knee was holding up, and it did good), stopping every five minutes again to take more pictures of the snow and intense fields of wild flowers that were still bright and blooming in vivid reds and yellows and blues at this time of year. It seemed surreal.

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We took yet another break at the edge of Lonesome Lake, trying to absorb the majesty of what we were surrounded by before covering the final two miles to our camping spot. A great trail, stunning views and good conversation helped the final 45 minutes disappear beneath our feet and we made it to the trail junction at about 4pm.

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We all scouted the area for suitable places to camp and I found one just south of the trail with several nice, flat tent spots:

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I got my tent up quickly, as did Doug and Jerry as we all needed them to dry out from the condensation and dew from the night before. We ate dinner, looked at the maps again, hung our food bags and then went to spend the final hours of daylight watching the sun set over the Cirque’s towers and listen to the bugling of bull elk next to the creek. It was a pretty amazing evening and we all went to bed tired.

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Day 4

We all awoke to the sounds of elk bugles this morning and were up and at ’em at 6:30am as I yelled at the guys in their tents. We had decided we wanted an early start as we had a big climb ahead of us and a long day. It was definitely cold and I tried to do as much stuff from the warmth of my sleeping bag that I could…it wasn’t enough and I still had to brave the frigid air for multiple things. I’m definitely a little jealous of the guys as they don’t feel the cold like I do.

The sun finally peaked over the tops of the trees as we were finishing packing up and the guys went to replenish water. I always do mine the night before so I don’t have to deal with more cold stuff in the mornings.

With water bladders and bottles full we started up the steep and grueling climb from Lizard Head Meadows to Lizard Head Pass. The trail started in trees but soon climbed above them for more views of the Cirque of Towers and dozens of other granite walls and peaks, valleys and lakes. We could see down to the place we camped and the probable location of the elk from the night before. Walls still towered above us and the alpine tundra soon lay before us, criss-crossed with natural springs and plenty of water (we had been a little worried before as some of the water sources were seasonal).

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Rocks and short-tufted grasses and low-scrub plants were abundant, with the plants starting to turn pretty fall colors of reds and yellows.

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We finally reached the top of Lizard Head Pass and a gently-graded but rocky path led us down the far side until we reached the bottom of another short but steep climb that circumnavigated Cathedral Peak and down the other side. We stopped for lunch to fuel up for the final climb of the day and it was then that Doug told us that he’d tweaked his knee and that it wasn’t doing so good. He was just going to take it slow and easy as we continued.

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Nap time while we waited for Doug:

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From Cathedral Peak we descended along the side of the hill to our first snow-field traverse. I picked my way across rocks for the most part on the near side of the snow as it seemed to be the easiest and safest route and had less snow to fall through. The snow was solid, though, albeit a little slick and Jerry and I made it safely to the bottom. Doug, on the other hand, chose a different route as he caught up with us and managed to slip twice and fall once…it was definitely graceful. Two thumbs up and a high score.

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Can you see Doug on the snowfield in the picture below?

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The trail followed the valley for two miles, high above the creek and I ran out of water half way down. Thankfully Jerry had caught up with me and helped me out with a little water.

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We reached a trail junction where we left signs and arrows for Doug to follow so he knew where we went and then headed past Valentine Lake were I chugged half a liter of water after filtering two liters. Jerry and I then quickly covered the last mile to Ranger Park, crossed a creek shoe-less which was uncomfortable, painful and cold to say the least…thank God for hiking poles. We found a gorgeous tent site…the best one of the trip so far…with an amazing view akin to Devils Tower. Doug showed up within the hour.

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As we were setting up camp two riders with pack horses veered off the trail to come and talk to us. Jerry, the sweet-talker that he seems to be, managed to wrangle three beers out of the riders who were heading up to Grave Lake, fulfilling our much talked-about interest in a cold beer while hiking this amazing place. It was awesome trail magic and a wonderful gesture, so thank you to the two kind gentlemen from Casper, Wyoming. There’s a reason I love this state and will always call it home.

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We ate dinner and watched a mule deer wander near to camp before hanging our food bags and talking for a while as the moon rose. It was a grueling but amazing day. A few coyotes and a couple of elk bugles were the farewell song of the day.

England 2017: Week 5

Tuesday: Hiking the North Downs Way, Part 1

Westhumble to Merstham

Mom dropped me off at the Burford Bridge Hotel near the Boxhill and Westhumble train station. I walk a short way south, following the Stepping Stones trail to the beginning of the hike. The North Downs Way crosses the River Mole just north of Dorking, Surrey and you can either use the foot bridge at times of high water, or the stepping stones.

From the river crossing the trail climbed steeply upwards towards the summit of Box Hill, the second highest point in Surrey. Steps had been created in the trail to supposedly make climbing easier but I just found them harder to negotiate than managing my own climbing steps, and despite the overcast skies and cool weather I was soon drenched in sweat.

With the first big climb behind me the path stayed moderately level for a while, following a side path around the south side of Box Hill. View points were plentiful and provided stunning views of the countryside and the south downs many miles away. Villages and fields dotted the landscape below with country lanes and an occasional major road joining them together.

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I ran into a few people and their dogs near the beginning of my hike, and other than one very large and noisy group of school kids, there were few others using the trail until I reached the far end.

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Flowers like lilac, blackberries and wild roses were still out in full force painting the sides of the trail with purples, pinks and delicate white among all the greenery.

Most of the trail was well signposted except for a few spots where it looked like someone had removed the signs, and probably not under the proper authority.

The views continued to impress and I stopped at one particularly enjoyable view for lunch, relaxing for a few minutes until I heard the raucous voices of the school group closing on me. I should have just let them past me earlier as they were obviously gaining on me despite my fast pace. It dawned on me, at the bottom of the last steep but short climb, that they were not faithfully following the North Downs Way and were taking short cuts on bridleways and other public footpaths. They finally caught me at the top of the downs in Gatton Park where I stopped to take a water break. Thankfully they too also decided to stop there and eat lunch. I headed out.

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Belted Galloway cattle were grazing at alongside the trail and I passed many other people on foot and on horseback. Many people were out walking or playing with their dogs and I was impressed with the amount of people who had control of the dozens of unleashed dogs that were romping around. I have seen more evidence here in the UK of better trained unleashed dogs than I have in the US. I also saw a very elusive Muntjack deer crossing the path ahead of me but it had disappeared into the undergrowth before I had the chance to pull out my phone and take a picture.

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I passed Reigate Fort, an old WW2 fort that had housed troops and ammunition. From the fort the path headed gradually down the hill and through the grounds of a boarding school, a golf club and a small cricket ground before finally finishing at the town of Merstham. A quick stop at the pub for a very expensive beer in the beer garden provided a time killer before the train back to Horsham arrived at the station, two minutes away.


 

Thursday: Hiking the North Downs Way, Part 2

Westhumble to Gosham

Before I even got out of the car as my mom dropped me off I was already hot. The air was humid and the sun pressed down with a fairly intense heat.

I started the hiking from the visitor center at Denbies Vineyard, just south of where the North Downs Way crosses the A24. It was a more convenient location for my mom to drop me off than the actual road crossing due to the high speed of the carriageway.

The trail started on a paved path through the vines and climbed slowly and easily through the fields. A land train used for tours around the vineyard passed me on its way down and I continued climbing for about a 1/4 mile until I reached the trees and the intersection with the North Downs Way. I appreciated the shade beneath the trees as I continued to follow the ever-climbing paved trail. Views over the valley, the vineyard and the town of Dorking came intermittently and I was pleased with the occasional cloud cover that seemed to appear every time I stepped out into the open.

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Once done climbing the trail turned onto a dirt path before rejoining a roadway at the top of the hill and through a different section of the Denbies estate. The trail finally left pavement behind as I passed St. Barnabas church and crossed another quiet country lane. I was now surrounded by wildflowers and magnificent yew trees. From this point on the trail remained at a more or less constant elevation which made for some easy hiking and was easy on my knee.

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The chalk hills of the downs provide some of the most unique and unusual habitats for various wildflowers, plants, animals and insects that you will find no where else. The kind of chalk soil found in the downs of south-east England can only be found in northern Europe and a small area of Texas with the downs claiming more than half of all there is in the world. It is a beautiful and rare wild habitat that used to be widespread but is now only found in small pockets. Various organizations and volunteers are working on increasing and nurturing these locations.

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With the exceptions of a few open pockets of land the trail remained under the shade of the broad branches of oak, ash, beech and yew which was much appreciated. I passed the occasional walker or runner out with their dogs, including one lady who was wearing a skirt and dress shoes, and looking a little out of place.

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The second half of the trail had me passing an assortment of brick bunkers called pillboxes. These small shelters were built along the south side of the downs as a home defense against a possible German invasion and were mostly hexagonal in shape with blast protection on the roof and small gun ports on three or more sides. They were manned by the home guard but provided no living accommodations for the men who were in service.

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More wildflowers and extensive views of the south downs continued for the remaining miles until a left turn took me down the hill to my destination, the tiny village of Gomshall. Unfortunately it was this last downhill that had me in pain again and me knee was protesting violently. I was glad to rest my knee at the beautiful riverside pub, The Compass, as I waited in the beer garden for the next train that was still an hour out.

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I stopped in at the minor injuries unit at the hospital on my way home to have them do a quick check of my knee as a precaution. Thankfully there was nothing major but I am sadly out of commission for hiking for a month or so as I let it rest and heal.

The rest of my week, and thus the last few days of my time in England, were spent with family and old family friends. On Friday we took a drive to Hollingborne in Kent, just east of Maidstone, to meet an old friend of the family, his wife and her daughter. We met for lunch at a quaint little 13th century pub called The Dirty Habit. The food was good albeit slightly unusual for a pub and the service was excellent.

From a great lunchtime meet-up we headed west to Yalding, on the other side of Maidstone, to spend the afternoon with my nan. We enjoyed a few hours in the garden before having a light tea of hot buttered crumpets and heading home.

Saturday was grocery day (exciting, right!) and then we headed to the local garden and falconry center where we spent an hour looking at and interacting with all the beautiful falcons, owls, hawks and eagles before a two hour flying demonstration of several of the birds.

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They started with two gorgeous Harris Hawks which are not native to Britain (they are an American bird) followed by a peregrine falcon/lanneret hybrid who took a long excursion away from the center. The falconers were worried and explained that it was normal to let them get out and fly. While we waited they brought out and flew a stunning and large eagle owl, which required a couple of volunteers from the audience…of course I jumped at the chance. He was a spectacular bird and it was quite an awesome opportunity…sadly my mom forgot to take photos so there are none of me and the owl together…at least I took a picture of him in his enclosure:

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Toward the end of the owl flying the falcon returned and it was incredible to see him dive at high speed to take down the lure.

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They flew a few more birds, including a kestrel, before calling it a day at 4:30. A 2 hour show for $6 plus a handling experience was a steal for a well-spent afternoon. We wandered through the camping store that was also on site, a place my mom had never been, and meandered through the maze of large “glamping” and basecamp-style tents…so many to look at and so many styles. Exhausted and hot we grabbed a quick cold drink and headed home for a light dinner.

Sunday started out a little gloomy but eventually warmed up and I did the last couple of loads of my laundry before packing my suitcase. My sister and her boyfriend arrived for lunch (a proper roast beef and potatoes English-style roast lunch) which we spent an hour or more enjoying before we headed to a quaint little pub in Barnes Green that my mom recommended. The afternoon was warm and pleasant and the conversation was fun and jovial. We headed home for tea, dipping chocolate and strawberries and a light-but-competitive game of Scrabble. Sadly I had to now say my last goodbye to my sister as I would not be seeing her again before my Tuesday departure.

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Monday was a relaxed day as mom did some garden work before we walked into town. I took her to lunch at The Giggling Squid, an excellent Thai tapas restaurant on the east end of the pedestrian high street, as a thank you for everything over the past five weeks.

Tuesday came all too quickly as I loaded the suitcases into the car and we headed for Heathrow airport. With a little time to spare after checking bags and getting my boarding pass we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then it was time to say good bye as I headed for security. As always it was an emotional parting from my mom but I was ready to head home, back to my dogs, and spend a few weeks with my dad and step-mom before they returned to England for the final time.

England 2017: Week 4

I awoke to grim-looking clouds on Monday morning but they soon gave way to brilliant blue skies and vibrant sunshine.

Mom and I packed a lunch, jumped in the car and headed to Bignor Villa, the site of a roman settlement dating from 200-400AD when it was destroyed. It is a villa known for its high quality mosaic floors which are some of the most complete and intricate in the UK. It was discovered in 1811 when a farmer plowing this field hit a stone. The mosaics themselves are only aboout 3 feet below the surface and it surprising that they had not been destroyed by pervious plowing of the field. The mosaics found at Bignor Villa include the head of medusa, and one of the goddess Venus with gladiators above a hypocaust, an underfloor heating system.

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The short tour of the intricate mosaics did not take much so we ate lunch and headed out for a 3 mile hike in the south downs. A pretty trail guided us by a medieval church, across grasslands and fields until we reach a culvert and a pretty creek where we decided to turn back and try our luck at a local pub that was just off the path. Sadly, being Monday, it was closed. It certainly was in a good location to cater to thirsty hikers. With no cold beer to slake our desire we headed back to the car and drove the 1/2 hour home, making a brief stop to pick up my morning supply of “coffee” aka diet Pepsi for the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday and Wednesday were pretty uneventful as my mom had to work so I spent the days catching up on laundry and wandering around Horsham town center looking for a new pair of jeans. Shopping is exhausting and I generally don’t enjoy it, and this was no exception. I did finally find what I was looking for after a few hours of looking but I was unimpressed by most of the choices and the reintroduction of high-waisted jeans and other fashions that harken back to the 80s. There were almost no low-rise jeans in sight.

Thursday brought more clouds and overcast, cool weather and we headed to Basingstoke in Hampshire to the Milestones Museum, a 19th century replica town built inside a huge arced building.

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We borrowed one of the free audio guide handsets and followed the guide through various workshops, trades, stores and streets of Victorian England. Most of the information we learned was local to the specific area including the production of steam equipment for farms and road building such as traction engines and steam rollers. There was a replica firehouse in one building with historic ladders, tanks and carriages that saw the dawn of the fire service. A mill and lumber yard could be found near to the fire station with full-sized saws, log moving equipment and horse-drawn wagons complete with human figures frozen in action.

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We perused the hardware and toy stores before reaching the old pub just before closing where we enjoyed a beer and a cup of tea and read a few pages of a newspaper dating back to WW2.

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Many restored and refurbished old vehicles, from buses and trams to tractors, trucks and hand carts were parked along the cobbled street curbs, adding to the air of nostalgia that the town provided. There was so much to look at and we paused at the Olde Sweet Shop to buy a small bag of sweets, sold by the ounce in white paper bags. We munched on the shared dolly mixture, an old favorite of mine from childhood, as we explored the last few shops and wandered between the old buildings towards the old-style railway ticket office, steam engine, and horse and cart loaded with coal.

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Milestones Museum was a step back in time and was created with an imersive experience in mind, which included the staff in the pub and sweet shop being in period dress. A room near the front of the museum also provides clothes for children to borrow and dress up in the garb of the time. It was well worth the longer drive to visit and spend a couple of hours learning more about the 19th and early 20th centuries in such a hands-on and realistic environment.

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Friday: Hiking the South Downs Way

Mom dropped me off at Horsham station with my day pack and lunch where I bought my return ticket to Amberly, the closest town to the South Downs Way. After a short trip down the tracks I reached Amberly with a number of other backpackers who were equipped for overnighters rather than just a day hike.

From the station it was a quarter mile roadwalk to the trail. I was following a guide I had found on line but the trail was well signposted and I only checked the guide once to make sure I was turning the right way out of the station. You can find a great guide to the whole trail here: South Downs Way Guide

The first part of the hike followed a narrow but straight country lane next to some farmed fields to the crest of the hill. It wasn’t steep but I could certainly feel the lack of recent hiking in my working muscles. The road soon curved to the right and the trail turned left, still climbing as it wound beneath some trees. The cloud cover was intermittent which made it pleasant and not too hot but it was humid and I was soon sweating profusely. Once on top of the downs the path leveled off. There was very little variation in the direction of the trail and it was contained between two fences for almost the entire route. The views to the north, over the Arun Valley, were pretty and green and were similar to the stunning views to the south but which also included a view of the English Channel. Sheep and cattle became very familiar faces along the trail, especially after the restrictive fences either side disappeared and the trail was more open.

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With a 9:30 start I expected to hiked the 6 1/4 miles to Washington in just over two hours, which I did, even including a stop for lunch with a fantastic view over the village below.

Perfect rock-carved chair for lunch:

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Sheep stare-down:

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I thought this sign was hilarious…see if you can see what I thought was funny:

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A recommended detour, avoiding the busy A24 dual carriageway, led me into the little hamlet of Washington where a very pleasant pub and beer garden provided a welcome respite and a cold beer while I waited on the bus to take me to Pulborough train station. From Pulborough I took the train to Horsham and walked the mile back to the house, after a brief stop in town to replace my hiking shoes. My current pair had begin to wear due to heel slippage and the resulting hole in the fabric of the shoe was creating a hot spot which would eventually mean a blister.

Friday night I headed to Leatherhead, my old stomping grounds, to meet an old friend for drinks and dinner. The evening was a blast and it felt like no time had passed at all as we reminsced and talked about where we were now and what the future was looking like for each of us. After four hours, four beers and a meal we walked back to the station where we said our farewells and I headed home.

Saturday morning mom and I were heading out the door fairly early (at least for her) and heading to the Isle of Wight, the largest of England’s islands and located off the southern coast, just south of Portsmouth. A ban on overtime by the train drivers’ union meant we were a little concerned about the trains and their reliabilty but we made it to Portsmouth Harbor just in time for the next passenger ferry to the island. A brief wait in the terminal while passengers disembarked the catamaran and a short 20 minute ride across the Solent, the strip of sea between the island and the mainland, put our feet on the Ryde Pier Head. The Solent was extremely busy with the world-famous Round the Island race and it felt like we were dodging hundreds of sail boats. My mom’s partner, Robin, was waiting to meet us at and deliever us back to his flat where we chatted and ate a light lunch as we looked out over the marina from the front window.

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A perusal through a 5 year old island magazine, at Robin’s suggestion, gave me some ideas of what I would like to do, but being 5 years old my first two choices had been closed since the magazine had been printed. With no good options striking my fancy we decided a coastal walk would make for a pleasant afternoon. We crossed the Medina River by way of a floating bridge, from which I sotted a couple of jelly fish in the water, before meandering through downtown Cowes and then beyond, along the sea front. We watched a continuous stream of sail boats coming into the harbor as they completed their circuit of the island and finished the race.

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A couple of mies along the sea front we stopped at a cafe in Gurnard for tea or lemonade and typically-British scones and tea cakes. The short break meant our feet and legs were well rested, despite walking on so much pavement, and we headed back to Cowes where we again crossed the river via the floating bridge (actually a chain ferry). Another brief pause at The Lifeboat Pub and Restaurant, overlooking Cowes Marina and dozens of tall-masted sailing boats, completed the walk and supplied us with a cold pint of Guiness’ new lager, a pint of bitter for Robin and some cider for my mom while we watched the milling crowds and sailboat teams enjoy a celebratory or commiserating drink in the hot sun.

We finished the day out with pasta and a refreshing white wine for dinner.

Sunday dawned as a beautiful day with warm temperatures and brilliant blue skies and we took our time getting “up and at-em” for our plans for the day. We were out the door at 11am and heading towards Rosemary’s Vineyard and Winery for a free tour and wine tasting.

During the tour we learned about all the basic procedures used in making and bottling their wines, ciders, liqueurs, and gin and vodka. It was a short tour but was informative especially as it was a small family-run winery and vineyard who took pride in doing things with care and precision by hand for many of the processes. The wine was decent but not the best I have had; their medium dry white was the best of the three I tasted and reminded me of a Pinot Grigio in many ways.

From Rosemary’s Vineyard we headed to the craft village of Arreton for a pub lunch. What we didn’t realize ahead of time was tat there was a classic car rally on the grounds and the pub was insanely busy. After a few minutes of walking through the various artisan stores we headed to a different pub in Newchurch a few miles away where amazing sandwiches and fries were had by all. A scenic drive around the island finished off the day and we headed back to enjoy a dinner of chicken, and another bottle of good wine and great company.

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We left early Monday morning for the mainland, retracing our journey from Saturday through Ryde, Portsmouth, Chichester and back to Horsham.

England 2017: Week 3

It was still insanely hot and humid Monday morning when we went to meet nanny. It was mid-morning by the time I had walked to the B&B from mom’s house. Mom had inadvertently dropped a very important piece of mail somewhere along the route and had to turn back to find it….eek…but I continued in order not to keep nanny waiting. We met mom in the center of Horsham. Most of the day was spent perusing the many shops in search of an ever-elusive, not-too-long plain skirt for my nan…and we never did succeed. Lunch was a brief but enjoyable stop at the cafe in the Waterstone’s bookshop afterwhich we left nanny at her hotel for a nap while mom and I headed home. Nanny was raring to go again around 4pm and mom went to pick her up so she could join us for dinner.

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Tuesday and Wednesday continued in much the same way, although without mom as she had to work. Nanny and I enjoyed conversations and walks in the beautiful park and manor house gardens, we watched shirtless guys playing soccer and sweating profusely in the heat, we stopped with young moms and nanny bubbled with effervesence as she talked to the babies, something that brings her great joy. We had lunches at outdoor tea rooms and in an old but air conditioned restaurant that once used to house the council offices. We wandered through the local museum and went to pick out nice gifts of wine snd chocolste for my mom and sister. I learned how her and my grandad had met and courted, I heard more stories about the war and her childhood and I listened to funny tales of my mom when she was growing up. When we were tired and fed up of being hot we headed home to enjoy the cooler confines of the house and shaded garden while sipping on a beer (me) or a cup of tea (nanny). I got to spend a lot of quality time with my nan, and take some wonderful pictures, and it is time I will hold in my heart for the rest of my life.

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Nanny joined us on Thursday as we headed to my sister and her boyfriend’s (Adrienne and Chris) house where I was staying for a long weekend. It was the first time either nanny or I had seen their house since they had bought it three years ago and the full renovation has only just been [mostly] completed. It was stunning and it was amazing to think they had done a large portion of the work themselves. It was a HUGE project but their house was stunning, especially the massive walk-in shower that, with a couple of hanging ferns, could have been the set for a shampoo commercial.

The afternoon saw us heading to Chartwell, the famous home of Sir Winston Churchill. Chartwell was bought by the former English Prime Minister in 1922 and it was his primary residence until he died in 1965. In 1946, when it appeared that financial constraints would force Churchill to sell the property, it was bought by a consortium of his friends, led by Lord Camrose and donated to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, on condition that the Churchills could remain until their deaths. Churchill continued to live there until October 1964, when increasing frailty forced him to leave Chartwell for the last time and confined him to his London home.

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We did not purchase the house tour but wandering through the rose and kitchen gardens was more than enough regal splendor for all of us. Of course my poor sister was seriously suffering pollen allergies at the time and we didn’t stay more than a couple of hours. And in grand British tradition, no visit to a stately home or historic site would be complete without the obligatory cup of tea.

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On Friday I awoke to a much more gloomy sky, and much more British weather but that was not deter Adrienne and me as we headed to Hever Castle, not 5 minutes from their home. Knowing my love of castles and all things medieval Adrienne made this visit, plus lunch, her portion of my birthday gift.

Hever Castle, located near Edenbridge and 30 miles south-east of London, is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. Henry inherited the castle after the death of Anne’s father in 1539. It also, in the later years of Henry’s reign, came into the possession of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves as part of the settlement from the anulment of their marriage.

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Hever Castle went through three distinct periods of construction, renovation and repair in it’s 900 years. The original and oldest part of the castle, the gate house and walled bailey, dates back to post-Norman time and the time of the Plantagenets in 1270. In 1462 the castle was inherited by Geoffery Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s great-grandfather, who restored and converted the castle, which was in dire need of repair, into a manor and added a tudor dwelling within the walls. The final renovation, completed by William Waldorf Astor, and American millionaire, was undertaken after he bought the castle in 1903. It was used by the family as a residence until 1983 wherein it was sold to a private company as a conference center, although the castle and grounds remain open to the public.

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Sunday took us a Bough Beech Reservoir and the nature reserve where we planned on hiking a 2 mile loop near the lake. What started out well sign-posted ended in, not surprisingly for me, a complete and total lack of signage. We ended up walking 10 minutes the wrong way on a country road, dodging minimal traffic thankfully, before we turned around and headed back to the last signed gate on the opposite side of a wheat field. We found a second trail that was also sign posted and dared to follow it. Again, it was well signed and an obvious path…for a while…but once through another gate the trail and the signage once again disappeared. We were left to guess where the route was supposed to go, and unlike the badly signed Centennial Trail where I had a map and could make a good chice, we had nothing to go on. After wandering around for 15 minutes on the far side of the pasture I gave up looking and crawled through the fence. Two more fences and one minor barbwire injury later and we were back at the start. We debated getting a cup of tea or coffee but I was in the mood for something slightly stronger and we headed home to enjoy a movie and a beer or two.

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Adrienne and I had a quiet dinner before heading to the station to catch the next train back to Horsham at 8pm where mom was waiting to pick me up an hour later.