Week 47.1: The Grand, Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon has been the focus of innumerable road trips, and it’s been at the top of our “to-see” list for ages.  In mid-May, we finally got the chance, and we drove 70 miles from our campground in Kanab, Utah to the North Rim.  To be more precise, we went on May 16, which was fortunate, since the road to the North Rim had only opened for the 2016 year on May 15.  We had no idea.

If you ever get to choose, “clueless but lucky” is our recommended way to travel.

Aw, hail

Our drive to the North Rim traveled through beautiful desert landscapes – there are a few national monuments here – and then up, up, up, past grassy meadows and through a pristine alpine forest.  It turns out the road closes because it gets covered with snow: the North Rim is really high.  Like, 8,000 feet in the air high (the better-known, 10x more visited South Rim is about 2,000 feet lower).  There were only two towns in the entire 70 miles, one of which was just some campgrounds and a gas station / general store.

We finally made it to the Grand Canyon just before noon, straining to catch glimpses of the canyon through the trees as we drove.  We parked, walked down, and finally made it to the rim, and…

Holy crap.  It’s incredible.

The canyon is so wide, and it’s so shockingly… colorful.  We’ve seen a lot of amazing sights on our road trip, but the view left us in awe.

We took pictures along the canyon rim for a few minutes, ignoring the light drizzle.  Then, suddenly, black clouds began rolling in.  We were at 8,000 feet, on an exposed, rocky outcropping with sheer cliffs in multiple directions.

“Time to go,” Jake said.

“Just a few more pictures!”  Heather said.

“No,” Jake said again, as the menacing cloud rapidly moved towards us, lightning bolts crashing, “it’s really, really time to go.”  We managed to get back into our car just seconds before a huge, spectacular lightning-hail storm ripped through the area.  It was so fast and furious, we actually got several inches of hail built up on our car like snow!

Now, we normally try to eat our lunch in scenic spots as opposed to, say, the parking lot of the visitor’s center, but something about not being pounded with lightning-hail made our Honda Fit feel like the best place in the world.  As a sweet, cynical bonus, we got to watch a worker across the street spend several minutes trying in vain to cover up a catering cart full of food he was delivering, until he finally gave up, hid under a doorway, and reconsidered his life choices.

Rim Shot

After lunch, full of food but thirsty for hiking, we drove over to the trailhead for the Kaibab Trail, which leads down and across the canyon to the South Rim.  After a mile or so of hiking down the trail, the views were breathtaking.

There were lots of donkeys on the trail, which was fairly entertaining, even though they can make the footing for hikers a little… treacherous.

We talked to a fellow hiker at an overlook, and it turned out he was hiking rim to rim – a 24 mile, single-day death march.  He was part of a tour group, apparently for crazy people, and he was really looking forward to the top, where he had been promised they would have beer.

“Almost there,” we said.

“Everyone says that,” he said.

Then we had to head back.  At 8,000 feet, that meant hiking steeply a few miles back up the canyon, leaving us breathless yet again.

Too many pics

Writing can’t do justice to the Canyon, so we’ll mostly leave the rest to Heather’s pictures.  (She goes through a heroic number for each blog post, but especially for this one.)  Touring the canyon mostly involved driving around and stopping at viewpoints, so here’s Point Imperial, at nearly 9,000 feet the highest point in the canyon.

Eventually, we reached the end of the scenic drive at Angels Window, a hole in a rock outcropping with a viewing platform built right on top.

We walked all around the rim of the canyon here and came away with some truly epic photos.  (Bonus: if you haven’t already, click here to check out a 360-degree photosphere of the Grand Canyon in all its glory!)

We finally headed back to Kanab near twilight.  There were deer everywhere along the road – we probably saw 100 in total – along with lots of tourists, stopping to take pictures of such an exotic animal.  We also nearly ran over a coyote, which trotted halfway across the road, checked us out for a moment as we skidded to a stop… then it just kept going, unimpressed.

Guess it was hoping we were an Acme delivery truck.

Roadtrip Time Travel

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Pittsburgh, PA.

Next location?  Somewhere else?

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Week 29: Elderly Burning Man

As we wrote before, after our crazy road trip back to the Northeast, we spent a few days recharging in Phoenix.  Then, we headed back out onto the road in our RV, southwest from Phoenix into the desert.  Our destination was Quartzsite, Arizona, home of what we call “Elderly Burning Man.”

Gathering of the Clans

Quartzsite is not just annoying to spell, it’s a highway town of 3,600, very near the border between Arizona and California.  Quartzsite is in the for-real desert, and it is nearly “deserted” in the summer, when temperatures can reach 120+ degrees.  But in the winter?  Oh, that’s quite different.

For reasons we still do not fully understand, Quartzsite is the winter meetup location for over one hundred thousand RVers.  Every winter, swarms of people come and meet up in the desert outside of the town, where you can park for free for as long as you like.  Some people live there all winter long.  There are very few places to hook up, but this area attracts an off-grid crowd, with large solar panels and giant tanks that can go weeks without filling.

This is where the hardcore RVers go, and as we know well from our travels, full-timers are almost exclusively retired.  We’d guess the average age is about 80.  (Relatively) wealthy, white retirees, with a… let’s say, “Midwestern” build, gathering in their off-grid RVs in the middle of the desert.

Elderly Burning Man:  It doesn’t get much weirder than this.

Desert Sea

Vendors set up tents and stalls in a huge area inside the town, and we walked through.  There was a lot of RV-related stuff, but also plenty of touristy stuff, rocks and minerals, and especially deep-fried food.  Considering the demographics, Quartzsite is more than a little like being in an Iowa county fair, just mysteriously transported into the desert.

Some of the stuff we saw was just bizarre – dozens of cow skulls, laid out for sale, next to fifty large geodes and a table full of T-shirts.  A few of the stands appeared to just be piles of junk to scavenge through – the desert drifter dream.  Nearby, there were crazy RVs for sale, with kitchen islands, electric fireplaces, and full master bathrooms.

There are also a few permanent shops in the town, and the one we wish we had visited is the Quartzsite Yacht Club.  Despite being utterly landlocked, the Quartzsite Yacht Club touts itself as having the “largest membership in the world.”  Membership is open to the public for a nominal fee, and it comes with one real perk: “real” yacht clubs often offer reciprocal access to members of other clubs, so membership in Quartzsite can get you in the door elsewhere (they claim).

It was so crowded everywhere we decided not to bother trying, but we’ll likely always regret it.  If nothing else, it probably would have helped Jake’s odds at becoming a maritime lawyer.

Thug Life

Not having been there before, we were a little unsure what to do.  We ended up just driving into the desert, weaving between all the other RVs (they gather in packs), and parking in a random unoccupied area.  Everything seemed fine, until the next night, some new entrants parked, like, 8 feet away.  In the middle of a giant, empty desert.

And then they glared at us, every time we went outside.

We have guessed, in retrospect, that we were somehow encroaching on their (unmarked, unoccupied) “turf.”  Friends, we have never claimed to be the most heroic of travelers, and it’s fair to say we fled from this confrontation.  Those “toughs” were up to no good, and there were more of them than us, never mind that they were in their 80s.  Like Jesus, we turned the other cheek, and like Sir Robin, we bravely drove off to a different, empty spot in the desert.

After getting muscled out of our first spot by the infirm, we took a stroll around our new, neighborless backyard. Highlights of our hike included: a cactus that looks like an armless man buried headfirst, lots of rocks, and a coaster from cybererotica.com – “It’s where you go to make money!”

An Oasis of Youth

It wasn’t all snark and fear in Quartzsite, as we did have one positive interaction with other humans.  We learned via social media that the “Xscapers,” a “working-aged” sub-group of an RV community, was meeting up in Quartzsite at the same time we were there.  We crashed their meet-up, and were rewarded by meeting friendly people who were – *gasp – approximately our own age!

Yes, it was an exciting night for us, although sobering.  (Not literally – we of course brought beer.)  Because our online business has been lackluster, we can’t live like nomads in the desert forever, like many of these folks do.  Still, it was a fun time, and we were invited back for movie night the next day.

The movie was “The Martian,” projected onto a screen.  Although we had seen it before, it was still kind of a trip to watch a story of survival while under the stars, running off of solar power and batteries, in the harsh desert landscape of Arizona.  Thanks, Xscapers!

Those Sunsets

We stayed in Quartzsite for three nights, which is about as long as we can last before our batteries run low.  If you’re curious, we have a generator for power in a pinch, but it doesn’t do much to recharge the batteries, and we don’t have any fancy solar panels to help out.

Of course, we could always put away our computers and phones and just live in the moment, but on the other hand, no, we aren’t doing that.

We won’t miss the crowds, the bizarre bazaar, or the elderly gangs, but there is one thing we’ll certainly miss from Quartzsite.  Desert sunsets are always amazing.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Portland, Oregon, getting our blog post on!

Next location?  We’ll be here for a while longer, then on to Seattle!  For more information, check out our shiny new road trip plan.

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Week 24+ : Driving Down and Climbing Up in Phoenix

After a short stay in Holbrook, Arizona to visit the Petrified Forest, we had hoped to head to the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately, it was December, and the weather at the Grand Canyon was literally freezing (and also snowing).  Rather than freeze ourselves in our little metal house, we decided to take the lead of snowbirds everywhere and fly south for the winter.  We changed our destination to Phoenix, via Flagstaff, Arizona.

Diminishing Turns

We knew nothing about Flagstaff before we traveled through it, but now we know one thing:  it’s really high.  Flagstaff sits at an ear-popping 6,900 feet, and as a result, the landscape is more “alpine forest” than the Arizona desert landscape you probably picture.  As it turns out, Flagstaff sits along a mountainous ridge that extends over most of Arizona; Phoenix, much lower in the Valley of the Sun, is more of an outlier than Flagstaff!

Since we performed our typical “none” level of research, we knew “none” of this at the time.  However, we could tell the elevation was high as we were driving through Flagstaff, due to our homemade altimeter: a bag of Tostitos we bought in Florida and never opened.  We leave it in the RV now because it is pressurized at sea level, and it’s fun to watch it expand when we travel to places at a higher elevations.  As we passed through Flagstaff, we genuinely thought it might explode.  [Ed. note:  we took pictures, but sadly lost them.]

From Flagstaff, we descended 6,000 feet in about 100 miles to get to Phoenix, which sounds scary but was quite well managed.  It took longer than expected, but we did make it to our beautiful campsite at Phoenix, spirits high and Tostitos bag deflated.  This would be as far as we would go for the next month.

Aged Like Fine Wine

Our first impression of Phoenix was that it was much nicer than we imagined.  It was winter, so unlike this classic Arrested Development bit, it wasn’t hot.  In fact, the temperature was quite comfortable, and since we were staying at a county park outside of the city proper, the landscape was surprisingly green.  All the buildings were nice and new (thanks, housing bubble!), but retail signage was subdued, with most of the stores located in brown, adobe-style buildings.  (Aesthetically pleasing, although a bit confusing in practice.)

Almost everyone we met was friendly and relaxed, in part we were pretty far outside the city center, but also because everybody around us was a retiree.  Now, we certainly expected there would be a fair number of older folks around, but the sheer uniformity of it was staggering.  The deli counter people at the (gloriously huge) grocery store we went to were retirement age, as were the checkout clerks at Target.  (Gotta make those balloon mortgage payments, we guessed.)  Everywhere we went, the grey-haired workers were friendly, hard-working, and slow-moving.

It wasn’t bad, really, but it was certainly unique.

Cactus Fight!

We were in Phoenix in early December, and as the holidays approached, most of our time was spent running errands and making preparations for our upcoming roadtrip-within-a-roadtrip. We then returned to Phoenix in January, but after traveling across the country twice (see next blog post!), we didn’t have the stomach for much travel sightseeing.

In other words: we didn’t take many pictures.

However, we did spend a fair bit of time hiking within the park we were staying at.  There was a nice trail which went up and around a mountain, offering beautiful views of the valley Phoenix sits in, along with many very tall cacti.

Obviously, we enjoyed this all in a classy and respectful fashion.

My money is on the Saguaro.

The Straw That Broke

We did do one adventure while in Phoenix, climbing Camelback Mountain, a tall mountain which sits very close to downtown Phoenix.  Before we went, we read online that it was tough, but as seasoned-ish hikers, we assumed it wouldn’t be a problem.  We didn’t even bat an eye at the “double black diamond” designation at the base of the trail.

Friends, let us tell you, Camelback Mountain is no joke.  It climbs to a height of 2,700 feet very steeply, and the final section involves scrambling around and over huge boulders, propped up precariously and proximately to a cliff.  They try to make the trail clear by marking it with blue paint, but it’s pretty easy to lose it, especially near the top.

Oh yes… there’s the trail.

The hike is as exhausting as it is legitimately dangerous – multiple people have died, and dozens have to be rescued every year.  In fact, a man saved a woman from falling off the edge by grabbing her ankle just a month ago!

In other words, Camelback is intense.  That said, the view from the top is truly spectacular.  Definitely recommend, but be ready for a workout – and tread cautiously.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  The tiny town of Trinidad, California, in the land of old-growth redwoods.

Next location?  We’re here for a week, then heading further up the California coast.  Get ready for a lot of redwood pictures.

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Week 24: A Forest of Stone

One of our goals of our road trip is to see all the cool stuff you always hear about, but rarely get to see.  Lots of people visit the Grand Canyon in their lifetimes, but how many go to Death Valley?  (a million people per year, actually)  Well, a big item on our road trip bucket list was seeing the Petrified Forest in northern Arizona, the next stop on our tour after Albuquerque.  The idea always just amazed us – wood that turned to stone?!

So we checked it out, and we have to say, petrified wood is pretty cool, but it may have been a little too high on our bucket list.  That said, the park has more than just petrified wood, and is definitely worth visiting.

Mmm, Dessert

We entered Petrified Forest National Park off interstate I-40 (easiest national park to get to ever), which started us in the northern half of the park.  This area doesn’t have petrified wood; instead, it’s a preserved part of Arizona’s Painted Desert, a huge stretch of beautifully colored badlands in northern Arizona.  (Badlands is the term for when the area is dry, hilly, and covered with ridges like bunched up fabric.)

The terrain was mostly flat, so we could see for miles in every direction from the overlooks.  With bright colors and numerous striations in an otherwise featureless desert, it was extraordinarily scenic. Reminds us of the surface of Mars (probably).

While exploring the Painted Desert, we stopped at the Painted Desert Inn, which is now owned by the park service and serves as an art gallery.  (It’s also home to an extremely lucky artist-in-residence!)  The upper floor features a preserved 1950’s style diner that we found pretty groovy.

Downstairs, we found a single room with some cheese and crackers set out.  A lonely-looking volunteer employee told us that the park service was having a party for the whateverth anniversary of the Inn, but it seemed like they forgot to send out any invitations.  (Or maybe it had something to do with being a Tuesday afternoon in December in the empty part of Arizona.)

The volunteer proceeded to talk at us for a while, in a heartfelt but misguided attempt teach us about a local historical figure we have definitely since forgotten.  [Ed. note – we think it was this guy]  We were too polite to interrupt, but we got to eat a lot of cheese while they rambled, so all in all it turned out pretty well.

Mmm, More Dessert

After admiring the scenery in the Painted Desert, we drove back over the interstate to the Petrified Forest proper.  There were some petroglyphs along the way, but we couldn’t get any good pictures of them.  Honestly, after Gila, Albuquerque, and Bandelier, we were feeling petroglyphed-out, so we moved on quickly.

There are petroglyphs all over these rocks, but it was hard to see them.

The scenery continued to be beautiful, subtly changing from area to area but still maintaining a stark beauty.  We saw the pinks and reds of the Painted Desert shift to blues, purples and grays in the next section of the park, where the ancient Blue Mesa rock formations can be found.

Hard Woods

We soon came to the Petrified Forest.  Cool fact time!  The trees that created this petrified wood fell more than two hundred million years, then became encased in silt and volcanic ash.  Over millions of years, silica leeched into the trees via the groundwater, replacing the organic core with solid rock.  They still look just like wood from the outside, but it’s pure stone.

Break off the bark or look from the side, and you can see that the rings have been fully replaced, sometimes with dazzling colors.  Interestingly, the crystalline structure of petrified wood causes it to cleanly break apart into round sections.  Although it’s the hand of nature, it looks for all the world like two people with an old-timey saw went through and cut it into pieces!

Petrified Forest National Park features a huge variety of petrified wood, although it’s not the only place it can be found.  In fact, there used to be much more wood at the Petrified Forest, but people have been stealing it for over a century.  Luckily, plenty remains, including some really huge pieces that would be rather… difficult to acquire.  The largest weighs 44 tons.

As a final note, you may have noticed a lot of crow pictures in the galleries.  Well, aside from being easy to photograph, crows were everywhere in the park, and not remotely afraid of humans.  Crows: the squirrels of the desert?

Extra Credit

While visiting Petrified Forest National Park, we stayed in Holbrook, Arizona.  The RV park was fine, although a little odd.  The attendant was friendly, and we definitely were taken care of hookup-wise, since each spot had row after row of sewer connections.  This is pretty weird because we really could only ever use 1; it felt a little like getting 20 calculators to “help” take a math test.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Still in Napa, California, writing a million blog posts.

Next location?  Somewhere northwest of here, probably Arcata or Eureka, CA, to see more redwoods and do a little maintenance on our car and RV.

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