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A FEW DAYS IN THE DESERT
Monday: We could see the lines of traffic during the height of rush hour but thankfully it was on the other side of the freeway as we headed towards Mono Lake. Gardnerville surprised us. This funky sounding town out in the middle of no where was clean, had some culture, and the home owners seemed to have pride in their neatly manicured properties. We hadn't been to Bodie in years, but it was not to be. A big sign blocked the washboard road a half mile in due to seismic retrofitting. In some ways I was glad as at 8 mph on an 8 mile road would take two hours of travel time out and back... time we didn't have.
On the good side there were great views of Mono on the way back and we had more time to spend at the beautiful new visitors center. We also had an opportunity to take the new Glenn Board Walk a half mile up, which was a delightful stroll before heading for our RV campground in Lee Vining. We seldom go to RV parks preferring public parks or BLM lands, but didn't object too strenuously to being pampered with full hookups, a barbecue, and then a movie.
Tuesday: In the morning we took the delightful Lee Vining Creek trail. The town had gotten it's public spirit up some years back and spent months clearing their local creek of debris with volunteers and turned it into one of the nicest riparian hikes in the area. Panum Crater was next on our itinerary. We had no idea of what to expect, other than it was highly rated. It looked pretty dismal on it's approach being low and dark. But we took a chance on the half mile dirt road and changed into our hiking gear... being a hat, fanny pack and shoes. It was with some reservation that we crested the first hill and then the amazing sights started. On the thin rim of this ancient volcano you circumnavigate the perimeter with one amazing view after another of the lake and distant snow capped mountains. We were in awe the whole time and took dozens of pictures... well I did and Mimi hunted for plants between the views.
Our next stop was Alabama Hills. On a whim we took the Whitney Portal Portal Road with a trailhead at the end that leads to the Whitney Peak. The whole valley views are worth the trip, even if you don't plan on taking the two day 20 mile hiking trip from the 8,000 foot base to the 14,000 foot peak. It was all downhill to our Tuttle Creek campground, one of the most popular BLM campgrounds in the state. This was our first stay here and we found it to be clean with lots of space at each site, quiet, with amazing desert flora and views of the surrounding white capped mountains, and best of all, a charge of $2.50 after the senior discount. We celebrated of course with a couple of beers and a good meal. We enjoyed a pleasant after dinner walk in waning light watching the sun abandon the western facing mountains and the moon rise.
Wednesday: In the chill of the morning at our 5,000 foot campground we found our heater wasn't working! After some desperate testing, I found the thermostat cover was cockeyed preventing the 'on' switch from going on. Got going early and gassed up in Lone Pine as we knew Death Valley gas prices would be outrageous and the temperatures high if we waited too long. Well at Stove Pipe we checked out the gas prices and found they were only 1 cent higher. Oh well. On to Rhyolite which we had last visited in our VW bus in the early 70's. The town hadn't changed as much as we have, and will probably remain so for the next hundred years. On the way the Goldwell Open Air Museum was a kick. Free with local eccentrics displaying their collections. On to the Valley of Fire where the new freeway thankfully bypassed most of Los Vegas. We had just enough time to take the Rainbow Vista trail before getting one of the last and best sites at Atalia Campground. We felt sorry for the dozen or so mostly foreign campers in their rental rigs coming in after us and being turned away, especially as there was no other campground for miles.
Thursday: Zion officials said there is usually not a problem getting a site this time of year so it was with some surprise that we found all campsites were booked and the only campground open was the private but official sounding 'Zion Campground' at the end of town. Even there they only had three places left. After squeezing ourselves between two other behemoths at $55 for the night we headed for the park. Unfortunately the sheer volume of visitors dampened our experience. They say Zion get more visitors than Disneyland, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.
Friday: We took what hikes we could but Mimi had to take it easy due to a hurt leg. But considering the heat, we did manage the short hike to the ice cream store for a little relief. It was a good opportunity to take a ride up Kolob Terrace Road, a delightful ride though the scenic back roads of Zion. That night
the vent broke as we tried to lift it. Then the water hose sprung a leak. I dealt with the problems first by having another beer. After a mood change I was up for tackling the problems. The vent was luckily just a loose pin which I slipped back in, and the water problem got minimized by tightening the hose. A permanent fix would have to wait.
Saturday: There isn't much to do between Zion and Page, so stopped at Kanab for a historic tour of the town and it's one attractive home and then down the road to the Toadstool Hoodoo Trailhead. This short 1.5 mile trail traverses serene desert washes to end up among unique mushroom like sandstone formations. At page we stopped at the small but delightful Big Water Visitors Center where Merle Graffam, the man behind the counter seemed too preoccupied to talk to visitors until he found out I was an archaeologist. We then got a very nice personal tour from the man whom the dinosaur Nothronychus graffami was named after. We spent that night at Lone Rock campground on the shores of Lake Powell with the Escalante Monument (as well as a few RV's) as a backdrop.
Sunday: Was mostly taken up by a slow ride to Canyon De Chelly. About half way there we saw a detour sign as there looked to be an accident further on. Well, detours on tribal land aren't exactly the same as in the bay area, as roads aren't exactly required. You mostly get off the main road and into a field, where you follow the dust cloud ahead of you, as vehicles are often totally obscured. This may go on for miles, so make sure the dust cloud you're following sort of parallels the main road, as other dust clouds may veer off towards their homes or working ranches. We finally got to the canyon about 3:30 and there were plenty of spaces, so one of our main concerns vanished.
Monday: The tour company sent someone over early to get us right from our campground. That was the good news. Our guide was a true native, which was fine, but between his speech impediment and heavy accent, it was a challenge to understand him. And when we didn't he raised his voice, which of course cleared everything up, or so we let him think. Other than that, we had a good time, but in truth, we both agreed the canyon seems far prettier from up above than right in it's bowels. The rest of the day was spent heading for Chaco Culture in New Mexico across some amazing desert scenery, and some dismal scenery on the outskirts of Farmington. As we got closer to Chaco we realized there would be about 20 miles of dirt road. Sure enough we weren't disappointed. At times it was 5-8 mph. Some of the time we got luck and were able to get up to 20 with only mild bone shaking. This had better be worth it we thought. Finally at the campground we had one more hurdle, getting a spot. We had made reservations a month ago due to the popularity of iconic site. But one burly guard with a large gun stood in our way. He unsmilingly took our papers and with a few grunts pointed to our site. We could finally relax, or so we thought.
Tuesday: Mimi had trouble lighting the stove. This sometimes happens so I tried it. Got it going only to go out again, and then after a few more tries it didn't come on at all. I was a bit concerned and shortly found we were out of propane! This is that clear gas that heats the camper, heats our food, and keeps our refrigerator going. If something wasn't done fast, all our food would spoil. In near panic we broke camp and tried to find someone official on the slim chance that propane was available locally. To our chagrin, we had to go back to Farmington, not only an hour away, but back over another 16 miles of dirt road. Then after filling up, had to come back over the same dreaded road again to get back to camp. By noon our fillings were looser but the deed was done and we enjoyed the remainder of the day among the ruins.
Wednesday: We got reports that the southern dirt road was worse than the northern one we came in on, but we really didn't want to backtrack 100 miles so we resigned ourselves to take it easy and enjoy the scenery if possible. It wasn't as bad as expected, but we did come close to stopping the camper and kissing the pavement when it began. Stopped at a small botanical garden and zoo before heading to the Painted Desert Visitors Center and some sights around the area. One memorable site was the nearly demolished Painted Desert Inn, now restored to it's beautiful 1930's self in an interesting Southwestern and Art Deco combination.
Thursday: Headed for Walnut Canyon which should be a stop for any visitor nearing Flagstaff. Then to the Wupatki and Sunset Crater Monuments which were new to us. Again highly recommended if in the area. At the end of the day we camped at Bonito Campground, one of the nicest and cleanest campgrounds we have ever seen. We were also glad to be at the upper elevations and escape the heat.
Friday: Concerning heat, it was unusually quiet in the morning. On opening the windows we found ourselves surrounded by two inches of snow! Our brakes had been grading more than usual, and based on experience I suspected the pads. Sure enough, a brake shop discovered almost metal on metal. Three hours and $850 later we on our way again. As our hiking was limited due to knee problems, we opted for a seven hour drive to Amboy, which should put us there in time for camping. It was nice to just just relaxed and watch the desert scenery pass by as if in a theater, until we noticed a 'no gas' sign for the next 50 miles. We should be ok, but the next station was unfortunately out of our way. With some trepidation, we took a chance and headed down the scenic Kelbaker Road with our gas gauge less than a quarter tank. As we got to Route 66 we saw a sign that said “Amboy Crater, 8 miles”. This was great, but the second sign was even better: “Gas, 6 miles”. At $10 per gallon we only put in enough to make it to the next station. Amboy Crater was completely deserted, but it was a beautiful small well maintained site. Best of all, camping was free courtesy of BLM. We were the only ones there in this quiet desert solitude watching the waning glow of lights among the distant hills while sipping our beer and leisurely making dinner.
Tomorrow, the long grind home.