#14: SW Sights from the Camper (fall 2011)


Lassen Volcanic National Park: “Fresh Tracks, Kemo Sabe” 

    The first half of our 12 mile hike in Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California unexpectedly had been a study of the many looks of decaying logs in a mostly undisturbed, old-growth forest. The site of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of logs in various stages of decomposition reminded me of Roman ruins at an archeological site. Some were so completely decayed that the only remnant was the pattern on the soil surface where a log had been, like seeing the outline of ribs of a long-ago disintegrated ship in mud. Others were recently downed trees  just beginning to crumble and fray. And still others illustrated the various details of the slow and complex process of decay aided by plants, animals, and the weather.

A disintegrating log merging with the ground at Lassen.

    The second half of our long hike had our gaze focused closer to our feet while we studied not the unevenness of the terrain, but the tracks on the trail. The day before while hiking on a cinder cone, a young man had commented that he was good at tracking deer but not bear, though he hoped to find bear to photo in the park. Curious marks on the dusty, old growth forest trail had me wondering who or what had made them, so I, then we, began cataloging our trail mates on our extended hike.

    We quickly noted that a deer had recently walked, and then ran, in the direction we were going on the trail. There was obviously someone with trekking poles who was reduced to dragging them, rather than planting them. And most of the horses had been headed in the opposite direction until we approached the beginning of the trail. Several recent trail companions had what must have been flashy new running shoes based on the jazzy tread patterns and there was more than 1 boot person with the “Vibram” logo on their soles leaving distinct imprints in the fine grit.

     But what delighted us the most was spotting the print of a Vibram 5 Fingers wearer who undoubtedly had KSO Trek’s based on the distinctive tread pattern which we knew from owning them. We watched carefully for his impressions and like Sherlock Holmes, developed a profile. The large size and long stride suggested it was a man not a woman. The predominance of right foot prints indicated that his right leg was dominant and more powerful. He clearly externally rotated--walked duck-footed--with both legs. And early on I guessed that he was with a companion based upon how his prints were positioned on the path but the companion definitely wasn’t a 5 Fingers wearer.

We were still admiring tracks weeks later in Valley of Fire.

    Bill took the prize for skillful trail reading, like the Lone Ranger’s partner Tonto, when he finally identified the 5-Fingers guy’s companion’s imprints. Bill noted when the companion was walking behind Mr. 5 Fingers and when they were side by side. The odd bit of trampling from both pairs of shoes near a lake edge had us guessing that they stopped for a photo or to admire the view from several angles. We wondered if the sleek profile of the male companion’s shoes were from Merrell’s new minimalist product but a few days later I recognized the tread on a Teva shoe when I inspected a dozen soles on REI’s men’s rack.

    Our playful bit of track reading was so entertaining that we both immediately began looking for 5 Finger’s imprints on the trail the next day. None turned up, but we continued half-looking for interesting trail marks and distinctive imprints of unseen companions on all future hikes because of this entertaining experience. And on more than 1 hike on unmarked trails, we were reassured by spotting our own prints on the return. Unlike our cinder cone companion, we hope never to see bear tracks on our trail.

Reno, Nevada

    Nevada is a world unto itself in so many ways. The cheap, free-flowing booze and the ubiquitous casinos are among the notorious hallmarks of Nevada, but it is endlessly different from the western coastal states of the US.  One head-turning example of the unique sensibilities in Nevada was the slick Beatty Chamber of Commerce promo piece that included the Shady Lady Ranch brothel in its business directory.      

A traditional neighborhood casino at Tonopah, NV.

    When we crossed the border from California into Nevada near Lassen the scenery suddenly changed as well. The sometimes tedious forest stands of the national park were gone and it was as though we had crossed into an area that had experienced a scorched-earth policy. If we had been in Europe and this had been a national boundary, I would have quickly concluded that Nevada was the big loser in some war, that they had lost out on the good land and were relegated to the dregs.

    A delightful and equally startling contrast was that prices on some items plummeted once we crossed the state line, like gas for our rig immediately dropped about 30 cents per gallon and deeper into the state the dip was about $1 per gallon.

    We’d heard that RV parks associated with casinos could be cheap, though our first stop at Bordertown RV Park & Casino north of Reno was no bargain at $37/night. There were none of the usual discounts for being a camper or not needing a pull-through space though it was a nice enough place. The high wind advisory for “high profile vehicles” had us creeping into Reno the next morning and settling for a restocking day rather than a traveling day. After exhausting ourselves by shopping at Walmart, Costco, Trader Joe’s, and REI, Bill found us another casino for the night at the south end of Reno where we could ride out the considerable winds.

    The RV Park at the Grand Sierra Resort (hotel and casino) was mighty spare: a great expanse of asphalt with a rare tree or picnic table but with better than average bath houses. But the Grand Sierra made us feel like we hit the jackpot, not once but twice. The zero-ambiance grounds cost us just under $22/night with full hook-ups, which was a bargain and made up for the airport noise. But it was the next morning when the rain and winds subsided and we awoke to freezing temperatures and snow on the nearby hills that we really felt like winners because that was when we headed over to use the hotel’s fitness center. A string of 20-30 degree mornings had had us splitting some of our exercise routines between braving the outdoor chill and the cramped camper quarters, so a fitness center was worth investigating.

Both the speed & the tilt were adjustable on the Treadwall.

    I basically loath doing workouts indoors in gyms but after our protracted stoicism of exercising on frosty ground, the sight of all those exercise machines was a joy. We’d been in the bush long enough to delight too at the locker room sights of a whirlpool, spacious dressing areas, and terry towels (instead of our travel towels).

  We’d already decided that if the fitness center had any substance at all, that we’d be ahead to stay-put for a few days in Reno until the huge storm moved through the region rather than be on the passes in the snow and ice. All of that big indoor, heated space and the assortment of new fitness toys to play with made laying over look like an excellent plan.

    And after all, our larger goal was to get quality exercise everyday in a way that was fun instead of feeling tedious. In the context of this passing storm, the brief stint of indoor workouts was irresistible.

     The novel moving climbing wall was an entertaining way to get a bit of a CV workout while nudging us to make snappier hand and foothold decisions; the weight machines gave my 2+ year old shoulder injury yet another mix of rehab challenges; and finally I had a chance to “roll out” muscle knots on a real foam roll instead of making-do with a basketball.

    Each summer in the Dolomites I thank the skiers for subsidizing our summer hiking apartments and the cable cars--none of which would exist solely for the summer trade--and here in Reno I thanked the gamblers for subsidizing the cheap RV park and the free use of the well-equipped fitness center. They could have the bargains at the restaurants to themselves, we’d purr with the free indoor workout and amenities.

Death Valley, California

We never tire of looking at the geology in Death Valley.

    The valley part of Death Valley is like much of the US SW interior: desolate and often boring. Its big drawing cards are the sheer novelty of part of the valley floor being almost 300’ below sea level and being a notoriously hot place in the summer. But like much of the SW, once you get out of the valleys and head into the hills and mountains, the sights can dazzle. And Death Valley is especially dazzling with its exceptional display of what we call ‘naked geology’: there is so little plant life that the complex and varied geology is on full display everywhere you turn in the hills.

    Few places can so easily captivate the casual visitor with mountains sporting what seem to be dusty cones in shades of jade, purple, and mustard. Dramatic wind-formed cavities in rock walls; mud deposited as though it was formed into icicles; chunks of gleaming white borate crystals lining a path; and ‘fanglomerate’ or huge alluvial fans of displaced conglomerate are among the novelties awaiting the tourist that takes the time to get out of their car. It’s a visual spectacle--though it can’t quite compete with visiting the Las Vegas strip for the first time.

    Well beyond the beaten path, Bill took us on a tour of slot canyons during our 2 week stay in Death Valley, which had us sometimes wondering if it might be our deaths that they were talking about. The author of his hiking book was a bit ambitious for us and scrambles up rock faces that he considered easy ranked in the “I could get up it if my life depended upon it but I’m not sure I could get down” category. We took the lesson to heart and on about half of the hikes we turned around prematurely because we considered it too risky to continue on. We opted instead to make each insurmountable dry waterfall obstacle a learning tool and would often spend 20 minutes testing different ways to tackle the current barrier at its lower reaches.

Now can he get down?

    During several of these “studies,” Bill courageously explored inch-worming his way up and down slots by wedging his back against one face and his feet against an opposing face. Elsewhere, I discovered that my core strength was sufficient to give Bill a boost by letting him step onto my shoulder when he needed an additional foothold.

    And Bill tested his back by making a stirrup with his hands for me to step onto in a pinch. We crept up the ‘scrambling’ learning curve by exploring new ways to leverage, brace, and assist each other when we lacked the skill or strength for passing some difficult swaths of rock faces though we didn’t want to rely on these approaches just yet.

    The outstanding geology and the opportunity for multiple hikes were what drew us to Death Valley again. We knew that having a vehicle on this our 3rd visit would make it far different than our previous 2 visits as cyclo-tourists.

    In addition to being able to access hiking venues we couldn’t reach by bike, there were other new things to notice on this trip. I laughed when I realized why people were parked at a decidedly unpicturesque point in the Valley road: it was because we’d just arrived in a pocket of the Park that had cell phone coverage. No doubt their phones were alerting them to a string of missed messages just like ours did--a new phenomena since our last visit over 10 years ago.

    We were equally amused to notice that we were encountering more French people in Death Valley than we ever did in Europe outside of France.

Our colorful exercise gear was a toddler-magnet.

    Some of the speakers we overheard could have been Canadian, but the 2 groups that approached us were from France. The Brittany man wanted to charge his laptop at our hook-up site; the Lyon woman wanted permission for her 2 year-old boy to play with our toys--our exercise equipment. Many people commented to us about it being a very international destination.        

   And another fun ‘noticing’ was that the only time I’d see a coyote in Death Valley was at the Furnace Creek Golf Course. I was out for a daybreak run and spotted one, then 2 coyotes a little too close by. I soon understood why they looked so well fed: they were stalking ducks in the golf course pond. I took our camera the next morning but the early morning mowing was disrupting their hunting that day.

Cross Country Skiing Holiday

    It seemed bizarre to go from 70º temperatures in Death Valley to parking our camper in a snow bank to go cross country skiing for a week, but that was the plan. Bill had kindly allowed time for my fantasy trip of a snow holiday--a fantasy formed by cycling for years on northern European intercity bike paths that were posted as nordic skiing routes in the winter. Bill had never cross-country skied before and I had only dabbled with the sport after college, but I thought it would be good cross-training and a welcome new adventure for us. Bill was lukewarm about the whole idea in the beginning but could hardly wait once he had his new skis in hand.

    We’d done what we thought was the impossible once on the road: we’d found an RV park with 7 hook-up sites open in the winter that was 10 miles from one of the top nordic centers in the country: Royal Gorge west of Lake Tahoe. Bill had neatly fit a 9 night stay there into our trip back home for Christmas with my elderly mother. In addition to introducing us to a new sport, it would give us a chance to test our all-season rig in winter conditions.

    We left Death Valley and pointed ourselves towards Lake Tahoe after more than a week without TV news or internet access only to discover that there wasn’t much if any snow in the Tahoe ski areas. A week before I’d been told by the folks at Royal Gorge that they usually opened around Thanksgiving, but that was then and this was now. A look at the long range forecast suggested that their new opening date of December 10 wasn’t going to happen either.

    Very disappointed after all of that anticipation, research and planning, Bill rallied and crafted a new plan. Plan B would put an eastern curve in our northward journey home. We’d watch the forecasts and ski reports and expect to drop in on Park City, Utah’s nordic center for our first cross country ski lessons. We’d ski there a few days and then hope to do a little more at Mt Bachelor in Bend, Oregon, weather permitting. That would give us 2 chances at aligning with the snow conditions.

    The irretrievable loss with the new Plan B was that we’d be doing it all without our camper. We’d revert to the original plan and stow the Fox in the south rather than drive it home. Being unwelcome in our apartment building’s parking lot, we’d have to rent storage space for the camper at home anyway, so there seemed little reason to have the extra burden of its weight on the mountain roads.

Valley of Fire, Nevada

    A 3 night stay in breathtaking Valley of Fire State Park was our consolation prize for missing our ski holiday and what a prize. Our spring visit to the area was cut short--ironically by too much snow in Arizona--so we were happy to swing by a second time.

The Valley of Fire campgrounds are incredible places to be.

    The hiking venues came up short for us, but what a stunning place to linger. And the campground itself is in a to-die-for setting, with each campsite nestled against the blazing red sandstone rocks.

    We knew from our prior visit to resist the rock-dwelling-like sites and instead select one in the more open areas for the sun light. The more private, more charming spots were icy cold in either the morning or the afternoon whereas the more vulnerable looking camping spaces enjoyed more hours of warming sun and brightness. 

   The mounds of amazing rock formations have that in-your-face immediacy that we love in the Italian Dolomites. Unfortunately, they are only mounds instead of mountains, and cover a small area. But if you move slowly and focus on their dramatic forms, the rocks at the Valley of Fire are mesmerizing.

Heading Home--The Long Way

    The morning we left the Valley of Fire after being without internet, cell phone service, or TV for days, a campground neighbor informed us that we were heading into a high wind advisory area. Apparently another huge storm system was rolling through though she thought we’d be OK at our first destination of St. George, Utah. A Death Valley RV park neighbor had told Bill that St George had a very favorable microclimate in the winter and we’d decided to stash our Fox camper there over the holidays while we continued on home.

    That evening in St George we learned from the Weather Channel just how bad the storms--2 not 1--would be. Our plans to do some reconnaissance for indoor storage units in St George and then spend a few days camping at Zion National Park quickly shifted to hunkering down in St George for the duration.

    As the 140 mph winds hit LA to the southwest of us, even higher winds hammered Mammoth northeast of us,  Las Vegas endured dust storms, and snows buried Denver and Albuquerque, we so regretted that we couldn’t thank that couple for recommending St George. Even 10 miles north of us received winds in the mid-60 mph range but sitting in St George we wouldn’t have known there was a problem except for the TV news. Overcast skies one day and near freezing temperatures were the extent of our awareness that there was even a shift in the weather. Our predicted overnight snow showers didn’t even materialize. Whew!

The truck’s backseat was difficult to pack for the trip home.

    Rather than enjoying the natural sights around St George in the extreme southwest corner of Utah, we did chores. Fox and Blue (the camper and truck) received their first bath, with me up on top of the Fox with a scrub brush at a car wash. We spent $40 on an air pressure regulator and assorted connectors to blow out the water lines in the Fox using the compressed air in the truck’s suspension air bags to prevent freeze damage to the the water system. And we stuffed the back seat of Blue to the gills with our cross country skis, snow shoes, warm clothes, mini-kitchen, sleeping bags (for a roadside emergency), and headed home via Park City, Utah in hopes of squeezing in a few days of skiing on the fresh snow.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

   Leaving the Fox behind in St George and heading home for the holidays had us reflecting on some of the more important lessons we’d learned during the first 6 weeks of our new lifestyle: 

Magic Carpet?

    We happily off-loaded the Fox camper our first full day in Death Valley to conserve fuel during our daily drives to distant hiking venues from the Stovepipe Wells Campground. But at the end of the very bouncy ride up the washboard road to the trail head at Mosaic Canyon I looked in the back of our truck as we headed out to notice something was missing. Our black rubber mat that protects the truck bed from the camper was gone and shiny blue paint was exposed. Bill grumbled, regretting that the car that followed us up the difficult road didn’t beep to let us know that our mat had briefly become a flying carpet.

At least our truck bed mat was easy to spot in the road.

    We’d driven dozens of miles at Lassen without losing the mat but it must have been the combination of the steep grade and severe bouncing that made the mat take flight. We, and it, must endure bucking like on a bad buggy ride when on rough roads because of the stiff suspension and high pressure tires needed to handle the weight of the camper.

  Dumbfounded, disappointed, and a bit annoyed, we climbed in the truck to drive back down the tiresome road to find our mat. Luckily, it had gone airborne about a third of the way from the trail head. The good news was we had the mat in hand, the bad news was that Bill doubted that we could turn the truck around on the narrow road but neither of us wanted the jostling of making 2 complete round trips on this tiresome road.

    I egged him on to perform what a Lonely Planet guidebook author had described as a “15 point turn” that Italian’s consider an ordinary maneuver even in traffic. I spotted him as he backed part way up the dirt bank with each pivot and he switched Blue (our truck) into 4 WD to extract himself from the rut he’d made. It only took a 5 point turn to complete the U-turn and luckily no motorists were inconvenienced by our clumsy pirouette. I couldn’t see into the back of the truck from the passenger’s seat but stared at the road behind us in the side view mirror to make sure we made it back to the trail head with our mat on board.

    But this was 1 in a string of early experiences that had us wondering “Why didn’t anyone tell us this was an issue?” Had the mat come flying off on a busy road, we could have killed a lot of people behind us.


    Neither of us are very comfortable with the 2 propane tanks in our camper and we both worry a bit about inadvertently blowing ourselves up with a naive blunder. Matters weren’t helped any when our propane furnace failed to function properly several nights over the course of a week. Being cold on the below-freezing nights was one issue but even more important was needing the furnace heat to keep our 3 water tanks from freezing and bursting.

    The camper is designed to withstand very cold temperatures IF the furnace is kept on. We were instructed during our walk-around at the dealership to set the thermostat so that the indoor temperature didn’t drop below 50˚. We felt lucky to have discovered on the first cold night that the 3 slashes point on the thermostat that lacked numbers was just about the right setting.

    After the first night’s furnace failure, we ran through the easy solutions: blocked air intake, blocked air output, sooty  flame area, and a few other other possibilities. After more study of the furnace manual, Bill concluded that it had been his incomplete opening of the tank valves the night before that caused the failure. Who would have guessed that it was an all-or-nothing affair--that the valves had to be wide open for the furnace to perform. Fiddling with the furnace settings to reproduce the problem convinced us that he’d solved the problem--until a couple of nights later when the furnace again failed in the middle of the night.

    More reading, more fiddling and then he heard a reassuring “click” when he tightened the hose connecting the tank to the furnace. Once again, he had seemingly solved the problem. But we were left to wait 2 or more weeks to know for sure because we had escaped the freezing nights by arriving in Death Valley. Once again, we had to wonder why we’d had to learn all of these ownership details the hard way.

Loading & Unloading the Camper

    I was stunned that the camper dealership folks helped Bill load the camper onto the truck and then sent us off without educating me as to how to assist Bill in the future--or about the problems that lurked when unloading. Bill reported that Ed had hung his head over the edge of the bed panel and sighted down the length of the truck to gauge his alignment as Bill backed up. But doing what Ed did wasn’t an option for me: I was about a foot too short to get my head up over the panel and then bend just so to see anything.

    Knowing he needed a competent assistant, Bill got out of the truck and gave me his best take on alternate ways to line things up, which unfortunately just didn’t compute for me. It was kind of like when someone says “See that  over there?” and all you can say is “No.” I tried squatting under the camper and sighting down the truck bed and standing with 1 eye lined up along the camper box but nothing gave me the precise gauge of the clearance that was needed for the job. We watched a number of YouTube presentations about camper loading and found them to be surprisingly worthless.

Loading the camper onto the truck: working it out on our own.

    But on our second attempt at both unloading and loading the camper, we had worked out an almost infallible system. On our third unloading, a former camper owner congratulated us on making something he never mastered look so easy.

    Frustrated by yet more incomplete information in this new world of camper life, I captured all that we had learned about loading a camper in a new piece on our webpage as an attempt to fill this ridiculous void: “In More Detail #2: Loading a Camper onto a Truck.” It seemed to us that the national camper dealer’s association should have written a similar piece, put it together with a slick video, and given it away for free to all prospective camper owners to solve this problem once and for all. 

Photos Below: Lassen, Red Rock, Death Valley, & Valley of Fire.