Traveling & Hiking in the US SW, #1 of 7:  Under Way Again   (February 2011)


A Radical Change of Venue

“We’re Going to Texas!” Well, maybe--maybe not, but the shock value of saying so increased enormously after George W. Bush’s presidency further tarnished the reputation of Texas in the eyes of many northerners--folks that didn’t hold Texas in high regard to begin with.  

Rather than being a definite destination, “Texas” was Bill’s early, short-hand phrase for saying we would be “visiting the national parks and hiking areas of the US southwest” even though we weren’t sure we’d make it that far east. “Going to Texas” was Bill’s substitute destination after the planning for an extended hiking tour of South America became too, too frustrating.

“We’re taking a German holiday” was my way of framing the radical shift in our traveling style from overseas cyclo-touring to seeing the US from an RV. Countless times, especially during our early years of cyclo-touring in Europe, Germans would tell us about their delightful visit to the southwest in a rented ‘caravan’ (motor home).  We always congratulated them on selecting a primer venue and concurred with their enthusiasm for the region.

Note the recycling information in German at Lake Mead.

We hadn’t talked to many Germans in 2001 about their US travels before deciding that the southwest was our top recommendation to Europeans for a first trip to the US because it is so unlike anything in Europe. So, after having at least briefly visited Germany every year of the last 10 years, it was only fitting that we were taking the classic German holiday--on US soil.

The aborted South American hiking adventure that morphed into a US SW hiking trip had been planned by Bill before we hit a snag with our European visa as we were leaving the EU in December of 2010, but it proved to be perfectly timed.

Normally we returned to Europe in March but Bill wanted spare himself the misery of cold, early spring weather in the US or Europe and had decided to delay our arrival in Europe to do so. Fortunately his snowbird trip bought us a couple of more months to resolve our ‘issue’ with the EU (though the passing of 2 more months didn’t bring clarity to the matter).

Split Reality

As we did every winter while at home, we purchased replacement items and otherwise prepared for a return trip overseas. But this year was different: this year we didn’t know if we’d be making the trip or not and it would only be for 3 months if we did go. Simultaneously organizing for the hoped-for return trip to Europe in the summer of 2011 and our early spring trip to the SW immediately highlighted the preparation differences between the 2 adventures.

Organizing for a trip in the US was so much more relaxed than readying for our overseas cycling journeys because little of our work had to be “just so.” Instead of bundling prescription and other medications to last us 9-10 months overseas, we learned the ropes for filling prescriptions monthly while out of state.

The layers of back-up plans for banking and business issues didn’t matter so much for a domestic trip. And being able to receive telephone calls (most days) while on the road would be a novel solution to our usual communication challenges. Indeed, every aspect of traveling would be easier in our homeland, though far less intellectually stimulating than when abroad.

Having the luxury of more luggage capacity on our domestic flight also meant that we need not be so precise in our wardrobe selection and we could take a few “just incase”  items. And the much shorter trip meant that we could use almost, but not quite, worn-out items that wouldn’t be serviceable for an entire cycling season abroad. It was a money-saving and satisfying bonus to be getting more mileage out of our inventory of old clothes.

That’s one small bathroom (the sink is behind the door.)

The size of the objects selected for life in a rented RV could be larger than the size of those that we used when living off of bicycles, even though we hauled our wares by plane for both trips. Full sized terry towels were taken to Las Vegas instead of a camper’s Pak-Towel; a full-sized kitchen knife backed up my trusty Swiss pocket knife; 3 or 4 good-sized rags replaced a pocket-sized viscose cloth; and a couple of hardbound reference books augmented our electronic editions favored for bike travel. Our clunky new slackline, an outdoor grade extension cord, a yoga mat, a set of sheets, sleeping bags, and a half-dozen plastic hangers rounded out the excess in which we could indulge during our RV trip.

Living for 2 months in an RV would give us the luxury of carrying and using full-sized items and more of them but, ironically, we’d be living in less space each night than when checking into a hotel or B&B on our bike trips. Even the most awkward Croatian or Italian bathroom would look spacious by small RV standards as would the elbow-room around the sink. Not having the water at the kitchen tap be potable when we lacked hook-ups would be another inconvenience that we’d been spared in most prior travels.

The volume of indoor air available for sucking moisture out of rain-soaked outerwear would be a fraction of what we were accustomed to in hotel rooms. And then there was the matter of floor space for doing our morning yoga stretches. “Cramped” would take on a whole new meaning as I pondered if my fearlessness in doing a sustained headstand in the smallest of slots would hold steadfast. Bill was banking on the weather being pleasant enough to execute our routines outdoors but I was still envisioning inadvertently hooking a foot on a kitchen cabinet pull.

Right On Schedule

About 20 hours after touching down in Las Vegas, we were stepping into our new home for the next 60 days: a 24.5’ RV. Bill’s plan for picking up the rig in Vegas paid off big time because it was an easy city to drive in. We no longer own a car, only drive once a month or so when back home in the winter, and have no recent experience driving anything big. Combining our waning driving skills with being behind the reins of a 6-wheeled monster made us glad for our motoring initiation in mega-suburban traffic instead of the cut-throat driving of some inner cities.

We flew into Las Vegas & loaded up our RV.

And what a kick to drive past the glitzy Vegas strip hotels, the stretch limo HumVee’s, and the seemingly infinite number of retail malls in our vehicle with the “aerodynamics of a brick” as the rental operator described it. Indeed, it was a good thing ours was planned as a hiking trip rather than a road trip as 45 mph seemed to be a comfortable upper speed even on the flats.

We were reassured by the helpfulness of the Apollo RV rental office staff and even more pleased with the pleasant decor and ambiance inside our mobile home. I’d forgotten about the delightful slide-out feature of our new abode: a nifty arrangement whereby with the flip of a switch the dinette and its exterior wall pushed beyond the side of the vehicle thereby generating a precious additional 3’ of floor space. Not big enough for dancing, but the extra space allowed us to both be moving around in the central area without turning sideways and made being on the floor for pre-breakfast exercises a whole lot more inviting. No fun having your nose under cabinet kick-spaces when doing a headstand or push-ups.


Our initial hour in our RV was classic Americana: not only were we in a bloated RV on the overly-wide, multi-laned asphalt boulevards within Las Vegas but our first unplanned stop was at a beckoning Wal-Mart. We snickered at how silly we felt as we fueled ourselves before shopping by eating our picnic lunch while perched in the RV dinette above Walmart’s expansive parking lot--but we immediately loved the comfort and convenience of our portable nest.

Bill had printed Google maps to route us to Costco and Trader Joe’s but Walmart seemed like the perfect one-stop-shop for our $100 of starter supplies of TP, paper towels, detergent, laundry soap, bottled water, and basic groceries. Then it would be on to Trader Joe’s to fill-in with our favorite foods.

The bonus purchase at Walmart was another American classic, a basketball, for $4. We’d only shoot hoops with it a time or 2 but we were buying it as a yoga prop to share. We’d decided against bringing our ball and a tire pump to re-inflate it from home and the cheap price made it feel like a good trade-off. We’ll get our money’s worth over the 2 months of daily use and then we’d donate the ball before boarding the plane.

By the end of our first week, our classical Americana experience would be extended with the purchase of an annual pass to the National Parks and traversing a bit of Route 66.  And by then Bill had been out kicking tires with several of the more senior and more  experienced RV and “pull-trailer” guys to hear the pro’s and con’s of the various rigs.

A Primitive Beginning

Just riding in an RV felt excessive and extravagant but we were immediately humbled by spending our first nights in Red Rocks National Park campground near Las Vegas--a primitive site without hook-up services.  Pit toilets and an occasional water spigot were the limit of the comforts available to us. But nicely sited and newly renovated (and repriced) in 2010, it was a delightfully peaceful place to spend several nights.

The individual camp sites were well separated and a generous number had a covered picnic table as well as fire pits. Raised beds filled with small pebbles seemed likely to spare the tents from flooding during sudden downpours. The rustic setting (and unseasonably cold weather) selected for hardier campers, with the majority being climbers spending their nights in tents.  Plenty of beer was in evidence though, like us, most tended to belong to the early-to-bed crowd.

The dinette is ‘popped out’ at our Red Rocks, NV campsite.

We felt a bit out of place among the tent-set in our nicely appointed RV but did our miserly best to conserve water, battery electricity, and fuel. We cooked dinner on a single burner and used the broccoli cooking water to hydrate the couscous that followed. Dishes were wiped down with a single paper towel and then washed and rinsed with a minimum of water. At most we had 2 lights on a time and elected to forgo using the heater in the evenings that would drop into the 30’s though enjoyed a blast of heat upon arising.

But even living frugally in our relatively ostentatious nest was a heavenly existence compared with the stoic Wyoming climbers in tents across the campground road from us. I chatted with them as they nursed their gas stove along in the whistling wind to cook dinner as they ate chips and drank beer, all while doing a little jig to stay warm as the setting sun rapidly drove the air temperature uncomfortably down.

Being able to stand up and be fully sheltered from the wind under the glow of an electrical lightbulb seemed very cush indeed. While cooking our dinner a half hour later I thought to invite them in for a break from the wind but they were driving off, presumably to put some indoor ease into their evening. Maybe tomorrow night we’d have them over to sit in comfort while we cooked or ate. How often we’d wished someone in a big rig would have invited us in when we camped from our bikes....

Campground Night Life

On our second night, we settled into the dinette’s bench seats next to the large window about dusk to “watch the lights come on” at Red Rocks as we ate. It was a joke on my part as I turned out our single light so we could watch dusk turn to darkness on the distant hills. I laughed, imagining the days of lamplighters, watching a single street light at a time begin glowing instead of the “flash and they’re all on” of modern street lights on sensors.

Unexpectedly, the lights did come on, one by one, like fireflies suddenly making their appearance in the dark. The glow was from the intensely focused LED bulbs of strident camper headlamps. Worn mostly by the thirty-something male climbers huddled in 2’s and 3’s around their gas camp stoves perched on aluminum picnic tables, they flicked and twisted with each gesture of the heads in search of that missing spoon or bag of salt.

And that’s why they call it “Red Rocks.”

The men across the road from us clearly had lost track of a precious item in the darkness. We intently watched one headlamp dart from the rear end of the Subaru station wagon into the driver’s side seat area, and finally bob high above the car top carrier while he stood on the backseat door’s threshold. The pattern of his movements suggested that it had been a fruitless search. We had to wonder why he hadn’t indulged in turning on the car’s interior lights for a minute, but he didn’t.

A little later, a companion’s light flitted over to the water spigot, which resulted in lots of head bobbing as the icy cold water inevitably splashed on him while the container filled.  At other distant campsites the glows were more steady, perhaps being worn by a person poised over the camp stove or reading. 

What startled me the most was that these lean and fit young athletes appeared to consider it too, too much effort to walk the 50’ to pee into the approved pit toilets. Instead these lads, like too many Frenchmen, were intent on marking their territory like dogs as I watched them, one-by-one, pee on the near perimeter of their very public camp space, day or night. I too have ventured no farther than the backside of my tent when nature called in the middle of a cold night but these lads needed no such nocturnal excuse to take a whiz 10’ from their picnic table--all that beer I guess.

What a different culture, what a different experience at Red Rocks than at the Circus Circus KOA campground off of the Las Vegas Strip that we were forced to visit the next day to dump the contents of our overflowing gray water tank. It was a sea of asphalt for the RV’s with a tiny triangle of grass designated on the map as the tent area. At the KOA there were row after row of tightly packed, motor-coach-sized RV’s. There’d be no pissing outside of the approved area, no firefly-like lights glowing in the dark as night settled in because night would not ever fully arrive here: this very expensive ‘campground’ was in downtown Las Vegas. 

Lap of Luxury--Sort Of

Mismatched Resources

Our images of a cozy, comfy, 2 month holiday in our portable home were quickly painted over our first days of travel by the challenges of staying in a campground without services during very cold weather. The stream of Catch-22’s immediately began presenting themselves while at Red Rocks.

We’d congratulated ourselves after taking our first evening showers within the constraints of the 5 gallon hot water tank:  we managed to feel sufficiently clean without getting chilled. But we were horrified that we’d max’ed out our gray water tank, the non-toilet waste water, with our showers. We had plenty of fresh water in the hold for showers the next night, enough propane to heat them, and enough electricity to run the water pump but not enough waste water storage capacity to do much of anything. Our gray water tank was backing up into our sink, making a trip to the sewage dump miles away in Las Vegas the next day’s focus rather than hiking.

Leaving the heater on through the night as the snow fell and the temp dropped to freezing was out: we had enough propane for the heater but we had been warned that the electric fan would consume all of our battery power well before morning. We’d also correctly had been advised that the rig wasn’t close to being tight, so any residual daytime warmth dissipated before long before bedtime.

We settled for awakening with cold noses because the indoor temperature was in the low 30‘s. We dressed under the covers and once out of bed, ran the noisy heater long enough to hit 50 degrees, for a while. Like the guys in the tents around us, we had on fuzzy hats and piles of clothes while indoors but our comfort level was vastly higher than theirs because we were sheltered from the sharp wind of this cold snap.

Meticulous new routines rapidly emerged at Red Rocks as we redoubled our efforts to match our various fuel supplies and water tank capacities to accommodate an extended stay in the more primitive campgrounds. The breakfast bowls and spoons were put in the cereal cooking pot, which was placed in the sink. The hot water tank was allowed to heat for about 10 minutes to generate warm, not hot water. Then the morning face washing was done into the cook pot to so as to soak the dishes in the pre-used water. Using the minimal amount of water, the dishes were soaped and rinsed into the cook pot. The cook pot wash water was thrown on the road on top of the tenter’s gray water and the pot was rinsed at the campground’s potable water spigot, all to avoid adding water to our gray water holding tank. 

The camping at Red Rocks was a hassle but a short walk delivered on the views.

The second night, our feet shared the small space in our tiny shower stall with a 2 gallon bucket. The water wasted while drawing the hot water was diverted into the bucket, as was shampooing rinse water. Straddling the bucket during body rinsing was a way to capture more gray water, as it was gray water, not the fresh stuff, that was our limiting factor. After a shower, the collected gray water was sloshed onto the gravel campground road.

We were sorely tempted to illegally dump our gray water on the campground road--a campground that had no dumping facilities--because our gray water was no different from that of the tenter’s. We were careful to wipe our dishes before washing to minimize the particulate material and we were conservative with the amount of detergent we used, so what would be the harm? Heck, we weren’t pee’ing on the camp site living spaces like they were. But we bit the bullet and abided by the rules and only pitched gray water on the ground that came from our bucket or kitchen pan and not the holding tank--just like the guys in the tents.

To save electricity that came from our batteries, we generally limited our lighting to a single light at a time and only ran the propane heater’s electric fan the first thing in the morning. Handy accessories like our microwave oven weren’t even an option to run from the battery and could only be used when we were pulled into a campground with full services.

Call of the Wild

Despite the near-freezing temperatures indoors and out; rain; and snow; we enjoyed our covered concrete pad at Red Rocks to spur our morning exercises. I’d always thought it would be grand to go for a short morning walk before breakfast, but whether on the bikes or at home, the obstacles were always too great, but not here in the campground. The RV was so cold inside that we had to dress for being outdoors to be indoors, so why not go out?

Doing our exercises outdoors with temps in the low 30’s.

Using the public pit toilets was the first activity upon arising as we tried to conserve our various resources by limiting the use of our indoor toilet to middle-of-the-night trips.  The trip to the vault toilets was extended with a 5 minute jog-walk mix and after getting that nice warm glow, outdoor exercises seemed plausible.

We both did our first outdoor headstands with snow falling around us and the bigness of the outdoor landscape helped to jump start mornings that could be bogged down by being chilled.  After exercises outdoors, our box warmed to 50 degrees with a blast from our propane heater seemed downright warm while we cooked our cereal and sipped tea.

The bone-chilling of the unseasonably cold weather that kicked-off our tour was a huge disappointment but we were still enthusiastic about the prospects of our RV trip. Bill kept saying “It’s so peaceful” as we surveyed the great expanse of the dry land, whether we were indoors or out. Something about constantly being almost or actually outdoors was enchanting. And it was the right mix of proximity to other people for me. I don’t need to be alone and away from it all but I do need for the volume to be turned down low. Our first several RV campsites delivered a perfect mix of a few neighbors to chat with and to provide a bit of idyl entertainment and yet day and night the background noise was far lower than when in our Vancouver apartment.

Great Beginnings

The dramatic scenery, brilliant late-winter skies, and tranquil surroundings at Red Rocks near Las Vegas all conspired to deliver a grand start to our 2 month RV adventure in the US SW. Join us in our next installment in which we began re-calibrating our sense of history while visiting the the Lake Mead area a short drive east of Red Rocks. On your way there, take in a few of Bill’s favorite images from our hikes around Red Rocks.