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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Food, glorious food.

Mark and I were joking about food on the road the other day and we tried to come up with the worst thing we've ever eaten on one of our trips. I tend to remember the good stuff; the time in Quincy we pulled into a broken down looking drive-in and had the most phenomenal burgers, or the little shack in Death Valley that sold the sweetest dates that were grown right there in the valley (sadly, long gone now).

Date Palms,  Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Park

I've been sick on the road once from food and the culprit was a taco from Taco Bell. It went down fine, but a few hours later all hell broke loose. Goes to show, eat crappy food and you get what you paid for. Mark had it much worse though; on a trip to Glacier National Park we decided to treat ourselves to an actual sit down meal in a restaurant in St. Mary's. We gathered together our cleanest, least wrinkled clothes and off we went. I don't remember what I had, but Mark had a steak with blue cheese crumbles on top. It was a decent meal and it was great to get out of the wind and bugs for a change. The next day we drove to West Glacier and there we camped, right across from the bathrooms, for 24 hours until that steak had finally cleared itself out of his system. He hasn't been able to face a beef/blue cheese combination since.

One of the views Mark missed on our Glacier trip.
(Wild fires nearby were making it hazy.)

One of the worst meals I've ever had wasn't the food's fault. We bought deli sandwiches once in Yosemite and carried them down to the river to have a picnic. The second we pulled them out of the bag we were mobbed by yellow jackets. They were landing on our sandwiches and tearing pieces of lunchmeat off before we even took a bite. Not a relaxing mealtime experience.

Then there's the horrible, wonderful food that's just too tasty to pass up. On a trip a while back we plowed through an entire (large) bag of Doritos after a long hike. Or the can of spray cheese and box of crackers that came out around cocktail hour every night during another trip. The all-time winner though was at a Taco John's in Montana. Mark, always the adventurous eater, decided to go with the special deal of the day: a burrito that consisted of a huge flour tortilla stuffed with tater tots and chicken nuggets, doused in that fake nacho cheese sauce you find at every county fair that's ever been held anywhere. He said it was good; I could barely watch him eat it. Electric orange "cheese" dripping down the chin is not sexy. It just isn't.

We joke about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but the truth is, PBJs are really good. We averaged one a day for five weeks on our Alaska trip and never got tired of them. Peanut butter doesn't spoil and until you open it, you don't have to refrigerate jam, qualifying it as a great long term item for the larder. That's the challenge to camping; finding (hopefully) healthy food that doesn't need refrigeration or elaborate preparation. We recently bought a wok with a folding handle. It's great for cooking fresh green beans or broccoli (both road proof veggies) and we've found some tofu in sealed boxes that doesn't need refrigeration. Sometimes I just want some fresh salad greens, but unfortunately, iceberg lettuce seems to be the only kind that can take the pounding of off-road driving. Chop some of it up with some carrots and stuff it into a pita pocket with a little dressing and it makes a great meal, especially in the desert. Meat is tricky--our little cooler doesn't have optimal temperature control, so we usually freeze a few things and eat them as soon as they thaw. After that, it's whatever we can pick up along the road, or go canned and/or vegetarian. There is one exception though: bacon. Could there be a better one?

Camp kitchen, Tahoe National Forest.
We've found if we cook up a pound of bacon before we hit the road it lasts for at least a week in our cooler. I'm sure it could last longer but not around us. It not only makes a great sandwich, it can be chopped up and added to pasta, on that iceberg lettuce salad, or perhaps consumed on the sly while you think the other guy isn't looking. A neighbor in a campground in Arizona introduced us to jalapeno smoked bacon a few years ago and we've been hooked ever since.

We do have one dinner we prepare at least once every single trip. Our nieces call it "Our Pasta" and they request it whenever we take them camping. It's any small shaped pasta with a can of artichoke hearts, a can of sliced olives, some garlic and olive oil, sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Easy, travel friendly and delicious.

Of course, you really can't end a camp meal without the most important element: the s'more. We've tried them with chocolate graham crackers and with different flavors of chocolate, but have found the regular old original recipe is the best. You just can't beat a hunk of Hershey bar on a graham cracker you dropped in the dirt (5 second rule!) with a slightly burnt, molten hot marshmallow sticking it all together. Now that's camp food.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alaska: The Dalton Highway

On our trip to Alaska, one of our goals was to see the Arctic Ocean. Since we wanted to drive there, it left us with only one choice: the Dalton Highway.

Also known as the North Slope Haul Road, the Dalton Highway was built to supply the oil fields on Prudhoe Bay. It runs alongside the pipeline from a bit north of Fairbanks all the way up to Deadhorse, crossing over the Brooks Range and skirting the Gates of the Arctic Preserve. Except for a few miles of pavement, it's 414 miles of graded gravel road, fairly wide to accommodate the large trucks that use it to haul equipment and supplies back and forth to the oil rigs. The road has since been made famous on the Discovery Channel's Ice Road Truckers, but at the time it wasn't that well known.

After stopping for lunch in Fairbanks, we headed north up the Elliot Highway until we reached the turnoff for the Dalton. Alaskan highways all have names in addition to numbers; a great system when you only have about 10 main roads in the state. (Can you imagine this setup in the LA area? "You take the James, head west on the Davis, split off onto the Brown, then at the third exit take the Feinstein to the Schwarzenegger. What? You're lost? No, I said the James, not the Jones!")

2004 happened to be a particularly harsh weather year. It had been a very dry, hot summer (it was 80 degrees in Fairbanks when we stopped for lunch, and the locals seemed to be suffering for it) and there were some huge fires started by dry lightning in the surrounding areas. The policy up there was to let things burn unless it threatened development, so a thick layer of smoke was building up all around the city (by the season's end, millions of acres had burned in those fires: that's how big the uninhabited areas in Alaska are). We had heard on our way up that the road leading to the Arctic through Canada had been closed due to fires and were worried our chosen route might also be affected. It wasn't, so off we went.

When in Alaska, it's a good policy to fill the tank whenever you see a gas station that's open. Unless you're in a populated area, they are few and far between. The prices were actually lower than California's, even in the most remote corners. There are only three places to get gas on the Dalton and the first stop was right after crossing the Yukon River at a little truck stop/cafe. From the parking lot we were treated to our first view of the many wildfires in the area. It was a little scary, since we were filling up from a giant above ground tank of gasoline sitting in the middle of scrubby trees and dry brush, but the staff there seemed unconcerned. The forestry unit was keeping an eye on it, so they didn't think it was a problem.
Wildfire as viewed from the bridge over the Yukon River.
The traffic shares this bridge with the pipeline, which runs underneath the span.
We waited for a few big rigs to go by then started up the road again. We had read that it was best to keep your speed down and keep your eyes on the rear view mirror for the big trucks. The drivers are paid to haul gear up and back, and they do it as quickly as possible. They aren't known for their patience with the adventurous tourists and will pass them at breakneck speeds, spraying gravel in their wake. We decided to swallow our pride and slow down when we saw them coming, pulling as far to the right as possible. For the most part they were courteous and passed as far to the left as they could, giving us a wave as they went by. Since it was summer, the traffic volume wasn't really an issue. Most all of the work on the oil fields happens in winter, when the tundra is frozen and they can safely get around without getting mired in the muck, destroying their equipment as well as the ecosystem.

At this point it was around 3:00pm, usually around the time we would be looking for a place to stop for the day. There aren't a lot of choices on the Dalton, so we decided to drive until we reached a good stopping point.

We were used to gravel roads in our neck of the woods--if a road is lined with gravel in California it seems to turn into a rutted washboard nightmare within the month. I think the absence of rain, the fact that it was lightly used in the summer, and that it was maintained in part by the deep pockets of the oil companies contributed to the Dalton's relatively good condition. To prepare for the trip, we had purchased new all-terrain tires specifically to help deal with the rough roads we knew we would encounter. Gravel wreaks havoc on tread, and I think we left at least $200 worth of rubber on the Dalton, slowly grinding it away on the sharp rocks. The guide book had warned us to carry at least two spares, as there are very few (read: none) places to get a new tire along the way.
Following the pipeline.
At about 8:00pm we pulled up to the first stop on the road: the Arctic Circle. I can't explain how surreal it is to stand on an imaginary line that separates the upper thirty degrees of the world from the lower areas. We parked and jumped out to look at the roadside sign and were immediately attacked by the biggest, meanest crowd of bloodthirsty thugs I've ever encountered.

The books had warned us about them; how they lurked in the tundra, attacking innocent victims that were hapless enough to wander into their territory. And we had already met what turned out to be their meeker cousins in the interior. We were not prepared for the vicious cloud of the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen, or hope to ever meet again.

I have no idea how the mosquitoes grow so large in such a short season. The second we stepped outside we were surrounded, and they were ruthless. They would zero in and, I swear, drill into our skin without even landing. It was mid-air refueling for those suckers, skilled enough to impress even the most efficient Air Force squadron. It's said the caribou come down out of the mountains to graze the grasses on the tundra, then quickly return to the snow fields to escape these tormentors.

Pointing out our position on the map. Notice the tight smile--trying to keep the
mosquitoes from biting my lips.
At this point, it was still really warm, the sun was beating down with no sign of stopping, and we were tired. Driving in Alaska is really disorienting. It's hard to gauge the time when it never gets dark. Once we crossed into the circle, the sun was not scheduled to set again until September, so knowing when to stop was dependent upon our stomachs. Stop when you're hungry, sleep when you're tired, it's the best you can do. We made ourselves a PBJ, found a good spot to park and pulled all the curtains to try to block the sunlight and get some sleep.

All night long we were awakened to the sounds of a car pulling up, people jumping out, taking their picture in front of the sign, squealing about the mosquitoes, then jumping back in their car and going back to Fairbanks. Turns out this was a popular spot for tourists to visit, most of whom only want a picture to document that they were there. After a fitful "night" we got up and started driving once again. We were at the 115 mile marker, with another 300 to go before we reached Prudhoe Bay.

The vista before us: road on the left, pipeline on the right.
Next on the short list of stops was Coldfoot, population 10. It has the dubious distinction of having the coldest recorded temperature on the planet: -82 degrees F (unofficial). Just for the record, it wasn't cold at all when we were there. Coldfoot used to be a mining camp where prospectors hoping to strike it rich arrived, got "cold feet" and turned around. Now it's a rest stop/truck stop/gas station/overnight stay for the truckers and the occasional tourist bus. We filled our tank and went on our way, anxious to get to Deadhorse before the end of the day.

At mile 248 we hit Atigun Pass, crossing over the Continental Divide going through the Brooks Range. The road to this point had been fairly straight, with long sweeping curves going through the valley with a few hills sprinkled in. The pass got really steep really quickly as the road threaded it's way through the mountains. We kept our eyes glued to the corners to see if we could spot any dust clouds coming our way. Meeting one of those big haulers on a corner would have been suicide.

Dall Sheep, top of Atigun Pass

During the winter, in order to keep the pass open, avalanche control is carried out in a stereotypical Alaskan way: by shooting 40 lb rounds into the snow, forcing the snow down before it falls on some hapless trucker. We stopped at a pullout and checked out the gun placement before heading up. I can only imagine how puckering it must be to drive that pass in the winter. The grade is up to 12% in some places and the drop off is steep. That coupled with the possibility of meeting a huge truck barreling toward you is enough to pay more attention to the road than you ever did in driver's ed. The view from the top was fantastic though. From there it was smooth sailing to Deadhorse.

Gun placement at the base of Atigun Pass
Deadhorse is basically a company town for the oil workers of the North Slope. There's a post office, a store and a couple of places to spend the night. During the winter the inns are full of workers, but during the lull in summer they charge the tourists extraordinary fees for the accommodations. We thought about "camping" in the official "campground" (the gravel lot near the construction storage yard) but after reading the warning sign posted about a wandering polar bear and her cub that had been breaking into campers looking for food, we decided to check into the Arctic Caribou Inn.
The luxurious Arctic Caribou Inn
"Inn" is a funny word. In my mind, an inn conjures up warm fuzzy pictures of an older couple; the kindly grandmotherly-type cooking homemade goodies for the guests, and the slightly crotchety older gentleman maintaining the property. This inn was nothing like that.

Buildings in Deadhorse are very utilitarian. They have to be tough; the wind can come off the bay at over 100 mph and winter temperatures are often 40F below. There are no building materials available up there so everything has to be hauled in. The Caribou Inn rooms were actually a series of single-wide mobile homes all strung together with a long hallway down the middle. It was swathed in lovely dark brown indoor/outdoor carpeting and there was a bucket in the middle of the main hallway catching drips coming down from the ceiling. Our suite had two single beds and a private bathroom with a shower stall so small you couldn't stand in it without touching the walls. The floor in our room sloped, and we tossed a coin for the bed that was at such an angle you had to lay flat on your back for fear you might roll out. All this a steal for $125.00 per night.

Mark enjoying a gourmet meal in our suite.
We talked with the guy at the desk and signed up for a tour of the oil fields. All the roads north of town are owned by the oil companies; you have to be on an official tour to get to the water. He took our license numbers and called them in for a background check. Since 9/11, security at the oil fields had been tightened. In fact, we were supposed to make reservations 24 hours in advance but since it was a slow day, they gave us a break.

The weather was as good as it gets up there we were told: high 60s and a little overcast. We killed some time before the tour and checked out the store. It had a few gift-y things but was mostly stocked with supplies for the oil workers: hard hats, coveralls, gloves, candy, personal toiletries, socks, did I mention, uh, magazines? An entire wall was devoted to magazines that...let's just say Good Housekeeping was not among them. The one thing we didn't see was alcohol. I'm not sure if it's still true, but I had heard it wasn't allowed up there; it caused too much trouble.

The tour bus was driven by an ex-cop from Anchorage making a little extra cash in his retirement. It was an interesting tour; part PR for the oil companies and part genuinely cool information. We, of all people, could hardly complain about them, seeing as how we just drove 4000 miles in our 3/4 ton V10 truck to see it.

Oil rig haulers, waiting for the ice to form.
Lots of caribou were hanging around, grazing on the grasses between the roads and rigs. The natural gas burn-off flaring up here and there didn't seem to bother them at all. In fact, we had to stop to let them cross the road in front of us. The official policy is basically a restraining order: humans are not allowed to interfere with the migration in any way.

Fun Facts:
-Since most of the world's population lives in the temperate regions above and below the equator, satellites roughly follow that path around the earth. In order to pick up signals, the satellite dishes in Deadhorse were all pointed almost directly toward the southern horizon. There are times of the year they are unable to pick up some signals because of the tilt of the earth.
-The Prudhoe Bay area is actually considered a polar desert. Precipitation is very low, and what does fall tends to be drier snow. It just seems like more because it gets blown around so much, and it's so cold it doesn't melt very quickly. 

A male caribou lounging in the field near a supply yard.
At the end of the road we were allowed to get off the bus and walk on the beach, right on the Arctic Ocean edge. There was an eery light coming through the clouds, and you could see a line of oil rigs way out on the horizon, along with a line of ice that was still covering the water. We picked up a few rocks as souvenirs and stuck our hands in the water. The driver dared everyone to go swimming and one brave (?) soul took him up on it. He said it was like swimming in a glass of ice water but colder, and shivered all the way back to the store.
The light comes through the clouds over the Arctic.

Back at the inn, we ate yet another PBJ and watched a movie on our 12" TV. Life was good.

The road back to Fairbanks.
In the morning, we asked the guy at the front desk where we could fill up for the road back. He gave us directions to a collection of 55 gallon drums lined up next to a dilapidated shack. There was a gas nozzle hooked on the edge of one of the drums with a crude meter we had to reset before we pumped. We paid the nearest guy we could find what we thought we owed--we had to calculate it out ourselves. It was all on the honor system which was kind of a refreshing change.

The sun was fully shining and it was a gorgeous day. I jumped out to take the picture (above) and was concentrating on framing the shot when I heard Mark shouting "Close the door! Close the door!!" I had left the truck door open and found him sharing the cab with a cloud of mosquitoes. I jumped in and he drove like a mad man with the windows open for a few miles until the wind swept them all out. Just to prove how tenacious they are, check out this tough guy clinging to our windshield wiper at 40 mph:

We took our time on the way back, stopping in at the Marion Creek Campground for the night near Coldfoot. A beautiful new campground, it sits adjacent to the Gates of the Arctic National Reserve. There's a huge, informative visitor's center across the road, with brand new displays and interactive exhibits. We were the only ones there, and the staff was begging us to ask questions. I don't think they had seen anyone else all day. Back at the campground, we were one of two sites taken; the other 20 or so sites stood empty all night. The ranger at the visitor's center told us about a hiking trail at the back of the campground, so Mark loaded up his fishing gear and we headed out.

Looking out towards the Gates of the Arctic National Reserve, site of the infamous "Drill, baby drill" remark (although it hadn't yet been uttered). I have to get on my soapbox here and just say this: before you vote to start poking holes in the ground, be sure to go see the place first. It is one of the most incredible, awe-inspiring places you'll ever visit. It's one of the few places in the world that's been left to it's own devices, completely untouched and wild. It will make you feel small, but in a good, humble way. It will also make you realize just how much we've managed to screw up nature nearly every place else in the world.
The trail wasn't marked, and various little side trails kept petering out, so we ended up following the creek up the hill until we found an open spot. Fireweed was growing everywhere, its bright pink flowers a cheerful change to the uniform green we had been seeing along the road. No luck with the fish, but Mark had fun casting and I had fun with the camera.
Clark's Nutcracker


Mark's fishing hole.

We ended up being held hostage in the camper for the night, only running out to get water or go to the bathroom. At one point we looked up and found about 20 bloodthirsty mosquitoes staring at us through the top vent. Mark set the clock and got up at midnight to take this shot:
The land of the midnight sun, at midnight.
It was actually much brighter out, but the sun's glare made the auto adjust of the camera darken the surroundings. In the morning, after a headlong run to the bathroom, we packed up and headed back to Fairbanks.

Next stop: Denali.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Utah Part II: Hail Mary Pass

We've been pretty lucky in our travels. We've gotten a couple of flat tires over the years (both in Death Valley by the way--be sure to check your spare before you go there) and once lost a transmission in Yosemite (but that was more our fault for ignoring the signs of trouble before we left); the entire 9,000 mile trip to Alaska resulted in a single chip on the windshield. But the incident on our trip to Utah in 2006 was truly the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to us on the road.

I love Utah. I love the red landscapes and the weird sandstone features. I love to hang out in Moab at the cool cafe there and watch the strange mixture of mountain bikes, jeeps and new age people go by. I love that you can drive to Zion National Park in May and have a lovely hike in 70 degree weather, then drive up the road the next day to Bryce Canyon and freeze your sunburned hide in the snow and ice there. I love that even though the prevailing religion of the state doesn't believe in caffeine or alcohol, they make up for it by having the absolute best milkshakes made anywhere on the planet.

It was May 2006, and after visiting Arches, Canyonlands and Dinosaur National Parks it was time to head home. Not being fond of taking main highways when a smaller more scenic route is available, we chose a winding route through rural Utah that would ultimately land us back on Highway 50 through Nevada (a far more interesting way across Nevada--highly recommended).

The Shoe Tree on Highway 50 in Nevada, "The Loneliest Road in America"
Sadly, a vandal chopped the tree down on New Year's in 2011.

We worked our way west from Dinosaur NP on Highway 6, a narrow road through some beautiful mountain areas. We continued on 6, skirting around the lower Salt Lake area, avoiding the more crowded urban areas in favor of the farmlands and mountains to the south. Crossing the fields on our approach to the last mountain range before the border of Nevada appeared, we saw some ominous clouds ahead. They were pitch black and were building before our eyes. In no time, we could see lightning flashes in those black clouds, and the wind started to push the truck around as well.

Growing up in California, just 20 feet above sea level, neither Mark or I have much experience with what you might call real weather. The worst that Mother Nature has thrown at us at home is the occasional torrential rain, and only in the winter time; thunderstorms are extremely rare. I have seen it snow only twice in my lifetime in my hometown, and that melted the minute it hit the pavement. So we approached the storm with caution, but also with little experience driving in those conditions.

After passing through the tiny town of Goshen, the highway slowly rose up in elevation, changing from farm fields to cattle pastures. Rain started to spatter on the windshield and the wind was still rocking the truck. We rolled the windows down a little just to see if we could hear thunder and try to figure out how far off it was. It seemed to be getting cold awfully quickly, especially since we were still dressed in our shorts and t-shirts from our desert departure that morning. As we rose in elevation, we thought we could make out snowflakes mixed in with the rain. Oh great.

As we approached the pass, little bits of hail started bouncing off the windshield. Just a few, mixed into the rain. We slowed down a little, rounded a sharp turn, and found the road covered an inch deep in a layer of hail. We were traveling about 45mph, about 10 miles under the speed limit, but that was far too fast. The truck went into the turn, then, into a strange, almost graceful glide sideways down the road. We were almost to the top of the pass, with a steep drop off on one side and a fairly steep mountainside running up the other. There wasn't much room on the shoulders and, more worrisome, there had been some light traffic up to this point. We were sliding straight toward the right side, the one with the steep drop off into the canyon below. Mark had the steering wheel in a death grip and was trying everything he could to change our direction, but the truck at this point was rolling on a thousand marbles. Just at the edge of the pavement, one of the back wheels caught and the truck spun in the other direction, crossed the oncoming traffic lane and rolled straight into the side of the mountain.

When things like this happen, the strangest thoughts go through your head. It probably only lasted about five seconds, but I clearly remember thinking about where I should hold my arms, because I had read that airbags will break them if you hold onto the dashboard during a crash. I don't know why it seemed so important not to break my arms when, if we had gone over the cliff, we most likely would have had much bigger problems. Like being resuscitated.

As it turned out, the mountain side of the road had just enough slope at it's base that the truck's front wheels followed it up the incline before hitting, which slowed it down just enough that the impact didn't set off the airbags. However, when we hit, the camper lifted up out of the bed of the truck, tilted forward, then slammed back down, making a horrific noise. The engine died but the radio kept playing, leaving us sitting there staring at the small bits of bushes, dirt and rocks scattered on our hood to the accompaniment of Elvis Presley crooning Wooden Heart, a polka-esque tune that was far too peppy for the occasion. I've hated that song ever since.

Once we finished checking for damage on each other, we got out to check the truck. The front bumper was buried in the mountain and the back end was wedged into the dirt. The rear of the truck was sticking out into the roadway--not a safe place to be even on a clear day, as we were on a blind curve. A woman slowly drove by, pulled over down the road, and walked up to ask if we were ok. She said she had driven through just a little earlier and very nearly ended up like we had.

Good old Ford, the engine started up on the first try, but when put into reverse, it wouldn't budge. Mark put it in 4 wheel low and, after moving a few rocks and rocking it a couple times, got it free from the mountain. We slowly made our way through the pass and down into the town of Eureka, Utah. As we pulled into an empty parking lot there, he noticed in the rear view mirror the camper was kind of rocking back and forth in the turns. It was then we realized the camper was sticking out from the bed about 6 inches, where formerly it had been flush with the end of the bed.

Four Wheel Campers are secured to the bed of the truck by four turnbuckles; one on each corner. In order to reach them there are little access cubbies--two accessible in the aisle of the camper, and two under the bench seat on the other side. When we opened the door, the inside of the camper was total mayhem. Everything had fallen out of the cupboards and fridge, the bench seat back had come loose and was laying on top of the food and our gear, and the firewood was mixed in with everything making it even more unpleasant to untangle. It was still lightly raining (thankfully the hail had stopped) and we had to unload everything in order to get to the turnbuckles. It was cold and wet and we were still in our desert clothes, but I think I was shaking more from the trauma of what could have been than the cold. One by one, Mark reached in to find the turnbuckles were not attached, and in one case, was actually missing. We had just driven two miles downhill on a winding road with a camper loose and hanging off the back of the truck. A whole new layer of retroactive fear hit the pit of our stomachs.

The impact had actually ripped one of the eye bolts at the front of the truck clear out of the camper. We tried pushing the camper back into place, but it was too heavy to budge. The town of Eureka was tiny, so even if it wasn't Sunday and closed up tight for the day there probably wasn't much help to be found there. After considerable swearing, Mark ended up using a spare turnbuckle, linking two together and fastening those to the bed on the remaining back eye bolts.

We very slowly and cautiously made our way down the mountain and through the flatlands toward Nevada. The wind had died down, the sun came out, and infuriatingly, it turned into a pleasant day. We stopped at Great Basin National Park in Nevada, just on the other side of the Utah state line and found a camp spot there.
Great Basin Campground, with Wheeler Peak in the the background.

We always stop at Great Basin because, a) it's a great park, b) it's always got space, and c) it's exactly one full day's drive from home. The campground is located in a grove of pinyon pines up the side of Wheeler Peak, a 13,000 ft mountain that is a sight for sore eyes after crossing the state of Nevada on Highway 50. After setting up camp and off-loading some of our gear, Mark drove the truck to the top of the steepest hill in the campground. From there he told me to let the truck roll downhill, then hit the brakes hard while he pushed on the back of the camper. We did this a few times and got it back into place. He was able to get two of the turnbuckles strapped in tight and with that, we were able to make it home in one piece. When we got home we took the camper off the truck and found the missing turnbuckle; it had come off the eye bolt and been thrown underneath the camper when it had bucked forward.

We are huge and loyal fans of Four Wheel Campers. They are light (700 lbs dry weight), low-profile (helping the center of gravity stay low), and tough as nails. We have abused ours for 10 years and it's still going strong. Mark was able to fix the torn-out turnbuckle and reinforce the rest himself and it's held up ever since. In fact, the accident put a long dent in the front rail of the truck bed, but the camper itself has hardly a scratch. Here are some photos of the damage:

The impact pushed the bottom of the bumper up and in, and pushed the
 transmission cooler into the radiator.

The trailer hookup bent when the rear end dipped down as the front end went up the slope.

The eye bolt that tore out of the camper.

The hole it left.

The force of the impact bent the other eye bolts, both in the bottom of the camper and the bed of the truck.

The turnbuckles tried their best to hold on (the upper right hook is what they should all look like)

Everything worked out ok in the end. The truck still ran fine (and still does), the radiator only got dented, not punctured. After the initial shock wore off I teased Mark about running into the mountain on purpose so he could get the winch bumper he had been talking about for years. Hail still makes me reflexively grab the edge of the seat and hold tight.

Mark and his dream winch bumper, finally a reality.

If you happen to go through Utah on highway 6, be sure to stop at the top of Homansville Pass (6480'). Look for the indent in the hillside at the blind curve; our front license plate is buried at about bumper level somewhere in there.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Utah: Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

If you haven't been to Utah, be sure to put it on your bucket list. Much more than Mormons and the Sundance Film Festival, the state has some of the most spectacular and unusual scenery anywhere on earth. Because (as they say) a picture is worth a thousand words, and I'm feeling pretty lazy, I'll let you look it over for yourselves:

Arches National Park

The campground in Arches is nestled in the sandstone monoliths.

Always red, the sandstone almost glows towards sunset.
Along the trail on "Park Avenue"

Looking out across the park along the Windows Trail

Snow covered peaks of the Rockies, just over the state line in Colorado,
 create a dramatic backdrop to the sandstone.

Balanced Rock
Double Arch, made famous in the opening scene in the third Indiana Jones movie.

Delicate Arch, so iconic it landed on the back of the Utah quarter.

Hiking in Arches: not for the acrophobic.

Landscape Arch

Window Arch. If you look very closely, there are people sitting on the rock outcropping in the
bottom  of the photo.

Canyonlands National Park

Islands in the Sky

One of the horseshoe bends on the Green River.

The White Rim Road is a 4 wheel drive trail through the canyon.
Haven't done it yet--it's on our list.
Bright blue potash evaporation ponds look out of place in the red landscape.

Critters and Petroglyphs:
A horse and rider share a portrait with a lizard.
A miniature arch with a garden of desert flowers.

There are thousands of rabbits that inhabit the desert surrounding Arches.
A leopard lizard posing for the camera.
Indian Paintbrush

Another media-savvy reptile.

Desert Big-Horn sheep must have been more prolific in the past. Maybe
the guys on horseback had something to do with their disappearance.

One in a continuing series entitled "Mark in Holes"
These photos were taken on our 2006 trip through southeastern Utah. Next post will include our eventful trip home.