Again, two days turns into three boondocking at Lake Mead National Recreation Area

As Cormac* mentioned in the last post, travelling from Tucson Mountain to Lake Mead’s north shore in Nevada was our single longest travel day yet in the Big Kahuna.  Everything takes longer in an RV, especially when your diesel engine only makes 28 mph on uphill grades of any significant length or steepness, thus our eight hour journey which might have taken only six in a car.  The reality is that Lake Mead was not the intended destination, it was just a stopping point on the way to Death Valley National Park in California.  That journey would have added another three hours, so we decided to break it up.  But even that plan was an alteration of the original schedule, which had us going to Joshua Tree National Park first.  As Joshua Tree is particularly popular this time of year the campgrounds fill up quick on the weekends.  Therefor we made the decision to change the routing such that we would hit the popular national parks on the weekdays and less popular, or at least more accessible, places on the weekends.

The bottom corner of Nevada, but Nevada none the less

The bottom corner of Nevada, but Nevada none the less

Once again we consulted the campground history on Wheeling It, which lead us to the Government Wash site on Lake Mead.  We arrived at dusk, which made finding the spot harder than necessary, and we made one false turn down Gypsum Wash, but caught our error right away (the “camping prohibited” sign sort of helped), turned around and continued on to the correct road heading down towards Lake Mead.

Panoramic of the Government Wash camping areas

Panoramic of the Government Wash camping areas

Government Wash starts as a couple of miles of paved road which ends in a large circular parking lot, with a hard packed dirt road leading off the lake side edge that soon diverges into three: high right, medium center, and low left.  The next morning in clear light we would learn that the high right road is generally furthest from the lake shore, but offers a handful of private spots and one medium sized cul-de-sac for several rigs.  The center road gets closer to the lake, and has about 10 private single sites and one very large cu-de-sac suitable for 15 or more rigs.  The lower side goes closest to the lake, but is also the roughest and most challenging road for a large RV.  We knew none of this when we pulled in the fading light, and simply picked the right hand road as it looked widest and pulled in to one of the first spots available.

Our view, fantastic but awning absolutely required here

Our view, fantastic but awning absolutely required here

The next morning, once we had a chance to view the entire area, we repositioned The Big Kahuna to the center road area which got us closer to the Lake and in our own, private, very large and level spot with an excellent lake and mountain view.  Despite the desert heat, we had a nice, continuous breeze, and with the awning providing shade it was more than tolerable, pleasant even.  We did a full site set up, pulling out tables and chairs, grill and hammock.  We had such a relaxing day, intermixing some bus adjustments and other needed choirs, that we extended our two day stay into three.   Rosemarie pulled out the beads and jewelry making supplies, I swam in Lake Mead, and we sat outside each evening watching the growing star field, dancing by moonlight, and listening to the coyotes yip and howl.

On our first morning we counted approximately 45 RVs plus many single vehicles there for the day and a handful of tent campers.  By the time we left Monday morning the crowd hand dwindled to maybe a dozen RVs, reenforcing the importance or arriving early, before the weekend, at first come first serve sites if you want a good spot, or a spot at all.

Us, Lake Mead, perfect weather

Us, Lake Mead, perfect weather

* Not really Cormac

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Our longest run. Guest post by Cormac McCarthy*

Bus coughed with hesitation, then embarassed us all with unneeded volume. Wide eyed neighbors shuttling kin inside.  Last you’ll see of us, we shouted, grinding out the turn towards freedom.  Truth be told, we’ll be back when the season cottons, but it felt good to say, or maybe just think.  Dumped tanks in the usual spot, needed or not. Filled too.

Papi watch, she screeched again, another damn fool in his tiny machine careening through the stop almost daring us to touch metal. Jesus Christo again woman?   Always the same, unneeded warnings, until the’re needed.  Gilbert Ray, Tucson, and all the rest in the mirror, fear and hope and uncertainty and yes thrill in the big walleye window front and center.

400 miles, exact.  Simple enough in your little machines with your get up and go, with your unhindered pace.  But we faced mountains, and plenty of them.  Slow up, and best be slow down lesson you want to slide off the side like some have.  You know who I mean.  The crosses mark their spots, closest anyone can tell anyway.  400 miles, never been so far, least in one day.  We’ll see how it goes, long as the back and the neck holds out, we can try it.

The woman puts on the lotion, some remedy from no one knows that heals even as I complain.  Come on Papi, not much further.  I know.  I know.  Cross the big stopper, Hoover they call it, river crammed hard on one side, tickle on the other.  Sun getting low but we are close, so close.  Fighting light and road, turn right and right again ever down towards the big lake.  It’s not Gypsam wash, that way lies madness, as any who been before can tell, but past that, to the old government dock, the landing.

Finally.  Don’t relax yet, she says.  Again, I know, but I was relaxin, and too soon.  Got to find the spot first, level and secure, close but not too close to them others, we don’t know them.  Not yet, anyway.  400 miles.  Longest yet, not sure it was the hardest though.  Bus done right, settled in and level for the night.

* Not really

Skipping Austin: avoiding fantastic cities to save money

As we were preparing for our full time RV life, we made lists of all the places and events we wanted to see.  While most of the places involved nature in some significant form, a few metropolitan areas definately made the cut, largely because they had some unique or interesting cultural aspect to them. one of those was Austin, which would be particularly great to visit since the owners of one of the RV blogs we follow, Eric and Brittany at RV Wanderlust, also run the biggest Austin social and cultural blog available, Austinot, so we would have had plenty of available online guidance.

In february, when both our budget and schedule plan fell victim to RV breakdowns and repairs, we reluctantly chose to skip Austin.  Primarily it was about the money: cool cities are a weakness, we tend to deny ourselves little, partaking of the restaurants, bars, cafes, stores, entertainment venues, etc.  New Orleans proved that, and we felt Austin would be another example.  “Skipping Austin” has become sort of code for avoiding a place in order to avoid temptation and keep our budget on track.

We “Skipped Austin” in Sedona, staying on the outskirts in a boondock site and only driving through the town in The Big Kahuna for a look see.  We “Skipped Austin” in Santa Fe, and we will do the same for San Diego for sure and likely a host of other fantastic cities in favor of national, state, and county parks in the wilderness with less monetary temptation.  So while we may slide right past Monterey, it’s not because we don’t love that town, but rather we need to save money for San Francisco and all the vinyards and associated wine tasting rooms heading north.

Saguaro country: The National Park, Tucson Mountain, & the Sonoran Desert Museum

As I mentioned in our Fun With Sewage post, Saguaro National Park, like Carlsbad and The Petrified Forest/Painted Desert, is another one that does not allow RV camping on the grounds, and that our on line research lead us to Gilbert Ray Campground within the adjacent Tucson Mountain County Park.  The great things is that unlike some national parks, the areas near Saguaro are pretty much just as spectacular as the park itself, and Tucson Mountain did not disappoint.Untitled

Before crossing the Continental Divide and entering Arizona, I had complete misperceptions about the state as well as “the desert.”   Arizona has far greater diversity and beauty than I had understood, and so too this section of the Sonoran Desert.  Sure, the TV nature shows go on and on about the incredible beauty and hidden biodiversity and jadda jadda jadda, but seriously, it’s mainly sand with an occasional what, lizard and wasp, right?  Not so this area; it is exploding with life and so… unexpectedly green!

This is a desert?

This is a desert?

We liked it here so much that we extended our two day stay to a three, and didn’t even leave Gilbert Ray for the first two.  We used the time to make some repairs on the RV, including the previously discussed sewage fiasco, but also our potable water system pressurization issue magically resolved itself (I think the check valve was just stuck), I reglued thee of our oak cabinet doors, and reconnected one of our metal understorage doors with the last of our rubber hinge material.DSC_0008

Aside from repairs and some reorganization, we spent the rest of our time enjoying the atmosphere of our large and lush campsite, particularly the evenings and sunsets.  On our second night we attended a star party.  Several of the residents and volunteers arranged for amateur astronomers to set up in one of the more isolated sections of the grounds and let anyone view the stars, moon, and other celestial bodies through a variety of telescopes, ranging from a small 2″ one on a tripod to a giant contraption about 7 feet long.

These flowers, look at them.

These flowers, look at them.

Only on our last day did we finally leave the grounds, in what is for us a rare instance of using the Big Kahuna as our local transport vehicle, we drove up to the Sonoran Desert Museum and the Saguaro National Park itself.  The museum is more like a combined open air botanical garden and zoo covering a much larger area than we expected and with excellent exhibits heavily focused on local flora and fauna.  At $18 per person after a small military discount, we found it well worth it, leaving after several hours only to get to the national park in time for a short hike before sunset.

The Big Kahuna from Signal Hill

The Big Kahuna from Signal Hill

The saguaro National Park visitor center was the usual combination of modern, informative, and well staffed.  We listened to the end of a lecture on the geological formation of the region, then got some advice on a short hike to Signal Hill where we would have a nice view of the park and get to see thousand year old petroglyphs.  What the ranger didn’t mention was the washboard bumpiness of the dirt road leading up to the trailhead.  Our fault, we didn’t mention we were driving a 52 year old bus.  We were in no danger of getting stuck, it’s just that The Big Kahuna hate’s washboard with a passion and lets us know with teeth rattling shakes unless you creep along at a walking pace.  We made it, but it was a bit of a combined lesson: ask about the road next time and we still need to resolve our local transportation problem.

Ancient Native American hypnotism device.

Ancient Native American hypnotism device.

It was almost with relief that we left the park and returned to our campground, stopping for one quick geocache along the way in order to keep up our streak of at least one cache in every state we visit.  With some regret we spent our last evening in the Tucson Mountain, resting up for our longest drive yet the next day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bears, stealth camping, and fun with sewage

We left the GC two days ago, managing to roust ourselves in time to (barely) beat the 11 AM checkout. We swung by the Grand Canyon Village post office to pick up our mail, forwarded from our account at MyRVMail.com.  We drove an hour south to Williams where we impulsively stopped at Bearizona, one of those drive through zoo/animal encounters, this one heavy on bears, wolves, and big horn sheep, plus a walking area with otters, foxes, beavers, porcupines, new born bear cubs and other assorted southwestern animal life.  The great thing was that they were fully capable of taking our 35 foot motorhome through the park, and since the price was per person, it didn’t cost anymore than a car: $20 a head (minus $2 military discount,) so $36 plus tax got us in for the day.  Truth be told we enjoyed this more than the equivalently priced Meteor Crater.DSC_0063

Exiting the zoo we headed east on I-40 towards Flagstaff.  As we were experiencing some potable water and sewage system issues, we swung into the Camping World in Bellemont about 10 miles west of the I-40/I-17 intersection.  We have benefited from our Good Sam membership, which has relationships with Camping World and the Pilot/Flying J gas stations, but the actual assistance that the Camping World staff provides can be hit or miss.  I am pleased to report that staff at this Camping World, especially Eddy, went the extra mile to understand our issues and find solutions.  He was not content merely to hear my no doubt overly lengthy descriptions of the potable water pressurization issues and the macerator (sewage chopping/blending device) clog, he came out to the bus and examined our fittings before proposing solutions.  And not expensive “looks like you need to replace all your dilithium crystals and repack the hydraulics with ball bearings and 40 weight” solution, but an easy $20 in parts and advice on how to proceed.DSC_0097

We made our purchase and continued on our way, fortunately turning south before the brush fire that had closed off I-40 east of Flagstaff.  The toughest part: 18 miles of 4-6% downhill grades on I-17, but after the Sedona 89A fiasco, we had researched this route and were more prepared for the brake heating issues. Besides, I-17 is much wider and gentler on the turns, so this stretch entailed little drama. We pulled in to Phoenix an hour before sunset to visit a New York friend of Rosie’s, who helped us arrange our “stealth” camping spot for the night: parked in a nice golf course front neighborhood in front of another friend’s house.  We are truly out of the mountains and back in the southern region as even the night temperature stayed quite temperate.  The next morning we headed out towards Tucson and the Saguaro National Park.FullSizeRender (1)

Saguaro does not have any RV camping within the park, and we contemplated a boondocking site on BLM land south of Tucson that came recommended from some of the more experienced full time RVers, but our research suggested that the Gilbert Ray Campground, located within Tucson Mountain County Park and just a few miles from Saguaro National Park, would be ideal.  At $20 a night for 30 amp electrical hook up in a spacious site with a picnic table and nearby clean bathroom, we were sold. Sure, it doesn’t have water or sewer hook up, but it does have a fill and dump station for both of those, respectively.DSC_0166

And this is where the fun begins.  We pulled into the campground in the early afternoon, checked in at the front office and headed towards the dump station.  We have a macerator, a device that chews up and shreds all material from our sinks, showers, and toilets, but it had become clogged.  Most RVs do not have macerators and instead of our 1.5″ outlet hose they have a great big 4″ flexible hose that they just connect to the sewage dump station and let her rip.  Their advantage is simplicity.  Our advantage is we usually don’t have to worry about using special, ultra thin, rapidly degradable toilet paper.   At least, that’s the theory.DSC_0288

The good thing is that even if the macerator clogs, I can use the alternative sewage connection with a traditional 4″ hose to dump the tank, except we didn’t have one of those hoses.  So I purchased a 5′ section with bayonet fittings, the cheapest and most compact section I could find, at the aforementioned Camping World.  My thinking was that I would only have to use it once, just to empty the tank in preparation for disconnecting and unclogging the macerator, and then we would go back to our traditional macerator method of dumping tanks.  We pulled alongside the dump station and set up the 4″ hose… which was one foot short of connecting from our outlet to the dump hole.

25' long, 1.5" diamater macerator hose on the left, 5' long, 4" diameter traditional sewage hose on the right.  Hopefull the latter will never be needed again.

25′ long, 1.5″ diamater macerator hose on the left, 5′ long, 4″ diameter traditional sewage hose on the right. Hopefull the latter will never be needed again.

We spent a good 20 minutes backing and adjusting the bus position to get the hose close enough to at least spill into the hole if not connect completely.  We finally got it done; I held the hose in place while Rose pulled the knife valve open, and whoosh, with little drama we emptied the tank in seconds.  Or so we thought.  We washed up and continued on to the fill station, but something nagged at me: it had been too easy and too fast.  As I was filling the potable water tank it hit me, I had not opened the primary isolation valve, so all we had dumped was a couple of gallons that had leaked by the primary valve and was up against the secondary valve we had opened!  So back to the dump station we went.DSC_0199

DSC_0243

Javelina. Not a pig.

It took a bit less time to get ourselves aligned, but I still could not get any closer than five feet, which meant we still had to physically hold the 4″ hose over the dump hole.  This time, when Rose opened both valves, a deluge of sewage showered forth, spraying mostly, but not entirely, into the hole. Fighting back a retch we soldiered on, emptying the tank, awkwardly holding the hose in place while avoiding the growing pool of nasty liquid around the drain hole.  After about 50 gallons dumped we finally closed the valves, used the nearby hose to clean the area and our equipment, washed up, decontaminated, and continued on to our spot.  But of course, the sewage fun was not done as all I had accomplished was to empty the tank; the macerator was still clogged.DSC_0184

So this morning I set to work on it.  Since I knew that the primary isolation valve was leaking, I started up the bus and used the air ride system to raise the front end and lower the back so as to create as much of a backward slant as possible, hoping to limit the amount of liquid sewage I would have to deal with while disconnecting the macerator.  That done I opened the bypass hole and caught only about half a gallon of nastiness in a bucket, better than I had expected.  I was then able to disconnect the macerator at both ends and get to work on pulling out the jammed material, which turned out to be a plastic baggy and part of a white latex glove.  Success, and now I hopefully will not have to stretch our 5′ hose and manually dump that way ever again.  Such are the occasional joys of RV life.DSC_0293

Grand Canyon National Park

We had a pleasant, mostly uneventful drive from Sedona to the Grand Canyon.  Yes, of course, we labored up the 7% grades, but the wide four line highways precluded us from holding up traffic, and it was nice to see we were not the only ones struggling with the grade: we played leap frog with two older motorhomes playing the “I think I can I think I can” game up the hills just like us. Low on supplies, we pulled off in Williams, a tourist town working the Route 66 and throwback retro advertising hard all over town.  It was actually kinda nice, if we had more time we might have stayed for a stroll down their main street and a meal in one of the diners.

Panoramic of the GC

Panoramic of the GC

We pulled into the multi-lane Grand Canyon entry station just behind one of the older motorhome’s we had been alternatively following or leading since Sedona.  Our national park annual pass covered the $25 per vehicle entry fee, thus crossing the threshold of having paid for itself after only one month of use.  We passed by Mather Campground, the dry camping area limited to rigs 30′ and shorter, and pulled in to our assigned spot in the full hook up area.  Given the nightly plummeting temperatures and our ongoing potable water challenges, we were glad to have the full hook ups, but at $36 a night this was the most expensive place we have stayed since early February.

One of many many fantastic overlooks

One of many many fantastic overlooks

We did a quick set up and bolted for the visiter center and canyon rim.  I have previously mentioned that national Parks can pose a challenge to those travelling without a tow vehicle since everything is so spread out.  The Grand Canyon National Park eliminated this issue with the three free bus routes running continuously during daylight and even into the evening to all the rim viewing and historical areas.  We were thus able to have a great end of the day with a stroll along the Mather Point overlook, getting our first view of the extraordinary, overwhelming Grand Canyon.Vista3

There really is no way to adequately describe it, and pictures from the rim only capture small pieces. Simply put, the canyon is a must see if you can possibly make the opportunity.  We were quite fortunate in that the two days before we arrived were rainy with temps dropping below freezing at night, but during our stay we had glorious blue skies for two of the three days and no freezing.  On day two we hit the visitor center to watch the 20 minute presentation on the formation and history of the canyon before taking the red line bus west along the rim, visiting every overlook and point of interest on the way.

Day 3 we took the orange line east for the remaining overlooks, and did some light hiking part way down the into the canyon itself.  There are three trails from the South Rim that lead all the way down to the Colorado River, all of them requiring two days to run in both directions.  We satisfied ourselves with the moderate upper section of the South Kaibab trail so as to avoid the number of people and mule trains on the more popular Bright Angel trail.

Upper South Kaibab Trail

Upper South Kaibab Trail

We were also fortunate enough to catch close sight of the endangered California Condor, a herd of elk that roam the park without much fear of humans, and the even more common mule deer.

A few more overlooks and vistas of the Grand Canyon below:

 

True boondocking in Sedona

Sedona is a pilgrims’ town with a heavy emphasis on eco and “spiritual” tourism, so you have a wide mix of people coming in from out of town: rock climbers, off-road drivers, wealthy shoppers, those seeking some sort of supernatural phenomenon from the vortexes, it has it all.  As such the campgrounds were almost all full, and the first come, first serve campground I was trying to get to may not even exist, at least not where I thought it would be.

Why Sedona is famous: absurdly beautiful red rock formations

Why Sedona is famous: absurdly beautiful red rock formations

We had survived the steep twisting downhill run on 89A and had continued a touch south of downtown looking for Chavez Crossing campground. (We have since learned it was in a different place and only for group camping reservations, not individual rigs.)  As we hesitated before heading down an unimproved road, we decided to ask directions from a woman parked there about a campground up ahead.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now, imagine your town.  What are the odds of just asking a randomly selected resident about a campground nearby, and not only do they know the answer to that basic question, but can also advise you on multiple alternative free camping sites suitable to your vehicle size?  That just doesn’t happen, except it did.  This Sedonan woman is probably an outdoor and hiking enthusiast as we spotted back packs in her trunk while we were speaking.  She advised against proceeding down the road ahead as there was no campground that way, and sent us south of town on the lookout for a small, barely marked road, which turned out to be Forest Road 525.

Forest Road 525 leading towards our boondocking site

Forest Road 525 leading to our boondocking site

We turned off the highway onto this dirt and gravel washboard road, and almost immediately spotted a couple of camper vans and an airstream trailer at a circular pull off.  One of the guys camping there told us there were a dozen more spots capable of holding several rigs each down the road.  We continued and selected a nice, relatively level, and unoccupied spot on a hill.  It even had a fire ring already prepped.

Two day boondock site, fire ring included

Two day boondock site, fire ring included

Within the RV community people debate the specific definitions of “dry camping” vs “boondocking” vs “overnighting” with a few additional terms thrown in.  Some see dry camping and boondocking as exactly the same thing.  I tend to side with those that make a distinction:

  • Overnighting: staying in a parking lot, e.g. Walmart, for a night, no hook ups. Usually free.
  • Dry camping: staying in a campground without hook ups. May include small campground fee.
  • Boondocking: staying in wilderness area, not a campground, with no hook ups. Usually free.

Using these definitions, this was our first actual boondocking stay. We had dry camped and overnighted numerous times, but this was our first instance of just setting up camp out in the middle of nowhere.  It was fantastic, free, and liberating.  We would not be having a typical Sedona visit: no jeep tours or aura readings, just a couple of days in the outdoors alone.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

To be sure, we had some challenges: When we had our potable water system repaired last week they apparently removed a spring operated check valve.  The system works perfectly if you are hooked up to a pressurized water hose, but if you are relying on your own freshwater tank and pump, it just shoots the water out of that now unused water hook up point and won’t maintain system pressure sufficient to supply the faucets.  I will either have to install a check valve, an isolation valve, or perhaps just a screw in plug for the hose connection point.  For this trip we were down to using a one gallon jug carried in from outside for all our needs.

Different angle of our boondock site.  Ghetto leveling system (putting front wheels on local, organic, free range rocks) might be visible to keen observer

Different angle of our boondock site. Ghetto leveling system (putting front wheels up on local, organic, free range rocks) might be visible to keen observer

After two nights we headed out towards the Grand Canyon, where we had luckily managed to get a three night reservation at the full hook up campground despite doing so with less than a month of notice.  Rather than take the never-to-be-driven-again 89A back north, we elected to drive into Sedona and turn south on 179 to intersect I-17 after a short drive through one of the most scenic areas of the region, and then take I-17 North towards Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon road.

Panoramic with Church of the Holy Cross roughly in the center. Built here perhaps to remind the spiritualists of the One True God.

Panoramic with Church of the Holy Cross a bit left of center and low. Built here perhaps to remind the hippie spiritualists of the One True God or something.

This allowed us to get some of those breathtaking views of Sedona without the white knuckled driving experience, and probably took us no longer to run since The Big Kahuna would almost certainly have been in first gear for the entire 89A uphill climb.  Additionally, we passed an art fair in Oak Village just a few miles south of Sedona, and they had designated bus and RV parking.  I should have known that we could not escape Sedona without spending some money.  I purchased a nice high quality hat and a wedding band while Rosie got a hand crafted necklace made from mesquite thorns.

The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful: yes we spent a lot of time struggling up some of the 6% and 7% grades on I-17 in first gear, but the down hill sections were nice and wide with no hairpin turns so I could let Kahuna have his head without needing to pump the brakes more than occasionally.

The road to Sedona: Meteor Crater, and a terrifying descent

Sedona was to be a real unknown for us since we were headed there with no reservations or plan at all.  I hoped to score a first come, first serve campground site just south of town, but our phone inquiries were not reassuring.  Undeterred we pressed on, and since we were already completely winging it, upon passing signs for Meteor Crater, we felt free enough to spontaneously turn off on the exit and drive the six miles to the crater.

Very difficult to capture the entire crater from the rim.

Very difficult to capture the entire crater from the rim.

It was pretty astounding; the worlds best preserved major meteor crater, nearly a mile across, resulting from the collision of a nickel iron meteor 150 feet across about 50,000 years ago.  The crater is on private land, so our National Park pass didn’t help at all.  The entry fee was a bit steeper than we hoped, $16 per person after the $2 discount for retired military, but they do a nice job of providing multiple look out points with mounted telescopes and the short movie in the museum is high quality and very informative.  All in all it was a nice two-hour diversion.

We pressed on towards Flagstaff with The Big Kahuna complaining about the elevation increase for much of the journey; once again we were frequently down to 28 mph in first gear while watching the oil temperature climb up to 230 degrees from the normal 180.  Whatever complaints we have about going uphill would soon be utterly eclipsed by the terrifying down hill run into Sedona.

Panaramic

Panoramic

Seriously, they didn’t call it Death Highway or Screaming Twisty Downhill Road, they named it innocuously State Route 89A.  Soon after leaving I-40, and without warning, we hit major elevation changes and grades leading directly into cliff side hairpin turns.  It was not the turn radius that concerned me, it was my rapidly overheating breaks while I tried to keep my speed down leading into those turns.  In addition to overheating, since the brakes are compressed air activated and I was using them so often, my compressor was losing the battle in keeping up with the air demands. Fortunately when the low pressure alarm started screaming we were already near the bottom. On two occasions I had to use the emergency hand brake to feel comfortable heading into a couple of hairpins, and a third time when one of those Cruise America RVs backed out from the side road in front of me at the steepest part of a downhill run.  Idiot.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We survived without hitting anything, but it was a major wake up call on the need to check the elevation changes for some of these roads before risking them with our ludicrously heavy bus running on decades old brake and drive train technology.  More on Sedona next post.

Whirlwind tour of Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert

Owing to the Big Kahuna’s intransigence earlier in the morning, we pulled into the Petrified Forest National Park visitor center after noon.  We toured the museum and gift shop before snagging a park map and heading out.  Other than back country hikers, the park is mostly enjoyed by driving the 26 mile north-south road and stopping at the fifteen or so points of interest.  There are entry points at both the southern and northern ends of the road, and when planning your trip, particularly if doing so in an RV, you want to give consideration as to which entrance you start and exit as it will affect your route and overnight stay plans.  More on the later, but know that we started from the south entrance

Pwood

Collage of petrified wood cross sections

The ranger at the entry station was experienced enough such that she specifically warned us off of two of the scenic overlooks due to difficulty in turning a rig our size around once we got in, at least if there were any other vehicles in the respective lots.  Once again our annual pass covered the $10/vehicle entry fee. The park is visited by 600,000 people each year, but you sure would not have known it on our visit; even the most crowded points only had a dozen or so people and often we found ourselves alone on the overlooks and road.  We even got to visit one of those two overlooks the ranger warned us about since no other vehicle blocked the turn around point.

80 ludicrous feet of triassic era life

80 ludicrous feet of triassic era life

We started with the short hike near the visitor center, which took us through many of the largest specimens of petrified trees, some of them enormous by any tree standards, much less something still intact after 200 million years.  After this we took the Kahuna up the road and stopped at each station, some with short hiking trails, such as Blue Mesa, and some with just pull out overlooks such as Newspaper Rock, one of several large rock faces covered in petroglyphs from pre-Columbian Pueblo tribes.

No railings. Ideal for unsupervised children.

No railings. Ideal for unsupervised children.

As the day grew short and temperatures dropped our stops at each site grew a bit shorter and more frantic, eager as we were to see everything.  We abandoned our original plan of running the 26 mile road in both directions to stay at the little RV park right outside the southern park entrance.  This decision allowed us to relax a bit and make it to every point of interest before dark.  The geological overlooks and sites were indescribably fantastic, but the highlight of the run might have been the pronghorn that crossed our path near dusk.  This is the fastest land animal in the western hemisphere, capable of 55 mph bursts.

Uncooperative photo target, apparently unimpressed with our bus

Uncooperative photo target, apparently unimpressed with our bus

The park is bisected by I-40, and once across the overpass you enter the Painted Desert section. We thought we were done being astounded, but this aptly named area blew us away.  Ever look at other people’s online photos and wonder how much they have been altered, particularly possible exaggeration of color?  I don’t mean Kim Kardashian’s airbrushing or the extreme alterations to every single professional model to ever grace the cover of a magazine; I’m talking nature photos that seem just a bit too awesome to be real.  That is a healthy attitude to take about anything from the internet, but the Painted Desert might make you reassess your skepticism, as it really is that shockingly colorful. You can see videos of some of the impressive views on our facebook page.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We finished the park at sunset, exhilarated but a bit concerned as we had no place to stay and it was getting dark.  The Kahuna is many things, but a night ranger is not one of them; the headlights are particularly weak and he is stressful to drive after dark.  We had the choice of driving back south through the park to the known quantity of a very cheap (free or $10 for electricity only) park at the southern entrance, or heading west on I-40 towards Holbrook and find something on the way. The first option would take nearly an hour as the park road had us down in the 35 mph range for much of the trip.  The second had the advantage of moving us closer towards our next destination, but was an unknown.  Given how many parks exist along the interstates in this part of the country, we went with the latter choice, confident we would find something without difficulty.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sure enough, about 10 miles down the road we saw signs for Root 66 RV Park (no, that is not a typo, I suspect trademark issues effected their name choice.)  We pulled in to this roadside, bare bones looking park and were pleasantly surprised to find very warm and friendly owners, full hook-ups (power/water/sewage), clean shower facilities, a choice of parking spots, free WiFi, and a Passport America rate of $16.50 a night.  Sold!  We did a quick hook up and celebrated St Patrick’s Day as best we could without access to cornbeef and cabbage.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Across the Great Continental Divide and into Arizona

After our more than pleasant two-day stay in Datil Well campground, we really did expect to get up early, well, early for us, break camp and get on the road towards the Petrified Forest National Park by 9 AM, 10 at the latest.  The Big Kahuna, however, had other plans, having decided that it was far to cold, particularly at this altitude, to start, much less drive.

A cold and wet morning when we finally got on the road

A cold and wet morning when we finally got on the road

Ah yes, have I mentioned our rig’s reluctance to start in freezing or near freezing temps?  We were actually warned of this when we first picked him up in North Carolina last year.  Many modern diesel engines have block heaters, while others might have glow plugs, both these things aid in cold weather starting.  The Big Kahuna has neither.  With our nearly new high cranking battery we have not had much of an issue: we started without difficulty in temps in the upper 30s.  This morning he wouldn’t catch, just billowing forth a cloud of smoke.  I suspect the altitude, near 7000 feet, complicated the physics and chemistry at work.   Since we were reasonably confident that it was just temperature and altitude, we broke out the generator, made coffee and breakfast, and waited a couple of hours for the day to warm up.  Sure enough, by 11 it was 50 degrees out and Kahuna fired right up.

Pie Town, NM.: Overrated

Pie Town, NM.: Overrated

We headed up the road towards Pie Town, a little place that is apparently semi-famous for… pie.  Let me be blunt: unless you are dead set on having pie in a place called Pie-Town, you can give it a pass. The Pie Town Cafe was the only option that morning, their pie, served cold, was nothing to write home about.  We experienced an unusual amount of drama while paying in that they require all card payments to have a pin, round the debit card transactions up to the nearest $5 increment, and add a $1.50 charge for any card.  None of that was explained before they handed me the $11.50 bill for our $7 pie and coffee.  So don’t go, but if you must, keep your expectations low and pay cash.

The pie was just OK but this elk horn Christmas tree was fantastic!

The pie was just OK but this elk horn Christmas tree was fantastic!

Onward!  We started a series of major uphill struggles along Highway 60, the earliest parts in light drizzle, passing through 10,000 feet as we crossed the Great Continental Divide.  The Big Kahuna did admirably considering the grade and altitude, but my patience was tried as we were frequently down to first gear and topping out at 25 mph. The Continental Divide is the set of mountain ranges that divide North, Central, and South America’s river systems by which flow into the Pacific and which flow into the Atlantic, Hudson Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

contdiv

Eventually we were on the predominantly down hill leg of the journey into Arizona, and relished the almost dramatic change in scenery once across.  We did a minor resupply stop and coasted into the Petrified Forest National Park visitor center shortly after noon.  We will save that for the next post.

Blue skies, on a downhill and crossing into Arizona: what could be better?

Blue skies, on a downhill and crossing into Arizona: what could be better?