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Red Rock Country - April/May 2024

Canyonlands National Park – Needles Region
Like the sugary, creamy filling in between cocoa-colored Oreo cookies, Utah’s Canyonlands satisfied our cravings for sweet treats beyond what Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) behind us had done, or the Colorado National Monument (CNM) in Fruita, CO ahead of us, would do. Both the GCNP and the CNM delivered great hiking with magnificent panoramas and all 3 red rock playgrounds were carved from uplifted, but not tilted, geologic layers of the Colorado Plateau, but our Canyonlands experience was even more delicious and satiating than the other 2.

The hiking trails in the Needle’s region, the southeastern portion of Canyonlands National Park (CNP), rapidly set a new standard us for us, a standard that will be hard to beat. The Italian Dolomites and the Grand Canyon had delivered top venues in my book for years, but the Needles had them beat, and by lot.

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Never a dull moment in Canyonlands.

Our old favs offered world-class panoramas and satisfyingly challenging trails but, in addition to those delights, Canyonland’s trails offered more rapidly changing and more intense views, plus they abounded with novel playfulness.

Never before had we been on hiking routes so intricate that GPS was useless, and Bill is a master at navigation. The twists and turns in the tracks were sometimes so tight and numerous that the only way to efficiently progress was to constantly hunt for cairns, or ducks, marking the way with small stacks of rocks.

The Park Service’s trail marking crew was meticulous in their craft and we gradually learned to scan ahead for 3, not 1, cairns at a time, to ensure we were on course, except for straight segments where hikers had carved ruts through the grass. On these open terrain trails and in sandy washes, we could see the well-worn tracks and be confident we were on the route, but on the many, extensive portions traversing slick rock, we wouldn’t have had a clue without the cairns.

Unlike most cairns in other jurisdictions, these were precisely placed. We quickly learned when making a sharp turn on steep routes up or down, to not view the cairns as indicating a general direction but, instead, offering “Step right here” instructions. Being offset from the cairn by 2-3’ might look inconsequential but, after a few steps, we often would realize it mattered. It was best to trust the specific guidance offered rather than to ad lib. Each day a fun game awaited us: discovering where our invisible host was taking us next.

Like the series of anticipated little trophies for kids on an Easter egg hunt, the designer of our trail games revealed their treasured secrets to us one by one. Dutifully following the cairns, we’d sometimes comment: “I wonder why we are going this way?” and soon find out. The special treats varied from being long, naturally formed, rock tunnels; to narrow slot canyons; to a slender arch through which to view distant, snow-capped mountains; and to custom-made, hand wrought iron ladders taking us to another terrace of rock.

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So unexpected.

The many steep, tricky, rock faces requiring short bursts of energy to successfully navigate, were surprisingly fatiguing. Hikes in Canyonlands that were half the distance and gain of those in the GCNP inexplicably wore us out day after day. Our best guess was that our muscles were well adapted to steadily going up or down for hours, but not to constantly flipping between the demands of frequent grade directional changes. Curiously, at the end of the day, we weren’t left with sore muscles, only tired ones. Perhaps if we’d hiked a 4th day, our tissues would have demonstrated some adaptation to the different demands, but it would be a driving day to Fruita, not a hiking day.

Trade-offs: we’re constantly compromising because there is no perfect place for us to live the way we want to live for weeks or months at a time. Canyonlands offered us superb hiking, but we only stayed for 4 nights because it was basically off the grid. We were more comfortable than most of our neighbors who were in tents, or variations on tents sprouted from vehicles, in the 40 mph winds and the one freezing night, but it was less than ideal.

We relied on our solar panels to fill our 2 golf cart batteries with electricity each day, which our propane furnace drew upon to take the chill off our trailer in the mornings. Propane also kept our refrigerator and freezer operating and allowed us to cook on our stove top. We sparingly used our 50 gallons of fresh water in the trailer’s tank for washing dishes and flushing our toilet but used bottled water for drinking and cooking.

We had what we needed but it all had to be rationed to last 5 days, all with essentially useless tank gauges supposedly indicating when we were running low on capacity. To replenish anything would require several hours of slow driving to the nearest town, so we budgeted our resources to match the duration of our stay. A huge boon to our water and propane management at the Needles Outpost, a private campground, were almost-hot showers costing $3 for 4.5 minutes in an unheated room.

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A view we wouldn’t have found on our own.

In contrast, hiking at GCNP lacked the visual intricacy and route finding play of Canyonlands, but there we had full hook-ups, used our electric heater to be fully warm each day, use of our microwave oven, and we powered all of the trailer LED lights instead of only 3 at a time. We brought almost all of our food for our 2-week visits at the GCNP but easily replenished bulky perishables, like eggs, at a well-stocked market walking distance from our trailer park. There is a 2-week limit on the length of stay inside the park and we showered in our rig because, unusually so, there are no showers in the GCNP RV park.

Unlike the GCNP RV park, our favorite private RV park in Fruita, CO has nice shower houses and laundromats; is 2 miles from the entrance to CNM; is about a mile walk to a more competitively-price, mid-sized grocery store than in the GCNP; and allows people to live there for years. The Monument itself protects a small pocket of stunning red rock formations and has a few great trails meandering through them. Visiting The Monument is the most sustainable for us of the 3 red rock venues, it but doesn’t provide as robust of a trail experience as the GCNP or Canyonlands.

Fruita, CO
We stayed in Fruita a month, not because The Monument offered exceptional hiking for that duration of stay, but because living was easy, and many trails were walking distance or a 5” drive from our trailer.

At about 4500’ above sea level, we’d learned staying in Fruita was a good intermediate solution for supporting our fitness-oriented lifestyle in the spring when the mountains were still too snowy and the deserts were becoming too hot. Even in April, there was at risk of freezing nights and a bit of snow, but the odds were in our favor for being active outdoors every day. Unlike the other 2 venues, we also had additional services and shopping resources available to us in the larger, nearby city: Grand Junction. The hard, 2000’ elevation gain, Rim Rock Drive in The Monument also provided a relatively safe and very scenic bike ride on the less-brisk days.
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Cairns guided us to these “stairs” in CNP.

The CNM being formed from the same geological strata as Canyonlands and at about the same elevation, meant that while in Canyonlands, some of the views from the trails looked exactly like those we’d seen before in CNM. We’d spent months walking those trails near Fruita during the first year of the pandemic in 2020 and knew them and their look well. The Utah junipers and pinyon pines were also the same in the 2 areas, but it was the route-finding experience that was totally different on the 2 federal lands.

Following a route in the GCNP was usually a mindless activity. Even spending a full day hiking 20 miles between the Rims only involved locating 1 tricky turn, and that was only if you were going from the south to the north. CNM required constant attention because of the extensive maze of intersecting trails, so reading trail signs, scouting footprints, and using GPS when it still wasn’t clear, were essential. In contrast, in Canyonlands, successful route finding could only be achieved by constantly surveilling for cairns.

“Whata’ ya gonna do with your extra feet?”
Bill looked quizzically in response to my nonsensical question: “Whata’ ya gonna do with your extra feet?” that is, until I gave my reply, which was “I’m going to buy a bike ride with mine!” Suddenly the word play was clear to Bill, and he chimed in with “I’m going to buy a run.”

Early in our month-long stay in Fruita, CO, we so impressively racked up missing hiking miles for the previous 3 months, and especially missing elevation gain, on our exercise spreadsheet that my 2024 deficits were quickly erased, and I was soon ahead of my targeted numbers in both columns. Our “extra feet” were elevation gain and having extra feet meant we could indulge in more outdoor fitness time spent off the hiking trails. Uncooperative weather meant we only did 2 of our 4 planned, weekly bike rides, but at least we had the extra feet to afford making those 2 rides without getting behind on our hiking metrics.

My lumbro-sacral area did not yet seem sturdy enough for me to join Bill in his cautious resumption of jogging, but he was eager put in some miles each week on the nearby, paved multi-use path along the Colorado River. But even jogging 1 minute out of every 5 minutes on his flat route proved too much for one calf muscle and he finally diagnosed himself with a small, medial gastrocnemius tear.

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Oops! The rain made the mud too gunky for hiking on Dino Hill at Fruita.

Bill was exceptionally careful with his recovery after he compromised the calf muscle twice in a couple of days. It ultimately healed, so well that we suspect he released, or shredded, some unhelpful old scar tissue rather than having damaged healthy muscle tissue. We’ll never know what tore, but suddenly, Bill’s “extra feet” were buffering him from getting behind on his stats during his self-imposed, 3-week recovery stint.

After having been the frail one for 16 months, the tables were turned and I was taking long, beautiful hikes alone in the Colorado National Monument while Bill dropped his miles and largely limited himself to flat walks. He lamented the time he missed on favorite, all-day hiking trails, like the dramatic Rattlesnake Arches we’d done several times before, but was committed to healing his calf injury.

I was finally excelling in Fruita while Bill was treading water. My painful and slow recovery had been steady while I perpetually pushed against my perceived edge of what was safe for me. In December, a year after the “last straw” episode of back pain, I was able to hike uphill on longer and harder hikes, but I triggered pain on descents that were a quarter of the ascent distance. By the end of February, when we were leaving Palm Springs and Bill got his first case of covid, I could at last do significant descents. But it was when the calendar rolled over to April while beginning our stay in Fruita, I was at last becoming sturdy on the trail. By the end of April, I estimated I regained about 80% of my sports fitness and durability; Bill had forecast a 2-year recovery for me, and I was still on track.

Two Different Ways To Do It
Our friend Leslie from Texas, who had just retired as a detective, drove 15 hours straight through to Fruita to visit us for 2 days, then turned around and drove another 15 hours back home. Just incredible! We always describe ourselves as “driving wimps” and demonstrated that apt label a week later when we drove about 1600 miles, in a week, driving every day, whereas Leslie had driven about 1000 miles in a day! Pulling a trailer makes everything slower, especially in strong winds and at the necessary lower speeds, but that only accounted for a small part of our pokiness. The bigger issue is our shared low tolerance for the monotony of driving.

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Barb & Leslie on a cold, windy day at CNM.

Leslie can hop out of bed and be on the road in 45 minutes whereas we are still organizing to start our day in that amount of time. Once on the road, we stop every 30” to change drivers whereas Leslie manages her double-shift driving days with a couple of pee stops. We were in awe and grateful for her fortitude and resolve to visit! In contrast to Road Warrior Leslie’s endurance, Bill carefully crafts our travel days for 150 to 200 miles on average, with an occasional longer day, so we can stick to our beloved routines, especially for sleeping well.

I start most of my days with about 90” of primarily floor exercises in the trailer’s confines while Bill sips his coffee, selects music, answers his burning questions of the day with online searches, then moves on to washing last night’s dishes and preparing our fresh fruit and vegetables for breakfast and lunch. Eating, grooming, doing more dishes, and packing the trailer interior for the road takes time, and we’ll congratulate ourselves if we are on to the outdoor trailer disconnections 4 hours after the alarm sounded. In compelling situations that aren’t travel days, like walking to the N Rim of the Grand Canyon from the S Rim, we can make it out the door in an hour and forty-five minutes, not 45 minutes like Leslie can do, and such a speedy start for us requires meticulous staging of food and gear 1-2 days before.

Maintaining some level of exercise when we travel between the SW and NW never goes well. Good intentions dissolve in the presence of poor venues, harsh weather, and weariness from driving, though this May’s fitness goals on our return trip to the NW were better met than ever before.

Every year, Bill had scoured the maps for trailheads near highways where we could park the truck and trailer, but they were disappointing trails and too far from the main roads to repeat. This year however, he spotted 2 ATV trails in Utah for our first driving day and the 2nd, and they were wickedly hard tracks to walk but each yielded around 1500’ of elevation gain, the equivalent of about 150 flights of stairs. The first had knee-high ruts; the second had some waist deep ruts. Rough and rocky, they were especially treacherous to descend. We learned after the first one to bring our trekking poles and we needed them both ascending and descending on the 2nd track. We won’t repeat the 2nd route but will the first if we have dry weather when through Utah again.

Having almost capped my exercise week with the targeted 50 miles of walking and 8,000’ of gain, we settled for a relative rest day the following day with flat walking in the morning and afternoon, with the afternoon segment being in steady 30 mph winds. Our luck with decent weather turned after the 4th day on the road. Overnight snow had fallen low in the mountains 2 nights in a row and the accompanying lower elevation rains became daily events.

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The ordinary collared lizards in CNM always look exotic to us.

Lingering in bed after listening to rain on the trailer roof overnight, and then lamenting the lack of fitness opportunities for the day, my spirits were buoyed by discovering Boise, ID had an indoor mall. We’d only resorted to mall walking once, years ago, but it would be a perfect match for the day and the mall had 2 levels to give us a bit of elevation gain on the stairs.

I immediately washed the dried mud off the cuffs of my warm pants and selected a more urban top and shoes for this cold, wet, windy, overcast day indoors. However, we quickly learned that in addition to being driving wimps, we were also mall walking wimps.

Our planned 6-mile indoor walk brought us to our knees: after a mile and a half, we exited to do a stint outdoors in the cold winds. The forecast rains didn’t materialize until after dark, so we paced around indoors until we were brain dead, did a few laps on the pair of staircases, and then darted out into the cold for relief from the toxic mall ambiance. A little after completing 5 miles, we gave up and knew we wouldn’t be mall walking again soon.

Good News/Bad News
We’d had rain the last 4 of our 7 nights on the road and while packing my personal gear to haul into our apartment in 36 hours, I discovered some moisture on the floor and on my belongings on my side of the bed. This was the 2nd occurrence of water where it shouldn’t be. It was under the same window, the window Bill had re-caulked a few weeks earlier.

The water leak was an upsetting and time-consuming discovery at bedtime, but it was fortuitous: our trailer was booked for its annual service visit the next morning at 8 am.

Popping out the window to replace the non-functional, dried putty around it became the Number #1 priority on Bill’s list. Repairing the water leak threatened to knock 1 or more of the 8 items off our “To Do” list, but some repairs could wait until next year. The water leak was a lucky find for an unlucky failure. Previously, we’d been told our 8-year-old trailer would “last forever” if it wasn’t water damaged.

Luckily Wayne, “The Man” at the LaGrande, OR RV shop made all the requested repairs, but when we got in for the night, I noticed the work crew had poked a hole the window screen. Darn it, any way! One can’t expect everything to be perfect, especially since the trailer wasn’t perfect when it was new, but it was too conspicuous of a scar for me to shrug-off and too big of an entry way for mosquitos for our comfort. Banishing the irritating flaw nudged its way to a top spot on my priority list while at home and I was astounded to have the screen material replaced for $6.52 while consuming only a few minutes of our time!

Puzzle Pieces
Our annual ritual of switching between being snowbirds towing our home behind us in the US SW and being international travelers dragging too-heavy luggage, always overwhelms our minds with a plethora of details. We are particular about our stuff and want precisely the right assortment of gear, without excess, for the task at hand wherever we are and whatever the conditions, from being in snow to being in searing heat. The back-up plan of many people: “Just buy it when you get there” often isn’t quick, easy, or successful for us.

We stow parts of our kit for our lifestyles in 3 places. Our apartment in the NW is our legal residence and our primary storage depot; our travel trailer is our secondary storage container; and our 3rd storage “unit” is the 4 bike panniers that winter in the basement of an Italian Alps guest house with our bikes. Arriving at each location with the necessary missing pieces of gear to complement the stored stuff to cover us for the wide-ranging circumstances is always an unnerving challenge.

When preparing for each relocation, it’s hard to wrap our minds around all of the ever-changing, fussy details we must tend to. My list for our overseas sojourn is 8 pages in a small font, Bill’s is 6 pages, and we both include such things as “Extra Lexan spoons, 1 small, 1 large.”

With our arrival back at our NW apartment, we’d be checking off items noted as missing our lists while we opened the 17 packages waiting for us, including a pile of nutritional supplements for me, hiking shoes for Bill, electronic accessories, and 24 ounces of jerky for our last week in August at a more-remote mountain pass hotel. Success with buying items and organizing for each lifestyle dramatically augments our satisfaction, and sometimes safety, in each setting. Meticulous preparation several times a year allows us kickback and play hard the rest of the year without having to solve problems caused by not having the right stuff.

Marvelous May!
An unusual, 2-week streak of warm, dry weather began the day we arrived back in the NW, lifting our spirits and making unloading the trailer for the summer infinitely easier. Bill enjoyed a new level of organization and efficiency in dealing with our endless trip transition chores, helping the taxing process go more smoothly for both of us.

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The artist at work beautifying a noisy freeway overpass on one of our walking routes.

Bill developed 2 new urban walking routes at home for us so we could readily get all of our 50 miles per week, though only about 1/3 of our targeted elevation gain. The first was a robust 6-mile hike in the urban Forest Park, followed by our standard picnic lunches and then, massages, on Tuesdays. One of us would log another 2 miles on the city streets while the other was receiving their sports massage. Then it was an hour drive in stop-and-go traffic, arriving home pooped but satisfied at 6 pm for our 8 pm bedtime.

The 2nd event was doing laps on an all-concrete route between and up 2 steep hills.The paved, flat stretches made it easy to push up our walking speed between the hills. We logged the rest of our targeted weekly miles on too-flat city streets while applying ourselves to discover new routes while avoiding the urban homeless encampments. Walking at home was not always pleasant, but it was necessary to maintain a level of fitness for our upcoming 3-months in the Italian Alps, the Dolomites.

May: “Main Character Energy”
It was a marvelous May for both of us, a month in which we liberated ourselves from many issues that had sidelined us. Deep healing from my lumbro-pelvic dysfunction had accelerated in April and, with the help of 2 exceptional practitioners in Portland, my comfort, movement fluidity, and strength all dramatically improved. My main character energy and spirits further soared upon seeing and feeling my walking speed rapidly increase by 5 minutes per mile, from 22 minutes down to a sustainable 17 minutes per mile some days, or from 2.7 miles per hour to 3.5 miles per hour. I delighted in occasionally whizzing around instead of being reduced to limping on many walks.

While we were in little Fruita, CO in April, I benefited from the services of a highly experienced nurse practitioner who prescribed safer and more efficacious hormone replacement medications for me, vastly improving my energy, sleep, and muscle soreness. With her treatment regime, the excessive soreness I had always had with any weight training, melted away and I put on noticeable muscle mass. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed the sensations of resistance training instead of being hobbled by it. I was suddenly thriving instead of barely surviving and felt like a star in my own personal story.

Bill also experienced main character energy while at home. He shone with a new sense of self when a number of personal improvement projects culminated, catapulting him to a new and unfamiliar level of productivity and efficiency.

Bill’s gift of extreme concentration had carried him far in his education and in his professional life and yet, it had held him back in the more mundane chores of daily living and the problems confronting travelers. Increasing his nimbleness with “state shifting” from a micro focus to a macro focus at will allowed him to time slice in a way he’d never known before, a skill that was vastly more efficient when assembling his packing puzzle pieces for our summer overseas. Halfway through our 3-week stay at home, he was already ecstatic from his accomplishments, with both the things he wanted to do, and with the must-do chores for departure. Fortunately, our lives were spacious enough for 2 main characters to simultaneously shine.

On Our Way Again
With our trailer squeezed in under covered storage for the summer with its new window screen; our truck stowed in a secure garage for the duration; and having made satisfying little home improvements, we felt like we exited our apartment door for the summer in Europe with our US affairs in order.

We had successfully double-checked everything off our extensive lists and, somewhat baffled, were hauling about 60 pounds of luggage each,10 pounds less than last year. We departed for the airport expecting the best and prepared for the unexpected. Bon voyage to us!