#13 Fire & Ice in the West (November-December 2012)

Lessons Learned
"Nickel & Dime" Lessons
We'd learned more small RV'ing lessons the hard way this fall during our first month on the road with Fox and Blue than we had cared for. While driving to Lake Tahoe our camper Fox slid a bit on the bed of Blue when taking a turn at very low speeds on 2 different occasions. The jolts were briefly terrifying and dishes went flying with one episode, denting the counter top and shattering a nearly indestructible Corelle plate. Bill concluded that we had become a little too casual about the tightness of the turnbuckles anchoring the 2 rigs together. We hadn't had the problem during our first 6 months of traveling with the truck and camper and a little more vigilance seemed to move the problem into the background again. Then in Yosemite we had the sudden propane outage and severe condensation issues in the camper, both new and unexpected problems that we'd wished weren't ours.

However while in Death Valley our confidence was restored: under more desirable fall/winter conditions than we'd experienced at Yosemite, we could manage long periods without hook-ups just fine. Even a string of intermittently overcast skies and occasional drizzle that kept the humidity in the 50% range weren't an issue for us: there was enough sun to charge our batteries with our solar panels and we had no difficulty with moisture management. And somewhere along the way, we discovered that our truck performed significantly better when hauling the camper if we used 87 octane gas instead of the manufacturer recommended 85, as we had been doing. Going up further to 89 didn't make an perceptible difference but we (and the cars behind us) loved the extra performance boost the 87 gave us on the long pulls.

It didn't take long for the entire RV to be engulfed in flames.
"Too Many Zero's at the End of the Number" Lesson
At the end of our first week in Death Valley in mid-November a much more important but free snowbird lesson was emblazoned in our brains when we witnessed a 40' RV burn to the ground on the edge of our tiny roadside RV park. Of course, our free lesson was extremely expensive for someone else.

We heard a "boom" an hour after sundown one evening. We knew that the folks in the RV at the opposite end of our row of 14 were fond of building fires at night but the bonfire in sight from our doorstep was too big to be theirs and it was too far into the access road for that explanation to make sense. What could have passed for a fire breathing dragon with glowing eyes wasn't 2 vehicles as it first appeared to be but instead was 1 huge vehicle stopped in the middle of the road with its headlights menacingly aimed towards us.

While cautiously walking closer to the billowing smoke hoping to determine if we were at risk or if we could be of help, we could see flames shooting up from the top of the rig's back tires. Fortunately there were no frantic screams suggesting injured or trapped people and the open front door served to reassure the small crowd already gathered that everyone had exited safely. A couple of fire extinguishers briefly subdued the blaze but the word on the road was "Once the tires start burning, the whole rig is a goner."

The carcass at sunrise with a streak of melted aluminum in the foreground.
The sound of the remaining tires exploding in succession punctuated the already significant drama of the orange inferno against the night sky. Unable to be of assistance, we retreated, expecting the propane tank to become a rogue missile at any minute. And when the shifting wind brought the toxic fumes from burning materials our way, we walked across the road to relieve our irritated eyes and throats. Fortunately the driver had stopped short of the nearby, above-ground gas station storage tanks flanking the little RV park--tanks he surely didn't know were there.

Fire trucks and ambulances arrived too late to be reassuring (perhaps 15 minutes into the event) though the EMT's had little to do but provide support for the fire crews. With nothing nearby to ignite, little was done until the intensity of the fire began to dwindle and then the 2 small Park fire crews went to work in earnest.

There was only 1 rumor that evening and the next morning as to the cause of the fire: braking to slow rather than downshifting on the 5,000' drop from the summit at Towne Pass to our little community of Stove Pipe Wells about 30 miles below. Apparently the usual scenario is that without sufficient downshifting the brakes overheat, the wheels become cherry-hot, and the tires or adjacent grease residues ignite. Having a break in the brake fluid line along the way intensifies the problem. On dual-wheeled vehicles such as on this RV, it is the inner tire of the pair that houses the brake which ignites. A fire in the inner tire is essentially out of reach for ordinary extinguishers, which was the case on this night.

The carcass loaded for transport.
Authoritative declarations about the elevation and grades on the pass road given by one camper who had driven it recently and others watching the blaze were wildly wrong. Nothing like our experience as cyclists on the steepest part of the road the day before to understand that. But no point in quibbling over the numbers: the burning rig spoke volumes about the hazard. And apparently the legacy of cars and tractor-trailers that have suffered similar fates on the same descent are marked by burns in the asphalt on several sections of the road.

In the morning we learned that even though coach-class RV's like this one that had fueled the inferno are usually privately owned, this was a rental and only one of the occupants spoke English. Presumably none of them understood the importance of downshifting into the lowest gear rather than braking on such a long descent. We quizzed bystanders with more experience than us, some that had driven commercial trucks, for more details. Seeing the burnt carcass and hearing the exchanged stories will make it easier than ever to remember to use the "Tow" mode on our truck, a setting that automatically handles all the downshifting needed on steep roads, up or down.

A Park ranger who dropped by shortly after sunrise to take photos of the remains added that vehicle manufacturers routinely bring heavily camouflaged prototype cars into Death Valley for testing. The relatively straight roads with long descents where they can sustain fairly high speeds are ideal for testing brakes and engines. And of course, road testing in the summer adds the stress of temperatures that frequently reach 120º in the shade and 200º on the surface.

The burn site at the campground entrance.
We stopped by the incident site twice after the fire in hopes of seeing the size of the footprint burned into the asphalt to aid us in future 'reading' of burn marks in asphalt, but even 10 days after the blaze, the carcass had just been loaded onto the bed of an enormous tow truck. The driver hadn't come prepared to cover the wreckage to contain the ashes and loose parts, which resulted in another day's delay in it being hauled out of the Park. In chatting with the overseeing ranger we learned that 2 days after the initial RV fire that strong winds ignited something in the carcass though the second fire was easily extinguished by the onsite crew. And it was only then when I noticed the historic name for this very spot was Burnt Wagon Point.

"It's a Great Place to Do Morning Exercises"
We knew it would be hard to top the drama of the RV fire, even at a place so theatrically named as "Valley of Fire," but that was our next lingering point once we left Death Valley. Near Las Vegas and just across the border into Nevada, the state park is another welcome refuge from the "use it and abuse it" desert crowd.

The phrase Bill uttered after deciding Valley of Fire State Park would be our next stop was "It's a great place to do morning exercises." Indeed a true statement and better yet, it signaled that Bill had deeply internalized that his morning exercises were important enough to factor into destination choices. He had lagged behind me in making that commitment to himself but his statement confirmed what was already becoming apparent: he was now fully on board with the importance of the often uncomfortable self-care practices.

The Valley of Fire campground is always soothing.
We are among the few that we know that budget time for strength and stretch exercises every morning of the year, with the exception of the 2 days that we depart early for international flights. My minimum routine takes about 30 minutes and I love the luxuriating in other favorites for 1-2 hours if I can carve time out of the day. And in lovely settings like Valley of Fire or places like Death Valley where there is a higher probably than in many places of being greeted by the sun, it's hard to pull ourselves off of our mats nestled in the sand and dirt to move the day along. And what better testament to positioning ourselves in these places than to actually look forward to doing exercise routines before breakfast each morning.

Of the places we've explored, Valley of Fire is our absolute favorite backdrop for our dawn fitness rituals. There is something magical about the scale, proportion, the textures, and the light that make being there deeply soothing. The little campgrounds nestled in the stunning mounds of red sandstone are so tranquil, so soothing. We always plan a 2 night stay if we are cruising by the area for the sole purpose of basking in the delightful morning ambiance. It's expensive for a state campground ($30/day with partial hook-ups) and the hiking is poor but the setting is so nourishing that we always jump at the opportunity to be there.

Snow Canyon was an eyeful.
Snow Canyon State Park, Utah (in the southwest corner of Utah near St George )
Looking for a cross country ski destination on our route home, Bill was disappointed that the write-up for Snow Canyon began with "You'll never find snow here…." (the park was named after the Snow brothers.) But being an alert trip planner, he recognized the upside of that statement: that it might be a good winter hiking destination. "Died and gone to heaven" might be an overstatement, but we quickly fell in love with Snow Canyon. Not as shielded from traffic noise as camping at Valley of Fire and the setting wasn't as perfect for morning exercises on the mat either but the hiking opportunities were superior to both Valley of Fire and Death Valley.

The red sandstone rock formations at both Valley of Fire, Nevada and Snow Canyon, Utah are stunning. The similarities aren't surprising given that these 2 state parks are a few hours drive from each other and have a common geological history. But even with similar reasons for being the way they are, the 2 state parks deliver very different experiences for the visitor.

Snow Canyon has numerous 1/2 mile and mile long hikes as well as several 10 miler's through narrow canyons. Lithified sand dunes delight bare feet and the eyes; both hard and soft sandy trails put the playfulness back in walking; and how often do you see lava flows layered on top of red sandstone? Snow Canyon doesn't dish-out the 3,000' elevation gain days we love, but the often tiresome sandy-wash terrain provides respectable cross-training for the legs.

Snow Canyon's lithified sand dunes were a delight for bare feet.
Casual cyclists have a paved path with some gain through much of Snow Canyon to challenge them and the go-thrash-yourself road riders can go for miles uphill on a lightly-traveled, through road. In contrast, Valley of Fire is more of a 'drive to the scenic pull-out and take a short walk' place. Long hikes in Valley of Fire tend to be tedious trudges up and down rocky washes and the too, too narrow roads in Valley of Fire don't draw the cyclists like at Snow Canyon.

If you are driving in the vicinity of Las Vegas, NV, consider a detour to Snow Canyon which is only 8 miles beyond bustling St George, Utah. At the very least, pack a lunch and pay the $6 entry fee to drive through and pause eat on a rock or at one of the several clusters of picnic tables. The visitors center at the St George end of the park has great free map describing the trails if you want to do even a little bit of exploring. Camping without hook-ups but with hot showers will set you back $16, which includes the entry fee and it's another $4 for water and electric hook-ups.

We'll definitely return to Snow Canyon for another round of hiking. It has the longer trails we love, many of which can be done barefoot, and it is visually so interesting. Snow Canyon has more complex scenery than our other SW destinations because it is a convergence point between the Great Basin Desert, the Mojave Desert, and the Colorado Plateau plus the 7+" of rain per year supports relatively lush desert flora.

Zion's West Rim trail: Going where we were blocked by snow in January.
Zion National Park, Utah
A couple hour drive is all that it took to move from snowless Snow Canyon to Zion National Park where our hiking efforts on the best trails were truncated in January by snow and ice. It was chilly but dry this visit so we happily ticked-off the higher and north-facing routes that had been inaccessible to us before. Like when at Yosemite, we were surprised that Zion only had a handful of challenging day-hikes to explore that were accessible from the valley floor.

The icy-cold mornings and wind at Zion made our pre-breakfast mat exercises much snappier than when in Valley of Fire or Snow Canyon, which left more hours for hiking. And here too we pressed to extend our barefoot hiking season, mainly donning minimalist footwear for the roughly textured runs of concrete paths. Finally exploring these iconic trails at Zion gave us a nice sense of closure as we were wrapping up our traveling season and heading home.

Anthony Lakes Ski Resort, Oregon
Two years ago, before we owned our truck, I bought us each a pair of entry-level snow shoes hoping a fluke storm would allow us to go snowshoeing in the greenway across the street from our apartment. Sadly, the snow didn't materialize and we'd hauled the snowshoes with us in our camper for a total of 8 months without nary a flake on them. But at last, the snow day came and we took them for a spin.

A little taste of the Arctic for our Arctic Fox camper & us.
Bill had scheduled a different kind of snow day into our homeward-bound itinerary, as in a roads-are-closed snow day. Our trek to the Pacific NW coincided with the first big blizzard of the season that subsequently hammered the Plains. A sinking jet stream brought the threat of hazardous driving conditions to our journey through Utah and into Idaho and Oregon. But the cold snap delivered little in the way of snow and ice on our roads, allowing us to stay on schedule. Suddenly we had an extra day that we could either use to get home to the rainy weather a day sooner or we could linger in eastern Oregon and play in the fresh mountain snow. Hummm, hard choice.

Our snow fling was nearly an aborted effort because the tiny Anthony Lakes Ski Area had only opened the weekend before we arrived and wasn't operating on week days. But the kind manager at our Baker City RV park called one of the ski area staff at her home to confirm the days and hours of operation. Her friend said that indeed the area was closed but that we were welcome to cross country ski and snow shoe at the closed site for free like the locales were doing.

The next hurdle was driving our truck and camper from the light-snow condition roads at our 3,400' elevation RV park to the snow-packed roads of the 7,100' ski area. I crept along at 10-15 mph on the way up and Bill mostly held our speed to 12 mph on the way down the sometimes very steep, narrow road. Fortunately we had the road (and the ski area) to ourselves as we took our first self-taught lessons on driving our bulky rig in serious snow as well as in snowshoeing.

What a pretty setting for our bit of snow play.
Our late start; needing to purchase a Sno-Park parking permit; and the slow going on the road whacked our first snow shoeing outing to little more than an hour. It was a poor return on our tense, 3 hour round-trip driving stint but it also felt like a prudent first-experience with a new sport. We were so pleased with our initial romp in the snow with snow shoes, we vowed to return the next day hours earlier so we could do it again.

More overnight snow made the drive the next day even more unnerving but the promise of fully realizing my snow holiday fantasy was on both our minds. Luckily we safely made it up and down the mountain a second time.
After strategically parking for a guaranteed easy start in the snow at the tiny ski area, we slapped on our snowshoes for 90 minutes of tromping around in both packed snow and deep powder. Sinking into the fresh powder meant lifting our knees almost to hip level with every step, which was a tremendous workout. Similar to climbing steep stairs, we were grateful for the dozens of hours we'd spent this year hiking on equally challenging trails. Our hip and hip joint muscles were singing to us but our minds were distracted by the stunning winter wonderland. Our loops around Anthony Lake and the side trails kept our minds off the protests of our muscles and on the snow laden conifers and jagged peaks. We felt privileged to savor the beauty of this neighborhood-sized ski resort on a windless day, a resort that only has 1 lift for downhill skiers.

Our truck and camper we parked essentially on the cross country ski track (the campground road), so it only took a couple of minutes to switch from snowshoeing to heating our lunch on our propane stove as our propane furnace blasted us with heat. Unlike the few other snow enthusiasts that day, we could pause indoors, use a toilet, and eat a warm lunch. Like superman changing into his costume in a telephone booth, we re-emerged from Fox the camper after a warm lunch outfitted for cross country skiing.

Indulging in 2 different sports for 3 hours of exercise doubled the pile of wet equipment we had to navigate around in our small camper but it sure saved our bodies. The endless lifting of our legs required by snowshoeing in the morning was replaced with the gliding motion of cross country skis in the afternoon. I immediately loved the satiny feel of the snow under my skis that countered the tromping done with the snow shoes. And instead of strongly flexing our front hip muscles with the snow shoe motion, those same muscles were lengthening and stretching on the skis. The afternoon skiing seemed the perfect way to balance the demands of our morning of snowshoeing.

We were thrilled to finally give snowshoeing a try, even briefly.
We burned through another 90 minutes in the snow with the skis and then decided we must pack it up and move on. The snowy conditions had racked havoc on the Interstate in the morning and we were already committed to doing some driving on it in the dark as it was. But we were both beaming in delight with the realization of my snow holiday fantasy: being able to pop indoors to rest and refresh between rounds of activity. The only thing that would have made it better was being able to stay on the mountain to eliminate half of the challenging driving.

Contrasting Vantage Points
With our brief bit of snow play behind us, we turned our attention to driving the last miles of our homeward bound journey. During that drive, we reflected upon how our years of overseas travel will forever shape how we experience the world. A couple of contrasts between here and there that drew our attention this season were:
..When hiking in Europe, almost every peak has a Christian cross atop it; in the US the high points are rarely "posted" and if so, it is likely with an old fire lookout tower.
..When biking in Europe we know we are on the right route if the intercity bike path takes us past the sewage treatment plant; in the US our backroads routes in our truck and camper are validated by driving past the landfills and prisons.
..In Europe our only contact with a car was when a German driver in Scotland clipped Bill on his bike with a side view mirror; in the US a young Spanish tourist backed his rental car into our outrageously visible truck and camper while we and they were parked on a roadside in Yosemite. Luckily for all, there was no damage to either vehicle and Bill, who was home with a cold at the time, enjoyed chatting with the much chagrinned couple from Basque Country.
..We always knew we were approaching an important recreational destination in Europe because the count of foreign license plates jumped up; in the States, such places are underscored by the number of rented RV's jumping up, most of which are occupied by Europeans.
..In Italy the mountain hut or 'rifugio' owners pay for the upkeep of the via ferrate hiking routes to their establishments; in the pre-National Park era in the US we learned that it was hotelier's who usually build the roads into places like Yosemite and Death Valley and financed the building of the major trails in some of them, like at Yosemite.

Home For Christmas
With conflicted hearts, we made it home for Christmas, on time, as scheduled. The dreariness of cold, dark, wet days typical of winter in the Pacific NW could only partially be countered by the joys of being reunited with family and friends. We knew we were hooked, we wanted to see the sun and see it often whether desert grit or powdery snow was under our feet. The best we could do was hope we also stayed on schedule and would begin heading south again in mid-January as planned.