Going a little farther north to Sedona triggered a radical shift in the campground ambiance.
#6: Northern Arizona & Southern Utah: The Colorado Plateau (April-May 2012)

Sedona, AZ
A Radical Shift
The cliché "What a difference a day/a few miles can make" rolled off of our tongues when we arrived in Sedona from more southern Phoenix. After months in the desert dodging seen and unseen snakes and cactus spines, we were suddenly enveloped by trees and were reading trailhead warnings about poison oak, poison ivy, and bears.

Instead of a scattering of a few defiant yuccas, our creekside campground down the road from Sedona had a heavy canopy of cottonwoods doing their best to cover us and everything else with their fluffy seed packets. The storm that had dumped a third of an inch of quickly disappearing rain a week earlier in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Phoenix was still evident as mud at our latest campsite. And while also a dry region with a mix of desert and non-desert plants, there was an entirely different ambiance in Sedona because of the towering cottonwoods and ponderosa pines.

Bill dusting off his creek-crossing skills at Sedona.
Our first hike a little north of Sedona stirred deeply buried memories from childhood camping trips and hiking as adults in Central Oregon. Decades-old experiences were revitalized by the pungent scent of resinous pines on a summer day while we sat on the narrow wooden steps of a vintage fire lookout tower. The crunch of the fallen needles under our feet, the penetrating warmth of the sun was all so familiar and then I remembered: this was mid-April and those potent memories were from bygone July and August days. It was startling to realize that Central Oregon, the source for those associations, would currently be covered in snow at the same 7000' elevation. Another jolt of reality came with seeing the desert cacti on the trail down from the ridge, something you'd never see in Central Oregon's high desert despite the flood of other familiar sensations.

Bill's close-call with the Mojave Green 2 weeks earlier was still on our minds and we revisited the rattlesnake hazard issue in our new region as we tromped on the narrow, brushy trails. My readings about rattlers had underscored that they could be lurking here too but we assumed that their density must be higher in the more arid desert than in this more wooded environment. It seemed like every week over the previous month in the desert we'd heard of a recent rattlesnake sighting and yet we didn't associate such talk with the terrain around Sedona. In places like Central Oregon rattlesnakes are definitely present but their threats aren't on the tips of the hiker's tongues. There the venomous snakes are instead a low-level, background issue, unless you are a rock climber.

And what a difference a year can make...
We were stalled-out by an unseasonable, late snowfall during our spring visit to Sedona last year in a rented RV and this year while in our own rig without an air conditioner the temperatures wickedly popped into the mid-90's. Last year I was horrified by the intense strip-city retail that defines the visitor's experience of Sedona; this year I viewed it as a masterful piece of zoning control compared with what was occurring beyond the city limits.

Still hot enough to seek shade for lunch in the peaks above Sedona.
We were stunned during 2 of our 4 hikes on national forest land to literally be bumping up against the metal fences, barbed wire, and "No Trespassing" signs of resorts that were built to our trail's edge. There seemed to be zero construction restraint on Sedona's far reaching hills so sadly, there was no buffer zone to separate hikers from the sights and noises of residential and resort activities. It felt a little silly to be kicking up the dust on a nature trail where we were urged to not even leave crumbs of food behind when hiking adjacent to manicured grounds with buzzing golf carts.

I was still struggling to reconcile the odd juxtaposition of invasive development with sternly regulated wilderness trails when we encountered the corruption by hill top mansions of Sedona's magnificent red rock panoramas. Seeing the soaring peak skyline tainted by housing at the midline made the bickering of others over wind turbines in desolate places seem positively absurd. Wind turbines are an eye sore but at least they are usually clustered where the scenic value runs on the low end of the scale, unlike the look up at Sedona's iconic red rocks. We were reminded again that a vocal contingent in Arizona are strong advocates of packing guns and of less government but the seemingly unrestrained building on their exception natural assets looked like an incredibly short-sighted example of exercising individual rights to us as visitors.

Grand Canyon National Park (north of Sedona)
Phantom Ranch Fantasies
A chance conversation on a trail above our Flagstaff campground gave Bill the insider information he needed to detour with some confidence to the Grand Canyon to fulfill a dream of hiking to Phantom Ranch at its bottom. For years we'd heard about the agony of others trying to book a bed at the Ranch to make the hike to the Colorado River more pleasant. The 5000' elevation difference between the Canyon rim and the river, in addition to the 12 mile journey to the Ranch, makes it an arduous round trip event for one day. Less athletic but far more pleasant is to spend the night at the Ranch and make the 12 mile, 5000' climb up to the rim in the morning.

This point was about 2/3's the way down from the rim to the Colorado River.
The hot tip from a Grand Canyon tour company employee on the Flagstaff trail was that the recession had made bookings for individuals at the Ranch possible again. We didn't want to surrender to joining an expensive group tour to secure a bed as our friend had finally done several years ago, so Bill's mind was instantly abuzz with new plans. The approaching storm meant that the current weather at the Canyon would be nasty for a day or 2, but it would be anywhere in the region. With no more nudging than the prospect of securing a bed for an impromptu Canyon descent, we were off to the nearby tourist Mecca the next day.

We weren't so lucky as to nab a place at the Ranch for either the spring or fall of this year or the spring of 2013 like the tipster had said should be possible, but we began serious planning for a return trip anyway because of the ready access to detailed information. Seeing the menu and the prices for the Ranch restaurant convinced us to ship down our own food by mule for the overnighter whenever it occurred. The $22 price tag for breakfast wasn't just high, but the limited menu selection provided the wrong mix to fuel my body for the 12 mile return hike. So suddenly the $65 fee to have a 30 lb duffel for the 2 of us hauled to the Ranch by a mule looked like a bargain: we'd save money on meals, we'd have the right food for our bodies, and we'd get to eat our dinner hours earlier than would be possible at the Ranch's restaurant.

Training for the Trails
Hiking the main trails towards the Colorado River below the rim both expanded our current visit to the Grand Canyon and prepared us for a possible future visit to Phantom Ranch. Our first outing on Bright Angel trail to Indian Gardens gave us a great workout and welcome first hand experience with the trail grades and surfaces with its 3000' elevation gain over a little more than 9 miles round trip. Despite the dire warnings posted by the Park Service about even our Indian Gardens destination being too much for a day trip, we headed out confident in our abilities. Though our certainty in our local trail worthiness was eroded in the leisurely 3 hours we took to make the descent, taking time to chat with the backpackers and to snap photos.

We looked as fresh as we felt after charging up 3000' to the rim on Bright Angel Trail.
Everyone we passed who was climbing out of the Canyon while we descended looked positively dreadful. They appeared to be exhausted, overheated, and defeated, which worried us. But the tipster on the trail above Flagstaff, which happened to be the trail the locals use for Grand Canyon training, had blessed us as fit for the Bright Angel trail when she heard about our ascent time that day, a trail she was only partially climbing. That hike up to the Elden Lookout at 9300' was 2300' gain and we cranked it out in 90 minutes, so we were confused by the discrepancy between what we were observing at the Canyon and what we expected.

Always slower going downhill than up and still favoring a months-old knee issue, many people passed us on the way down to Indian Gardens. But after a leisurely picnic lunch at the oasis on this day in the mid-80's, we headed out of the deep shade hoping we were correct in judging our uphill capabilities. Despite the midday heat and just eating, our confidence soared when we quickly hit our stride on our return to the rim.

Bill did what we never do and starting counting the people we passed on the trail. I periodically reported my pounding heart rate displayed on my monitor and he'd jokingly answer back with his people-count. We reached the rim in 2 hours and Bill's count of 183 people passed far exceeded my maximum heart rate of 168. Amazingly, only 2 people passed us on the uphill and we weren't sure that 1 of the 2 men stayed ahead of us.

Our speedy ascent was quite the testament to the adaptive ability of our bodies from all of those years of loaded cyclotouring abroad and in the mountains. It doesn't seem to matter anymore whether the stress is from heat, altitude, or elevation gain or all of it, our bodies seem to recalibrate after minutes on the trail and then are ready to go, especially if it is up. It also became perfectly clear that the reason we passed so many people that looked so miserable was that the highly popular trail was an irresistible magnet for novice hikers and we weren't novices. But over the next several days we learned that our exuberant time on Bright Angel had taken its toll on Bill in some very unexpected ways.

Looking at the Bright Angel Trail approach to Indian Gardens oasis.
"My Lab Rat Took 1st Prize!"
Fortunately Bill laughed heartily when I exclaimed "My lab rat took 1st prize!" while looking directly at him. He was still wearing the Flagstaff ER hospital gown that he'd been in for 18 hours when the doc said his heart and coronary arteries were clean, squeaky clean, as in zero plaque. We often joked about feeling like lab rats while we again tweaked our diets and health regimes to align with the cutting edge health recommendations and we'd just learned that our decades of high compliance had done precisely what we'd hoped: returned our risks of heart attacks back to the Pre-Industrial Age norm of zero. The EKG, ECHO, and CTA tests all indicated that Bill was essentially bullet-proof to heart attacks: if there is no plaque, there cannot be a heart attack.

On our last full day at the Grand Canyon I'd gone off alone to Hermit Trail, our 3rd scheduled big hike, while Bill stayed in camp, still not feeling quite right after his meltdown on hike #2 on Kaibab Trail 3 days earlier. His father's life-constricting heart attack at age 54 when Bill was 8 had left Bill feeling doomed to a similar fate once he turned 50. This bad family history had loomed large 24 hours after the 2nd hike when he felt terrible for 1-2 hours. The difficulty breathing, the subtle sense of pressure in his chest, the mild indigestion, and the lack of any other convincing diagnosis left him worrying about a heart event. Unbeknown to me, while I took a seat on a rock for lunch at Dripping Springs off Hermit Trail, Bill was taking a seat in the reception area of the Grand Canyon Clinic.

I returned from my hike to find Bill gone and 2 messages on my cell phone, which were irretrievable because of some glitch in our poor service area. He'd mentioned that he thought he'd go to the park's Clinic for reassurance, so I used Skype to call them saying "I'm looking for my husband, has he been there?" "Yes, and you're going to the Flagstaff ER" was their reply. Dirty, sweaty, and hungry I shifted my attention from myself to readying the camper for driving and then picking Bill up at the Clinic. The Clinic doc and the consulting doc at the Flagstaff ER both shared his concern of a politely spoken 'cardiac event.'

But after a near-sleepless night for both of us and a bill that hit $5000 before they did the fancy testing, Bill's heart assessment flip-flopped from shared concern to "couldn't be better". All of those years of the anti-social shunning of burgers and fries, steaks, baked goods, and the like had paid-off big-time: they had rendered his dismal family history absolutely irrelevant. Heart attacks are a lifestyle disease and even changing his lifestyle at age 35 had been good enough to make his story drastically diverge from that of his father's. It wasn't until the clean report that he realized how heavy the burden of his family history had been for the last 10 years. And who could object to being called the lab rat with the blue ribbon with news like that?

The stresses of the Kaibab revealed Bill's metabolic distress from hiking Bright Angel.
The cardiologist, the ER doctors, and the half dozen RN/athletes could only offer altitude as an explanation for what was ailing Bill. Clearly the moderate altitude was a component because he immediately felt better when we dropped from 7,000' to about 5500' a day later, but it wasn't the whole story. The ER doctor's best advice was for Bill to limit his hiking to 2,000' elevation terrain. Her advice smacked of that I'd been given at age 20 to no longer go up stairs and at 35 to not cycle or run: advice that gets the doc off the hook at the moment but that results in early-onset of age-related disabilities for the patient. We thanked her and her department for their truly great care and accepted the fact that we were again on our own to devise an appropriate strategy to keep Bill active and doing the things he loved without triggering another revolt from his body.

After carefully reviewing his symptoms and current sense of wellbeing, Bill decided to head higher rather than lower: Bryce Canyon at 8,000-9,000' was next on the itinerary. The plan was to go there for 1 night and make an assessment. If he felt distressed again, we'd immediately drop to lower elevations; if he felt the same, we'd linger longer. Luckily his body was indeed successfully recovering from its unidentified and expensive upset and we enjoyed 3 hikes and 5 nights at Bryce. Back home almost a month later, Bill's hyper-athlete physician labeled Bill's distress as "acute mountain sickness" and prescribed a medication to blunt future episodes. (You can read about Bill's challenging experience on the Kaibab Trail in greater detail in the Fitness Focus section under "#3 Walking Out On Your Own.")

The condors were a treat to see but were there for a sad reason.
Other Surprises While At The Grand Canyon
In addition to the wildly unexpected physiological problem that Bill experienced, we were surprised by other aspects of the Grand Canyon:
..The iconic American tourist destination is actually seen by more international visitors than domestic ones each year. It certainly was considered a "must see" by the European travelers to the US that we met when cycling in Europe and we heard a lot of languages other than English at the Canyon's many viewpoints.
..After reading the dizzying number of displays at the Park's geology museum, we finally got what made the Grand Canyon so grand: uplift but no tilt. Its portion of the Colorado Plateau is exceptional because tectonic forces caused the massive uplift of the land but the inevitable tilting didn't occur, though it did to the Rocky Mountains formed at the same time. Subsequent cutting by rushing water of the still-horizontal layers resulted in a very regular pattern of erosion that rarely happens on such a grand scale. So it's not its bigness that makes the Grand Canyon grand, it's the perpendicular-to-the-layers water erosion of almost a half a billion years of geologic deposits, the upper portions of which are untilted, that makes it unique.
..A popular viewpoint being cordoned-off during our first full day on foot in the Park brought a darker side of the Park's appeal and history to our attention, which is that it is a popular place to commit suicide. Death by suicide is right up there with death from falling off the rim or falling from within the Canyon while hiking and occurs at a much higher rate than the highly publicized hazard of death by dehydration. On this day some one had jumped from the rim and the body was being recovered by helicopter. A too-astute little girl standing next to me looked at the condors and ravens overhead that we were all madly photographing and said "Something must have died." The next day we learned that 2 bodies, not just 1, were recovered from the Canyon on that day at different locations from different incidents.

In the thick of it at Bryce Canyon.
Bryce Canyon: Our New #1 Hiker's-Delight Destination
Bryce vs the Grand Canyon
"Have you been to Bryce Canyon? Oh, you've got to go there!" We'd heard that many times and now we are saying it: "If you haven't been to Bryce, go." Without a doubt, it is my top pick for natural beauty in the US National Parks we've seen. Its "Wow" factor is comparable to our all-time favorite hiking destination, the Italian Dolomites, though Bryce only offers a fraction of wowy terrain to explore compared with the Dolomites. And in my book, the big-name Grand Canyon experience pales in comparison to that dished-out by less well known Bryce.

The Grand Canyon is definitely bigger than Bryce and it is actually a canyon, which Bryce isn't technically. But the grandeur of the Grand Canyon is in its bigness, which is always "over there." The typically hazy skies at the Grand Canyon constantly have one longing for a better look that never happens and at places, the opposing rim wall is 10 miles away. In contrast, tiny Bryce is on a human scale and you can literally walk among and touch the hoo-doo rock formations that give Bryce its stunning look.

Most visitors to both canyons limit their experience to looking down from the rim (only 5% of Grand Canyon visitors venture even a few footsteps off the rim) but the rewards for the exertion at Bryce are unforgettable. The Grand Canyon's rim is a breath-grabbing 7,000' elevation and Bryce's ranges from 7,800' to 9,100', so venturing down from either results in some heavy breathing on the way up. But at both locations a mule ride tour is a less aerobically demanding way to up the intensity of your geological immersion.

Part of the Grand Canyon's claim to fame is in having both very ancient rocks and a rock-record representing a huge range of geologic time. Bryce on the other hand has only young rocks, rocks that are 250 million years old or less and basically only various types of limestone. But the unusual uplift without tilt of the Colorado Plateau that occurred at the Grand Canyon also occurred at Bryce, giving both the dramatic erosion pattern of vertical cuts through horizontal layers of rock. But the source of erosion is quite different between the 2 parks: more than 200 days a year of freezing temperatures makes Bryce a spectacle of freeze/thaw erosion as opposed to the rushing water erosion fantastically evident in the Grand Canyon from the persistent cutting action of the Colorado River and its tributaries.

What's not to love about hoodoos?
Building Bryce Canyon (skip this section if geology isn't your thing)
Being relatively geologically young, you only have to go back about 200 million years (my) to find the beginning of Bryce Canyon's story. It was then that tectonic forces were slamming the Pacific Plate into the North American Plate, eventually creating the Sevier (from a Native American word pronounced 'severe') Mountains, long before the still-existing Rockies were formed. Over the course of about 150my the Sevier Mountains were formed to the northwest of what would become Bryce Canyon and then began wearing down due to weather-related erosion.

Another significant round of plate collisions shortly before the dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago (mya) formed the Rocky Mountains to the east and uplifted the basin between the shrinking Sevier and the growing Rocky Mountains. Lakes and ponds formed in this resulting Claron Basin that lacked a river outlet. And it was this poorly drained new basin into which the crumbling bits of the once mighty Sevier Mountains collected as they disintegrated.

Cataclysmic events literally laid the groundwork at Bryce but it was the fluctuations in the climate from one year to the next over millions of years while the eroded debris from the Sevier Mountains piled up in the Claron Basin that eventually resulted in the colorful hoodoos. Wet years favored the development of the dominant red limestone layers that obtained their coloring from iron. Interesting, it was also the presence of iron that resulted in some of the stone bits from the Sevier Mountains turning yellow or green when less oxygen was available in the basin's standing water.

A drier year would drop the water depth in the Claron Basin's scattered lakes, thereby increasing the concentration of salt and other minerals, leading to the deposition of white sediment. Just the right amount of very shallow water would favor cyanobacteria growth, which would increase the amount of magnesium in the brew. Instead of ordinary limestone, the magnesium-enriched grit would eventually form dolostone, which is essentially dolomite. Down the road, it would be chunks from the dolostone layers that would remain as caps which hindered erosion of these newer layers and allowed the formation of the columnar hoo-doos. Not all of these colorful layers occurred uniformly across the Basin given their dependence on specific water depths and other conditions.

The white rocks are the erosion-slowing dolostone caps.
Next in Bryce's story came an extended period of discontinuities: a geologist's term for missing rocks and missing information. Somehow these Claron Basin pre-limestone stews became compressed enough to form rocks but the rocks presumed to have been on top are long gone, taking with them the history of the land. But the subsequent pages in the rock storybook tell of the area's uplift (but not significant tilting) along with the rest of the Colorado Plateau between 15-8 mya, after which the area began sinking. The uplift wasn't a gentle process however and a horizontal grid of vertical fracture lines developed through the various limestone layers.

The stage was now set for millions of freeze-thaw cycles to vertically carve the hoodoos from these colorful layers along the old fracture lines. Water seeped into the tiny cracks and expanded with each freeze, thereby functioning like mini hammers and chisels on the rock. Little bits of rock would be loosened and then washed away, perhaps by the summer monsoon rains. The top layer of limestone was vulnerable to being washed away too until the 'excavation' hit a layer of dolostone, that harder layer of limestone that is a mix of both calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate instead of only calcium carbonate. The harder dolostone created a protective cap which resulted in faster vertical than horizontal erosion and hence, columns of rock. Ever so slowly the vertical spires of hoodoos were formed from this persistent erosion, showing off the colorful ancient limestone layers. And this is a very active process with new hoodoos constantly being formed and old ones disintegrating. It is walking on the rolling trails amongst the fanciful hoodoos that makes the Bryce hiking experience so exceptional.

Bryce Canyon Trivia
..The very familiar perennial Oregon Grape retains its name in Utah rather than being called Utah grape.
..A geologists joke: "Wind erosion isn't significant more than a meter (3') off the ground or camels would be 40' tall." (Their home, the Sahara Desert, is notorious for its winds).
..Pronghorns are an antelope-like critter left over from the last Ice Age when their predators, American cheetahs, roamed North America. The pronghorns in Bryce still have the survival skills needed 10,000 years ago: they can detect movement 4 miles away and can sustain speeds almost as high as cheetahs but for longer intervals.

Scenic Byway 12
As we headed north towards home, we drove the 124 miles of the much-lauded Scenic Byway #12 north of Bryce Canyon to traverse the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and I must admit we weren't dazzled. Perhaps if we hadn't been intoxicated by our 5 night stay at Bryce and had only breezed through it, we might have appreciated the drive for more time to stare at the dramatic layers and red rocks. But after having walked among them, looking at them in the distance didn't captivate us. We did snare a nice vista for lunch from the camper in the middle of the difficult drive but we didn't snap a single photo though we'd been warned we'd take many. It might be worth a second visit in a passenger car but we won't lumber through again with the Fox camper on our backs.

Fixing Fox
The unexpected highlight during our trip home to the Pacific NW from the SW at the end of May was the stop at Northwood Manufacturing, the manufacturer of our Arctic Fox camper, in La Grande, Oregon. From our first weeks in it last October, we had a small but growing list of problems we didn't know how to solve, things like the back-up latch on the hollow bathroom door tearing out. Stripped screws on cabinet door hinges, drawer latches that weren't snug enough to bear much load in transit, and wondering if that one odd sounding screw jack was really OK added to our background aggravations as new owners.

Fox out in front of its birthplace: Northwood Manufacturing.
Bill had already decided to route us home through La Grande for a visit to Fox's clan and then we had a major problem with a window and a second failure of our water pump that couldn't be rectified, making the visit even more compelling. Ironically, it was more convenient to drive to the manufacturer on our way home than to visit our dealer who is more than an hour's drive from our apartment. Plus, we lacked confidence in the dealer's expertise and had already switched to calling Northwood's service department when problems arose. But when I called for an appointment, the service guy said they were booked until July and he sent us down the street to a dealer until I asked "Does he do warranty repairs?"

Apparently "warranty" was the magic word and suddenly we were on Northwood's service calendar for our preferred day. After about 4 hours in their waiting room, Fox was back in our hands with everything on our list fixed and for free. We'd entirely expected to pay for a few of the items but that wasn't the case. Back in Fox, we were stunned that everything was pristine--no debris or scuffs by the workmen revealed their presence. And better yet, a small annoyance Bill had neglected to put on our list was fixed also. It appeared that we got more than we asked for--Fox had also gotten a tune-up.

We purred with delight the rest of the afternoon and evening: Fox was now better than new, our aggravations were history, and we had answers to all of our niggling questions about how to care for it. What a nice way to draw our total of 6 months on the road with Fox to a close and how pleasant to anticipate loading up in it again next October and having everything tip-top. Over and over we'd heard "Everyone loves their Fox" when we interviewed camper owners of any brand a year ago and the manufacturer's great service department was one of the reasons why the brand gets rave reviews. Fox owners are indeed a contented and loyal bunch.

Turn-Around Time
We chronically feel like quick-change artists that aren't so quick: once again we'd hit the ground running at home, simultaneously wrapping up the loose-ends from being away for 4 months before being overseas for 3 months. We knew that the month-plus we'd scheduled at home would fly by and yet the time pressure would ensure that we spent more of our life enjoying adventures than preparing for them. LIke always, careful planning before we arrived would increase our odds of a successful transition. I'll let you know how we did with our turn-around in our next piece which will be from Europe.