The pyramid of Pyramid Trail in New Mexico.
HIKING OUR WAY HOME   (May 2015)    

Darn It

Several fully-booked national park campgrounds and the weather conspired to keep us away from our top picks on our journey home. Even checking for space weeks in advance, the Grand Canyon RV park and the campground at Zion were unavailable to us. And a round of Pacific storms dropped snow on the peak outside of Flagstaff that Bill had positioned us to hike. At 12,600’, it would have been our highest peak ever and we were both itching to test ourselves at that altitude with the benefit of some hard-earned acclimation under our belts. Unfortunately, the snowfall wasn’t low enough on the mountain for a half day of snowshoeing at the cross country ski area as a consolation prize.

Not quite sure what was ahead of us, we revisited the Pyramid Trail outside of Gallup, NM, to get in a certain hike. It’s a hidden treasure we discovered on our trip home a year ago. It only takes an hour to get to the top but it delivers a condensed visual experience of the red rock territory we enjoyed last fall. This delightful trail is only minutes off of the interstate and has an adjacent, basic campground.

Finally out of the deep snow, Humphrey Peak was still too far away.
Snow Hiking
Even when presented with limited hiking options, like one fall at Yosemite, we'd always consciously decided not to hike in snow. We settle for lesser venues so as to walk briskly rather than trudge slowly, and besides, we aren’t outfitted for snow hiking. But anticipating summiting Arizona’s highest mountain, Humphrey Peak, prompted some soul searching. Even though it was probably now blanketed in fresh snow, we were reluctant to abandon this grand adventure.

Despite the warm spring weather, we assumed there still might be too much snow on the mountain by the time we arrived in Flagstaff, but we showed up anyway and immediately started asking questions. An RV park staff member was quick to share her experience. “Will there be snow on the trail?” triggered a reflexive “Yes.” She went on to describe the various perils on the route and assured us that once we were above tree line, it would be snow free. With grand arm gestures, the slight, weather-beaten local woman demonstrated how the fierce winds would have blown all the snow off the top.

Reassured enough to proceed, we did decide to dress more warmly than we had done for our last hike to Albuquerque’s S. Sandia peak where the especially strong winds had chilled us. I stunned Bill by stating that I’d forego my usual “boots”, which were a worn-out pair of minimalist sandals, and actually wear my real minimalist boots. We only wear proper boots about once a year and concurred that this hike sounded like the day for them.

In hindsight, the event was far better described as a snow hike than a hike in which there was snow on the trail. It took us over 4 hours to get to tree line at 11,600’ even though we started at 9,300’. Listed as a 6 hour round trip hike, the peak was in sight after 4 hours but we estimated that it was still more than an hour away. Rather than just being a "steep up” another 600’, we still had a lot of horizontal distance to cover as well. 

Yippee! At 12,000' for the first time. (Humphrey Peak Trail.)
There were 2 distinct challenges on this snow hike. One was that almost all of the trail surfaces were snowy, ranging from a mix of snow and mud at the lower elevations to the “sink down 6-12 inches” in snow higher up. About half of our time on the ascent was spent on trails and the remaining time was in snow without any trail at all--this lack of trails was the second big challenge for the day. 

We and 3 young adults wandered about on a perilously steep slope in search of the most reassuring set of boot prints in the snow to follow up towards a ridge. Bill’s GPS app with a map of the trail saved the day for us and the other 3,  as well as 2 others who had been off the trail with us lower down. The deep snow prevented us from being exactly on the trail but at least Bill's app kept us close enough to the course to intersect the trail when the snow cleared.

We’d allowed ourselves to press on longer than originally planned, consuming our buffer time for an emergency. We agreed to continue to 12,000’ to accomplish that secondary goal given we’d only ever hiked to 11,000’. We went a bit over on our re-negotiated turn-around time but were immensely pleased to reach 12,000’. It had taken years, but Bill had slowly learned how to push his altitude intolerance out from being significantly hampered at 7,000' elevation to being athletically effective at 12,000'. Pressing on as we had done took its toll: our descent time was longer than we had predicted and we arrived at our vehicles right at sunset and exhausted. 

Given that we don’t anticipate being in the US in the summers, Humphrey Peak will likely always have a difficult amount of snow on it for us. But it is such a tantalizing trophy hike on our driving route to and from the SW that we’ll likely attempt it each year in hopes of making it to the summit one day.

Soap Creek at Marble Canyon, AZ
In November of 2014, we’d had a historic defeat in the Grand Canyon vicinity when attempting to walk down to the Colorado River along Soap Creek—we only covered about 1.5 miles in 3 hours of effort and that was going downhill. According to the guide book’s estimates, we should have been at the turnaround point of the river in that amount of time. Instead, we turned around after practicing going up and down a boulder obstacle on our bellies, a boulder that we hoped represented the last major barrier to the river on our next attempt.

A glimpse of our high trail is on the right of the dramatic pour-off.
Knowing to head directly to the high trail detour around the 100’ deep pour-off and not even admiring it close-up, plus looking more carefully for discrete cairns through the immense boulder clutter rather than follow the dry stream bed, sped us along on our second attempt. We made the trek to the river in three and a half hours this time.  With only 1300’ of gain, it was still a tiring hike because of so much climbing through the massive boulders and trudging through sand.

We were pleased to redeem ourselves on our this, our second crack at the Soap Creek Trail just like we had done on a second attempt in 2014 on the trail to The Window outside of Tucson. But of course, a few days before, we’d acquired another defeat in aiming for Humphrey Peak. Curiously, all of our failed attempts to reach a specific destination had occurred in Arizona but that was about to change.

Bell Canyon, Draper, UT  (May 1) 
Defeats were accumulating faster than conquests when we failed to reach the upper lake at Bell Canyon, south of Salt Lake City. A fellow hiker farther south in Utah's Snow Canyon had mentioned it as a good choice for our preferences. In hindsight, we wondered if he had ever reached the upper lake destination described in Bill’s hiking book or if he’d only gone to the end of the marked trail like the other local hikers with whom we subsequently spoke. We only made 3000’ of the planned 4200’.

We enjoyed the dramatic hike with ever-changing trail conditions until the trail unexpectedly evaporated. The guide book didn’t describe it as a bushwhacking event, but we were soon threading our way through endless thickets of brush and young deciduous trees following the faint lead of orange tape markers dangling from high branches. 

Turning around at the Colorado River & heading back up Marble Canyon.
Frustrated, tired, and feeling a bit deceived, we finally declared we’d gone far enough when we failed to reach a hoped for clearing in which to make better time. We each looked for a bare spot in the brush that was large enough for sitting and ate our lunch. With further scrutiny, Bill decided that snow would block our way to our destination even if we had had enough time to continue.

The primary goal had been to get in a robust hike to maintain our fitness and we’d accomplished that. Bell Canyon was added to the growing list of destinations to again try to reach. Regardless of our performance, Bell Canyon was our last hike on our way home and now our attention had to turn to completing the drive.


We were in a state of shock: suddenly, instead of putting our camper in storage for 4 months as planned, when we arrived home in 3 days, we’d be readying it for sale. 

For months Bill had been researching SUV-type-vehicles and trailers in anticipation of buying a new rig combo in a year or so. The bottom line was that our monster truck outfitted to both carry a camper and to take us off-road to trail heads only did 1 of the 2 jobs well, which was carrying the camper. The off-road package (big tires, skid plate, 4WD) was useless to us because the stiffening modifications made to the truck so it could carry the heavy camper made it a miserable ride, on or off road. We slowed to a crawl and braced ourselves when driving across supermarket speed bumps.

On the eve of returning home, it was downright traumatic to spasmodically shift from anticipating an unusually calm and orderly transition from 8 months of RV’ing to 3 months of cyclotouring in Europe to then also sandwich-in readying 2 vehicles for sale and buying 2 new replacements in a few weeks or in 3 months. The exact timing and sequencing of everything was up in the air.

It was an innocent trip to a camper dealer in LaGrande, OR on our route home for a skylight replacement that precipitated this abrupt change. The plan had been to look at several of the trailer models that Bill had been researching while the repair was made. The chit-chat with the dealer that was a neighbor of the manufacturer revealed that one of the trailers we were most interested in would be on the production line in August. That was near-perfect timing for us to make the swap-out because we’d be back home from Europe in early September. There was no way to know if the production cycle would match our schedule in a year or 2 so we decided to seize the opportunity for efficient retooling certainty. 

Bell Canyon: the last of the trail before bushwhacking up a steep slope.
Suddenly, we were slammed into the multitude of challenges associated with disposing of 1 set of rigs and replacing them with another pair without missing a beat in our travel rhythm. Unsatisfied with the dealer we’d previously dealt with in Portland, we’d already decided to buy from the La Grande dealer 250 miles from home because of their first-name relationship with the RV manufacturer, especially since we’d be requesting modifications and upgrades. Needing to put 1,000 miles on a new car before towing the trailer was another timing challenge, as was never being able to park the trailer in our apartment building’s small lot. 

Not having bought or sold anything big on the private market for 15 years, we also wondered about the nitty-gritty issues like: “How do you transfer thousands of dollars between strangers these days without getting ripped off?” Clearly the era of buying and selling vehicles with the exchange of a personal check after the Sunday morning paper came out was gone. Along the way, we learned new phrases like "Craig’s List troller" and experienced a Craig’s List scammer. 

Our minds were swirling with problems, solutions, and scenarios as our planned 1-hour visit to the RV dealer extended to over 5 hours while we scrutinized trailers and strategized about timing issues. By the end of the day, we’d selected the trailer model to buy. I’d suggested we drop in the next day to revisit our selection, just to be sure. But before we went to bed another plan gelled: I proposed that we buy a different trailer. The next day’s quick visit turned into another big shopping event. We spent about 8 hours over 2 days seriously evaluating 4 different trailer models, with each being the #1 contender for part of the time. 

The largest trailer on Bill’s short list had a shrunken bunk bed area that didn’t seem quite big enough to hold our pair of bikes if it were gutted but it was the trailer that always put a big grin on Bill’s face. Each time he sat in the dinette he broke out into a big smile and said “This feels like a home.” And given that we were living in our rig 8 months a year, feeling like a home was a good thing.

It took focused brainstorming and borrowing a customer’s bike for a few minutes for a new plan for the bikes to erupt the next day. And it was  still a gamble. We hoped that the manufacturer would omit the bunks as requested but not promised, but if not, we’d rip them out. And if need be, we’d cut into the cabinetry so as to cram the bikes in. And since the special-ordered trailer couldn’t be refused, we were determined that we’d make the trailer work for the bikes one way or another.

Remembering more tranquil moments back at Snow Canyon, Utah.
The major problem with our current rigs was the unsuitability of the truck for taking us to trail heads but another issue that had hit the crisis point this year was bike storage. It took Bill over an hour to load and unload the bikes from the back seat of our truck, which was a major deterrent to riding them. Our best biking venues were at our long-stays in Palm Springs and Albuquerque and our favorite RV parks at both had experienced a sharp uptick in high-end bike theft since last year. Easier to use bike storage had shot up on our priority list, whether in a trailer or in a car or in a mounted exterior storage box, something had to change.

Phase 2
With the first major decision pair having been made, which was which trailer to buy and when, we were then immediately faced with the onerous problem of needing to empty EVERYTHING out of the camper and stuffing it into our small apartment. 

We’d gradually become smarter about leaving more in the rig at the end of the season as well as being more effective at cramming more into it, so we knew how significant the burden would be. Since we took delivery of our camper in the fall of 2011, we’d added an entire set of bedding, a small set of dishes, and several new pans to our inventory. And then there was all of the RV-specific paraphernalia like hoses, tubing, draft baffles, more than a dozen leveling blocks, 6 scissor jacks, and specialized cleaning supplies with which to clutter our little apartment. Needing to develop a plan in short order for dealing with our excess while also needing extra space to organize our gear for going overseas added to the stress of it all—a stress that would be with us until we departed for Europe in a month.

Toxicodendron diversilobum or  Western Poison Oak

Taking sort of a Polly Anna approach by “looking for the opportunities within the threats,” we delved into the study of poison oak while hiking on 2 different trails with friends in the Columbia River Gorge, an area which was swaddled in particularly lush poison oak this spring. It was an exceptionally good year for the plant that tormented me as a child with multiple and prolonged itchy bouts after unwittingly making contact with it.

Triple Falls was a scenic interlude at the end of the first poison oak hike.
The first hike, which began on Horsetail Falls Trail and then veered sharply upwards onto the primitive Rock of the Ages Trail, left us with more questions than answers about poison oak. Questions like: can the leaves really be more than 2” long; how do you distinguish poison oak from oak tree saplings; and does poison oak really have flowers? A quick online refresher the morning of the second hike armed us with new images of their leaves and more help in identifying the flower after only ever having seen them on a single plant.

Mesmerized by the multitude of poison oak presentations (hence the “divers” syllable in its botanical name), we slowed our pace up and down Dog Mountain that day. The plants on the rocky, sunny, south facing slopes were the plants I grew up with: short and scrawny with tight little leaves, often little more than an inch long and sometimes crinkled. But under the heavy conifer canopy, the leaves that seemed to struggle for their share of light were bright green and 4-5” long and didn’t fit my profile for poison oak.

The poison oak leaves we saw on Dog Mountain ranged from the classic lobed look that I knew as a child to being almost lobe-less or deeply cut like oak leaves. The distinctive shiny surface—what I thought was THE classic identification tool after “leaves of 3”-- was not a prominent feature on the plants we saw on either hike and most of the leaves we did see lacked any sheen at all.

We were in luck however because it was blooming season and many plants had the distinctive little white flowers hanging near the stems and under the leaves. Those  unusual flowers threw many a plant from the “maybe” pile into the “Yes, that’s poison oak” pile and differentiated them from the true oaks. The flowers were our ace in the hole and catapulted our poison oak identification skills to a new level. Towards the end of the Dog Mountain hike, we even started seeing plants sporting clusters of white berries and had counted a total of 6 vine specimens climbing up 10’ in fir trees.

A little more online research after we returned home convinced us that we’d seen just about every permutation of western poison oak that there was on this, our third hike on Dog Mountain. We’d seen 6’ tall freestanding bushes; vines creeping straight up conifers; pitiful stalks; patches; groves; and singletons. We likely didn’t see any 7” long leaves but the monster leaves we did see convinced us to not rule out poison oak just because the leaves seemed too big. 

Lush poison oak with its distinctive though fading blooms.
In addition, we saw the full color spectrum from green to reddish-purple leaves and the real trophy finds: flowers and berries. Next time, perhaps we’d strain to see the fuzzy fibers on the stems though doubted we’d be looking for the hairs on the underside of the leaves nor would we engage in recommended experiments to squeeze the toxic resin from stems to note its changing color.  In the meantime, there was nothing more to do but wait to see if we would begin to itch, which would indicate that though we felt we deserved top marks in the study of poison oak that we had failed the Practicum. (Fortunately, there was no itching.)

Topsy Turvy
Twelve days before we’d be boarding our flight to Europe and on the heels of 2 days of time-slicing in-person car shopping with other appointments, we were looking forward to a rare “in day” focused on packing for our summer travels. My brisk start to the Friday morning was slowed by continuing the phone calls from the night before to 3 parties after just discovering a misapplied collection notice was degrading my credit; a little later Bill was doing a quick online search comparing the benefits of selling a vehicle to private party vs trading it in.  No worries, still plenty of time to get serious about packing. Then it hit.

Quite unexpectedly, Bill found a passing reference to a sales tax angle, one that allows decreasing the amount of the state sales tax paid when purchasing a vehicle by the amount credited for a trade-in. Since we’d be selling or trading-in 2 vehicles, we had a potential savings of thousands of dollars with this loophole. 

The chaos level instantly shot up. Bill had already made the call to a local dealer to postpone selling our camper to them by a week and a car dealer the day before made an appointment for an appraisal for us with their back door RV trader.  Trading the camper in instead of selling it would necessitate a couple of uncomfortable phone calls. And, more importantly, the time slot we’d identified for squeezing in the possible 500 mile round trip drive to take the camper to our new trailer dealer had passed a week ago—one of many "Plan B’s” in the last 3 weeks.

Our first hike on Silver Star Mtn in the Gorge was short on views that day.
We studied our calendars for another window in our full schedule and the best fit was right then, as in dropping everything that moment and departing as soon as possible. Bill read further, we made several calls to our trailer dealer, and I rapidly became overwhelmed by the thought of menu planning. We’d need to assemble 48 hours of ketogenic meals, pop Bill in the shower, get our overnight bags assembled, and gather together our hiking gear in case we could still make our planned Sunday hike. Not only would it be a major disruption, we’d be driving in 36 hours the distance we’d usually take at least 3 days to do.

After running the numbers for several different scenarios that included the option of postponing the camper trade-in until September, we decided to bolt.  It can take us 4-5 hours on a bad day to get our heinies out the door for a hike but we had 2 meals behind us plus our morning exercises were done. Amazingly, we packed and loaded for the unplanned trip in 2 hours, drove to the camper storage yard and loaded the camper for the last time in about an hour, and were on the freeway to begin our 250 mile drive at dinner time while crossing our fingers that we hadn’t forgotten anything.

The need to wrap-up the trade-in transaction the next day before the dealer closed at 3 pm for the weekend put the pressure on but doing so would still allow us to hike almost as planned on Sunday. Fortunately, we’d completed readying our camper for sale when we put it in storage so we could pick it up and go.

Our homestay had been characterized by dealing with the unexpected from the get-go and this sudden loss of more than a day towards the end of our stay was one of many little disappointments. But like with the other inconveniences, we celebrated having the disruption behind us and quickly shifted our attention back to preparing for our summer in the Alps.

The Ride Was Over
The roller coast ride of being at home was over at last. We’d exited our various medical and dental check-ups with no significant upsets; our long-time massage therapist confirmed what we had decided, which was that our tissues were thriving under our more intense fitness regime; and we were looking forward to the inevitably different snowbird experience in our new rigs this fall. We’d board the roller coaster again in early September when we returned home but before that, we’d be deeply immersed in our Italian Alps extravaganza for 2015.

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Neither Bill nor Randal would stand a little closer to this monster ant hill found on our descent from Mt Defiance.