Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Getting Higher in Colorado

Just when we thought we were through with the uncomfortably high elevations in Utah we encountered Colorado. While short-term visitors such as ourselves whine of headaches from just being in the valleys, Coloradans discuss which “Fourteen-er” they will ascend in the following climbing season. This is what locals call the peaks of 14,000 feet or more that the rest of us call the Rocky Mountains. Our entire time in Colorado was spent swilling Smart Water and pacing our exertions. But the weather was sunny and crisp, fall was in the air everywhere we went and the cottonwoods and aspens were brilliant on the mountain landscapes.  

Spruce House across from Museum in Mesa Verde
We entered Colorado at the southwest corner of the state and made our way to the various Ancestral Pueblo sites near Cortez. The Anasazi Heritage Center there gave us a good timeline on cliff and high-desert dwellers in the area and an overview of the evolution of archeology as it struggled to become a science. Armed with that orientation we tackled the formidable road up to Mesa Verde National Park. We loved seeing the cliff houses from the Mesa Top Loop Road and the Spruce House overlook at the museum. Due to the elevation and warm weather we passed on the ranger-led tours that involved long walks and climbing up primitive ladders. We shared the museum with an energetic multi-age school group and it was fun to see the kids scurry from exhibit to window, documenting their discoveries in their notebooks.
Fall Colors on the Skyway

From Cortez we followed the San Juan Skyway, an All American Road, to Durango. We were disappointed to find Durango quite inaccessible for the RV. This bustling little town, perched on a hill, hosts many intact buildings in its historic downtown. Unfortunately there is no accommodation for large vehicle parking and we had to keep moving. We happily ended up in the hot mineral waters of Pagosa Springs (at the budget place, not the fancy one across the street) and enjoyed swims both evening and morning in the huge outdoor pool.
Lucky the yak seemed to like the low notes on the fiddle
Our premier destination in Colorado was the elk and yak ranch owned by shirt-tail relatives Doug and Kathryn near Westcliffe and the San Isobel National Forest. Perched at 8,500 feet, the ranch supplies all of their meat and most of their vegetables, and produces an annual crop of calves for the domestic elk market. Both early retirees from engineering-related fields, Doug and Kathryn happily maintain their off-the-grid home and ranch which includes both wind and solar power. Also present are a few impressive innovations like the wood-fired boiler for their radiant floor heating. We enjoyed the delicious elk steaks and home-made salsa, and had fun spending time with the two of them as well as their many animals.  It was fun to talk about their eventual plans to travel in an RV and they jumped right in to diagnose a few electrical problems in Lilypad.
Amazing playground in the backyard of Colorado Springs
On their recommendation, we continued north along a beautiful drive to the town of Salida and to the hot springs at Mt Princeton where we swam in the outdoor pool and Liz ventured down to the creek to a wonderful soak with her right side in cold water and her left side in hot water. Coming over another incredibly high pass (9,475 feet) we descended down to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. This prodigious site has produced the greatest density of plant, insect and fish fossils in the world. However the weather was starting to turn on us and we managed only the visitors center and a short walk to marvel at the petrified redwood stumps nearby.  As we came into the city of Colorado Springs we briefly toured the spectacular Garden of the Gods, a spectacular series of red and gray sandstone spires connected by paved bicycle and running paths. If the weather hadn’t been spitting hail we might have lingered longer. That night we boondocked next to Costco and Trader Joe's in a huge mall that is adjacent to a campus of Colorado State University, and woke up to freezing temperatures. 

Our last major encounter with Colorado civilization was lunch with Kathryn and Doug in the town of  Pueblo. They say the city is booming mainly because of the legalization of marijuana and the proliferation of small businesses associated with it. Although we never encountered any indication, other than a few establishments with a green cross indication the availability of medical marijuana, we can certainly attest to the economic upsurge, especially from accounts in the local papers. Now we are in the southeastern corner of the  state, headed for unknown adventures in Kansas, our 48th state to visit in an RV and the 50th state to visit overall. What does one do in Kansas?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Red Sandstone and Saints

We’ve been in the red state of Utah for almost two weeks and we’ve learned a few things. First, the natural beauty and abundance of National Parks make this state a great place to spend lots of time. Second, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) is the underlying drone to nearly all of the harmonies that play out across this land. And third, the Church was very much involved in the economic history and settlement of the state and subsequently continues to have difficulties with the Federal government over many things. Historically, the church lost out on the subject of marriage equality ( ie. polygamy) but currently fights over Federal lands are alive and well. It seems pretty clear why the overpowering lyrics here contain the lines, “Don’t tread on me”. That being said, we have had nothing but gracious interactions with practically everyone we met.

Rehearsal of Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra
To get better acquainted we conducted a serious immersion program in Salt Lake City by accepting the LDS-sponsored shuttle from the KOA campground, which  included a drive-by tour of Temple Square, suggestions for our visit, and a ride home at day’s end. We followed some of their advice and toured the visitor’s center, where we were squired around by a couple of sweet Mormon Sisters, who, like young male missionaries who come to your door, were giving a year of service to share their faith with folks like us who are polite enough to listen. We also looked up our long -dead ancestors at the Family History Library, and very much enjoyed a rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. 

Straying from the program, we also enjoyed a visit to the public library and a stroll through downtown. It appeared to us there were unusually high numbers of folks asking for handouts and sleeping on the streets in the area surrounding the opulent walled-in Temple Square which occupies several blocks in the center of town. This was similar to our experience at the edge of town where we had considered boondocking at the Wal-Mart. We had been quite excited about the covered 13- foot-high garage and the warm welcome from the management, but soon found there were a number of very decrepit vehicles and unhappy people hanging around the premises. Our discomfort resulted in a move to the KOA.
Fall Roundup on Utah State Route 89
After our day in SLC we were eager to leave the city and braved the freeway through the rest of urban Utah (a 150-mile strip from Ogden through SLC and ending at Provo) finally landing in the land of red earth and Mormon pioneer farms. Soon we had a delightful encounter with a 200-head cattle drive on a narrow, twisty mountain road and experienced the 10,500 foot altitude at Cedar Breaks National Monument, which confirmed our suspicions that we really are sea-level girls. 

Antelope Canyon (near Page, AZ) was breathtaking
Now, having ascended the Colorado Plateau repeatedly and having descended into countless river valleys, we’ve decided there are many reasons why we prefer looking up at red sandstone magnificence rather than looking down on it. We reached this realization from several experiences: the first being our visit to Zion National Park.  Unfortunately it fell on the weekend that apparently all of Las Vegas was celebrating Indigenous People’s Day by communing with nature. The shuttle ride up Zion Canyon reminded us of the Boston MTA on the way to Fenway Field. But at the end of the road, when we got out and walked up the Virgin River canyon, it was serene and comforting to be surrounded by sheer cliff walls of deliciously tinted red sandstone. We felt the same when we (again accompanied by way too many people) experienced the luscious walls of Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon carved by flash floods through soft red and gray sandstone. It was stunningly beautiful.
All American Road Utah SR 12 starts in Red Canyon
The alternative to being at the bottom of a canyon is being on top of the mesas, buttes, ridges and plateaus that rim them. This was our experience at Bryce Canyon and along the All American Road known as Scenic Byway 12 which runs through beautiful Red Canyon, past Bryce National Park all the way to Torrey, Utah. One of the most exciting parts of this road is Hogback Ridge where the land drops away from the shoulder-less road on both sides, the next level place being thousands of feet below. It reminded us a lot of  Montana's Beartooth Highway. When driving these stretches Liz reminds herself it’s just a road like all others, the point being to stay between the lines, and Janna keeps her eyes shut. We got to Arches National Park and enjoyed these kinds of views from the big screen in the Visitor Center, then went on to bicycle and camp along the river, happily looking up at the beautiful canyon walls.

Another interesting stop along the way was Angel Canyon, home of Best Friends Animal Society. Janna had time to practice her new musical instrument, while Liz toured the 4000-acre center, home to over 1500 animals, including many dogs, cats, horses, parrots, rabbits and wild animals as well. We enjoyed the $5 vegetarian buffet at their Angel CafĂ©, a nice surprise and well-kept secret. 

Colorado River near Moab, at sunset
The past couple of days we’ve been enjoying the interesting town of Moab, filled with athletic looking people of all ages who drive monster all-terrain vehicles or muddy mountain bikes. We shopped at the well-stocked community co-op; also found a few items at a unique outdoor retail establishment called the Gearhead; and did some trading with a business called Gear Trader. Liz got a music lesson in the park from a local fiddler and Janna got a Skype music lesson using the internet at the local library. Now we are headed further south and east to San Juan County (Utah that is), then on to Colorado, with Lilypad sporting a new bike rack.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Water in the Desert

Bison roam Antelope Island 
and across the water is Salt Lake City

We’re ten days into Part Two of Lilypad’s great adventure and find ourselves at Antelope Island State Park in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. Meadow larks greeted us this morning as we walked around the campground, marveling at the huge harvest moon setting into the lake to the southwest while at the same time, the sun came up over the mountains in the east. This island is a refuge for birds, bison, prong horn antelope, big horn sheep and people. Yesterday we toured the historic Fielding Garr Ranch, the first permanent residence on the island. We looked across at Salt Lake City, dwarfed by the vastness of the lake and mountains surrounding it. The buffalo were all over the road, but the long-eared jackrabbits out in the prairie refused to hold still for pictures.

Main Street in Joseph, Oregon with sculpture and fall colors
A week ago we briefly toured Joseph, Oregon, identified by National Geographic as one of America’s Small Town Great Escapes, and a site along the Hell's Canyon National Scenic Byway. Blessed with three bronze foundries, the town has public statues on every corner and the ornamental maples along the historic downtown main street delighted us with our first blaze of fall color. The flourishing little shops spoke to the power of art to support a small town economy, although no doubt the beautiful surrounding ranches and remote recreation areas don’t hurt either. Then we enjoyed the paved Forest Service road through the Wallowa Mountains, stayed in a $3 campground, and stopped at the spectacular lookout over the Snake River at Hell's Canyon. 

Connie, Liz, California Condor, Janna and Craig
In Idaho we stopped to visit dear friends Connie and Craig who recently moved from Alaska to an airpark near Nampa. While we were there, we managed to visit briefly with Janna’s sister and brother-in-law, and another old Alaskan friend, Carol and her partner Judith. Connie and Craig took us on excursions to Boise and Nampa where we were impressed with the friendliness of the people and the prevalence of paved bike trails. We also stopped at the World Center for Birds of Prey. Perched high on a ridge above the prairie we watched half a dozen different kinds of raptors soar and interact with human handlers. The facility is famous for breeding California Condors and we met the grandparents of some of the birds that now fly free in California and Nevada. 

Pool at Banbury Hot Springs
We are surrounded by desert, and surprised to find hot springs everywhere. Next door to Connie and Craig’s house, we took a swim at Givens Hot Springs, a funky old pool that was established in 1881. Then we followed the Snake River and the 1000 Springs Scenic Byway, landing at Banbury Hot Springs where we enjoyed a virtually empty campground and solo swims in a large pool constructed in 1920. This area is also famous for the discoveries of ancient equines and other fossils in the million year old fossil beds and hosts the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. 
Leaving Idaho, it was on to Crystal Hot Springs in Honeyville, Utah where we encountered a surprisingly international clientele at a lovely campground. There are four separate pools here where both hot and cold springs occur at the same location. If you get too hot swimming in the 100 degree pool, go stand under the cold waterfall. Want to be warmer? Go stand under the hot waterfall. (Have we mentioned we have had weather in the 70’s every day?) 

Bridger Bay Camp Ground on Antelope Island
So now we are on the Great Salt Lake, another oasis in the desert. It's too salty for fish, but it's perfect for brine shrimp and algae making it a paradise for birds and people who love birds and beautiful views. Last night we paired up with neighbors in the campground to play some not great, but enjoyable music with Liz on the fiddle and the neighbor on the guitar.  Water in the desert; music in the desert. What could be better that this?

Tomorrow we will explore the history and modern reality of Salt Lake City. Then it's back to nature as we head for the great national parks of southern Utah.