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On To The SW     September 2017  

Getting Underway Hiccups
Travel is always an adventure and our first nights on the road to the SW this fall were no exception. Mini-Crisis #1 occurred before we left the storage lot: our refrigerator that had run perfectly while on 110 power refused to function on the essential propane mode. We fiddled with the gas connectors and the ignitor area, checked the manual, and consulted the storage property owner. Ultimately, it was clicking the refrigerator on and off a dozen times, not the one to two times described in the manual, that cleared air out of the lines so it would ignite. Whew! We were relieved not to have launch day derailed by a repair stop.

Two days later when filling our propane tanks, we discovered that indeed one of the two tanks just wasn’t ‘sharing’. It registered “Empty" when we fussed with the fridge, but it was actually chocked full. The attendant at the tank filling station said that propane systems tended to be fickle, that that was just the way they were, which fit with our previous experience. 

The good news was that our water pump which, like the one in our previous camper was unreliable, started up without a hitch. Bill had waited until the water tank was full this time before switching it on, thinking that the added pressure might help it engage. The takeaway from putting our rig back into service this year was think “fill the lines” when something wasn’t working.
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Portland’s Forest Park was tinder-dry but this weeping fungi was holding its own.

Our first 2 nights in RV parks were wildly disappointing, even after buying-up to improve the odds of low-stress evenings while we put away piles of food and gear that were under foot. The first park was rated as “10" out of “10" for bathroom cleanliness but it wasn’t a “10” by any other measure. It wouldn’t win any beauty contest and the showers were not, by any stretch of the imagination, hot. The flakey faucet valves, which had “Off” in the center position and “Hot” and “Cold” on either side, didn’t help matters.

RV park #2 was even worse. I balanced on a bench, trying to keep my clothes and shoes from getting soaked, while the lower of the 2 shower heads spritzed out more air than water. My hunch was correct: the water wasn’t close to being hot. The bad experience the night before had the issue of water temperature on my mind but there were other clues to a substandard experience: the sink was only plumbed with cold water, there was no heat in the room, and most dumbfounding, there was no light fixture either. Instead of independent lighting, bathers were limited to the bit of illumination from the adjacent utility room through 2, small, high, frosted windows. This was not a remote forest service campground, this was a full hook-ups RV resort on a lake. Incredible! Our rig’s shower is not our first choice, in part because we have to take turns bathing, but we knew that the water would be hot, the room heated, and gosh, it even had bright lighting, so back we went with wet shoes.

Our little RV dramas came on the heels of my internist saying in too close of succession while I was in an exam gown: “heart murmur", "ECHO cardiogram", and “surgery”. That put us in a panic for days and our time budgeted for last minute packing and trailer loading was diverted to reading about mitral valve surgery and strategizing about whether to have the surgery done in Palm Springs, like Bill’s hernia repair last February, or to return home 2 months early in the spring for it. And then there was the other possibility of receiving a show-stopping “Do it now!” recommendation.

I watched YouTube videos of ECHO’s while Bill downloaded an anatomy app on heart function so I could educate myself about the vocabulary. I felt compelled to update Bill on my feelings around death, dying, and pulling the plug. Modern mitral valve repair is highly effective and relatively low risk but I fear being permanently damaged much more than I fear death.
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We made two hikes of 10-12 miles with our friend Randal in Forest Park—the air was barely clear enough of wildfire smoke for the excursions.

Much to the surprise of my doctor’s staff, I finagled a slot on the fully-booked ECHO schedule for the day before we were to leave town by lobbying for first dibs on any cancelation. And my physician's nurse kindly requested a rapid turnaround on my results to facilitate our trip planning. I received a cryptic letter about my ECHO our first afternoon on the road. Amazingly, there was no mention of the heart murmur and only a description of a heart structure abnormality.

After a couple of hours of online reading about “atrial septal aneurysm” while rolling down the freeway with our fully functioning trailer in tow, we concluded that it was likely an unimportant, incidental finding. The abnormality was probably congenital and fortunately, I had none of the other commonly associated defects that portend problems. We were left to assume that rather than an actual murmur that I probably had boisterous systolic blood flow through my heart that can be associated with a high level of CV fitness. After days of uproar and distraction, we did our best to shelve the matter until we could get more details from my doctor in the spring and hoped our assumptions were correct.

Hiawatha Bike Trail
The name of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” in "The Song of Hiawatha” was borrowed by the Milwaukie Road rail line for its fleet of passenger cars from 1935 until 1971. Of the hundreds of historical names associated with that northern tier route, “Hiawatha” was the name re-employed for the rails-to-trails bike path on the border between Montana and Idaho. 

Riding the Hiawatha bike path had been on Bill’s bucket list for several years but their ‘last weekend in September’ annual closure had made it tough for us to participate. The timing was a near thing for us in 2017 as well. Then there were the horrific wildfires that had blanketed much of Montana and the West with smoke for months that made the ride even more questionable. The recent big storm systems rolling in from the Pacific and then south from Alaska cleared the skies in the nick of time for us but dropped snow and the temperatures across the region.
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Some of the supports for the electrified trains still stand on the Milwaukie Road turned Hiawatha Trail.

Three days after receiving my ECHO summary, we arrived at Lookout Pass, Idaho, one of the Hiawatha Trail ticket vendor locations. There, the snow level was barely above our heads and temp’s were in the 30’s. Only because there was no wind or rain did we agree to proceed to the nearby trailhead. 

Bundled for the 40 degree chill under overcast skies, we began the route with a white-knuckle, mile and a half ride through a pitch black tunnel by the dim light of our hiking headlamps on a rutted dirt and rock trail with water flowing on each side of the path much of the way. Proper bright bike lights and suspension on our front forks would have made it quite manageable instead of terrifying for me.

The other 8 tunnels weren’t so distressing but it was a sheer-grit day for us because the advertised smooth, natural surface was instead bumpy rock. Bikers with full suspension were faster and much more at ease than we and others on more standard bikes. Our 14 mile, gentle descent average speed was a mere 8 mph whereas our return ride uphill averaged about 6 mph. It was so rough that we couldn’t pedal much on the downhill to warm ourselves. We had to reserve reading the many info boards about the route’s history for the uphill ride after we’d shaken the chill with exertion. 

The ride through a National Forest is well supported and is definitely designed as a one way event. Rental bikes are readily available and for a small fee, you and your bike can be shuttled back to a number of upper parking lots in their fleet of modified school buses. All but a dozen or so of the hundreds of riders out with us took the shuttle back. I was so cold and jostled that the shuttle looked very enticing but we’d come for the uphill CV workout, so we pedaled back on the rough road for over 2 hours.

We were disappointed by the lack of scenic quality of the Hiawatha as well as the harshness of the ride. Trees and more trees were about all there was to see. You had your near trees, your mid-range trees, and occasionally, distant trees. The geologic formations were all covered by, you guessed it, trees. I suspect that rail buffs are the most satisfied riders on the Hiawatha because of the numerous, well-done, info boards plus the 9 tunnels and multiple trestles we all crossed. Some trestles were grand expanses of steel, others were wooden that had been backfilled with earth. One had recently been washed out in a flood. All that was missing for the train buffs was an engine or the old manual turntable for them to stroke.
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Each tunnel’s different dark interior was a surprise once inside.

Turning South
Freezing nights, snow on the mountains, more disappointing RV park shower houses, and little to no TV news in Montana had us anxious to turn south for warmer weather and more ease in our days. 

This driving stint to the Hiawatha and then south meant getting out the door in the morning, regardless of the temperature, to put in 30 minutes each on our vertical climber. It was such a good workout and we were extremely grateful to have the climber with us but we really needed to be putting in hours on the trails. The more days that slipped by without endurance training, the less likely we’d be able to safely start our Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hike in the Grand Canyon on the 10th of October.

The second night after riding the Hiawatha, Bill declared that we needed to settle on an itinerary, "go south” was no longer enough of a plan for the day. We were a bit horrified to then discover that the luxury of time was behind us. Instead of choosing to hike at a favorite place along our route like the National Parks at Zion, Bryce, or Great Basin or the  Colorado National Monument, that we had to make a beeline for Flagstaff, AZ. We’d be at the Grand Canyon in a week and needed to get higher for altitude acclimation and to do a 20 mile hike.
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A trestle bridge nestled in the endless trees and "Yes", that's snow.

Another unwelcome jolt was realizing that the next day would be our last chance to shop at a Costco for over 3 weeks, with Costco being an essential stop for our 2 week stay in the Grand Canyon’s food desert. Bill would stockpile 15 lbs of cheese, the major component in our keto diet, and Costco was THE place on the road to buy it. Not only are Costco’s cheeses economical and varied, their superior packaging keeps their products fresh, even with the inevitable temperature fluctuations in our overflow cooler. And then there were the pounds and pounds of Wild Alaska frozen and canned salmon and heaps of romaine lettuce, red peppers, and cucumbers we needed. The Grand Canyon village does have a surprisingly good grocery store but the prices are very high ($3 cucumbers) and their product line is a mismatch with our needs.

"And On The 8th Day…"
At last, on our 8th day on the road, we had proper park showers. The review was promising for the 7th day, but it was clearly written by a man. The 2 stalls in the Women’s Room had shower heads oriented horizontally instead of pointing down. If I stood in the far corner of the stall, I could get the water stream to hit my face but no lower. It was aggravating, to say the least. But on the 8th day, all was as it should be. That Kanab, UT shower house was comfortably warm, had bright lighting, was plumbed with shower head streams that I could stand under which delivered ample hot water, and it had enough hooks, shelves, and stools to take the juggling act out of the bathing ritual. These were simple pleasures that had been so elusive and were so welcome.

With that stay in Kanab, we knew the recent shower drama would fade into the background. The next 4 nights would be spent in a familiar RV park in Flagstaff and then it would be 2 weeks of ‘showering in’, as in our trailer, at the Grand Canyon. The absence of any shower house in the Trailer Village RV Park is always a shock to first time guests. They are easy to spot while they wander around with a mystified expression and a towel draped over an arm.

We are driving wimps. We know people who go 100 miles between driver changes whereas we switch after 30 minutes.  And we know of a couple that will drive their coach-styled RV 800 miles in a day and switch drivers while in motion on the freeway. We however are pleased that with our newer, more comfortable Ford truck we can manage 250 miles a day instead of our 150 mile tolerance in our rougher riding Chevy. Yeah, we have no guts for driving. So, by our standards, we were thrilled when our 2,100 mile driving siege in 9 days to Flagstaff was over. We’d driven every day, with Day 1 and the Hiawatha Trail biking day being low mileage days.

At last, we could shift our endurance focus from 30 minutes on the climber or in the driver’s seat to hours on the trails. Almost every day, we had steeled our nerve to tromp on our vertical climber for half an hour. Audio entertainment made it possible but it still required mountains of self-talk for me to push through the monotony. Likewise, our 30 minute driving stints were another endurance activity. Forever searching for new ways to stay focused; to stay awake on the low traffic, long straight roads of the Far West. Singing along with loud, roccous music; the passenger reading news stories aloud when internet was available; and finding new and creative ways to wiggle and move under the constraining seat belt were all employed to make it to the end of yet another countdown.
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A rare curve in the road south of Page, AZ was an excuse for cheering.

At last, we arrived in Flagstaff and it was time to play hard. In desperate need to assess if we could still do 20 milers without injury after a 4 month lapse, we were out the door early our first full day in Flagstaff. The promise of near 70 degree temps and no rain made it inviting. The 7,000’ elevation would add to the challenges, though we’d had 5 nights at 5,000’. And Bill found a new, long route that was about half our usual target of 5,000’ of elevation gain—best to not push it both out and up on the first outing.

After our 4 day tune-up and acclimation stint at Flagstaff and topping off our stash of perishables, we’d drive the slow 78 miles to the Grand Canyon. Once there, we'd prepare for our first Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim, which included a sensible 2 night, one day layover on the North Rim. We’d intentionally made the sought-after cabin reservations for 10 days after our arrival. That would give us the benefit of a total of 2 weeks of acclimation at 7,000’ and several full or partial trips down the notoriously difficult South Kaibab trail. The S Kaibab is a real knee-banger with tricky footing so it helps to practice on it before doing the 23 mile, 11-12 hour hike to the North Rim.