Welcome to the first NWOL blog entry for 2013! Dan and Amy took a trip from Seattle, WA to Flagstaff, AZ for Overland Expo 2013, and this is the tale of our trip.
Saturday, May 11
After traveling to Wenatchee yesterday to spend a little time with Dan’s dad, we departed at the crack of dawn (Hawaii time). We gassed up and navigated the construction detours on the east side of the George Sellar Bridge and headed towards Quincy. I’ve always loved the area around Quincy where they put signs on the fenceline to tell you what is growing behind it. Takes out all the guesswork. We motored south through quaint Mattawa with a goal of lunch in Tri Cities. We found the Icehouse Brewery (http://www.iceharbor.com/pubs/) and it was great. Good beer, totally laid back atmosphere, and one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.
We headed south on I-82 towards Pendleton, OR. Climbing Deadman Pass was the first of many episodes of full heat blasting, 25mph, hazards on, as the workhorse Disco known as “Verde” (Because it’s green, and that distinguishes it from our other Disco, which is white...aka “Blanco”. That’s your Spanish lesson for today. You’re welcome.) was exhibiting some early menopausal hot flashes with every hill. We made it to the rest stop at the summit, where we met an Army medic traveling with his family from Alaska to his new assignment in Austin, TX. Parked in the distance was their 1985ish Jimmy XL with a dicey electric fuel pump that had pushed his wife’s patience off a cliff. They were waiting on a tow truck to take them to the nearest U Haul. We hope to see him on the NWOL site any day now.
We were gunning for a cheap motel in Twin Falls, ID, but the slow uphills were making Boise’s hipster restaurants look much more appealing. On a whim we called our good friend Ann, hoping she wasn’t busy on a Saturday evening. Our luck was good, and she guided us to the Palm Springs-like patio of the Modern Hotel (http://www.themodernhotel.com). Did I say hipster and Boise in the same sentence? I’m saying it again. We had some classy libations and hipster (Boise) snacks and caught up with a long lost pal, who is coincidentally about to get married and head off to Ecuador to teach English. Now that’s adventure! By the time we finished it was getting pretty late, so we gratefully accepted Ann’s offer of a bed, abandoning the glories of Twin Falls.
Sunday, May 12
After an otherworldly experience in a Fred Meyer Starbucks line, we cruised out of Boise on I-84. We originally hoped to make it to Moab, UT on this day to meet up with a few other NWOverlanders, but plans were changing left and right so we decided to just take it slow and shoot for Salt Lake City. Hunger started tapping on our shoulders before we exited Idaho, so we cautiously approached the small town of Rupert, hoping for some culinary culture. We were pleasantly surprised by Henry's Diner (http://www.henrysdriftinn.com), which was offering a special Mother’s Day menu and a few nice beers on tap. We had a hard time mentally coordinating the nautical theme of the place, here in the middle of Idaho, but it was a nice break anyhow.
We made it to SLC around dinnertime and found a nice hotel right across the street from Temple Square. If you’ve never been to Salt Lake, this area is a sight to behold. The square itself is one big city block with the grand spires of the Mormon Temple and Assembly Hall rising above the walls. The Church Conference Center across the street is a beautiful building with a cascading waterfall out front. And right down the street is a glow-in-the-dark Nordstroms!
Downtown SLC on a Sunday is a little sleepy. We were able to find a brewery with a lovely patio within walking distance from the hotel, where we had a bite and a brew and turned in early.
I promise this really is going to be an overland trip story. Really. Eventually.
Monday, May 13
Oh the joys of big cities...with Starbucks in walking distance from everything! Coffee in hand, we made a quick stop at AutoZone for some just-in-case fluids, and off we went. We had a little trouble with the temperature gauge climbing Soldier Pass on US-6 outside of Salt Lake City, but we made like a semi and crawled up the hill on the far right, heat blasting. Pesky ole Verde behaved itself and calmed right back down as we crested the top.
We stopped in Price, UT for lunch at Grogg’s Pinnacle Brewing Company, which featured nice cold beers brewed...by someone else. If they ask what you want on the side, do not say fries.
Onward through sweeping empty desert and crumbling sandstone cliffs in the distance - a mere taste of the scenery that lay ahead. We got excited as we hit I-70 because that meant we were inside of 90 minutes to Moab. We turned off on US-191 and kept our eyes peeled on the horizon for magnificence. Neither of us had ever been to Moab, but you’d have to be living under a rock (get it?) not to have ever seen film or photo footage of this amazing part of the country. We passed the tiny Moab airport (it’s size dashing my plans for quick weekend jaunts down there), and the world turned red. The colors of the sedimentary layers are so varied and bright. The most amazing thing was the green rock, which I’ve never seen. Apparently the different sandstone colors are due to varying amounts of iron. If you’re interested in the geology of this area, here’s a good, very readable article about it: http://geology.utah.gov/online/pdf/pi-77.pdf.
We made our way into the quaint but very busy town of Moab, where there is approximately one Jeep for every human, and some of the dogs. Seriously, Jeep-lovers, Moab is either a mecca for you or agony, if you are competitive about your vehicle. We were still hoping to connect with some of the other NWOL travellers and the Moab Brewery was the named possible meeting space, so we went inside to cool off and wait a while to see if anyone made it. After a bit of texting and reading posts on the site, we determined that the timing wasn’t going to work, but we did get a great suggestion from NWOL member Morris on a campsite. We headed to City Market for ice and firewood, where we discovered that everyone in the vicinity was from another country. Judging by the languages, Moab is very popular with the Europeans.
We headed back up US-191 to the turnoff for Canyonlands and Deadhorse National Parks. As we climbed the hill away from the main highway, the landscape was gradually falling away into the magnificent vistas we had anticipated.
Morris suggested the Horsethief Campground, which is a Bureau of Land Management site just shy of the entrances to both parks. The BLM sites are first-come first-served primitive campgrounds with individual sites that have established fire pits and good large picnic tables. There are good clean outhouses but no running water. This site has about 55 spots and you pay $15/night in an envelope you leave in a box at the entrance. On a Monday night, it was probably about 3/4 full. Oh, and there’s a view.
And what a view...the sunset was breathtaking, just more than words could describe. As luck would have it, we found Morris, who was easy to spot as there aren’t a whole lot of Pinzgauers out there. After dinner we mosied over to the fire with Morris and his wife Diedre and shared stories over a glass of wine. Well after dark we crept quietly back to our campsite as most of the Horsethief occupants were tired bikers who went to bed early. We stayed up playing Identify the Constellation with Dan’s Google Skymap app, then crawled in the tent for a peaceful night’s sleep.
Tuesday, May 14
The sun rose early, pouring onto our heads until we closed the tent flap. Note to self: park the truck with the engine facing west. We switched up our rooftop tent mojo on this trip, abandoning sleeping bags, and instead we added a feather bed to the pad in the tent, then flannel sheets and a down comforter. The featherbed got a little pokey, but otherwise the new arrangement was The Bomb. Even later in high elevations where it was cold we were in a lovely cocoon of warmth. It probably wouldn’t work in the Arctic circle, but that’s not a bridge we’re likely to cross soon. We made breakfast and then packed up the site, tent, and our new (to us) IronMan awning. We’ve done this camping thing enough times together now that we have the roll-out/roll-up process down to an efficient science.
We decided to head into Canyonlands National Park through the Islands in the Sky entrance. After a brief stop at the Visitor’s Center, we headed up the road to Mesa Arch. It’s an easy half mile hike in from the parking lot. This was definitely the “gasp” moment we’d been waiting for. As we neared the arch, we heard the people just ahead of us exclaiming one after the other as the view was revealed to them.
And it was astounding. A natural sandstone arch framing a vast valley that drops 2,000 feet below where you stand. There was a collective human sense of awe all around us at the wonders of this planet. Far below you can see the Shafer Road, which is a mountain bike/4x4 trail. The descent looked like it needed a fair amount of bravery to undertake. Let’s just say the guard rails were...invisible.
We hiked back out and moved on down the road a short ways to the Green River Overlook, where there was a spectacular view of the Green River (hence the name, right?) far below. The White Rim road skirts along the top edge of the canyon - some 120 miles of 4x4 joy round trip through Canyonlands. Definitely planning to come back and do that road someday.
Knowing we only had a bit more than a day, we decided to go back out to the main highway and take a tour of Arches National Park too. It is quite a bit smaller that Canyonlands and doesn’t have the same dramatic canyon views, but does feature magnificent and huge rock formations and other geographic anomalies like petrified sand dunes. You can easily see the main parts of Arches in a day by vehicle - most sites are accessible by road with relatively short hikes in from the parking lot to get closer. There is only one campground in Arches - Devil’s Garden - and the lady at the Visitor’s Center told us it was booked until July 13.
We did happen upon one 4x4 track out of the parking lot under Delicate Arch. We followed it back a couple miles, along with a few Jeeps and other off-roadies. It’s definitely not for sedans, although it wasn’t dramatically challenging. It was a lovely little lowland trail where we found a spot to pull off, unfold the awning, and have a nice picnic.
After leaving Arches we stopped at a small store to restock some basics and went off in search of another BLM campground. You can’t remote-camp anywhere in this area - camping is only allowed in designated campgrounds. We decided to head up US-128 which ran alongside the Colorado River and had a string of smallish campgrounds right on the river. All of which were full. We found another road off the main highway and eventually found a spot wedged between the road and sheer sandstone cliffs that featured pre-positioned anchors for rock climbers and genuine ancient petroglyphs. It was a nice sheltered area where we could sit outside late into the night in just shorts and t-shirts. No, we didn’t watch a James Bond movie on the iPad. What makes you say that?
Wednesday, May 15
Off to Flagstaff! We packed up camp, gassed up, and headed south on US-191 toward Arizona. The geography continued to amaze us for miles, rapidly shifting between sheer red cliffs, brushy desert, and lush grazing fields full of cows and sheep. As we crossed over the Arizona border we got a little nervous. The stiff headwinds were wrestling with our heavy truck, which made the temperature gauge consistently unhappy. Add to that the absolute lack of cell reception on top of the absolute lack of any upright-walking mammals.....it would have been a lonesome place to break down.
One word of advice when driving in northern Arizona - get gas every place you can. Towns are few and far between and it is almost all Native land. It's a 2-lane paved highway but this is definitely the Wild West.
After a great authentic Mexican lunch at Amigo Cafe (http://www.yelp.com/biz/amigo-cafe-kayenta) in Kayenta, we pressed on. We began a slow climb up the San Francisco peaks. Slow climb. Very, very slow climb. Heat blasting, max 30mph, we finally reached a summit and then cruised into the lovely town of Flagstaff.
Flagstaff, AZ is a college town (Northern Arizona University) of around 60,000 people, elevation 6,910 ft. It's about 2 hours north of Phoenix, but the infamous Phoenix heat doesn't reach that high. It's a mecca for mountain bikers and adventurers looking to access the Grand Canyon - within a 90 minute drive. The downtown area is full of quaint hotels, restaurants, brew pubs, and bike shops.
We located our hotel and gleefully indulged in long showers. Fully refreshed and far less stinky, we headed downtown and had some great wings and beer at the Lumberyard Brewing Company (http://www.lumberyardbrewingcompany.com). We saw several posts on the site about other groups located in other spots in town, so we tried to catch up with people, to no avail. We ended up having a nightcap at the boisterous San Felipe's Cantina (http://sanfelipescantina.com), where a large group of very happy folks were doing their best to re-enact a Jimmy Buffett show on a beach in Mexico. Back to the hotel for a round of midnight laundry, then we called it a night.
Thursday, May 16
No real rush on our day today, so we took the chance to check out Flagstaff. We had coffee in the Hotel Monte Vista (http://www.hotelmontevista.com), notable for housing many early Hollywood stars in town filming movies in Sedona, as well as numerous ghost sightings. No disembodied crying baby voices on that day though. We ran a few errands, had lunch at the Beaver Street Brewery (http://beaverstreetbrewery.com - parent to Lumberyard Brewing Company), and then spent the afternoon touring Lowell Observatory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lowell_Observatory), most famous for its discovery of Pluto in 1930. It was truly amazing to see what people accomplished before modern technological advances. Most of the still-active telescopes there were built in the early 1900s! There are about 20 astronomers living and working on site at any given time. Pretty astounding place.
We then decided to finally head to the Expo site, about an hour south of Flagstaff in Mormon Lake. Many folks were already there, and we quickly found Dale and Morris, who'd kept a camp spot open for us. The wind was phenomenal, quickly covering everything in a fine layer of dust. We popped our tent and got the sides open as quickly as possible, doing our best to set up the rest using the truck as a shield. Brrrrrr. As the sun went down the wind let up a bit, so we cooked an easy dinner and had a glass of wine with another NWOL couple who'd just arrived - Eric and Vanessa - then turned in for the night.
Friday, May 17 - Sunday, May 19
The next three days were spent engaged in all things Overland Expo, and we were busy! There were about 6,000 people in attendance, a 25% increase over last year. The event was managed beautifully, with virtually no hitches. This was impressive, considering the fact most of it was outdoors. Mormon Lake is a giant dry lakebed in the mountains about 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff. The Expo site was on one edge of the lake and it seemed to be a place commonly used for meetings and gatherings such as this. There was a group of rustic buildings that included a sundries store, a bar, a restaurant, a small theater, and various classroom buildings. A paddock of horses was right by the entrance, and they were treated to a nonstop flow of the craziest vehicles imaginable. Alongside the field where the camping was set up there was a pen filled with bison...and one annoyingly nocturnal donkey.
We spent each day attending classes, walking amongst the vendors, and generally finished each day in the theater. The Expo featured a fantastic film festival curated by Austin Vince (http://www.austinvince.com/). We saw several excellent amateur adventure documentaries, including the premiere of Mr. Vince's film Mondo Sahara. That was especially cool because his travel companions from the movie were there too, seeing it for the first time. The film doesn't appear to be available yet, but here's a great clip of the opening theme, written by Austin himself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jz6CmOpHG40.
Other films we saw, all highly recommended:
Overall, we thought the Expo was fantastic. We got a lot of inspiration from the amazing adventurers we met, and made some great connections with people in the adventure travel business. Next year we will be there as a vendor ourselves!
Sunday, May 19
We left Mormon Lake on Sunday afternoon and headed south to Phoenix. The main part of the trip was drawing to a close, and we were hankering for a shower and a bed that didn't require climbing a ladder to get into. Verde's overheating issue reared its head again climbing the hills between Flagstaff and Phoenix, and the 95+ degree heat in Phoenix didn't do much to alleviate it. In fact, the next day as Dan started out of town, the dramatically clogged radiator finally sprung a leak. Dan was in the right place at the right time, however, because he found Huff's Automotive (http://www.huffsautomotive.com/) a mere three miles from where the antifreeze flood began, and they were able to get him in and out within a few hours. Well worth your Land Rover business if you're in the area. They were great.
There's more tale to tell, as Dan had another 10 days on the road meandering through the Yuma desert to San Diego and up the spine of California, visiting friends and other travelers along the way. His scribe, however, had to return to work the next day, so you'll just have to imagine the rest.
Thanks for reading.