After two SOLID weeks of cutting, shaping, wiring and building, Air Force One was ready for her maiden voyage which just so happened to coincide with a heat wave.
The second last day of the build, Dan had been up on the roof cutting a huge hole for a rooftop fan while getting himself thoroughly sunburnt. We would find out our first night just how essential that install was.
First stop was to a Home Depot to return some excess materials we hadn’t needed for the build, then there was nothing but road ahead of us. As we left the Bay Area, we noticed the smoky haze that surrounded us. Fires had started thanks to a storm a few nights before. Coincidentally the rain came the day Dan had installed the roof fan (no leaks!).
Air Force One had been through more than one build, none of them complete. This was the real deal. Fridge, gas stove and oven, fold-up kitchen, water tank, lighting, charging outlets, TV, proper storage, sound system and the bike rack. When I woke up Monday, I thought that we might get away by 3pm. It was more like 5pm but we hadn’t rushed it. As soon as she was packed, we were out. The last time we’d travelled was when we ran from c-word shelter-in-place orders, which was pushing 5 months ago. It was time.
The sun glowed red as we turned off Highway 101 and towards Arroyo Seco. We’d made a critical mistake in not getting beer at the previous exit because there was nothing but vineyards all around us until we got to Arroyo Seco campground. It was beautiful scenery with the vines bursting with leaves spreading grapes over the dry earth.
When we pulled into the campground, I was surprised to see it packed. Lately it’s been too hard to find reliable information regarding status of campgrounds, parks and recreation spots so I didn’t do any research and don’t plan to for this trip. We will go wherever we want to and see how we make out. Speaking with the camp host, she informed me that she’d just sold the last site, but we could take a backpacking option by parking at the trailhead, walking a mile in and pitching a tent. “Yeah, we can do that!” I told her. I paid our $10 then we proceeded to the trailhead, parked the van on level ground and made camp for the night – in the van obviously. It was near dark anyway so we didn’t have to be too incognito.
Wow, it was warm. Cleo had not stopped panting the whole drive and wouldn’t breathe normally all night. The fan went on immediately and kept us comfortable for the night. Not interested in any hot food, I made us a cold version of some left-overs. It was a pleasure to use the kitchen for the first time. While cooking, Cleo was cooling herself under the fan and as she made a gagging noise, both of us knew what was coming. She tends to get a bit nervous after her first long drive in a while. Dan went for a bowl while I just cupped my hands below her mouth and caught the spew that came out of it. Thankfully she had enough to just fill my two hands. We didn’t spill a drop on the bed! Dan came to the back full of praises and helped me wash my hands. First crisis averted, we still had a clean bed.
The bed was comfortable, big enough for us two, but we made space for Cleo too so she could be under the fan. We would have been cooking without it.
Keeping Cool in 112 Degrees
In the morning, I was up early, excited for the day ahead. Dan wasn’t far behind me so we both took Cleo for a tour of the carpark. Now I really got to use the kitchen making us some lunch and bacon & egg wraps for brekkie. Just as the bacon was coming to a crisp, an important looking man came by on a golf cart and started talking to some people near us. We were next. He made sure we knew about the 112 degree forecast for the day and that we should really think about our dog’s health on the trail down to the Gorge. He was really good about it and explained some of the trail features we should look out for. Thanks to his advice we took extra precautions for Cleo (extra water, socks to protect her paws if needed) but otherwise didn’t change our plans. Thanks to our chat, the bacon was super crispy.
We hit the trail at 10am after seeing a few parties head off in front of us. It wasn’t going to be a busy day. For our fist peek into the gorge, we saw smoke and lots of it.
After walking a mile along a fire road cut into the mountain about 50 meters above the gorge, we found our trail leading down to the water we sought to spend the entire day in. It was an easy path down. A family with a couple of young kids had made the trek just in front of us and had set up camp at the water’s edge. When we reached the cool, clear water, they were just taking their first dives in with shrieks of joy. Our turn!
Cleo had to remember what a river was and how to approach it but once we put her life vest on she got the gist and remembered how to swim. I went the other way, taking my clothes off to walk the creek in my bikini. We planned to creek hop four-ish miles upstream to “The Narrows”, a slot canyon full of water with no bottom in sight. I’d been here I think four years ago and despite it being only a two hour drive from home, hadn’t been back.
It was easy creek hopping to begin with but we were soon faced with our first challenge. It wasn’t a slot canyon, but it was a deep bowl of water surrounded by dark smooth rock which meant no rest spots while swimming around the few curves formed by the rocks. Cleo is a useless swimmer without her life vest and with it, she’s just ok so we didn’t want to test her stamina too much. I sussed out a walk-around option but that was no good so we took to the water. Cleo did ok with us supporting her and we managed to find a rest spot halfway along with the rock almost forming a roof over our heads.
This was pretty much how we carried on the rest of the hike. It was mostly just walking over rocks, through some sandy campsites and ankle-deep water, but the occasional swim in the cool water made it the perfect hot day hike. At the main swimming hole there was a couple of groups hanging out drinking, or “getting fucked up” as our informative man told us that morning. We passed on through, avoiding the cliff jumpers and took a lunch break around the corner in the quiet. Cleo was keen for a rest.
The next mile or so went pretty quickly, we were soon at the suspension bridge that marked the end of the hike for most people, but not us! We were making pretty good time and while I couldn’t remember how far The Narrows were ahead of us, I didn’t expect too much slogging. After an hour more upstream and a couple serious swims, I was starting to doubt myself. Conveniently it was about then that we met a couple hikers coming back and they told us we had another mile to go, but it was “totally worth it”. That convinced us. At least until the next long swim.
As determined as we were, Cleo had become accustomed to being an apartment dog so we didn’t want her to be completely buggered after the first day. She was doing so well, but she was sitting down every chance she got and this canyon was easily a 50m swim with no breaks. We erred on the side of caution and decided to turn back. We’d seen some beautiful features already and of course, this was so close to home, we could come back any time. I took a swim up and down the canyon just in case The Narrows were just around the corner, but no. Next time.
Happy with our decision, we made our way back to the suspension bridge where we met the same hikers again. We chatted with them for a bit before they started their return journey while we stayed to cool off before the fire road hike out. Cleo took to the shade and we just waded in the clear water.
The initial hike out was steep but soon enough we were on the road out, starting the 3 mile hot bash back to camp. With the smoky haze, it was hard to tell sun from shade and it made the sting of the sun seem less intense. We showered Cleo twice on the way back but she seemed fine, just happy to be out chasing lizards.
We could see snippets of the gorge as we walked, able to pinpoint areas we clambered through and heading the whoops and splashes of those below us. In an hour, we were back at the car and thankful for a slight breeze. We enjoyed some cold mango out of the fridge before hitting the road to find our next home.
We either wanted water or elevation to cool down and of course we needed beer! Once we got that sorted we were driving east near Pinnacles National Park, an area we both really like and we saw a complete hillside dressed in black. It had been burnt recently, but all the trees had survived so we figured it was an intentional burn or one that smoldered with little wind, staying low to the ground as it spread.
Cleo was perked up at the slight of the squirrels darting across the road and the cows grazing on the dry grass. Dan and I perked up hard when we saw a pair of black cows piss bolting down the hill for no apparent reason, something I’d never seen before! Both seemed to have survived the sprint.
On Coalinga Road it felt like we were driving through private property. The vineyards of Arroyo Seco had been replaced by dry, rocky, unusable land except for small getaway properties with a few goats and chickens in the vast front yards. Every fence was decorated with “No Trespassing” signs so we were happy to see a welcoming BLM campground sign. It was a beautiful spot on a hill overlooking the landscape we’d be driving through tomorrow, we had our pick of the five sites. We drove around to all of them, parked at the one on the sunset side then walked to each site before picking one facing North East. Nothing like a bit of faffing around!
There was a bit of a breeze coming up the valley but the evening remained hot. We sat, enjoyed the view, while we put Cleo to bed in the van with the fan going. She was a happy dog.
We were happy campers, until about halfway through cooking dinner we lost all power. With all the smoke in the air, we weren’t getting much from the solar panel and the heat meant the fridges had been working overtime. We suspected as much would happen, but not so soon. Cleo was panting again immediately and I was cooking with a headlamp. This was not sustainable. We contemplated over dinner and decided tomorrow we would come up with a fix. It was a hot night in the van without any air movement. Thankfully we could have the doors wide open without any bugs.
Creating Power and Getting High
Us humans slept ok considering the heat but I’m not sure Cleo got a wink, the poor girl. We were up early, able to look at the morning sun directly because the smoke had thickened. The mountains that formed our view the night before were no longer visible and the bugs were getting a early start. It was not a nice setting. We gave Cleo a shower, packed up and hit the road. Knowing there was a reservoir around the corner, we looked forward to a swim and some breakfast.
Two miles in, we came upon Hernandez Reservoir and laughed. There wasn’t a drop of water to be seen. The dry valley had been turned into grazing land with a few trees spotted amongst the yellow grass. No swimming for us!
We carried on down the isolated road, with one Buffalo Ranch spanning the entire distance to the highway. We were pleasantly surprised to drive into cooler temperatures and got excited at the idea that maybe the heat wave was only on the side of the mountains we’d just come from. By the time we hit a massive Chevron oil field, we realized that wasn’t the case, it was soon 100 degrees again.
When we pulled into Coalinga at a local park to make brekkie, we were kicking ourselves for not stopping it was so hot. We still couldn’t turn our fridges on and the solar was giving us a measly 0.5A despite the sun’s best efforts to break through the smoke. Dan threw a couple of discs at the disc golf baskets in the park while I brewed coffee and made us a bowl of eggs, bacon and cold peas. The stuff in the fridges was cool, but no longer cold.
At Autozone, we picked through their limited supply of ring terminals and found a battery switch. In the carpark, Dan parked the van in as much shade as he could, then disconnected the front battery so I could get to work connecting it to the auxiliary battery via the switch. It meant we’d be able to charge the auxiliary battery with the alternator while driving and rely less on the solar.
Cleo drank about a bucket of water and lay under the car to stay cool and Dan constantly showered her. All in all, it took us two hours to make the connections, route battery cables behind the dresser and double check everything. Apart from a confusing reading from the multimeter towards the end, all went smoothly. Dan reconnected the battery, started the engine, then with the flip of a switch, our auxiliary battery was charging again and our fridges were on.
It was now about 1pm and while too hot to eat, we were both dying for a cold drink. Maccas was across the road and it served us well.
We carried on driving east on the back highways, trying to guess what was growing on each farm, most likely getting it completely wrong. Our next planned stop was Lake Success for a much needed swim. It was a long drive there and the air conditioning was no longer putting out, easy to understand. Windows down, Cleo got her pant up while our legs stuck to the leather seats.
Finally, we turned a corner, saw Success Dam and Success Lake beyond it. It wasn’t bright blue, but it was water and there were people partying on it. We drove straight in, past the closed and un-shaded campground and parked it right at the water’s edge. There were a few other cars parked with families chilling in and around the water. Cleo got to swimming immediately without any coaxing.
We’d barely got our feet wet when someone shouted, “That pit bull is the cutest thing in the whole wide world!” Quote. Alex was a local to the area that used to raise pit bulls. She welcomed us to the area and when she found out I’m an Aussie, she told me how much she liked the Bondi Vet TV show and how Steve Irwin’s daughter just got married. She fussed over Cleo a bit more, then left us to our cool off.
We stayed neck-deep in the water for a good half hour while Cleo happily napped on the beach. When minnows started pecking at our skin, we were happy to carry on. Cleo took one more dunk then we drove out through the vast parklands, stopping at a spigot to replace the hot water in our tank with fresh cooler stuff, also having a quick soapy shower under the hose.
The next couple of hours, we continued east until we hit Sequoia National Forest. We starting following a beautiful river that was flowing down from the mountains, pooling in big blue circles amongst smooth rocks. We were hoping for a camp nearby. There were multiple day use areas that were packed with people, but no sneaky camps.
As we drove, we climbed and with the elevation came a slight ease in temperature. We were hopeful. If we couldn’t have the river, we would go as high as we could.
At Camp Nelson, a very small town with cabins nestled among the trees (most of which were for sale), we hit a campground sign and followed our noses. Two miles along a forest road we came across camp and it was stacked. Sites were no more than a few feet apart and it was busy with tents, cars and vans parked in any corner they could find. There was no privacy to speak of, so not an inviting camp for us. After driving around the loop, we carried on down the road to see what we could find.
Dan got into off-roading mode then. It had been a while since his van had been in action and this was a test flight, so what better way to test! Within a half mile, we found a beautiful, wide open camp with nobody around, but Dan was determined to find a view and so on we went. We started seeing giant Sequoia trees nestled among the pines now and though it was a firewood collecting area, we only saw a handful of pull offs.
Still we carried on, climbing higher and higher seeking a sunset view. After about 5 miles, we finally called it and romped over the water bars back to one of the spots we’d seen earlier. It was worth the adventure, Dan was a happy vanner.
Camp was dusty, but wide open and isolated, just how we liked it. A look at my phone told us we were at 6,300 feet, meaning I had to wear a jumper after the sun went down! With the battery now sitting above 12 volts, our lights shone bright as I cooked dinner and our fridges hummed all through the night.
Not That Outstanding
Dan was straight into mechanics this morning. With a few parts we’d picked up yesterday, he got to work re-powering his amp and subwoofer, which we’d sacrificed for the battery connect. That was easy enough and no sparks flew. Then he checked coolant and oil to make sure we were set for the next 500 miles or so. While he worked, I cooked then blogged.
We started down the hill about 10am, drove past the packed campsite we’d turned down the night before and carried on our way south through Sequoia National Forest. I was excited to get to the Kern River and follow it down to Lake Isabella.
I was not disappointed. After a half hour of winding roads, we got our first look at the river from the Johnsondale Bridge. We’d dropped plenty of elevation so it was hot again and we were looking for a cool off. We parked in some shade and walked down the ramp to the river below the steel bridge.
We had our own private beach and were delighted to find the water way colder than it had been at Arroyo Seco or Lake Success. This was snow run-off from the Sierras.
There was a firm current leading to a set of Class II-ish rapids so after I jumped in, I let it carry me there, standing up on a rock to look over the turbulent water. Dan joined me while Cleo kept a close watch from the bank. We swam back to shore and dunked ourselves a couple more times before heading back up to the bridge to carry on. It was lunch time.
I was happy to discover that the road followed the river, making it accessible at multiple points. We marveled at the multitude of campers that set up in huge dusty open lots with no shade and a big walk from the river. It hardly seemed worth it, especially with a tonne of people all around. There were a bunch of places like this that made us happy with our camping style.
We pulled over at the first shady spot we saw that was right by the river. Dan and Cleo hung out in the shade of the trees while I cooked up some chicken for lunch, making a salad with what we had from our stores. We ate by the river, trying to feed the crawdads we’d seen earlier.
Onwards, we continued following the Kern river, happy to have stopped where we did because there were no more shady spots. We were in Kernville much sooner than I expected and that meant cell service that we hadn’t seen in a couple days. I got in touch with family and Dan desperately tried to download his songs on Spotify but to no avail. We didn’t hang out on our phones long, there was a trail to be ridden.
We drove up to Alta Sierra ski resort, a place we’d been back in March searching for the “Just Oustanding” mountain bike trail. We’d found it, but there had been a foot of snow underfoot, making it un-rideable. Snow had been replaced with sand so we had an easy time getting to the top this time, it only took us about twenty minutes. We parked at the ski resort, I donned my riding gear, and the three of us rode off down a closed forest road towards the trailhead.
Cleo and Dan dropped me off at the start of the singletrack. I’d ride first, then Dan would have a go. Cleo was keen as ever to ride the trail with me, but Dan held on to her as I rode off on the 13 mile, 4,990 foot decending trail made up of “Just Outstanding” then “Dutch Flat” with some fireroad in between.
“Just Oustanding” was as the name suggested, it was beautiful and flowy with some beautlful tight spots through Manzanita trees – my favourite type of tree. I learnt that the small pieces of bark that they shed fit perfectly between the knobs of my tyres so that they flicked up into my face as I rode.
There were places where the trees formed such a low canopy that I had my chin over my bars as I rode down the trail. Trees were replaced by a meadow, which was replaced by thick, dry pine forest. The ground was sandy so I was careful to keep traction around the corners. It was flowy and fast.
I crossed fireroad a few times, but at the end of the 4.7 miles, I followed fireroad exclusively to get to “Dutch Flat”. It was a fast roll with a couple of berms built up high for my enjoyment. I found the next section of single track easily enough and the terrain had completely changed. It was incredibly sandy with sections of riding across unmarked boulders.
This is about where the fun stopped. I got lost going across a couple of boulders, ending up back where I’d come from before doing the loop again to find my way down. I was out in the open now and descended into the heat while climbing the 640 feet of upwards elevation. It was terrible. The dry loose sand made it impossible to gain momentum and when I wasn’t climbing I was trying to find my way across boulders. It didn’t have any flow, I was constantly stopping to get my bearings.
I normally do alright with climbs but this one had me beat. I knew at this point that Dan would have no interest in doing this trail so I texted him as much, letting him know he could get his drink on. I drank as much water as I could while I climbed, getting off my bike multiple times, ashamed at my pitiful effort, but determined to get down as fast as possible.
When I finally finished climbing, I was stoked it would be a quick four miles down, but no. The sand made it hard to keep control through the rocky shutes that were the way down. With nobody else on the mountain, I couldn’t take any risks so I was one-footing it a lot of the way, a bummer.
I carried on through, taking my time to enjoy the views, which was the one thing this trail had going for it. Even through the smoke I could see Lake Isabella coming ever closer and with a couple of miles to go, I managed to spot the van at our meeting point.
I sped down the trail as fast as I possible could, looking forward to a dunk in the river or lake. I had a few near-stacks, but none of them resulted in injury to either me or the bike so I was winning!
I was happy to see Dan and Cleo awaiting me at the entrance to a recreation area. The gate I came to at the entrance was closed so Dan helped me lift the bike over, folding one side of the gate in the process. It was brand new, but a pin had fallen out of one of the hinges.
I’d just gotten myself and my bike over the gate and was giving Dan the blow-by-blow of the trails when a silver Sprinter van came roaring up to the gate making me stare it down because I was unsure it would stop for us or the gate. The driver, a 50-something year old squat-looking man got out of the driver seat armed with pepper spray shouting “Get that dog out of here! I’ll pepper spray it! Get it out of here!” Completely shocked, we pulled Cleo close to us while asking “What the fuck?” of this guy as he started ranting at us. We were breaking the law, get the fuck out of here, you people are disgusting, etc. He was moving to unlock the gate. This guy had a nice Sprinter van, he was not homeless, obviously had access to this area and for some reason, hated everything including us. We started with “What’s your problem?” “What have we done wrong?” and he replied with “I hate people. Get away from me,” He did not stop. Dan fired right back at him and I piped up every now and then. It went on for as long as it took for him to unlock the gate, swing it back, walk back to his car, then there was an intermission while he drove past the gate, then it got going again as he walked back to lock the gate. Still shocked, we loaded my bike on the rack and got out of there. There were threats to call cops and we’re sure he was going to make a call. We navigated past the multiple closed recreation areas to a spot on Lake Isabella where I had a quick dunk and a shower to wash my riding sweat off.
After a stop at the local shop in Lake Isabella, then we got the hell out of there. On the way to our camp, we copped another slog of anger from a vehicle that thought we were driving too slow, honking his horn as he passed us, swerving close to our car then giving us the finger in front of us before speeding off. Life in Lake Isabella must be hard.
We checked out a camping spot by the lake where it was blowing a howling gale but decided to press on. There was no way we could cook in the wind and it wasn’t a great spot. We’d been this way on our last trip so we knew of a campsite on the PCT at Walker Pass which was helpfully at 5,000 feet which would hopefully give us some cool temperatures (it’s becoming a theme for this trip).
The campsite was completely empty so we had our choice of spots, just in time for sunset too. The silhouette of the mountains, even with the smoke, were picturesque. We just sat and enjoyed them for a good hour or so while getting camp sorted and Cleo to bed.
We had a bit of traffic pass through the campsite, with one other couple pitching a tent and it was our first time on the trip seeing the moon as a sliver, chasing the sun as it went down.
6:30am in the morning and I could hear techno music. Huh? I thought maybe Dan had left a podcast on, but no, the sound was coming from outside. Dan stirred just like me and we looked around. It wasn’t the late campers that had parked up next to us last night, but a group of four people down the base of the campsite dancing by their car. And so they danced and packed up their tent while we got going, looking to get some miles in before the sun turned it up properly.
We had a quick breakfast of toast and cold fruit then hit the road. We saw as we left that the dancing crew had left a slew of rubbish along the ground where their campsite had been. Bugger.
We’d had a planning meeting the night before and decided there weren’t going to be any more camps between Walker Pass and Phoenix that would give us a sub-100 degree night so it was best that we drive straight over to Dan’s parents’ place. The mountains were behind us and water sources were scarce.
The first couple of hours we had in comfort, but then it was windows down, hot air and a bright sun all around. We were disappointed that the smoke remained in the air even after we came down the east side of the Sierras and lingered across the border into Arizona. We stopped at every rest area to give Cleo a cooling shower and managed to find some shade in the second one to make a quick lunch.
It was a relief to see the Colorado River as we crossed into the Grand Canyon State, we had our eyes peeled for the first available swimming spot. It came at Lake Havasu City, a party town according to Dan where cigarette boats and gas guzzling raged. Despite multiple wash downs, Cleo was panting hard now so we had to find a place to stop. We pulled into Lake Havasu State Park and paid the $20 entry fee. When the lady in the hut asked if we knew where we were going, we asked for a map and she gave us quick fire advice that dogs weren’t allowed on white beaches so we should look for a cactus garden, walk through it to find a small swimming cove that no one knows about. Sounded perfect to us!
We drove past cabins on beaches and turned around in a nearly-empty campground to get back to the cactus garden where one other vehicle was parked. They left as we arrived, locked the bikes and grabbed some beach stuff.
Dan hurried Cleo across the hot ground and through the small cactus garden down a narrow path surrounded by green brush. At the exit of this path, we found an oasis – a deserted oasis.
There was a single palm tree covering a picnic table with a pebble beach leading straight into the water. I stripped off completely since there was no one around and out we waded into the boat-ridden water. It wasn’t cold water, but it cooled us down enough. Cleo didn’t need much encouragement to get in and swim.
We waded out to deeper waters and stayed there for a good half hour as Cleo retreated to the shade of the palm tree and kept watch on us when she wasn’t sleeping. We watched the power boats tear along the lake, not many of them towing wake boarders or skiers, just putting the power down in a straight line.
Back at the beach, we lay on our mat in the sand and I took a nap while Dan researched fixes for his broken air conditioning. In twenty minutes we were overheating again, time for another dip with Cleo. It was nearly 3pm now and time for us to hit the road. Goodbye oasis.
We had a glimpse at the famous London Bridge as we left Lake Havasu, Debbie later told me that it was purchased from England and brought brick by brick to Lake Havasu to be the brilliant tourist attraction that it now is. Ice cream in hand, Havasu was in the rear view and we carried on with the Colorado River still in sight.
We took our last chance for a swim at Parker, a resort town with hotels and marinas on both sides of the river. Water was much colder and deeper here and we could park right at the water so when we got back in the car, the hot air through the windows was cooling us down.
I drove us away from the water and through Arizona’s desert into Phoenix. For the first time, we saw bright blue sky and the sun in its natural colour. The smoke was finally behind us.
It was only about 100 degrees as we got into the highway network of the city, which almost felt cool. Thankfully we were going opposite the Friday evening traffic so we had a smooth drive into the suburbs of Scottsdale, down Hummingbird Lane and into the driveway of Dan’s parents’ house. It was nice to see such a familiar place.
Debbie was attempting to fix their cable that had just gone out as we walked through the front door. We hugged, a remote in her right hand before being welcomed by Peter. We were in the pool within 10 minutes, chatting with Debbie at the poolside. Peter fixed us some turkey sandwiches and we moved to the kitchen to continue our catch up. We stayed up until nearly midnight, talking and also trying different things to fix the cable but to no avail.
Cleo was passed out early and stayed that way all night, happy to finally have a comfortable sleep. When our heads hit the pillows in the guest room, we felt the same way. Not that the van is uncomfortable, but to be out of the heat for the first time in a week was blissful.
The next couple of days were filled with hanging out with six children, four of which I was meeting for the first time – a set of girl twins and a set of boy twins. All products of Dan’s brother Matt and his wife Alex who live around the corner from Debi and Peter, they are wonderful kids and they LOVE swimming in the pool. Emmi and Ava are the only two old enough to remember us so we had some great fun in the pool making human towers and catching quarters with them.
When we weren’t playing games, we were relaxing catching up on some F1 or reading or swimming. We were having a proper holiday!
Dan went back and forth deciding whether to fix the air conditioning before we set off again, but after doing some research and finding out you couldn’t just replace a single part and knowing we didn’t have our set of tools and the heat we’d be working in, he decided we wouldn’t bother until we returned home.
Peter cooked us some delicious meals, all shared with the family which made them taste all the better. Debi somehow managed to produce a consistent flow of ginger snaps that we managed to deplete slowly.
When we gave the older girls a tour of our van, they were suitably impressed. With Alex the new owner of a 12-seater van (for obvious reasons), we have high hopes of seeing some future Gooding vanners.
Into the Forest
After the weekend antics, we made a loose plan to head north on Monday with Debi and Peter’s Poke boat – a very nice carbon fiber skinny canoe that Dan remembers floating in as a teen. We’d spent a day at Clear Creek Canyon a couple years ago and had wanted to return for a longer explore ever since. Now was our chance.
We didn’t get an early start, instead enjoying a sleep in before rising to have a bit of breakfast with Debi in the kitchen. We spent the morning doing some plumbing work around the house, taking a trip to Home Depot in Debi’s nice new car to replace some corroded taps. It was house work we were more than happy to do and with the dogs running around chasing lizards as we worked, it made it all the more fun.
After lunch, we started packing which mostly involved rigging the poke boat up on the roof of the van. It only really took us one attempt but we realized later we’d made it easy for ourselves by doing the initial set up with ladders, which we of course didn’t have at camp! Thankfully our tallness got us out of any trouble.
We packed the rest of our water-related gear in and decided to leave the bikes and rack behind, for fear of leaving them unattended and potentially stolen for a couple days while on the water. After one gloriously long swim where we had Cleo swimming from the Baja shelf and me in fits of laughter, we made out of the driveway like the bandits we are.
Dan knew the way out of the city, heading North East into the mountains. We learnt that Phoenix had its fair share of fires with red retardant crossing black hills and black fields of cactus.
Not far north of Payson, we were in the Tonto National Forest looking for camp. We passed by Tonto Natural Bridge State Park which I remember visiting with Kevin when he’d travelled with me in the Astro, so I knew we were in the territory where Dan and I first met.
Our first attempt at camp was down Flowing Springs Road but we were disappointed to see the large pull-out by the river full of people and with a sign reading “no camping past this sign”, we turned around and carried on. After thinking the place looked familiar to both of us, we looked it up later and found that it was on that exact road that we’d met for the first time over three years ago. Camping was legal past that sign back then and oh what a camp it was!
We found a suitable alternative a few miles north with a spot all to ourselves.
After leveling up, I got straight onto making some banana bread, something Dan had been craving for a long while since we hadn’t really used the gas oven yet. While it took about an hour instead of the usual 40 minutes, it worked beautifully!
We’d managed to leave the extreme heat of Phoenix behind but it was still a warm night. With banana bread to look forward to for desert, I whipped up some cold nachos for dinner while Dan sat in our chairs watching me work in the kitchen. Just when I was doing the cheese topping, Dan saw our worst enemy – a fucking raccoon – creep up to him in his chair. He was up in a minute declaring what he’d seen and arming himself with rocks. Cleo and a raccoon had a disagreement only a few weeks ago resulting in a hospital visit for Dan who’d broken up the fight. We are not raccoon fans.
Thankfully, the bugger was scared up into a nearby cluster of trees but that didn’t mean he left us alone. There’s no way we were going to turn our backs on a coon so we kept checking on him, using our head torches to find his glaring eyes. He came down to the ground more than once to be met with thrown rocks which only deterred him a few minutes before he came back towards camp again.
We just managed to enjoy our dinner and desert while standing guard, but once we were done, we packed everything up and got into the van. There was no way we were risking another raccoon fight and they weren’t gonna get a scerrick of food. I’m sure as soon as our lights were out he was out there sniffing all over for scraps.
Deep Water Thunder
Happy to see less raccoons than we had last night, we were up earlier than we had been the last few days, maybe because I was excited for some climbing. Over breakfast we watched a couple with a massive fifth wheeler do a u-turn at the junction near us and waved them a good day in their ATV as we rolled out.
It was about an hour to Blue Ridge Reservoir where we’d planned to camp the night before, but we were happy to have camped early so we could enjoy the views through the towns of Pine and Strawberry. The temperature was pleasantly mild as we continued climbing through the forest, with dirt roads leading off to potential camps in every direction.
Now in Coconino National Forest, we took a very corrugated dirt road towards the reservoir. This is a place Dan had visited as a kid since it was near a cabin his parents used to have. It was a gorgeous spot, and popular for a Tuesday with the carpark full and us having to use the overflow lot at the top of the hill. We got the boat off the roof without too much difficulty and after packing it with our gear for the day, I watched an “Instagram couple” take selfies and pictures at the shore while Dan went and parked the car (the couple never did anything at the reservoir, they were just getting their required snapshots).
With Cleo in her newly improved life vest, we were in the boat and paddling off to the North East side of the reservoir, towards and past a dam.
While we were on the look out for any potential deep water soloing spots, we were looking in particular for Eagle Point where there was supposed to be a huge concentration of DWS crags and even some bolted routes on land that we could tackle.
Just past the dam, we started thinking the warning a ranger had given Dan while he was parking the car was likely to be needed – there were black clouds filing the sky starting to threaten rain and loud noises.
A little ways past the dam, I found our first spot. Not sure if it was Eagle Point or not, it looked climbable. After pulling some rock off the rarely used sandstone wall, I’d made it up a couple of boulder problems, jumping into the water when done.
The water was cold and by the time I was our and back in the boat, the sun had made its last appearance. Despite the impending cool, Dan got on the rock but his raccoon finger impeded him more than he expected so he didn’t push it too hard.
Now both wet and cold, we carried on our way looking for Eagle Point. We saw a couple of camps perched high above the water with tents nestled amongst the pines and boats tied off on the boulders. It would be a great place to hang out, especially in a storm. As the first droplets of rain started hitting the water around us, we heard the first clap of thunder. Knowing how much of a fan Cleo is of thunder, we thought shelter on land was our best bet.
We paddled to shore and clambered up some boulders to a small piece of forest with a suitable sitting log. We had lunch and covered Cleo in a towel which seemed to appease her pretty well. Poor dog. Not only is she afraid of the thunder noises, she’s also learnt that lightning is the cause of the noise so the flashes of light freak her out as well.
We stayed for a half hour and contemplated waiting it out. I can’t believe I’m saying it but it was too cold to swim, so we figured we might as well head back. It didn’t feel right to be acting leisurely on the water during a lightning storm anyway.
Cleo got into the boat just fine and seemed perfectly comfortable sitting between us in the boat as we paddled in near-perfect unison towards home.
Having never found Eagle Point, we kept a keener eye out this time and made some guesses but decided that we were never going to find the climbing we sought by following a written guide, we’d just have to come back here for a week or two and properly explore.
On the way back to the van we were battling both the wind and the mild current, so it was a great upper-body workout that we were happy was over as we floated into the boat ramp. The once-crowded parking lot was now deserted except for a couple preparing their kayaks at the water for a 2-night camping trip.
To our surprise, Cleo was out of the boat before we’d reached land. Usually timid about getting into the water, she ungraciously rolled out of the boat within five feet of land and swam herself to safety. We let ourselves out a little more smoothly and as the rain came down in a light patter, I chatted with the couple about to set off while Dan and Cleo retrieved the car.
We dumped our damp/wet gear onto the floor of the van and got the boat secured before driving out the way we’d come back to the highway. We checked out a campground on the way out but, unwilling to pay $16 for the night we carried on up to Clear Creek Canyon. They also had these concrete pillars with chains that we couldn’t figure out.
Despite remaining at the same elevation (around 5,000 ft), the pines slowly thinned as we drove north and were eventually replaced by low brush, then by desert. The hot temperatures returned. I remembered Dan taking me out here the first time and thinking that any water source our here would surely be dry.
After a quick stop in the town of Winslow (just north of Clear Creek) for some essential (beers) supplies, we were romping over the roads on the north-east side of the canyon. While the setting is beautiful, the land is either BLM or randomly public and so is not looked after. Graffiti marks every rock face and broken glass shimmers in the sunlight at almost every roadway and clearing.
We did some driving around to find a spot without too much glass, concerned about Cleo’s feet more than anything. By taking an unofficial road, we made our camp and parked the van strategically for shade and also wind blockage. The strong breeze made the hot afternoon tolerable.
Dan got straight into setting up the tarp for some shade, despite the van providing us a good amount of shelter already. Determined to have a faff, we roped it to the side of the car then set up poles with ạ screwdriver and a ratchet holding the tarp in place and guideropes around rocks tying it down.
Standing back, we were pleased with our erection, ready for a swim in the creek. We only made it a few paces before looking back to find the tarp taking itself down in the wind that had picked up. Dan rushed to rescue it, narrowly avoiding a screwdriver flying across the rocks. The tarp and the poles came down very promptly. Still, it was worth the faff.
The “creek” was just as we remembered it, clear, deep and cold. We all got in and cooled off and I started off the climbing with a couple boulder problems by the water.
Back at camp, we set ourselves up in our chairs with some cold beer, cheese and crackers to watch our entertainment for the evening – the stormy sky. Mesmerised, we sat for a couple hours, chatting away, trying to predict when the sun would peak through the storm clouds, if we would get rain.
I made dinner just before dark and we continued chair sitting as we ate, the last of the light fading behind the clouds with the wind following suit.
With the windows open inside the van and the fan going, we were comfortable. Unfortunately when I turned the lights out, the flashing bright light from the nearby cell tower looking a lot like lightning to Cleo so she was freaking out but after a quick curtain job that was soon fixed.
Into the Canyon
We were up early, reminded of how we felt at Burning Man every morning – wanting to sleep just a little longer but knowing it wasn’t possible due to heat. I was in the creek quick smart while Dan re-oriented the car so we could make breakfast in the shade. 8am in the morning and already we were seeking shade!
Not wanting to leave the car parked in an isolated place while we were in the canyon, we drove over to McHood Park, paying $30 for a camping permit as security that our car wouldn’t be broken into (dodgy neighbourhood). With the boat off the roof, we packed everything we needed for two nights in the canyon. We didn’t know how far in we’d be able to go so we planned for three days of paddling.
Dan got into the captain’s seat at the rear, Cleo next, then I pushed us off and slid into the front seat. We were off!
The Canyon, though graffiti’d at the beginning, was just how we remembered it and the climbing opportunities are endless! There were a few other groups of boats floating with us gently upstream, though there was no real current to battle.
We climbed without shoes at first, enjoying the short routes at the beginning of the canyon. Fearing our toes wouldn’t last, we soon donned our shoes and started doing some harder stuff.
It was Dan’s first time putting real pressure on his injured finger and it held him back some, but he made up for it with jumping prowess.
Right as our tummies started grumbling, about two miles into the canyon, we came upon some man-made structures in the form of brick walls, steel framing, large steel pipes and underwater concrete blocks.
It was here we found a spot to dock and sit in the shade while I cooked up some lunch with my camping stove.
Cleo was stoked to chase lizards on land and even got into fish hunting in the shallow water.
After lunch, we wanted to explore a little. Before coming down here, Dan had found a huge man-made structure sitting atop the canyon on Google maps and we figured we must be right by it. I climbed up onto the brick wall but found the white boulders were super hot – way too hot for Cleo’s paws to handle. We figured on the way out we’d arrange to be in this place for an early morning explore.
We carried on down the canyon, climbing, jumping, climbing, jumping, getting better at dropping each other off at the base of climbs with the boat.
While scoping out a climb, Dan spotted a brown owl staring us down from the shade of a rock shelf. With one yellow eye open, he winked slowly at us and we backed away.
Sooner than we expected, the water became shallow and the cliffs un-climbable. We carried on, scraping the bottom of the Poke Boat in places, using our hands and paddles on the rocks to direct ourselves.
Through that first narrow section, we found the first viable camping spot we’d seen – a small patch of flat sand and a sloped sandy beach where the canyon cliffs were over 50 feet tall.
We carried on a little further until it was too shallow for the boat. We’d left the carpark at 10am and it was now 3pm. I was a little disappointed to find the canyon impassable so soon, but there was still more exploring to be had. We parked the boat and carried on by foot. It was about then that Dan regretted bringing only thongs for his footwear.
About 50 meters in, Dan spotted climbing hardware in the walls either side of us and not just bolt plates, but quickdraws as well. These were obviously projects for people that came here regularly because they looked to be in good shape. We looked up and down the walls as we walked, stunned to find so many bolted routes so deep into the canyon.
Another 100 meters along, we were surprised to see a group of climbers practicing their trade. They were just as surprised to see us. We had a great chat to them as they came off a 5.11 route and were getting started on another super big wall. They were locals from Flagstaff that rappelled down into the canyon from a spot nearby. They told us that the canyon deepened to boatable levels again further down and that the climbing here at Winslow Wall was year-round brilliance. I had no doubt.
We carried on a little further to check out the rappel spot and found another couple that had just made their way down and were about to get started exploring the routes for the first time. We will definitely be coming back here with ropes and gear.
On the way back to the boat, we stopped to watch a girl ascend the big wall, taking a big fall just before the anchor then recovering to finish the route. It upped my determination to get back into climbing shape. Gyms being closed was no longer a good enough excuse.
We picked up the Poke boat and paddled back to our camp, by which time Cleo was ready for some serious land time. The wind had picked up and so she was keen for shelter, which we provided for her in the form of our tent. Shivering from fear or the cold, Dan wrapped her in a towel inside the tent and she was asleep in his arms within seconds. Poor thing.
Having put the child to bed, we sat and pondered the canyon walls surrounding us.
As the sun faded, swallows started dancing in the sky and we could hear a couple of owls waking up. Despite the numerous mud-style bird’s nest nestled underneath rock shelves, we saw over a dozen swallows find their home in a tiny vertical crack in the wall. They flew around sporadically until they found the crack and disappeared into it, one after the other, making an incredible racket once inside the wall.
Still watching the walls over dinner, we saw the two owls leave their nooks and venture out into the night for a hunt. Their wings spread wide and bright across the canyon.
It was eerie to be somewhere so quiet with only the wildlife and the shallow water to keep us company but we tried to reign in our imaginations and enjoy it. Not long after it got fully dark, we crept into the tent, leaving the fly off so we could enjoy the stars.
Only half an hour later, we felt drops of water on our bodies so I was up quick smart to put the fly on. It made the inside of the tent a bit muggy so we left the doors open for some airflow. Later in the night, when I let Cleo out for a drink, I saw that the sky was clear and full of stars, a beautiful view framed by the canyon.
We woke up early naturally and were happy to see clouds in the sky. On a mission to explore those man-made structures, we didn’t muck around, getting ourselves packed up and breakfasted before 7am. The swallows were back to their tricks as we launched the boat downstream for the first time.
Too cold and shallow for any climbing, We motored towards the pump station with cloud cover still protecting the ground by the time we started making our way up the rocks. Dan’s thongs failed him completely now and so he left them behind going barefoot.
The only useful graffiti we’d seen, a set of black arrows painted on the rocks pointed us to the easiest way up to the top of the canyon, all a manageable scramble, even for Cleo and a barefoot dirtbag.
At the top, we could see an expanse of flat land with a few dirt roads winding along with the canyon on either side.
What we saw around us was the remnants of a pumping station, with concrete foundations spread around the place, a complete pumping station hut, huge steel pipe work and the remains of an old path leading to the station.
It was fascinating to wander around and see the bits and pieces of a land once well used. A few dozen meters from where we stood, we could see a built-up structure – the one Dan had spotted on Google maps. With Dan’s feet not able to withstand the sharp gravel, he left it to me and Cleo to go explore.
That we did, following the old road, avoiding pieces of barbed wire and wreckage on our way up the pile of rocks that made up the side walls of the structure. At the top, I looked down into a concrete dam. Like the ones you see on the side of farm hills to store water. It was a large, symmetrical beast with its cracks filled with tar and a pumping tower at the far corner.
Looking out beyond the dam, there wasn’t a shred of evidence to suggest anything else once stood here but I’m sure the pump station and dam once served a town.
On the way back down to Dan, I explored a pile of rusted old tins, wire and steel, discovering one tin that still had its lid attached, telling me it was “blasting powder”.
An even more interesting discovery was a piece of ceramic attached to a wooden post. I carried this one back to Dan so he could have a look too. The ceramic was broken, exposing its chalky white insides, but its outside surface was a polished brown colour with a distinct marking reading “PATD JAN16:12”. I interpreted this as a piece that was patented on January 16th, 1912. If I was right, this place felt pretty special.
The sun was out now and the ground warming up so we clambered back down to the water’s level. Just in time too, Cleo was straight into the water to cool down as we were.
Back in the boat, it was climbing time. We both got a couple under our belt before going back to our history lesson as Dan spotted a wall of petroglyphs in front of us. I was amazed we hadn’t glimpsed these on the way in but we sure had a close look now.
After seeing the main wall consisting of drawings of humans, livestock and maybe even a god, we continued seeing little pieces of art drawn up high on the walls. We imagined what they could mean, knowing we were probably completely wrong.
I enjoyed some beautiful climbs on our way back to the van. My favourite of which was an orange slab with slopey holds in the beginning, some tricky traversing, then a beautiful crack behind a white piece of rock where I finished.
I pushed it on another beautiful overhung climb that had a couple of chalk spots on it for hints, then watched Dan tackle a couple of nice routes.
The more we climbed, the higher we got, so the higher the falls. I was happy to do a little down climbing to reduce my jumping height more than once.
As Dan picked me up from my last climb, at a low ledge, he pointed beyond me to another owl, this one big and white. This one had two yellow eyes open – both of which were staring straight at Dan. When I peeked my head around the corner to see him, his neck gave a big twist as he shifted his attention to me. While we did our best to not disturb him, once Cleo saw him, he was out of there, spreading his wings and flying over us to a better sleeping spot.
It was a gentle paddle now back to where we started. The height of the cliffs came down and the silence we’d enjoyed back at camp was long gone, replaced by party boats playing music as they cruised.
We were happy to see the van just where we’d left it and even happier to find our beers still cold in the fridge. Our first priority was having a couple before unloading the boat and parking it back on the roof of the van. Some storm clouds brewed overhead while I made a small lunch and we decided on our next move.
There was potential to stay by the canyon another night but we decided to move on to the cooler temperatures available in Flagstaff.
I was totally beat from the sun and the climbing so Dan was happy to drive us the hour or so to Flagstaff. We were chased by storm clouds the entire way and they ended up catching us just as we drove into the ever-familiar Flag. It was approaching 4pm and we had only two missions: find a spigot to fill up with water and find a secluded camp.
The spigot proved difficult, but we eventually scored at the back of a shopping complex where we were treated to crisp-tasting water probably straight off the surrounding mountains. Following that, we hit the first National Forest road north of town and, not discouraged by the dozens of campers at the first pullout, including “bird lady” – a lady sitting by her car with a bird cage – we carried on into the forest.
Our first attempt involved moving some large rocks to the side – obviously placed there to discourage us. Turned out it was for good reason. The end of the road was not flat and was in sight of the highway so we tried again down a different trail.
We watched as a gaggle of mountain bikers (over thirty of them) departed on a race of some sort, following each other through the trees.
After passing multiple campers and a rocky section of road, we found our spot. Out of sight from everybody with only trees for company. Perfect.
Dan turned the passenger seat around and lounged in it while Cleo and I lounged in bed. We swapped stories and listened to the rain.
Cheese and crackers ended up being our dinner because we were both too tired to cook or set up the tarp over the kitchen.
We enjoyed a glorious sleep waking up to damp ground and a big breakfast to compensate for last night’s lack of dinner. I researched local climbing while Dan cooked and, hanging out for some sport climbing, landed on Mount Elden’s south side as the best spot. This was all based off Mountain Project and 10-year old comments.
We drove out of camp and into the northern suburbs of Flag, parking on the street and walking up a public path between two houses to get to the base of the mountain. Cleo seemed happy to be exploring on land again and the cloud cover meant we weren’t too hot.
At the entrance to Elden Canyon, the established trail was replaced by a less-obvious one and I did my best to navigate us towards the “Chute Area”. After a couple of wrong turns and mis-steps into sharp plants, we made our way up the hill to our first crag. There were only five routes here, one of which we planned on doing.
“Musical Skinheads” a 5.8+ was a nice climb considering it was our first time on rope in months. A combination of trad and sport, the rock was nice and grippy and the views from the top were stellar. I took my time with it, making sure to look at the view before coming down.
Just before Dan got climbing, we met with a trail runner coming up the canyon. Unfortunately we couldn’t give him much advice regarding what he’d find ahead, but he seemed happy to be out exploring. Dan enjoyed the climb as much as I had, making easy work of it and cleaning the gear from the wall and anchor before coming down.
With one climb done, it was lunch time! Our trail runner came back down while we were eating explaining that the way he’d gone put him at a dead-end and so he went around the back of our crag to carry on into the canyon. We ended up following him that way to get to our next climbing spot.
When we reached the “Godfather Area” I realized I’d made an error in my climb-finding. There was nothing here below a 5.10 and to get to more 5.8-5.9 routes, we were on for another half hour of tough scrambling which none of us were keen for. On top of that, the cloud cover was turning into storm clouds.
Wanting to justify our scrambling with more than one climb, I decided to get onto “Bumping Gums”, a 5.10 layback bolted the whole way. The first section was nice and easy, but the top half where layback moves were mandatory, I struggled. Two bolts in, I had nothing left in my arms and I’m sure my body position wasn’t right. Just as I fell, the rain started to fall so I bailed out to the right of the climb, scrambling up some easy stuff to reach the anchors where Dan lowered me off.
It wasn’t hard lasting rain, but it was enough to get us off the mountain. Having climbed three days straight we were spent. We packed up and head back down to the base, enjoying the downwards motion.
A cold beer back at the car then we drove into town for a bite and more beers. It was our first time eating out on the trip and sitting on the patio of Altitudes Bar and Grill, we enjoyed watching the world go by. Long shipping container trains passed through the town every 15 minutes, motorcyclists cruised the streets without helmets on and locals were basking in the Summer sun.
It was around 5pm when we started heading south back to Debi and Peter’s place. Only twenty minutes out of Flag we were in extreme heat again, using spray bottles to keep ourselves cool. Despite the late hour, the clouds covering the sun were a life saver.
After pulling into the driveway, we were all three of us in the pool telling Debi all about our trip and hearing about her week. We’d had a great time away but were excited to spend some more time with the kids over the weekend.
More Kiddie Time
It was the same routine as last week with all six kids coming over Saturday and Sunday, the only difference being that the four girls slept over Saturday night so that Matt and Alex could have a night off.
I managed to make friends with Heidi this time. Instead of crying every time she looked at me, I got a couple smiles, then she started playing with me and eventually, even talked to me. They are all brilliant kids and get on so well together, it is a joy to see. Both Dan and I held the baby brothers when we could and they seemed happier than most babies I’d met.
Emmi treated us to a ballet dance recital, dress and all, to the tune of the Jurassic Park theme song. She’s a talented girl making the most out of missing her big recital with her friends and audience. Ava was her back-up dancer, though her shyness kept her in the corner for most of it. After seeing the show, Heidi put on a pretty red dress and showed us her best moves.
I played with Emmi on Debi’s grand piano – the first time I’d touched a set of keys in months. I remembered enough to teach Emmi the Coldplay song “Clocks” and she caught on pretty quickly. She was determined and practiced pretty well, I only hope she has the chance to enjoy playing as much as I have.
Later in the evening, we played a dancing game with the kids dancing around while I played different songs – freezing whenever I stopped playing. The giggles were endless.
At the end of the weekend, I was sad to say goodbye to everyone but happy that we’d all had so much time together. I am already looking forward to our next trip back.
Off Home – Very Slowly
Despite making plans to hang around for dinner with Debi and Peter on Monday night, come Monday morning we became restless. I tuned up Dan’s mountain bike, fixing the stiff steering with some torque adjustments to the head set screws. Following that we put the Poke boat back in its place hanging from the ceiling in the garage and Dan got up on the roof to remove a cactus growing up there, getting off the roof by jumping into the pool.
By the time we’d cleaned and packed the van, it was lunch time and so we made off. Peter was home so we said goodbye to him but unfortunately Debi was at work so we didn’t get that last hug. We swept the house making sure we hadn’t left anything then we were off, heading north back to the cooler temperatures of Flagstaff.
The drive wasn’t so hot leaving town thanks to a slight breeze and we made it up the “Astro fuel pump” hill just fine. The weather cooled off as soon as the cacti were replaced with pine trees.
Instead of driving into Flag, we skirted south east of it to find a mountain bike trail suggested by MTB Project. It was a section of the AZ trail that runs along the rim of Walnut Canyon.
We arrived at the trailhead via a forest road and found only one other car there. After doing some final adjustments to Dan’s bike, the three of us got onto the out-and-back trail.
The wind was up and so that kept us plenty cool as we flowed through a wide dirt track then took some rocky switchbacks down almost into the canyon.
A gentle climb took us back to the top of the canyon where we followed along nice long piece of single track through the forest. It was a beautiful time to be riding and a perfect trail for all of us. After that first dip and climb, the elevation didn’t change much at all.
We hopped over a fence to get a look at a viewpoint but couldn’t quite see all the way into the canyon. Because of that, we didn’t do the 1.4 mile ride down to the next viewpoint but carried on another couple miles until the trail met the canyon rim again.
The views weren’t as promised since the canyon had a gradual decline and not the dramatic vertical cliffs I had imagined, but we had fun all the same.
Cleo slowed down a LOT on the return journey, but we soon learned she could easily pick up the pace to a full run if the leading rider got out of sight.
We were back to the car after a couple of hours with enough time to find camp before sunset.
We’d camped heaps in the area before so we had a plan, but turns out we didn’t need one. While the road in to the trailhead didn’t allow camping, the road the opposite side of the main road in had signage stating a 14-day camping limit. Sweet!
There were dozens of roads leading to multiple camp spots and we were amazed to find every single one of them occupied. As the sun made a beautiful scene to our left, we scanned left and right for an open spot. This was definitely COVID. It was a Monday night and there’s no way a place like this would normally be this busy.
We ended up off-roading a little to find a secluded spot out of the wind which we weren’t the first ones to find judging by the fire pit.
It was a late camp for us so I got straight into a dinner of veggie curry on rice with garlic naan while Dan enjoyed the view and reflected on our family time. Dinner took a while thanks to the wind messing up the gas stove so when it was finally ready we ate hungrily.
The wind didn’t die down with the sunset so we retreated into the van soon after to read then sleep.
We hadn’t expected to go to Utah on this trip but when planning our route back home we discovered that temperatures were about 10*C lower going up into Utah and across than Nevada as opposed to going back across the Arizona/California desert. That and we weren’t keen on re-tracing our steps.
We did a few errands in Flagstaff, including grabbing an acai bowl for breakfast since it was still too windy to cook breakfast then hitting up Walmart for a foldable toilet Dan had been wanting. We also filled up our propane bottle at the U-Haul which was super convenient. Our little 1 gallon bottle lasts us two weeks and costs $3.50 to fill up!
On the road, we continued north into Navajo country. Sad looking jewelry stands lined the highway and small villages comprising trailer homes and various cars sat in the shadows of cliffs.
It was familiar country to both of us having travelled through before. We drove right on past all the signs pointing west towards the Grand Canyon (been there, done that) and up to the northern end of the park where we could access the Colorado River at a popular raft launching spot called Lee’s Ferry.
It’s hard to believe there’s any water around until you drive down into the canyon and see the huge blue expanse of the Colorado. We paid the exorbitant $30 entrance fee at Glen Canyon Dam Recreation Area and drove past our beloved Cathedral Wash hike to Lee’s Ferry.
I’d done the Cathedral Wash hike twice before and had never ventured past the trailhead. Only a couple miles down the road was a campground (closed) and access to the river via a beautiful sand beach. We had the place to ourselves and so I donned my bikini, Dan his bathing suit and off we went to dip our toes in.
Bloody hell the water was freezing it made your feet numb if you stood ankle deep for too long. I managed to get in up to my neck, but couldn’t do so without yelling out. Dan wasn’t game but Cleo had a couple of swims after some serious encouragement. She’s not quite sure was to do when there’s a strong current.
We played around on the beach for a good half hour, venturing out to a sand bar just because.
We admired the cliffs, I dunked myself in a couple more times, then we ventured further down the road to find a lunch spot.
As we drove into the boat ramp area, we were surprised to see the 14-day carpark full and the boat ramp area stacked. This was the height of the rafting season I guess!
Before lunch we explored the remnants of Lee’s ferry town, established in the late 1800’s as a ferry terminal, there were a couple of stone cottages remaining.
Going by a picture on an information sign, we were able to stand in the same spot the photographer had been when ferry workers dined on one Christmas day by the river. It was a really nice spot of history.
I made sandwiches out the back of the van while Dan took Cleo into the water for another dip, then we took our lunch to the shade structure by the boat launch and watched in awe as two different commercial companies launched their vessels.
We learned from signs that doing down-river into the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry was a 250-mile commitment, with no turn-arounds or supply spots, taking most people 25 days. With the amount of equipment and gear on these huge boats, it looked like they’d be going for six months.
One of the companies unloaded two boats from a semi-trailer while the others had a truck towing a giant trailer. It was fascinating and completely turned me off doing a long canoe trip. With no tourists around, these guys were obviously the ones setting up camp, cooking, managing the shit buckets etc. It seemed like way too much stuff for the sake of a river trip.
One more dip in the water then we carried on, now heading north east towards the AZ/UT border. Our destination was the town of Hurricane where there is mountain biking and climbing to be had.
Dan smartly stocked up on beer at a gas station in Arizona so that it would be full strength (Utah beer is limited to 3.2% alcohol thanks to Mormonism). We listened to a Joe Rogan podcast as we passed through the Kaibab Reservation with a few more jewelry stands and Native American outposts.
We were in Utah before we knew it (Dan drives fast) and turned off the main highway towards Gooseberry Mesa. It was around 5:30pm when we started heading down the dirt road, coming across a group of horse riders taking a walk down the road surely enjoying the views.
We climbed gently on top of Gooseberry Mesa to the trailhead of a “truly world class trail”. I hadn’t ridden here on my year off in the van because it was the wrong time of year so I was excited to get riding.
Cleo needed a rest from yesterday’s ride and Dan was happy to chill so I got out on the trails for a quick burn before sunset.
It was a windy ride and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I had the whole place to myself and I could ride fast, though it was difficult because of the stunning views.
I followed white paint dots on the bare rock to find my path and when I wasn’t rolling up and down boulders, I was following narrow turning single track, sometimes along the rim of the mesa.
It definitely is world class and I couldn’t wait to get on it again tomorrow with my family.
A lot of the time it felt like I was riding in circles, following white dots blindly getting completely disorientated but enjoying myself thoroughly in doing so. I used MTB Project to guide me when I needed but the whole network was really well signed.
At one point while rolling over some rock, I heard a chopper overhead. We’d seen it from the trailhead but this time it was flying right over me. I stopped and waved to the pilot who gave me a wave back. I can only imagine the view from up there.
I ended up doing about 10 miles before rolling down the road we’d come in on to find Dan at the camp he’d found. It was beautiful one with a backyard view over the south rim of the canyon.
I was back just in time to enjoy watching the sunset turn the nearby cliffs red with a beer in hand.
Having to deal with wind again, Dan had the bright idea to make something for dinner using the oven so we wouldn’t have to deal with the burners blowing out. Great plan! Quiche it was.
We had to block off a few holes underneath the stove to stop the stove burner going out, but once we got that sorted, we were right. Good to test these things!
The full moon rose over the canyon as we cooked with Cleo passed out on the bed.
Riding with a Hot Dog
We noticed there’d been a one hour time change after crossing into Utah so I’ll blame out sleep in on that. As always, I woke up when the sun started peeking over the mesa but I closed my eyes and carried on snoozing.
I made coffee for Dan using his new kettle and made toast and fruit salad for brekkie. We enjoyed it in the backyard, looking south over the canyon to the highway we would follow later today.
We were at the White trailhead around 9:30am and ready to ride at 10am. With no breeze, it was a lot warmer than we expected so by the time we started rolling over the boulders, we regretted not starting earlier. It was mostly for Cleo’s sake. She was still tired from our last ride and now she was running in the full heat of the day.
We started on the South Rim trail that I’d ended on yesterday but soon got off to get on the Practice Loop after we realized we were riding the South Rim in the uphill direction. Dan enjoyed the technical riding as much as I did and there was plenty of squirrels for Cleo to chase.
Thanks to the multitude of bushes and trees around, we could always find shade to cool Cleo off, but by the time we got to the North Rim, she was panting hard despite the frequent showers and drink breaks.
While she rested, we enjoyed the stunning vistas down into a valley diverse with red and white rock and greenery wherever water ran. It was a beautiful spot and the riding made it all the better.
For Cleo’s sake, I dropped Dan and her off at the road running down the spine of the trail network so they could head back to the car. It was a good decision, Dan later said that she was looking for any shade on the way back and slowing down heaps.
I put my headphones in and carried on down the North Rim. The riding was absolutely spectacular. When I wasn’t following white dots over boulders, I was skirting the rim of the canyon, with a sharp cliff at my right knee.
At the end of the North Rim, there was a short out-and-back on the South Rim trail which I took. It was hard going with uphill pinches over rocks, but well worth the extra quarter mile. I’d travelled as far as I possibly could across Mooseberry Mesa, with nothing but valley either side of me. I could see we’d be hitting some roadworks on our drive into Hurricane.
After soaking in all the views I could, I head back towards the trailhead via the South Rim trail. What a joy. It was technical in places and the boulder climbs really made my lungs work since I was above 7,000 feet.
I rode for a long time along the edge of the canyon and did my best to enjoy the scenery as I pedaled. After turning away from the edge, it was nice to focus on the riding and where all the white dots were.
I ran out of talent at one gap in the rocks where I attempted to clear it but landed hard on my rear wheel. “Sorry Scottie!” I yelled as I pedaled out, but that wasn’t enough. By the end of my ride, my rear tire was low and upon inspection, I’d bent my rim. I was happy to have made it out without having to put a tube in but kicking myself for my mistake.
By the end of the 6 mile trail, I was spent, having rationed my water for the last few miles and riding hard. Dan and Cleo were waiting for me under the shade of the only tree in the carpark, Dan fiddling with stuff in the van while Cleo relaxed.
I drank a bunch of water and relaxed myself in a chair while Dan finished up playing. I did a close inspection of my rear wheel and discovered the rear tire wasn’t holding air because I’d broken a spoke nipple. I figured we’d find a bike shop in town to get some parts.
After I’d had a snack, we packed up and drove off the mesa. It was only a half hour drive into Hurricane which was a lovely town hidden in the valley of its surrounding canyons. It was nice to look up to where I’d been with Scottie.
On the very first corner was a bike shop where we met a nice bike mechanic that reckoned I hadn’t broken my spoke nipple at all – my spoke was loose because I’d reduced the diameter of my rim in that spot. He offered to tighten the nipple, replace my rim tape, re-do the tubeless with sealant and true the wheel for $40 so I took that option. I’ve had Scottie for a few years now and I haven’t spent anything on her so why not?
We’d planned to do some climbing down by the river in the middle of town so we went to check that out. Despite the few trailheads, there were no legal parking options so we ended up in a suburb parked right at the edge of the road before walking down to suss it out.
We didn’t get very far. The ground was a bit too hot for Cleo, who got a prickle in her foot within the first five minutes, and the brown water below didn’t look that inviting. We figured we’d be better off spending our time at a pub enjoying a couple beers.
I found a place with patio seating on the main street just around the corner from the bike shop but we never made it there. Instead, we stopped at a shady park with an outdoor public water park. Obviously intended for kids, we beelined straight to it.
I’m sure there were onlookers thinking we were homeless, but we didn’t care, we had a great cool off, standing underneath the tipping buckets, waiting for them to fall.
I made us a lunch of some salad while we consulted the Atlas for our next direction and we found a potential camp above 9,000 feet where we could keep ourselves cool.
Just as we closed the Atlas, the bike shop called saying Scottie was ready for me. I paid an extra couple of bucks for them to clean my drivetrain (I’d also forgotten to pack my degreaser and cleaning kit) but I was happy with their work.
Bike strapped on, we left the town of Hurricane and head north on highway 15. Despite being a major roadway, it was a pretty drive. At Cedar City, we turned right and started climbing into a forest not only filled with pines, but aspen trees also. Their leaves dance so gently in the wind its beautiful.
We climbed until we were looking down onto the mesa we’d been amongst for the last couple days and eventually found Navajo Lake. It was bloody cold and so we weren’t going swimming, but we were hopeful of a lakeside camp.
It was wishful thinking. There was a couple of established campgrounds and they were all full. We turned ourselves around and pulled over to at least dip our toe into the blue water.
We had a little beach to ourselves and cuddled to keep warm from the wind. I made it into the water up to my ankles but that was as far as I was going. It was a beautiful spot but we wouldn’t be camping there.
Because we always keep our eye out for camps on the way to a potential camp, we didn’t have to go far to find our home for the night. Right across the highway from the lake, we found a network of forest roads without a single occupant. The sites were nestled amongst the aspens and pines and we had our choice.
We settled on a spot towards the back and were leveled up a good hour or two before sunset so we had plenty of time to enjoy our camp. I did some underwear laundry, Cleo ate dinner and passed out while Dan read by the fire.
It was the first time we’d needed a fire to warm ourselves – being over 9,000 feet, it was bloody cold!
We had some delicious dinner and while we had the best intentions to enjoy a movie on the TV, we passed out instead, cuddling up against the cold.
Too Hot, Too Cold
We didn’t make any attempt to get away early, snoozing well past sunrise letting Cleo enjoy her morning squirrel spotting.
As I went to get water for coffee, I discovered we were out of water. Lucky we’d had enough for last night’s dinner we figured it was thanks to the high water intake during our riding, all the Cleo showers and my laundry. I scrounged enough together to make Dan a coffee and the both of us some pancakes which we enjoyed with some fruit.
I took my clothesline down and we left camp heading north to even higher elevations than camp had been.
The way to the town of Brianhead goes through Cedar Breaks National Monument and so we stopped to check out a view point. It was very Bryce Canyon style with bright orange and red tufas standing vertical against the slope of a valley. We discovered at the viewpoint that despite the climbing nearby, it would be way too cold to do any of the climbing I’d planned.
In Brianhead, a full on resort town with chair lifts servicing both sides of the road and deserted cabins and hotels everywhere, we didn’t have any luck finding a water spigot so we carried on down the other side of the hill.
We dropped elevation fast and by the time we reached Parowan it was plenty warm again. As we drove into town, we were surprised to see a sign for a disc golf course so after driving into town and finding water at a gas station, we drove back up the hill a little to check it out.
It was a beautiful course with a 9-hole and 18-hole option crossing over a creek amongst some nice brush. It was fairy new and superbly signed. We played the 9-hole, since it was a bit too hot now to be out in the sun for more than an hour. I started off with a Birdie but my performance declined following that and I ended up three behind Dan in the end and that was with Dan playing left-handed! More practice needed for me.
We washed ourselves off in the creek with soap fearing a poison oak outbreak then carried on back into Parowan. We only got two miles out of it before turning back to fill up with gas since we were heading out onto some isolated roads. It was lunch for all the highschool kids – they’d taken over the town getting lunch from the various café’s and service stations. By the time we drove out again, class was due to start and every single kid was walking back to school with a soda in their hand.
We made off North East on Gap Road towards Parowan Gap, a climbing area. After 10 miles of farmland we were beneath the red crag and guess what? With the rock in full sun, it was way too hot to climb. Bummed, I made us some sandwiches and we wandered the dinosaur park at the base to see some dinosaur footprints from 65 million years ago.
A little further on down the road were some petroglyphs that we viewed from the car and that was the end of our touring for the day.
As soon as we passed through Parowan’s gap, the splendid rock formations that make Utah what it is were behind us.
We were in Nevada before long and the highways became very, very isolated. Saying that, we saw one walker and two cyclists on the highway – clearly out of their minds. We tried listening to a podcast for a bit, but we couldn’t hear with the windows down.
It was hot, but comfortable, not like the drive across the Arizona desert, we were happy with our choice of route.
About 2pm we needed a break from the driving so I found us a water source at Cave Lake State Park. We drove the six miles off the highway, paid a $5 entrance fee and saw a beautiful body of blue/green water.
The shallows of the water were muddy, making your leg sink in to your knee when walking in, so it was best to just run and jump.
The water was cold and refreshing, all three of us got in.
Since there was no shade by the water, we retreated to a shady picnic table overlooking the water and relaxed. That lasted about five minutes because I discovered a mountain bike trail in the area. Dan encouraged me to get on my bike so off I went.
I started out riding along the lake, then followed a couple of switchbacks we saw from our rest spot up the mountain. At 7,500+ feet, I was sucking for air as I climbed.
After four miles or so of going upwards, I was at the tip of the Twisted Pines trail and so I had a rest in the shade, admiring the massive rock jutting out of the mountain behind me.
After many big gulps of water, I started my way down. It was flowy, fast and most of all narrow. With the loose rock on and around the trail, I made sure to keep Scottie pointed where I wanted her.
There were a couple of rocky sections, but other than that, it was left, right, left, right, down. I didn’t have much chance to enjoy the scenery I was enjoying the flow so much.
I scared the shit out of a couple of girls with about five dogs at the very base of the trail, but stopped in time for one of the little dogs to finish peeing in the middle of the trail.
The way back to the park entrance was a narrow trail through the bushes with a couple climbs and steep drop offs and I pushed it, trying to get back within an hour of starting, which I did – just.
Dan was surprised to see me back since I’d guessed 1.5 hours, but he’d had a productive hour, investing in some stocks.
We all got into the water for one more dip before heading out to find camp. We drove through the town of Ely and with me driving, it was Dan’s turn to find our home for the night. He did very well, with his first dirt road pick providing gold in the form of a big flat spot midway up the hill giving us nearly 360 degree views back to Ely and onwards into our next valley.
It was perfect timing, we got to enjoy the sunset while Cleo guarded the entrance.
With full service, we caught up on some F1 viewing.
Back into the Smoke
There would be no activities today. We were up early with the sun for something different and after an omelette for breakfast, we hit the road with me driving for a change. It was a 5.5 hour drive to Lake Tahoe and we stopped only for gas until we got to Fallon. I was happy we camped where we did because there wasn’t much to look at following that. Highway 50, the loneliest highway in the US really is pretty barren of life.
At Fallon, we found a shady tree at a public park where we had leftovers and salad wraps for lunch. Not wanting to get straight back into the car, we threw a tennis ball around for a while – not for Cleo, she doesn’t know fetch – then I taught Dan how to play the version of handball I’d played all through school.
Dan drove us the rest of the way into California. As soon as we could see the Sierras, we could see the smoke. We’d hoped it had blown away but nope, it was still looming thick and large over the entire state.
We drove through Reno keeping speed with the racing traffic and then up the hill towards Donner Lake. We prefer Donner to Lake Tahoe because it’s got more of a small town vibe and isn’t as crazy busy. It was a Friday afternoon of a long weekend so we didn’t get our hopes up.
Driving along the lake, we found a park by one of the dozens of public piers and though the pier was occupied by a couple, we laid out our mat on a small section of beach that was in the shade. It was blissful to dive into the water and cool off. We lingered in the water a while, riding the waves caused by the multitude of power boats and jet skis running up and down the lake, then retired to our beach spot.
I brought my book but there was enough going on around us to keep me entertained. We watched a couple pull up to shore and moor their boat, we watched kids get towed on inflatables behind pontoon boats and at the end, a guy trying to figure out a hydrofoil board with a sail – he didn’t have much success.
Now thoroughly relaxed and cooled off, we head off to find camp.
After a bit of four-wheeling, tree bashing and getting out to walk around and inspect, we found our home.
It was flat, had a view of Donner Lake nearby and the traffic noise from highway 80 was a dull hum in the background, unlike a major soundtrack at some of the other spots we’d found.
Once again in service, there was another F1 race on this weekend so we got into our viewing while I cooked dinner. We were fed and done by the time the sun went down and despite the smoke, a pink shade of light was visible.
A Crowded Crag
I’d done some climbing research the night before and settled on Snowshed Wall for today’s crag which was home to some of the classics of Donner Lake. Being the first day of a long weekend and one of the most popular crags on Donner Summit because of its super easy access, we skipped breakfast. We did a quick stop at the local Chevron to fill our water and petrol tanks and pick up some milk and eggs.
Up Donner Pass Road, we easily found the pullout for Snowshed and at 8:30am, it was already pretty slammed. We slotted into the last spot right next to the port-a-potty and cooked up a storm while getting a lay of the land. There were already a few parties on the rock and more came as we ate. This was also a popular hiking spot for tourists who ventured out onto “China Wall”.
We got to the crag around 9:15am and thanks to the bright sun, the only feasible climbing was in the shade on the North Wall. We found a little spot at the base of 5.8 and 5.9 climb, the only area still available and so we dropped our gear and I racked up. Even at the base of the rock the views of Donner Lake were outstanding.
I got going on “Split Pea”, the 5.8 route that followed a nice crack formation straight up the grey rock. It was nice easy climbing and the gear was plentiful so it got me back into trad climbing pretty well. Towards the top I hunted for anchors and found them much higher than I thought they’d be and so I belayed Dan from the top. I was bummed not to watch him climb the meat of the route, but I couldn’t really complain about the views I got to enjoy while pulling on the rope. I could see dozens of powerboats zipping round the lake, it was insane!
Dan happily made it up the climb and joined me at anchor where we pulled the rope up then rappelled down – Dan going first to see if Cleo had been hit by the rope we threw down. She was just fine napping on the rope bag.
When I came down, another couple looking to do their first climb on the crag joined us and so we told them what we knew. As I went searching for our next route, I found that the North face was now completely full and none of the classic routes were going to free up any time soon. It was approaching noon, so we figured we’d check out the East face which would be going into the shade soon.
Way up the back were a couple of moderate routes side-by-side so we tried for those. When I saw a guy at the base of one of them, I scrambled on, figuring we’d climb whatever he wasn’t doing. When I got to the party and said hi, they informed me quite firmly that they’d be setting up ropes on both routes. Ok then!
I scrambled back down to Dan and we took a step back to look at the vast east wall. We settled on a 5.9+ crack route stretching all the way up the face of the rock called Nova Express. I didn’t have big enough gear (or balls) to lead the entire thing but access looked easy enough to get to the top and set a rope.
Dan and Cleo chilled while I scrambled to the top of the rock, passing my new friends along the way. At the very top, I was met by hikers who were enjoying the view and a little surprised to see me. They watched with interest as I walked carefully down to the anchors, safetied in and got my rope set up. I wished them a good day as I rappelled down to my climbing family.
By the time I got to the base, the climb and belay spot were pretty much in full shade so we were all set. I rid myself of my trad gear and off I went. It was a super fun and challenging route with the crack widening towards the top to form a crux. I nearly made it in one go with a lot of yelling, but I couldn’t make the last couple of moves without falling – my arms were spent. I hung for a bit then managed to finish it out – just. More climbing was necessary to get me back into shape!
Dan, seeing the extent of my efforts, was uncertain how far he’d get with his attempt but he roped up anyway. As he did, a different couple came around the corner and asked how much longer we’d be on the route. They said they’d wait when we told them Dan would be the last. They plonked their gear down and sat looking out at the highway as Dan got going.
Before Dan even had a chance to chalk-up, the girlfriend went into whine-mode, complaining to her boyfriend that she couldn’t flash a 5.9, that he shouldn’t be celebrating when she managed a grade like that without falling. Dan and I shared a stare then I was left listening to the onslaught as he climbed. She really managed to create a downer vibe while her boyfriend tried very hard to be helpful.
I concentrated on Dan’s climbing and loved seeing the effort when he got to the crux. He was yelling just like me but despite a few attempts, he ran out of arms three quarters of the way up and so conceded the route. I contemplated going up it a second time to clean it, but knowing it would probably take me a few falls and potentially make me a target of our new whining friend, we decided it best if I walk back up to recover our gear. Dan pulled the rope as I did just that.
More hikers at the top and my friends at the far end of the wall congratulated me on a good effort and let me know their climbs would be available very soon if we’d like to get on them.
Our tummies were well past grumbling by the time I got back down so we retreated to the car for lunch. While eating, we saw the crowd grow even more and feeling the ache in our arms, we decided to call it a day early. The lake beckoned.
It was much harder to find a spot today thanks to the holiday crowd. A public pier was definitely out of the question but that was fine with us, we preferred the small beaches. We drove all the way to the east end of the lake without finding a park. On our return journey we nabbed a spot in front of a private area where it was only a short walk to the public spaces.
Dan leading the way, we walked down the first path available to a pier that was stacked with people. We skirted left and to avoid another party nestled amongst the trees, we walked through the water to find ourselves a beautiful little sandy nook just big enough for us to lay out our mat.
We cracked a couple of beers, got Cleo in the water, then waded out to shoulder height to enjoy the cool down. Waves from the powerboats lifted us up and down as we sipped.
Back on land, I still didn’t get to my book, there was too much action to watch. Cleo was a happy dog, dead to the world lying between the two of us. She didn’t even budge when I got up for another dip in the water.
Around 5pm, the crowds suddenly thinned – we figured everyone had dinner reservations or something. We stayed a little while longer – we could afford the time since we knew where our camp was.
On our way up to camp, we were surprised to see a couple of cars coming down at us. We reversed down a little and Dan managed to perch the van off to the side to let the 4Wd’ers get by us. They were nice enough to stop once they’d gotten past to make sure we got out ok. A bit of wheel spinning then we were all set.
We found our camp just as we’d left it and settled in for the night.
More F1, more good food, but the sunset wasn’t more than a glow thanks to the smoke that had crept in over the afternoon.
Smoke for Shade
We had a more relaxed start this morning because we were going to a crag that was great for getting away from the crowds, according to Mountain Project. Still in the same area, we drove past Snowshed rock to the actual summit of Donner Pass. Being right on the PCT, this was another popular spot but we managed to find a park flat enough to make brekkie.
Hikers came and went as we enjoyed our pancakes, eggs and fruit but we didn’t see any climbers. We packed lunch today since the Grouse Slab we were heading to was a small hike away.
Our way to the crag was on the PCT and though only a mile or two, it was a really nice section of trail.
The view of Donner was very different today, looking more grey than blue – the smoke had thickened overnight.
This worked to our advantage since most of Grouse slab is south facing so if it wasn’t for the smoke acting as clouds, we’d have been in full sun. It was quite a scramble getting up to the rock and when we reached it, we happened to be in front of a 5.9 sport route so that’s what we climbed. “Desire” was only a shortie but it was a fun slab climb with enough challenge to get us excited for the day.
Dan enjoyed a variation of the climb, getting into the small chimney to the right of the route jamming his body into the wall towards the top. Cleo, as always, was on lookout with a great view down the slab to where a couple of boulderers were trying different routes on a rock within our sight.
After Dan cleaned the gear, I was racking up for a 5.9 trad climb just a head turn to the left of us. Called “Greener Pastures” it looked really fun with some noticeable hard bits but good gear protection.
I took pretty much everything I had with me so I had choice for the different size cracks and pockets and with Dan’s hands by my hips, I started upwards. I found my first challenge getting over a horizontal flake that didn’t offer much feet once above it. Not happy with the first small cam I put in, I managed to get a larger piece in, then I was stoked when I got a nut jammed hard into a crack. This gave me the confidence to first sit on the gear, take a fall on it and sit on it again. Dan gave me the last bit of encouragement I needed and I managed to find happy places for my feet and get up onto a ledge.
The climb eased after that, but I still had a couple more yells in me. I know it’s only 5.9 but it was the hardest trad climb I’d done in a long time. I was stoked when I got to the top. Dan struggled in the same places I did but figured it out as I had, using the vocal technique to get past the hard bits.
I climbed it one more time and did it in under 10 minutes – the magic of climbing while not putting gear in (or taking it out)!
The smoke was starting to clear now and so we could feel the sun’s power. It was time to eat and find some shade. We moved over towards the east side of Grouse slab and found a lunch spot among the pine trees overlooking the lake. We ate our wraps and contemplated our next move.
I found us a highly rated route on the east face of Grouse and so we bush-bashed that way. Dan used his skills to find the route on the high side of the wall and so we started scrambling up. The last bit of approach to the climb I tried first to make sure Cleo would be able to get up it. Dan came and had a look and after some deliberation, we decided to bail. All Cleo would have to do is slip or decide to turn around and she’d be gone down a slab and into the Manzanita bushes. It was just one climb, we could find something else.
With no other real shady options, we decided to head back to Snowshed to maybe do those climbs that weren’t available to us yesterday. We parked and had a beer while taking a look at the crag. It didn’t look as crowded as before and the popular 5.7 route “Devaluation” looked free.
Once at the crag, we discovered a party just starting up “Devaluation” and so we turned to the left of the crag. “Pea Soup”, a 5.9 right next to the 5.8 “Split Pea” we’d done yesterday was free. That’ll do! I was trad leading 5.9s now!
It took me a few goes to figure out the starting moves, but I eventually got off the ground ok, relying on a nice nut placement. Another body length up the wall and we had some dog complications. Dan was on it, warning me that a group of people were approaching with a couple of dogs so I put a good piece of gear in and sat on it as they passed by – Dan with one hand protecting me, the other holding Cleo.
There was another dog crossing a couple of moves later when I yelled out for slack and didn’t quite get it. Dan responded quickly though and managed to help me out and make sure there were no dog fights. Phew! At the top this time I set up an anchor and came down to belay Dan. We didn’t want to leave Cleo unattended.
With me at the bottom, once Dan reached the top, he was at the anchor by himself, taking our gear out and setting up to rappel solo. He’d cleaned gear heaps before but it was his first time cleaning and rappelling out of my sight. I yelled at him to take his time, which he did. I felt nervous, watching the rope trying to figure out what he was doing. I sat with Cleo as the rope moved upwards, then waited anxiously for the “Rope below!!” yell.
Soon enough, Dan was on the ground again and our climbing at Donner was done. Though we hadn’t done many routes, they all had their charms and we left better climbers than we’d been when we arrived.
Lake time, we had our pick of spots thanks to the late hour of the day, stopping at the first open space to get ourselves wet, cleaned and cooled off. I swam in from the beach, but Dan needed to jump in so he climbed the nearby pier to jump off the end. There was a family parked nearby that had obviously been hanging out on the pier for the day and they informed Dan he was breaking the rules, it was their pier. He laughed it off, knowing they were being local snobs. He did a front flip off the end of the pier and joined me in the water.
Only a quick dip this time, we were eager to get back to camp. We stopped in at the local market to stock up on beer which proved to be a fruitful trip! On the way to the shop, Dan spotted a pair of sandals sitting on the side of the road and so on the way back, he was quick to instruct me to get out of the car and go get them! I ran over, picked them up and he couldn’t even wait to get back to camp to try them on. They were his size and nicely worn in. Great!
While having our snacks and watching qualifying, we were amazed to hear a car approaching us from the right, which was not the way out. It was a guy and his dog in a beat up old 4WD, he gave us a wave as he drove on by, having obviously enjoyed his off-roading for the day.
Towards the end of qualifying, Dan looked up and realized we needed to pause and go watch the sun setting over the mountains. The sky had cleared as much as it had in the last few days and the sun was painting a nice hue over the mountains and lake below.
We sauntered over to our lookout spot to admire the view and appreciate the amazing trip we’d had over the last three weeks. This was a perfect way to end it.
Home? Doesn’t Feel Like It
Dan drove us out our bumpy driveway and onto Highway 80 that would take us all the way back to San Mateo. At the first rest area, we dumped all of our trash and filled up with some water then I took over the driving. Just as I turned the key, I saw a big RV with its window frames taped up and covered in white dust. “Ha ha”, I thought, “obviously no one told him Burning Man was cancelled”. That got us thinking, maybe people just went anyway? Today would have been the last day of the festival had it gone ahead.
As we drove off, we noticed a couple more Burners and Dan confirmed with a quick Google search that a very small version of Burning Man had gone ahead. Black Rock is just BLM land so you’re free to go out there and camp any time, which a bunch of people did and of course they made a man and burned him.
An hour later, we were off the mountains and into the extreme heat and smoke. The traffic was thick, but didn’t slow – we were happy to have left in the morning. I drove us all the way to our street where nothing much seemed to have changed. We were surprised to see a “for lease” sign still furnishing our front lawn with the apartment below us having been vacant for over a month now.
Our workshop looked untouched and we were excited to see a bunch of fruit still growing on our tomato plant despite it looking very neglected. It was the only food we had in the house, so we were winning! Upstairs, everything in the apartment was as we left it, though it looked empty because we’d basically taken everything of importance with us!
I got the bikes washed while Dan got himself and Cleo washed and we spent the rest of the day slowly unpacking, doing laundry and remembering just what it is like to live in a 350 square foot apartment.
This isn’t home. Our van is our home.