Tuesday, June 23, 2020
With the Audi Q5 packed as though we were never returning home, we headed northeast towards St. George, Utah, gateway to the Bryce and Zion region of southwest Utah. This trip was a third time’s the charm Plan C, as the coronavirus pandemic laid waste to our original summer international vacation plan and wildfires redirected our consolation prize domestic plans.
The original plan, 2+ weeks on a small group photographic exploration of Namibia in southern Africa, led by British photographer Martin Bailey, was dashed months ago when Covid-19 upended the entire world and suspended international travel. Half of our group postponed to the following year, while Greg, Steve and I, steering around existing plans for a Philippines diving trip in June 2021, opted to reschedule to 2022.
As with our cancelled spring trips to NYC, we made plans to spend our time off in Sedona, our red rock refuge. We had wanted for years to do a mountain biking and camping trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with an outfit we know, Moab, Utah-based Rimtours, but somehow had never done it. Steve’s rejuvenated back after his spinal stenosis surgery in March made camping and mountain biking viable activities for us again and Rimtours had a 4-day Grand Canyon North Rim trip going during our time off, a Sedona sign saying now was the time. I hadn’t mountain biked in ages, but I had been riding regularly to work, while Steve had resumed mountain biking during the spring. The North Rim isn’t very visited (compared with the South Rim) and biking and camping are open air activities, so this seemed our best bet for an active, reasonably safe pandemic trip. Rimtours had a whole set of new Covid-19-specific procedures in place. The riskiest part of the trip seemed to me to be the van ride to and from the campsite, which would require us to be masked and sanitized.
A week before our scheduled departure, wildfires broke out in southern Utah and northern Arizona, closing the North Rim. Rimtours offered an alternative trip, near Bryce and Zion National Parks, a trip we actually did with them 16 years ago. The reason I know it was in 2004 is that it was during the Kerry campaign for President. There were only 2 other guests on the trip, a female journalist working at the Boston Globe and a callow 20-something year old man-child who dismissed Kerry as a “flip-flopper”, making a waggling motion with his hands when speaking of him. But when pressed, he had no idea which issues Kerry had supposedly flipped or flopped on, making it clear he was mouthing something he had heard from the media. Our guide, Mike Smith, was a white-haired ponytailed older man who could outride all of us put together. He had loaned me a book, In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest by David Roberts, which I had planned to return to him on another Rimtours trip planned for the winter of 2005 in the Phoenix area.
A month before that Phoenix trip, Rimtours called up to say we were the only two signed up and it was cancelled. We decided to travel to Arizona anyway. Having enjoyed Sedona a decade earlier with Steve’s parents, we decided to spend half a week revisiting Sedona and booked a casita at Enchantment. A glowing sunset setting the red rocks aflame as we drove in, coupled with a sugar coating of snow the following morning, conspired to land us in a realtor’s office that trip. In a way, Rimtours is directly responsible for us succumbing to red rock fever.
Although we were leery that our (and especially my) mountain biking skills were not up to the requirements of the Bryce and Zion area trip, we decided to go for it anyway. With the car packed with bike helmets, shoes, clothes and saddles, as well as an assortment of cold weather gear for overnight temperatures in the 40s and food, snacks and water enough to minimize contact with other people, we set out for Utah.
Our friends David and Kurt had moved to Palm Springs earlier in the year, so we made plans to break up the trip, stopping in to see them in their new house and have lunch en route. No surprise, their mid-century house already looked marvelous. Their collection of mid-century furniture gems, so familiar from their San Diego house, seemed tailor-made to their new digs.
David, Steve and I had a yummy country French lunch on the patio of Farm (croque madame for Steve, mushroom and chicken crepe for me and spinach and salmon crepe for David) before we pushed off northeast again, via the Mojave National Preserve.
The time change and coronavirus shortened hours made us scrap our tentative plans to shoot the sunset at Valley of Fire, northeast of Las Vegas. As it was, we made it to our AirBnB in the Ivins section of St. George with a little light left.
The contemporary southwest style casita was remarkably familiar. Years ago, we spent a few nights at next door Red Mountain Spa, in conjunction with that 2004 Rimtours mountain bike trip. We were so enamored of the hiking in the area that we actually looked at a house in the same area, also bordering a lava field and backed by the red cliffs of St. George. This was probably the first time we seriously considered second home ownership. In the end, we backed away, but this mental exercise undoubtedly primed us for falling for Sedona the following year.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Beautiful Snow Canyon State Park was just a few minute drive up the road. It opened at 6 am and we managed to make it through the gate a few minutes later. We had hiked here before during our Red Mountain Spa stay and remembered loving the amazing variety of formations time and erosion had wrought through the ages, whittling away on the remains of an ancient seabed, which rose and fell over eons.
We made our way up to trailheads for Butterfly and Lava Flow trails. The stacked and striated and swelling rock formations were as thrilling as before. The sun rose, illuminating the western hills before being dampened by diffusing broken clouds and making its way eventually to a bulbous form on which we climbed.
Later, after the light lost its sweetness, we hiked in the shadow of the same formation, finding an array of splintered shards of rock which form an arrangement resembling butterfly wings.
On our way out, we stopped again, to hike a short level distance over sand to Jenny’s Canyon. We almost turned back too soon, not initially seeing the final turn, leading to the left to a short, steep slot canyon and to the right, an overlook. Luckily, Steve was listening when I read him the description-I remembered saying “canyon” while he heard “slot” canyon, so we looked again.
We drove through a coffee shop, Perks!, which had signs posted indicating they had shut down in store ordering and eating 2 days before due to a dramatic recent surge in Covid-19 cases in southern Utah.
Steve headed out in the afternoon to scout a ghost town, Grafton, an hour away. I wanted to conserve my energy and hydrate for an evening shoot, so demurred, staying put in the air conditioned casita, typing away and rearranging our after the bike trip itinerary, eventually landing on a 3 night stay in Hurricane (near Zion) for afterwards.
Our sunset shoot, back in Snow Canyon, was productive. In the morning, it was apparent that the butterfly wing arrangement of large rock shards from which the trail name surely was derived was an afternoon shoot. We enjoyed climbing and exploring and shooting the petrified sand dunes until the light failed.
Thursday, June 25, 2020
Promptly at 8 am, a 15-passenger van with the Rimtours logo on the side and a large trailer in back pulled up. Our two guides were veterans: Mike Smith (74 years old and our same guide from this trip 16 years before) and Dave Bagley, working with Rimtours 8 years. We met our fellow campers, including Herb and Ciara from Mesa, Arizona; Martin, a high school health teacher from Murrieta, CA and father and son Sam and Owen, from the Washington, D.C. area. Another couple from Kansas, Marie and Jason, followed in their own vehicle.
En route to our campsite near Navajo Lake for the next 3 nights, we drove through Zion. The planned Canyon Overlook trail hike, just after the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, hinged on finding a long enough parking space for the van with the trailer. Fortunately, such a spot was available a short walk down the road. The tunnel was being run one way, saving us (as a tall van with bikes on top), from needing an escort through.
It was hot and sunny out, but the hour-long walk was well worth the panoramic views. A restroom stop at a trading post had signs in the restroom with stick figures, advising one not to squat ON the toilet, evidence that in normal times there probably are numerous Asian tourists.
Dave had to sweet talk the van up a little on the final climb up to the turnoff to Navajo Lake. The forest of spruce, Douglas fir, quacking aspens and pines was interspersed with lava fields of black clinkers. Our camp for the next 3 nights, Te-ah, west of Navajo Lake in the Dixie National Forest, was set in a stand of quaking Aspens and seemed familiar. I suspect this is where we camped before.
After a lunch of sandwiches assembled by our guides, a Covid-19 change, bikes were distributed and features of our rental Santa Cruz full suspension bikes were demonstrated. Mountain bikes have changed a lot since we were in the market. These bikes have wider and larger tires (27.5 inch) than our 26 inch tires, which apparently no one uses anymore. Shifting is now only on the right side, 12 gears. The left-hand shifter now enables one to lower or raise the seat in response to the terrain.
Our check out ride on Navajo Lake Loop Trail, a single track around Navajo Lake, thoroughly kicked my 60-year-old, sea-level-dwelling butt. Although the terrain was almost all rideable, I felt the altitude (averaging 9500 feet) acutely. Even the tiny hill leaving the camp rendered me breathless. It was a fun trail, with some smooth single track, as well as rocky sections, with ruts and roots. There were glimpses of the lake through the forest. On the east end of the Loop Trail, we passed through jagged black lava fields. I was in the back, riding the first half with Dave and the second half with Mike. At one stop, gasping for breath, I leaned over towards the uphill side and found a brown horned toad, burrowed into dirt of the same shade. Mike wondered if it was a female laying eggs.
Back in camp, while gathering firewood, the other Marie found another horned toad, which Steve photographed with the TG-6.
Dinner was delicious, quinoa with feta cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds, cornmeal crusted salmon with a green sauce and a spinach salad. During happy hour, we were tormented by the smell of chocolate, brownies cooking in a Dutch oven.
After dinner, the temperature plunged and it was hard to leave the fire. I was cold enough that I rested my feet, shod in beat-up easy-on, easy-off camp shoes, Merrell clogs, against the rim of the fire ring. Evidently, I was too close, as the tips of my clogs began smoking and the soles under my toes curled away, melting, with that unmistakable smell of burning rubber. Before I could step away from the fire, I had to trim the peeled back trip-hazard soles with scissors.
Friday, June 26, 2020
At the restroom next morning, I must have had a determined or desperate look in my eye, as Aaron resignedly sighed “I’ll do the men’s first” after first asking me to wait a few minutes while he cleaned. The restroom has 2 toilets but never has a line, probably because there are so many RVs here, presumably with their own facilities. There are signs in English and Spanish imploring people not to put anything other than toilet paper in the toilets. The Spanish version has 2 errors, one in a verb (I’m pretty sure the plural command form of put is pongan not pongtan) and toilet is inodoro, not endoro. The four rolls of toilet paper in each stall are threaded through a locked bar, a theft prevention move which is surprising, given that the bikes are left on the ground unlocked, not to mention tents can’t really be secured. Mike says they have never had any issues with security in the many years they’ve been running the trip here. But then again, toilet paper has rarely enjoyed such high status as a covetable item as during this pandemic.
I surprised Mike by returning the book he loaned me 16 years before. Breakfast was hearty: hashbrowns, bacon and fruit salad.
We filled up our Camelbacks and a Rimtours water bottle from the spigot. The brass handle had a propensity to flip off. Owen managed to land it in his Camelback, having to empty the water to fish it out again.
Today’s ride was even higher altitude, up to 9600 feet, a section of the Virgin River Rim Trail. It started with a sustained climb, as we were riding higher up on the ridge. From there it was rolling, up and down repeatedly. There were bail out options along the way. Marie and I elected to descend at Spruce’s trail with Dave, who headed back to camp for the van and picked us up on the road to meet the rest of the group, which continued on to Cascade Falls.
This half mile hike is beautiful, with Pink Cliffs views and hoodoos à la Bryce.
Steve rode back to camp with Marie and me, with Mike at the wheel, while Dave accompanied the rest of the group down a gravel road back to camp. We passed them on our return-the theme of the Wicked Witch bicycling through the air from The Wizard of Oz popped into my head as we passed them, as that section of the ride looked like a grind.
Mr. Steve, the cleanest camper (dubbed so by our Alaska kayak camping trip guide, as the very cold water of Glacier Bay did not dissuade Steve from bathing daily), washed his hair with cold water, filling up our dry bag, which proved to have a small leak. He also washed my hair, which was feeling very stiff, having me lean way over one of the camp chairs. There are no shower facilities in this camp, but between Huggies wipes we brought and Rimtours provided steaming washcloths, we were mostly able to keep trail-riding dirt at bay. We had Rimtours-provided handwashing stations in camp (soap dispenser hung on the edge of a Home depot paint bucket, with a foot-operated pump for water), which was good, as the toilet room, while clean with running water, had no soap.
After a dinner of sautéed vegetables and chicken in a mild curry sauce over basmati rice, a Dutch oven cooked cake materialized, a 40th birthday cake for Ciara. After we sang Happy Birthday (in English, of course), Herb and Ciara continued their family tradition of singing it also in Dutch, in honor of Herb’s grandfather.
Saturday, June 27, 2020
After a breakfast of French toast, sausage and fruit salad, Mike started us out on the small single track leading to our camp, to the road, trying to warm us up prior to a long, sustained climb up to ride another section of the Virgin River Rim Trail to the Duck Creek area. There were many downed trees, bringing us to a stop multiple times and testing our upper body strength hoisting the bikes over the logs. While Mike was waiting for me to catch up, he would pause near an interesting wildflower and using an app on his phone, try to identify it, starting with color, the number of petals, approximate size and type of associated leaf.
Riding uphill, I tried to pull the bike up over a leg size log. I didn’t have enough momentum, was riding too slowly and was tossed sideways, rolling onto my back and over. Nothing hurt initially, but my right low back began to tighten up afterwards as I finished the ride. I had fallen a couple of times the prior day, but sustained no injuries.
I gratefully accepted four 200 mg Motrins from Dave at the lunch stop, in a grove of aspens.
While we were there, Jason received a text saying to call his brother. He headed out with the group that wanted to ride back, while Steve, Marie, Mike and I headed in the van to the tiny village of Duck Creek to get cell phone reception so Marie could figure out what was wrong. It didn’t turn out to be too serious. The village itself was thronged, Mike said much more than usual.
Back in camp, Mike heated up water, which mixed with the cold water from the spigot, made for a much more comfortable hair washing session.
Dave accompanied Sam, Owen, Ciara, Herb, Jason and Martin on a return/exploration ride via the Marathon trail. They arrived back in high spirits, telling of grueling climbs, fallen trees and wrong turns. I had to laugh at Jason’s narration, the “There’s got to be one more” wishful thinking of the search for a lower gear, as I had been continually confirming while riding that I didn’t have any lower gears available.
I finished Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, comfortably cleaned up, with freshly washed hair, rehydrating with a lemon-flavored LaCroix.
Meanwhile, Jason, changing clothes in his tent, was surprised by Damian, a random would be camper looking for a place to pitch his tent.
19 year old college junior Owen and former triathlete and high school health teacher Martin still had energy enough to do a bonus Navajo Lake Loop, the ride we did our first day, finishing in about an hour.
Dinner was tri-tip grilled steak with chimichurri sauce, baked russet and sweet potatoes and salad, with individual yogurt “key lime” pies for dessert.
Nearing the end of the trip, my phone was covered with sticky sappy drops from the aspens.
Sunday, June 28, 2020
After fortification with a breakfast of griddled egg, cheese and Canadian bacon sandwiches and fruit salad, there was the multistep process of breaking down camp to face.
High winds thwarted plans to ride Thunder Mountain, so we drove back towards St George through Cedar City to ride the JEM trail, near Hurricane. Although the trail derives its name from John, Ellen and Mike, early trailblazers of the single-track route, it is indeed a gem. Most of it was smooth, fun, fast singletrack through desert scenery. There were a few notable exceptions, including some early gnarly descents. I did one which bounced my foot off my pedal and onto my shin, which was bleeding and puffing by the time I reached the bottom and stopped the bike. Mike whipped out wide veterinary Coban to keep some pressure on it and we continued on to a VERY gnarly descent with a hairpin turn which everyone elected to walk down. Even walking down with the heavy bike on the loose rocky sandy surface wasn’t easy.
We made a wrong turn and ended up adding on an unplanned segment, a rocky rim trail overlooking the Virgin River, which was hot, difficult and unpleasant, at least for me. Eventually, we met up with Dave, Owen and Martin, who had done a longer and more challenging route.
By the end of the trip, I had a formidable collection of bruises as well as scratches, most notably adorning my left shin, but no broken bones. Steve was sore but undaunted. Despite being battered and bruised, we enjoyed it enough that we STILL want to do that long deferred Grand Canyon North Rim trip. This weekend, while we temporarily escaped Covid-19 concerns, the world and the US passed into frightening new record-setting territory: over 10 million infections world-wide and 2.5 million in the US.
At the trailhead, we said good-bye to Marie1 and Jason, who were heading north to Salt Lake City and beyond, possibly as far as Yellowstone. Herb and Ciara were planning to drive straight back to Mesa and their 6 kids that evening, while Sam and Owen were spending a night in Las Vegas before flying back east. Back in St. George, we picked up our car and retraced our steps a short distance to Hurricane, Utah where we had 3 nights booked in a historic property on Main Street, Hurricane Lofts, an attractive and comfortably appointed AirBnB.
We had just enough time to head out again to shoot the sunset at Grafton, the ghost town Steve had scouted a few days before.
Monday, June 29, 2020
We had one final adventure planned for this southern Utah escape, spending a day with Seth Hamel from Enlightened Photography. Seth has a “secret” slot canyon he has negotiated access to, enabling him to open a gate on private property and take his well-used-but-still-going-strong Toyota Forerunner on a very dodgy rutted and steep dirt road.
We had originally planned to meet in Mt. Carmel at a Shell station but realizing we were coming from Hurricane, he suggested we meet at his yurt in Apple Valley to save doubling back later.
Having been to Antelope Canyon twice before, I had my doubts whether any Utah slot canyon could rival Antelope’s beauty, but we both found “Seth’s secret slot canyon” to be both beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable. Seth had warned there would obstacles to overcome, but assured us with his help we could manage it. He is a climber, originally from New Hampshire. I warned him the morning we met up that I was sore from head to toe from the bike trip . Although it was physical and challenging, it didn’t prove to be insurmountable. The only casualties were small holes eroded in the back of Steve’s short-sleeved Kuhl shirt from sliding down slickrock on the way back.
We even had a wildlife sighting in the canyon, a beautiful collared lizard. Seth had never seen this variety before. We later identified it as an eastern collared lizard ((Crotaphytus collaris), also known as a common collared lizard. Who knew it is the Oklahoma state lizard?! Seth was concerned the lizard might perish in the canyon and scooped it up carefully into the upper section of his backpack, releasing it later outside the canyon.
We also had a sunset shoot planned with Seth. He had two suggestions for a pre-sunset dinner: Subway or go to a grocery store and cook dinner at his yurt. That was an easy choice and an interesting, potentially dangerous, cultural excursion. Bee’s Marketplace is in Colorado City, in Arizona, on the border with Utah. If you’ve ever read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer, then you have heard of this place, as it is the setting for an outlaw, fundamentalist, polygamist Mormon sect depicted in the book (a scary good read). In the grocery store, what a contrast to what we had encountered at breakfast just a few miles away in Utah at River Rock Roasting Company in La Verkin. Not a single person, patron or cashier, was wearing a mask, except for the 3 of us. Conversely, The River Rock Roasting Company had near universal mask compliance by staff and patrons, social distancing guidelines marked on the floor, and multiple tiers of shaded outdoor patios with appropriately spaced tables. (The berry muffins, quiches in baked tortilla cups and breakfast burritos were outstanding, as were the lattes and coffees.)
We procured salmon, dill and potatoes for dinner, whipping up a feast of grilled salmon coated with mustard and a layer of dill (a preparation we learned from a rad friend, Rich), with cast iron griddled potatoes and a salad from Seth’s garden of fresh greens and kale. He has an unobstructed red cliffs view from his shaded stone patio, making for a very pleasant interlude.
The Toyota was again put to the test to access the Gander trail on Gooseberry Mesa for a sunset shoot. We had a gorgeous overlook of Zion, with badlands in the foreground.
By the following day, we were sore from head to toe from boulder scrambling on top of mountain biking and camping and eager to relax at home in Sedona. Although we’d planned another night’s stay, our AirBnB owner kindly rebated us half of the final night back, and we drove back to Sedona via Jacob Lake, through swaths of blackened forest, a reminder how quickly nature can play havoc with the plans of people.
A funny coda or Sedona moment came one week later, as our scratches were healing and some bruises had faded to pale green, as we were on a video conference with our money manager, Carolyn. She raised a white cup with a familiar big horn sheep logo to her lips. Steve interrupted her: “Carolyn, is that a Rimtours cup?!”
It was. Dave and Mike had mentioned when our trip ended that they had a family trip following ours. It turned out, it was Carolyn and her family. Comparing injuries by Zoom certainly enlivened that financial meeting!