A Death in the Family

When I was twenty, I imagined I was all grown up and ready to plan the rest of my life. Even if I had had a clue about what I would want for the rest of my life, planning wasn’t my strong suit…and still isn’t. I met a boy who made me laugh, who could sing like Paul McCartney, and who was a Democrat. I married him while we were both children, he was 21 going on 15. I was young and dumb but far more responsible.

I parlayed his CalVet loan into a modest house in a diverse neighborhood that consisted mostly of older people who had built the homes they lived in. The house we bought had been built by the uncle of the next door neighbor. Decades later, when my present husband remodeled the kitchen, we found scrawled inside the wall, “Lois begain(sic) his house 1940”.

And so, we were able to guess that the two Chinaberry trees in the front yard had probably been planted before the end of World War II.

Little Tree
The bigger tree that shaded the driveway

Over the last forty-seven years, husbands have come and gone, but year after year these stoic trees added to their girth as they sheltered my yard and house from the relentless afternoon sun. Their lavender blossoms carpeted my driveway in spring and sent my allergies into high gear. Their arching branches provided a safe refuge for cats, raccoons, and opossums escaping marauding dogs and coyotes. Birds of a feather flocked together in the cool canopy of lacy leaves. And each fall I cursed them as they covered the lawn in leaves, and then sticks and berries. All trees are messy but these took mess to new heights.

My mom, always the practical one, advised me, year after year to take them out before they damaged the house and each year I would have them trimmed instead, loath to give up the glorious shade they provided.

BUT, a few days ago I noticed a faint whiff of sewage coming from the kitchen septic tank. Thinking the filter had gotten clogged, Mike went out and drained the tank and cleaned it thoroughly. But then he noticed that there was standing water where there should not be standing water. Excavation revealed that the leach pit was full and there was standing water in the leach line. A bit of online research revealed that this particular tree was not only invasive above ground but they were also an anathema to underground plumbing.

Making the decision to remove my eighty-year old trees felt like deciding to put down a beloved pet. Mike and I were both sick to our stomach with dread, but eventually came to the understanding that we had no choice.

The stumps stand in mute agony…or do I anthropomorphize?

Tomorrow the tree cutters will come to remove the stumps and we will begin the adjustment that follows every change in life. Everything we know is ephemeral but trees always seem symbolic of permanence, especially when their presence has been a part of one’s life from brash youth to maturity.

So, to Lois, who begain his house in 1940, I say thank you for your foresight…but next time please pick trees with less invasive root systems.

The Worst Day of Camping…

Sally and I walked the dogs around the perimeter of the camping area and discovered that there was a strong cell connection at the South end of the mesa. I took advantage of it and responded to some text messages from my sister and nieces.

We also discovered a recently vacated camp site atop a rocky knoll with a nice copse of juniper trees that offered morning and mid-day shade. We immediately re-positioned our camp site.

This site had the advantage of being up wind of most of the dusty roads and there was only one other occupied site close by.

Bella got more than her nose under the tent.

After setting up our new camp, we drove up to the Kolob reservoir. All three of us piled into Sally’s little SUV (wearing masks and with all windows open) and all three dogs shared the back hatch area (without masks or social distancing).

Sadie with Bella sitting on Molly

We stopped at the little market/restaurant where I’d bought ice the day before and ordered one Hatch chili burger with pepper jack cheese to share. The woman who took our order was surly and I didn’t tip. The cook/waiter, who served us on the deck, was cheerful and attentive, zipping around on bandy legs, tattooed from ankle to the bottom of his shorts (as far as I know).

Sally, who replaces her vehicles every few years, didn’t mind driving on dirt roads a bit, so we drove around the reservoir. The locals were camped cheek by jowl (by my standards) and had all the accoutrements I detest in camping neighbors: motorcycles, amplified music, kids, etc. We encountered a small herd of cattle and a few horses in a pasture and stopped to take some pictures. The horses were friendly and came over to the fence for some attention. When one grew too assertive and started pawing her front hoof through the wire fence, we beat a hasty retreat lest she hurt herself or damage the fence.

Jordy and Bella make friends with Flicka

Jordy had an essay that was due by midnight so we headed back to camp where she worked on the essay and Sally and I prepared dinner. Jordy had made a delicious concoction she called pizza in a pot and I made a fresh vegetable salad. It was the first real meal I’d had since leaving home and it tasted out of this world! Then Sally and Jordy drove down to La Verkin to send her essay in, and I washed up the dishes.

A well-deserved and much appreciated meal with other campers in the background.

During the evening more campers streamed into the mesa and soon our secluded site was surrounded by other campers. By dusk, each campsite had a fire going, never mind that it was over 70 degrees on the mesa, and once again the smoke drifted up the hill and an asthma attack forced me to put on my N95 mask.

Shortly after the girls left, the large group nearest our site fired up rapid staccato dance music over which they shouted and laughed uproariously. One woman in particular had a most annoying laugh that reminded me of my neighbor’s dog that barks incessantly in a regular rhythmic pattern. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d driven 400 miles to escape smoke and noisy neighbors only to be surrounded by smoke and noisy neighbors. Well, at least the latrines had finally been pumped and it was cool.

By morning I’d pretty much decided to leave Smith Mesa. Sally and I took the dogs for a walk around the ranch perimeter looking for a more secluded camp site, but the entire meadow was populated with campers. We found a trail that was evidently used for the guided horseback rides (2 hours @ $99). It wound through the remains of a juniper forest that had burned some years ago. It occasionally veered to the rim of the mesa to offer a panoramic view of the canyon below.

I noticed string of horses on the trail ahead so we called the dogs and stepped about 20 feet off the trail to allow them to pass. The ride leader, a boy of about 18, was riding a young, blue roan who noticed us first and pricked his ears at us in mild alarm. I spoke soothingly and moved in a calm manner a little farther off the trail, allowing him to identify us as nothing dangerous. But the young wrangler, happy to have an excuse to show off his horsemanship skills, stirred up the nervous horse and lost control as the horse began sidling off the trail, snorting at us and disrupting the progress of the dude horse that were following with their greenhorn riders aboard. The confused animals left the trail nearly scraping their hapless riders off on the burnt remains of the dead junipers. When the junior ride leader regained his composure, and his paying customers resumed their line behind him, I heard him say, “I don’t know what they’re doing out here anyway”, as if it were our fault that he was riding a green horse over which he had limited control. As a former trail horse rider, I have little patience for people who take their inexperienced horses out on trails and then blame others when their animals get spooked.

Back at camp, I packed up the trailer and bid Sally and Jordy a fond adieu, inviting them to join me at Red Rock Canyon later that afternoon.

Red Rock turned out to be a bit farther out of the way than I’d anticipated and the small campground was full by the time I arrived. I did and internet search for BLM camping and found Lovell Canyon, allegedly 35 minutes away, in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, Nevada. Highway 160 was lovely but it was under construction most of the way, so the thirty-five-minute drive turned into more like an hour. No problem, I had nothing but time and the scenery was expansive and the traffic light.

At last I came to the turn off for Lovell Canyon, a narrow paved road that climbed gradually up a broad valley https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKdG9A_E2Bo  (my campsite is at 6:46 in the video) lined by junipers and desert scrub, a quintessential western landscape.

In minutes I’d found an acceptable flat spot to spend the night. I soon had everything set up, even the temperamental refrigerator. Feeling quite smug about events, I opened a bottle of Pinot Noir to breathe and prepared to take a “shower” at my outside shower.

The term “shower” isn’t exactly descriptive as the shower consists of a hand-held nozzle that kind of drizzles tepid water (there’s no water heater). But it serves to rinse off the dust and grime of the trail and leaves one feeling refreshed. The air temperature at 5,000’, in the desert, was a lovely 80 degrees and I luxuriated in my bath al fresco. Since there is no privacy at the side of my trailer, I wear a loose, sleeveless shift of sorts, and clean myself under it.

Clean and content, I settled into my camp chair with a glass of wine and some sliced apples and yogurt. A group of Hispanic (I guess the current politically correct term is Latin-x) folks down the road were playing their music loudly enough for me to make out some of the lyrics but not so loud as to be annoying. I enjoy ranchero music and it’s fun to try to figure out the gist of the Spanish ballads. A little less enjoyable was the frantic barking of their Chihuahuas. It sounded way too much like my own neighborhood! But I relaxed with the belief that they were not spending the night. The ranger had stopped by earlier to remind me of the “No Fire” edict and in chatting him up, I mentioned the music. He said it didn’t look like they were staying overnight. There was only one other tent, a hundred yards down the road, but I saw no evidence of occupation.

Happy hour

No sooner had I settled into the cooling dusk when the music ceased and a motor of some sort was fired up. Hoping they were preparing to leave, I calmed myself. But no, it must have been a generator, because it droned on for over an hour. Around 8:00 it was shut off and the silence was almost palpable until I registered the songs of nighttime insects. Within a few minutes I heard their trucks coming up the hill. Since I was camped right on the edge of the road, they passed within a few feet of my trailer. Two vehicles passed by but the third and fourth ones stopped right next to my trailer that was parked behind a tree. I was suddenly aware of my vulnerability. Peering out, I contemplated what course of action I should take if anyone approached my Wanderlust. I didn’t even have my canister of pepper gel with me! The thought that their Chihuahuas would be no match for Sadie, my Klingon Dog Shepherd and Molly Bear Dog Border Collie, I relaxed and started composing greetings in Spanish. “Buenas noches, no me gusto la migra y ICE.”

To my relief, they continued up the road after a minute or two, and at last I had the peace of the desert I had traveled so far to find.

When I went out to pee, I noticed the glow of Las Vegas, almost forty miles away, on the eastern horizon, as bright as the waxing moon. There was no sign of the Milky Way but I reveled in the sounds of silence.

There truly is no rest for the wicked. Awake at 3:00, the moon had gone down, yet Las Vegas provided sufficient light to stumble to the edge of the clearing to effect some dust control. It was too cold to do anything but crawl back under the down comforter and try to find sleep again. When that failed, I read for an hour or so. I soon felt restless so, dressed in all my layers, I started a pot of coffee and then packed up in the dark.

Truly, the worst day of camping is better than the best day of anything else.

Zion Wright Family Ranch and Kolob Terrace Road

Leaving the paved Kolob Terrace Road, I was relieved to see that Smith Mesa Road was wide and nicely graded. The instructions to find the Zion Wright Family Ranch said I would find the gate just a mile and a half up the road. What it didn’t say was that it was quite literally UP the road. Carved into the side of a deep canyon, the road dipped and rose with each drainage it crossed, each successive one deeper and steeper than the last. By the third, I looked across at the steep grade out of the ravine and wondered if my intrepid Lexus was up to the task with its city slicker tires and dragging my tiny house behind. Using a tactic well known in mountain biking, I gathered speed on the descent, using momentum to assist in the climb out of the drainage. Nearing the top of each ascent, the road was rough, chopped into stutter bumps by many vehicles laboring up the grade. Presently I came to a sign that advised me that the road ahead was impassable when wet. Thank goodness there was no chance of rain because I found it nearly impassable when dry!

My relief at reaching the ranch gate quickly evaporated when I saw that the tracks leading to what passed for campsites were not just rutted, but blanketed in several inches of fine, red dust. I parked my rig and set off on a reconnaissance mission to find a campsite on foot.

There were a few scrubby juniper trees scattered about the perimeter of the mesa but most of them had other campers already ensconced next to them. I finally settled on a site against the fence that marked the western edge of Zion National Park, ensuring I would have no neighbors to the east. There was a group of rent-a-tents on the other side of the dusty track, but they all appeared to be unused.

I got the trailer reasonably level before attempting to switch the refrigerator from 12V to propane. Several attempts to light it were unsuccessful so I turned it back to battery power and went for a walk. That’s pretty much my solution for nearly every problem. If a hike or a bike ride doesn’t solve it maybe it just shouldn’t be solved.

Returning from our walk, I had nicely lit the fridge, showered, and poured a glass of wine when the day trippers began to roll in. The previously empty tents now were filling with people who barreled down the dusty road sending rooster tails of dust into the air. The prevailing breeze carried it gently over my campsite, dusting my freshly washed body with crimson bath powder. When the dust finally settled, they built white-man campfires that sent choking smoke across the road. And just when I thought it could not get any worse, someone fired up a generator. So much for silence, solitude and stars.

I poured a second glass of wine and settled down to whine in my journal. As I reflected on the day, I realized that despite the apprehensions and inconveniences, there was no place I would rather be, nothing I would rather be doing, and nobody I would rather be doing it with at that moment. Molly and Sadie dozed contentedly at my feet, the evening was cool, my cozy bed beckoned.

After the three previous sleepless nights and two glasses of wine, I fell into a blissful coma. Sober by 3:00 A.M. I awoke and, knowing that waiting for sleep to return only allows depressing thoughts to roam, I put on some warm clothes that I’d packed in a moment of optimism, and went for a walk.

The puny waxing crescent moon had set, leaving the stars to carry the show, which they did admirably. The Milky Way, never visible at home, splayed across the sky weakly through the smokey atmosphere. I lit the path with my flashlight just in case any nocturnal rattlesnakes happened to be on the trail. The latrine was about a quarter mile away and I hoped that the trek would prompt morning ablutions. The cabinet was clean, though there was no paper, but being prepared, I opened the lid to the commode.

Why does one compulsively look into the gaping maw of a public toilet? And why would any sane person of normal sensibilities shine her LED flashlight into it? I suppose it’s to determine if there’s room for one more deposit, and in this case it was wise that I did. Despite the omnipresent signs begging users NOT to put anything but poop and tissue in the toilet, someone had filled it to within a couple of inches of the seat with disposable diapers. I decided to take my business elsewhere. No image necessary, I believe I can leave this one to your imagination.

Morning coffee on the mesa

Is there anything finer than having the day lie ahead with nothing to do but follow where your curiosity leads? No schedule to make demands, I lingered in camp, reorganizing and tidying, writing and enjoying the quiet, cool morning. A young coyote took umbrage at the dogs on his turf and commenced to hurl insults at us in the coyote dialect of the region. We had no difficulty understanding him and the girls would have liked to have taught the cheeky youngster some manners, but instead sat watching the brush from whence came his vitriol. Eventually, he got over himself and moved on. As he trotted off, he grumbled more to himself than to us, and I couldn’t help but sympathize with him.

The mile and a half back to Kolob Terrace Road was half as long without the trailer bouncing along behind and in the downhill direction. We turned north continuing to climb towards the Kolob Reservoir.

Zion on the horizon

Scrub brush and junipers gave way to pines and cedars and the kolobs and pinnacles of Zion Canyon graced the views through the trees. I drove slowly and pulled over frequently to allow folks who obviously could process splendor faster than I to pass. The air grew cooler as we climbed and as the aspens laid claim, shivering in the light breeze, their leaves hinted at the golden spectacle they would be less than a month from now.

At the reservoir, it was a pleasant 72 degrees. (Remember that I had driven four hundred miles to escape triple digit temperatures) The road around the reservoir wasn’t paved and I didn’t see any obvious hiking opportunities; so after chatting up a bearded young man who was sitting in front of the canoe rental concession, we headed back down the hill.

Private property or perhaps leased BLM land along the Kolob Terrace Road

We stopped at Lamb’s Canyon, which the sign said offered rock climbing. It was BLM land so the dogs could run free. We hiked around following a crisscross of cow paths and the girls had a field day, bounding through brush, scaring up birds and rabbits. There were a couple of rock climbing outfitters taking beginner clients to climb for the first time. I heard one instructor ask, “Do either of you have a fear of heights or exposure?” I thought that was an odd question considering they had probably just paid him several hundred dollars to take them rock climbing.

In search of a cell connection, I drove down to Virgin where I received Sally’s text that said they were already in La Verkin (5 miles away) working via the Wi-Fi of the River Rock Coffee Company. They spent several hours there, Sally in a virtual meeting and Jordy tutoring students. I drove down and met them for coffee, then got gas and headed back to camp.

I found free camping (BLM) under a canopy of cottonwood trees. The track along the creek wasn’t actually a road and was pretty rough, so I parked the car and walked in. I found a young couple sitting immersed in their electronic devices. I greeted them and confirmed the camping here was free. It became apparent that English wasn’t their native tongue so I asked where they were from. They were from Argentina and their English was significantly better than my Spanish but barely up to the task of conversation. What they lacked in vocabulary, they made up with excellent pronunciation, so talking with them was a pleasure.

Dani and Nanchy were traveling in a van conversion that Dani said Nanchy had built from a bare bones van. It was fully self-contained, including solar power. They had driven it from Argentina, camping along the way. Making a display of my ignorance of the numerous countries they had traversed, I asked about their experiences in Mexico. I’d recently read Paul Theroux’s, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, in which he had described the perils and pleasures of traveling in Mexico and I was interested in hearing about their journey. I asked if they had to pay mordida (bribe) to the Federales and Nanchy laughed and said, “Oh yes, all the time”. They were using an app (iOverlander) that allowed other travelers, like themselves, to share where to safely camp, even in big cities. The rule, she said, was never to travel after dark and when possible, camp with a group. Paul Theroux had said the same. They were so genuine and interesting that I invited them to come stay with us if they got to Southern California.

As appealing as the creek-side camping appeared I did not consider moving our camp down to this little slice of heaven by the stream because benthic cyanobacteria mats have been observed in North Creek and the Virgin River.  The likely cyanobacteria blooming in the Virgin River is the genus Tychonema. It forms colonies that can be red, yellow, tan, green, brown, or black in color. It produces the cyanotoxin called anatoxin-a, which impacts the nervous system. It posed too great a danger to our dogs who love to play in the stream. It can be dangerous, even fatal, even if it only touches broken skin.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…nothing had changed. The port-a-pots had not been pumped and yet more campers rolled in. I walked my luggable loo down the dusty track to the nearer latrine, hoping it would have had less use, being farther away from the tent encampment. At least it wasn’t filled with diapers but the pumper guy was going to have his hands full when he showed up.

Sally and Jordy arrived just before dark and I suggested a walk to allow their young dog, Bella, to stretch her legs. Accustomed to my sedate dogs, Bella was a whirlwind, a bull in a china shop. Sally and Jordy tried to contain her exuberance by yelling and complaining to little effect. I was instructed to tell her to sit when she jumped up on me. I employed the more effective technique of lifting a knee to fend her off but she soon figured that if she jumped on me from the side, I was defenseless. Sadie was not pleased with her cheeky behavior and tried to keep herself between Bella and me, giving her the stink eye but not actually snarling.

My pooped puppy

After Sally and Jordy got the contents of their car disgorged onto the ground next to it, and made their bed in the back, we sat in the gathering darkness for a bit. My dogs were ready for bed. Molly climbed into bed and stayed there but Sadie kept coming out of the trailer to encourage me to come to bed with them. So, I bid the girls good-night and came in to write while they trekked down the dusty track to the latrine.

Stay tuned for the next episode of Girls Gone Mild.

A Woman and Her Dogs at the End of the World 2

Camping and hiking plans in California thwarted by wildfires, Sally and I desperately looked farther afield for options. I noted a small island of smoke-free air over a portion of Southwestern Utah and a new itinerary was born. It was agreed that I would leave on Tuesday, camping at Valley of Fire, which is more or less halfway, and Sally and her daughter Jordy would follow Thursday to meet me at a working cattle ranch just west of Zion National Park.

I’d found the Zion Wright Family Ranch online at HipCamp.com and it sounded perfect. The ranch offered dispersed camping, portable toilets, starlit skies and nothing else. Most importantly, dogs were welcome. https://www.hipcamp.com/utah/zion-wright-ranch-eco-camp/zion-wright-family-ranch-ecocamping

Planning, provisioning, and packing are always a good portion of the fun of camping and since this was to be the longest and farthest from home I’d ever done, it was especially important to be prepared. This was my second solo trip but still, I felt a little trepidation about the responsibility of all the details. By Monday night, everything except the refrigerated food was loaded. I was so excited I could barely sleep and when I awoke at 4:30, I despaired of going back to sleep and got up.

The drive from home to Las Vegas is always tedious but towing a trailer, it’s LONG and tedious. By the time I got to the turnoff for Valley of Fire, I was way beyond ready to call it a day.

One of many pit stops along Interstate Hwy 15

I was gratified to find that my favorite campsite was empty and I quite proficiently backed the Wanderlust into the little box canyon. When we camped here last spring, the protective canyon walls shielded us from the chill wind; but now, at the end of summer, the sun-baked sandstone felt more like a pizza oven.

We all needed some exercise after a day in the car, so before we lost our daylight, we went out to do some rock scrambling. Molly, remembering the skill she had developed last year, led the way with evident enthusiasm. Sadie, has aged in the last year and found that leaping up ledges that were effortless before, now took some planning. I too noticed that I’d lost some agility. We circled around to the back side of our campsite and clambered down the wall to our warm nest.

Dinner consisted of the sliced apples and yogurt that I’d packed for lunch as it was too warm to consider cooking inside the trailer. We sat outside, the dogs ears cocking at every nocturnal rustling, while I jotted the day’s events in my journal. Traveling alone allows ample time for reflection and journaling, a rare pleasure. When my head began nodding over my notebook, I moistened my shorty pajamas and settled into my little bed at the front of the camper. I set up the big bed at the back for the dogs, but this night they chose to sleep outside in the cool sand.

Morning proved to be not a whole lot cooler so we ate a quick cold breakfast and packed up, hoping to do a short hike before the sun got so high that there would be no shade. The trailhead to Natural Arches proved elusive so we plodded up a sandy wash in the general vicinity of the alleged trail.

The trail eventually slotted up into an interesting canyon but shade was intermittent and the dogs soon became overheated; so we turned back after only a mile or so.

A provocative orifice in the canyon wall

Back on the road, the girls napped while I listened to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and the miles passed pleasantly.

The Virgin River Gorge is always exciting both in the astounding scenery and in the white-knuckled competition for road space in the narrow canyon. Two lanes in each direction wind through the gorge carved over eons by the Virgin River. From the depth of the canyon, one might envision a raging torrent of a river violently scraping away layers of sedimentary rock. But when one catches a glimpse of the artist at work far below, it is a placid creek, meandering its serpentine path to join the mighty Colorado River at Lake Meade. Not that a driver has many opportunities to ogle the mind-blowing spectacle because big rigs on a mission swarm around my little rig which is trying desperately to adhere to the posted speed limit of 55 mph (autos towing trailers). Even in the most constricted curves, where the posted speed limit is 55 for all vehicles, the average speed is closer to 70.

We found the turn at Virgin that took us up Kolob Terrace Road to the Smith Mesa junction without difficulty. I love Google Maps! Kolob Terrace Road is just another astounding example of man’s road building ingenuity. Rising steeply from the valley floor, it straddles a ridge where in some places the road occupies the entire width of the ridge. Profligately green pastures and expansive ranch houses (actually B&Bs) could be seen in the canyon below if one had the nerve to look. About seven miles up, we found the graded but not paved road veering off to Smith Mesa.

A whole ‘nother adventure presented itself. But this post has grown too long so there will need to be a sequel. Stay tuned.