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.

Girls Gone Mild Again

The previous trip only whetted my appetite for another Lone Pine adventure, so two weeks later I persuaded Sally and her daughter Jordan to join me in a four-day Girls Gone Mild adventure. I re-packed the trailer, replenishing my wine supply with TWO bottles this time.

The girls and I hit the road bright and early, feeling rather optimistic as the car was outfitted with new brakes and shocks and the trailer had new tires. Sally and Jordan would follow later in the day when they finished their work day. We encountered a detour, got stuck behind a slow-moving truck, and came upon an accident that required a change of course on a dirt road, but otherwise had clear sailing.

About an hour from our destination I saw a sign saying, “Fossil Falls” which piqued my interest. But being eager to find a good campsite in Lone Pine, I vowed to check it out on the return trip.

The Lone Pine Campground was technically closed for the season but there were a few first-come-first-served sites available and they were free of charge as all of the water faucets were shut off to prevent freezing. Thankfully the pit toilets were open. I selected a site and prepared to back the trailer in when the man camping in the next site walked over to greet me. He kindly offered to guide me into my spot which I gratefully accepted. I’m not exactly proficient at backing and it usually takes me a few tries to get the trailer exactly where I want it. Once I was where I wanted to be, he went back to his own site while I set up the Wanderlust.

Dusk in Lone Pine Campground

Evening falls early in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and by the time I had the trailer level, the refrigerator turned on, and my camp set up, it was growing cool. My new neighbor (Jeff), seeing that I was unaccompanied (other than the dogs) came over and invited me to join him for dinner. He was making pork loin and grilled asparagus. I paused for the briefest moment before accepting his invitation. I offered to contribute salad and wine but he assured me he had it all covered. I had time to take the girls for a short walk before dinner would be served.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills

By the time we returned, Jeff had his picnic table set for two though I had offered to bring my own plate and flatware. Dishwashing isn’t my favorite task when camping so I didn’t expect him to provide the meal AND do the dishes but he explained that he was a sea kayaking guide by profession and was quite practiced at feeding groups from his camp stove. And sure enough, he effortlessly laid out a four course meal fit for royalty. I offered to do the dishes but he waved me off and by the time I’d gone to my trailer and slipped into something more comfortable (polar fleece pants, a down jacket, and hat), he had everything washed and stowed away in the bear box. He built a fire and offered me dessert, a pudding cup, but I declined.

By 7:30 we were in bed…he in his tent, me and my dogs in my trailer. I couldn’t help but wonder at how different things would have gone forty years ago when we would have lingered around the fire until we had finished a bottle of wine. But now even a man eight years younger than I was no temptation.

Sally and Jordy pulled in around 10:00 by which time the girls and I were ready to make a restroom run. They decided it was too much trouble to set up a tent in the dark, besides it was really COLD; so, they folded the back seat down in the SUV and slept in the car.

Sunrise on Mt. Whitney

For the next two days we explored the area around our campground, beginning with breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe, a favorite with the locals and tourists alike.

Jordy examines a cactus in the Alabama Hills
Sadie the Wonder Dog

We invited Jeff to join us for a dinner of spaghetti and salad which he accepted. We ate inside the trailer because the breeze was cold and the trailer was snug and almost warm.

Tea and Story time

The Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail begins at the campground in scrub brush and ascends through several climate zones in just four miles.

Owens Valley Overlook
Looking up the Whitney Portal
Crossing Meysan Creek

By the end of the day the dogs were ready for bed.

As always, it was time to head home long before we were tired of exploring. It helped that we had one more place to stop on the way home. Fossil Falls is a former river bed that once flowed through the volcanic rock at the southern end of the Owens Valley. The river has long ago changed course but the channel carved by it remains.

I found this in my drafts file and figured I might as well post it as I just received a notice from Valley of Fire that my campsite reservation for next week has been cancelled due to the threat of Covid-19.