South to warmth! That was the name of the game. But on this evening of December 16th 2012 we would be playing a different game- the use every trick in the book to stay warm game but we didn’t know that yet. Late in the afternoon after a number of errands in Denver CO we rolled south on I-25. The sun set as we passed Colorado Springs. We stopped for gas near Colorado City but I only filled a gallon as I thought the price was high and it would be best to fill up just before heading into the mountains. About 20 minutes later we saw our exit to cut through the mountains but fortunately had to keep going to fill up with gas in Walsenburg CO. Stopping at a Western Gas Station/ Convenience store I ducked inside to escape the bone chilling wind after filling the Subaru tank. For good measure & warmth I decided to check out the CO Back-roads map-books. Strangely my google maps directions appeared to be routed through the Sangre de Cristo mountains on a hiking trail. Maybe we would save that drive for a time when it the temps weren’t in the tweens. Yes, the forecast for that night was calling for temperatures around 11 degrees Fahrenheit! Between us we had a 12 year old 20 degree go lite sleeping bag, 40 degree go lite bag of the same age and a 20 degree Kelty from the mid 90′s with a hole in it. Perfect sleeping bags for the tropics. Less so for the American West in winter. This convenience store was our home for a couple hours. We became buds with Sabina who worked there and is a Panamanian adopted by an American Serviceman. She was really excited to chat with us and hear about our trip. She told us of having her first kid just out of high school and of dealing with her mother’s death a few years ago. She even offered us a floor to sleep on in her small place.
Hot water from the coffee machines brought us warmth and comfort. From it we heated our dinner- Indian food- curry and lentils. We filled our three 1.5 liter water bottles with this steaming H20 goodness and reluctantly headed out into the cold wind. We drove west to Lathrop State park but it didn’t look very inviting (sheltered) or cheap so I plugged on into the night eventually finding a dirt road leading to some ranches. After a short drive I found a grassy patch next to the road and pulled the Roo off the road to act as a wind-block against the strong current from the west. We set up the tent against the Roo without guying it out for extra warmth and hunkered down for a chilly night. Chilly it was! But we survived and even managed to sleep some. It felt like we were having an adventure in the mountains rather than car camping.
In the morning we were happy to have the sun rejoin our part of the world and be on our way. Crossing westward over the mountains to more snow we drove to the next town along our route, Blanca CO. Once again we used the might of a Convenience store microwave & hot water to make breakfast-corn meal! We spent a decent bit of time at this convenience store warming ourselves. Once again we were on our way to our destination for the day. Great Sand Dunes national Park. Our friends in Denver & Boulder spoke highly of this place. Obadiah has some great photos of the dunes and I was excited to check ‘em out. We drove in on the small plowed road and headed to the trail head at the north end of the park for a hike into the dunes. We were both surprised to see how close the dunes are to the mountains. I thought they would be further offset- out by their lonesome. Negative. These large dunes which rise upwards of 700′ are are closely followed by the Sangre de Cristo mountains rising to the 13-14k’ range. “It makes the dunes look like they are really just a pile of dirt”, according to Lynne.
We stepped into about 6″ of fresh snow and hiked towards the dunes. It felt good to be out of the car after the long drives and be exercising once again. Hiking uphill on dunes is hard! Memories of hill intervals up steep sand from cross country came back to me. Rising off the valley floor we quickly left the snow since the dunes were wind scoured along the ridges. Some of the features made it look like we were on a glacier! Turning around we had fun running sections and made it down quickly. Back at the car by 2pm I found a flat snow-free spot in the parking lot and rotated the tires. We ate a simple lunch of peanut butter and honey with crackers and headed out on the road by 3:30pm. For a more direct and adventurous drive we took Lane 6 west from the south end of the park. It was a rural road that was unplowed through sections encouraging the use of 4wd. This took a while and finally we were on the highway to Pagoosa Springs.
Darkness fell as we climbed the pass in a snowstorm. Exhausted we stopped at Pagoosa springs to have some chili & a tamale at a Chevron. There was about a foot of compact snow in town but we headed over to ask some hotels if we could camp behind their buildings. Normally this would be ok but of course they are Americans and have deep concern for our safety (their vulnerability to lawsuits) & said it was far to cold to let us camp. I chatted again with my friend Marcie in Durango and even though this was a less than ideal evening to have us over she said we could stay with them. We made the slow drive with freezing fog on the window (and no defroster) making travel along the last 60 miles of road toward Durango CO more interesting. Driving through the national forest we saw that we would not have been able to get the Subaru up a forest road to camp. The thought of spending another night similar to our Walsenburg experience didn’t seem enticing either. We really wanted/ needed to find warmer weather! Exhausted again we made it to Ryan & Marcie’s house by 8:30 and had a nice visit with Marcie. Ryan was out late with a work function but we had a chance to visit in the morning for a bit. It felt so good to be sleeping indoors! We were quite grateful for the visit and the warmth!
After looking at weather forecasts the next morning we threw out our intended route due to a snowstorm about to pummel the region. I was sad to miss Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly but I’ve been before. Driving remote dirt roads that become MUCH more remote with precip without much warm weather gear seemed like a bad idea. It was also sad to spend so little time with Ryan and Marcie but snowstorms added an element of urgency to our trek towards warmth. We pointed our compass towards southern Utah and supposed warmth in the land of red rock skipping snowy Mesa Verde national Park on the way. We passed through Cortez CO filled the Roo Tank and headed into New Mexico and the Navajo Indian reservation with the unmistakable signs one is on the rez. Lynne was excited to see Shiprock for the first time from a distance. We passed through 4 corners and kept on trucking through the rez. As the diffuse light began to change I looked for a camp site off a dirt road near Kayenta Arizona but we decided to see if there was a Walmart parking lot in town. Negative. We kept on going into the night. We ascended and the snow came at us hard in the dark. Lynne’s parents called around 7pm as they had finally landed in the US after being stuck in Kazakhstan since the weather was too cold for jets to come for a couple days! We felt 11 degrees sure was nice compared to -40! I checked more dirt roads but decided not to camp on the rez as it’s not respectful so I pressed on and finally arrived in Page Arizona in a complete state of exhaustion.
The first convenience store stop lacked our main staple- a hot water tap- so we searched for another. I was in that state where you stare at random things for chunks of time without realizing it. Lynne stating this is a partial description says I didn’t know the answer to *any* question “or even better, you don’t seem to understand English.” When we arrived it was calm with mild temps. That changed in a matter of minutes though as the wind began to rage! Locals were amazed by the downpour- sideways rain of biblical proportions. We ate cous cous with Indian Food in the convenience store. We waited and waited as the storm released its energy. Finally we headed out into the Roo and drove lower in town to find the Walmart and its parking lot- our fancy home for the night. The wind was still whipping as we set up the tent but the rain began to taper thankfully! We guyed out the tent with several shopping carts and all the large rocks we could find. I got up at 3am to guy out the side against the car. We were greeted by chilly temps the next morning and a stiff breeze. The sun was nice! From the Walmart lot we headed to the Glen Canyon Dam Visitor center and had a nice chat with Marcus, the manager at the bookstore/ gift shop. On the road again we re-entered snow as we climbed near the turnoff for House Rock Valley road- the access to white pockets & the Wave. It would have been pretty out there but we had neither the vehicle nor the gear to head out into this remote area this trip. Just before Kanab I visited some nice horses in the snow who were shy with Lynne.
We stopped for gas in Kanab, UT and asked a fellow from the road crew if he knew how the dirt road from Coral Pink Sand Dunes to Colorado City, AZ was. He said the Utah side was good and thought the Arizona side had been plowed the day before so we decided to head that way and hopefully make Gooseberry Mesa overlooking Zion by sunset. Coral Pink Sand Dunes state park was white as the dunes were blanketed in over a foot of fresh snow. As we walked past 2 mud covered SUVs up to overlook the dunes & two mothers walked away. We had stumbled upon a sledding party likely comprised of Mormon fundamentalists. no conversations about polygamy were to be had as they kept their distance and we had a date with a sunset over Zion.
Crossing the state line into Arizona we traded pavement for dirt. It was compact snow and ice at first with a few puddles. Easy. As we descended the puddles grew. Red mud multiplied. Giving it everything I had- years of 4X4ing experience we were doing just getting by. 2nd Gear in 4 High felt like it was about to bog so I kept my R’s up. The Soob isn’t a huge powerhouse so I knew if i didn’t keep my rpms up we’d be stuck … for who knows how long! Momentum, wheel-spin and a good line were our best friends. I was glad to have great mud & snow tires! Soon the good line part of the equation evaporated as I ran out of wiper fluid! Darn! I drove like a blind person trying to feel the line through slush and mud and puddles filling the road like swamps. The windshield looked liked an abstract red canvas. Finally I reached pavement! Whew!! It’s one thing to go wheeling at home where you have friends or another vehicle nearby to yank yourself out after a walk … it’s quite another when you’re responsible for another person 1000s of miles from home and overnight temps are in the survival range rather than the sleep range. I was strung out from adrenaline for some time! WOWsers!
The Roo was coated in red mud/snow & ice. Back on the highway we passed Colorado City, AZ and looked at the huge shells of Mormon fundamentalist homes. Soon we turned off on the dirt road to Goosberry mesa. Boy were we happy to be driving on some Froze On Dirt! It was icy though and the road had a huge crown leading to froze on water below so I wasn’t in rally mode. The best light passed on the drive in and as I pulled my camera and tripod out of the car. That’s ok, it was pretty and I snapped a few shots of Zion before we headed back to the highway and civilization. Arriving in St George Utah we promptly picked up some washer fluid and headed to Lynne’s favorite Mexico restaurant in Utah- Albertos. Outside a guy looked at the Roo and gave an enthusiastic, “MUDDIN” (pause) “MUDDDDINNN!!” …. “NICE”. We made it to Charlie & Kathy’s house in Ivins just before 9pm- tired once again but happy for another wonderful visit- our second with Charlie for 2012.