Since my gallbladder surgery, I have been scheming to get out of Kansas City. I knew my intended destination would ofcourse be Bozeman, Montana, but I wanted to try and stretch my return as long as possible. I wanted to try and run a few trails during the days it took for me to slowly work my way up north. Almost immediately, I knew I had to pass through southern Utah.
Growing up in our big family of 7 kids, we would often times take family vacations, sometimes multiple in one year. Because of this, by now I have visited around 35 states more or less. Somehow, Utah remained unseen for me, despite travelling to nearly every state around it and west of it. After reading Edward Abbey’s, “Desert Solitaire” and also the letters of Everett Rousse, I grew increasingly intrigued by the desert south. Names like Escalante, Grand Staircase, Manti Le Sal, Capitol Reef, jumped out from the pages and left me mystified. I had to find out just what those orange rock spires and slot canyons looked like in person.
I left on the 7th in the evening, and spent the night making the boring drive through western Kansas and eastern Colorado. I slept out of my car on a National Forest trailhead. In the morning, I decided to take a random trail I found there, right off I-70. I ran, but didn’t make it far. My lungs felt like they were going to explode, and my legs found no energy. I wasn’t used to the high altitude, and I felt like a goldfish flopping around out of water, gasping for air. I was at around 12k feet, and need to acclimatize more slowly, considering the fact that only a few hours before I was still at 2k feet. I did make it a couple miles up towards a mountain summit. The snow was deep by there, and I donned my new running crampons, to test them out for the first time. I was glad to get some elevation training under my feet, even though it was not very far.
Lessons in Road Tripping: Dirtball Style
I have learned the last couple years how to make the most of a road trip, and how to utilize public land as cheaply as possible. The west is blessed with many National Forests, and Wilderness areas. These chunks of land will more times than not, have multiple designated campsites with communal toilets and individual slots for campers, tents, or cars. Some cost money, but if you do your research, youll find many are free. OR, if you’re like me, you will just figure it out as you go. Most of the National Forests I stopped in on this trip all had paying campsites only, which was about $7 or $10 a night. Not too expensive, but considering the fact that I like my privacy, I decided another alternative. In these National Forests, they discourage people from straying from the road; however, you will find many small turnouts, identified by an old fire ring, along the forest service roads. There are so many spots like this, that I was guaranteed a place to sleep every random road I took in these public access areas. Just pull up, park your car, get out and pitch a tent, or make a fire.
I have the car camping down to a science. My Subaru Outback is not very big, especially after packing it with a mountain of gear. But with a little organization, it can be turned into a mini camper, with enough space to live out of. I put one seat down, place a sleeping pad along it, and pack everything around that. This is my bed to sleep on.
The next important factor in organization, is to separate various items in plastic bens for organization. It might be tempting to throw everything in a pile in the back, but a little time in keeping things neat and organized will take away a lot of stress while travelling. I put my clothes in one ben, hunting and fishing gear in another big one, shoes in one ben, and then backpacks full of other camping gear. When its time to sleep, I will take the clothes ben, and the food cooler (which will usually be resting on my “bed”) and then place those outside. In the morning, I simply put them back in the car. Everything is organized and where it needs to be, and takes minimal time to load up.
Another factor of cheap road tripping, is to buy your own groceries, and cook your own food. Buying food as you go, from gas station or fast food joints might seem cheap, but the costs add up quickly. I find that buying a week’s worth of groceries to live off, will be far more cheaper than a week’s worth of fast food and gas station food stops. Plus, buying your own groceries means healthier eating. And when you’ve been sitting on your ass driving long days, its better to eat healthier. I usually stock up on veggies and fruits and crackers. You can find a lot of good food that doesn’t require cooking and cleaning up big messes.
The Road Toward Utah.
On my second day, while travelling on I-70 west, near Glenwood, a find myself blocked, along with hundreds of other motor travelers. There was a shoot-out up ahead between a motorist and some Highway Patrol officers! The incident caused the entire highway to be shut down for a long time. This was very unfortunate, as I-70 near Glenwood is about the only way possible to travel west, without completely backtracking. I could have waited there for a couple hours till it cleared, but since I was restless, and wanted to travel impulsively, I decided to keep moving. I backtracked an hour behind, and then headed south. I drove through a number of wonderful, tiny mountain towns around the White River National Forest, and stopped off at many small coffee joints along the way. A particularly friendly town was Leadville, Colorado. That second day, I ended up staying in the southern Gunnison National Forest, on one of the tiny camping spots on the side of the forest service road, like I described earlier. The area was beautiful, with a mixture of granite peaks and rolling sage fields. Driving up, I noted the area could be a good mule deer habitat, and no sooner had I thought this, that I saw hundreds of mule deer in the course of perhaps 15 miles!
After a long, restful night, I moved westward. Nearing the Utah border in the morning, I was taking a back country road, when I noted a sign to a trailhead up ahead. Curious, I stopped to check it out. Off in the distance, I saw impressive red spires and cliffs rising in the distance. I had stumbled into the Redlands. Though I did not plan to run here, I decided to impulsively do so. The trip, lasting 12 miles out and back, was one of the most beautiful trails I have run to this day. I feasted on fresh fruit the rest of the day; with the sun up and the heat up, my body craved watery naturals.
The entire time spent in Utah was a blur, as I was continually driving from trailhead to trailhead, from wash to canyon- running as far as I could before moving on. The rain clouds in the distance the next few days looked imposing, and knowing the tiny canyons often saw lighting fast, flash floods during these times, I regretfully was unable to explore as far as I wanted. I did, however, get to run far into a wash in the backside of the Capitol Reef N.P. The canyon had many large spill outs, and I knew a flash flood was not a risk. So I ran far, and got a chance to see a few sections of body thick slot canyons. In the Escalante Grand Staircase N.M. I got a chance to run for a whole day in a larger canyon with smooth, orange walls on either side. The environments looked out of this world. I understood then why Everett Rouess, and Ed Abbey, and others loved this area so much. Alone, with the overwhelmingly loud silence, I had plenty of time to ponder the beauty of the place and my small existence. I felt truly blessed. And after living through the last few stressful months in the Central African Republic, it was the perfect retreat for my wary body and head.
I spent a couple nights in random forest service road turn-outs, in the Manti La Sal –in forests of bright white, birch trees-, and also on the edge of the Escalante Grand Staircase; here I finally was able to wash in a freezing cold mountain stream. On my way out, toward Salt Lake City, and ultimately Bozeman, I had a chance to explore a couple little towns that stood out to me as being particularly friendly, and hospitable: the tiny town of Boulder, and Escalante. In Boulder, I stopped by a small gas station that sold pretty much only natural, organic food, and bought a bag of tried figs. They were sold in a Ziploc bag, with a home printed sticker on them. I would never trust such food in a place like, say, Los Angeles, or Kansas City, where Im from. But out here, with a population of like-minded, healthy eaters, I had no problem eating my gas station, Ziploc bag dried fruit. In Escalante, I think every local I drove past waved at me; their friendliness was almost suspicious! Before leaving, I fueled myself with a strong Latte at the Escalante Outfitters- where the owner (im assuming the owner) and other staff were very friendly. If ever I decide to make a home around that desert Oasis of Utah, it will probably be in Escalante or Boulder…
Before reaching Bozeman, I had to drive through central and northern Utah in basically whiteout conditions. Needless to say, I did not linger- as I had planned previously- and drove straight the whole day and then into the night to reach the outskirts of Bozeman. Here, is where I currently am, and about to complete the second half of my road trip in the mountain ranges around here….