I wake up in Hovenweep in that silence that can only mean snow.
I start on my walk around the ruins but it is hopeless as the path is hidden by snow and I worry about falling.
I do find some ruins, very impressive, built in the 12th century, but the hike round all the sites is definitely off.
The snow is getting worse and I head out for the nearest town, Cortez Colorado. The drive is very scary as Google maps takes me down farm roads that are covered in snow, such that you don’t really know if you are on the road or have driven off; this in a whiteout. Delighted after 2 hours of 20 mph crawling to hit a highway and make it to Cortez.
There I get an ATT strong signal and read email. The first says:
The second is worse news:
What to do now? The course was the foundation of the whole trip. I booked it in October last year and then invented the camper trip out there and back. Now I am snowbound in Cortez, Colorado with no destination. At least the snowstorm stops me going anywhere, simplifying decision making for the moment.
I spend the night in the country outside Monument Valley. Not long after I had set up the camper, an old Indian guy rumbles up in a truly massive truck. He has come from a small er farm a mile or so down the track.
At first he says I can not stay there but once I explain that I am old like him and want to be warm, he says “Ha, no problem brother, you stay here. I just don’t like the drunks who drive around the water tower.” I know what he means. The camper is very snug and warm, the scenery is very big and at this time of the year, very cold.
Next morning I go to Monument Valley. It is thronged, even though I must be one of the first to get there.
Busloads of Chinese and Russian tourists take pictures in the sub zero temperature.
I become claustrophobic, too many people, so I leave Monument Valley and head off to Goosenecks Bends. I set up at the campsite very early as I am determined to cook something, being heartily sick of the gas station sandwich. It is very cold.
The furnace, camper talk for heater, will not start. This is terrible news. I change propane bottles, check all connections, pray, but it is no good, there will be no heat.
I cook up steak and courgettes in the dutch oven, bring the food into the camper but by the time I start to eat, it is already cold. The beer starts to freeze by the end of the meal. It is well below freezing inside the camper and at 6:00 I heap all warm stuff onto the bed and attempt to sleep.
It is a cold night and I wake up to icicles of condensation inside the camper. It has snowed.
I drive off to The Valley of the Gods which is essentially next door. It is no good: it is snowing, very grey and the road is becoming increasingly slippery.
I finally capitulate and head into Blanding, famous for the Super 8 Motel.
The next destination is Toroweep or sometimes Tuweep, which lies on the North Ridge of the Grand Canyon. I flee all the people at Bryce and pass through Kanab and Sedonia to end up at Pipe Springs. I have been through a lot of correspondence to get a backcountry permit to allow me to camp at Toroweep. The solution is that I pick one up at Pipe Springs National Monument. When I get there Pipe Springs National Monument is closed because of the Government shutdown. The fragility of planning.
I take the road to Toroweep. This is a 61 mile dirt road over a blasted heath. It is not bad but at times washboardish, inducing shuddering that makes me shudder for my airbags.
Notwithstanding, it is a great drive as the sun goes down to my right and I know I have left madding crowd far behind.
Just before I get to Toroweep I am met by a Ranger. It is way past sunset and very cold. He explains that he saw my lights 20 miles away.
“ Can’t stay here, sir. Toroweep is a dawn to sunset camp. Best I can offer are forest campsites 7 miles back, turn left on the Mt Trumbull road.”
7 miles is nothing on the scale of my current travels and I find an ideal site that I would love to come back to, er, when it is warmer.
I am back at the Toroweep Ranger station early. They give me a backcountry permit with no more difficulty than er a hot knife through butter, falling off a log. Do not get caught up in planning anxiety.
The Toroweep campsite is the best place in the world. It is 500 meters from the North Ridge of the Grand Canyon. There is nobody here. The weather is perfect with sunshine and blue, blue skies. I could no more go to the established viewpoints of the Canyon than er, um, fill in stuff you do not like here.
I walk to the Canyon rim in the late afternoon to take photos. The Canyon is not easy to photograph. During most of the day, light covers one wall of the Canyon whilst the other wall is in shade. You have to be there very early in the morning or at sunset to get a light-uniform view.
I spend a very cosy night in the camper and after an early photography session at the rim, I take a long hike that ends up back at the camp.
The sky is black. By the time I reach base it is snowing. No point sitting in the camper all day so I hightail it er slowly, back to Kanab.
Red Canyon is only 15 miles from its more famous colleague, Bryce Canyon. Few stop there as they want to get to Bryce.
It is equally amazing and, on a freezing December day, deserted.
I decide to go for a little stroll to stretch my legs. The path leads up towards the remarkable rock formations. I follow it into a gully expecting it to lead to the plateau allowing views over the canyon. The trail becomes increasingly indistinct mainly because of the snow. I find myself at the bottom of a steep shale climb but the plateau is on 30 meters up so I decide to go on. Big mistake!
Half way up I realize the one slip and I will tumble down and do myself a lot of damage. I place each foot only after digging out a little platform in the shale. I am scared. I have a couple of slips but avoid sliding. I am panting. I do get to the plateau but I have to spend several minutes to recompose myself.
I look around for the footprints that I expect to indicate the way down. There are none. I realize that my little plateau is by no means the top of the canyon and start a long and very exhausting climb. There are no human prints but the snow is covered in Bear prints. I have not seen a soul since starting out.
I finally reach the top after about 2 hours. I can only see one obvious gully that appears to lead back to the road but its head is about another 4 miles distant. There are several closer, smaller ravines that lead into the main gully but they are full of snow and there are no foot prints leading into them.
So I head down one of these. Snow up to my knees at times, I flounder down the gulch. I worry that I will come across a slope that is too steep and I will have to climb back up. Hmmm, not good as I am tired and my gloveless hands are frozen.
After many crashes into the snow I emerge into the wider gully that I had seen from the top. I walk down and finally see a human footprint. Such happiness. I get back to the truck 4 hours after I had set off for my little stroll. I am exhausted but elated. Phew!
On to Bryce Canyon, so different! The place is swarming with people principally busloads of Chinese tourists. The Government shutdown results in all campgrounds closed and only main viewing point open. I stay 15 minutes.
There I will take a 5 day bird photography course in early January. After that, the plan is to cross over into Mexico and watch Mexican birds. I hope to get back to San Francisco at the end of January.
I thunder over the Sierras and take Highway 50, “The Loneliest Road.”
The road is cold. I had not realized how sub tropical I have become and the cold is astonishing. Even with gloves, the end of my fingers become numb after a minute or so. The first night I stay in Austin, an old mining town, as are all the settlements along the road.
I stop at the Austin gas station, where I meet Dave. He is so delighted to see me that he buys me a Highway 50 pin and a T-shirt.
There is only one turn on Highway 50 – I missed it! In the middle of the town of Ely there is a right turn that I do not see and go trundling along the main road. 60 miles later I suspect there is something wrong as I have seen 4 cars in the last 15 minutes, far too many. Nothing for it but to turn around.
I finally turn onto Highway 21. Highway 50 is not the Loneliest Highway, Highway 21 is. Incredible country.
I finally get to Wilford UT and spend the night in the rodeo stadium parking lot. Freezing.
My imagined cheery cooking sessions outside each evening have not occurred as I would die of cold. I gobble gas station sandwiches in the camper.