S4:E1 – Back West

Hi! We’ve missed you! Let’s talk about where we are now and why it’s Utah. Then, come along with us in the Bobs as we explore the San Rafael Swell and try to find a sheltered campsite on a very windy day – a typical day in our life.

This episode was written and produced by Lisa McNamara. It was recorded and edited by Lisa McNamara and Paul Olson. Music by Michael Kobrin and by Lesfm from Pixabay.


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This is Road Tripping in America, a podcast about life on the road. I’m Lisa and this is Paul.

We’re still exploring the US in a pickup truck with a camper – we named our setup The Bobs. We’re in search of off-the-beaten-path adventures and new experiences. Join us for some entertainment from the road!

Today: I talk about where we are now and why it’s Utah, then we take you along in the Bobs as we explore the San Rafael Swell and try to find a sheltered campsite on a very windy day – a typical day in our life.

This is series four, episode one: Back West.

This episode was recorded on a fairly windy day in the Utah backcountry.

We’re back in Utah at a dispersed camping site so beautiful that it’s hard to focus on writing or anything else. Look at the horizon, starting to the center left: Over there are the snow-covered La Sals, the gorgeous mountain range that towers over Moab. The full range is visible, catching the afternoon light, the snow fields that will still cover the tops for months glowing a brilliant white. To the north of the La Sals, the red cliffs along the Colorado River are on view. To the right of the La Sals, the spiky mesas that tower over the southwest side of Moab make a stegosaurus ridge.

Next comes Arches National Park. First the grouping that includes Double Arch, The Windows, and all those other fun arches that everyone sees – we can even see one of the arches from here. Then the sandstone bowl that holds Delicate Arch, whose very top is only visible to us when the setting sun perfectly lights it up for a moment. With binoculars, we can see many tiny humans rounding the final curve in the trail before the arch pops into view and then waiting in line to take a selfie under said arch. Tiny cars crawl on the road through the park, way too many cars. Thousands of people are just over there, but they’re far enough away to seem unreal. After Delicate Arch comes the Fiery Furnace, with red sandstone fins marching back into the hillside. Then the Devil’s Garden with the grouping of sandstone ridges and fins that includes Landscape Arch, which we can actually pick out from here, its thin band of sandstone delicately spanning the gap in a sandstone ridge.

Continuing to the north, closer by, there’s a ridge of yellow sandstone and in it an unnamed arch that we tried to climb to earlier, scrambling across the petrified dunes and down washes until we were stopped by a dryfall that was too high to climb down and too surrounded by beautiful cryptobiotic soil crust to circle. Behind that yellow ridge, closing out the view to the right is the line of the Book Cliffs with I-70 at their base, filled with many tiny little cars and tractor trailers streaming across the state, way too fast.

We’re camped on the edge of a petrified dune that has eroded into patterns that look like reptile skin. I’m walking on a giant dragon that fell here and was petrified. In the middle ground between here and arch-land there are countless red sandstone mounds, green-tinged meadows, fields of small shrubs, fine red sand dunes covered with healthy cryptobiotic soil, cacti, and small shards of what looks like petrified wood.

It’s hard to relax thinking of the sheer number of adventures, both known and unknown, that we can see from this spot. It’s hard to sit still, but we found this campsite early and we had to have it, we just had to occupy this piece of the world for a night or two.

We’re back in Utah – we’re finally back West.

But let’s quickly catch up on where we’ve been for the last few months. The second to last time we checked in, we were wrapping up our first five months on the road in Durango, CO. After CO, we did way too much driving and flying, first to WI, then NY, then WI again, then a long stay in FL, then AR where we found some lovely camping and mountain biking that we want to check out in the future when it’s warmer, then to KC. We spent almost no time camping in The Bobs, instead staying with friends, family, house-sitting, dog-sitting, a month at a rental in Florida, a blend of hotels.

Then we were inarguably headed back West. We stopped in St. Francis, KS, whose free city campground was the site of our last night of camping on our first year on the road ten years ago, the site of Paul’s ultimate triumph – which you’ll have to ask him about sometime. That place had unresolved sad feelings for me and being there again unexpectedly exorcised those old end-of-trip blues.

Then we crossed the state line back into CO, where I picked up the happiness I didn’t realize I had left at the border when we headed east in November. Some say the edge of the West is found at the Mississippi River. Some say it’s the Rockies. I say you know the edge of the West when you get there. It might not be one consistent place, but rather a feeling. This time the edge of the West was at the CO border for me, because that’s when I finally felt like I was home.

Oh how I love CO. When the sky isn’t blue, it’s filled with drama. People seem so much happier to be alive in CO. I know how things work in CO. In CO, we told everyone that we saw that we were heading south to New Mexico next – we’d been telling people that for weeks. Then, the night before we left, we promptly changed our minds and pointed The Bobs straight west to Utah.

We had spent the past four months in the East longing for the West, for the easy and free camping, lack of crowds, dry air, plentiful hiking, mountains, deserts, and everything in between. We could have gotten that stuff in New Mexico, easily. We were eventually going to get around to Utah. But Utah was calling too loudly to wait. There are webs of dirt roads to explore between Moab and Escalante and Green River and Page, AZ. The weather is perfect right now. OK, it’s still kinda chilly and the wind has been epic, but it’s perfect enough. “Why not just get right back into what we want to do?” we asked ourselves. Ourselves didn’t have any good response to that, so to Utah we went.

Everyone has heard about the big five National Parks in Utah, which are amazing, but they’re way too busy. We’ve been there, done that. There is a TON more to explore in Utah. Even setting aside the State Parks and National Monuments, there are tiny dirt roads leading to amazing features everywhere. There are so many areas that I’ve looked at from I-70 and wished I could explore. Now we’re going to try to drive on as many of these dirt roads as the Bobs can handle. Because every single thing in this state is amazing, not just the things within the bounds of what someone decided to call a National Park.

We haven’t seen many people on our dusty drives, which could make my plan to bring in other voices for this series a little tricky. But it’s never lonely. We have a noisy crow for an alarm clock. For entertainment, we have lizards that run so fast over the sand that they look like they’re floating. We have a beautiful dark brown wild horse who dances curiously at a safe distance from our campsite, all legs like an awkward pre-teen. His hooves have never known horseshoes. We have an owl that hoots quietly throughout the night for company, if we happen to wake. Seeing another person this far in the wilderness is strange, anyway. It’s like walking into your living room and finding a stranger sitting on your couch.

For our first recorded day in the life, we are bringing you along as we explore Red’s Canyon and hunt for a sheltered campsite in Emery County, a truly underrated section of Utah west of Green River (the town and river) and south and east of the mountain ranges that run north to south up the state towards Salt Lake City and Park City.

Note that there is some swearing in the Saturday day in the life version of this podcast, so be ready to cover baby Eliza’s ears! And Mom, be ready to cover yours too!

(day in the life audio starts)

At start.
The day always starts with coffee. Pour over flavored coffee for me and unflavored coffee for Paul. Today we woke up in a dispersed campsite in a Bureau of Land Management area off a road called Temple Mountain Road.

Near beginning of locale and plan.
It’s actually called Sinbad Country and Hondu Country. This whole area is part of the San Rafael Swell.

In middle of clean up.
It’s hard to describe how remote we are right now. The I-70 exit that eventually led to this area was a dirt road on/off ramp with nothing there – one of those exits that says “no services.” We’re about a two hour drive from Green River, UT, the closest large town. The only non-hotel showers in Green River are at the truck stop on the edge of town, which is one of the busiest truck stops I’ve ever seen because it’s the only one for at least a hundred miles.

We don’t do “out and backs” because we don’t want to waste the gas and time – if you want to get into the remote spots, it takes multiple days and that means no showers. It’s like through-hiking but we’re way less sweaty and we can change our clothes more often.

And we’d never do a water-intensive gravity bag shower this far from a water refill, even if we had one of those things. Water is too precious out here to waste on bathing, and we don’t carry enough of it for bathing anyway.

After leaving camp.
Alright, here we go! While we were drinking our coffee, we consulted the Gaia map to plan the day’s route. We decided to go counterclockwise around the Red’s Canyon loop, which I immediately forgot as soon as we got going. We ended up going around clockwise.

After first road noise.
After driving along the edge of the ridge, looking down into Red’s Canyon, we quickly ran into some scary road as we descended into the bottom of the canyon. I did not know that Paul was recording my driving noises. Thanks Paul.

Middle of making lunch.
We had just been marveling at the fact that we hadn’t seen anyone else all day when four friendly ATVers buzzed by, taking pictures of the arch as they passed. Then, we had our lunch spot to ourselves once again.

After making lunch.
Served! He was too fast with that stop button. After lunch, we did some more driving. And driving. And driving. The hunt for the perfect sheltered campsite was not easy. There was plenty of time for inane chatter along the way.

After first potential site.
That first potential site didn’t work out. Because there weren’t any actual road spurs where Gaia maps showed road spurs. That happens a lot. Try number two.

After mine site.
When we keep talking about finding a site that is private or that has good privacy, we are mainly talking about making sure there’s somewhere we can go to the bathroom without being seen from the road or by another camper. Following ‘leave no trace’ principles, of course!

After climbing out.
Once we’re back out of the canyon, we venture down some side roads by a cool-looking butte called Family Butte. But there are already a few people back there in the ideal spots. We check out another spur to see if there are any good sites there.

In middle of third potential site.
We keep talking about being in a wash as being a deal-breaker for a campsite – a wash is a dry riverbed that will become a river again if it rains anywhere in its watershed. Never, never, never camp in a wash. Even if it is not raining and not expected to rain – just don’t do it. It’s too risky. And you’re not going to get a good night sleep thinking about being washed away in a flash flood.

After third potential site.
You might be getting a little tired of this by now – we were getting tired of it too! After we got to the end of the spur, we parked and walked around and found that this area wouldn’t work either, because it was a mine ruin, which – you got it, that means it would be unlikely that we’d have a site that was private enough, on top of all the other issues we spotted on the way there.

After fourth potential site.
Finally, we think we’ve found our spot. Now we just need to get into it.

In middle of finally the site.
He did over-rock. Leveling can be a tedious process. I have actually spared you many of the details of our many attempts at leveling in this site.

After site assessment.
If you followed series two of this podcast, you’ll know that I’m not a huge fan of cows. I don’t have anything against the cows themselves really. Other than being slightly scared of them. It’s just that grazing cows on areas like this in Utah just seems insane to me. There’s barely anything for them to eat. There’s no water for them to drink. Ranchers need to deliver water to strategically distributed tanks and bring in salt and mineral licks to make up for their nutritional deficiencies to keep these cows alive. The cows look mangy as hell. When I see free-range Utah beef on a restaurant menu, now I see these cows and I’m not sure their life was any better than a feedlot cow’s life. I really pity these cows. It doesn’t seem like a good deal for them, for the ranchers, or for the people who eat them. Is the amount of lasting land damage they create really worth having one more cow to sell and eat? Anyway, I digress. Back to hiking to the top of the hill, where there was no crust aka cryptobiotic soil to destroy.

In middle of HH.
Yeah, like a lot of old married couples, we spend a lot of time talking about the weather.

After Bob anniv.
After a little more reminiscing, it was time to actually make dinner.

After cooking.
So that’s a super bowl! If you want to see pics of that or anything else we talked about today, check our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com. After a delicious dinner, at long last (at the late hour of maybe almost 9pm) it was time to get ready for sleep. That involves making the bed and getting things situated.

(day in the life audio ends)

That wasn’t where we intended to end the day in the life! Around 2am, Paul wanted to record the gusty wind sounds but the handy recorder battery was dead from the cold and the long day it had had. The wind really wasn’t as bad as we expected. Was that because it was not as strong as had been forecasted or because we picked the perfect sheltered spot? We’ll never know. But a few nights later, as we sat in a hotel in Green River, UT with 50+ mph winds buffeting the Bobs outside our window, filling the valley with a thick cloud of dust, we knew that the wind wasn’t that bad. We were very glad we saved our hotel night for that night.

So where to next? Well, who really knows? We might tell you one thing, then change our minds tomorrow. What we do know for sure is that we’re staying West. We’re staying in Utah until we feel ready to go or until we need to be back in Colorado later this summer. I can’t imagine we’ll ever get sick of Utah. I just wish there were more wine shops.

Next time, we’ll talk about money and advice – how the outflow is going, how we got to possibly maybe early retirement, and how much you really need to spend to equip yourself for roadlife. We’ll also share some of the unsolicited advice we’ve been getting and then unironically throw some unsolicited advice at you.

Thanks for listening.

blooper – what else we got going on? Nothing!