S4:E3 – The Utah Episode

Another five weeks in Utah! Today, a What is it About This Place? with my top ten most memorable moments from those five weeks. From spider eyeballs to the time that Paul moved my foot and almost killed me – it was unforgettable. And in the latest Stocks and Vagabonds installment, Paul compares our costs from this round to our time in Utah last fall – did we achieve that $2,800/month ideal spend again?

This episode was written, recorded, and edited by Lisa McNamara and Paul Olson. It was produced by Lisa McNamara.

Theme music by Michael Kobrin from Pixabay. What is it About This Place? intro music by TuesdayNight from Pixabay. Stocks and Vagabonds intro music by TuesdayNight from Pixabay.


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

We’re 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 as we share our stories from the road.

We just spent another five weeks in Utah! Today, a “What is it About This Place?” with my top ten most memorable moments from those five weeks. From spider eyeballs to the time that Paul moved my foot and almost killed me – those weeks were unforgettable. And in the latest “Stocks and Vagabonds” installment, Paul compares our costs from this round to our time in Utah last fall – did we achieve that $2,800/month ideal spend again? Listen on to find out.

This is series four, episode three: I can’t think of a good name for this episode about Utah…

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It’s official – I miss Utah. We’ve been gone for a week and I already can’t wait to go back. Our second set of five weeks in the state was incredible. It was also really tiring! We hiked a ton, drove many difficult roads, dodged epic windstorms and cold snaps. By the beginning of May, it was obvious that we needed a break to rest, to take multiple showers in a row, and to catch up on our internet consumption and favorite oven-baked dishes. So we spent a few days in one place in Flagstaff, before Overland Expo took over the town last weekend and sent all lodging prices to the moon. (So, no, we didn’t actually go to the #vanlife trade show this year – maybe next year?)

Unless you’re just joining us for the first time (and if you are, hi and welcome!), you know how much I love Utah. I’ve already raved about it in multiple episodes. So, what is it about this place? Let’s see if we can figure out what I love so much about Utah in my ten most memorable moments from the past five weeks.

(what is it about this place? Intro)

Before we get into the list, I gotta let you know that the list doesn’t include any details about specific hikes or rock art or canyons – if you want to know about that kind of stuff, check me out on Instagram or Strava. This list is more about the moments that stand out, that I’m going to remember for a long, long time, that aren’t simple enough to capture in a photo.

Number ten on my list of most memorable Utah moments was the moment that I realized that I need to pronounce Escalante the same way the locals pronounce it. It’s Eskel-annie, not Escah-lahntey. I’m fully sold on the place anyway. Why fight it? Also, this seems like as good a time as any to admit that I just learned how to pronounce Ouray, CO. I butchered it a whole bunch of times back in S2/E2. Sorry, Ourayans.

Number nine was finding the official Utah state liquor store in Escalante, which is a tiny little closet inside Escalante Outfitters that we just realized is there on this, our maybe fifth time in town (including one time actually staying at the cabins at this place, but in fairness to us, that was during covid-times and no one was allowed inside then). This tiny closet is all caged in with what looks like fancy wino-proof chicken wire, it has a locking wooden screen door that squeaks like an old-timey bar door, it has shelves that stretch up to the ceiling filled with only the essentials, none of the fluff. There’s an Ikea stool wedged in the corner for reaching the boxes of wine that are stored on the top shelf. Paul and I couldn’t comfortably fit in the closet together at the same time. Everything’s priced at Utah state-set, low, low prices. It’s so cute and it’s so Utah. I can’t wait to shop there again.

Number eight on my list of most memorable Utah moments is related to something that I learned while we were camping in Arkansas and Kansas in early March. Just a warning to my friend Charlotte and anyone else scared of spiders – you’re probably going to want to skip ahead 30 seconds. I’ll let you know when you’re safe to come back.

One cool March night, we found a lovely dispersed campsite in the Arkansas forest near a small stream. Nothing was growing yet and last year’s dead leaves still crunched brown on the ground. I stepped out of the camper in the dark to relieve myself, scanning the surrounding ground at a reasonable distance from the stream and road with my headlamp, looking for big hazards. Instead, I saw a remarkable thing: tiny rainbow lights flashed back at me from the ground! What amazing dew effect is this? I wondered excitedly as I crouched down to look at one of the spots of light more closely … and stared right into the eight eyes of a spider. And another. And another. The light wasn’t reflecting off dewdrops on the dead leaves. It was reflecting off the multiple eyes of SPIDERS!!! This happened again at a campground in central Kansas a short time later. Many little tiny spider eyes, staring back at me, reflecting my LED light in a kaleidoscope of cyan, magenta, and green.

You see, I’m very scared of spiders, much more than I’m scared of cows. Spiders are pretty much the only natural things I’m really scared of, besides mountain lions and grizzly bears, and the only way I can calmly exist outdoors is via my very powerful sense of denial. I tell myself that spiders AREN’T actually everywhere, that they probably aren’t even anywhere around me. I know that there are spiders out there, but they’re out there somewhere else. This eyeball-gleam discovery shattered my coping mechanism.

Back in Utah, I scanned the ground every night. Nothing. Normal denial was once again possible. Then, one night, we were camping in one of the lushest spots we’ve been in the state, along one of the only permanent streams in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. While walking to the toilet that night (this was a fancy, developed campground), my headlamp picked up the eyeball-gleam of a single spider. But instead of freaking me out, it made me super excited. “Hey little guy,” I wanted to say. “Thanks for coming out tonight. There’s a whole bunch of bugs in my site, come on over if you’re hungry.”

(OK – let’s wait a sec to let those who are scared of spiders catch back up. Ahem. Welcome back to all those who are spider-averse – you’re safe from here on out!)

Number seven was the small dune’s worth of sand that I dumped out of my shoes on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day.

Number six on my list of most memorable Utah moments was the fancy food we ate. My favorite thing about family camping trips when I was a kid was the restaurant meal we had when we were done. I remember those meals more than I remember the trips themselves. Everything tastes better after some exertion or after some camp food.

So the lamb burgers with potato wedges, beet salad, and chocolate whiskey pie at Burr Trail Grill in Boulder were delicious. The lattes from Kiva Koffeehouse were perfect. The mac and cheese dog from Ranch Dog Grill in Escalante, where homemade mac and cheese fills in for the bun, were exquisite. The sandwiches from Subway in Torrey and Escalante and the pizza from Little Cesars in Green River were fantastic – yes, really! – because they were there when everything else, including the grocery stores, was closed on Sundays and we just needed food. Everything was delicious.

But wait – we said we were going to talk about money today, too. Let’s pause here for a “Stocks and Vagabonds” segment from Paul on what it costs to roadlife in Utah. The rest of the top ten list, after this.

(Stocks and Vagabonds intro)

Last October, traveling around Utah, we spent around $2800 for the month – our lowest-spend month in years.

Last month, in April, we were back in Utah. How much did we spend this time around? Just under $3500.

Why the difference? Was it … inflation? Was it high gas prices? Did they open up all sorts of irresistible restaurants in the Utah backcountry?

Turns out, it wasn’t any of those things.

Let’s start with gas. In October, we spent around $350. In April, we spent just over $360. I was expecting more of a difference, because I thought we drove more in April. Turns out we didn’t – it looks like we drove less.

Same deal with food and fun stuff. In October, we spent around $1100 in this big, ambiguous category that includes everything from groceries and snacks to bar trips and wine runs. We went to Hell’s Backbone Grill and had a very fancy dinner, but we mostly cooked meals in the Bobs.

Same with April – we did a lot of cooking and visited the grocery stores in Green River and Escalante multiple times. But we also ate at Burr Trail Grill where I finally got to try their $9 chocolate pie (it’s delicious). We also got burgers at Ray’s in Green River and found a new spot in Escalante with white tablecloths and Chicago dogs – where Lisa got her mac and cheese dog. Both were delicious months.

Our spending on food and fun stuff was within $100 for the two months. So that wasn’t it, either.

So where were the differences? It was really just three spots.

First was in healthcare costs. In 2021, we estimated our full ObamaCare premiums would be covered because of our low-income subsidies. That was mostly right. Biden upped subsidies due to the pandemic, but our income was high enough where we still owed a bit when we did our taxes for 2021.

In 2022, we’re paying about $80/month for our Bronze-level ObamaCare plan. It would cost just under $700/month without the subsidy. We love ObamaCare, and we might get some of that back when we do our taxes next year. It’s a best-guess. If we have a lot of unexpected income, we’ll owe the difference.

Note that your ObamaCare cost is based on your income. Because we only worked a few months in 2021, we had very little income. Our income in 2022 will be even less, but it will still be above the minimum needed to qualify. If your income is too low, you qualify for Medicaid, not ObamaCare.

It sounds crazy, but you could retire early with $100 million in your checking account and if you don’t earn much interest income, you’ll still qualify for an ObamaCare subsidy. Meanwhile, if you retire early with a pension, that income could push you over the subsidy line and require you to pay full price. We aren’t in either of these situations.

Lisa and I also both generated some healthcare-related expenses in March which we paid for in April. Those plus the new $80/month premium pushed us about $200 beyond where we were in October.

We also spent around $300 more on hotels in April. Last October, we lucked into a couple empty campgrounds with showers while we mostly chased the warmth south across the state. This April, we ended up at more hotels to get showers and escape the windiest days. We also did a volunteer day at the end of the month and ended up staying at a hotel three days in a row.

Lastly, I ordered some add-a-leaf helper springs for the truck in April. With the couple other goodies I got, it ended up being around $200 with shipping. We’ll have them installed in June. They’re sitting at my brother’s house right now – thanks, Alex and Carrie!

So we’re happy about the spending. Most of the difference was because of one-off expenses. Big picture, our spending didn’t match what we did in October, our cheapest month yet, but we tied where we were last August – those two months were our second-cheapest months in years.

April also brought our 12-month average down to under $4400/month. With a little squinting, we can see ourselves getting under $50k for the year by July, which has been a goal.

We can’t control stock market returns. We can’t control inflation. But we are finding that we can do a pretty good job controlling our spending. We are happy with where we are.

(what is it about this place? Short intro)

Let’s get back to my last five most memorable Utah moments…

Number five was the sheltering grove of trees we found one especially windy night, when the wind wasn’t letting up as expected and the dispersed campsite we thought would be sheltered was just a sandblasted dust bowl.

Who knows how many other travelers this small grove of trees had sheltered through the years? The trees were old, their branches canopied over a small space just big enough to park a single vehicle. Someone had trimmed the branches around the opening years ago, and the way they were trimmed was just right for the Bobs. The top of the camper popped open with a few inches of clearance on every side. Once ensconced within the grove, the wind continued to make a fearsome noise but the Bobs didn’t move and we slept like babies. I am so grateful to those trees for giving us that peaceful night while the wind roared around us.

Number four on my list of most memorable Utah moments was a Saturday night at the only bar in Escalante, the 4th Street Pub. Still a little covid-wary of crowded places, we sat in a corner near the door, but the warmth from the margaritas, the delicious tacos, and the super talented locals singing on open mic night gave me that happy bar bubble feeling that I haven’t had for more than two years now and that I never expected to find there.

Number three was our volunteer day in Dry Fork and Spooky canyons with Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a non-profit that works to supplement the Bureau of Land Management’s (aka BLM’s) efforts in the monument. We rebuilt necessary cairns, demolished cairns that were excessive (trust me, they were excessively excessive), and cleaned up graffiti in Spooky slot canyon.

It was one of the most fun days I’ve had in years. Yes, being able to have a visible positive impact was awesome. No, I’m not just trying to virtue brag. I got so much more out of the day than I feel like I put in, and I put in enough to barely stay awake on the drive back to town. I got to hang out with a badass group of volunteers, I got trail, canyoneering, and restaurant tips from the (also badass) local BLM and GSEP staffers, and, of course, I got to do the always fun and exciting squeeze through teeny-tiny Spooky again (which is Paul’s least favorite slot canyon I’ve ever persuaded him through and which I had promised I wouldn’t make him do again). Hey, I didn’t pick the location! And I think he maybe just might have loved it this time too.

Number two on my list of most memorable Utah moments was a bushwhacking dune hike with our Escalante friends. We realized that we had a shared obsession with a field of dunes that you can only see from a few remote spots, that have no trail to them, and, as far as we knew at the time, that had no name. Our friends had already tried to get out there on one of the hottest days of a past year and had to turn back.

We were determined to get there this cool and sunny day. Striking off across the slickrock and down washes, up and down hills of swirling sandstone in intricate blue and red patterns, through a tiny slot canyon that we named Tooth Grit Canyon, we got to the first dune and called that a win. The wind was blowing so hard that it filled our mouths, ears, and eyes with sand; it sandblasted our exposed skin. Sand caked in our hair and eyebrows. Sand crunched in our sandwiches. The wind was blowing so hard that we went straight down the dune and watched as our footprints were quickly erased behind us. We made it, and no one but us would ever see that we were there.

One of the things our BLM guide on the volunteer day was gushing about was how solitude and self-reliance are two of the most overlooked features of Grand Staircase Escalante. You have many opportunities to find solitude, but it takes self-reliance to do it. And this day, we put that all in action.

And finally, number one on my list of most memorable Utah moments was the moment that Paul moved my foot.

I’ll explain. Most of our hikes these Utah weeks ended up being 25-30% longer than we anticipated, because we were focusing on less developed, less well-mapped routes. At some point, we realized that on these types of non-trails, the Gaia map and mileage is really just a rough estimate between possible waypoints rather than a solid number to plan around. It took us four weeks and many miles to figure that out.

So one day, we were hiking to Phipps Arch, which is a giant chonky arch in the red rock a few hundred feet above the Escalante River. My minimal research had told me that this hike would be easy and it would be short, short enough that we didn’t need to bring lunch, short enough that we’d be able to get lunch with coffee at nearby Kiva Koffeehouse after our hike. Which meant it would be an early lunch.

The hike started out lovely, running along and sometimes through the chilly Escalante River. The cottonwood leaves were just popping out, the grass was green, and the area by the river felt humid and cool, like a summer day by the lake in Chicago. Soon we turned off the cool path and into the dry but still lush Phipps Wash. A little ways up the wash, our apps told us to turn left and to climb. So we turned left and climbed and climbed until we didn’t see how we could climb anymore. But still no arch. No arch around a big dryfall. No arch at the end of the main canyon. No arch anywhere.

Then three people came up the trail behind us, the first people we’d seen in hours. They knew the way to the arch and the way was up the cliff that we’d been staring at for a bit. They were in a hurry, so we kindly let them go ahead and make the death defying climb first. Once they were up and over the cliff, with some trouble but not enough to prevent them from making it, I went over and scoped out their route.

We were already about 15 feet up the cliff, where the sandstone leveled out like it does into one of those narrow bits that’s about as wide and flat as a sidewalk. Above that, there was another 20ish feet of steeper sandstone to navigate, but I felt like I could see a good route.

If that trio hadn’t gone up before me, I never would have attempted it. I know the limits of my body and my gear and I’m never so committed to a goal that I’d risk hurting myself for it. But from the bottom, I really thought their route looked doable. So I started up.

Three quarters of the way up the cliff, there was a small alcove. I made it up those 15 feet to the alcove easily. But once both of my feet were in the alcove, I realized that the next five feet were much steeper and higher than I had realized from below and that the final stretch would require me to swing myself out over the cliff edge rather than hug the sandstone like I’d been doing. At a little over 5 feet myself, the top of that section was basically at eye-level.

I started to wonder how I was going to get up that part and then how I was going to get back down it later. And then I wondered how I was going to get back down what I had already gotten up. Paul looked pretty far away, the rock I’d climbed looked much steeper than it had on the way up. It’s always easier to go up than to go down.

Paul heard my concern and said, “Let’s not kill ourselves for this arch. Why don’t you come back down?”

I said, “I don’t know how, Paul. I don’t know where to put my hands.”

I sank down into a crouch in the alcove. The places I had put my hands on the way up were now level with my feet. Facing out, I was up on a steep ledge on the side of a cliff, with 30 feet of steep sandstone below me and a hundred feet of rough slope, rock outcroppings, and cacti below that. Cue full-on panic attack. “I don’t know where to put my hands,” I kept saying. “I’m going to die up here.”

Paul crawled halfway up the cliff and started working on calming me down. Eventually, a combination of realizing how embarrassed I’d be if the three people came back and found me like this, snot and tears dripping down my face, and Paul’s suggestion to stop looking out over the drop-off, to turn around and face the rock instead, snapped me out of my panic-frozen mind loop. I turned around and faced the rock, we planned out where I was going to put my feet and hands, and I shakily started down.

I put my foot on the first foothold, a knobby little ledge that only accommodated the toe of my left shoe. Paul reinforced the back of my left foot with his hand. My hands were vise-clamped on the edge of the rock outcropping above. My right foot was over on the alcove still. All limbs were at full stretch. Looking down, I realized that my right foot wouldn’t fit over on the knobby ledge too, because my left foot was taking up too much space.

I started to pull my left foot up, to shift it further left, when Paul MOVED MY LEFT FOOT. No warning, no nothing, he just brute force pulled my foot what felt like ten feet to the left. I let out a ridiculous, theatrical scream that echoed off the walls of the canyon. My stomach was filled with the feeling of being at the top of a roller coaster – when you start to go down and your stomach drops out, the contents start to rise up, and you just black out from the fear. I couldn’t see anything.

But at the same time, I was also somehow moving my right foot over to the knobby ledge, and now there was enough room for both toes on the ledge. I inchwormed my way down the rest of the foot and handholds until Paul and I were standing on the sidewalk level section.

“What the hell was that?” I yelled.

“You needed room for your other foot,” he said. “I thought if I didn’t just move it, you’d never get down.”

The wisdom of any of this could have been argued more, but the three people had popped their heads over the edge of the cliff above, wondering what all the yelling was about. And suddenly, I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

We got back to the Bobs at 3pm after over 7 miles of hiking. Too late for that early lunch at Kiva. Too shaky for anything but a quickly inhaled PB&J.

So yeah, back to staying within my limits. It’s good to remember that I have them for a reason!

So, what is it about Utah?

Like we’ve talked about before, most of the land in Utah is public land. Over 60% of Utah land is federally owned. That’s not the most in the US – Nevada and Alaska’s percentages are higher, Idaho’s is just a bit lower. But it’s right up there.

And maybe that’s the essence of what I love so much about Utah. I feel like I belong there. I feel free there. I feel a sense of control over my own destiny there (which is ironic, I know). I truly feel a sense of self-determination in Utah, and that, friends, is why I love it so much.

Oh yeah, and I love it because it’s beautiful. And all the slot canyons, and the spring wildflowers and the rock art and the… (fades out…)

(music starts)

Next time – a “What is it About This Place?” all about Arizona. From Flagstaff to Bisbee, we cooked in the desert heat while visiting old and new places.

Thanks for listening.

Happy birthday, Lisa’s mom!

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