“Slim” was my Christmas present from Bill that he ordered back in September. By Halloween, he was tired of waiting to present the gift and decided that a toddler’s pirate’s Halloween costume would be the perfect seasonal ‘gift wrap.’ Slim is actually a 1/2 life-sized skeleton with all the markings needed for my ongoing anatomy studies but I think most people prefer to see him dressed as a pirate.
The outstanding natural resources in the Rockies, especially the slopes for skiing and trails for a number of sports, makes Colorado a coveted address for outdoors people. That was highlighted by seeing well-developed and paved long-distance bike routes through the mountains, including on very high elevation passes. Over the years we have noticed that a sizable sporting population seems to increase the investment in sports infrastructure, fueling an even bigger sporting crowd, which perpetuates a cycle that appeared evident in the region.
The real downside of what little we saw of Colorado’s high country was that the majority of sports people live in the cities and drive to their venues. And our impressions were that those drives involved considerable distances for day trippers, which was later confirmed by a Colorado resident. Bill also read a hiking book’s warnings about the bumper-to-bumper weekend traffic on I-70 during the rush to get out of town and into the mountains, and then back again.
In addition, most of the highways, freeways, and even side streets we traveled in the region were in terrible condition, making the driving slow and tedious. No doubt the long snow season and pressure to keep the roads open makes them money-holes to maintain. We were only passing through, but were quite road-weary from the rough conditions hour after hour.
I wondered too if the combination of putting in the hours driving to sports venues and the often crummy surfaces accounted for the road signs we’d never seen before which displayed a number for reporting aggressive drivers. We didn’t experience aggressive drivers, though it is challenging to retaliate against our truck/trailer combo. We are so big that we are largely oblivious to punitive behavior like tailgating, though one irate Wyoming driver nearly crashed into us while shaking his fist when passing.
The string of well-known ski resort towns like Vail and Breckenridge looked packed with condo developments allowing the well-heeled to stay longer to improve their driving/recreating ratio. But of course, having 2 homes increases the price of the pursuit of happiness. And no doubt, there is an increasing price gradient for housing on the perimeter of the cities—locations which shorten the drive to the mountains.
”The Great Leap Forward” at the Colorado National Monument.
Gas was cheaper in Colorado than in the neighboring states, which helped, though we found the RV parks to be pricy. So for us, the high country of the Colorado Rockies was a nice place to visit but staying on the west side of the Great Divide looked like a better overall package for meeting our hiking and biking lifestyle aspirations.
Our brief tour of the Colorado Rockies this year did however allow us to answer a rather snippy question put to us years ago by someone we haven’t seen since: “Yes, the Italian Dolomites are way-more stunning than the Colorado Rockies.” Living in Colorado at the time, the man was sure it wasn’t possible and like him, we’d only experienced one of the 2 regions. In the meantime, we had talked to a young sports woman from Colorado while dangling on a via ferrata climb in the Dolomites and she had said, hands down, the Dolomites were better, but now we knew for ourselves. It’s always nice to be able to check a niggling bit of uncertainty off of the list.Colorado’s Western Slope: Grand Junction/Colorado National Monument
Quite unexpectedly, we did find our comfort zone in Colorado, on the west-central edge of the state at Fruita, near Grand Junction. From perusing his favorite trails website, trails.com, Bill knew that there was a cluster of hiking trails right off of I-70, which shaped our westward itinerary. And was he ever right: it could not have been more different than recreating in the Rockies.
Totally unknown to us, the Colorado National Monument (CNM) is small and it definitely is not a multi-sport destination like the Rockies surrounding Denver, but it was a perfect fit. Essentially all of the trailheads were a 10-20 minute drive from our reasonably priced RV park. And I-70 at this western end of the state was in good condition and lightly traveled, even during rush hour. The hiking trails were peppered with a very robust and fit crowd of gray-hairs like us, which is always inspiring. And it was a very unpretentious crowd, which made it feel very welcoming. Hiking there felt as comfy as being at home.
The CNM is totally unlike the rugged, high mountains of the Rockies: it is a lower elevation, Colorado Plateau red rock area reminiscent of Arches and Canyonlands near Moab, UT. We’d planned to spend 4 nights at CNM and 4 nights at nearby Moab but decided to skip Moab altogether because of the considerable drive time to the few good trailheads in that area. Learning that the first trail we would take near the CNM had the 2nd largest concentration of arches in the world cemented the decision. Not actually within the Monument boundaries, the trailhead was only a 10 minute drive from our RV park. Biking was a breeze too because Grand Junction’s extensive paved trail system extended to Fruita.
THE NEW TRUCK SAGA
Arches in red rock country are always a crowd-pleaser.
Back in 2011 during our first year in our camper, a fellow RV’er at Death Valley mentioned St George, UT as a great place to store our camper for 2 months over the holidays. He said that it had an amazing mild microclimate and he was right. We subsequently learned that there could be fierce wind storms 20 miles to the north or snow a little farther to the east, and St George would be unscathed. We put our camper in storage in St George that winter knowing it wouldn’t have to be winterized to be safe from freezing.
This year we stumbled upon a couple of other sheltered communities as we raced west to escape the blizzards about to hit Colorado. We’d been parked outside of Grand Junction in Fruita, which had fared better than nearby communities when the weather began to tank, but we wanted to head west in anticipation of taking delivery of our new truck.
A few hours after we left the Grand Junction area, we learned that it was going to be hit by snow as well as our destination for the day, Salina. A quick look for RV parks open year round and at the weather forecast had us cutting our driving day short to lay-over in Green River, UT. A dreary community of only 1,000, we felt lucky to be there because it too was a sweet spot: we were only hit with wind and rain.Doing Laps
We ‘touched base’ at Snow Canyon State Park near St George, UT and instantly felt safe. Being one of those microclimate sweet spots, we knew that we’d be spared from the worst of any passing storm. We booked for only 2 nights, then received our almost weekly email stating that our truck was still awaiting a spot on a railcar heading west, so we paid for 3 more nights. Long overdue for some robust hiking, we then moved upstream to nearby Zion NP for 3 nights. After another “no news” email, and we added 3 more nights to our stay there.
Stunning views the day after the storm near Green River, UT.
Both Snow Canyon and Zion are lovely places to be but being “on call” for the last month to drop everything and drive to Portland to take delivery of our truck was interfering with our peace and calm. Every few days we had to generate a new set of scenarios for our ever-changing Plans A and B. Our new truck sat on the lot in Dearborn, Michigan for weeks awaiting a railcar ride to Portland.
Trolling to find steep hiking trails safe from the early winter storms at venues that were also in range for darting back to Portland added to our frustration. Even delightful Zion lacked the big-gain trails that had eluded us this fall. We kept looking at the potential snow, the pending government shutdown, and the late delivery of our truck that all threatened our coveted Phantom Ranch reservations at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in early December. The Phantom Ranch excursion felt like 50-50 at best but we still wanted to maintain a modicum of fitness in case we could make the demanding trek.
We trudged through snow at the top of Zion’s Cable Mountain to take advantage of that almost 15 mile hike with 3500’ of gain and a few days later, we hiked from the valley floor to Observation Point twice to snare a 4500’ gain day. Indeed, the few people who figured out what we were doing laps on that trail thought we were nuts but we were pleased to maintain the same uphill pace on both efforts.The Flag Dropped
Trying hard to avoid being too obnoxious, we finally pressed our dealer for more details and learned that once the truck was on the rails, it could arrive on the West Coast in as little as 4 days. We didn’t know how much time to allow for unloading and dealer prep, but it became clear that since the dealer was only checking its progress once a week, that we needed to starting heading back more quickly. It had been an irritating balancing act: rushing back too soon could plunge us into a blizzard or unnecessarily deprive us of hiking time but being late would be curtains for our Phantom Ranch trip.
The day after we decided to step up the pace, we received an email saying the truck was passing through Montana. There went plans for a hike or 2 on the way back and we were now looking at 2 solid weeks of driving before we could do much hiking again. In addition to the round trip miles to and from the SW, we’d also have to put 1,000 miles on the truck before it could pull the trailer.
It was slow going in the slippery snow on Cable Mountain in Zion NP.
Neither of us are cut-out for driving and the recent medical studies indicating the degradation in wellness from sitting for more than 20 or 30 minutes (depending upon which health parameters are being measured) added to our distress from the anticipated motoring time. Some days I ate lunch standing in the trailer to break the monotony of sitting. A maximum speed of 55 mph for drivers towing a trailer in California plus strong headwinds slowed our pace.
We added more strength exercises during our frequent driver changes in a feeble attempt to maintain some fitness though the scant space on exit ramps often made exercises impossible. Only when the rare rest area appeared was it safe to do more. Deep cleaning the truck’s interior for trade-in was time-sliced with rest stops and driving as much as possible. Long waits in gas lines to get the best prices became times to vacuum and wash windows.
Every evening we did a little more prep to make our touch-and-go stop in Portland as fast as possible. We took advantage of the unwelcome 2 week detour to home and back to online order more tax-free provisions for our long road trip and had short lists of items to pick-up and drop-off at our apartment. Our rushed departure in the fall in our new trailer had been less than perfect and it was nice to refine our gear selection now instead of waiting until next fall to get it right.
We prepaid for a week in an RV slot outside of Redding, CA so as to leave our trailer south of the Siskiyou Pass. Only a little over 4,000’, the notorious pass is literally the show-stopper segment of road on the north-south I-5 corridor we’d be driving. We didn’t want to risk hauling the trailer over the pass in either direction in the winter and knew our driving speed would pop-up without it.
Roaring up the series of low elevation but steep I-5 mountain passes at the speed limit in our outfitted-for-hauling, 4 year-old truck was exhilarating. Virtually all of our long distance driving in the last 15 years had occurred in the last 4 years, almost always hauling our camper or trailer. With them, we’d mosey up, balancing sensible speeds against the need to keep pace with traffic as best we could. On the longest pulls, that meant listening to our blinker/hazard lights incessantly clicking to forewarn overtaking vehicles of our slow speed and keeping an eye on the transmission fluid temperature to prevent overheating. It was sort of a meditative approach to driving whereas our trip from Redding to Portland to trade-in the truck was more like a racing event.
We knew the trip back south on the same road in a few days wouldn’t be as fast because we’d be breaking-in the new truck. There would be no abrupt accelerations to pass the container truck ahead as it slowed on the latest grade and we’d abandon the ease of cruise control to maximize our speed variations as much as was safe. We’d be focused on giving our trophy truck the mixed diet that the engine, differential, and brakes preferred for their break-in period.Delivery At Last
The truck was a day later than we expected and receiving it gutted the better part of 2 days but at last, we had it in our grips. And much to our relief, it was as ordered. The local Chevy dealer had pulled a fast one on us in 2011, delivering a truck with our special order options in a 2011 model instead of the 2012 that we’d specified and the truck was blue, not white. Having no vehicle and a paid-for camper sitting on a lot, we very begrudgingly accepted it at a much reduced price. This time we’d made it known that we’d walk away from the deal if the truck was other than ordered. This time, we had options: we had a sturdy truck that was proven to haul the trailer quite well.
Another long truck was needed for towing but at least this one drives like a car.
We laughed as we read online about what not to do during the 1000 mile break-in, descriptions that evoked “babying” many times. At one regular maintenance interval for our Chevy, the mechanic was shocked that our brake pads were in such great condition. And indeed, at 53,000 miles at trade-in, we were still using the original pads even though at least half of those miles were in hauling mode. We concluded that our preferred driving styles were near-ideal for breaking-in vehicles. Perhaps we’d both missed a career opportunity there though neither of us have much tolerance for driving.
The eye-popping recommendation for breaking in a new vehicle came from an online, 2010 "Popular Mechanics" article in which the author argued to change the oil at 20 miles and again at 1,000. The author commented that the barely used oil with only 20 miles on it would likely be visibly laced with shiny metal bits and perhaps an odd bolt or other metal chunk. Prior experiences with small rocks and PVC chunks in water lines made it easy to be convinced about his wisdom. It seemed like $40 well spent on our first driving day though we didn’t do it quite that early.“Coach"Finding the Name
As we cast about for a name for our new vehicle, “Coach” came to mind. Our new truck was clearly programmed to sharpen and standardize our driving skills. Bumps on the steering wheel guided our hands into the preferred position. The steering wheel vibrated like when going over gentle rumble strips if we crossed the outside line. At night, the truck had its own opinions about when the brights should go on or off, also revealing that Bill and I had different criteria. And the Ford engineers' opinions about the starting sequence, like when to release the manual brake, were more rigid than ours, which was highlighted by beeps and several demands to acknowledge receipt of the information by pressing the “OK” button on the steering column. We laughed and proved we were trainable by complying.
“Sissi” was the name that finally stuck. I had burst out laughing our first full day on the road with our new Ford, announcing that the truck’s name should be “Sissy” because, compared to our big bruiser Chevy, this was indeed a sissy truck. A smooth, quiet ride; automatic this and that; a little too much chrome for my eye; and 2 optional technology packages made it undeniably a sissy in comparison. And I enjoyed the double meaning, as in ‘little sister’ to our slightly larger and older Chevy truck Blu.
Pedestrians at intersections are easier to spot with this cut-out near the door hinge.
Bill had some childhood baggage around “Sissy” and proposed “Sissi,” which is pronounced “see-see”. Sissi was the nick name of the revered Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the much younger spouse of Franz Joseph I of WWI fame. Early in our overseas travels, we learned of her unhappy story and to spot her portrait that occasionally turned up in our Austrian lodging establishments; Sissi was a part of our shared history. I so enjoyed the sound and my own humor with “Sissy” that I hung on to it for a week or so until I was satiated and then one day, our new truck became “Sissi” to both of us.A Love Story
We absolutely love our new truck. Both the interior and the exterior were the colors we ordered and its sporty handling makes driving fun again. I loved taking the turns a little too fast on a stretch of winding coastal road as we drove back to Redding the long way. Posted at 30 mph, I could enter the curve doing 40 and slow through the turn, feeling the truck hug the road….ah! With big ol’ Blu, I usually took such curves at or below the posted speed. We always joked that Blu had a “Subaru nose” because, for the size of the front end, it had a remarkably tight turning radius like our former Subarus. But the Ford had a sporty feel all the time, not just when turning around in a parking lot.
We lived in fear for 4 years of creaming a pedestrian when making turns at intersections because moving pedestrians had an uncanny ability to remain totally hidden behind our oversized sideview mirrors and windshield post through most of the turn. The large, special-order trailering mirrors on the Ford are lower to the ground and there is more open space around them on the door than on Blu, making it much, much easier to spot pedestrians during turns.
We left the 7 pillows we used to correct the ergonomic deficits of the Chevy’s seats at home because the Ford’s flatter, almost non-bucket seats were fine as-is. And a big sell-point for me was that the Ford’s passenger seat and foot well are aligned, which prevents the stress on my vulnerable left sacroiliac joint from sitting in the Chevy’s skewed configuration as a passenger. “Ah” again.FALLING INTO PLACE
We took receipt of the truck just in time to make our planned hike from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim down to Phantom Ranch on December 14. Now we needed to arrive a few days early, as originally planned months ago, for a new reason: to avoid getting caught in a snow storm. With the reservation-killing talk of a federal government shut-down lessening, we picked up our trailer in Redding and kept on driving, hoping our just-good-enough luck would hold for the much-anticipated 3 or 4 night stay at Phantom Ranch.