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Post #58: Serendipity

September 23-24, 2020

After taking care of lots of little details and closing up our house to keep out the wildfire smoke, we finally hit the road at 11 am. So much for an early start. As we left, we rushed to close the garage door because the smoke was so heavy it made us cough and we didn’t want smoke in the garage. Fires had been burning in northern California for weeks and the smoke would blanket the area, then blow away for a half day, then settle back in.

Breathing the smoky air was hazardous with our air quality indices above 400, making our air the worst in the world. 

Before we left we’d set up three good air cleaners and one hillbilly air cleaner (a fan with a HEPA filter taped to it) to try to keep the house free of smoke smell. Once we were about 75 miles away, the smoke cleared, but we knew from experience that all it took was a wind shift and the entire western US could be under smoky air. So, we began by going where we knew there wasn’t any smoke—Nevada. It was our go-to because the air was almost always clean, and it happened to be sparsely populated (aside from Las Vegas and Reno), which is great for camping.

We took Interstate 80 and once we passed the Tahoe area and Reno the road became flatter and smooth with a speed limit of 80 mph. At one point, I was surprised to see a pick-up towing a large fifth wheel RV blow by us at over 90. There was some truck traffic but the wide-open road and high speed limit meant we could make good time. By 6:30 in the evening, we turned off the highway looking for a campground a few miles off the road. 

It was a beautiful drive, up a steep road into the dry hills filled with sagebrush and occasional small trees. Mountains closed in on us the higher we got until we found the campground. It was small and already filled up, which was fine with us. We were in National Forest land and we knew all we needed was to find a dirt road to turn off on. A couple of miles later, we found it. A quarter mile from the main road (which had no traffic at all), we found a level spot. 

Road to nowhere

But another small road nearby climbed a steep hill that we had to explore. It was just about as much as the truck could handle, with rocks and deep gullies. After a half mile, the road petered out and, because there was no level area, we had to turn around. 

This spot in the middle of nowhere in Nevada at about 7,000 feet elevation made a glorious campsite for the night
Someone had been here before and left their mountain goat skull art to mark the spot.

We returned to our first spot, turned the truck to face east, made a quick dinner and enjoyed the cool breeze as the sun set. We were at 7,000 feet. Layers of mountains marched into the distance as a slight haze from the western widlfires made the sunset red. Soon, stars began winking and within five minutes I saw five shooting stars! It was truly lovely. We both agreed that our quiet rugged campsite was way better than being in a campground. We discussed our plans for the coming week. Utah has amazing national parks and our goal for the trip was to see Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and whatever else we could fit in.

All night a (mostly) gentle cool wind blew and the sleeping was wonderful. I listened as hard as I could and there was not a single sound save for my breathing, Susan’s breathing and the usual ringing in my ears. It was as peaceful a place as I’ve been. 

We slept well, waking later than expected, and took in the 360 degree views as the sun lit the hills in the distance. 

Even in this remote area of the eastern Nevada desert there were wisps of smoke from the California fires we'd left behind
A few cows greeted us on our way up the mountainside

We left camp and drove farther up the good paved road as the map said it led to a small nearby lake. The map did not say that the remote twisty road was beautiful with mountain views at every turn. 

Golden aspen graced the shoreline of the small mountain lake

After a few miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain, we found the lake. The wind was stronger and it was colder at the higher elevation. The small lake was situated at the base of a giant bowl that looked as though it had been carved out by a glacier. Granite surrounded it and a tiny stream trickled into it. 

We lingered for a while, watching the lake and a few nearby campers bundled against the chilly wind. We decided to make coffee by the lake but wait to have breakfast until we reached the tiny town of Wells, NV about twenty minutes away, down the mountain road and back along the interstate on our way east.

While we were at the lake, we had a surprisingly decent cell signal and after a few texts with our daughter Juliet, we realized that by total happenstance we’d both be in Wells at almost precisely the same time. After a week of Grand Teton and Sawtooth Mountain backpacking with a friend, she was on her way south from Wyoming and Idaho. The north-south road she was on and the west-east road we were on intersected at Wells and there happened to be a restaurant there.

The red dot marks Wells, where Juliet's north-south route and our west-east route unexpectedly coincided
Happy hikers: Juliet on left and Stephanie on right
We were the only customers at the only open restaurant in town

Amazingly, within 15 minutes of our arrival at Belle’s restaurant in the little crossroads town, the girls drove up and we had a sweet reunion. We thought it an incredible coincidence but we knew this kind of thing happens to Juliet all the time so we just assumed we were in her world for a while. 

After breakfast, we showed each other our SUV camping rigs and said goodbye as we watched the girls head south toward Great Basin and Death Valley National Parks while we headed east to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. As we left we laughed at the surreal and completely unexpected surprise to see our daughter and meet her friend pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

We headed toward, then skirted south of Salt Lake City, briefly stopping at the Bonneville Salt Flats on the way, marveling once again at how fast SLC drivers go. If you’re going less than 80, you better move over. 

The road heading east from the Salt Lake City area was increasingly more beautiful with every mile

Once we passed SLC, the road began to twist and climb through beautiful scenery that gradually turned from gray to reddish hues. Eventually, we turned off the main highway onto a smaller road that headed into a small canyon just outside Canyonlands National Park. Twisting our way up and through the beautiful red rocks and formations, we turned onto a small dirt road where we’d heard there were some good boondocking sites. The road became rutted and sandy, forcing me to activate 4wd. It was barely manageable for a high ground clearance vehicle with 4wd, so we knew there would be few campers. 

Our boondocking campsite just outside on Canyonlands National Park
A short trek from our campsite up these sandstone hills was irresistible

After a couple of miles, we spotted a pretty turn-off under an ancient juniper tree and made camp. Almost immediately upon arrival, we took off on foot through the sandy scrub for some sandstone hills not far away, careful not to step on the low prickly cacti that were everywhere. We were desperate to get out of the truck and move after so much driving. 

A steep but easy climb
Taking a break near the top

Eventually, we returned to the truck, made dinner and then strolled farther down the road where we found some spectacular views. 

Though we were hundreds of miles from home there was still a hint of smoke in the air that made for beautiful sunsets

The red sun set as we again headed back to camp, a gentle breeze carrying a few swallows hunting for flying bugs. It looked to be another very peaceful night.

Even with ambient moonlight, the sky was dark enough to see incredible stars

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