Monday, 25 August 2014

In and Out of Iowa

Des Moines is not a large city, and we easily found a place to park the truck within cycling distance of the city centre. Our guide book to Des Moines is distinctly unkind, and when we cycled into the city the morning after we arrived, we did so with low expectations. Thankfully Des Moines surprised us, and we spent two extremely enjoyable days in the city.

On our first day in the city, we took a tour of the astonishingly ornate state capitol building, before cycling around the sizeable downtown area. We found a good used bookstore in which to while away some time and replace the biography of Ernest Shakleton which I had recently finished reading, before retiring to the awesome Court Avenue brew pub, where we enjoyed a few pints of fantastic beer and were given a private tour of the onsite brewery. Hungry and slightly drunk, we had a late lunch of Chinese pizza (yes really!) at the nearby Fong’s Pizza restaurant. We shared a Crab Rangoon pizza, and a Chicken Kung Pao pizza, both of which tasted great under the circumstances.

The following day the indulgence in outlandish dining continued at the Iowa State Fair, which had been recommended to us by a lady that we had met in Rocky Mountain National Park, and which is held every year at the Des Moines fairgrounds.

In and Out of Nebraska

Since crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona several months ago, we have rarely driven more than a hundred miles each day, and occasions when we had, were generally surrounded by long periods of sedentariness. Travelling through Arizona, Utah and Colorado, we have consistently found things to do and see in close proximity to one another, and so there have been very few days where I have spent any significant length of time behind the wheel. This changed quickly as we left the Rockies behind us and headed east towards Nebraska. Even after researching the route carefully, we struggled to find things worth stopping for, and the distances between waypoints on our map were rarely under two hundred miles.

After a night in Loveland (little more than a convenient stopover point), we drove onwards to the I76, and started the 1,000 mile interstate journey that would take us to Chicago, our next major stopover. After a few hours of uninspiring driving, we left Colorado for Nebraska, and joined the I80, the road that would be our home for the next 660 miles, and which would take us within striking distance of The Windy City. After driving almost exclusively on winding backroads since re-entering America around 4,000 miles ago, it took some adjustment to get used to the endless monotony of the interstate system. Interstates can be boring at the best of time, but with little more than pancake flat corn-fields as far as we could see, I80 was difficult to enjoy.

At 450 miles, the journey from Loveland, CO to Lincoln, NE was too far for us to drive in a day. Thankfully I had come across a recommendation on the Expedition Portal Forum for a lake to stop at on the west side of Nebraska called Lake McConaughy. With few topographic features of note for several hundred miles in any direction, I wasn’t surprised to see the large number of other campers when we arrived at the lake, but I was surprised at how large the lake was. A dam on the North Platte River has created an enormous lake, complete with soft sand beaches, surrounded by stands of cottonwoods, and in places the lake is so big that it is difficult to see the other side. It was challenging to find a spot not near numerous other campers, but on the north shore we found a secluded spot on the sand, under the shade of several huge trees.

The number of visitors to the lake, has attracted a number of local entrepreneurs, who make a living dragging peoples RVs and trailers onto the soft sand of the lakefront, using huge 4x4 tractors. With these powerful and capable vehicles to hand, I was less cautious than normal when driving Jim onto the sand. Thankfully I was surprised to find that even in the soft sand near the lake edge, Jim coped fine, and I with the diff-lock engaged we had no trouble keeping traction.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Rocky Mountain National Park - A Final Hurrah from the Mountains

Rocky Mountain National Park is not blessed with an abundance of free camping spots in the neighbouring vicinities, and so we decided to stay at on of the paid for campsites inside the park. Unfortunately all but one of the RV suited sites on the easts side of the park are available for reservations, and being the height of summer, all of the sites were fully booked for the several weeks ahead. As usual we had failed to book a site, and so we chanced our luck at the first-come first-served Moraine Park campsite. Thankfully when we arrived at 9am on a Sunday morning, a suitable site had already been vacated, and we paid for a two night stay. Rocky Mountain National Park is huge, and if you have the time (like we do) it warrants a longer stay than two days. Rather than driving long distances each day, we decided that on our third day, we would drive to another part of the park, and hike from there.

Like many of the more popular national parks, RMNP has a free shuttle bus ferrying passengers around the busiest part of the park. The shuttle works reasonably well, and we did several hikes without driving, but the busses are fairly infrequent, and at the popular trailhead you often have to queue for a long time. The park has clearly not invested sufficient money in the shuttle system, and it is nowhere near as efficient as the systems at Zion or Bryce in Utah. If we were driving something smaller than Jim, I would have opted to drive to the trailheads each day.

Back into the Mountains - Indian Peaks Wilderness

As we headed north out of Denver on the I25, we got a taste of what we’d let ourselves in for by deciding to drive across Nebraska and Iowa. It is easy to think of Colorado as a mountain state, covered in the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, but the 150 mile strip of land, east of the Front Range, is almost devoid of any topographic features. It came as something of a shock after driving thousands of mile through the canyons and mountains of Utah and Colorado, to see nothing but snooker table flat expanses of farmland as far as you can see. The area that we stopped in for the night, between Erie and Dacono, is similarly devoid of any interesting features; thankfully we had not visited for the scenery, but were there to visit Earthroamer, a company specializing in offroad motorhomes.

After a disturbed night, having been moved from a nearby park by an officious local policeman, we woke outside the Earthroamer shop, and paid an early morning visit to the company. The friendly receptionist gave a decent tour of their facilities and their vehicles, despite it being clear that we already had a perfectly good truck and didn’t have the $390,000 necessary to buy the second hand unit on their parking lot.

Their workshop is immaculate, and it was a joy to see an engineering shop that was so clean and well organised. I developed a great respect for their product during the visit, and whether you are a fan of the big Ford truck chassis that they use, or not, the quality of their work is difficult to argue with. They use many materials and technologies that I would loved to have used on Jim, alas many are too expensive and too difficult for someone with the limited finances and facilities that I had. In particular I liked the way that they construct their box bodies out of a single moulding of fibreglass and foam composite. The bodies are attractive and strong, and being made in one single piece, have no joints where stresses can accumulate or leaks can form. It was also great to see the level of comfort in the driving cab. Jim, having been derived from an armoured truck, was always going to be more spartan and utilitarian than most motorhomes, but the Ford cab is more like a luxury car than any European heavy truck I’ve been in. Leather seats, climate control and thick carpet, and not things normally seen in the cabs of heavy trucks made by Mercedes, Man or Volvo.

Unfortunately without the necessary fortune to keep the secretary at Earthroamer engaged, our visit was fairly swift, and we were soon back on the road. The drive down to boulder was fairly uninspiring, but as soon as we left the town, heading east on the 119, we entered the mountains again. We have done a lot of driving the mountains recently, but the drive up to Nederland was one of the nicest we have driven; the road winds steeply upwards, through a deep and narrow Boulder Canyon, and after a few miles it is hard to believe that the endless plains are just a short distance behind you. At Nederland we headed north on the Peak to Peak Scenic Highway (Highway 72), in the direction of Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park.

As with most national parks, the board of governors at Rocky Mountain National Park is mostly comprised of cats, and consequently, dogs are banned from all trails in the park. To give Boris a chance to enjoy the beautiful scenery in the area, we turned off of the 72 after a few miles, and headed for the campsites and trailheads that provide access to the Indian Peaks Wilderness area, south of the National Park. The proximity to the National Park and Denver, mean that that the area of Roosevelt National Forrest providing access to the wilderness, is extremely popular. To prevent the area degenerating uncontrollably, the National Forest service charge a modest entry fee to the area ($10 for three days) and allow camping only in paid for campsites. I resented having to pay for camping in the three days that we spent in the area, but the number of visitors we saw during our stay, would clearly have made dispersed camping impossible to regulate, and the number and quality of hiking trails justify the cost.

Monday, 11 August 2014


On paper, Denver’s population is not huge, but as we approached the city, we realised that it certainly has the big city feel. The downtown area has many tall steel and glass buildings, there is a huge plaza housing the State Capitol and other public buildings, and there are numerous tram and bus lines. Having lived in London for most of my life, I am accustomed to these things, but it still felt strange after having spent so many months passing through nothing but small towns and wilderness. We stopped at a park that we’d marked on our map; Cheeseman Park was near enough downtown for us to cycle in each day, but far enough out to avoid parking restrictions. We were in good company, so I felt at home.

We spent our first day cycling around the downtown area, getting to know the city, and visiting tourist attractions like the State Capitol and the Denver Art Museum. Keeping the bikes on the roof of the cab means that they are awkward and time consuming to get up and down, and consequently we do not use them as much as we’d like. Nevertheless, when we do get them down, we use them a lot and find them indispensable in cities where things are too spread out to easily walk. Another task on my list of improvement to make to Jim when we return the UK, is to add a removable/swing up bike rack to the front bumper, so that the bikes can be used more easily.

Back at the truck, it became apparent that Cheeseman Park, was a great choice of parking location; we rapidly made friends in the area, and over the 10 days that we spent in Denver we met a lot of great people. During our stay we watched Nine Inch Nails and Sound Garden play at the awesome Red Rocks Amphitheatre, went paddle boarding down some rapids in Boulder Creek, ate more delicious doughnuts at Voodoo Doughnuts, drank lots of excellent craft beer in numerous great bars, spent several hours deciding what we’d spend our money on if we were rich at the huge REI outdoor equipment store, and were invited to lunch at the house of a couple local to Cheeseman Park. In particular Thor (living just around the corner) made our stay a lot more fun that it might otherwise have been, and he really made us feel like we belonged in the area.

Colorado Springs

The last few weeks have mostly been spent in the towns and cities of the Front Range, with little photogenic activity to make the blog post exciting. Drinking beer, visiting family, and making friends do not make for exciting blog posts, so I apologise in advance for the lack of colour.

On leaving the Buena Vista area, we drove down Highway 24 towards Colorado Springs. As is common in this part of Colorado in late summer, the heavens opened again, and we pulled off the highway on County Road 28 near to Pikes Peak, to find somewhere to make lunch and sit out the storm. The road leads down to towards Catamount Reservoir, but the dirt roads accessing the waterfront had all turned into muddy rivers, and I didn’t want to risk getting Jim bogged in the wet ground. We found a trailhead to stop at, and waited until the skies had cleared. After an hour, we returned to the highway, and almost immediately found ourselves stuck in a line of stationary traffic. The Front Range seems particularly susceptible to flooding, and a flash flood had made the road impassable further towards Colorado Springs.

After an hour or so, the road was reopened, and we continued to Manitou Springs where we found somewhere to park for the night. As we often do, we parked adjacent to a town park, in an area just outside of the centre. We walked into the town centre and spent the afternoon enjoying the strange collection of shops, bars and amusement arcades. Unfortunately, our stroll into town revealed the unusually precarious nature of our parking spot. The stream that runs through Manitou Springs had turned into a muddy torrent, and we found television camera crews waiting for the predicted flood, and numerous closed shops with sandbags in front of their doors. Our parking spot on the riverbank suddenly seemed like a stupid choice.

We kept an eye on the level of river throughout the afternoon, and when we turned in for the night, the level had dropped considerably and the rain had eased off. Thankfully in the morning the truck remained where we had parked it, and we drove up to the nearby Garden of the Gods city park, without having to test the fording capacity of the truck. Garden of the Gods is a great place to spend a few hours, and I’ve no doubt that for climbers it offers a lot to do, but having recently driven through Utah, the strange rock formations did not seem as exciting as they are described by the locals. We enjoyed a walk in the park, but it was extremely busy, and we left after little more than an hour to head into Colorado Springs.

For the first time since arriving in Colorado more three weeks previously, we left the mountains behind us, and caught our first glimpse of the Great Plains that stretch for more than a thousand miles toward the east coast. With the backdrop of Pikes Peak and the Front Range, Colorado Springs still feels mountainous, but the topography of the city is relatively flat, and the altitude is almost a mile below Leadville from where we had recently come. We parked alongside a city park, and spent nearly a week in the same spot without being moved on.

The downtown area of Colorado Springs is nice, but most of it can be seen in a day. We spent much of our time with my cousin and her family, enjoying feeling part of a family again after seven months without seeing familiar faces. Living on the road is awesome in many ways, and for me this trip has been a dream become reality, but I miss the proximity of friends and family, and I’m not sure I’d permanently want to feel like a stranger in every town we visit. Leaving Colorado Springs, I felt recharged, and ready for the journey into the big city of Denver to the north.

Avoiding a boring trudge up the interstate, we returned west on Highway 24 to Woodland Park, and, after stopping for criminally delicious doughnuts at the Doughnut Mill, headed north on Highway 67 into the Pike National Forest. The pressures on the forest's resources from the large nearby population centres, mean that we found no places to free camp. All of the roads off of the 67 lead to private properties, and there were clear ‘no camping’ signs at the few trailheads we saw. Having passed through most of the forest, we diverted onto the 126, and headed east at Pine towards the remote Buck Snort Saloon. It was recommended to us by my cousin, and its location and age make it worth the trip, but the narrow canyon location means that there is limited parking, and on a Sunday evening there was nowhere for us to park without blocking the road. We were forced to head back to the highway, and being so close to Denver, we decided to drive into the city and find somewhere to park.