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ALBUQUERQUE – September 2020

Moab, UT
“Oh my gosh! Look what has become of Moab!”
This was the first time we’d approached Moab, UT from the north, though we’d stayed there in 2013. On the outskirts of town, I immediately recognized the uranium mine toxic dump reclamation project from mining in the 1950’s.

Such sites seem like a cosmic joke: the look of the modern, highly professional, carefully regulated operation of earth movers; men in neat uniforms and helmets with giant hoses performing dust abatement; euphemistic signage; and mighty trucks with flat bed trailers hauling metal containers in convoys up a private road, all belie the horrific toxins below them. The dark side of me snickered at the Marriott Suites complex immediately downhill from the operation, a place you couldn’t pay me to stay.

Around the next bend was the entrance to Arches National Park, which added context to the gorgeous red rock features we’d ogled shortly after turning off of the freeway onto Hwy 191 on our way to Albuquerque. It was all coming back to me as we entered Moab but then I was rocketed into a new reality: this was not the Moab we left behind in 2013.
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Wilson Arch safely south of the Moab scene.

The Springfield Suites and Fairfield Inn & Suites, both by Marriott and next to the toxic site, were just the first in what had become a tight parade of nicer chain hotels and inns. Their gorgeous, enticing facades looked months old. To my camper’s eye, they were the height of fashion, each succeeding in their quest to be beckoning, to be unique, to make you feel special when you pulled onto their driveway and under their porticos. There were a dozen, maybe 2 dozen of them, with a few spilling on to the side streets. “Moab?” I couldn’t believe we were in Moab, Moab that had been a backwater.

The now, 7-lane-wide highway/main street was efficient, with 2 of the extra-wide lanes dedicated to free parking, but the substantial upgrade certainly had changed the feel of Moab. Before the still-in-progress road improvement project, the 2-lane Main Street with sparse parking that doubled as highway, gave Moab sort of a cult feel. The properly dirty jeeps; multitude of outfitters; small sports shops; and rumpled, cool dudes in flips that were fresh off of the desert, jammed onto the crowded road made you feel like you had arrived, that this was the hub.

And, actually, Moab is the hub: it is the intersection between the young and old desert rats coming into town to re-supply and shower and the neatly pressed, hurried tourists passing through on their way to magnificent Arches. We had enjoyed the vibe in 2013, the peculiar mix of pretense and authenticity. Being on the sidewalks and navigating into the street when the sidewalks disappeared was THE event for me in town, not going into the shops; it was a mind-blowing street fair. I had been an outsider, not a part of it, but I enjoyed the trip that was reminiscent of the 70’s.

That iconic, quirky, enchanting, Moab was largely gone. The funky section was crowded and diminished by the massive amount of upscale lodging, endangering its fragile hold on the town. The transformation had surely been a boon for the local economy and presumably, it had made more winners than losers, but I had a sense of loss in seeing its gentrification. I was however relieved to have my obsolete image of Moab refreshed so as not to embarrass myself or seem out of touch in future conversations with fellow travelers.

Monticello, UT
Lucky for our delicate nervous systems (and radioactive contamination levels), Bill had made reservations for us 50 miles down the road from Moab in a 40 year-old, family-owned RV park in an old apple orchard. It looked dodgy but it came with a bonus: John, the relief manager, who immediately busied himself with diagnosing our electrical issue that Bill had noticed in the morning when he was readying our trailer to hit the road.
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Once in Albuquerque, other repairs became pressing.

There is always some issue after a long stay like we had had in Fruita, CO, things like a low trailer tire pressure, and Bill had gone looking for them the day before. None had shown up then, but the next morning, we had 2 issues: the plug-in end of our 30 amp electric cable for the trailer had, mysteriously, come close to melting and our 2, oversized, back-up, golf cart batteries didn’t work. Neither was an urgent matter on this day but both needed attention.

We didn’t know how gray-haired John came by his expertise but he had the testers he needed and knew what he was looking for to help us. The always-suspect converter under the refrigerator was fine, the battery cables were a corroded mess because of a mis-match of metals used by the dealer, and it was unknown if the batteries were dead or not. Unfortunately, John was a committed “non-believer” in the seriousness of the coronavirus, so I sat in the trailer with my mask on cataloging everything he touched. John happened to have a good mechanic friend in Albuquerque whom he called and who would fix us up or refer us to someone else for the needed repairs. Wow!

After 5 months of near-isolation from the virus, it was quite startling to have not just a normal exchange, but to be the recipient of such unexpected and welcome generosity. I’m guessing that making such repairs for strangers was a hobby of John’s because he wasn’t at his station to receive us when we arrived—he was down the orchard helping another guest with his electrical problems. It didn’t seem appropriate to tip him but he did enjoy my joke of having given him some TP as payment had it been March.

Culture Clash
John, who so kindly troubleshooted our trailer’s electrical issues, came with baggage: he lectured us about the foolishness of wearing our masks. He wasn’t wearing one and the only mask-wearer I saw among the dozen people in the little park was an 80 year-old, retired physician who believed he was hospitalized early on with an undiagnosed case of Covid-19.

Another long-stay guest who was a friend of John’s concurred with John, though he wasn’t as instructional. The local grocery clerk was out 3 weeks with Covid a while back and he figured he’d had an asymptomatic case from her. And he was sure that we’d been infected too and just didn’t know it. He also concluded that since we looked like we were fit that we’d be fine if we contracted the virus. (Studies reveal that high levels of fitness and absence of obesity do improve Covid-19 survival rates but certainly don’t confer immunity). Good, though scary, to get out and see how the other half lives.

I couldn’t remember the last time we’d slept with the windows open, let alone, heard crickets. It was still in the low 80’s inside our trailer when we went to bed but it was cooling nicely and we opted to take a welcome break from the overnight roar from our AC and newly added air purifier; our Bedjet mattress coolers would keep us cool enough to sleep.
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Barb’s temporary repair: gluing the hair line cracks in the tub & jury-rigging a splash barrier.

And then there were crickets! Amazing! Life in the old apple orchard. Bill lamented the lack of good hiking in the area, even at Moab, because he’d have liked to stay in the peaceful orchard for a while. The orchard would have been a welcome venue change from the gravel and asphalt ambiance of our Fruita RV park and a similar setting ahead of us in Albuquerque. We’d learned from experience that when in the SW, we largely must choose between low ambiance RV parks or the roar of generators in more backcountry settings and we favor the quiet, though here we could have had both.

Almost to Albuquerque
Bill had stretched our trip from Fruita to Albuquerque to 3 days in deference to our bias towards keeping things easy, and easy it was. There was enough time each day to stay on top of chores rather than get behind like would otherwise have happened. By the close of the 2nd of 3 days, we were extremely fortunate to have an RV repair man lined up to look at our battery problems the afternoon of our arrival day in Albuquerque. A friend of a friend of John at Monticello, he was just returning to work after recovering from an injury and was eager for business, a perfect match with us.

As it turned out, by the time we hit the outskirts of Albuquerque, Bill had a plan to fix our electrical problems himself. He’d followed-up some “ah-ha” thoughts with a little sleuthing and decided that the batteries were indeed dead. When we had cell reception and I was driving on the 3rd day, he chatted with the staff at Interstate Battery and he decided we’d buy new batteries on the way into town. A stop at Camping World in the ‘burbs garnered the needed replacement plug. Hours more research would be required before he settled on the 2 crimpers and other items he needed to buy for the job, but there would be enough time for those last steps. Actually replacing the cables and plug would be the quick and easy parts after all of the prep work he had done.

My online order that inexplicably sat in a Denver DHL office for 4 days finally arrived in Fruita the day after we left. It was terribly frustrating but for $15, I’d been able to leave a prepaid mailing box at the RV park office and then arrange for a free pick-up by USPS. Silly to have to pay to reship it, but it was a solution that got us off the hook for waiting for a package that might not ever arrive. (Sadly, 10 days later, I learned that the Fruita staff only applied half of the stamps I left with the package and the USPS sent it to our return address with postage due!)

An incoming phone call from the Albuquerque KOA manager at lunch on Day 2 on the road more than covered the now $20 re-shipping expense: she offered us a monthly rate site instead of the very expensive daily rate site for which we had desperately contracted. Inexplicably, she allowed us to jump the queue of 20 RVers to fill this sudden cancelation created by a visiting nurse whose contract was canceled. What a lucky domino effect! I must be doing something right because that was the 2nd time in a year that I had unwittingly jumped the line in the world of RVing.
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Farmington, NM RV park humor: above ground tree root + green paint + plastic alligator head.

One didn’t have to do the math to grasp the price difference: our effective daily rate dropped from $65 per night to $28. Electricity was prepaid in the high, daily rate price and not in the monthly rate, but that will likely run between $1 and $3 per day, depending upon how much we ran the AC.

Of course, we had a few disappointments on the way but they were nicely overshadowed by these happier outcomes. We’d be arriving in Albuquerque with contented smiles on our masked faces.

Albuquerque, NM
I was surprised by how much more deeply I felt the sense of peace in our Albuquerque RV park than I had felt at Fruita. I did cringe at the lack of ambiance at Fruita—nice owners and staff culture but little greenery and nothing to see out our windows but the next rig over. It was all a little too close. The KOA however was more open, in part because a higher percentage of the spaces, including ours, were the coveted “pull-throughs” and not “back-ins”. We didn’t have a tree on our site in Albuquerque but there were enough around to feel like the air was a little fresher. I treasured being able to have the door open in Albuquerque and look out to the Sandia Mountains. Some days the view was obstructed by a big rig, other days not. It was a welcome change after feeling boxed-in for 5 months at Fruita.

The great trails that we remembered being 10-15 minutes away from the KOA were still great trails. Back in 2016, Bill largely relied on hiking books to find the best trails but in Albuquerque this year, like at Fruita, he committed the time to slowly scanning the hills and canyons on his Gaia GPS app in search of less celebrated routes. Selecting named trails was the sweet spot: he found new, well-maintained routes for us to explore, quickly doubling our number of nearby venues.

Ironically, the day we left Fruita because of being suffocated by the Pine Gulch wildfire smoke, the winds shifted and much of Colorado was nearly smoke-free for 11 days. Then, out of nowhere, a wildfire took-off in Utah and Colorado was again blanketed by smoke, even mountaintop Ouray. Interestingly, the wind shift didn’t seem to pull smoke in from California like it had done a couple of weeks before. Luckily, we’d dodged the bullet but it was pure chance, not the result of wisdom.

Two days later, another menace, the heat, briefly disappeared. A massive storm system dropped down from the north, taking Denver’s temperatures from 99° down to 37° in 2 days. We were on the edge and our lows dropped from the 70’s into the 40’s. We braced for a possible ½” of heavy rain and gusts to 60-70 mph. We hoped that this dramatic weather event would signal the end of our summer of 100° and near-100° days; that the current forecast of highs in the mid-80’s would prevail, but it did not.

Not Again!
We were purring along, 10 days into our stay in Albuquerque, breathing deeply and feeling our lungs slowly recover from the inflammation triggered by the wildfire smoke in Fruita for a week and wham! suddenly, we were in it again. I stepped out of my evening shower and, thinking it was turning dark a little early, I lifted a window shade that had been protecting us from the heat of the strong west sun to discover the sun was still up but blocked by smoke.

Bill dashed out to the truck to retrieve our new air purifier in storage and immediately put it into service. Even with that quick action, we both went to bed that night with some lung congestion—it happens so fast! I checked the air quality map and wind directions and still wasn’t sure of the source, perhaps California. There was an enormous weather system on its way from the Arctic so we presumed the advance winds were pushing the smoke into our region from afar. The 6 day air quality forecast was grim: we might have 1 day that was safe for outdoor exertion.
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The winds shifted & suddenly breathing got hard.

Batten Down the Hatches
A little before noon the next day, while begrudgingly sheltering in place from the smoke, the big winds arrived. It didn’t take long for steady winds in the 30 mph range to dominate with frequent gusts in the 50’s. The high wind warnings that stated we were at risk for gusts of 60 and 70 mph seemed very credible. We rocked and rolled indoors all afternoon. Stunningly, the smoke persisted in the wind.

I finally gave up trying to boil a pot of water for dinner because, even with a tight lid, the water kept sloshing out with each pitch and roll of the trailer. I poured about a 1/3 of the water out, then another 1/3, clearly, it was not to be.

Our faint hopes of the wind storm passing early were dashed and after dinner we further battened down the hatches. Strong overnight winds several days earlier prompted Bill to drop our 4 stab jacks to stabilize our rig in the winds, something we rarely bother with. Nonetheless, they were worth snugging again: two of the jacks were no longer making firm contact with the ground, so there was hope to slow our swaying during the night.

Bill held onto me and the folding chair I was standing on in the punishing winds while I rotated the little clips that would hold a stove vent flap closed. Again, something we rarely bother with but silencing its constant chatter in strong winds could net me deeper sleep. Lastly, the aluminum foil shielding our door windows from the relentless direct sun in Fruita had to be addressed. There was no missing that more air, OK, more wind, was coming in around the back door and its foil sheet practically jingled in the wind. Down it came—we’d replace the foil if needed, which it was into October.

The relief from subduing the noises and motion from the wind was like that when coming out of bitter cold into a warm room. I was taken aback at the accumulated tension in my body from wind “side-effects” all afternoon. What a bonus to dismantle the occult tension of the day from riding out the storm before trying to sleep. I was more than pleased by morning to have slept as well as I did, even with the intermittent strong gusts and rain. Knowing and feeling that our rig was as secure as it could be had clearly been soothing to my subconscious surveillance system.
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Heads Up! A bear had been on our trail a bit earlier.

The weather gods were not kind to us: we’d anticipated getting outdoors for a bit of exercise the next day, on the best day of the 6 day air quality forecast, but it was still too harsh. The air quality dramatically improved overnight but the winds did not diminish like expected. The winds had calmed some, but the new baseline was 20-30 mph with gusts over 40 mph were too much to fight on the trail and the high temperature of 59° had been whacked to 49°. Our cabin fever was not powerful enough to overcome that harshness, especially with a 70% chance of rain. Reconditioning for the Grand Canyon had taken another 2 steps backwards.

We ventured out for a 12 mile hike the next day when the winds subsided but what we hadn’t realized was that it had snowed on our trail. None was visible on the mountain covered in the low clouds and we barely had enough warm clothes with us to be safe. We’d tossed in our rain suits to wear at lunch if the winds were harsh but they were needed most of the day because of persistent, saturating, fog drip off of the trees.

Too Much Information
We were thrilled to be greeted in Albuquerque by our tiny, new indoor air quality monitor Bill had ordered. Ironically, the winds in Fruita shifted the day we left and we were blissfully out of the smoke, whether we’d stayed or left. However, receiving our monitor was closure for our wildfire smoke education project and we were just as happy not to need it. But the slick-looking little guy was full of bad news: our 5 year-old trailer that had baked in 100° temperatures for most of the summer was still “de-gassing” at an unacceptable rate: both the levels of formaldehyde and other “volatiles” were toxic.
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Our 1st air purifier sporting the new monitor on top for the photo op.

The only way we could lower the numbers to acceptable levels for formaldehyde and volatiles was to keep the windows and doors open—all the time. As soon as we closed-up to run the AC or leave, the bad numbers shot up. Even leaving the ceiling vents open all day and night was not enough to drop the levels of these gases.

When wildfire smoke arrived one night in Albuquerque, we were equally stunned to see how quickly our low-end air purifier decreased the overall air quality number and that of the very toxic, small particles. We watched the numbers tank before our eyes. In 10 minutes, the air quality measure dropped from 78 to 33; the tiny particles dropped from 25 to 8. These numbers told the same story our lungs had told when in Fruita, that our low-end purifier with a HEPA filter was excellent at removing the particles, which is what we bought it for. We knew that it wasn’t equipped to deal with gases. We of course would have loved to have had a top quality air purifier that did it all, but none were available that Saturday night in Fruita and we desperately needed to breath. We accepted high levels of volatiles from closing up instead of high levels of particulates—a long-term vs short-term trade-off.

We began staring at our new little tattle-tale an hour before bedtime and were reeling from the bad news that we’d been pickling ourselves for years in our trailer. We knew that formaldehyde was a serious issue in homes and especially in trailers. We’d arranged for our special order trailer to be vented over the hot Central Oregon summer when we bought it in 2015. We didn’t notice any odor when we took possession of it in the fall and thought we were home free. But ten minutes of watching our new monitor and our confidence about having tended to this problem long ago, unequivocally tanked. The next morning, Bill was searching online for the better air purifier that we only expected to buy next summer if we were unable to travel to Italy. By the end of the day, an expensive, bulky Dyson was on its way to us, however slowly.

Lucky us, the lone black version that the Dyson representative thought was still on the shelf was in the box we received and not a white one. And even better, the rep had been wrong about the height, which was stated as 41”. In our little trailer, the base, the footprint was the most important measure, but 41” would put the purifier at eye level when we were seated. We took deep breathes and ordered it, trusting we’d adjust to having essentially a silent 3rd person in our rig all of the time. Another sigh of relief upon opening, after discovering it was indeed the perfect black and bronze colors that coordinated nicely with our décor, the purifier itself was only 31”. And as advertised, it weighed about 12 lbs, not the 49 lbs of a slightly better model. Given the purifier would lie in our bed on driving days, we didn’t want to be hefting the bulkier, 49 pound model on and off the bed everyday.
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Bill, the new Dyson air purifier, & Slim, our skeleton disguised as a pirate.

Once we recovered from receiving failing grades for our trailer’s air quality from our new, little monitor and Bill had ordered a high-end Dyson to salvage our reputations, we discovered a new way to use our monitor, which was outdoors. It’s an indoor monitor but its 3 hour back-up battery expanded its duties.

When the air quality app predicted borderline outdoor conditions for my sensitive lungs, we put the monitor on our trailer steps to check our local air. Usually it was a bit better than the app, so we would drive to one of the trailheads about 1,000’ higher and farther out of town. We’d check the air quality at the trailhead and, invariably, it was even better and in the acceptable range. On a string of forecast bad air days that would have kept me indoors if we hadn’t had our own monitor, I was able to hike knowing that I wouldn’t be bogged down on the trail or overnight with particulate-induced lung inflammation. It was a near thing, but having our own monitor salvaged a few more hiking days from our wildfire smoke ravaged schedule.

September 19th
On September 19th, we had been continuously living in our 28’ trailer for a year, something we never intended to do. The pandemic had disrupted our annual rhythm of living in it for about 6 months at a time but it had felt much safer to stay in the SW this spring. The coronavirus infection rates were surging at home in the NW and we were grateful for the option to stay in our rig. Indeed, the rate of infection in our Colorado county never exceeded 2% and they only had 5 deaths from the disease by September. It had been a good plan for hunkering down, though not the original plan for the summer. (By early October, our western Colorado county had lost its control of the virus and its infection rate soared).

This anniversary, which was more of one to note than to celebrate, also marked 5 years of owning our trailer. About on cue, the hardwired propane leak monitor and the carbon monoxide monitor began signaling their 60 month life spans by emitting piercing, intermittent chirps. And perhaps in protestation of daily use for almost 6 months, our tiny plastic tub sported several hairline cracks, triggering angst about water damage below.

Bill, who grew-up with the optimistic notion that everything should last forever, found these failures more irritating than I did. My dad was a carpenter, which colored my world with a stronger sense of impermanence and fragility of things. We found more common ground in our perspectives about entropy after I did a bit of reading. I found one scholarly article from 2000 that indicted that travel trailers such as ours were typically used about 1 month a year. Bill quickly became more forgiving of the repair needs after running the numbers in his head and concluding that the usage of our trailer represented about 40 years in trailer-years.

So, it was back to work strategizing as to how and when we’d repair the door frame that was separating from the body of the trailer and the dislodged hinges needed to pivot the mattress up to access the massive storage space beneath it. In my mind, all was good as long as the failings could be fixed and it wasn’t urgent to do so.
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We only did our favorite hike once, to the peak of S Sandia, & it was in the smoke.

At the end of September, on our last day of almost a month-long stay in Albuquerque, we were gifted with the glorious, bright blue skies that had kept us coming back for years until 2016, which is when we discovered the winter hiking opportunities in Palm Springs. We squeezed in an 8 mile hike after taking advantage of the early shopping, senior hours, at Trader Joe’s and Costco, which unfortunately put us in the heat of a 94° day that was forecast to only be 85°.

We just couldn’t shake the heat this summer. But our well-tested heat acclimation, a few puffy clouds, and occasional winds made it manageable and we reveled in the brilliance of the sky at 6,500’. The otherwise unremarkable, kind of weedy vegetation in drainage areas, looked gorgeous in the light. A photo wouldn’t do the weeds justice, but it was a joy to see the muted colors pop. Instead of feeling cheated by only having a single, truly fine sky-day, we were grateful for it. The many, many trials of 2020, including the pandemic and horrific fires, had lowered our expectations and made it easier to be flooded with gratitude.

Next up would be our usual 6-week rotation between Flagstaff, AZ and the Grand Canyon, about 80 miles apart. We likely would have improved air quality, but like when in Fruita, CO, we knew we were at the mercy of the winds.

The official wildfire season was just beginning and anything could happen given the persistent, unseasonably high, temperatures in the West. We were also reluctantly canceling our annual November itinerary for hiking 3 peaks in southern California because those forests had just recently burned down or had been closed because of the fear of fire. It was continuing to be a difficult year for many of us in the West for a number of reasons.

Here’s the link to my 2013 impressions of buzzy Moab should you be interested to know more: