CC Road Trip: VW Beetle, Coast to Coast (Part 2)

I woke up on the morning of July 3rd with great anticipation, along with a hangover and dehydration from the altitude. I wandered around the vicinity of my campsite and was awed by the sheer beauty of the Rocky Mountains. I would have enjoyed it more had I not been feeling the effects of 8800 feet. Aspen Meadows, unfortunately, had no bathroom/shower facilities, so after breakfast I made my way to another campground in the park and had a refreshing shower.

The namesake meadow at the campground.

I had some time to kill in the morning before M.’s flight arrived, but I knew I could not say at the high altitudes of Golden Gate Canyon Park. I quickly drove down to Golden, CO to find a coffee shop to recuperate in while writing in my journal. I try to keep a daily log (Captain’s Log) of my trips, forcing myself to take 30 minutes to write the previous day’s adventures. During a previous trip in 2016, I refined a process where I jotted down keywords on a notepad during the day and would use those notes along with photos to recreate the entire day. This worked out quite well, as long as I made time daily to keep up with the writing. In fact, I am thankful for the journal as I am reconstructing this trip for CC.

I wrote in my journal for a few hours and did some other personal business, and then decided to head down into Denver. M. was arriving mid-afternoon, so I still had some time to kill. As I entered Denver proper, the temperatures soared to 100+ degrees. I found a burger joint that had AC and plonked myself down to catch up on some emails and other work for my job. Even though I was on vacation, it was important that I not be totally offline. Eventually, it was time to pick up M. from the airport, which would be an adventure in and of itself. Whoever thought up the design for the roadways in and around Denver International obviously never spent any time trying to pick someone up at an airport. I missed the proper terminal twice and had to make what felt like a pointless massive loop. I found M. and we fled the airport and Denver to head down to Monument Valley to camp for the night.

We could have stayed on I-70 and zipped through the Rockies, but as this was M’s first time in Colorado, we got off onto US 6 and went up and over Loveland Pass. The weather was chilly (with some snow still on the ground at 11,000 + feet) but we still stopped for photo ops at the pass itself. We zig-zagged our way back down to I-70 on to find ourselves caught in a stand-still traffic jam that lasted the better part of 45 minutes. I-70 is the only route through the mountains at this point, so there were no alternatives to get through. The delay was bad enough that we decided that we would have to change our plans. We wouldn’t be able to get to Monument Valley on this night, instead, we would find the first available campground off of I-70. We made it to US 24 and got off to head south. The maps and limited cell service indicated there were several camping possibilities along this route, unfortunately, they were either completely full or not appropriate to our camping set-up. By 10 PM, M. was exhausted from jet-lag and I was growing weary of trying to find any place to camp. On my 2016 trip, I stayed at a campground in Beana Vista CO, and we pushed on until we reached it. We set the tent up in the darkness and decided we didn’t want a campfire or dinner, we just wanted to sleep.

As it turned out the campground was still nice, and they had hot showers and hot coffee for M. The weather was beautiful and we were anxious to get on our way down to Monument Valley before sunset. We weren’t sure what kinds of celebration we might see for the 4th of July that night, but we knew we wanted to be set up and relaxing before dark.

As we headed out of Buena Vista and on to US 50 west, we crossed over the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass. M. was fascinated with the concept of water flowing East or West from that point, and we debated where the septic system drained for the gift shop at the top of the pass for far longer than common sense dictates. At Montrose CO we turned south again to head up into the mountains again. The road to Ouray was absolutely breathtaking – the last time I had driven this road I was going the opposite direction and the weather was overcast and rainy so I didn’t get to enjoy the trip as much as I did this time around. We stopped at a place called Ridgeway State Park (home to Ridgeway Reservoir) and went for a swim. We were able to drive the VW quite a way out onto the dried flats around the reservoir, and we went for a quick dip in the refreshing water. The flats were mostly hard-packed rocks, but there were many areas of deep wet mud. I avoided these and had no trouble, but another visitor in a Dodge Grand Caravan wasn’t so attentive. A bunch of people (myself included) gathered together to muscle the van out of the muck.

After our splash in the water, we headed south towards Ouray, CO. As we neared the city center proper, we noticed that it was entirely blocked off by some sort of event. We detoured around and found a parking spot to find out what was going on. As it turns out, it was the annual local firefighters’ competition to see who could knock who down first with the stream from a firehose. It was great fun to watch, and we even got sprayed with some stray water – quite refreshing. We had both been a little on edge from lack of sleep, so watching people go at each other with water and getting wet made us forget our problems, and we were able to enjoy the rest of our day.

After our stop in Ouray, we continued on through the San Juan Mountains into Durango and then over to Cortez. The drive through the San Juan’s is one of my absolute favorites for the sheer stunning scenery.

By early evening we had made it through Colorado (and passed very close by the Four Corners) and into Utah. It had been a long day, but I was excited to get into Monument Valley for the evening. We were staying at The View Campground, part of a resort run by the Navajo with amazing views of what people traditionally think of as “the West”. Monument Valley is where John Ford filmed many of his Western movies, and it is also where the Drive-In movie scene from Back To The Future II was filmed. I also point out that one of my favorite movies, National Lampoon’s Vacation, also filmed their climactic Family Truckster jump-scene in Monument Valley (near Kayatna). If that doesn’t qualify for famous, I don’t know what does!

After watching the sunset we made dinner and enjoyed a bottle of wine in the gathering darkness. As our campsite faced due east, we weren’t facing any type of civilization, meaning no fireworks. The sunset was spectacular enough that I didn’t mind, but as total darkness fell we noticed far off in the distance (possibly 20 or 30 miles away) the smallest of fireworks. This show went on for about 15 minutes, and we both sat there enjoying our miniature Fourth of July celebration.

We knew the sunrise over Monument Valley was going to be beautiful, so we set our alarms to wake up at around 5:30 AM. We were not disappointed, the view from the tent was breathtaking – and we didn’t even have to get out of our sleeping bags! M. remained in the tent for a while longer as I got out to start coffee for her and tea for me, and yet again I was reminded why I take road trips.

We broke camp and packed the VW. We were headed to Zion National Park that evening, so it was not going to be a long day of driving. We detoured to the Monument Valley visitors center and then attempted to drive on the very rough road that wanders out among the buttes and vistas. From previous experience, I knew the road was rough, but as we had more time than I did previously I thought I could take it slow enough not to destroy someone else’s car. Unfortunately, the road was terrible and we only made it a quarter of a mile or so before turning around. Even going only a short distance allowed us to get some great photographs.

In this view from the visitor’s center, you can clearly see the washboard road winding out into the desert.

We said goodbye to Monument Valley and drove towards Zion. M. had to complete some work for her job, so we stopped in Paige AZ for lunch and to give her a chance to complete her necessary reports. I took the time to catch up on my journals and re-pack the car. The trunk space in the VW was limited at best, even with the rear seats folded down. I typically like to find everything a home in whatever car I am driving (my own, rentals, etc) with the things that are most needed within easy reach (cooler, food) and the once-a-day things buried (tent, camp-stove). There is a natural order of things that works itself out over time, but with the addition of M’s gear, I needed to adjust the car some. The car packing doesn’t have to be perfect but I find it annoying when things are strewn about haphazardly when you’re living out of a vehicle for a week or more. After a two hour break, M. had finished up her work and all that was left was to find a UPS store to ship it off. We left Page and drove over the impressive Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.

Zion would be a new spot for both of us and I knew little of the park. My limited pre-trip research and pointed to one thing: hiking the Narrows. I had made reservations at a local outfitter company to rent shoes, walking sticks and waterproof packs, so after we set up camp and made dinner, I surprised M. with our plans for the following day. She was as excited as I was, not only for going on the hike but that we would also be in one spot for two nights. It usually works out that we are always on the go on our road-trips, there is so much to see out there and the time-limited, but I knew we needed to stop and smell the roses, as it were.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the Narrows, it is a hike that takes you up narrow canyons in the Virgin River. You spend most of the time hiking directly in the river itself. The scenery and hiking in the river are something not to be missed. We were extremely lucky that on the day we were at the Narrows it was very hot out, so the cold water was refreshing. We had heard of possible storms far to the north that could result in lethal flash flooding (in the canyon there is literally no place to go). We were warned that if we noticed muddy debris filled water to get to the highest ground humanly possible immediately.

We hiked for several hours, stopping to have lunch along the way. The river was crowded for the first hour or so, and eventually, the people tapered off. We were never alone but there were just enough people to make it a wonderful communal experience. After lunch, we decided to keep going up the river, as each corner unveiled another beautiful view. We both couldn’t bring ourselves to say we had to turn back, but by 4pm we knew it was time to head out. There was no cell service in the canyon, but we did notice that there were dark clouds gathering in the sky. We began to get worried and noticed other hikers (those that looked experienced) making their way down the river with great haste. I was genuinely worried and while M. kept her eyes on the river for debris I was scouting out potential places for a quick scramble. Luckily the only weather-related incident that day was back at our campsite. While we were riding the bus back to the campground the thunderstorm did arrive, flooding our campsite and our tent. The storm passed quickly and the warm air returned allowing us to dry our sleeping bags and tent. By the time we went to bed that evening we were hard-pressed to tell that anything had been soaked.

We spent the next morning taking a drive through Zion. There are so many fascinating natural and man-made wonders at Zion, including The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. With strategically placed “windows”, this tunnel is a feat of engineering, and I highly recommend driving through it. M. needed to stop at a UPS drop off location which, hard as it may seem to believe, can be difficult to find in the hinterlands of Arizona / Utah. Our fleeting cell-service indicated that there was a location in Colorado City, AZ. The day was blisteringly hot, so after locating the general store, I stayed in the VW with the AC on while M. went in to drop off her package. After a few minutes of watching people in the parking lot and wondering why many of the females wore long-sleeved shirts and long skirts, it dawned on me why the city name sounded familiar. A quick internet search confirmed this, and I got out of the car to go into the share this information with M. She had noticed herself while standing in line, and after she dropped her package off we quickly retreated to the VW. As we navigated our way out of the town on mostly dirt roads we felt an odd sense of desolation and isolation. Colorado City is definitely an odd place to visit.

We crossed back into UT to pick up I-15. We were on a deadline to get the VW to its rightful owner in LA and we had one more night of camping along the Pacific Ocean. We finally crossed the CA border as the temperature soared into the triple digits. This part of I-15 can be pretty devoid of services and as luck would have it, I had neglected to pay attention to the fuel gauge. As the needle hovered on E and we were calculating the distance to the nearest gas station, I began emergency fuel-saving measures. The AC went off and I dropped my speed down to 55 – 60 miles per hour. We cracked the windows to give us some circulation, but the heat was nearly unbearable. We finally made it to a gas station and I was glad to pay the inflated prices to have a full tank. As I recall, this thank was the largest fill-up I had on the entire trip, proving that the tank was almost bone dry. M. still hasn’t forgiven me for this near-disaster.

We slogged through LA rush hour traffic to make it to our campsite at San Onofre Bluffs Campground. Like many of the Southern California state park campgrounds, San Onofre is wedged against the Pacific Ocean, I-5 and the Amtrak rail lines. Needless to say, it can be rather noisy at night, but the views from the campsite itself are well worth the vehicle soundtrack.

July 9th was the delivery date for the VW. We planned the trip into LA for mid-morning, hoping to avoid the worst of traffic, and we made it to B.’s house on time. I was sad to see the VW go but glad to have had the opportunity to drive it from coast-to-coast without incident. I’ll finally answer the question that everyone has been asking: the tires held out just fine, although I did limit myself to 80 MPH when the temperatures were extremely high. The car consumed no oil, the AC always worked, and I averaged around 25 miles per gallon over 2900 miles. B. was glad to have his car back in one piece.

Welcome to your new home!

Our trip wasn’t quite done as we had one night left before our flight back to the East Coast. M. and I rented a car and drive up the PCH to El Capitan State Beach. The rental was a Hyundai Elantra (or something) and it did the job it was asked to do boringly and without complaint. We had a lovely meal and a campfire and enjoyed the sunset on the beach.

There were two shocking things that happened at El Capitan. First was this:

Someone using a Volvo 780 Bertone to go camping!

Okay, so the Bertone wasn’t necessarily “shocking”, but I was excited to see someone doing regular things with a weird old car. Beyond the Bertone, when M. and I walked along the beach during the sunset, we had no idea our feet would be caked and stained with crude oil from the Refugio Oil Spill in 2015. As we left the beach in near darkness, we attempted to wash our feet off at an outdoor shower. When the sand and mud didn’t wash off, we used our flashlights to look at our feet. They were coated in oil that would not come off. In fact, it would take the better part of two weeks for our feet to be free of the stains. This was an odd footnote to an otherwise wonderful trip and a reminder that the resources needed to power cars like the VW can cause pollution in more ways than one.

Thanks for reading my cross-country tale! I have a few more cross-country treks to share with you, but they will be part of my COAL’s, so stay tuned!