Miss Miranda is equipped with a watermaker, which we found to be a “nice to have” up in the Pacific Northwest, but is a must have down here in Mexico. Our boat holds a little bit less than 300 gallons of water, and we tend to use 20-25 gallons a day, depending on how often we shower and do laundry. So we have at most a 10 day supply on board. Given the general scarcity of water in Mexico, where it is common that people have water delivered to their homes, it is important to be able to make our own. Anyway, when we left the boat in March of last year we “pickled” the watermaker for long term storage, which consists of adding a chemical preservative to the system… kind of like winterizing the domestic water system on a boat or RV.
We just got around to “unpickling” the watermaker in yesterday, in part because we were waiting for a new filter, as one of those we sent down with Red Rover was the wrong size. The unpickling process is pretty straightforward. It involves allowing the system to fill with fresh water to displace the preservative and then circulating fresh water for a half hour or so. Next, we put in new filters, and then we were ready to test the system by making some water. Everything seemed to work perfectly… except the “product” water was contaminated with a chemical taste. We have a TDS (total dissolved solids) tester that allows us to check the quality of the water, and it was reading well over 950 PPM, even after making about 15 gallons of water. As a reference, the TDS in our filtered drinking and tap water on the boat is 150-160 PPM, and any water over 500 PPM is not considered safe to drink. Seawater is about 35,000 PPM!
It was now time for some professional help, so we called Hector Marine, who is the local watermaker dealer. He had two techs over on the boat within an hour, and they found the same thing – the watermaker was working properly (meaning it was producing fresh water from salt water) but the quality was poor. They saw PPM readings as high as 4000, and not lower than 1500. From this they concluded that the membrane needed to be replaced. This was not terribly surprising, since it was last replaced by the previous owner in early 2015, and the average lifespan is about 5 years.
The membrane is the real guts of the watermaker, and it works via reverse osmosis. Put simply, salt water is pushed through the membrane at high pressure. The membrane prevents salt from passing, so what comes out is fresh water. About 10% of the water pumped into the membrane assembly comes out as fresh or “product” water, and the remaining “brine” is pumped overboard. Our watermaker can produce about 30 gallons an hour or a little more than a day’s usage.
It turns out that they have the membrane in stock here in La Paz, so they removed the assembly and took it to the shop to install a new membrane. The very next afternoon they were back to reinstall the assembly on the boat.
After about 30 minutes of installation and flushing with fresh water, we were ready to test the watermaker. After just a few minutes of run time, it was producing product water at 238 PPM, which is just fine.
I am super impressed with the quality and speed of the work done by Hector Marine. It is almost shocking to have a job like this, especially one that requires a replacement part, to be completed in just about 24 hours!
We came back to the marina from our shakedown cruise and were enjoying a beer in the cockpit when Gwen noticed a noise. “Is the water pump on?” she asked. I went to investigate and saw that our bilge pump counter was at 13, so there was clearly water in in the bilge, and the fresh water pump was on and pumping. Uh-oh. Time to turn off the breaker for the water pump and look for the leak.
Down in the engine room I could see water flowing into the main bilge from from the forward bilge area. We picked up some floorboards in the sole of our cabin and sure enough there was water all over. It quickly became apparent that it was coming from the area of the water heater underneath the master berth. We pulled off the matress and uncovered the water heater and soon noticed that the hot water shutoff valve had blown it’s top right off.
Unfortunately, I did not have spares for this type of valve, or even any adapters specifically for this type of tubing. A trip to the local marine stores was fruitless, so I decided to try and repair the valve until I could find the right part. The top of the valve had separated from the threaded side. I thought I might be able to use superglue to repair it. Nope, it was one of those plastics that makes superglue not super. Next was the old stand-by, rescue tape. This is a self-annealing tape, that when wrapped tight adheres to itself and generally does a pretty good job stopping leaks. I wasn’t sure it would work on this hot water component but it was worth a shot until I could find a better solution.
When we put the piece back in place, it leaked a little bit. I wrapped it a bit more throroughly and it seemed to hold even with the water heater refilled and using some hot water. It held overnight and was dry when we looked at it in the morning.
The tubing is 1/2″ diameter PEX, which is fairly common on boats of this vintage. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to look for an exact replacement for this particular type of valve with those tiny barb connectors. There are all kinds of valves and connectors for PEX type tubing, but they all clamp down on the outside of the tube and don’t have a barb that goes into it. I thought there would be a chance that might find a valve, or at least some connectors, at the local Home Depot or Plomeria. No such luck. I’ve ordered a selection of different couplings for 1/2″tubing to be shipped to a freight forwarder in San Diego and trucked down to La Paz.
A small upside in this little unexpected project is that I needed to replace the Anode (that stops corrosion) in the water heater, but have been putting it off because it’s a pain to get to…
Today (Friday, 1/15) we got underway aboard Miss Miranda for the first time since March 25, 2020. We worked our way through all of the system checks at the dock and were finally ready for a real-world test. The weekend weather was shaping up nicely, with N winds of 10-15 for Friday and calm conditions through Monday.
We waited for the outboard guy to bring back our Tohatsu 3.5 hp engine for the small dinghy. He serviced it and found it to be completely gummed up with bad fuel, in spite of our having used fuel stabilizer. He also checked the big engine, and we concluded that the problem was the same. Bad, old fuel. Oh well, at least we know what the issue is.
Our first hiccup was before we left the dock. We started up all systems, including the wing engine and were rearranging dock lines when I noticed that there was no water flow from the stabilizer cooling pump outlet (yes, the one I just replaced). A quick check in the engine room showed both input and output through hulls were open and the pump appeared to be running. I concluded that the pump must have lost it’s prime, and because (unfortunately) it shares an intake through hull with the the wing engine, I wondered if by starting the wing engine first, the cooling water pump somehow lost it’s prime… maybe couldn’t pull enough water? So, shut the wing engine down, opened the priming valve on the pump (too much) and got a nice little geyser of water as I struggled to get the bolt back in place. Once that was done, I restarted the pump, and sure enough, water was flowing. We elected not to run the wing… trying to keep things simple.
Once out of the marina we headed North on the 20 mile run to the the Islands of Espiritu Santo and Partida, on what was a beautiful afternoon. The boat was running well, no problems at all, until I noticed a mysterious spike in the AC power demand. That is unusual because there are really only three things that use AC power when underway… the refrigerator, the freezer, and the stabilizer water pump. After a few minutes the power draw decreased. I began to suspect the freezer. More on that later.
There were only two other boats in the anchorage and we picked a spot midway between them, dropping the anchor in about 18 feet of water. Unfortunately, it did not want to set… catching, then dragging as we slowly backed down. Eventually we got a very solid set, though a little farther from shore than we would have liked. One of the guidebooks indicated that anchoring could be a challenge because of sand over rock, and that seemed to be spot on in our case. Of course, the wind started to come up just as we got set, a solid 15 knots gusting regularly to 20+. Eventually it died down, but knew I would have a fitful night’s sleep worrying about our set.
We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, a nice cocktail, and good dinner. It was utterly quiet, save for the lapping of the waves against the hull. Above was a beautiful, clear, dark, star-filled sky, and below a phosphorescent show in the water around the boat. This is what we have been looking forward to.
Before turning in, I noticed another spike in power consumption. This time we were able to confirm that it was the Sub Zero freezer. We thought the freezer died in Mazatlan last year, but apparently it had runout of refrigerant. After a refill it seemed to be running fine at the dock in La Paz. My suspicion is that it does indeed have a coolant leak and the compressor must run constantly to maintain temperature. Anyway, we emptied it of critical items and will get it looked at when we return to La Paz.
The next morning, we pulled up the anchor and moved to the South side of the bay, nearer to the passage to the other side and the fish camp. The water was clear enough to see the anchor on the bottom turn over and start to dig in as we slowly backed down. This time we got a very good set first time, and here we would stay for the rest of the weekend.
Finally, a systems gripe. We have an Iridium GO, which is an inexpensive, slow satellite data device that we use to get weather info when we are out of cell range. It worked just fine last year, but when we reactivated it this year, it was having problems. After endless tinkering and back and forth with PredictWind support, it started working… for a couple of days. Now that we need it…. nope. Very annoying, considering how much we are spending for the service and the PredictWind software subscription.
Gwen will have her own take and many more photos from Caleta Partida in a separate post later this week.
Boat projects can sometimes be fun and satisfying (OK, at least satisfying).
There are three conditions that must be met for this to be the case.
Having the right parts on hand
Having the right tools on hand
Having the project be in a (relatively) accessible location
In my experience, the confluence of these three factors, which I call the triple play, is very rare. Well, yesterday it happened.
The project at hand was replacement of the sea water pump for the stabilizer heat exchanger. The stabilizers are powered by a hydraulic pump running from the main engine, and the fluid moves the fins. This fluid is at high pressure and gets hot, so it needs to be cooled. On our boat this is by means of a heat exchanger that is cooled by seawater. A 120V pump circulates this water, and it runs all the time that the boat is underway. If the pump dies, no more water circulation, and soon, no more stabilizers, which will shut down when the fluid gets too hot. So it is a pretty important piece of equipment, and it is one of those single points of failure… there is no backup pump installed.
I have been suspicious of the pump for a while. It runs pretty hot, and in fact, part of underway engine room checklist is checking the temperature of that pump. For that reason, I bought a spare pump before we came down to Mexico. I did not install it, however, following my new “ain’t broke don’t fix” rule. Well, coming back to the boat I discovered that it now is broke, so its gotta be fixed.
Getting the old pump out was pretty easy. It was clear that the line from the pump to the heat exchanger needed to be changed, but as it happened, I had some spare hose of the proper size and almost exact length. One small complication was that the new pump has the motor control unit mounted on top of the motor instead of the side. In the picture you can see the unit on the old pump on the left side of the motor. That makes it easier to access the mounts, but interferes with the 90 deg elbow for the water output, seen in the middle of the picture.
Putting the new pump in was straightforward save for running the hose. I had to angle the elbow off the centerline in order to get the hose and clamps attached and then had to make sure it didn’t rub against the side of the compartment. Of course, the mounts were laid out differently from the old pump, so I had to drill new holes, and it was a bit of a tight fit getting the screws in. After it was mounted I just had to wire it up to AC power. Once installed, all I had to do was open the through hulls for the inlet and outlet and prime the pump – a simple matter of loosening the bolt to the left of the elbow until a little bit of water flowed out. A quick test confirmed that we had good water flow. Success!
I was surprised when finished to find that the job had taken most of the day – about 5 hours or so. Things just take a long time on a boat, due to a combination of tight spaces and rummaging for various tools and parts. When it all comes together, though, it sure is satisfying!
I had a little bit of apprehension this morning. The plan was to start the main engine… after sitting for 9 months. I primed the fuel system, Gwen pulled off the stack cover, and I turned the key… YES, it fired right up!!
After a crazy, unprecedented 9 months back in the USA we are preparing to return to La Paz and Miss Miranda. We have booked the flight on Alaska Airlines for January 3rd, and have arranged a one way rental car from the San Jose Del Cabo airport to Marina CostaBaja. We arranged to to ship a bunch of spare parts to the boat, kindly warehoused in San Diego by Ken and Christy, CUBAR buddies on Varnebank (thank you!) and to be delivered by Kevin and Alison on Red Rover (thank you!). In fact, Kevin and Alison may still be in Cabo by the time we arrive, so we will likely swing by for a parts pickup on the way from the airport.
We will keep the rental car in La Paz for an extra day to do a big provisioning run out to the Soriana. Hopefully we’ll be able to stock up enough there to avoid many other stops as we travel around the Sea of Cortez.
We thought long and hard about our return to Mexico, out of concern for our health as well as not wanting to impose a health burden on the people of Mexico. We do not want to come across as ugly Americans living it up on our fancy yacht oblivious to the daily suffering of those who are less fortunate.
The United States and Mexico are very similar in how poorly the virus situation has been managed, with rampant spread and full to overflowing hospitals in many areas. Gwen has studied the situation and feels that our biggest area of exposure, and of exposing others, is getting to the boat which we are doing by flying and by car, so we have a plan. We hope that in returning to Mexico and following a strict set of precautions we will cause little additional burden and will bring some much needed spending into the area.
We have and will use N95 masks and face shields for the flight, interactions with the car rental and shopping. We feel that flights are reasonably safe, provided that we wear masks for the entire time. Airports, we think, are less safe, so we will try to minimize time and maximize distance. Provisioning is going to be no more or less safe than going to the grocery store here. For work on the boat, we will provide masks and sanitation equipment and do everything possible to ensure safety for us and the workers.
As we had before, we have medical evacuation insurance. These companies now have clauses specifying how things are handled if one contracts COVID and they do have ability to extract ill people with COVID, but that is something that we need to avoid at all costs. One thing many do not realize is that if you are being taken back to the US by a medical evacuation service, they first have to ensure a hospital agrees to take you. Currently, many US hospitals are at disaster levels and are not even accepting regional transfers, much less international ones, so one cannot count on this being possible. Gwen has also upgraded our medical supplies to be able to cover even more medical issues that could arise, so hopefully we won’t need to seek any other type of medical care.
Finally, we are going to be explicit about monitoring our interactions by keeping a log of any contacts with people and will be strict about distancing and mask wearing. Once we get Miss Miranda ready to go and leave the Marina, we are likely to go weeks without any close contact with people, though we hope to encounter plenty of whale sharks, dolphins, turtles, fish and birds! It will be a very different experience from last year where we explored a lot of communities, dined out in restaurants and socialized with lots of people, but we are very happy to be able to experience the joys of solitude and nature.
We have been poring over our third copy (other ones are on the boat) of Anacortes neighbors Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer’s guide to the Sea of Cortez. Theirs is by far the most complete guide, including chartlets of the anchorages, which is critically important for an area in which the official charts are notoriously inaccurate. We used their guide to the Pacific Coast of Mexico last season, as well as electronic versions of their charts on an iPad-based chartplotter app called INavX. The charts were much better than the ones we had on our PC based navigation systems. The guidebooks also included a downloadable set of GPS waypoints identifying navigational approaches, hazards and preferred anchorages. Very useful for us, and absolutely required for any cruisers planning to visit Mexico. This year, fellow N50 owners and Pacific-crossing veterans Ron and Nancy recommended another super helpful piece of charting software. This one is called ChartAid and it allows you to grab aerial photos from Google or Bing maps and add them as overlays to Coastal Explorer (our primary PC-based navigation system). Ron and Nancy used this for the poorly-charted Pacific Islands and atolls they visited and are also using it for the Sea of Cortez.
The image on the left above shows a chartlet from Shawn and Heather’s guide (they actually did all the dpth soundings listed on the chart). The image on the top right shows the same area as represented on a C-Map chart (the only charts of the area available via Coastal Explorer), while the bottom right image shows a satellite photo imported into Coastal Explorer. Obviously, we are happy to have both the chartlets and the Sat Photos. By the way, the C-Map charts cost $250, while the ChartAid program was $99 and the charts from Sea of Cortez: A Cruiser’s Guidebook were $29.
So, we’ve been looking through the guidebook, identifying interesting spots and then grabbing nice, hi-res satellite photos. Our plan, at the moment, is to stick to the southern half of the Sea between La Paz and roughly Mulege or possibly as far North as Santa Rosalia, following more-or-less what Shawn and Heather call the “Classics” Itinerary. From that area, it is a pretty short run across the Sea to San Carlos and Guaymas on the mainland side, so we’re thinking about spending a couple of weeks over there. So far our longest run would be about 75 NM from the Mulege area to San Carlos, with most other distances between anchorages less than 30 miles. Sounds like some pretty laid back cruising.
We have been told that winters in the Sea of Cortez can be challenging. The main weather feature is Northers, which are 2-3 day periods of sustained strong North winds that result when High pressure systems develop in the Great Basin of the US. Because the Sea has so much fetch, large, steep, dangerous waves can form in these conditions. The key with Northers, we’re told, is to be in a secure anchorage that has good northerly protection, which is called out in the guide. We’ve also heard that it can be cold in the Sea in winter, but I guess one’s definition of cold depends on where you are from. Here is what we found comparing January weather for Anacortes and La Paz
Anacortes: Daily high temperatures increase by 2°F, from 45°F to 47°F, rarely falling below 36°F or exceeding 54°F. Daily low temperatures are around 38°F, rarely falling below 27°F or exceeding 46°F. The chance of a wet day over the course of January is gradually decreasing, starting the month at 48% and ending it at 45%. La Paz: Daily high temperatures are around 75°F, rarely falling below 69°F or exceeding 82°F. Daily low temperatures are around 53°F, rarely falling below 47°F or exceeding 59°F. The chance of a wet day over the course of January is essentially constant, remaining around 5% throughout.
Put another way, January in La Paz is slightly warmer than summer in Anacortes! We’ll take it. Now it is true that the water temperature in the Sea of Cortez goes down significantly in the winter, but at 69deg, still a bit warmer than the frigid waters of the Pacific Northwest.
There is, of course, a never ending list of projects to look forward to when we return to the boat. The big one is left over from last spring, when we finally got a replacement Racor fuel filter manifold, but left before we could install it. We hope that replacing the filter manifold (listen to me furiously knocking on all the wood I can find) will finally resolve our air in the fuel line problem.
One non-project (knocking on wood again) may be the Subzero drawer freezer. Last spring the freezer died (while nearly full) in Mazatlan, and we didn’t have a chance to diagnose the problem before leaving. As I was compiling a parts list this fall I wondered what might have caused the freezer to fail, and was planning to buy all of the replaceable components, just in case. Our boat watcher had his refrigeration tech check out the freezer and it turns out that it simply lost it’s refrigerant charge. Once filled up it seems to be working fine. A good thing, too, as Gwen is planning to fill it.
A major project that we have decided to take on is replacing the dry stack muffler, which we were told back in 2019 was a rusted hulk in desparate need of replacement. We didn’t have time to get the work done before heading to Mexico, so we took a chance on it. Lately, we’ve heard too many stories on the Nordhavn Owners Group about mufflers disintegrating underway, so it is time to get the job done. The problem is that there is no way to remove the muffler without cutting away a significant amount of fiberglass to gain access. Evidently, the idea of “design for serviceability” was not a thing when Miss Miranda was built. The good news is that 1) Many other N50 owners have taken on the job, and I even have a pictures of the recent work from on N50 sister ship Les Voguer (thanks, James!) 2) The muffler is still available from the manufacturer along with all of the other parts needed, including the insulation blanket. Now I just need to find someone in La Paz competent to do the work, and I have a couple of good leads so far.
I’m sure that other things will come up, as one might expect after leaving the boat for more than six months. I think/hope we will be better prepared for issues that might arise than we were last season.
Return to the Pacific Northwest
While we have note decided on the precise timing, we will definitely bring Miss Miranda back up the Pacific Coast and home to Anacortes by the end of summer 2021. We look forward to exploring the Sea of Cortez, and have thoroughly enjoyed our cruising adventures in Mexico, but realized that there is plenty of cruising to do closer to home.
After our visit to Carlsbad Caverns we hit the road, heading East toward Texas. We were done with the National Parks and our goal was to push across the Southern Tier of the country at a reasonable pace. There was less of interest over this last week so I summarized in a single post.
Carlsbad to Midland
On the map, there is little to distinguish the roads out of Carlsbad toward Texas. We took the route that looked to be on the “biggest” of the secondary highways, and it was pretty good… for a while. Eventually, the guidance was to turn onto a two lane road that seemed to exist only to service the numerous oil derrick out here in the wastelands. It was neither a smooth nor scenic ride.
After what seemed like an eternity we wound up on somewhat larger and smoother roads entering Midland, which I can say with some confidence that you would not visit on purpose. Our chosen RV park (“Good Sam” recommended) was conveniently located off the highway, with full hookups, but was, like the previous one, a patch of gravel sweltering under the Texas sun. Somewhat cooler than Carlsbad, the thermometer read 102 on arrival, so we hunkered down, turned the air conditioning on Max Cool and hoped for the best. Eventually things cooled a bit, and after dinner and a Netflix show on Miranda’s iPad, we went to bed. I was awakened in the middle of the night thinking I was in the Wizard of OZ…. the wind was absolutely howling, the RV was shaking, and I felt sure that we were about to be sucked up in a Tornado. That lasted for most of the night, but abated by morning. Fueling up the next morning, we took on the cheapest gas of the trip at $1.74/gal, which compensated a bit for the atrocious gas mileage (8.4 MPG) over those crappy roads.
Midland to Dallas (Cedar Hill State Park)
From Midland we took off heading East on I-20 towards Dallas, working our way through a number of construction zones. It seems that every highway in Texas is under construction, getting widened. By late afternoon we were working our way through the “Metroplex” traffic towards Cedar Hill State Park, on the South side not too far from DFW airport. We rolled in and were pleased to find a nice, tree-shaded campsite overlooking a reservoir (as were most of the State Park sites we visited on this trip). We were delighted to find that the temperatures were in the mid 70s, with sunny blue skies. Good bye, West Texas. We covered about 330 miles today.
After a trip into the town of Cedar Hill for some ice cream, we returned and had a pleasant evening cooking over the campfire.
Dallas to Lake Ouachita, Arkansas
Our next day’s goal was Lake Ouachita State Park in Arkansas. We were big fans of the TV show “Ozark” and were looking for a sample of lake country. Of course, this is not really in the Ozarks, but it is a lake in Arkansas and we were on a timeline. Our original goal was Hot Springs National Park until we realized that the “National Park” consisted of a bathhouse, and there were really no Hot Springs to be found. After our visits to “real” National Parks we decided to skip this one. Lake Ouachita was another reservoir, and our campsite overlooked the lake at this very nice State Park Campground. A beautiful spot to spend the night, if a beat off the beaten path. This was about 320 miles, mostly along I-30. Gas prices were around $1.85, and the RV’s “economy” has been about 9.5 MPG as I flogged it to hold 65 MPH in the slow lane.
Lake Ouachita to Nashville (Seven Points Campground)
This was our longest single day run of the trip, covering 430 miles along I-30 to Memphis and then I-40 across Tennessee to the East side of Nashville. Lots of traffic on the highway, and, as it has been for the past couple of days, a lot of trucks. We found ourselves going to the “car” side of rest stops, as the Truck/RV side was always filled to overflowing with big rigs. I had over 8 hours of scanning license plates as the traffic streamed by us in the left lane. I spotted a Vermont pate, but still no sign of the couch potatoes from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island. Maybe we’ll see them on I-75 towards Atlanta on Friday.
Seven Points Campground is located on J. Percy Priest Lake East of Nashville and is run by the Army Corps of Engineers. It is another reservoir, and it is also a beautiful spot. We had a little bug emergency after arrival. I had opened the back window to get some air, and had mistakenly opened the screen just a bit. As it got dark, we noticed lots of little gnats/flies/mosquitos gathering around the lights inside. I finally found the source and closed the screen, and Miranda opened the screen door for just a second to close the main door, and even more flooded in. This just after putting dinner on the table. We went through a frantic 30 minutes or so of smashing them with one of my cherished National Parks t-shirts and finally reduced their numbers enough to eat and sleep. Miranda, who is not a fan of insects of any type, was not particularly pleased with me….
On Thursday we planned to go into Nashville and do a little bit of touring around. We had to work around Miranda’s school schedule, which had two hour classes at 12:30 and 6 PM. We parked in Nissan stadium, home of the now COVID crippled Tennessee Titans. After Miranda’s class we were chased away from the lot we were in, but found parking nearby. I’ve never seen a city with so many parking spaces that were blocked off and made unavailable.
We rented e-bikes from the nearby Pedego dealer to do a couple of hours of sightseeing. There was a pedestrian bridge across the Cumberland River into downtown, and good bike lanes to use getting around. We toured the Vanderbilt campus, including the medical center.
We then rode over to Centennial Park, which contains a replica of the Parthenon. We headed back through downtown and across the bridge so we could return the bikes in time to get back to the campground before Miranda’s 6 PM class. The Pedego bikes were interesting, with more power (500W) than the Trek bike I rode before, but less than the RadPower bike that Miranda rode. I didn’t care for the cruiser style that I rode, primarily because of the superfat, super padded seat and the very swept back handlebars. The power was plentiful, and was a bit too on-off… it was difficult to find a “throttle” setting that would allow assisted pedaling, even on the lowest setting.
We stopped for Hot Chicken, a Nashville specialty recommended to me last time I was in town (fried chicken with hot sauce mixed into the breading) and then headed back to the campsite for our last night on the road. The hot chicken was excellent.
Nashville to Atlanta
Our final leg was to Atlanta, a run of about 240 miles. Miranda surprised me by agreeing to an earlier than usual departure time – we promised the family a 1 PM arrival without accounting for the shift to the Eastern time zone. Miranda too, is “done” with living in the RV and was therefore willing to get up for an 8 AM departure. The trip was uneventful save for a semi truck swerving out in front of us while we were passing the trucks slowly making their way up a mountain pass near the Tennessee/Georgia border.
By the time we arrived in the Atlanta suburbs, we put 4,699 miles on the RV in 21 days, covering 11 states, 7 National Parks, countless s’mores and 47 state license plates observed.
License Plate Map
As I mentioned, we got 47 out of 50 license plates. I think the ones we missed were for states that require two week quarantine upon return (Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware). As a postscript, we actually saw a Connecticut license plate walking around Heather’s neighborhood in Georgia, but Miranda refused to update the map, saying that it wasn’t in the official count.
I’m glad to have gone on this great cross-country adventure with Miranda, though I think I confirmed my suspicion that RV travel is not for me. Visiting the national parks was a big part of the trip, and they did not disappoint. Yellowstone was incredibly impressive – sheer size and scale, variety of landscape from the canyon to the geyser basins, bison on the side of the road. It was very cool to ride bicycles up Zion Canyon and absorb the landscape at a relaxed pace. We both agreed that it was awesome to ride mountain bikes at Moab (and maybe a little scary/crazy to drive a UTV there). I could see doing a national park loop in the Southwest… you could visit Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Capital Reef, Arches, Canyonlands (and perhaps Mesa Verde and Petrified Forest) with pretty reasonable drives between stops.
Along the way, we saw lots of places that would make great bicycling vacations. I was surprised to learn about the extensive system of rail trails in Idaho, many of them very nicely paved, centered in Cour d’Alene. Driving through Teton National Park, the bike path ran alongside the park road, leading to an extensive system in and around Jackson Hole. The west entrance to Bryce Canyon goes along Hwy 12, where the Red Canyon trail leads into the Bryce Canyon trail system for cycling into the national park. Finally, Moab is known for mountain biking, but the city has built a fantastic bike path that winds past Arches National Park for another 6 or so miles out of town. I could definitely see a combined mountain/road biking vacation in one (or more) of these spots.
As we head back to Washington it will be mid-October and time to start thinking about our return to Mexico and Miss Miranda at the beginning of December.
After a warm night (the temperature got down to 81 degrees) in a gravel RV site off the Carlsbad Caverns access road, we got an early start up to the visitor center to queue up for tickets to get into the caverns. We got there around 7:15 for an 8 AM opening, in time to get in on the second entry slot at 8:45 AM via the natural entrance.
As you can see in the photo, there is a paved path that switchbacks 750 feet down into the cavern over 1.2 miles. It is a fantastic way to go in, but I don’t think it was used all that much pre-COVID. I was here some 50+ years ago as a kid… I don’t think we came in this way back then. By the way, this is the bat exit and entrance, and you can see the entrance to the bat cave about 1/4 of the way down. It is not part of the tour, and a good think at that with 40 feet of guano at the bottom of the cave.
Eventually we entered the Big Room, or the main part of the caverns. This is where the elevator descends from the visitor center. We did the big room tour, which was another 1.2 mile walk around the “largest known limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere”.
The temperature in the caverns was in the mid 50s, with humidity at 90%. Surprisingly, it wasn’t necessary to wear the extra layers we brought. The cave is apparently some 30 miles in length, and is not the largest in the park. Another cave called Lechuguilla was discovered in 1986 and is over 140 miles in length and 1,600 ft deep.
With the low light levels in the cavern it’s difficult to get decent pictures. The gallery above has some samples from our walk around the big room.
At the end of our walk around the big room we took the elevator back up to the surface. It ascended the 750 feet in about 1 minute. After a stop in the gift shop to add to Miranda’s collection of postcards and stickers we were off to head across Texas and the final stretch of our trip.
We stayed on the outskirts of Durango, not really getting to see much of the town, and got on our way through southern Colorado towards Sante Fe New Mexico. We took the scenic route to Pagosa Springs and on South from there. Nothing much to report on this leg other than the roads getting noticeably less well maintained once we crossed into New Mexico.
We got into Santa Fe in time for a late lunch. We had mexican-style tacos (what else) at a place in the historic district and then walked around for a while. We wanted to visit semi-namesake Georgia O’Keeffe museum but it was closed. We browsed some of the shops around the square that seemed to be a mixture of high end ranch wear (how bout a $1,500 leather rancher’s coat) and elaborate turquoise and silver jewelry. I saw plenty of Bolo Ties, remembering wearing them when I was a kid living in New Mexico 50+ years ago. Eventually the afternoon sun got to us and we headed to the outskirts of town for the local KOA RV park.
The next morning we had a long-ish drive across the flatlands of New Mexico heading down to Carlsbad. Today we were on a 4 lane highway that was in good shape, running almost due South for nearly the length of the state. There wasn’t much out in the desert of central New Mexico, other than oil wells, most of which were not pumping. Our one bit of entertainment for the day was a pair of cowboy figures facing each other across the road.
We took a little truck route detour around Roswell, NM, and fortunately were not abducted by aliens (at least not that we know of). On finally rolling into Carlsbad we were greeted by one of those time/temperature billboards on a bank that read 104 degrees. The RV air conditioner was going to get a workout today. We stopped for fuel here and had the lowest price of the trip at $185.9, and the flat roads today resulted in an economical (relatively speaking) 11 MPG.
Our final destination is White’s City, an RV “park” just at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. By park I mean relatively level strip of gravel with power and water hookups immediately off the road. This was all about convenience, and, honestly, if you want beautiful locations, you are not going to be staying in RV parks. Miranda suggested that we shutter all the windows, turn the AC on full blast, and pretend we are still a National Park.
We took advantage of the evening by driving up to the Visitor Center to watch the nightly Bat Flight out of the cave. They have closed the public viewing area, but still allow viewing from your vehicle in the parking lot near the cavern entrance, and broadcast a ranger program over FM radio. We pulled up our chairs and experienced a beautiful sunset while watching the thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from the cave to feed. They were tiny, and the winds were fairly high, so they were dispersed into many small swarms. Pictures did not turn out very well, but it was a lot of fun to watch.
Tomorrow we are up early to get entrance tickets for the Caverns. They allow 35 people in every 15 minutes. Apparently they sell out by 9 AM.
We departed Moab mid morning with plans to visit Mesa Verde NP, about two hours away, before ending up near Durango, CO. Our initial plan was to camp in Mesa Verde, but we needed to get into Durango to pick up some prescriptions and did not want to backtrack the 40 odd miles into the park after doing so.
The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde are located some 20+ miles inside the park on a road that climbs up and winds back and forth along canyons and ridge lines before running down Chapin Mesa to the area where most of the cliff dwellings are located. Like most (all) of the National Parks we’ve visited, there is a lodge here, this one located at 8,000 feet in the far view area. It looked like a very cool spot to stay.
Our objective was the Mesa Top loop. We had a guided audio tour that led us to the 10 or 11 spots on this loop that showed the archaeological artefacts of the different dwellings used by the Pueblo people between about CE 600s to 1200s, evolving from pit houses dug into the top of the mesa to masonry structures, finally moving from the mesa top down into the cliff dwellings around the 1200s. There is apparently some mystery around why the people left the cliff dwellings by around 1300. The audio tour indicated that it was probably just a migration further south to other pueblo communities. Looking at the site, it is pretty obvious to me that one might desire a location that did not entail either a several hundred foot scramble up from the valley or a 100 ft or so rock face climb down from the top of the mesa to get to your front door.
One thing we noticed driving in and out along the park road was extensive evidence of wildfires. In fact, there were signs along the road indicating the names and dates of major wildfires. The highest point in the park has a fire lookout station. Some pictures from there and from the road are shown in the gallery below. We learned that 70 percent of the park has burned in wildfires since being established in 1906, with 5 large fires in the last 14 years, accounting for 50 percent of the park land.
We weren’t able to add to our National Park t-shirt collection at Mesa Verde – by the time we reached the visitor center and gift shop it was closed, and we didn’t like the options at the campground store. Miranda did get her park stickers and postcards, so all was not lost.
After a brief stop in Durango for provisioning and fuel, we headed out to the campground outside of town for the night. Gas is cheap in Colorado at about $2.09, compared to $2.29-$2.49 in Utah. Unfortunately, our RV’s gas mileage has suffered in the slog over and through the mountains in the last couple of days, hovering in the range of 8-9 MPG.
Next we are continuing South to Sante Fe on the way to our final National Park, Carlsbad caverns. Finally, as may be obvious from the photos, weather has been beautiful, with sunny, blue skies and warm, but not terribly hot temperatures. And no smoke!
We arranged a private guided mountain biking tour with Rim Tours. Our guide, Russ, was at the RV park office right at 8 AM and we headed about 15 minutes North of town to an area called Moab Brands.
Russ climbed up on top of the van and lowered the bikes down to us, and I was immediately impressed.
The bikes were 2020 Santa Cruz Bronsons, a full suspension model that had a handlebar mounted thumb switch to lower the seat post for gnarly descents. It weighed a good bit less than my road bike! They come in both aluminum and Carbon Fiber. I think ours were carbon fiber, but I’m not sure. If you look closely at the drive train, you will see a single, tiny front chain ring and a 12 speed rear cassette, with a 50 tooth big cog. That is an insanely low gear! Apparently all mountain bikes these days have that single front chainring setup. A quick look online shows a retail price starting at $3499.
We started out on some pretty mellow singletrack – the RustySpur trail on the map above. We then moved onto the Bar M trail which featured some technical, rocky climbing.
We stopped for a break on slickrock overlooking a canyon, and then were off on a lot of technical double track, with some pretty decent sized drops and uphills. I have to say that the bike was fantastic, just making this stuff seem easy. It was by far the best mountain bike I’ve ever ridden (ok, and the most expensive). I certainly would not have been able to do this stuff on my old hardtail! When I came up to some downhill challenging stuff, I would just thumb the seat adjuster and sit down for a second to lower the seat, then take the terrain standing, back over the rear wheel. When through, just flick the switch and the seat pops back up. Awesome! Miranda, having only been mountain biking a few times, quickly got the hang of it after one little washout on some loose dirt at the beginning of the ride. Soon she was hammering along and handling the variety of terrain with confidence.
We wound up on the Circle O trail, which is all slickrock. A painted line marks the trail across the rock, encouraging cyclists to stay on the trail and minimize the damage to the fragile ecosystem. In contrast to the name, the slickrock was pretty grippy, though anything but smooth. After that we had a final climb up to the top of the ridge along North 40, and then bombed back down to the parking lot.
Miranda and I agreed that we’d become mountain bikers if we could ride something like the Santa Cruz Bronson. We had a great time and really appreciated Russ’ knowledge of the area and coaching on the technical aspects of riding the variety of terrain that we encountered. If you want to ride in Moab, I’d highly recommend Russ and Rim Tours.
Arches National Park
We got back from our mountain biking adventure before noon and decided to head back out to Arches National Park, which is just North of Moab. The ride up into the park snakes up the side of one of the Mesas and then rounds the corner to a valley full of wind carved mesas, spires and other geological objects that I can’t describe. All very impressive and easily viewed from the park road. We stopped at Balance Rock, which we saw from a distance on the bike ride and had some lunch in the RV.
The photos above are of balanced rock and then others from the Windows section of the park, including double arch and and unnamed formation that looks to me like a bust of a person. After a bit of walking around in the heat of the afternoon, the effects of the morning expedition were getting the better of us, so we ventured on to get a view of Delicate Arch before the mandatory visitor center stop and return to town.
Sunset UTV tour at Hell’s Revenge
First, what is a UTV? UTV stands for “Utility Terrain Vehicle” and is different from an “All Terrain Vehicle”, which is also referred to as a quad, and accommodates a single rider. The UTV has side by side seating for two, four, or even six people, and is more jeep-like. These are four wheel drive vehicles powered by motorcycle engines with a high and low gear. So, pretty serious off-road vehicles.
Second, what is Hell’s Revenge? I probably should have asked that question myself…
Hell’s Revenge consists of a six and one half mile roller coaster ride across the slickrock fins east of the town of Moab. It is extremely difficult, and recommended only for very experienced drivers with advanced equipment.
OK. So, we heard that Moab was a pretty cool place to do offroading, so we had called around to see if we could do a Sunset Tour. All the tour companies were pretty busy, and the tours were either booked up or we couldn’t get through to anyone. Sitting in traffic on the way back from Arches (they are widening the main road into Moab) I was able to get hold of Jessica at Ultimate UTV tours and she was able to get us into a tour starting in just one hour. So, after a quick t-shirt hunting expedition in town, we worked our way back to their place.
Three other couples joined us, with Jessica leading, and we headed out to the trailhead on the outskirts of Moab. We were right behind Jessica, and immediately from the beginning climb up (and I mean up) a narrow slickrock spine, I began to understand the trail name. Have I mentioned that I have a fear of heights?
Well, I need not have worried as these vehicles crawled over terrain that should have been impossible to pass, over boulders, up impossibly steep bits of slickrock and back down what looked at times like vertical drops. A few times Jessica stopped to point out the yellow lines on the rock. “Keep it inside the yellow lines here. They mean that the trail turns and if you go outside of the lines you might roll over”. OK. Miranda was vigilant with pointing out the yellow lines, and began a litany of shouting “You’ve got this dad! Confidence!”. I don’t know if this was for my benefit or hers.
Our guide, Jessica, really wanted Miranda to take a turn behind the wheel, but Miranda steadfastly refused. As we were finishing up the ride her comment was “This was really cool, but I am never doing it again!”.
We finished the day with Pizza at Antica Forma, which Russ recommended as the best Pizza in Moab. We’d have to agree, and Miranda went so far as to claim that it was the best Pizza she had since returning from Europe. She also explained, by the way, that French Pizza sucks.
A relatively short run tomorrow will take us to Mesa Verde National Park, and then on to Durango.