In the craziness of the past 6 weeks, you probably havenâ€™t had time to wonder what happened to those Raff people that were 8 months into their yearlong trip. Well, weâ€™re obviously not travelling at the moment; in fact, I guess weâ€™ve sort of moved to Southwest Utah. Surprised? So were we, but life is pretty good, all things considered.
Iâ€™ve hesitated to write this blog, partly because not everyone will agree with all our choicesâ€”letâ€™s face it, there was serious shade being thrown around while everyone tried to figure out how their existence was changing overnight (side note: if you post about any topic more than a dozen times in a day, you are no longer on my Facebook feed because life is too short to climb with beta sprayers). Thereâ€™s also some guiltâ€”we landed in a safe place with outdoor opportunities, and we had already planned to be unemployed during this time. The future is unclear, but we are still extremely lucky.
The truth is that we really didnâ€™t know what to do at firstâ€¦we got back to the U.S. the same week that schools were closing and toilet paper disappeared; I was just glad people were finally washing their hands in airport bathrooms! We learned that the WHO had declared a pandemic as we drove over the border between Missouri and Kansas about 9 hours into a 5-month road trip. Anyway, hereâ€™s the everchanging story of what Sarah and I are calling â€œthat spring we lived in Zion.â€
We werenâ€™t too worried about flying from Costa Rica because they hadnâ€™t yet recorded the virus (the 1st case was announced the following day), but we were still happy to get back before borders really started closing. Our first stop was once again with Sarahâ€™s family in Indiana for a few days. Highlights included a morning walk at Sarahâ€™s parentsâ€™ favorite park, another round of delicious pasty production and consumption, margaritas with Sarahâ€™s sister, and some fun and games with our niece and nephew. We donâ€™t use our phones internationally, so it was also nice to talk with my parents. These might sound like little things, but little things with loved ones are what you miss the most during travelling!
Like I said, we didnâ€™t really know what lay ahead of us at the time. Like many people, we had fun plans during spring, beginning with our annual trip to climb at Red Rock Canyon. We set out for the 2,000-mile leg of the road trip only a few days before states began seriously shutting down. I think we both had an inkling that our trip was about to change drastically, but we hoped to salvage what we could; by the time we got to Red Rock (a mere 3 days later), much had come out about the way the disease spread exponentially and the need for social distancing.
Our first big moment of the road trip came early on the second morning. We awoke early and started the Cragginâ€™ Wagon up to leave the rest stop weâ€™d slept in that night; it was time for our summit bid of Kansasâ€™ high point! This endeavor required a grueling hourâ€™s drive and stepping all the way out of Cragginâ€™ to take a photo. Mt. Sunflower (4,039 ft. elev.), sat in the middle of a field; there was actually a really cool metal-work marker with a mailbox summit register and a Little Library that had been someoneâ€™s high school project. It was our 7th state high point and the 3rd of this trip; I did some quick math, and I should finish the 50 high points right around the time my 6 year-old niece turns 92!
Later that day, we drove through some of the most beautiful areas I can recall on any major highway. The Colorado Rockies are the real deal, yâ€™all! It was a beautiful sunny day, and the snow-capped peaks seemed to be screaming, â€œCome play with us!â€ We still had a long drive, though, so a few photo opportunities had to suffice. This area was on our short list of Plan Bâ€™s if climbing got shut down, but within a week it was also one of the higher concentrated areas of Covid-19 in the Southwest.
Sarah found two of the prettiest free camping spots I can imagine for the rest of our drive. We spent that second night in a BLM campground near the Colorado/Utah border. Although free, it was equipped with a clean outhouse, picnic table, and amazing views of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness! What a place to eat a quick dinner, sip a cold beer, and ponder what the hell we were going to do for 5 months!
The last day of our road trip took us across Utah, a tiny strip of Arizona, and into Nevada. Highlights included driving through the San Rafael Reef (a 30-mile wall with only one narrow opening blasted for the highway) and the Virgin River Gorge. Weâ€™d discussed visiting Moab for the day, but we ran into a snowstorm instead before dropping down into St. George, Utah, which has a growing reputation for good climbing. We didnâ€™t know it at the time, but we would be heading back to this area shortly! We stayed the night at another picturesque but more primitive BLM camping area an hour from Vegas.
After 28 hours of driving over 3 days, it was nice to see Red Rock through the windshield! Red Rock is one of my favorite places in the world; we go there every spring to kick off climbing season. The weather is typically great, and the area offers some of the best variety of moderate multi-pitch trad routes in the U.S. This year, however, we were three weeks earlier, the weather wasnâ€™t great for climbing on brittle sandstone, and the world was coming apart. Usually, we find solace and adventure in the outdoors, but this trip felt kind of patheticâ€¦like trying to hide from a monster by ducking behind a light pole.
The park was by no means deserted, but there were no crowds either. I know that photos of terrible lines and crowding in parks came out in the next weeks, but when we were there, Red Rock was way less busy than we normally experienced. We stopped at the main pullout late on Saturday morning, and easily found front row parking right beside the trailhead. It was too wet to climb, so we hiked a really cool 5-mile loop that took us out of the park and down the Calico Basin before returning to our starting point. Not our usual kickoff but a nice leg stretcher in the sunâ€¦weâ€™d only heard the words â€œsocial distancingâ€ for a few days at that point, but it seemed pretty doable after that morning.
The grocery store, on the other hand, was a terrifying petri dish of crowding, pawing, and racing around as people rushed to buy up whatever they could. I donâ€™t know that we saw people hoarding, but if everyone goes to the store at the same time for the same stuff, there will obviously be problems! We had a cooler and 3 small food bins in the van, which made â€œstocking upâ€ a relative term. In order to get enough food for a few days, we had to go to 2 different stores. Iâ€™d bet money that we were exposed and exposed others to more germs in those 2 visits than in our entire 4 days in the park! I realize one is a necessary evil and one is not, but I am saying that an outsiderâ€™s perception of Red Rocks for that weekend would be far less accurate than the same personâ€™s perception of a grocery store in Vegas!
The next day was the only real climbing we did. Neither of us was in shape, so we clipped a few bolts on easy routes in the Hamlet area. Weâ€™d climbed there the previous year and knew there was some fun stuff. Again, not many people there. Since Sarah and I had zero climbing endurance, there was no worry that we would push ourselves anywhere near our climbing limits. Iâ€™ll be honest; it felt great to be on the rock. Were we justifying selfish actions? Maybe a little, but hindsight is easy to judge.
Some type of weird low moist cloud system sat down on the canyon that night, so the next day ended up with rock too wet to climb. We werenâ€™t really used to bad weather at Red Rock, but we ended up getting to hike some stuff we normally ignore. Turtlehead Point (believe it or not, I made no jokes about its name that day) was a five-mile hike that gained a couple thousand feet and offered great views of the park, as well as Kraft Mountain, Calico Basin, and The Strip that shut down that very morning. It made for a fine Plan-B.
By now, it was painfully obvious that our Red Rock trip was a bust. Hiking was okay, but the weather forecast was terrible. Every passing day brought more dire news about the expected damage yet to come, and things were shutting down all over. Even if the weather improved, we were realizing the potential negative impact our climbing could create for others, and driving around the country touching door handles seemed like a pretty crappy choice as well.
Ignoring our neighbor blasting REMâ€™s End of the World on repeat for several hours, we dialed up the olâ€™ Interweb and researched some of the places in our general vicinity that might be better places to lay low and socially distance ourselves. We hoped for a small town with potential hiking opportunities, and we also wanted to find a place with a roof and indoor plumbingâ€”two weeks of rainy forecasts and a shared outhouse in the middle of a pandemic made van life sound pretty unappetizing! On a whim, we checked out the area around St. George that we passed through a few days earlier, and we found a great basement apartment to rent for the week in the small town of La Verkin, Utah. And that, my friends, is how we began â€œthat Spring we lived in Zion.â€