October 4, 2018.
By midnight the wind had picked up significantly. 40-mph gusts buffeting our tents. Rain, blowing sideways. And then, at 2:12am - lightning, and a lot of it.
I'd slept well through the rain, earplugs doing their job to mute the noise of the drops on the tent. But they did little to soften that first clap of thunder. It wasn't until the next flash of lightning that I could count the delay - about 8 seconds - not too bad.
But then more lightning. And more. It was constant, as the wind continued to whip at the tent. And it was getting closer. 7 seconds. Then 5. Eventually, I could barely count "one-one-thousand, two-one" before the thunder would crash through the night. Less than two seconds.
"F*ck you rain."
Needless to say, my heartbeat picked up rather dramatically at that point and I hoped I was as safe in the tent as I'd be in the truck.
The electrical storm lasted a stressful hour before moving on, at which point my earplugs went back in and the patter of rain on the tent lulled me to sleep until 5:45am when my alarm went off and I looked out the window to see a sliver of orange on the horizon, and a bit of sunlight on the tops of the clouds above.
The rain had stopped, and unsure what was in store, I contemplated getting up and putting away the tent immediately. Instead, as I climbed down the ladder, I was distracted by an eerie glow all around - it seemed that the early morning sun was somehow reflecting off the orange ground back up to the clouds. I knew what it'd be to view the word through orange glasses.
Excited to see the view from Point Sublime, I donned my jacket and headed down the road, through the mud. I could tell immediately that - unlike previous days where the rain mostly knocked down the dust - this was not going to be a fun drive.
The view from Point Sublime was expansive. I'd have loved it to be sunny, clear, and warm, but it was hard to complain as I looked out over the Grand Canyon - the only person in the world with such a view at that moment in time.
My solitude didn't last long however - Monte'd @Blackdawg heard me leave camp and that had been enough to get him out of bed and down the road to the point a few minutes after me - a welcome companion with which to share the moment.
"How about that lightning?" - I'm not sure which of us said it first, but it was top of mind for each of us - Monte just as uncomfortable as the storm passed as I'd been. We discussed it for a while, reveled in the fact that we were still alive, and then got back to enjoying the early morning light as the sun tried to break through the clouds.
But then - as we'd seen the night before - a storm across the canyon, moving directly toward us. Sharing a quick glance, we both knew we needed to get back - and after a few final shots, we headed that direction. Too late. About halfway to camp we were caught in a downpour; and then hail. Lucky for us, the hail was small - pin-head size - and so luckily no risk to our gear.
We huddled again under Mike's @Digiratus awning waiting for the storm to pass, Mike still asleep above. I kicked myself for not getting the tent put away (wet, but at least not in the rain) earlier - it being so much nicer to put gear away when you aren't getting drenched yourself!
After about an hour, the storm cell passed and we ventured out from the protected area - Mike now awake as well, working on his coffee.
The tents went away sopping wet - all of us hoping that we'd find a dry camp in the evening where things could air out before we had to crawl back inside, Monte informing us that this was the benefit of keeping your sleeping bag and pillow in the cab, rather than packed in the tent all the time. Of course, that's super inconvenient so Mike and I both just kept doing it the way we've always done it - the right way.
And with that, we headed out of camp - Mike in the lead - to our final destination on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon - the North Rim Visitor Center.
We didn't make it far before stopping though. An astute reader may recall that the day before, we'd found an overlook with amazing fall colors that simply wasn't well-lit. With the partly-cloudy morning, it still wasn't ideal, but the sun was definitely in a better place - the canyon wall ablaze in color, even as clouds stacked up over distant folds.
Eventually we bid farewell to Point Sublime and got on our way, hoping that the rain from the last 12 hours wouldn't cause us too much trouble. And of course, there were parts of it that we enjoyed...
This section of trail - as had been the case with the trail the day before - was also surrounded by Aspen in full fall display, crisp and clear in the clean air, and reflected in the plethora of puddles that we continually paused to capture as they catapulted away from the trail and our tires.
And so it was that we continued on - our pace once again slowed by the unexpected scenery we found just back from the edge of the Grand Canyon. Mike leading, we hit the edge of a small meadow and I called over the CB for him to stop (again). I mean, how could we pass up a view like this?
That (specific) meadow captured (after all, if there were more, we'd be stopping at them as well) Mike quickly alerted us to a tree blocking our path out. Mostly just the leggy tops of some smaller Aspen, Monte made quick work of the situation with his axe and we hauled the remnants out of the road.
And then, we were back to having fun as we ticked the miles away, the puddles once again providing some great action shots and fun use of our skinny pedals.
Not 15-minutes later however, as we drove through a more wooded section of the trail, Mike slowed once again - a tree in his path. A small, dead fir had fallen - perhaps a 4-inch diameter trunk and 30-feet tall - nothing major. While we could have simply driven around, a conversation earlier in the trip about cleaning up trails was top of mind (at least for me), and Mike decided that this was a good tree to move to the side of the road.
As he did, I looked up the trail and chuckled. "I'll get the chainsaw." I said, Mike initially reacting with "We don't need..." before realizing it wasn't the tree he was leveraging out of the way that was the problem. Rather, a hundred feet further on, a much larger - perhaps 12-inch diameter - Aspen had fallen squarely across the road. There was no bypassing this one without cutting it out of the way.
Cutting out the tree was a team effort. As I lopped it into sections, Monte tossed them out of the way - all of glad that we had the saw to make the work much easier than it'd have been with axes. Lucky too - since I'd planned to leave it at home this trip, until I was urged by both companions to bring it along!
Eager to see what would be a bit further down the trail, and knowing that we had about an hour or so until we'd reach the visitor center, we continued on...for six minutes. Until the next grassy meadow. Was it more beautiful than the last? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but it was different and breathtaking, and there was no question we were stopping, a yellow glow cast on everything around us from the leaves.
We each made our way through slowly, taking it all in.
And then it was five-or-six minutes of driving until we hit the next one. It really made me wonder what this area would look like from the sky - it must be an amazing kaleidoscope of colors, the perfect thing to photograph from a plane or with a drone! We of course doing the best we could with cameras, running from vantage point to vantage point.
And then we had a little fun. See, Monte has this "pose" he does with his truck, much the same way that Ben @m3bassman has a habit of turning his wheels for every photo. In Monte's case, he swings wide in the trail and then turns back across it, so his truck is at an angle, and he can more easily lean out the driver window and take a photo of the rigs approaching from behind.
So frequent was this maneuver that Mike coined it "the pivot." And, as Mike waited for Monte and I to catch up - he pivoted! Seeing it, I couldn't resist pivoting myself - in the opposite direction.
Well, that got a good laugh out of Monte over the CB and he humored us all by completing the pattern. We looked ridiculous, and loved it.
Now hungry for lunch and worried about our time to camp that evening - which was to be in a yet-unplanned location - it was time to get moving. As fast as we could really, so hard was it to not continually pause for more and more Aspen photos (though, I'm sure that you as a reader are thanking your lucky stars that there aren't even more).
OK, just two more. Sorry.
And with that, and a few miles of pavement, we finally found ourselves at the only real populated stop of our trip along the canyon - the Grand Canyon's North Rim Visitor Center.
This was our lunch spot, but before eating we figured the short - 1-mile roundtrip - stroll out to the viewpoint was in order. After all, this must be the iconic view of the canyon, right? It's the one that normal people go to, so it must be truly spectacular.
As we headed out, initial signs were good - there was a definite point in the distance, and there were lots of people.
Views along the way were definitely nice as well - as much as I may joke about it given the number of people and ease of access, they were definitely grand views - a place I'd recommend visiting for anyone making a trip to this neck of the woods.
And then, the viewpoint. Out in the "middle" of the Grand Canyon, you really do experience the vastness of this great geological wonder. Stretching as far as you can see, millions of years of erosion have made a vast, colorful, spidery formation on the landscape. Climbing up above the trail and looking at it from the pinnacle was more than I could resist.
We headed back up to the visitor center and lodge, just to see what there was to see - a nice building for sure, with $9 hot dogs if you so desire - before heading back to the trucks for lunch. In the visitor center, we also ran into Brightly, the lucky mule ("Why's his nose so shiny?" asked Mike.) and I though the chandeliers were interesting as well - they definitely suited the space!
I can only imagine how crowded the visitor center is during the height of summer - this day, the parking lots were close to full and there were 500 or so people milling about, I'd guess. Luckily none of us had to use the restroom, it's line a good 15 minutes long.
We got lunch prepped and eaten in the parking lot, away from most of the crowds. As always when we're around civilization, as we ate and chatted, several folks wandered over to inquire about the trucks - one woman telling us that she'd taken plenty of photos before we'd walked up, "To send to her son." she said.
Just as we finished eating, it started to rain again - it'd been threatening all day - so we packed everything up and climbed back in the trucks. As we headed northeast, we were looking toward a new chapter in our trip, this would be our last night in Arizona - we were headed to the natural wonders of Utah!
Of course to get there, we'd have to brave the Aspen's once again.
These yellow trees really were going to be our undoing - so vibrant, even in the partly-sunny afternoon. But we knew we had a way to go before camp, so we tried to keep the photos to a minimum. Or at least, I think Mike and Monte did. I was tail-gunner - bringing up the rear - the advantage being that I could stop and shoot a photo without holding up the caravan.
But then the sun came out for a few minutes and the plan of making good time fell apart once again. Patting ourselves on the back for having gone nearly 38 minutes with only a couple of stops, we were out of our trucks to capture the brilliance. Mike, playing to the camera.
Luckily for us, this was one of the last groves of Aspen we'd run into, instead entering a forest that reminded me of those in northern California - pine, fir, juniper, and Indian Paintbrush surrounding the trail. As we'd driven north, we found ourselves moving away from the weather (or at least, getting further out in front of it), and we took a moment to explore a few camp sites and a possible view of a canyon to our east.
The camp sites not quite what we were looking for, we were all ready to head out in search of a place to call it an evening when Monte noticed that he was missing a bolt on his bed rack. Luckily for him, it had fallen down into the bed and was still bouncing around down there, so he was able to retrieve it and get everything re-secured.
This turned out to be just in time, the trail getting a bit rockier and bumpier just as the fix had been made. Fun, we called it - having been on relatively smooth, gravel roads for most of the trip so far.
And oh, how we'd miss those roads in a few days. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
As we neared the edge of the forest, Mike wondered over the CB radio if we should head back to one of the camp sites we'd found not too long ago - that way we'd be sheltered from the weather and not at risk (or at least have less risk) of a lightning storm similar to our recent experience.
We consulted our maps and it looked like there was a bit more forest ahead (and before the highway), so after a few photos of the trucks - and Vermilion Cliffs on the horizon - we pushed on.
The forest gave way to a huge burn area and we wound in an around this area for a good 90 minutes, making our way to the highway, the Vermilion Cliffs growing dramatically in the distance.
Finally, just a handful of miles from the highway, we found a spot. Actually, we found a few spots but rejected the first several due to lack of cover, muddy ground, and the absence of fire rings. The spot we found was close to the road, but it was shielded by a stand of trees, and we weren't all that worried about other traffic anyway - we hadn't seen anyone else all day!
We setup camp just as the sun was setting - the weather looking promising for the night to come. We hoped.
Tents unfolded and drying, we set about making a fire and our respective dinners. A "hobo meal" for me, I cut up sausage, potatoes, zucchini, red bell peppers, and cauliflower and wrapped them in aluminum foil. This package I then placed on the fire for a good 30 minutes, cooking everything in the juices of the sausage - a tasty treat (with no dishes!) for sure.
Mike - as had become almost a tradition - made guacamole again as well - which Monte and I may have eaten before Mike really got any; the trouble of having the two of us on a trip with guac.
And then, there was desert. I'd brought a couple batches of chocolate chip cookies and Monte had the great idea of warming them up on a thin slab of wood by the fire. Let me tell you this - warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookies on a cold night around a camp fire - that's living!
Eventually, as was always the case, we called it night and climbed into our tents at 11:30pm. As we did, the sky was clear and we all knew it was going to be a chilly night. Luckily, we were more sheltered than we'd been the night before and we snuggled down and fell asleep.
Little did we know the beautiful surprise that the next morning would bring, right to our camp site...