Marypat and I were trying to figure how many times we’d gone to Utah over spring break. Has to be 15-20 since the early 80s. Canyonlands, Grand Gulch, Dark Canyon, Green River, Colorado River, San Juan River, Dirty Devil River, Natural Bridges, Ruby and Horsethief Canyons of the Colorado, and I’m forgetting some. Sort of a tradition, you’d say, and a testament to our motivation to escape the tyranny of the snow shovel by mid-March in Montana (especially this year when we had big dumps and super cold temps in late Feb and early Mar).
This time was different. First off, we went right through Utah to Nevada, Arizona and California. Second, we took on really different adventures. And unexpectedly, it turned into a survey of various approaches to retirement adopted by friends and family.
As for the adventures, the Black Canyon of the Colorado was our main destination. I’m chagrined to admit that I’ve always sort of assumed (from a paddler’s perspective) that the Colorado River might as well end at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. After that it runs the gauntlet of endless reservoirs, petering out as it goes, until, by the time it crosses into Mexico, it barely registers as a river, and never reaches the sea. That tragic depletion and truncated flow has never held any attraction . . . until our friends Jeff and Molly suggested a couple of days on the river below Hoover Dam, outside of Las Vegas. We couldn’t think of a good reason not to go, and the pull of the warm desert was, as always, irresistible, so off we went.
Which is where the retirement tour began. We rolled up to Jeff’s campsite near Lake Mead and found them relaxing beneath some desert shrubs outside their travel van. Over the next couple of days, including our time together on the river (which was surprisingly pleasant and entertaining), we got a dose of Jeff and Molly’s equation for life at/near retirement. Their pop-top van carries a kayak and bikes, and is outfitted with everything a couple needs to live on the road – bed, shower rig, kitchen, frig, heat . . .Jeff isn’t a huge fan of northern winter, while Molly is, so Jeff spends a good portion of every cold season knocking around the southwest. He has an innate curiosity, so he’s always chatting people up, finding out about local scenery, good camps, bits of interesting history, bike trails, whatever. Because he is self-contained, he can park at a nice spot, explore various trails, put his boat into whatever water is available, and generally explore.
“I usually get out and do some activity for 3-4 hours,” he says. “Then I read, maybe I write, generally follow my nose to whatever seems interesting. Not a bad way to spend time.”
Over the years, Jeff has developed an informal, mental-map web of sweet camps, bike trails, water to paddle and historical points of curiosity from west Texas to Oregon. Some of the time he joins up with friends and family to do things, as he did with us. His penciled-in calendar is pretty robust. Other times he’s on his own. Some times Molly comes down to join him, or he’ll head north to visit Montana. The result is a rich tapestry of geography that he has managed to make personal, from redwood groves to creosote desert flats, from the headlands of Oregon to the canyons of the Rio Grande. He doesn’t spend much money, travel is variable and absolutely prone to the seduction of a whim (doing a Christmas Bird Count?? Sure, I’m in!), and he embraces a pace that encourages reflection, demands exploration, and nudges him toward easy interactions.
After our time on the river (which was full of hot springs, waterfowl, full moon nights and easy paddling) we spontaneously met my cousin, Jim, from L.A., and his partner, Patti, to revel in this spring’s stupendous flower bloom in California. We found each other in Joshua Tree Park, and in addition to walking through unbelievable fields of poppies, flowering ocotillo and acres of multi-hued bloom, we were introduced to their newly built-out van, a used, Sprinter-type vehicle that someone in their neighborhood customized for them to vagabond out of. They are new to the gig, but we got a dose of van life and their hopes to wander new country, explore off-the-radar tracts of public lands, and find their own equation of entertainment, social outlet, personal time and stimulation.
From flower intoxication, our route headed back to southern Utah, where we spent a day with our friends Doug and Sunny, who had spent the winter renting a house outside of St. George. Not only did they spend the winter months there, the experience has totally seduced them. They were looking to buy a place of their own, so they could split the year between Montana summers and southwestern winters. They reveled in the many bike and hike trails in the country down by Zion National Park, the Virgin River and Snow Canyon. Doug was probably putting in 20 hours a week on the pickle-ball courts, and Sunny was loving the yoga classes. The morning hike we took with them to an overview at the top of Snow Canyon revealed the horizon-spanning potential of landscape to explore all around them.
By the time we rolled back into our still-snowy driveway, 10 days and a couple of thousand miles on, we were both mentally busy with the potential future of travel and lifestyle, using our little T@B trailer, that presents the next frontier of life. Knock on wood . . . right? Stay tuned.