The 2021 Utah Trip
May 3rd through 24th, 2021

We didn’t die. We wore masks, even when the locals did not, and we kept to ourselves and avoided staying in rooms with other people and kept a social distance. I managed to avoid running our truck off the side of the narrow two-lane roads without guard rails twisting through the mountains. We didn’t run out of gas in the middle of the desert without water or cell service. Somehow we kept out of some massive traffic accident while weaving through urban areas with seven lanes of traffic trying to find the right exit to get where we wanted to go.

So what did we do?

Well, we left our home in Ann Arbor on Monday morning, May 3rd, in the rain headed for Indiana. We didn’t get far. There was an accident on West bound I-94 after the Jackson Road exit. This caused all the traffic to stop dead for miles. They routed everyone off at Jackson Road and we had to go down to Zeeb Road to get back on track. We lost about an hour and a half of travel time. We took I-94 West to I-69 South all the way to Mounds State Park, near Anderson, our first stop.

It was not easy to spot Mounds State Park, which is located off a side road. We missed the turn the first time. Once in the park, we followed the signs all the way to the very far end of the park, farthest from the mounds, to the campground. The campground area was bordered by a small airport with small planes taking off and landing. We did go down to see the mounds built by the early Americans. The most impressive was a large round circle with an opening at one end with a deep ditch around the inside of the mound (probably where the mound earth came from). This would have been an impressive space for ceremonial events. The archeologists think that the circle had been used for several hundred years, but had been abandoned about the time Europeans began to arrive. Although there are lots of large trees, the trees are being carefully removed, since they damage the archeology. We took the “hard” path to the mounds which included a long stairway down into a ravine and a long stairway up to the mounds. We should have taken the paved path from the park entrance.

We had our first bad thing happen in Tennessee. I broke my high E string on my guitar and I didn’t have a spare. I ended up going into the nearby town to buy a new set. We also had to stop to get a key for Linda’s scooter. We forgot to bring one. I also did not secure the pin on the trailer hitch and it fell off somewhere, so I had to buy another. It was the last trailer pin in the store. Linda also pushed out the arm of our couch, so I bought some screws to tighten it back on.

We left Mounds State Park on Wednesday, May 4th, and headed South down I-69 through Indianapolis onto I-65 South through Louisville, Kentucky, down to Mammoth Cave National Park. Once you get to Kentucky, you begin to see bedrock. We would see a lot of rocks before the end of this trip. Louisville has a toll bridge, which we took, but I don’t see how they collect the tolls.

The park is very large, but our campground was within walking distance of the visitor center. The Green River Ferry was not working since the river was flooding and it did rain while we were there. We did not really intend on using the ferry and it does not take trailers at all. At the cave, there are 65 stair steps down (and up) into the cave, but the entrance is down a steep road from the visitor center that is easily more work to walk than the stairs. Once in the cave it is very dark. I tried some photos (no flash allowed), but got nothing. There are over 400 miles of passageways, but only a couple of miles was open for wandering. We only explored one passage off the main chamber, which had plenty to see. The cave is truly massive. I liked Lookout Mountain, which overlooked a huge pit with a large opening blocked by a rock slide. No stalactites or stalagmites or bats.

We did have a turkey stroll right through our campsite while we were inside the camper. We all watched the whole thing through the screen door. We took a drive to Cave City (to get the trailer pin) and stopped at Sand Cave on the way back. We did not go in, but it was in that cave that an explorer was trapped for several weeks and died of exposure before he could be saved.

When we left Mammoth Cave National Park on May 6th, we headed South down I-65 through Nashville, Tennessee, onto I-40 going West. We stopped in Parker Crossroads Campground, Tennessee, between Nashville and Memphis for the night. Parker Crossroads was the site of a Civil War battle.

This was just an overnight stay, so we did not even leave the campground. They had a “fishing” pond, so I tried my luck. I honestly don’t think there is a single fish in the whole pond. We had one of our propane tanks refilled there. We use propane to run our refrigerator when we don’t have electricity, like while we are driving. We also use propane to run our heater and for cooking. We can use propane for heating water, but we also have an electric option, which we use when we have electricity.

I take Buddy out to wander the campgrounds, so Buddy and I walked the perimeter of the campground. In one corner on a large field of grass near a woods we came upon something in the grass ahead of us. I could tell it was a large rattlesnake sleeping in the warm sun. We let it sleep, but I took a picture. The people at the camp thought it was a timber rattlesnake. It is the only rattlesnake I have encountered in my life.

That night we had a terrible rainstorm. The wind was so fierce that it nearly toppled the small tree next to our camper. I’m glad we weren’t in a tent that night.

In the morning of May 7th, we continued West on I-40 into Arkansas all the way to Conway, where we camped in Toad Suck Park on the Arkansas River. I did get lost in Little Rock along the way, by taking a wrong turn. There is this huge First Pentecostal Church right off of I-40, right where you have to decide which lane to be in and I must have been looking at the church instead of the road. After some wandering through Little Rock, we soon got back on track.

To get to our campground we drove right through Conway. I have never seen so many churches in one place in my life. There were rows of them, five or six together, all along the road. They even had a wedding chapel. Conway is not that big of a town, so each church must have only had a couple dozen members, but each one was a grand building. Could all of these people be worshiping the same god?

Toad Suck Park was created by the Federal Corps of Engineers who were working on a project there on the Arkansas River. Toad Suck was a place in the river where larger boats had to stop, so there was a tavern there that provided for the boat men. “toad suck” referred to their drinking. Folks said, “They sucked on the bottle ’til they swelled up like toads.”

The campsite had a shelter and concrete pad for the picnic table. We were right on the river, which was flooding, so the shore trees were in the water. The campground had been closed earlier because of the flooding, but the river had receded sufficiently to allow campers. The campground had lots of wonderful mature trees and seemed popular with the locals. There were lots of stuff for large picnic groups, a basketball court and a boat launch for the river. A bridge over the river spanned right over the campground and you could hear vehicles going across the river at night.

Linda managed to get a tick on her leg somewhere, but I managed to remove it completely.

We left Toad Suck Park on Sunday, May 9th, taking I-40 West to Oklahoma City, where we camped at the Oklahoma City East KOA Holiday for the night. This KOA had its own onsite church. Everyone who sees Buddy is thrilled to see him. He seems to remind people of their own dogs or dogs other people have or have had.

Monday morning, May 10th, we continued on I-40 West, which now merged with the historical Route 66 coming in from Chicago. We stopped in Amarillo, Texas, at the Fort Amarillo RV Resort.

Along I-40 all through Tennessee and Arkansas, I saw several dead armadillos along the roadside. However, for some reason, I never saw an armadillo (alive or dead) anywhere in Oklahoma and Texas, where I thought I would see them. The campground provides you with a gravel parking space with a concrete pad for the picnic table and a small wooden fence between parking spaces. Otherwise, these places have everything you might need. We did some laundry here, wrote a bunch of postcards and made a visit to the local Walmart to pick up a few things.

Tuesday, May 11th, we continued on I-40 West into New Mexico. There was a thick fog in the morning that made me worry about how safe it was to drive. When the fog lifted we could see a new type of landscape with low mesas, stubby trees and long vistas. There were mountains on the horizon. We took Route 285 North off of I-40, taking us up to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The traffic on Route 285 was minimal and made you worry about having car trouble out there. The first sign of civilization was a lone bicycle rider pedaling along this lonely road. The historical Route 66 originally passed through Santa Fe back in the 1920’s, but it was soon re-routed to save over 100 miles of travel by going directly to Albuquerque. We stayed outside of town on the old Route 66 at the Rancheros de Santa Fe Campground.

This campground is perched on the side of a hill, so you can climb to the top of the hill at the back of the campground to get a view of the surrounding valleys. There is also lots of prickly pear cactus and some other desert type vegetation. Although the sites were small and just dirt and gravel, the campground was interesting. Our neighbors, although they were living in San Antonio, Texas, regularly spent time with their camper in other places, like Santa Fe. They had been in New Mexico for over a month, with the wife working remotely. We struck up a conversation with them because of the Upper Peninsula sticker on their truck. They owned property up there and would come up in the summer.

We tried to go to a fancy restaurant in Santa Fe, but when we finally found it, it was closed. We did manage to get to the city center and ate at a cafe on the square at the center of the historic area. The roads in town are confusing and change names, so navigation was difficult. There is a small creek (that they call a river) that runs right through town with a strip of park along it. A very quaint and beautiful place, but we did not see much of it.

The next day we went to the Bandelier National Monument, which is several miles away on the other side of Santa Fe. The road to the monument through White Rock was amazing and wound through several canyons. You climb up to the top of the plateau with an overlook of the canyon and then go down a steep road to the canyon floor where the visitor center is located. The monument itself was very impressive, snuggled in the canyon with a stream that (they say) never goes dry, which is a good thing in this desert area. As a result, there were many very large Ponderosa pines and other non-desert vegetation there. They had a paved walking trail that easily leads to the early American settlement ruins and up the canyon side to where caves have been worked into dwellings. You can also climb a path with stairs that leads up to the caves. We did not take the whole path because of all of the stairs. We did see a striped lizard.

On the way back we decided to loop back through Los Alamos, rather than back through White Rock. We were surprised to find a security checkpoint with guards who stopped every car and asked for identification and purpose of our travel. We were instructed to stay on the main road and not make any turns until we left the Los Alamos area. A lot of government research goes on in there.

We left Santa Fe on Friday, May 14th, going South down I-25 back to I-40 going West. We traveled to Holbrook, Arizona, and stayed at the Holbrook Petrified Forest KOA Journey. On the way we observed more than one “dust devil”, a small harmless swirling tornado-like column of air and dust. One of them crossed the road right in front of us.

The trip to Holbrook took most of the day due to road work and an accident, so we quickly set up camp and drove to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park. We got there just in time to be let into the park before they closed it and managed to drive through the park and visit most of the more interesting stops, including a lookout where you can see a rock marked with petroglyphs. The painted desert is a wonder to behold and most of the hills are striped with colors. Much of the area is littered with chunks of the petrified trees that remains when the softer rock that holds the logs gets eroded away. The petrified wood looks just like it did when it was organic, but now is replaced by multicolored minerals. Wonderful to see.

From Holbrook, we headed West down I-40 to Route 89A and took it South to Cottonwood, Arizona. This was a mistake, since Route 89A is a scenic trip down into the Oak Creek Canyon using a narrow, steep twisting two-lane road with many switchbacks and tourists parked on both sides of the road all the way down into Sedona, Arizona. Then you drive through town with lots of traffic, multiple traffic circles and lots of tourist pedestrians wandering about. Normally, this would be simply annoying, but pulling a trailer made this normally scenic drive frightening. Worse, I did not know (yet) how to downshift the transmission, so I was pumping the brakes all the way down, which caused them to smoke badly. This canyon was not like anything I expected to see in Arizona.

We made it to Cottonwood and stayed at the Rio Verde RV Park on the Verde River. They had some live music at the campground in the evening with a singer/songwriter. We took Buddy with us to watch for awhile.

We had been told that it would be fun to visit Jerome, which is a very small town up in the mountains that surround Cottonwood. The road up to Jerome is very twisty and steep and the town itself is perched on shelves on the steep hillside. You have to take a stairway to go from one street to the next, if you don’t want to follow the switchback roadway. Up near the top is the Haunted Hamburger place we ate at. It has a wonderful view of the valley below and the mountains on the far side. The town is full of art stuff and other quirky shops with lots of tourists and locals walking about. A bunch of modified cars were all lined up on one street and there was a guy playing music. Cute town.

We took a Pink Jeep tour which drove us off into the federal land around Sedona to look around. This was actually a lot of fun, since the driver knew a lot about the area and its history.

We left Cottonwood on Sunday, May 16th, and headed South on Route 89A to Route 260 East to I-17 North. This allowed us to avoid taking Route 89A back up through Sedona. When we reached I-40 we backtracked East until we got to Route 89 North. We took Route 89 North to Alternate Route 89 West, which passes through Jacob Lake, Arizona. The bridge across the Colorado River was magnificent and you got a glimpse of the canyon the river was carving. At Fredonia, Arizona, we went West on Route 389 (which changes to Route 59 when it crosses into Utah) to La Verkin, Utah, where we took Route 9 into Springdale, Utah, where we stopped at the Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort, just outside Zion National Park. Along the way I got to run over a tumbleweed that wandered into the road and we saw an elk and a group of mule deer in a field.

Having a campground right in the canyon area was visually spectacular. We had red cliffs on both sides of us. We drove through the park that evening all the way to the other side and back. We found that if you want to visit the actual Zion Canyon area, you have to take a shuttle (no cars) and you need to make a reservation. Well, there were no reservations available so we did not get to see that part of the park. We did repeat our drive through the park on Route 9 again the next morning before we left. It is interesting how the morning sun gives a different picture than the afternoon sun we experienced the previous day.

Route 9 travels all the way through the park and has two tunnels carved through the rock back in the 1920’s. Both are narrow and low, but one is short and the other is over a mile long with no lights. When a large vehicle, such as a camper van or camper trailer arrives, they shut down the traffic so that the vehicle can travel through solo to avoid accidents. They charge for this service. We happened to arrive (without our camper trailer) at the tunnel when it was shut down, so we were the first vehicle into the tunnel after the camper came out. Well, I have never turned the lights on for the Tahoe, because they come on automatically. This time, however, driving into the pitch black tunnel from the bright sunlight my headlights did not come on right away. This truck is new to me and I had no idea how to manually turn on the lights. You cannot stop with traffic behind you, but I could not see. I was driving almost totally blind in the tunnel trying hard not to run into the walls until finally the headlights kicked on. I took the next opportunity to know where my lights were and how to use them.

Monday, May 17th, we took Route 9 West to Route 17 North to connect to I-15 going North. This avoided the more direct route going through the dark and narrow mile-long tunnel on Route 9 East. We took I-15 North to Cedar City, Utah, and took Route 14 over the ridge through Duck Lake back to Route 89 North. Route 14 tops out at 9900 feet above sea level and had many twists and steep grades. I got to practice my downshifting skills. A storm came and we were briefly pelted with sleet. Unfortunately, we were notified when we stopped for gas that our trailer taillights were not working the whole time. There was not a problem, the plug had come loose. Very dangerous. Back on Route 89, we traveled North to Route 12 through Red Canyon to Ruby’s Inn RV Park and Campground just outside Bryce Canyon National Park.

This Ruby guy has a huge operation outside the park that provides just about everything you need. The campground was very nice with lots of room. We went to the park right away and brought Buddy. We stopped at the visitor center and a group who was taking a shuttle tour of the park were very excited to see him and thought he was wonderful. As it turned out, we saw the same group at one of the overlooks and they were excited to see him again. My comment was that we should have had Buddy postcards to sell. We stopped at all the overlooks and the hoodoos we saw were impressive, both in color and shapes. Beautiful. There was an area for prairie dogs, but we did not see any.

On Tuesday, May 18th, we backtracked to Route 89 North. We had been warned that although Route 12 East was very scenic, it would be narrow, twisty and have many steep grades. We could avoid that, by going North up to I-70. When we reached I-70, we took it East to Route 191 South down to Moab, Utah. We stayed at the Slick Rock RV Resort, just across the Colorado River from Arches National Park.

Where our campground was located, they were doing serious work on Route 191 up to Moab. This made it difficult to get into and out of our campground. Moab is located in a canyon, so we again had canyon wall on both sides of the campground. We had heard that the Arches National Park often closes early due to crowding, so we planned to enter the park early the next morning. We arrived at the park about 7:00 am, before the visitor center opened and began stopping at all the overlooks. By the time we reached the far end of the park, there were no longer any parking spaces available. Drivers were circling the parking areas waiting for someone to leave so that they could park. Most of the arches are a short walk from the parking areas, but the walks are not very easy, so we saw most everything from a distance. When we left the park, about 10:00 am, the park had already been closed and vehicles arriving were being turned away.

We ate breakfast in Moab at a restaurant called The Jailhouse, because it was used as a court in the past. Linda booked us into a petroglyph tour that evening. It was just the driver and us in an off-road vehicle. He took us into the Kane Canyon where there were several stops where petroglyphs had been made on rocks and canyon walls. It was sad to see the graffiti that visitors would carve near or even in the petroglyphs. We went deep into the canyon and up to the Hurrah Pass where we could look down at the Colorado River on the other side. It was a rough ride.

The next morning, before we left, we took a quick trip up the other side of the Colorado River canyon to a spot that our guide the previous day said had more petroglyphs. We found them and were amazed at how many there were right on the roadside.

It was Thursday, May 20th, and we decided to take the scenic Route 128 out of Moab North to I-70. Route 128 follows the Colorado River for quite a ways along the canyon. Very nice. Gradually, we came upon a lifeless plain where we could see I-70 in the distance. Once on I-70 again, we traveled East along the Colorado River to Eagle, Colorado and stayed the night at the Wolcott BLM Campground on the Eagle River.

We were lucky to get a campsite, since they are first-come first-serve and we got the last one. There is no electricity, no water and no sewage hookup, but it was a beautiful spot on the river. Several groups brought inflatable boats there to be launched in the river to go back down to Eagle, Colorado. I got to see a magpie up close here while walking Buddy.

On Friday, May 21st, we kept on I-70 East all the way to Denver, Colorado. We had originally intended to take Route 34 through the Rocky Mountain National Park, but the road was not planned to be open until the end of the month due to snow cover in the mountains. The road was closed.

I-70 crosses the Rocky Mountains at the Vail Pass and heads through the Eisenhower Tunnel at the highest point along the Interstate Highway system, with an elevation of 11,158 feet. There was snow on the mountains along the highway and lots of steep grades both up and down.

From I-70, we connected with I-25 North to Route 36, which took us to Estes Park, Colorado, high in the Rocky Mountains. We stayed at the Estes Park KOA Holiday on Route 34.

The campground had a spectacular view of the snow covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains from the picnic table on our site.

Our neighbors from Ann Arbor were visiting their son in Boulder, Colorado, so we invited them to dinner up in Estes Park. They had never been to Estes Park, but they drove up the scary roads up there to visit with us. We went to an Italian restaurant and our server was from Ann Arbor originally. We had a wonderful time.

On Saturday, May 22nd, we took Route 34 East out of the mountains until it connected with I-76 East. I 76 East changes to I-80 East at the Nebraska border. We continued on I-80 to North Platte, Nebraska, and we stopped at the Holiday RV Park and Campground.

On Sunday, May 23rd, we continued on I-80 towards Omaha, Nebraska. Near Lincoln, Nebraska, my eyes suddenly lost focus. I could see plainly with each eye, but together it was a blur. Using only one eye at a time, I was able to use an exit and stop at a gas station. My eyes got better quickly, but it was truly frightening. Since I seemed fine, we continued. In Omaha we diverted up I-680 to I-880 back to I80 to avoid going right through Omaha. We continued on I-80 to almost Des Moines, Iowa, to Timberline Campground in Waukee, Iowa.

Our original plan was to stay at the Indiana Dunes, Indiana, as our final night, but we were eager to get home, so we decided to skip Indiana and just head home from Iowa. This was not quite a great idea, since it is nearly 570 miles from Waukee to Ann Arbor. It ended up taking us 11 hours on the road to make the trip.

One exciting thing that happened on the way home occurred near Iowa City. I was in the right lane behind a tractor trailer combination truck. There are lots of trucks on I-80. Right at an exit, the truck in front of me suddenly had its stop lights on. This is not unusual, if cars are merging or otherwise slowing down near an exit/entrance. However, in this case the truck was stopping in his lane on the freeway. Traffic was zipping by in the left lane at close to 80 miles per hour, so I could not change lanes. When I realized I needed to stop, I locked up the brakes and started sliding towards the back of the truck in front of me (now completely stopped). I was not sure I would make it, but we finally completely stopped just a couple of feet from the back end of the truck. I immediately began to worry about some vehicle behind me slamming into the back end of our trailer, so I put on our emergency flashers. The truck started off again and we both slowly got back up to speed on the freeway. That was a close call both in terms of hitting the stopped truck and the possibility of being struck from behind by some other vehicle. It pays to have good karma.

One last close call. We had left Iowa about 9:30 am (Central Time), so it was after 9:00 pm (Eastern Time) when we came to Ann Arbor. I badly needed gasoline, but I had been on the road for 11 hours and I guessed I had enough gasoline to get us home. I parked the camper trailer in the driveway and the next morning, I unhooked the trailer, got the gas can for the lawn mower and drove down the street to the corner to get filled up. I didn’t make it. The truck ran out of gas just a few feet short of the corner. Since I had a gas can, I just walked across the street to get some gas. Imagine though the problems I would have had if at 9 o’clock at night along the freeway somewhere I had run out of gas (without a gas can) while pulling the trailer. I have been very lucky.

Overall, we traveled about 5,240 miles and visited seven national parks/monuments (skipping Rocky Mountain National Park, since it was closed). There is still a lot to see in the Southwest.

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David Brzezinski

David Brzezinski

Retired mechanical engineer living in Michigan, where I grew up. I've been a Boy Scout & played in a rock band. I love the outdoors & I fish. Married two sons.