San Isabel National Forest in Colorado

Photo of Turquoise Lake

Late June in northern Arizona brought the start of monsoon season. While a break from the unusually warm weather was welcome, camping in the forest during weeks of rain is a prescription for being stranded. Forest Service roads are often little more than unimproved dirt tracks, and rain quickly turns marginal roads into an impassable mess. It was time for a new location.

The Colorado high country provided the opportunity for cooler weather, proximity to Wyoming for several planned trips, and a change of scenery (always welcome for nomads). The area around Leadville was highly recommended by many rubber tramps, and a small group of us migrated from the Flagstaff area to the San Isabel National Forest.

San Isabel National Forest

The San Isabel National Forest encompasses 1.1 million acres in central Colorado. The forest includes 19 of Colorado’s peaks that are above 14,000 feet, including the highest peakin in Colorado, Mt. Elbert.

The difference in weather was obvious immediately. The temperatures dropped from a high of 104 F in the desert to 52 F in the Colorado high country. The highs while I was in Colorado averaged 60s to low 70s, with nighttime lows averaging 30s to low 40s. Pretty comfortable weather for July.

The scenery around the San Isabel National Forest is quite lovely. The mountains and forests are beautiful, though it can be surprisingly hard to find wide open vistas. Perhaps I have been spending too much time in the Plains and the desert, but I expected more open meadows in addition to the forests and mountains.

The U.S. Forest Service describes the┬áPike and San Isabel National Forests & Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands as a “busy urban national forest.” They are not kidding. I typically gravitate to remote areas with as little traffic as possible. My idea of a good camping spot includes not seeing anyone else for days at a time. The amount of traffic in the San Isabel National Forest was surprising and annoying. The difficulty in escaping motorized vehicles contributed to my time in Colorado being cut short.

Leadville, Colorado

Leadville is an interesting little city. At 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the country (cue the jokes about a Colorado city being the “highest” in the country). Leadville is an old mining town with a population of only 2,600.

Despite the small population, traffic in Leadville rivals that of much larger cities. The area has a lot of tourism, and there are few places to resupply. Aside from nearly being killed in a grocery store parking lot (literally – I leapt to safety with no time to spare), the traffic would kill me due to hypertension if I had to deal with it regularly. The roads and parking lots in the city are simply terrible and not designed for the volume of traffic during summer.

I always try to find something good to report about the places that I visit. So far I am drawing a blank on Leadville though. It is just a crummy little city that I plan to never return to again. Plenty of other nomads love it though, so you will need to be your own judge of Leadville’s potential merits.

Moving On

In the end, I spent only about two weeks in the Leadville area. In reality, I spent about half of that two weeks in Wyoming over two separate trips. The days that I did spend there were largely frustrating, but I did at least enjoy some wonderful scenery and cooler weather. (We did eventually find a camp in a quieter location with less motor vehicle traffic.) Still, I was glad to see Leadville in the rearview mirror.

Nomadic Reflections

Colorado was an interesting experience. While I may explore more of western Colorado in the future, I doubt that I will return to this area again.

Opinions

People take to the road for a variety of reasons, and have different needs or objectives. An area that is ideal for one person may not suit another person. The Leadville and San Isabel National Forest area serves as a good example. Similary, be careful about avoiding an area just because other people were not impressed.

Cellular Access

Digital nomads like myself require a fast, reliable data connection in order to work. The first part of this equation is finding locations with good cellular coverage. The other part of the equation involves coverage that is actually usable. While there is Verizon coverage in the area surrounding Leadville, the tower is so overloaded that the network is hardly usable much of the time. Not only did I have difficulty accessing the Internet, but I often could not even send or receive text messages. Finding locations with fast and reliable data coverage contines to be one of my primary challenges working on the road.

Four Years

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This is my annual memorial post for my late wife, Terri. Following an ongoing trend, I was unable to complete the post in July when planned. This year it is even later than last year.

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At Carter Pond Nature Area in Cossayuna, New York (2008)

Numb, aimless, wandering, and drifting. These words pretty much sum up my existence these days. Those who do not know better might assume I am fine, if a bit “off” or strange. In reality, I spend many days just going through the motions.

Truth is, I am more or less living the life we had planned. I finally have a camper, and am traveling the western part of the country. Yet, in spite of the seeming successes, something is missing. As has been true for the past four years, my successes are always hollow.

Four years later I am still broken. Alive, sort of, yet broken.I am a shell of a man, and I dwell among the walking wounded.

Nonetheless, I press forward because it is what you wanted for me. The last message you left for me will never be forgotten, though I doubt it will ever be fully realized either.

“Laugh. No crying. I am happy.”

May your memory be eternal.

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Flowers at Terri’s memorial service

Previous Memorial Posts

Cover photo: Debra Dickinson painstakingly built this memorial for Terri in the San Isabel National Forest on July 1.

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Mesa Verde National Park

Photo of Square Tower House cliff dwelling

Walking in the footpaths of the ancients and viewing the remains of their humble (and sometimes impressive) homes is one of the great joys of wandering this country as I do. Mesa Verde National Park proved to be the perfect follow-up to Wupatki National Monument several days prior.

Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwestern Colorado. It is probably not on your way to anywhere (unless you are relocating from Flagstaff, Arizona to Leadville, Colorado), but it is well worth the detour if you happen to be in the region. Visiting Mesa Verde has been on my list of essential places to visit since my sister-in-law, who spent her career with the National Park Service, showed me photos of the park last fall. It immediately became a stop-over destination when we started trip planning to Colorado in late June.

Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table,” a reference to the many mesas that are interspersed with the stunning canyons in this area of Colorado. Mesa Verde National Park is home to nearly 5,000 archaeological sites, including about 600 ancient cliff dwellings. The pit houses and cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde were built and inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo peoples between about 600 and 1,300 A.D. Around 1,300 A.D. the inhabitants disappeared without a known trace.

Having the opportunity to visit ancient ruins like this is an absolute thrill. Being able to visualize how people lived for many centuries is fascinating. It did, however, prompt a discussion about how vandwelling is positively luxurious by comparison. It is all in one’s perspective.

Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is a bargain at only $15 during the summer season and $10 during the winter season. You would spend that much watching a movie at a theater or buying a DVD – and the return on investment is immeasurably better with a national park. An annual pass for this park is available for $30.

There is one large campground within the park. Most of the sites are tent or dry RV sites, but a few sites are available with full hookups. Dump stations and potable water are located in the campground as well. A cafe, store, laundromat, showers, and bathrooms are all available in the campground. Bathrooms with running cold water are also available throughout the campground. Verizon phone service ranges from barely usable to nonexistent, but free wifi is available in the campground. Camp near one of the bathrooms for the best wifi signal.

Nomadic Reflections

Mesa Verde National Park, like many of these wonderful sites, is worth visiting. Plan at least one day, but it is worth staying for a few days and camping in the park. There is so much to see and experience that you will want the time. Visiting the sites early in the morning will allow you to have the park mostly to yourself.

History is fascinating

History really is fascinating. If your only exposure to history is boring textbooks in school or college, you owe it to yourself to get out and experience history firsthand. There is no replacement for experiencing history for yourself, and it will prove to be both informative and enlightening.

America the Beautiful Pass

The annual National Park pass is a bargain if you plan to visit a lot of national parks. Visiting these treasures has actually become one of my travel hobbies, and I have made back the $80 I spent on my annual pass at least twice over – and it is still valid for two more months.

I recently met someone from Texas who is traveling around visiting every national park in the lower 48 states. That would be an amazing journey of discovery for anyone in a position to spend a full year traveling.

Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments

Photo of the painted desert

Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments are located about 20 miles apart off Highway 89 north of Flagstaff, Arizona, but offer completely different experiences. The monuments, which are connected by the appropriately named Sunset Crater Wupatki Loop, are home to a variety of cultural and historical sites as well as geographical diversity.

We somewhat randomly decided to visit Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument after noticing it on a map while we were camped near Humphreys Peak. Since the map listed the monument as “Sunset Crater National Monument” we did not even know it was a volcano until we were on the way and Apple Maps provided the additional clarification. Hey, you don’t last long as a vandweller if you are not up for some uncertainty and adventure.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

The Sunset Crater Volcano erupted about 900 years ago, leaving behind a staggering amount of ash and cinder that still covers the ground and hills for some 800 square miles surrounding the volcano. Sunset Crater is within the San Francisco volcanic field not far from the San Francisco Peaks.

Hiking trails provide the opportunity for visitors to view lava fields and other geologic features. We passed on hiking the day we visited because of the late-June heat.

Photo of the painted desert

Views of the painted desert from Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki National Monument is situated between the Ponderosa pine highlands and the Painted Desert. Wupatki was a bonus since we did not even know about it prior to checking in at the welcome center at Sunset Crater Volcano.

There are a number of ancient pueblo ruins scattered throughout Wupatki. Frequently built atop a red rock outcropping, these pueblos seem to be located in a particularly inhospitable environment.

The oldest known pueblo at this monument dates to about 500 A.D. The population in the region increased during the 11th century following the Sunset Crater Volcano eruption. The volcanic ash that was spread throughout the area improved agriculture and thus attracted more people. The area seems to have been abandoned around the 13th century.

The pueblos were built using sandstone blocks and mortar. The structures are in remarkably good condition today, even after hundreds of years.

I hiked into the 12th century Wukoki pueblo to explore, but we did not hike into the others as the afternoon temperature hit 104 the day we were at Wupatki. The hike into Wukoki felt a lot like walking into a furnace, but it was well worth the effort.

Nomadic Reflections

My visit to these two national monuments was interesting and thrilling. Learning about anything new is always interesting to me. Walking where ancient people lived hundreds of years ago and seeing the buildings that they constructed from local, natural materials is thrilling.

Diversity

Arizona is an incredibly diverse state. Prior to visiting Arizona last fall I pretty much assumed the whole state was a uniform desert. I have spent a lot of time exploring different areas of the state over the past 10 months and, even with more to see, I am in awe of its diversity.

Serendipity

A willingness to explore, and the intentional flexibility that is required to facilitate that exploration, often results in wonderful discoveries and experiences. We found Sunset Crater Volcano on a map and decided to explore it on a whim. We then explored Wupatki with no idea what we would find and had a deeply rewarding experience.

Cover photo: Panoramic of the painted desert as seen from Sunset Crater National Monument.

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Coconino National Forest Near Humphreys Peak

Photo of Robert near Humphreys Peak

With late June temperatures in the Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona area hitting the 90s each day, it was time to move to a higher elevation after the 2016 Summer Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Debra Dickinson hit on the idea of looking for a camp near Humphreys Peak, the tallest peak in Arizona. We then spent a day exploring the Coconino National Forest north of Flagstaff around Humphreys Peak.

After one night camped near Williams in the Kaibab National Forest, our small group migrated to a camp near Humphreys Peak at about 8,500′ elevation. The elevation gain provided an instant 10-15 degree change in temperature.

We actually identified two separate campsites near Humphreys Peak during our exploration. Our preferred camp was in a meadow with a spectacular view of the peak. Since some of the travelers in our group were unable to access this site in their vehicles, we ended up camped at the second site which was 1.2 miles off the Arizona Trail and at the base of Humphrey Peak. This site was heavily forested and was a stunning mixture of coniferous and aspen trees.

Wildlife was also abundant at this camp. Elk, deer, squirrels, coyotes, and hummingbirds were regularly seen or heard. An added adventure was driving through open range on the Forest Service road since this involved navigating through a large herd of cattle.

Bismarck Lake

Photo of Bismarck Lake

Bismarck Lake was underwhelming for someone accustomed to hiking in the northeast and Montana

During our time at this campsite we hiked up to Bismarck Lake early one morning. We knew nothing about the lake, but there was a sign at the trailhead announcing that it was one mile up the trail. One mile and about 300′ of elevation gain later we arrived at Bismarck Lake. It was a bit underwhelming given the high hopes that I had for a swim. Mountain lakes in Wyoming, Montana, and Upstate New York where I have done the most hiking tend to be crystal clear and cold. I forgot that I was in Arizona.

Monsoons

After about one week at the camp near Humphreys Peak we were effectively rained out. With monsoon season approaching and the weather forecast predicting thunderstorms every day we were concerned about being stranded on a muddy or washed out Forest Service road six miles from asphalt. As we drove out from our camp we passed Forest Service personnel who were preparing to close roads. Our timing was perfect.

 

Cover photo: Exploring for a new campsite at about 8,000 feet near Humphreys Peak.

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Summer Rubber Tramp Rendezvous 2016

Photo of session during Summer RTR

The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) is an annual gathering each January near Quartzsite, Arizona. The RTR, which is organized by Bob Wells, is based on the fur trader rendezvous of a previous era. While the winter RTR is held annually, there have only been a few summer RTRs.

The 2016 Summer RTR was planned for June 16 – 26 in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona. The event kicked off with a good-sized group, with many people arriving one or two days early. I was one of the early arrivals, and rolled in with the first group of nomads.

While the Summer RTR was intentionally kept more informal than the January gatherings, there was still a daily group assembly around mid-day that included any pertinent announcements along with a discussion or presentation on topics of interest to rubber tramps like solar power and boondocking.

Sadly, the 2016 Summer RTR turned out to be too successful and ended up being cut short. Group events that have more than 75 people and are held in a national forest require an advance permit from the U.S. Forest Service. Forest rangers visited the gathering and calculated the number of people in attendance to be above 75, though counts conducted by those at the gathering showed the attendance to be below 75. Despite the discrepancy, the Summer RTR was shut down and everyone was ordered to vacate the site.

Following the early ending of the Summer RTR, people scattered individually and in small groups. The group that I left with went first to the Kaibab National Forest near Williams, Arizona for one night. We then migrated to a campsite at about 8,500′ elevation at the base of Humphreys Peak north of Flagstaff.

The Summer RTR was a great experience, despite being cut short by the permit problem. The gathering provided an opportunity to learn from presentations and informal conversations as well as to form new friendships. The Summer RTR was attended by a surprising number of new vandwellers as well as seasoned nomads who have been on the road for many years.

TBI Nomads

Photo of summer camp in the Coconino National Forest

Brain injuries are a strange thing. In many cases, survivors of traumatic brain injuries look completely normal. In fact, one friend and TBI survivor recently referred to it as an “invisible disability” when talking about this situation. This is an apt description.

The brain is an amazingly complex organ that is still far from being completely understood. The brain controls life-sustaining functions, voluntary motor function, conscious awareness and thought, and even personality.

Brain injuries often alter some or all of these processes. Variations in injuries, treatment, and recovery mean that two people with relatively similar brain injuries may experience vastly different outcomes.

My own traumatic brain injury nearly 20 years ago included several distinct components, including a subdural hematoma, coup contrecoup injury, and diffuse axonal shearing. In short, I had bleeding inside my skull, my brain was bruised from bouncing against my skull, and the axons that allow neurons to send messages within the brain were damaged and torn.

The symptoms that followed my immediate recovery were varied and debilitating. I experienced petit mal (absence) seizures, vertigo, dyslexia, hearing loss, personality changes, difficulty with focus and concentration, and visual and auditory sensory overload.

Fortunately, the worst of my symptoms improved with time, but some of them persist to this day. The seizures eventually resolved, and the vertigo improved to where it rarely a problem. My focus and concentration improved slowly and with a lot of work to relearn things like being able to read and actually remember what I had read. The dyslexia continues to affect me with writing, but oddly enough poses minimal problems with typing while making it impossible to write in cursive or even to sign my own name without jumbling the letters. The hearing loss, personality changes, and sensory overload have all turned out to be permanent problems.

I have been thinking a lot about my own brain injury and the effects that it has had on my life over the past few days. That is why this post is being written now instead of years ago. A good friend, Debra Dickinson, is also a nomad who is dealing with the effects of a traumatic brain injury. Debra bravely shares her journey on her own blog. Debra was the catalyst for two things that led me to make some interesting realizations about myself. First, reading Debra’s blog led to many occasions where I could relate to what she was sharing. Second, as I spent some time reflecting on my own experiences dealing with TBI in the hopes of encouraging Debra I began to understand with new clarity some things about my own situation.

Personality changes

My personality and interests changed markedly following my injury, though it took time to become aware of these changes. Other annoyances like seizures confused the matter during the early weeks and months.

I spent two years in counseling attempting to deal with the changes in personality and interests. I did not know how to process that I was a different person than I had been previously. During these two years I never did come to terms with the changes, though it was not for lack of effort on the part of my psychologist. The truth is that I am not sure when I came to think of the new me as normal, but I did. I did not, however, manage to come to terms with the changes. I just sort of adjusted to a new normal.

Some of the more obvious leftovers from my brain injury are impossible to forget. The permanent hearing loss, for example, is a constant problem. The fact that I was a different person, with different interests, was somehow forgotten.

The trouble is that my new normal is far from what most people would consider normal.

It was nearly two years after my brain injury when my interest in minimalism and extensive travel began to develop. This is not a coincidence, but is part of the new personality and interests that emerged following the brain injury.

Simplicity and minimalism

Simplicity and minimalism, for me, are literally essential. I am compelled to reduce everything to its simplest form and to eliminate anything else. It is a compulsion, and my mind cannot rest in the midst of clutter. Even organized clutter is not tolerable because I am still thinking about the excess stuff in a box, drawer, or closet.

This compulsion for simplicity and minimalism is not limited to physical possessions. It also applies to digital clutter, workflow, lifestyle, and more. Everything must be as simple and minimal as possible or my brain just keeps on working trying to find ways to simplify.

Nomadism

Travel too has become essential. I just cannot stay in one place for more than a few weeks without experiencing increasing wanderlust. A few months is the absolute maximum that I can handle being in one place and that comes with increasing mental distraction. Spending more than a few weeks in one place results in my mental focus declining as I am increasingly distracted by thoughts of changing the view and pursuing a new experience.

Sensory overload

My inability to deal with visual or auditory stimulation has perplexed more than a few people, though likely Terri and my children dealt with this more than anyone. The human brain normally filters out the majority of sensory input so that only input the brain deems important is thought about consciously. My brain no longer filters everything properly, particularly auditory and visual input, so noise or visual activity completely overwhelm me. The result of this sensory overload is that I may shut down mentally or become increasingly agitated and anxious as the “fight or flight” response starts.

A perfect example of this is when I am a city. The noise and traffic completely overwhelm me and I quickly begin to panic as I try to find an escape. Depending on how rested I am and how calm my brain is, I may make it from a few minutes to a few hours before I start to become overwhelmed. It is never more than a few hours.

The sensory overload makes it impossible for me to spend any time in a city or in a noisy or busy group setting. I have to escape because the anxiety builds to the point where “fight or flight” are the only two options and one of them must happen immediately. As a consequence, I try to avoid cities and any necessary trips are planned for when I a not tired, traffic will be light, and I can get in and out in 1-2 hours at most.

TBI Nomad

I cannot change the effects of my brain injury, but can only learn the best ways to manage those effects. The reality is that I was fortunate to survive the injury so dealing with permanent issues like hearing loss, personality changes, and sensory overload is a small price to pay. This does not, however, mean that the effects can be ignored or wished away.

Minimalism and simplicity are essential for my sanity. My brain does not stop when there is clutter, excess, or disorganization. The mental distraction prevents me from focusing on more important things (like my work) and kills creativity. I have to live a simple life in order to function.

Nomadism is essential for my sanity. Staying in one place for more than a few weeks or months causes my brain to become hyper-focused on escaping. The more time that passes, the more the anxiety builds until it is not only mental but emotional as well. I have to be a nomad in order to function.

Spending extended amounts of time in quiet and peaceful environments is essential for my sanity. The sensory overload from auditory and visual stimulation makes it impossible for me to spend time in chaotic or distracting environments. I have to spend most of my time in quiet, peaceful environments in order to function.

I could write more, but I think this at least touches on the big issues that I still deal with from my brain injury. I was fortunate, not only to survive but to recover better than many people who suffer a similar mechanism of injury. The fact that I am fortunate, however, does not change the fact that it was a life-altering injury. I am not “normal” and I am not the same person that I was before my brain injury.

N.B. Visit my friend Debra’s blog for an excellent and bravely honest chronicle of living with the effects of brain injury and the ways that spending time in nature as a nomad can actually promote healing.

Cover photo: June 2016 in Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona.