“Are you sure you want to drive this?” Paul asks me.
I’m looking at 27 intimidating feet of recreational vehicle, and I am anything but sure.
Paul, my best friend since college, and I are in the middle of a six-day driving tour of Utah’s state and national parks. We’re here, in the tiny town of Tropic, to meet the 2020 Forest River Forester RV that will be our home for the next three days of the trip. I’m not yet sure how I feel about that.
I’ve got a valid license, but neither own — nor regularly drive — a car. But RV travel is suddenly hip, and touring like a turtle in your own sanitized and self-sufficient shell has undeniable appeal in the pandemic era. Friends extoll the pleasures of #vanlife in their Airstreams and Sprinters. So, for a few days, we’re giving it a try.
Luckily for us, an entire industry connects road warrior wannabes with owners willing to rent their “rigs.” RVshare.com is one of the largest of these Airbnb-style rental platforms, and it’s connected us with Melissa and Roy Farley, who have brought the Forester more than two hours from their home in Hurricane, Utah. The base cost is $225 per night, which includes 100 miles and four hours of generator time per day. (Additional miles are 50 cents, and $5 per hour for the generator.)
Melissa and Roy have dubbed their gleaming RV “Adventure Seeker.” I nervously think of it as “The Beast.”
Roy runs us through operating the $100,000 vehicle — setting the air conditioning, switching the automatic transmission into “tow mode” (for steep hills), extending the exterior shade awning. The vehicle is plush, with a queen bed, upper sleeping berth, and a dining area that converts to a third bed. The kitchen has a gas stove and microwave, but we’ll probably check out local restaurants rather than cook. The bathroom (with a heated shower) is compact but comfortable.
“Do you want to drive it around a little before we leave?” Roy asks. I appreciate the offer, but a trip around the block isn’t going to save me. It’s time to hit the road. With Paul following behind, I ease out onto the highway. Let the RV-driving adventure begin.
Before picking up The Beast, we had started our journey in Albuquerque, in a much different vehicle — Paul’s 2005 Nissan. A little over five hours’ drive west, we’re in another world near the Arizona/Utah border, with massive sandstone towers and mesas glowing orange in the afternoon sun. “I wish we’d paid more attention in Geology 101,” Paul sighs. “Attention was paid,” I remind him. “But primarily to that cute professor.”
That agreed, we approach Monument Valley Tribal Park (navajonationparks.org, 435-727-5870). It’s both familiar (from John Wayne Westerns) and striking enough of a landscape to stand in for another planet (which it did, in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Covering about 92,000 acres within the Navajo Nation, the park is our first stop. We’ve been wiping away tears of laughter during our drive from Albuquerque. Now, the surrounding grandeur stuns us into silence.
We settle in at the iconic Goulding’s Lodge (gouldings.com, 435-727-3231). Harry and Leone “Mike” Goulding opened a Navajo trading post in the 1920s and later introduced filmmaker John Ford to the area. Ford’s 1939 movie Stagecoach made John Wayne — and the valley — a star. Now Goulding’s has its own airstrip, an RV park and campgrounds, and a museum. Our hillside villa (about $235 per night) is comfortable, with a front porch view to truly majestic spires.
Dawn illuminating the monuments is not to be missed. After breakfast, we meet Tim Linville, a guide who greets us in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language. “Yá’át’ééh!”
While a small number of vehicles at a time can drive the 17-mile Monument Valley park loop (no RVs, high clearance cars recommended), a tour with a tribe member lets visitors go off-road to explore these sacred lands. Tim leads us to petroglyphs and hidden caves, natural bowls where scarce rainfall collects to nourish white peach and piñon trees amid sandstone spires and buttes with names like “Mittens” and “Three Sisters” that tower up to 1,000 feet above the desert floor. (The 3½-hour tour is $79 per person.)
Days, even weeks, would not be enough to explore this landscape, but other wonders call. We head south and stop at the hogan-shaped Blue Coffee Pot Restaurant (928-697-3396) in Kayenta, Arizona, for delicious sandwiches and perfect fries. The road then heads west (and later north) toward Bryce Canyon, roughly 300 miles of arid loneliness, punctuated by an occasional upwelling of mesa or monolith.
Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches — have seen an enormous influx of visitors as pandemic restrictions have eased. Zion (nps.gov/zion, 435-772-3256), the country’s third-most visited park, reports hours-long waits to enter because of the traffic. We choose to skip it, with hopes to return soon.
We’re picking the RV up tomorrow in Tropic, where the Stone Canyon Inn (stonecanyoninn.com, 435-679-8611) offers bungalows — outfitted with fireplaces and soaking tubs — nestled among mountains scented with the vanilla aroma of ponderosa pine (around $245 per night). The inn’s Stone Hearth Grille (stonehearthgrille.com, 435-679-8923) offers locally sourced fine dining and a curated selection of beer and wine. We especially love the red wine-braised duck and chocolate mousse.
Read the rest of the article from The Boston Globe here.