Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"Why is it that you moved to the East??"  -  our observant friend, Kathie Lang


Here we go again.

I articulated three "rules" before our Appalachian Trail trek in 2005:  have fun, don't get injured, and be flexible and adaptable. These are "rules" I've found pretty handy throughout my life, and they come into play on almost a daily basis -- including now.

Our original plan for the Across the Years (ATY) race was to take the camper, leave Roanoke in early December, run the Sunmart 50K (Sue) and 50-mile (Jim) races near Houston as our last long training runs three weeks before the 24-hour race at ATY, then return home in early January, weather permitting.

Then gas and diesel prices began an upward spiral in November. When we did the math, we realized it would be less expensive to take our Odyssey minivan and stay in moderately-priced motels for ten nights before and after the race (with three nights in the large tent at Nardini Manor or in the back of our van during race weekend). The rooms we reserved had microwaves and refrigerators so we could prepare our own meals along the way and save on restaurant costs. We would leave December 24, taking four days to reach Phoenix, and return home January 5. The main problems with Plan B were what to do with Cody and Tater and how to get everything we wanted into the van if we took the dogs with us. We never did resolve the dog issue to our satisfaction.

Roanoke's weather in early December was pretty nice, with temperatures mostly above normal. We dodged a sleet-snow bullet at our house on Saturday the 15th, receiving only some much-needed rain. Sunday the 16th we had to scuttle plans to run at Explore Park, however, because of 40 MPH winds that would have made it too dangerous to run in the forest or anywhere else in our well-treed  area. The temperature was in the 30s so the wind chill was significant.

Another dose of winter had arrived. We were pretty much house-bound and already feeling the effects of our taper for the race (i.e., wanting to run more than we should).

Jim was getting cabin fever when he suddenly asked me, "What's keeping us from taking the camper to ATY and just staying out there for a couple of months??"

I replied, "Um, the expense, remember??"

"Yeah, but isn't this why we retired early?"

I have to admit he had me there, so I responded, "OK, let's go!"

Adaptability. Spontaneity is fun, too. 

Enter Plan C: take the camper and the dogs to Phoenix, leaving two days earlier than planned to allow for slower driving and possible weather problems along the way, and stay several weeks after the race in a nice, warm region to avoid the worst of Roanoke's winter weather.

You might be noticing a pattern here: the last two summers we've avoided the summer heat by camping at altitude in Wyoming and Colorado. Now Jim's becoming a fuddy-duddy "snowbird," attempting to escape the ravages of winter, too (as if Roanoke gets severe winter weather). A day before departure we got half an inch of snow and Jim lamented that we weren't already on our way to Phoenix! This from a guy who spent his first 55 years in Illinois and Montana.

Then began a rather frenetic revision of things to take with us -- a list much different than going in the van -- and arranging for house-sitting, mail to be sent to us, YMCA suspension, transferring pertinent data from our desktop computer to the laptop, and a myriad of other tasks we do when we leave for several months at a time. At least I'd already put the gardens to bed and never did put up many Christmas decorations or a tree.

One of our (Western) pals wryly asked in an e-mail recently, "Why is it that you moved to the East??"

What can I say? Roanoke still appears to be the ideal retirement community for us even though we keep traipsing out West once or twice a year for races and moderate weather conditions. After much travel and internet research over the years we still haven't found the perfect location that meets all of our criteria in the western half of the United States -- all year long. If we were rich we'd be living somewhere in California. But we can't afford to live there.

So off we go to Arizona for a bit of sunshine and warmth!


It's even farther to drive to Arizona from Roanoke, VA than it is to Sheridan, WY (the Bighorn Mountain area) or our favorite mountain destinations in Colorado. Arizona borders California, after all. It's a hike. We logged 2,229 miles from our home in Goodview to Nardini Manor on the southwest side of metro Phoenix and we took our sweet time getting there compared to some other folks who drove to the race from the eastern part of the country in just two or three days.

I'll include a few photos I took along the way. All but the teepees at the rest area were taken from the truck while Jim was driving.

The weather was good the entire way although it was unseasonably cold and sometimes very windy. We missed a 50-vehicle pile-up on I-40 on December 22 somewhere west of where we were, caused by high winds and low visibility in rain and/or snow. The main weather problem we had was keeping the rig straight in high winds for several hours in western New Mexico on Christmas Day. When I was driving that section I felt like a salmon swimming upstream and large tumbleweeds kept getting lodged in the grill guard on the front of the truck. Wind also wreaked some havoc at Nardini Manor in Arizona. More about that in the next entry.

Crossing the mighty Mississippi west of Memphis

There was little road construction and no accidents to slow us down even though we drove on some of the busiest travel days before and after Christmas. We arrived in the Phoenix area the morning of our fifth day (we had only a couple hours to go on Wednesday morning) after four full days of freeway driving on I-81, 1-40, I-30, I-20, and I-10. Since many people were off work the weekend before and the week of Christmas we weren't even bogged down through Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, Dallas-Ft. Worth, El Paso, Tucson, or metro Phoenix. 

Hope it's that easy getting back home in February!

Cotton fields and wind turbines in Texas

Large bales of cotton along the roadway in Goodyear, AZ near Nardini Manor. A lot of cotton was planted in this area when it was used in the production of Goodyear tires.

Not that driving up to 585 miles a day pulling a camper is easy. We always have to be extremely alert for disasters like people who brake suddenly in front of us, cut in too closely, or behave in other clueless ways. I don't know how semi drivers deal with this every day. People just don't understand the physics of weight and momentum when there's a large truck or camper behind them.

We boon-docked all four nights on the road to Phoenix, spending the first two nights in Wal-Mart parking lots near Nashville and New Boston, TX (far NE corner of the state). There are lots of advantages to over-nighting at Wal-Mart, including the cost (free!), shopping convenience, and security. That security comes at a price, however -- it includes bright lights that can't be muffled like earplugs can muffle the noise of nearby traffic.

Rest area in southwest Texas

After his second night of poor sleep Jim observed, "There are only two places in the world where it's light 24 hours a day -- the poles and Wal-Mart!"  (I slept like a baby both nights, however.)

We usually get diesel fuel on our camping trips at Flying Js because their prices are the lowest, they are spaced along the freeways at appropriate intervals for our F-250's fuel tank capacity, they are easy to get into and out of, they have dump stations and potable water and propane, and we can use the truck pumps if the RV pumps are busy. Jim observed that Flying J parking lots are less bright than at Wal-Mart, too, so the next two nights we stayed at Flying Js near Pecos, TX and Eloy, AZ. Both nights we were able to park with other RVs in large parking areas away from the semis that sometimes run their engines all night. We still felt secure without as many glaring lights.

Tucson freeway art


On cross-country trips I always enjoy observing how the terrain and vegetation change from the thick hardwood forests and mountains in the East to the rolling farmlands and flat Plains in the middle of the country to the deserts and snow-capped mountains in the West. We knew we were truly "Out West" when we crossed the Continental Divide and the landscape morphed into rolling desert with large yuccas and other cacti, tumbleweeds blowing across the freeway, and warning signs about possible zero visibility from dust storms raging across the rather barren lands. We could see dust storms in the distance that looked like city smog but they didn't affect the freeway.

New Mexico landscape

There are cultural variations, too, of course, with a much stronger Hispanic and Native American influence in the Southwest than in the Southeast. When I first moved to Billings, Montana I enjoyed learning about the local tribes and it will be interesting while we're in Arizona to become steeped in the local cultures.

As we drove through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona we had fun flipping through the dial seeking English-speaking stations for news, weather, and "talk radio." I thought some of the best music was on Spanish-language stations since I'm not as big a country music aficionado as Jim and that was about all we could get clearly in Texas. Neither of us has taken Spanish since high school over forty years ago so we couldn't understand the ads, news, or weather reports on the Spanish-language stations.

Funny how commercials are less annoying when they're in a language you don't comprehend!

Arizona saguaro cacti

Getting online with our Verizon cell phone (V-Cast) was sketchy the entire way to Phoenix but our signals have been sufficient in this huge metro area. In some states we couldn't call out to return phone messages, either. Verizon seems to have the largest network in the country, but we still keep running into no service at all or extended networks that allow us to call out but not get online. Of course, this is still quite an improvement over the Old Days, oh, just a few years ago before cell phones and laptop computers became commonplace. The more technological advancements are made, the more we expect.

Two incoming planes near the Phoenix airport

On the morning of the fifth day we arrived in metro Phoenix. Talk about another world. After all the expansive rangeland with maybe one person per square mile average, we entered one of the ten most-populated metro areas in the country. That's another kind of culture shock to folks who prefer smaller cities and the wilderness.


After an incident-free journey 2,229 miles cross-country we arrived safely at Nardini Manor and determined we could get the camper into the spacious parking lot via the gate next to a canal.

Sunset view of road (left) to parking lot along canal

We had a minor incident getting in but at least we didn't end up in the canal or take the entire fence down! Suffice it to say Rodger Wrublik is one of the most easy-going, gracious people we've ever met and not much fazes him. We did our best to make amends.

We parked the camper in the back corner of the parking lot next to Rodger's back hoe, tractor, tool truck, watering tank, and other vehicles used to maintain the property for weddings and ATY. Our camper and F-250 are in the far left background in this photo, taken late in the afternoon on Day 1 of the race:

We are very grateful for the opportunity to "camp" there for several days before, during, and after the race. I feared we might be taking up spots that runners and volunteers might need, but the lot was never more than 3/4 full during race weekend and two other smaller campers were also there.

Entrance into parking lot at Nardini Manor late afternoon on Day 1 of the race. The running path is just inside the fence on the north side of the loop, with Porta-Potties in the background.

It was very convenient for us to help the Wrubliks and Paul Bonnett, RD, set up for the race and return things to storage afterwards, as well as being extremely handy during during the race. It made dog care a non-issue, too, since Jim and I were running on different days. It would have been a hassle to camp ten or fifteen miles away and have to keep driving between a campground and Nardini Manor two or three times a day. Thanks so much, Rodger and Tana, for your hospitality and good humor.

It was also very cool to be so close to the back stretch of the ATY loop during the race. Only a thick hedge separated us from the course. We wore ear plugs at night so we could sleep but during the day it was fun to hear snippets of conversation as the participants ran and walked around the course. We recognized many voices and even learned the distinctive foot patterns of some of the runners just by their sound -- especially the 72-hour runners who dragged their feet, bless 'em.

Next entry: Nardini Manor is a beehive of activity preparing for the race


"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil