2008 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  SUMMER AT SEVEN, WINTER AT ONE

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 11

 
"If you're heading out there
I'll give you a tip
It's wild and it's far
And you're in for a trip.

For just when you think
It couldn't get rougher
The path goes crooked
And the going gets tougher.

But once you've traveled
This far off the track
You won't settle for less
And there's no going back."

 ~
Patrick O'Leary
 
 

I guess we're just natural-born adventure seekers. Most ultra runners are.

For the second time in less than a month we headed right into a storm, not because we think we're invincible but because we hoped to miss the worst of it by not becoming sitting ducks in San Antonio. It's called being proactive instead of reactive.

POLAR EXPRESS ON THE WAY

On Monday we learned that a polar air mass from Canada was going to create havoc in the warmer Lower 48 states. Not only would it end up dumping several inches of snow in many northern states from coast to coast, it also dipped down into southern New Mexico and Texas.

We decided to continue with our original plan to leave San Antonio on Tuesday morning and get as far west as possible before the brunt of the storm reached us. We didn't want to get stranded in San Antonio for several days since our objective was to reach the Phoenix area as soon as possible. Hopefully any snow we hit would melt on the warm I-10 pavement; we'd been having summer-like daytime temperatures most days the past three weeks in Texas.

We left Fort Sam a little after 7 AM on Tuesday. It was already 67 F. degrees and predicted to reach the upper 70s before the cold front arrived that evening. By 1 PM we were driving through fat, wet snowflakes at elevations between 3,000 - 4,800 feet and the temperature had dropped to the low 30s! Snow was sticking on the ground but not the road, as we had hoped.


Snowflakes start flying  in southern Texas (12-9-08)

Ironically, it was similar to the morning we left Virginia three weeks ago. Our quest for warm, sunny weather in the Southwest wasn't quite working out!

We got through San Antonio's morning rush hour traffic with no problems (SA is the eighth largest city in the country), following I-10 from the eastern side of town to the northwest corner of the metro area and into the scenic "Hill Country." Only we couldn't see the hills much this time; it was so foggy I could barely see to drive when it was my turn at the wheel. We were more concerned about running into a slowed vehicle than about missing the scenery.

Hmm . . . maybe this wasn't such a great idea.

Once out of the city, the speed limit on I-10 is mostly 80 MPH from San Antonio to the El Paso County line. That's a distance of about 550 miles. I thought Montana was the only state where you could go that fast! I don't remember an 80 MPH limit on this road back in January. CRS? It would be reckless of us to drive that fast with the camper on a clear, dry day, let alone in thick fog.

Typical SW Texas landscape through mountainous rangeland

We were glad there was so little traffic on I-10 until we got closer to El Paso later that afternoon. We had enough challenges with the weather -- first the fog, then strong crosswinds as we drove in a northwesterly direction (into the storm), then rain, then snow, with occasional sunshine mixed in here and there.

Speaking of wind . . . we saw at least ten flatbed trucks heading eastbound on 1-10 hauling one huge wind turbine blade each. That's a sign of the times. There are several large wind farms visible along Texas freeways -- long rows of triple-bladed "windmills" moving in synchronicity on distant plateaus and ridges. I'm not wild about the idea of putting them on beautiful forested peaks along the Appalachian Trail, but out in the middle of open rangeland in Texas . . . well, that's a great idea! (NIMBY)

FREE-FALLING TEMPERATURES

It was fascinating to watch the temperature drop precipitously as we climbed to higher elevations west of San Antonio and drove into the storm. It's supposed to get warmer during the day, not colder -- and not that fast. Certainly not that fast when you're driving somewhere in an east or west direction. But here it was, nosediving from breakfast to lunch.

Jim got the bright idea to keep the indoor half of our indoor-outdoor thermometer in the truck with us that day instead of leaving it in the camper. We've securely attached the outdoor sensor to the 5th wheel camper tongue where it's not in the sun; readings aren't completely accurate because the sensor is protected from wind, but they give us a good ballpark idea of the temperature. The 33 F. degree readings we saw were likely even lower in the stiff wind.

As you'd expect, we saw the most snow (only an inch or two) on the ground at the higher elevations. We wondered how bad it would get as we kept moving forward. We were unable to get El Paso weather reports on the radio or computer until we were close to the city about 4 PM. Radio reception was very sketchy for hundreds of miles through southwestern Texas and we had only "extended service" on our Verizon phones; even when we have a decent signal (three or more bars) we can't get broadband access to our computers when we're in an area with extended service. (This trip we're trying out Verizon's broadband service. So far it's faster than the dial-up connections we used to get while traveling in the camper, but nothing like the speed we get at home with DSL.)

We totally lucked out with our timing in El Paso. Several inches of snow fell in the metro's Franklin Mountains earlier in the day. Roads were slick and some folks didn't remember how to drive in the season's first snow. I-10 was closed in both directions for several hours due to a jack-knifed semi carrying a load of some type of chemicals. Thank goodness the spill AND the traffic jam was mostly cleared out when we drove through town between 4-4:30 PM. We could see snow on the highest peak but had no idea what had happened until we watched the evening news an hour later in Las Cruces, NM, where we stopped for the night.


The Franklin Mountains loom over El Paso (12-9-08)

The drive through El Paso and north to Las Cruces is made more interesting by the scenic Franklin and Organ Mountains to the north and east. In January we stayed a couple days at the White Sands Missile Range on the east side of the Organ Mountains when we visited White Sands National Monument. Now we were driving on the west side of the narrow range, watching the setting sun color the flank of the mountains and highlighting the snow in some of the crevices (the highest elevation in the Organs is 8,919 feet).

I took the next three photos of the Organ Range out my side window as Jim drove. Windshield photos are more clear than side shots, but you get the idea of how pretty it was:

Check out the almost-full moon in this view:

We thought we'd probably be staying at a Walmart, Sam's Club, or Flying J in the El Paso area Tuesday night but we got there early enough that we decided to keep going another 45 minutes to Las Cruces. They have Walmarts, too! A friendly security guard welcomed us to park in a separate lot near the garden area that was well-lit and visible but far from both customer and delivery truck traffic. We had great cell phone and TV reception. I walked Cody in a nearby grassy area and fixed supper while Jim went into the store to buy some supplies.

We enjoyed a relaxed evening -- much needed after driving 610 miles that day -- hunkered down in our warm bed while the temperatures continued dropping overnight, and slept soundly (with the obligatory earplugs).

FORWARD TO PHOENIX

We woke to sunshine and an official temperature of 25 F. degrees on Wednesday morning -- brrr!! That's below normal for Las Cruces in early December. We managed to stay warm throughout the night, however, and our water pipes didn't freeze.

After scraping frost off the truck windows, we were on our way to the Phoenix area. It was a beautiful day to drive across hilly southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. There was snow in the mountains above ~ 6,000 feet but none on or near the freeway (I-10). Although it was breezy all day, the sun warmed the air enough to be more comfortable at rest areas and fuel stops. I especially liked the rugged rock formations at this scenic rest area near MM 318 in Arizona:

 

Last year it was extremely windy in southwestern New Mexico and tumbleweeds were blowing across the freeway. This time was no problemo. Dust storms are also common here, as you can tell by these signs along the road:

On one of these trips we need to spend some time in Tucson. I love the nice landscaping and "freeway art" on the overpasses and retaining walls through the city. Phoenix has similar artwork featuring local culture, flora, and fauna. Real shrubs that bloom in both cities in the winter are nice, too. Even when it's cold outside, flowers make it feel like you're in a tropical oasis. 

FREE-FALLING FUEL PRICES

The temperatures aren't the only thing that have been falling on this trip.

It was no fun for anyone except for the oil cartel last summer when gas and diesel prices peaked (July 11 or thereabouts). We still regret not going out to Colorado and Wyoming for several months this past summer but the fuel prices scared us off. Since then the entire world has experienced serious financial turmoil. About the only bright spot in the economy is the free-fall in the value of a barrel of oil to about one-fourth of the cost in mid-summer.

Prices had already fallen significantly when we left on this trip three weeks ago. Jim paid $2.75/gallon for diesel in Roanoke the day before we took off. By the time we got to Phoenix (isn't that a song??) we were paying "only" $2.05/gallon at Flying Js, which always seemed to be the least expensive. Prices have come down in Virginia, too, but they're higher than Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. I'm waiting for diesel to go under $2.00! (Regular gas is in the $1.45-$1.55 range at many stations in the Phoenix area now.)

Hopefully the economy will recover in 2009 but fuel prices won't skyrocket again. We're already planning our favorite Wyoming-Colorado trip to run volunteer at our favorite races next summer.


Camping behind the horse arena has its advantages (see next entry)

Meanwhile, we have our favorite winter race coming up in a couple of weeks -- ATY. We have found a unique spot to camp (above) at Estrella Mountain Regional Park, about ten miles from Nardini Manor, site of the race. We will be offering as much assistance as needed to the race hosts as they prepare for the largest field of runners in the event's history.

Next entries: scenes from our Sonoran Desert runs at Estrella Mountain Regional Park

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater (in spirit)

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2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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