May, 2019 – We had gotten an earlier start this year, leaving well before Memorial Day Weekend. Pointing our 1992 GMC Vandura and our faithful, vintage, pop-up camper-turned-trailer towards the mountains of Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, then California, we set out to explore a country I had only seen in pictures.
After two full days of traveling, we arrived after dark in Rock Springs, Wyoming and stopped at a gas station to ask for directions into the Flaming Gorge Canyon, where we were told were several primitive campgrounds. Cell service is non-existent in this area, and the young man we talked with at the gas station gave us sketchy directions, being unable to remember names of roads. So, we just winged it and drove Highway 191, which took us along the edge of the reservoir.
It was after midnight when we found a dirt road off the highway, with a sign that said “Firehole Campground – Closed”. Totally exhausted after driving over 15 hours, we were desperate for a place to sleep! The gate was open so we took a chance that we could find some place to park for the night and catch some Zs.
Venturing down the long, dark, winding, gravel drive, we came upon other campers that had parked in the camping areas but had long since gone to bed. We found an empty site, backed our van into the level, paved area, then climbed out and were blown away by the brilliant stars overhead! With no artificial lights anywhere to be seen, the stars were unbelievably vibrant and we could have stood for hours looking into the night sky if exhaustion hadn’t overtaken us. Before getting back into the van, Phil saw a shooting star and we stood listening to complete silence. Such a glorious night!
Sleeping like babies, we awoke to the sunshine at 6:00am, fully rested and ready to see the sights! This place was spectacular! Gorgeous views of barren, rocky mountains with spires, pillars, and oddly-shaped rocky outcroppings were illuminated by the rising sun, turning the dark brown, shadowed soil to warm colors of burnt orange, gold, and bronze. The reservoir sparkled and shimmered in the sunlight below us and we heard the call of loons, while watching a species of duck that I had never seen before, glide past, diving under the cool water, only to pop up several yards away.
As we set up our camp stove to start heating water for coffee, the campground host drove his golf cart into our site and introduced himself. He was a transplant from Switzerland who had migrated to New York City in his youth. Calling himself, “Fa”, he explained that he had just arrived to the campground three days earlier and the campground was not officially opened because they had no running water for the facilities as of yet. The water was supposed to be turned on the following day, but we would not be staying and asked him about the area. We talked for over an hour about subjects such as the meaning of life, living frugally with no real material possessions, various philosophies and his life story. Having been a wealthy musician living in the Big Apple, then experiencing some misfortune, he later chose the life of a shoe-less, vegan vagabond. It is truly fascinating how many different types of people we make connections with in our travels…
Fa had invited us to see his tiny living space that he shared with his partner, Marcia, and their cat, Tigger. He had taken a cargo trailer and transformed it into a neat and proper, miniature, insulated apartment complete with a cook stove, closet/pantry, bamboo flooring, bamboo cork walls, and re-claimed barn wood countertops. Marcia sat at a little table, hand-sewing a muslin canopy to line the ceiling, and proceeded to tell me that they had camped in 20-degree weather, staying perfectly comfortable with only the hot tea kettle boiling on the cook stove! She and Tigger slept on an elevated, twin-sized bed, while Fa slept in a suspended hammock above her. She explained their needs were minimal and they got by on very little food, (which, judging by their thin frames, was correct) but were looking forward to the showers being opened, as hot, running water was a luxury for them.
I liked them immediately, and Phil was intrigued by Fa’s craftsmanship, marveling at his ideas transformed into reality. We talked well into the morning. They had met some years ago. Marcia had taken jobs as a waitress or bartender for a few months at a time, saving her money, and then traveling to different areas around the country. She had lived that lifestyle for decades, but as of late, she had experienced some health issues and was unable to drive, so Fa offered to take her in and care for her. They had only become employed by the Parks that year and were enjoying the camping life. We were reminded that people who seem somewhat “different” to us at first glance, usually turn out to be more alike in many ways.
We said our goodbyes, embracing these two wonderful people and wishing them well, then cruised down the road towards the southern end of the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area at the Utah border. This area was even more visually delightful with layers of red rock, pine and spruce trees, and the vast expanse of water that makes up the reservoir.
Driving to a dam that had an overlook, we parked there for a rest break. Phil wasn’t feeling well after we awoke from our nap, so I took over the wheel and drove very slowly and carefully, down the steep, curvy, mountainous road. (I’m not exactly accustomed to driving treacherous roads in the mountains.) Needing to use the facilities, we found the first place we could find and came upon the Red Canyon Lodge/Visitor Center. This beautiful drive took us a couple of miles through pine forests, passing several campgrounds, and finally arriving at the Visitor Center.
There was a short path that led from the restrooms to an overlook of the canyon and it was an incredible sight! Deciding that we had to explore this beautiful country, we opted to camp at one of the campgrounds there for the night. Thankfully, Phil began to feel better so we hiked around the gorge, crossing paths with a herd of bighorn rams. They didn’t act too sheepishly, and we were able to get some photos close-up. This trail took us 4.5 miles around the rim of the gorge and then we walked around a lake where we came upon some elk scat. It was a sunny, gorgeous day with no bugs bothering us and we hoped to see elk on our little adventure, but alas, we did not.
After speaking with some people from the area, this little-known recreation area to us northerners is actually very well known to the people of southern Wyoming and northern Utah. The place is packed with vacationers all summer long. We just happened to arrive earlier than most and had the entire campground to ourselves. Paradise!!
Next stop, Salt Lake City, Utah, where our nephew lived and took us on a challenging hike with a spectacular view!