Shangri La-Sals

This entry is an excerpt from my book, Forget That I’m Dying.

One thing I can be grateful to COVID-19 for is its encouragement to find activities where we’re isolated and self-contained, and no activity does that better than camping. Addie and I realized that during our Pacific Northwest Tour, lighting from boondock to campground, insulated in our helmets and motorcycle gear, and ensconced in our ALPS Mountaineering Lynx tents and REI Magma down sleeping bags at night.

Isolation and self-containment is even better when we bring our little house along with us, impossible to do with the Triumph, but the second raison d’être for the WRōV, the first being getting us there, anywhere. Despite our smokey beginning in living the travel-trailer life, we’ve come to love our seventeen-foot abode with commode and have altered it to go just about anywhere the WRōV does.

Camping on an adventure motorcycle or pulling the trailer with the WRōV works my OCD in ways nothing else does and always gives my hypervigilance something else to do besides worry. Throw traveling through a pandemic and my brain is happy hard at work, like calculating the only public interfaces one needs to brave are gas stations and grocery stores in which no one gets ridiculed for making preventative masking efforts except in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada, Arizona and most parts of Northern California.

So, when we were thinking of a way where we could hold an isolated and self-contained family reunion with our kids, their partners and our new grandson, camping was the answer, nestled in the grand mountain range of the Manti-La Sal National Forest. 

Mindy did the research and coordination on location and logistics, getting all the family there with reasonable distances for them to travel and planning menus for family meals, feeding eleven of us for dinners over five days. She found and reserved a group site at the Indian Creek Campground in June, no less, where the Miller Flat entertains hundreds of boondockers and campers during Summer. One just has to brave the graded road, narrowing as it heads south into switchbacks across a burnt-out section of the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

We left Bountiful on Wednesday to give us a chance to set up the trailer, establish a common eating and cooking area with a large canopy for shade, and unload and organize all the firewood we’d need for the week–my OCD thing.

A bonus for all of us was my walk-on friend and fellow Triumph Tiger enthusiast, Brian, who joined us for the first couple of nights, accompanying me as I rode my Tiger along the Wasatch Front to the dirt road in the mountains, taking us to our little paradise. Jake flew in from Los Angeles the night before we left and rode shotgun with Mindy in the WRōV pulling the trailer along the same route.

The scorched landscape through Miller Flat seemed to be the boundary line for most RVs, travel trailers and side-by-sides because once we landed on the pristine, untouched side of the fire boundary, the long, green, stream-fed, flowering valley populated by quaking aspens and flanked on both sides by the La Sal Mountains greeted us like something out of Lost Horizon, except without a bunch of really happy, almost-immortal people, save for us.

Along the way I took Brian over the mountain down Huntington Canyon to the Stuart Ranger station to show him where my dad and his family spent his youth while my grandfather was a Forest Ranger there for eleven years during the 1920s and thirties.

Mindy and Jake beat us to the campsite and positioned the trailer by the time we arrived on our motorbikes. Mindy and I knew what to expect since we did a little scouting of the site a month before, but it exceeded our expectations still, taking our collective breaths in the late Spring meadow blooms from runoff along the adjacent mountains.

Ashley and Chris joined us from Ogden, and Katie and Peter rolled in from Longmont, Colorado, and they and Jake and Brian set up their respective tents. We combined dinners of mac and cheese, hot dogs and other camping staples that we ate at our shaded dining area and listened to Brian’s adventure tales, right up there with Anthony Bourdain. We pulled up our camp chairs around the fire pit while the sky went dark and the stars shined and talked into the night. 

Mindy and I have been wise enough to furnish our tiny rolling house with the best mattress, the softest linens, the fluffiest pillows, the warmest quilts and our favorite coffees. It’s a place, no matter where it’s at, where we always want to be, even with the girls constantly under foot, though they’ve learned how to make the best of the floor real-estate of one-hundred seventy square feet, most of which is occupied. There’s a narrow, maybe eight-feet long aisle down the center between the kitchen and the nook. It’s really not much different than living with them in our ancient house, now that I think about it. 

The rest of the crew populated our campsite on Thursday: Chris, Treashell and baby Jon from Mesquite, Nevada; and Addie and Bryan from Tacoma, Washington. We all came together, established camp and broke into cooking like we’ve been doing this for years.

Jake turned the back of the WRōV into a gourmet kitchen with his vegan chili and we ate and talked and passed Jon around until he ended up with his Hoss and Noni, and we refused to let him go.

Since early March, Noni and I have been debating what this quality quotient would look or feel like, opposed to quantity. We’ve seen the accumulation of days spent in hospitals, clinics, and in bed, and have come close to fulfilling the quality notion of living in our travels, gardening and house renovation. But it was with these contrasts where we were able to adequately define for us in those moments among the Aspens with all our loved ones gathered around the fire, my grandson on my lap, where we looked and nodded at each other, knowing exactly what we were thinking; this is it. This is what deciding to live is all about. 

I’d like to think that their older brother, Berrett, was sitting there with his siblings around the fire while we talked about living like that versus living longer. I think I might know what he’d say, and were he in his previous physical condition, I got an inkling of what he might feel. My hips were burning in their sockets, I was too fatigued to talk, shivering against a fickle thermostat like my mom in menopause.

My skin burned, my head pounded and my breathing sounded like a collapsing concertina without the reeds engaged. But I was happy to be there, much like Berrett seemed to be when he was in his car seat traveling. All his pain stopped vying for his attention when he could look out the window and watch the roadside roll by.

What I had come to suspect during our Glacier trip became a reality for me: certain things about my living—like energy, strength, alertness, and logic—were buckets that spilled in their motion, less when I walked them, more when I skipped, evacuated when I ran, and evaporated when I was infused with chemo. There in the La Sals, I became more sensitive to their depletion, and more savvy to their replenishing with sleep, water and protein. Fatigue feels like the simplest adjustment in a camp chair takes planning, where trying to get out of a hammock becomes strategic.

Where I could once hoist our generators down from their mounts above the trailer’s tongue, required another person to help me out. Toting a three-gallon water tank winded me in just a few steps, with all the effort amplified in the ringing of my ears. My hypervigilance was no longer alarming, even in the presence of fresh bear scat and OHV riders who had less respect for our campsite than we did, so Mindy intervened, which she does very well, and I’m going to let that be her job from here on out.

Camping requires a certain woodsy logic, like recognizing fresh bear scat means one must have been through here not too long ago, and a campfire needs three key ingredients; fuel, oxygen and heat, of which Jägermeister isn’t one. All of this drifted around me like those amoebic-looking eye floaters you see when you look up at the sky. I couldn’t ignore sleep, it enveloped me, but water and protein had to become disciplines if I were to keep living large.

By Friday I was empty, spending much of the day in a hammock, downing lots of water and getting as much protein as possible from beef jerky. I can think of worse ways to spend time, but this wasn’t doing it for me, and my crash kept going deeper. Brian packed up his Tiger and hit the road back to his home in the Bay Area, leaving just us kin.

That night we lit up the campsite with fire from wood and coal, and cooked a feast of kabobs and Mexican corn and later disintegrated into lighting ourselves up with Jäger shots.

Except for me. I still had a bit left in my common-sense bucket, at least a bit more than a few of our tent-camping kids who didn’t take Mindy seriously when she told them overnight temps would get down into the 20s. We were cozy and didn’t for one second feel bad about it when they all complained about how cold it was the night before. I should look at filling my empathy bucket, my GAS bucket (give a shit) is more like a squeeze bottle, and my patience bucket is full of sarcasm.

Saturday morning was the peak of the gathering where we caravanned back to the highway and down Huntington Canyon to the Stuart Ranger Station to pull off a family portrait on the front porch steps. The twelve of us (missing Jake’s partner, Dylan) and four dogs gathered on the porch and steps of my father’s childhood home and released the shutter of my iPhone enough times to at least get great shots of the humans.

Satisfied with that, I sat back on the porch with my son, Chris, and his son, Jon, and we posed for our first three-generation photograph.

I have to go camping again, with my family, especially our grandson. In our Shangri La-Sal paradise, they filled my emotional and well-being buckets every day and nothing assuages my fermenting second-guessing about treatment of my lymphoma like looking into their faces and seeing their deep abide of this blended family. 

Our party broke up after the family pictures; life calling everyone back to their respective routines and commitments. Even Mindy and Jake had to go with a flight to catch and work on Monday, so we packed up what remained in camp on Sunday, and I led our camping caravan out of Miller Flat on my Triumph, with Addie and Bryan behind me in their outfitted Tacoma, and Mindy and Jake in the WRōV towing the trailer behind them.

I was not in the best shape to ride the Tiger back down that mountain. We talked about having Addie or Brian ride it while I rode in the Tacoma, but my ego wouldn’t have it. What if this was the last time I could ride my motorcycle through the Manti-La Sal National Forest and down Fairview Canyon?

I soaked in every mile of it, putting my wrist in it just enough to break the tail loose a time or two. Addie, Bryan and I stopped at a turnout just beyond Paradise Creek to get some shots of Mindy and Jake coming up the grade from the creek. It’s a beautiful vista over Scad Valley where the dirt road winds its way toward my camera position, the one I had just run down to to get into position to frame up the WRōV pulling the trailer with a plume of dust behind. When I got my iPhone to my face everything was black, not like the screen was dark, I was dark, the quickest fade-to-black I had experienced up to that point in the management of my own consciousness.

The WRōV took the bend that goes over Paradise Creek and went out of my view in the time it took me to recover my vision. A young Aspen along the side of the road helped keep me upright. I missed the shot before the bend but got a few as Mindy and Jake rounded the ascent and drove past me. I stood there a minute, getting my brain back, grateful I didn’t pass out completely, strewn across that road. I’m not convinced I would’ve been noticed until after the bump.

I walked back up to the turnout where the three vehicles were parked, staying tight-lipped about my brush with unconsciousness. I drank some water and got a protein bar from Addie, and took a few more pics before we finished dirt through the rest of Miller Flat past Bald Mountain and the reservoir to UT-31.

From there we mounted UT-31, the road that snakes down Fairview Canyon to the intersection of Highway 89 that runs up Utah’s backbone. We picked up I-15 at Spanish Fork and rode the freeway, feeling much better, where I could watch the WRōV and trailer expertly driven by Mindy, navigate the madness that is I-15 back to our home in what most Utahns pray for; peace and safety. 

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