Exploring Squaw Lake from above

It’s still a touch too windy to enjoy a paddle exploration of the area but I’m getting anxious to see what surrounds us.  The thing about these little valley spots we often camp in is what you see of the area is limited.  What’s around that hill?  Where can the water around those reeds take you?  It’s hard to sit around and do nothing, as good as that can feel sometimes.  Contention seeing the same views and ignoring what might be around the bend seems to cheat the ideals or purposes this whole trip was based on – that is to see as much as possible.  I’ve been getting out for morning runs with Jake, mostly following horse trails pounded into the rocky landscape.  Following someone else’s footsteps to see what’s over there.  Without disappointment we are stumbling on small lagoons, filling up when the Colorado runs high, and cut off from draining until it does so again.  From the cliffs above this lagoon, currently barely accessible by boat through a small reed filled inlet which you wouldn’t know you could boat through if you weren’t familiar with the area, I watched and laughed as two men fished below.  The slowly trolled 6-8 meters from shore while casting with great accuracy to the edge of the reeds, never getting hung up.  This isn’t their first time.  It wasn’t the fishes first time either.  No sooner than they passed the shore did dozens of what I call, big enough to eat fish, came out of the reeds to explore where the fishermen had just been.  I couldn’t help but laugh, appreciating the situation I’ve been in myself countless times.  There’s nothing worse fishing than watching them circle you but refusing to bite.  One’s only one consolation.  And that is the clear state of mind achieved while accomplishing nothing, or maybe something if you’re lucky.

Two feet will only get you so far from home base to explore before some sort of mechanical means needs to be called in to get you further.  I was at that point.  We’d run and hiked as far as we comfortable could, already crossing Property of US Government signs with suggestions of no trespassing.  I say suggestion because it was clear I wasn’t the first to bypass them, following a well beaten trail beside with recent horse droppings and bike tire tracks.  But again, that only got us so far.  Eventually the poles with cameras were enough to have us turn back.  I’m not sure what the penalty would have been, and I really didn’t want that badly to find out.  Back to the campsite we go.  Further exploration will require mechanical means.

A quick once over on the bike, and a packed bag with spare tubes, tools and a pump and I was ready to go see further.  I had my sights set on a bigger hill the opposite side of the lake of which I figured would be a pretty good vantage point from which to see the lake and all around it.  I was able to avoid paved road to what I figure would be a trailhead to get me where I wanted to be.  The trailhead was more a rarely used service road carved through the rocky hills, hard sharp gravel mixed with sand.  It was pretty smooth going, with exception of a few sand holes that were total sink holes; nearly stopping me in my tracks and putting me over the bars with my momentum.  The problem with this trail however, was it seemed to be leading me the opposite direction I had intended to go.  Eventually I had to branch off, following was resembled a horse trail, but quickly faded into the natural surroundings with no trail to follow at all.  I was going the right way though.  Just another hill to get over, and maybe a few more after that before I could look down on the lake and valley below that we were camped on.  I felt I was on track, coming up to another road of sorts that ran below power lines coming from the hydro electric dam that separated Squaw Lake from Senator Wash, another lake next door.  The problem arose around the next bend, where they were actually working on the lines, which now hung low, resting on the road I was riding.  Workers ahead, and not wanting to mess with potential high voltage line, I opted out on the next horse trail, heading again in a more direct route to the water.  I think.  I’d lost sight of any visual markers some time ago with which to orient myself.  So long as the sun was behind me though, I assumed I was going the right way.

The current horse trail brought me, to my surprise, another hurdle.  The area I wanted to get to was not blocked off by a 4 foot barbed wire fence.  This fence didn’t have any signs on it, so once I was out of sight from the hydro workers I slipped under it where it ran high above a small gulley.  And to my surprise, another horse trail!  Like the no trespassing signs, I wasn’t the first to cross this fence.  I assume it was for animals, the human variety not included.  Once again though, the horse trail faded to nothing and I found myself pedaling over a gravelly hillside littered with baseball to basketball size rocks.  Full attention was required to navigate the minefield of rock that could quickly put one face first into it.  I soon came upon a hill, the tallest of the rest on the way to the lake I was pursuing, which wasn’t one to be pedaled up.  It was time to set down the bike and summit this one on foot.  It wasn’t a long scramble up, but by the top I could see for miles.  The Colorado river was visible below, with the growth around it barely concealing small creeks that fed surrounding lagoons, bright teal in color.  It was such a contrasting palette from up here; red, brown and black rocky hills give in to bright green grasses and reeds at their base.  Littered with palm trees, the growth surrounding the water stops almost dead, with little to no transition before the teal green water takes over.  From above I could see the floor of these serene little lakes up to 2-3 meters of depth below the surface.  And turning back around I saw movement on the hill behind me.  At first, I thought they were goats.  My experiences to date on mountains would of course lead me to this conclusion.  It’s almost always a goat.  But as they began to move around I recognized the little horns were not horns at all, but big pointy ears.  Donkeys!  Not an animal I’d ever expected to see in the wild.  Four of them.  Watching me with great care, likely wondering what sort of animal I was riding out here.  The area they were in was the other side of the fence I’d crossed.  From there, there was really no fence keeping them, so I can only assume they were wild donkeys.

By this time the sun was starting to creep behind the hills casting shadow over me and our campsite in the distance below.  I was so close, but on the wrong side of the water.  Not wanting to follow my bath back the way I came I figured there must be a trail below me that wrapped the lakes edge and would be an easy pedal back.  That said, and despite the lack of a trail of any sort, I decided to make my way down.  The steepness of the hillside seemed a bit much to go straight down so I began to traverse, thinking a couple switchbacks would be my best bet.  The loose rocks gave way to the pressure of my weight and rolling tires and I found myself on my side hanging on to my bike so not to lose it.  That experience left me with only one, in hindsight, highly illogical solution; to go straight down!  With brakes on near full I hung on for the ride, weight all on the back trying to steer around softball to basketball size rock that I rode through and over.  About halfway down I was just starting to feel pretty good about my decision, and abilities.  But those feelings stopped, in a hurry.  I likely looked up for half a second to admire the view.  In the second half of that second, I was looking at my seat, upside down.  Well the seat was right side up, but I was upside down.  And then I was fully down.  Sliding briefly on my side along these rocks, the friction of my skin on stone brought me to a pretty quick stop.  The anchor of a bicycle behind me, legs pretzeled into the frame, probably helped to.  I picked myself up, dusted myself off, waved to the lone fisherman on shore watching my escapades, turned my handlebars straight again and got back on.  I made it halfway down without falling until then, thanks to a momentary lap in concentration.  I was sure I could make it the rest of the way if I just remained focused.  I was wrong.  Just reaching the base it happened again.  This time I was ready for it and stepped over the bars, smoothly landing on my feet.  Alright!  Now, where is the trail to lead me home?  Good question!

I hiked with bike on back around the shoreline trying to locate my easy route out, encountering only a deep creek canyon that did not invite access or egress from below.  It appeared my fate was set, in the stone hill I just descended, only now I had to climb back up it all, with bike on back.  On the upside, on the way back out I saw my donkey friends again.  They probably watched the whole show, thinking I was the ass.  Sometimes you ride the bike.  And sometimes the bike rides you…

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Oasis in the Desert

A lingering neck injury on my part has kept me off the bicycle.  Well that’s not entirely true.  I’ve been getting back on the bike a bit, telling myself I’ll take it easy on the smooth trails and not overdue it.  But that gets boring.  Maybe boring isn’t the right word.  But it quickly becomes apparent that the gentle ride is not as exciting as say the stray trail, likely a horse trail, that forks off to the side and towards sights yet unseen.  I give in of course and the ride gets a lot more fun.  A half mile down a dry creek bed and I find myself in a steep canyon with rock carved smooth rising 10 meters above.  Now this is more like it!  And then two hours later back in the trailer I find myself wincing in pain every time I look to the right.  That was the case at our stop outside Flagstaff.  And that is the reason we have been seeking out bodies of water to camp on or near, for the next while, which starting with Bartlett Reservoir.  Watersports.  Kayaking has provided a great low impact form of exploration and adventure, especially now when biking is on the back burner for a bit.  The problem though, is we are in the desert.

After moving on from Bartlett we set sights on Theodore Roosevelt Reservoir.  It was a bit of a bust.  Not in the sense that it wasn’t a beautiful location.  The “bust” was on us.  Recall a time you were going out for dinner or drinks.  You walk up to the door of a place that has your attention from either curb appeal, reviews, or a peer recommendation.  You barely get far enough inside to see the place.  You don’t give yourself a chance to get to know the place.  You just “nah”, lets go somewhere else.  Well that’s what Roosevelt was.  And I regret it, now, 4 days later and 400 miles away.

After leaving we decided to go to Yuma.  The winter capital of 55+ Canadians.  I’ve never heard it called that and just made it up, so please quote me on it even if it’s wrong.  Before Yuma, we did stop overnight at Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site, outside Gila Bend.  They should change the sign to read “The Site Where Painted Rock Petroglyphs Used To Be”.  A crumbed pile of rock surrounded with signs erected far to late that read “stay off rocks” is what stood just next to our campsite.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left to see.  We still spent two nights there, roasting ourselves in the hot sun.  We hoped to blend in when we got to Yuma.

Yuma is a unique place.  I’d be curious too see the numbers, but I have a feeling there are more RV park lots here than houses.  And likely less people here that call Yuma home than those that do not.  Some of the RV parks were the size of small towns.  With the amenities to boot.  Tennis courts (as in 3-4), swimming pools that put big city pools to shame, bars, restaurants, even golf courses littered these places.  Resembling all inclusive resorts, but where you bring your own condo, these were the exact opposite of what we seek.  In search of an intimacy with nature, we headed to the brewery in Yuma, Prison Hill Brewing Co., to lubricate our decision making.  Jake and Rubix kept guard in the trailer, however Gus was forced against his will to socialize, joining us on one of their pet friendly patios.  Gus is great stranger bait.  With little effort on our part, when he’s around people just want to come say hi, first for his story, then ours.  When we’re lucky they share a bit of theirs as well.  Being on a strict budget doesn’t allow for much indulgence when it comes to food.  Once in a while though, something is spotted on a menu that must be tried.  We usually reserve these splurges for something we’ve never seen before.  Beer battered deep fried avocado.  That was the splurge at Prison Hill Brewery.  And damn was it good!  After filling up our growlers we were on our way.

Since leaving Roosevelt Reservoir we hadn’t seen water.  We even crossed the Gila River, which had no water in it.  Arizona is desert in the most absolute sense of the word.  It is dry as can be.  Without break.  Our sites were set on the Lower Colorado River.  A series of dams just north of Yuma have created a slew of small lakes interconnected along the river before it crosses the border and empties into the Gulf of California, or Sea of Cortez.  Not far from Yuma, on the California side of the river, we snaked through miles of perfectly manicured fields of leafy greens including lettuce, kale, and the occasional date tree plantation.  This was such stark contrast to the bleak desert that surrounds.  Man made irrigation waterways lined the fields in perfect symmetry.  And then, just like that, we were out of it.  Back to lifeless hills of brown and beige.  But that wouldn’t last.  The source of all things green came into sight.  And looked so out of place.  Lakes that look like spilled paint pooling and running out in every directing, surround by thick green reeds, grasses, and more date trees, came seemingly out of nowhere.  Scattered RVs in no designated stalls, perched under hills, behind bushes, and just about anywhere else they could find in the sun littered the surroundings.  But not in such a way to intrude on the beauty.  Solar panels lay out in front of many, and fixed to the roof of many more, these RV’s were boondockers.  Like us, they are not confined to pad with a post with a number on it where you can get mail.  What a difference from the gridwork stacks of Lego back in the RV parks in town!

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Phoenix and Bartlett Lake

We’ve had enough of cold mornings and not using our water system for fear of freezing our holding tanks over night.  This was supposed to be a warm retreat for the winter months after all.  With that in mind, we left Flagstaff, which was still dipping below zero for a few hours each night, for Phoenix.  The forecast was overnight lows of 7-8 Celsius there.  We followed highway 98 South from our campsite to Sedona.  That drive is a real unexpected treat.  After a quick descent of 1000 feet or so, we found ourselves following a snaky canyon floor, lush with green and the first flowing river we’d seen in weeks.  Oak Creek Canyon was beautiful.  Still covered in green growth, the brown canyon walls began to brighten until they became a rich red, littered now with cacti and sparse leafy growth of almost a neon green color.  The contrast is stunning.  Along the hour or so drive through this canyon we spotted numerous campsites and parks we took note of to visit upon our return.  I’m beginning to think 6 months is nowhere near enough time to see all we want to, as everyday our list of places grows.

We stopped briefly in Sedona for wireless service to figure out where we were going next.  A highway side RV campground provided a spot to stop and rest for the night, as well as a nice long hot shower in their facilities, unburdened by limited water supply.  Arriving in Phoenix late in the morning gave us time to do some shopping and errands, empty our tanks, fill up with fresh water, and consult some locals we met while doing so on where to go next.  Bartlett Lake was tagged as a maybe, but after a keen suggestion from another camper at the dump station we opted to give it a go.  It was evening by the time we were getting out of Phoenix, driving through a town called Carefree.  What a fitting name it was as a last greet before entering Tonto National Forest.  Just outside of Carefree we were forced to stop and take in a stunning sunset.  From high over Phoenix area we witnessed a lively orange and pink sky drape the mountains in the distance in layers like you’d see in a painting.

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It was dark when we arrived at Bartlett Flats dispersed campsite.  We stopped on high beach and slept, waking early as the sun rose to explore the nearly vacant beach and pick our spot to set up for the next week.  The miles-long beach had only 3 other campers scattered around it, leaving us with choices galore.  We opted for a sandy little peninsula at the water’s edge that offered a 200-degree view of water out our door with cactus-covered mountains all around.  The first day it rained, as forecasted.  That allowed for some maintenance work on the trailer to get done without feeling like we were missing out on the outdoors.  The second day is when we felt we’d made it to the warm vacation we were in pursuit of.  The near vacant peace of the lake and the endless beach was soon interrupted by a low growl in the air, quickly followed by a roaring flyby directly above us of a fighter jet.  This repeated every couple hours, Monday to Thursday.  The air force training base just outside of Phoenix seemed to take advantage of the lake and river valleys for swooping, high-speed training exercises.

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The next couple of days the beach slowly began to line with campers.  When I say campers, I mean rv’s.  It was the start of a long weekend.

We basked in 25 degree afternoons with Margaritas and Coronas, periodically getting out for a paddle in the kayak or on the board.  One thing we didn’t buy (and I never will) is firewood as I’ll happily collect it from the surrounding dead-fall and keep my $6 in pocket.  However, a cactus covered desert doesn’t provide much for burnable dead-fall.  The opposite side of lake didn’t seem too far away, so I took one of recently acquired, used kayaks out for it’s inaugural paddle to go explore.  I found on the other side, in one of the runoff valleys feeding the lake, a pile of dead-fall hardwood branches and logs that had washed down from higher elevation.  With dreams of an evening fire I loaded up the kayak with enough wood for a couple nights, cautiously climbed in and planted my feet firmly on my find and began to paddle back.  Sound travels quite well across water, so as much as I could hear the comments from nearby boaters as to what the hell I was doing, I’m sure they could hear my expletives as I almost lost my load a few times breaking through the wake of other boats.  Maybe if I put a Canada flag sticker on the kayak next time they’ll understand, or at least not question my actions so much and just acknowledging me as yet another crazy Canuck.  What wood I had gathered would later that evening fuel one of the stinkiest bonfires I’ve ever sat around.  I’m still not sure what it was we were burning, but despite the odor, we burned the rest the following night.  No way was that hard earned haul going to waste.

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Grand Canyon!!!

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The word Grand isn’t enough.  Using 5 letters to describe and name this place, this world within our world, just doesn’t do it justice.  I guess The Greatest Most Massive Ever Upside-Down Mountain Range You Could Never Imagine National Park doesn’t fit on a map very well.  That name doesn’t do it justice either.  In fact, without being there to witness a part of it in person you can never truly understand, and even then, you still won’t be able to describe it accurately.  It simply isn’t possible.  All one can do to describe the Grand Canyon is relate their experiences being there and the emotions experienced when standing on the edge.  And we stood on edges (mostly Angela).  In some cases, I lied down at edges because looking down so far gave me a sensation I hadn’t felt before.  I’m pretty comfortable when it comes to heights, or so I thought.  I love cliff jumping into lakes and rivers and have spent a fair bit of my time working on ladders without fear.  I’ve stood on glass floors of skyscrapers in Asia and looked down without worry.  This was different.

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When I stood on the edge of a point and looked straight down to my left, right, and ahead, I felt my balance was off.  After gingerly stepping back and heading further on the trail one gets the opportunity to look back at where they once stood from another perspective.  What we stood on is no more than a small landing surrounded by 300-500 foot cliffs all around, straight down.  These are proper cliffs.  My lack of wings gives me assurance that these feelings of vertigo are warranted.  Man isn’t meant to be here.  At least not this man.

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Angela, however, seemed unconcerned about the imminent death that lay below if one took a minor misstep.  I noped out of many perilous viewpoints while Angela, who normally questions my behaviour, is the one who needed a sanity check here.  She confidently strode up to each point, surefooted to the edge.  And she made sure to mention I was a chicken.  A few times.

 

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That was the experience.  As for the emotions, small and insignificant are words that come to mind.  Looking down to the canyon floor below, occasionally catching a glimpse of the Colorado River, some 2 miles away makes on feel almost absent.  Seeing the layers upon layers of rock dating back millions of years will do that.  Between the history and the size, over 15km across in points, I can’t help but compare us to two flies buzzing over the truck windshield once at some point on our trip.  And even then, the time of our presence still doesn’t compare.

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We camped 2 nights here, at another free site, just outside of the Nation Park, but only accessed from within the park.  We were alone but for 1 other camper we passed on the way in.  Speaking of passing on the way in, the wood worker in me spotted something incredibly strange.  A towering pine at least 2 feet wide had a low branch coming off with the remnants of a large root mass growing out the end of it.  I still don’t know what could cause this anomaly, but here’s a picture and maybe someone else does?

This site was another gem of the US Forest Service.  Most of these sites are on National Forest land, are user maintained (as in no services, haul out what you bring in) and are free!   The sites we’ve visited are generally quite large with ample room to maneuver and park our home on wheels, seldom having to uncouple the truck.  This particular site sat next to a forest service fire watchtower.  The tower was open for us to climb even!  This was my chance to reclaim my manliness “grunting”.  Many flights of steep metal stairs open to below and we made it as high as we could go.  The trap door into the lookout perch was locked shut.  From there we could see for miles in every direction, including a glimpse of the edge of the Grand Canyon.  Well, we couldn’t actually see the edge.  What we saw was a void where the land we were on disappeared, and never did come back into sight through the hazy air above.  Short of a few odd vehicles driving through we spent an uninterrupted 2 days out there and did a whole lot of nothing.  It was great!

We spent one more day exploring the Grand Canyon, vowing to return on our way back up and explore the North Rim.  There are a couple great campsites along the North Rim but the road to them is seasonal and closed in the winter.  They say the South Rim gives an idea of the depth of the canyon, with the North highlighting the width.  We can’t wait!  On the way out of the park we stopped at the Imax theatre to watch the 1984 National Geographic film on the history and adventures of the canyon.  I had seen this film once before years ago as a child but vividly remembered scenes from it.  I highly recommend anyone who has the chance to view it.  And view it at an Imax theatre.

Great Sand Dunes National Park  and Zapata Falls

A couple hours South of Poncha Pass the valley widened and the mountains grew shorter with peaks more dispersed.  We neared Great Sand Dunes National Park.  40 miles (roughly 65 km.) we spotted a beige cluster in the southeast distance.  The fact it was visible from such a distance suggests the scale of it.  We stopped for a quick bathroom break off the highway at a pit stop with no more than 2 of any item in stock, and less than a ¼ of the shelves with anything to catch the dust at all.  There was a diner attached.  If crickets paid they might make ends meet.  How these communities and places survive is a mystery to me.  The sandy, infertile, and incredibly inhospitable land was littered with mobile homes and trailers whose tin roofs were weighed down with old tires so not to fly away with the winds that whipped the land into it’s current condition.  Living in Edmonton and Saskatoon I’ve been questioned by many as to how we survive seasons.  The seemingly unfathomable cold is nothing compared to the un-growing, unproviding lands these are.  With cold brings snow, brings melt and feeds growth.  The native plants seem to barely survive here.  It’s hard to imagine this land providing in the sense we are accustomed to in the fertile, frozen north.

We lucked out coming into the park.  It seems those at the gate were on break.  The typically manned pay window was closed tight with a sign saying “gone, will collect payment on re-entry”.  Awesome!  National Park entry fees are $30.  Based on our cheap living budget that’s 3 days of meals for the two of us.  The dunes were barely visible from about 1km before the park gates until almost 2km after.  By that point they seem to quadruple in size.  What looked once like a sandy first rise up a desert mountain was suddenly a deep mass of sun warmed wash.  From the sandy, mostly frozen creek-bed below the dunes there is no camera lens that can capture the volume of what lies before you.  Carefully we skipped across 100m (300 feet) of partially frozen, still running, wet sand wash to get to the dry warm beach that is the base of the dunes.  And a beach it was!  This is by far the cleanest, softest, purest sand I’ve ever seen or set foot in.  It was dry 6” deep and I just can’t explain…  think the “champagne powder” of sand.

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With a quick preview and a plan of making the 750 foot vertical climb the following day, we left the park and headed up the next mountain south to a free campsite at the base of Zapata Falls.

I have a thing for waterfalls.  I find them absolutely fascinating and am obsessed with seeing and participating in as many as possible.  How exactly does one participate in a waterfall?  Good question.  I haven’t really given this much thought until this moment, the first time I’ve tried to explain or justify my obsession.  There is such a power behind any waterfall.  The only way they exist is because of thousands of years of water, something that seems so soft and gentle, forming rock; something so hard and un-formable.  You can participate by hiking nearby, ascending the same landscape they have cut through with no regard to its previous shape.  We swim and bath in the pools they form.  We jump off cliffs with them, feeling for a brief second the same power plunging into the pools below.  That’s all if you’re lucky. In most cases we participate simply by being there to observe and feel a power and force that cannot be measured by any man-made unit.

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Zapata Falls was all of that, but frozen.  Paused in time as for what you can see.  Your ears and feet disagree though.  Under thick, cracked ice, mostly clouded with air but for a few glimpses through a clear block.  This flow was alive and well beneath a frozen cloak of cold trying its best to put you on your backside with every slippery step.  I feel winter may be the best and possibly only real time to view these falls.  From the end of well groomed trail leading to them, the frozen state allows you to climb back into the tight and tall canyon, around a bend where the giant falls stand.  Without the solid water I’m not sure we would have witnessed this sight.

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Half-way back to the main parking area, the trail forks and leads an alternate route back to one of the best laid out campsites we’ve stayed at yet.  Two large loops, one for tenting and one for RV’s are lined alternately, either side with pull-through stalls, each complete with a bear-proof storage bin to keep food items in overnight, as well as picnic tables and steel fire-pits including removable grilling grates.  It seemed there wasn’t a site that didn’t offer beautiful panoramic views of the valley below, with the city of Alamosa to the South, the distant peaks of the San Juan Mountains to the West, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park to the North, slightly dwarfed by the Sangre De Cristo Mountains behind.  But just slightly.  From this elevated viewpoint we were able to, for the first time, really view and comprehend the 31 square mile sprawl of the dunes.

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Truck and Trailer- sunset view
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Rubix looking at the sunset from the trailer.