Another version of this story can be found over at the Strava LA Club's blog here.
Story by Latigo founder Mark Finster.
With trail running, I finally discovered an ideal excuse to explore more of the American west. Places I’d long dreamed of visiting during my early 20’s - from deep Cascade backcountry, to Wile E. Coyote’s Utah desertscapes - were suddenly far more accessible with the rise of “adventure racing.” Building long weekends around such events has become a kind of specialty of mine.
As I get older (and my races longer), my list of “must-have” creature comforts grows each year. Getting a full night’s sleep, eating well, and taking a hot shower each day are all Mission Critical. I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for traditional “car camping” - but there’s just an unavoidable level of grogginess that comes from your average night of tent sleep, which is no bueno before adventure racing.
As my close group of trail-loving friends plotted our first-ever Ultra with Vacation Races in Zion, we wanted to maximize our #comfortvibes and dip our toes into “van living” for the trip. We got extremely lucky with the launch of a new LA-based company (Texino Campers) who offered to loan us a pair of modern Sprinter vans in exchange for some freshly roasted coffee (what a deal!). The adventure was set.
After weaving through the Virgin River Gorge (the natural partition between Nevada and Arizona), our luck was on full display. Every “established” state campsite was either fully booked or closed for maintenance, so we tried our luck up fireroads in the midst of BLM country. We stumbled upon a jaw-dropping site, perched atop a canyon rim with red rock views, thousands of Joshua trees in full bloom, and a little fire ring to boot. It’s a strange feeling - pulling up to your campsite without the traditional “laundry list” of tasks: no tents to set up, no pads to inflate, nothing to unpack. Instead, we explored our natural resort on foot and took turns howling into the canyon, listening as our echoes swirled around like water draining a bathtub. Later on, we dined together with real cookware at a real dinner table - and had a real kitchen sink to clean everything up with. It was divine.
Another literal game-changer was our ability to park (and sleep) just a stone’s throw away from the race starting line. Anyone who’s ever been rushing out of bed at 4:15am - wolfing down oatmeal and coffee, praying for a nervous 💩 before a race - can understand the perils of such mornings. Thanks to our vans, we managed to skip over that unholy morning dance and actually had time to stretch and chill for a moment before the 6am start. What a concept!
Real talk: we secretly feared a major let-down after learning the course (which markets itself as a National Park trail racing series) didn’t actually involve running within the park’s zone. So, it came as a pleasant surprise when we reached the top of Gooseberry Mesa (the only big climb of our route) and were instantly rewarded with sweeping panoramic views of the entire Zion perimeter. If you’re looking for a world-class trail run without having to venture into the crowded (and oftentimes, totally ‘at-capacity’) National Park, then start in Virgin and follow our Strava route!
In the end - after all the training, logistics and anticipation - the thing I was least prepared for was how much I’d grow attached to our vans. We came to know every nook and cranny - including the one dreadful spot where we kept bumping our heads - and even that became endearing (we kept a tally for who bumped it the most). Each little cupboard was like opening a holiday advent calendar: maybe you’d find a stack of firewood with a handy little axe, or a cache of extra blankets, or some much-needed coffee supplies. It was our home (if only for a few days) and we’d grown cozy there.
On our drive home, we spotted some another #vanlife couple eating dinner at a roadside pizza shack. They looked exhausted - worn down from the road, heads cocked down with their faces buried in Instagram. They ate their sad-looking pizza in silence. We laughed (nervously) about how we’d never turn into them with our own future outdoor endeavors.