My incredibly smooth ride, the 2020 Volvo XC90 T6 R-Design, had room for everything. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Road tripping with Rerun – Part I

A pandemic-era series chronicling a U.S. tour with a four-legged passenger

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Typically I don’t run away from problems. As a practicing lawyer for over two decades, my skills were honed in tackling problems head-on.

However, late summer and early autumn of 2020 were something else entirely. More than once I told my husband that 2020 should simply be canceled.

There were the never-ending pandemic, the fires burning throughout the West and the choking ash-filled air with quality matching that of Delhi. When the skies matched the White House occupant’s coif, they seemed to sneer. Then came the grotesque politicking of science. It was all just too much.

The feeling that I could virtually play no part in rectifying these diverse ills other than preaching to anyone with a pulse to vote in November only added to my growing frustration. It buttressed my travitude – a constant grumpy mood from sheltering in place for far too long and not traveling.

The only cure was to hit the road again in search of blue skies and the calming forces of Mother Nature where I could socially distance with the tail-wagging, magnanimous company of my four-legged, 4-month-old Labrador, a pup now cursed with more names than should be legal. Rerun seems to have stuck.

Rerun waits for dinner in front of the massive and picturesque backdrop at Bluff Dwellings Resort & Spa in Bluff, Utah. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Since the lockdown and the run on dogs – many shelters are happily nearly empty – few want to leave their pets while traveling even assuming a pet sitter could be found. With hotels across the country taking note, traveling with Rerun would be manageable, comfortable and enjoyable despite COVID.

My ride: a sleek, sophisticated 2020 Volvo XC90 T6 R-Design. With 2.0 liter turbo-charged engine, 316 horsepower and all-wheel drive, it drove so smoothly, like a personal magic carpet ride. There was plenty of space – important when copious amounts of kibble, luggage and a cooler are involved – and even had a specially built-in, roomy dog crate. As the journey progressed, she behaved as a trusted valet catering to my every need and was dubbed Vivien Valet Volvo. More on that later. Volvocars.com

Sunrises are spectacular at Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa in Henderson, Nev. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Lake Las Vegas

As soon as I crossed into Nevada, the skies started to appear a familiar, though faint blue. My first stop was Lake Las Vegas in Henderson. Happily it shares nothing with Las Vegas other than the airport – if one were flying – and the partial moniker. There are lush landscaping, golf, marina, restaurants and several Italian-inspired homes.

On 21 manicured acres, the lakefront pet-friendly Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa has 493 rooms on the 320-acre man-made lake. There’s a large pool and kayaks for rent lakefront.

Happily, self-parking was close, check-in was contactless, and employees and guests all wore masks. Comfortable rooms had patios or balconies and sanitizing wipes to clean touch points. San Franciscan chef EJ Estrella of Rick’s Café prepared a delightful seafood extravaganza of salmon, lobster and scallops with herb risotto and pea purée. www.marriott.com

Seafood bliss was prepared by San Franciscan chef EJ Estrella of Rick’s at Westin Lake Las Vegas. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Utah on my mind

Like a first kiss with a handsome heartthrob, I once fell in love with Utah and was thrilled to return.

Approaching the state line the landscape became less desert and more ethereal, with rounded, layered rock formations. Somehow it was soul soothing perhaps because the world I currently inhabited seemed so out of control.

Arriving to St. George in Utah’s southwest corner at lunchtime was perfect. I may be a die-hard foodie, but nothing scratches a hunger itch better than an Iceberg milkshake and onion rings. Even the “mini” made-to-order shakes are enormous. I’ve only tried two flavors and there are about 50 more to try. It’s a worthy mission.

Comprising 2,400 square miles, Greater Zion is of course home to Zion National Park, the fourth most visited national park in the U.S. As of this writing, parts of Zion remained closed and access to most open sections was by ticketed shuttle service. Fortunately, the region also has four state parks and plenty of recreational activities for outdoor enthusiasts.

Fortified by sugar and carbs, I headed north to Snow Canyon State Park. This 7,400-acre scenic park within the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Reserve sits amid lava flows and soaring sandstone cliffs. It has two dog-friendly hiking trails, one six and one eight miles. For lovers of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Electric Horseman,” both were filmed here.

Hot and tired after six miles, I was happy to check-in to the pet-friendly Dwellings at River Rock, a lane of 18 new mini homes with expansive canyon and Pine Valley Mountain views in La Verkin, 20 miles from Zion. Dwellings have modern finishings with all the comforts including an equipped kitchen. A large patio housed Adirondack chairs, and barbecue and fire pit. thedwellings.co

I started out for Zion at 7 a.m. under slightly hazy, orange-tinged skies providing a spectacular awakening to another glorious day. En route, buffalo, elk and deer jerky were available in small shops but I suppressed any latent carnivorous urges.

Springdale, Zion’s gateway town, is charming without being kitsch and one mile from the park entrance. Those getting a later start when Zion’s lot will be full can park here and walk.

Arriving at Zion Visitor’s Center I headed immediately to nearby dog-friendly Pa’Rus Trail that runs along the Virgin River. Unfortunately a toxic cyanobacteria was blooming in the river and I was warned not to let Rerun get near it. Telling a Lab to ignore water is like telling me not to eat. Rarely happens.

The Virgin River along Zion National Park has the dog-friendly Pa’Rus Trail. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

An easy 3.5-mile hike along what was once a subtropical dinosaur-filled environment reminded me that a lot can change in 200 million years. Such expansive, wide open spaces are the perfect pandemic antidote. At the hike’s end, we quickly left as crowds were descending and surprisingly many apparently didn’t get the COVID memo and were unmasked.

Buttes, hats and cliffs

Heading next to eastern Utah, I took the Zion Park Scenic Byway, an intensely beautiful ride of massive rock formations and the 1.1 mile 1930-completed Mt. Carmel tunnel. While prone to claustrophobia, I was aided by the intermittent carve outs letting sun and dramatic views in. Rerun snored in canine contentedness.

Entering Monument Valley near the Utah Arizona border is a spectacular sight. Part of the Navajo Nation, its massive sandstone buttes some rising 1,000 feet above the valley floor make it truly an outdoor museum. Sadly, the skies were hazy, impacted by the ongoing West Coast fires.

Continuing on US-163 past the sombrero-shaped Mexican Hat rock formation, we arrived to Bluff Dwellings Resort & Spa. Built against a red rock postcard backdrop, four of its 33 rooms are pet-friendly. Family owned and opened just days before the COVID lockdown, it has spacious, comfortable rooms in native southwest design that open to a large communal patio with fire places that showcase the 100 million-year-old, 200-foot tall cliffs. Bluffdwellings.com

Stunning rock formations make up part of the outdoor museum that is Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

In addition to a small spa and a refreshing pool, they offer doggy daycare so I was able to join Wild Expeditions for a San Juan River excursion. My knowledgeable guide Hannah Wade and I kayaked eight miles, hiked to see Big Kachina – an enormous panel of petroglyphs – lunched on the riverbank, then hiked to River House Ruins, a series of one- and two-story sandstone rooms with spiritual kivas and pictographs. riversandruins.com

After a perfect day, I ate at Cottonwood Steakhouse. On the outdoor patio, hoping something might fall, Rerun’s tail wagged while I devoured a ribeye coupled with a good Malbec.

As Rerun snored, I slipped into a blissful sleep looking forward to the next leg of the continuing journey.

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award- winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com. Some vendors hosted the writer however content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely her opinion.

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