Shortly after leaving the airport, I discovered that Boise, ID is the inexplicable home of several Hawaiian restaurants. There is probably some interesting tidbit of history about their origin, but I haven’t bothered to look it up. I also haven’t confirmed that there are, in fact, “several” of them. I’m just taking the Shaka Shack cashier’s word for it. He looked trustworthy, if not at all Hawaiian.
Belly full of pineapple coleslaw and wienerschnitzel-jerk chicken, I piloted the rental Kia Sorento (a well equipped if comically underpowered vehicle) toward the first stop on a week-long road trip – a reserve for birds of prey just outside Boise. It was a short visit.
An actuary, a programmer, and an infrastructure architect walk into a nature reserve. Docent says “We’ve got a ton of birds here.”
Actuary says, “Really?”
Docent says “Yep.”
Bartender says “Don’t listen to her; she’s a liar. Don’t listen to me either. I don’t even belong in this joke.”
They had six birds on display, one of which was a plush owl.
The bar set appropriately low for the trip, we made our grocery run at the origin of most wilderness adventures – Walmart.
Breakfast sausage patties (48 count)
Jalapeno-cheddar sausages (6 count)
Bourbon-cheddar sausages (5 count)
Hot Link-flavoured sausages (6 count)
Beef bratwursts (6 count)
Eggs (1 dozen)
Fig Newtons (1 package)
Fruit & Nut Trail Mix (1 lb)
Crystal Light (18 count / various flavours)
Apples (2 lbs)
Bananas (3 lbs)
Styrofoam ice chest
Propane (1 lb)
Lighters (5 count)
Ice (10 lbs)
Pez (100 count)
Coincidentally, this was the same set of supplies purchased by settlers traveling the Oregon Trail in the mid-to-late 1800s – plus 50 bullets, 2 spare wagon wheels, and a spare axle.
We then followed our GPS to a mislabeled park set amongst corn fields. The park contained a gorge created by a massive shield volcano. It did not, however, contain any signage pointing us to the park we had intended to visit.
While looking for the missing park, Terry, one of my fellow travelers, demanded that we stop so he could run into a corn field. We pulled over and he disappeared into the green stalks. Minutes later he returned, proud owner of a single, industrial quality ear of corn.
We gave up on finding the park and proceeded to our next destination.
Balanced Rock Park in southern Idaho contains exactly two noteworthy objects – a balanced rock covered in graffiti and a campsite, through which a muskrat-filled creek runs. I drifted to sleep listening to large rodents playing in the water and drunk, middle-aged Idahoans daring each other to jump in and join them.
The campsite’s previous tenant had left behind a few pieces of firewood, but the wood was green and my efforts to get a fire going only resulted in a pyramid of burnt twigs and a campsite filled with smoke. That and becoming acquainted with an adventurous moth who somehow managed to fly up my pant leg while I was hunched over the fire ring.
So I sat in the dark, listening to crickets and the distant whistles of elk. There are worse ways to spend your time.
The darkness also offered an opportunity to take pictures of the stars and an approaching storm front moved in slowly enough that I was able to capture a few decent shots before the sky was obscured by clouds.
Eventually the storm arrived, riding on a cold wind that gave me a good excuse to climb into my tent.
I set my alarm with the intention of taking pictures as the sun rose, but it was still raining at seven a.m., so I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the rain patter against the tent for another hour.
Convinced that it was probably going to rain all day, I bundled up in my rain coat and tried to light my camp stove, which I had accidentally left out the night before. It refused to cooperate—no hot oatmeal for me.
I packed up my soggy campsite and drove into the park.
On the way to the trailhead I found a few buffalo grazing beside the road and stopped to take pictures.
I realize that buffalo are basically furry cows, but I like them. (I also like those furry Scottish cows.) Maybe because I’m so used to seeing them standing alone, I associate buffalo with melancholy—these giant solitary wanderers looking for herds that are long gone. If I knew they wouldn’t stomp me to death, I’d try to give them a hug.
Feeling a bit guilty for being a voyeur to the buffalos’ meal, I continued on and found the trailhead to start the aptly named Buffalo Trail. The rain shifted back into “downpour” mode as I pulled into the parking lot, which was unsurprisingly empty.
I waterproofed myself as best as I could and set off into the blackjack oaks and cedars, almost immediately encountering a dozen turkeys huddling a few feet off the trail. They seemed unconcerned with me until I pulled my camera up, then they were gone too fast to get a shot.
A half-mile in, the forest gave way to the rocky grasslands that make up the majority of the park and the trail meandered off into the distance, hardly more than a cow path. Within a few minutes my pants were soaked through below the knee, and would remain so for the rest of the hike.
If you ever visit the Buffalo Trail at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, be prepared to hike the worst marked trail in the U.S. At several points I had to backtrack and re-find the trail where it crossed expanses of rock and intersected actual cow paths (a herd of longhorns roams the park) that were better defined than the man-made trail.
My feeling of being lost wasn’t helped by the rain or the elk that seemed to be following me just beyond the tree line. Every time I’d start to relax he would start his creepy elk whistle.
It was only when I was four miles in and came upon one of the lakes I had seen on the park map that I was certain I was on the right trail.
About the same time the rain let up and I started noticing more of the weird vegetation around me. Several of the plants reminded me of sci-fi artists’ depictions of plants on other planets—only smaller.
The remainder of the trail passed through fields of wildflowers and dense, tall grasses that were surprisingly pretty, for being grass. Time seemed to pass more quickly with a clear path ahead of me and the final four miles of the trail felt much quicker than the first four.
Soon enough I was back at my car, feeling a little sad that the hike was over, although my wet feet felt differently. I set off for the park exit and the long drive home. I waved at the buffalo as I passed them.
The Excalibur has surprisingly comfy beds for being a $45-a-night hotel so I felt well rested, if a bit sluggish. We abstained from our ritual cooking of camp-stove oatmeal as the hotel staff and fire alarms would have disapproved.
I decided not to take my camera with me on our excursions for the day, mostly because I was tired of carrying it around.
The map showed a McDonalds down the Strip from us near the Las Vegas welcome sign. We walked there, ate, then visited the sign to find a hoard of tourists waiting in line to get their pictures in front of it. An Elvis impersonator stood nearby, ready to accept the tips of anyone who wanted him in their pictures.
We walked back up the Strip to the Bellagio with the intent of visiting their gardens. We wandered around inside for a while before figuring out the gardens were closed for construction. Back at the hotel Terry checked his pedometer and discovered we had walked more that morning than any of our park hikes.
Visiting the Non-garden
Determined to fit some nature into our time in Vegas, we drove to Spring Reserve on the north side of the city. Terry is a member of the New York City Botanical Gardens (because, who isn’t?), so we got in free, which turned out to be the appropriate price.
Spring Reserve would probably have been more interesting if I was in 3rd grade, had never seen dirt, and was accompanied by a crotchety, but knowledgable tour guide. That not being the case, it was just a well-maintained series of paths highlighting four types of native cacti. There were lots of empty class areas, so I’m sure it’s a popular spot for field trips.
The attached museum is a temple dedicated to Las Vegas’ status as an unsustainable stain on the desert. The exhibits highlight residents’ water usage compared to what was available in the area with the lesson being, “It’s stupid for this many people to live here. Escape if you can, children.”
Tacos con Pinball
I wanted Mexican food and Terry acquiesced as it had been “only the second preference I had expressed the entire trip”, so we drove to Tacos El Gordo on the Strip and had the best truck-style tacos I’ve ever had. I’m convinced I could eat the asada tacos for every meal.
With a few hours to spare before Terry’s flight, we drove to the Pinball Hall of Fame across town. Quarters in hand, we split up and played through their collection.
There was a sweet spot of machines from the 70s and 80s that were tuned to provide a good money/play-time value. The older machines and those from the 90s all seemed to be quarter-sinks, often shooting the ball straight into the gutter on its first launch. I played a Johnny Mnemonic-themed machine that cost 75 cents and did this three times in a row.
Out of quarters, I followed Terry around as he spent the last of his on Mario and the few arcade games spread out among the pinball machines.
Sending Terry Home
We drove back to the hotel and Terry finished packing. To ensure bag space we split the camping gear that we had purchased in Vegas the prior week – I got the stove and oatmeal. Terry took a quick shower and was ready to go, so we loaded up and drove to the airport.
Neither of us had tried to kill the other during the week and that’s a good measure of success for a road-trip, so on the way we talked about planning a trip for next year. “Alaska?” “Sure. Or the Arctic. I want to ride a polar bear.”
At the passenger drop off we shook hands and Terry said “You are kind to the people you don’t hate.”, which I took as the best sort of compliment. We said goodbye and Terry walked inside to magically teleport to Philadelphia in time to go to work the next morning.
Sending Chris Home
I woke up the next morning to discover that my flights had been delayed and instead of arriving in 5PM in OKC, my rebooked itinerary would arrive nearer to 11PM.
I left the hotel and drove to McDonalds to buy a cup of coffee. Pulling up to pay, I discovered the driver in front of me had paid for me. He was pumping his fist out the window and yelling “Woo!”. I waved at him and he threw me a peace sign as he drove away, still yelling “Woo!”.
With extra time before my flight, I drove to Red Rock Canyon outside of Vegas. I had the road to myself and it was a pleasant drive, another reminder of how pretty the desert can be without Las Vegas in it.
I finished up the loop of the park and drove back to Tacos El Gordo for some late breakfast tacos.
It was time for me to head to the airport, so I filled up the Passat and returned it to the agency. It’s not my favorite car, but it had treated us well for the trip for as much as we abused it with unpaved roads and wild temperature swings. I walked away from it feeling like a little kid waving goodbye to passing trains. “Bye bye, car.”
I was able to steal an entire exit row for the long flight to Atlanta. As we took off, I wedged myself into the window and looked out until all I could see were clouds. Then I fell asleep.
I don’t have many regrets, but if I could take back the decision to not camp on the chilly Kaibab Plateau, I would. The KOA in St. George stayed a muggy 80 for most of the night, so instead of shivering, I sweated.
The moment I managed to fall asleep, a loud gurgling sound near my head woke me. I couldn’t connect the sound with any mental image so I just lay there staring into the darkness, confused. Terry was faster on the uptake. “We put the tent on top of a sprinkler.”
We stumbled out of the tent and pulled it off the sprinkler head. The sprinkler sprayed against the wall of the tent for the next hour, which had the benefit of cooling down the interior air a few degrees.
Unfortunately, it also attracted all the mosquitos in the area, several of which got into the tent while we were moving it. I spent the rest of the night blearily swatting at them as they feasted on my face and arms.
Not long after, sunrise heated the interior of the tent and woke me. I opened my eyes to see dozens of salivating mosquitos staring at me from the other side of the tent netting. Rather than try to go back to sleep, I got up and showered.
A day of disappointment
Our plans, if you could call them that, had fallen apart in the last day. There were other places we could have visited in the area, but neither of us had the energy to find them. I think we were both OK with bringing an end to the camping portion of our adventure.
So after showering and repacking the car, we set off for Las Vegas. We arrived there at noon and made our way to Hoover Dam, joining thousands of other tourists visiting that day.
The tour was a disappointment. It started with a ten-minute movie that was more jingoistic propaganda than historical information. I’m pretty sure the narrator said Roosevelt cut a Stalinist baby in half to force a decision on the dam’s construction. USA! USA! USA!
I had more fun after the tour walking around and looking at the art deco designs on the exterior of the dam. I would have liked to learn more about that stuff, but they haven’t given tours of the exterior since 9/11.
Trying to make good use of the day, we headed to the National Atomic Testing Museum, which turned out to be another disappointment. They had few artifacts in their collection and the building mostly consisted of blurbs of text glued to walls. Some of the info was interesting, but, like the Hoover Dam, a lot of it was propaganda. “We blew up a lot of bombs and it was awesome!”
I did have fun playing with a Geiger counter though.
Tired and crestfallen, we booked a room at the Excalibur and settled in. We vegged out for several hours and later failed at walking to In-And-Out Burger, returning to the hotel to grab the car and drive there. I had never been and it had been suggested to me several times by friends from the west coast.
If anyone ever tells you to try In-And-Out, punch them in the mouth. After the effort it took for us to get there and the long wait in line, I was almost angry with how lame the food was. It’s cheap for a reason.
We woke up late. The other guests (human and gnat) were gone, taking all the hot water with them.
The motel owner was shuffling between rooms changing out sheets. She apologized again for the gnats, although she called them mosquitos, which would have been terrifying if true. A swarm of mosquitos that big would be a regional disaster, leaving a trail of exsanguinated livestock and dirt farmers behind it.
We reloaded the car and headed south towards Arizona and the Navajo reservation that contains Monument Valley.
Accustomed to the wealth of the Oklahoma tribes, driving through Navajo country shocked me. I guess being sequestered onto an infertile plot of scorched earth isn’t a recipe for financial success.
Little shacks dot the road through Monument Valley, each advertising “Real Indian Jewelry”. The shacks themselves are a wonder of carpentry, built with the exact minimum of 2x4s to keep them upright. Maybe it was a competition. “I bet you two turquoise I can build my shack with just three boards.”
The mental image I had of Monument Valley was the one presented in Mission Impossible, where Tom Cruise climbs to the top of an impossibly tall mesa surrounded by beautiful, red desert.
That’s not what Monument Valley looks like. Sure, the mesas are there, but they aren’t very impressive compared to Bryce Canyon and the other places we had been. It’s just a desert valley full of big rocks and poverty.
We ate lunch at a surprisingly expensive McDonalds and decided to drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon instead of the South Rim, where most people go. We made a stop along the way so Terry could buy a ceramic turtle from one of the “Real Indian Jewelry” stands.
We drove into a massive wall of rain as we crossed the valley below the Kaibab Plateau. The rain followed us for the rest of the day. I was happy to see it after baking in the sun the previous day.
Climbing up the plateau, the landscape became greener and more diverse until we were in the Kaibab National Forest surrounded by ponderosa pines. The temperature dropped from the low 90s to the low 50s.
We reached the North Rim in the late afternoon and yet again discovered that all the campsites were full. It was still raining and the canyon was veiled in fog. We drove to a few different lookouts and sunlight snuck through the clouds to burn some of the fog away.
From our rainy vantage point, I could see the desert across the canyon and knew we made the right choice.
The last bit of road to the highest elevations in the park was closed for the season, so we went as high as we could before turning around to find a trail.
The rain stopped as we pulled into the trail parking area and we set off into the forest. The trail met up with the rim of the canyon in a few places but was mostly set back into the forest. There were only a handful of other hikers.
As the sun lowered over the horizon, fog filled in around us and I took pictures of mist-covered trees. This was my favorite hike of the trip.
It was getting dark so we made our way back to the car and set our minds to finding somewhere to camp. There was a campsite in the forest outside the North Rim park, but without the canyon’s moderating effect, the temperature outside the park dropped further and would likely hit freezing over night. Neither of us were equipped for cold weather so we drove on.
Where have all the campsites gone?
I looked at the map and discovered there wasn’t anything around us. No parks, no towns, just desert. So we drove north toward Utah in hopes of finding somewhere to stay.
We eventually saw signs for a national monument and found a campsite nearby. It was closed for construction. Terry pulled into a gas station to fill up and asked the clerk if he knew of any place to camp. He did (maybe), but it was an hour in the opposite direction.
So we kept driving, crossing back into Utah. We made our way to St. George, which seemed to be surrounded by state parks. Unfortunately, they’re all gated and close at 10PM.
I busted out my Google-Fu and searched for other options. The Bureau of Land Management operates a campsite not far from where we were, so we drove there, expecting it to be an un-maintained landfill.
On the way we passed an undocumented-on-any-reasonable-source KOA. A quick loop of the BLM park determined that it was serviceable, but cost only a few dollars less than the KOA and the KOA had showers and Wi-Fi. Back to the KOA we went.
Terry filled out the night check-in form and we found an empty patch of grass in a field of slumbering RV-beasts.
Todd & Hannah waved goodbye from their door frame and we began rolling south towards Moab, gateway to Utah’s eastern desert.
Driving back through Salt Lake City, I considered that the city is far better looking from the ground than it is from the air, where it looks like a sprawl of humanity wedged between a swamp and ugly, brown mountains. From human-level it is full of low hills and little trees that make it more appealing.
I had expected more visible signs of Mormon entrenchment. But I didn’t see any of the garish church billboards or bumper stickers like those that cover Oklahoma City. Maybe Mormons don’t have to advertise, or maybe they figured out better things to spend money on, like helping people.
We stopped for gas and Terry found a man selling “Beef, Buffalo, and Elk” jerky out of a camper. Terry bought “Peppered Buffalo” and let me try a piece. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it didn’t taste like buffalo and probably wasn’t.
Continuing on, we cut through several mountain passes and came down into the flat lands of eastern Utah. We reached Moab a little before noon.
Todd & Hannah suggested Moab Diner as a food stop so we went there for lunch to find it packed full of blue-haired geriatrics. This should have influenced what I ordered, knowing that the “spicy” things wouldn’t actually be spicy and salt would be a necessity, but I ordered a chorizo scramble in which I could taste everything but the chorizo. The coffee was really good though.
Travel Rule #45: Context should influence your food choices.
Bellies full, we exited Moab and entered Arches National Park, just outside city limits. If you’ve ever seen a picture of an arch made of red sandstone, it was probably taken here.
Upon arrival I noticed two things: 1. I could feel the water evaporating off of my tongue and 2. the sun felt like it was closer than normal. I’m used to hot, but not a complete lack of humidity.
At one of our first stops we heard a park ranger tell a couple,”Please don’t climb on the things that have names.” The park map contained a picture of the same ranger cleaning graffiti. Busy guy. Terry thanked him for his service.
As with all our park visits, we wanted to hike and decided to make the three-mile trek to see Delicate Arch. The signs in the parking lot for the trail said something along the lines of “DANGER: YOU NEED TO DRINK 500 GALLONS OF WATER TO SAFELY HIKE THIS TRAIL”. So we refilled our water bottles and started walking.
We reached a part of the trail I will refer to as “The Devil’s Blast Furnace”, a long hill of unshaded rock. As soon as I stepped onto the rock, I knew I was in for a bad time. I could feel the heat radiating through my shoes.
Within a couple of minutes, I stopped sweating. A few more and I was feeling light-headed and nauseous. I stopped to gulp down some water, then restarted, then stopped again not many yards later. My body was screaming at me to stop but my brain was yelling back, “We can’t stop here. This is bat country!”
I found a little scrub bush jutting up out of the rock that provided six inches of shade and crouched beside it. I told Terry, “Go on, see the rock thing. I’m good.” He was reluctant to leave me, but there were plenty of people walking the trail to help me if I needed it and we agreed he would go and come back quickly.
I watched him plod up the hill and out of sight before putting my head down to focus on cooling off.
A late-30ish woman dragging two elderly women behind her stopped to check on me. They were Czech and only the younger woman spoke English. I shared my pitiful shade and gave them some water because they had run out, having only brought small styrofoam cups.
They were on a road trip too, visiting some of the same places we were. As she walked away, the younger woman asked where we were headed to next. I told her “the Grand Canyon”.
“I didn’t like the Grand Canyon but my husband did. I spread his ashes there.”
Not long after, Terry returned and we made our way back to the car. He hadn’t reached the arch either and had run low on water and decided to turn around. I think he felt bad for leaving me too.
Dumb arch, didn’t wanna see you anyway.
I sat in the car for a long time rehydrating and basking under the air conditioner. Terry drove us further into the park and found more arches that didn’t require long treks across the desert. It took a few hours, but I started feeling a lot better and as the sun went down the park seemed less hostile towards me.
Our tour of Arches complete, we headed back to Moab to grab food at Zac’s Pizza, another of Todd & Hannah’s recommendations. I downed 24 ounces of locally brewed Hefeweizen that tasted OK, but was far weaker than I felt was necessary for my day.
And then things got weird
Our original plan had been to visit Arches, blast through Monument Valley, and spend the night at the Grand Canyon. This was a stupid plan and would have required us leaving Arches at the time we arrived there.
So when we left Moab we didn’t know where we were going to sleep. I looked up parks on my phone and found Goosenecks State Park near the Arizona border. It had good reviews and advertised camping facilities. We headed there.
As we closed in on the park, I noticed that there weren’t many other cars on the road. Outside of our car’s headlights the landscape was black and featureless. It felt like we were driving through a void in space.
Our visit to Goosenecks State Park lasted less than a minute. There were no facilities, only a proto-pavillion – four rusted uprights and a couple of cross beams. And the parking lot was empty except for two other cars, a white station wagon that appeared to be abandoned and a psychedelic-painted van that can only be described as “rape-y”.
It was the setting of a post-apocalyptic movie, or at least a really trippy episode of Scooby Doo. Not willing to face the hordes of rabid coyotes and drifter cannibals lurking in the desert, we sped back towards civilization.
There were no other campgrounds nearby and the nearest town, Mexican Hat, a village consisting entirely of motels, had zero vacancy. So we were forced to backtrack to Blanding, UT.
When we arrived, it appeared to be the same situation as Mexican Hat. But we found the one motel in town with a vacancy sign still lit up, The Mokee Inn.
Walking up to the sign that had pulled us in, something seemed off. I first thought my vision was blurred from being tired, but the haze that surrounded the sign revealed itself to be a dense cloud of gnats – tens of thousands of them. Every gnat in Utah was staying at The Mokee Inn.
Terry pushed his arm through the gnats to ring the night bell and a few minutes later the interior lights winked on and a bedraggled lady answered the door. “Come on in, we’ve got one room left. Sorry about the bugs.” We fought our way through the gnats into the small motel office.
I could feel the weight of them press against me and in the roar of their buzz I heard a whisper, “We are the eaters of carrion, the ever-living. All that you know is but a brief flash of light in the life of the Swarm. You will be forgotten, the Swarm endures.” Or it could have just been”buzzzzzzzzzz”.
The owner’s husband stumbled into the office a few moments later, the victim of some palsy. Terry asked “So, what’s notable about Goosenecks Park?”. The husband croaked “The geology, I guess.”, his face contorting into a hall-of-mirrors version of a smile.
Key in hand, I entered our room with low expectations. It was simple, but clean, and most important, gnat-free. I took a shower and climbed into bed, partially convinced that our weird evening had been a hallucination and that I was still curled up on that rock at Arches, dying of heat stroke.
When I woke up, Terry was laying on the deflated half of his air mattress. The other half, still partially inflated, jutted into the air and hit me in the face every time he moved, which was often.
I stumbled my way through the cold morning air to the camp bathroom and was greeted by a far-too-cheerful-for-the-sun-not-being-up-yet Australian man. “G’day, mate!” at high volume in the early morning is a bit grating. He seemed very excited to talk to me and in that moment I wished for a herd of kangaroos to come carry him away, or at least kick him to death.
We broke camp and raced back into the park to catch the morning sunlight. The morning colors weren’t nearly as nice as those from the previous evening, but the views were still great as we followed the road up to 9000ft.
The park map listed a trail called Sunset/Sundown with the tagline of “Best Hike in the World”, a pretty ballsy claim in my opinion. We followed the trail along the rim of Bryce Canyon and then descended into an area of rock formations called the Queen’s Garden, watched over by a formation that supposedly looks like Queen Victoria.
I’m not convinced that the Sunset/Sundown trail is the best hike in the world, but it’s pretty good. The climb back to the rim of the canyon is a beast though. Even with all the switchbacks, I had to stop every tenth of a mile to catch my breath and watch elderly European couples smirk at me as they mountain-goated it up the trail.
What’s that? You’re from the Swiss Alps and used your Nazi gold to purchase an active lifestyle and nanocytes to oxygenate your blood? Die in a fire, Heinrich.
A mile and 10,000 calories later, we were back in the car headed to Salt Lake City.
Onward to Salt Lake
Terry coordinated a meetup with a couple he made friends with back east – Todd & Hannah. They’d offered us a place to sleep and a chance to shower, a happy exchange for a three-hour drive. There was a chance of accompanying them to SLC Comic Con, but we didn’t get to SLC in time. I’m largely OK with this as everyone would have been annoyed with my criticism of lame fandoms and weeaboos.
Worn out from the hike and drive, I essentially collapsed into Todd & Hannah’s home. They graciously let us wash our clothes and we took much-needed showers, washing away two+ days of sweat and nature. Cleaned up, we recharged on their couch while waiting for them to return from Comic Con. It felt good to not be in a car.
That evening, Todd & Hannah took us to a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant. I gorged myself with bread and a Korean BBQ sandwich. Terry led the conversation. In group settings he speaks with a rapidity and word volume that I sometimes find disconcerting. I think it’s a cultural difference – the clear-cut urgency of the East Coast versus the slow, nuanced speech of the South. I’ve slowly learned how to jump in and keep up.
The conversation evened out and we talked about SLC, Todd & Hannah’s recent wedding, and other bits of trivia. The conversation moved back to the house and eventually petered off as it had been a long day for everyone. After sleeping on a thin backpacking pad for the prior two nights, the air mattress provided to me felt like a luxury.
After visiting the world’s worst ventilated vault latrine we made a slow drive back into Zion Canyon, stopping along the way to take pictures of the sun hitting the tops of the mesas. Walking off the pavement I was quickly reminded that desert plants are unfriendly – even the grass is pointy and sharp.
We reached the main park about 9AM and boarded a shuttle to the interior (cars aren’t allowed). Halfway up the canyon we abandoned the shuttle and started the Emerald Pools trail, a three mile loop.
The trail was busy with foreign tourists, predominately German, at least they were the most vocal. I also heard Portuguese, Russian, and an assortment of Asian languages that I’m poor at identifying. At one point we walked past a Spanish-speaking group and Terry commented, “They’re speaking Spanish, they must be American.”
As with most historical place-names, the Emerald Pools didn’t really live up to their name. “Sorta-green Mud Pits” would have been a better fit. Luckily the trail itself provided nice scenes of waterfalls and cliff faces.
We followed the loop back to the road and re-boarded the shuttle, now packed with other stinky, sweaty people. The audio track on the bus’ intercom advertised a hike at the end of the shuttle-run into an area called “The Narrows”. It sounded fun so we decided to head there.
The first part of the hike was a one-mile paved path filled with people and the most aggressive squirrels I’ve ever met. They would approach each person’s feet, stand on their hind legs, look up expectantly, then shake their head disapprovingly and run to the next person if not presented with some offering.
Having survived the onslaught of human bodies and panhandling squirrels, we reached the end of the paved path and discovered that “hiking The Narrows”, aside from sounding like a euphemism, really means “walking several miles up the river, in the river.” Everyone around us seemed more prepared for this adventure, equipped with walking sticks and water shoes.
Undeterred, we started slogging up the knee-deep river. Between the strong current, shifting sand, and slippery, uneven rocks, maintaining balance took considerable effort. But Terry is a robot, programmed to mechanically cover any terrain without pause, so I trudged after him doing my best to stay upright on weak, human legs.
The Narrows was much more canonical than the Emerald Pools – the wide cliffs of the park closed in to the width of the river. It is a pleasant experience, standing in cool river water, holding your hand against a cliff that shoots up hundreds of feet above you, and knowing about the transformation taking place as the river water cuts its way through the rock, almost fast enough to watch.
As pretty a hike as it was, the views eventually became same-y and our bodies sore, so we turned around and made our way back to the trailhead. I had managed not to slip or fall for all the miles we had walked, but within a few bends of being back on dry land, my luck abandoned me.
My foot caught on a rock and I fell into the river. I managed to catch my camera before it was completely submerged but watched helplessly as my water bottle floated away – the future raft of some enterprising squirrel. Luckily, a friendly hipster (he had a Snidely Whiplash mustache and was wearing skinny shorts) shouted to his friend who rescued my water bottle and returned it to me.
The walk back to the shuttle contained little joy for me. I was worried about my camera, my shoes were full of sand that was rubbing against blisters, and the people we encountered all seemed to be walking way too slow while taking up way too much of the path. My mood improved considerably once we made it to our car and I was able to get my shoes off.
Gas Station of the Handy-Capable
I hadn’t expected Utah to be as pretty as it turned out to be. The area between Zion and Bryce was split between low mountains and a land type I can only describe as “green savannah”. It made for a nice drive.
We stopped at a combo gas station/Subway outside the entrance to Bryce Canyon that appeared to be the only non-greasy-spoon restaurant for a considerable distance. Inside we witnessed an impressive display of indifference. The high-school-aged worker walked away from finishing my sandwich to talk with a visitor and completely ignored Terry, staring blankly as he asked about fountain drinks.
I further aggravated Terry by ordering the last of the macadamia nut cookies.
While I was filling up the car, the attendant, who looked like a real life version of Sloth from The Goonies, sprayed my legs with a power washer, said “Sorry”, then proceeded to do it three more times. I still don’t know if he was trolling me.
These Purples Go to Eleven
Re-fueled, we headed into Bryce Canyon and arrived at the end of photography’s golden hour. Unfortunately, my camera was acting funny from having taken a swim, so I left it in the back seat to dry out.
Bryce Canyon at sundown is stupidly pretty, so much so that Terry and I both lost the use of English and were reduced to grunts and pointing. The Rayleigh scattering of the mountain sunset produced an impressive range of purples and pinks that I don’t remember ever seeing in nature. Zion had been a park of “big, red things close together”. Bryce was a park of “very big, very colorful things far apart” that just seemed much grander and breathtaking.
I’m still mad about my camera.
We completed the park loop in darkness and found a camp site, setting up our lone tent among a field of RVs and camper trailers. My walk to the registration pavilion took me past several groups of novice campers, cooking hotdogs over the plastic packaging they had just thrown into their fires. Tasty.
Terry cooked our meal for the evening, maple sausages and fried eggs, because vegetables don’t exist in the spectrum of camping-appropriate foods. We settled in and I tried to contain my schadenfreude when Terry discovered a leak in his giant, 2/3rds of the tent sized, air mattress.
Surrounded by the mass of campers, the evening was surprisingly quiet – a few chirping crickets, the occasional bird, the screeching of air escaping Terry’s mattress, and my quiet laughter.
My journey into the West started as an idea to visit Philadelphia, because that’s how plans work in the real world. We don’t start at A and arrive at B, we start at cake and arrive at the hospital. Instead of visiting him in Philly, my friend, Terry, suggested we go on a road trip.
So we did.
Day 1 – Escape from Las Vegas / Arrival at Zion
My flights were unnotable except for the Salt Lake City to Las Vegas leg, on which I think I was the only non-Mormon-missionary. I expected proselytization, but my scowl and arm tattoos scared them off. Either that or the growling.
Terry had flown in the night before, so I picked him up at his hotel and we went in search of food and the random pieces of camping gear we weren’t able to pack. An REI, Walmart, and Radio Shack later we were on our way into the desert, supplied with an ice chest full of pork products.
Without the blemish of Vegas, the Nevada desert is pretty. It’s not obvious until you get a few miles away from the towns and billboards, but eventually you’ll come over a rise and look across a valley filled with cacti and Joshua trees and it snaps together.
We followed I-15 through Nevada into Arizona and Utah. I had expected it to be a boring slog of a drive, but the desert views contributed to my zen-driving state and it felt like we floated our way there.
We arrived at Zion National Park and discovered that the main campsites were full. A park ranger told us about another, unmonitored campground that was an hour’s drive toward the back of the park. But there were only six sites there and he didn’t know if it was full.
Undecided if we should take a chance on the site or go somewhere else for the night, we drove through the eastern portion of the park taking pictures of goats, rock formations, and the tunnels that cut through the mountains.
Once we reached the eastern edge of the park we found another park ranger and asked him about the remote campground. He gave us directions and told us we’d need a “big jeep” to make it there. So off we went in our rented Volkswagen Passat.
I enjoyed this drive more than the rest of the park. The winding road took us across rolling pasture land and mesas. As we climbed toward the campground the desert scrub was replaced with pine trees, the rocks and cliffs changed in color from red to the darker blacks and browns of volcanic rock, the air cooled, and passing cars became less frequent.
We reached Lava Point, elevation 7890ft, at twilight. Five of the six camp sites were taken.
Tent setup, we hiked a short trail to a lookout point with a broad view of the land we had just driven through. A distant thunderstorm rolled across the mesas, obscuring them with dark columns of rain.
I had been stressed when we found out the main campsites were full. Now I was happy that they were. Given the option of sweating out the night in a hot canyon valley, surrounded by hundreds of campers, versus this quiet, pine forest on top of a mountain, I’d gladly take the same risk again.
We cooked bratwursts and I ate mine out of an enamel cup using my pocket knife as a fork, because that’s the way of men. We sat in the dark and talked and looked at the stars through the splotches of clouds above us. Lightning from the passing storm flickered at the edges of our view.
I climbed into my sleeping bag and slept like a chemically sedated baby.