Road Tripping 4: Loving the Land in Utah

Utah is a land that promises much yet remains mysterious. Every visitor is sure the desert cloaks a Shangri-la, or that a fountain of youth flows behind some red cliff. Maybe that’s why we were scolded by almost everyone we met for leaving so soon.

Utah's magical landscape

“What, you didn’t stop in Canyonlands?!”

“Are you at least going to Bryce?”

We had spent most of our available time in a single park, a sin in the eyes of many fellow travelers. But we referenced Edward Abbey, who favors staying put in a wild place; who argues that, “So long as they [the tourists] are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”

Justin and I were in the middle of a weeks-long conversation on physical space. If we’re beneficiaries of a place, we should know it intimately. We should know the echo patterns and the width of the low-hanging boughs, and the burrows and dens, and the beauty and cruelty of the land. I wondered if self-proclaimed city girls know and love the cracked cement of a particular crosswalk the way I know and love the narrow ravine behind my folks’ house in central Nebraska. Maybe long travelers know and love the road—its types of grooves, its rumbling herds of semis, its landscapes more like changing winds than permanent fixtures.

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Just a few examples of the transient ecosystem of the road…

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…its bizarre life forms,

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sometimes strange…

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…and often breathtaking.

We met more than a few hardy travelers in free campsites along the way. In Zion we met Michelle and Dav, who taught English in Spain and used their four months off per year to wander. Outside of Capitol Reef we befriended Lise and Laurent, a French couple on an 18-month drive from Canada to Patagonia. (Definitely check out their blog at Americarpediem) We shared firelight and beer with all of them and marveled at the desert stars. When was the last time you saw real darkness?

Justin's camera has a long exposure setting!

Now I should mention the landscape. Capitol Reef is basically an ancient fault line. Eons ago, distant seismic activity tilted the buried rocks up in a long band across the Southwest, a formation called the Waterpocket Fold. Erosion of this soft rock created monoliths and natural arches. There are also bizarrely scorched boulders littered across the land, some as large as my Subaru, others smaller than my fist. They look like they were just spit out of some violent inferno yesterday, but they are part of an 30 million-year-old lava flow that was ground up by glaciers and deposited in the cliffs and canyons during landslides and flash floods. Life that evolved here is precisely suited for this strange environment, whether it’s a lizard that only needs a few dewdrops to survive, or shallow-rooted shrubs that depend on a steep incline to deter other plants from usurping precious moisture in the thin soil.

BLM campers at dawn! Our French friends' awesome car at bottom right.

BLM campers at dawn! Our French friends’ awesome car at bottom right.

We camped at a fantastic lookout, then woke at dawn for a short 2-mile hike in Capitol Reef, scrambling up a small canyon and coveting the sticky agility that lizards and local canyoneers seem to enjoy. The views were spectacular, but both of our cameras were out of battery, so you’ll have to imagine the silver and pink lines swelling across vertical cliffs, and the luminescent cottonwoods lining slits of water far below.

We were already hot at midmorning when we returned to the car, and by the time we reached Arches National Park the sun was at its most punishing, and the Saturday crowd was at its apex. Like a country music concert or a carnival, Arches attracts a strange and broad cross-section of society. A few observations:

Two identically dreadlocked, shirtless, and barefoot young men passed us down a side trail, deep in conversation. “Listen, just because they’re not on the same conscious wavelength doesn’t mean…”

A woman in uncomfortable sandals and all her jewelry sashayed down the path, followed hopefully by a brawny man in a skin-tight shirt.

My personal favorite: A group of young women in yoga attire looked adoringly up at their ringleader, balanced in an uncomfortable pose on a high sandstone shelf. “When I’m out here, I like to extend my leg like this.” She tottered, almost fell of the ledge. Her fans didn’t flinch.

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Landscape Arch is slowly crumbling, so see it while you can!

Landscape Arch is slowly crumbling, so see it while you can!

A visitor in 1991 caught geology in action as 70 feet of stone collapsed from Landscape Arch! Photo from visitor's sign.

A visitor in 1991 caught geology in action as 70 feet of stone collapsed from Landscape Arch! Photo from visitor’s sign.

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The hike itself was fantastic. We clambered through five miles of trails, and at least as many natural arches. Some overlooked the vast valley below, so we climbed on top of them to take in the soaring view: Long, parallel lines of rock across the land, petrified dunes, a shrouded labyrinth of canyons. At this vantage point we also caught the local ravens engaging in strange behavior—dancing a haughty shuffle across a tall rock, then arching their shoulders and thrusting their necks forward to kaw. It was very aggressive. We thought it might relate to territory. Or maybe, like us, they were scorning the lowly people below to brag at the top of their personal mountains.

I’ve come to admire ravens. They’re the most ubiquitous wildlife throughout our trip, always playful, more graceful on the wind than any other bird, and just as comfortable in the high Yosemite meadows as in the park’s crowded parking lots; as happy in the lonesome scrubs outside Zion as atop the high pinnacles in Arches. The ravens know what we’d been grasping at: Learn to love the land, any land.

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But I am not a raven, and I began to feel ill at the end of this hike from the heat and lack of food, so it was a relief to find our messy car once more. All we wanted was to eat some food and fall asleep so we could get an early start tomorrow. But over pizza in Moab we impulsively decided to leave that night. Why wait? A six hour drive is a six hour drive, and we might as well get it over with so we can fall asleep in a real bed, after a hot shower. How long had it been?

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So we boxed up the leftover pizza, forgot it on the restaurant table, and drove east. It had been a long week in a land brimming with interesting life and just enough mystery to keep us going. But we were hungry for more travel, and we coveted the soft mattress and piney smell of an alpine cabin. But if we had stopped to say goodbye, we might have never left Utah

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