Desert and Escape

Aug 23rd, 2020 in Adventure

Having departed the workforce last month, time is now abundant for me and this late Summer perfect to utilize it. It took a little bit of momentum to break out of my routine, but I’ve now began the road trip I previously hinted at in earnest. It has blossomed in scope now to include a massive stretch of the Western USA and its national parks.  I’m all alone with my hatchback, camping primitively. A week into it, I’m feeling emboldened, free and so content, penning this writing from the Grand Tetons National Park Visitor Center.

How did I find myself here, riding the crest of a successful first week of road tripping? Well, things grew from misfortune. My potential Arizona Trail thru-hike is DOA, with forest fires savaging a hundred miles of trail and people being urged from thru-hiking it this Autumn. Upon discovering that, I decided to go all-in on this trip, and then free up October onward for personal productivity. I embarked suddenly, with little planning besides hitting up the parks, and then filling the rest in on the way.

Perhaps it was the taste of backpacking I got while doing the Cabin Loop back near Flagstaff. The trail came recommended by a friend of Spenser’s months ago; it traverses the canyons and high desert pine forests that sum up my new home’s biome. The highlight was the drive to it, which skirted the Mogollon Rim, a sheer thousand foot cliff feature that separates Arizona, north and south. Gazing out from the rim itself filled my heart with wanderlust, and less than a week later I was loosed upon the West.

I began by driving up through Native land into Monument Valley, a drive everyone should probably get to experience at least once, as I can think of few other locales that really embody the American West in media. Driving through those eerie pillars of rock makes one feel small and appreciative. Of course, I stopped at “Forrest Gump Hill”. It might be sappy but I do really love that movie and drew inspiration for how to live from it. Did you ever know there was a big fracas over the film’s profits, that the author, Winston Groom, wrote a second novel that he refused to sell the rights for? It’s interesting stuff, but a digression. I finished my first day at the Goosenecks, a unique overlook of the San Juan River canyon.

This Southeastern quadrant of Utah is filled with some of the strangest, most beautiful rocks, amid an unrelentingly hostile landscape. My first hiking destination was the Natural Bridges National Monument, named for its eroded rock bridges that connect its canyons’ edges. A cool morning, with prolonged shade in the drainages was my hikes onset. The riparian paradise soon withered into unrelenting heat and sun as the canyon cooked, indeed the challenges forthcoming were foretold by the baked and curled clay in the washes I hiked upon. I wound up getting lost and turning around, adding a few extra punishing miles in the triple digit heat. I cooled off in the evening with a dip in a small town reservoir.

From there I began my journey into the Canyonlands, beginning with the fascinating Needles district. It’s just unbelievable to navigate these rocky features that felt sometimes as tightly packed and characteristic as cities, if I leveraged my imagination hard enough. I camped two nights in the Devils Pocket, my first day spent idling under the unrelenting sun until evening when I could venture out in a modicum of comfort. I brought five(!) novels for this trip, so I burned through a lot of James Clavell’s “Whirlwind” that day. If you’re looking for an honest take of Asian culture from an Anglo-perspective, Clavell’s one of the best, particularly his samurai focused opus, “Shõgun”.

Biding the day away let me hike in the dusk with the oven-like heat, only with it set to ‘off’. I set out for a very ambitious hike on my second day, to navigate Lower Red Lake Canyon to the Colorado River. A challenging early-morning descent to one of the river’s most remote points gave me tranquility for a day on the river’s shores. Reading, sipping coffee, and swimming, three separate times, in all over the 8 hours I set up there, were simple pleasures executed as water and time flowed by. One group of boaters were the only souls I saw, and I’m sure they were surprised to see me as well. The ascent back, at sundown, was honestly one of the most grueling experiences I’ve had, as the sun set perfectly to expose the entire scramble back up, forcing me to rest constantly in the shade of tiny boulders to avoid burning out, and drink nearly my entire supply of water to hike back. It was last light by the time I slinked back into camp, and the next day I cut my adventuring in the park short to take the fastest route out and recoup.

My day of recovery was in Moab. I had thought about this small city for a long time, having read a book a long time ago about a man who foreswore money, living in a cave nearby, and using the library for internet to publish a blog. His name is Suelo. My day there was less exploration and more preservation, with the temperature hovering around a miserable 108 degrees in the afternoon. The air conditioned laundromat, grocery and information center were the highlight of my trip there. I know a lot of mysteries remain to uncover on future trips.

I actually jumped back into the Canyonlands the same day, but to a new district, Island in the Sky. The park is trisected by the Colorado River confluence, and each district requires driving to separate entry points hours away. I jumped down the Syncline trail to circumnavigate the Upheaval Dome, an ancient meteor crater that shocked the land. It’s not hard to imagine the impact smashing the rocks into its present, jagged-bowl shape. Camping at the bottom of it, all was still, and the starry night sky analogous to a work of Pollock’s.

With that last night in Canyonlands, I set off north to explore Utah’s high peaks and step into Wyoming again for the first time since 2017’s TransAm. Colorado was alight with fires, leaving a deep haze over the desert, obscuring the rocks and blunting the sun’s rays. I’d drive off with that “canyon obscura” in my head as a lasting memory.