Wednesday, February 18

there's just too much to say

Road Warrior Report
Days on the Road: 23
Miles Driven: 8789
States Visited: CA, OR, WA, ID, UT, VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA, TN, AR, OK, TX, NM, AZ, NV

The United States interstate system is highly convenient and completely anonymous. On one hand, freeways are generally in good condition, and are built in the flattest places which allow one to get from point A to point B in a relatively short period of time. However, by racing along miles of concrete at eighty miles an hour, you miss out on everything that is fascinating and unique about America. With a few exceptions (e.g., I-84 in Oregon that slices through the Columbia Gorge), it doesn't matter if you are on I-40 in Arizona, Texas, Tennessee or wherever, the landscape that zooms by all begins to melt together and you can barely tell which state you are in. The secondary roads that blanket the country like a cracks on a broken window lead to places you might not have discovered otherwise, like Arco.

Arco is one of those towns with less than a thousand people that make you wonder how people can find a living hundreds of miles from the nearest major population center. Other than the gas station, the motel, the grocery store and the school, what jobs could possibly exist? Arco also has the distinction of being the first community in the world to have been powered by nuclear energy, a fact not ignored by the locals. A local diner features several Cold War options such as the Atomic Burger and the Black Russian sandwich.

I am also dumbfounded by the rugged beauty of the landscape and the poverty of the community. Many of the town's residents live in houses or trailers that lie in various states of disrepair, but walk out the front door and you can see mountains as far as the eye can see. I've noticed this trend while driving through the Cascades in Washington, canyon country in southern Utah and pretty much anywhere in the Appalachians. And while many of America's poorest communities are in the most beautiful places, the people with money choose to live in gaudy McMansions bunched together in places called Walnut Ridge, Forest Glen, or any two word combination of a tree type and geologic feature. Instead of seeing a breathtaking mountain vista every morning, the guy who lives in the suburbs "to escape the city and own some land" looks out his back porch, across his half an acre, and sees his neighbor looking right back at him from an identical house whose enormity takes up the whole half acre he paid half a million bucks for. 

In any case, I traveled to Arco because of its proximity to Craters of the Moon National Monument. A fascinatingly random lava field in the middle of the Snake River Valley, Craters of the Moon is a desolate landscape highlighted by volcanic cinder cones, lava tubes, and the absence of tourists. Several feet of snow covered the monument making for poor pictures and visibility, but excellent snow shoeing. I spent the better part of the day climbing the cones and trying to avoid ruining the precious cross-country ski trails. Actually, I sloshed through the trails, a habit I've developed in honor of a man that my friends and I met while hiking through the Adirondacks last month. An avid skier, obnoxious local, and clearly convinced we were a bunch of juvenile delinquents, he spent twenty minutes explaining why we needed to go out of our way, whether it be jumping off cliffs or swinging from trees, in order to avoid the oh so perfectly-groomed ski trails. Apparently, the relationship between cross-country skiers and showshoers is similar to that of skiers and snowboarders, the later is simply sub-human.

Following a delicious Atomic Burger at the local diner in Arco, I headed south to Utah and even more snow. Counting yesterday, I have driven through either rain or snow every day for the past two weeks. Awesome.

Driving through Utah, it's not hard to see why the Mormons decided to stop their westward exodus and build Zion next to the Great Salt Lake; there is not a single eyesore or unpleasant view in the entire state.

To me the mountains and valleys of Utah are a bit worldlier; an endless playground for the adult boy who has not, and probably will never, shake his restless spirit. From the top of vermilion-colored mesas to the all-consuming darkness of slot canyons you can barely walk through sideways, one could spend a lifetime exploring the wild Utah backcountry. I was there for five days. Consequently, the wilderness of canyon country is where I walked away with the biggest disappointment of my trip thus far.

About eight bazillion years ago, tectonic plate shifts and earthquakes forced a 130,000 square mile piece of Earth up and created what is called the Colorado Plateau. Millions of years of erosion through rain, ice, and coursing rivers have whittled the plateau into what is called the Grand Staircase. The top step of the staircase rises over 11,000 feet above sea level and consists of the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains. With each downward step, erosion turns varying rock types into distinct canyons with unique formations and colors. All of this beauty is within a span of two hundred miles. The lowest step is the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River’s final and greatest masterpiece on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. One step higher is Zion Canyon, the home of the Virgin River, one of the United States’ last free-flowing rivers, and Utah’s most popular national park.

When Mormon settlers first stumbled upon Zion Canyon, they declared it to be “Zion.” Upon his arrival, Brigham Young was quick to remark that the canyon, while beautiful, was certainly not Zion. For years, until efforts began to create Zion National Park, people actually referred to the area as “not Zion.” Today the park enjoys a reputation for ambitious hiking trails and accessible canyons for both amateur and expert canyoneers.

During the winter the north rim of the canyon is impassable due to snow and ice and since I wanted to hike into the backcountry my only real option was the southwest desert. Not to be outdone by the towering canyon walls with imposing names like the Patriarchs and the Tower of Sinawava, the southwest desert is a series of washes covered in spruces that hide an ancient petrified forest among their roots.

I hiked about six miles into the backcountry and camped along the lower ridge of a mesa with a view overlooking the entire desert and valley leading up to the entrance of Zion Canyon. Unfortunately, I don’t sleep well in tents and combined with a heightened sense of paranoia because I was alone and miles away from civilization, I suffered through a fitful night of sleep.

The next morning I broke camp at first light because the forecast called for rain and I wanted to be well on my way before then. Naturally, the unpredictable nature of the weather I have encountered dictated that blue skies prevailed when I arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Bryce Canyon is the next step up in the Grand Staircase and could not be any more different than the Grand Canyon or Zion. Bryce is defined by its “Hoodoos,” orange-colored rock spires that belong on another planet. I hiked down the Queen’s Garden trail which switchbacks down to the floor of the Bryce Amphitheater, weaves between the hoodoos and climbs back up to the rim via a steep and narrow canyon called Wall Street.

I only spent a few hours at Bryce because the weather—again—was supposed to deteriorate and I wanted to make sure I was in Escalante before the snow hit. You’d think that at this point I would stop paying attention to the doom and gloom meteorologists, but the thought of driving up and down canyons and mesas in the middle of a blizzard was not that appealing.

I was the only person at the diner in Escalante when I stopped for dinner which meant that no one, other than the waitress, would see me devour a decadent cheeseburger covered in bacon, mushrooms, onions, and to top it all off, polish sausage. It was fantastic. I drifted off to sleep in my motel room looking forward to a day in the wilderness of the Grand Staircase Monument.

Much to my chagrin, I awoke to see five inches of fresh snow on the ground. What did that mean? No hiking in the Grand Staircase because the unpaved access roads were impassable and awful driving conditions as I continued on to Capitol Reef National Park. I was pissed, especially because the Grand Staircase was all off-trail backcountry hiking among hidden canyons, narrow washes and dinosaur tracks. Yes, dinosaur tracks.

Capitol Reef National Park was a pleasant surprise and certainly eased the pain of missing out on the Grand Staircase. Around the time the Colorado Plateau formed, the Earth’s crust folded to create the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile stretch of rock that has eroded away to form the park’s namesake. The upper reaches of the fold contain rocks that look like white marble, very similar to the color of the Capitol in Washington, DC.

The park also has a rich cultural history to complement its natural beauty. Over a thousand years ago, the native peoples who lived in the area carved numerous petroglyphs in the canyon walls that are still visible today. In the 19th century, Mormon settlers came to the area and flourished. Many of their buildings and orchards have been preserved in the park and during the summer, visitors may pick fruit from the many trees scattered throughout the park. Capitol Reef was also one of the Utah hideouts for the infamous robber Butch Cassidy and his gang. I followed the reef’s ridge for several miles to stand on the massive arch that immortalizes Cassidy’s name and stands guard over the wash he once used to traverse the reef.

On the way back to my car, I decided to turn the hike into a loop--versus a circuit--and walked alongside the park's main vehicle thoroughfare. I was offered a ride by a park ranger, the quintessential national park experience that, while seemingly harmless, is a rare treasure afforded mostly to hikers traveling alone. Don't ask me to expand, I can't right now. The consequence of not having much time to write is that ideas in my head don't ferment as well as they should. Nor do I spend nearly as much time editing. Guess that means I should write a book.

Now I'm in Park City for some skiing. I spent yesterday touring various Mormon sights in Salt Lake City and I'll have something to say about that later.

Pictures here.

1 comment:

  1. this is interesting stuff. where's everyone's comments?