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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone

Utah : Fall 2010

My Own Private Moab
I made my pilgrimage back to Utah at the time when the National Parks were closed because of the federal shut down. It's a beautiful drive from Salt Lake City to Moab along Highway 6 until you come to Carbonville, a town that reminds me a bit (on a smaller scale) of Borger, TX where my mom grew up in West Texas, an oil boom town. Here you can see first hand where UT gets some of its riches--dirty coal. I ate lunch in an old diner in Price, nearby to Carbonville and met an older waitress who served me up meatloaf and mashed potatoes, the same as she said she had been doing for 30 years in the same restaurant.

I arrived in Moab with the plan to make the more or less same circuit I had made 3 years previously. The real difference this time around was that the crazy Republicans in the House of Representatives had closed down the federal government so all the national parks were closed including the BLM campgrounds along the Colorado River where I had camped in 2010. I arrived in Moab and cruised by the BLM campgrounds and sure enough there was no one in them with barricades across the entrances. I then did what any sensible law breaking middle aged camper would do. I decided to put Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land" notion to the test. I drove out of town along 400 North, past the stinky waste treatment plant and parked in a dead-in cul de sac. I climbed through the fence and found the nicest and quietest Nature Conservancy/BLM land surrounded by vistas of red rock. I was thankful to be alone since I might have had to convince a companion to go along with my deed. I set up my tent in an inconspicuous area among the grasses and enjoyed a blissful night under the stars. The next morning I packed up everything and got a fairly early start but my heart sank when I saw two official looking white vans parked close to my car. As I tried to quickly throw everything in my car, two workers from Mosquito Abatement greeted me but could have cared less if I was camped there or not. I spent two more nights in My Own Private Moab.

The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation....Since the desert does not seem to act it seems to be waiting-but waiting for what? - Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

I'm back from a 9 day trip across the Canyonlands area in southeastern UT and a pilgrimage to Lubbock with most of my family celebrating my uncle Carl's 85th birthday. Feel free to read on or just check out my photos. I have a pretty impressive 5 minute slideshow if you're so inclined. It's hard to take boring photos when each new landscape simply overwhelms you.

I flew into Salt Lake City and rented a car for the journey. Although I had traveled to Bryce and Zion National Parks (NP) over 15 years ago with Julie Lavezzo, this was the first time for a deep exploration and one that for me is perhaps best taken alone, even though I had invited Paul B to join. This is the brutal landscape of sharp hard dryness but it's the rivers and the precious potholes and oases of cool spring water that sustain life. I had the good fortune of seeing the three major rivers of the area, the Green, the San Juan and the Colorado and camped along the banks of the Colorado and San Juan in some of the most scenic campsites I've ever seen as a car camper and not backcountry.

Moab near Arches NP is still a quaint little town of 5,000 folks and is the only town in UT set in a green valley along the Colorado River with its soaring sandstone cliffs. Once the Colorado River leaves Moab, its canyon becomes too high, remote and demanding for fast food stores to get a foothold. Only the Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, etc knew its secrets before Major John Powell and his expedition mapped its course in 1869 and 1871-72. Moab, of course, is one of the mountain biking epicenters of the world and famous for its challenging slickrock rides. Being a rebel and over 50, I instead rented a road bike and checked out the 16 mile round trip new bike lane along the main highway that is quite well-designed and climbs away from the highway at a 7% grade. Enough of a workout to get my chest pumping. I would have liked to ridden more but pooped out after maybe 20 miles along the Colorado by crawling under a juniper tree and watching the river, here a mostly blotchy green with a few riffles.

I knew somewhat what to expect in Arches NP as I've read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey twice already and gratefully reread it a third time on this trip. Note that my rereading is a tribute to its power to inspire and entertain me because, above all, Abbey is a quintessential storyteller. In fact it may be the only book I've ever read 3 times (excepting Goodnight Moon) so it's obvious its place in my personal canon, with others like Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner), My Antonia (Willa Cather) and many by Nadine Gordimer sure to join its company in the next 30 years.

Even with all the retired folks in their RV's and the international European travelers, Arches is just too extensive, dramatic and overpowering to underwhelm almost anyone. I saw kids raised no doubt on video games observe Balanced Rock and Delicate Arch with all the wonder these creations deserve. We've all seen photos of these icons and I always hope I won't be disappointed at the build up. No worries on that account. I had walked to a viewpoint of Delicate Arch from around 1.5 miles away. It was spectacular and whetted my appetite to do the 3 mile moderately easy clim over slickrock to stand under the arch. I liked the building anticipation that as you walk out to get close, you can't actually see the arch. It's hidden behind huge sandstone walls and at the end, you must walk about 50 yards, along a 6 foot path with a vertical drop of maybe 100 feet next to the path. As I approached the last stretch, a man was coaching his friend to hug the wall and walk forward but the poor man had vertigo and couldn't make himself do it. I considered whether I should advise him to close his eyes and I could lead him or if some horse like "blinders" could be attached to his head. Instead I wondered if Paul would have any trouble with this last part but I think not. Turning the bend and seeing the magnificent arch literally took my breath away. The 45 foot tall and 33 foot wide span is like nothing I've ever experienced, except for a stone arch of perhaps the same dimensions in Turkey. The panorama with the La Sal mountains in the background is made for sunset photos but I was too early in the day for that.

It was hard to leave Moab, especially after spending the last night in a fancy but tasteful resort called Red Cliffs with its unsurpassed location right on the river, gourmet food and lovely hot tub. And I loved breakfast at the Jailhouse Cafe, with their slogan "good enough for a last meal." But it was time to move on down the road. Traveling alone gives one a greater degree of many things--quiet reflection, chance encounters, last minute decisions and negotiation with only oneself. Which can be trying enough. Should I stay another night here, go on this hike or that one, choose this campsite, agree to have dinner with this group because I was invited, look at my email etc but pretty soon I found myself easing into a rhythm that seems to work for me. My mantra is to stay open to the moment and who I might meet but have a realistic itinerary of the ground I plan to cover so I can "dilly dally", change my direction or linger if I feel a desire.

I knew I wanted to make a big loop back to Salt Lake City and take in as many national parks, state parks and basically get lost for at least a few days. My dad had been in the hospital for 4 days but once he was out, I felt no need and indeed loved the freedom of not looking at email or retrieving phone messages for 10 days. This part of the world grabs your whole body, mind and spirit if you succumb to that and I was game. I stopped briefly at Dead Horse Point State Park to see the "gooseneck" meanderings of the Colorado, wishing I knew more about geology and how rivers are formed. The Colorado clearly has had a mind of its own for millions of years, snaking and moving in contortions that are mindboggling, making the water in its walled canyons travel in a circuitous route that only adds to its mystery and power. The Glen Canyon dam lower on the river forming Lake Powell tries to tame it but in this part of the Canyonlands, the river is all powerful, flowing out of Colorado with the Green River making its confluence near Cataract Canyon. From the map I looked at daily, it must be pretty near impossible to get to see Cataract Canyon, but I make a mental note to check the internet later to see. A labyrinth that only the most hearty and experienced can expect to get out of alive.

I spent the next couple of nights staying in the adorable little town of Bluff along the San Juan River. I found out my cousins who live in Pagosa Springs, CO had done a float trip a few days previously. This stretch of the San Juan is famous for its "River House" and pictographs where the Navajo and Anasazi lived but I didn't make the trip. Instead I had a wonderful short hike in Natural Bridges State Park and and also drove to Monument Valley where monoliths and towering buttes made me recall some old John Wayne movies plus Thelma and Louise. I feel sure I could have passed a dropoff along the way somewhere in the Canyonlands where they drove the car off the road. I took a wonderful drive and hike in Capitol Reef National Monument and was amazed at the fruit orchard in the little enclave called Fruita where 10 Mormon families dug out an existence from 1896-1941 or so. The Park Service still maintains the orchard and if you come at harvest time you can still pick and eat as much as you like. Much as the Mormons are one of the weirder and oppressive religions around, they did settle some remote areas and made them thrive by their culture of mutual assistance, a concept that flies in the face of the rugged individualism of some of their contemporaries. On the way I stopped at the impressive Newspaper Rock, which preserves some of the most fanciful and accessible prehistoric rock in southern UT. The depictions could be from all over a 2000 year time span and I got into imagining Native Americans carving out the bison, horses, birds and mythic beings. Later on the trip I went to the Anasazi State Park in Boulder which is an active archeological site with an excellent small museum housing the artifacts found.

While driving I spent my time listening to Jonathan Frazen's new masterpiece called Freedom for my book club. Its themes are about all the freedoms and lack thereof that surround us in contemporary American life. The main character goes to work for the Nature Conservancy but then starts his own non-profit to save the cerulean warbler and also work on population control. But he makes a pact with the devil, in this case the perpetrators of mountain top removal in West VA. A day of reckoning comes at both the personal and political level and he decides to stay true to his heart and the "freedom" to make life defining choices that he can live with. I can't recommend the book enough as it's so relevant to our lives and the hard necessity of challenging our collective amnesia and denial, especially about global population and its impact on the global environment, down to the very present danger of the disappearance of songbird species because of the surging domestic cat population.

I felt extremely grateful and lucky on this trip (as always) that I had the upbringing I had, the time and money for extended travel and the chutzpah to go on my own. I only saw 2 other women traveling by themselves the entire week and I might have to start a new crusade on the topic. If the author of Eat, Pray, Love can make millions off the latent desire of middle class women to "go solo", maybe my new website/blog would have to be titled Eat, Hike, Get Lost.

Back to the trip. My absolute favorite guest house was a newish construction made to look like an old ranch house in the outpost of Torrey called The Lodge at Red Cliffs. The great room was enormous and cozy with a welcome fireplace and hot tub and they raise bison, mostly for conversation and not the meat, as they import that from Montana for their Bison burgers. I ate out with a group of 3 siblings and 2 of their respective spouses and shared rattlesnake patties as one of the appetizers. I had to wonder if they were "free range" or farmed but squelched the urge to inquire. One of the couples were serious outdoorsy folks and have rafted the Grand Canyon a few times plus gone to Alaska 12 times. Both of those adventures have been on my short list for years and they are moving up the line in short order. I can easily see myself (and possibly some of you?) taking the state ferries to explore Alaska soon.

A lovely 8 mile hike in Grand Staircase/Escalante to Calf Creek and its waterfall delighted me the next day. I had driven through some rain and groves of aspens in their fall prime to reach the trailhead. The names in this part of the country are intriguing--Hell's Backbone (a detour I felt compelled to take because of the name), Birdseye, Dead Horse Point, Gooseneck State Park, Kodachrome Falls, Hovenweap, Goblin Valley. Bryce Canyon's name is boring for these parts but its formation of every shade of pink, sandy and white hoodoos, the name given to the erosional features formed by freezing and thawing at this elevation of up to 9500 feet. I got some great photos of the bristlecone pines here that are 1,700 years old before taking a 5 mile hike down a steep trail and among the "hoodoos" on the canyon floor. I got lucky with a same day reservation in the Bryce Canyon Lodge and froze my ass off watching both the sunset and sunrise with a waxing moon near its fullness.

The last day I stayed off I-15 drove through trim little Mormon towns with their requisite Church of the Later Day Saints, back to Salt Lake City and the astonishing Antelope State Park, the largest island in the Great Salt Lake and joined to the mainland by a 7 mile causeway. The entire island is the park and reminds me somewhat of Angel Island, only accessible by car. It seems to float shimmering in the expanse of the lake. The wildlife viewing was by far the best of the trip. I saw 4 coyotes over the course of 16 hours at different locations, a herd of bison and pronghorns (hence why Kit Carson named it Antelope State Park) and maybe tens of thousands of pied bill grebes. The coyotes sang a little ditty right at sunset. Different birds migrate throughout the year here on this critical stop on the Pacific Flyway. The contorted and banded rocks here are some of the oldest found anywhere on earth, 550 million years old, older than rocks found at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Sure makes our time on the planet less than a blink of the eye. I spent the last night camping and waking in the middle of the night to pee and take a final look at the Big Dipper, with the dipper part now thrown back in an angle that I had seen only a few times previously, low to the northern horizon. Orion took up its sentinel post and as I lay back down for a few more hours of deep sleep, I marveled at all I had seen on my adventure.
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