Friday, April 25, 2014

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There are four of us on this adventure.  Often one or the other of us gets short-changed while someone else’s dream comes true.  Obviously, since I am The Dude, and I am footing the bill for this adventure, my dreams come true more often than others.  So sue me, I am a dictator.  But, I think, a benevolent one. 
On Saturday, April 12, after a middling long day on the road from Durango, Colorado, to Monticello, Utah, by way of the Four Corners, we settled in for some chilly mornings, and on the 13th basically hunkered down, during some changeable weather, staying near the trailer for some writing and reading and x-box and television, depending on the hour and one’s inclinations.   See the previous post.

On Monday, we headed to Moab, and within twenty minutes of arriving, I was planning how we were going to extend our stay.  What can I say?  This is the kind of town I love or want to love.  Not too big, rolling along in a river valley.  Coffee shops, bookstores, bicycles, a micro-brewery, malcontents, dropouts, dreamers, nature lovers, individualists.  Everything I wish I were, but haven’t had the courage to be.  I mean, really, guys, isn’t this where all us want to live?  In a little town composed of various versions of Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams?  (Well, maybe not all of you.)   The Caravan just spent half a year in the Eastern United States, and yes, we loved the cities and art museums, but I am thinking that the places I love best, the places that I thought, “Oh, I could drop it all and move here,” were places where the ancestors of the settlers of Durango and Moab and such places hailed from.  Bar Harbor.  Vermont. The Appalachians.  The wild men and women.  Screw all the domestic folks, the homebodies. 
Hello from The Arches
I know this is not fair and not even accurate.  But I am searching for a reason that Knightsmama and I felt drawn, a few years ago, to Salida, why we so much enjoyed our boys’ avocation of mountain biking,  why we wish we could drop everything, right now, and move to Western North Carolina, or Durango, or maybe even Moab. 
So Monday, we did the tourist thing, the thing on the schedule, the thing on the list.  We dropped by the Visitor’s Center, got ourselves oriented, got our National Park maps, and headed to Arches NationalPark.   Look, right now, I am not even going to try to capture in words what this place is like.  Knightsmama seems to have some faint memory of visiting here as a child, memories of her father, The Buckaroo, walking around and grabbing some green rocks and hiding them somewhere in the station wagon to take back to Texas.  I have no memories of Utah at all.  I don’t think I have ever been in the state, and I am positive as positive can be that I have never been to Arches before.  Still this part of the United States and moving down south to Monument Valley is the landscape I grew up watching in Westerns and car commercials.  John Ford Country.  For me, this adventure would have been an empty exercise if I had not visited Arches and environs.  And, now, here, having seen it, I don’t know what to say.  Or rather the process of getting to the words will have to travel through the right side of the brain, the creative side, then into the lefty verbal side, and I think my emotional reactions still at this moment are pre-verbal.  So I end up with easy words, like “amazing,” “stunning,” gigantic stone,” “crushed rose in color.”  I bought a little booklet that explains the geology of the region that I will use when I write a fuller version of this many moons from now.  And I can’t wait to read books by John McPhee when the trip is over—thanks to Frank Pool for the reminder. 
Knightsmama at Delicate Arch
(As a side note, the Back of Beyond Bookstore in Moab,has a great selection of McPhee and Abbey and Williams and Stegner.  The store is partly used and partly new books.  I found a first edition of Thomas Wolfe’s 1938 journal of his trip through the western national parks, the last thing he wrote before he died.  I am very excited about that.)
The most memorable part of the day was our trek to Delicate Arch.  All the brochures and trail markings proclaim the hike to be a mere mile and a half, there and back.  So three miles total.  I am not so sure of that.  It sure seemed longer.  Geez, after not so many steps, the pleasant little walk in the high desert began to seem like a pilgrimage, like a test of faith.  After a bit, around this and over that, I told Knightsmama and the boys to walk on ahead. I didn’t think I would make it.  My back and hip, which has been testing my fortitude the entire year, was being severely cranky this day.  There was a great rock dome up ahead we had to surmount.  I wasn’t going to bet that I would make it.  Captain Crunch, ever the gentleman, said he would stay back with me.  So Knightsmama and Dr. J. bounded ahead of us. 
The frustrating part of the walk up—which I divided into several sections of brief walks and long rests—was that facing us and passing us on their way down were a number of families, especially young families, men and women in their late-twenties or early-thirties, and their five year olds skipping down the rock.  I cannot say they were all cheerful and singing Disney songs.  But they certainly, in the final moments of the journey behaved with more grace and vigor than I wanted to in these early moments.  I hate getting old.  I hate what I have let my body become.  I don’t gracefully accept this state of being.  On the other hand, I kept saying to myself, “If a five-year old can do this, I can.” 
Eventually, I did.  Perhaps in record slow time.  At the very end, when the trail smoothed out, The Captain bounded ahead and found Knightsmama and Dr. J. already returning.  I was almost there, so Knightsmama agreed to go back up the final portions with me, and the boys got to climb around on other large rock features, off trail and, most likely, off limits.  Knightmama was careful not to tell me that the final portions of the hike were on a three-foot ledge without any railings.  Luckily going up I was on the inside and could attempt to grab the rock wall as we ascended. 
Then we made it.  And as we have experienced so many times on this trip, once we make the point of destination, we become part of a community.  Spread out along the smooth rock, looking across a gulf—maybe a hundred yards across—to the rock formation called Delicate Arch, were families and children and couples of all ages.  We overheard conversations.  One man my age had recently completed radiation for a cancer, and a twenty-something woman, after listening to her mother (we assume) complain about the trek up, announced she would find another family to hike down with.  Other conversations, we don’t understand, Chinese, French, German.  Again, in our journey through the United States, we find The World discovering and exploring these states along with us. 
We all made it back to the truck and drove around viewing more rock formations, and eventually, after getting a propane tank refilled (the nights have been nearing freezing), and grabbing dinner at the Moab Brewery, we made it back to Monticello for the night.
The Fins at The Arches
So that was, I guess, “my” day at The Arches.  Tuesday was Dr. J.’s day.  Back in December at Massanutten, Virginia, when the boys discovered they loved skiing, we had promised them skiing in Colorado.  Well, as you know, our schedules got screwed around, and by the time we made it to Colorado, skiing season had just passed.  So how do we make up for it?  Jeeps!  On Monday, we had stopped in several companies that lead jeep and 4-wheel excursions and/or rent jeeps to inexperienced tourists.  Dr. J. wanted the freedom of exploring on our own.  So we arranged to rent a jeep for a day.  On Tuesday morning, we woke early, drove the miles from Monticello to Moab, once again, and by nine o’clock we were loaded in the jeep, water and lunches and snacks all packed, and on our way off-roading. 
One thing I should explain first:  The reason we were camped in Monticello,  many miles south of Moab, while spending all our time in Moab, was that, as chance would have it, we were exploring the area during the nine-day 2014 Jeep Safari, sponsored by a The Red-Rock Four-Wheeler Club.  This thing has been going on for 48 years, so it is popular, and thus Knightsmama’s research could not turn up a campground at a price we could agree to.  The Safari looks like a very cool event, which includes a vendor show.  In addition, one can gawk.  Just stand on a street corner and gawk and golly at lots of really amazingly jacked-up vehicles.  A great number of oohs and aahs are to be heard.  (And for the newbies like us, a lot of sublimated and diverted penis envy:  “his jeep is bigger than my jeep” kind of thing.  But the heart of the event appears to be guided drives through the most interesting and often unavailable roads in the areas.  Four or five of these a day.
Since we were newbies and didn’t own a own jeep (actually, last summer I sold my 4-wheel drive Jeep Liberty to buy the Big Ass Truck, but the jeeps here were Wranglers with roll bars, not Liberties with juice cup holders!), we rented one.  We can recommend without reservation (though you will need one to rent a jeep) the fine folks at Canyonland Jeep Adventures, right there on the main drag in Moab.  They set us up in a Modified Four-Door Wrangler, a cooler of ice and water and off we went.  First, stop:  Gemini Bridges.  As we turned off Highway 191, onto the dirt road, we noticed a line of perhaps a dozen Wranglers, and assuming they were part of an organized tour, we caught a sign that pointed us toward a road heading up the side of a hill.  The anticipation and happiness inside our jeep was palpable:  we were doing it, heading off road and zig-zagging up a hill.
Since we spent the entire day driving around the Arches and Canyonlands area, I will not impose upon you each and every twist and turn, each thrill or tedious stretch of desert.   Our itinerary was a typical one for beginners, and our highlights were the ones that beginners have.  There are wonderful sites here.  The land is dramatic in its extremes, and inspiring in its difficult beauty. 
The Crest of Gemini Bridges:  Mind the Gap
Gemini Bridges:  It’s almost eight miles from the highway to The Bridges.  We went only to the top where we walked along high edges and pondered the six-foot wide slit in the crown of the rock that creates the bridges below.  Gemini Bridges=twin bridges, get it.  There’s a way, I believe, to drive to the base of the Bridges and look up at them.  We didn’t do that one.   We wandered around on top.  With our little adventure boy, Captain Crunch, running around, I finally had to simply take a seat on a rock, stop shouting warnings, and pray.  Of course, people have died here.  On the web, you read about an 18-year old Boy Scout, who just knew he could jump the gap between the two bridges.  He fell 100 feet to his death.  Another young man tried to drive his jeep over The Bridges, but failed.  A story by someone who was near-by when that accident occurred can be found on someone’s Flicker page.  This one sounds like a terrible failure of common sense all around.  There is a plaque commemorating his death.  On the one hand, one could be offended that the stone has been defaced with the advice,  “Turn it up as loud as you want.”  On the other, the plaque serves as a warning to all:  challenge the land and the land will defeat you. 
The Long Canyon Trail.  Most of the roads leading to Gemini Bridges are actually pretty wide and gentle, once one gets used to jeep roads.  Leaving the Bridges, there was one patch were I gunned it and just hummed over the road, much to the boys’ entertainment.  Then, in about five miles, we hit Highway 313, headed south, and caught the Long Canyon Trail, about seven miles long.  It begins easy, but soon enough we entered the descent into the canyon.  Here we met a mountain biker in granny gear, pedaling up.  The great fun of this road is its narrow, bouncy, rocking nature.  I had kind of forgotten its moderate difficulty until I reviewed my and others videos.  This one is fun, just too short.  The highlight is a passage under a fallen bolder that forms a triangle of light as you approach and you just can’t believe that you can get past it.  Of course, I had to put the jeep in park at that point and just sit and admire the cliffs and parched high desert floor. The miracle that our little family had driven here.   From there, we made it to Highway 279, and headed south again for the Potash-Shafer Trail.  You see, we are just sort of zigzagging, cross cutting between highways.  
Just Another Afternoon Drive
Potash-Schafer Trail.  Somewhere along the way—I don’t remember where—Knightsmama and I shifted as drivers.  (Although Dr. J., has his driver’s license, he is not supposed to drive rental vehicles.  Therefore, I will never confirm nor deny that Dr. J. had a few opportunities at the wheel also.)  But what we began learning was that Knightsmama is a pretty tough adventurer.  This is a terrible and wonderful jeep eighteen-mile road for getting a sense of the land and canyons from below.  Terrible, because a good bit of the road travels through land that the Moab Salt Company (Intrepid Potash) generously allows visitors to travel.  I am not being ironic—this is a good thing they do.  But, you know, for those of us untrained and unexcited by mining, any disturbance to the land makes us uneasy.  Still, their facility, or what we could see of it from the road, as we wound beside the Colorado River, is fascinating.  What we do get to see are the large open air holding tanks, which look something like cattle watering ponds in Texas, that allow water to evaporate and potash to remain.   Is this all a good thing or bad thing? I don’t know.  I haven’t studied the company, its processes, or its history.  On the one hand, you have to be amazed at what human technology can do.  On the other, one should always be fearful of what human technology can do.  But then, here I am driving a four-wheel vehicle through delicate land, merely and only for my entertainment and aesthetic education.  Which use of the land is more trivial for the fewest people?
In any case, this is also a wonderful and longish drive, so we all just sat back and enjoyed it.  We took a great deal of pleasure making occasional stops, getting out of the car, and just looking. Here, often, we drove in the in-between lands.  Above us canyon walls and Dead Horse State Park and Canyonlands National Park.  Below us, more canyons and the Colorado River.  At one point, we drove under the cliff that Thelma and Louise drove off into the Colorado.  (The plot line of the movie says the event occurred at the Grand Canyon; the filming took place in Dead Horse State Park.)  I can’t say I know exactly where this is.  We did not get out of the car and say a little prayer of forgiveness and appreciation for these two women. Knightsmama and I were quite conscious of the cultural significance of this portion of landscape, and made the boys listen to us talk about it.   I remember when I saw the movie when it came out, which, in 1991, was smack dab in the middle of The Men’s Movement era.  My first wife may remember this differently, but I seem to remember believing that at this moment feminism had taken a new turn and made a very important statement that we men could not and should not ignore.  If you haven’t done so recently, take a look at the end of the movie that stop frames on their leap.  And then take a look at what is supposedly an alternate ending.  Amazing what a soundtrack and editing can do.
The drive on Potash/Shafer road is pretty serene until the final mile.  That last mile seems to be more or less straight up.  We had seen this moment coming from a ways back, and so I took over driving again.  Therefore, I can’t tell you much about the drive, itself, except for the tense neck and white knuckles.  What I know is that in about a mile, the road, dirt and stone, basically one lane, ascends 1500 feet.  Up a bit, switchback, up a bit, switchback.  Don’t look over the side!  I have already admitted to a fear of heights—I had trouble with the walking path to Delicate Arch, remember.  Well, that was nothing.  Up a bit, switchback.  Oh look here come a jeep coming down toward us.  And I am on the outside!  How big is that pull off?  Half the size of the jeep.  How close am I to the edge?  Why do they let amateurs like us do this?  Up a bit, switchback.  Here comes someone else!  It's that mountain biker we saw on the Long Canyon Trail.  He's riding down this thing!
Anyway, you get the picture.  This was one of the greatest moments of our entire trip this year!  Now that it is over and we lived.  But I swear going up, I regretted not taking an extra blood pressure pill that morning.
The Off Roaders
Klondike Bluffs:  That was basically the day.  But Knightsmama and Dr. J had not quite had enough. So on our way back to Moab, we pulled off for Klondike Bluffs.  Admittedly, most of the driving we had accomplished during the day had been on relatively easy roads. They wanted something more challenging.  I, of course, was wanting something more refreshing, like a brew from Moab Brewery.  And I have to say here is my only regret—at one point, I got out of the jeep, sat down on a relatively flat stone and said, “Head on, I wish you well.”  I had just had enough.  I wasn’t mad; I wasn’t sad.  I had just, at that moment, had my fill of rocking along in a jeep.  We had come to a point where we were driving more or less in a dry creek bed.  Did I say Knightsmama was driving?  We came to a place where a family and their four—count them, four—off-road vehicles—were dismounted and discussing how to navigate a certain cut in the land, up one way, down another, all at a 90 degree turn.  The man of the family—gray like me, but I am guessing a few years younger, certainly in physique—says to me, “We call this place ‘Pick your poison.’ Any which way you go is a treat!”  He was being ironic.
Now, this is my family and why I love them.  All that the dad’s comments did for them is excite them.  Dr. J. and Captain Crunch exited the jeep and began evaluating the size of this drop, the steadiness of that rock, the arch of this branch for the tree,  the depth of that cut in the erosion.  Knightsmama craneed her head out the widow and began gunning the engine.  Oops.  A false move.  Cutting too closely to the bolder on the driver’s side.  Backup and ease forward more before turning. Dr. J. shouted instructions.  The front right tire dropped.  The back passenger tire rose six inches off the ground.  One tire at a time, Knightsmama coaxed the jeep off then back onto solid ground.  Dr. J. was jumping up and down, screaming that his mom is monster.  “You did it!”  Then, ready for more, Captain Crunch headed off down the road, trotting like a scout.  Dr. J. got back into the jeep, and off they rolled down away from me.  I waved, temporarily happy to be freed from worrying about dents and flats and insurance claims.  I sat, momentarily, in silence, and stillness, and solitude. 

About ten minutes later, I began to hear an engine, and though the brush and boulders, I caught the sight of the jeep.  Here they were returning, Captain Crunch trotting ahead as before.  After a bit more of Dr. J.’s geometry, Knightsmama eased the jeep back up the gulley.  I learned all that I had missed, but more I could see in everyone’s eyes that this is what they had been yearning for all day.

Soundtrack.  B. B. King:  "Better Not Look Down."

Gary Leatham:  "Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park"

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