Most of Utah, most of the southwest for that matter, was at one time a large sea, and by one time, I actually mean to say over twenty times. Yes, over the long arc of history, Utah was submerged in water for some two dozen individual eras, each carefully and uniquely shaping the terrain. To walk through Utah, then, is to become a mermaid, to experience an ocean from its mysterious floor, to step into another world, of geological formations of brilliant striation and illogical shape. It is to be dwarfed not just by the size of the surrounding canyons, towering above you, but to be humbled as well by the sheer scale of time, to feel wonderfully insignificant, with your some-odd eighty years on this earth, when the landscape around you has been growing, living, and changing for millions.
Arches are but one splendid byproduct of Utah's natural history, the stunning result of eons of erosion that have left gravity-defying arcs of sandstone soaring overhead. My mission while at Arches National Park was to explore a handful of these formations through a primitive hike, and so I set out on the sandy trail early, passing my first arch my 8AM. And what an arch it was! The Landscape Arch, one of the longest in the world, literally hundreds of feet, thousands of tons, of natural bridge supported by nothing, it seemed, but magic.
And then the trail continued, fading, becoming less apparent, nothing but small cairns, piles of rock signifying a human touch, every twenty or thirty feet. Onward I traveled, doing my best to stick to the trail, winding from arch to arch and coming across two of them, one atop the other, really two windows punched into a canyon, and I climbed through the bottom window to the other side of the fin and, somewhere around there, lost the trail.
But it was no matter, for I had my compass and the Rockies to my rear and my own sense of adventure to guide me, and so I skipped about from sloping mound to mound, fin to fin, fin to mound and back again, crawling up boulders and finding myself just moments later fifty, one hundred, two hundred feet above the ground. Early on in this hike, I had taken off my shoes and begun to walk barefoot, and here, on the sandstone smoothed by the waters of a million storms, it felt magnificent, cool glass earth sending splendid sensations through the soles of my feet. Looking out into the distance, I felt freer than I'd ever been, capable of anything and everything the word had to offer; all I had to do was seize it.
And seize it I did, no longer hiking toward new grounds but hurtling toward them, skipping and jumping from boulder to boulder, leaping over narrow chasms with little care or caution, no longer on a search for arches but instead simply following where the curves and contours of the earth steered me. I lost myself in the scenery, lost myself in the exhilaration, lost myself in the liberation. And then, as was bound to happen, I lost myself in the tactical landscape, too.
Coming to a dead end, the edge of a boulder with nothing but a forty-foot drop on its other side, I turned around to find another way, but all I found there was more of the same: another steep drop. At this point, my senses of logic returned, temporarily shushed as I ran about, and attempted to examine the cache of my memory of those past few minutes, to determine what route had brought me onto the boulder on which I presently stood. Alas, I had been so lost in the moment that there was no cache, no memory of the past, just where I was, and that was it, and I had no idea how I had gotten there.
I dropped my pack and carried out a more thorough expedition of the boulder, some fifteen feet wide and twenty feet long, with a narrow, six-inch rift running through the middle of it on one side, and an otherwise smooth top spare one anvil-shaped extrusion poking up toward the right edge. On all sides, the eighty-degree slopes ruled climbing down out of the question. I was puzzled.
Though I knew it was not the way I had come, I found the rift to be the only stretch in which I could grab some hold, and so I slid myself to the top's edge, right above the ridge, and then placed a foot in it, digging my heel in to hold my position, while I pressed my back and my palms against any small swell of boulder I could find. And like that, I lowered myself inch by inch, each time repositioning my hands to grab something, anything, to keep me from slipping. But boulder to grab was in short supply, so smooth it was, and as the weight of my body shifted from rock ledge to rock edge, I began to slide downward ever so slightly.
I knew it was only a matter of seconds before the weight of my torso dropped off the mound and I would fall to the ground, bloodied and injured and ankle, still wedged in the rift, badly broken, but I had passed the point of no return, now situated in a crucifixion position on the face of the rock, with no way to lift myself back up without losing the very little friction I was still maintaining on this tauntingly slow slide toward the drop.
Frantically, I did the only thing I could think of, unhooking myself from my pack and thus lightening my weight, then in a split second, flinging myself upward onto it, kicking off of it with a mad grab toward the rim, and succeeding, and pulling myself back up onto the boulder with just enough time to reach back and grab my bag before it fell away from me. No, I decided, the rift descent would not work; I needed another way. But how? All other angles were impossibly worse, just as steep but without any sort of hold whatsoever. In fact the only other hold on that whole mound was the anvil.
The anvil: that was it! If I couldn't climb down that boulder, I would repel down it, and I'd use the sturdy anvil as a hold for my rope. I rejoiced at the cleverness, the resourcefulness, of my plan, and minutes later, had my bright red paracord fastened around the whole of the extrusion. It was time to escape that ledge. I grabbed one end of the rope in each hand and squatted next to the anchor, back toward the canyon wall behind me, and feet still pushing out against the rock, I began to lean back slowly, lowering myself to be rest perpendicular to the rock face.
But I stopped. Terrified, I pulled myself back upright, too unsure of this scheme to put my life and my spine in the hands of a $7 rope and a million-year-old piece of rock, sturdy as it may have been. Moreover, the rope I had brought along stretched, eliciting the terrible feeling, as I had begun to rappel, that it was giving out under my weight. I knew this couldn't be the case; though I had brought it along mainly to raise my food sack into the trees in bear country, the rope was rated to hold three times my weight, but its flex and small diameter did little to reassure me.
I tried again, again and again, but each time I backed out, returning myself to the ledge, opting out of that trust fall with no accountability. What was I to trust: the rope, the anvil, the physics of gravity, my own untrained abilities? I simply couldn't do it. Frustrated, I dropped the rope and sat on the rock, stumped, so close to safety but so at a loss for how to reach it. And for nearly an hour, I just sat. The land began to heat, my skin readily exposed, and when I finally resolved that I had no choice but to rappel or get hurt trying, I stood back up, grabbed hold of the rope, and pushed off in one fluid motion, and there I was, slowly and awkwardly but surely and safely walking down the rock. I hit ground, and I was off the rock.
I shrieked in delight, never before so happy to be alive. I twirled around, arms outstretched, giddy and energized and full of vigor. Bursting with joy, I danced and pranced back to the trail, which I located without too much difficulty, and made my way to the trailhead, meeting and greeting every individual I met with a hearty smile. When I saw a hiker struggle up or off a steep step, I'd hurry over to their side and guide them through it, tenderly aiding whole families in their exploration of the arches. I felt, in that state, in perfect flow, as though climbing up and down those rocks like a spider, barefoot and reveling in the countless comments and compliments, assisting those who needed assistance, was all I was ever meant to do, and I found such solace in those memorable moments.
But eventually I came to the end of the trail, or the beginning rather, and Rousseau awaited, and so I boarded the scooter and meandered through the scenic drive of Arches National Park, stopping for a half-dozen overlooks and small trails toward the exit, before rocketing back onto the highway and making my way south.
I had planned to stop next at Canyonlands National Park, a neighbor to Arches, but almost immediately, I felt weary and tired from the heat of the morning and, likely, a bit of dehydration. The euphoria and energy of the morning had worn off; now, I just wanted to sleep, but there was nowhere to do so, and certainly not in the sweltering sun of Canyonlands. So I, regrettably, passed by it, pulling in another thirty or forty miles before I could no longer go on.
I was in the town of Monticello, and it was only 3PM, but I was ready to call it a day, and felt I deserved a rest anyway, and so I pulled into the nearest hotel, a respectable hotel for the first time, and quickly booked a room. Once inside, I collapsed onto the closest of the two twin beds, rising only hours later for a shower and a short walk to the store for some dinner goods. I wasted away the rest of the day lying about and watching television, and for once, I found it not a waste at all, but I much-needed break from the strenuous weeks of travel I had endured.
The next morning, I took my time leaving the hotel, and after a fresh shower and simple breakfast, I set off for Mesa Verde, back in Colorado, a delightful series of Anasazi cliff dwellings built high in the folds of a grand mountain. "Wow, those dwellings look so ... so modern," I joked to myself as I spied the visitors' center through a clearing of trees, chucking in the cavern of my helmet, momentarily yearning for a travel companion to laugh at my poor witticisms .
But really, the well-preserved cliff dwellings were spectacular, and I was grateful for having made the very out-of-the-way detour to visit them. That gratitude was tested, however, on my return west, when, driving through a town so small I could glimpse one 65MPH speed limit sign from the one before it, I didn't happen to catch the 35MPH one wedged between them, and it wasn't until I was out of town that I noticed the flashing blue and red lights of a Colorado officer in my side mirror.
I had always assumed I'd get at least one ticket on my journey, so I made no extravagant excuses to get out of a ticket, instead simply apologizing and passing over my license, registration, and about an eighth of my proof of insurance, the rest having disintegrated after a year of wear and tear under the seat of my bike, and he took them and went back to his vehicle and stared at a computer for an inordinate amount of time and returned, eventually, with a citation for speeding, which he had courteously minimized to one degree. I thanked him and went on my way, not particularly pleased with myself at the mistake but not terribly hung up on it, either.
My return west took me through the Four Corners region, where the arbitrary borders of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona all meet. I had absolutely no desire to visit the Four Corners Monument, and had not intended to, but I had just finished a particularly large helping of water on a particularly remote stretch of road, and the monument was a mere one hundred yards off said road, so close I could spy a restroom, and so I begrudgingly pulled in.
The Four Corners Monument is just as unimpressive as I'd imagined. Behind a row of booths filled with vendors peddling cheap souvenirs sits a large circle carved into the ground, with a smaller one inside it, and then two intersecting lines split the smaller circle into four equal parts: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. And that is it, and the tourists love it, each squealing with delight at the opportunity to have a photograph taken with their feet in multiple legal jurisdictions at the very same moment, and after 120 seconds at the monument, which I retrospectively deemed too much, I left. The admission fee to this national treasure was a full three dollars, money I almost had the mind to ask to have refunded on principle alone. In leaving, I groaned when I passed a sign reading "Thanks for visiting, come again!" as though the monument offered anything but first-time novelty, anything that would cause a visitor to come back a second time. The upside of crossing through the Four Corners was that I was now in Arizona, such a lovely state, and working my way through Monument Valley, an epic drive through peaceful flatland punctuated by breathtaking stone monoliths jutting into the sky. Not even a harsh east wind could dampen the beauty of that drive.
By nightfall, I arrived in the heart of the Navajo Nation, proud to be in the presence of the true inhabitants and historic caretakers of those gorgeous lands. I camped that night at Canyon de Chelley, in a real campsite for the first time in what felt like ages, and in the morning I explored the remarkable canyon before continuing west to Flagstaff. The wind that next day was the worst of the trip, a relentless 30MPH gust blowing due east, right against me as I worked west, slowing Rousseau to a crawl on the only road that would take me to Flagstaff, Route 40, a 75MPH trucker route in which patience was not a virtue practiced.
Driving alongside trucks is a special sort of nightmare. On narrow two-lane byways, to cross paths with an oncoming truck is to be hit by a shockwave, often delayed for a few seconds, but from all angles, a violent windstorm to which cars are ordinarily oblivious. And these are unpleasant. But to be passed by a truck is even worse. Occasionally, I wouldn't notice a truck inching up on my left, not glancing in my mirror, but I'd find out soon enough, actually feeling the force of the semi, its displaced air pushing me toward the side of the road, forward and right and into the shoulder, and this was often where I'd end up, fortunate enough to have a shoulder to land on.
But that is only half of the battle. After leaning so hard left you think you'll topple just to stay in your lane, the back end of the truck will soon clear, and then all of that displaced air jumps at the chance to move back, right in behind the truck, and so instantly the winds change and you find yourself being sucked into the truck itself, like a black hole, and it takes twice as much energy and nerve to escape that. And these are in ideal conditions. So out on 40, with the wind already making matters miserable, and trucks passing by en masse, I came closer to falling, on a number of occasions, than at any other point on the trip.
Fortunately, the perilous drive was broken up by a number of stops along the way. The first was Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park, a magnificently varied section of Arizona highlighting brilliant badlands, molded moonscape, and wonderful wood that had, over many thousands of years, been petrified to hard, glossy crystal. Next, I came upon Meteor Crater, a gaping scar in the Arizona desert from a massive meteor strike many years ago. I had expected the crater, if only by its style of advertisement, to be something of a tourist trap, but I was pleased to find the site's museum, film, and materials all of respectable quality, and the meteor itself, nearly a mile across, was astonishing. And from there, I detoured to Walnut Canyon, another set of cliff dwellings from a different peoples and different time.
Finally, after a grueling day of battling the wind, I arrived in Flagstaff, checked into a lovely hostel, and headed to a pub for some food, reading, and writing, then back to my bed for some rest. The next day, I woke lazily and ambled about Flagstaff for a bit before heading out to the Grand Canyon's south rim.
The Grand Canyon is, indeed, an absolute wonder, a site so famous and well-visited it requires an entire village, and a nearby town, to support the visitors it receives each day. All around, families and shuttle buses and minivans and pedestrians scurry about, each with its own route and agenda for taking in the canyon. For the canyon simply can't be taken in from one vantage point, it's too large, so it must be seen in sections, from this angle and that, this elevation and that, each viewpoint different and mesmerizing in its own way.
Me, I had decided to take in the canyon the best way I knew how to explore new scenery: not with overlooks or elevated vistas but with an on-the-ground hike, which in this case meant descending into the canyon itself. And if I were to climb into the canyon, I thought, I might as well make it all the way down, down to the Colorado River far below, and so I stopped by the visitors' center to inquire about the best routes down and up. The ranger on duty confidently suggested the South Kaibob Trail for the descent, a steep, 5,000-foot route with no water along the way, and then on the way back up, the Bright Angel, a shallower, longer climb with some access to drinking water at various points.
Overall, he said, the hike would be fourteen miles with a total 9,000 feet in elevation change, certainly not a day hike. I asked him about camping at the bottom, to which he replied the campsites were all full and no backcountry permits were available. I frowned, told him I'd just hike a bit of a ways down before coming back up, and headed out to the trail with that lie fresh in my mind in case anyone else asked. The truth was, I was going to make it to the bottom of that canyon, if I had to stop somewhere along the way for the night, so be it; there was enough canyon to go around.
I had gotten a late start on the hike, it being past 11AM when I first stepped onto the trail, and by noon, the heat was nearing one hundred degrees. The descent was, indeed, steep, not arduous but requiring careful foot placement on the sandy soil, especially barefoot, and by three miles in, my water pack was nearly empty. In the distance I spied the Colorado River, and its blue waters teased me, but I knew was still hours away from that cool current.
On the way down, I was passed by a pack of mules carrying tourists eager for an unearned trip to the canyon floor. I found myself perturbed, annoyed, angry at these individuals, at the selfishness of subjecting another being to such servitude for one's pleasure. To hike on the back of another, I felt, was to not hike at all, for hiking requires harmony with nature, with all living things, and nothing in nature is less harmonious than enslaving another species for enjoyment, pulling a sentient being ten thousand feet up and down a sweltering canyon each and every day.
The mules passed, mushed along by their lead, and I let my frustration, which had been so quiet since I'd left DC, ride along with them. I wanted nothing to detract from the joy of that hike, of the towering canyons and rainbow walls, and so I focused instead on the trail before me, and the trail beyond that, and the water, the cool, clear water, somewhere in between.
Finally, by early afternoon, I arrived at the Colorado, and crossed its narrow suspension bridge, and waded into an icy creek, so soothing against my sunkissed skin, and then walked a short distance further to a pump where I thirstily filled my water pack and drank until my stomach hurt, than drank some more and refilled again. And then, still hoping to make it out of the canyon that night, I began my ascent, a much more challenging stretch of trail with endless switchbacks and winding turns, my only forms of encouragement the canyon rim growing ever closer to my eye and the awestruck words of those climbing with shoes and marveling at my lack thereof. The hours ticked by, my mind wandering, my body thirsty, hungry, tired. Mere minutes from the top, I was almost ready to give up, until a park ranger passed by and we struck up a conversation on national parks and the federal government and other things we had in common, and her words helped to take my mind off of the pain and exhaustion, and without even realizing, I was back at the surface, among a sea of strollers and SUVs and handbags.
In total, the hike had taken only seven hours, but a trying seven hours it had been, enough to leave me craving nothing more than a nice hotel and a soft mattress for the night, which I found on the outskirts of town, and enough to leave my calves, thighs, and feet sore for days thereafter. But I done it, I had hiked the Grand Canyon, down and back, in one day, and at all, and for that I was grateful.