Travel Journal No. 3: Arches National Park, Utah

Waking to the sunrise in the desert is like nothing else: The color of the sky and sand merge in stripes of pastel ranging from mustard yellow to velvety lavender and every shade between, each a portal to some fantastic shape beyond. On a recent morning when I was there it was hard to make out the exact horizon line except for the small thorny bushes that dotted the distant ridges. A rare rain must have fallen nearby as musty smells of sage and tarry creosote wafted in on soft waves of breeze, the cry of a coyote making its last lonely call before heading someplace cool to brave the heat of the day.

I’d lingered longer at this remote site than I had planned and I needed to move on, so I reluctantly packed up camp and headed back down what I thought was the trail toward my truck in the valley below. The path was steeper than I’d remembered, and the rocky slope quickly descended into an unfamiliar area that I imagined I must have not noticed in the fading light of my ascent days before. The shale-covered slope slipped quickly into a canyon, and the modest trail I followed seemed little more than one of the many deer paths that bisected the main trail as they traveled into side canyons. Pausing at a particularly steep section, I stopped to consult my map. GPS was not available, but by using my compass I determined I may have made a wrong turn.

In the desert, distance and position are deceiving. The sun and shadows are the most constant markers of location and time. But there in that deep cavern both were unavailable. Around me was a sand-floored gully; above me the curved canyon walls rose skyward in twisting layers toward the vibrant blue ribbon. Along the walls dark teardrop water stains and stippled sunlight formed intricate patterns on salmon-colored stone.

I sat down on the soft sand, took a sip of water from my canteen and breathed in the stony aroma. I remembered the words of author Rebecca Solnit, “Never to get lost is not to live,” but come on: I’d been in the desert little more than 72 hours. Becoming lost a few miles from my truck would likely be more embarrassing than transformative.

Turning back to my camp and then starting again was certainly an option, but I had plenty of water and food — I thought it might be nice to just set up camp on the smooth sandy floor and take a mid-morning nap.

A murmur at first, the muffled sounds of feet and hushed voices echoed from somewhere in the distance. As the sounds increased in volume I counted at least three voices and then the bark of a dog. From below, coming up the trail were two women and a young boy of about 6 or 7. A black and gray Australian shepherd bounded in front of them.

“He’s friendly,” they all called in unison as the dog came barreling toward me.

“Glad to hear it,” I called back, giving the dog a pat when he approached. His expression was not exactly friendly but rather one of cautious skepticism.

“Beautiful day for a hike,” one of the women said as she approached. She was older than the other, had sparkling blue eyes and a red bandana tied around her head that reminded me of a scarlet pope’s hat.

I nodded.

The dog had finished sniffing me and returned to sit at the boy’s feet.

“That your silver Toyota truck down there, mister?” the boy asked, pointing back down the trail.

Who calls anyone “mister” anymore? I thought, but I nodded, relieved to know I was heading toward my truck. “Yep, that’s mine. You like it?”

“Sure do, mister,” he said exuberantly. “I want the same one when I grow up.”

They all smiled. Their gleaming white teeth shone brightly against their tanned faces.

“Where you headed?” the older woman asked as she offered me a water bottle.

I lifted mine in reply. “Thank you, but I’ve got plenty and you might need it later today — it gets hot up here.”

She continued to smile and handed the bottle to the boy, who promptly filled his palm with the liquid and offered it to the grateful dog, who lapped at the water.

“I’m headed to Arches National Park. Have you been there before?” I said.

They nodded.

“Just came from there,” the older woman said. “It was beautiful but a very different landscape than out here.”

“Plus there were a lot more people,” the younger woman added.

Must be her daughter, I thought. Same eyes.

The boy and the dog ran past me and continued up the trail until he stopped and with not-so-subtle hand-waving urged his companions to do the same.

“Come on, I want to get to the top,” he finally called to the others.

“Happy trails,” the older woman said as they passed.

“And to you, too,” I said. As I picked myself off the ground, lifted my pack and headed in the opposite direction, I could hear their voices trailing off into the distance.

An hour later I was relieved to find my vehicle and not some other silver truck at the bottom of the trail. Once back on the road I headed south on Interstate 70 and then, turning right on Highway 191, I followed the signs for Moab to Arches National Park.

Arches, established in 1929, spreads out in dramatic fashion just north of the town of Moab. It seems as though the entire 77,000 acres of the park are covered with copper-colored buttes, chiseled canyons, crystalline-shaped spires and bridge-like arches, of which there are more than 2,000, making it the most concentrated arch garden on the planet. At an average elevation of nearly a mile, the park is situated in the Colorado Plateau, with the Colorado River only a few miles away.

Most of the arches and other natural structures in the park are accessible from the road, whereas some of the sights – such as Delicate Arch and Double Arch — require short hikes. More substantial hikes within the park, such as sojourns to Fiery Furnace, require being accompanied by a ranger or watching an orientation video.

Each arch in the park is spectacular in its own right, as Edward Abbey, in his book, “Desert Solitaire,” points out:

“These are natural arches, holes in the rock, windows in stone, no two alike, as varied in form as in dimension … formed through hundreds of thousands of years by the weathering of the huge sandstone walls, or fins, in which they are found. Not the work of a cosmic hand, nor sculptured by sand-bearing winds, as many people prefer to believe, the arches came into being and continue to come into being through the modest wedging action of rainwater, melting snow, frost, and ice, aided by gravity.”

One could spend a lifetime exploring Arches National Park and the vicinity. However, a friend had called to inform me that a high-altitude snowed-in lake within the Sierra Nevada Mountain range had become accessible due to exceptionally warm temperatures. He knew that I had always dreamed of watching the Eta Aquariids meteor shower from that location and it was fast approaching.

So I spent the next 24 hours touring the region and then tore myself away to head back toward California, eager to get to the Mammoth Lakes. What I did not know at the time was that a fast-approaching snowstorm was on its way. Sweating and hot in the desert, I couldn’t imagine that soon I would be shivering as I tried to stay warm in a fitful sleep on a frozen lake, numb to the bone and awestruck at my luck.


Originally published in the Napa Valley Register, May 2017