Ben Winston

Not your average travel blog

Child’s play and A wanderer in the Desert

Although on a well travelled tourist route through Utah, finding a few backroads and a scenic drive is not difficult. Leaving “colourful” Colorado into Utah, the landscape drastically changes from lush, tree-covered mountains, into a brown and rocky desert, sporadically-splattered with clumps of pea-green-grass, and it’s unpopulated all the way to the jagged horizon.

My pilot and I were making good time and we arrived in Moab in the late afternoon. It should be the summer season, but the streets, and the campsites are relatively quiet.

Arches was the first National Park on our itinerary in Utah. More colourful than I expected, the soil itself in places, is green!
I can’t help but picture in my mind, that Arches looks like a giant toddler had fun with clay in their alfresco, sun-soaked nursery; stacking the rusty-coloured mud haphazardly on top of the sand, cutting a few lines through everything with a plastic sword, making a few, fun tunnels and dragging himself on his diaper-covered arse past all the clay stumps to creat a rather hazy, rough-looking but MASSIVE valley. Some of the clay cliffs, arches and rocky outcrops are so far removed from what is the main, natural play-area, they look like they could have only been left by a messy child after play time.

The giant baby did a magnificent job however. The clay set hard in the sun, which you can now hike over, the arches themselves are varied and unique, the red swathes stretch to the horizon and the rocks range from reds, to greys, to yellows, with dark striations in the cracks and over the smooth curves; where the toddler had obviously chewed on his crayons and dragged the rough edges around the clay pit. Am I doing the construction of the national park justice?

The wind obviously has a large part to play, and even with my unfazed, stiff upper-lipped British reactions, I really am hugely impressed.

Canyonlands National Park is spectacular from the moment you leave highway 191, and on entering the park you’re immediately gifted with the reason why it is aptly named Canyonlands. It’s a titanic land of various canyons and as usual, is impossible to capture it all at once in one photograph. The emphasis on this site being wild is evident, with virtually no hand rails, barriers, signs or developed pathways. Coming to close to the edge is definitely a humbling experience, and there is very little off-road access for wheelchairs or the disabled.

I described Upheaval Dome (the possible crater) as a dinosaur’s sick bowl. However, if Arches was built by a clay-loving toddler, Canyonlands is the result of angry parents, stamping their feet in frustration over the muddy mess, resulting in gigantic cracks on the nursery’s alfresco floor. The entire landscape is amassed with deep, jaggedy, multi-layered crevices at various heights. Colourful soils fill the gaps and spike-covered shrubs alongside determined pine trees cling to life on the dry rocks. The crumbly, minuscule mud structures hold vital, microscopic organisms for plants to germinate and giant boulders balance precariously to fatal-looking, red cliff faces which surround an ancient, dry, sandy and scarred sea bed.

On the afternoon following some exploration in Canyonlands, Amanda and I spotted a young guy by the side of the road with his thumb hanging out. Carrying a skateboard, with a dirty backpack on the ground and looking a little more dishevelled than me, his stature resembles that of a tall, 21 year old Californian surfer in the early 80’s – and his long, sun-bleached, dusty hair paints the same stereotype. He looks like your typical hitchhiker that has possibly run away from home…and been on it for a few a months. Knowing we couldn’t take him very far, we decided to offer him a ride in the morning – meaning he would have to enjoy the luxuries of our dry campsite for the night, and have a meal on us.

We shared a few stories, ideas, ideals and swapped advice with the young “hobo” who is hitchhiking around the country with no real plans other than to visit every state. His perspective and choices are refreshing, honest and simple; his family are (apparently) distantly aware that he is ok, and he is also open with us about being a recovering heroine addict (amongst other things). It is clear that he has had a troubled youth, and also clear that he is still growing out of it.

To the most of you, it may seem inconceivable that he chooses to live this way; on the road, day to day, no taxes, no fixed job, only a few items of clothing, no home, no family around him, only a few possessions, and only the long term plan of seeing parts of his country on considerably less than a shoestring. He has no long term commitments, no insurances, no money for possible accidents and no troubles beyond finding somewhere semi-comfortable to sleep and some food. He doesn’t have a passport, yet has travelled between his childhood home in Alaska and the congruent USA multiple times by land (illegally, if you know your geography). He talks about train hopping, (which as a tourist, I avoided), he says he has received meals in restaurants in return for a night’s dishwashing, and he says he meets mostly friendly and hospitable people – except those closed-minded enough that tell him to hastily “move along”. He mentions that it would be tough to see the state of Hawaii…so he is at least, a realist.

It was enlightening and a joy to share experiences with him, although as much as I could empathise with his choice of lifestyle, I couldn’t help but sympathise with its limitations.

Many people have said to me that “it is not the arrival, but the journey that you learn from”. I would agree, but my new hobo friend seems to have forgotten what his journey is for, and the which direction his lifestyle is driving him towards. Losing sight of why you might disappear into the wild, or why you might amble around your country, away from “home” without the responsibilities of what “normal” society might thrust upon you, is dangerous. I think it’s vital to always have a reason – even if the reason is to simply “keep moving” or NOT carry on doing something that makes you, the people or the environment around you, stagnant. It’s important to be clear about what you’re giving up, or leaving behind (I made sure I wasn’t running from anything), even if the end goal is not quite clear. My troubled friend is on an important journey, but he doesn’t seem to have an opinion as to why he travels. Not knowing is ok, but no short term acknowledgement of what he is accomplishing, to me seems rather unproductive (that’s the thirty one year old in me, speaking to the twenty year old, and I realise that).

When I began my trip, I had some very fixed, but mostly vague goals of what I thought I wanted to achieve. It may not have been obvious when leaving Boston, but one of my main objections was (and still is) to design a future goal through living the current one.
I felt very stationary, and very isolated in my options while I was working in London; so as much as backpacking across one of the most expensive continents on $6 a day might have seemed extreme, I knew it was better than remaining stationary.

Through meeting a range of people, including those who I think I have nothing in common, no reason to be social with and possibly that I think might be undesirable, I am quickly realising why I am travelling, and how I want to approach future adventures – and there will be more adventures!
As for understanding my objectives, internally I believe I will have accomplished something bigger than having just visited places in America like a tourist. As for designing future goals beyond this challenge (but not avoiding unfortunate euphemisms), I am definitely getting closer to having sampled enough of the chutneys, to know which ones I want on my cheeseboard.

As a side note: If you’re thinking if coming to the USA to amble around, or hitchhike from state to state, you may want to check what your visa allows (time frame etc). The legalities of hitchhiking state to state aren’t always clear, and neither are the roads or towns it is legal on or in. The last thing I need on my challenge is to be deported, simply because I accidentally walked and caught a ride on the wrong slipway. You also wont be allowed in the country without: an exit flight, a reason to leave, an itinerary, or (to my understanding) an amount of money which border control believe each tourist should spend while they are visiting. I was lucky enough to enter the US to undertake my challenge because of the backing of, and the funds which I had already raised for World Land Trust. There was a point on landing in the US, after being detained for two and half hours, when I had my head in my hands and was being asked to leave within three months of beginning my trip. Not to mention how strange it looks when a relatively educated Caucasian chap in his thirties, turns up with nothing but a back pack full of survival and camping gear, saying he’s going to travel across the continent on $6 a day. I began to understand how that might have looked to any patient, or impatient border officials…

In the morning after coffee, we drove the young, deshevilled gun to a gas station (familiar territory) on Interstate 70, and I found that it was just as inspiring, interesting and rewarding to give the hospitality, than to receive it.

Amanda and I are now heading further west, to explore more of the uniquely-special landmarks across Utah.


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Where am I now?

After extensive work and tours through Southern Africa, most of my time is spent between Malawi and Europe.
Go Untamed Safaris was striding into top gear, but volatile poitics in 2019, Covid in 2020, the impacts of Russia vs the World as well as insesent corruption forced my hand.
The dust is now settling. Everything has changed. New chapters are about to be written.

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