Not your average travel blog
The drive seems long, yet it is only four hours west of Moab and well within the boundaries of Utah. I can see a hot haze all the way to the horizon and an ever changing landscape unfolds every few minutes; mountain backdrops roll down to green hill sides, bright grass meadows and sage bush “Jackson Pollock” the valleys which are scattered with ageing farmsteads, and every one has at least one rusting vehicle in their yard. The populated areas are no more than a village gas station, the odd grocery store and a sprinkling of dilapidated houses. Although slightly cooler at higher altitude, lonely cattle carefully swish their tales to cool themselves amongst short, prickly, stubborn trees; birds circle the cliff tops of the rocky out crops that shoot up from the ground like angry, clumps of red liquorice and mini canyons hide the streams that cut through the low levels of the fields, providing just enough water for a few small wooded areas to shoot up. It is hard not to imagine the agricultural, tough times in Utah. There is very little evidence of lavish lifestyle, abundant wealth or luxury spending – even though the farms are still very much operational, there is little respite from long seasons of desert heat, volatile weather and an unyielding ground. It is however – experiencing southern as a wandering transient – peaceful, calm, hot, and very rural.
Not originally on my definite route, but severely instructed by my Gran that I was “not allowed to miss it”, Bryce Canyon is my next stop. She visited it thirty years ago and simply stated over a cup of tea, (although somehow I knew that I was not allowed to forget), that I should let her know “how it’s getting along”.
To put my Gran’s mind at rest, Bryce Canyon is still spectacular. I experienced a busy National Park with quite a few tourist bottlenecks, probably something my Gran had less trouble with. The fatal cliffs soaked in fragile, red dirt, form trails which seem to defy the corrosive forces that batter them all year round, and compared to the previous Parks in Utah (see most recent post), no clay-wielding child, angry adult, creative god, flying space rock, or sickly dinosaur could have possible created Bryce Canyon. Large in her appearance, regal in her stature, intricate in her detail and unique in her attraction, only Mother Nature, with her limitless ability to conjure such colossal splendour and magnificence could have constructed or fashioned Bryce’s landscape with such tenacity and flair…and she wears it well. I see “Bryce” to be the big bottomed, female neighbour who often brings cakes round for your mum, and even though you’re not normally a lover of the larger ladies, this sassy woman’s appeal is in her style, the way she boldly shows off her homemade-buns, her sugary, rich toppings, and the way she’s always dresses so casually-chic; accessorised with big rocks, cleverly-placed bangles and a few dense gems hanging around her unashamed, bohemian presence. Her unusually-rugged lines cut a curious vibe around her peaceful aura, and she’s completely intriguing to be around.
My photography abilities should again be questioned, but no amount of coverage could do the views from the canyon justice. When the light catches her unique shapes, it’s like Nature gives us a wink, and reminds us how to be truly romantic.
On the second day of camping in the canyon, even in the spitting rain under the growling grey skies, the views over Bryce stand alone as some of the most uniquely different, unexpected and astonishingly rugged landscapes which I have come across on my challenge so far. So Gran, thanks for being insistent!
Although I’m sure my Gran visited Zion National Park after Bryce, I always had Zion on my lust list, so maybe that’s why she wasn’t so vocal in instructing me to visit. If she had been, I would have been just as grateful.
It is impossible not to be in awe of the smooth sandy structures that swirl around the skyline and tower above the road after entering Zion. Named by biblical settlers who, as per usual, forced the natives from their lands, then found it impossible to farm themselves due to flooding, landslides, natural fires, persistent storms and Zion in general being a volatile valley; it was too difficult for them to make it home. Eventually Zion was made a national park (it wasn’t offered back to native tribes, or seemingly, could used for anything else).
Through the mile long tunnel in the giant cliffs, what awaits you on the other side is a completely different rock world. The rough jagged edges contrast to those in the east of the park and the rocks turn from titanic, sandy, walnut-whips (reference for the British), to humongous, straight-cut-slabs of sheer cliffs. They must be some of the largest in the world as they jut straight up from the winding valley and tower mercilessly over head, casting shadows over the minuscule world that I now feel part of.
Zion is unique; the town of Springdown is virtually inside the park, with a literal passport barrier at its boundary. Park visitors can come as go and they please on foot, able to indulge immediately in amenities that all other parks lack (with the exception of maybe commercial Yellowstone).
Although busy, the lodge and the valley in Zion are an integral and engrained part of the park’s history. I find it sadly amusing how many times the road has been rebuilt, how many times the buildings have been damaged or washed away and how many times tourists have been stranded in the valley due to storms and landslides. Zion reminds us constantly what the wild is, yet repeatedly we fail to learn that no matter how much the cost, or how resilient we might think we are in a volatile landscape, we still attempt to overcome nature.
Angels Landing is a hike that features high on any adrenaline hikers list. In fact it had been recommended by friends I had met in Bryce Canyon (more of them later), and it was even suggested that I might not survive! Fortunately, I did.
I think it is definitely the first time I have hiked, let me correct myself, “climbed and clung” onto a trail with defiant and precise concentration: one foot wrong, and it’s a half mile drop that your hiking partner won’t have the pleasure of seeing you at the end of. A trek to remember, but not wish to take your young children on; Angels Landing is the most daunting hike I have done so far in a National Park, and even though the five mile trip up and down is spectacular, I’m glad I don’t suffer terrible vertigo. I also wore the right underwear!
It is becoming clear that my pilot in Utah is encourageable and maybe a little over-enthusiastic. Following Angels Landing, Amanda decided it was a great idea to hike The Narrows in the same day, yet a handful of miles in and out of the canyon was enough. Our bones ache, and it was a cool wash in an otherwise showerless week.
Camping seems to be growing on Amanda, and I’m beginning to see the adventurer in her blossom. She has a new calmness, a respect for backcountry and although I think a lot has to do with wanting to know and learn so she can impress her new man, Jon, it is not without thorough enjoyment in her own soul. I could not have a better sparing partner; considerate, caring, respectful, with a positive spirit that I think may have been sadly, a little contained – saturated with city life. Although mentioning her man every third sentence, her mind and humour is constantly in the gutter, so we get along like two nattering neighbours that share food gifts and mornings with gin – although sadly, we lack both.
This might conjure some controversy, but in terms of intense colour, my experiences of North American sunsets and sunrises have been bland. Maybe it’s the time of year I have ventured across certain areas, or that I have been considerably unlucky, but they just haven’t come close to the jaw dropping skies I have witnessed in the subcontinent (Australia and Southern Africa), or in the deserts of United Arab Emirates. However, on many occasions this year, the stars at night have been astonishing
On the night before my visit to the a Grand Canyon, it is hot enough to sleep without the roof of my tent, and I can see the stars through the bug net. Deafeningly silent (with my ear plugs in), and beautifully dark, it is 2am, I have been lying here for half an hour unable to sleep thinking about the days my friends are experiencing back home in the UK, and that at this precise moment, no one at home can see what I am looking at. It’s lonely, it’s emotional, I feel like I am sleeplessly-roasting myself in the desert, and it’s sad that I’m uncomfortable by myself. It also reminds me that although I have made only a few mistakes on my trip in terms of timing the weather, it is now raining. Brilliant.
With an hour and a half drive from Utah to the north rim, dawn was not all that enjoyable after a wet dream – literally, the roof was off, remember! Now in Arizona, with an extra hour on the clock, the sunrise over the Grand Canyon from Point Imperial is a little hazy, and cold! The canyon is simply too big to comprehend – or photograph from the ground. A scar in the earth visible from space, it is ten miles across and seeing the other side even on a clear day is fairly difficult. The road around the north rim is more than a dozen miles long, and getting to the south rim is more than a few hours drive around the canyon – somewhere which I never intended to visit on this trip. The landscape is quite different to the arid desert which I imagined it would be, and hiking a few miles through the cool pine forests for a view over the eastern end of the canyon was unexpected. An impressive structure on the edge of the canyon, with possibly one of the most iconic views in the world is the the very grand, Grand Canyon Lodge.
No matter how massive the national treasure is, seeing the Grand Canyon confirmed to me that size most definitely is not everything…humour me..
After seeing (but not comparing) five other national parks in Utah, each with their own outstanding, majestic and unique beauty, the Grand Canyon seems as though lacks something. Maybe it is my apprehension to embrace size as a valued aspect of beauty, or maybe it is because I can’t grasp it in its entirety (or explore down into the canyon because it’s a requirement to camp overnight in the summer months), but the Grand Canyon emphasises its grandeur by showing off its massiveness. I think I just prefer the more intricate details and discreet flirtatious winks of the other smaller parks, rather than the large spank in the face that the Grand Canyon offers as its pick-up line. The other parks make up for their lack of vastness, simply by working such precise perfection with what they have, and for me, that mirrors a more important life lesson. I do understand however, that the “American stereo-type” is proud of canyons like they are proud of their food portions…
The Grand Canyon is not lacking attention to detail, far from it. The wildlife is abundant; snakes, bison, rabbits, elk, deer, chipmunks, birdlife and rare white tailed and large eared squirrels (living only on the north rim and nowhere else on the planet) were everywhere if you looked hard enough. Wild flowers are delicately poised to amaze; flashing pinks, purples, reds, oranges and yellows are, at this time of year, on every sun-kissed patch of ground – and there is a lot of sunshine. The roads are long but understated, and apart from the lodge, the north rim is virtually empty – a surprise considering it is peak season. I was later told that only 10% of the Grand Canyon’s tourists visit the north rim, the rest prefer the commercialised, built up south rim for their holidays, somewhere which I and all the other hikers I met on the north rim (seven), were happy to avoid.
Amanda and I woke up early after our Grand Canyon visit. This is where she leaves me by the kerb – although not for looking shifty! We just packed Amanda’s tent, and sadly, she hit the road before 7am. I’m left to enjoy a peaceful morning with humming birds, a flask of warm water, dry granola, and my map with no drawn line west of where I am. I’m dreaming of reaching Vegas soon, and can only wish that it is not just Hope that will get me there…
Winston, my family and I are enjoying your tour of the West. I will never see those places except through your eyes and your camera. My nephew who has a similar red beard, is hiking through Europe and is tonight on a side trip to a Youth Hostel in China. Hopes to make Bankok for Christmas. He just graduated college with majors in math and philosophy. My sister is going to pass your writings along to him, as we sense kindred spirits in you both. Good luck, and keep us posted on your progress. The chestnut tree, “Winston”, has survived so far. Hope it makes it through the winter. Regards, Dick Withington, Round Island, Clayton, NY