"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not."
We headed west out of Durango late in the afternoon. When I was on the Appalachian Trail back in 1987, I noticed that "town," when you came to it, was a kind of black-hole. You could feel the pull of town as you approached, tired, hungry, and dirty after a couple of weeks in the woods. Then you could feel it again as you left, clean and refreshed, but knowing you'd have a couple of weeks before you had a decent meal again. It's no different when you're on the road. Still, we were ready to get out of town when we finally did.
As we drove across the south-western corner of Colorado and into Utah we could tell, quite literally I suppose, that we weren't in Kansas anymore. In this case, however, the road was not of yellow brick, but of a fine, red, Utah dust which sticks with you. The spring mountains gave way to spring desert, which was rapidly giving way to summer desert, as we could tell by the rising temperatures. Mirages arose on the road ahead, or, as Sylvie commented at one point, "Look up ahead at that collage!" She was not to be corrected and, as I thought about it, she was probably right. The land had become a collage of sorts, and we were passing through this work of art. Golden spires, red and tan slickrock, and garishly striated high canyon walls contrasted with freakishly stunted junipers and many types of dusty sage. The red of the rock, the blue of the sky, the green of the junipers, and the white of the clouds all fought and jostled for our attention. It was as if our vision was enhanced and artificially focused for a time. We were on Planet Utah.
We drove until we needed to stop for the night, into the Manti - La Sal National Forest near Devil's Canyon. We made dinner and then took a family walk up the dusty forest service road, enjoying the cooling desert evening. When we got back to camp, we had the first campfire of the trip, and the juniper and pinon pine smoke from our little fire smelled sweet and earthy.
The heat wakes you up and sets you on the trail in the desert. Sleeping in means roasting in a hot oven out there, so we got going early by our standards. We made our way the 50 or so miles through more remarkable Utah landscapes, each on as unique as the last, to Natural Bridges National Monument. The kids again gathered their Junior Ranger booklets for this park, and we set off on a five mile loop hike to take in a couple of the majestic naturally formed rock bridges here and wind our way through the canyons below the mesa. After a quick climb down into the canyon, we lunched under the spectacular Sipapu Bridge, and were glad for its shade. We moved on down "stream", although only pockets of water were left this late in the year, stopping to take pictures and for the girls to make their own natural bridges in the sand. We climbed out of the canyon after reaching Kachina Bridge, where we stood, awestruck, under a tapestry of new and ancient graffiti. While plenty of "Joe wuz here 1992" littered the walls, a bit higher up we could see petroglyphs which date back centuries. A conversation about the difference between these two types of wall art ensued with the kids -- another teachable moment on the road.
After a toasty 1 1/2 miles across the top of the mesa back to the rig, we promised the kids a frosty reward for all of their hard work on the trail that day. We explained to them that when Sherri and I met in Seattle (17 years ago!), we would hike up in the mountains all weekend and then stop at a little shake-shop on the way home on Sunday afternoon to get a chocolate-banana shake and some deep-fried mushrooms. While they were a little luke-warm on the idea of the mushrooms, they were more than happy to carry on the ice-cream end of the tradition when we stopped later on that evening after crossing the northern end of Lake Powell.
As evening approached, we were faced again with finding a camp-site. We generally don't plan ahead on camping, since so much dispersed camping in National Forests and BLM land exists out in the areas we like. That does mean a certain amount of figuring round about supper time each night. Sometimes the camp-sites are no more than a place to sleep, and sometimes we get lucky. It was the latter when we pulled off along the Fremont River just west of Capitol Reef National Park. We had a private spot along the river's edge, where we were able to swim and cavort in the desert evening as the last swallows and the first bats of the night made strafing runs at the bugs congregating over the water's surface. The Fremont is a large, shallow stream of clear, cold water, and we toasted the canyon walls as we soaked ourselves clean. I wrote in my journal afterward of that evening: "The feeling of 'in-the-groove-on-the-road' has begun to displace the anxiety of leaving home, finally, after two weeks. Now we are traveling."
Sylvie diligently works on her Junior Ranger . . .
while Jeff diligently shaves at Capitol Reef.
The desert alarm clock sent us packing the next morning. We worked our way into Capitol Reef National Park, where again the kids lobbied for time to work on another Junior Ranger badge. We agreed -- we are definitely not in any rush, wanting to experience places rather than pass through them. The whole point to this type of travel is to get out of the vehicle, to make sure that you see more than the view out of the car window. We toured the historic Gifford House and orchards, learning a bit of how the Mormon settlers of this region made ends meet, buying a cherry pie from the shop which bakes them fresh from the Park-run orchards. We were especially impressed by the ranger who helped the girls with their badges -- she spent some great, individual time with each child there and really made the experience special. We gathered slot-canyon information for a future, springtime trip to the area. For now, however, the heat was driving us on.
Now we headed on to Great Basin National Park -- my personal "promised land" of our trip. We had spent two nights there last year but had to move on to meet family. We vowed to return to spend more time up in these amazing mountains, which not only boast groves of several-thousand-year-old Bristlecone Pines, but also the only glacier in Nevada and a ranking of dead-last on the list of "Most Traveled National Parks." Most of the people who do visit GBNP tour the elaborately beautiful cave system, but don't camp or hike in the park. That leaves a lot of fabulous trails and campsites nearly empty during the week.
The kids were happy to find that site #3 in the Upper Lehman Campground was available. This was our site last year, and it had suited us perfectly, backing up as it does to the babbling, crystal-clear Lehman Creek. After having crossed 100 miles of flat desert, the icy water of the creek on our feet and the rarefied, pine-incensed air was intoxicating. Even cheap, cold, 3.2% beer tastes good out there. If you know me, that's a rather generous statement.
On Friday, the kids headed off to a "Nature Detectives" program put on by park staff. Since Winter and Sylvie had already bagged the Great Basin JR badge last year, they had to find a new program. Lucky for them very few kids come through here, and they were treated like celebrities, as usual, and given their own program about tracking animals through footprints and scat. They took it upon themselves to continue tracking once they were back at camp, and showed Sherri how they could enlarge portions of their faces -- not necessarily a large part of animal tracking, but a heckuva lot of fun nonetheless.
That evening we introduced the kids to jiffypop over the camp stove. If that's not a quintessential part of the American car-camping experience, I don't know what is. Next day we made a 7 mile loop hike to take in a bristlecone pine grove, a trip up to the only glacier in Nevada, "skiing" down small snowfields, and a rather lengthy conversation with Winter about cultivating curiosity in yourself. We talked about how this one simple tool can make for a very happy life - how exploration of the woods, of the world, even of yourself, will yield a kind of deep happiness in your life that many people seek, but few find. My friend, Geoff Buckley, and I have talked about this many times, and Sherri and I have been trying to live this way most of our lives. These are the kinds of conversations with my kids that we don't really seem to have time for when immersed in our hectic home life. This is the part of travel with our girls that makes my heart sick to think it will ever end. Melodrama enough for you? I'll stop now. Finally, we trekked down through two shimmering alpine lakes, Teresa and Stella, to finish the day, and enjoyed an evening ranger program on "Night Hunters" before bed.
Sunday we prepped for the trip we planned last time we were here - an overnight backpack with the girls which would take us up over 10,000 ft in elevation to Baker Lake. Both girls carried a backpack and, while there was a bit of griping about the physical effort, I was so proud of them for making the entire 12-mile round trip, complete with 2600 ft elevation gain, and living to tell the story. After the ever-upward trudge through wild-flower laden sage meadows, into aspen and pine forests, and into the unique sub-alpine areas up high, we arrived at our camp. The lake backed up against a spectacular cirque of crumbling rock spires, towering above us as we scrambled up the small moraine after dinner to look down upon the lake. We sat out on a flat boulder in the failing light, watching ravens wheel about over head. We reluctantly headed to bed, the bulk of the work behind us for this trip since it really was "all down-hill from here."
On the way down, we saw deer and were chased down the mountain by an impending rain shower. We promised more of the ice-cream therapy if they could hold out on the trail, but were denied realizing that sweet trail-dream when we realized that the Visitor's Center cafe was closed. Actually, it hadn't been open for some time, since this was the least traveled park in the system. We loaded up our dusty packs and headed toward Salt Lake City, our next refueling point.
We spent that night near Mt. Nebo Wilderness area in the Uinta National Forest. Not a spectacular camp, but free, and a nearby babbling brook to lull us to sleep. When we came into cel range after being out for a week, I got a message from the ABC affiliate in SLC that they wanted to do a story on our trip, so we made our way into the city on Tuesday morning. We needed a place to clean up and make ourselves presentable for our interview, but it had to be close to town. Lucky for us, Pony Express RV Resort came to the rescue. This truly is a "full service" RV resort, and managers Ed and Judy made us feel right at home. We were able to do laundry, clean up the rig, restock, and make our interview appointment while the kids played in the pool and even met a couple of friends on the playground. Blogging was made easy with their free, blazingly fast wifi. Thanks, Ed & Judy, and the rest of the staff at SLC's newest RV resort!
ABC 4's Erika Egvard and cameraman Aaron tell the GFS story
We took the opportunity to show the kids a couple of SLC sights. First, we stopped at Temple Square downtown to show them a bit of family history. One of our ancestors on my side of the family was Oliver Cowdery, one of the founders of the Mormon religion. While not Mormon ourselves, there are a couple of statues there of Oliver, and I wanted the girls to see this bit of family history.
After the history lesson, we toured the Sweet Candy Factory, where our extremely entertaining tour guide, Shannon, explained how the millions of pounds of confections are made, packaged, and shipped out around the world. Sylvie's comments were, for once, limited to the continuously repeated phrase, "Oh My Gosh," as her wide eyes scanned the three-story, football field sized warehouse, packed stem to stern with all manner of sweet. Winter didn't pass up the seconds (or thirds!) offered to us. The whole thing was reminiscent, of course, of Willy Wonka's place, complete with pipes running through the plant labeled simply "chocolate." Free tours daily -- call for reservations. Thanks, Sweet Candy Company, for a memorable afternoon.
That's it for Salt Lake City. Come back soon for more as we haul our very clean selves up into the High Uinta mountains (under snow, we're told, so possibly passing through to Flaming Gorge Recreation Area), Bridger-Teton National Forest, Grand Tetons National Park, and Yellowstone. See you on the road!