Utah and Arizona Road Trip: August 12-17

So, now I’m on the bus heading back to London from Wales, and as breathtaking as the scenery is, there are only so many grassy green fields and cows and sheep one can look at before one needs to cut it out and stare at a computer screen instead.

At least, that’s how things go when “one” is me, because clearly office life has broken my soul into a million tiny pieces and no amount of travel or love can glue it back together again.


As I was saying, I’ve been productive during my 3 1/2 hours in transit, cleaning up the next section of diary notes from my southwestern US road trip. Here are the rambling, long-winded results. You should probably pull up a comfy chair and make some tea before embarking on this novel-length multi-day journal entry. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 12th – Packing the Car and Getting to Utah

Sunday began with a serious consideration of what, exactly, we needed to pile into the car in order to ensure the success of our camping trip. Toilet paper and slim jims were obvious essentials, but what about fruit roll-ups? International Foods hazelnut-vanilla instant coffee powder? Burritos? Gatorade? Bandanas? We boldly forsook towels, shampoo and detergent, eschewing cleanliness in favour of authentic camp stench.

In a nearly imperceptible nod to hygiene, we packed wet wipes, contact lens solution and about 19 gallons of spring water, most of which Frank dumped out on the dead embers every night, “just to be sure”. The man suffers terribly from nightmares of Smokey the Bear riding his hump about preventing forest fires.

A morning trip to K-Mart yielded Tupperware, paper plates, millions of candy snacks, pepperoni sticks and granola bars. I sliced fruit and packed breakfast foods, Frank cooked delicious lime and cilantro pork and chicken burritos, we packed the car with all of Aaron’s stuff (tent, stove, mattress, water purifier, etc) and set off at around 2pm.

Frank did the first leg of driving that got us to Arches by sunset, where we camped on Goose Island. The bargain price of $10 bought us parking and a camp site next to a river and between two imposing red cliffs with basic toilets, potable spring water just down the road, a fire pit and “free” firewood (karma was good to us on this voyage).

We set up camp in the dark at 8pm, cursed the midnight light show illuminating the cliffs for the benefit of the loud-ass riverboat tourists, spat obscenities at the dreadful Hummer tour with its 20,000 watt rack of hunting lights, made a fire despite the painful heat, ate mango chunks and looked at the constellations in the night sky. The Perseid meteor shower gave us a dazzling display of shooting stars to ooh and aah at. Eventually, we surrendered to exhaustion and retired to the tent, where we sweated profusely on top of our sleeping bags until sleep finally delivered us from consciousness at around 3am.

Monday, August 13th – Arches National Park and Mexican Hat

On Monday we made our first, short hike through Arches National Park. After a delicious breakfast of boiled eggs, berries, melon, granola bars, and tea/coffee, we drove into the park past Balancing Rock and hiked up to see the North and South Windows. Snapped some photos, ate some Skittles, then embarked again on our pilgrimage towards Arizona.

We switched off driving: I took the early shift from Moab to Mexican Hat(!) in Utah, where there was actually a gigantic balanced rock shaped like a sombrero. For many miles, the one-horse towns that clung to the side of the highway like lice to a dog were too scary to pull into, no matter how dire our needs for gasoline or urination. This stretch of America makes the “Hills Have Eyes” movies look like a series of documentary films. The phrase “we can’t stop here, this is bat country” was said nervously, more than once.

Frank drove on to the Navajo nation where we ate frybread, tacos and stew and I entered my first ever Trading Post. I desperately wanted to exchange a nugget of gold for some flour or linen, but these days it’s all native carvings and jewelry. Rusted out classic cars from the 1930s and 40s were littered around the reservation, decaying beautifully.

I took the wheel from Navajo to the Canyon, past the painted cliffs and numerous signs telling us we were headed straight for “Cave Dwellers”. The MST3K movie? C.H.U.D.S.? No, it was a place were some enterprising lady tourist in the 1930s had her car break down due to the gravity-fed fuel line malfunctioning on the steeply inclined road, and avoided heatstroke by taking refuge in local rocks with natural hollows in them. She liked her makeshift stone hotel so much, she bought the land and offered it as a place with free accommodation to other travelers. After examining the digs, we resisted the temptation to sleep in a cave and rolled on towards Kaibab National Forest.

As usual, camp set-up happened in the gathering dusk at around 8pm. I almost cried with joy at the blissfully cool elevated air (60 degrees!), scented with pine and juniper. It was like a little slice of Canada. Our campfire was magnificent, with a tall wall of white stone built by Frank, whose neurosis about extinguishing every last smoking twig was legitimized by the acres of silent, blackened timber we drove through on our way into Grand Canyon National Park the next morning.

It was windy on the high peak where we camped, and wild, with no other campers nearby. Mysterious rustling in the night woke us up, and there was light rainfall in the early morning, but no sign of animals, although Frank swears he heard a coyote poking about out tent in the early morning. I slept through all of it, in the deep peaceful sleep of cold weather.

Tuesday, August 14th – Grand Canyon: Day One

Tuesday was our first day at the Grand Canyon National Park. After another magnificent egg, fruit and granola breakfast we drove the few remaining miles to the north rim, feeling great. Weather was perfect, sun shining in a cloudless blue sky, and the road surrounded by wide stretches of verdant grassland curving gently into hills cloaked in conifers, white birch and deer. The only sad note were the signs posted at regular intervals pleading for motorists to please not drive on the meadows. What kind of asshole would veer off the road and drive on pristine meadows covered in grazing deer?

When we arrived we filled up our water bottles, strapped on our hiking boots and set off down the trail. Frank took a few minutes to loudly mock the pathetic Bright Angel trail, marked “easy” at a mere 0.25 miles. “Only for fatties! Damned obese Americans and their car culture!” he lamented. So instead, being fit young things, we challenged ourselves with a two-part hike: first, a gentle and winding dirt path with a few steep stretches that meandered around the mouth of the canyon, (Trevelyan Trail?) that took us 1.5 miles away from the visitor’s centre. When we reached the end of that, we opted to venture another 1.7 miles down the North Kaibab trail, past Coconino Overlook and a little more than half way to Supai Tunnel.

The challenge of hiking the canyon is that it’s all kittens and freaking rainbows on your way to the bottom, as you merrily skip past the poor, panting bastards clawing their way back to the top, clucking your tongue at these tragic victims of heat exhaustion and dehydration, certain that this will not be your fate. Then karma kicks in, and once you’ve gone as far down as you can comfortably go in the baking heat of the midday sun, lo and behold YOU become the panting, gasping unfortunates being given pitying looks by the mule-mounted fatties ambling down the sandy slope as you force your oxygen-deprived, lactic-acid laden thighs to continue pushing you back up, against gravity and heat and the will of the Gods.

Of course, being me, I managed to survive the hike relatively unscathed except for a nagging blister on my left heel, until I was back on the very smooth even path back to the trailhead, where I promptly sprained my right ankle. Typical. At the end of the hike, I went to have the Most Glorious Shower of My Life, while Frank shopped at the grocery store for moleskin for my bloody left heel, and a bandage to wrap my sprained right ankle. He’s going to be a great doctor one day.

We then made reservations at the lodge for a fancy dinner the next day, and drove off in the torrential rain to find a campsite IN THE DAYLIGHT for once, hoping to stake our tent closer to the canyon somewhere dry and cool. Just 10 miles outside of the park, there was (as promised by Lonely Planet) a long, winding dirt road that lead us to the top of a small mountain, with pine tree cover from the wind and rain and a soft coating of pine needles cushioning the ground beneath our tent, and a number of old campfire pits made from scattered rocks.

The night previous, I’d been moody and fussy about Frank hogging the fire-building fun thus far (I was pre-menstrual, and we’re both pyromaniacs – this conflict was bound to happen eventually). Frank graciously allowed me to set up the tent, construct the stone pit AND build the fire, while he engineered a complex tarpaulin rain cover involving pulleys and scaffolding. After my exciting discovery that all of the rocks around us held fossils, which sent him off scrounging in the bush looking for a fish skeleton or a nicely preserved mollusk, I was crushed to learn that after a rainfall, armed only with damp branches, matches and no combustible liquids as an accelerant, I could not actually get the fire going. Lots of smoke; no flame.

Frank came back and totally cheated by taking shavings from the dry firewood in the car (I would not stoop to such low tactics) to start the fire. So we had a lovely roaring fire, in which we cooked our burritos. I sat by it for warmth and light and read the last few tense chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, while Frank continued his frantic quest for ancient sea creatures preserved in stone.

I read well into the night, weeping silently in the emotional grip of Rowling’s horrible plot twists (remember: pre-menstrual), causing me to try and poke Frank awake at 2am for a hug. He gallantly patted my arm and said “s’okay… Harry zz okay…” then snored harder, drooled, and rolled away from me in his sleeping bag. So comforting, the Frank.

Wednesday, August 15th – Grand Canyon: Day Two

Wednesday we awoke to grey skies and cool breezes, determined to conquer the canyon. Despite my destroyed left heel and rapidly swelling right ankle, I strapped on my hiking shoes and Camelback and off we went.

I can’t recall much of the hike proper – it’s all a haze of red dust and mule poop and sun and heat and pain – but I do remember getting my period halfway down at the Supai Tunnel rest stop (thanks, uterus, I hate you too) and gripping white-knuckled onto Frank’s backpack as soon as the trail got so narrow that my lemming urge all but compelled me to abandon hope and hurl my bones over the precipice straight down to damnation below. This counter-productive instinct fascinates me: what evolutionary purpose can it POSSIBLY serve? How am I supposed to make babies and pass on my genetic code if my gut wants me to jump every time I’m too close to a high ledge?

We made it down from 8,250 feet of elevation at the top to just under 5,000 feet down at the Bridge – halfway to the bottom. It was a damn good hike, and the desire to keep on trucking to the Falls was strong, but we decided discretion was the better part of valor and reversed direction. 35 slim jims, 4 gallons of sweat and 52 pauses in pockets of shade later, we were back at the top and ready to wash up and eat some grilled meat.

Ahh… there’s nothing quite like having a shower after a long day of dusty hiking. I cleaned myself head to toe with a bar of Irish Spring soap and washed the dirt out of my now openly bleeding left heel. I rinsed out my tensor bandage and beat the dust off of my shoes. We did two loads of laundry at the North Rim Campground Laundromat and went to the Saloon for a cup of coffee and some quiet time. I started in on Neil Gaiman’s “Smoke and Mirrors” while Frank scribbled his private thoughts down in runes. We took our stuff out of the dryer, drove back to the North Rim restaurant, and ordered rare steak, asparagus and a well-deserved glass of Shiraz each. Bliss.

Thursday, August 16th – Goblin Valley and Big Rock Candy Mountain

Leaving the Canyon on Thursday was heartbreaking – still so much to see! So much further we could have hiked! But we needed to get the car back on Friday, run the Muddy Buddy on Sunday, Frank had to start teaching on Monday, and I had a plane to catch on Tuesday. Much as it was tempting to just take Malibu Barbie on the road and keep heading on to all the national parks we passed or missed on the way (I’ve never been to Yellowstone), we are slaves to our agendas and responsibility called us home.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs
The farmer’s trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay
Oh, I’m bound to go where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall and the wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

I drove us up up and away from Arizona into liquorless, Mormon-ridden Utah, and just kept on trucking until we hit the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Frank expressed doubt at my assertions that any mountain with such a name must be a massive, glittering mound of pink sugar with a whipped cream peak and gummy bears grazing on Swedish fish in corn syrup streams that wound down its delicious, licorice-veined slopes.

But I mean, come on, the song says…
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind
There’s a lake of stew and of whiskey too
You can paddle all around ’em in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

I admit, it was a bit of a let-down in person: a big pile of yellow rock, which does at least bear a passing resemblance to the Scots treat known as “sponge candy” (essentially what makes up the inside of a Crunchie bar). I regret to inform that there were NOT, as promised in the classic song, “cigarette trees” or “lemonade springs”, although there was certainly no rain or snow and the wind didn’t blow, so it’s not like the whole song is a lie.

I can’t say for sure that the locals don’t sleep all day, since I didn’t see anyone while we were there. It’s entirely possibly that at some point “they hung the jerk that invented work”, but it would be pure speculation for me to say so as there were no strung-up corpses in evidence. Personally, I think there’s an amusement park that needs to be built here, based on the exceptionally catchy lyrics of that tune, except I doubt prohibitionist Utah would grant a license for a lake of whisky. Damn, I’d pay to visit that, though.

Nonetheless, I bullied Frank into taking a series of photos of me licking the mountain (he looked like he was going to gag) and also of me posed in the midst of a staged scavenger-hunt where I found packets of Junior Mints and Fruit Roll-Ups among the gravel.

Goblin Valley State Park is close enough to Arches on the I-70 that we were fairly confident that we could tour about and then stop at our first campground again that night. It’s off the beaten track, to be sure, but it was well worth the detour. Aside from the natural splendour of these timeless sandstone creatures, formed by wind and weather, filling an otherwise empty valley with an army of anthropomorphic rock, there are the sci-fi references to consider.

Frank and I took several posed photos with me as the Doomed Red Shirted Ensign and him as the Melodramatic Gold Shirted Captain, perched on the alien-looking landscape. The “Khaaaaaaaaaan!” photo turned out brilliantly. We also did a number of “Where’s Waldo?” style pictures of us hiding in the rocks, and took about a million pictures of random formations that looked vaguely sort of like they might have been parts of the gigantic Stone Monster from Galaxy Quest. The phrase “rudimentary lathe” may have come up a few times. Ahem.

Friday, August 17th – Delicate Arch, Evergreen, DVDs, Hair Dye, Scotch, Returning the Rental Car

Friday was our last day on the road with Malibu Barbie. Saddinpants.

For once, we actually did as we said and woke up really early. At 7am, we packed up camp and drove into Arches, hiked up to the high viewpoint to see Delicate Arch at sunrise (it was already swarming with a busload of tourists, surprise, surprise). We hiked to the elevated viewpoint where Frank set up his trusty tripod and I ran back to the car screaming as I was being eaten to death by mosquitoes.

Note to travelers: if you have sweet, tasty O+ blood, DO NOT TRAVEL with someone who has bitter, rank-tasting AB-. The mosquitoes know where the gourmet liquid treats are, and those treats are IN YOUR VEINS O POSITIVE PERSON! RUN AWAY!

We drove back to the visitor’s centre, made tea and oatmeal in the parking lot and had a complaint registered against us to the park rangers – apparently in this new age of terrorism American tourists think it should be made illegal to operate a small white-fuel pump stove in a public parking lot – then Frank took the wheel to get us back to Colorado.

We took a scenic route through Evergreen and ate at the Little Bear saloon – a known dive and biker bar with some pretty impressive layers of carved graffiti on every possible wooden surface, including the tables, benches, walls and ceiling. I saw Frank’s lovely dream house and then we proceeded back to Denver central to dump everything out of Malibu Barbie, kiss her goodbye, and return her to her home, the Denver International Airport.

On the way back from the airport, we stopped at a Best Buy, where I went nuts buying DVDs (but I *needed* ALL of them!) including the essential classics ‘Galaxy Quest’ – had to after Goblin Valley, you understand – ‘Ghostbusters’ 1 & 2, ‘Empire Records’, ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force: the Movie’, and ‘The Mummy’ box set. We returned home, Frank cooked another incredible gourmet dinner, we had some scotch and dyed one another’s hair like the girls we are. There’s something incredibly relaxing about sinking into a cushy sofa, eating a hot meal, drinking 10-year-old Balvenie while peroxide burns your scalp.

Here endeth the tale of the road trip to the Grand Canyon.

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