Remember that woman who was so freaked out because she didn’t know where they were going to camp in Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge? She was long gone. We were in the middle of Southern Utah with no internet, the sun was setting soon, and we didn’t even know what campground we’d end up in, let alone what campsite, and I was cool. I wasn’t worried. I just knew we’d find something, and it would be great, and even if it wasn’t it would be someplace to sleep for the night.

I had known this trip would change me. I figured much of it would become apparent after we’d returned, yet we still had another week to go and I was already a different person than I was when we began. This new-and-more-relaxed person was much better at enjoying the ride, a trait that prepared me for meeting Ranger Mike.

Following our road trip mantra, we pulled into the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center. The center had just closed, but as we parked a ranger was talking with someone in the parking lot. When their conversation was finished, we asked him if he could offer any suggestions for a nearby campground.

That question unleashed the floodgates of National Park Service passion. “Oh, sure! Let’s see, what’re you driving? Is that your rig? Oh, great, you’ll have no problem. Wow, you guys sure are stocked you’ve got everything! Yeah, you’re set, you’re set. Come inside and I’ll show you where you’re going. I’ve got the perfect spot for you. ”

We followed him as he unlocked the doors and grinned at each other behind his back. Once inside he pulled out a map and spread it out on the counter, leaning over it while pointing out where he was sending us.

“OK, so you’re going to head east on 12 and my name’s Mike, what’s yours? Hi Jim and Theresa, thanks for stopping in. You’re going to love this. OK, so you’ll take 12, which is gorgeous, just gorgeous. You’ll be driving along and then you’ll hit this stretch that’s a 700 foot drop on either side and you can just see for miles and it’s amazing. Then you’re going to come up on this dirt road, that’s Burr Trail Road, and you’ll want to take that down in the canyon until you get to Deer Creek Campground. You’re going to love this place. It’s tiny and nobody sees it, they just drive right by, and it rained so the creek’s running and you’ll hear it all night. It’s great. It’s got a really nice pit toilet. And then the next morning you’ll take Burr Trail Road, see, that’s the back way to Capitol Reef, and you’ll go through this canyon and right after all these turns and curves you’ll see this amazing slot canyon when the road straightens out and then you’ll go through some more turns and curves and then you’re in Capitol Reef.”

I CANNOT MAKE THIS UP.

We left our loquacious guide and started cracking up. “That was awesome!” I said.

“Yeah,” said Jim, “but how are we going to remember it all?”

I don’t know how, but we did, and his directions were spot-on. We’d get to a place he’d mentioned and think “that’s it! That’s what he was talking about!” The 700 foot drop-off was beautiful, and with no shoulders or guard rails and a 55mph speed limit,  TERRIFYING. The campground was tiny, with only seven sites, and we could hear the creek and it did have a really nice pit toilet. (And no, that is not an oxymoron.)

That night the temperature dropped below freezing. We weren’t equipped for cold weather camping, but we did have a couple of quilts that my mother- and sister-in-law had given us in Oceanside. Their layers helped considerably and I finally understood why quilts were such a big deal. We pulled the covers over our heads so we could trap our body heat and I almost passed out from my own carbon dioxide. The next morning we were so cold we broke camp and were on our way in under thirty minutes, and were very, very grateful for heated seats.

On the way out we found the slot canyon, almost more surprised that we’d actually been able to follow Ranger Mike’s rapid-fire directions than we were by the absolute silence of the canyon itself.

We continued on Burr Trail Road, and as we entered Capitol Reef National Park the road went from paved to dirt and signs warned us to travel at our own risk. It was fairly smoothly graded, so I said “this doesn’t seem too bad. We’ve definitely seen worse.”

Jim whipped his head at me. “You did not just say that!”

Oops.

One thing Ranger Mike failed to tell us about was the INSANE SWITCHBACKS we would encounter inside Capitol Reef. We’re talking 12% grade, narrow road, turns so tight anything bigger than Mae would have to inch back and forth around the corner like a really bad parallel parking job. It was yet another drive of Jim flipping the paddle shifters to make sure he could brake properly and me looking out the window and down, down, down. It was crazy and frightening and one of my favorite drives of all time.

Jim only had one thing to say about that.

“Next time, you drive it.”