If you’re driving through southern Utah, don’t blink. If you do, you’ll most likely miss something spectacular. A drive from one National Park to another in canyon country is not like going from one roller coaster to the next. You don’t wait in line, experience the thrill, and then deal with tedium until you’re in the front car at the next ride for another short-lived bout of excitement. The drive in Utah is more like a never-ending one-two-three punch of “yeah, well, you thought that was awesome. Waitilyouseethis.” I have never said “WOW” so many times in such rapid succession in my life as I did during the two days we spent in that state.
Shortly after leaving Zion we picked up US-89, the main branch of the two-lane we’d enjoyed driving, despite our limited visibility, in Arizona. This took us through stands of pinyon pine at the edge of Dixie National Forest until we turned on UT-12 towards Bryce Canyon. We caught our first glimpse of exposed iron-rich sediment eroded into columns of rock, known as hoodoos, before driving through a sandstone arch marking the entrance to Red Canyon.
Jim asked if I wanted to pull over, and I very casually said “sure, why not?” I think that’s all I could articulate. We had just left inexplicable beauty, were driving towards a place known for its stunning geographic features, and in between was an almost hallucinatory landscape. A pale path snaked towards the statuesque towers, flanked by evergreens and shrubs that were nearly fluorescent in their contrast with the sandstone and the sky. A dead tree that had been washed a purple-gray stood alone. The combination was a breathtaking, magnificent display of unexpected beauty.
I thought of the cashier in Springdale, of how he was numb to his surroundings. “Eh, you get used to it.” HOW, I wondered again. How do you get used to it? And, if you do, what happens when you visit another part of the country, someplace that isn’t so shocking in its exuberance?
Maybe that cashier would be surprised by the miles of windmills, the acres of soybeans, the endless rows of corn that are so readily found in Indiana and Illinois and Iowa. Perhaps the accessible horizons and the soft, gentle, barely rolling landscape would engender the same sort of awe in him that I felt when I saw his home, which was so alien to me.
When you see a thing over, and over, and over, it becomes commonplace and expected. There are no more surprises, and awe dissipates through repetition. But there’s also something to be said for comfort and familiarity. If every experience is astounding, then how do you appreciate or even know when something is truly remarkable?
Considering everything we’d seen in the previous three weeks I suppose there might have been a danger of apathy. “Yeah, yeah, yeah; there’s another scenic overlook and some odd geographical formation, and ooh, look, a mountain.” Instead, each change in location, climate, and elevation was like a renewed shock to the palate (or palette, even). Everything was new, even the few places either of us had been before, because we were seeing it through each other’s eyes, we were seeing it together, and I was trying to figure out how in the world I was going to describe each unique place in writing.
Basically, I took a lot of pictures.
Bryce Canyon National Park was a short twenty minutes beyond Red Canyon. The road climbed gradually and soon snow blanketed the ground with only brief patches of grass and earth visible beneath the Douglas Firs.
We handed over our National Access Pass and ID at the gate, and with that $30 entrance fee the card had more than paid for itself. Every time we’d use it from that point until March of the next year was like entering a park for free, and we still had a couple more on our itinerary for this trip alone. Considering how little time we were able to spend in the parks that we did visit, getting that pass was definitely a wise investment and opened gates we might not have been able to afford to enter.
Much of the park was closed because the roads were impassable, but Rim Road, another example of the handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps, was open, so we took it to Sunset Point. I was still wearing my shorts from our hike in Zion a few thousand feet below. I felt like a kid jumping in a mud puddle as I traipsed in the snow toward the rim trail.
We stood there, mouths agape. Unbelievable. It honestly did not seem real. We were staring at a natural amphitheater filled with pink-orange fins, spires, and hoodoos, paved with evergreens and ancient bristlecone pines. Unlike traditional canyons carved by rivers, Bryce was formed by the cycle of snow and ice repeatedly freezing and thawing, which created cracks and fissures as the water expanded and contracted. It’s a unique environment, and oh, how we wanted to explore and hike and play! Sadly, we still had no idea where we were sleeping that night and it was already almost four in the afternoon, so we walked the rim a short distance and then left.
I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to see two National Parks in one day and then camp for the night. Apparently I am a big huge giant enormous glutton for punishment. Or, as Jim said, “Your travel eyes are bigger than your travel stomach.”
OK, so Zion - check. Red Canyon - check. Bryce Canyon - check. Where to next, Utah?
Visit twolanegems.com to learn more about this epic journey and get your copy of volume 1.