Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
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?
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!”
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.”
Previously published at The Otherworldly Landscapes of Red Canyon and Bryce Canyon.