Cheers to a big hole in the ground? The SW never really had much appeal to me. It tugged at me but the idea of visiting was overwhelmed by Las Vegas and The Grand Canyon. I just always thought of the Grand Canyon as a big hole in the ground and Vegas as, well, Vegas, an entire city of dive bars masquerading as five-star resorts.
Back in January, I had to fly into Vegas for a conference. It was what I expected. The thing that it did do, however, was push me outward. I had a rental car, enjoy driving, so snuck out as much as possible. I had to be there for the conference, but I squeezed in a few side trips. Death Valley, The Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, and Red Rocks.
I still think of the Grand Canyon as a big hole in the ground, but it is a beautiful and awesome big hole in the ground. Death Valley just hit me and my senses like a sledgehammer. Red Rocks, about 40 minutes west of Vegas, was inspiring in the 30-minute loop drive you do the park. Hoover Dam brought back childhood. I had always been enamored by it and even made a replica of it for a 7th grade project.
It all started making me think that this SW Philly boy should look a little deeper beyond Vegas.
Long beautiful drives is what the southwest is about. And silence. Being from the hustle and bustle of the northeast, you really don’t know silence. There have been quite a few drives where I turned off the radio and just drove through scenery, experiencing it.
I touched upon the silence in Great Dunes National Park. There were crowds clambering up and down the dunes. At Arches National Park, I existed in it.
The hotel desk person warned me: don’t go first thing in the morning. Do something else. The heat will drive people away in the afternoon. I took her advice. In the morning, I went to a state park, Dead Horse Point and the National Park beyond that: Canyon Lands.
As with every other place I visit, you can spend days at any one place. Weeks. Each park has its unique characteristics. Short drives take you to spectacular views that never get old and the hiking trails can be endless.
It was all a warmup for Arches.
Arches National Park is a one-way drive. You drive up through switchbacks to enter the park and then the end is about a 40-minute drive away. There are pull off points and short hiking trails all along the drive. With the heat at 107, and maybe the whole Covid thing, I basically had the place to myself.
At the end of the road of THE hike. About a half mile in, the paved trail turns into a “primitive” trail. The primitive trail is what takes you to the heart of the park. I was ready this time: plenty of water, sunscreen (70 SPF), the right shoes, and an eagerness to dive as deep as I could into the park.
It is a two-mile hike in. Primitive trail is a misnomer. There is no trail. Yes, I got lost about a couple dozen times, wandering around looking for markers that you could barely see. Small piles of rocks, sticks, driftwood, and the occasional sign. I wasn’t the only one. At one point, I was looking up a long, high rocky outcropping saying to myself, “that couldn’t be the trail.” Then, some guys appeared at the top calling down, “yep, this is the trail.”
At another point, I was completely lost. The trail disappeared. Or I did. I found myself angry at a sign. “Stay on the trail. Leave no footprints.” And I’m wandering through the wilderness looking for a tiny pile of rocks, sticks, driftwood or a signpost.
The sun was setting. My knee went out basically rushing down a slope that I couldn’t do anything but rush. Those 25,000 steps and 63 flights my watch told me I was taking was adding up. Fear? No, not really. Laughter. What the hell did I get myself into this time?
There were other people on the “trail.” Sparse, but everybody friendly and laughing about the lack of a trail. I finally found my way to one of the ends: the double circle. As tired as I was, there was one more arch a half mile more in, the Dark Angel Arch. Next time. I turned around and started to make my way back.
One thing I hate is traveling back along a path or road that I had already traveled. I just don’t like the idea of a one-way path to and from. With all of the times I got lost, however, taking the path back, which seemed a lot clearer, was just like taking a brand-new path back.
I did relax a few times, finding shade and just sitting or lying down, sipping on water, and enjoying the utter silence. It’s a reflective place when you are alone. You can even push away the self-reflection and just be. Just breathe. Be so in the moment you forget the pain, the way back, the way in and the world around you.
I did finally make my way back to my car.
Eric Johnson is a favorite musician of mine. He has these hard hitting, jamming songs that speed you on your way. He also has these interludes that I never quite understood before, tracks like Desert Sound. In the song, he tries, and succeeds, at capturing the moment of being in the desert.
In Moab, especially, I cannot do anything justice. I took tons of pictures that took all night uploading. Every single one just pales against the experience.