The brochure was a nice surprise under my bills and junk mail, delivered on one of those icy days that make you wish you lived anywhere other than Fargo. I flipped through the “Visit Utah” travel guide and admittedly, was thrown off. I never thought of Utah as anything special. Categorized with states like Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa, I didn’t feel it was known for anything terribly riveting. And probably (definitely) not worthy of a vacation destination.
But the brochure positioned Utah as a fantasy for a photographer and adventurist like me. Canyons, waterfalls, sandstone arches and hiking – each page featured eye-popping exploration possibilities that looked like a dream.
The guide was featured in my 100 Day Winter Photo Challenge (see Day 9) and then sat around a while. First on the end tables. Then on the office desk. Finally, on the bookshelf. But its impression lasted.
Goal: Visit Utah in 2017. Achieved May 2017.
Let me start by addressing the first question every person has asked – friends, family, airplane passengers included.
“Are you going by yourself?”
There, that’s out of the way. And, although the selection of un-wed, childless friends has dwindled in the past 5 years, that’s just a scapegoat. If I’m being honest, I feel bringing someone along on a trip like this would only:
- Slow me down or
- Place pressure to have a plan
Even though I plan my days to the minute – packing in as much productivity and activity as possible – I’m not a big planner when it comes to travel. I’ve learned there are always spur-the-moment opportunities to embrace that no amount of research and planning could ever reveal. I have personally missed out on these pop-up moments by “having” to get to the next scheduled event and do not enjoy the feeling. Spontaneous moments often are the best.
Other non-planners know that this “strategy” leaves you scrambling on occasion, which is just part of the journey. Case in point: My first night stay. Read on.
I booked a flight, reserved a rental car and brought along the skeleton plan, which included the basics: an atlas, an outdated GPS and a brochure with a few earmarked pages. I hopped my flight and prayed for the best.
And the best it was. A few fun stories:
STUBBORN, MEET YOUR RENTAL CAR
I knew I’d drive a lot through some somewhat deserted areas and potentially house in my car a night or two. Thus, the rental car decision was a biggie. I signed up for a step up from my usual economy selection – and quickly learned what I thought was “mid-sized” (Chevy Impala) was different than Mr. Alamo’s opinion (Toyota Corolla). Mr. Alamo promptly offered an upgrade to a full-size for “just a little more money,” which I turned down, mainly because he bugged me. He then recited the insurance options, all of which I turned down because I THINK (???) my insurance covers rentals, too, and I was convinced this man was running a scam operation at this point.
“Most customers at least get the loss-damage waiver insurance….” He hinted. “It’s only $25…”
I’m not your typical customer. I’d rather spend that on a nice dinner somewhere.
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
His pounding information into his computer made me feel I had upset him, which gave me brief satisfaction until he informed me of the rest of my disclaimer – I’d be responsible for any annoying off-chance happenings – like rock chips – and my personal insurance would not cover time the car was out of commission getting repaired.
Whatever, Corollas can’t be THAT expensive. If it adds up that quickly, I’ll just buy the car.
“And would you like us to re-fuel for you?”
“No. I’ll fill it.”
He turned up his nose, had me initial a form, simultaneously reminding me I was an idiot for turning him down on all counts. He un-sincerely wished me well in a “best of luck” tone.
I walked away feeling like I had won and lost at the same time.
In the garage, a young, much more laid-back fella was running the show. “Alright,” he said, looking at my information, “I’m going to let you pick from our full-size options. That includes anything in this line from that black Dodge Charger to that Altima at the end.”
Is this real life? I didn’t even look down the row.
“Thanks,” I said, feeling like a subject on one of those hidden camera shows. The Charger looked extremely up my alley. If it had been a late 60’s model, I’d have known for sure I was in heaven.
Spotting no camera crews, I put my bags in the Charger and checked my mirrors 600 times before pulling out of the ramp at a half a mile per hour, jumpily slamming the brakes any time I sensed danger. Mr. Alamo had apparently gotten to me a bit.
I ended up driving a whopping 1,308 miles on the trip, with some close calls (deer), but no actual hazards. Utah deer stand at the side of the road and watch you pass, rather than leap out in front of you like Minnesota deer, a very nice touch.
I’ll admit Mr. Alamo’s insurance options haunted nearly every switchback, gravel road and passing opportunity. In hindsight, I think I’d pay $25 to not have thought about him and his insurance options at all on my trip.
FIRST NIGHT STAY
I flew into Phoenix to see Sedona on the way to the southern Utah parks. It made perfect sense when sitting at my kitchen table quickly booking the flight so I could cross it off my list. I felt differently behind the wheel staring at an 8-hour ‘jaunt’ up to Arches National Park. An 8-hour drive AFTER spending the morning flying. Ouch.
Turns out it was a beautiful drive and honestly, I have no regrets. However, I began feeling tired at about 10:30 p.m. (my body was at 11:30 p.m. and I had gotten up at 5) and I was still an hour and a half away from my destination, Moab, Utah.
I wanted to see the park at sunrise, but knew deer, darkness and a sleepy traveler were a combination that may have meant a possible “win” for Mr. Alamo. Plus, the man at the gas station an hour and a half south of Moab informed me that Moab was a hot spot for the weekend – with Arches closing the next week for construction and an Arts Festival in town. He then pointed out that my timing was perfect.
“Just go straight into downtown Moab, find a guy and at bar close, just be like ‘can I come home with you?’”
I feigned appreciation for his advice, but decided before he finished his sentence that sleeping in the Super 8 parking lot in the Charger on a 43-degree night would feel safer, more comfortable and, I imagine, much more hassle free.
Not without some creativity, however.
I pulled on my sweats that I almost didn’t pack and started looking around for a makeshift pillow. I pulled the passenger headrest out of its seat. Super proud of myself, I curled up in the back seat with the headrest.
“This isn’t even that bad,” I thought, drifting off to sleep.
I woke up an hour later freezing. I popped the trunk and rummaged through my bag. I put on socks (duh) and grabbed my most substantial clothing items. I wrapped my feet in a tank top, spread a long-sleeved shirt across my shoulders and drifted back to sleep. Only to wake up again an hour later.
I moved to the front seat, snoozed, woke, and moved to the back again.
Finally, I woke at 4 a.m. shivering and wishing it was much later. I made a mental note to do more to help the homeless during winter months. I was miserable and seriously doubting my non-planning, non-decision approach to vacationing. Then I did some math.
It’s 4 a.m. I have a 1.5-hour drive to Arches National Park where the sun rises at roughly 5:30 a.m.
I was to Moab in what felt like 5 minutes, changing clothes and buying a large coffee in the gas station. It was just starting to get light out and I was buzzing. This was bound to be great.
And it was. No charge at the parks when you get there before the workers do. You also don’t have to fight to find a spot to park and can drive as slow or fast as you’d like.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
This place is unbelievable. I pulled into the park as the sun was rising and couldn’t believe what I saw. Bluffs towered over the park entrance. I maneuvered the switchbacks with a large coffee in my “non-driving” hand.
The sheer beauty of it all – the sights and the timing – made me tear up. After all the doubt I’d had the night previous, and even that very morning, I was seeing the striking views I had been dreaming about since December – all at the most perfect hour of the day.
It was tough not to stop at every opportunity. I eventually concluded that my camera can’t capture what my eyes can absorb. I took photos of some of the park’s 2,000 arches but found it most rewarding to just stand and stare. I’d been to the mountains before, but this was different. Layers of orange gleamed in the sunlight, and I was all alone, with no distractions to take away from it.
Finally, I arrived at Devil’s Garden. I draped my purse and camera strap across my chest, tucking my camera lens into the purse. My camera isn’t small by any means, but I figured I was in for a half-mile walk at most.
At a half mile, I saw my options. First, Landscape Arch revealed itself behind a bluff. Then, a sign that was FAR too inviting to disregard: “CAUTION,” it beckoned. “PRIMITIVE TRAIL. DIFFICULT HIKING.”
Well. I wouldn’t turn around after seeing a sign like that. I walk-climbed about 6.5 miles that day, leaning over ledges to get good photos and clinging to rocks when my feet would slip. All the while cursing myself for making the brain-dead decision to carry $4,000 of equipment in my $2 satchel rather than its much more secure, designated camera bag.
I followed the signs and the marked trails for the most part, learning quickly that small, stacked rocks indicated I was on the right – or at least a – path. I mistakenly come across Navajo Arch (where I got one of my favorite pictures of the trip). But I couldn’t find Double O Arch. This, I was convinced, was an arch I had seen in the brochure and I was dying to flex my own photography skills against its golden goodness.
I hunted, climbed, peered off edges and became frustrated after taking – ironically – a second loop back looking for Double O Arch.
Finally, I took a route I hadn’t noticed before and I found it!
One slight problem.
I was wrong in assuming that the arch I was looking for was called “Double O Arch.” This wasn’t what I was looking for, but took a photo from a distance, climbed over the ‘spine’ and made my way to the car.
It was well after noon and I had done more in a day than I’d done in a while – all without meeting my McDonald’s quota for the day. Plus, I’d had 8 hours of sleep in the past two nights combined. I was sweaty, tired and certain I wouldn’t find solitude within the bucket seats that night. I needed a hotel.
I shopped around and got the hint from one man (charging nearly $200/night for a 2-star motel) that my best approach was to head out of town, which is what I started to do… until a sign caught my eye.
“WORLD FAMOUS WOODY’S TAVERN”
“Where is everyone?” I asked the sole person in the bar after the rickety door slammed behind me. “This place is awesome!”
It was one of those establishments that people respected so much that they etched their name anywhere they felt.
The bartender looked at me like I was from a foreign land (kind of am?) and responded flatly, “We just opened.”
Oh. Right. It was 2 p.m., not 8 p.m., like I felt.
I had a Utah-brewed cold one to celebrate life while making a few phone calls to line up a hotel in Green River. When I asked if there were many nice dinner options in Green River, the lady at the hotel informed me she was making vegetable soup for dinner and it would be ready in the kitchen at 6:00.
I downed the rest of my brew and departed as a biker gang of French-speaking men showed up.
World Famous – confirmed.
Upon arrival, “Janice” was – kid you not—answering BOTH phones, while simultaneously telling me she’d be right with me. I used my spare time to ponder whether this was good customer service or not.
She put out all the fires, sighed and gave me a smile.
“Geeze, I said. “They have you answering all the phones on top of making soup back there?”
She looked at me, surprised. Glancing down the line of people that had formed behind me, I’m quite certain, for just a moment, she believed the word got out about her soup.
“I called earlier,” I clarified.
Relieved, she began booking my room. She ducked below her computer and mouthed the magical words: “I’m going to give you a discount.” She gave a $60 discount before I even asked.
Although she’d become my BFF by that point, Janice and I never reconvened for a selfie after she took care of the customers behind me (regret #1).
After a shower, nap, a photo upload, 16 glasses of lemon water from the lobby, and three bowls of soup, I went to bed. I didn’t fully regret my headrest-pillow invention the night previous, but I’ve never been so thankful for real pillows in my life.
The next day, I was set to drive four hours to Calf Creek and Bryce Canyon. I had a short stint of the main highway (speed limits 80-mph!) before I was off in the boondocks again.
I eventually passed an interesting establishment anyone would turn around for. A coffee shop legitimately in the middle of nowhere.
I didn’t need coffee, camping or WIFI like the writing on the windows advertised, but I did want a photo of it and the experience. The place looked adorable.
Surprisingly, a man roughly my age welcomed me and, after I ordered a coffee, he cautioned they only put coffee on once the first person requests it, so I’d have to wait.
“Ok,” I said, staring back him expectantly.
It was after noon. I looked around – another place with carved names and defaced dollar bills scattered everywhere. His wife entered and we began to talk local attractions. The couple was so caught up with giving advice on where to head we all nearly forgot why I had stopped.
They sent me out the door with a few maps, a hot coffee and a huge smile.
Three mile hike in, three out.
When I finally got to the falls, kids were daring each other to get in the lake. A young couple took selfies in a hammock and an older couple ate lunch on a rock.
Another woman, approximately my age, sat solo. I fulfilled her request and took a few photos for her, and she did the same for me. She was originally from Utah and had been to Calf Creek with her mom when she was 7 years old. It seemed there were sore feelings, but I held back from asking more questions, regret #2 as I’m still wondering what her full story is.
She told of a shortcut to the next day’s adventure, Buckskin Gulch (on the cover of the travel guide), a trail called “The Wire Pass.” I decided on the spot I’d try it.
On the three mile return hike, the boy behind me was trying to one-up his friend with his s’more techniques.
“Graham cracker, then chocolate, then marshmallow, then whip cream, then cracker, then chocolate then chocolate sauce and then another marshmallow and then another cracker.”
I tried to remember the pattern but relaxed in knowing it was probably googleable for the day my elevated blood sugar, heart history and guilt over divulging on sweets dissipates.
I signed the registry and debated my next move. I was hungry, but daylight hours were limited and I wanted to view Bryce Canyon that night.
Like most other things on the trip, I decided I’d drive until my decision was obvious. I pulled over as soon as I saw it.
ESCALANTE OUTFITTERS – PIZZA. BEER. CABINS. GEAR.
This place looked like a place I’d like to own. Doors were wide open and your first step in, you’re standing amidst a display of stylish athletic gear. Attached to the shop, a pizza joint worth scoping out if you’re ever in the area. You’ll know it when you see it.
I sat down to eat and looked around. Everyone was eating pizza, and I definitely wanted the same.
Can a person alone order an entire pizza?
For the first time on the trip, I wished someone was with me. The pizza looked and smelled so good, I just wanted someone with me so I didn’t look like I was alone because I had an eating disorder.
Instead, I ordered Bruschetta, made with whole cloves of garlic. I realized this half way into wolfing it down and smelled like garlic for the remainder of the night and into the next day. Maybe that’s their marketing scheme.
Escalante Outfitters: “Take us with you wherever you go.” Seems fitting.
Seriously though – delicious. Go there.
BRYCE CANYON LODGING
Another hop-skip-jump and I was set to see Bryce Canyon. Only, it was getting dark and I was seeing deer far too often. Bryce Canyon was a “to-do” at sunset (per the travel guide) but I wasn’t going to make it.
Just short of the canyon, I came to Bryce. I had a special interest in staying in Bryce (my nephew and godson’s name is Bryce), and this was it! All stores and establishments were labelled with “Bryce” – COOL!
This place with miniature cabins caught my eye. Just itty bitty baby cabins! They looked like an adventure themselves.
“So what’s there to do in Bryce on a night like tonight?” I asked after booking one of them for the night.
“Nothing,” he said. “And this isn’t actually Bryce. You’re in Tropic.”
I spent the night in a log cabin (called “Bryce Canyon Lodging,” but not actually in Bryce), set the coffee maker for 5:15 a.m. and called ‘er a night.
I entered Bryce Canyon Park as it was getting light out – and WOWIE. Beautiful. Huge. Amazing!! I later learned Bryce Canyon has the largest collection of hoodoos (pillars of rock left standing after forces of erosion) in the world!
This was a great morning to see the canyon, but it was a quick visit – I wanted to make it to Buckskin Gulch and slither through the slots before heading to Phoenix.
BUCKSKIN GULCH/THE WIRED PASS
Like directed, I turned off the highway onto House Rock Valley Road 38 miles east of Kanab. I was somewhat surprised to see it was a gravel road. A very rocky, bumpy non-groomed gravel road. As in, the type of road you’d pop a car tire on, or at least be paranoid that it could happen even if that’s unheard of.
“Impassable when wet” a signed warned. I looked at the sky. Clouding over.
Warnings of flash floods I had seen earlier entered my mind. I glanced at my phone, which hadn’t had service much of the day. Still no service, and I was driving into a ravine.
The area looked desolate. Beautiful, but desolate.
Some slightly irrational, buy mostly rational questions entered my mind, mainly to do with being stranded or acquiring asinine fees for a car I probably should have insured:
What would happen if I needed help at the bottom of a mountain where there was nobody around, and I had no service? Would they send in a helicopter at some point, or how would they find me? What if I got down there and the rain started, and I had to tread water for 24+ hours – could I do it? If so, roughly how much in flood damage repairs would I owe Alamo?
I was approximately 8 miles in on the gravel road when I started considering turning around. At that point, if something were to happen, just finding help would take hours. I was still at least 6 hours away from Phoenix and I had to get to the airport by roughly 7:00 the next morning. If something happened, I’d need not only someone to stop on the highway for me, but then be willing to drive down this road PLUS know what to do. What were the chances that a trustworthy, non-creepy stranger would approach at the right time who had the right attitude, knowledge, tools and equipment to rescue me?
If it’s anything like my dating life, not likely, I concluded.
I felt the chances of surviving decline every yard I drove, but continued, dodging sharp rocks and trying to avoid bottoming out.
How close do they examine a rental car when you return it? I wondered. If I bottom out a few times, will they notice?
Finally, I got to the trailhead and was relieved to see a few other adventurists preparing packs for their hike.
Like REALLY preparing. Big packs. With water, sleeping pads… hiking boots for sure. The trailhead map warned of “last springs” and begged hikers to “never hike alone.” I wondered if anyone realized I was alone as they were preparing to head out. I snuck off before anyone called me out.
The trail was nice. First, very clearly marked. Easy to follow. No inclines. Then it became rather sandy. It transitioned into rock and eventually became difficult to follow. Soon I saw what was ahead and paused. Someone had written “WHAT?” on a rock on the path, just before a section that hikers were required to basically rock climb.
But I wanted to see Buckskin Gulch more than anything else I had done on the trip. I continued, determined and convinced it was only roughly a mile or two in, per the trailhead sign and the advice from the Utah native I met at Calf Creek.
Eventually, I lost the path and looked around, confused. I was huffing and puffing, sweaty, thirsty but taking it easy on the water in case I got stuck there for days. I paced, waiting for the overly-prepared crew to catch up. Nothing. I couldn’t even hear them.
That’s when I spotted what could have only been a bear paw print. It was huge, and took the shape (roughly) of a bear paw. I don’t have photographic evidence for obvious reasons – I was busy developing the headline in my mind as I scurried away:
“Woman on solo hike gets mauled by a bear while lining up ‘the perfect shot.’”
I tried a few alternative routes and then recalled how poor I am at keeping my bearings straight.
Not good. Fairly bad, in fact. As in, disoriented-opposite-direction kind of bad.
So, I gave up. For the first time since I remember, I gave up. I passed the bear paw again and lowered myself down all the ledges I had climbed up. I did get a photo of a slot, but it only went in a few yards.
I did study the trailhead map again when I returned and was still at a loss for where I went wrong. I’ll create another opportunity to check it out someday – perhaps with someone, as recommended.
THAT’S A WRAP
I’ve been on a good number of trips. I’ve traveled to Hawaii, Greece, Italy, the Bahamas and well over half of the States, but have never done a trip like this by myself. I’ve wanted to try it (Bucket List item #24 – Go on a trip by myself), but other than a road trip in my home state, hadn’t taken the opportunity and commonly made excuses. I finally put some thought into what was holding me back from traveling in more recent years: 1.) Lack of a travel buddy. 2.) Failure to plan/commit to it.
I was encouraged (borderline begged) by a close friend (married, with children) to go on a solo trip before it wasn’t an option anymore. Things change so fast. Health, relationship status, families, finances, that I suppose you never know when your last opportunity to do anything is. And from what I’ve learned, you usually don’t know when an event was the last time when it was the last time. It’s probably better that way.
The trip was phenomenal, but I’m no fool. The Big Guy was watching over me. I had perfect weather, no severe accidents, I took lots of photos (more available upon request), had a perfect amount of hiking, an appropriate amount of danger, and – perhaps most importantly – took time to sort out and mute the unimportant things and bring to mind things I need to draw closer to.
Finally, I saw a fraction of a fraction of a state and wrote a mega-blog on it. This world is huge, and if you want to see even a portion of it, you really need to get going. Happy Trails!