Arches National Park: Gee I Wonder Why They Call it That?

petrography n. A branch of petrology that focuses on detailed descriptions of rocks.

After the night’s mini explosion, I was happy to find myself in a much better mood when I woke in the morning.  It had been a comfortable and peaceful night, what with our brand new Klymit Static V Luxe sleeping pad that made the nights so much more comfortable than the cold, pad-less ones we had spent that summer.  We quickly dressed ourselves and crawled out of our little Eureka! Solitaire tent.  Though the tent is technically only a one man, Chris and I, both being relatively small people, fit together in it easily.  Trouble only comes when I become a bit of a bed hog and push him off the edge of the mat.

Despite the drizzle of the previous night, the gear we had left next to the tent was hardly even damp, though the sky looked like it would change that sooner rather than later.  We packed up the gear, having gotten the act of breaking camp practically down to a science, and headed for the car.  We thought we would just eat breakfast bars in the car while we waited for Mitchell to rise.  No sooner did we close the doors did the rain start.  In a matter of minutes, a drizzle became a downpour and pretty soon Mitchell came high-tailing it down the trail toward the car.

We hit the highway again and pushed about an hour into Wyoming, through a snowstorm over a mountain pass, to the town of Jackson Hole.  Jackson Hole is similar to a lot of towns in my area in Montana because the only reason it is much of anything is because it’s relatively close to Grand Teton National Park.  Like most western tourist towns, it benefits from its rustic décor, like four massive arches into the town park made entirely of animal antlers, and gimmicky shops that somehow make tourists think they’re back in the old west or something.  That’s why we ended up in a tiny little coffee shop called Cowboy Coffee, brushing our teeth, filling ourselves with caffeine, and bumming free electricity and wifi. 

After a few hours of getting things charged up and finishing up some things we needed to get done, we loaded ourselves back into the car and prepared for a long day of driving.  From there, we wouldn’t hit another stopping destination until southern Utah, which would make for two more long days.  We headed down the 191, a highway that runs north to south all the way from Canada to Mexico and all the nothingness of Wyoming in between.  To say the drive though Wyoming was monotonous would be an understatement.  It’s field after field and the only thing that really changed the entire day was the weather. 

In late afternoon, we finally crossed into northeast so the scenery changed from fields of wheat and sagebrush to fields of red dirt.  I shouldn’t sound so scorned.  Utah is actually a beautiful state and I loved the look of red rock landscape minutes after entering it.  After stopping at a Wal-Mart in Vernal to stock up on supplies and groceries, not to mention extra gallons of water since we found ourselves continually running out, we drove a little ways outside the city on a poorly maintained, narrow highway that could barely be called paved and pulled the car over next to a shallow dirt canyon that would serve as camp for the night.

As Chris and I settled down in our tent, we suddenly became aware of a very eerie and curious noise.  It was a steady thundering; the kind that sounds like something large is running toward you.  We listened for a few minutes and as it sounded like it was getting closer, we stared at each other and silently (fearfully) agreed to run and grab the knife and bear spray from the car.  We hightailed it 200 meters up sage ridden embankment in the dark to the car.  Once we had our weapons of choice, we started into the bruised purple sky where the sun had sank.  It was just over the opposite wall of the low canyon from which the noise sounded like it was coming.  We listened intently, only to hear the noise vacillate from near to far.  It was far too steady for something running.  We considered a train, but the constant near to far fluctuation also didn’t make sense.  In the end, we ended up going to bed at least having quelled the fear that it was anything ominous running toward us, though the mystery of the midnight noise would forever remain unsolved.

We rose before the sun the next day and finished packing up camp just as it was finally cresting over the horizon.  The plan was to get to Arches by midday, though we neededfigure out how.  There were a couple routes we could take, all of them long, but then I spotted what appeared to be a shortcut on an old Rand McNally atlas book my grandma had lent us.  If we kept going along this rough little highway, highway 45 to be exact, it would dip us briefly into Colorado and spit us out on I-70 right before Arches.  Mitchell was a bit skeptical after tracing the route on his offline maps and seeing the line go narrow as if to signify a dirt road, but I was determined.  After all, who would put a dirt road on a road atlas?

So off we went.  It wasn’t long before the road did indeed turn to dirt, but only as a detour route around a tiny little industrial town called Bonanza that seemed to refine “in the middle of nowhere”.  Shortly ahead, Mitchell took over the wheel, since he had yet to drive at all on the road trip and we found ourselves on another dirt road.  This one looked like it would take us the whole way.  We had gone too far to turn back, so the only thing we could do was push ahead and see what was there. 

Full admission: I am a terrible backseat driver.  Especially when it’s my car.  Mitchell took corners on dirt crazy fast and rode the white line like a cowboy running from the law.  To give him the benefit of the doubt, in Australia they do drive on the opposite side of the road, but that explanation didn’t calm my nerves.  With each rock he hit a little too hard in my poor little low riding Camry, a new rock formed in the muscles of my neck.  Once we hit Dinosaur, Colorado, just across the state line, the road got worse.  Signs warned us, “Four-wheel drive recommended,” and, “Do not drive if wet.”  And up the road went, scrawling up through Baxter Pass, elevation 8,268 ft.  It was longest 20 miles of my life crawling up that rutted and rocky dirt road in a car that was far from designed for off-roading.  But Mortimer was a trooper and climbed the mountain like a champion.

The way down was no better, with high rocks and ruts we needed to take at an angle and a steep slope almost the whole way, but at least there was an end in sight.  Finally, another 20 or 30 miles later, we hit pavement again and I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved in my life.  Naturally, my foolish know-it-all attitude had come with a price.  No sooner did we get 10 miles on I-70 did we hear a POP! as though we had run over a plastic bottle.  We looked behind us but didn’t see anything.   Another mile or so later, the car sounded like we had dipped onto the rumble strip (though not surprising with Mitchell’s driving) even though we weren’t this time.  We slowed the car and pulled Mortimer onto the shoulder.  I dreaded getting out but I sucked it up, stepped outside, and immediately burst into tears seeing the shredded right rear barely hanging onto the wheel.

Amid my tears and frustrations, I was at least comforted by one small thing; Bad luck does follow me, but in a weird way, I have good luck in terrible situations.  You see, I had found that very same tire flat about a month ago and had to replace the tire.  Since it was so new, it was still under warranty, and though technically since driving off-road was beyond the bounds of the warranty, that “new” tire had also looked suspiciously dirty and worn when I got it.  And since this new tire was shredded beyond the point of being able to discern whether or not it was our little dirt road detour or simply a weakness already in the rubber that caused the blowout, I chose to think the latter for the sake of my sanity.  And Les Schwab thought the same.  However, bad luck would once again have it that we had just passed outside the range of where Les Schwab Tire Centers were located.  The nearest one was in price Utah, a couple hundred miles away from us.  We wouldn’t find another cross our path until beyond Yosemite.  Luckily, my spare is a full-sized and my car is front wheel drive, so driving on the spare wasn’t the issue.  Going over 1,000 miles without a spare, however, was.  If worst came to worst and I got another flat, at least I had AAA, so we pushed on toward Moab, Utah and Arches.

As we neared our destination down Scenic Byway 128 along the Colorado River, we began keeping an eye out for places to camp, but sadly found all the riverside campgrounds to be expensive.  Then we spotted an extra wide pullout off the highway, with a little trail cutting into the intersecting canyon.  We parked to check it out.  Around the corner from the pullout, the trial turned into a small wash, riddled with massive stone slabs that we scrambled up and over for maybe 400 meters before we found the perfect campsite nestled between two massive red rock cliffs.  We went back to the car to grab the gear and set up camp.

Being a bit late in the day to head into the park but a bit too early to call it a night, we opted to head into the town of Moab to steal bum some wifi and charge up our stuff, which we accomplished at a small extortionately priced coffee shop.  The next order of business was a shower, which we hadn’t since we left Butte.  That made it nearly four fays since we had last showered and unfortunately, it was looking like it would be even longer because Moab didn’t seem to have any shower facilities.  Then, as we drove back to camp along the Colorado River, we were struck with an idea.  Not an ideal one, but an idea nonetheless. 

We pulled into a riverside campground and scouted out a campsite with river access.  Unfortunately, all of the campsites were occupied so getting to the river would require sneaking through a site where the people were gone.  As we stood on the banks staring at the brown water so murky you couldn’t see your hand three inches down, we contemplated what we were about to do.  Would this really make us any cleaner?  Probably not, but I was willing to add on a couple layers of dirt if I could at least get rid of the smell.  I stripped down and stepped into the water, feeling my feet sink six inches in mud.  We all washed as quickly as possible and struggled to get dressed in fresh clothes, hobbling around on our sandals so as not to smear wet red mud all over our clean clothes.  Finally, we returned to camp, where Chris and I decided to get in a little late evening climbing but scrambling up to the base of the canyon walls, a trek that we vastly underestimated.  The thing about climbing on sandstone is that it can be remarkably unstable.  Not unstable like shale where small pieces flake off, but unstable due to deep fractures that make it easy to pull massive chunks, which is exactly what I did the minute I got to the wall.  Needless to say, we were wary after that and made sure to not get in over our heads.  The climb down the scramble in the dark was less than pleasant, but we seem to be making a habit of doing so.  Finally, we got back down to Mitchell and camp for a warm evening illuminated by a hot fire and an extraordinarily bright moon. 

We were up bright and early the next morning, pleased to find the air actually pleasant and not frigid like Montana mornings.  Chris always hated that when working over the summer landscaping.  “I have to dress like its winter for one hour, then strip off all my layers for the rest of the day,” he’d always say.

The most pleasant part of the morning, however, was realizing that, for the first time on this trip, we did not immediately have to break camp.  First things first, we headed into Moab to a less extortionate coffee shop called the Love Muffin Cafe for what became a morning ritual on the road trip.  As much as it annoyed Mitchell to go to a coffee shop each morning, it allowed us to accomplish four very important things: 1) Coffee (duh); 2) Hot water so that we could make oatmeal for breakfast; 3) Chris has the remarkable curse of having terrible luck with contacts.  Should the slightest speck of dirt get on them, those expensive little pieces of material rip.  An actual sink, we found, was the key to preserving their life and we simply couldn’t afford to keep replacing contacts. 4) Brushing our teeth. 

From there, we headed into Arches, only a few miles down the road from Moab.  The second we turned off, we were faced with a long string of car waiting at the gates to slowly pay and pull their way through.  Fortunately, I had purchased an Annual National Parks Pass prior to the trip and got to zip into the express lane into the park.  Just so anyone who is ever considering seeing multiple national parks in a year knows, the park pass was easily the best $80 I have ever spent considering it lets you into every park or national recreation site for an entire year when one park alone these days costs $45 for a day pass.

Our destination in Arches was the very far side of the park: Devil’s Garden.  Arches, however, is an extremely small park, only 119.81 square miles.  From the gate to the Devil’s Garden Trailhead, the end of the out and back park, the drive took about 30 minutes.

We started the Devil’s Garden trail, a looping trail that, if done in its entirety, is just over five miles.  Most people, however, do not do the full loop because it consists of something known as the Primitive Trail, an maintained trail consisting of soft sand and rock scrambles.  The soft sand beginning isn’t so bad, other than the fact that every step takes about twice the effort by virtue of the ground shifting beneath you.  Even from the start, we loved this trail.  While the sandy trail was pretty easy and flat, it offered all sorts of opportunities to deviate off and climb up the large sandstone boulders nearby to explore.

My well-timed and tasteful nature nude.  What you don't get to see are all the embarrassing photos of my crouched down against the rock trying to hide from hikers down below.

"Under the desert sun in that dogmatic clarity, the fables of theology and the myths of classical philosophy dissolve like mist. The air is clean, the rock cuts cruelly into flesh; shatter the rock and the odor of flint rises to your nostrils bitter and sharp. Whirlwinds dance across the salt flats, a pillar of dust by day; the thornbrush breaks into flame at night. What does is mean? It means nothing. It is as it is and has no need for meaning. The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possible human qualification. Therefore, sublime." -Edward Abbey

Eventually, the sandy trail faded into an old wash that then faded into a rocky scramble up smooth sandstone boulders.  None of us would consider it especially difficult given our background in hiking and rock climbing, but we were certainly surprised at some of the older people on the trail.  Among this scramble section of the trail were massive walls and find jutting up into the air.  When the base of one fin sloped right up from the trail, Chris and I look at each other with the same thought… and off we went.  While Mitchell hung back to take photos, Chris and I scrambled up the fin.  The rock was lacking in holds, but thankfully sandstone gives a remarkable amount of track on its own so we were able to reach the top of the slab.  Chris continued on beyond my sight, where I later found out he had to belly crawl through were one rock sat on another, a giant drop into the chasm below just off his side.  From there, he chimney climbed up onto the ledge above the one on which I sat.  Below us, quite a crowd had gathered and I reassured all the gasping tourists below that, “No, this wasn’t the actual path.”

Down-climbing the sandstone slab was a little trickier, especially in the spots that were bald of holds.  Relying on traction alone is one thing when going up and something entirely different going down.  Eventually, however, I managed to skid myself onto the ground where we waited for Chris to continue our hike.

From there, we took a short deviation into the loop to see Private Arch for lunch before we reached Double O Arch, which, as the name implies, it a set of two arches stacked on top of each other.  It was irritating though considering that there is another Double Arch in the park so the similar names got rather confusing.  Chris being himself immediately climbed up a rock stack next to the Arch from which you could walk onto the sandstone bridge separating the two arches.  I climbed through the lower arch to get an optimal view from the other side of him sitting there with a phenomenal view of the desert behind him.  Of all sights we saw on the road trip, I am still inclined to think that one as my favorite.

Once Chris had climbed down and offered some advice to another guy looking how to get up there, we moved on to see Angel Arch and Squaw Arch, though we skipped Partition Arch due to Chris’ now desperate need to reach a bathroom. Besides, by this time we were beginning to get the point of the arches.

By the time we navigated ourselves along poorly marked slabs back to the main trail and to the car, we were tired from the heat.  Originally, we had planned to go see Delicate Arch, the most famous of Arches’ arches (hee hee), but this exhaustion of the Devil’s Garden hike, we couldn’t really bring ourselves to hike another three miles just to se that one arch up close, especially when you can see it well enough through a telephoto camera lens from the lower view point just off the road.  After we did just that, we continued on down to the Windows Section, where you can see both Windows Arches and the other Double Arch, this one a set of two angled arches stemming from the same base column.

Double Arch would have been much more cool to see and hike into had there not been a host of annoying tourists that were either blocking any panoramic shot we wanted to get of the arch or making loud, obnoxious noises because they were repeatedly fascinated by the echo make within the walls.  Eventually, we got sick of the people, descended form our perch along the back wall of the arch cove, and returned to the camp.  

It was a sad morning when we had to pack up our lovely little camp that had treated us so well.  It’s hard to find free off-highway camping quite as nice as that and we knew we probably wouldn’t get so lucky again.  But we had places to be.  That was the day we were meant to be meeting Chris’ friend Reid who lived up in the Salt Lake area.  I had met Reid once before when he and his girlfriend, Cheyenne, drove up to Montana spontaneously in June.  Chris and I took them on what became a nightmarishly long hike up to Dawson Pass in the Two Medicine Area of East Glacier Park.  Even though it was all of our first hikes of the season, I blazed ahead so much that Reid looked at Chris and asked, “Are you sure she’s human?”  I hoped he would look forward to seeing me again instead of dreading it.

Because of this meeting, we decided to skip the nearby Canyonlands National Park, much to our dismay because there looked to be some incredible sighs there.  Being an out and back park, however, we figured it would eat up too much of the day.  Instead, we cut back on I-70 then down into scenic byway 24, which would take us right through the heart of Capitol Reef National Park.  While much of the park was a bit boring, it held some extraordinarily interesting looking sandstone walls that we were just dying to climb.  We pulled off at the Grand Wash and hiked up the barren bed scouting along all the sandstone walls the water had eroded into bubbles and pockets.  We messed around on a few walls and caves, not getting into anything too intense considering we had no crash pad or other protection.  The fact that the sandstone here was particularly weak and crumbly made us ever more cautious.  As Chris and I descended from the last climb we intended on doing, we ran into a couple of other guys who had been briefly watching us.  It turned out they, too, were climbers and had been messing around the rocks up ahead.  We got to talking and found out they were from Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Chris was born.  Even more of a freaky coincidence was the fact that they were members at PRG Oaks, the branch of the Philadelphia Rock Gyms (where Chris and I climbed while I was in school) that he climbed at before moving to new location.  Their minds were especially blown when they found it was Chris who had designed the PRG logo.  Even in the middle of the damn desert, it’s a small world.

We continued through the far side of Capitol Reef, stopping only once more to briefly look at some Native American petroglyphs on the cliff walls.  Reid had recommended a campsite for us not too far outside the park and we had planned to meet him there, though he was running a bit behind.  When we reached the campsite, we found it to be full.  After a pointless loop of stupidly low speed-dips that were hell for poor Mortimer’s low axel no matter how slow we took them (seriously, who designed those?) we left and continued on.  Eventually, we found a free campsite just outside the town of Escalante. While there were a few other cars and RVs in the area, the sites were spaced out enough that it was hardly an issue for us.  We set up camp then drove into Escalante where we could stop at a Wal-Mart for a few more things. 

Still feeling incredibly grungy after our mud bath in the Colorado, we were determined to find a shower while waiting for Reid, or at least Chris and I were.  Mitchell was completely content to forgo the shower and ask us whenever we brought one up, “Why don’t you just wipe down with some Wet Ones?”

Eventually I snapped at him, “Because Chris is Italian and thus very greasy and I am a woman who, during certain times of the month, really wants to shower!”  He never mentioned it again.  We ended up finding showers at a campground in Escalante Petrified Forest State Park.  Though technically there was a fee for the showers, it was only collected in a non-monitored donation box (where they also wanted to collect a $15 fee for day use of the grounds), so Chris and I quietly snuck into the shower, washed up, and left as Mitchell waited for us at the car.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a moment of intense instant relief in my life.  Who needs crack when you have a shower?

By the time we got back to camp, Reid was still running late, not estimating getting there until after 10.  Mitchell went to bed as soon as we ate dinner, but Chris and I, even being the old people we are, decided to wait up for him by the fire.  Reid finally rolled in around 11pm and we even stayed up to chat a bit.  He had, after all, driven all the way from Salt Lake area to see us.  When we started talking about plans for the next day, Reid brought up some nearby slot canyons that he had been to years ago.  That very slot canyon area, in fact, was where Aron Ralston had infamously got himself trapped beneath a rock and sawed off his arm to escape.  As someone who had actually found a lot of inspiration in his story and how he was so humbled by the experience, I was instantly game.  PS, I recommend the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place not the shitty movie 127 Hours where James Franco makes you hate Aron Ralston and portrays him as a much worse individual than he is.  Either way, potentially dangerous slot canyons?  Say no more.