I spent two days this week, which felt much longer, exploring a patch of Western Utah.It was a beautiful and sustaining thirty hours. I also met a hell of a lot of cows.
I left the Monument yesterday at about noon thirty, after sleeping in and leisurely packing absolutely everything I thought I might need into my car. It was already a hundred degrees. I said hey to Adam, who was working the entrance gate, waved in a friendly manner at a gaggle of teenage girls getting out of their car by the big sign, and, music blaring, hit I-70 West.
I did not learn this until I returned, but fewer than ten minutes after I turned left out of the Monument road, that same gaggle of teenage girls walked into the shrubs around the sign to take a group photo and found a dead body.
A murder victim. Thankfully, fresh, since dead bodies probably get gross very quickly in 100 degree weather. The park mobilized, but I was whizzing happily down the freeway at that point, totally oblivious. The body was a 49-year-old woman, killed by blunt-force trauma to her head. It is perhaps the craziest and most horrifying thing that’s happened at COLM for quite awhile. Me though, as people do all over the world, every moment, I was moving through life oblivious to tragedy, unaware and singing at the top of my lungs. So let’s pause for a moment, to honor this woman’s death, and then for the sake of narrative, we will leave her, but not forget her, and return to Utah.
(a pause, to honor her)
Back on the road. Things keep moving, the Earth is still spinning.
After forty miles or so on wide and nondescript I-70, I turned off to hook up with two-lane highway 128. For awhile, I was on a road that was just a smear of concrete with no dividing yellow line. In every direction, the land was flat and empty, except for grasses and sagebrush, and shimmered with heat. I was radiantly happy – we all know the appeal of the open road, the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next curve.
I stopped frequently. I stopped in the middle of the flatness, to peer at the horizon and note the blanket of heat and quiet. I stopped by the river, once I was on 128, to walk along the gravelly bank and wade in past my knees. I stopped again by the river to strip to my bathing suit, slip and slide down slick mud to the rocky bank, and immerse myself. (The Colorado is thick with silt and is what my Lake-Superior-self would call “bathtub warm.”) I stopped by a very large tree on a very red dirt side road. I stopped at Fisher Towers, an impressive and extremely tall red rock formation, to hike. (At all of these stops, I was the only person around.) At the Towers, I loaded my day pack with nearly four liters of water and set off down the rocky, narrow trail with bounce in my step. It was, however, two pm at this point, and it was 108 degrees. After half an hour, drenched in sweat and utterly bounce-less, I turned around and headed back to my car. When I returned, everything inside was so hot I literally couldn’t touch it directly.
I followed 128 and the Colorado River all the way to Moab. Close to Moab, the river was speckled with brightly colored rafts and their life-jacketed riders. It was still about 105 degrees. Moab felt crowded and bustling after the last few hours I’d spent without seeing another person outside of a moving vehicle. There were Germans everywhere. I bought a good topo map of the region’s trails, and a guide to non-technical canyoneering of the Colorado Plateau, and walked around sweating, and had a sandwich and more water on the outside deck of a place called “Peace Tree” (this is the kind of place Moab is.) Then I bought a couple of enormous jugs of water to stash in my trunk and headed south, up into the La Sal Mountains.
I drove up and up and up. The sun was beginning to set, which of course made the mountain range and the trees and the red rock down below hauntingly colorful and beautiful. Also the temperature kept dropping, which made me very cheerful. It dropped 36 degrees in about twenty minutes as I climbed. Eventually I hit the turn-off for the Oohwah Lake Campground. This was a weird road. It was seven miles or so of switchbacking dirt roads through thick forest, and the road was positively swarmed by cows. Seriously. They were standing in groups of 10-20, about two-thirds of them calves which was adorable, munching grass and staring disconsolately at my car as I drove through their masses. Sometimes they were inches from my open windows. It was a fun and interesting challenge, not hitting one. I have driven past cows on the road before, but never quite in this density.
Eventually I made it to the campground, which had actually several groups camped there already. I totally had the best site though – the only one right on the lake, perched ten feet above it. It is a green and vibrant place. After I set up camp, I walked around the whole lake, occasionally crouching to submerge myself in a field of greenness, carefully crossing fallen logs in the marsh, and also getting stung by something (nettles?) that caused my knee to raise up in a series of red lumps and stung and tingled all night long.
Morning. I was up by 6:30 – it was nicely chilly. Packed up, drove down, didn’t hit a cow, had coffee and eggs in Moab, found the trailhead to Mill Creek Canyon, met a very nice hippie who gave me a quick lesson in the true meaning of ‘namaste.’ Then I hiked the North Fork of Mill Creek. I spent hours in Mill Creek. I frickin love Mill Creek. I hiked three miles up the canyon, following the creek, which is clear and cold but not icy, and banked by swaying cottonwoods and swirls of gentle rock. I was constantly in and out of it, and scrambling up and over large rocks, and there was that smell, you know, of water on a summer day, that makes me feel happy and oddly safe. I spent ages in this large pool, between two waterfalls, half in the water, reading, then swimming some more, then climbing around, then reading, all the while getting nicely sunburned. I saw the biggest crayfish I’ve ever seen. It disconcerted me for a moment, but when he saw me, he scuttled away backwards at high speeds. This was precisely what I would have done if I’d seen him first, so we were on the same page. And on the hike out, I met a friendly local named Don who hiked with me for awhile and pointed out a ton of ancient petroglyphs high up on the canyon walls.
I drove home, on that beautiful highway, sunburned and exhausted and completely happy. How tremendously lucky I am, to have this complex and variegated land all around me.
Just reach right down into the whole of life: All of us live it, not many of us know it, and wherever you get hold of it, it’s interesting. A little light and lots of color, much error and a spark of truth – That’s how the best of beers is brewed, that cheers and fortifies us all. (Goethe’s Faust, translated by Randall Jarrell)