Thursday, March 26, 2015

Travels with Krispy and Noddy (And Karen!), Day 3: Arches National Park


After polishing off 1,000 miles in the first two days, it was time for a break. 113 miles, less than two hours - by far the 'easiest' day. But that doesn't mean there wouldn't be challenges.

Like the craziest 1.5 miles of the entire road trip.

We awoke at 7:30am, after sleeping for 9.5 hours. Utah really takes it out of you.

We were on the road early because this morning we were re-visiting one of our favorite places: Arches National Park. This would be my 4th trip there, and Karen's 2nd, and we already had plans to return again at some point, and camp for a few nights. Its a magical place.

Maybe the charm of Arches is its explainability. Its hard to picture the other half of Yosemite's Half Dome breaking off and 'washing away'. The acres and acres of Bryce Canyon's spires are literally mind-boggling. Hard to picture Yellowstone sitting ON TOP of a super volcano. But Arches? Oh, I see: A bunch of layers of rock got turned sideways over time, the looser layers eroded away, and some of them formed bridges. Got it.
Turret Arch, from our 2004 expedition.
(It hasn't changed much in 10 years.)

There is a simplicity to Arches. Part of it is the spread out nature of the park. At 76,000 acres there is plenty of room for the 2,000+ arches. Zion and Yosemite and Grand Canyon get all the tourists (10 million between them), but Arches, way out at the border between the forlorn Eastern half of Utah and the forgotten Western half of Colorado gets less than 1 million visitors per annum.

And very few of those were out on a Monday morning in Mid-March, when it was 50 degrees out. Admiral Karen and I consulted with Krispy and Noddy and we decided to go for the brass ring and hike up to the Delicate Arch.

Up and up and up and up and up and up......
Delicate is the simplest Arch of all, which is why its so Iconic. There is no reference picture for Zion, no single slide for Yellowstone, but for Arches that one, small horseshoe of Entrada Sandstone is THE shot for the entire park.

Its pretty much on every sign, billboard and flier in Moab too. I had seen the real thing from a distance, years ago, and like the wild bobsled run of a bike ride through Glenwood Canyon, I had vowed that one day I would actually climb up to it.

And today was that day.

We parked at the Wolfe Ranch, a lonely log cabin/corral/root cellar that was a family home at the turn of the 20th century, back when humans were superhuman and made out of iron nails.
When in doubt, look for a rock pile.

The trail up is only 1.5 miles, but the elevation gain is 500 feet. And none of that is the first 1/2 mile, which is flat. (Well, flat in the relative sense. We started at 4,300 hundred feet, which is 4295 more than I am used to.) Wheeze.

The middle 1/2 mile is the weird part. You walk up one rock. That's it. Its a gigantic slab of super dense Carmel clay that sits on a 30 degree angle.

There is no trail, because there is no dirt, sand or vegetation. Instead the way is marked by small piles of rocks called 'cairns'. Sometimes there would be paired cairns and the idea is to travel between the pairs, like a slalom ski run - except without skis or snow and you are going uphill.

The big rock walk was fun and a little wearying, but that was at 9am in Mid-March, when it was 50 degrees out. I cannot imagine how hellish this slab of sandstone would be in high summer, when the temperature has reached 116 degrees. You would feel like an egg in an uneven frying pan.

Finally we reached the top of the rock and we entered the last 1/2 mile, which was much more mysterious. This part was still rising, but not quite so dramatically, through a long series of pocket canyons. Soil and bushes were hit and miss and so it was difficult at times to see which was the proper 'trail'.

Watch that first step.....
Look for the cairns! Here at the tail end of Winter we saw ice in some sheltered nooks, and these made for some slippery conditions. (Its called 'slickrock' for a reason.) A few actual signs helped us find our way too.

Finally we reached the end of the pocket canyons. A ridge to our right rose another 100 feet or so. Ahead of us was a drop of about 300 feet (and spectacular scenery beyond that). We wouldn't be going left, as that was downhill.

Huh. I climbed a bit up the ridge and found the way. Oh boy.

A 1/4 mile of exposed cliff trail, two feet wide, hugging the side of the ridge, with the huge drop-off to our left, and some ice on the ground. I kept my voice steady and called back to Admiral Karen, "This way! Almost there!"
 
But she is a Capricorn and a dancer and she marched right up that winding, stomach clenching, tip-toe trail of terror - to our reward.

There it was, the Arch with the perfect name: Delicate. The trail ends on the upper left side of a horseshoe canyon. You stop here and gaze at the other side of the horseshoe, where the arch rises and rests precariously on its arm of the pocket canyon.

Its.....its.....well just look at the pictures. Its simple, and comprehensible and pleasing to we hu-mans, who adore shapes. Its just the perfect thing in the perfect spot.
A view of the fun angles to be navigated
if you want to get over there.

And its a lot bigger than it looks from the scenic overlook, across the big canyon. You just don't expect something named "delicate" to be 65 feet tall.

So, we sat and admired it, across the horseshoe, even though the sun was all wrong to get a good photo of it (afternoon sun is best, but that means climbing up the frying pan in triple degree temperatures.)

But me, being a 10 year old boy trapped inside a 50 year old body, had to go over to it. Karen and I "discussed" the idea. I won. As usual, she would take my "last known photograph" while I plummeted to some grisly end.
Me, freaking out in the Arch.

The trip around the horseshoe is not for the faint of heart. Its all slickrock, perched at a steeper angle than the big slab on the trail. You have to have a good relationship with the tread on your tennis shoes.

Once there though my legs failed me. I stepped into the arch and instantly felt crippling vertigo. Its fairly flat inside, and I wasn't too concerned about the 500 foot drop that was two steps behind me.

No, it was the arch itself. Its scary. I laid down on my back and closed my eyes and instantly felt better. I opened my eyes, saw the top of the arch 5 stories above me, and felt my legs turn to spaghetti again. Close eyes, fine. Open, vertigo. Wild.


I tottered back, taking a shaky video of the slippery slope, and we sat and marveled at the arch some more. Our neighbor was a delightful Englishman who marveled at how big America was. Being on a 2,700 mile road trip that really only went across 4 states, we could only agree.

Also, we were entertained (Pronounced "terrorized") by a family of chipmunks who were making a lively living by "entertaining" all of the hikers, especially when they weren't watching their backpacks, or pants pockets. Adorable critters - I'll bet they'd go good with a clove and a zesty lemon sauce.
Check for your wristwatch - and your wallet.

Back across the 'where the hell is the guardraaaaaaiiillll' ridge-hugging part of the trail, down the pocket canyons and then down the 1/2 mile slab of slickrock. The day was much warmer now and we gave encouragement to the folks coming up.

"It's totally worth it, dude. Its the thing on the Utah license plate - ya gotta see it!"

Back in the car we were simultaneously energized and exhausted by our 3 mile hike. So we drove up to another part of the park and attempted
The end of the green ridge (top 1/3, left) is where the
parking lot is. Two cairns are on the left, middle.
another hike, but only got a short way before exhaustion won out over energized. We retreated to the Minivan.


On to Grand Junction

The scenery was wonderful all the way out of the park, and all the way up highway 191 to the Interstate 70. But once we turned right, towards Colorado, the scenery machine ran out of quarters.

It was like Utah ran out of budget for the final 50 miles to the border. There's just......nothing. Its like when you are looking at a map on your phone and the next bit doesn't load fast enough and so it just shows up as a blank grid. This end of Utah looked like that, like the state didn't have enough bars and so couldn't load any features for this bit.
May 5, 1986: The Great Peace March enters
Colorado, and more importantly, leaves Utah.

Thank goodness for "Weird Al" CDs at times like these.

I remember this bit of blankland from the Great Peace March, back in 1986. Utah didn't like us hairy Liberals picking up litter along 'their' Interstate and so they bussed us up and shipped us across their state. But not all the way. They dropped off all 500 of us in the empty grid just East of the pretty bit.

In a howling windstorm. Thanks, Utah. You are, as always, abrasive.

We continued on of course, but morale was directly proportional to the sum total of the scenery.

Near the parking lot are some petroglyphs
(which depict a dog, {lower left}).
So, zero.

But I had spent almost every summer on road trips through this part of the world, so I walked up and down the line of marchers, promising them, hand over heart, that the moment we crossed the Colorado border everything would change. There would be a river, and trees, and ice cream, and towns, and nachos, and nice people.

I made these promises for 3 straight days as the March sullenly trudged the 50 miles of Nothing. And then, voila, as soon as we crossed the border, the scenery machine kicked over and started again. It was one of my Shining Moments.

Fins! (possible future arches - check back
in a million or two years.)
Today though this bit was just a boring blur as we barreled on into Grand Junction; my Mothers home for the last 20 years of her life. And I really can't say anymore about 'Junction than I have HERE and HERE and HERE. But I will say that there is a big difference between this Libertarian town and the Liberal one that I live in, and that difference is as stark and obvious as the scenery on either side of that border.

We stayed that night at the Hampton Inn, a plush hotel downtown that was comfy and friendly and nowhere near as funky or interesting as the Inca Inn, from the night before. We dined with friends of my Mothers, and I will say this: There is a big difference between one cocktail and two, and that difference is as stark and obvious as the scenery on either side of that border.

The boys need to work on their Selfies.
Noddy though, he was back in his hometown, and he had a blast showing Krispy the sights.


Angus McMahan
angusmcmahan@gmail.com
@AngusMcMahan

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