The Red Centre: A Road Trip Through The Utah Desert.
“It was in Utah. It was in the winter 2015. It was the middle of the greatest road-trip of my life.”
I had been on the road for almost 4 months already, in an old 1984 Itasca Phasar campervan; a very funky little camper with horses and butterflies painted on the hood by the previous owners. It had become my trusted travelling companion, because although I had already been on many an adventure, rarely had travelled completely alone as I was now.
My friend Sarah and I had arrived in Las Vegas a few days earlier. She had been traveling with me for the previous 10 days, from New Orleans, across the Texas plains, along route 66 in New Mexico and Arizona, and all the way to Las Vegas, Nevada.
Sarah flew back to Boston, and I decided to head toward Utah. I needed some time in the wild.
I drove toward the north-east, along Lake Mead and the Moapa valley, where I joined the Interstate 15, crossed the corner of Arizona for 50km, passed St George, and went onto the small desert road that leads to Zion National Park. Here was my first step.
I got there just as sun was setting, and followed directions I had been given by a friend of a friend, back in Florida. He showed me very precisely on a map a good spot to park and camp near Springdale, a village just outside the park. On the top of a small hill, the view of the Zion valley was stunning, but brief, shrouded by darkness quickly between the tall walls of rocks on both sides of the valley. Then it got surprisingly cold. I wasn’t just in the desert anymore, but also the mountains. After a late night photo session, I set up my alarm really early in the morning so I could watch the sunrise, and went to sleep.
“I was all alone. I hesitated a little, thinking about my father’s advice to ‘never go alone and always choose a safe way’.”
I drove straight into the park as soon as I woke up where I then set up my camera for a time-lapse from the roof of my van while I was having breakfast and soon, in the morning stillness, encountered a group of deers. It seemed unreal after some crazy days in Vegas to get out of my van near this little parking lot, surrounded by gigantic orange stone walls, and have this group of wild animals just a few meters from me. They disappeared when the sun started to heat up, and I geared up for a walk up the Zion canyon. I was glad I had my canyoning shoes and waterproofs for this because after about 30 minutes of walking along the trail was the first river crossing. Since it was still pretty early, I was all alone. I hesitated a little, thinking about my father’s advice to “never go alone and always choose a safe way”. But, being so far away and in a place I might never see again in my life, I decided to cross and keep going. Between these out of proportion walls, this place seemed like some kind of lost paradise in the middle of the desert. One detail I remember, simple and seemingly insignificant, was two very tiny birds, following me up the river, tweeting as they went. I finally started to head back, stopping for lunch in the sun while my things dried up.
In the afternoon, I drove back down the valley and then eastward, my van following the curvy road number 9, not without troubles. The landscape was now dryer and rougher, reminding me of the classical Road-Runner cartoon’s landscapes. Absentmindedly carried by the music of the beautiful, warm afternoon, I almost ran over a small group of mountain goats that were crossing the road. Luckily, I was not going too fast, and both the goats and I escaped with nothing but a scare. I drove out of Zion national park, passed the mount Carmel junction, and decided I could keep going to Bryce Canyon and try to find a place stay. I arrived at sunset. It was getting cold again, and having been climbing steadily uphill all day, I wasn’t surprised to see snow covering the surrounding red rocks and pine trees. I parked in a campsite at the back of the only hotel open in the area. The only guests I met were an Asian couple and 3 French people: Olivier, a French guy driving his van across the US like me, and Justine and Alice, 2 girls who met him on the road. In search of a showers, we all noted that the fancy hotel was such a huge contrast with the precarious comfort of our vehicles, to which we went back after a good chat in the warm pool and the massive fireplace. We decided to meet again at the canyon for sunrise.
I left the campsite as it was still dark, arrived at a viewing point and made some breakfast while waiting for the sun to appear. What an amazing feeling to have a hot drink while watching the landscape being drawn in front of your very eyes. And what an explosion of colours. Reds and oranges from the rocks, yellow from the sun, white from the snow, blues from the sky, green from the trees. The other Frenchies arrived soon after, and we decided to all go together along the road of Bryce canyon. It took us all morning to drive up the 30km and back, stopping at every viewing point, and taking a hike down the canyon itself. Needless to say, the views were beautiful. As we said goodbye to each other after lunch, we decided to keep in touch even if we split ways for now.
I left Bryce canyon in the afternoon and decided not to hurry too much that day, stopping in Calf Creek by a campground along the river and made a campfire before it got dark. Feeling relaxed and closer to nature, completely alone in the desert. As the fire started to become ashes and loose light, the hundreds of thousands of stars revealed themselves. I stayed there for a long time looking at them, and when the cold got the best of me I went to sleep.
I woke up really early without the need for an alarm. I was getting more synchronized with nature and falling out of old habits of sleeping in. The frost of the night still covering everything, I quickly had something to eat and went for the hike I had planned for this day: mostly flat, but still a few hours walking to reach Calf Creek Falls. There are still traces of an ancient civilisation called the Fremont which inhabited Utah from 700AD to 1300AD here. Named for the Fremont river where their first sites were discovered, the ways of the Fremont people are still largely a mystery. For example, still unknown are what the three big figures painted on the canyon wall stood for. Whether the pictograph had religious meaning, lineage information, maps, or even warnings signs, will probably remain a mystery.
I finally reached the big waterfall marking the end of my hike. I stayed there for a while, drawing the flow of water creating a rainbow in the air, and thinking about the fact that water made all this life possible and how precious it is. Water is life.
Back at my campground I looked at the map to figure out my next move. I decided to start with the Burr trail, a 115km dirt road with some pretty steep passages, starting from Boulder all the way to the Bullfrog Marina. I hesitated a little but a couple of Canadians who’d just arrived from there in a big all-terrain SUV, seemed pretty confident I could make it through with my old van. As I started to drive, I instantly regretted not having asked for a way of contacting them, just in case. But it was too late and I was on my way. The start of the trail was pretty easy, with only parts of the road left unpaved. But quickly the trail became deep desert terrain. I reached the steep parts and was glad I was going down and not up, otherwise I would never have made it. A multitude of river crossings later and a road clean-up (I had to get out of the van to remove some big rocks on the road), I realised there was no conceivable way I could go back the way I’d come from. I was worried something would happen at every obstacle. Even a hiccup as minor as a flat tire would require a couple of days walking in the desert to reach the closest inhabited place.
Eventually, more traces of civilisation started to appear here and there; an old broken fence, an ancient reservoir and finally, with relief, I made it back to the real road near Bullfrog marina. It took me over than 5 hours, instead of the 3 I had initially thought. Parked up, I watched the sunset over the lake, and couldn’t have felt more relaxed.
At this point I was really synchronized with the sun cycle. No need for an alarm at all. I went north on roads 276 and 95 to Hanksville, a typical small desert town with not much more than a fuel station, a couple of diners, a local tourist attraction (‘the hollow mountain’), and a souvenir shop. I made a pit stop for lunch in ‘Stan’s Burger Shack’, which was delicious, and surprisingly had Internet connection. The most amount of civilisation and technology I saw during these 10 days.
In the afternoon, I drove to the Moab desert, and the arches national park. I arrived in the park as the sun was setting and camped as far as I could in the park.
I woke up as it was still dark outside and started to walk the path I had scouted the day before. I walked in the dark for a while, passing by the first few and scaring a few wandering rabbits. I finally reached the arch just as the sun was appearing, one of these magic moments that Utah offered me; just complete perfection. I gazed at the sunrise for about 30 minutes over breakfast and then started to head towards a more famous Double-O arch.
This must be where I started to deviate from the actual trail. I tried to backtrack, but literally everything there looks the same when you don’t know the place. The huge slices of rocks create obstacles that aren’t easy to pass. I was definitely lost now. I decided to get some height, and climbed up a tall slice to have a better view of the area. The landscape seemed to continue indefinitely, but after observing more carefully I saw the arch I was aiming for, far away and in the opposite direction. I kept walking for a good hour before I made it to the arch and back to the trail.
I’d spent more time than I’d planned here and so started to drive as soon as I arrived back to the van. I went into Canyonlands national park for another hike, shorter this time in order to play catch up with my lost day. I had lunch, and started to drive south. I made a pit stop in the town of Moab, in which I think I should have stayed for a few days. But instead I drove down the 191 where the 4 states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet at a single point and is also in the heart of the Navajo territories. There are many Navajo here, and they are not particularly welcoming; there is a pride and defiance in the silence they keep. Until they realise you’re not the classic U.S. tourist, anyway. Then, most of them are a lot more open. I talked to a few of the vendors selling handcrafted goods, who in turn told me a few stories about the area. One couple even told me to follow them as they finished packing up their car. I followed with my van and they led me to the Red Mesa area, where they own a ranch. I made some food for the 3 of us in the van but we had to finish quickly as the wind was picking up and they had to move horses into a shelter before night-time. Indeed, the sun was now going down quickly. I thanked them and drove on, past the Red Mesa to the north of Arizona. Back to Utah on a different road.
No matter how tired I was when I went to bed, I woke up with the sun in the morning completely rested up. Checking my map, I realised that I’d driven into the beginning of the trail passing into the Valley of the Gods. Continuing on this incredible trail, I couldn’t believe how underrated this place is compared to the nearby monument valley. I guess Arizona prefers advertising its great locations, whereas Utah prefers to keep its secrets for the people willing, or lucky enough – like me – to stumble across them.
“The beauty is in the contrast. And maybe that is what I was looking for during these days in Utah…”
Heading back to Arizona on a real road; a very strange feeling after hours driving on a rocky trail. Everything seems extremely smooth. I remember having this thought at the time that the same was happening in life. People who have been through hard and scary moments in their life have the ability to appreciate and enjoy a normal and uneventful daily routine so much more when they return to it. The beauty is in the contrast. And maybe that is what I was looking for during these days in Utah, putting myself – willingly or not – into some uncomfortable, unknown situation only to return to everyday routine with newfound appreciation.
But I’m digressing here.
I drove all the way to Page, in the north of Arizona and spent the afternoon at the nearby Horseshoe Bend, a famous 180 degree bend in the Colorado River between the Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon.
The next day, I took my time in the morning since I needed to wait for a tour that started only at 9am. It’s mandatory to go with a tour to be able to visit the Antelope Canyon, a place bringing thousands of tourists and photographers from around the world because of the unique way it is carved by flash floods and wind.
The place itself was amazing, but I got a bit annoyed about the fact they push you on all the time to make space for the next group. It kind of ruined the experience. I guess they ask you for a lot more money to be able to take your time. Time is money.
Nevertheless, I took some good photos, had lunch, and then hit the road in the afternoon towards the Grand Canyon. I saw a hitch-hiker on the side of the road and thought it wouldn’t cost me much to help him out. Besides, after all these days being by myself I wouldn’t mind a travel companion.
He was pretty cool, and had been travelling for years just sleeping outside and asking people for money.
My hitch-hiker had slept somewhere in the woods as he apparently always does, and even though he came to say hello in the early morning, he probably wanted to be alone for sunrise as well, so he wandered off a little bit further. I made myself a coffee and sat on the edge of the rim, thinking about a lot of things; life in general and my life more specifically. The Grand Canyon is a great place to do this. It’s so vast, it really puts things in perspective. Little troubles of personal life seem insignificant compared to the multi-million-year-old canyon.
After this quiet reflection, I started to head back to Flagstaff, a mountain town, bigger and greener, out of the desert, where I dropped the hitch-hiker before going back to the house where I had already been hosted for one night with Sarah, thanks to CouchSurfing.
And here end my adventures in the Red Desert. I’m sure I will be back one day, to spend more time and do some proper rock climbing and canyoning with equipment etc. But at that time, many other places, states and countries were calling me. So on I went.