In late May I embarked on an eleven-day road trip from Missoula, Montana through southern Utah to my hometown Santa Cruz, California. I visited four national parks—Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion—as well as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. From Utah, I made it to Santa Cruz in time for my birthday.
My plan didn’t really exceed an idea. No more than three days before I left, I aborted a fishing trip through Idaho and Oregon, also ending in Santa Cruz. I figured the rivers were too high from snow runoff, so I rerouted for Utah. Two days before I left, I bought a recreational atlas and met at a brewery with my friend and former professor Dave, who’s had lots of experiences in the Canyon Country. We plotted a few points in the atlas, and he gave me contact info for a few of his friends familiar with the area. He pointed out the White Rim Road in Canyonlands, a 100-mile drive that follows the cliffside rim of the Island in the Sky district. Constructed by ambitious but hapless uranium miners in the mid-20th-century, the scenic drive now requires a permit, along with a four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle, which I had in my truck. Dave had to run, but I stayed behind and continued to study the maps, and tried to secure permits for few nights on the Road.
In general, I knew I wanted to get to southeastern Utah and work my way west. Constant improvisation as I journeyed brought forth excitement and surprise, but not without anxiety and indecision. In any event, my attention was always in demand. I was alone, and the focus held aimless thoughts at bay. It distracted me, in part, from a lingering heartbreak that brought unpredictable bouts of loneliness, anger, and pain, only to ricochet off feelings of gratitude, empathy, and love. All of these feelings needed to be felt. Left alone, they’re a reason, if not the reason, for the trip to begin with. I needed something to get me going, so I winged an odyssey across the West.
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On advice from Dave, I left Missoula in the morning and drove south as far as I could. I made it to Price, a small city in Eastern Utah, at nightfall and booked a cheap motel room. I went to Walmart to grab some last second items: mustard, sandwich bags, tupperware, Advil, and so on. These items were added to the already stuffed cooler and crates wedged inside the bulging cab of my truck. Before leaving Missoula, I got high off a materialistic binge at REI and ACE Hardware. Among other items, I bought a hatchet, a foldout tarp, a Steripen water sanitizer, a seven-gallon water container, a Coleman Grill, plastic eating utensils, and a fold out rocking chair. Of course I chalked my consumerism up to a desire to connect with nature. But on night one I found myself wandering the fluorescent aisles of Walmart.
Back at the motel I drank a beer over some maps and a guide book. It was difficult to cram through so much information in so little time. If anything, it made me anxious. I wasn’t certain on a place to stay the next night by the time I hit the rack at around one. I hadn’t any idea if I’d landed the permits for the White Rim Road. I decided I’d drive to Canyonlands National Park the following morning to find out.
I woke at around nine and quickly ate some granola and yogurt before I took off. Canyonlands was three-hours due south. It was Memorial Day weekend, and I anticipated traffic and crowds. Campsites were likely packed, but I knew I could pull over in an isolated spot and sleep in my truck bed.
I turned from the highway toward the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. Sheer, colorful sandstone walls enclosed the road. Then I spent more than an hour in line at the front gate. I studied the atlas over my steering wheel as I inched closer and closer.
I drove to the visitor center when I made it inside. I’d found some luck with the White Rim Road. Scott, a young, wiry park ranger, was amused I’d managed to reserve a permit in high demand with so little time to spare. Surprised, I explained I pulled it off buzzed at a brewery a few days ago. He laughed as I paid him the twenty bucks in fees.
The permit wasn’t active for another few days, so I had time to kill. I brought all of my fishing gear, but all I’d only seen muddy rivers in the area. I knew the mountains nearby had fishy water, but the lakes were likely still frozen over. I figured I’d drive into the Needles district and camp and hike around. I’d already been there three years earlier, but the bizarre, otherworldly rock formations warranted another visit.
I walked out of the visitor center, made myself a salami sandwich on my tailgate, and drove off without taking any photos. I’d be back in a few days to drive the Road, anyway. I drove into Moab, only thirty minutes away, and was irritated and disheartened by the traffic and crowded sidewalks. The town was gridlocked by the onslaught of Memorial Day weekenders. It was hot outside. I began to cook in the traffic. I had second thoughts on visiting Needles. It’d be overcrowded, and I’d been there when it wasn’t.
I finally put Moab behind me and was driving south for Needles by mid-afternoon. I was low on energy and somewhat unenthused by the prospect of this visit. Then I saw I was low on diesel. Shit. I could’ve stopped in Moab’s already stopped traffic to fill up, but escaped instead. I decided to drive down to Monticello, forty-five-minutes beyond the entrance to Needles. The afternoon began to wane, and I was screwed on finding an open campground in or outside of Needles.
I missed a call while fueling up. It was from George, Dave’s old friend who could talk fly-fishing Utah with me. I’d been expecting his call for more than a day. George is a literature professor and fishing guide in Oregon, but is from Utah. He turned over a wealth of information with enthusiasm as we flipped through our respective atlases. He said that water around Moab was muddy and would remain so. Conditions were different out west in the center of the state. “Any stream flowing off of Boulder mountain right now should be clear,” he said. Boulder Mountain was near Capital Reef National Park and Escalante, a three hour’s drive away. I told him I secured a spot to drive the White Rim Road in a few nights. “Why don’t you drive out and fish a few days and head back over if you still want to do that drive.” Suddenly, I was excited. “Make sure you take 156 over there, through Hanksville. It’s gorgeous.”
I peeled away from the gas station onto the open road. I was going places. 156 was empty and the scenery was indeed gorgeous. Sweeping canyons would appear out of nowhere. One in particular, Fry Canyon, was so massive that I thought the Colorado was carving its depths. I stopped my truck and walked to the rim to hear nor see any trace of water. I pondered what could’ve shaped the collosal depression and how long it took.
There wasn’t any traffic. A falling sun began to soften the warm air as the surrounding cliffs, mesas, and distant mountains shimmered gold. I was blown away by the vastness of the country. The canyon landscape spanned the horizons of every direction on a scale I tried to comprehend on my drive through it.
I wasn’t prepared for the majesty and magnitude of the Colorado River. I could do nothing but stare at it for almost a half-hour by first sight. I was on a two lane suspension bridge between two rocky bluffs, some 100-feet above its surface. I’d parked my truck in the lane and hopped out and peered over the guard rails and took photos. It’s enormity amid the arid country baffled me.
On somewhat of a time crunch to claim a campsite in Capitol Reef, I turned into an elevated designated viewpoint for the river. I hate when I stop for photos when low on time, but I couldn’t help it. I needed to get back in my truck if I was going to make it to Capital Reef by nightfall.
I made it by the end of dusk. I could make out mere shapes of cliffs and mountains. All the campsites were full. Now 10pm and pitch black on a windy, rainy night, I didn’t know where I’d sleep. Adrenaline kicked in. I knew I’d find somewhere, though I wish I had already.
I left the park’s west entrance and pulled into a parking lot of a luxery, western themed hotel. I looked in my atlas as light rain hit my windshield. I wanted to sleep in my truck-bed on the side of the road, but everywhere in the park was off limits. I felt there were plenty of BLM roads in the area. They were, in large part, not displayed in my atlas. Without much of a sense of direction, I walked into the hotel, hoping for some help from the front desk.
I told the staff I didn’t have 300-hundred bucks to spare for a room in a vintage covered wagon. Nice enough folks, they told me where I could find a good BLM road for the occasion. I left and turned down an unmarked dirt road I would’ve never seen on my own. I pulled into an undesignated but marked campground. The drizzling was due to let up, but not for another few hours. It was windy, cold, and damp, but I was excited for my first night outside. Now 11:30 pm, I set the stove up and cooked a few bratwursts while I sipped a cold beer.
I woke up in my truck bed to light rain. Not my first time sleeping beneath a drizzle, I wrapped the blue tarp around me and tried to doze off. The drips grew heavier and rapid. Shit. Then came hail. Fuck. I looked out from under the fold of the tarp to see white pellets bounce everywhere and drift against the bed walls. I took a deep breath and jolted from my bag as quick as a snake strike. I threw my sleeping bag into my cab first. The sleeping pad went next. I threw the firewood into the bed and tied the tarp over it. Everything else, from my down jacket to my sweats, was soaked by the time they were inside. I draped my wet clothes over the passenger seat in front of the heating vents. I rotated different items as I drove throughout the day. To my surprise, it was a success.
At around 8 I drove into the small nearby town of Torre in search of a fly shop Mark mentioned to me. I wanted to attain some local perspective on the fishing learn if any had shaped up. Two men, one in his thirties, the other in his fifties, were behind the counter when I walked in. A fledgling shop, they were all smiles and happy to help me. I had some spots to mention from my conversations with Mark, some they probably wouldn’t have revealed to an itinerant fisherman like me.
The younger one and I talked for a bit as we flipped through my atlas. A few of the spots were indeed worth a visit, he said. I spent around fifty-bucks on leaders and an assortment of flies. Rain was forecasted in spotty showers throughout the day, fine for fishing.
I drove south on a two-lane highway that wound me into the mountains. Unanticipated snow began to fall. Its volume increased with elevation. Near the pass, I turned down a dirt road to a lake I planned to fish and spend the night. The snow blanketed the road’s bumpy surface. I soon found myself in steep descent on sharp, single lane switchbacks. There was little traction for my tires. My heart raced as I contemplated whether I could make it back up. I turned around when I could. The ride up and over went better than expected, but spooked me enough. The defrost blared louder than the music, which I eventually turned off to focus as snow crashed into my windshield. I realized I’d made a wrong turn, but I was done with this place. I drove back to the highway and turned onward south to Boulder.
I soon reached the pass to see vacationers stuck on the highway. The wheels of their RVs and rental minivans spun in place on the compacted snow. By now, I was more than grateful for four-wheel drive. The falling snow turned into rain as I lowered into Boulder. No longer aware of where I’d spend the night, I kept moving through town, my eyes peeled for a campsite.
After Boulder, the two-lane highway ascended to a thin ridge that straddled the lip of two vast canyons that fell from either side. It made for a dramatic entrance into the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
Awestruck, I pulled over along the ridge to take photos. Sheer walls enclosed the creek bottom of the western canyon. I’d soon learn the rushing water was the sound of Lower Calf Creek Falls. Sheer cliffs and verdant vegetation enclosed the distant stream. I wondered what it was like down there and whether I could visit.
I wanted to locate a place to sleep before I reached the town of Escalante, another ten-miles down the road. A steady descent took me into the canyon’s bottom. Here I saw a sign for a campground that read “Lower-Calf Falls.” I knew I wanted to fish the upper falls, so I dipped in for a look.
Little more than 10-feet wide, Calf Creek split the campground in two. You could drive across a paved portion of its bed to reach the other side, but the water was a bit high from the rain for my liking. Fortified by a wall of dense trees and shrubs, the narrow, murky creek moved fast and didn’t invite the angler. I parked in the main lot and walked the footbridge to find an open campsite. I quickly settled on one and set up camp. I decided I’d hike to the Lower Falls.
The falls were a mild two-to-three hour round trip hike into the section of canyon I’d just wondered was even possible to enter. It was six by the time I left. The trail cut into sandstone colored in varieties of yellow, pink, orange, and red. I saw plenty of hikers, but it didn’t feel crowded. Sheer multi-colored cliffs, often zebra-striped black by continuous runoff, enclosed the trail as I neared the falls. In spots, the walls concaved enough to create amphitheater-like spaces. The creek came in-and-out sight, its banks revealed by dense shrubbery.
The creek pooled and moved slower as I closed into the falls. It looked fun to fish, and I wished I’d brought my rod, but I didn’t really have enough time to begin with. I was excited nonetheless.
I reached the waterfall. A 126-foot cascade spilled over smooth stone into a deep pool. Hanging gardens of foliage decorated the horseshoe of sandy cliffs that enclose the area. Trees supported by exposed, gnarled roots sat on the beach, high water and floods having swept the ground from beneath them. The haven recalled a tropic ravine in Thailand, not the stonescaped, thirsty country it’s nestled in.
I hiked back in a hurry. In dusk, I cooked tacos while enjoying a few beverages. I chatted for a while with other campers. I knew where I was headed the following morning: straight to Upper Calf Creek falls to fish.
Thanks for reading. To be continued in part 2 in a few weeks!