Southern Utah Road Trip pt. 2

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9am, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument: I crawled from my tent, ready to fish. I ate a bowl of granola with yogurt and fruit. A campground facilities maintenance man gave me directions to a certain waterfall. He explained a gravel turnoff from the highway marked by an oddly shaped boulder. I hopped in my truck and drove to the canyon’s rim, more than 500-feet above the tiny creek I’d fish. 

Four cars were parked at the trailhead. I figured they were hikers, not anglers. The weather was temperate—an ideal, late-Spring morning for exploration of the Canyon Country. The sun warmed my back as I loaded my fishing gear, lunch, wet weather clothing, and plenty of water into my backpack. The balmy weather relaxed me. I was in no hurry. My mood was in stark contrast to that of the morning before, when I woke to hail storm lying down in my exposed truck bed.

From the canyon’s lip, the trail moved down a steep continuous slab of stone before it gradually bowled into the canyon’s bottom. Stout Junipers and Pinyon Pines scattered the arid landscape. Cairns guided the way whenever the sandy trail leapt onto stone. 

The trail eventually hooked right near the bottom. The sound of moving water grew louder. I battled a hallway of brush to emerge beside a narrow plume of water more or less ninety-feet in height that fell into a deep jade pool. Continuous water runoff had zebra-striped the horseshoe of cliffs. A hanging garden of vegetation decorated the walls in reach of the fall’s misty spray. It all made for a beautiful, hidden oasis I felt very lucky to know about.  

Around the size of a domestic swimming pool, the deep, slow water looked exceptional to fish. A friend of my former professor said I might find “a healthy brown trout population” in these depths. The thirsty hike in, however, along with the creek’s miniscule flow, indicated otherwise. Now I believed him, due in part to the deep water, but also to a sense of obscurity. I felt no pressure to throw a line. No one else would fish here today, if not all week long. 

The scenery alone warranted the hard hike in-and-out, but I was here to fish. I slid into my wading boots and rigged up. I secured five-feet of fifteen-pound tippet tied on a white minnow streamer I’d named Scout. Bright white and more-or-less an inch long, Scout was partially wrapped in a metallic sheath to simulate the scales of a baby fish. He was even equipped with a set of artificial eyes to fool a cannibalistic predator. 

A ledge more-or-less a foot deep ringed half of the pool. I stepped onto the shallow shelf and dabbled Scout until he was soaked. I cast him back-and-forth along the bank and splashed him ten-yards upstream, around two feet inside the ledge. He sunk for considerable time before I started to strip him in.  After a few short moments, he came into view, around four-feet beneath the surface. His scales shimmered in the darkness. Moving slower than one walks, he began to close the distance. The clear, relaxed water put the majority of directing Scout into my hands, a responsibility that would prove troublesome. After around the fifth strip, the ground beneath my feet shifted. Startled, I glanced down to see a beautiful, heavy female Brown Trout dislodge herself from the wall. Bright red shaded the entire bottom half of her body, uncharacteristic of a Brown’s spawning cycle, but of her location. Meanwhile, Scout’s performance was subpar to say the least. He nosedived as I comprehended his predator before he whiplashed himself back up into position.  Though a stranger to artificial flies, the Brown did not oblige and tucked herself back into the shelf.

I lit a smoke and walked clockwise to the end of the pool. I splashed Scout into the hole’s center. He cruised around two-feet beneath the surface as I stripped him in. Another Brown flashed but didn’t strike.

I circled farther around the bottom until I stood in the pool’s mouth. I threw Scout to my left along the side of a small grove of reeds. The line curved Scout from the bank toward the pool’s center depths. Submerged a few feet, I watched him swim. Suddenly, there was a vibrant flash of red and a heavy jaw line so big and colorful the sight recalled a salmon. He opened his mouth and either missed Scout completely, or I took away lunch with an anxious hook set. It was over in a split-second.

Stunned, I began to laugh. I’d moved three browns without anything to show for it. 

I was still overcome by satisfaction. I needed to let the spot cool down a bit. I thought I’d fish dries along the small creek to pass time. I stashed my bag in a bush and brought my sling pack along with me.

Dense shrubbery and trees caved the creek. An inch-or-so of water flowed across a continuous slab of brown and orange sandstone. It occasionally pooled into bathtub-sized pools and carved slow, deeper channels no more than a foot deep or across. The fish in these aquarium-like areas saw me early and bolted into cover.

I tied on a size-12 yellow-humpy pattern. I couldn’t throw much line without snagging the walls and ceiling of impermeable foliage that caved the stream. I eventually gave up and continued my hike downstream. The lower canyon walls would sometimes break the foliage to meet either bank. The water combined with the shade to refresh me. Plants up to a few feet higher than the water lay flat from flooding, which unsettled me. In the event of a flash flood, there was nowhere to run. Perhaps I’d hang onto an overhanging tree branch. The water was around a half-foot higher the the day before, and everything began to feel real small. 

I was anxious to meet that Brown. I hurried back up to the pool.

I climbed from the creek into the sun. I switched back to the bulky leader and tied Scout back on. I knew where I was headed, right back to the mouth. I stepped in as silent as I could and knew I had one shot left at the brown, who’d by now I named Caesar. He was emperor of this hole, after all. I sailed Scout into the reeds near the bank’s edge, what I figured to be his throne. Scout snagged the bank for a brief moment but broke free after a few tugs. I let him sink before I started to strip him in. He soon came into view as he rounded a brilliant but accidental curve from the bank through the middle of the pool. Doubt settled in as he shimmered, alone. But then a shadow moved from the bank, a good five paces behind Scout. My stomach turned as I watched Caesar shape into discernible form and close the distance with graceful, predatory fury. 

I was without such aplomb but overcome by a shaky effort to not fuck up. Scout was no more than fifteen-feet from the end of my rod pointed straight at him. I maintained this stance for no apparent reason other than it felt right. He was minuscule in comparison to the leviathan on his tail. Caesar slowed himself near his prey for a better look. I stripped what little line was left until I moved my rod to maintain Scout’s swim. 

Caesar’s hook jaw dropped as he angled his head and chomped Scout’s ass. I jerked my arm so hard I’d have sent a ten-inch Rainbow into the weeds. Caesar whipped himself into a frenzy before he zipped line from my reel until I slammed the brakes. Lucky for me the leader was too burly for it to snap. The giant had its way with me for a while as he darted to every corner of the hole. I fought him for at least five minutes.

I left the net lying in my truck bed. Shit. As a result, our time together would be brief. While this was a bummer for good photos and my ego, it was ultimately easiest for my catch. I still managed a few photos and to feel his heavy weight in my hand. His belly glistened red. Scout’s de-barbed hook easily slipped from the inside of Caesar’s mouth. I managed a screwy video of his sprinted release across the shelf and into the pool.

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Endorphins lifted my mood as winds began to move dense clouds across the sky. Rain seemed imminent. I threw on my coat and began to pack up for my hike out. I was breaking down my rod when a couple in their mid-thirties showed up. The man was surprised people fish here and asked if I’d had any luck. Sure, I said. They were from southern Alberta, Canada, where he fished as well. I quickly showed him a few photos of Caesar while trying to hide my pride. With effort, I maintained no-big-deal-I’m-used-to-it look. Holding my phone for him, he raised his sunglasses and squinted at the screen. “Whew, a brown,” he said. I raised my eyebrows at him with a nod. No shit, pal. “Hon, come take a look at this.” Her reaction was more-or-less the same. 

I took a seat nearby to chat. We both talked travel, the usual “How long is your trip?” and “You ever been here before?” They were friendly but tired.  I held Scout in my hand. “Fish eating fish,” I said. 

“I’d like to see you pull another Brown out of there,” the guy eventually said. 

My ego brought me to my feet despite my conviction that another fish wouldn’t move after Caesar brought the ruckus to every corner of the hole. But here I went, my backcast in motion as I walked toward the lip of the shallow shelf. My audience remained seated on the grass surrounding the bottom of the hole.  I was upright, my wrist stiff as I swept my arm back and forth in a futile effort to convey competence. I began to accelerate my final cast in the middle of my final step when a funny thing happened. The ground was no longer where it had been. SHIT!  I jerked the rod straight above me for balance and to not crush it beneath my fall. The streamer swung violently behind me. The gal gasped as they both took cover beneath their arms. “Nooooo!” I said, already in submission to my fate. I spun myself back toward the shelf as I fell in, but now both of my feet had slid over the very ledge I’d avoided with diligence all afternoon. My body folded my face forward into the water as I had nothing to grab onto. I found my footing and lifted myself out as water cascaded down my raincoat. I stood there with drenched shorts suctioned to my thighs. “Well that wasn’t good,” I  said through laughter. But instead of laugh with or even at me, they shared a countenance that asked What the fuck is wrong with you? They said nothing, only stared. The gal finally managed to speak. “Are you alright?” 

“Yea” I said. “This is less than ideal.” I laughed more, not knowing what to say or do to fight the awkwardness. They didn’t say much. “Alright,” said the man with a slap on his kneecaps. They stood and hardly managed to say goodbye as they made a hurried exit.

Caesar had the last laugh today in assurance that this was his home, not mine.

I was soaked when rain began to fall. I changed into some dry, water-proof pants I’d packed. The ascent out of the canyon would warm me plenty, so I knew I’d be fine. 


I drove to Bryce Canyon National Park the following morning after I decided to ditch my permit to drive the White Rim Road in Canyonlands and maintain my westward progression to make it home by Friday to celebrate my birthday. I planned to stay in Bryce for the night and head to Zion National Park for the next night. I planned to leave for Santa Cruz on Friday.

I was lucky enough to snag a camping spot in Bryce. It was very crowded with tourists left over from Memorial Day weekend. Despite the crowds, Bryce didn’t disappoint. Along its rim, one sees a labyrinth of shadowed canyons between ridge lines crowded by innumerable windswept spires called hoodoos. White sedimentary strips decorate the burnt-orange cliffs. But the crowds at the viewpoints were nearly suffocating. Coming from Montana, I also hadn’t grown accustomed to the heat. It was the early afternoon, and I needed a solitary hike. 

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I left the viewing platform down a wide, developed trail. The swift descent left the crowded noise behind. The temperature cooled on the shadowed floor. The trail mazed through a hefty portion of the canyon before climbing out the other end. I saw plenty of hikers, but it was fun to strike conversations with some of them. The hike was by no means exhausting, but still plenty long and wore me out. 

The sun was on its way down by the time I hiked out of the canyon. It grew windy and somewhat chilly. I rode a shuttle back to my campsite, where I prepared a monstrous taco salad. The following morning I’d move onto Zion, where I knew it’d be even more crowded and harder to snag a campsite. The park had absorbed record Memorial Day weekend crowds, but I was hopeful that most had left. 

Though is was Thursday, a far above average number of visitors happened to be at Zion. I sort of learned it’s kind of a nature theme park if you will. It’s unmatched beauty and proximity to Southern California overwhelms its capacity. No campsites were available. I found myself waiting at a picnic bench in line for any cancellations. After sitting around for an hour and talking to other hopeful travelers, a ranger showed up, and I attained a nice campground.

I wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing. It was closed during my last visit in the dead of winter a few years prior, and I couldn’t miss it this time around. There was one problem: Crowds. There had been a three-hour wait to enter the trail over Memorial Day Weekend. While I knew there wouldn’t be any wait for this day, hikers of every sort, from beginner to advanced, thronged the vertiginous ridge to the top. A chain spaced by steel pools spanned the final half-mile stretch, and people headed up-and-down would hold on above cliffside drops on either side. I was both annoyed and surprised by the amount of people on the trail. It It also made me feel unsafe.


I made it home in time for my birthday. My brother Pete invited my friends out for a night on the town to celebrate. I felt good all weekend long. I finished my road trip with a long, single-day drive back to Montana, the highlight of which was driving through Hells Canyon along the Salmon River at sunset.

Thanks for reading.

Southern Utah Road Trip pt. 1

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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.  

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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!

 

 

The Bob

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Recently, Emilie and I visited Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, a place where beauty and enormity combine to defy a concise explanation. At 1,500 square miles, it’s the largest wilderness complex in the lower 48. Countless towering peaks form a number of different ranges that remind one of their minute stature in the face of Nature. I was most confounded by its remoteness despite its size and proximity to Glacier National Park, where more than a million people visited during July of last year, alone. The Bob’s grandeur — which measures to Glacier’s own in every respect — remains isolated. Before we even entered, driving north along its eastern corridor, I was dumbfounded by the jagged ridge line of peaks that strung the entire horizon. I wondered: How could I not know this place?

We car-camped for two nights on the West Fork of the Teton River, in the Lewis and Clark Wilderness area of the complex. The water was as clear as I’ve ever seen, anywhere. The area was stripped bare by a fire that burned nearly 30,000 acres in 2007. We were hardly inside the northeastern area of the complex, little more than an hour’s drive from GNP, yet saw almost no one for our entire stay. Only one person shared our campground over the course of two nights. We attempted to hike Mt. Wright to view more than a hundred peaks stretching over every which horizon, but were turned around by a thunderstorm. But the views, even from little more than halfway up, still impressed.

When I returned to Missoula, a neighbor and videographer who travels to outdoor havens across the globe told me the Bob is one of most beautiful places in the world. He called it “undervalued.” But I now realize that its obscurity speaks volumes to what makes Montana so special. Though relatively unknown, it’s best the Bob remains WILD.

 

 

“Lacerating Self-Doubt”: My Interview with William Finnegan

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In April 2016, William Finnegan won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Following his award, I wrote a six-sentence brief for our campus newspaper at the University of Montana, where he had studied creative writing more than a generation ago. I sent a handful of questions his way via email, and he kindly responded with a note I turned into a follow up story on his years in Missoula.

The semester’s end was near, and I was exhausted between obligations for class and the paper. Barbarian Days is a long, rich book almost devoid of humor, and it doesn’t make for light reading. I listened to it on audio read by Finnegan himself. His voice made for an intimate experience during the many hikes I took to relieve stress from the waning semester. I was moved most by chapters concerning his mid-to-late twenties. At my age, he was amid a half-decade surf odyssey in Asia, Australia, and Africa. But persistent, “lacerating self-doubt” shrouds a lifestyle I might easily romanticize.

I identified with his “lacerating self-doubt” and was inspired by how he withstood it. He made his own way while enslaved to an inordinately high standard he held himself to. He was on his own, halfway around the world, seeking his voice and becoming a writer, something I want to be myself. As far as I know, this endeavor involves struggle more so than anything. Thoughts like “I can’t write” or “I’m not smart enough” pervade my already contemplative mind. Finnegan is a celebrated international reporter who’s resided at the New Yorker for three-decades and had just won the Pulitzer. Though hard to admit, he is the idyllic version of my future self. Which is why his humility and honesty in Barbarian Days hit home. It brought his lofty achievements down to Earth. His progression toward becoming a writer was an immense struggle, one I must take on myself.

Finnegan was coming to Missoula for a reading a week into my summer vacation, around a month after my articles for the school paper. I wanted to meet him for more than an autograph. A face-to-face interview for the school paper was my ticket, and I resolved for it to happen. I analyzed his book in several exhaustive emails. To the last he replied, “Thanks for thinking so much about my book!” I was in. We scheduled to meet the morning after his reading.

I was very uncertain and exited on my way to pick him up for the interview. He was staying at the home of his longtime friend Brian D’Salvatore, who’s pictured aside him on the cover of Barbarian Days. My car was stuffed with luggage for my upcoming summer job at Big Sky Ski Resort, a four-hour drive I needed to complete by early afternoon. I had staid off the job for as long as possible, and Finnegan was kind enough to meet me for an early-morning interview. Finnegan was holding his eyes open when he answered the door. I drove us to the Break on Higgins, where we started our chat over pastries and coffee. I tried to sound smart and competent but was scattered and, at times, I verged on incoherence. I was star struck, looking into the eyes of someone I admired. He wasn’t the handsome, well-dressed man I saw at the meeting the night prior, nor was he the extremely handsome man in the photo he sent me for an article. Rather, he was wearing a weathered flannel and faded blue jeans. His face was leathered, how a lifelong surfer’s ought to look.

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The portrait Finnegan sent my way after he received the Pulitzer.

A recording clip from our interview, in which Finnegan speaks to his battles with self-doubt in his youth:

Often, those close to me remark, in one variation or another, “You think too much.” I never expect the observation, but it never surprises me. I tend to ponder things into perplexity more so than others, perhaps far more so than others.

My tendency to overthink has hindered me in the past, especially with sports. I started at quarterback for my high school varsity football team. Apart from my height and arm, I wasn’t cutout for such a demanding position. A QB must be assertive and able to command his team—I was shy and painfully self-aware. He must be an astute performer, aware of not only his responsibilities, but of those for every player on the field. While I could hit the books when I desired, I wasn’t football smart, let alone QB-smart. My athletic-IQ has never been strong. The smart athlete’s ability to disengage the audience and focus on the task at hand—winning—is a trait I’ve never had, and one I admire in others.

I was entrenched in a quarterback controversy for the duration of my junior season, and I overthought every perception of me, whether it was from friends and family, my coaches, campus peers, or the newspaper. Never able to give myself a break, I quit the team before my senior season, a decision I never regretted in contrast to the warnings I received when I made it. Ten years removed, I still battle a “lacerating self-doubt” over my football years. I brood over hypotheticals, such as What if I could start over with all I know now? But still, I don’t regret how hard on myself I was, for it’s made me into the person I am today.

Self-doubt afflicts my writing like it did my tenure at quarterback. But contrary to the sensory overhaul I survived beneath the Friday night lights, writing narrows my focus and slows my racing mind. I can ponder things to a productive end, rather than to perplexity. Not that this is pleasurable—no struggle is. It’s an endeavor rife with exhaustion, humility, and uncertainty, afflictions Finnegan articulates with Pulitzer-grade precision in Barbarian Days.

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Finnegan surfing Cloud Break in Fiji

Finnegan visited campus for a craft lecture in late October, more than a year since our interview. He remembered me when I extended my hand over several stacks of books he was signing. We caught up over the course of a mere three sentences, within which he acknowledged my email I sent him a few days prior. Chuckling, he said it was an email subject line like no other he’s seen: “Hi, Lecture,” it read. I said I had to grab his attention amid the daily flurry of emails he must receive. Then I said I had one question, to which he said, “Fire away…”

“Your book isn’t nostalgic,” I said. “Your depiction of your surf-odyssey is filled with what you call ‘lacerating self-doubt.’ Now, do you regret being so hard on yourself? Or do you feel it was instrumental, as something that propelled you forward?”

“Instrumental,” he said…“paid in full.”

Wild Fish, Wild Country

We took to the road at 9pm on a smoky evening in Big Sky, MT, my friends Eric, Marcus and I had an idea to drive into the unknown, in search for big fish. Surviving the 12-hour drive through the night, we arrived at a trailhead lost by most, and far from anywhere. We then descended the few thousand-foot hike into a rattlesnake-infested, inferno of a canyon where we would fish hard for three days in a location an outdoor enthusiast can only dream of. The several hours’ worth of winding, heavily logged roads seemed to whiz by as our anticipation of inception grew. Backpackers seeking unimaginable isolation and stupefying beauty are said to frequent the stream more than anglers, whose annual number is fewer than a hundred, according to Eric. The fish were plentiful, indeed, the threatened Bull Trout our target. The hook-jawed, prehistoric looking species thrive within the farthest-reaching portions of territory that humanity has yet to touch. The species demands clean substrate, and cold, clear water as their habitat, while unnatural sediment from nearby development, and the ever impending warming effects of climate change are detrimental to habitat loss and ultimately their survival. De-barbed hooks and strict, expedient catch-and-release tactics allowed us to catch this diminishing apex predator. Their beauty was immaculate, their pink, cheetah-like spotted bellies, which are characteristic of their spawning cycle, gave stark contrast to their tiger-striped foreheads and backs. Pulling such endemic, aquatic life out of water so far from civilization was a much-needed dose of immersion into a pristine environment. We did not see a single human during our entire stay, all the while fishing 15-miles of stream. Although I do not think many are willing to work for the opportunity to target them, I am still abiding to Eric’s command: “If anyone asks you where you caught these fish, you say… ‘In the water’”. And that’s nearly all the info you’ll get from me. I’m blessed to have ridden along with two excellent fly fishermen—one’s a guide, the other a pro–who educated me on not only how to fish, but how to be a steward of the environment. We have another trip planned for Yellowstone later this month.

Thanks for reading. I haven’t written nearly as much this summer, as keeping pace with my new climb-happy, fish-addicted, ale-inhaling friends has proved a writing-starved endeavor, but a rewarding one nonetheless.

Yellowstone National Park and Beartooth Pass

My summer of waiting tables is underway in Big Sky, Montana, home of the biggest ski resort in the country. Located in the Southwestern corner of the state, around an hour’s drive below I-90 and Bozeman, the resort drapes the picturesque, freestanding Lone Mountain, which is neighbored by the Spanish Peaks to the North, and by the Gallatin and Madison Ranges to the East and West, respectively. Big Sky is in the middle of prime fly-fishing country, with the Gallatin and Madison Rivers nearby, along with the fishing hub of Ennis around the corner. But the gem of the region is about a thirty-minute’s drive south, that of Yellowstone National Park.

And which is where my friend Joey and I went a few weeks ago for a one night stay in its backcountry, followed by a caffeine-ridden road trip around the Northern end of the park and into the Beartooth Mountains. My Warriors had just finished their implosion the night prior, ceasing a 3-to-1-game-lead to Cleveland in the Finals, and I was in dire need of the wilderness to refresh me on how inconsequential sports actually are. That Joey is a die-hard Florida State Seminoles fan and has suffered a spate of suicide-inducing losses over his fan-career did help (Wide Right I and II), as he offered consolation.

When Joey isn’t roaming parks, he’s editing films for his Youtube channel My Own Frontier, which has garnered more and more steam since I first met him around a year ago in Glacier.

I drove away from Big Sky at nearly 2pm after shaking a headache left from the night prior. After snaking Southward along the Gallatin River for around 15 miles, I entered the park’s Northwestern corner, staying within its boundary for much of the way south until the town of West Yellowstone, where I met Joey.

I was optimistic after obtaining permits inside the Ranger Station for an easy, flat hike in and out. It was already four in the afternoon, with an hour’s drive into the park still ahead.

I loaded my gear into Joey’s white van, which he’s roamed the West with for the better part of three years now. Everything he needs is inside—a bed, organized bins and compartments, food, maps, etc.

We walked to a supermarket before leaving and bought a few six-packs, one good, one not.

We headed for the park entrance, cracking two pales after waving goodbye to the Ranger at the check station. I had never been inside the park aside from driving in and out earlier that afternoon. Last summer, Glacier National Park’s stupefying alpine scenery and baffling geological wonders persisted to overwhelm me. The dramatic scenery Glacier has to offer dwindles the stature of Yellowstone to many of its visitors’ eyes. Joey, himself, used to be one of those people. “It’s just not scenic enough,” he used to say of Yellowstone.

Now Joey likens Yellowstone to a girl who doesn’t attract you with her beauty outright, but who pulls you in the more you get to know her as you “start wondering what it is that makes her so amazing, you know?”

Joey often backpacks the park for 10-days at a time, deep into the backcountry, far from thronging crowds to where he says he feels alive. “Yellowstone has personality,” he said. “Glacier is for guys who like fake-tits and nose jobs.”

We drove East into the park along the Madison River before turning north along the Gibbon River. Roadside geysers and a few straggling bison kept us company, along with our six-pack of pale ale.

We pulled into our trailhead and set foot toward Gardner Hole, which was over a hillside forming the western slope of the valley.

The walking was flat, perfect for after beer. We knew it wouldn’t get much tougher so we stopped and cracked another. The trail was two split tire tracks, and Joey was voicing park knowledge on how lodges and roads that scattered the park at random, but for which hardly a trace exists anymore. Perhaps we were on an old road to a chalet. I realized how little I know about the world’s first National Park.

Electric Peak towered from the Northwest, with more of the Gallatin Range falling away, stringing the Western horizon. The wind kept the mosquitos from landing. All was going pretty well. I had a nice buzz settling to my bones, and Joey was Batshit as ever, telling stories and sharing his unique existential reflections he doesn’t know he possesses.

But then we found out that hillside on the other side of the valley was more than the loaf it appeared from across the way, and the sweat started coming faster than usual. I definitely didn’t need that last beer I was now finishing. Then the wind died, and we were busy swatting at mosquitos like madmen. Now you may think we’re irresponsible and disrespectful, but I was hiking with the best. Batshit Joey has you beat in the backcountry in every which way, from skill to authenticity. If he want’s some beers on a relatively quick trip, he gets them.

We crested the slope (not the ridge, for we sort of rounded mountain’s mid-section) to an awesome view of the Gallatins. We walked in and out of scattered pine clusters into Garden Hole, weary of a lurking Grizzly.

We arrived to our campsite and set up our tents on top of the Gardener River, which resembled more of a creek this far upstream. I collected a bunch of firewood far up the hillside, as most had been used nearby. Joey gave me hell because I didn’t have my bear spray. We ate a bunch of ramen and polished another six-pack while talking over the campfire until well-past mid-night.

Joey makes for good campfire banter. While his peculiar van-side lifestyle fuels endless story-telling, his outlook on life—what he lives for—is what really holds my attention. He isn’t your stereotypical vagabond lashing out against society over a joint, but rather someone who, in his words, “isn’t scared to not do what he’s told to do.” Makes for some good wisdom, especially for a twenty-six-year-old lad like myself, who has no idea which direction life is taking him in. Who knows, maybe I’ll join him next summer for a tour of the West.

….

I slept horrible from the booze inside my fluorescent tent under the morning sun, which showed itself at around 5:30. Joey woke with a little bit of hangover himself. We ate oatmeal and were off for the van at around half-past ten.

Sleep-deprivation coupled with dehydration made for a punishing walk back to the van. The sun was warming my neck above my heavy pack, and I just wanted to get the damn hike over with. I recalled the hangovers I’ve sweat out roofing under a hot California morning sun. I wasn’t really reflecting on the immediacy of the moment as one should while escaping civilization’s dust, as the Ancient Taoist poets dubbed it, other than the fact I wanted it to end—immediately. We had a Yellowstone road trip in mind, and windshield sight-seeing over a cup of Joe sounded stupendous.

As soon as we hit the van, Joey handed me a department store branded energy packet, which I shook up in my bottle. The powder turned the water into an orange acidic syrup that tasted delightful. Suddenly, I was perked up like a damned rabbit, hopping in and out of Joey’s van at turnouts, leaping boardwalk railings and onto guardrails to snap photos.

We drove north from the trailhead, downstream along the Gardener River, which was now swollen in a narrow canyon. We arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs, a spot crowded with tourists, who elk gather around for shelter from predators and for food handouts. Seeing such large mammals—but not such wild ones—mingle with so many people amid the old styled buildings makes for a bizarre sight, but a cool one nonetheless. It was hot, and Joey’s van doesn’t offer the best ventilation, but I maintained my caffeine buzz through it all as we turned east across the park’s Northern half.

Again, we crossed back over the Gardner, which was roaring north toward the Yellowstone River. We stopped in the town of Tower-Roosevelt for coffee but bought ice-cream instead. We headed farther East, crossing the Yellowstone before entering Lamar Valley, which opened up into a sort of Serengeti, with the Lamar River running through its middle, and thousands of bison herded on the meadows, looking like ants dotting the grassy mesas in the distance and like the beasts they are up close and personal along the river and road. It’s invigorating to see such an eco-system playing out before your eyes, especially seeing it for the first time, and one that’s in your own country.

……………………………………

I entered a fly-shop in Big Sky a few weeks prior to this excursion to pester its employees for nearly two hours about the lay of the land. I bought a few maps and circled some spots they recommended for fishing, and the conversation carried on about rides and hikes. But they recommended one drive in particular that is a must: that of Beartooth Pass. Joey was game, and I promised him more gas than he needed to do so. All we had do is stay on the road out the Northeast entrance and carry onto Highway 212.

The drive to the gate was exhilarating. We followed Soda-Butte Creek upstream at the bottom of deep canyon shadowed by Barroette Peak (10,404) to the West and Abiathar Peak (10,928) to the East. People were stationed roadside with telescopes searching for Big Horn Sheep and Mountain Goats on the aforementioned mountains.

We made it through the gate and passed through Silver Gate and Cook City, towns you could miss with a blink of an eye. Soda-Butte was still flowing, although barely, on our right side.

The fly-shop employees told me what was ahead of us is a top-ten drive in the country and is comparable to the Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road. I sort of let the lofty assessment fly over my head, as I try to do with most scenic observations I’m about to experience. Not knowing what to expect makes for a more baffling surprise. I had my reservations as we made our way to pass.

But the Absaroka Range already imposed itself from the South within miles of the park entrance. I had to lean my head close to the window to glance the peaks, which continually exceeded 10,000 ft. Peaks from the Beartooth Range could be seen on our left, in the North, as we snaked our way through the valley between the two chains.

The Absaroka Range now strung the sky behind us after turning Eastward to ascend the Beartooths. I told Joey I hadn’t seen such an impressive ear-to-ear horizon span of peaks since viewing the Himalayas while hiking just outside Kathmandu, Nepal, several years ago.

The drive through the high alpine of the Beartooths was plenty rewarding, with pristine lakes, one after the other, sitting within jagged rocky terrain. The environment was alien, and the highway started snaking into switchbacks, propelling us to the pass in a hurry.

We pulled over to snap some photos of a jagged mountain dropping into a lake glistening blue, and I revamped my caffeine level with some more of Joey’s orange acidic, but delightful, concoction.

The switchbacks pulled us above the alpine lakes toward the ridge. Once we crested, Earth fell away into an abysmal lake-bottomed, U-shaped valley; its Northern wall, uneven, plateauing or quickly giving way to a neighboring valley; its open Western end dropping into an even more vast valley in the distance. The canyon/valley landscape is shadowed by the Upper-Beartooths, where Joey and I, now at nearly 11,000 ft., were now amid. We drove along for few more serene miles and turned back around to enjoy it all again, the unnerving switchbacks suspending us over the valley. I knew that Joey, who had done this drive before, was having a hard time keeping his eye on the road. The actual Beartooth itself came into view, its salient pointy peak nestled in the broad, snow-capped expanse.

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Beartooth Pass

Comparing this drive with the Going to the Sun is a worthless endeavor. Both can be categorized as jaw-dropping alpine beauty, yet are still unique. Concerns over such trivial matter can take away from the experiencing it for all it’s worth.

We started to wind our way out of Beartooths, back toward the entrance of the park. The Absarokas were now on our left, the Beartooths on our right. We stopped at a roadside waterfall for some pictures, where I would take another dose of caffeine as well.

Daylight was thinning, and the pointed peaks, along with the roadside pastures and cabins, had me feeling like I was in Switzerland. We reentered the park at around 7 pm with the hopes of seeing some more wildlife.

We drove back down Soda-Butte Creek and on through the Lamar Valley until the town Tower-Roosevelt, where we turned south toward Canyon Village, the town adjacent to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We passed Mount Washington in the East, and crossed over Dunraven Pass. We could see the Absaroka Range in the distant East on its deep Southward progression.

We stopped at a few turnouts on the ridge of the canyon, with the Yellowstone River roaring so far below, you had to crane your neck outward to glimpse it. We watched the massive Lower Falls in the distance, admiring Yellowstone’s landmark versatility. The canyon walls were of an array of colors—pink, yellow, brown, resembling the cliffs at Zion National Park.

We walked to a few other view spots and hopped back in the van. Daylight was now dwindling, but we still had time for a quick drive into Hayden Valley, which a relatively tamed Yellowstone River crosses before dumping into the canyon. Light forested hills rolled from the valley’s edges. We watched a herd of elk meander the trees across the river and passed a buffalo herd on our right, almost hidden within a fold of hillside. It was almost dark when we decided flip the van back around North. That herd of bison we saw in the hillside just a few moments earlier was now causing a traffic jam, sauntering by head on.

The fifteen minutes we sat for in traffic was minimal compared to when herds hold cars for several hours. Batshit Joey was trying to get me to pet one, but I thought better of it.

It was now dark as we made our way back to West Yellowstone. Joey was telling some good small-town stories about some crazy family members, and we discussed future plans for the summer. We pulled into McDonalds at half-past ten, where I would buy Joey a meal to pay off some gas debt.

Thanks for reading.

Utah National Parks Roadtrip: Arches National Monument, Canyon Lands, and Zion

With my semester finished in Missoula, MT, I roadtripped to my home in Northern California. Instead of spending one night halfway, or just making the entire 20-plus hour drive in one leg, I spent three nights exploring the rocky deserts of southern Utah. Improvising as I went, I ended up visiting three National Parks—Arches, Canyon Lands, and Zion. It was quite a jam, no doubt, one perhaps my youth allowed me to pull off.

Beauty wasn’t confined to the parks, but was roadside, along the interstates and highways, as well. Day one took me through Southwestern Montana and Idaho into Salt Lake City, UT, where I spent my first night. Skipping town early the following morning, I headed south to Moab for another night’s stay before turning west towards Zion National Park the following evening, where I spent a night and drove home the following day, snaking my way through dry towering mountains in a sliver of northwestern Arizona to start, and on through southern Nevada, closing in on a metallic Las Vegas Strip in the distance, alit by a pink sky and sun falling behind mountains stringing the horizon. Dark from there on, I pulled into my home in Santa Cruz, CA, early the following morning.

But enough about my caffeine/nicotine-ridden time spent in my modern car gliding over poured asphalt. The biggest highlights of my trip were the three solitary hikes I managed to pull off in three different parks in a blink of time amid winter solstice.

Arches National Park

Day 2: Spending my first night ever in a stateside hostel, I somehow managed to pull myself out of bed by 6 to get out of Salt Lake City. Before doing so, I drove through its downtown to glimpse the Mormon temples and ceremonial sights, which didn’t disappoint in their magnitude. A massive cathedral overlooks a square of statues and fountains. Several other imposing administrative buildings are nearby. The state’s capital building is across the street, unnerving in its immediate presence. Mansions dotting the nearby mountainside cast their shadows over it all. The area simultaneously screams indoctrination, power, and money.

After taking it all in for no longer than fifteen minutes, I sped out for Moab. The drive took around five hours. Closing in on town at near-noon, I had to decide between Arches and Canyon Lands National Parks to spend my afternoon. Strapped by time, I decided on Arches out of convenience. Accessibility was a big reason, as a road conveniently shows much of what the park has to offer. I didn’t know if I’d only be staying around Moab for only that afternoon.

With more than 2,000 natural arches, the park is known for having the densest concentration of such formations in the world, according to the free visitor guide a Ranger handed me. Many factors have allowed have allowed for such an abundant collection to occur. In short, the sandstone is a kind that is very porous, and its collective weight has squeezed a layer of salt deep beneath it upwards, cracking lines parallel to each other on its surface. Erosion, brought on by weather, has dug out these cracks deeper and deeper over the course of time, allowing water to settle in and eat away at the stone. Give this process an unfathomable length of time, enough for over a mile’s deep worth of stone to dissolve away, and you get arches.

I decided to explore Devils Garden, an area at the park’s northern end, at the 24-mile long paved road’s extremity. Driving to the trailhead made for a lofty experience, as the road starts by snaking its way up and over sandstone cliffs, then winding through odd rock formations of an array of color and sizes jutting from every direction.

At the trailhead I hastened to change into my gear, but was startled at finding the water spigot dry. I had none and knew I couldn’t go without for long. Luckily, a middle-aged man saw my defeated expression at the pump and offered me help. We walked to the back of his pickup, where his family was gathered, and he handed me five water bottles and wished me luck.

It was half-past one when I set off. The day happened to be winter’s solstice, so I was already running thin on daylight. I knew I needed four hours to explore the area, and I had exactly that to spare.

The trail started off very congested, which surprised me considering Christmas was at week’s end, let alone that the trail, along with the all the northern faces of rocks and hills, was underneath several inches of snow.

Right away, signs signaled arches down side trails spurring in different directions. The first one I wandered to was Pine Tree Arch, a sight impressive in both its size and formation. Approaching its opening at an angle, I saw a man standing inside of it on its base, which swept out and away from below him, rising high above his head, performing a full circle until settling back beneath his feet. Though I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it in solidarity, the man’s shape offered perspective for the formation’s impressive size. I walked beneath the towering orange walls and ceiling speechless. The man introduced himself as Bjorg and said he was from Lyon, France.

Back on the main trail, I quickly closed in on Landscape Arch, one as famous as it is startling. The long, narrow bridge spans a length of cliff that’s given way from under it. The trail was crowded with spectators, most of whom would now turn around and head back to the parking lot as the path becomes less conspicuous and more dangerous, weaving its way through crevices and climbing up and over boulders, fin formations, and down icy slants of stone; cairns mark the way.

I had a mile until I would reach the Double-O Arch located at the trail’s end, where I would turn back, not staying on the loop. Darkness was settling into a sky shrouded by overcast; and being much lonelier in these parts than near the trailhead, I wasn’t in a hurry to strand myself looking for a damned kicked over cairn in the pitched black in no-man’s-land.

Double-O Arch didn’t disappoint. After not taking to the obvious hint in its name, I was surprised at rounding a corner of stone to see two arches stacked upon each other, the upper much larger than the lower. I decided to sit inside the lower to eat and ponder over my trip’s next move. Rain/Snow was forecasted for the next day, so I thought maybe I would just hang at the hostel in Moab and drive onto Zion. But I knew I had to start moving quickly to make it out of Devil’s Garden with any daylight to spare.

On my way back to the trailhead, I met two sorority girls from Salt Lake City. They told me I had to see Delicate Arch, which is down the road a ways and up another trail.

“It’s like really famous,” one of them said, “so you have to see it.”

Convinced by their trite logic, I started off faster than before.

It was pitch dark when I pulled into the trailhead for Delicate Arch, but I needed to see this damned thing even though it’s stamped onto every one of the state’s vehicle license plates. I was working with only my cell phone for light, and I wasn’t having the best of time in the freezing cold under the clouds. Delicate Arch makes great for nighttime photos underneath stars and a glowing Milky Way spanning the sky above. But when shrouded by clouds, limiting light, your best bet for a discernible photo is to click the flash button. So as soon as I saw its outline high on a cliff in the distance, I turned around. My photos of it are worthless, but I saw it.

Moab is just seven miles down the highway from the park entrance. I pulled into town and realized that it is a happening place, with some money and plenty of nice spots to eat and sleep. Lots of tour and off road vehicle rental companies make you realize you’re in a pretty unique spot, one that’s sparked up invasive industry, but special nonetheless.

After asking around for its location, I pulled into the Lazy Lizard Hostel. Located on the edge of town behind a personal storage facility, it’s modest but convenient. I walked in at ten and reserved a dorm bed for ten bucks. I sat down in the common room. Suddenly, I realized the place was infested with middle-to-latter-aged hippies, all who had be squatting for at least several months. One popped in a war movie for us all to watch. We sat and watched, but it was in French, with no sub-titles. The man couldn’t understand a lick of what was said, but still offered plenty of nonsensical commentary over the torments of war. “All these young men,” he kept saying, “so many lives wasted.”

I stood up bewildered and headed into town for food and a few beers. 3.2% beers that is, as intoxication is further regulated in Utah than in other states. After enjoying one of them, I bought a few cans to go, as those weren’t required to be watered-down, and I learned that Moab does in fact have good beer.

Arriving back to the hostel, I walked by the common room to see the hippies had restarted the same movie–I shit you not. I walked up stairs to my dorm to read and drink my beer.

Eventually, a young man walked in to the room, about my age, and asked what I was reading. I told him Desert Solitaire by Ed… “Yes,” he interrupted, “great book!” Adding, “I’ve read all the so-called ‘nature books,’ and that one’s the best.”

We went on to trash Walden, and talk about other stuff. His name was KC and he’s a travelling nurse from Ohio, a job that affords him plenty of time to hit the backcountry. Another kid walked in, Brian, whose from Bozeman, MT, but has lived in Alaska for the past ten years; and then another, Calvin, who’s from Louisiana—a “shithole” he’s never going back to again. All three were traveling solo, and they had just seen Star Wars together. The new company was comforting, and I was bummed I didn’t have enough beer to share.

They started talking about their latest adventures, and they kept dwelling on their time in the ‘Needles’ section of Canyon Lands. They were showing me photos, telling me it’s a must. I was sold by its isolation. Both Brian and KC had backpacked through it solo, a fact both cited as a highlight.

“You just explore,” said KC with a smile, “high on life.”

Canyon Lands National Park

Day 3: I left the Lazy Lizard hostel early Tuesday morning for a 100-mile drive to Elephant Hill in the Needles District of Canyon Lands National Park. The park’s other districts are Island in the Sky, a more accessible and touristy area; and the Maze, a labyrinth where James Franco lost an arm.

‘Needles’ gets its name from the countless protruding spires that span its landscape, sporadically filling its canyons’ floors and aligning their walls. Some look like mushrooms, others like water silos, and some just like big rounded lumps of stone.

They formed similar to the arches: First, sandstone was fractured in perpendicular patterns by a moving salt bed far beneath the surface; then erosion from wind and other elements dug these cracks into areas where water could pool and further dissolve the stone. Again, you must give this process an incomprehensible length of time.

A multitude of narrow halls and caves have burrowed themselves throughout the area, creating a labyrinth ripe for exploring. One can get lost in a hurry, however, and I planned on sticking within sight of whichever blazed trail I was on, as I knew I was the only one within many miles, judging from the empty parking lot at the trailhead.

I was more enthusiastic at the start of my hike than for any other one I could remember. The dusty sandstone I was walking over was marked by way of cairns, and the experience was new and invigorating. Right away, I was finding vista points to climb to, to see the different surreal Candy Land-esque landscapes. The cliffs were plenty sheer, but un-jagged. Aside from the wavy patterns protruding from some of the oozing slopes, they were seamless, rounding their way throughout their formations. The most pervasive color was blood-orange, but which was often accentuated by creamy swirls and occasional black shading. There were also red, yellow and gray rocks, along with green desert shrubbery and, in some large exposed areas, glistening white powder.

I was shouting at the top of my lungs to hear my echo ricochet throughout the canyons and halls connecting them. I was gliding over boulders, winding my way through crevices that would spit me into view of a broad alien lands. I was climbing into random trailside caves and summiting freestanding boulders, all while constantly reminding myself to remain aware, to enjoy it all while it lasted.

Not that my attention wasn’t in constant demand, as I would get to one cairn and immediately search for the next to walk to, all of which I would find, usually without any scare. Knowing I was alone on those trails that day was empowering in and of itself, but thinking of how the Rangers stacked each and every one of those rocks for only my usage on that very day amused me as well.

I had been hiking for over two hours when I reached Chesler Park, my destination. I was walking through a smooth landscape dotted with patches of snow, staring ahead at the massive liver-colored cliffs shallowly horseshoeing themselves towards me, looking like hell’s front stoop. I stepped up the trail to a ledge on its cliffside, overlooking the most vast landscape I’d see that day. It started snowing while I sat, leaned against the cliff, eating my lunch.

I hadn’t slept in that morning, but due to my late start, brought on from all of the roadside photos I snapped on my way in, I didn’t have time to continue on a different route back to my car. Though I had plenty of daylight, I wanted to spare some of it for my drive out of canyon country.

The sun set as I made my way along the forty miles worth of road before the highway. It was like driving inside of an old western film. Massive mesas lined the horizons, their sheer red cliffs giving way to their piled shavings.

The drive west to Zion was dark. I could discern only the shapes of the roadside mountains, mesas, and valleys along the way. Cigarettes and coffee, along with Miles Davis and a slew of podcasts powered me across to Southwestern Utah, where I would find a Holiday Inn, whose front desk kindly recommended, upon seeing my reaction to their rates, their parking lot for a night’s sleep. It was half-past twelve when I closed my eyes.

Zion National Park

Day 4: I awoke at 7:30 and headed straight for the park entrance to beat the park fees, as no Ranger would be on the clock. I hadn’t had to pay entrance fees at Arches nor Canyon Lands.

Upon entering, I went to the Information Center for a map and advice on a day hike to pursue. A short bespectacled Ranger stood behind a counter and talked to me as if I were a fool for considering a hike garbed in the basketball shorts and t-shirt I was wearing. The sleeping pill from the night prior was only beginning to wear thin, leaving me in no mood for snarky comments from a man who looked like he hadn’t seen any more of the trails he was recommending than from the map itself. He turned around at one point to answer a phone, which is when I saw a small braid of hair hanging from the back of his head–a full-blown rat-tail–and he’s lucky, being in the form I was in, I didn’t snatch him by it.

Lucky for me, I exercised that moment’s smidgen of self-control I contained and was able to make my way into the park. With the shuttle road open to all vehicles during the winter, I could pull right up to many of park’s best trails.

Driving along, I was suddenly aghast by the sheer cliffs rising from either side of me as I drove through Zion Canyon. How had I never known of this place? I did, but I never knew what I was missing out on. A few weeks prior, a professor at my school had told me that this is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I didn’t think much of his word, but the cliffs of orange, red, pink and yellow hue, bowing from high above, rectified his words; it may actually be the most heavenly place I’ve ever been.

I stopped by the park’s lodge on my way to the trailhead to check and see if any of my former co-workers at Glacier National Park were working. I went straight to the dining room and was floored at seeing Nancy, who was hosting. A self-proclaimed Mother of mine, she almost fainted.

“Oh, my son!” were her first words.

Nancy wasn’t happy to hear how fast I’d been moving over the past few days, or the fact I’d just spent the night in my car, and she hastened a lunch for me from her dining hall and insisted that I eat something. We said our goodbyes. It was a great surprise for the both of us. I hopped back on the road, headed for the Overlook trail.

The Overlook Trail’s start is constructed from a cliff side, with paved switchbacks taking you upward in a hurry.

The skies were cloudy, but visibility was clear enough to see the surrounding cliffs across the valley come more alive the higher I got. I kept stopping to take it all in and snap photos. Snow and ice covered the trail, cautioning me, as one slip could have brought on detrimental consequence. Several other hikers were on the trail, along with a few families and couples enjoying their time, and what better possible way could there be to spend the holidays?

After the switchbacks, the trail cut into a narrow canyon between two mountains disjointing from each other high in the sky. The trail made its way through caves and straddled a creek on its way through the narrow passage.

Out of here, the trail turned left up one of the mountainsides and switched back, rising back over the top of the crevice it just crawled through, making its way back around to the face it zigzags up earlier.

This is when I met Won, who I caught at about an hour’s time from the summit. Like me, he was in the midst of a solo National Park road-trip. But unlike mine, his would last for several weeks, affording him more time to spend in the parks he visited. We talked about the different parks we had seen, and he spoke very highly of Denali in Alaska, which made me want to work there this summer even more.

Won would be spending Christmas alone on the road, stopping in a city to pass the time. I made a few Vegas and L.A. recommendations, as he was visiting either of those for the first time, but I bet he ended up going to Death Valley instead (I had no problem encouraging this more so than the other options).

It snowed during our hike back down the mountain, making us glad we weren’t on our way up. Won veered off on another trail to see an arch, and we split ways, exchanging information in the process.

I wanted a chance to drive the park’s road before nightfall. The sun was starting to come out again, glistening the colored cliffs. Though small, the park offers plenty to shock. Its slim size and outrageous beauty sort of give off a super-model impression (in the context of National Parks that is). I was pulling over at every turnout to snap photos. The road wasn’t thronged with traffic, allowing me to drive its length twice fairly quickly before I headed home.

Still light out, the roadside views to start were imposing, as cliffs and barren rocky mountains were in constant view. Their size was as impressive as those I’d just seen in Zion, but their dry, gray and sandy brown colors un-familiarized them.

All I could think about was In-In-Out Burger, where I would stop at on the Vegas strip, and from where on all I could think of was my sore back and the impending hours of night-time driving ahead. I started making phone calls to my friends to pass time. I arrived at my home at 2 that morning and awoke to spend Christmas Eve with my family.