Em and Stu do America part 14: Edward Abbey’s West

The canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky – all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.

Edward Abbey

Aim

Outrun winter, see 10 national parks in three weeks, focusing particularly on the ‘canyon country’ as described by iconic American writer Edward Abbey.

A new moon over southern Montana

A new moon rises at dusk over southern Montana.

 

Itinerary

Start: Las Vegas (a sort of man-made Grand Canyon of 100% neon)
California: Death Valley, Sequoia, Yosemite
Crossing Nevada on Hwy 50, “The Loneliest Road”.
Utah: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef
Colorado: Rocky Mountain
Wyoming: Grand Teton, Yellowstone
Now too cold to camp (we drew the line when it dropped below 0C at night) so driving across Montana, Idaho and Washington and staying in crusty motels.
End: Vancouver, for a brief Moraday family reunion

The ancient sculpted landforms of Death Valley, Nevada

The sculpted landforms of Death Valley, Nevada

New team members:

Cheap-arse Walmart tent, with related camping accessories
The Grey Goose, a compact four-cylinder Chevy, our home until we go home.

Our little tent pitched on the banks of the Colorado just outside Arches national park

Our little tent pitched on the banks of the Colorado just outside Arches national park.

We did it, and had an amazing time. But man, America is a weird land of contradictions…

Even in the shoulder season, when temperatures at night weren’t far over freezing, it’s not like Australia where you casually rock up at a reasonable hour and snag yourself a campsite. While this was possible in some parks, competition for campsites and even just on the roads at America’s most beloved and famous national parks is intense. Yosemite got five million visitors last year. That’s nearly 14,000 people PER DAY. I don’t know how that is even possible. Zion got more than four million. No wonder some of the roads and campsites are getting, as the Park Service describes it, “loved to death”.

In Yosemite campgrounds are all solidly booked, seemingly months in advance. You must rely on a lottery of the cancellations, called out at 3pm. We were lucky to snag a spot for one night this way but we had planned to stay two. So the system dictated we rise at 6.30am, pack up the entire camp into the car and turn up at the office at 7.30am, waiting in line to put our names down. Then we had til 3pm to do our hiking for the day, because we had to be back at 3pm sharp to hear the lottery results. Then it’s go and set up for the second night.

Yosemite: crazy busy, but totally worth it.

Yosemite: crazy busy, but totally worth it.

At Zion, we turned up in the morning and waited in line for an hour and only just snagged a site in an “overflow” site. To stay a second night in the morning we had to pack up camp and get in “line” in our car at 5.30am. And there were plenty of people in front of us. We got confirmed for a second night by 8am, but those behind us got turned away. We then moved everything to a new site.

Every single park we visited bar one had major roadworks and we spent gobs of time sitting in our stationary car, looking out at bobcats throwing about tons of the good green Earth we came to see. While you can see American wilderness by hiking overnight into the backcountry, if you are “car camping” you are never going to get much in the way of wilderness. I was still wearing earplugs at night to block out highway noise in basically every place we camped.

Camping in the car in order to snag... a camp.

Camping out overnight in line for… a campsite?

In other words, the Americans, bless them, have somehow managed to make camping stressful!

We were conscious of being ‘part of the problem’, too, having set ourselves this task of seeing so many parks in such a short time, the only way of doing so being pounding serious pavement.

We were so conscious because of our reading of the seminal western wilderness work Desert Solitaire. Author Edward Abbey spent several years as ranger at Arches National Monument (now Park) in the 1950s and the book chronicles that time. It’s a moving, profound meditation on the nature of the desert and man’s place in it. By turns it’s also an angry, misanthropic manifesto against humanity’s apparent commitment to ruining the land at all costs, most notably by ensuring we pave big fat highways across sensitive areas to allow people to “see nature” without getting out of their cars. It should be noted Abbey’s so famous in the west the National Park Service still sells his books in the parks gift shops, despite the irony that his book is a withering condemnation of humanity in general and the Park Service in particular. I’m sure Abbey’s rolling in his grave to see his books being sold in the kind of massive visitor centres he never lived to see, but so gloomily predicted.

Pretending to be Edward Abbey.

Attempting to commune with the spirit of Abbey (despite his explicit instructions to the contrary).

With his voice ringing in our ears we did our best to feel the soul of the country he loved by getting out of our car as much as we could. We climbed to the top of Vernal Falls and beyond in Yosemite, a breathtaking hike (literally, ha!)

We climbed the challenging Primitive Trail to Double O Arch in Abbey’s beloved Arches.

See Stu rappelling down the wall?

See Stu rappelling down the wall?

Just outside the Arches boundaries we tasted the thrills of canyoneering, rappelling down 90 feet into Ephedras Grotto then into the canyon beneath Morning Glory, the world’s sixth-largest natural land bridge. The reward for such bravery was sweet: filling our flasks at a sweet-tasting spring, then hiking out next to the beautiful stream it became, all the way to our gorgeous campsite on the Colorado River. We did a three-hour horseback ride through Bryce Canyon. We climbed to Emerald Lake at Rocky Mountain, playing in the snow like children.

The blue skies of Utah over Bryce Canyon. Best viewed on horseback.

Utah sky beams blue over Bryce Canyon. Best viewed on horseback.

Most memorably of all, we did a six-hour round trip hike through The Narrows at Utah’s incredibly beautiful Zion National Park. This required hiring full gear – canyoneering boots, dry pants, wooden poles – as the hike is through the cold (6C), swiftly moving Virgin River at the bottom of Zion Canyon. It’s at times up to your mid-thigh and can sweep you off your feet if you make one misstep. This was an incredibly special hike, a unique experience.

Breathtaking lake hike in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Breathtaking lake hike in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

This whole time was a treasure for us, though it wasn’t easy. We were dealing with abrupt climate changes, freezing nights, difficult hikes, long drives and pulling the tent up and down nearly every day. But the teamwork required brought us closer together, and the mind-boggling beauty that unfolded before us each day brought continual delight. We spent whole hours in the car idiotically repeating “Wow!” and “Oh, wow!”

The Narrows, a challenging hike upstream through the Virgin River at the bottom of Zion Canyon.

Us in The Narrows, upstream along the Virgin River at the bottom of Zion Canyon.

Our joy in these places, and that of all our fellow American hikers and campers, led us to conclude that despite our differences, inside we all yearn for the sense of transcendence and connection these places give us. We can only hope and pray the US government can find a sustainable way to manage the massive (and growing) demand. And that the wider world, in designing and infilling its cities, remembers this thirst for nature that remains universal and unquenched inside the human heart.

UTAH ROCKS!

UTAH ROCKS! Em at Delicate Arch.

StuMobservations: Camping

  • 3 days of Vegas and we rent a car, buy sleeping bags and a tent, load up on supplies and flee back out to nature.
  • 10 National Parks makes for a lot of good camping.
  • Walking upstream with dry pants and poles is heaps fun.
  • Walking to the top of a waterfall is heaps fun.
  • Walking through massive trees is heaps fun.
  • Walking around rock formations is heaps fun.
  • Walking up and around mountains is heaps fun.
  • Walking through snow is heaps wet/fun.
  • Rappelling down canyons is heaps fun.
  • Riding horses through canyons is heaps fun.
  • Driving in a snowstorm is scary/fun.
  • S’mores by campfire are incredible.
  • Utah Rocks!
  • 100% of National Parks are ‘under construction’.
  • That point where $5US for a shower sounds reasonable.

Recommended campsites and suppliers*

Furnace Creek, Death Valley NP
Tehachapi Mountain SP
Potwisha campground, Sequoia NP
Lower Pines, Yosemite NP
KOA campground, Cedar City, Utah
South campground, Zion NP
Ruby’s campground, just outside Bryce Canyon
Granstaff campground, just outside Arches – the winner for sheer beauty
Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

Moab Adventure Center (canyoneering outside Arches)
Canyon Trail Rides (Bryce Canyon)
Zion Adventure Company (Narrows outfitters)
Enterprise car rental (the only place that allowed a two-month solid car rental, a cheap one-way drop off fee and for us to be able to drive all over the US and Canada. Suffice to say this was a VERY difficult thing to find).

*We paid full price for all these, so consider the recommendation unbiased!

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Em and Stu Do America Part 12: The Grand Canyon

On a side-hike up the canyon

On a side-hike up the canyon

Erica sends the raft backwards into the rapid; our lean, bronzed tour guide with the easy smile vanishes, the sudden animal ferocity of her stance like a whippet braced to face a lion. She throws her whole body against the rolling water, planting a thonged foot on the steel cross-hatch for leverage, whole leg shaking wildly with the strain, hauling back on the oars, head flipping to watch all sides at once as the raft spins, brown plaits whipping, teeth bared in a grimace.

All we can do is hang on and get out the way, bums perched on the forward edge of the cross-hatch, avoiding the planted foot and the hands that punch the hefty wooden oars forward and back a full metre or more each stroke. Our torsos are pressed nearly flat against the walls of icy water that slam over us as Erica heaves us into safety.

Erica in a more relaxed moment on a side hike!

Erica in a more relaxed moment on a side hike!

We poke our heads up, drenched and exhilarated as she guides the raft into calmer territory. White water transforms to a roiling emerald green, thick like churned jelly, bubbles rising through it like it’s just come off the boil. Erica re-emerges as a grinning human, pulling the boat around so we can watch the others come through, one by one. Each is a tense wait followed by high-fives, triumph, each ‘boatman’ yelling from raft to raft to debrief each other on the choices each made under pressure.

Hard to get pics of rapids because the camera had to go away usually! But this is a little "riffle".

Hard to get pics of rapids because the camera had to go away usually! But this is a little “riffle”.

Erica has spent 20 years negotiating the rapids of the Colorado River that runs through the Canyon, and come safely through Hance Rapid, one of the river’s most technically challenging, countless times. But the crew knows better than to underestimate it. Before the ‘run’, they ‘parked’ the rafts at a sandy lip and hiked up the cliff to discuss how it looked today, the order they would go in, approaches they might take. They advised Rachel, who was crewing the supply boat and who would run Hance for the first time. Her jaw set with tension, she quietly accepted all the hints her colleagues gave her and – of course – ran it beautifully.

Bill scouts Hance Rapid with his crew

Bill scouts Hance – not the river’s largest rapid, but one of its most technical – with his crew.

Not all the rapids are high drama, but each is a thrill-ride, not to mention a glacial head-to-foot drenching. And much of the trip is spent gliding quietly through a calm river so clear you can see a leaf float by ten feet down. Below us it is deep green, but ahead it has infinite colours as the sun and rocks change overhead. The Colorado is mint green at dawn, silver as the rising sun touches it, pink and red as it reflects the two-billion odd years of Earth’s story rising on either side of it. It turns purple as the reds mix with the reflected blue Arizona sky and gleams gold at sundown. At night it turns black and roars.

The colours of the Colorado.

The colours of the Colorado.

Above it unfolds a geological history lesson I just don’t think I would have grasped had I looked down from above on just one day. The canyon has stood in its present form for roughly six million years. Each day as we move through it, the walls get higher as a new layer of rock appears, each unique in appearance and origin. The guides are full of knowledge about the landscapes that these rocks rising above us once represented. They know just as much about the present-day ecology, the impact the controversial Glen Canyon Dam has had on the place and its native species. They identify for us the bighorn ewes and rams, desert spiny lizards, does and bucks, scorpions that glow under UV light. Once we even see a beaver, fur glistening with water. And birds! It is migrating season and condors, wrens, ospreys, Canada geese and more soar overhead.

The camps we pull up at each afternoon are pristine, respected so utterly that not so much as a peanut or rubber band drops on to the fine sand without being carefully scooped up and locked in the trash to be packed out at the end of the trip. It is carefully managed so that only so many people are permitted to be on it at once, meaning that of the annual six million people who visit the Canyon annually, only about 23,000 of these raft down the river.

Our group on a side hike.

Our group on a side hike.

Our six days is a half-length trip, Upper Canyon only – from the start at Lees Ferry, near Glen Canyon Dam, downstream for 88 river miles where we will emerge to hike up and out via Bright Angel Trail. The rest of the bunch will go onwards. They are mostly Americans from all over the states, mostly around late middle age, a fit and outdoorsy bunch, all very friendly and bursting with enthusiasm for the trip. There is one other international couple, a Swedish pair around our age who are also on extended travels. We all get close very quickly. There is something about squatting to pee in the river in front of each other that erases boundaries with lightning efficiency.

This is Grand Canyon Whitewater’s final trip for the season and we have lucked out. The weather, often extreme in the Canyon, is now a perfect Fall. Nights are a breezy 10 Celsius. Brilliant blue days reach 30-35. Owner Bill is on the trip himself and has invited pretty much his whole staff along for the ride, resulting in a luxurious number of guides for us all – every day Stu and I have a different guide, usually all to ourselves, and regret only that we couldn’t make it on to everyone’s boat in our six days on the water.

The boatmen get ready in the morning. Watching them repack the boats is like watching an intricately choreographed dance!

The boatmen get ready in the morning. Watching them repack the boats is like watching an intricately choreographed dance!

The boatmen are happy and relaxed, anticipating winters working on their side businesses or travelling. They all love the job, but it’s undeniably a difficult one, done in an often harsh environment and hard on the body. A 15-minute go at the oars that I was allowed in calm water made me realise rafting is not a craft for the faint-hearted.

Meeting them all and hearing their stories was one of the highlights of the trip. They are not just committed environmental advocates. Many have river research backgrounds. Erica is a fine artist, exhibiting regularly. Chelsea, LA-bred, has a background in ballet, acting and music. Brian, with more river trips under his belt than perhaps anyone in history, appeared in Into the Wild and The River Wild (both awesome movies… we have already re-watched The River Wild). Brian shares a vast ecological knowledge from his research background and also owns a ski outfitters’. J-Mo (StuMo’s American equivalent who reminds us strongly of Luke) has built 17 houses in his home town of Flagstaff. Walt is a music expert and owns a Spanish-language and outdoor adventure school in his home, Costa Rica.

Brian!

Brian!

The bunch share decades of experience of the Canyon waters and are prone to throwing concerts of an evening, singing Western classics and new local music, accompanying themselves with guitars, a mandolin and bongo drum – and, of course, a pair of spoons. Sometimes Brian will give us a natural history lecture; other times, a guest will stand up and sing a song or read a poem. We dance on the sand at night under a ripening moon in the shadow of rock walls more vast than we could ever have imagined. It is all touched by magic.

The coldest swim I've ever had in my life...

The coldest swim I’ve ever had…

On the final night the moon rises full, and we dance a conga line around Brian’s ingenious homemade ‘campfire’. Stu and I don’t really want to leave. All that is luring us out of the Canyon is the promise of more starry skies ahead in the West’s most renowned national parks – Yosemite, Sequoia, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and the Rocky Mountains. We look ahead to these places with renewed vigour, and a renewed sense of all that can be possible in life.

But first, we must hike up and out via the Bright Angel Trail. And that is another story.

StuMobservations: Grand Canyon

  • Roadrunners are real.
  • Scorpions glow in black light.
  • Mice are jerks.
  • Beavers actually make little dams. Did not seem angry tho.
  • No bugs = no tent = sleeping under the stars.
  • Dilution is the solution to pollution.
  • Jar + lid with hole + paper towel + lighter fluid = camp fire.
  • Camp toilets are now called “Groovers”.
  • Every morning should start with the cry “HOT COFFEE!”
  • What did Stu get out of the Grand Canyon? Sand.
  • We have to come back for the second half. Who’s in?