Wild West Adventure: I am camper, hear me roar

Saturday, September 08, 2007, 11:36am

Today’s post includes both Thursday and Friday.


I am now a bona fide camper. I’ve slept in a tent at the bottom of a canyon, I’ve scrambled up the side of a mountain to watch a sunset, I’ve gone two days without showering. OK, technically I gingerly picked my way up a not-too-steep slope and I only went 36 hours between bathings, but that’s still pretty good for someone who broke down in tears because of a little rain.

Moab, Utah, is just south of Arches National Park next to the Colorado River. Kenny stocked up on food and ice while I checked email and posted to the blog from a coffee shop. I also drank a beer. Why? Because I could. I had heard all these things about Utah ‘s drinking laws, so when I saw that you could order beer or wine at a coffee shop I just had to enjoy a Pale Ale to defy my own stereotypes.

There are odd laws, at least from a Chicagoan’s standpoint. In Chicago there’s a bar on every corner and you can pretty much drink around the clock. At this coffee shop, the cashier said he’d have to bring it to me, and he wrote his name on a sticky tag, because he has to wear a name tag when serving alcohol. Fine by me, I was just pleased the state’s not as restrictive as I thought.

Since there were no camping spots at Arches, we grabbed a map and headed down an unpaved path west of town. It took us deep into the canyons, winding and twisting. As we neared the bottom, grasses and trees and flowers covered the creekbed. The red mud was interrupted in spots by stagnant water, skater bugs skimming the surface.

There was a campsite a few miles in, and we pulled into an opening set back from the unpaved path and surrounded by trees and bushes. I was bursting to get out and explore.

We left our cozy nook by foot and followed the next bend in the path. My grandfather used to grow cacti, and for the first time I saw them in the wild, and I realized how much in this world I have yet to see. As we rounded the u-shaped curve a rock-peppered slope leading up to a sheer face just screamed to be climbed on. Kenny scrambled up like a mountain goat, while I meticulously picked my way up, choosing stable rock and hard-packed earth until I reached the top. With each successful step I started growing a little bolder.

We sat down on an enormous boulder jutting out of the slope. The sun sank below the opposite range and we headed back before it was too dark.

After the previous night, I couldn’t wait to put on my headlamp. I was free! I could move about the camp and I could see. Oh, I was so much happier than the night before. This was a night of stars and options instead of darkness and helplessness. Such a simple thing, but it made all the difference in the world. I fell asleep with the clichéd blanket of stars overhead, encircled by the canyon walls.


In the morning we took a quick hike up the canyon, following one of the stream beds. Around the bend the narrow valley was lush, at least for this part of the country, because of standing water. We could see low rocks that had been cut away by the stream over the centuries and shaded the stagnant pools. On our return to the campsite we had egg and cheese sandwiches and espresso.

Now I was starting to feel like a camper, to really experience this trip. The only facility was a toilet surrounded by a fence and open to the sky and the lizards. (Ah, there’s nothing like the smell of an open outhouse in the desert.) I brushed my teeth with jug water, changed shorts, and we were off to Arches.

There are several different hiking paths, ranging from easy to strenuous. We, of course, decided to take the most strenuous trail. If we’re hiking in Arches, we’re hiking, we thought. It’s a good thing I’d had no idea what the National Park Service considers strenuous.

The trail to Devil’s Garden starts off easily enough. It’s a smooth gravel path with stairs built in when it starts to slope. That lasts for about a mile. After that deceptively easy path we took the Primitive Loop, 2.2 miles that wind deep into the canyons and over the fins (the tops of the formations; they look like fins on a fish). The first mile is sand created from the centuries of erosion of the sandstone outcroppings. Anyone who’s ever walked on a beach knows that sand is demanding. Try doing it in hiking boots with five pounds of camera equipment.

About half a mile in, a lone hiker told us we had three quarters of a mile more of the sand, but after that it’s just breathtaking and it’s worth it. We picked up the pace a little bit, but made quick frequent stops to take in the view.

The path was marked with rock cairns , which are vertical piles of rocks. Arches makes it very clear that you’re to stay on the naturally marked path. The desert floor is covered with juniper trees and cacti and wildflowers, but it’s also covered with biological soil crust. This black covering that looks like mold helps prevent soil erosion and provides moisture and nutrients to the delicate desert environment.

Once the sand ended, the rest of the Primitive Loop was, to put it mildly, a challenge. I was glad the day before we’d done some climbing. It was just a warm-up, a tease almost. We hiked up and down rocks and paths worn through by water runoffs, and searched for the right footholds and handholds, and when we passed people we smiled and managed to get out “hi” or “how ya’ doing?” between gasps for breath. I knew hiking 6.6 miles in high elevation was going to be a challenge, but this was ridiculous. We’d barely gone two and I was already winded!

Determined, I pushed on. Kenny was doing better than I was, and I was not going to hold him back. Besides, I’d probably never come back to this park, so this was my one chance to experience it.

Near the end of Primitive we came across a couple resting in the shade of an overhang. As we talked with them about our respective camping trips, a breeze cooled us off. By the time we were done chatting I had caught my breath and we pushed on. Another lone hiker told us when we reached Double O arch to climb through and take in the view from the other side. He said it was the best view in the park.

It seemed every place we looked there was something gorgeous and magnificent and awe-inspiring. It also seemed every person we saw was pleasant and helpful. There was a certain camaraderie among the hikers, and even more so among those who took the Primitive Loop.

The hike back to the parking lot took us over the tops of the arches, or the fins. We zigzagged our way gradually downwards. Near the top, an older woman was sitting with an ice pack on her leg and I wondered how she was going to make it down. Even the further end of the main trail involved hiking on all fours in places. As we neared the parking lot, a group of park rangers with a one-wheeled cot passed us.

At the beginning of the hike, that possibility kept me cautious. As I grew more confident in my strength and agility I began to truly enjoy the hike. By the time we were back at the Jeep, I was tired and sore and thirsty, and exhilarated. The hike may have been strenuous, but the view and the accompanying physical euphoria were worth every breath.






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