Back in the day, when life was long and there was time to kill, I wandered for months at a time, going anywhere I pleased for however long I felt like. Days were a blur of trails and highways, while nights were spent beneath the stars. Eventually these solo forays evolved into backpacking and road trips with my sweetie. Long after most of our peers had settled into real jobs and mortgages, we were working as little as possible and spending weeks at a time exploring the deserts and mountains of the American West.
Then we got married. Nine months later, we had a baby. A year after that, the three of us took our first road trip together.
Winter is getting old. The snow is crusty and dirty. The March wind is blowing ceaseless and cold off the sagebrush desert. Let’s fast forward into spring, take a trip to the Utah red rock, our first trip since our splendid honeymoon in the San Juans. First trip since the golden aspen cast a spell that led us to carelessly, blissfully, fatefully commingle our DNA along the banks of the Dolores River. First trip since the primordial chaos of a birth and a slew of sleep-deprived nights. Once again, we’re lighting out for parts known and unknown, bound for the towering walls of Zion Canyon. Gasoline, caffeine, a couple of Taos breakfast burritos and GO!
Few things in life beat the feeling of rolling out of your hometown. Familiar mountains recede in the rear view, exotic mountains rise up in the windshield, and the steaming coffee makes everything feel like it’s going to be alright forever and ever. And we’re in a new car, newest we’ve ever owned anyway: a 1990 Volvo wagon with a working CD player. I pop in Marty Robbins to serenade us into the next valley over, ready for anything.
For one rocking hour we are back in the saddle. And then:
The Blonde Bambino awakens and howls in her car seat, halting our road reverie dead in its tracks. We pull over, hopefully in a place with views or alongside a creek where Dad can bust out binoculars and engage in his new hobby: bird watching, a frighteningly middle-aged-style pursuit. Meanwhile, in the solar warmth of the car, Momma patiently gives of her body so that the Bear Cub squirming and slurping at her breast will continue to be nourished and grow. Thirty minutes later, after changing a diaper, we’re back on the road, for an hour or two anyway, until it’s time to pull over and repeat the process.
Signs tell us that we’ve just crossed the Continental Divide — here just a modest dirt ridge speckled with junipers — and now we’ve officially left our Rio Grande Rift Valley and begun the 500-mile trek across the Colorado Plateau. Black basalt gives way to creamy hills and tortured badlands sliced by arroyos, some of which are blessed with a handful of barely budding cottonwoods. The view opens up, and mountains in four states come into view: the San Juans, the Chuskas, the Abajos and Mount Taylor all in one fell swoop, with Shiprock and Chaco Mesa thrown in for good measure.
It is the first of many such views, and the next few days will blur into an impressionistic montage of banded cliffs, shooting stars, desert sunsets and blossoming trees. This trip is our reminder of the big Out There, our reconnection to sidereal time and the humbling power of geologic process and biologic renewal.
But our daughter could care less about such high-fallutin’ nonsense: She’s in the backseat, transfixed by the miraculous zipper on her bunny sweater.
Due to the still-freezing nighttime temperatures, and the fact that we’re both a little soft after two years of non-camping, we spend the first night in a Kayenta motel, where we stay up way too late catching up on commercials and sitcoms we haven’t seen since the last time we stayed in a motel. The next morning, we’re off at dawn, or about four disorganized hours after dawn anyway, speeding toward the Colorado River.
That’s the plan anyway, but the Volvo is running hot, the needle high in the red zone as we prepare to climb up and across White Mesa. We pull over next to a sign reading “Peabody Coal/Baptist Church,” a taste of Appalachia here on the Navajo Rez, where Daddy busts out the toolbox and Momma busts out her right, no left (gotta keep track) breast and proceeds to feed Precious Angel. I open the hood and poke around, but can’t see anything wrong. She’s definitely hot (the car and the Milf in the passenger seat) but there’s no steam or fluids leaking out (except from the breast of the Milf in the passenger seat) and all belts and hoses seem to be intact so I close the hood and hope for one of those moments when the car magically fixes itself.
It doesn’t, so for most of the rest of the trip, we maintain a safe temperature range by running the heater at full blast.
We pause in lawn-filled Page to grab batteries for the Singing Frog — a crucial piece of get-to-sleep gear — then bridge the Colorado River at Glen Canyon Dam and head west across a series of streams flowing south off the Kaiparowits Plateau en route to Marble and Grand canyons. One of these streams cuts a deep canyon of its own as it drops down to the big river, and there’s an official campground right where the canyon begins, which should suit us just fine.
But I cringe at the thought of paying for camping when we’re surrounded by millions of acres of public land chock full of spots to set up camp for free. I mention this to my wife (she’s heard it before, many times) and she relents and allows me to explore a promising dirt road that the map says should lead to car-camping paradise. Forty-five minutes later, the temperature gauge is topping out, we’re coughing on clouds of dust (the windows are open to counteract the blasting heater) and the Baby is crying, so I turn the car around and head to the official BLM campsite.
Humbled, I visit the self-serve pay station then roll slowly through the campground, past young hipsters sipping microbrews amidst fancy cars with mountain bikes and gear boxes mounted on elaborate roof racks … and it dawns on me that nobody else knows or cares about “back in the day.” The vagabonding, the high-lonesome adventures, the twenty-something coolness has fallen away like the hair on the top of my head, and the stroller lashed atop the aging family station wagon heralds the end of the chapter of my life entitled “Hip.”
We settle on a swell site next to a battleship-sized blob of tan sandstone and unload, starting with the square playpen. A few deft flicks of the wrist and there’s a baby jail set up beneath the shade of a juniper. I pop the Bundle of Joy inside lest she stuff her mouth full of rocks and beetles and begin to unpack.
It’s been just two days of travel, but the car is already a disaster. The front is cluttered with coffee mugs, half-folded maps, crumpled burrito wrappers, roadside geology books, binoculars and the camera — the usual road trip detritus — while the far back is stacked to the roof with winter parkas, spring Chacos, hiking boots and underwear that have crept out of bins and backpacks to mingle with scattered sweatshop toys and stuffed animals (including the aforementioned Singing Frog, who is stoned on fresh batteries and bursting into spontaneous song: “IF YOU’RE HAPPY AND YOU KNOW IT CLAP YOUR HANDS!”)
But the back seat is where the real action is, for every surface near the car seat is sticky with a mixture of spilled juicie and smashed Cheerios, and the window next to the car seat is crusted with smeared hummus. Worst of all, somewhere on the floorboards there lurks a plastic bag of shitty diapers I forgot to jettison back in Page, and another bag containing a cutesy pair of shitty overalls we salvaged after our Little Insurgent had what we refer to as a “blowout” just outside of Kaibito.
Fortunately, there’s a cooler of beer tucked away beneath a case of stewed organic carrots. I plunge my hand into the ice and grab a bottle, pop the cap with the handle of a sparkling magic fairy wand, and take a Daddy-sized drink of pale ale.
The warm afternoon becomes a chilly evening, so I wander to the riverbank and gather an armful of wood from the wreckage of sticks and logs piled up by the last flash flood. I start a fire while Momma Bear stirs a pot of roasted red pepper soup and spreads butter on bread that will soon become very satisfying grilled cheese. We sit and eat contently while our Pumpkin stands with her hands gripping the edge of her playpen, quietly dividing her attention between the crackling flames and the bats flitting overhead.
After dinner, as my honey readies the bedding, I gather my daughter into my arms and take her for a moonlit stroll alongside the softly roiling waters of the river. I still haven’t mastered my lullabies, so I soothe my Little Angel to sleep with the sweet sounds of the Grateful Dead, nurturing her malleable psyche with the mythology of Americana: A tumbledown shack in Bigfoot County, a cave in the Utah hills, a place where the wind don’t blow so strange…And she’s out cold, snoring even.
Perfect. Bedtime, for Bonzo anyway, so we all settle easy into the tent, careful not to wake her. It’s the first night of her life not spent inside a womb or beneath a roof, and our first night camping with anything but a dog between us. It’s only March though, still cold, so we err on the side of caution and bundle our Offspring in a onesie, sweat pants and a sweater, topped by a snowsuit that makes her look like the pink spawn of the Michelin man. We position the sleeping bags to provide her with one more layer of warmth, then fire up the headlamp and read to each other: “Desert Solitaire” for the first time in years, deep in the heart of Canyon Country. My wife and I snuggle up and read. An owl hoots. All is well.
And then there’s that unmistakable smell. Damn. Usually she does this in the morning, like her Daddy, but for some reason here it is: fresh baby shit. We have no choice but to unpeel all those layers, one at a time, right here in the tent. We start slowly at first, hoping that somehow she’ll sleep through the indignity of getting her clothes ripped off and her ass wiped in the cold night air, but we quickly realize she’s waking up no matter what, so we kick things into high gear: zippers, snaps, velcro, buttons, booties and the diaper removed, down to the proverbial baby bottom … contain and wipe away the steaming metamorphosed peas, position the next diaper then rebootie, rebutton, revelcro, resnap, rezip, our four hands working in rapid fire surgical precision in hopes that we’ll head off the potential disaster of a midnight meltdown.
Thankfully, we do, and she falls back to sleep.
Our child is up with the sun, so we are too. I shuffle out of the tent and brew coffee in the morning chill. My crew soon joins me, and I rekindle last night’s fire and fry up bacon, eggs and green chile. We eat slowly then lounge around, soaking up the first rays of morning warmth, and taking turns dragging our Desert Tortoise back from the brink of the campfire she has decided she must crawl into.
It is a perfect high-desert morning, a long time coming for us, but there are cracks in the bedrock of our calm contentment. Yes, dear daughter, you were an accident — the happiest accident we could ever hope for — and we love you more than you will ever know. We would die for you. We would kill for you. Our lives would be meaningless without you, but that doesn’t mean its easy for us to sit in these camp chairs and watch as carefree folks shoulder their backpacks and disappear into the canyon yawning mysteriously at the edge of the campground, a canyon Ed Abbey once described as “nothing but cavernous gorges; quicksand; high sheer tapestried walls of golden sandstone; marvelous patterns of light and shade on rock; water and cottonwood trees…freshwater seeps and springs; hanging gardens on the canyon walls; side canyons; an abandoned river channel; waterfalls and plunge pools, potsherds and petroglyphs…routine stuff”.
By the time they come out of that canyon, sunburned and dirty and amazed, we’ll be back home, back at work, our long-anticipated trip over and done. By the time circumstances allow us to take that sort of journey again, we’ll both be well over 50 years old.
For a few wistful moments, Mommy and Daddy wish they could disappear into that canyon too.
We pack up and hit pavement, headed across one of the middle “steps” of the Grand Staircase — the Shinarump Flats. The signs of humanity are small, the views large, much larger even than they seemed, for we are smack dab in the middle of one of the largest exposures of geochronology on the planet. To the south, the Flats step down to the forested green sea of the Kaibab Plateau, which sprawls south toward an unseen drop into the Grand Canyon, where epochs of lush swamps, tropical seas and mammoth volcanic eruptions overlay continental bedrock. Somewhere down there, billion-year-old fossilized algae lay exposed to the wind and rain — the same wind and rain that have laid waste to this part of Utah over and over again. To the north, red (ancient river deposits), then white (lithified sand dunes), then gray (black mud and swamps) cliffs rise in successive steps toward distant pink cliffs — the bottom of a lake now crowning the snowcapped Paragaunsant Plateau.
Routine stuff indeed, all the way to Kanab, where we pause to change a diaper before crossing a non-descript divide and into the headwaters of the East Fork of the Virgin River. We enter Zion National Park, pass through a tunnel and into Zion Canyon itself, then down the river to the town of Springdale.
Springdale is just that: a meadowy opening in the canyon bounding with spring birdsongs, spring flowers and loads of spring tourists and tour buses. We head down valley into the sleepy town of Rockville, a stark contrast to the gateway bustle of Springdale, and for just the second time in our lives, check into a bed and breakfast — paid for, like the rest of this decadent trip, with our very first credit card: a doozy from REI with no spending limit, a picture of an ice climber on it, and a nebulous interest rate. We haul a large amount of gear up the plush carpeted stairs — I can sense the proprietors’ nervousness at the sight of the cooler and camp stove we stash in our room — then retire to a patio to soak up the glorious evening light while our child crawls on a lawn for the first time in her life. As we sip our beer, a gentle breeze welcomes us to full-blown spring with the scent of apple blossoms.
We had covered some ground in the last few days — 600 miles to breakfast beneath the thousand-foot walls of Navajo sandstone, but the seemingly immovable mass of rock had come further. The individual grains of sand that made up the orange cliffs were eroded off of the Appalachian Mountains back when they resembled the Andes, then carried across an entire continent by long-vanished rivers that flowed into a vanished sea. The sea dried up, and winds whipped the sand into a vast expanse of drifting dunes that covered large parts of Utah and six other states. Climates changed, continents broke apart, and the dunes were buried beneath other geologic happenings and cemented into colossal chunks of sandstone. Millions of years later, this part of the world was uplifted, and a small river sliced straight down into the layers of stone, resulting in a narrow canyon so majestic that some Book of Mormon thumpers would eventually name it after heaven.
Some of the most epic scenery on Earth to be sure, but, until now, I’ve avoided this place. Zion draws millions of visitors each year, and this crush of people, combined with the implementation of a long list of rules, cramps the style and undermines the sensibilities of the average dirt-bag adventurer: entrance fees that rival the cost of a tank of gas; campgrounds that need to be reserved months in advance; no dogs; automobiles jockeying for position at trailheads and scenic pullouts, and permits required to do just about anything beyond taking a nature hike on a paved trail.
But two things make this trip different. One is the Midget Goldilocks I’ll be carrying on my back or pushing around in our super-yuppie-style stroller, a situation that limits our ability to cover too many miles, let alone scramble through narrows or claw our way up brushy ravines. Suffice to say that our days here will be spent taking nature hikes, some of them on paved trails.
The second difference is the fact that Zion National Park has done something rather extraordinary — something Ed Abbey suggested over 40 years ago in “Desert Solitaire”: from March through October, personal automobiles are banned from entering Zion Canyon itself. Instead, you can walk, bicycle or hop on the free propane powered buses that shuttle folks into and out of the canyon.
We parked at the visitor’s center, gathered our survival gear (a rickshaw-style backpack, sippy cup, crackers and applesauce, diapers and wipes, a binkie and a blankie) and rode a bus right into the heart of the world’s deepest sandstone canyon, hopping off at various trailheads to explore then hopping back on for a ride to the next one. Thousands of other people were in the relatively short canyon along with us — a situation that usually turns me into a grumpy asshole, particularly since every single one of them made a comment about the baby on my back (“now that’s the way to hike!”) — but the ease of movement and surprising quietude made it feel as if we had the place to ourselves.
Indeed, the lack of cars made everything better. No engines revving. No horns beeping. No doors slamming. No ceaseless whoosh of tires on pavement. We could actually hear the river, loud and clear, and we relaxed and noticed the small wonders tucked away beneath the majestic cliffs: trout glistening in crystal pools; the vanilla smell of sun-warmed ponderosa bark; ravens building nests; the sound of last year’s dried cottonwood leaves rattling in the canyon breeze. Whole families pedaled by on bikes, or picnicked along the river, and I was surprised to feel a kindred connection to my fellow explorers as we snapped photos of waterfalls and filled our water bottles from dripping springs.
We spent our last night outside of the park, car camping like days of yore on a ridge overlooking the unique and spectacular triple nexus of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert. Range after range of mountains stretched into the sunset, and a thin swath of cottonwoods revealed the path of the Virgin River as it flowed off the red rock heights and into a lower, hotter world of creosote and ocotillo, sky islands and earthquake valleys.
It would be nice to keep going, across the sun-blasted alkali flats, over the silver granite of the Sierra Nevada, all the way to the roar of the Pacific Ocean. But that can’t happen, not for awhile anyway, maybe never. Tomorrow, we head home to the various responsibilities necessary to feed and shelter our child.
And that’s just fine. We had a good run, my wife and I, chock full of extended opportunities to stop and smell the wild roses, and any wisdom we gleaned from those experiences — awe, hope, humility — guides us now as we try to raise our child to be a compassionate and Earth-loving woman. If we’re lucky, if we pay attention to what we’re doing, she will grow up knowing the importance of rivers, mountains, deserts and sunsets. That’s our big adventure now: raising a well-adjusted Pagan.
Besides, the Sierras aren’t going anywhere, not in my lifetime anyway, and the Pacific Ocean will be there for a few hundred million more years. I turn away from the beckoning view and put another log on the campfire. Tonight we’re roasting marshmallows.