Saturday, July 20, 2013

Camping in the Southwest Desert: Part II


Moving on from the Calf Creek Campground we continued east towards Boulder, Utah, reportedly the last town in the Lower 48 to receive postal service. Here, you can cut south along the Burr Trail Road and descend into the canyon country that ultimately becomes Capitol Reef National Park, or you can head straight and go up and over Boulder Mountain. Ideally, you go out one way and come back the other. We decided to drive up the mountain. There's a fascinating scenic contrast along this route. You wind through high alpine forests of aspen and pine, but at the summit view points you stare way down, and way out at the barren rocklands of the massive Colorado Plateau. What appears on the road atlas as a little square of non-descript brown reveals itself to be this glorious jumble of sunset colored canyons, walled-in to the southeast by the snow-capped Henry Mountains. When Powell and Freemont first explored this area there were literal blank spaces on their maps. In terms of American population density, what you are looking at is the statistical Middle of Nowhere.

We continued on to Capitol Reef National Park with the intention of camping two more nights before returning home. Capitol Reef is a unique park in the sense that many of the trails, interpretive walks, as well as the visitor center and campground, can be accessed without paying an entrance fee. This fact, coupled with the relative remoteness of the area, creates a very different human dynamic within the park, and especially within the campground. This isn't a stop on a typical parkland itinerary. Here, I became as much an amateur anthropologist as an observer of nature. The unique cultural experience that is life at the Fruita campground is as interesting and entertaining as anything I might have seen in Las Vegas. If I had stopped there. Which I didn't. And that's fine. Really.
We turned into the campground, relieved to find numerous available spots. If you can't find camping here, you have very limited options in the immediate vicinity. As we drove around I had the impression that we were crashing some enormous family reunion. Occupied campsites were packed with people of all ages. Utah locals rather than tourists. Huge buffets were set atop folding tables with American flag tablecloths. Large daytime campfires raged in firepits, fueled by free firewood (more on that later). We selected a campsite as far away from the festivities as possible, making the mistake of assuming that the unoccupied sites nearby would remain unoccupied. The lesson is this: better to choose the enemy you can see, and not the one who will come rolling in at one in the morning and spend the next two hours hammering tent spikes and ferrying children and dogs through your campsite to the bathroom.
Anyway, we set up camp and got back in the car. We drove out the park's scenic road and continued all the way to the Grand Wash turn-off. Here, you can continue down a nicely graded dirt road that follows the floor of the canyon and offers perspectives you usually have to get out of your car to enjoy.


We stopped at the parking lot and strolled around, resolving to return the next day to take a proper hike further into the canyon. Grand Wash connects with the highway so it is possible to through-hike the canyon if you have two cars. We then drove back out of the wash. And saw this bird.


We visited a few more scenic corners of the park and then returned to our campsite. That's when the fun really began...The campground was now full, and a chorus of wailing generators filled the air. The irony, of course, is that the people using these generators were shut up in their RVs, and insulated from the noise. The rest of us were free to make dinner, drink a beer, and take in the glory of nature with a lawnmower leafblower soundtrack. I walked around to investigate, to try and learn what I could about the situation. What surprised me most of all was the lack of indignation on the part of the other campers. Nobody seemed the least bit concerned about the noise, even tent campers like myself. It bothers me that this doesn't bother you. In fact, it bothers me more than the buzzing bothers me. How are you all okay with this?

* inaudible crickets*

What's wrong with me that I'm not okay with this?

Why is this what I'm thinking about right now?

So my relaxing southwestern road trip, my pilgrimage to those natural wonders most sacred to my heart, had devolved into this kind of auto-analytic ruminative bonanza on the nature of narcissism, empathy, and effective groundsleeping.

I went to my wife for solace, for commiseration, and what did she tell me? "You gotta get this shit sorted out, dude. You're about to have a baby."

In the morning I watched the park service unload free firewood. There is a storage area where it's supposed to go, but the line of people standing at the truck's tailgate intercepted all the wood before it could hit the ground. Large families brought any kid of load-baring age to the party. There was fussing and crying and that indignation I so missed the night before: "Sir, excuse me, sir, we have been waiting here for forty-five minutes. There's a line." You can't take it all sir. How is my family going to take it all if your family takes it all first?

One thing is clear to me about life: If you are frequently bothered by the behavior of other people, if you find them to be petty and insensitive and oblivious to anyone's needs but their own, if you think people can do better but choose not to, if you think you can travel to some place where people are decent, and more perfect, and more like you, well then you're just screwed. The only defense is to raise your own little army of rationality. Shoot out your own kids and pump them full of appropriate dogmatic principles. And that will work out great, because kids always do what their parents want.

Fortunately, nature provides extra strength relief from misanthropic digressions. We returned to the Grand Wash trailhead the next day and hiked down the canyon. Everyone we passed along the way was sunny and delightful. We took a detour to a couple of water holes, and continued off trail, well back along the slopes of a side canyon. We had lunch. Fantastic scenery in all directions.

Back at the campground we built a fire (using our own paid-for wood) and had dinner. The generators continued to buzz, but I did my best to think about other things. Like the scene in the campsite next to ours. Seven unoccupied folding chairs arranged in a perfect circle around a fire pit. A dog chained to a stake sleeping under a picnic table. The whole family inside their RV, watching satellite TV. The campfire smoking, packed with free wood.

We woke up the next morning and began the return trip home by completing the loop back to Boulder, along the Burr Trail Road. The start of this route takes you along the Waterpocket Fold, a unique geological wonder set in a neighborhood already packed with geological wonders.

File:Waterpocket Fold - Looking south from the Strike Valley Overlook.jpg
from Wikipedia

At first, we reveled in the beauty and isolation found along the road. There was nobody around. No need to pull the car over to stop and take a picture. Perfect. For ten miles. Twenty miles. Forty miles. Okay... Small ruts in the road caused the car to rattle constantly. We started getting uncomfortable. We stared thinking about the baby. Was this okay? Can you hurt an unborn baby by driving on a rutty road? The second the idea was verbalized, all fun ceased. All talking ceased. The drive became an interminable series of jostling motions, each one causing who-knows what kind of damage to our little baby. This was some new kind of anguish for me, wretched and dreadful. Why didn't I think this through better? How did I allow myself to get into this position?

That's when I began brainstorming ways things could get even worse. I chalked it all up to bad karma, punishment for my intolerance of the folks at the campground. Surely, the tires would blow out soon. Or we'd overheat. Run out of water. Starve. Lose iPod battery charge. I couldn't even appreciate a series of famous switchbacks along the way, that carry you out of the Waterpocket Fold, back up onto a high plateau that links the road with the town of Boulder. So much beauty unappreciated, unphotographed. And, shit, those rocks and canyons will only be there for another sixty or seventy million years. Hope I get a chance to return before then.

We had lunch in Boulder. And a slice of pie. We both googled our way through the meal, trying to learn if we'd possibly harmed the baby. Bad as I felt, I learned there are prospective parents worse than myself asking google for answers: "Is it okay to...smoke crack while I'm pregnant?" (I'd provide the link to that one, but then you'd have both the NSA and Child Protective Services banging down your door.)

Reasonably sure we had not done the little one any harm, we hopping back on the road and retraced our steps through Escalante, Red Canyon, and Zion. We'd hoped to spend our last night in Zion, but the campground was full. So...where could we possibly get a hotel room for the night...that would be on the way back to Los Angeles...any towns or cities with nice inexpensive hotel rooms...attached to casinos maybe...No. Can't do it. We spent the night in St. George, where the hotel owner almost didn't give us a room because my driver's license was expired. The next day we rolled through Vegas without stopping. Another great trip.

And the little girl...

She's wonderful.


  1. "any towns or cities with nice inexpensive hotel rooms...attached to casinos maybe" It is true. Some time ago I chose resorts but all are very expensive They really great but you can find more cheaper place and also good

  2. Pretty baby) I believe, she was fine, nothing was hurt her.
    Oh my god, how I understand you, I don't like this kind of people too. Selfish, cheeky... brr. I try to keep distance with such people.
    But your photos are amazing, beautiful view. This mountains and canyons are gorgeous.

  3. Actually, you had bright trip where you could watch landscapes, follow your atention to bright picturesque sights. It was a great opportunity, I think, for parents to have free time spent closer to glory of mountains. All the benefits you reached consisted of beaty you've seen. They say, bird is someone's soul, so you had a good sign, if you like. All the difficulties you had, will compose your knowledge about such trips - don't worry. Personally I would like to visit Southwest Desert by car. Best wishes to your family, and have a nice trips.