Sometimes the world is trying to tell you it is going to be a bad day.
We’d done our version of Moab. No mountain biking or off-road driving, no ATV rips through wilderness. Arches we described earlier.
Day 8 of touring was a place called Island in the Sky unit within Canyonlands National Park, with a detour through Dead Horse Point. You’ve seen that in ads and commercials with some non-sweaty adventurer standing on rock spires, and it’s one of the most photographed ad spots around. No one tells you “this ad was shot in a place where wild horses were corralled on a Mesa. On one of the round-ups, someone forgot about them, and the corralled horses died of thirst just 2,000 feet away from the Colorado River.
We pulled out of Moab, UT, in early morning sunshine. A full gas tank, low traffic, mostly back roads.
Nothing could go wrong. Right?
Our last day in Canyonlands National Park started with a visit to the Needles Overlook. We’d decided not to take the long trip there to save time for some other places we wanted to see. Canyonlands is divided into sections by the Green and Colorado rivers into Island in the sky, The Maze, Needles, and the rivers. You can’t drive from one to another, you have to drive around the park. The great explorer John Wesley Powell started on the Green before meeting the Colorado at the Confluence in the journey that took him on an impossible adventure through the Grand Canyon with some poor Army soldiers and a few rowboats. There’s a monument to Powell and his men stands along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Maybe there’s one on the North Rim, We’ve never been to that side.
We continued on the easy journey, driving through Natural Bridges National Monument and on down towards Escalante Grand Staircase. At a spectacular bridge crossing over the Colorado we stopped at Hite Canyon to look over where a guy named Hite found gold the started a town just a few miles away. The town of Hite is now under Lake Powell.
John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, risked his life and crew to explore the Colorado, and we dammed it. Would he approve? Maybe. Most people seem to. “Taming Rivers” is what we’re known for, and what happens to the land and people beyond only matters in terms of how they fit into the society we think they should have. As far as those other places beyond our borders, well, we don’t think of them much at all.
We continued onwards and upwards. Just a slight bit of rain from the darkening sky.
What could go wrong?
The rain started getting harder. Wind picked up.
We passed brave souls on bikes, true riders loaded with gear, ponchos flapping on grim faces. If we had a truck or van, or even a big SUV we could have offered them a lift, but in our little Mazda they would have needed to abandon their rides and gear by the road. With darkness falling and no way to find it when they got back, we didn’t even offer. Later that seemed pretty damn cold-hearted.
We entered Capitol Reef and the skies fell. Sand washed across the road. A river of mud raged down one side, hard red rock abutted the other. In some places the road had collapsed. Visibility was limited and on the road with us were small cars, camper trailers and off-readers. Our cell phones weren’t getting any signal.
We were lucky. When water was crossing the road we could see the painted lines. Where there was mud crossing we were able to drive through slowly, when a frightened van driver slowed to 10 miles an hour we were able to pass safely. We couldn’t go that slow on roads with testosterone-driven jacked-up Jeeps going faster. We debated stopping, but there were so few vehicles and the area so desolate and the places to pull off so close to being mud pits (or becoming flows) themselves, we felt the safest place was on asphalt.
This is when you know that nature can smack you down at any second. They make movies about people who go off on their own and die. More people die doing everyday things like driving to a park on their vacation.
For hours we slogged on, tense and alert. Things got a little better, most of the real hazard was behind us.
But not the pressure. With darkness and rain we began ascending Highway 12. The “highway,” like many out here, has one lane in each direction. This one is on open range. That means cows. Cows are a strange creature. We think of them in pastures. We don’t think of them running alongside a mountain road (elevation at least 8,000 feet) with steep banks.
At some point, we came off the forested mountain and began traversing the sandstone of the Grand Staircase. The roadway narrowed to a point where there was barely any shoulder and steep banks going down either side. Fortunately there was just enough light left to see the sharp drop-off on either side, because you wouldn’t want to be driving up a scary road and not get the full dose of fear.
A few hours later we drove into the small town of Escalante. About five miles later a right turn onto a gravel road, down into a gully, and up into the parking lot of our first resort stay of the trip, a bed-and-breakfast called Slot Canyons Inn. Comfort food in their gourmet grill, a long soak in the room’s jetted tub with the fire going, then sweet, sweet sleep.
During the drive through hell we stopped for one stupid, foolish moment to snap some water flowing off a rock beside the road. It was a dumb move and quickly taken out the passenger window while Chris bent over Jenn, but it’s all we have to show any of the storm.