Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Road to Home

Moab Rick says that a trip begins in the imagination. And he should know. An incorrigible world traveler, Moab Rick may have finally settled down but he’s never stopped scheming ideas for his next trip.

Moab is one of those rare towns that lives up to its billing. You will never see a more impressive confluence of off-road Jeep enthusiasts, river rats, mountain bike freaks, hardcore backpackers, campground RVers, and plain old folks just wanting to get a good look at the rocks. Moab (the town) was a place that (Moab) Rick returned to over and over again over the years. So he decided to finally make an honest town out if it. Of course, meeting Monette, his partner, helped. So Moab Rick, the lone traveler is now a Moab Rick & Monette, enthusiastic homeowner/gardeners… with plans simmering for their next trip.

Moab Rick & Monette offered up a spot on their acreage for our little home-away-from-home on wheels. Not only did Rick let us paw through his incredible collection of rare expat literary journals from 1920s Paris (and serve up a night of honest-to-god home cookin’), he gave us an insider’s guide to the best watering holes in town, critical national park hiking destinations, and revealed the secret locations for free national park-side camping. “If one of the rangers hassles you, but since there’s only two of them chances are they won’t,” Moab Rick assured us, “just say: Russ in the office said it was okay to camp here.

To which we say, Thanks Russ! And thanks Rick!

All of this homelife set us to thinking about the idea of home. Not so much what it means, but what it is and how it is expressed. This in mind, we sailed through the Navajo Nation of northern Arizona and New Mexico, past "Shiprock" (or Winged Rock), the spiritual center of the universe to the Navajo. Since we're not of the tribe, this is as close as we could get.

But we could get right up and into the so-called Aztec ruins of the Anasazi people, a thousands year-old civilization that mysteriously and suddenly disappeared in the 1300s. Their homey little village, however ruined, remains.

Which is all very instructive and interesting and worth pondering and all. But that was then. And in today's world, when the grime of the desert wears thick and the miles on the road weigh heavy you can step back in time and fall into the soft embrace of the modern world. Do this in Durango, CO and you'll find yourself at the Strater Hotel.

Don't get us wrong. Living in a '71 microbus is great. But a night's stay at the Strater is a sweet reprise. In many ways it's better than home.

But then again, as fine a place as it may be, this hotel isn't home. So we pressed onward, heading east, stopping in Colorado Springs at a place that used to be home. Some of you may recognize it. Some of you have even lived there, too. You know who you are.

It's been about 20 years since I left this place. Much of the complex has changed for the better, I hasten to add, and my old sport of cycling has moved elsewhere. While the old ghosts remain, only I can see them (though Diane, bless her soul, has had to hear all about them). And it's just as well. Because when we moved on down the road, our baggage happily remained curbside.

But where to next? Where on the road can you find your home? Turns out the answer lays not in the imagination. It was instead waiting for us a few miles up the road just outside of Greeley, CO. And it looks like this:

And though this isn't the house I grew up in, it is my mother's home. Which is to say, we are finally home, too ... for now.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Golden Arches

“I worry about this rock. I really do,” The old fogey with the walking stick was saying. “This rock,” he said gazing up at it now, “it’s almost a spiritual thing. I worry that this rock won’t be around for much longer. I worry that my kids and their kids won’t be able to see it.”

Take one look at it and you’ll understand what he means. But its delicacy is illusion. While it won’t be around forever, it will be around for the kids of his kids of his kids to see. Call me crazy, but as we looked at the rock in question and watched the families at play around it, I could all-but hear marketing geniuses pitching a new attraction to an investment group.

“You’ll see it everywhere,” I could hear my inner executive saying. “Billboards. Brochures. License plates. T-shirts. Heck, anywhere you can imagine.”

“We’re going to put it someplace crazy. It’ll be someplace not only improbable but remote. Make no mistake, it’ll be hard to get to. Customers are gonna have to work a little to get there. It’ll be strenuous enough to make them feel like you’ve accomplished something, but accessible enough that an extended family of 10--from grandma to the toddlers--can get to it. In a word, it'll be memorable. Imagine,” says my inner executive while rolling through a string of PowerPoint slides:

A long and arduous climb, complete with spectacular views...

... on wide and wandering trails that only heighten the sense of Wilderness but without any real danger.

Except, that is, for dangerous cliff-side trails fit for the Indiana Jones in all of us.

Then, when you least expect it, you round yet another blind corner, and What Ho! There it is!

But its size is deceiving. It looks small from a distance...

... but as you approach, it gets bigger and bigger and more improbable until it overwhelms you. And best of all you never saw it coming. No photo or t-shirt or license plate can do it justice.

“Great!” exclaim the investors. “How much will we charge?”

The biz dev exec smiles broadly, ready to close the sale. “Nothing.”

At this point my sales pitch falls apart. It's just as well. For you can't put a price on this or any other outrage in the long line of improbable exhibits that comprise the southern Utah geological arcade of abnormalities. Head east (and then south) from Bryce Canyon and you’ll find:

The petrified sand dunes of Escalante

Large country estates with real curbside appeal.

The road to Goblin Valley...

... and then Goblin Valley itself:

Green River – home to Ray’s Tavern and one of the best cheeseburgers you’ll ever hope to encounter.

The many Golden Arches near Moab, UT...

and the Canyonlands.

Tom Tom’s Volkswagen Museum, whose proprietor claims to have played poker with both Jack Kerouac and Ed Abbey--and won!

Monument Valley, before sunset...

... and at sunrise ...

... not to be confused with a tequila sunrise.

Turns out the abnormalities are everywhere. All you have to do is look, and it's nothing to worry about. But that's another story entirely.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Green-on-Green-on-Green Pauline

I could write many studied and weighty books about the geology and the parks we've seen in southern Utah. You are hereby excused from this reading list. For now. Instead, I want to talk about Green-on-Green-on-Green Pauline and the town of Orderville, UT, pop. 596.

Orderville, strategically placed on the main backroad highway between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, endures where other towns fail. While Utah plays host to an overabundance of natural beauty, it also features an unforgiving climate. The soil is sand. The hills are high. The air is hot. Water is scarce. And its human history reflects that. Orderville, for example, was established at the direction of Mormon leader Brigham Young in 1870 specifically to live the United Order, a voluntary form of Christian communism/communalism (as defined by Joseph Smith). As nice as that sounds, in truth it was settled primarily by destitute refugees from failed settlements in Nevada. So it's a tough place. People here have had to team up to survive. Which is also to say, this place is the very definition of a closed community.

Not that we knew about any of this when we met Green-on-Green-on-Green Pauline. We had innocently parked beside the post office. Diane had just returned from mailing a package. I was hanging around the parking lot, snapping some photos:

The yellow bus & blue skies...

The painted rocks above the nearby high school depicting graduation class years (my favorite is "007")...

I was lining up a shot of the LDS church across the street when, seemingly from nowhere, a wisp of a woman with a crown of cotton-candy hair and a lime-green-on-green-on-green pants suit approached. "I just love your bus," she said with a smile. "I used to have one just like it, back when. Your bus makes me miss my old bus."

So we gave her the tour of the bus; and no sooner was it over when she asked to see our road map. She didn't care so much were we'd been, she wanted to show us not-to-miss places she had traveled in her microbus.

Call it the Divine Hand of Providence. Call it the Helping Hand of International Tourism. Call it what you will, but the next thing we knew, a congregation of townspeople began to form around us.

"Hi there, Pauline," exclaimed a middle-aged woman with a mop of brown hair, her kind eyes belying a strident sort of malice. She looked Diane and I over. "Nice to see you folks. Did you move here?"

No sooner had we assured her that we had not moved here, when Frank approached. "Hey there! You folks need some help? I see you got your map out."

"Hi, Frank," said Green-on-Green-on-Green Pauline. "I'm just showing them some places to go."

"Oh. I saw you had the map out and I figured you were lost." He turned to me, bright eyed and friendly. "I'm a truck driver and I know every inch of these roads. I can show you."

By this time the middle-aged woman was looming over Diane. "You been up to Temple Square yet? In Salt Lake." Diane replied that we hadn't, at least not on this trip. "Well, you need to go. You're in Utah and you should at least learn something about the Mormon Church."

"Rifle," said Green-on-Green-on-Green Pauline. "Rifle." She pointed to a place on the map of Colorado. "This is where we used to go, I think, on our vacations in our VW bus." She gave the map back to Diane. "The parks around there are so beautiful."

And so went our little party on a parking lot in Orderville, UT, a Federal post office on one side and an LDS church on the other: one woman trying to convert us on the spot to her faith, another woman trying to divert us from our itinerary, and a man more than willing to show us the way.

While I know some things about the Mormon Church, there's a lot more I don't know. Likewise, we know where we want to go on this trip (and where we don't want to go) and how we want to get there. Mostly.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

It’s Geology, Man

Quick. What are the first words that come to mind when you look at this?

Diane’s answer: Ride ‘em Cowboy
My answer: KungfuSuperfly

Turns out we were both wrong. And unless your answer was “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” or “Court of the Patriarchs” you were wrong, too. (Bonus points if you identified the outcropping below Jacob as Moroni, the man/angel who traveled to America with Jesus to do battle against the Lamanites.) Welcome also to southwestern Utah. Welcome to Zion.

The men who “discovered” Zion, no doubt good Mormons all, were clearly awed and humbled by what they saw. Thus inspired, like latter-day Adams they set about labeling these stately slabs of rock with the most reverent names they could conjure. Behold:

Your answer: _____________________
The official answer: "The Great White Throne"

Your answer: _____________________
The official answer: "The Altar and the Pulpit"

Your answer: _____________________
The official answer: Weeping Rock
(where snow melt seeps through the sand stone and slides off the slate, so they say)

It's a bit much. But you can't blame the rocks. Appropriately awed and humbled, we saw as many rocks and outcroppings as we could and otherwise spent a most pleasant day and evening in the valley of Zion.

The next morning we drove a short 80 miles and 3,000 feet higher on the road to see yet more outrageous rocks in a place called Bryce Canyon. It’s not really a canyon, it’s not really monumental, but it’s kungfusuperfly. In other words, it’s our kind of place.

In Bryce, like the ranchers of the 1880s, you’re encouraged to wander among the melting sandstone hoodoos. If you’re lucky, you just might get a chance to touch:

Thor’s Hammer

Queen Victoria

Wall Street

And, of course, Kungfu-Superfly. You may have to search a bit to find it. But it’s there.

Thusly named, you're now free to ask the more important questions. Questions like: How did these formations come into being? How long will they last? What came before them and what will come next?

The official answer: Who really knows? It's geology, man.

Road to Zion

To get to Zion, it turns out that you have to navigate across a vast high desert. Luckily, we’re happy to report that the natives are friendly, the roads are wide open, and the sights are as enigmatic as they are interesting. Indeed, the quest for getting to the promised land is as interesting as the place itself.

Humble homes are built into precariously poised boulders and trinket tables...

... historical markers can be found in the middle of what can only be described as nowhere ...

... and an abundance of wild-like buffalo rule the plains.

Make no mistake, it is a long and arduous journey. Weary from our travels, we stopped just shy of Zion at the Village of Many Nations.

Okay. It's an RV park. But the camp sites are funky, the biggest tepees have fire pits inside, the living history exhibits are fun, and Joshua, a really cool artist-in-residence, takes care of the place. In fact, Diane and I spent the better part of a day swapping travel tales with Joshua (he hiked the length of South America, for example), citing the works of favorite authors, discussing the business of publishing (his first novel has been picked up), and generally having a fine old time.

The truest gift of traveling with an improvised agenda without time constraints is the pause between destinations to linger over a few cups of coffee, soak in the old familiar warmth of the morning sun in a strange land and, if we’re lucky, make a new friend.

But the entrance to Zion itself, a mere 500 yards away, beckoned. We could wait no more.