I woke up to a hammering sound, shot stock upright in my sleeping bag and hit the side of the tent with my face. I’d forgotten I was camping, so when the canvas hit my face I recoiled with such force that I ricocheted back down again. Unfortunately, being wrapped head to toe in a mummy-style sleeping bag, I had no hands available to prevent myself from splatting unelegantly into the ground. Winded and wide awake, I took stock of the situation. The noise was rain pounding on the corrugated plastic shelter above the tent, and from where I lay it sounded pretty heavy. Jill was still sleeping, so I flailed around silently for a good ten minutes trying to figure out how to free myself from the grasp of my sleeping bag. Finally free, I fished around for clothes to throw on before venturing outside the tent.
Sheets of rain greeted me and the air was thick with fog so I grabbed an umbrella out of my backpack and splashed my way over to the campsite facilities to take a shower. A family of grasshoppers, of the variety Americans call katydids, had taken refuge from the storm in the shower room and one of them hung out in my shower stall with an utter disregard for my privacy. It was vaguely disconcerting to be ogled at in the altogether by a leaf with eyes, in a Disney-does-creepy kind of way.
Jill was up by the time I got back to the tent site, so I put some water on for coffee and then we started breaking things down, under cover of the corrugated plastic roof. We had no tarp to cover anything in the back of the pickup, so put the sleeping bags and tent in the back of the cab to make sure they stayed dry. Jill hadn’t intended to shower this morning, but got so completely soaked rearranging things in the back of the truck that she ended up showering just to get warm again. I popped into the office to pay for the site and when I asked the chap at the counter if the storm was just an anomaly he chirpily informed me that we were in the middle of monsoon season, and warned us to be on the lookout for flash floods, high winds, lightning and the occasional tornado. I thanked him for his help with all the cheer I could muster, which wasn’t very much cheer at all. In my mind I was going through a checklist of clothing items appropriate for monsoon season, and was pretty sure I had packed none of them. Flip flops and sunscreen didn’t seem to offer adequate protection for a tornado.
The rain had eased up by the time we pulled onto Moab’s main street. All the photos I’ve seen of Arches National Park are a blaze of bright red rock against brilliant blue sky. This was a far cry from the Arches that loomed behind Moab today, a wall of dark rocks engulfed by blankets of fog, but there was something darkly alluring about it.
Up close, the sands and rocks of Arches glowed a discernible red against the swirling mists. Our first stop was the Petrified Sand Dunes, a curious misnomer that implies the dunes are either fossilised organic matter or of a nervous disposition. In fact, they are neither, but they are a prime illustration of what can happen to vast tracts of sand given enough time, sediment-laden winds and a dearth of dune buggies. Layers of sediment coated the sand drifts and over time they were cemented by calcite and quartz and compressed into Navajo Sandstone. The overlying sediment responsible for the compression has since been eroded away leaving behind the original dunescape in all its stony glory.
When we got back in the car I noticed Jill had grown quiet again. I knew things were eating away at her, and I’d never seen her so sad and so angry. We sat there staring out into the fog until I couldn’t bear it any longer, tentatively mumbling something like ‘I know you’re unhappy but I don’t know what to do or say’ and to my horror, she burst into tears, and then so did I. And there we sat, sobbing, and hugging each other, spouting protestations of ’I love you’ and ‘I love you too’ and then crying harder. A tour bus unloaded behind us and waves of poncho-clad Japanese tourists drifted by, glancing in the window at us and then scuttling away in embarrassed haste when they saw us in floods of tears. They looked so comical trying to escape that we burst out laughing, and we moved on.
And so it was with lightened hearts that we arrived at the Windows section of the park, the place where I fell head-over-heels in love with Arches National Park. Something about those towering walls of rock with massive eye-shaped sockets carved out by the wind makes you feel like you’ve entered a land of giants. The vistas they framed, shrouded now by the delicious mists of monsoon season, transported me to a land of wonder and mystery. By the North Window, Jill met an Indian family who gave her a recommendation for a yoga practitioner in Seattle, and in a scene straight out of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ told her of an ashram in India. From the glint in my friend’s eye, I could tell it was a journey she was destined to undertake.
It was with great difficulty we tore ourselves away from this part of the park, but time was moving on and we still had a lengthy drive ahead of us, for we were aiming to reach Kanab by nightfall. We tried to be mindful of the time, but every corner we turned revealed more fantastical rock formations with wondrous names like Parade of Elephants, Dark Angel, Devil’s Garden, Garden of Eden. We stopped and started countless times before we reached the furthermost corner of the park and turned around.
The way back was just as spectacular, because now we were focusing on the vastness of our surroundings, peppered with striated canyon walls that dazzled us so much we struggled to comprehend its beauty. Blood red bashed up against sparkling green and try as we might, we couldn’t resist stopping over and over to get out and wonder at it all. We were seriously behind time and it gave rise to what was become a running joke on our trip – that we were never going to get out of Utah. Our other running joke during our visit to Arches was how many times we spotted something resembling Mordor off in the distance. Had we turned a corner to encounter a staff-wielding wizard blocking our way with the declaration ‘Thou shalt not pass” it would have seemed quite in keeping in this most extraordinary of places.
Onward we drove, banks of fog rolling across the desert brush and just as we reached the exit, blue patches appeared through the fog and we were treated to a last sun-speckled glimpse of this breathtaking place. I didn’t mind in the slightest that the sun hadn’t shone and blue skies hadn’t sparkled over Arches the day we visited. We had experienced a secret world that many visitors don’t get to see, and for the most part, we had had the place all to ourselves.
We set off northbound, doubling back along the roads we had taken to get to Moab the night before, until we got to the turnoff for Highway 24. We planned to follow Highway 24 south from I-70 to join up with Highway 12, which is billed as one of the most scenic byways in the entire United States. We were still gabbling about the beauty of Arches and missed the exit for Highway 24, so pulled in at a lay-by to figure out where we had gone wrong. We had stopped just at the point where I-70 bisects the ominous San Rafael Swell; a massive geographical anticline roughly the shape of a kidney that juts out in fierce and angry peaks across the Colorado Plateau in Central Utah, covering 600,000 acres and measuring 50 miles long by 30 miles wide. It is filled with hair-raising place names such as Slaughter Slopes, Dirty Devil Mine and Black Dragon Canyon and its jagged peaks warn of perils ahead. So did the helpful road sign in the lay-by, which read “Exploring the San Rafael Swell off I-70 can be fascinating but dangerous to the novice. Be sure you have plenty of water, gasoline, food and a reliable map. Hiring a guide is recommended.“
Jill and I agreed we were in search of scenic byways, not death by misadventure, so we promptly pulled a u-turn out of the lay-by and found the turn off for Highway 24, which we had missed by just a few miles. Today was turning into the most epic of days, for we hadn’t even started on our journey. So I am saving what adventures befell us along highways 24 and 12 for my next post. I shall leave you with some footage I shot in Arches; I hope you enjoy it.