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.
Loving it! Keep it coming 🙂
Writing as fast as I can, Earth! 🙂 xxx
I can see the smoke from your keyboard all the way over here!!;)
The saga xontinues! Well done
Thanks Tina, it’s turning into quite a saga, isn’t it? 🙂
Thanks, lagottocattleya, glad you enjoyed the photos! 🙂
“so I grabbed an umbrella out of my backpack” I just love that. Almost as though you were ready for it. Brilliant post and the dampness helped give an extra something to the photos.
Haha, thanks traveller858. Oddly enough, I hadn’t purposefully packed my umbrella, but forgotten to unpack it from my previous road trip. I was very thankful for that happy accident!
Awesome images and story. I especially love the tale of the grasshopper in your shower!
He wasn’t bashful, that’s for sure! Glad you enjoyed this chapter of my crazy road trip, Darla!
What a wonderful place to visit and your pictures are just great!
Thanks vastlycurious, it was truly gorgeous, I want to go back already!
I climbed and hiked to some Arches 7 years ago at an altitude of 5,000 feet in Sedona but the pictures were printed and not digital..sigh! I want to go back toooo!
Really enjoyed this – and the fact that your photos were not the blue sky/red rock kind. They’re a dime a dozen – even though there are some excellent ones out there. Your grey misty shots with spicy colour were lovely. A friend of mine shoots Arches at night – you might be interested in a third perspective. http://www.carolynguild.com/Carolyn_Guild_Photography/Deserts_and_Canyons.html
Oh Photos, Carolyn’s shots are amazing. I would love to shoot Arches at night, it was the first thing I thought of when I saw those soaring rock formations, but we were on such a tight schedule and I didn’t have the right gear anyway. But it gives me a great excuse to return.
Looking forward to that blog experience too. 😀 – Suzan –
I love Arches! It is one of my most favorite parks. We camped there last year, but it was FREEZING!!!! I wish I was on a road trip right now, enjoy!!! http://wp.me/p2uXwW-JB
Love that shot of the two of you in the window. I bet Arches, and in fact all of Utah, is splendid in winter, I would love to visit at that time of year… but stay in a motel, perhaps, rather than camp! 🙂
it was the coldest night, we had to stop in Moab to get fleece liners in order to make our next campsite work at the Grand Canyon!
Gorgeous, gorgeous photos and a compelling story to go along with it. Can’t wait for the next part!
Hurray, so glad you’re enjoying the journey, Deliberately Delicious! 🙂
I was thinking about “The Hobbit” when Mordor? popped up in your video.
I thought monsoons were for the tropics…
Haha, great minds think alike, Mark! Yes, monsoon season in Utah blindsided me, I certainly wasn’t expecting that in the middle of the desert.
But we are having a good trip… yes I’m still there behind you…
We’re having an awful lot of fun 🙂
Thanks for this post, Arches Park is a fantastic place to visit.
Glad you enjoyed it, Allan, it really is spectacular.
We were there on Mother’s Day in 1978 and it was the first time in 30 years that the desert flowers had enough water to bloom. It was like driving across a coloring book. When we got to the Double Arch a church choir from Alabama was singing hymns and it was magnificent.
Thanks for the memory.
Now that sounds like an amazing memory to have, Allan!
Superb photography and I’m loving the narrative too. Looking forward to the next instalment…
Thanks Travelbunny, I’m working on the next part now!
Nothing worse than camping in the rain. 😦
Beautiful photos though. I’m a sucker for red rocks photos…
We got off easy with the corrugated plastic roof – I dread to think what it would have been like if we’d camped at the original camp site we had picked out. Our tent would likely have been washed away!
I am really loving this series, Ailsa. The photos are beautiful and the story is something I wouldn’t mind reading over and over again. Can’t wait for the next post.
Yaay, so glad you’re having fun, Gracie, I’m working on the next part now. 🙂
This might just be the place I want to go to most in my bucket list. thanks for the pics and the heads up on monsoon season!
Well put it right at the top of your list, Mrs Carmichael, it is just stunning.
Beautiful stories and nice pictures thank you so much for sharing.I traveled all USA every single state. I know it’s fantastic to do, me took a many years to discover America.Now I live in Port Townsend, Washington.Happy Holiday.
That’s an impressive feat! I bet it was an incredible journey. xxx
Interesting view of Arches – it is indeed rare to see it without blazing blue sky !
I remember also thinking that I would never get out of Utah, on a somewhat similar road trip : it is huge, and so massively full of interesting places !!! Glad to see you’re making the most of it 🙂
Utah was insanely beautiful, I was not prepared for just how amazing it really is.
Your journey is leaving me speechless 🙂
Me too, Gilly, me too – thankfully I can write about it instead 😉
Now I really want to go to Arches, thanks to your fab photos, descriptions, and always awesome video.
You have confirmed my distrust of sleeping bags, and…
Do we get to find out why Jill is so sad?
Jennifer, if you ever have a chance, to try to visit, Arches really is mind-bogglingly beautiful. Yeah, those sleeping bags, you want to watch out for them. And yes, you will learn more about dear Jill soon. xxx
I’m sorry to hear about what Jill went through. It rained hard. The photos are great, Ailsa! You really have to be there to know how majestic these arches are.
Me too, Amy, it’s hard to see a friend so sad, but it does get better and we had an awful lot of fun too. Those arches, yes, they have to be seen to be believed. Stunning.
Fantastic photos. Utah is an amazing place…. I remember spending a day or two there and it was just amazing.
I’ve never seen anywhere like it, strawberryquicksand, such a concentration of natural beauty, it’s stunning.
Disney-does-creepy kind of way – love that expression *smile – it looked very wet … and of all this wonderful photos, my pick is – the moab-fog, I think that is what you call it. Another brilliant photo is – arches-windows-reflection. You have such talent in your writing too.
It’s like I was travelling with you. Wonderful to be on your journey – even if I’m a bit soaked after this one.
Haha, too funny viveka, things will dry up soon enough! 🙂
Had to go back and see what I had comment on – yes, things will dry up … and then it dry too much – nature has the power.
Lol, I know, I’ve been trying to respond to all the comments I’ve missed while I’ve been on the road. There are quite a few! 🙂
Amazing atmospheric photos….
Thanks pommepal, you can’t beat a touch of the old monsoon season to add a bit of atmosphere 😉
hey, i love it when you said” we will never get out of Utah” :), SLC, Utah is the first place i stayed when i came to the states. and since then, i took it as my second hometown. i feel very proud for when people fall for its beauty as if i had something to do with its magnificent and almost alien-like sceneries. now reading your post, made me feel really proud :-). haha.
What an amazing part of the world you live in, Paula, how wonderful to get to see that scenery every day. xxx
You’re welcome, babajij
Thanks for the sweet memories … Arches has always been at the top of my favorite parks list… been there a bunch of times, but it’s been years.
I hope you get to go back again sometime, Gunta, it’s beautiful. xxx
Your camping misadventures made me laugh! Glad the rest of the day improved.
That grasshopper gave me the heebie-jeebies, Jo, he wouldn’t go away! 🙂
Oh Aisla …Your photos and reading these adventures take me back a couple of years .
We’ve peeped thro the same windows !!! It is a most marvellous,wonderful, awesome place, and you are doing much better justice to it with your accounts than I ever could . I just post the odd photo for a challenge now and then 😉
drumming my fingers waiting for next bit ….
How wonderful, poppy, I love the thought that we have both peeped through those same windows at different times. 🙂
*Ailsa* apologies typo
I should wear my specs ALL the time now I fear.
Outstanding! Can’t wait for next instalment! Arches didn’t do much for us either until we reached the Windows area, and like you, fell in ,love with it there and then.
I agree, Golden, the Windows area is what stole my heart in Arches. Did you get to visit many other parks in the area?
Fantastic shots. It’s on my bucket list now for sure.
Thanks Tim, I hope you get to visit Arches sometime soon, it’s truly spectacular. Actually, the entire state is pretty extraordinary! xxx Ailsa
Yes, definitely a place I would like to visit. Thanks for the great post.
The whole state is pretty mind-blowing, Pat, I hope you get to see it for yourself sometime! xxx
I am enjoying sharing your journey.
Thanks for coming along for the adventure, djdfr! xxx Ailsa
A good friend has covered a lot of this area as he makes a road trip every summer. I’ve seen a lot of his photos of these slot canyons. He also said, as you did, he never sees anyone. Looks really cool. Great story!
Thanks Penny. It’s a remarkable place, and was all the more enjoyable because it was so quiet. Glad you enjoyed the story! xxx Ailsa
Wonderful story and great pictures!! I loved the cove of caves and your video 🙂
Thanks petit4chocolatier, I’m having an awful lot of fun playing around with video, it’s very addictive. 🙂
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Those rock formations are amazing. This is another place to add to my America wishlist.
Oh Sas, there are so many places, I don’t know where I’m going to find the time! 🙂
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