The great American road trip. The phrase gets you drunk on a mental cocktail of nostalgia, excitement, and anticipation. The vision is seared into our collective consciousness through countless movies: There you are. Cruising down America’s great highways; top down, wind rushing through your hair, arm out floating on the breeze. The sun slanting across the dashboard, caught in an eternal sunset. The radio cranked up to eleven singing along with Bruce Springsteen as he extols the virtues of a blue collar birthright. The motels, the drive-ins, the diners; the scenery flies by creating a kaleidoscope of small town Americana. The roads are paved with the pages of history, and every new mile takes you deeper into the heart of the country…
…Or that’s what we thought. The reality? Well, let’s just say real adventure lives somewhere in the gap between expectation and reality.
The plan was to rent a car and drive around the American West for six weeks. Camping and tramping in every major National Park we could find. So. We flew into Vegas, rented a car, and pointed it North-East. Set the cruise control at 80 miles per hour, and flew down the highway like bandits on the run. We ran out of the Nevada desert, and cruised up into Arizona and Utah.
That first night, we weren’t quite ready to camp yet. So, we pulled over at one of those classic American road-side lodges; “The Grand Canyon Motel”. It looked like one of those places straight out of a horror film. TripAdvisor gave it a very generous one star, but the neon sign flashed VACANCY… So, we pulled in and parked for the night.
This was not some chain hotel where the rooms were identical and everything was plastic wrapped and tidy. No. This place was terrifying. The lobby reeked of cat-piss, failure and desperation. The octogenarian proprietors had that weird, lizard-like desert skin you get from a lifetime of too much sun, tobacco and illicit drugs. They accepted cash only. We paid and regretted it immediately. We were shown to our room and were greeted by blood stains on the floor, cockroaches in the bathroom, and mold in the mini-fridge. The entire room was so saturated with stale cigarette smoke, everything we owned was immediately contaminated with the rancid stink. So traumatised were we, that we left at 4.30 in the morning.
We made it to the Grand Canyon at sunrise. We were both sleep deprived and exhausted. But, because we were standing at the gateway to one of the seven wonders of the world, any fatigue we were feeling quickly vanished and was replaced by excitement. We had made it to the North Rim.
So, here’s the thing. No words. No pictures. No comparisons could possibly prepare you for the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. She’s the big momma. The grande dame of America’s National Parks. And though she’s been debunked on many levels: no longer the deepest, the longest or even the widest canyon in the world. (Those titles go to; Tibet’s Tsangpo Canyon and Australia’s Carpertee Valley) She makes up for the lack of these accolades in sheer charisma.
We chose to spend the day walking the North Kaibab trail. The full trail is a rim-to-rim tramp that can be done as a multi day hike, or you can do a section as a full day hike down to Roaring Springs and back. It’s basically a reverse mountain hike. If you did the entire thing, you would start by descending to the Colorado River at the bottom, and then you would ascend back up the same distance to the far side of the park. Virtually everyone camps at the bottom before making the journey back up, but you need permits and applications months in advance to do this.
With a 40 degree day on the cards, we slathered on sunscreen until our skin lost the ability to absorb it, packed enough water to float a boat, and then set off down the trail. The canyon had the sweet, sticky, smell of Ponderosa pines and every gentle breeze that passed through the shadows was a welcome relief from the heat. Canyon wren’s chirped out a greeting that echoed down the gorge, and squirrels frittered away on acorns from scrub oak as we made our descent. The path was gentle, sand covered and well marked. We had no need for a compass, as our direction of travel was down into the earth, not across it.
We passed through the layers of Earth’s history one step at a time. The walls of the canyon are painted with the evolution of this planet. Almost every “ologist” out there migrates to the canyon at some point or other, to learn more about the history of the world. The Geologist would explain that the upper rim rock is 230 million years old, while the layers at bottom of the canyon are almost 2 billion years old. The Archeologist would talk about how the Colorado River and its surroundings have some of the oldest indigenous settlements in North America. And the Zoologists could regale you with tales of the canyon’s exotic animals; like the ringtail-bassarisk, the pig-like javelina and the hog-nosed skunk.
That day we never made it all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, or anywhere even close. The heat got too intense. By ten in the morning it was thirty-eight degrees in the shade, and the idea of walking back up during the hottest time of the day seemed both impossible and foolish. We made it down to about the one-billion-year-old rock before we had to turn around, but still, it was enough to give us incredible vistas of the canyon and allowed us plenty of solitude and relaxation. We returned to the visitor center at the top panting, sweaty and sun-soaked. Grateful that we had made the right decision and avoided a claim of heat stroke to our travel insurance company.
That afternoon we stopped at several of the overlooks and vistas on our way out of the park, and everytime we were awestruck and impressed. Always talking in hushed whispers, as though we were in some sort of cathedral. And in a sense we were. As Theologists would explain; the Grand Canyon is God’s proof that he loves us, and wants us to feel humbled by the vastness of his creations.
After the canyon we headed back out on the road in search of a place to camp. And here’s the beauty about travelling around SouthWest America: Besides all of the remarkable campgrounds you can stay at, you also have access to thousands and thousands of acres of BLM land where you can camp for free. BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management. And it is in charge of vast swaths of land set aside by the government, “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations”. It comprises 247.3 million acres; or roughly one-eighth of the landmass of the country. And if you can’t find a place to camp on that much land, you’re just not trying. We found a lovely spot in the Kaibab National Forest and spent a blissful night one mile from the nearest signs of humanity, lulled to sleep by the distant cries of coyote.
The next morning we headed into Zion, and again, I was blown away. While the Grand Canyon gets all the headlines, Zion National Park should get all the attention. Zion lives up to the heavenly promise in its name. The most striking features of the park are the vertical walls that shoot up from the Virgin River and reach up thousands of feet to touch the sky. The park itself is a bastion of pristine wilderness and unvanquished natural beauty. And unlike the Grand Canyon, where many of the views are from elevated locations, much of Zion is appreciated from the bottom of the canyon. One of the most intriguing trails is the aptly named, “The Narrows”. The trail goes down one of the narrowest parts of the Virgin River, where the canyon walls are only about seven meters apart and three hundred meters high. It’s the most popular hike in the park, and we couldn’t wait to do it ourselves.
Only. The night before, it had rained. A deluge of rain not seen in a century. And it caused so much flash-flooding that the Park Rangers closed down the entire North end of the park. In several places, the canyon walls had collapsed and created giant muddy slips of clay so deep, they needed heavy machinery to clear the roads. So, we were left with only a couple trails to explore. One of which was Angels Landing.
As I write this, I’m almost six months removed from the experience. To give you some idea of how intense Angel’s Landing is; I’m still waiting for my testicles to descend. You see, for those that don’t know, Angels Landing is a widowmaker. Since 2004, no less than six people have died on it. Slipping off the trail and falling thousands of feet down to their doom. Disguised as a fun day hike; in reality, it’s a mad scramble over steep, unforgiving narrow ridges, flanked by sheer thousand foot drops. The vertigo inducing heights, with it’s chain assisted rock scrambles, are better suited to seasoned climbers than to casual weekend warriors drunk off instagram updates. But, since the rest of the park was closed, we had no choice, but to go for it.
We took the park shuttle bus up Scenic Drive and got dumped off at the Grotto picnic area. We walked across a small footbridge that crossed the North Fork of the Virgin River and began our ascent. We gained elevation almost the entire way along the West Rim Trail. The path was lovely and shaded in the lower stretches, but then opened up to grand vistas of the entire canyon as we approached the turn off. After a brief stop for lunch, we left the West Rim trail and began the hike up to the Angel’s Landing lookout. And that’s when things got dangerous.
There was a stretch of trail that clung precariously to the sandstone walls. A chain had been anchored into the rock walls, but the ledge you had to inch across was only about the width of your shoes. You hugged the rockface, with your hips, shoulders and knees while your heels floated out over a thousand foot drop. We were about ten meters up the twenty meter chain, kissing the rock face, when disaster almost struck. The narrowness of the section had created a bottleneck. Hikers going down the slender rock ledges were forced to scramble through hikers going up; and there wasn’t enough room for both. There were too many people and too little space. Crowds of hikers coming back down from the summit refused to wait for other hikers to make the ascent.
One mad couple, wearing hiking kit so new you could still see the store creases, lost patience and began hiking back over people. We watched, with growing alarm, as the two assholes used other human beings as handholds for their traverse across the cliff face. And of course, the woman slipped. And in her desperation, she grabbed hold of my partner and almost dragged her off the wall! Luckily my partner has steely nerves and an iron grip. She was able to hold onto the chain, saving herself and the impatient idiot from a suicidal drop to the canyon below.
Having averted certain disaster, we managed to shimmy the rest of the way across the ledge. We allowed our hearts to stop racing while we re-evaluated the situation. We paused and looked up the length of the trail as it zig-zagged its way up to the summit. And all we saw was an unending line of people. The squirming bodies of hikers twisted and writhed their way up the mountain forming an impassable river of stupidity. And that’s where we stopped. As much as we were desperate to see the view, it just wasn’t worth dying over. So, we hiked back down and enjoyed other areas of the park. No less spectacular, and just a bit safer.
We stayed in Zion for a couple more days before we got the itch to get back out on the road. We packed up our tent, our chilly bin, and our happy memories, and we rolled out on the highway like a couple of wind starved tumbleweeds. Ahead of us were four more amazing parks; Bryce, Escalante, Canyonlands and Arches. We were determined to hit them all. And as we cruised on down the highway, with the sunset slanting across the dashboard, I couldn’t help but feel joy. Because, the reality of these parks had exceeded our wildest expectations. And though our hikes had been altered; adventure comes from trying, not succeeding. We hadn’t achieved the summit, but we had survived a near-death experience. We were reminded that with a road trip, as with life, the journey is the destination.